Friday, 18 January 2019 18:59

The Playlist by Nathan Spicer

She had never met him, or heard his voice, or seen his face, or read a single word he wrote, or knew how old he was, or where he lived, or whether he was in fact a “he,” and she loved him all the same.

Cellphone in hand and headphones in ears, Claire stepped off her bus. The doors hissed shut and it rumbled away. Her breath lifted off her lips, shredded to scraps, and vanished in winter wind.

She hit Play on his recent playlist, and the music started. A warm daydream faded in, of seeing him after he’d flown in from wherever he’d flown, and met her at the airport, and said her name, transforming it from dull to divine.

She walked into her house. Her mom was scrubbing the kitchen with a lemon-scented cleaner that tickled her nose. Her mom saw Claire, rolled her eyes and pointed at her own ear.

Claire took one headphone out, a millimeter, and raised one eyebrow, a millimeter.

“Note from school,” her mom nodded at the table in the living room, cluttered with a heap of unopened letters and bills and magazines.

 Claire sifted through the mail until she found the envelope with her name and address in the middle, her school’s address in the upper left. She took out the letter – just another notice about her crumbling grades.

She dropped it and went upstairs to her room, where she lay in bed with the Playlist going, imagining his face. Sometimes he had a boyish innocence, sometimes a dark roguishness, sometimes a feminine flair.

She scrolled up the streaming music service app on her phone and saw his avatar: a little cartoonish sketch of the Batman symbol. Maybe he’d sketched it himself. Maybe he was a graphic designer, or a graffiti artist, a rebel who harbored an ever-increasing contempt for corporate environments, a contempt rivaled only by her own contempt for her academic environments.

His icon and his playlists and his handle, ChampagneSupernova, were all she knew of him. She didn’t understand how she thought about him so much, when she knew so little to think about. And still he understood her in a way that seemed ethereal and strange and precise.

The songs he selected fit her life perfectly. Not in some abstract way. Not like, “This song represents the essence of my personal pathos.” More like, “This song is basically what happened to me at 8:52 a.m. on Tuesday.”

A subtle smile spread as she flicked her short black bangs off her brow. He put up a playlist every Sunday night. Seven songs. One for each day of the week, she assumed. She hit Play, and memories of Monday swirled into the air and took the present back a week.

#

1. Pop ETC. Please Don’t Forget Me

On Monday morning, she’d been running a half-mile in gym class, in the gym (too cold outside). The kids who’d already finished were playing Pickle, thwapping a whiffle ball back and forth with wooden paddles over a low net. They’d lost control of the ball (or they’d had so much control that they’d calculated this), and it cracked Claire on the back of the head.

She’d startled and flung an elbow out, raising her arm to touch the spot where the ball had hit. On the elbow’s ascent, it rammed into the ribs of a girl, a girl who Claire would never mess with, a girl whose name people had already transformed into divine.

Nicollet Lazzara’s heart-shaped face contorted into a wince and then a scowl, and then her glossy lips opened, and Claire knew the nickname was coming, and she prayed to go deaf at that moment (and realized a micro-moment later that meant not listening to his playlists, so she retracted the prayer)…

Claire had gotten the nickname after wearing black three days in a row, once with a hood. In chemistry, she’d put the hood up to preclude eye contact with anyone, especially a sadist of a human being, Julien Baker.

She’d looked up once and saw him smiling over his shoulder at her, and that smile disconcerted her, as it had for years. He had a face shaped like a snowball, not a wisp of facial hair, an untamed thatch of blonde hair that scribbled down over his forehead. He looked like the kid you’d cast in a post-apocalyptic young-adult movie, as the protagonist, as the winner who never sins. But Julien was the high-school version of a winner, which meant he always sinned. Even while smiling. Especially while smiling.

“That’s quite a look you’ve got going, Claire,” he’d smiled. “Going for Grim Reaper? Actually never mind. You’re skinnier than that. Grimmer Reaper? Oh! Slim Reaper!”

She’d actually thought that was fairly clever, and probably wouldn’t have minded that nickname as much because it had a strange elegance. But of course the school had chosen a name that contained no originality, nor elegance, unless you got all poetic about it…

“What the hell, Death?” Nicollet said, in gym.

“Sorry.”

“God,” she spat. “Go live up to your name and just kill yourself already.”

Claire thought about pointing out she could live up to her name just as easily by killing a bumblebee, but thought better of it. She slowed to walking. Before long Mr. Simon had corralled the kids and told them to find partners for Pickle. Claire finished the half-mile a good five minutes after everyone else.

A few kids hadn’t dressed for gym, so the class was uneven. And because the class was uneven, Claire didn’t have a teammate. And because she didn’t have a teammate, she’d felt invisible and wished from that bottommost dwelling of herself that someone would see her. Then someone did, and she wished he hadn’t.

“Slim,” Julien called, flicking his chin up. “Join up with us.”

She knew better than to fall for that, so she’d started walking away and heard Julien say with an audible smile, “Damn. Rejected by Death. That’s some cruel symbolic shit right there.”

She’d bit the insides of her cheeks and didn’t say anything, because he had a comeback for anything. He’d lived across the street from her since she was four and had been her nemesis since she was fourteen.

She’d leaned against the wrestling mats against the wall until Mr. Simon took pity on her, which only made her feel worse, and told her to get a paddle.

 

2. Daughter - Winter

On Tuesday, she had been at the bus stop when Julien drove by, slowed, hummed down his window, and threw a snowball that smacked her chest and crumbled to powder. It hadn’t been one of his more creative days.

And, well, that had been Tuesday, really…

#

A voice cracked through the music. “Claire?” her mom called from beyond the bedroom door.

Claire lifted one headphone off. “Yeah?”

“We gonna talk about this letter or pretend it doesn’t exist?”

“Pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Her mom sighed, loudly, just to make a point. “We can talk about this letter now or later. Your choice.”

“I choose never.”

“Never is not a choice.”

“I’m making it a choice.”

Her mom sighed dramatically again and walked away. Claire went back to staring at the playlist. And then, for the first time in her life, a desperate desire to interact with him overtook her fear of those interactions disintegrating all her fantasies.

She’d never messaged him because she didn’t want to find out he was nothing like she hoped he’d be. But today she’d hit an event horizon.

Every day of the last five years, she’d felt minor tragedies nudge her further and further toward the edge of an emotional cliff. Then this letter from school, though standard and expected, had nudged her over. She now expected ruined grades and traumatization and isolation, wasn’t even thrown off when they appeared.

This letter had sent her falling so far into the darkness of herself that it scared her, a darkness in which she saw her mom’s bottle of Xanax, kitchen bleach, scribbled apologetic notes, nooses, guns, rivers, knives. And unlike every other time she’d envisioned those things, she found herself planning on how and when to use them…

She needed hope. A tangible kind. Not imaginary versions of someone.

But if she messaged him, and “he” became a “she” who lived in Portugal and liked seafood (gross), then, well, her one safe and constant and beautiful thing would disappear.

If the daydreams became real, though. A fraction of them. If he lived an airplane-ride away and was within ten years of her age (ten years older, not younger, obviously, because ew)...

She spent twenty brain-mangling minutes in fierce deliberation, typing and deleting and rearranging words, until she said, “Oh my God screw it,” and typed, Why do you make playlists? and hit Send, and felt her heart drop out of her chest. She swore it was gone.

She started crying and navigating through menu options to find a way to delete sent messages, then googled how to do it and found you couldn’t, then resolved herself to the fact that it couldn’t be taken back. Nothing could be taken back. The daydreams started shattering one by one until she saw nothing but a blankness in her head where he used to be, and then a figure appeared in the blankness, the figure of a 54-year-old woman who ate microwaved shrimp every night, surrounded by half a dozen cats.

“Shiiiit shit-shit-shit-shit,” she said as she paced around her room, and then added, for clarity’s sake, “Major shit.”

She ate dinner with her mom in the living room while they watched TV. Her mom talked about the letter and her grades for the billionth time, and quoted Dr. Seuss for the trillionth time: “Those who mind don’t matter—”

Mom,” Claire exclaimed as she dropped her fork. “Those who mind totally matter because they make my life a living hell.”

She went upstairs and slumped against her bedroom wall and felt herself so far past ruin that only breath and bone and blood remained, she owned no mind and no soul and never had.

And then her phone dinged.

She took it in trembling hands, with stuttering breaths, as tears stretched the pixelated lights, and saw a message from him. She opened it while keeping a sob from struggling out.

ChampagneSupernova:  Hi. I’d like to say I make playlists just because I like making them, but it wouldn’t be true. Here’s the kinda sad truth. I make them as apologies to a girl. It’s all about catharsis and trying to rebalance my karma. I have this weird hope the universe will see me making an effort to apologize to her the only way I can. I’d apologize to her personally but I don’t know how.

She read it again, and again and again, and each time it destroyed her a little further, almost forming a fissure in on the inner wall of her skull because her skull could not contain within its limits such expansive thought. He was exactly the kind of thoughtful she hoped he’d be. But, she realized, this could still be a 54-year-old woman with half a dozen cats who eats microwaved shrimp every night.

She typed back:

Claire: Weird question: Why do you apologize to her?

ChampagneSupernova: Weird answer: I’m mean to her.

Claire: Why?

ChampagneSupernova: I don’t like myself.

Claire: Weirder question: Why don’t you like yourself?

ChampagneSupernova: Weirder answer: Partly because I’m mean to her. Vicious circle type of thing. Questions back: Why are you trying to become my therapist, and why am I letting you?

Claire: Dunno. As long as I’m becoming your therapist though I might as well know your name. 

ChampagneSupernova: Julien.

She stared at her phone, all emotions and thoughts shocked into oblivion for a moment. And then she typed:

Claire: Last name?

ChampagneSupernova: You wanna stalk me? That would be excellent.

Claire: No. Curious. I just think I might’ve friended you on Facebook years and years ago, if you went to a summer camp called Wild at Art in Morgantown.

ChampagneSupernova: Holy crap, I did go there. So cool! Last name’s Baker. Yours? Full name.

She dropped her phone and left it.

The next day at school, she had no idea what to say to him. She had no idea how to look at him. She had no idea how to reconcile this new version of him with the version she’d known.

In chemistry, she felt herself straining apart. Most of her loathed him. But a miniscule section of herself clung to those playlists, seven-song apologies, put up every Sunday evening, all directed to her. She didn’t need a plane to reach the playlist person; she needed to reach out her arm.

Julien Baker, the person she hated more than anyone on earth, had apologized to her for roughly nine months, with 38 playlists totaling 447 songs. He’d spent roughly 1,788 minutes saying he was sorry.

Granted, he was mean to a lot of girls. So the girl he was referencing could have been, if Claire narrowed down his typical targets, one of 38 girls.

But sometimes the playlists seemed to reference life events that only someone living across from her would know. Like the time a stray cat had curled up on her porch, and she and her mom had tried feeding it, but it kept cowering away. They’d left a tiny dish of food by a wooden chair and went back into the house. Once cat started nibbling, Claire had slowly stepped outside, only to see the stray dash away.

That Sunday on the new playlist: The Rolling Stones - Stray Cat Blues.

She felt the familiar prickling behind her eyes and tingling at the end of her nose. She got up and breezed past Julien to the door. He said wearily, “C’mon Death, why’re you crying.”

She said, “I don’t know,” and then shoved open the door and muttered, at once hoping and fearing he’d hear her: “Make a playlist about it.”

 She hurried down the hall and locked herself in a bathroom stall. Feet up on the toilet lid. Her phone dinged. She wiped her eyes and took it out, her nerves frayed and her mind like a turbulent plane that tossed and scrambled the luggage.

The ding had come from her streaming-music app. Her pupils focused through new layers of tears. Her thumb swiped and tapped and brought up a new message.

ChampagneSupernova: I will make a playlist about it. I’ll make a thousand of them. Claire I just

That was it. It stopped in the middle. She bent over and put her head between her knees and crushed her teeth together and wrenched a sob back down into her chest and kept it there. God forbid anybody found her here like this. Her phone dinged again.

ChampagneSupernova: Mr. Simon was making his rounds and checking people to make sure their phones were on educational apps. I don’t even know what to say. I’m like shaking at my seat right now.

Claire: WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? HOW CAN YOU MAKE MY LIFE A SUICIDAL MESS AND THEN PUT UP PLAYLISTS LIKE THAT COVERS ALL YOUR BASES? LIKE YOU TORTURING ME DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE YOU PUT UP ‘I’M SORRY’ BY ALVIN AND THE FUCKING CHIPMUNKS?

He didn’t respond. She stayed in the bathroom till the bell rang, at which point she went to the office and told the receptionist she, Claire, had to go home, with such obvious fragility that the receptionist didn’t ask, just let Claire call her mom and get picked up.

On the way home Claire’s phone dinged again. She shut it off. When she got into her room, she put it in her desk drawer. Then she’d curled up in bed and cried until her head hurt and her voice was hoarse.

Afternoon light bled away and then twilight bled away and then it was blood-black night. Still she couldn’t sleep, and she couldn’t stop thinking about what else he’d messaged her. The curiosity finally overwhelmed her. She got up and opened her drawer.

He’d sent her only a link to a private YouTube channel. She hit the link and saw a grid of ten still-shots of him holding an electric guitar. Her thumb hovered over a picture. She exhaled, then pressed the picture.

It was his own song, the guitar work clean and shaded in reverb, his voice soft yet with a forceful imploring edge, singing about…

About…

Her.

She put the phone down and listened in the darkness and cried so hard she made no sound and withered against the wall and sat there hugging herself. He’d breached her ribcage so many times over the years, swung a serrated sword and sliced a vertical line down the center of her chest, sliced and re-sliced and re-sliced. Now he’d slashed horizontally and formed the shape of a cross. Something to be prayed to. Something divine.

She’d never hurt more than this.

After the song ended she fell to the floor and kept crying. Her mom knocked on her door and asked what’s wrong.

“I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Claire said, her voice so thin it verged on nothingness.

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

Her mom said she loved her, very much, and they’ll figure this out – they will – they’ll figure something out, and then walked off. Claire got up and looked at the crescent moon in the window. Then she looked down, across the street, and saw Julien sitting on his porch, in the cold, wrapped in a scarf and jacket, under his porchlight, the speck of a thin glow indicating his cellphone held in his moonwhite hands.  

Her phone dinged. She stayed still for a moment, watching him, then checked it.

ChampagneSupernova: Can you come outside?

Claire: Why?

ChampagneSupernova: So I can talk to you. Did you watch any of my videos?

Claire: One of them

ChampagneSupernova: There’s like 30 more.

Claire: I only saw 10 there

ChampagneSupernova: I only put 10. There’s probably 40 or 50 more if I can find them on my computer. Can you come outside?

Claire: Why?

ChampagneSupernova: … so I can talk to you.

She was watching him through her window. He was fifty yards away. The whole time. The whole time he’d been putting up those playlists while sitting in his room right over there, on the second story, or sitting down there on his porch, while she sat in her room and thought he lived on the other side of the world.

She didn’t know why she was doing this, but she couldn’t think of what else to do: She found a scarf, jacket, boots, and put them on. She’d face this now or later. Prolonging it would only multiply the anxiety at school, stack layer upon layer of it until she was but a column of static.

The night was colder than she thought it would be. Her breath steamed and disappeared. She wondered if she could even talk with how gone her voice was.

She sniffled from crying and the cold and walked off her porch, and saw him walking off his porch. They would converge in the glow of a streetlight. She knew they would, if they kept up this pace, adding some “symbolic shit” to all this.

So she slowed near the end of her driveway, her boots crunching ice, and stayed there, to make him walk farther, to make him come to her, so he would be in her territory. Not that it mattered much. But at least she’d have a shorter distance to run should this be an elaborate prank, should he have a snowball behind his back with her name on it, literally, written with red Sharpie or something.

He walked through the streetlight and glowed for a moment before the shadows covered him. He stood still a few feet from her.

“Hey,” he said.

She said nothing.

“I guess my karmic rebalancing—”

“Fuck you,” she said, her throat hurting from the effort.

“Scuse me?”

“Fuck you, Julien.”

“You losing your voice?”

“Yes, you stupid idiot because I’ve been crying all day. Do you know how much you’ve hurt me? Do you get it at all? Do you know how much my mom’s been through because of you? Do you even care? Does any of it cross your stupid mind—”

Yeah, it crosses my mind,” he said, louder and angrier than she’d anticipated. She flinched. “Obviously it does, or I wouldn’t spend like an hour a day scouring the internet, looking for songs for you. Or writing them. I put up those playlists because I feel like a completely awful, disgusting human being, and I feel even more disgusting when I see you—”

“What a beautiful thing to say.”

“I mean I feel disgusting because you’re nice, and I’m awful to you, and I’ve been awful to you forever, and I feel disgusting because I suck at being a good person, and because I suck at telling people how I actually feel, although I’m doing a decent job of that now; and I feel disgusting because I’m scared of losing my reputation at school so I suck at not being shallow. And I feel disgusting because I can’t stand myself so I take it out on other people, and because I’ve liked you for so long but can’t tell you like a normal person, so I act like a third grader and just pick on you because it’s the only way I can even talk to you. So yeah. Fuck me. I suck. I’m despicable. Do you get that? Do you understand how much I know I’m awful?”

He took a step back and ran a hand through his hair and then stepped toward her again. “You’re right. I don’t know how much I hurt you. But I know how much I feel like shit for hurting you, and if how bad you feel is anywhere close to how bad I feel, there’s no amount of songs in the world that can make up for what I’ve done.”

His voice faded. The stillness amplified sound till each breath became a brief hurricane.

“You can say you’re sorry,” she said. “To my face. For once in your life, you can say I’m sorry without putting in a stupid song.”

He looked at her, then, for the first time that night, really looked at her, and she felt him looking through her. Not past her, but through her, through the layers of insecurity and debris of crumbled faith, to the parts of her she’d held as a child, when he’d known her as a child, when he wasn’t like this, when she wasn’t like this, when the world was Jolly Ranchers and wonder.

 “Remember when you used to dance on the way to the bus stop?” he asked.

“I don’t dance anymore.”

“I’m asking if you remember when you did.”

She tucked hair behind her ear and looked away, down the street, and imagined a small version of herself there, twirling, in a black jacket with the white silhouette of a dancer on the back. “Yeah,” she said. “Why?”

He grinned, as sincerely joyous as she’d ever seen him grin, and slid his phone from his pocket and tapped it. A song came out the tiny speakers. She recognized it. A cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” by The Bootstraps.

“No,” she said, flatly. “You don’t get to kick up a song and make this all okay. This isn’t – this isn’t some movie, Julien. You don’t put on some slow song and we dance in the middle of the road, and everything’s pretty and the screen fades to black. We gotta go to school tomorrow. This all continues. Something might’ve changed between us, but the world’s still the same.”

“No it isn’t.” He put the phone on the pavement. The song kept playing. He took a few steps toward her and said, softly, “Claire… Claire, please look at me.”

She did, and it hurt like hell. She felt herself splitting again, as if all in her chest were being tugged toward him while her mind tugged away. She stood paralyzed and stared at him. Saw his pained face in the dimness, a trinity of creases in his worried brow, his pale cheeks luminous in the dark, his green eyes shining through steam of his breath.

“What can I do?” he asked.

She scoffed. “You still haven’t said I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, and then his voice broke, and she broke further because of that. “I’m sorry, Claire. I never wanted to treat you poorly. I really never did. And I’ll never do it again.”

She looked away, at black pines spearing stars. “Can you promise that?” she asked. “What’re you gonna do differently at school? How does this end, Julien? You’ve admitted you like me, so all social circles don’t matter? Or do you think we can just go on with the way things are, with you treating me piss-poor, and then we make out in your basement so no one finds out you’re hooking up with Death? And what about the other girls you treat piss-poor? You like them too?”

“No. You. I like you.”

“Then why do you treat them—

“I told you. Because I hate myself.”

“How? What’s so wrong in your life?”

He said darkly, “You haven’t been in my house since my dad got remarried.”

She lowered an eyebrow. “So?”

“You know how I make your life shit? Someone like that sleeps ten feet away from me.”

She’d heard shouting from his house. She’d heard crying, sometimes, a guy’s low, lurching sobs. She’d always assumed it was his dad, because Julien seemed invincible.

“And you’ve never been in my head,” he said. “Just like I’ve never been in yours.”

She ran a chilly hand down her face. Apparently he’d put the song on repeat, because it had looped around to the start. “This is so embarrassing and I don’t even know why I’m saying it, but this is already the weirdest night of my entire life, so let’s make it a thousand times weirder…”

She couldn’t look at him. Couldn’t bear to see the slightest twitch on his face indicating what he thought. So she stared off at shadows between trees.

“I daydreamed about you,” she said. “Well, I daydreamed about the person who made the playlists – and I was like, in love with that person. I thought I was, anyway. But they were all dreams, weren’t they? They weren’t real. When I found out it was you, all those dreams broke, and that fake love or whatever broke. But you were still there, you were still in my head, because you’re real, and I… I can’t even explain it. I wanted you to keep being there, and just… shit.

She squeezed her eyes shut. She heard him breathing. She clutched the ends of her scarf. “I still hate you. I hate you so much it’s not even in the realm of normal hatred, but now it’s all messy. I feel like Luke when he found out Darth Vader was his father—”

“—Spoiler—”

“—because you’ve made me want to kill myself. Literally kill myself, and there’s no way I can get over something like that. Ever. So.” She shrugged. “I don’t know what happens now. All I know is how you feel about me, but I’m conflicted as hell about you.”

“Conflicted,” he said.

“Yeah. Conflicted.”

“So part of you hates me, but the other part…”

“Yeah. A very small itty bitty tiny part. A fraction of a speck of dust.”

“That’s a start, isn’t it?”

If her voice were quieter, she wouldn’t have spoken at all: “I doubt it.”

“But you’re not sure.”

She didn’t answer.

He looked down at his phone. “It’s a nice song,” he said.

“Feel free to dance to it,” she said, already walking back to her house.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Nathan Spicer has written at least 1,000 words per day the last eight years because--well, it's all OCD, really. Raised in Pittsburgh, he now lives in San Francisco, where he got an MFA from the University of San Francisco. Publication credits include Red Rock Review, Paste Magazine, 100 Word Story, et al.

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