10: February 2016 #16 - The Year of Our Inferno

Authored by Jessie Lynn McMains

The Year of Our Inferno

by Jessie Lynn McMains

In the year of our inferno, heart attack two thousand and four, you will drop out of art school. You will trade the classroom for your freedom, a stable place to live for friends’ couches and strangers’ beds and the backseat of your car. You will be be broker than you’ve ever been before, mostly unemployed, but sometimes cobbling together money spinning punk rock records and writing for magazines, playing music on street corners, or modeling nude. You’ll learn that as long as you have enough cash for a cup of coffee, a loaf of bread, and an el ride, you’ll survive.
There will be times when you think you won’t survive. When your heart is breaking for the hundredth time. When your vindictive roommate says she’ll kick you out because she thinks your girlfriend stole one of her candles. When you have to spend the last of your savings on an abortion. When you haven’t had a drop of booze in twenty-four hours and you feel like you’re going insane. You’ll think you won’t survive. But you will.
You’ll spend a large portion of your time drunk or high. You’ll eat pot muffins and dance in thunderstorms in your underwear. You’ll smoke opium and everything will turn blue, shadowy, distant, like you’re watching yourself in an art film. You’ll learn that pills make your blood feel toxic, that coffee mixed with vodka is not a good hangover cure, that tacos taste better when it’s 3 a.m. and you’re shitfaced. You’ll drink so much you’ll forget ripping the toilet seat off while vomiting, but not enough to forget anything else.
You won’t forget anything. Not the days spent riding your bike down Belmont Ave., heading east all the way to the lake or cutting north to wander around Graceland Cemetery. Not the nights drinking rum in that train yard in Pilsen, talking about your broken heart, watching the smokestacks of a nearby factory create clouds that float out toward the lake; not the nights drinking whiskey in the abandoned bridge house, singing songs about hell and sailors, while your friends make queer porn in another room. Not the days spent at the Art Institute, meditating in the Zen Room, falling in love with boys captured forever young and reckless in French photographs from the 1930s, standing for hours in front of “Nighthawks” and feeling that glaring loneliness, knowing the way the navy blue of darkened windows smells like car fumes and sewer smoke. Not the nights spent on rooftops, shivering in the spring-damp and realizing you can see the stars through the orange glare of a Chicago night sky. Not the spot under the bridge by the Chicago River where you’ll spray paint lines from vintage horror films, or the time those drunk guys sang an off key rendition of “Under the Bridge” below your bedroom window.
You’ll build altars for the dead and the living, light candles to your own dark gods. You’ll pray to the curves of a girl’s lips and the backbones of a boy. You’ll read the tarot and talk to ghosts and fly around on the astral plane and feel like a hippie because of it. You’re not a hippie, you’re just a talented witch.
Sometimes, on those nights when your heart is shattering like the glass that hides in the weeds by the railroad tracks, on those nights when you think you won’t survive it, you’ll turn back to the Catholicism of your childhood. You’ll confess all your sins to the ceiling, say Hail Marys to your pillow, burn yourself with candlewax and cross yourself over and over, asking what you’re being punished for. You are not being punished. No matter what sins you think are unforgivable, remember: this year is not a punishment.
You will give up logic for Lent. You will learn that there is an eternal war between your emotions and your thoughts and this year you’ll let emotion win, you’ll open yourself to every feeling, every love, you’ll be so vulnerable that it will feel like your skin is being flayed off. It will hurt, it will hurt like hell, but it will be beautiful.
You’ll learn so much, this year. You’ll learn that you have a weakness for shitty decisions and an attraction to danger. You’ll learn that when you feel so on fire that you need to do something to douse the flames - make art, fuck a stranger, or hurt yourself - making art is almost always the best choice. You’ll learn to burn bridges, and get good at it; you’ll learn that no matter how many times you run away from the circus, there’s always another one to join. You’ll learn that when you play a Dresden Dolls song for a friend, and they ask if the person singing is you, the correct response is: “No, but it might as well be.” You’ll learn that you’re an Irish pirate, and that’s the best kind.
You won’t travel by boat. You will travel by car and train across the midwest and mid-Atlantic, leaving a trail of broken bottles, hearts, and cameras in your wake. In Milwaukee, you’ll kiss a girl who’s all whiskey and myth, you’ll fall for her so sudden and complete and perfect and you’ll never see her again. In Iowa, you’ll feel like a cowboy, wandering around surly in the heat, drinking cheap tallboys to cool off. In Cincinnati, the husks of cicadas will crunch under your feet while your bones are crushed under the weight of unrequited love. You’ll get stoned with a lesbian junkie raver in Pittsburgh, sleep in your car in a field in Maryland. You’ll spend Bloomsday in Philadelphia, alternately wandering the aisles of the library and smoking cigars on park benches while watching cute girls cycle past. In Pittsburgh, again, you’ll get pregnant in a seedy motel room.
In Burlington, Iowa, you’ll buy Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan records, and years later, you’ll still cry when you listen to Blood on the Tracks and New Skin for the Old Ceremony because they will sound like autumn, they will sound like loneliness, they will sound like everything you’ve lost. In Door County, you’ll drink smuggled rum. On a train to Michigan, when it stops on the tracks for two hours just outside Hammond, Indiana, you’ll smoke cigarettes in a corridor between cars and not even care that you might get caught.
You’ll fall in love with the desolate places, the 2 a.m. parking lots and the sad cafes. You’ll fall in love with boys you saw once at a diner, girls who taught you how to dance to Elvis.
You will have regrets, but they mostly aren’t the ones you think you’ll have. You won’t regret cutting your hair into a mohawk or shaving it off into a Chelsea; no matter how silly it looks, it will always grow back. You won’t regret your petty thievery, or the nights spent throwing bottles off rooftops, or driving cross-country in a car with a suspended license plate. You won’t regret the endless hours spent hunched over your notebook, typewriter, laptop, writing rotten poetry and zines about your road trips and love affairs and novels that no one will ever read. You won’t regret spending the money for the gas bill on fancy lingerie and tarot cards and nights out at bars. You won’t regret the nights spent huddled on your bed, watching art films with your friends, staining the sheets with wine and cigarette ash; or the winter nights in your cold water flat spent drinking gin, pining for far-away lovers, singing songs from Cabaret.
You won’t regret all the sex you had with people you didn’t love, or the sorrow you felt over people you did; won’t even regret the nervous breakdown you’ll have in a church on Christmas Eve because you fucked three different boys over the course of three days and you don’t smell like yourself anymore. You won’t regret the abortion, though you will regret ending up in that situation. You won’t regret the little lies you told other people, but you will regret the big ones you told yourself. You will regret going north to see the dancing skeleton rather than going east to see the circus bear, but by the time you realize that, it will be too late, and that’s something you’ll carry forever.
By the time you reach your birthday - which is also New Year’s Eve - you’ll be so tired that you’ll decide you don’t want that kind of life anymore. You’ll say: “Next year is the year I’m gonna grow up and settle down.” You’ll say: “Fuck this year, I’m glad it’s over.”
I wish I could go back in time and give you some advice, some warnings, but even if I could you wouldn’t listen. I know you’re tired. I know this year cracked you open and spilled your guts across the country, left bits of you splattered in bars and coffeeshops and alongside highways. But you’re not ready to grow up or settle down, not just yet. You’ll grow up one day, settle down somewhat (though some facts about you will remain immutable - you’ll always long for new lovers and new horizons, and you’ll never be good at holding down a nine-to-five) - but the path to that will be much longer and stranger than you can even imagine.
And don’t wish this year away. You can’t erase it anyway, but more than that - one day you’ll want it all back. You’ll want it back and you’ll look around and see how much of it is gone. The things: the bicycle forfeited to the gods of rust, the accordion you used to play in front of Rain Dogs, the red dress you left behind in Pittsburgh, the cursed mix tape you left on the train (which was never cursed, that was your half-assed stoner mysticism talking). Even your shamrock tattoo will fade away.
Your lovers: the high femme with the wide hips and big heart (she always knew your time together was fleeting, you just refused to believe it), the sad reckless boy who miraculously forgave you after you threatened to throw him out a window, the lonely punk rock girl who promised you’d always be friends, the circus bear, the dancing skeleton. Even the charming dastard from New York will one day be out of your life. Even the beautiful alcoholic with the gentle, calloused hands (tell him how you feel, now, oh if I could make you listen to any of this it would be that).
Your friends: the queer anarcho-punx, the Rat Patrol, the suburban boys and the bridge house boys. Even your friends at the art school. Even your (mostly) platonic life-partner-in-crime - I know you don’t think it’s possible to lose her, but you will, you will.
The places: the Fireside Bowl will stop having all-ages shows, the diners will stop being open 24 hours, your favorite Irish punk rock bar will turn into a bro bar, the punk house you lived in will be condemned. They’ll build condos in the Punkin’ Donuts parking lot. Chicago, as you knew it, will be gone, turned into a haunted town.
One day, you’ll think of this year and of everything you’ve lost. You’ll hold tight to the things that are left: the pixelated photographs taken on a crappy cellphone, the switchblade that shitty dude left under your bed, your anchor tattoo, your scars (they give you texture). And the memories. You will share them over and over, in essays and songs and poems. This year will become your greatest story.
I know you’re tired. And I know, right now, you’re thinking about this past year, every bottle of whiskey and every lover, and wondering if you did it right. I’m here to tell you that you absolutely fucking did.