Burned An Excerpt

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When I crossed the threshold of the local dive bar, I walked directly into a Wall of Sound. The band’s lead singer was screaming into his mic with a nasal bravado that I couldn’t parse. Three amped up guitarists played fast and repetitively with limited chords that reverberated and clashed into one another like a car wreck. Headbangers shoved each other in a growing mosh pit in front of the stage.

I followed Anna to the bar, passing a guy with a safety pin through his lower lip and his arm around a pale, angular girl wearing a white tee-shirt and black jeans who looked a bit like Patti Smith. Leather jackets with pins and patches and metal studs, spiked blue hair and mohawks, combat boots worn from years of abuse. Suddenly, a table toppled over when a mosher crashed into it and fell to the ground. Instead of getting trampled, he was lent a hand and with a pat on the shoulder, he immediately reentered the chaos.

This contemporary punk was different from anything I had heard before – the Ramones, The Clash, even the Misfits and Sex Pistols. I had always thought of punk as the deconstruction of music, but this… This was the utter demolition of it. The air was thick with the musk of sweaty bodies, and the crowd flipped off the stage in what I figured was an anarchist’s salute. Someone in a gorilla mask popped out from backstage, bouncing around to cheers and laughter as water, or maybe beer, arced in broken streams above the mosh pit.

The phrase “punk is dead” took on a whole new meaning to me that night, and as the sound crescendoed towards the end of the set I realized that classic punk may be dead, but whatever it transformed into was alive and well in this Midwestern Rust Belt town I called home.

And as jarring as it was to walk into all this, it was just as jarring when the show ended, like the shock of reality after waking from a strange dream. The stage dimmed as the room brightened and background music began playing, faintly heard over the ringing in my ears.

“So, what’d ya think?” Anna mumbled. A menthol cigarette was dangling from her pursed lips as she dug around the bottom of her bag in search of a lost lighter.

I feel out of place. “I don’t think it’s for me,” I replied, “but I’m glad I got to experience something different.”

Anna exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Understandable,” she said, and upon noticing my discomfort continued, “they don’t care if you smoke inside here.”

But what she didn’t know was that cigarettes frightened me. They made me think of pickup trucks and carelessly discarded torches, of wildfires and animals fleeing, and of the charred bodies of dead pines left behind. You’re just too sensitive, they would say, and maybe I was – still am. And maybe that’s ok.

I shook it off with a shot of tequila. No salt or lime here – just the pure golden liquid, which for some reason made me think of Nina Simone and Lilac Wine. Your problem is you think too much.

We left the show in a daze of liquor and stale smoke. That smell followed me outside like some kind of carcinogenic shroud, one that I never wanted. Anna needed to “sober up”, so we sat in her car with the windows rolled down listening to music for a while. It was one of those perfect summer nights with a warm breeze and cloudless sky. Little pinpricks of light shimmered in a blanket of the darkest blue.

The details of how I ended up here with this person whom I barely knew were hazy, but at the core, I knew it involved changed plans and my inability to displease even a stranger. But hell, she deserved a chance just as much as the next person.

“How long have you known Max?” I asked. Max had been the one to change plans and then abruptly leave me here with his ex after meeting her for all of five minutes. The rest of the group always followed him, so it was just the two of us in an awkward, forced union – just us gals.

Anna was smoking an endless chain of menthols. “Oh, I’m sure he can fill you in on all that,” she replied a little briskly. Then, catching herself she continued, “Sorry, that came out bitchier than I intended. We dated for a while – if ‘dating’ is what you wanna call it – that is, until one day he decided that he had better options. And then somehow I became ‘the crazy ex’. I guess looking for a bit of closure was just too much to ask.”

When I didn’t say anything – because what was I supposed to say? – she went on, “The best part is, he still calls me from time to time when he’s lonely.”

“I thought he was with someone?” Max had met Katie at a party. I saw him doting over her when I came back from getting us refills from the keg. A red Solo cup in each hand, I stopped with the force of knowing that they were now meant for me alone. Another five minutes in which everything changed and on his terms, when once again I would be left behind.

Anna stamped out her cigarette on the side of her car and placed the butt in a Ziploc bag containing an ashen graveyard. “I know this is weird,” she said, “but I hate littering. Anyways, he failed to mention that when he left messages. I never called him back. I’m over it – all the games and bullshit.”  In this moment I realized that for once I had five minutes of my own and I chose to spend them with this stranger who was starting to feel more like an ally.

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