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Leslie Stella

Whatís So Funny ĎBout Peace, Love, and Cinderella?

Letís begin with a story of childhood: I am sitting in our family room on plush rust-colored shag. I have been ordered off the furniture and I stare enviously at my sister on the chartreuse velvet sofa. She has not caused a Bic pen to explode all over the cushions, and never will, for she is not the type. The dog is reclined in the leatherlike Barcalounger in the corner by a false potted ficus. It has learned to work the lever on the side of the chair, has never let opposable thumbs come between it and comfort. Mother is ironing and smoking.

"I am bored, Mother," I say.

She comes in and riffles through a stack of records by the hi-fi. She considers Cugat, Nancy Wilson, Mantovani, but decides on the 101 Strings (it is the longest album we have).

"Dance," she says, and returns to the ironing board.

Instead of dancing, I sit directly in front of the speaker and poke holes into the fabric with a sharp pencil. What is this? I wonder, listening to the music. I am suddenly calm and relaxed, and feel the urge to wear an orange pantsuit and live in languor. I do not know what this is I am listening to, but I know that I want to be around it.

Onward to high school: I am sad and pale.

I understand The Cure. Robert Smith is also sad and pale and, like me, cannot hold a note. This may be why he is so sad. As for me, the sadness stems from feeling so comfortable as a miserable person. I look in the mirror. I have sad eyes, I think. They have dark circles around them and I am proud because I have done nothing special to cultivate them.

I have a friend named Brett who was kicked out of his house and lives in another friendís yellow Cimarron (a sort of Cadillac with high-water trousers). Brett comes over at night and I make him sandwiches at the kitchen table after my parents go to sleep. I make the sandwiches the way my mother does, with plenty of butter and brown sugar, mayo, tomatoes, lettuce, provolone, nonspecific lunchmeat, rye bread. They are the best sandwiches anyone has ever eaten.

Brett is one of those gorgeous, artistic, dispirited boys who is not attracted to me. I get out some chips to go with the sandwich, thinking that chips are not very punk rockÖthey are fun and tasty and brightly colored. Maybe this is why he is not attracted to me, I am a poseur with Ruffles brand potato chips, also Fritos.

I try my come-on line: "Some people say I have really sad eyes."

He swallows a mouthful and dumps some Fritos on his plate. "Oh, no," he says, smiling in between bites, "you have really happy eyes."

My come-on line has never worked ever.

At school, we are not allowed to listen to Walkmans, even while waiting for the bus or in study hall. The nuns say Walkmans divide people and keep them in their own world instead of encouraging them to reach out to one another. Of course they do; what is wrong with that? This line of reasoning is also behind the school uniform mandateóno one should stand out, all shall be equal, a community. The implication bothers meÖthat each one of these plaid skirts is exactly like all the others, just like us.

I listen to a Walkman anyway, the kind that has those little nubs you jam in your ear canal that are just impossible to clean. My long hair covers up the wires coming out of my headómy burnout friend Kathy shows me this trick. The main bundled wire goes down under my blouse and the Walkman itself is clipped to the waistband of my uniform skirt. I wear an oversized golf sweater, which masks the tape player. I have ratted, messy hair and I am pleased to pair it with a golf sweater. Surely others must notice the irony.

I listen to The Smiths, to "How Soon Is Now." My throat gets tight; this song is just so big. I replay it in endlessly repeating loops. Me, too, MorrisseyÖIím human and I want to be loved. I am also into vicars and cemetery gates, just like you.

Oh, thereís the bus. Kathy waves goodbye and gets on the burnout bus that goes to the burnout suburbs. She has given me a present, a button to pin to my golf sweater. It says: Iím not as think as you stoned I am. I get on my bus, the dago bus that goes to the middle-class Italian neighborhood, where all the families are like mine. I have to share a seat with Flo Conte. I try to be unobtrusive, but she rips the nub out of my ear.

"Whatíre you listening to?" She holds up the nub and we both see a small lump of earwax on the end. This is mortifying, my bodily functions set out for the critical world to observe. I hate myself.

"Ew," she says and tosses the nub in my lap, where the earwax gets lost in the pleats of my uniform. A pause, then she turns to me and says, "And The Smiths suck."

It is like she punched me in the face. I hate her for hating The Smiths. All they wanted was to be loved. Her disgust with me, my earwax, and my music is palpable; it truly is like being physically struck. Of course, later in the year she will actually punch me in the face and splinter the bone above my left eye, and my eyebrow will never grow right after that and for the rest of my life it will hurt when I press my fingers to it, but that is another story.

By senior year, I stop getting high with Kathy. Both the burnouts and the punk girls like to get stoned, but the burnouts listen to Def Leppard and the punk girls listen to The Clash, and it is just not going to work out anymore. We both understand this, itís cool. At first in the halls we still wave to each other, then after awhile we smile as we pass, then we kind of jerk our heads upward in greeting, then I guess we just do nothing.

DatelineóWisconsin. In college: I live in the same dorm as Matt Meiner, a kid from Janesville who has a mini-mullet. We manage to become friends. He is a stoner-jock, a subclass of athletic semipopular boys. We have a lecture together, Introduction to Computer Science, and afterward we go to his dorm room and listen to Bon Jovi while he does my homework. This is in the eighties, they are teaching us Unix, and I have never used a computer before. The professor sweats through his blazer.

Matt sits cross-legged on his bed, finishing up my assignment. It is Cheddar Cheese Soup Night down at the cafeteria and I hope he hurries up because I am hungry and will fall to the floor in despair if forced to listen to "Liviní on a Prayer" one more time. He lifts the needle on the record, sets it back to the beginning.

Iím sure that I donít say a word, but he glances at me and mutters, "I donít see how anyone can not like this song."

That is how I feel about Elvis Costelloís "Beyond Belief." But Bon Jovi? How can anyone feel that way about Bon Jovi? Yet Matt sits there in a hazy funk, just as stricken and near to tears as I am when I listen to my clearly superior music.

When I ask him to come to the Love and Rockets show with me, he refuses. "Fag stuff," he says. Instead, I go with Sharon, who has kick-ass hair, from the eighteenth floor. We begin to hang out a lot, going to shows, thrifting, drinking, all the things Matt doesnít like to do except for the drinking. Sharonís brother in Florida sends her joints through the mail.

We are sitting in the dark of her dorm room, candles lit, listening to Killing Joke. She says, "Have you ever been to Florida? Itís the worst place on earth."

I shake my head. I have never been anywhere except home and here.

She says, "Maybe you could come visit me there over the summer."

Even though Matt dudded out on Love and Rockets, I agree to an evening of assorted local metal acts with him at the nearby VFW. I try to assemble an appropriate outfit, but do not own gym shoes. There is a knock at my door, and I open it to find Sharon standing there.

"Oh. Are you going out?" she asks. She is looking at my plain sweatshirt and straight-legged Leviís borrowed from my roommate. She is doubtlessly wondering where my much cooler torn black leggings and Bauhaus T-shirt are.

I tell her about the VFW show.

"I canít believe youíre going with that burnout guy to see a metal show. And itís not even speed metal." Sharon is a metal snob, preferring obscure Norwegian death metal to the regular kind we are used to in Wisconsin. "Have fun." She stomps off to the elevator and I am left standing in my doorway in a pair of jeans.

At dinner one evening (Popcorn Shrimp Night), I am sitting with Sharon and our new friend, Tom. He likes Danzig and never says anything. I get up to refill my pop and feel a tap on my shoulder.

"Hi," says Matt.

"Hi."

"Wanna study for the computer midterm tomorrow night?"

I can feel Sharonís eyes on my back. Surreptitiously I glance over my shoulder and she is staring at me through long, black bangs.

"I canít."

"When do you want to, then?"

I moved away. "Uh, not sure."

Back at the table, I ask Sharon if she wants to see Bringing Up Baby with me at the Student Union tonight. Itís Old Movie Night.

"I hate old movies," she says. Tom has fallen asleep in his shrimp.

I like Katharine Hepburn a lot, but we all know that isnít very punk.

"Letís just hang out in my room and get high," she offers.

On his nineteenth birthday, Matt takes me aside in the cafeteria and shows me his new, expertly made fake ID and asks me to down a few shots of Jager in celebration. I look down at the ID; it is blurry. Tom and Sharon are giggling, watching me talk to the burnout with the mullet and the Cinderella baseball jersey, and I just canít do it. I watch him leave for the frat boy bars with his real friends.

He begins to eat dinner at 4:30 with the other jocks and I eat at 6 with the rest of the habitually late slackers. We stop doing computer homework together. Doug Phuong tries to tutor me, but I am too stupid and it is too late in the semester for me to try to learn everything now. In May, I see Matt on the quad (my friends are huddled under a tree, avoiding the sun, his are playing Hackey-Sack). He shoves his hands in his pockets and comes over. We make small talk. He is going to work in a canning factory in Janesville for the summer, I am going to be selling Tilt-a-Whirl tickets at Summerfest.

"Iím pissed," he says. "Thereís a Cinderella concert this weekend, but itís already sold out."

"Iím going to see REM next month," I say, showing off. Sharon does not yet know; Sharon says Michael Stipe is lame.

His eyes brighten. "REM Speedwagon?"

I say, "I failed Computers. I got an F."

By sophomore year we live way across campus from one another. He moves to the coed party dorm while my parents decide I belong in the boring study dorm. At the end of term, my grades are shit but Matt has developed a lush, flowing mullet, thick and vibrant and bursting with life.

Letís end with the modern age: My coworker in the cube plays her radio softly every day. She really likes the radio. As for me, Iíve felt funny about The Smiths ever since I heard "How Soon Is Now" on an automobile commercial. I canít remember what brand of car it was, but it was silver and kind of sliding through a big puddle.

Sometimes I listen to Elvis Costello. He still sounds angry. Maybe itís because heís ballooned up to the size of a baby whale. My cubemateís radio station never plays Elvis Costello or The Clash.

My cubemate sometimes brings me a bagel in the morning, sometimes picks up my pages at the printer down the hall and drops them off at my desk, saving me a trip. I watch her swaying in her desk chair as she edits copy, humming along with the radio. She taps her feet. She looks like sheís dancing. In spite of the bagels, I find I cannot forgive her for liking the Dave Matthews Band. The chair creaks over and over again, but she doesnít hear it, I guess, because she is so lost in her happy world of fun.

"I love my music," she confides. "I must have my music." I say I love silence, also am rekindling my childhood fascination with easy listening.

The Dave Matthews Band is her very favorite group, she says, but sheís hungry and sheís supposed to meet her "pals" downstairs. She likes to eat cheeseburgers in the staff cafeteria with the rest of the zombies. "Itís just like school!" she says. At my desk, I stare at the monitor, resting my forehead against the heel of my hand, feel the familiar throb in my left eyebrow begin. Sheís gone and the radio is still on and Iím the only one left in the wing. She is right. It is just like school. I pick up The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th edition. Itís thick and heavy. I walk over to her radio on the other side of the cube and raise the book above my head. But then I lower it; it is heavy enough to smash the offending object, it is not heavy enough to be my quietus.


Leslie Stella is the author of Fat Bald Jeff (Grove Press, 2001) and The Easy Hour (Three Rivers Press, 2003) and was a founding editor of the Chicago 'zine Lumpen. She can be reached through her web site (www.lesliestella.com).

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