Adoration revisited, part three

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.

I miss the overhead projectors that stood at the head of every classroom of my pre-college education, boxes of light whose long-necked hooded mirrors splayed words and images from a sheet of clear plastic up onto the pulled-down white screen for all of us to see. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, an obliging English teacher granted me an entire class period to present the history of the Smashing Pumpkins as my final project. Although I am proud of my various youthful cons—the most brazen of which saw me successfully (and falsely) arguing that since I had already read the entire curriculum of junior English Lit, from Beowulf to Jane Eyre, I should be allowed to skip it and take African-American Lit instead, which meant that I didn’t read Austen, Twain, or Hamlet until my PhD—I confess I can’t recall how I convinced this teacher that my history of the Pumpkins fulfilled the requirement, or even the assignment itself.

I produced over forty transparencies documenting the band’s trajectory from 1988, when Billy worked at a record store with James Iha and picked a fight with D’Arcy Wretzky after a Dan Reed Network concert, to the final Metro show I had attended six months earlier. Did I print my transparencies at home? Or did I go to the Kinko’s on North Avenue, where a year earlier I had manufactured a series of truly deranged cannibalism fiction zines with Jeff? The transparencies were slick in my hands, ephemeral. I told the story of the band in a medium that would disappear like my teenage self and the world she lived in.

All my life I have experienced what I call “the strange feeling.” It is an uncomfortable self-awareness connected to sexuality, adolescence, fear, loss, desire, and time. It is connected to the pervasive existential terror that afflicted me during the demise of my first marriage, when several hours into our analgesic daily marijuana and television binge I would suddenly be struck by the realization of my clock ticking towards death. Like “Fuzhou Nighttime Feeling,” in Ling Ma’s Severance, “It is partly sexual in nature, though it precedes sexual knowledge.”

When I was pregnant, I had the strange feeling all the time. All I wanted were furious, defiant songs. “Thru The Eyes of Ruby.” “X.Y.U.” “Fuck You (An Ode To No One).” “Quiet.” “Bodies.” The songs I listened to on my discman in the backseat while my parents drove me to and from camp.

Now I have a baby and, as I write this, a dramatic, elevator-doors-opening-scene-from-The Shining postpartum period. I’ve been singing “Thirty-Three” as my son’s lullaby.

This week I was overwhelmed with the strange feeling as I cleaned my home and made it ready for the arrival of my sister, come to meet my baby for the first time. By the time I had her in my car, heading back from the airport, the strange feeling had crested into a clear recognition of change. As I listened to my sister’s careful, exact way of speaking—her soft a in patronizing—against my own chimeric Midwestern/California drawl intoning “dude,” I saw that we had become adults, alive in a future that we did not see coming.

The feeling makes me want to change my reality, to be drawn out of my life and into another realm. Substances don’t help; inevitably they reveal something darker riding along beneath. What works is obsession, and my obsessions are isolating. I have been lonely in them, separate from the great teams and nations of cultural allegiance, because I am always embarrassed by how much I love the things that I love.

Loving the Pumpkins was a way of being alone with Billy. But by the time the video for “Perfect,” the second single from Adore, was released on September 7, 1998, Billy demure and feminine and presciently fashionable in his li’l black cowboy hat, I wasn’t alone. I had a friend.

Her gentle ways. The bread her parents made every day. Her t-shirt that read Don’t let me get too deep — Edie Brickell. Her house we went in the back door. She was the first girl I had ever met who listened to rock music. With her small hands she wove intricate bracelets of embroidery thread. Nights in my bedroom, in my living room, in my kitchen, in her bedroom, in her living room, in her kitchen. Her Siamese cat and the border collie that could be sent to find her and her brother by name. The book she made me of my own writing and her illustrations for my fourteenth birthday. She knew how to sew. She knew how to see.

Each day of sixth grade started with D.O.L., Daily Oral Language. We entered a dark classroom to two sentences projected on the wall, which our teacher corrected with a red dry-erase marker. I was good at D.O.L. But mostly I sat on my hands, trying not to exist. That was the year when everything I said got me in trouble. I talked too much about casting spells in my bedroom, about worshipping the moon, about sex and mysticism in the Bible, about real power and how to get it. My father gave me his encyclopedia of demonology. My mother bought me whatever I wanted from the Esoterica section of Barbara’s Bookstore. Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to talk about those things? someone asked me recently. No, they did not. I was a witch. I liked to sit in the dark and fix words, and everybody hated me for it.

I met Moira on the first day of seventh grade. Somehow over the summer I had forgotten the previous year’s lesson about the necessity of blending in and believed again that I could make the others see that I was worthy of their regard. A week before school began my mom took me to a salon where my hair was made red, as I had long dreamed. Determined to maintain my new sleek bob, I adopted a punishing regimen in which I woke at five-thirty every morning, showered, and sat beneath my mother’s vintage stationary hair dryer. On the day Moira and I met, I wore my most treasured item of clothing, a bright blue silk short-sleeved cheongsam shirt.

When I began writing this essay, I didn’t remember this part: as soon as I sat at my desk that morning, one of the popular girls appeared beside me and began taking exaggerated bows, her hands pressed together in front of her face in a vaudevillian mockery of my shirt’s Asianness. My face burned, not because of the racist joke of which I was the ill-fitting target, but because I had been caught in my attempt to be seen. Locked in the spectacle of our mutual whiteness with the popular girl, it didn’t occur to me that violence was being done to anyone else.

It must have been after that that I made my way to Moira. I had spotted her as soon as I entered the room. I was so excited to see a new face. I longed for a fresh start with someone who hadn’t been tracking my movements since kindergarten. There had been a new girl the previous year, but she had quickly been swept up by the popular crowd. I was determined not to let this happen again.

Later another friend asked if I felt guilty for taking away Moira’s chance at popularity. We were all in the gutter of middle school, but this girl was looking at the stars, I suppose. At some point I told Moira what our other friend had said. I want to say we laughed it off, but there is a bruise in my memory, a lacuna indicating a painful conversation in which we groped for words. I was of the margins, but she didn’t have to be. She chose to join me there.

Less than two years after we met, I spent my final swim team awards banquet on the brink of tears, rendered nearly insensate by the news that Moira’s family might move away. I could not imagine my life without her. What had happened in that time that joined us so fully?

One dark early evening in the first winter of our friendship, Moira and I stood in my kitchen talking, and when my younger sister joined us Moira easily incorporated her into the conversation, unlike my other friends, who had always been stiff and territorial. Moira spoke to my sister, then nine or ten years old, about the nature of that time of year, the cold dreariness, using the term “holidays” for vacation, because Moira was from Canada. Later, after Moira had gone home, my sister announced, “I like Moira.” It was the first time she’d said something like that about one of my friends.

In the summer after seventh grade Moira befriended an exchange student from Ireland, a girl I hardly remember but for her musical accent, a sense of her appearance (short, freckled, dark hair), and the way she called the Lake Theater “the movie house” when the three of us went there together to see The X-Files Movie and eat Sour Patch Kids.

For the first year we knew each other Moira had another friend, Alex from Poland, tall with brown bangs, gangly and glamorous in a way I could not see then. She was one of the only girls who fared worse in gym class than I did, but while I could never overcome the shame of sucking at every sport, Alex couldn’t even pretend to give a shit about her inability to hit the ball. I have always cared too much about everything. But at the end of the year Alex returned to Poland.

So eighth grade was our glory time. Our birthdays were one month apart, and Moira and I had a joint birthday party, our guests bringing us twinned gifts. We built gingerbread houses Moira’s mom had baked and decorated them in her kitchen. She had a crushed velvet shirt printed with the woman from “Midsummer Eve” by Edward Robert Hughes. I had a pair of crunchy black pants, bought at a mall on vacation in Florida, that held some ineffable allure we couldn’t articulate but admired. We wanted, and acquired, JNCOs. She had long, wavy brown hair, green eyes that thrilled me. We ate bags of bulk microwave popcorn in her living room and in my basement drank cherry cokes we made ourselves with grenadine and a two-liter bottle, watching rented movies about vampires.

It never embarrassed me to be myself around Moira. She joined me in my love for the Pumpkins, received it as easily as if she had had a preexisting love of the band, which maybe she had. She made me a pillow of Billy in his Zero outfit, with lyrics from “Ava Adore” on the back in puffy paint.

“Perfect” has never been my favorite song from Adore. It doesn’t have the bombastic darkness that makes the strange feeling go away. It is honest about the challenges of long relationships, suggesting separations, conflict, choices, adult lives that take lovers and friends away from their teenage dreams. Moira and I wanted to start a band; instead, and despite my supposedly proud feminism, I listened to the boys who told me it was impossible I’d become a good guitarist and stopped playing by the middle of my freshman year. We wanted to buy an ice cream truck and drive around giddily, a femme version of the “Today” video sans suicidal ideation, but I didn’t get my license until senior year, and immediately had a head-on collision that left me afraid of driving until I moved to Los Angeles seven years later. I wanted to be with her always, but I abandoned Moira for boys too many afternoons of high school.

We went to college in different cities in different countries. We convened in New York, Las Vegas, Kitchener, Vancouver, Waterloo, Connecticut, Cambridge, Toronto, L.A. She came to me more than I went to her. The last time I saw her she drove three hours over the mountains in rush hour traffic to meet my baby. We laughed until we cried at the names I invented for the characters in the stories I wrote in the book she made for me once long ago.

I want, and fail, to be the perfect friend. Moira inspires me to try again.

When my maternal grandmother died in October 1998, my mother took me to Water Tower Place. I ate a dinner of cold sesame noodles at Foodlife, my favorite high-concept food court. After, we attended a screening of John Carpenter’s Vampires, which became my new favorite movie until the following spring, when The Matrix was released. It was one of the happiest, most indulged days downtown in a life of them with my mother, who was always sweeping me into her car to speed down 290 into the city, up Michigan Avenue, into a world I thought of as luxurious and futuristic, miniature cities for the very lucky, like me. For a long time, I didn’t understand how my mother could bear to watch a violent film full of death and blood just days after she learned her own mother had died alone in her New York City apartment. Now it makes sense to me—that she wanted to leave her reality for a while. Go somewhere else in the company of a person she loved.

When her mother died my mother was fifty-one, the mother of two daughters, the owner of a house. When my mother died I was thirty-five, mother of no one, owner of no real estate. In the days surrounding her death I slept in beds paid for by my mother’s credit card, first a sleekly grim hotel by the hospital, then a many-bedroomed Airbnb in my hometown that my dad called “the Safe House.” The house in which Moira and I talked to my sister in the kitchen was years gone by then.

My father looked in his rearview mirror and saw Moira in the car with my ex-boyfriend. “It was just like high school!” he told me. The “Perfect” video is the explicit sequel to the “1979” video. My mother’s death was a fantasia on the heyday of our family, a reunion of the major players.

One Sunday morning I went to the Ulta that now occupies the storefront that was once Coconuts, the music store of my childhood, and told the woman who blow dried my hair that it was the day of my mother’s funeral. Moira went to the DSW in the same strip mall and bought several pairs of shoes for my sister to choose from. She slept in the basement of the Safe House. She brought coffee to my mother’s hospital room. She sat at her bedside and held her hand. I remember that she was there with me.

Thank you for reading! This is the third 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.