Nirvana. “Heart-Shaped Box.”
You are the one who tells me about The 27 Club. You are not my fiancé at the time, nor are you my ex. You are my new boyfriend. Four years older. I am 23. You are 27.
You rattle off the names: “Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin. Jim Morrison. Kurt Cobain.” Later, you will introduce me to most of their music, sending me YouTube links and playing riffs on your secondhand guitar. Burning me mix CDs, even though you say nothing compares to vinyl.
“Why The 27 Club?” I ask.
You finger-pick a melody. “Because they all died at 27. Just gotta make it four more months and I’ll be out of the danger zone.” You laugh. I laugh. We are giddy with each other. Death—of us as individuals, of us as a couple—is ludicrous. Impossible.
The Doors. “Hello, I Love You.”
We meet on a “false spring” day when the snow recedes to shallow puddles and then evaporates entirely. Grey leaks from the sky like puss from a wound, leaving a soft blue in its wake. I wear a sleeveless top and drive to school with the windows down. My hair blows into hopeless tangles. I don’t care. Sunshine! In February! Something special is in the air. Something extraordinary is about to happen. I repeat that word in my head, feeling its shimmer and heft—something, something.
The moment I first glimpse your face, I have an odd feeling of recognition. Like time slips out of its tracks and I am looking back on the moment as I live it, knowing that what happens next will be important, a story I will tell and retell.
Jimi Hendrix. “Gypsy Eyes.”
My friend Holly describes falling in love as gravity.
That is what falling in love with you is like. Effortless, unstoppable. A natural law.
Here is our romantic montage: you bounding up the stairs to my apartment, so excited to see me that you can’t help but run. The gentle strength of your gloved hand in mine as we walk down the street. The amused gleam in your eyes when I tell a funny story from my day and I can tell you are listening. Really listening.
All of these things feel like miracles.
Amy Winehouse. “Rehab.”
A month to the day after you turn 28, we sit in the lobby of a London hotel watching the breaking news of Amy Winehouse’s death. She is 27. The latest addition to The Club.
We are melancholy, both of us. Her death casts a pall over the final hours of our vacation. In the morning, I catch a flight home to Southern California. You return to Chicago. The rest of summer stretches out before us. We will be apart until August, when grad school resumes. Every night we talk on the phone. Every night:
“I miss you so much,” you tell me.
“I miss you too.”
“I don’t want to ever be apart like this again.”
“Summer will go by quickly. You’ll see.”
And I do miss you. You know that, right? But it is complicated. I savor my time at home with my family. I go to bed when I want to. Get up when I want to. Eat when and where I want to. Hang out with my friends without feeling guilty.
I feel reconnected to myself. My self before you.
But the undeniable truth is that I love you. Fiercely.
Taylor Swift. “Mine.”
School resumes. We are again inseparable. I feel supremely comfortable around you. Free to be my silly self. You never make me feel insecure. Curled up beside you on the couch as we grade papers is my favorite place in the world.
You lavish me with praise—my writing, my wardrobe, my off-key singing. When I cook, you rave, “Delicious!” No matter what it is. Even the recipes I accidentally burn or undercook or over-salt. We celebrate our anniversary the 19th of every month with handwritten cards.
Once, when I am sick with the flu, you venture out in a heavy rain and return with chicken-noodle soup and a Taylor Swift CD. (Pop music: for you, the ultimate concession.)
Jimi Hendrix. “May This Be Love.”
You come with me to California for part of winter break. The final day of your visit, we go for a walk along the pier. You seem quiet, distant. We stand together looking out at the iron-gray ocean, choppy with waves. The Channel Islands way off on the horizon. It is an overcast afternoon threatening rain. Slivers of sunlight poke through the clouds. The beach is empty except for three squawking seagulls fighting over a fast-food wrapper.
And then. All of a sudden. You let go of my hand. Drop to one knee. Ask me to marry you. Just like that.
I think: This is it. The moment I’ve been dreaming about my whole life.
I am not sure what to say. Not sure what I want. Not sure.
I start to cry. Manage to choke out the word, “Yes.” You beam and stand up, wrapping me in your arms.
I am lucky, I tell myself. I am happy. In the back of my mind, a nagging voice asks, Are you? Is this what you want? But I tighten my arms around your back and push my doubts away.
Janis Joplin. “Piece of My Heart.”
We decide on a summer wedding. The upcoming summer is too soon—no way can we plan a wedding in the midst of school and teaching, my upcoming graduation, your dissertation deadline, all of our obligations. We decide to wait until the following summer. You will be 31.
I will be 27.
Our relationship is a scratched CD that begins to skip. Things downspiral. Quickly. Your anxiety and insomnia grow worse and worse. But you refuse to seek help. Instead, you lash out. More and more, the littlest things set you off into a storm of rage and despair. And a bad night for you is a bad night for me.
Here’s you: throwing your shoe across the room.
Here’s me: bleary-eyed, trying to coax you back to bed.
Here’s you: punching the wall.
Here’s me: curling away into my pillow. Fighting back tears.
These days, it seems I am constantly fighting back tears.
Eventually, morning comes. Half-light tentatively pokes through the cracks in the curtains. Always, you apologize and promise to be better. Always, I nod my head and forgive you, clinging to the belief that things will improve.
You are two people—the gentle, guitar-strumming guy I fell in love with, and the bitter, enraged man who occasionally emerges at night, when it is just us alone. I tell myself that the calm and loving person is the real you. The other version will fade in time. I will chase your demons away, like a bright light chasing away shadows.
The Doors. “The End.”
St. Patrick’s Day. We are parked on the side of the road during a late-spring blizzard. Nothing but static on the radio. I am crying. You are a stone wall.
I have realized I cannot save you. You need to chase your own demons away. You need to cast you own light.
When we get home, I pack a bag and tell you I need to think about things. We both know it is over. Raw, brutal, irreversible. Gravity.
I move out. You keep your distance. I force myself to eat, mostly pieces of sandwich bread that I tear off the loaf in little bits. Mutual friends report you are seeing an undergrad, a former student of yours I always knew had a crush on you. We used to joke about her. Called her your “Fan Club.” Now, you’re sleeping with her. Thinking about it makes me physically ill.
And—yet. Yet. I also feel an undeniable release. No longer am I drowning. No longer do I dread the sunset, the onset of night. I am alone, yes. I am lonely, yes. But when I am tired I climb into bed and hold myself until sleep comes.
Amy Winehouse. “Tears Dry On Their Own.”
A muted Friday evening. You are waiting outside my office. My stomach drops. You ask if we can talk—just once more. You still have a few things to say.
I hesitate, scanning the deserted hallway, surprised at how vulnerable I feel. Exposed. It’s not that I’m worried you’re going to harm me. Not exactly. But I look at your muscular arms and know that if you want to, you can.
“Okay.” My heart is beating fast. “But I only have a few minutes.”
I follow you out of the English building. The trees have burst into beautiful bloom, white flowers like clouds of cotton. We head over a stone bench. As we sit down, you ask how I am. Squinting at me through your glasses. Your expression unreadable.
I gaze at the trees. Their scent fills the air. Springtime. The world keeps turning and turning. “I’m doing okay.” I look at your clenched hands. Brace myself for an explosion.
After a moment, you say, “What I don’t get is why you lied. All this time, you acted like you loved me. But you didn’t.”
“Of course I did. You can love someone but not be right for each other.”
Your smile is eerie, empty of feeling. “You’re going to look back and regret this. You’re never going to find someone else who loves you like I did.”
I bite my lip. You have found the throbbing wound of my greatest fear and dug your thumb into my flesh. What if no one else ever loves me? What if I end up alone? What if I’m making a mistake?
Soon, I will turn 27. In my former life—our former life—we would be getting married. A candle flame flickering low. A lost girl joining The 27 Club.
I look at you. You, the man I once thought I would spend my life with. Yours is the same face, yet different. Angry. Bitter. Looking into your eyes, I see hatred.
“I don’t have to take this.” I stand up from that gray stone bench. You are yelling after me. I block out your words.
As I walk away, I almost glance back at you.
But I don’t.
I look straight ahead. My boots tap a new melody against the sidewalk. I keep walking.
Dallas Woodburn, a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, has published fiction and nonfiction in Zyzzyva, Modern Loss, Fourth River, The Nashville Review, and The Los Angeles Times, among many others. A three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, she won first place in the international Glass Woman Prize and second place in the American Fiction Prize. A passionate teacher and writing coach for all ages, she is the founder of Write On! Books, an organization that empowers youth through reading and writing endeavors: www.writeonbooks.org. Dallas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her wonderful husband, always-overflowing bookshelves, and windowsill succulent garden.