Pop Psychology

Part 1

22 June 2002, twelve am
Chloe and I sit facing each other on the stone railing of her front porch. It must be midnight – the stoplight above the intersection of Grant and Cherokee just started blinking red. I sip from a cup of coffee that is somehow cold in air that could steam broccoli, but the java still tastes great because Chloe made it. She’s got a radio show from three to six am on the student station and we’re drinking our sleep.

Chloe’s nimbus blue eyes glisten as if they might rain. I can predict her better than the weather, and those are storm clouds in her irises – Chloe doesn’t get sad, just irritated. “Trevor’s coming back tomorrow, that he’s going to be here, makes me so angry,” she says. About their attempted romance, I know too much in confidence, but I don’t want to undermine my own chances so I change the subject as quickly as she did.

My fingers fidget, right index wrapping black curls around my thumb, left index pushing up horn-rimmed specs. I take out a Marlboro and, after a drag, ask “What do you want to play on the show tonight?”

“You,” she says, as instantly bubbly as a cracked can of Coke. “I’ve had your song in my head for five days now. I even sing it at the lab.” I hope she’s talking about “Without Chloe,” so I’m disappointed when she starts singing a more clever but insipid work: If you have sex with me, I’ll write a song about you/If you come and kiss me, maybe I’ll write you two/If you say you love me, I’ll write you three or four/but if you say no to me, I’ll write you many, many more. A cute girl performing a song I wrote should be enough, but it’s not – she should be singing the one I wrote about her.

“We’ll play your CD and I’ll interview you and stuff.”

Chloe is tall and stunning, but her lack of poise makes her approachable. I see a spattering of klutzy bruises on her gracefully shaped leg and remember that she bleeds like everyone else. Trevor once told me to love my female friends because of their faults, for without them, they’d hang out with better-looking guys than me. Chloe can probably rattle off the genetic markers for whatever defects she has, which makes her all the more appealing in spite of them.

But Trevor also taught me that a person’s image is always a choice – so I ponder why Chloe doesn’t shave her legs. When this mischievous curiosity overwhelms me, I ask, and wait for more rain. “I’m lazy,” she lies, and, with a glare, I let her know that I know how much overtime she works at the laboratory where she isn’t paid by the hour. “Ok, my appearance isn’t that high of a priority,” she fibs, and, with a glance, I let her know that I remember where in France she found those burgundy pumps. “All right, all right,” she crescendos, “When I shave, guys look at me different, and I don’t like it.” A pause, then she ponders: “It’s like I look too good.” Another pause, then: “God, I can’t believe I just said that.”

The awkward quiet of crickets and joy-riders ends only when Chloe gets off the stone railing, slams the screen, and puts The Soft Bulletin in the stereo: Two scientists are racing for the cure that is the prize/both of them side by side/so determined.

Somewhere nearby, the laid-back summer party we were supposed to attend is at its anticlimactic peak. I doubt it’s much fun, and, unless the hosts have held a summer party before, I bet they’re disappointed – standing around a sweltering house watching a couple dozen kids struggle to finish a quarter barrel. When we do go out, Chloe and I stick to the dance floor, not because we’re good, but because it’s something to do. Still, dancing’s not the same without Trevor – he’s not good; he’s great.

23 September 2000, twelve am
As children of the eighties, Trevor and I were several years younger than the Detroit techno scene. But in the last years of the twentieth century, the American popularity of a little pill used for decades in European clubs surged. Trevor started selling Ecstasy for twenty-five dollars a pop a year before that trend peaked and he got out of the game just before its popularity waned. The guy’s got amazing timing, as anyone who’s danced with him can attest.

Trevor could break dance: he popped, locked, flipped, even spun on his head. It was an art he perfected when he was still dealing. He’d head to raves to dance – the guy never drank or smoked or used anything – and to sell only to his few hundred friends. His most attractive quality was his poise, charisma that could melt the conceit of the coldest coed. Of course, looking like a preteen pin-up never hurt: maize hair, cobalt eyes and a nose men would pay for atop the body of a former gymnast.

I met Trevor in 1998, at Roosevelt County Community College, in Psych 101. I’d gone to Roosevelt Shores, the suburban high school; he’d gone to Roosevelt Catholic Central. Both of us stuck around to be with younger girlfriends. Both of us got dumped early in our freshman year. I wanted to be a psychiatrist; Trevor wanted to be a psychoanalyst. We were best friends within a week.

When we transferred to Charles Dover University, without leaving Roosevelt County, we moved in with a couple of his friends from high school – a mild rover named Lyle and a motherly engineer named Frank. The four of us lived at 1013 Hooker for our next three years. Binding us were our common origins and the shared belief that a man who claims to keep it real is the biggest phony of all.

Trevor reworked his entire image every year. Summertime was when his phase changed – fewer folks were around to witness awkward transitions. Gradually he would work new accessories and articles into his outfits. His fashion paints a blurry picture because it changed so fast.

Still, the most important trend Trevor got over was Ecstasy. I was sitting next to him on our porch swing when he swore off dealing. It was the first sweater night in what had been a warm September.

Trevor and I had seen enough episodes of club life to feel trapped in a rerun – dancing and selling, kissing and leaving, sober all the while. He had gone out to make money, and I had gone out to meet women, but we had discovered we did both better in places where the bass didn’t drown conversation.

But disenchantment was the least of Trevor’s troubles. “I’m tired, y’ know?” he lamented. “Tired of feeling sad and mad and guilty, my friends coming over Saturday mornings all e-tarded but still wanting another roll. Tired of getting shit-scared, looking over my shoulder, every second of the walk from the rave to my car, hoping nobody knows about the cash I’m carrying. “I mean, look what happened to Calvin.”

A half-dozen career criminals with a half-dozen guns had broken into his supplier’s apartment near Wayne State University. The robbers had taken everything that matters to a guy – drugs, electronics, cars, even the porn stash. “Y’ know there’s gotta be a better way to make money,” Trevor said.

It was 2000 – the Internet economy was still only teetering – and Trevor was smart enough about business to recognize a once-in-a-lifetime laundering opportunity. Pacing the porch he explained his e-commerce plan, and the next day we pooled our talent and started a web design company. Within two weeks we were making money. It was that easy, Trevor made things happen.

22 September 2001, twelve am
A year later, I stood in the back of a packed living room watching four little punks fumble through covers of Weezer, Phish, and Radiohead. The dozen freshmen off to my left kept shooting avid glances at the front door, as if either John Belushi or their parents would burst in and change this wild party for better or worse. It didn’t occur to me that they might be watching for police; I’d been twenty-one for months and was never much of a drinker. Nursing my usual cup of coffee in a crowd of beer guzzlers, I wondered why I was still at the party.

Lyle had insisted the band was not to be missed; that was the only reason I had squeezed myself into a closet with shag carpeting and Bob Marley posters. Trevor, Frank, and Lyle were supposed to meet me there, but all three had called within an hour, apologizing for ditching me and going to The Lakeshore Brewing Company instead.

I didn’t care for bars; the scene reminded me of the old days, raves and clubs. For the same reason I usually avoided parties. I pried myself out of the crowd and onto the small, semicircular porch. Lighting a Marlboro, I wondered how my night could amount to anything. It was only twelve; I couldn’t just go home and sleep.

From behind, I heard an insistent, familiar voice. I turned and there was my high school friend Sara, as in Samsara – that was how she introduced herself. Sara’s half Bengali, half Irish, but everyone at our high school assumed she was black. Favoring cardigans with tank-tops, Sara would joke that she worked a sexy Grandma look. “We’re just as bad as prom monarchs,” she was arguing, “Someday we’re gonna be telling our kids how college was the time of our life. That’s what my parents say, and it’s scary– it’s sad.”

“So how ‘bout that band?” I asked, stepping to their side of the porch. I didn’t know Sara’s companion but, catching her eye color, I thought she was cactus-rose cute in her cowboy hat. The girl even had a paper cup of coffee to match my own. The moment was dreamy until she spoke.

“Weezer is terrible, but Radiohead is worse,” Chloe shouted in reply. A couple hunches told me that yelling was her normal volume, and bashing was her normal mode of conversation. What Chloe dislikes defines what she’s like. She hates ten times more acts than the average fan knows, and likes only acts that are either obscure or inarguably, timelessly great.

“It’s like this,” Chloe explained. “Weezer made fun rock in the mid-nineties but now they’re a bad tribute band of themselves. Radiohead stopped making Radiohead albums with Kid A – Kraftwerk could have released that record in the late seventies. Past greatness doesn’t justify present mediocrity, y’ know?”

In three sentences she had shelled my two favorite bands. Like any insecure elitist, meeting someone more exclusionary made me want her to include me. I asked what she did like. Chloe listed three albums: Wild Love by Smog, Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement, and, obviously, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. After a drag from my smoke, I sang an excerpt from the last of these: What a beautiful face/I have found in this place/That is circling around the sun, and by the third word she was singing along. After, we discussed the recording with the enthusiasm of birders who’d seen the same Kirtland Warbler.

Then Chloe cut an effusive critique mid-syllable. “Wait, who are you?” We exchanged names. “How do you know Sara?” Chloe asked, and her friend told her we’d gone to school together, speaking of our days in computer club with embarrassing relish.

Sara’s anecdote, in short: as a senior, I attempted to buy the office of Computer Club President. Attempted, because I gave a dollar to an exact majority of fellow members – in advance. Sara decided to teach me a lesson, voted for the other guy, and cost me the office. Thus I had the indignity of writing on my application to CDU: “Vice President, Computer Club” – a position the student who beat me created out of pity.

“I was in computer club and math club and physics club and chemistry club and…” Chloe stopped when she realized her mannerisms were being parroted and parodied by Sara.

Three thick-necked guys in white hats slammed the screen door behind us. They brushed against my narrow shoulders, nudging me into Chloe. She smelled like coffee beans roasted with ginger. Once on the street, one of the guys pointed at the cowgirl and yelled “Ye-ha!” as the group faded into shadows from the blue moonlight and orange street lamps. “I hate that shit,” Chloe complained, standing just inches from me. “I’ve worn this hat for ten years ‘cause I grew up on a farm, but since that Madonna music video, guys yell at me all the time, Ye-ha.”

Sara dismissed this and asked Chloe what she wanted to play on her radio show that night.

“I don’t know. We’ve still got three hours till we have to worry about music.”

“You spend half your day worrying about music, show or not,” Sara said, taking out and lighting up another cigarette. I followed suit, and smiled, knowing my night had just gotten longer.

22 June 2002, three am
Tonight her show goes great. The student radio station, W-Dover, is one of only a couple dozen of free-form stations left in the country. What this means is that Chloe can play whatever she wants, as long as she mixes her rotation up enough – Igor Stravinsky rubs elbows with Elliott Smith and Charlie Parker is birding until he gets spun right afterward. Broadcasts beam from the basement of the Student Activities Building, a standard, boring late twentieth-century construction.

Within W-Dover are several rooms shelving music from floor to ceiling. A massive collection of vinyl lines the walls of the studio. CDs have a room of their own, while hip-hop is segregated off in a messy closet. We’re bouncing from stack to stack of music. I keep throwing her cuts with lyrics like You are always on my mind, and Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face? but she doesn’t take hints.

As the show is just getting underway, Frank stops by the station on the way home from his boyfriend Lance’s place. A cigarette’s between his lips, and his lighter’s sparked before Chloe reprimands him. Frank apologizes while scratching pale hair rigid from product. In our house, he’s the homemaker – pausing between daily sweeping and mopping to sip cheap Chardonnay from a Mason jar, shaming his housemates into weekly room cleans. While scrubbing, he plays independent-label rock and roll albums that catch my ear, albums I haven’t heard but, after listening, burn to buy.

Until I met Chloe, Frank introduced me to almost every album I own. He revels in such introductions. Every couple months, Frank dumps Lance to pursue a straight boy. Frank makes the cutie a wondrous mix CD, makes an advance, gets indirectly rejected, and makes up with Lance again. I like it when Frank’s single – he cleans more thoroughly and more often, and I hear more new music.

While alphabetizing the stack of albums we’ve yet to play, Frank asks what’s playing now. Chloe saves me the embarrassment of telling my roommate that I’m the guy he’s hearing. “Wait, this is you, Paul? This is…good,” Frank says in surprise. His tiny hands stroke the shape of a goatee his boy-smooth chin could never grow. A blank stare washes over eyes that cross when Frank drinks and thinks too much. “You’re good, Paul,” he comments when my song ends, “and I’m tired.” Frank turns his gelled head towards Chloe, ignoring her finger pointing to the glowing ‘On the Air’ sign. “I love you guys. G’ night,” he says, blowing a kiss on his way out.

“We love you, too, Frank,” Chloe says into the microphone, “G’ Morning. It’s about twenty after three, and we’re here with our special guest Paul Clemens. You just heard the title track off his EP ‘You Mix My Metaphors’, Before that was the Flaming Lips with “Do You Realize,” Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and ‘New Partner’ by Will Oldham under his Palace moniker. Now, Paul, what do you write your songs about?”

“Girls,” I state. Chloe points to the oversized headphones hanging on my mic, and I strap them over my curls.

“Tell us about your middle name, what it means to this business,” she commands, and reclines in her chair.

“It’s a fucking curse,” I slip, and she sits up, brings a hand across her neck to remind me that it’s illegal for anyone to use the dirty seven on the air. “My mom’s maiden name, my middle name, is McCartney. I’m bound to be a disappointment. I mean, George Washington Carver didn’t run for president. He made peanut butter.”

“What about, like, Martin Luther and Martin Luther King?” Chloe asks.

“Well, I guess they were both good preachers. I don’t know, it’s just a lot to live up to, y’ know?” I comment. Chloe agrees and reminds listeners to call in requests, and, glaring at me, dedicates “You’re So Vain” to Sara, a Carly Simon fanatic.

At quarter-to-four I fetch us Cokes from a late night pizza place a few blocks from the station. Chloe never asks why I stay up with her till sunrise a couple Fridays a month, why I get her drinks, why I call each cup of coffee she makes me the best I’ve ever had. Like a lot of pretty girls, she has become accustomed to gentlemanly kindness.

Her show ends with a beautiful rasp warbling I’ve got reservations about so many things/But not about you. We walk south down Madison. Her house lies where the street dead-ends into Packard. I’m counting the blocks. When we pass the second dormitory on the left, we pause to part.

We hug, and only then she walks across the street backwards, toward her house, talking about the plans for Trevor’s party tomorrow. She finishes her thought, then waves goodbye. Before she can turn, I call out “I love you,” for the first time.

In early May, just before Trevor left, I cornered Chloe on my porch and confessed: ”I’m in love with you.” Chloe replied that I didn’t love myself enough to be in love with anyone else, and changed the subject. But “in love with” and “love” are distinct phrases – each loaded with an armory of implications.

“I love you, too,” Chloe calls back. I feel as light and breathless as a moon man.

“No, really!” I yell. She smiles and shakes her head as she turns to walk straight home. I call Trevor, knowing the time difference between Michigan and California, hoping he’s still awake. I enthuse and fret about the exchange. He mutters that his plane leaves for Detroit in five hours, begs me to let him sleep. “’K,” I say, “I’ll talk to you today, tomorrow, whatever. G’ night –G’ morning.”

As I walk the last block to my house, I look through my bedroom window to a still lamp burning in the crimson dawn.

Dylan James Brock got his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Hunter College in New York City. He has worked as a reader at the Paris Review, a barista at Starbucks, a research assistant for author Kathryn Harrison, a dog walker, an adjunct teaching writing in Michigan and New York City, a sales associate at Best Buy, a founder of the record label Jumberlack Media, a ride attendant at a water park, and a freelance web developer.