Well, there are those who would say it’s a form of aggression.
– David Mamet, Oleander
Stansted Airport, London, England – Present Day
“Could you identify any of the people you saw in the tunnel that night?” asked Abby.
“No. Not at the time. I’m tired,” said Joe, “Maybe the Bureau can spring for a nice hotel for the night, and we can pick this up tomorrow.”
“Or … or, and hear me out before you answer,” parried Abby, matching Joe’s level of sarcasm, and dropping her voice to a whisper, “instead of a nice hotel, I check you into a cozy CIA black-ops site and waterboard you until you realize how good you have it right now, and beg me to bring you back here.” She smiled in a way that made Joe wonder if she was only ninety-percent joking. She was good at making him feel comfortable enough to engage, but reminding him of his place beneath her in their adversarial power dynamic. She was reeling him back in by mirroring his tone.
“Hey, don’t threaten me with a good time,” countered Joe dryly.
“I’m glad you can crack jokes after describing a man having his ear removed with a razor blade right in front of you,” scolded Abby.
“What can I say?” quipped Joe. “I’m famously sharp-witted.”
“I see what you did there,” said Abby, not smiling. “Let’s keep going. I want to know what happened next.”
Providence, Rhode Island, USA – 1997
I woke up the next day questioning the veracity of what I thought I saw. Memory has a way of rejecting what it has no framework for. Then it sort of fills in the unacceptable bits using patterns with which it is familiar. An exhausting push and pull develops between uncertainty and obstinacy. Usually, the winner of that tug of war is whatever you want to be true. In this case, I did not want Lili to be associated with violent sociopaths who sliced off the ears of their captives, so I chose to believe that I was tired and spooked and stoned last night, and I must be mistaken in my recall making that connection.
Around one-o-clock in the afternoon, I found enough courage to dial the number committed to memory from the lipstick scrawled on my guitar last night. The primitive digital robot voice of an answering machine confirmed the phone number was correct, and beeped.
“This message is for Lili. Hi, it’s Joey. You know, Joe Below, from the band last night. Um … Below Me? We should probably reconsider that name for answering machine messages. It sounds … well … suggestive. Um … yeah, okay. So, gimme a call back if you feel like it. ‘Kay bye.”
A few minutes later, while I was still marveling at the awkward stupidity of the message I left, the phone rang. “Hi Joey,” said a girl’s voice, “It’s Lili …”
We made brief small talk, and she asked me if I wanted to meet her on Thayer Street and hold her hand while she got her navel pierced. I immediately agreed to the unorthodox first date and, approximately one hour later, we were ascending the narrow staircase of a skate and snowboard shop called Luna Sea.
She wore a sky blue, cropped sweater with gray, parachute cargo pants. Her rainbow hair was pulled back in a messy bun, and her eyes were covered by round, wire-rimmed mirror shades. Around her neck was a black, lace choker with a silver, dragonfly pendant. Her ears were pierced at least half-a-dozen times each. She smelled like moonflowers. I was intoxicated by her presence.
Luna Sea was on the second floor of one of the last remaining older buildings on Thayer Street. The historic structures on Thayer had a bad habit of burning down. The store had hardwood floors haphazardly scattered with racks of skateboarding and snowboarding apparel. On the walls were skateboards, snowboards, and footwear. In one corner of the shop, behind the counter with the cash register, was a small curtained-off room. Behind the register, with his feet on the counter, sporting an unruly mass of curly brown hair, and absent mindedly flipping through a copy of Thrasher, was a guy tipped precariously on a wooden stool. As we approached, he looked up and flashed a smile at Lili.
“Hey Li’l D,” he asked, “You finally going to start skating? I’ll build you a sweet deck. What do you say?”
“All you guys do is make videos of each other slipping off railings and smashing your balls,” replied Lili.
“Yeah, nugget-busters are the best parts of the videos. That’s why people watch them,” replied the kid dryly, closing the magazine.
“Trip, I don’t have any nuggets to bust. So, I guess there’s no point.”
“Baby, you got more nuggets than anyone I know.” Trip replied.
Lili shot him a withering look that nearly toppled him from his stool and, as his sly smile broke into a wide-eyed look of apology she said icily, “Don’t call me baby. I’m not your baby, Trip.” Then, immediately, she turned to me, smiling, and changed the subject. “Joey, this is Trip. He sells skateboards and likes to crush his nuts on camera. Trip, meet Joey. He’s the singer and guitarist for Below Me.” At this, Trip raised his eyebrows and acknowledged me for the first time.
“No shit? You’re the guy from Below Me? Damn, bro, we play your music in here all the time. Good to meet you.”
I was puzzled at this. “Nice to meet you, Trip. How do you play our music in here? We haven’t recorded any of it.”
“No, maybe not. But you got Miked.”
“Huh?” I asked, making a surprised chuff, like a dog dreaming. “We’re always on microphones, but they’re not recording.”
“Not microphoned,” grinned Trip. “Miked. My boy, Big Mike, got you on a tape recorder he brought with him and put near the stage. He went to a few of your shows and put a mix tape together for us. Hey, man, I hope you’re not mad. We’re not selling them or anything. We just like your stuff.”
I shrugged, flattered.
“Anyway,” Trip continued, turning back once more to Lili. “If you’re not here for skate gear, what can I help you with, Li’l D? You piercing something?”
“Uh huh,” she affirmed.
“Supercool. Del’s in the back.”
Del? I thought. Was this the same Del who ground a frat boy into hamburger less than twenty-four hours ago? Pulling aside the curtain revealed it was, in fact, the same Del.
“Hi Del,” cooed Lili. “Want to jab a needle through my belly button?”
Close up, in the light of day, Del looked remarkably average. With short-cropped, brown hair, brown eyes, fit build, and medium height, his only distinguishing characteristics were the large-gauge piercings through his lobes, and the tattoos visible on his forearms, and crawling up his neck. He gave a tired, closed-lipped smile to Lili and said, “Sure, Li’l D. I can do that.” Then, turning to me, he said, “Hey, I want to apologize for losing my temper and ruining your show last night. Li’l D’s like my little sister, and when I see some rich prick running his filthy hands all over her, I kind of go from Jekyll to Hyde. But that’s no excuse for shutting down the whole place with my behavior. Are we cool?”
The sincerity of his unsolicited apology, and the gentleness with which he spoke disarmed me. And, when he offered his hand, I shook it without hesitating. “Yeah,” I said, “We’re cool.” Yet, as I shook his outstretched hand, I could not help but notice the bruises and cuts across his knuckles, no doubt matching the imprints left on the face of the kid in the Beaver hat.
“I’m glad. I … we dig your music, and I’d feel bad if I couldn’t see you play live again.” Del leaned in toward me. “One more thing … we’re not going to have a problem with law enforcement, are we?”
“No,” I replied, with a short, stifled laugh. “Definitely not.”
“Excellent,” he said with a sigh of relief. “Li’l D said you were cool, right, Li’l?” Lili looked at me, and I thought I perceived the slightest hint of a blush to her high cheekbones.
“Can we get me pierced please?” she said, again changing the subject. “I’m not getting any braver.”
So, I held her hand while she lay back on the table and Del ran a long, sterile, piercing needle through the flesh just above her belly button. Although she had made a show of wanting me to be there for her, and about how her courage was waning as Del and I made friends, when the needle entered her skin and emerged on the other side, she watched unflinchingly, and made no sound.
The following few weeks played like a movie montage, as I fell giddily and stupidly in love with Lili. Her friends, Del, Trip, Mike, and Diane, became regulars at the Downward Spiral, and ingratiated themselves to James, Dennis, and Jenny. Even business-minded Mona, never one to give away drinks on the house, happily comped rounds to the foursome, even when they insisted on paying. A contributing factor to the dreamlike quality of these weeks that cannot be ignored was Lili’s bottomless supply of premium quality hallucinogens. She discouraged me from asking too many questions, but I gathered that she distributed to Del, Trip, Mike, Diane, and a few other trusted friends, who sold the controlled psychotropics at street level. She got her supply from someone about whom the group spoke reverently, and whom they called “the DJ,” “Mr. T,” or, “Tally.” The members of Below Me didn’t want to know too much because Lili handed out acid, mushrooms, ecstasy, Ketamine, and even peyote, like it was candy, and every day was Halloween.
Everyone is familiar with the Yoko effect, in which the romantic partner of a critical band member contaminates the group’s chemistry by constantly being a presence and influence. Lili had the opposite effect. Instead, she and her crew showed up one afternoon in a U-Haul filled with recording equipment. James, Mona, and Mike (who had surreptitiously recorded us live weeks before), set up the first-floor art space as a recording studio. That, and Lili’s pharmacological grab bag, was the catalyst of our album: “A Bubble.” Del knew Tasha Odom, the new Director of Music and Programming for the local alternative music radio station. The previous person who held that job, Brian Tuttle, had recently resigned to much public scrutiny. A typed note left on his desk said he could not handle the pressure of knowing he could no longer recognize good music, and was leaving to pursue his dream of sailing the Atlantic. I remember Lili saying, “He was a trust-fund bitch and only played what his country-club buddies told him they thought was cool. Good riddance!” Del and Diane took a copy of our album to Tasha, who had assumed control when Tuttle had abandoned his position. Bingo, we were on the radio.
Back then, most people discovered music via the radio. There were no digital subscription music streaming services recommending algorithm-based selections. There was FM radio in the car. CDs were replacing cassettes, but lacked the ease of duplication or mixes. And, of course, there was MTV. Those were the means of distribution and popularization of music in the nineties. Pirating music back then was waiting for a song you liked to play on the radio and slotting a blank cassette in a tape deck quickly enough to hit record. Napster would not launch for another two years; the iPod, not for another four. Radio rotation was to that era what going viral in Tik Tok is today. Thanks to Lili and her friends, Below Me went viral.
It was the middle of October. That time of year in Rhode Island is a marvel to behold. When the first frost knocks at the Ocean State’s front door, the weather shifts from arguably summer to undeniably fall, observed subtly by all the senses, and resulting in chilled-ocean waves of melancholy that wash away the warm sandcastles one spends a season building in the soul. The afternoon wind bites at the skin and rustles the drying leaves from the trees, sending their various hues of red and yellow dancing through the air in a vivid contrast against the sky, itself deepened from hazy cyan to clear cobalt. Even the smell changes from summer’s scent of sweat and hot asphalt to autumn’s miasma of mold and chimney smoke.
Lili spent most nights at my apartment, enjoying the relief of the cool, night air through open bedroom windows. Mornings, we would wake late, walk for coffee and conversation, and convene with Del, Mike, and Diane for supply chain distribution. Then, she would disappear for a few hours to connect with Mr. T to conduct business. I would return home, shower, change, and go to work at the bar, or prepare for a show. When the sun went down, Lili and her crew would trickle in. Then she would ask who in the band wanted a miracle that night. To the uninitiated, to be “miracled” is to be surprised with an unexpected dose of a hallucinogen. If you consented to a miracle, sometime over the course of the next hour or so, Lili would tell you to close your eyes and say “Ah.” Sometimes she would squeeze a small dropper on your tongue, other times she would place a pressed pill in your mouth and hand you a big glass of water. One time, she had a little, plastic squirt gun from which she aimed liquid LSD into our open mouths, lining us up like a firing squad.
Once, just after we agreed to be miracled, but before being officially spiked, Del hurried over to Lili and pulled her aside, delivering a sub rosa message. “Hey, guys,” said Lili, her eyes and smile widening, “the DJ is coming by tonight, and he wants to talk to you all about something. I guess I should probably tell you all who he is before you meet him because it impacts your answer to a question he wants to ask. James, I think this warrants a drumroll.” James ran over to his kit and obliged her call for dramatic tension.
“The DJ,” she announced, “is none other than DJ Tantalus.” There was a comical cymbal crash as the stick bounced out of James’ hand.
DJ Tantalus was a living legend. In the underground rave scene, Tantalus was considered by many to be the greatest electronic dance music DJ on the planet. But his identity remained a mystery, as he only ever performed incognito, spinning records while covering his face with a plague doctor mask. By 1997, the rave scene had been mostly co opted and commercialized. However, Tantalus upheld the original spirit of the underground party scene. His parties were not advertised. Instead, a series of clues led to the secret location. Tantalus encouraged those who found their way in, after solving a puzzle and delivering a password, to record the music and copy and share it freely. This was because he refused to sign with a label or to record in a studio. He did not sell records. He made music. He created an experience. He wrote his own myth.
I had never seen Lili act nervous. She was the least flappable human I ever met. However, when she said to the band members, “Look guys, remember, you’re going to meet him unmasked. But you can never, ever identify him to anyone else,” she was undeniably flapped. With a final, “Promise me, you guys,” followed by the mimed gesture of turning an invisible key in her pursed, panic-red lips, and throwing it away, she hurried up the stairs to the front door of the Downward Spiral, and returned with DJ Tantalus.
I recognized him immediately as the tall, shorn-headed man from the night of the fight on the dance floor. His eyes, I noticed, were even more captivating than I remembered as he approached warmly greeting us each with a handshake. Based on my memory of him from before, combined with my newfound knowledge of his celebrity status, I had expected him to be aloof and domineering. Yet, introducing himself to us as Tally, and gushing about our music, as if we were the real celebrities, I was completely disarmed by his affable charm. Tally was charismatic but not pandering. He was soft-spoken, but not shy. And, before I met him, I had never given much thought to the expression, “devastatingly handsome.” Tally, however, possessed the kind of looks that could cause cars to collide while drivers watched him cross the street, creating actual devastation.
Therefore, when he asked us if we would be his opening act at his annual Halloween party, without consulting one another, we all said yes. “That’s great news,” he said. “You’ll fit right in and be a great addition to the family. Lili will give you the details.” I noticed of all her friends, he was the only one who called her Lili and not Li’l D.
“Lili,” he said, turning his head to her, “have you shown these people a miracle tonight?”
“Not yet, Mr. T,” she replied.
“May I do the honors?” he asked.
“By all means Mr. T,” she beamed at him.
He reached inside his silver, leather bomber jacket and removed a small, brown, glass bottle. “This is called ‘Wall of Sound.’ My friend Bear gave it to me on my last trip to San Francisco. He’s pretty good at what he does, and I have a feeling you will appreciate it.” Then he told us to close our eyes and placed a few drops on each of our tongues. When he got to me, I heard him say, “Lili, this is the one who captured your heart? I see it. He’s special.”
When Tantalus left, halfway through our set, I did not see him depart. Rather, I felt a shift in the energy occupying the club. By that point, we had fallen so deeply into the music that we melded into the aura of the space, becoming one with the sound, and the space, and each other. The walls and the lights and the pulsing airwaves dissolved around me into fluid, crystalline patterns, distinguished from the living beings only by the visible, audible, throbbing heat of their beating hearts. Never had our music felt so good or sounded so pure. I wanted for nothing more than to be right there, in that moment, feeling the blood pumping in my veins, vibrating within our sonic waves, and laughing at the absurdity of how much I feel the pain of everyone, and then I feel nothing.
The weeks leading up to Halloween were the happiest time I can remember; maybe the last time I felt joy. Lili and I were the “it-couple” of the East Side: The B list rock star and Her Majesty, the Queen of Thayer Street. As the days grew shorter, we strolled afternoons to Pembroke Park and sat in the grass reading quietly to ourselves, or aloud to each other. Sometimes I would play my acoustic guitar and the unhoused folks who nested in the tall bushes lining the fence around the park would drift into our orbit to listen. They all seemed to know Lili, and engaged her in conversation which she relished.
She was intimidatingly well versed in religion, philosophy, art, and history. Not merely the foundational texts taught in introductory level courses, but also more specific and obscure readings. Where Lili was most brilliant and persuasive was discussing socio-political economic theory and philosophy. Her depth of knowledge of the writings of Weber, Marcuse, Keynes, and others, combined with her talent for explaining neo-Marxist views by quoting such Western cultural touchstones as the New Testament, Shakespeare, and Mr. Rogers, all in one pithy diatribe, was inspirational. Moreover, she was just as comfortable debating ivy league doctoral candidates as she was exploring the issues with the less fortunate members of society. The only difference I noticed was her level of patience.
I once asked her why, after witnessing her emotionally eviscerate with surgical precision a Brown University undergraduate who made the error of flirting with her by starting a discussion about the paperback copy of Keynes’ The End of Laissez Faire she happened to be reading. She was sitting on the corner steps of a novelty gift shop where the woolies congregated while waiting for rides. The boy didn’t even notice me on my perch a few steps behind, quietly fingerpicking my acoustic. He made a comment about how he read that book last year in his modern economics class, and he thought it had been rendered irrelevant by the work of Friedman. Initially, she brushed him off with a disinterested, “That’s nice.” Then he made a critical miscalculation by mentioning Atlas Shrugged. She noticed his expensive wristwatch, and that was the end of her patience. Lili proceeded to intellectually castrate him.
Answering my question after she shooed him away, she said, “Because guys like that have their undeserved confidence bolstered from the day they’re born. Then they’re fast-tracked into the power structure. If I can undermine their conviction in the self-serving bullshit they’ve been spoon-fed … If I can hit them so hard that I force them to reconsider their life choices, then I’ve added one more crack to that power structure.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But he may have just been showing off because he wanted to sleep with you.”
“Of course he did,” said Lili, chuckling. “Joey, everything in this world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power. He didn’t want to sleep with me as much as he wanted to conquer me. He wanted to feel like he owned me for a time, no matter how brief that time would be. That guy never outgrew pulling girls’ pigtails on the playground and expecting them to understand it as affection. Except now, instead of pulling my hair, he’s espousing a selfish ideology. If I let that go without punishment, he would continue pursuing that course of study, believing it might eventually get him what he wants. Given his means, his legacy power, and his confidence, he might follow his Ayn Rand fetish all the way to the White House. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve caused him sufficient trauma to prevent that from happening.”
She crept up the steps to me and took my hands in hers, looking deeply into my eyes. “Joey, I may have just saved the fucking world.” Then her dead serious face cracked into a mischievous grin, and I thought about how helplessly enthralled I was with her. Then, turning back to her book, she said nonchalantly, “Or maybe I’ve saved his life. Because now we don’t have to kill him.” At this I laughed nervously. Lili did not.
That was Lili in the wild. When it was just the two of us, she demonstrated none of the pedantry or showmanship as she did when she inevitably attracted an audience. Content to curl up on my couch, in whatever article of clothing she purloined from my drawers, reading and drinking strong coffee, she would spurn my attempts to converse, shushing me and telling me I had no speaking privileges until she had finished the chapter of whatever she was reading. In retrospect, Lili revealed very little to me about her past, expertly parrying my inquiries of hers into her questions about me. I know that she moved around quite a bit as a child because of her parents’ business, the specifics of which were never revealed; and, that her mother and father were no longer with us. Beyond that, my knowledge of her origin story was nonexistent. I was okay with that if it meant we could enjoy each other’s company in the moment. For, somewhere behind her iridescent personality, I detected an urgent sadness. And, I suspected, it was because we both knew that this affair of ours was a stolen season—an Indian summer—soon to be blown away by cold, cruel winds, in a single, dark day. How quick the sun can drop away.