I swim through the streets of Valatie.

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You get to a place where you’re tired of writing songs about people, for people, to people. You’ve seen that movie. You’ve directed it. You’ve acted in it. You’ve been your own stunt double. You’ve been your own script doctor. You’ve fired a caterer who wasn’t on the level. You’ve been through the crowd-pleasing happy endings, the soul-perforating unhappy endings, the non-endings that leave half the audience unsatisfied and the other half nodding and laughing because even if they don’t get it they still admire your guts.

You’ve written enough songs about people who are real, broken relationships, feelings, urges, all the was and the never-will-be, all the could-have-been-but-probably-shouldn’t-have-been.

So you stop. You write songs that are other things. Stories. Thoughts. Impressions. The things you write that sound like they’re about someone aren’t about anyone. It’s more interesting writing about imagined people. You can give them whatever attributes you like. There’s no less inspiration. You’re just drawing blood from a different vein.

There are so many more things to say than, “I want you, I need you, I love you, I hate you, you took a piss on my heart and I still can’t get rid of the smell.” There are words beyond those words.

But sometimes you can’t get away from the way the world is. People will be people. Some of them will be real. And the songs are going to say what they want to say.

In 2003 the internet is not what it will be in 2016. It’s not the ghost town it was a few years before. It’s some in-between thing. You can still type a random phrase into a search engine and not know where you’re going to end up. You can still find quiet ways to be surprised.

This is how you come to the online diary of a girl who throws up her depression and addiction on the internet for the world to see. An exorcism in black and purple and white. You’re drawn to her intelligence and her struggle. You’ve burned away a lot of your own self-destructive energy, but you’d be lying if you said there wasn’t still anger and depression there. You want to know her, talk with her, drink coffee with her, feel the caffeine tickle your brain.

She’s in New York. And you’re very far away from New York. So that isn’t going to happen.

You read, and you eat microwaved stir-fry, the kind that comes in a box with green beans the size of peas and chicken the size of stamps, and you drink a can of Coke, and you listen to Tim Buckley sing his soul out through his throat in a demo for “Because of You” that strips the skin from the song — the one on The Dream Belongs to Me, where you know it’s Tim playing electric twelve-string and Maury Baker shuffling behind the drums, and you know whoever put the liner notes together was asleep at the wheel, because if that’s Buddy Helm and Joe Falsia playing, you’re a dead rat in a three-piece suit. You do that, and you read some more.

You don’t know why you remember these things. But you do.

She stops updating her diary. The silence lasts a long time. Years. You send an email. You don’t think she’d want to talk to you. You’re only a stranger reading her public-private thoughts. But you try to reach out. Try to connect. As with so many of your other attempts at connecting, nothing comes back.

You can take it one of two ways. Either she isn’t interested in starting a dialogue with you, or she’s dead.

You choose to believe she isn’t dead. It’s better that way.

In 2012 you get an email from her. You don’t know what it is at first. You don’t know who she is. Then it comes back to you. She says she was a mess back then. She was touched by your concern. She’s better now. She’d like to talk to you, if you’d like to talk to her.

Soon you’re sending long emails back and forth every day. You already did the long-distance internet relationship thing a few times as a teenager. It didn’t go well. You’re not doing that again. Not now. Not ever. This isn’t that. This is a friendship. This is someone you can talk to about depression and anxiety and things you’re not comfortable pulling out with most people. This is a two-way support system.

You send her mail. She sends you mail. Letters. Music. Things. You don’t know what she looks like. You have a dream of her climbing out of a door in the ground and walking through an abandoned city, silent, wide-eyed, moving like a frightened animal. You don’t know what it means.

Hurricane Sandy hits. Her streets are flooded. Her power goes down. You don’t hear from her for a while. You worry.

She lives in Valatie. You find out it doesn’t sound the way it looks. It sounds like a mumbled sigh. Va-lay-shuh. You play something simple on a guitar. Words fall out. You write a song.

You think of the way a flood could almost be beautiful, if you had the right eyes to see it with. Drain it of everything destructive or dangerous. See it that way. See a city underwater, nothing lost, no one harmed. See a waking dream.

You see yourself swimming through the streets to get to her. Just to see her looking down at you from her apartment window and waving. That would be enough. You see yourself pushing a small raft beside you, loaded with tea and good wishes, knowing the tea will be cold by the time you get it to her. You have candles to light the way, to be your floating lantern. You throw in a bit about penguins only she’ll understand.

Valatie is a village. Town sounds better in the title. Town it is.

Singing it is easy. Dressing it up is easy. It’s the drums that give you trouble. You don’t know what they want to be. Nothing works until you start hitting them with bundle sticks. Birch dowels. You play a shuffling thing and get the take you want, imperfect but right. You stick the song in an email and send it to her.

Dread sets in and eats at your stomach. Fear cooks your brain. You don’t know how she’s going to take it. It isn’t a love song, though there’s love in it. It’s a friendship song. You’re used to the songs you write about living people coming when all your good feelings for them are dead, knowing the words will never reach their ears. This is different.

There’s a scared part of you that thinks the doomsday theorists are right and the world is going to end in a few weeks. If time really is running away on you, might as well embrace the impulsive gestures and let the people you care about know how you feel.

Her power comes back on. She takes it the way you were hoping she would. The world doesn’t end.

Then she starts to go away. You don’t hear from her as much. She sends you emails that are suicide notes, the drink and drugs chipping away at her spelling and grammar, slurring in a way you can see. She says she loves you, she’s sorry, she doesn’t want to be here anymore. She says goodbye. Then she comes back. Then it happens again. And again. And again.

You can’t knock on her door. You can’t call her. She won’t give you her phone number. You can’t get her to reach out to you if she doesn’t want to. What good are you? You’re no good at all.

You try to do what you can. Try to let her know you’re there. You care. You’ll never judge her. You just want her to stay, to talk to you, to be there. She hints at things she could tell you but doesn’t. The support system crumbles.

And then one day she’s gone. The diary goes dark. The emails stop.

You type her name and her village into Google once a week. You expect to find an obituary. You feel like you failed her. You keep sending emails, knowing nothing’s coming back. Your friend is gone. Your friend is dead.

In 2014 you get an email from her. But it isn’t her. It’s her fiancé. He tells you he was there all along. She’s carrying his child. Now he’s reading these emails he knows he shouldn’t read, and there are dozens of them, maybe a hundred, and some of them end with “love”, and in some of them she brushes him off, marginalizes him, denigrates him, lies about him to you, says he’s no one, nothing.

He doesn’t know what to feel. That makes two of you.

He colours in the picture. She’s not dead. She’s fine. She was always going to be fine. You were a distraction. A game. She was never leaving. She was never there. She’s done this before.

You fill in the rest. She could go on lying to him, or she could go on lying to you, but she couldn’t go on lying to both of you at the same time, keeping each of you hidden from the other. Too many spinning plates. Her solution was to erase you and keep lying to him, hoping he wouldn’t someday find himself compelled to do some digging.

But he did dig. And now he knows everything, and you know almost everything, and the only reason you know what you know is because he decided you were at least entitled to that much.

You feel for him. All you did was step on a land mine you were never meant to find. You’ll write one bitter song you won’t record, the limb you lost in the explosion will grow back, and you’ll be fine.

He got hit with the whole nuclear blast. Emotional atom bomb. You can see the mushroom cloud it made all the way over here. You can pity her. You can hate her. You can feel whatever you want about her. He has to find a way to keep loving her, to trust her again, to hold it together for the kid. And that’s going to be a project.

The strangest thing in all of this is reaching out to him after he reaches out to you and getting not hostility, but wit and basic humanity slicing through the pain. You would be friends if you met a different way. You can feel it. She robbed you of that.

You have a few more dreams about her. One time she’s just words on a screen. Another time she’s a webcam model who never makes any money. Some people want to type at you and tell you what they want to see and not pay for any of it, but that isn’t it. She doesn’t get paid because no one’s watching her.

You watch. You’re the only one. You feel the way you guess you’d feel if you were watching something awful on television, too bored to change the channel.

After that she’s nothing but a story you tell to other people in dreams, until you’ve told it so many times you start telling it in a language you never learned to speak but now know well enough to swear in, until you tire of telling the story and she’s not there at all anymore.

You always thought it was interesting the way someone’s manifestation in the dream world was influenced by your experiences with them and your feelings about them in the waking world. Heroes become villains become heroes again, become spanish curse words, become out of work actors, and then you guess they make a stack of cheap straight-to-DVD movies with names like I Fell in Love with an Evil Marmoset on Thursday and Fifteen Things I Love About Hating the Idea That I Could Be in Love with You If You Just Changed Your Hairstyle.

You know what you know. You can guess at what you don’t know. One thing you know is that she goes on lying about you to him. As if the right lie could set her free. Says you’re just some guy whose music she liked. You had some weird crush on her. She never liked you at all.

She turns you into that.

You hope she’s a better mother than she was a friend.

The one true thing you’re left with is the song. The person you wrote it for never existed. But the love that’s in it did, if you can call it love, if that’s what it was. So you’ve got that. And you have other people you’d swim for, if that was your way to get to them, cold and wet be damned. So you’ve got that too.

At least if you’re me, it’s a little like that, maybe.

Swimming Through the Streets of Your Town


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