Kurt Cobain and Gorillas
by Joelle Byars
Man, fuck fairytales. Papa always told me they were just lies for the rich. People like us didn’t have time to wait for someone else to swoop in and solve all our problems. We had shit to do, places to go, hustles to see through and people to fall for them. With people like Mama hanging around—who refused to see what they were doing to the people around them—we didn’t have time to let ourselves get sidetracked by princesses and princes and dragons slain by knights in shining armor.
I guess Mama also had a hustle going on, I just wouldn’t notice until I grew up and realized everything that came from that woman’s mouth was a lie. She prided herself in every imaginary self-diagnosis: plantar fasciitis, anxiety, lazy eye, depression, animal allergies—which I think was only because I found a puppy wandering around on the street and she needed an excuse to make me give it up—, bipolar disorder, IBS, schizophrenia, and my personal favorite, black lung—as if she ever had been within fifty feet of coal dust in her life. Crazy enough, she never gave herself the one disorder I would have believed, Munchausen’s. Maybe it was the power trip she got from fooling others that fueled her fire, maybe it was she liked being the center of attention, or maybe she knew Papa and I liked the unpredictability. Whatever it was, there was always something up her sleeve until the day her unpredictability got the best of both Papa and me. She got hit by a train up in the hills kinda back behind Clifton Forge. No, no, I’m not from there, but Mama had family there so we were sticking around for a while for cheap rent. Anyway, damn train must’ve scattered her body in a million places and I’m sure we never found all of her. Papa thinks that she was probably tweaking hard while looking for mushrooms and never saw it coming. I don’t know what I think, but maybe she wasn’t lying about the depression after all. I don’t know. I was young when it happened and sometimes I think when you live like
Papa and me shit never gets a chance you really hit you, you know? Like yeah, it sucks, but you gotta keep moving and that’s what we did.
But, you know that’s why I got this tattoo, right? The moths? In that alternative high school we learned about memento mori and all that bullshit and I mean, I don’t remember exactly what that means, it has something to do with representing death, right? Right, whatever. So I got the moths, one for my mom and one for me. She was fat as a pig so I think of her as the bigger one, but they’re both that moth from Silence of the Lambs. I think it’s called death-hawk or something? What is it? Can I Google it? Cool, hold on—yeah, whatever. I was close. It’s a death’s-head hawkmoth.
Oh, right. So after that Papa and I moved away to Reno where I started that school. He thought he could make a living for us gambling and Vegas was too expensive with too many hookers, he said he didn’t want me getting any ideas for after I turned eighteen. But who was he fooling? We all know how girls like me end up. I mean he and Mama thought it’d be a good idea to name me Vivian for fucksake. Yeah, from Pretty Woman, exactly. But, I think he was just in denial that it was just a matter of time before someone offered me enough money for two months rent and all I gotta do is spread my legs for fifteen minutes and we all know I’m gonna do it because Papa was never gonna break even, let alone support us on blackjack. I think I got that from him, we’re both too damn stubborn, me with people telling me what to do and him with the cards.
Funny thing about my name, actually. You know that I wasn’t gonna be named Vivian? Well, first they were so confident I was gonna be a boy they decided to call me Frank, you know, after Sinatra. Both Mama and Papa have blue eyes and you know what they used to call Frank—yeah, totally—“Ol’ Blue Eyes.” But Mama gave birth to me in the backseat of an Oldsmobile on the way to the hospital, and there I was, seven pounds and three ounces of screaming cocaine withdrawal and spite, and she realized she was gonna have to think on the fly. Her favorite movie since it came out four years before I was born, was Pretty Woman so eventually she chose Vivian. But she used to tell me when I was little all the things I was almost named, but it changed every time she drank too much gin and brought it up: Margaret, Amelia, Persephone—yeah right, Ma, like we are rich enough for a name like that—, Gertrude—thank God that one didn’t stick—, or my least favorite, Mykal. Like “Michael” but douchey. M-Y-K-A-L, Michael.
What? Oh, right, thanks. Yeah, oh my God, you should have heard my mind going crazy when I saw that guy for the first time. I always had a thing for musicians, you know? Not just the boys, I mean, the memory of the drummer from Neon Trees absolutely haunts me. I know, I know, so cliché to have a thing for musicians. Me, and like, everyone else too. But that music video with the Zombie Bikers from Hell and the actress with the heart-shaped glasses changed something in me, I swear.
Anyway, yeah, when I first saw Manny, his real name was Emmanuel but that’s just so pretentious. I never called him that unless he really did something to piss me off. Like that one time I told you about, remember? The one time I busted his car door and he couldn't open it until he saved up enough money to take it to the shop? Oh, I thought I told you. Okay, so here’s what happened:
I was fucked up, I know, no big surprise there. But, I was good about it. I called him and asked him to pick me up because I knew I shouldn’t be driving. See? I was getting better. A year prior I wouldn’t have given a shit and probably would have gotten a DUI or something stupid like that. But I didn’t, I called him. But he was all fucking pissy with his panties in a twist about this and about that—Oh, “I gotta be up for work in the morning.” “You couldn’t have found a ride with someone else?”—you know, yada, yada, yada. Well, you know when I drink I get a temper—not that I don’t have one anyway, but like, it’s way worse. So eventually I just said, “Emmanuel, you fucking cocksucker, if you want me to get a DUI and kill myself instead, fine! Let me out of the fucking car right now!” And I’m kicking and I’m screaming, right? I mean, like, punching the inside of the car, calling him everything I can think of. “Emmanuel, you motherfucking prick” and “Emmanuel, you goddamn piece of shit,” nothing crazy, just the classics. Well, he’s trying to tell me to calm down—as if that’s literally ever helped anyone—and he gets stopped at a red light. So, what do I do? Well, of course I tell him to go to hell and that I’ll walk home. So, I get out of the car and I slam the door with my whole body, like this. Yeah, no mercy. I wanted to shatter that thing. Here I was, trying to do what was right and he’s giving me shit? Like he didn’t know what he signed up for? Anyway, yeah, after that I had to climb into the passenger seat from the back and squeeze my way over the middle console until he got it fixed.
When I was with him I drank, but that was about it. It was a lot better than when I lived with Papa, we’d do all sorts of shit together. That’s why I hitched my way north. I wanted to go to Seattle because who doesn’t love coffee and grunge, but Portland turned out to be pretty cool so I spent a couple days there. A hotel? Oh fuck no, who can afford that? No, I’d just go to the bars and find someone to take me home and spend the night whether he wanted me to or not. But I went to this one bar, The Big Legrowlski, I’ll never forget the name, the whole thing was Big Lebowski themed in that funky, dingy, Portland way, you know? I mean they even have a tally of the number of White Russians sold, I think they say “abided”—in the way of The Dude. And I’m not a fan of White Russians, personally. I don’t think dairy belongs with booze, it seems like a recipe for regret. And there was like, a giant print on the wall of The Dude’s rug and a painting of John Tuturo in that purple outfit.
Oh, well, it’s a good movie. I’d highly recommend it when you get the chance. It was one of Papa’s favorites. I don’t wanna give any spoilers but John Goodman is in it and he’s one of my favorite actors now because of that movie. But anyway, yeah, so I was at this bar and out comes Manny with his acoustic guitar with all these Sharpie marks all over it—hearts and lyrics and signatures from those sluts he used to hang out with—and instead of water he was drinking dark beer. I remember because if there’s one thing I love, it’s dark beer which no one drinks because Portland seems to live, shit, and breathe IPAs. And he had this hair that was like, inhumanly blond, I’ve never seen anything like it when it wasn’t fake. It was almost white, like Legolas. Keep in mind, blonds usually aren’t my thing. I like to say I can see beauty in anything, Mama taught me that, but I have a type for sure and blonds are not it. But there was something about him, oh, I could not take my eyes off him. Maybe it was that squared off jaw that reminded me of a young Ashton Kutcher.
After his set, I talked to the bartender and had him send my next drink to Manny—I mean, I wasn’t paying for it anyway, he told me a creepy guy with a patchy beard down at the end of bar wanted to buy my next drink. When Manny got that beer, I made sure I was right there, a couple rows back, not close enough to be creepy but close enough to show I was interested. I nearly passed out when he winked at me. I went home with him that night and moved in. He offered, I swear, I just couldn’t say no. I was gonna leave, gonna go to Seattle. But I never made it. I remember how different he was with me than other guys. He was almost like a woman but like, you know, still masculine.
But most guys just kinda...manhandle you. They’re rough and throw you and shit. I can’t tell you how many times I was convinced that the dude I was with was gonna fuck me up when all was said and done. So even when I wanted out, I never took that way out. I would just bite my lip and wait for it to be over, and eventually, it would be and he would pass out. After I left Reno, I had nowhere else to go, so I would usually just fall asleep too and hope for the best. No, I wouldn’t say I was depressed. Lonely, for sure—probably even self-destructive—but I don’t think I was depressed. I didn’t feel it, but like, I didn’t feel anything. It was all just kind of there. It wasn’t affecting me one way or another, and sure, the first time something like that happens is rough, but you learn how to take it.
But anyway, Manny, he was something else. He would give me these massages with coconut oil—let me tell you, I recommend that way more than The Big Lebowski—and we smoked the same kind of Marlboros so I just remember so many nights where that was all I could smell. Just coconut, cigarettes, sweat. He was always gentle, but in a sexy way. I miss it a lot, I’ve yet to find another guy like that. Usually that gentleness is more of a girl thing, at least, I don’t know, in my experience. But I feel like most of those girls didn’t really know what they were getting into with me.
But yeah, Manny was way more stable than Papa. I mean, he had a steady job, hobbies, his own apartment with food in it. He was a damn good cook, my favorite thing he made was a stupid spaghetti dish—what did he call it?—oh yeah, pasta puttanesca. I’ve always loved vinegar and that had olives and capers and tomatoes and it was so good. I tried to make it after he died and it was so bad I threw it out and went to the bar.
I went home alone that night. I was able to stay at Manny’s place for the rest of the month because his landlord was really nice and knew I didn’t have anywhere to go and the month was paid for anyway. His family wasn’t happy about it, I think they blamed me for what he did.
Did I? Yeah, to a certain extent I guess. I mean, this is a guy—the only guy—I can honestly say that I loved for more than what he could do to help me survive. I know that makes me sound like a horrible person, using people to survive—no, don’t lie to me about it—I probably am a horrible person.
But, I like to imagine sometimes what my life would be like if Mama didn’t end up hooked on dope since coke was too expensive and what if she didn’t get hit by a train. I wonder what it would have been like to not finish high school in Reno at an alternative school that no one took seriously and have a stable place to live that didn’t have any wheels on it. I wonder a lot about whether or not Papa would still be alive if I’d stayed. I don’t think he would, I think he still would have gotten stabbed in that alley and I just would have been able to say goodbye at the hospital. I guess I do sometimes wish that I was around for that, but—I know, I know, horrible person again—a lot of the time I’m glad I couldn’t because I have no idea what I would say. I couldn’t lie and tell him it was all okay and that I would be alright. I couldn’t tell him he was a good father or that he did his best. I mean, what do you say to a dying man who you have hardly anything good to say to? The only thing I wish I could have said, if anything, is I wish I could have told him I love him. I mean, I did, truly, and I still do. But I’m not sure that would make up for all the other shit I wouldn’t have been able to say. Does that make sense?
No, I don’t think I’ve been through that much. I mean, not any more than anyone else. Some people have it really easy and I can’t help but hate those people a little bit—you know what I’m talking about? People like, like Taylor Swift. I mean, fuck her, am I right? Her rich daddy and all his rich-ass connections, I mean, they even moved to Tennessee just so she could get into country music faster, did you know that? She literally never had to hustle for anything. Not like Mama. Not like Papa. Not like me. Hell, not even like Manny. So in comparison to Taylor Swift, I guess I’ve been through some shit, but just for regular people? No, I don’t think so.
No, Manny died about two years back. I was pretty fucked up after that. I wasn’t quite sure where I was heading or what to do. I did make it up to Seattle. That was underwhelming, to say the least. It’s like Portland with less personality and colder. I met a girl up there, she was a solo act like Manny, but she played the harmonica which I thought was just nuts. What a dying artform, right? I mean, very Bob Dylan of her. But she was cute, she had hair as straight as a block of wood and it was dark and flat, you know, like someone who dyes their hair black at home. She had a long face with high cheekbones, which I liked. Though it was the little mole on the outside corner of her left eye that got me.
I stayed with her for a couple months, I made easy meals for dinners that Manny showed me how to make—I never tried making puttanesca again, though—and she would come home from her job to me acting all domestic. She had just gotten her Masters in architecture and was starting to work with some local contractors. She was apparently really good at it, I have no idea. I’m just taking her word on it. But every night after dinner, she would teach me something new on the harmonica. While I’m obviously no pro at it now, it’s a fun thing to dick around with when I have nothing else going on—which is a lot of the time, let’s be honest. I liked her, it was too soon after Manny to say that I loved her, but I definitely liked her. Her name was Jessie, but I guess her Chinese name was different. I don’t know, I never learned it.
What? Oh right, yeah. I did wanna talk about that. Yeah. I hate all these new Disney movies coming out, especially the live action ones because not only are they complete fucking lies, they’re lazy as all hell. Because you know what never fucking happens in those Disney movies? No one checks themselves out, you know? It’s always some sort of tragedy that “steals them away too soon.” It’s the uncle or the hunter or maybe a natural disaster like a storm off the coast of some stupid island. None of it is ever someone cashing in their chips and calling it. I think that’s bullshit. I mean, what about my mom? Like I said, I don’t know if she meant to get hit or not, but it’s possible. But, for sure with Manny. You don’t just accidentally blow your fucking brains out, he meant to do that shit.
But what I can’t understand is why he wanted to do it. I mean, was life with me that fucking bad? I know that we fought and I have issues and I’m an asshole and I don’t even know what all is wrong with me—I guess that’s why I’m here, right?—but I know it’s a hell of a lot. So, why him? He was so fucking perfect. He didn’t charge me for that car door. He never said anything mean about me—sure, he’d vent and shit when we fought, but he never attacked me personally and I know for a fact I did that shit all the time. I mean he was the whole fucking package: sweet, nice, funny, completely devoid of shitty life experience and trauma, blond. He had it all going on. So why, in the ever-living hell, would someone like that decide to call it quits? Tarzan didn’t and he was raised by fucking apes! What? Oh right, gorillas, whatever. Nah,
thank you, I told you to correct me when I was fucking up the last time I saw you. Right, gorillas.
I guess it just eats away at me sometimes, you know? I mean, it’s not like I’ve never thought about it. I don’t need to be put on a watchlist or anything. I think I’m doing okay, I’m up to date on my meds and everything. Not being able to drink helped a lot. But I really think anyone who has been through shit like Papa or Mama or me, you think about it. It’s part of being human, I think. You know, we are natural, part of science, and doesn’t shit always look for the path of least resistance? It makes sense to me that people who feel resistance look for a way to make that stop, everyone wants shit to be easier. I mean, look at Kurt Cobain, he had it all. Success, money, talent, a kid, a wife—as fucked up as she was, don’t get me wrong—but he had it all and he did the same shit as Manny. Different gun, I guess, but that doesn’t matter. Am I rambling?
Right, okay, of course. Sorry, I know I get carried away, but yeah. No, this was good. There’s always more but I know I still have a few sessions left before my hearing.
See you next week.
About the Author
Joelle Byars is a Masters student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln pursuing her degree in Creative Writing. After finishing her Bachelors degree in English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, she began delving deeper into the possibilities of prose fiction. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.