Tag Archives: flash fiction

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring ZZ Top, Carrie Fisher, incessant drizzle, and the reminders of absence

“I’ve got a confession. I spent too much time in my formative years masturbating to ZZ Top videos.”

“Was it the beards?”

“No, it was those spinning guitars they had. I couldn’t get enough of them.” They both laughed.

“You’re a strange, strange man, Pete, you know that?” said Jen.

“And yet here you are. Again. So what’s that make you?”

“Loyal. Kind. Maybe a bit strange too.” Jen paused for a moment. “For the record though I don’t tend to walk around garages in dusty pit-stop American towns wearing tiny cut off denim shorts so I would have been no use to your adolescent self.”

“Oh I don’t know. Teenage boys can spin a wank out of almost anything.”

“Gee Pete, you really know how to flatter a girl…”

“I meant…”

“I’d leave this one if I was you. Quit while you’re way, way behind.”

“Okay. You don’t want to hear about my Carrie Fisher phase then?”

“Not if it’s more tales from the wank-bank, no,” said Jen. “If it’s a radical feminist awakening phase that you went through when you learned to appreciate strong, independent women for who they were rather than whether they were wearing a gold bikini then maybe. We’re in a post-Weinstein world Pete.”

“She was quite something.”

“Yeah, she was. Did you read any of her books? I can lend you Postcards From The Edge if you haven’t got it.”

“I’ve read it,” said Pete. It was his turn to pause. “Georgie had a copy. She loved it and she loved Fisher. I still haven’t seen the new films, you know. I know she was really looking forwards to them, especially when she heard she’d signed on, and I just don’t want to see them without her.”

“They’re pretty good but I’m no judge,” replied Jen. “Georgie was the expert on that sort of stuff. I saw Phantom Menace with her, I think it was before you two got together when she lived with me. I liked it. Couldn’t understand why she was in such a foul mood for a couple of weeks.”

Pete laughed. “When we moved in together she made me get rid of my DVDs for episodes 1 to 3. Said she didn’t want them in the house. These aren’t the films you’re looking for. Those were her exact words. I was in love with her before that but I think that was the moment I really knew.”

“It was the moment she knew too. I’ve never told you this but she rang me that week because she couldn’t believe you’d thrown them out. Apparently you didn’t even try and argue about it. Just opened the back door and chucked them in the bin. She was seriously impressed…”

“Really?” said Pete. “That’s funny. All she told me was how seriously unimpressed she was that I even had them in the first place. I still think there’s a decent film trying to break its way out of parts 2 and 3 but she was pretty militant about it. I did once catch her watching Revenge Of The Sith though when it was on TV. She said she was checking that it was as bad as she remembered it.”

“And was it?”

“So she said. You reckon she’d have like Last Jedi?”

“Yeah, I do. I think she’d want you to go see it, too.”

They were both silent. Jen was about to speak again but she was stopped by Pete’s voice, cracking but growing progressively stronger. “The funny thing is that I know you’re right but it’s just one in a long list of things I’ve stopped myself doing since she died and I don’t know when I’ll be ready to any of them. I haven’t listened to Ryan Adams. We saw him at the Lyric before anyone knew who he was. He was always our singer. There’s a Turkish place we used to eat in a couple of times a month that I haven’t been back to. Won’t walk over Hammersmith Bridge. It’s where I would have proposed. Gave up reading Game Of Thrones and I won’t watch the TV show. She was always telling me to read it but I wanted to wait until he finished writing all of them. There’s an upcoming exhibition at the Tate, retrospective of Japanese contemporary art, that I won’t go to because… No, I don’t get how it can be retrospective and contemporary either but that’s not why I’m not going… She won’t be there with me.”

“When do you think you’ll be ready to let…”

“Let her go? I won’t ever be ready to do that Jen.” No anger; a weary resignation.

“I wasn’t going to say that. Not let her go. Let those things go is what I was going to say. They’re not her.”

“No but that’s where I feel the traces of her most sharply,” said Pete after another extended pause. The conversation’s rhythm was broken now. Staccato sentences punctuated with silence. “Or that’s where I feel the absence of her most sharply. I still catch myself turning to tell her something, to point something out, and then remember she’s not there. I tell her anyway. In those places, with those things, it’d just be too much. How can I find joy in the things we used to find joy in together?”

“Can I tell you something stupid?” asked Jen.

“More stupid than my ZZ Top confession?”

“More stupid than that. You were young and impressionable. I’ve got no excuse. For a while, after she died, I didn’t know what would happen to us. To our friendship I mean. Me and you. I knew Georgie a long time, before you guys got together, but all my strongest associations were with both of you, as a couple. I worried that seeing you, speaking to you, would just be a constant reminder to me that someone was missing. That it’d be too painful. I worried we wouldn’t be able to be friends.”

“And yet here you are. Here we are. Again. I appreciate it, Jen, I really do. You’re like – these talks, they’re like a little bit of sun through the clouds.”

“I thought I would be more like incessant drizzle?” said Jen.

“Incessant Drizzle? Weren’t they on Rough Trade?”

“You’re thinking of Mild To Moderate Snow Showers. Or maybe Outside Chance of Hail. I always get them mixed up.”

Pete laughed, sucked in a deep breath. “Thank you for…, well for this. For talking shit and listening and making bad jokes and… well for all of it.”

“No thanks necessary,” said Jen. “Don’t think I’m letting you forget that you described me as a little bit of sun through the clouds though.”

“Just ‘cos it’s cheesy doesn’t mean it’s not true. Normal service will be resumed when we next speak.”

“I look forward to it. Seriously though, are you alright?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same exchange before the line went dead.

“You know the drill by now Jen. No. I’m not alright. Not today. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”



The chain

I tell you later that I knew you’d be there. Knew you’d be up on the balcony, looking kinda sad, getting wet, staring out at the passing cars and watching their headlights refract in the rain. The truth was a little different but it was still like me to double down on front and confidence when I was terrified. Even after all this time. Especially after all this time. The truth was that I’d travelled five thousand miles to see if I could find the only place I ever felt at home and I had no idea what I’d have done if you weren’t there. I have no idea what to do now that you are.

“Do you wanna cut RE?” I say.

“Always,” you reply. “I was saving your spot. Where have you been?”

“Well, that’s complicated,” I say. “You know us women. We will come and we will go.”


“Always,” I reply. “Now either you come here and hug me or you find me a drink or I’m on the next flight back to California.”

In the event you deliver on the hug and the drink. I think we both needed the drink after that embrace. Later we’d fill in the long blanks we had in each others stories but, in a way, we didn’t need to; there was something in that moment that unspooled the past twenty or so years and we were as we’d been, stood on the balcony, buried in each others arms. Only then we were saying goodbye and now I didn’t know what we were saying. When we parted I’d whispered ‘If I could I’d give you my world’, my parting gift from the Mac. I don’t know if you heard it. It wasn’t really like me, a rare moment of honesty and vulnerability making itself heard over the bluster and bullshit. Plus it was a Buckingham line and, as you knew, repeatedly and with great passion, I was more of a Nicks kind of woman. You shift your head slightly so that your mouth is close to my ear and you say: “I never broke the chain.” That was one they sang together. “Me neither” I say back. For a long, long time there’s just silence and two people holding on to each other as if they can squeeze out of existence the time they spent apart.

It’s when you buy me that drink that I tell you I knew you’d be there. I catch myself slipping back into my old habits, the bullish bravado, but I guess you can’t expect that to all fall away immediately. We’re in one of those pubs you used to insist existed near the school but never had the nerve to take me to. That part of you, the insecurity and the nervousness, has gone but there’s still something unsure about you; like you’re looking for something. Was it really me all this time? I see the way you look at me now and it’s like all those years just evaporate, you still see the wise-ass kid shooting her mouth off at the world, shooting first and asking questions later. I think you still see what I could have been and, just for a moment, I worry whether I’ll match up to the idea of me that you’ve been carrying around all this time. But then I realise you’ve seen the tattoos, maybe even clocked the track marks, and that look hasn’t changed. You still see me. Like you did back then.

We have a couple of drinks and talk. It’s like we never stopped. You ask me where I’m staying and I confess that I hadn’t thought that far ahead – it’s the first moment I let slip that maybe I wasn’t so sure you’d be where I expected you to be after all. I figure you probably haven’t changed so much and so I suggest that I stay at yours. I waited twenty five years for you to make a move on me and I’m damned if I’m going to wait another twenty five. And I can’t really afford a hotel.

Back at your house we dance. You put on Rumours – what else – and we shuffle and giggle our way across your lounge, towards your stairs. We kiss and you, in your terribly formal English way, invite me to bed. I almost feel like I should curtsy, take your hand and pull the full Stevie Nicks pose from the album cover, but I catch myself. I sense you might mistake the gesture, think I don’t take you seriously and I don’t want that. I recognise what I feel as love and joy and that’s all I want to convey. For a few moments I whirl on the spot to the music, silk scarf trailing up and around my head, dancing, spinning and turning. And then I stop, take you by the hand, and lead you up the stairs.



I didn’t know why I’d come. I mean, of course, I did but my reasons were too ridiculous to acknowledge honestly to myself. Had I seriously expected to pull open the door to the old school hall, stand silhouetted in the frame, and watch as you turned, met my eyes, and ran across to embrace me? A woman I didn’t know that used to be a girl that I did. We knew each other for such a short time, and it was so long ago, but I’ve never known anyone so completely before or since. So why come? The girl I knew wouldn’t be seen dead back here.

This was the hall where we’d sit for assembly and you’d roll your eyes to the ceiling, exhale just loudly enough to be heard, shuffle deliberately in your chair every time the Head started another of his speeches about values or the ethos of the school or anything you saw as pompous English bullshit. That was almost everything as I remember it. We used to do that experiment in Physics where we observed a magnetic field by scattering iron filings onto paper and then putting a long, rectangular magnet down amongst them. Most of the filings would disperse, be pushed away. A few would cling to its sides. You were like some sort of super magnet dropped onto the school, poles misaligned, repulsing everyone with waves of force. Everyone except me. I was the iron filing that attracted and stuck. Like the patterns on the paper in the experiment I saw the strange beauty in the disruption you caused, too.

I don’t really recognise anyone. There may have been a circuit where people had stayed in touch but I wasn’t part of it. I imagine people had found each other again on social media but I’d never kept any kind of online profile, hadn’t even done that lurker thing of checking people out anonymously. Okay, that’s not entirely true. A couple of times, maybe five years ago, I’d looked for you. I didn’t have much to go on. It seemed fair assumption that you’d still be called Anna – although you had always joked about changing your name to Stevie – but would you still be a Meredith? I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. It was impossible to know. I couldn’t find anyone that I believed was you on Facebook and I could hardly search google for “Anna, the American Girl”. I did, anyway, and it just turned up a line of dolls. Dead eyed, plastic, and passive. Pretty much the least appropriate search result for you imaginable.

I have brief, polite conversations with a couple of people that pretend to recognise me, swear they remember me like it was yesterday. I don’t recognise the person they’re remembering anymore. A little part of him never properly left this place, a little part stayed bound up in the memories of someone he collided with nearly thirty years ago. I wonder what he’d have done if he knew then what I know now. The conversations dry up. My evident distraction is maybe taken for rudeness and I excuse myself claiming that it’s all just a little overwhelming. And it is. Just not in the way that they imagine. I scan the room again and mark your absence in it. Like I say, it was always ridiculous. For old time’s sake – all of it was for old time’s sake I guess – I leave the hall and find my way back to the balcony above the back of the school. The one we used to sit up on and listen to the drone of cars along the main road into town. Out of town. You always insisted it was the road out of town but then you were always on the move, always ready to leave.

There’s a stillness up on the balcony, cold air pinching my skin after the stuffy heat of the hall. I’m aware of my heart beat. What was that Stevie Nick’s lyric? Something about your heartbeat being the sound of your loneliness? You would have known and would have been outraged that I didn’t remember. All I remember is what I had, and what I lost.

It starts to rain. Just one of those dreary light drizzles but enough to shake me from my thoughts. I turn to head home and you’re standing there at the door out to the balcony, arms crossed, satin scarf hanging from a wrist, thirty years older wearing a lifetime’s story that I don’t know in the lines on your face. “Do you wanna cut RE?” you say.

“Always,” I reply. “I was saving your spot. Where have you been?”

“Well, that’s complicated,” you say. “You know us women. We will come and we will go.”


“Always,” you reply. “Now either you come here and hug me or you find me a drink or I’m on the next flight back to California.”



It was my third year in Mammoth and I still didn’t know why I came. That first time he’d convinced me that I’d love it, that there was nothing like the sensation of ploughing through powder, cold Californian air in your lungs, the mountains cutting a jagged zig-zag across the horizon. I went with it then. I think I was caught up in his relentless enthusiasm, mistook it for something more joyous than all the deadbeats and down-and-outs that had polluted too many of my years. I guess it wasn’t a mistake. He was more joyous than what I’d become used to but the object of his joy seemed to largely be himself. I just got to bask in the reflected glow, catch a few rays. I never did tell him just how much powder I’d ploughed my way through when I was younger; coke was cheaper than skiing too and the risks seemed pretty similar. Maybe that just reflected my relative skills. I was lousy on the piste but a world champion ex junkie. One day at a time and all that jazz.

We met after I’d moved to San Francisco. It hadn’t really been my plan but it turned out that there weren’t too many ways to scratch out a living bumming it on Big Sur and I couldn’t face returning to Seattle. The very definition of a bad scene. Good coffee though so there’s that, I guess. I think I’d initially avoided defaulting to the Bay as it seemed too obvious. Stick a pin in the big map of Bohemia and chances are you’re going to find yourself idly imagining hanging out on Haight and losing long nights in late night bars with artists and artisans. The stubborn part of me – and it’s not like it’s a small part – resisted that for a while. Did I think I was going to go all Mary Ann Singleton, rock up to Barbary Lane and live out my own tales of the city? Swap smokes with my landlady and share my dreams with poets and painters? I was forty-one and past dreaming.

I don’t know if I was some sort of novelty for him, with my tattoos and scarves, my opinions. He was doing something in Silicon Valley that he’d told me about several times but which I never really cared enough about to grasp. A social media start-up I think. He’d been pretty bemused by my analogue habits and had insisted on setting me up on Facebook, connected me back up to a whole sequence of people I thought I’d long left behind me. Trawling through my life had taken a while, if only because I’d moved around so much. All those schools – a bunch of people I didn’t remember – as well as my various addresses on the West Coast. A lot of friend requests in Seattle went unanswered. I assumed they were either dead or they still owed me money. Like I said, it was the very definition of a bad scene.

I knew we were an odd fit. I was the exact opposite of his ex-wife and maybe that was all I was ever supposed to be. The anti-her. I don’t know what he was supposed to be for me. He was attractive in a Gap advert kinda way but I hadn’t ever thought I’d be bothered about how someone looked in tailored chinos. And he was enthusiastic. It was like he was powered on his own internal dynamo, each day permanently set to ‘awesome’. I think maybe I thought that some of that relentless energy would be infectious, that it’d be something I could catch, like a more pleasant form of crabs, you know? But it never seemed to infect me. We had a lot of sex. Enthusiastic sex, on his part at least. But it was always sort of empty for me, like he was bench pressing at the gym or silently counting off the number of seconds he could hold himself in a plank position. Not silently actually, there was always a loud and upbeat commentary. Come on. Two. Three. Four. Five. Come on. You’re nearly there. Six. Seven. Eight. Hold on. Nine. Ah yeah. Ten. It was rare for the count to get past ten.

The atmosphere between us had been different on the drive up to the resort. Maybe he’d grown tired of my sarcasm and sniping, maybe he was weary of his little collapsing star, a black hole sucking at his ever radiating light. I joked that we should head north straight past Mammoth and right on through to Mono. They would probably welcome me like the home coming queen. He didn’t get it and muttered something about there being no snow in Mono and how he’d booked just-the-best-lodge again this year and that if I didn’t like it then I didn’t have to come. I clammed up and didn’t say much else for the rest of the journey, even left his ‘Hootie And The Blowfish’ running on the car stereo. Apparently it was what he listened to in college. On its own that should have been enough for me to flip open the car door, roll into a ball, and launch myself out to bounce down the freeway. Lie there for a while on the asphalt, let it fill my nostrils. I must have listened to him hit rewind on ‘Only Wannabe With You’ five, six times, each repeat just reinforcing the irony.

The day he left me half way up a mountain was when I knew we were done. Or more like it was the day I resolved to make us done, I think I’d known we were done for a long time but just got stuck in my own inertia. I don’t even remember the details of the row. Just me being me, wise cracking, whip snappin’, smart ass me. And him being him, lame ass him. We were off piste – literally off piste, that’s not a metaphor – and I’d only gone to keep the peace, to appease his incessant need to do something: it’ll be gnarly, come on. So really I knew the problem wasn’t him but was me: when did I start keeping the peace and appeasing people? When did I nod along dumbly to something being gnarly that wasn’t a fucking tree? When did I ski? When did I go off piste? Again, literally. Metaphorically half my life had been somewhere way off piste. I watched him disappear down the slope in a spray of snow, sun radiating off a million unique frozen flakes thrown into the air by his departure. It was a good exit, I had to give him that, and it spared me the indignity of anyone witnessing my own descent. Most of it was on my ass.

I thawed out in McCoy Station with the other mountain refugees. Pitch black coffee and wi-fi: everything I needed to plot my trajectory back home. I figured I’d hire a car and hit the road. If the pass through Yosemite was shut then I could always head south and find a motel in Fresno or some other collection of malls masquerading as a town. I pulled out my phone to call down to the lodge’s concierge service, might as well get them to book the rental and with any luck my soon to be ex would end up picking up the tab. I had a notification in Facebook. Usually I ignored them, someone I’d long forgotten wanting to ‘connect’. There wasn’t much in my past, save a few precious months of genuine connection across the Atlantic, that I cared to revisit. I opened the app resolving to erase myself, to disappear from the digital realm, but the message stopped me. It was my old school in England extending an invite across twenty five years to a reunion.

I was sat inside and if I pressed my face up close to the glass screen separating me from the cold then I could make out my reflection, the translucent outline of my features superimposed on the white capped peaks in the distance. I looked old. So did the hills but they carried it with a certain rugged charm. Through the glass, way out in the distance on the mountain opposite, a shelf of snow dislodged and discharged itself down the slope, obliterating my reflection in a sudden and shocking blizzard of the brightest white.

You’re a big girl now

I had the ink done in my early 30s, just the inside of my arms across the elbow joint, to hide the scarring. It felt stranger than I’d expected sitting in the chair and feeling a needle again. In a way I kinda liked it, liked that the first sting wasn’t immediately deadened by that familiar, spreading honey, but was just followed by more sharp stabs. Repeated little reminders that this was the difference between being alive and being dead. It had taken me a long time to figure out that being alive cost a little pain that you were supposed to endure and not numb. I’m not trying to kid anyone that I had some sort of straight edge awakening as I got older – I still drank a little more than I should, still rolled the occasional joint – but on my own terms I’d been sober for four or five years.

On my left arm was this rose design I’d been kicking around on notebooks since as long as I could remember, probably all the way back to school. The centerpiece, which covered most of my old tracks, was the main flower, fully open as if you were looking down on it from above. Trailing off it and running up and down the sides of my arm was this interlinked chain of barbed wire and petals. After all those years in rehab and therapy you’d have thought I’d have shaken off something so clichéd but, like I say, it was a pattern I’d been sketching out for a long time. It felt like it was me: there was something beautiful there but you were going to get cut up pretty bad if you tried to touch it.

The right arm didn’t need quite so much attention; I’d never gotten the hang of shooting with my left hand and I never trusted anyone else to do it. There was just enough romance left in me to work up a design from the lyrics for “Rhiannon”. Something that’d remind me of the kid I was that first saw footage of Stevie Nicks twisting and spinning on stage, gossamer sleeves seeming to suspend her above the stage. She was the fiercest, prettiest thing I’d ever seen. But even then I could see the sadness and I think that was what stuck, that idea of facing it all down like the coolest fucking lady to walk the earth even though your heart’s broken up. “She rules her life like a bird in flight and who will be her lover?” There was enough romance for me to pencil it out but not enough for me to bear it permanently on my skin. I settled on “Never ever been a blue calm sea, I have always been a storm”. Tusk wasn’t my favorite album but I always liked that song and it said what I wanted to say I guess. It felt good to reconnect with the things I’d claimed as my own when I was younger, those early markers of identity that I’d near obliterated in a blizzard of powder through my 20s. Felt good to find common cause with Stevie again that wasn’t cocaine.

The guy that did my tattoos loved Dylan. I sat in that studio for hours listening to Bob wheeze his way through his abstract riddles whilst my mistakes were blotted out in reds and blacks. I didn’t get it. On some level I guess I admired the poetry but it didn’t speak to me, didn’t move me. I found him bloodless. Almost like if we’d swapped places and he’d been sitting in the chair the needle would jab him in the arm and there’d be nothing. Perhaps he’d drawl something sly and sardonic, rational and detached, launch into thirty verses of metaphor when all I really wanted him to do was tell me how he felt. Does it hurt, Bob? You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows, he says back. Come on, let me in a little: does it hurt?

Me and Zac, the guy that did my arms, didn’t really talk much but towards the end I asked him why he only listened to Dylan. Called him on the whole emotional absence thing. He raised an eyebrow at ‘emotional absence’ and asked me just how much therapy I’d had. Those phrases stay with you, I said, and besides don’t change the subject. His response was to play me ‘Blood On The Tracks’. Said he barely listened to it these days, that it was too raw for him, and, besides, customers generally didn’t like mention of blood in the studio. I think that last part was his idea of a joke but neither of us laughed. We listened to it in silence, he even stopped using his gun, and just let the songs puncture my skin instead. So it does hurt, Bob. It’s ripping you apart, just like the rest of us.

When it was done I asked him to put “You’re a big girl now” on again and I let my thoughts wander back to a time when I knew someone. Really knew someone. Sure, we were just kids but you were the only one I ever let through my barbed wire, the only one brave enough or stupid enough to ride out my storm. That’s the trouble with storms though, isn’t it? They blow in and, just as quickly, they blow out again, leaving all that wreckage behind them. I hope you forgave me.

Bob was singing “with a pain that stops and starts … like a corkscrew to my heart… ever since we been apart” and I found that I was crying, tears falling over my outstretched arm, a blur of ink and blood smudging Stevie’s words. I have always been a storm.

The needle and the damage done

I can find my old scars easily enough, trace my way to the points where I used to break my skin, catch a vein. Places, mainly, that wouldn’t show. I was fussy about that, especially to start with when it was all just supposed to be a temporary diversion whilst my dealer sorted out his supply of coke again. I liked coke the way Stevie Nicks liked coke. It was precise and clean and cut through all the distraction in my head until there was just me, pin sharp in the room. I liked that it felt like I was the center of every party I went to, even as the invitations slowly ran dry. Fuck ‘em. Seattle wasn’t really a party town by then anyway. Anyone with six strings, bad complexion, and a story about their abusive childhood had hitched their wagon south and headed for LA to swim in the shallow end of fame with the remnants of a hair metal scene they claimed to despise, other wannabe plaid shirted grungers, and an endless stream of film makers pitching something, anything, to get noticed. Yeah, it’s like Pulp Fiction meets Romeo & Juliet. The Luhrmann version. Edgy. It’s for Generation X and alienated kids from the suburbs. It’s got something to say. Well, guess what Seattle? I had a whole lot to say back then if you’d all stuck around to listen. Coke’ll do that to you.

Between my toes now there’s spiders’ webs of scars, spun by the most seductive spider you ever saw. They made me write stuff like that in rehab. Acknowledge what it was about the drug that made you try it in the first place. It was kinda confusing with half the facility getting me to ’embrace the dark beauty’ and the other half calling it junk and showing me pictures of the night the paramedics pummeled my heart back to beating, Johnny nodded out on the sofa next to me, a film of crusting vomit leaking down my cheek into my hair. Apparently they were so sure I was dead that they took the pictures to preserve it as a crime scene; Johnny got seven years and I got kick-started back to life. Yeah, it was like Pulp Fiction meets Pulp Fiction. The Tarantino version. Edgy. I was nobody’s idea of Uma Thurman but Johnny was sure no one’s idea of Travolta either. Not even old Travolta when Quentin dusted him down and made him cool again. It’d be neat and tidy at this point to say that rehab dusted me down and made me cool again but life’s not that neat and tidy. And besides, I’m with Neil Young on this one: every junkie’s like a setting sun.

I spent a long time in rehab and I spent it in California so I know I can lapse into a particularly vacuous form of West Coast therapy-speak. The younger me – and, hey, we spent a lot of time together in therapy, me and younger me – would have hated it. But then the younger me would never have figured that she’d end up smacked out on her back chowing down on her own spew with a syringe jammed into her arm because she’d given up the vanity of shooting up between her toes for some easier access thrills. The only thing she’d have recognised would have been the tourniquet: a pale purple satin scarf that she used to wear tied loosely round a wrist. Stevie would never accessorise like that, I liked to imagine her saying to me. No, dearest, but Stevie could afford to stay on the coke and I couldn’t afford to leave Johnny: so when he ran out, I took whatever else he had.

The root of it was in leaving England. It’s funny because I was only there for maybe six months, seven months, but it was the most settled I felt in my life. I knew none of us was ever the same after mom died and I think in some ways I knew as well that dad kept moving us because he couldn’t keep still. That if he kept still then everything he was running from would catch him up, pin him down, and force him to face into all that loss and grief. I think I was ready to stand still when we moved. Maybe it was shifting country but it felt different to the other High School hops that marked my teenage years: your formative years were characterized by a permanent sense of displacement as my therapist put it, snappy as ever. I didn’t fit in but I didn’t fit in anywhere else either so that didn’t bother me. I even got close to someone towards the end. Sure, it was my weird kind of close where I’d sit for hours on end explaining why Heathers kicked Dead Poet Society’s ass and you’d nod uncertainly because you really related to Ethan Hawke’s character, the one who killed himself, but you didn’t want to say anything in case it set me off on another rant. That kind of close. Yeah, I guess it was like Heathers meets Dead Poet’s Society. The one where I was Veronica and you were that wan faced, floppy fringed sensitive Ethan Hawke dude. Edgy. You used to say I looked a bit like Wynona Ryder. I think that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. Shame about all that stuff with the shop lifting later in her life but I guess we all make bad choices sometimes.

You just used to listen, that was it, really. Johnny never listened unless it was an order for more drugs or an offer for more sex. Or both in what became our dirty little form of barter. I thought they all listened when I was holding court, saucer eyed on blow, laughing all the way to the emergency room. They weren’t laughing with me. But you used to and I don’t think I realized how important that was. Someone who’d listen and someone who’d laugh.


Free fallin’

I didn’t know that you called me American Girl until much later. It was a surprise that you called me anything at all; those first few weeks after I crash landed in England you seemed unable to speak to me. You were always there. Hanging around like a lost satellite that had lodged itself in my orbit. A lost satellite that had stopped sending signals home. Or was that me? I guess if I’d realised you were nervous then we could have started talking earlier. I could have put you at ease but that wasn’t really my thing back then. I felt constantly on edge so didn’t see why anyone else should feel comfortable. Young, dumb, and missing my mom.

I was the worst kind of know-it-all smart, my cast iron belief in my own rightness matched only by a massive, gnawing insecurity that was at the root of everything I did. I used to argue the hardest with the people I respected the most. Endless, stupid debates with the English teacher over ‘the institutionally patriarchal book list at the heart of the syllabus’ or chewing out Dawson, the History dude (I think I may have been the only one to call him that) over his small minded obsession with some argument a bunch of cavalier guys had with another bunch of roundhead guys. I know that stuff was important in the mother country but really? Couldn’t we have talked about the A bomb or Kesey and the Pranksters or slavery or the MC5 or something? I’d have settled for Roosevelt and the New Deal or Lincoln. Your idea of history just seemed, well, too prehistoric to me. Like I say, I was a pain in the ass.

It was ’89 and I was doing what I always did every time dad dropped us down in a new town, unfamiliar setting and a new set of faces; I was playing offence before anyone (I hoped) had figured out that they were supposed to be playing defence. All predictable self protection. Or, I should say, predictable with the benefit of hindsight and a sharp dose of therapy: I didn’t like the taste of that medicine though and never lasted the course. I guess now, looking back, that I can see the funny side of people singing “she’s a good girl, crazy about Elvis” and that stuff about Jesus and horses to me. It was a big song that year and there was a cleverness in the cruelty: to them I was some small town American with a funny voice and a big mouth so why not bait me with a song about small town America sung by a guy with a kinda funny voice. Did Tom Petty have a big mouth? I don’t know. He always just seemed like one of the good guys to me. Even that stuff with the Wilbury’s. Supergroups were never my thing but he was pretty cool. Fleetwood Mac are the exception, of course. Not strictly a supergroup but they might as well be.

You were different. I mean, for a start, you had a nickname for me that was at the bad ass, cool end of the Tom Petty song book spectrum. I don’t think you even knew it was a song which was kinda cute in itself, it was just a name you gave me because you were too shy to use my real one. But you were different because you saw past the bluster and bullshit. Once we finally got talking I felt like you got why all my external expressions of myself – the badges, the bands, the scarfs, the clothes – were important and how they were simultaneously me but also deliberate barriers to stop people getting too close to me. Jesus, it was exhausting being a teenager. You were curious about all that, curious about me, in a way that wasn’t just about an adolescent boy trying to infiltrate his way into an adolescent girl’s panties. Or at least that’s what I tell myself now. I’m sure it’s true. You were purer than that. Never tried anything, never touched without asking, never even tried to kiss me. But I knew you wanted to. Did you love me? Did I love you?

I used to drag you up onto the school balcony to listen to the traffic. We had to cut class to do it. What did you call it? Skipping lessons? I know you guys invented the language but really? We were consciously making a decision to remove ourselves from the preordained path laid down for us. C’mon. It was an act of rebellion. An act of alleged self harm. It was a cut, not a fucking merry step between walking and running that signifies a certain jauntiness. We cut. We didn’t skip. You think Patti Smith did much skipping? Or Courtney? Or Stevie? Stevie Nicks never skipped a step in her life and neither did I. You just used to scrunch your face up, blush, and look away when I let loose with one of these rants back then. I think I did it to see whether I could push you away, some weird way to test your resolve or your faith in me. You never failed me.

I got dragged away again before anything could happen at its own pace. Another country, another continent, another move. If I’d have been more open or you’d have been less closed then maybe we’d have broken through those long, intense conversations into something more concrete. More, I dunno, more physical. Maybe I should have just turned around, one of those times I felt your eyes on me, always on me, and kissed you. Maybe I should have been a little softer. Maybe you should have been a little harder. Maybe we could have left this world for a while. Maybe we were falling. And maybe we should have let ourselves.