Night air during July is able to embrace the bare skin of legs that have been left vulnerable by the shorts, shorts that only cover what was already hidden beneath an oversized sweatshirt, in a way more soothing than breezes delivered in sunlight. The relieving chill of the night time had become my reward for venturing out into the real world for the first time all day during the global lockdown; it replaced the feeling of affectionate bodies pressed together with the non-pressure of darkness. Holding my breath, I eased the screen door back into its resting place before stepping off the concrete stoop to sit on the deck only a few feet away and breathe without fear of disturbing the peaceful, sleeping family inside.
When the sun sinks below the horizon, shadows invade the earth, bringing with them a pacifier for those of us who can’t shake the incessant nagging of the perfectly haphazard tangle of neurons that constitutes our entire being. Over the years, I had turned to the shadows rather than my parents, letting the amorphous, cool darkness toss itself over my shoulders like a blanket, replacing the comfort of a body against my own. It is only when I am swaddled by nothingness that thoughts suppressed by sunlight start to seep out of me. Although my emotions are always at the forfront of my mind, at night, inescapable vulnerability invades the mind just as silence invades the suburbs after eleven p.m.. When the farmer’s day is done, he can sit on the couch where his wife used to sit before tending the crops the next morning. Nothing else can be completed.
I situated myself upon the deck that people that had come before me sat; it shared the same relieving chill that July air brought. As usual, my feet (donned in the Nikes I sported for over two years), rested on the step closest to the concrete and my elbows sat comfortably on the step behind me. It was the closest I could come to lying flat on my back and stare at the sky in the backyard of my childhood home, fidgeting with my fingers or biting the inside of my cheek as the stars gradually exposed themselves to me. The frogs in a man-made pond my father did everything in his power to prevent from being built chirped just beyond the willow tree my mom planted (all thanks to the pond), only being silenced by the familiar rumbling of airplanes up above. But in the urban suburbs, this was the closest I could get. I craned my neck to peek at the sky, only seeing a few glimmers beneath the cloak of light pollution. It wasn’t until a car blew past the stop sign at the end of my street that my insides started to slip through my cracks.
A brief interlude to provide a crash-course in mood disorders: when they’re first diagnosed, all you can do is cry. Crying becomes the default reaction to everything — there is so much floating around internally that anything (no matter how trivial or mundane) triggers the opening of the floodgates. After diagnosis, though, is a different story. Producing tears becomes impossible; something about 150mg of SSRIs permanently dries the well. So, after six years of being medicated (and unmedicated, then medicated again), my tear ducts were in dismal shape. That never prevented me from trying to pry open the gates, especially while weighed down by an abundance of salty sadness trapped behind my eyes. Music has always been a catalyst for cathartic crying for me, but instead of hitting shuffle on the playlist I designed for this very occasion, I opted for Phoebe Bridger’s newly-released sophomore album, Punisher.
Phoebe, at that point in my life, was a relatively-familiar face inside my Spotify library. In high school, I would gravitate towards her most popular tracks, namely “Killer,” “Motion Sickness,” and “Smoke Signals,” all of which typified the feeling of crying in your high school parking lot with your forehead resting on the rubbery plastic of a steering wheel. I had indulged in the two singles associated with Punisher, but each of them deviated from the typical Phoebe Bridgers sound, so I was anxious to see what the album had in store.
As early as the third track, I knew I had found an album carrying a story that would resonate with me. Words, to me, have always been more meaningful than images. Words hold every piece of information we could ever need, the only job we have is to figure out what order to put them in. The infinite possibilities calm me; any narrative can be told as long as you’re willing to find the right words. I also had recently discovered my aphantasia — an inability to conjure clear mental images that sounds and words inspire. This discouraged me for a while; I felt that I was missing out on an essential piece of the human experience. It was the beauty of words that made me appreciate my deficiency: if planted and nurtured correctly, they could bloom into a story that didn’t need images to supplement it. Phonetic representations of concepts would more than suffice.
With my eyes towards the sky, I let Phoebe’s ethereal and transient voice occupy all of my mind, immersing myself in the delicate melodies. When the seventh track, “Moon Song,” came on, all I had to hear was the first strum of the guitar before I sat up, intrigued.
“So I will wait for the next time you want me / like a dog with a bird at your door,”
Bridgers sang with dejected acceptance, pleading with the lover she’s drowning in to lift her from the depths. Though I had never been in love, as I sat and stared at the cement tears slowly fell down my cheeks, eventually picking up the pace until subdued sobbing filled the air. Her words managed to tangle her narrative with my own. Our situations could not be more different, but somehow, the depth that emotions brought on by trauma, the ones that sit in the stomach of the soul, was shared between us in that moment. Between the heaves of my chest, for just a moment, hope shone on, for I was not the only one collapsing under the weight of myself.
With a worn-down Vera Bradley lanyard attached to my car keys around my neck, I leaned over the blue shopping cart I was pushing idly down the bread aisle. Every few moments I would pause and scan the shelves, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything that my sister needed for the week. I would get home to an empty house, put away the groceries with only the kitchen light illuminated, and spend the remaining hours alone watching a TV show. Although I was entirely alone, I still made sure my door was shut, the marks of pencil periodically etched up the doorway hidden by the door jam. This typified my high-school experience — a life dominated by the aforementioned mood disorder, completely abandoned by my father.
Back in reality, I settled back in to watch the night sky motion picture unfold and continued to let Phoebe serenade me — I let her sing my truths that weren’t my own. Her voice, ethereal and transient, still managed to cut into me and seep into my blood, sharpening the delicate sound with her lyrics. I melted away from my body, and she joined me in a puddle at my feet.
The amalgamation of me and Phoebe was slowly spreading on the concrete. The entities remained separate — like oil and water they could not combine — but with the tip of my shoe I was able to lightly drag myself towards Phoebe’s melodic words, drawing my soul into small droplets that lingered in her space where I could not dissolve. Simultaneously, translucent wisps of moisture were leaving small trails behind them to stain the night canvas, mirroring the scuffed sole of my shoe. The world would not forget that we were there.
I watched clouds paint as Spotify automatically looped back to the beginning of Punisher, and with nothing better to do ( the suburbs at night is already a dry social scene, let alone during a global lockdown), I let myself indulge in Phoebe’s intoxicatingly soothing voice once more. I had primed my brain with the first listen-through; I was ready to twist and turn her words to fit into my narrative’s mold. Instead, the song that glued itself to me was the one I had already loved before: “Garden Song.”
The opening rhythm invokes Mother Goose tropes, providing a subtle background that continues to loop behind the fairytale-esque story Phoebe delves into.
“Someday I’m gonna live / in your house up on the hill / and when your skinhead neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard…”
These lyrics specifically stuck out to me, filling me with inexplicable warmth as the brisk summer air lapped at my bare legs. I ran a single finger over the tip of my tongue as I intensely searched for the reason why these words in particular rang through my bones like a gong. It took time, but eventually, when I lifted my finger, a thin strand of reasoning came with it. I furiously yanked at it, sorting through memories to thicken the fragile connection. Holding only the thread in my hand, I went back inside to my makeshift basement bedroom to pour over the opening lyrics before drifting to sleep. I got nowhere that night, but after I awoke, I looked to see if the string tied to the tip of my tongue led anywhere. It took me back to my childhood home.
It hardly feels like a home when I look back at it now, but months before it was yanked out from under me, it held the only memories from the portion of the human life I could remember that were untainted by the perception of reality. When I was sent home from college on behalf of a global pandemic, I was still desperately clinging to the memories of naivety. Even as I would lay on my side and stare at the wall until my own weight became too strenuous for the hipbone sinking into the mattress in the basement, I was comforted by reminders of innocence. and then I would face the other wall. My sister and I were treading lightly around each other, fearful of returning to our fierce bickering habit from my high-school days. I was trapped in a liminal space between time and existence, but neither were moving forward.
It didn’t take long for the tensions between my father and I came to a head — he was frustrated with my presence, and I was resentful over years of neglect. I don’t remember specifics, but I remember the fear that washed over me as I saw my father step towards me on the stairwell. I don’t recall what specific words were hurled at me like cannonballs, but I do know that the linoleum was cool against my face hot with tears.
“They’re gluing roses on a flatbed / you should see it, I mean thousands / and I grew up h here, ‘till it all went up in flames / except the notches in the doorframe.”
I never imagined that I would become so attached to a building, especially one I yearned to escape from so frequently, but after I had gathered my essentials from tupperware storage containers thrown into the garage (plus anything a nineteen year old can fit in an apartment without a kitchen counter), it hit me that would never be returning. The pine tree that would engulf the basketballs I used to hurl at a hoop that was twice my height would never shed needles that embedded themselves in the sole of my shoe again; the spare key that hung on a nail shared by a robin’s nest would be taken down.
I saw flashes of my life that I would forever be tainted with the scent of the house, like my mom tearing apart the front lawn to plant hundreds of flowers every spring. I saw the tree that was planted the same year I started kindergarten and watched it grow with me year by year. I saw the moment in my kitchen seconds before I had my first kiss and felt my heart pounding irrationally fast for what would turn out to be such a mediocre guy. I saw the corner of my bedroom that had just been painted grey where I sat and held my knees to my chest waiting for it all to feel easier. I saw the linoleum that cradled me before I permanently departed. When an airplane flies overhead I don’t hear it; I’m used to it by now.
At this revelation, I finally found where the string on the tip of my tongue was leading me.
During a period of my life that was reminiscent of my adolescence, Phoebe was there to tell me that it was simply a part of life. The roses, glued or unglued, infiltrated people’s hopes; they just want to find a cozy, quaint home to settle down in, with ample room to fill with blossoms. But the skeletons in our closets always slip out of hiding. They tumble out into the open, and the sunlight soaks the bleached bones but refuses to disintegrate them. What is difficult to realize, is that without bones beneath the soil, thousands of roses would never get the chance to grow. Even the wrath of flames cannot erase the strongest memories — the true notches in door frames always manage to cement themselves inside the mind, as a reminder for why our skeletons are worth it. There are more notches to be scratched.
This meta-psychological revelation, however enlightening and melodic, did not buy back the house. Phoebe had more truths to tell, though, and parting the smoke of the ruins, Phoebe took my vulnerable bag of skin and bones in her gentle arms, and hummed sweet nothings until I could turn away from the fiery mess of reality.
Phoebe proceeded to show me the problems that arise when you believe you have everything you could possibly hope for at the ripe young age of seventeen. Life, and its relentless slew of inconveniences, never stops beating against your sandy shores. I had meticulously planned my independent adult life as a teenager, and as soon as I set foot out of the nest, they collapsed in impossibility. I was no architect, except maybe of my own destruction at times, yet I had to rebuild what I called my home; my family; my life; but the foundation felt like quicksand. No matter what I tried, the sand ate my feeble attempts at structure. The allegory Phoebe was showing me, filled with turmoil but watered down with comforting appreciation for life itself, like she eventually discovered, gave me a ground to stand on. The stark contrast between sorrow and hope slowly faded towards the end of the song, clearing my head and filling in the sandhole.
Even after I had ceased my incessant listening that chilly July evening, the final verse continued to ring through my mind, like a meditative mantra I could have never written but wish I had.
“I don’t know how, but I’m taller / there must be something in the water / everything’s growing in our garden / you don’t have to know that it’s haunted / the doctor put her hands over my liver, she told me my resentment’s getting smaller / no I’m not afraid of hard work / I get everything I want / I have everything I wanted”
Although the story Phoebe told in “Garden Song” was her own, abundant with specific references to events in her life, her storytelling provided me with the parts and pieces to set my head straight during one of the most tumultuous periods in my life. Her story was filled with haunted gardens, but she still managed to shrink her resentment — for her past, her present, her future — and get what she wanted, reminding me of the ever-changing definition of what it is one wants.
She was right that I didn’t know how I got taller — I had no idea how the young girl with bleach-blonde curly hair who got compared to Shirley Temple in public restrooms by every elderly woman grew to be the woman I was. Eyebags took up a vast majority of my face, and my hair was longer, had more split ends, and was saturated with CVS box bleach so I could still maintain my childhood pride of being a blonde. I was not at all who I thought I would be when I looked in the mirror, but when I looked at my reflection, I could swear that little girl was still inside me somewhere, even if she had been stomped on by the exhausted adult I had become. She was still there, though, she could one day rise to the surface to erase my hollow eyes. I just had to build a home for her.