I went to only one Grateful Dead show. It was such a perfect experience that despite having chances to go again, and despite trying to prolong that perfect Dead-space by driving around in my '80 Sirocco and listening only to bogarted tapes from some Red Rocks concert that I didn’t even attend, I never went to another. It was at SPAC, this natural outdoor amphitheater a few miles outside of the bucolic town of Saratoga, and I had gone with this other boyfriend and a few friends. We’d all piled in someone’s car, and we’d all dropped acid, everyone except whoever it was who was driving home.
The show was sold out. We parked in a field and hiked to the metal gates of SPAC, and someone kept watch for renta-cops as the rest of us clambered over the seven-foot fence. A tree helped. When I hit the ground, the acid hit too. I spent the next few hours somewhere near the Dead’s sound board, transfixed by the lights going flashy-flash, the noodle-dancers’ languid arms, and the music that echoed my very soul itself, man.
The last song was The Crickets’ “Not Fade Away.” “A love for real, not fade away,” and the last few chords echoed into oblivion well after Jerry and the boys had left the stage a glittering blank, all but its magic carpet and the violence of flowers strewn as at a bull ring.
This past Saturday night, I got an email from an ex-boyfriend, a man whom I’ve not seen in almost thirty years. I dated Ben when I was twenty; he was sixteen. It was in lots of ways both the last teenage relationship of my life and the first adult one. When I rifle through my internal Rolodex, I realize that Ben was the first man I fell in love with (not, however, the first human; that was Marta), and he’s one of the very few whom I continue to love, across time and distance and absence and all that goes with nearly thirty years of time passing like a sludgy quicksilver second.
So there it was, an email in my box with Ben’s name. I read it with that crawling horrorsloth of delight doing that frisson dance in my entrails. It’s an eldritch fucking experience to have someone reach out and touch you from decades away. As it turns out, it’s really rather painful to have the first man you ever loved, a man who wasn’t a man then but given his Gmail profile picture of a graying dude a bit wispy at the temples clutching a baby like a life-raft in a storm is a man now, email you out of the digital black. As it turns out, even when he writes to you lovely things, things about how lucky he was to have you introduce him to sex—and you did, you were his first, but then he was yours too, you just didn’t know it then—even when he writes lovely things like that, it turns out it's really rather painful.
As it turns out, when you get a series of emails (only three, but three makes a series, at least it does in serial killings and baseball; you need at least three, not all at once, to make a series) and one after another laves you with the love and the language, the quirkiness, the remembrance of making out in police cruisers, and the whimsy that made you fall in love all those years ago, as it turns out it’s really rather painful.
So the analytic part of the brain kicks in. You look at the picture of the man white-knuckling his new babe and the time-stamp on the email, and you imagine him and his baby and his new baby’s mother and you know how it is with sex and men and new babies. What with the crying and the leaking and the general ambiance of what-the-fuckedness. The past glows extra-Polaroid rosy when you and yours have been sleepless, or he and his, to be clear. It’s no small eight-pound red-faced squalling nothing that drives a man to wonder what the beauty he to whom he offered his virginity is doing these days. Or nights. Whatever.
And so too kicks in the part that defends with the well-shined armor of snark. It’s hard to pull the dead humor punches when you’re returning emails to a man whom you loved and he’s hoping that your writing is thick with love because that is the word that still gives him the internal flicker-flips. You find it hard not to get your inner Brit on and respond with the humor so arid-it’s-acid. You do your best not to. You do, but it’s so goddamn painful.
And you distance yourself with pop music and too many episodes of mindless television that you boot like heroin, if you had ever done heroin, which you didn’t. It’s not a classic lost weekend, but it’s lost all the same. Because there’s nothing like the email in the dead of night from the first man you ever loved to bring it home that you’re home alone. Another Saturday Night and you ain’t got nobody. Your use of the second-person pronoun is tiresome even to you.
The vampire movie The Hunger came out when I was dating Ben. It played at the one independent movie theatre that Burlington, Vermont had. We walked past the marquee and read the tagline for the film. “Nothing human loves forever,” it said.
I do, I mean I will, I said to him. Ben laughed and told me that was impossible. I’d forget him, he said. He broke up with me a few weeks later. It wasn’t his fault; I understood that the time had passed. I was still in love with him, and so my understanding was shot through with hurt. I got it, but I still loved.
Buddy Holly wrote “Not Fade Away” for his band, The Crickets, when he was twenty. He had the luxury of dying young.