Emo Night

Lindsey Peters Berg

The boys next to us crushed beer cans with their Converse. Ruth and I were linked at the elbow, prancing in place to generate heat as we waited in line outside the venue. I kept bending my fingers inside the sleeves of my zip-up. It was purple and from American Apparel. A singer from a band I liked had the same one, so I felt cool for wearing it even though it wasn’t warm enough. I told myself that once we were inside, I’d be glad I didn’t bring a coat. It was impossible to dress for a winter concert in Chicago. 

The sky was one big cloud and the city looked black and white, like an old movie. A passing driver slowed down and turned his head toward the long line, peering at the groups of teenagers huddled like rosary beads. His chest pressed against his puffy fleece gloves, bracing the steering wheel. He looked confused as he attempted to decode us, the way we took angled photos on our Canon PowerShots and tried to be loud when we laughed, the way we looked like stretched out or fleshy versions of each other and all had a lot of hair. Then I watched his eyes land upon my body, taking me in, taking in my metal mouth and black skinny jeans and twisted rubber bracelets. I unlocked my arm from Ruth’s and flipped my hood up. He turned back toward the road and kept driving. His car tires spun and kicked up gray slush, the soupy remains of yesterday’s snow. 

Busses hummed at their stops on either side of the street while passengers shuffled on and off. The L train thundered to a halt above us for the millionth time, and in my head I said, doors closing, matching the cadence of the automated male voice coming through the speakers. My ears were so cold they burned. The show didn’t start until seven, but we came early to try to get barricade. Ruth’s sixteenth birthday was last week and this was the first time we didn’t have to get dropped off at the venue by one of our moms. She had never driven from the suburbs to the city before, and I spent the whole ride praying that we didn’t die before I got to see First Runner-Up perform “Banana Split Wrists.” 

Do you want one? The guy next to us pulled a can of beer from his jacket’s inside pocket. 

We shook our heads no and he turned away from us, losing interest. 

Ruth leaned into me, her side bangs falling in front of her eye. She lowered her voice. Why did he just look like such a drug dealer when he did that?

It was probably roofied, I said, and we laughed.

The line started moving forward and I squeezed Ruth. She said, Oh my God, we’re moving. I made a high-pitched noise and said that my vagina wasn’t ready. A long-haired guy at the door took my ticket and I hoped he hadn’t heard me. He clicked a plastic wristband onto my arm that said FOREVER YOUNG TOUR and I knew I wouldn’t take it off for weeks. Then he held my hands and drew black X’s on them, and my skin was so cold that his Sharpie felt like a knife. That fucking hurt, Ruth said after he did hers, and we shook our hands out as if that would help. 

Let’s buy merch at the end so we don’t have to hold it, I told her. I want my hands to be free in case Jamie crowd surfs. 

Oh my God, she laughed. You’re gonna be such a weird perv if he does.

My checkered slip ons clashed against the earth-tone patterned tiles of the venue’s hallway. Crystal chandeliers hung from marble arched ceilings above us, shining a soft gold light down onto the droves of painted black eyes buying water and flirting with merch guys. At the end of the hall, a winding double staircase led to a balcony section that only VIPs and old people sat in. I looked through an open doorway and saw the wide maple floor, the massive stage set up on metal risers. Ruth grabbed my hand and we nearly ran, pushing our skinny bodies through the developing crowd.

We didn’t make it to the barricade, but we were close. There was one really tall guy in front of us—there always was—and even before the opener started playing I could predict the pattern of his head nods. I pointed to him and started moving my head like it was top-heavy, thrusting it forward and down in quick, exaggerated motions. Ruth watched me and laughed, scrunching her nose like, I know. Two girls to our right had platinum hair with black horizontal stripes dyed into the tips. One had on a Clandestine Industries hoodie and the other a long-sleeved Invader Zim shirt with thumbholes. They were really doing the whole thing. Behind us a couple of teenies were talking about how hot Jamie was, and I rolled my eyes. I could tell they didn’t care about the music like I did.

The lights dimmed and the opening band walked out wearing sweater vests. It was gimmicky, but it matched their nerdy dance aesthetic. They played synthesizers and all stomped and bounced a lot. When they finished their set, the energy around us shifted. People started talking louder and inching forward. My Vans stuck to gummy beer on the floor but I let them sink in. I didn’t want to lose our spot. There were some guys in the pit, but mostly girls. Their laughs broke out across the room like fireworks. Roadies plugged cords into amps and one of them walked to the microphone stand in front. He twisted a knob and pulled it up, adjusting it for Jamie’s height. The whole thing took forever. Then no one was on the stage and it looked like a room in a dollhouse. Ruth shouted, Come onnnnn, and the shitty music on the loudspeakers cut out as if the universe had heard her. 

The venue turned black and we all screamed from the backs of our throats. The crowd rushed forward, flattening our chests against the kids in front of us. Ruth held my hand. Our arms moved like an accordion as we were pulled closer and further by the waves of bodies. The drumbeat of First Runner-Up’s newest single filled the air and I felt it in my stomach before I heard it with my ears. Silhouettes bobbed and rocked and bucked around us, moving harmoniously, existing on the same frequency.

The lights were still off, but I knew his shape. I watched the shadow of Jamie move from the wings toward center stage. For a moment he stood in front of the microphone, silent, maybe taking a deep breath, and in the fog I could only see the curve of his knee bending. My mouth was dry. A spotlight turned on over him and shone down. The crowd moved forward and I could feel Ruth’s nails in my skin. 

You said you’d call me but now I’m calling you out…

We sang with him, breathless but making it work. He was ethereal. 

In between verses, Jamie told us to make some Illi-noise and I laugh-screamed. Elliott, the guitarist and backup singer, had flat-ironed hair and wore a flannel halfway unbuttoned. Jamie walked over and put his hand in Elliott’s shirt, touching his nipple. Elliott laughed and made eye contact with some girls in the front row. Ruth looked at me and I fanned myself dramatically. Jamie walked across the stage, intermittently collapsing into head bangs, until he reached Gregg. Gregg plucked at the bass, arms fully extended because he wore it so low on his body. Jamie got on his knees and put his face close to the strings, nodding his head with the music. Gregg took a step backward as Jamie swatted his hands to the side wildly, theatrically, as if urging Gregg to move his bass aside. Jamie pushed his head back and forth, mimicking a blowjob. Girls in the crowd screamed and wooed. Gregg turned his back and looked at Ronnie, the drummer, who was straight-faced. 

They played more songs from their latest album, including my favorite, and a few from their first. The crowd swelled and halfway through the set Ruth and I got to the second row. Jamie was coated in sweat by then, slick like we all were as our bodies skimmed each other. He asked the crowd, How you doing ladies, and everyone screamed. He didn’t ask about the guys, which made me feel powerful, like this wasn’t for them. 

Someone threw a bra on stage and Jamie put it on and kept singing. He squeezed the bra’s pink cups and kissed the air during a guitar solo. Ruth and I looked at each other and I could see in her eyes what she was thinking, that this was so Jamie. He loved sexual jokes and my stomach twisted when he made them. I hadn’t ever had that feeling until last year, when I first saw him. I went to Ruth’s after school one day and her sister was watching Steven’s Untitled Rock Show in the living room and there was Jamie, wearing a shirt that said To Write Love On Her Arms. I saw the flat white of his hips when he raised his hand to brush the hair out of his eyes. Something inside me unlocked. His jeans were ripped at the knee and so tight they rendered his studded belt useless. He looked so different from the guys in teen magazines I used to read, empty six-packed vessels that I felt obligated to fawn over. With Jamie, it was easy and real. He was so gorgeous that he was not human but a creature, and I was feral for him. 

After a slow song, Jamie said, We need to raise the heat in here a little bit.

Elliott strummed his guitar three times as we all cheered. Jamie flapped his arms upward, like he could will our screams with his hands. 

He lowered his voice and said, And what better way to do that than bring out a beautiful lady, right? She’s backstage, and she’s ready to party. Do you want to meet her?

The crowd’s woos were tempered at the mention of a mysterious beauty that wasn’t us. A man in the balcony section shot his fist up, excited to have his moment. I didn’t know why I felt nervous. Jamie laughed and said, Gregg, can you acquire the beautiful lady, please?

Gregg walked to the wing of the stage and reached his hand toward a roadie, who passed him an inflatable doll. The first thing that I noticed was that her head looked like a bowling pin. Gregg lifted her up to toss her over his shoulder, but she was so stuffed with air that she didn’t bend. The doll had no clothes. She rested stiff and straight across his shoulder as Gregg walked toward Jamie, who grabbed her by the foot. Her head hit the stage when Gregg let go of her. She was upside down when Jamie said, Ladies and gentlemen, Caroline! That was when I noticed a pink hole in between her legs, smaller and more oblong than the round, fleshy cavity that made up her mouth. Her breasts were conical with no nipples, a lateral seam dividing theoretical cleavage from theoretical underboob. She had yellow paint at the crown of her head and her lips were red. 

Jamie brought the doll’s mouth to his ear and made an exaggerated expression of concern. Wait, what was that? Jamie asked. He paused, as if listening to her whisper. You said you’re cold? Jamie looked into the audience and whined, Aw, Chicago, Caroline’s boobies are cold! 

Some girls laughed in the crowd and others cheered. Elliott dragged his eyes along the front row as his fingers rested on the neck of his guitar. 

Caroline’s going to go crowd surfing as we play our next song, Jamie said, his silver rings tapping against his microphone. But we’re going to need your help warming her up. So here’s the deal: whoever puts the most clothes on Caroline gets to come and dance on stage with us. How does that sound, Chicago?

The crowd screamed and smiled, looking around at each other expectantly. 

Funny story, Elliott said into his mic. I caught her in bed with Jamie earlier today. Hopefully someone cleaned her out. Jamie made a disgusted face while he and Elliott laughed. He threw Caroline into the audience and everyone cheered, which made them laugh harder. When the girl in front of me stretched her arms toward Caroline, I saw pink, puffy scars peeking through wide silicone bracelets that said PARTY, EPIC FAIL, and RUTHLESS. I reached my hands up too and my body was taken by the tide of the crowd. My feet were an inch off the ground and I was floating, propped up by the bones and bodies of the kids surrounding me. The movement of the crowd pulled me to my right, toward Caroline because everyone was trying to touch her, but I looked in front of me and watched Jamie and just wanted to be pulled toward him. He was singing a song that I loved, one that I sometimes listened to at night with the lights off when my mom was drunk and my dad was sleeping on the couch. I screamed the lyrics. I thought if I looked at Jamie long enough and shouted loud enough that he would have to see me. I hoped that he could see on my face how much this song meant to me. The way I scribbled the words in the margins of my journal when I didn’t want to keep writing about my stupid life. 

Caroline drifted through a river of raised white arms. Jamie watched her while he sang. He pulled his microphone off the stand and walked toward Elliott, who was stroking his guitar. He rested his forehead on Elliott’s shoulder. Jamie closed his eyes and felt the music. Still connected to Elliott, he spun his head like the Earth on its axis until their backs pressed against each other and Jamie was facing the lights above him. His neck was long and hairless, stretched along the curve of Elliott’s shoulder, skintight around the angles of his jaw. I watched that part of him so closely, that herculean square hinge of his mouth, now open with ecstasy, and I imagined his tongue in lazy euphoria, sprawled against the bottom row of his teeth. I banked this mental image for later. The space between the hem of his t-shirt and the brass belt buckle with a J on it, the coarse channel of body hair that was practically a downward arrow. My mouth opened and I leaned forward, wanting. 

Jamie opened his eyes suddenly, as if remembering where he was, and turned his head toward the crowd. I followed his gaze and saw Caroline, still naked, sink into the crowd and re-emerge with a Wheeling High School Track & Field t-shirt on. Jamie screamed, Now we’re talking, Chicago, keep it coming. 

The lights shone down over that part of the crowd and everyone was looking at a girl wearing a baby blue cami. I figured by the way she was beaming and pink that she was the one who took her shirt off. Elliott strummed the closing notes of the song and Jamie said, That’s it, Chicago? Just a shirt? 

Caroline bounced on fingertips, pantless. Jamie gestured toward the girl in the cami and said, Okay, get your ass up here, girlie. 

She was pretty far back in the crowd but everyone let her pass them and hop toward the stage. Jamie whispered something in Elliott’s ear and Elliott nodded, smiling. Jamie said that he wanted us to sing along the words to the next one, because he knew we knew them. A couple of kids boosted the girl up against the barricade and a security guard grabbed her by the waist and pulled her over. Her arms and legs were rigid and long when he lifted her onto the stage. 

Jamie asked her name and shouted, Give it up for Amanda, everybody. Ronnie made easy strokes on the snare and clenched the hi-hat with his foot. Gregg examined his instrument, prepping for the next song, but Elliott and Jamie watched Amanda. Her body was small and she kept turning her head between Jamie and the audience, like she wasn’t sure where to look. She was curling and uncurling her fingers at her sides, making the Xs on her hands slither. Jamie put his hand on her lower back and guided her toward a small piece of tape on the stage floor, in between him and Elliott, and told her to dance there while they played the next song. I stared at the space on her back that he touched, like I expected it to leave a tattoo. I wanted to be her. 

Elliott played two notes and the crowd bloomed. Bodies pressed against my back and I pushed against the bodies in front of me. The girl to my left raised her arm in the air and the sweat of it brushed my cheek. We all knew this song. It was their latest album’s lead single, one of those rare songs that played inside Hot Topic but also reached the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Ruth and I looked at each other, wanting to be together in this moment. I jumped up and down and sang, tossing my hair around.

On stage, Amanda was bending her knees and wagging her shoulders. Her wide mouth changed shapes with the chorus, but it was obvious by the way her lips moved that she didn’t know the words to the verses. Ruth noticed too. She turned to me and mouthed, What the fuck? I mouthed back, What the fuck?, so she knew we were on the same page. Amanda’s hair was matted down and wet around her face, but frizzy and triangular in back. The cami she wore rolled up a little at the waist when she moved her hips, a robotic back and forth like a metronome keeping time for a song that wasn’t this one. She balled her hands into fists and gestured, shaking invisible maracas. Jamie looked at her from the side of his eyes and then closed them and kept singing. I thought he looked annoyed. He opened his eyes and looked again, saw that her movements were still timid and small, and waved his arms up and down. Let’s go, Amanda, he said, Give us more!

She laughed and put her hands to her cheeks. Some people in the crowd cheered but I heard Ruth and others boo. I yelled, Come on, Amanda! 

A girl in front of me turned around and laughed. I knew that we were all thinking the same thing. Amanda was fucking this up to an astonishing degree. She was next to Jamie and his voice and his hair and his body, and she was doing Barney dances. She could have gone up behind him and put her hands on his stomach. She could have done something sexy and gotten him to watch her. She could have stood on her toes and sung into his microphone with him, her lips close to his.

Amanda moved her body in different ways to try to appease Jamie and the audience, but we had already turned against her. She jumped urgently and kicked her knees up in an awkward way, highlighting her grotesque olive-green Pumas. More people booed. She put her hair behind her ears and smiled with a closed mouth, not even trying to sing anymore. I thought about how hot those lights must be as I watched drops of sweat sink down the side of her face. Jamie’s legs were spread wide and he was bouncing on his toes, soft threads of black denim swinging like a pendulum from the rip in his knee. He made an O with his lips and bent his body forward, throwing his head around along with the guitars. His hair hung like a soaked pom-pom. Amanda stood still, only wringing her hands as she watched him. When Jamie flipped back up, I felt his sweat sprinkle on my forehead like holy water. Gold stage lights reflected on the crown of his head and his blue eyes looked bright and unearthly. He moved his mouth close to the microphone, looked at Amanda and said, Dance, bitch! 

Gregg and Elliott laughed. The crowd cheered. I threw my head back, pleased and laughing. Amanda danced.

When the song ended, Jamie gave her a nod. She had to sit down on the stage and slide to the ground to get off. The bald security guard watched, but didn’t help. She pulled her sagging pants up by the belt loops and walked toward the emergency exit. First Runner-Up played one more song after that and then vanished. In the dark, we all begged them with screams to come back. When they finally did, Jamie was holding a fifth of vodka. We knew this song was their last, so we danced with passion.

And then it was over, and Ruth and I walked out of the venue to a blast of cold Chicago air against the wet of our shirts and hair and necks. This feels so good, she said, and it did until I was squeezing my elbows and shivering five minutes later. 

Her car was a few blocks away, past the skinny three-story brick buildings with black metal fences and a playground that looked haunted. The skeleton of a dismembered bicycle was chained to a sign that said No Parking When Snow is Over Two Inches and I had the strange sensation of feeling bad for it, the way it was deemed useless, then abandoned. I distracted myself by remembering Jamie, his body, his hair, the buzz of seeing him in front of me. Ruth’s shoulder brushed mine as we took fast steps, exhaling only when the light of a streetlamp was above us. We weren’t used to being in the city alone. My dad talked about Chicago like getting snatched up and thrown into a van was statistically probable. I felt myself relax when we got into her white Toyota Corolla and closed the doors. The safety of her fingerless gloves in the empty cup holder, her tape adapter connected to my iPod Video. 

She drove on side streets and we only talked when I read her directions from the MapQuest printout we’d brought. We were always quiet after shows, joined in a sullen embrace of our post-concert depression. I jumped when Ruth asked me, Which way?, and told her to merge onto I-90. 

Warmth passed through the car heater’s plastic fins, drying my shirt and returning feeling to my fingers. I bent them and my bones cracked. Ruth had both hands on the steering wheel and was driving the speed limit. First Runner-Up’s latest album played as I looked out the window next to me. In my head, I was trying to remember the order of the setlist so I could write it in my journal. I was trying to remember the length of Jamie’s fingers, his chipped black nails, wrapped around his microphone. Cars zipped by like bustling ghosts, dim washes of color translucent with haste. It almost felt like coincidence that the driver of the red sedan one lane over was moving at just about the same speed as our car. Maybe that’s why I held his gaze when I saw him looking at me. It should have been awkward, us staring at each other, and I should have immediately looked away just from the sheer embarrassment of seeing and being seen, like I was used to doing when I caught someone’s eye in the hallways at school. But it was so peculiar how our cars mirrored each other, as if connected by an invisible string. His eyes were hooded and he was wearing a tank top, the kind of shirt that I’d heard people call a wife beater. I wondered why he would wear a summer shirt when it was so cold, and maybe, on another day, that would have been the moment I looked away from him, when my thoughts became dull and meandering, but I didn’t look away, because with the bottom of my eyes I could see that something unusual was happening below his steering wheel. 

Flashes of flesh came in and out of view like a disco ball catching the light. He watched me and I looked lower, toward the movement, toward his lap, while his left hand jerked up and down and his right hand gripped the wheel. I thought I must be wrong, I must be misunderstanding what I was seeing, until he lifted his hips up once, then twice, and I saw his penis stiff and unflinching inside his hand. I looked back to his eyes, seeking safety from what he was showing me. Gaze still fixed, he took his hand off his penis and hit the light above his rearview mirror. He returned his hand and thrust his body up again, under the golden glow. I realized then, somehow for the first time, that he wanted me to see. He was performing. 

His car, braking to stay slow beside Ruth’s. My braces, sharp against the inside of my lip. 

My voice came from the back of my head when I said, softly, Is that guy jacking off? 

Ruth asked, What?, and twisted her neck toward where I was looking. She quickly turned her attention back to the road and straightened out the wheel. What’s happening?

The man dislodged his eyes from mine and hit the gas, charging forward and weaving in and out of lanes to get away. He disappeared into the distance. I looked at other drivers as they passed us: one yelling into her cell phone, one picking his nose, another moving her mouth to music and nodding her head. I might have thought I imagined it all if I didn’t still feel his gaze. I didn’t know yet that I would never forget his eyes.

I think—I think I saw a guy jacking off. 

What? she asked again.

In his car, I said. He was looking at me.

Oh my God. Ruth threw her head back and laughed. Really? That’s hilarious. 

I was quiet. Then, I laughed too. 

I know. So weird.

I looked over my shoulder, into the flurry of headlights. Do you think he’s following us?

Ruth cocked her head. He drove ahead of us, right? 

I nodded.

Then it’s literally impossible, she said. The highway’s not, like, a circle. 

Right, I said. 

My favorite First Runner-Up song played through the speakers. I traced the lyrics in my mind.

So wait, Ruth said. She paused and I could hear the smile in her voice. Did you see his dick?

I thought about the way the man’s hands, tinged blue, pumped toward the swollen pink mushroom of his penis, how he rhythmically stabbed the air with his hips to show it to me. 

I nodded. Yeah, I did.

Ruth laughed. Damn, she said. You saw your first dick.

I hadn’t considered that. I raised my eyebrows and said, I guess so.

I mean, Ruth said. He sounds really into you.

We both laughed. I said, If only it was Jamie, right?

Ruth turned up the music and we were quiet again. In the side-view mirror I watched the moonlit city skyline, slick steel pillars pressing into the black sky. Jamie’s voice coursed through me, dug deeper, bottomed out. I closed my eyes.