Ava Adore

Adoration Revisited, part two

Welcome to Not Knowing How: Adoration Revisited, a capsule newsletter by Lisa Locascio Nighthawk in sixteen parts. Names have been changed. The version of events is my own.

A memory calls to me across time, asking to be understood.

February 1998. Unusually, I am early to school. I wait by the windows in the gym in my coat for the bell, staring out at the frost-covered field beside the school. Intensity unfurls in my chest. Flame in a lantern. How I long to be initiated.

I watch The Doors with my mom in her bedroom. As Val Kilmer and Meg Ryan chase each other around, whooping like children, she says, “And see that’s what’s great about sex. Afterwards, you play.”

My mom shows me movies she loves, then realizes halfway through that they may be a little mature for me. The Hunger, Betty Blue, Léolo, Jesus Christ of Montreal, Time of the Gypsies, Black Robe. Fast-forwarding through an explicit sex scene only makes me watch more closely.

I know my mother’s secrets. She tells me everything. But I am beginning to have my own.

I skim Drawing Down The Moon, the phrase “with full sexual rite,” the black and white photographs of nude women in ritual. I unsuccessfully petition my parents to pay for a correspondence school witchcraft course offered by an outfit in rural Vermont. I read Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone over and over, captivated by Dolores’s trials, the pivotal scene of her rape at age twelve. At a sleepover, I show my friends how easy it is to couple with a stranger an IRC chatroom. I am surprised by their fascination, how easily they dive in and stay up half the night trysting on my laptop while I sit on the floor and read a book. It hasn’t occurred to me they would like it, even though there have been moments when we roll around together, tickling, hugging, faces in each other’s hair in their cold basements, in their parents’ bedrooms. I trace my fingers over their elbows, their poky ribcages.

I press my lips to the open palms of their hands. Silence makes it possible. After, we fall asleep, and in the morning we do not remember.

At camp I write a moody story, naming my protagonist after a classmate I admire. After the public reading, she asks why. How can I explain that it seems to belong to me?

Perhaps more possible than magic is romantic love. Obsession, conquest, submission, transcendence. When I have a crush I undertake glitchy espionage ops. In seventh grade I anonymously send my CCD crush a bouquet of flowers the florist has promised to make “dark, because it’s for a guy.” The year before I write an unsettling note that includes the phrase “I mean you no harm” on a typewriter and mail it to the boy I like, wearing gloves the whole time, as if forensics might be called in. Both times the boys immediately make me, ask if I am the secret admirer. I swear up and down that I’m not.

I like to tell my friends stories that are unlikely to come true. When everyone is rhapsodizing about their demur loss of virginity fantasies, I announce that I want to lose mine “pressed up against the wall of a goth nightclub.”

Lose is the verb we have been taught. But I want to know.

By this time I have already heard the song. It is in me.

Ava Adore" anniversary | “It's you that I adore...” Celebrating “Ava Adore”, released 23 years ago on May 18, 1998. Comment your favorite lyric from the song.... | By The Smashing Pumpkins | Facebook

The video for “Ava Adore,” the first single from Adore, had its world premiere on June 2, 1998, the same day the album was released. While “To Sheila” was sweetly revelatory, “Ava Adore” hit me like a truck. Had I already shaped the tastes that the video so closely mirrors, or were they created by it? Everything I like is present: an aura of ambient menace; a man in a dress; darkness; industrial soundscapes; dimly glimpsed images of concern; red eye makeup, my own version of which would get me sent to the school nurse under suspicion of pink eye. Writing this, I choose not to rewatch it, afraid the video will reveal itself as a Rosetta Stone of my every aesthetic inclination.

Spin called “Ava Adore” “the most troubled love song of the ’90s.” Blasting layered drums, spiral staircase-climbing guitars, the man that did not look away from the camera as he mouthed his promises and threats. Longing, this song taught me taught me, was where power came from. Or maybe it was the other way around, maybe two things could be true. Power gave rise to longing.

Some of my friends liked Hanson, a trio of evangelical brothers who were marketed as an adolescent girl sexuality activation product. Once one of my friends became so agitated by a Hanson video that she stood on her bed to face the poster taped on her wall and licked Taylor’s face.

Did I want that with Billy? Not really, kind of, yes. I began to have a recurring dream in which I wore a camo vest over a long black skirt and Billy sent a helicopter to bring me to hang out with him.

He was my secret friend. In my head. Telling me things. In the wake of the bullying campaign that made sixth grade the line of demarcation in my life, his songs ushered on the beautiful anger that helped me escape my unwanted self.

With its wide cheekbones, hooded blue eyes, and button nose, his face had a delicate beauty made alien by the shaved head. He was tall, 6’3”, left-handed like me. His arm and shoulder were dappled in a large port-wine birthmark.

The Smashing Pumpkins | Billy corgan, Smashing pumpkins, Vintage

Looking at pictures of him gave me big, dense feelings, difficult to connect to sexual desire. I tried to stuff them into that mold anyway. It was an awkward fit. Beyond “Ava Adore” and a handful of other songs, it is hard to find sex and sexuality in the music of the Smashing Pumpkins. Love and death, always. The destructive capacity of the heart is Billy Corgan’s perennial topic. But the body, the act itself, its attendant virtues and sorrows? He shies away into purple lyrics, ridiculous names, elaborate plots.

Loving Billy made the Smashing Pumpkins my first topic of real expertise. By learning everything about the band and its history, I would experience the closeness I longed for.

Dark winter of eighth grade. Sitting in my bedroom after dark, listening to “Set The Ray To Jerry” on my CD player. Lonesome feeling in my chest. I wanted something to happen to me. But I didn’t know how to pass through the screen.

At my first coed party, upon hearing that I liked the Pumpkins, a boy went to the piano and played “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” the instrumental track that opens that album. Later I called his house, spoke my phone number into his mother’s answering machine. I called again, whispered it. When he called back, I claimed it was a wrong number. Skeptical, he questioned me, hung up. I listened to the band’s cover of the Depeche Mode song “Never Let Me Down Again,” on repeat in my bedroom until my mom came home and suggested I join the family in a room where the lights were on.

Beside my picture in my eighth grade yearbook it is printed that I hoped, in twenty years, to be “the inspiration for WPC’s songs.” I thought I was quite clever, using his initials.

High school began. In middle school I’d been invisible to boys except as an object of ridicule, but here they spoke to me easily and often. There was an older boy who touched the faux pink fur at the collar of the coat I wore to school every day, a coat that drove my mother insane because it was not warm. He’d come right up to me and finger the fur, saying, Mmm, soft.

On my first day of high school, August 23, 1999.

It didn’t matter. I was taken. Jeff and I were to be married the summer after freshman year.

We had collided one morning in the first weeks of school as I rushed through the student center in my SP heart baby tee. As the school’s two biggest Pumpkins fans, our relationship was an obvious outcome, a joining of two houses with shared ambitions. I did not know that every union requires an exchange. A surrender. My first boyfriend!

In some guy’s backyard, Jeff laid his head in my lap and directed me to nibble and lick and tongue his ear. I instantly complied, going to town while other boys made polite conversation a few feet away. I don’t like this memory. How good it felt when he did it to my ear.

Jeff’s sex enchanted me, not because it was necessarily good, although I don’t remember it as explicitly bad—it was a monolithic first experience, a bloc of data I struggled to integrate with my fantasies, what I’d read in books, seen in movies—but because it was omnivorous and expansive. He had the idea that we should do everything, and we did, to the best of our ability, which is to say, not particularly well. I was brave in pursuit of the knowledge I had wanted for so long. I would be an expert; I would excel; I would prove myself superlative.

For this I traded my claim to the music I loved. Jeff taught me that most if not all of my ideas about the Pumpkins were wrong. I was an outsider. He was an expert who claimed to have hung out with the band on multiple occasions. A winsome feeling of having arrived too late at the party twisted in me like a tire swing rope. I entered the conversation already at a loss because I loved Adore, which everyone agreed was their worst album.

Adore baby, Jeff’s friend Dominic called me.

Jeff was mercurial, demanding, prevaricating, but I accepted his notion that our love was forever, changing my hair, my clothing, my behavior, my writing at his behest. For seven months I wore his dog’s old choke chain around my neck. Eventually, establishing a pattern I’d repeat more than once, my patience ran out and I left him for his best friend. My sister wore the black dress I’d bought for our handfasting to perform in a choir concert.

But I stayed friends with Dominic, obsessed with the idea that he was nice.

Dominic did this thing where if you poked him in his soft stomach he said his name in a high voice, like the Pillsbury doughboy. Entranced by his niceness, I told a story I almost certainly made up to anyone who would listen about how, although he himself did not smoke, at some Pumpkins event—probably the February 2000 Machina meet and greet where I got robbed—Dominic bought a pack of cigarettes to bum to people who wanted them. Even though he didn’t smoke! 

Dominic loved to see women’s breasts, so to give him something he would like I flashed him on his birthday. He smiled, pleased.

The summer after freshman year, Dominic asked me to dress up to accompany him to a convention, wanting to catch the eye of an actor he hoped to meet. I put on a dress my mother had bought me at Medusa’s Circle, a tube of fabric with tiny straps, blue and tight with only lacing down the sides. We sat in the front row. The actor came over to say hello.

That fall, the Pumpkins released a new song. Dominic said it was terrible. I disagreed, I told him I liked it.

“Lisa.” Dominic said. “Last night I was in hotel room with Billy and people who have been listening to the band for twenty years, and they all agreed it was a terrible song,” he said.

Was I brave enough to argue? Or did I just nod? I don’t remember. Maybe that’s when I developed the bravado stubbornness that is still my tool. Mainly, I was stunned at how everyone but me seemed to be able to get into a hotel room with Billy Corgan.

I was embarassed that loving him made me want to defend Billy’s music from people who knew it better than me.

Years later, when I was twenty, I ran into Dominic at the chain bookstore in my hometown. I wore a tiered white skirt and a black t-shirt, with red underwear that was visible through the thin skirt. People kept pointing this out to me, as if it was information I required. We had a brief, characteristically nice conversation.

Then, a few days later, a girl at a party told me that Dominic was talking about me. “He’s telling anyone who will listen than you’ve aged poorly,” she said.

My favorite movie that my mother showed me was Orlando, about a man who lives forever and becomes a woman. During a scene where Orlando visits her old house and views centuries-old portraits of himself, my mom said that this had happened to her, too: she’d gone to an English manor and found a painting that looked just like her. After that I am always looking for myself.

I see the child that wanted to know and be known, who gathered knowledge as currency and spent it all in one go. I see the woman who would make a life of knowing, who would endure almost anything—years on the academic job market, even—to be granted authority to speak on a subject of her expertise. Who would make and remake her life in pursuit of pleasure she could call her own.

In you I taste God

When my mother was in the hospital, I teased her about her love of my high school boyfriend, the one after Jeff, with whom she was so close it sometimes seemed she preferred him. He had just visited, traveling for a full day to see her for a few hours.

She held my hand. “I never wanted you to think I liked him better. I just thought of him as your protector.”

Why did I think I never needed protection?

It’s you that I adore

You will always be my whore

How I loved those words. How I thought I knew what they meant.

Thank you for reading! This is the second of sixteen installments of Adoration Revisited, which will be released every Friday between December 2, 2022 and March 17, 2023. If you enjoy my newsletter, I’d be honored if you share it with your friends. And I’m always interested to hear about your obsessions and memories.