Clean and Pretty by Dallas Yates

I decided to kill myself two weeks after I discovered her.

I was scrolling through YouTube and stumbled on the video by accident, pressing down on the thumbnail and opening the clip when I’d meant to flick past it. For some reason, I let it play. It was a simple, fifteen-minute solo performance of three songs, held in part of an office that would have been at home in the children’s section of a local library: a stretch of carpet surrounded on three sides by wooden shelves almost reaching the ceiling, each crammed with books and LP records and other knickknacks and memorabilia, some turned to face the camera. The venue was probably designed to feel homey, but it came off as oddly sterile, like a production crew had set it all up a day in advance with items they’d found at Goodwill.

The only genuine-looking thing in the room, I thought, was the girl: a twenty-something with shoulder-length black hair and tan, pockmarked cheeks. She was dressed in a dark sleeveless top and a light brown maxi skirt, and strapped to an electric guitar the same color as her hair. The performance, like her outfit, was sparse: a bare-bones rendition of three short songs that a day later I wouldn’t be able to get out of my head. The first was an aggressive, up-tempo piece about reckless and uncertain love, the second a desperate, existential plea screamed to her mother, and the third a sad and gentle ballad with suicidal overtones. Through almost all of it, she maintained a fiery, concentrated intensity that so contrasted the video makers’ intended aesthetic — that of a cluttered family den — that I wondered whether it was a put-on: a punk-like display of angry defiance in the face of such an infantilizing environment. A way to maintain her indie cred while performing in a venue that epitomized the twee commercialization of independent music. A means of saying to her die-hard, day-one fans, “Look, I’m here, but I’m still doing my own thing.” Selling-out while pretending to subvert.

Or maybe the anger, like her appearance, was genuine: an emotion brought on by her music, or the opposite — an internal, unrelated rage that had influenced her set-list and now dictated her playing style. Or maybe this was a totally normal performance for her, and I was reading too much into it, trying to analyze a routine she had mapped out and repeated to the point of banality. Something that to her was no more unusual than brushing her hair in the morning. I couldn’t decide, and I was further confused by the smile she gave before introducing the last song. The first tune had bled into the second, but before the third she stopped and, with a cute, slightly bashful grin, gave its name. Her speaking voice, which had a soft, excitedly cheerful inflection, was completely distinct from her singing one, which she somehow made abrasive and sonorous and liltingly beautiful all at once.

Fascinated by this disparity and enraptured by the music, I watched the video again and again, until the songs were ringing in my ears. And the more I watched it, the less important the question of her personality became. Whether she was angry or frustrated or despairing or secretly thrilled and pretending to be anything but didn’t matter any more than why she wore a black tank top and chose to perform alone songs that were, I later discovered, recorded as multi-instrumental pieces. The video simply was — a fact so obvious that it resisted analysis or interpretation, like the color of the sky, or the warmth of a fireplace on a frigid night. Interrogating it, breaking it down into its component parts and examining each one in search of some deeper, existential truth, would ruin it.

So I continued to watch the video, letting my mind go blank as her voice, a sound that defied categorization, that was raw emotion made audible, wash over me, drowning me with one verse and lifting me out of the water and resuscitating me with the next, over and over again. Eventually — and hesitantly, because I worried it wouldn’t live up to the video — I listened to her recorded music. She had five albums — the first two full of stripped-down piano ballads, and the others an eclectic mix of rock and electronica I can’t competently describe — and each one floored me. It was the most emotionally resonant music I had ever heard: songs that not only expressed but embodied loneliness and love and regret and despair and anger and angst and dread and joy and purposelessness, both sonically and lyrically. Listening to them was like opening a Pandora’s box filled with every emotion I’d felt in my life.

Her music was beyond affirming, and it hit me with an intensity I could feel — a tingling in my shoulders or an aching in my chest, depending on the song. And unlike everything else I’d listened to, I couldn’t separate the artist from her work. I couldn’t just accept this free therapy masquerading as music on the Internet. I had to know about her, the girl from the video. It wasn’t just simple curiosity, like the kind that had driven me to analyze to death her solo performance. It was deeper than that: a desire to relate to her person the same way I had to her music, to forge a connection — albeit a synthetic, one-sided one — with this woman whose voice pierced my soul.

Googling her name brought me to a modest-sized Wikipedia article and a scattering of profile pieces. I learned that she was twenty-nine, seven years older than me, and notoriously tight-lipped about her life outside of music. The daughter of a U.S. State Department official, she had lived in several countries, had a vaguely tumultuous adolescence, attended college in the states — majoring first in film and then pivoting to music — and recorded her debut album while still in school. She had given up social media shortly after becoming famous, citing mounting stress in the face of increasing popularity, and gave interviews sparingly, averaging, from what I could tell, about three major publication appearances per year.

The interviews were cordial — I detected none of the maybe-anger she’d displayed in the video — and mostly about her music and music-making process: her inspirations, her work ethic, her collaborators in the studio and on tour, her abilities as a singer and multi-instrumentalist, her difficulties performing live. Other details were filled in by bandmates and fellow musicians: She was a workhorse, a genius, a feminist, a natural talent. She was driven performer who ran a tight ship on tour but still took time to relax. She was a private person but an undying friend. On the whole, it was the same complimentary boilerplate you can read about any uncontroversial young musician of middling popularity and near-universal critical acclaim.

I was disappointed. Nothing in her biography provided even the slightest insight into why her music sounded the way it did, into why listening to any one of her songs gave me chills. I’d expected her life story to resemble a tragedy akin to that of Eliot Smith or Kurt Cobain: a drug-fueled existence ravaged by mental illness that, in a Faustian bargain, produced some of the most beautifully sad music ever recorded. I’d even hoped that her adult life might have started out a little like mine: as a recovering alcoholic with no prospects, forced to move back in with his parents after college and desperately trying, in frenzied bursts in the middle of the night, to create something worthwhile.

Instead, I was handed a person totally alien to me, a woman who, had she been an accountant or an engineer rather than a musician, I would have resented, maybe even hated. A dutiful music school graduate who, through hard work and perseverance, managed to forge a place for herself in the music industry. The critical darling with hundreds of thousands of adoring but respectful fans. The reserved but insanely talented artist teetering on the edge of pop-stardom who hasn’t sold out or made a fool of herself in public or online, who’s made five albums so good I can barely describe them but that have nonetheless spawned countless fawning reviews.

I was crushed. Something about the dissonance between the raw, emotional quality of her music and who she was as a person, at least publically, ate away at me. I’m not sure why I reacted so strongly to that distinction. Maybe knowing that her music wasn’t produced by a suicidal drug addict rendered it little hollow, a little less authentic somehow, and therefore made it less resonant. Or, more likely, it was the opposite: the awareness that, realistically, music this good could only be produced by a sober, straight-laced person who could sight-read complicated piano pieces and knew about things like octaves and chord progressions. Maybe it depressed me to know that I had missed the boat, to realize that no matter how many feelings I had pent up inside me, I, a twenty-two-year-old with a layman’s understanding of song structure and no formal training to speak of, would never be able to translate them into music, or any other kind of art.

Or maybe — and I think, looking back, that this is the most plausible explanation — it was the realization that she was completely and totally out of my league. I wasn’t sexually attracted to her, exactly, but I was obsessed with her music — especially her voice — to the point of romantic infatuation. I inserted myself into her songs, fulfilling the role of the tobacco-scented ex-boyfriend, the unattainable crush, the old friend, the one-time fling. I wanted to talk to her, to have a quiet, awkward conversation with her over coffee. I wanted to hold her, to lie beside her in bed while we both stared at the ceiling in silence, and it killed me to know that I never would, with her or anyone like her.

If she’d been a Xanax-addicted twenty-year-old, or a tortured poet who left the studio and went straight to a dive bar to knock back double whiskeys until closing every other night, I could’ve sustained the delusion that someday, by some miraculous coincidence, we might meet, might even spend a night or two together. Two fucked-up kids hooking up is always a possibility, no matter how different they otherwise are. Fucked-upness, as a rule, brings people together. But I knew I would never even be in the same room as her, this nearly-thirty career musician with friends and probably boyfriends from the coolest parts of the indie music world, a woman always a phone call away from an interview with the publication of her choice. To her — to everyone — I was a scrawny, young-looking twenty-two-year-old who had never done anything remotely interesting in his life. A nobody. A fan.

The worst thing was, I still liked her music. Loved it, even. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and I couldn’t listen to anything else. And every time I heard one of her songs, I was reminded of the brutal, irrefutable reality that I was totally insignificant. I wasn’t cool or artistic or smart or incisive or charming. I was a kid, listening to music made by a woman who would never know my name. I would always be a kid.

I lasted three more days after that, a full two weeks since I’d found the video of her performing in that office. I spent them lying in bed, playing her songs at full volume while my parents were at work. I couldn’t eat, and I barely slept. I thought about drinking and then decided against it, in large part because it would have required leaving my room and driving to the store.

On the afternoon of the third day I wrote a brief note to my parents, re-read it, and then balled it up and threw it away. I repeated the process four more times, and none of the letters came close to describing how I actually felt. I was terrified of mentioning her; I knew they wouldn’t understand, that they would think I was crazy or melodramatic. I was acting melodramatic. I worried they might, in their grief, blame her. Eventually I settled on a single word, scrawled across a Post-it note in barely legible script: “Sorry.”

I reached over to the bottle of extra-strength Tylenol on my bedside table and unscrewed the cap. It was about a quarter full, and I took the 500 mg capsules one by one, washing each down with a sip from a glass of stale water until there were only a few left. I sat down on my bed and shut my eyes. I thought about putting on one of her songs, but didn’t. The quiet, mournful ballad that she’d introduced with a smile at the end of the video was already playing in my head.

It’s late and I’m walking along a narrow, crowded sidewalk with a graduate student eight years my junior, a girl with tattoos running down her left arm and two nose piercings. It’s warm despite the fact that it’s early October. She’s wearing a band tee with the sleeves rolled up and high-waisted jeans, and I’ve got on a windbreaker on over my work clothes — a pale blue Oxford shirt, unbuttoned at the neck, and a pair of khaki pants. We’re an odd couple. I look older than I am — not old enough to be her father, but old and well-dressed enough to be mistaken for a young uncle, maybe, or one of her professors. We met two days ago on a dating app and went out for coffee. She talked the whole time — about school, her family, her ex-boyfriends, her job — and I hardly said a word, so I know everything about her and she has almost no idea who I am. She called me later that day to propose a second date, a Friday night out on the town, and I accepted, largely because I had nothing else to do.

It’s close to nine and I’m holding the remains of the beer I got at the first bar we went to, a student hangout with a patio in the back where you can smoke and watch old movies projected on a bed sheet draped over a brick wall. It’s my first drink in nine years and it’s done nothing for me. She’d had a glass of white wine and four vodka sodas, and is now leaning on my shoulder, talking excitedly about something as we stumble past boutique clothing shops and frat boys lined up outside clubs and homeless people chain smoking on street corners.

I’m zoning out, wondering why the homeless guys don’t just sit on the mostly empty benches lining every other block, when she says something to me, loudly and exasperatedly, like she’s had to repeat it a few times.

“What?” I ask, turning to look at her.

“Come on,” she whines, tugging at my arm and pointing to a spot a few feet in front of us. “Let’s just check it out.”

I look at where she’s pointing and see what appears to be the entrance of a nondescript dive bar, its double doors propped open with two bricks. A chalkboard sign out front reads, in curvy pink letters, “Live music tonight, 9-11 PM. Couples get half-off drinks.”

In the time it takes me to read the sign she’s already halfway to the bar, motioning to me with her hand. I shrug and follow her in.

The place is packed and dimly lit, with dirty wood floors and dark, graffitied walls. The patrons seem to be mostly college kids — skinny teenagers with tattoos and piercings who look a lot like my date. Every table is full, so I go over to the bar, order two beers, and walk them over to where she’s standing in the back with the other latecomers. The place is so crowded that I start to wonder if someone famous is playing, some local artist who hit it big and is ending his nationwide tour with a homecoming show in one of his favorite haunts.

A stage light comes on, and a bearded guy in his early forties walks onto the raised platform in front of all the tables and introduces the first singer, some girl I’ve never heard of. She comes out in a bright yellow sundress that’s totally out of place in this bar where everyone except me is wearing denim, and sits down on the stool in front of the microphone, straddling a massive acoustic guitar that’s almost as big as she is.

The crowd quiets down, and she takes a sip of water, clears her throat, and starts to play. I recognize the song instantly. It’s one I haven’t heard in nine years, one I thought I would never hear again. It’s an imperfect rendition — her voice isn’t as strong as the original singer’s — but I’m rapt. I can feel my heart pounding against my ribs. I turn to look at my date and see her gently swaying to the music, beer in hand. The crowd is silent.

I feel a lump forming in my throat, and I reach around her shoulders and pull her closer to me. She looks up at me curiously, then nestles her head against my chest, still softly rocking back and forth. I close my eyes and begin to sway with her. As the song ends and the audience bursts into applause, I start to smile.


Dallas Yates is a twenty-two-year-old college graduate from Georgia (the state, not the country). He enjoys writing short stories in his spare time, but he has no professional writing experience or literary training. He is an avid reader and library-goer, and his favorite authors are Philip Roth, Susanna Kaysen, and Haruki Murakami. He currently lives in Atlanta with his mom and younger brother.

 

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