by Sasha Geffen
Editor’s Note: The following is a work of fiction.
There was a swing set by the gym that no one ever used, and it was where Jen would go when she had time to kill after classes. Hidden in an alcove of pines, she would sit on the cracked rubber, put her headphones over her ears, grip the chains, and listen to both sides of a cassette tape with the Walkman that had been passed down to her by her brother.
Her first tape was the Led Zeppelin one with the weird symbols etched across the front. She had borrowed it from her brother and never given it back, and when last period had ended, she would walk to the side of the gym and press the play button on the plastic silver box. Hey hey mama said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.
She liked the way the guitar would clack against the pound of the drums, the way the bass glued them both together. She liked the way the singer screamed.
When Jen had a little money from watching the neighbors’ kid, she would buy tapes from the record store in town. The music played loud and hard over the speakers there, and boys in jean jackets and dirty sneakers flipped through albums for hours. Sometimes there would be grainy photocopied magazines for sale by the counter.
It was September, and her brother would graduate high school in June. Jen went to the middle school, whose classes let out earlier in the day. She had an hour and a half between the end of class and the time when the bus would arrive to take her and her brother home. Jen’s brother, Trey, would come out of the high school laughing with his senior friends. He’d nod to Jen, and then she’d follow him onto the bus.
Jen had never been to a rock show. She saw pictures of them in Rolling Stone, bands drenched in sweat and their screaming, filthy-haired fans. She looked at the spiked-up hair of Green Day’s lead singer and thought about her own hair, lank and dark and too long. She panned through pictures of bands staring defiantly into the photographer’s lens. When it got cold again, she started wearing an old sweatshirt under a gray canvas jacket she stole from her brother’s closet. Now that he had his varsity jacket, it wasn’t anything he’d miss.
The man who worked the counter at the record store on weekends told Jen she should hear Pixies, so she bought Pixies. He told her she should hear Pavement, so she scraped together for a used copy of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. He didn’t know her name, but he let her keep her bike in the store and kept an eye on it, so it wouldn’t get stolen.
Jen took one tape to school at a time, already rewound and stashed in her Walkman, which she kept in an inner zippered pocket in her backpack. In class, she drew the cover of Surfer Rosa from memory on a blank page at the back of her notebook. When she was finished, she scribbled over the drawing with black pen and then ripped out the page and threw it in the trash on her way to English, just in case.
“What is this?” Jen asked the man at the counter on a Saturday. It was warm outside, but she still wore her sweatshirt with the hood up under her jacket, the sleeves pulled long over her hands. The music that had just started to play over the speakers in the store sounded like rock music twisted into something fake, like the drums weren’t really being played by a drummer. Weird radio noise flickered in and out of it. It sounded new.
It was Beck, the clerk said, his new album. He pointed to an issue of SPIN magazine with Beck’s name on the cover. Gene Simmons leered from behind his makeup in the cover photo.
Jen picked up the mag and went to a corner to read. The magazine called Beck a “boy wonder.” He looked out from a pastel purple background, his eyes flashing blue from the page. She skimmed the article and flipped through the rest of the issue. Her fingers caught on a full-page photo of three girls. The one on the left stared straight into the camera, her finger pointing up at Jen.
“Laugh, Riot,” the headline said. Below it: “Get set for Sleater-Kinney — riot grrrls who’ve rediscovered the pleasure principle.”
Jen looked down at the woman’s dark brown eyes. She wore big, black boots and a bright, red jacket. Next to her, a girl in a leopard-print coat also looked at the camera. The girl on the right could have been a boy, her hair clipped short, her clothes baggy.
Crouching down to sit on the floor, Jen read the small, white print layered over the photo. The girl on the left was named Carrie, and the girl in the middle was Corin. They were 21 and 23, they both played guitar, and they both sang. They had just put out an album called Call the Doctor. And then Jen’s eyes snagged on a sentence.
“Tucker’s ex-lover (from when the two began co-writing in 1994), Brownstein covers the singer’s flank as she explores new sides of herself.”
Jen’s eyes flickered back to the photo. Both girls stared so confidently from the page. Both stood like they knew where they were going.
“Do you have this?” Jen asked the man at the counter, pointing to the page. He smiled. He didn’t, but he could call it in. He could probably get it by next week. She nodded, put the magazine back on the rack, grabbed her bike, and left.
That night Jen babysat while the neighbors were out, and the next day she got her money in an envelope dropped through the mail slot. Once she scraped up some quarters from her parents’ parking meter dish, she had enough for a new tape. She listened to Surfer Rosa every day after school. She waited for Saturday.
When it was Saturday, Jen biked through a drizzle to the record store. Her backpack hung damp from her shoulders. He had it. Her hands were cold, and she dropped two quarters as she paid, which spun around on the ground and slithered into a crack between the bottom of the counter and the floor. The man behind the counter smiled and shrugged it off. It was hers.
Jen biked home and lugged her backpack upstairs and forgot to take her shoes off and had to wipe the mud off the hardwood, and no, she hadn’t been anywhere — just the bookstore just to read magazines just to put them back when she was done it was fine. She’d be in her room, headphones on, please don’t bother her.
She took the tape out of its paper back and picked at one corner of the plastic wrapping until the whole thing tore off. She spread the paper insert out on her bed and snapped the tape into its player, and since it was brand-new and already wound up the right way, she could just press play on the A side. She did.
Two guitars flashed into her ears. A set of drums quivered behind them. They want to socialize you. They want to purify you.
They want to dignify and analyze and terrorize you.
I’m your monster. I’m not like you.
All your life is written for you.
They want to simplify your needs and likes to sterilize you.
There were two voices, and both came from women. Both screamed and shook, spittle flinging off their words over the tape hiss. I’m your monster, they sang. I’m just like you, they sang. They were women, and ex-lovers — ex-lovers! — who sang to each other.
Jen leaned back on her bed, the foam of her headphones bristling at her ears, her clothes still wet, the last of the day’s light slipping gently from the rain-splattered window.