Isaac Brock, the front man for Modest Mouse, used to cut himself onstage, during performances.
You showed me a video of one jam session where he did this, one of the lesser-publicized instances. He punctuated his singing by shouting into the crowd, “You got a knife?” several times. Nonchalantly. As if he were asking the audience to sing along with him, as musicians do. My stomach churned. I told you he was sick. He seemed like a shell of a man, with great music, who probably needed help. You agreed, but you told me that he was also genius.
“Emotional chaos cultivates artistic depth,” you said.
You put on The Moon & Antarctica, your favorite Modest Mouse album, and I started to fall asleep with the lights still on. You lay next to me; I could hear you softly counting sheep or the number of pockmarks in your walls.
A few weeks later, I got lunch with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a while. We needed to catch up. I found it difficult to manage both a relationship and an active social life. It seemed as though spending time with you always precluded spending time with friends. You didn’t like my friends very much, anyways.
After exhausting all the conversational requisites (“How are classes going?” “What are your plans for winter break?” “Did you hear about such-and-such and so-and-so?”), he asked after you. “How’s Will doing?” was an easygoing but loaded question. There was nothing simple about your state of being at any time.
“Well, we got into a fight last week,” I said, pushing my plate away from me without having touched anything on it. Suddenly, I’d lost my appetite, which was cause for concern in and of itself.
You would fall into periods of deep depressiveness, which were becoming increasingly more frequent. They lasted a few days, each time. You wouldn’t get out of bed, or you couldn’t. You wouldn’t talk about it, or you couldn’t or you didn’t know how. How could you possibly explain a sadness you didn’t really understand?
You would skip class. You would miss assignments. You wouldn’t respond to anyone’s calls or texts but mine. Instead, you would lie on your back, with your blanket drawn up to your chin, and count the number of times your ceiling fan spun around. Sometimes, you would play a record — almost always Modest Mouse. I learned all the words to “3rd Planet” and “Tiny City Made of Ashes” and “Gravity Rides Everything” — you would sing along to these songs in particular.
My friend asked what had happened, and I shrugged. Our fights never lasted very long, and by then, I could usually predict their trajectory. You would get upset or I would get upset. I would tell you I wanted to break up or that I needed a break from you. You would talk me out of it, and once the dust settled, we would go back to how we always were.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. “Honestly, I can’t even remember what we fought about.”
He paused, softly drumming his fingertips on the tabletop. “Will is draining the sunshine out of you.”
“How poetic of you.” I rolled my eyes. “But don’t be melodramatic.”
“You’re not happy. That’s obvious.”
“Every time I’ve seen you lately, you have this sad grimace on your face. You look exhausted, but it’s because someone else’s problems are draining you. You are such a fundamentally happy person, and this relationship is making you forget that.”
“He’s not doing well right now. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”
He sighed, muttering a few words. “Toxic” and “unhealthy” and maybe “manipulative.” I zoned out and signaled for the waiter to bring our checks.
The next Saturday, you picked me up in the early evening. That morning, you had gotten mad at me and stopped speaking to me — silence over breakfast, a few scrambled eggs and orange juice. I announced that I was going home, slamming your front door so hard that it creaked and crashed on its hinges.
“Goddammit,” I cursed under my breath, running down your front steps. This time, I was done. Done, done, done.
I could go to mixers for my sorority (Greek life, you insisted, was a “joke”) without worrying about texting you every few minutes — so you knew that I was okay or that I was not falling for someone else. I could spend nights by myself — I couldn’t remember the last time I had. I could spend more time with my friends, who I’d blown off and who I missed. This would be better than it would be worse.
When I slid into your car that night, you put your hand on my knee and gave it a squeeze. You cranked up the radio. I recognized the low, grainy voice…the electric jangle of guitars…the melancholy chords.
You just looked at me. No answer necessary.
I didn’t know the title of the song, but I wasn’t going to ask.
A few minutes later, you passed the street that led to your house, driving towards an unfamiliar direction. I asked where we were going, where you were taking me. You said you wanted to drive to Savannah.
“That’s four hours away! I have class in the morning.”
“Let’s just go,” you said. You turned the volume knob on your radio higher; I could barely hear myself think. “Let’s just get away from here, only for a little.”
That night, we drove to Savannah. Four hours. More miles than I could count. By the time we got there, the sky had started to turn shades of red and pink and orange. You looped that one Modest Mouse song over and over and over again; I wondered if you were manic, but that was not something I could bring myself to ask out loud. When someone you love self-destructs, you let them take you on their ups and downs without really questioning it.
I recently learned the title of that song. Finally.
“Trailer Trash” by Modest Mouse.