The Death Drive
Rhea Ramakrishnan | Essays
Last October, I began to rent space in an art studio in Harwood, a neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore just a few blocks from where I live. I am standing in it now, watching clay dry on a plaster slab my partner and I built for recycling clay refuse. Its big west-facing windows overlook a community garden and a seven-foot stack of colorful smiling stucco faces, a public art sculpture made by a friend of ours when he bought a house down the street. My partner rents a music studio around the corner. For more than four years he’s shared it with about ten other musicians, a rotating crew of folks he meets at the skate park who’ve proven they can rock, but vary in their commitment to it. It’s housed in a large nondescript warehouse, the main room of which is stacked from floor to ceiling with the landlord’s partially finished projects—a motorless dune buggy, four defunct virtual pinball machines, a half set of bowling pins. My partner calls it “The Dad Museum.” Every month he worries that the other renters of the music studio will outgrow it, will decide for one reason or another that they no longer have time to share a spliff and play loud music with their friends in a smelly windowless room beside a railroad. He can’t make the rent alone.
His concern is not unfounded. People get consumed by their jobs, move to Connecticut with their girlfriends, decide they want to have kids, simply run out of disposable income. Part of making art is figuring out the logistics of how one can continue making art. Lately, I’ve been making it constantly, from the moment I wake up until I go to sleep. I’ve finally created an ecosystem for myself that allows me to do this, one with very few interruptions, in which I’ve acquired enough skill and material that I don’t find myself inclined to scrap anything completely. The privilege comes at a cost. I have a grad students’ stipend, so I save virtually nothing. My student loans are in forbearance. I don’t eat out or go on vacations aside from the occasional camping trip. Still, we won’t be able to keep the art studio—this will be our last month renting it. We knew we wouldn’t be able to, had agreed to do it only until we couldn’t pay the overhead with the profits from the pottery we sold. And we did it a bit longer than that, still, because we loved doing it. Now, I need to trust that I can put the same effort and energy I put into this work into some other space or outlet.
I haven’t always been able to trust myself this way. For a long time, I couldn’t seem to put concentrated effort or energy into anything. After college, I returned to Baltimore, the city where I’d been raised, like an angry storm cloud returns to the same field—menacing, quiet, electric. I alternated between working three jobs at once and working none. I threw myself into projects, few of which I was good at, fewer of which I completed. I wanted to write poetry, but since it never paid and I needed the money, I tutored fourth grade math after my shifts at a children’s museum. On the off-chance that I wrote a poem it felt sentimental and contrived. Twice, I was forced to move out of apartments because I could no longer afford the rent. At the time, it seemed like everyone I knew was as broke as I was, but it didn’t seem to affect their creative output like it did mine. While I needed space and light and a heating system that worked to produce anything, it seemed like my peers were producing the best work of their lives from little dirt hovels they’d built underground. Often it seemed like all one needed to do in order to succeed as an artist was to take a cross-country road trip and find oneself. The students who went to the local art school were always emerging from Santa Fe or Oaxaca with imported lovers, perfect tans, and updated portfolios. Certainly, there was an art scene in Baltimore and, to me, it looked like a couple dozen mousey women with round glasses and bangs and a couple dozen skinny men with bowl cuts, thrifted Harley Davidson T-shirts, and Docs. I knew them all because there were only a handful of bars worth going to and I drank a lot.
The heavy drinking wasn’t healthy, but perhaps it wasn’t unusual for someone in their mid-20s. What made it hard to kick was that I thought I was a better version of myself while I did it. That wasn’t a feeling I got often. When I was drunk, I thought I was prettier. I was certainly more confident. I thought I had special skills that only emerged when I was drunk. I could shark the boys that hogged the pool table and I could run all the way home with my eyes closed. I was charming and funny and I knew the right thing to say to really hurt someone. Each day, I managed to coax a couple of my coworkers to the bar next to our workplace for happy hour and then I’d bike to the bar at the halfway point between work and home to figure out what was going on that night, and then I’d drink there until I’d find the noise show or the funk night or the two for one drinks special or the midnight game of Kings, the 2 a.m. spot on the rug, the car in an empty lot at dawn.
On one such night, I met Peter. It was July. We both stood alone watching a man play a singing saw in a balmy cavernous warehouse and, afterwards, he shuffled toward me and said “You’re a freak, aren’t you?” He asked me out and I accepted. On our first date, we met at a bar. “I think I have a drinking problem,” I said to him on our second round. “Me too,” he said. The next week, when he got a bit too rowdy at a show at the Undercroft, took off his clothes, and splintered his roommate’s coffee table down the center with the heel of his hand, I took him to Druid Hill to cool off. We ate stale crackers and lunchbox salami, agreed we’d both rather be drinking beer, and then walked to 29th Street Tavern, where the bartenders let us drink at the happy hour rate all night.
He identified himself as a photographer early on, asked if I wanted to come with him to shoot a construction site he’d found at the margins of Stony Run Park. I accepted and didn’t tell him I thought industrial photography was somewhat trite. Indeed, it appeared they were installing some sort of man-made lake. Several trees, like many buildings in the city, were being braced by metal crutch-like structures and a large rectangular fragment of earth had been excavated. I stood at the top of the hill, sweating in the swamp heat of July while Peter stood in the valley beneath me like a transmission tower, his camera poised on its tripod. After several moments he folded up the tripod and walked to the top of the hill.
“I usually just wait until I notice something,” he said to me.
“And you didn’t notice anything?”
“I noticed you.”
I asked him how he developed his photographs. He told me he didn’t. He shipped them to a studio that developed them for him. He just scanned the negatives.
“If I had enough money to just get them to scan and print them too, I would,” he said, “It just takes too much effort.”
Besides, he told me, he didn’t quite trust the process. He told me that little specks of silver in the image bath trapped the picture on the page—some photographers believe that the silver also trapped bits of the subject’s soul within the photograph as well, that there was something intrinsically evil about photography for that reason.
“That’s why I don’t take photographs of people,” Peter said.
Though I didn’t quite believe him, the idea frightened me. Religion had been important to both my parents and they had raised me as such. I’d gone to Catholic school for the first decade of my life and, when I visit my parents, I still reluctantly go to church with my mom on Sundays. I have memories of Sunday mornings in my childhood when my mother would wake the house singing This is the day, this is the day, this is the day that the Lord has made and I would whine about having to go to church and she would say, “You must have the Devil inside of you!” And so even though I didn’t explicitly believe in God or the Devil, both felt embedded within me and both terrified me. It seemed that God—or the idea of God—controlled so much of my life for so long that it wasn’t outside the realm of reason that the Devil did too. There was something about seeing my likeness represented, not quite myself but uncannily close, that reminded me of that. I sealed the fact away in the inner recesses of my mind.
We went to Peter’s house and sat on the pull-out couch in his room with two bottles of beer and a bowl of white rice between us. We looked at the white wall where he had framed four of his own photographs. The warped roots of a severed tree in the shadow of a bird bath, two fawns—one mature, one infant—beneath a weeping willow, a steel planter of lavender in the center of a yard, and a child’s pale hand reaching toward a rusty tack in a tree trunk. For a while we said nothing, and I noticed the way the photographs cast identical oblique shadows along the wall.
“You’ve really captured a sense of inertia,” I said to Peter, not because I found the photos themselves particularly interesting, but because it seemed evident that he intended me to make some sort of a statement, “There’s energy within the items and it feels like at any moment they could suddenly rupture.”
He nodded and seemed to imply that my observations were astute.
“You’re smarter than me,” he said, and I didn’t argue with him.
We had sex on the pull-out couch.
Before I went out with Peter, I’d seen him around, had already known that he made art because of the people I’d seen him with, all of them painters or sculptors or photographers, like he was. I’d surreptitiously googled him and found his portfolio. In that clinical digital archive, I had, in fact, liked his photos, had found them haunting and mercurial. I now understand this must have been the effect of careful curation, now so easily achievable through the variety of design options available on every online marketing platform to any artist who can afford not to DIY. This must have been what they’d all done—the mousey women, the bowl-cut men—arguably something that should be taught in art school, in the case that it’s not. Maybe I’m suggestible but, at first, it convinced me that what they did had merit, was more than mere posing. When I began to see past it, I felt more frustrated. Why were they able to get by with so little effort while I strained myself with little to show for it? I kept drinking and I listened to a lot of metal.
I particularly liked sludge, a sub-genre that emerged from a combination of doom metal and stoner rock. A band from Washington state called the Melvins made what most people consider the first sludge metal album in 1987. It was called Gluey Porch Treatments, was issued, at the time, exclusively on vinyl. It sounded like Black Flag and early Nirvana and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The hallmarks of sludge metal are a slow tempo, abrasive, often shouted vocals, and downtuned guitar strings. The effect was a dirge-like lament, a grown up’s version of a tantrum.
“Why do you like metal?” my mom asked me once, “Is it because you’re angry?”
I resented that she’d pin it to something so simple, but I also understood why she did. She hadn’t grown up in America and, for half her life, necessity had dictated her routine. She didn’t really have the language to interpret music or any other type of art—to her it was purely decorative. She and my dad have always implicitly discouraged me from making art. I think this must have been because they didn’t know any successful artists, had only seen them on TV or in magazines. When I showed them anything I made it seemed comparatively amateur and, frankly, a bit weird. What was its purpose? Why did I waste my time?
I guess I was sort of a freak. I thought of these men, who sang about drug abuse and self-loathing, as models for an artistic lifestyle. But it was more than that—there was also this quality to their music that felt innovative, tenacious, something I couldn’t quite put a finger on.
When he was 17 years old, before he became Black Sabbath’s guitarist, Frank Anthony Iommi sliced the tips off two of his fingers while working at a sheet metal factory in Birmingham. He was left with two stalks, the tips of his fingers just bone. In a 2017 interview with Livewire, Iommi says that when they shaved the bones down at the hospital they told him he might as well forget playing guitar. Instead, he fashioned prosthetic tips out of melted plastic bottles and detuned his guitar by a minor third because the looser strings were easier to play. “It worked,” he said, “but then I had to persevere for a long, long time to get used to working with them…and it was painful.” That detuned tone would become the backbone of Black Sabbath’s sound three years later and a bit more than a decade after that it spawned the entire sludge metal genre. I imagine a teenager listening to Sabbath in her basement in 1970 might have thought it sounded demonic—Black Sabbath’s self-titled first album begins with the sounds of heavy rain and church bells before descending into distorted strings, slow, guttural drums, and Ozzy Osbourne’s dark vocals howling, Oh no, no, please, God help me!
Your trust is in whiskey and weed and Black Sabbath, Pantera vocalist Phil Anselmo wails in one track on the album Reinventing the Steel. Peter had the CD in his car, a Toyota Yaris he told me he had driven across the country and slept in for a month in Monterey, California. Pantera started making metal in the 80s that would go on to influence a new wave of metal. It wasn’t quite glam nor was it thrash, but it was heavy and heavier still with each successive album. One day as we drove around the city aimlessly, Peter told me about how the band’s guitarist, Dimebag Darrell, was fatally shot by a maniacal fan as he took the stage in Columbus with his new band, Damageplan. “They only played heavy stuff,” said Peter, “because they wanted to summon demons. And then they did summon demons.”
Maybe they had needed to summon demons, I thought, in order to create art on the order that they did. Maybe that day in the sheet metal factory, Iommi had wanted to shred so badly that demons had given him the hand he needed to do it the way no one ever had before. Rock history is riddled with suffering and tragedy, but I think that metal doubles its caseload and, often, the suffering is stranger, more visible and visceral. In 2011, Slayer guitarist, Jeff Hanneman was bit by a spider. The bite resulted in a flesh-eating disorder called necrotizing fasciitis, which almost cost him his arm. Two years later, when he died of liver failure, a representative for the band said that the bite might have been a contributing factor. And every metalhead knows about Mayhem vocalist, Peter “Dead” Ohlin’s 1991 suicide by shotgun—after discovering his bloody corpse, his bandmates grabbed a camera and shot a photo that became a Mayhem album cover. I’m afraid to google which album it is because I don’t want to see the photo. I’m also afraid that one day I will be compelled to, I simply won’t be able to stop myself.
Maybe I was angry. At the time, I think I was angry that I had never made anything that touched the raw, engine-like power of a Black Sabbath riff, could not be as massive as their wall of sound. While my art has always been carefully and tediously arranged, the music I liked best was distorted and chaotic. I suspected my instinct to make art came from the same place that Iommi’s did—a fury, a destructiveness, a kind of self-loathing. The death drive, Freud had called it and, because I had no real understanding of psychoanalysis, that felt apt. I imagined a tiny demon inside Iommi screaming and banging a trash can lid against the walls of his flesh prison and I imagined Iommi making music of it. I wanted desperately to hear my own demon’s racket and I thought that bringing myself closer to the things I feared might help me.
In September, I’d bought tickets to see an Eyehategod show at the Ottobar. I showed up alone and, when I walked in, I smelled body odor and something else that might have been piss. I felt the eyes of a half dozen Southern Maryland skinheads, as they turned to the small, brown girl at the metal show. It’s possible I imagined that scrutiny. Eyehategod were sludgecore legends from New Orleans. They had never openly supported bigotry, but perhaps they flirted with the aesthetic of it, the way that Pantera had performed sans Anselmo with a Confederate flag behind them, claiming it was a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Southern sludgecore is particularly incendiary. It’s performed by white men who were born broke and feel they’ve been invisibilized, forgotten by the system. Although I’m inclined to agree that they have and that class is an important distinction to make in discussions of oppression, I also know how powerful and destructive the anger of white men can be. It’s the reason I hesitate to mention a band like Eyehategod without criticism.
It’s difficult for me to articulate what I like about Eyehategod. I had seen a video of them performing a 1996 festival in Kansas City and, despite the grainy footage and muffled audio, their snarl and their grime had held my uninterrupted attention for the full 24-minute recording. Recently, over breakfast, I mentioned the festival recording to my partner, who shares my interest in metal and my fascination with recordings of live music performances. We watched the entire thing enraptured, hardly touching our eggs. And then he rubbed the film from his eyes and said, “Woah. Well. That’s a bit much for me.” It was a bit much. Everyone in the band looks fried and unhinged. Their vocalist, Mike Williams must have been in the throes of a heroin addiction. Watching that set I remembered watching Williams set up his instruments on the small, dark stage of the Ottobar. I think I’d been afraid of him though, even now, I don’t want to admit it. He’d once smashed a bottle in a recording studio in New Orleans and had sliced open his hand. His bandmates smeared the words “Hell” and “Death to Pigs” on the walls in his blood. He was arrested in Morgan City on a drug conviction and denied bail reduction on the grounds that he was a “threat to society.” His parents had died when he was a child. I knew all this and, because I knew all this, I’d reduced Mike Williams to a horror story, a narrative he’d created around his art to hide from his life. That night, in the intermission after the first opener, I walked out and went to the corner store and called Peter to ask if he’d want to see a show.
When he got to the venue, Peter pounded three gin and tonics fast. The band took the stage. Williams hissed into the mic, “How many of you guys are fucking inbreds and fuck your siblings?” and people cheered and whistled in the crowd. “Sister fuckers!” Williams howled and then came the blues hum of the bass line of the song of that same name, and the skinheads started ramming their elbows into one another’s sides in the mosh pit and Peter spit on the ground and said he was going in and I shrugged and let him.
One of the men in the pit had caught my attention. He was very tall and his style was nondescript—he wore a large white T-shirt and baggy black pants. His hair was shaved and bleached blonde and he had dark circles around his eyes and a snake tattoo that weaved around his skull, the tongue of the snake stroking his right temple. He moved around the floor with a violent elegance and I was attracted to him because I was afraid of him. He and Peter battled each other in the pit without touching. I recalled a National Geographic segment I had watched about territorial hummingbirds who dueled in midair. When one hummingbird stabbed the other, both were likely to die because the victor couldn’t fly with another bird impaled on his beak. I felt irritated. Though I knew it wasn’t rational, some part of me had expected having Peter there to be a comfort. Instead, it felt like a liability.
After the show, Peter and I slipped out the side door to smoke a joint with the teens who hadn’t bought tickets to the show, who loitered outside asking everyone who walked out if they could have a hit. Peter slumped against the brick wall and moaned and I worried people were looking at us.
“We used to call my mother the whore of Babylon,” he said loudly, “because she lived with three men. Right now, I want to be naked. And I want those guys over there to spit on me.” He pointed at some of the sound crew, who were loading a drum kit into the back of a van. The teens near us began to disperse.
“It’s good to be vulnerable,” I said, “but you need to stop because you’re freaking me out.” I finished smoking and started walking back in the direction of my apartment. Peter followed me, though he lived in the opposite direction.
“I like you,” he said, “because I feel like you understand me. I feel like we’re two sides of the same coin.”
“I don’t think we are,” I said, walking faster.
“I can’t explain it,” he said. And then, as we approached my apartment, he slurred, “Do you want to have sex?” He whispered the word sex, the way I had once, trying to be funny, but as he said it now, it sounded like he was mocking me.
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“That didn’t stop you last time,” he mumbled.
“Go home, Peter,” I said.
As I stood in front of the concrete façade of my apartment building, Peter put his hand around my throat. He didn’t press. Rather than fear, I felt a bit of nausea, like I’d gotten on an amusement park ride I couldn’t stop.
“You know it’s inevitable, right,” he said to me, “You know we’ll end up circling back to it.”
It must not have been more than a half a minute, but it felt as if we stood like that silently for much longer. Then, Peter dropped his hand, put it into his pocket and walked away.
It was time to call in an outside opinion, so I asked my friend Sophie if she could be a judge of Peter’s character. It was mid-September and I’d been seeing Peter since July. She took the MARC train up from DC for the weekend and we met at Charles Village Pub, a sports bar we frequented. I’d told Peter to meet us there at 7 p.m., but when he didn’t show for an hour and I was ready to get the check, I texted him. I’m just around the corner, he texted back, not bothering to apologize. He appeared behind the window, with a type of crop cut, the hair above the fade in shaggy, bleeding patches, as though he had cut it with a straight razor and no mirror. When he sat down at our table, I gave him a moment to explain. When he did not I said, “What’s with the haircut?”
“It’s fashion, sweetie, ever heard of it?” he said.
“I want to play a board game,” he said.
“Do you have one?” I asked.
He shook his head and I suggested we go to Target and buy one. Peter said he would drive. It began to rain as we drove through Downtown, the lights from the buildings fading into a melancholy dreamscape in the Yaris’s windows. “Sometimes when I’m driving,” said Peter, “I just want to mow down everyone in the crosswalk, just drive into all of them. Do you ever feel that way?” Sophie and I told him we did not.
When we walked into the Target, its fluorescence was a sharp contrast. I was a bit drunk and the other shoppers, blissful in their small bubbles of domesticity, felt alien to me. I felt as though I had entered a maze without knowing it. When we reached the board game aisle, Peter scanned the titles back and forth.
“None of these feel right,” Peter said, “I think what I want is a video game.”
“I don’t have a video game console,” I said. “Do you?”
“Let’s leave,” he said.
To Sophie, this exchange must have seemed deranged, but it didn’t surprise me so much as it exasperated me. We drove back north towards where we lived, but when Peter turned west suddenly I knew he was headed to Mount Royal Tavern. I didn’t stop him, curious to see if he had a plan, knowing he did not.
The bartenders there knew him. He ordered six pints, two for each of us.
“I just want one,” said Sophie.
“Fine,” Peter said. “More for me.”
He drank until he was shouting above the jukebox and when Sophie took too long to finish her beer, he drank hers too.
“We’re going to go home,” I told Peter when Sophie went to the bathroom.
“Don’t you want to have sex?” he asked me.
“I don’t,” I said, “and also Sophie’s staying at my place.”
He followed us home anyway. “Do you know what I do for work?” he slurred to Sophie. “I take product photos for Jews. I leave packages on people’s porches. I suck Jeff Bezos’s dick.” By the time he’d followed us up the apartment steps I was humiliated and livid, but I felt I couldn’t send him home alone for fear he might forget where his apartment was and sleep outside the Dunkin Donuts or worse, that he might trip in the street and be flattened by a car. I told him to turn off the reggae music he started playing on his phone and I threw a blanket at him.
“I don’t need this,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “Don’t use it.”
When we woke up the next morning, he was naked except for that blanket and the covers had been removed from the couch, the washing machine on.
“I pissed in it,” he said, “because you made me nervous.”
Though we’d only dated for about two months, it took me four to break things off with Peter. I thought I was telling him to get away from me, but I never said it with enough conviction and I don’t know that he would have listened anyway. Perhaps if I’d seemed afraid, my friends might have intervened, but I didn’t and I continued my routine of hopping from bar to house party to bar, a map of my own patterns that, for Peter, was easily traceable. He sent me drunk texts weekly until I ran into him at the Crown, a commercial office space renovated into a venue with two dance floors and Korean BBQ in the basement. He plowed through a throng of waif-like women in purple lipstick to stand in front of me and scream soundlessly behind the static scrim of the DJ set.
“Can we get coffee sometime?” I finally heard him say.
“Sure,” I said. “But I don’t want to drink with you.”
On the day we’d agreed to meet, Peter asked if we could go to 29th Street Tavern instead. On our second IPAs, he said to me, “I’ve been practicing what I wanted to say to you all day.”
“Then say it.”
“Please don’t speak to me again,” I said.
A week later he texted me, I like you and I still think of you. I value your perspective and think that with our personalities / our approach to things we’re able to pick up where the other fails. I felt a strong connection to you. I enjoyed being around you because we were moderating reality.
When I didn’t respond, he began to show up wherever I went. He was at the fashion show at the EMP Collective I’d gone to to support a friend, the art opening I biked to on a whim after work, brunch at Rocket to Venus, a birthday party at the Copycat. I felt observed. When I saw someone filming a party with their phone, I ducked out the back door. I deleted all my social media. I thought about moving to Providence, Rhode Island. I applied to a graduate writing program there and then I applied to a few other writing programs and a few other jobs, all in different cities, just for good measure.
In January, Peter showed up at the bar where my friends and I played pool on Sundays.
“Hey, it’s you,” he said.
He was wearing the blue linen shirt he always did. It smelled like pineapple JUUL pods and gin and I wanted to gag as he backed me into the wall behind the pool table. He caged me between his hand, which he pinned to the wall next to my shoulder and his pool cue, which he planted into the floor along the sole of my shoe. In the steady din of the bar we might have looked like we were flirting.
“I’ve been doing better,” he said to me, his breath making the air humid around my ear. “I’ve been going to the gym more and . . . coming here less.”
“Good,” I said, and then I told him I was moving to Providence.
“Oh, Providence,” he said. “Providence means something about God.”
I told him I didn’t know one way or another.
“Look,” he said, “I’m sending you something in the mail. Keep an eye out for it.”
I never did receive anything in the mail from Peter, but he did send me an email. The subject line read “Photo of You” and the single attachment was named “Untitled (14).jpg.” The photograph is black and white and I am in profile as I walk through a forest in the rain. I can make out the impression of my nose, lips, and chin, though my face is entirely obscured in shadow. A fallen branch points its thin wooden fingers in the direction opposite from which I face. The dribble of a tiny gully weaves its silver body toward the horizon at which I stand perpetually suspended, arrested before I can take my next step.
Though I was shocked to see myself represented, I remember the day he must have taken that photo. We had decided to leave the city and drive South to a street he’d found on a map called Nostalgia. On the way out of the city, he said he wanted to buy a hat and he stopped in a neighborhood in West Baltimore I hadn’t been to. It appeared to be mostly residential, but there was a little square, the shops and corner stores more squat than those where I lived, some of them boarded up. The people in the streets looked at us oddly and it was clear that it was because we didn’t belong, we were unfamiliar in a place where everyone always saw the same people. Peter had taken out his camera and began pointing it at the rubble of a demolished storefront. “Don’t you think that’s a little…exploitative?” I’d said to him. “Are you scared the ghetto will get you?” he’d asked me in return and, confused and taken aback, I’d responded that I wasn’t and let him finish taking the photos. When we’d gotten to Nostalgia, it was just a little cul-de-sac. We didn’t get out of the car. Instead, we drove to a nearby state park where the trail had been too muddy. I’d weaved my way in figure eights through a patch of skeletal trees while I thought Peter was in a nearby port-o-potty. It was then that he must have taken the photo, unbeknownst to me. When he got out I said I was bored and asked if he’d want to go home and grab a drink.
I hadn’t been scared of that neighborhood in West Baltimore. Why should I have been? The people there lived there, it was me who was the outsider. That day, I had been scared of Peter. He was reliably inexplicable and I couldn’t trick myself anymore into thinking it was charming. More so, I’d felt embarrassed to be seen with him, to be associated with someone who ripped substance from lives of others wholesale and called it their art. Someone who had no sense of himself. I had wanted desperately to hear my own demon’s racket and, now that I could, I didn’t like the sound of it.
Why had I liked Peter, or at least thought that I might like him? I asked Sophie that a couple weeks ago as we sat in a park beneath some weeping willows eating gummy worms. “You thought he was interesting,” she said. “And he certainly wasn’t boring.”
“But wasn’t he?” I said. “Ultimately?”
“Yes,” she said, “In the end, I think you realized you’re much more of an interesting person than he ever was.”
Sophie is immensely charitable in her assessments of other people, but she doesn’t circumvent the truth. Before I’d really known him, I had thought Peter was interesting. I’d mistaken his moodiness for intensity. I’d thought that I’d be noticed if I was seen with him and I’d thought that would make my art worthwhile. Those notions had been quickly stripped away. What was left was a kind of pity and the shameful suspicion that perhaps I deserved him, that we were, in fact, two sides of the same coin, sloppy and hapless, invisible, lacking that thing, whatever it was, that made artists great.
About a month after my encounter with Peter at the bar, I blacked out at a DJ set at the Copycat and woke up, miraculously, in my own bed with a pulsating migraine, my pillows wet and red with blood from a wound underneath my right eyebrow that was still seeping. That week, the blood pooled blue beneath my eye and I told my coworkers that I had run into a pole. That same month, I saw a flier at a local coffeehouse advertising free counseling provided by student psychologists and I called them to set up weekly therapy sessions. In March, I got accepted to one of the writing programs I’d applied to. I’d known it was a long shot and it felt like a blessing. I quit drinking two months later. It wasn’t any one thing that worked, that jolted me out of a cycle of bad nights and worse days, that helped me understand what being alive really feels like. It was a series of things, a series of movements. I think the thing that had scared me the most, that had convinced me that something had to give, was that I had identified with the girl in the photograph that Peter had taken—trapped on a muddy path in the rain. I’d needed to drag myself out.
Providence, indeed, meant something about God. The protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power. I looked it up after I ran into Peter that night at the bar, had scoffed at the idea of a higher power looking out for me. Now, I think that maybe I had believed in providence, but I’d interpreted the idea of protective care a bit differently. I think I’d internalized what my parents had told me about art and had commingled it with my impressions of metal. I’d thought that art and metal were things you made a life of only if you were very talented. Maybe I’d thought that this talent was providence, a gift I just hadn’t been given. I’d thought that if you were an artist, art was something that just came out of you and if it didn’t, you must not be an artist at all.
After I stopped drinking, I began to cry all the time. Until then, my emotions had been stunted by alcohol and when I was no longer perpetually drunk or hungover it all came out of me like a faucet. Every morning that summer, I biked to a different familiar place and looked at it as I had never seen it before. I went to Lake Montebello, climbed the biggest tree and cried in it. I went to Normals, the second-hand book and record store, brushed the dust off a Stevie Wonder record and cried. When I took a loan out on a car, I drove it to the black cherry tree in Hampden. I had to stand on the hood of it to reach the fruit and that simple, nourishing labor, the subtle stretch of my waist, made me taste the cherries like I’d never tasted a cherry before. I cried. And I cried as I sat on the back porch of my house eating those cherries with a friend, laughing so hard at a joke she’d made that I had to hold her shoulder to keep from falling out of my chair, crying, touching, touching someone else in the gentle, unintentional manner I thought I’d forgotten. I needed to do all those things for a while without thinking about how to mash it into poetry because I needed to understand what it felt like to be alive before I could begin to try to understand what it meant. What I found is that, in the fog of my decade-long tantrum, I had failed to see the machinations behind the things I loved, the careful and tedious arrangement of every chaotic and distorted thing. I did leave town for a while and I’m glad that I did. Still, I knew I’d be back. Beneath the curated production of the city I’d grown up in was a real place, a place I loved—and maybe that love is providence enough.
Rhea Ramakrishnan is a writer from Baltimore. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and HAD, among others. She is the editor-in-chief of Blue Mesa Review and an MFA candidate at the University of New Mexico. She works at a bookstore and is always down to jam.Monochrome Amp by Kai Oberhäuser