When I was seventeen, I had a dream that Liz Phair’s pale, bloodless corpse appeared in my bedroom. She was sitting upright on my vanity stool next to the window that faced the old oak. She had Xs sewn across her eyes and she was mummified in saran wrap. A leather leash attached to a choke collar that hung from her blue-ish neck. “So that’s how it is,” I said to myself. Dragging her corpse around with me like a giant cocoon for life seemed oddly fitting.
I told my high school therapist—I had a therapist then—about the dream. At that age, I thought dreams could teach me something.
“What does Liz Phair mean to you?” Sharon said, as if she’d ever heard Liz Phair’s music, and with the tone of, “I know what Liz Phair means to me … what does she mean to you?”
This question was unanswerable. Back then, Liz Phair used the word “cunt” in ballads. Her voice—often out of tune, scuffing notes lower than her natural range, raw and split open like a cold sore—embodied the spirit of a villainous comic book chick. “She’s a hard-ass,” I said, chewing my gum, tapping my fingers on the arm of the chair.
I heard some of my friends in the hall chanting, “No institution day!” in unison. We’d all gotten it into our heads that we would not go to class all day. In those days, we were all enamored with the ’60s, and we thought that skipping class was the same thing as protesting Vietnam. That was the curse of Gen X—all the ’60s rebellion with none of the meaning.
I laughed and shook my head. Sharon smiled. I could tell she recognized the naiveté of us kids even though she tried to hide it.
“Perhaps she seems bigger than life?” she said.
From the table, I snatched up a stress ball shaped like a bald man’s fat head. I mushed my thumb into it and watched the latex slowly retighten, erasing my thumb print. “I guess,” I said.
“Perhaps you identify with her.” Her voice was doing that quiet whispery thing that it did when she thought she was getting somewhere with me. “Maybe through her music, she expresses a resistance to being victimized.” I hated the intimacy of that whispery voice.
The first time I heard Liz Phair, Henry was supposed to be driving me home from his apartment on Carroll Street. Out of boredom and because he had a car and his own apartment, I’d hung out at his place that night. He lived on the second floor of an old Victorian building in the city of Poughkeepsie. He had a couch, a TV, and a bed. We smoked a joint and he put on MTV.
“Don’t you want to try it with someone as experienced as me?” This was the fifth time that night he’d given me the “pitch.” Already at that age, I suspected that anyone who had to advertise his ability so blatantly generally had very little to begin with. Furthermore, I knew that boys responded to neglectful girls, not giddy ones.
“No,” I said, chewing on some peanuts and watching a commercial for Tampax.
He was a restless sort of guy, a dick-arounder. “I should go soon,” I said. “Can you give me a ride?”
He leaned towards me like he was gonna kiss me. I let him graze my lips with his—the heat shot straight to my thighs and it took everything I had to not lean into his nectarine lips.
“You’re a dick,” I said.
He fell face first towards the floor, caught himself halfway down, and started doing push-ups. He did five, maybe ten, then sat on the floor and whipped off his shirt, jutted out his chest. The ceiling light moving over his shiny shoulders.
“It was like some afterschool special. ‘I never thought it could happen to me,’ … blah blah blah.” Sharon encouraged me to write about it in my poems, but that seemed as useless to me as our sessions.
“Well, obviously, she is a victim,” I said. “She’s dead in my dreams.”
Sharon looked down then.
Henry pulled the car into a field on the outskirts of town, yanking a wrinkled joint out of his jeans pocket. He shut off his headlights. Night fell deeper in the fields outside town. The dark enveloped you like an enormous, greedy womb. The crickets were so loud I felt like one was perched on my earlobe.
I listened to Henry’s wet lips pulling on the joint, the cheap, seedy weed popping as he inhaled. Then he handed it over. I toked, passed it back. Soon there was a mere roach left and he put it out on the side-view mirror.
“It’s a new moon,” he said. Then he leaned over me, a rigid black shadow pushing against me like a moving wall.
It was then I felt—well, after I felt his erect dick pushing against my leg like a cattle prod—the looming sensation of something to come that couldn’t be taken back.
I’d heard women on Phil Donahue use the term “date rape.” Crying over their hankies, whining about how unfair it was. When I recalled them afterwards, I found them annoying.
Trying to push him off was so much effort that I just gave in to the limpness seizing my arms. He was determined, locked over me.
That was when I heard Liz on the radio. The bluesy guitar, her raw voice, holding me, pulling me away, defining my change like a perfect square drawn on a page.
“If she can’t survive, what hope do I have?” I said to Sharon.
I already knew the answer to my question. Sharon would have to say, “But you did survive” or, “You are surviving”—something to that effect. But that wasn’t the honest answer. What she couldn’t say, though I knew it to be true, was that surviving is just about all that any of us can hope for.
When Henry finished, he let out a muffled groan that echoed in my gut. He yanked himself out and zipped up. “So,” he said. “did I pop your cherry?”
“Will you shut up?” I said. “I’m trying to listen to the radio.”
In just a few years, Liz Phair’s voice changed into an over-produced mess of smooth hollers and girly cries for love. Her music had none of the bluesy grit or feminist angst of her first album. After disappointingly tossing her second CD into a junk drawer in my kitchen, I did some research and learned that her first album had been a one-off, a concept album, a song-by-song answer to the Rolling Stone’s Exile on Main St. A woman’s reaction, a mere retort.
Years later, I saw an interview where Liz was asked how she felt about losing so many loyal fans because of her “poppy” sound. Her big round eyes sparkled as a grin zipped open her mouth. I changed the channel before she answered.
But youth doesn’t die so willingly. Every now and then, I dream of Liz’s corpse, those Xs staring at me from the other side of my bedroom. And when I wake up, I make a note in my mind to tell Sharon about it during our session later in the day.
Then I realize that Sharon has become someone I “used to know,” that the time for divulging is over. Just as I suspected at seventeen, Liz’s corpse will always be waiting in my old room, ransacking my dreams of mediocrity, while the real Liz is out in the world, helping her teenage son fill out college applications and study for the SATs. She’s no longer the Liz of those nascent songs—she never was at all.
We all grow up and consume ourselves eventually. So in the end, I figure, Liz and I are about even.