Christmas Eve, my boyfriend, brother and I were watching The Hundred Greatest Songs of the 90's on VH1. We made it to number 97 before we had to change the channel for fear that our collective adolescences would be turned out as the artistic wastelands that they were. But before that happened, my boyfriend did manage to project that "Smells Like Teen Spirit" would be number one.
I have no idea whether or not he was right, and that has no bearing on the rest of this story.
When he said this, I told him that I remember the day Kurt Cobain killed himself the way people who were alive in the 60's remember the Kennedy assassination. I remember Kurt Loder breaking in to MTV's regularly scheduled programming to deliver the news. I remember all those people--mostly dirty-looking teenagers--sitting on the front lawn of his mansion in mourning while Courtney Love tearfully called him a jerk and rhetorically asked him why. And I remember all of this so vividly because it defined so much of who I was at the time and who I would continue to be for many years after. In fact, the event of Cobain's suicide and the subsequent cultural impact would be the crux of an intense internal struggle that would almost destroy me.
But not for the reasons one might think.
It's not that I was an ardent Nirvana fan. I liked their music, and I respected them as artists. But at the time of his death, I owned none of their albums. Actually, I still don't own any of their albums. I thought they were important, but more because of what they stood for than for their actual music. Nirvana was the voice of disenfranchised youth. They were the voice of teenagers who dressed like homeless people as an outward symbol of their inward feeling that they'd been rejected by society for being different. When I describe them that way, it's hard to believe I wasn't more into them than I was, seeing as I wore steel-toed combat boots with skirts. But Cobain's death didn't represent the ultimate demise of all my youthful ideals. Quite the contrary. What happened afterward defined my ideals and gave me an image to go with a yearning that would then become a goal. I remember thinking, "My goal in life is to have that many people sitting on my front lawn when I die." The aftermath of Cobain's death defined meaningful celebrity for me, a fact which I'm sure he would detest. In a way, the idea that he defined meaningful celebrity for not just me but a whole bunch of other people was part of the reason he committed suicide in the first place.
Essentially, I wanted to be so famous that complete strangers would show up in public and cry over my death, just like they did for Kurt Cobain.
Cobain committing suicide didn't shock me. It was the only possible ending for the story, really. What else was going to happen? Cobain was going to grow old, eventually releasing a Christmas album? Nirvana was going to breakup and get back together several more times for reunion tours? It couldn't happen like that. And before anyone thinks me cold for essentially arguing that suicide was the only ending Cobain's persona would allow, let me say this: I think suicide is the least sad way to go. People who die in plane crashes and burning buildings didn't want to die. That's sad. People who commit suicide are the only ones who didn't die against their own will. The rest of us--the people who don't commit suicide--think it's sad because we don't want to die and can't wrap our minds around the possibility that anyone would. But as someone who used to want to die and managed to grow out of it before acting on it, let me assure you--if I'd committed suicide then, I wouldn't have been sad about it at all. My life now is just an alternate route in a Choose Your Own Adventure book. I appreciate it now, but that's only because I'm still here to appreciate it. If I weren't still here, I'd have nothing to lament.
And trust me when I say I somehow come across as much more cynical in writing than I do in real life.
But there were no possible alternate endings for Cobain, and I suppose that might be why I didn't feel sad when he did it. His flannel-wearing followers were sad, but I honestly can't understand how they didn't see his death as somehow justified. He died their martyr. He died on the cross of their ideals. "See?" one can imagine them saying. "The Man ate him alive. He was too much of a genius for this place. This society kills its rock stars. It eats its young. It destroys everything that is different and unrelenting. It sucks." They would definitely use the adjective "sucks." But, then, I suppose without their sadness at the inevitable demise, the demise would then stand for nothing. Like most demises.
So I needed for Cobain's fans to somehow be saddened by this unshocking event for it to be so meaningful for me because that was what gave it meaning for me. I wanted future people to be so saddened by my own passing, even if I died an equally inevitable death. If I jumped out of a plane without a parachute and made an announcement that I was going to do so to the entire world a week beforehand, I wanted people to be standing on the ground when I landed ready to light candles and talk about how unfair it was that such a brilliant light had been snuffed out too soon.
There are certain things that are inevitable when a person reaches a certain age, and these inevitabilities extend beyond death and taxes. One of these inevitable things is that whomever one is dating at the time will have dated someone else before and might possibly also have a former spouse. This is something I hadn't ever thought a lot about (except in my previous relationships where the person I was dating was very clearly still in love with a former partner, which would be almost all of my previous relationships) until recently. My current boyfriend loves me a lot by all appearances, and he's never turned up any songs by Third Eye Blind in the car while talking about how they remind him of his ex-girlfriend and then started crying. As far as our relationship is concerned, his ex-girlfriends are mostly nonentities. But I find myself more and more consumed by a wish to believe that he's never been with anyone before me. I type that sentence, I look at it and I realize how ridiculous it is. It's like wishing that I would never die or could somehow escape taxes. I've never been consumed by this desire with anyone else. Even when I was dating someone who was obviously still in love with someone else and that upset my ego, I understood as a given that there would have been someone else before me. I wasn't completely insane. But I think part of the reason that him having previous loves bothers me when it never bothered me before (and bothers me more now than it did when we first started dating) is because this one feels special. I knew a week to a month in that none of those other guys was going to last. I might have loved them, and I might have tried beyond the point of all sense to make it work with them, but I ultimately knew that we weren't going to make it. I don't know how to explain how I could expend emotional energy on suicide missions other than to say that I was young and conflicted about how relationships worked. I knew I had a longing for one, but I also knew that I couldn't seem to do them right or find the right person to have one with. Other much more complicated explanations were proposed, and some of them might've been true. But I also think that human beings have an innate need for companionship and sex and will do the darnedest things to procure both, especially in their early 20's.
But this one feels different. Which makes him special. Which makes me want to feel like I'm special. It's why I want to believe against all sense that I'm the first girl he's ever said things like, "I'm so glad you're here," to when laying in bed together at night. It's why it bothers me when his ex-girlfriend "likes" his status on Facebook, even though I would generally consider myself beyond such petty concerns--I don't want to ever be reminded of her existence, let alone the fact that they ever knew each other. It's why I went on this tangent after having talked about Kurt Cobain's suicide. I think the reason that my boyfriend having exes bothers me is the same reason I was so affected by the death of Kurt Cobain.
All of my life I have wanted to feel special.
Some people say everyone is special, and these people are elementary school teachers who don't understand that this sentiment doesn't make sense (or at least are given to oversimplifying things for the comprehension of five-year-olds). Some people say that no one is special, and these people have incomprehensibly low self-esteem or are anti-social and try to dress one or the other of these problems up as philosophy. The truth is that most people are special to at least one other person, and no one is special to everybody except for a handful of extra special people like presidents and rock stars. The fact that I wanted to be like Kurt Cobain and I wish my boyfriend didn't have any exes he actually loved speaks to my desire to be not just special but extra special. My therapist once told me that a lot of my problems stemmed from the fact that I was the oldest of four children and the second in the line was born so soon after my birth that I never got to feel like the center of someone's universe. I was always chasing that feeling. And I've come to terms with the fact that there will be no strangers at my funeral other than the ones brought as the date of someone who knew me. I also know well enough how silly it is that I wish my boyfriend had no former loves--at least I know it enough to keep it from affecting my feelings for him or making me believe that his feelings for me are disingenuous. But sometimes I still sing along with the radio in my car while imagining that I'm performing for thousands of people, and sometimes I still internally bristle at the mention of my boyfriend's ex's name. These feelings don't drive me like they used to, but they're still there, like some vestigial organ that doesn't do anything but could still get infected.
None of this feels as depressing as the artsy movies I grew up on made it seem like it would. I was raised on art that sent the message that mediocrity--letting go of childish fantasies and living the same life as 98.7% of the people on the planet--would eventually make me want to kill myself or develop an addiction to Valium so as to forget how un-special I really am. But, honestly, getting okay with being one of those people who is only special to a few other people (and I feel like I'm making a bit of an assumption there) and not extra special to everybody feels a lot less miserable than holding on to childish fantasies about what it means to be special ever did. The truth is that it turns out I was wrong. This life does feel special to me. I don't need a multitude of people to think I'm extra special to validate that experience. What I understand intellectually but can't always seem to understand emotionally is that the specialness of others does not preclude me from being special, too. I used to absolutely hate it when people would try to console me by telling me that God loves me because God loves everybody. This fact made God's love seem irrelevant to me. I wanted to be the only loved person. I suppose what I'm really saying is that I can be kind of an ego-driven jerk. But this is one of those moments when it kicks ass to not be special: We can ALL be ego-driven jerks.
I suppose I have utterly failed at my childhood goal. Or, I should say, my adolescent/early adulthood goal, although that feels more embarrassing. There will be no Courtney Love-esque person sitting on the lawn of my house, hanging out with my fans and making it appear that I had tragically bad taste in women when I die. And as much as my ridiculous need to be extra special makes me want to be overdramatic about the ex-girlfriend issue, I know my boyfriend loves me. I know that the existence of previous lovers in my life doesn't detract from my feelings for him at all, so why should I assume the opposite would be true for him? If anything, the existence of my former lovers strengthens my feelings for him because they were all just so not right that he feels extra right. And what all of this is making me realize is that being an adult is awesome. Most people under the age of 25 (including myself when I was under the age of 25) are delusional about everything and think that they're right in their thinking. Now I understand enough to know I don't understand much, and it feels more like reality--and I like that. It doesn't make me want a Valium. I guess when you dive so whole-heartedly into acting on all of your most insane impulses when you're younger the way I did, it ceases at some point to be interesting. Settling down into what most people would describe as a lack of specialness feels magical and special to me.
Absolutely nobody prefers reality to delusion, which means I'm probably special after all--even if my song isn't projected by anybody to be number one on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 90's countdown.
But if my boyfriend ever turns up the Third Eye Blind in the car and starts crying, then I'll be worried.
Book Notes - Jarret Middleton "Darkansas"
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