I was twelve when I met my first boyfriend. Our three-week relationship consisted of occasionally speaking on the phone and hanging out after school exactly once before we decided we were in over our heads. We sealed our fate in a rather public (and inexplicable) screaming match: him on one side of the street and I on the other, our petty jabs punctuated by the grunting trucks and beeping horns that passed between us. “YOU’RE A LOSER!” I informed him. “WELL, YOU HAVE NO ASS!” he offered. He followed that up by cocking one arm and violently pounding it at the crook of his elbow with the other, which I believe is American Sign Language for “F-ck you.” We never saw each other again.
To say that all of my adolescent relationships mirrored the first would be a gross exaggeration, but they did manage to fail in their own spectacular fashion: there was the relationship that ended in another girl’s pregnancy and the one that was both initiated and terminated on AIM and in the window of 48 hours, for example. So it would surprise no one, least of all me, when the first person I loved was 19 years my senior, famous and also, dead already.
It’s true: Kurt Cobain taught me how to love a man. Now, I know one could argue that loving a dead celebrity isn’t like, legitimate. Sharing breath and touching hair and speaking in shapes and colors and all the things we do when we’re so in love! are notably absent in a one-sided, otherworldly relationship. And otherworldliness aside, a dalliance with the still-living Cobain would’ve ended in jail time for him and years of therapy for me, which isn’t ideal. I recognize there are some logistical issues with my claim, but since when is love logical or grounded in reality? Since when is love not euphoria and adoration and loyalty and passion and a bunch of other buzzwords that coexist while contradicting each other?
I grew up with Nirvana in my periphery but rediscovered them as a teenager on New Year’s Eve in 1999. My family had recently moved from Brooklyn to a suburb just outside of New York City, and my parents weren’t crazy about me spending the holiday away from home lest Y2K kill us all. I spent the night in our den watching an MTV countdown that showcased the decade’s best music videos, and “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was number three, I think. I’d never had cable television before the move, so this was the first time I’d experienced the video — and the quiet alienation contrasted with soulful rage explained everything I’d felt about having been uprooted from a life that I loved and displaced in suburbia against my will, my family adjusting swimmingly while I could barely stay afloat. During the commercial break, I retreated to our basement and printed out the song’s lyrics from the family’s shared PC, letting my eyes run over the words again and again like I was sure I’d find some answers if I just read them one more time.
I began to obsessively familiarize myself with the entire Nirvana catalog after that night. I felt understood by “Lithium” and “Dumb” and I saw myself in “About a Girl.” “Something in the Way” made chills run up and down my spine. The music was just the tip of the iceberg, though. At a time when my family seemed to exist solely to punish me; my old friends moving on and creating lives I didn’t have any place in and my new friends more or less strangers, people who had lived without me before and could do it again, feeling understood was important. Crucial. Oxygen. Achieving that through Nirvana’s music made me want to understand someone else, to abandon sympathy for empathy and become the kind of person who “gets it.” The kind of person who knows how valuable “getting it” is.
I began by attempting to understand the man who’d articulated the poisonous feelings I’d felt so isolated by, and this is around the time my fanaticism snowballed into something unflappable, something more like love. I went into my research as a Nirvana fan but emerged a full-blown Kurt Cobain conspiracy theorist. I became convinced that Cobain’s life wasn’t taken by his own hand, that there were insidious forces at play, that the person responsible for his death was still alive and well and reaping the benefits of killing my idol.
This isn’t an unpopular fringe belief — that the circumstances surrounding Cobain’s death don’t add up — but it’s not one you’ll hear about on a VH1 roundup, either. So I became adamant about telling everyone I could about the possibility that Cobain hadn’t been suicidal — depressed and tired of fame, yes, but not suicidal. I’m not sure I’d ever been so impassioned as I was about this. I was dedicated to this idea that we not condemn someone who maybe had wanted to live, who maybe wanted to watch his daughter grow up, who certainly had some problems but maybe wanted to see them through. This was a noble fight, I thought.
And I also thought I was being rewarded for it. A series of odd coincidences convinced me that Cobain was looking out for me, that wherever he was, he knew what I was up to and he was grateful. I’m not a religious person and I don’t believe in supernatural anything, but a pattern emerged. Trouble seemed to follow me, then absolution, then Nirvana. Literally. I’d been pulled over in baked out cars, caught trespassing, in fender benders and full-blown car accidents and as soon as the situation was sorted out a Nirvana song would play on the radio, from another car on the road, from seemingly nowhere at times. I could count on this. Hearing Nirvana was the cap on a bad situation, a sign that everything was okay again. This was how I knew everything was okay.
Then I grew older, disenchanted, busy. These days I don’t do the sign of the cross when “Breed” comes on the radio but I still feel wistful, bittersweet when I recall the years I spent believing that it all meant something. In this way, Cobain has had more of an influence on me than most of the men I’ve dated. My first boyfriend didn’t set the precedent for the rest of my relationships — it was Cobain who taught me what I know about love now, who set the tone for how I would come to love the men who followed him.
Because of him, I was able to believe in a spirit even though the idea of an afterlife is completely absurd to me. I was able to do that because I had blind faith in this person, faith that superseded rational thought. I adored Kurt Cobain, the passion and loyalty he inspired in me. I was understood and in turn, I sought to understand. And while I don’t love as blindly or wildly as I once did, I still do it believing in commitment, urgency, and magic. I do it knowing that some things are beyond comprehension.