Passivity, or Dustin Müller
by Cody Lee
The first time I met Dustin, I was in the recording studio at school, going over a song I wrote. It was your basic anti-establishment mumbo jumbo: “Die Whitey, die! You don’t run the world, I do!” I thought it was good at the time.
My bandmate, who also happened to be my roommate, Daisy, came in with this guy… and the most frustrating thing about it is that I remember thinking he was handsome. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Undeniably suburban. I wasn’t attracted to him sexually; I’m gay, but I liked his style—or more accurately, lack thereof.
Daisy introduced us. She said his name was Dustin Müller. Apparently, they met in Philosophy class. We shook hands and he said, “I heard y’all were looking for a drummer.” He made it clear that he wasn’t amazing or anything, but knew how to play and enjoyed having fun. I was a little upset because, on one hand, I liked being alone with Daisy—I really never got tired of her; she was dark, mentally, but hilarious and had the cutest amount of acne—but on the other hand, we needed a drummer. Neither of us planned to get rich and famous making music—I was an accounting major; Daisy was in aviation—but if we were going to do it, we figured it should at least sound halfway decent.
We played “Die, Whitey, Die!” and it took a minute for Dustin to catch up, but once he did, it all kind of coalesced. I was a much better musician than the two of them. Well, technically that’s not true since I had no idea how to play either instrument (Daisy played the guitar), however, judging by overall stage presence and excitement, it was clear that I, Boots—my name’s Boots, by the way—it was clear that I was the main attraction.
For example, during our first show—we played at The Gallows, some roach-infested basement ten miles south of campus—I performed the last song alone while Dustin and Daisy moshed with the crowd (around thirty people, mostly white). It was the wildest, bloodiest part of the show.
Afterward, the three of us—we called ourselves Ludwig, after Wittgenstein. Daisy and Dustin were learning about him in class, how he considered space, time, and color objects, which I disagreed with (they’re concepts, intangible, nonexistent), but I could appreciate the radicality of it.
So after the show, we decided to get matching tattoos. We packed up my van and went to this shop that smelled like bald men and leather. We just wanted a simple black “Ludwig” on our inner forearms and that’s what we got. I went first, then Daisy, followed by Dustin. It was Dustin’s first tattoo, so Daisy held his hand, which I wasn’t particularly happy about, especially because he wasn’t sobbing or wincing; he stared at the needle going into his skin like it belonged to God, or whatever atheist nothingness he believed in.
From then on, he was everywhere: At practice, in our dorm room, all of the time. It’s not that I disliked him, we were friends. I just missed when it was Daisy and I. And on top of that, he kept asking me all these crazy questions. I remember one time, the two of them were supposed to be studying for some Philosophy exam. I was on my bed reading Negrophobia, and Dustin snatched the book out of my hand and said, “Do you think someone can learn to be Black?” He thumbed through the book while I told him that I was learning everyday. He just nodded and said, “Cool.”
But that wasn’t it. It was like every time we hung out, he needed to interrogate me. “How often do you think about slavery?” (Maybe twice a week.) “What does soul food taste like?” (The color purple.) “You mean that literally, or are you referring to the novel written by Alice Walker?” (Dustin, bro. Can we just practice already?) I’d look around the room, whichever room we were in, and find him staring at me. Then I’d look at Daisy and find her staring at him!
As a band, we were doing pretty well. We released a few music videos and went on tour. It was only six cities and any money we made went to gas and motels, but I can honestly say it was the best time of my life. We’d get drunk and play a show (and fucking kill it; it was like Dustin had become part cephalopod overnight), then some fan would invite us to a party, and we’d get drunk there and break a window or light some shit on fire.
We were in Portland when Dustin got his first face tattoo. Same situation, we finished our set and this guy—he must have been forty years old—came up to Dustin and complimented his tattoos. (He’d gotten a handful since the Ludwig piece. They were all generic and black, demons and snakes, that sort of thing. Nothing worthy of suspicion.) So we followed this dude back to his house, which happened to be his mom’s house. She was a nice lady who switched off between cigarettes and an oxygen mask. Daisy and I sat there with her talking about food stamps and her three blind kittens. Dustin and the man—he told us his name, but I forget; it was something digital, like X-ON or XS, whatever—they locked themselves in his bedroom, and when they came out, Dustin had a small black fist under his eye.
As soon as I saw it, I said, “Yo what the fuck is that?”
“It’s a fist. You know, like, ‘Power to the people.’”
I wanted to punch him in the face. Not only did he look silly, but for a split second, I believed that he knew more about Blackness than me. I didn’t have a Black Power tattoo. And coming up, all I ever heard was that I wasn’t “actually” Black, which I knew was a load of B.S. but, I don’t know, after a while, you start to wonder…
“You gotta scratch that out, bro. Or put something over it, I don’t care. But you can’t have that on your face, or anywhere on your body.”
He got sad, which surprised me. He said: “You mean, you don’t like it?”
“No, I don’t like it!” And before I could explain why, he ran into X’s room and slammed the door. Twenty minutes later, the three of us left, choosing not to discuss the large black square on Dustin’s cheek.
A month later, I walked into the studio and saw that both of his hands were tattooed black. He was behind the drums and wearing a navy sweater that went down to his knuckles, so it took a while for me to notice, but when I did, I almost threw up.
“Dustin, why are your hands black right now?”
He was such a fucking liar. You know what he told me? He said he got sick of the other tattoos on his arms and decided to cover them. And in the process of doing so, he figured why stop there? I looked at Daisy, who was of no help at all, because all she did was shrug and say, “I don’t know, I think it looks kinda punk.”
I chose my next words wisely, too wisely perhaps, because when I finally opened my mouth, Dustin’s squeaky little voice said, “Boots, bro. Can we just practice already?” I left the room and walked until the sun fell.
When I got back to my dorm, I found Daisy and Dustin making out on her bed. At first, I had no idea who was on top of Daisy because he had his shirt off, and his entire back was black. Hours of drumming had hardened it into a muscular shell. Obviously, I startled them because he jumped up and his torso was black, too. I’ve always been a passive person, and this time was no different. I just stood there with my head held low, and said, “Please get the fuck out of my room.”
Dustin did as he was told. I turned the light off, laid down, and closed my eyes. I could hear a group of kids laughing outside, and trance music coming from the raver next door. Before I fell asleep, I asked Daisy what she saw in him, to which she replied: “He’s the best of both worlds.”
Over the next few weeks, I did the best I could to avoid them. I texted Daisy whenever I was on my way home. If they were there, I just went to the library or the bar—they’d serve a twelve-year-old girl if she smiled at them. I continued going to band practice, but I was in and out like a cold shower.
We had a show at The Gallows one week before summer break, which I decided would be my swan song. I didn’t tell anyone, but they knew. I packed the van myself, and picked Daisy and Dustin up from his dorm on the opposite side of campus. The world had a golden hue that day. There were no clouds in the sky, but it was still dark in the van. I saw Daisy first. She walked around the front of the car, with her perfectly straight bob cut, and hopped in the back seat.
I hit the little Octavia Butler bobblehead on my dashboard and watched her do her thing. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw it. Dustin walked around the front of the car, as if in slow-motion, his whole face and bald head completely black. He got in the front seat, and I didn’t want to look at him. I just stared forward. In my peripherals, I could tell that he was, too. After a moment, I turned to face him, and like a reflection, he did the same. Dustin’s face was scabbed, matte black, and bloody. He must have done it himself, or with Daisy’s assistance. His eyes were blindingly blue. We examined each other like two aliens. When my lips quivered into a smile, so did his.
When we got to The Gallows, there was a line down the block. We’d come a long way from thirty people. Daisy hopped out, but before Dustin could, I said, “Can I ask you a question?”
“I assume you mean, me?”
“Well, I was never really comfortable in my own skin. It felt like I was born in the wrong body. I didn’t know which body I belonged in, but I knew for a fact it wasn’t that one. Then I met you and you seemed so free, and I just kinda… fell in love. When we got those matching tattoos, I saw the ink in my flesh and it clicked: If I couldn’t be you, I could become you—or a version. And I feel good about it! It was never my intention to disrespect you or anyone. This was a change that I had to make for myself. I hope you can understand, but if you can’t, then I apologize for speaking so poorly; it’s the only way I know how. But like you said yourself, you’re learning every day, which is exactly what I plan to do. So, if you don’t mind, um, may I ask you a question?”
“Do you have any tips?”
I took a deep breath and scratched an imaginary itch on my chin. “Don’t talk too much, I guess. That’s always worked for me.”
With his head down, he paused and said: “Thanks.”
That night, we played like the color red. The basement was overcrowded and beautiful. I ate a cockroach for fun. However, the most invigorating part of the show was the last song. Just as we were about to begin, Dustin stepped out from behind the drums and asked if he could do the honors. All he had on was a pair of white underwear. (Naturally, his legs were black, too.) I thought about saying no, but I could see he needed this more than I needed to deprive him of it. I handed Dustin the microphone and he didn’t even hesitate: “Die, Whitey, die! You don’t run the world, I do!” As soon as he started, Daisy jumped off stage and elbowed some lost frat-star in the neck. God, I adored her. I considered trying to play one of the instruments, but as I’ve mentioned, I had no idea how. So, I took one final look at that wily motherfucker and leapt into the dark, human cyclone.
Cody Lee is the author of The Everys (Long Day Press). His work has been featured in The Rumpus, Hobart, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. He works at a bookstore in Venice, CA.
Image original: Michael Dobrinski/Unsplash