Small Life, Slow Life: Not tonight, Josephine.

Not tonight, Josephine

I was reading Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng a few weeks ago (my favorite book this year), and there’s a part where Izzy, an angry teenage character, shuts herself in her room and listens to Tori Amos over and over, the darkness of it opening her up, allowing her to confront her own darkness.

The novel is set in the late 90’s, which means the album can only be Little Earthquakes. I thought of the first time I heard the bumble bee piano tune of “Silent All These Years”, in first period of my junior year of high school, during the morning announcements. One of the emcees had seen her live the night before, and was going on and on about how it changed his life. I wasn’t really into music yet, had never heard of any performance changing someone’s life. I shelved the thought away.

As I remembered this — the first time I ever heard Tori Amos’s name while reading Little Fires Everywhere — a portal opened. Like a sci-fi movie, when a blurry entrance to another world appears in plain sight.

I knew exactly what I was doing. I fumbled to my Spotify on my phone, and there she was. Precious Things. Silent All These Years. Crucify. China. Winter. Her cover of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” that is dark enough to burn me up in black shadows.

And later, as I got older, I discovered Pretty Good Year. 1000 Oceans. And my favorite, Josephine. I hear the soft cymbal and opening drums and close my eyes; I’m through the portal, I’m already gone–

1. I’m talking to Slayer6153 on AIM, otherwise known as my best friend Mitch who I met in Japanese class at community college. We talk pretty much constantly. He says he wants to be a plastic surgeon. We don’t know yet that we will both get into Berkeley as English majors, have crushes on each other’s friends, send each other baby gifts as we go on to have children in our thirties. Right now, he is sixteen and I am eighteen, and we have fallen into platonic intellectual love. He loves Tori Amos as much as I do, but he knows her much more intimately. He sends me torrented B-sides and covers. The first time I hear “Spark” and “Black Dove,” I think I’ll cry.

When I’m eighteen it’s still alluring to be haunted, mysterious to be messed up. Mitch will put up with this for a lot of years. He’ll see me down, and manically up; he’ll see me on and off antidepressants; he’ll see me haunted and destructive until the age when it stops being alluring and mysterious — it’s just tired and tiring.

From here you’re haunting me

2. I introduce Tori to my dad when I’m nineteen, and he so gets it. He surprises me with tickets and we go see her live. I’m suddenly transported back to that plastic chair my junior year again, hearing that seeing her live changes someone’s life. She straddles the piano bench, throws her head back and plays both pianos, one with each hand, as that wild flame of hair dangles at the small of her back. My eyes can’t even process what they’re seeing.

This is my big Tori Amos phase. I read lyrics obsessively, trying to discern meanings. I read everything I can about Josephine Bonaparte.

So beautiful, only not to be of use

3. I’m twenty-three. My mom flies up, texts me, I’m at the Oakland airport, are you picking me up or should I take a taxi?

I look at my boyfriend and we both know. The jig is up.

She observes for a few days. Decides, pushes me to make the call. “You’ll hate me now,” she says, “but you’ll thank me later.”

So strange, victory

Twelve-hundred spires,

She wakes me up early, we drive into the city. The doctor doesn’t get everything and has to come back in. To keep from screaming, I close my eyes and pretend I’m in Japan, seeing myself among a million Japanese faces in a train station. I don’t know that this wish will actually come true four years later.

Come back, I think, when it’s over. Come back to me someday.

The only sound, Moscow burning

I don’t know that I will lose them both. Mom says he would have vanished regardless, that it’s better this way. I walk around with a hole inside of me that I’m convinced other people can see. I feel damaged and toxic. I am a black hole that draws you in and then erases you. I am the angel of death. My scythe awaits you, gleaming in the darkness.

I won’t have a single healthy relationship for another decade.

Even still, you’re calling me

That whole winter, I listen to Tori’s “1000 Oceans” at least 1000 times. It’s the only song sad enough to make me cry, to force the darkness out of me. You know the feeling when you’re getting your blood drawn, they find the vein, the blood sputters into the tube and then whoosh, it’s flowing out so fast that you can actually feel it spilling out of you? I long for that experience with the damaged thing that lives inside of me. If you cut me open, will it spill right out?

I never heal from this experience, I never rid myself of the guilt or fear of abandonment, until I look V in the eyes for the first time eleven long years later. I feel the part of myself I severed stitch itself together, a long jagged scar.

I’ll be enough this time, for the both of you.

Not tonight,

Not tonight,

Not tonight, Josephine.

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