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This Is Not a Love Song


ISSUE:  Summer 2013

She was Kitty to her parents, Katherine to the nuns in high school, Kate when she was in college. But to anyone who knew her then—​Chicago in the first years of the nineties, her hands tearing at her guitar like a kid unwrapping a Christmas present—​she had already become Kat.

Like the rest of the ramen-​fueled hordes of art students and rockers-​in-​training, we lived in Wicker Park, where rents were low and apartments doubled as studios, rehearsal spaces, black-​box theaters, and flophouses. The park itself was still a rusty triangle of scalded grass littered with needles and broken bottles. It would be a few years before the new trees and the swing sets and the DIE YUPPIE SCUM stencils on the smooth-​bricked three-​flats; before the press would hype Chicago as “the next Seattle,” and record-​company types started skulking around the bars. Back then, there weren’t any boutiques on Damen selling $500 sweaters—​just bodegas, auto-​body shops, and empty storefronts whose faded signs whispered of plumbing supplies and cold storage. 

Later there would be the brief flurry of albums and magazine covers, but back then the only people paying attention to her were the music nerds on the lookout for the next band you hadn’t heard of and the rock critic from the free weekly who wrote mash-​note reviews of any girl with a guitar. And me, of course, but by then I’d been paying attention to her for so long that I’d started to make a career out of it.

Interior. Stairwell. Evergreen Avenue loft.

She stands in the doorway, a ghost outlined by the yawning black of the stairwell. She looks drained, which is how she often looked in those days. Her arms are folded across her chest and her skin bleeds into the T-​shirt, white on white. Her hair must have been black then, because in the picture it’s fused with the empty space around her, and her face really pops: jaw set, teeth bared, eyes canted to the side, as if the shutter caught her the second before she spit out some curse. Maybe this was the night the van got torched by our next-​door neighbors—​teenage Latin Kings or Latin Lovers or Latin Disciples, we hadn’t yet figured out how to read their tags. Maybe it was the night the bass player told Kat he was going to law school. Or maybe she’d just been ambushed by Zlotko the landlord wanting to know For sure, no joking, when you pay me my rent, huh? When you pay me my rent? You can say that the way her body burns a hole in the middle of the image is just a photographer’s trick, a little darkroom magic to saturate the blacks and flush everything to the whitest white, and you’d be right. But you can’t deny that she’s pissed.

Interior. Basement of Kat’s parents’ house. River Forest, Illinois.

If you can’t imagine Kat in the gray skirt and Peter Pan collar required by the nuns at our all-​girls high school, it’s probably because you’ve never seen the pictures I took when I was the president and only dues-​paying member of the photography club and Kat was spending afternoons and weekends punching out songs in her parents’ basement and running them through the four-​track she bought with a summer’s worth of babysitting money. She was my only subject—​my muse, you could say—​but that was because she was the only one who would sit still while I fussed over lenses and light readings and angles. It wasn’t patience: Even then she was focused; even then she was very good at tuning out background noise. I took rolls and rolls of film of her bent over her guitar, her hair a veil over her eyes, her lips soundlessly counting out the beat. Then I’d disappear for days of red-​light seclusion in my studio, which my parents insisted on calling the laundry room. A set of these pictures, soulful black-​and-​whites mostly, spiked with a few hallucinatory color shots, won the school art prize senior year and had the added bonus of convincing every girl in our graduating class that we were lesbians. It’s too bad we weren’t; maybe we wouldn’t have been so lonely, so frustrated, so perpetually amped up.

Interior. Fireside Bowl. Fullerton Avenue.

Kat is on stage, surrounded by cigarette smoke and crowd steam, her eyes raked up at the low black ceiling. The smoke drifts into the shafts of light pouring from the Tinkertoy overhead rig, gives a shape to the air, makes visible the currents. You can see the way the heat from the crowd rises and then bends back on itself in ripples and swirls. For all the movement on the floor, from shoe-​gazer swaying to manic pogoing to grand-​mal moshing, the real action is above, where the air surges with color—​candy-​apple red and freeze-​pop green, children-​at-​play yellow and police-​light blue. Not that she ever looked at the crowd when she sang. The eyes of other people distracted her; the way those eyes begged for instant intimacy wasn’t just an imposition, it was an affront. An assault, even.

She didn’t look into the crowd, she looked over it, at some safe, empty spot on a far wall, or a point on the ceiling where hands and faces could not reach. When she first started playing out in clubs where there was no stage, just a space on the floor to set up, her insistence on staring at the ceiling or squeezing her eyes shut tight gave her the look of some mad, ecstatic saint. People said she was blind, or epileptic, or terminally shy. Whatever they believed, they were talking about her, and she needed that kind of an advantage—​that lingering hold on the crowd’s mayfly attention—​if she didn’t want to get lumped in with every other band thrashing through its twenty-​five minutes (“Which band? The one with the freaky girl singer with the messed-​up eyes? Oh yeah, they were pretty good.”) 

Once she moved up to places with a stage that set her above the crowd, her eyes didn’t have to roll so far back in her head to find that tranquil spot in the ceiling. Some people even kidded themselves into thinking that she was looking at them, in those rare moments when her eyes flicked down to check her crabbed, chord-​making fingers on the neck of her guitar. But she wasn’t willing to share what she was feeling with anyone, not if sharing meant locking eyes with some other face out there in the dark and exchanging a smile or some acknowledgment that, hey, we’re both in this moment together. Because that would have wrecked it. For her, I mean.

Box 5, Spool 3.

MALE VOICE: What’s her deal, anyway?

KAT: inaudible

M.V.: Because it’s weird.

KAT: inaudible

M.V.: How am I supposed to do that? I can’t turn around without her going click click click. It’s like she’s a spy or something.

KAT: She’s not spying on you. She doesn’t give a shit about you. 

M.V.: Then why is she always taking my fucking picture? 

KAT: Because she’s spying on me. You’re just … scenery.

School portrait. Seventh grade. Ascension Elementary School. Oak Park, Illinois. Kat smiles, lips together, to hide her braces. Photographer unknown.

If you wanted to go back to the very beginning, you would have to start with the days when her brother Gerry wanted to be Jimmy Page and Robert Plant all in one and his best friend had a drum kit so there was no question who got to be John Bonham. Gerry liked Led Zeppelin because they were loud and their album covers had secret symbols and some of the lyrics made references to The Lord of the Rings. He explained what the symbols meant, but he said Kat wouldn’t really get it until she had read all of Tolkien, including The Silmarillion. She hadn’t been able to get through The Hobbit. That’s practically a kid’s book, he told her. It doesn’t mention the Valar or Numenor or any of the important stuff.

He told Kat she could play bass or get lost. Kat knew that she was only in the band until her brother made another friend, but even at thirteen she sensed that Gerry was socially radioactive, and that this provided her with some security, band-​wise. 

Fast forward ten years to when Gerry, all grown up and living on the Gold Coast, used to stop by all the time. He was in sales, though most of his job seemed to consist of taking out-​of-​towners to dinner at one of the steak houses that served plate-​sized slabs of beef, where they practically let you select the cow to be slaughtered for your dining pleasure. Once they were glutted with porterhouse and cabernet, they would barhop the strip clubs, but if the night ever broke up early—​say, before 2 a.m.—​Gerry would show up at our place, half-​drunk and ready to be entertained. 

Typical night: We would come home to find him planted on the couch finishing off our last bottle of beer; he had swiped a key, and getting the locks changed was an enormous hassle.

“Hey,” he’d say. “You’re all out of beer.” 

Or this: “One of your neighbors gave me the stink eye. What have they got against white people?”

Or this: “You’ve got to let me jam with you sometime. Come on, I’m just messing with you. I know you wouldn’t want me upstaging you. See, I’m still messing with you.”

Another time, his clients cancelled dinner. He’d taken them to a day game at Wrigley and they’d had too much Old Style, too much sun. Kat was going out to see a new band at Medusa’s, and Gerry volunteered to come with.

“But you have to stop doing that ‘Gerry with a G’ thing,” Kat told him. “Every time you meet somebody, it’s ‘Hi, Gerry with a G, Gerry with a G.’”

“Force of habit.” He was examining the innards of the refrigerator, the augury of boredom.

“So kick the habit,” she said. “You’re not selling anything here.”

He looked at her like he was disappointed, like she was too stupid to get it. “Kitty, I’m selling Gerry with a G.” 

He spent the rest of the night with a big grin on his face, telling stories about Kat when she was in grade school and clearing up any misconceptions about the band he had once led—​how they specialized not only in Led Zeppelin, but in Rush, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple. Whenever there was a change of venue, Gerry with a G would launch into the same material with a new crowd of band dudes, hangers on, and the eye-​linered riffraff who we called friends.

Interior. Empty Bottle. Western Avenue.

She hit the stage in an English Beat T-​shirt and black jeans cropped just below the knee. Capris, you could have called them, if that didn’t seem such a kicky, genteel name for pants that had SAVE ME painted in white on one thigh and FUCK YOU on the other. The crowd loved it, but by then she really didn’t need to try so hard to get their attention. After every show, guys came up to her, their fanboy hearts aflutter, and told her about a new band that she should check out or asked what she thought about this or that album. They always talked too loud and their eyes were bright and unblinking, like cultists inviting her to spend the weekend at their compound. It was just music geeks showing off, she knew that, but she also knew that as they talked about mail-​order import B-​sides they hoped that she would be so impressed that she’d drag one of them back to her place for a wild night of indie-​rock sex. Kat had a lot of reasons why that would never happen, and high on that list was the conviction that these were guys who knew exactly what song they’d want on the stereo through the whole sordid episode. Most of them probably carried a mix tape—​“Jason’s Sex Mix ’92”—​for just that purpose.

Later, after her first album dropped, Spin ran a short, front-​of-​the-​book Q&A with her. When they asked about some of the dirtier, angstier break-​up songs, Kat played coy and said that she was, at twenty-​five, still a virgin. A complete lie, but you should have seen the music nerds. I told her that she had to stop messing with the heads of her core demographic, but during the first show after the article ran she added a revved-​up cover of “Like a Virgin” to the set list. Chaos ensued. 

Exterior. Night. Café Voltaire. Clark Street. Hand-​painted sign reads art tonight.

There was a guy named Giles, who we used to call J. Geils whenever we thought he couldn’t hear us. He wasn’t an artist and he wasn’t in a band but he was always around and he had the kind of dark energy that singers and guitarists try hard to project, and this made him both attractive and repellent, depending on your own particular polarity. I, for one, was negatively inclined, but Kat got very, very into him—​so into him that she stopped calling him by our nickname and started to give me a really?-​you’re-​still-​doing-​that? look whenever I used his alias, this thing we had made together.

Giles and his friends had money, but they didn’t have jobs. They exchanged elaborate handshakes, and they had already been places—​Thailand, Prague, Chile, Morocco—​that marked them as secret agents or trust-​fund kids or time-​traveling citizens of some future world. None of this seemed to bother Kat. Soon I began to notice that when Kat said “we,” more often than not she was referring to her and Giles, and not to her and me. 

I was forced to cultivate other interests. I got an idea about making sound collages and let a reel-​to-​reel run in the loft, picking up doors slamming and the toilet flushing and stray bits of conversation. I thought about studying for some kind of professional-​school exam. I started writing a play based entirely on personal ads in the Reader, but never got much further than the title: “Men Seeking Women.” 

One night I attended an opening for the work of former rivals from the Art Institute, in a basement coffee shop where canvases covered in chewed paper and dental floss were mercilessly lit by thrift-​store lamps. I smiled and cheek-​kissed and appeared to ponder, but it was the lamps that demanded my attention: chipped urns of pale blue that cast jug-​eared shadows, a nightmare-​faced ceramic monkey in a gold-​buttoned waistcoat, a rooster whose comb rose like a blood-​soaked hat. I had something like a revelation: Why did we keep making new art, and so much of it so bad, when we were surrounded by work that needed only the proper context to shine? So that was me: epiphanic from looking at bad arts and better crafts. 

I came home and found the television on, the loft awash in noise and blue light. Kat, Giles-​less, pulled the sleeve of her T-​shirt tight to dab at her eyes.

I asked her if she was crying.

Kat sniffled. “It’s the TV. Something on the stupid TV made me cry, okay?”

I looked at the screen: Cheers. “What, did Norm die?”

“Just forget it, okay?” She took a deep breath and loudly exhaled. “Giles and I had a—​a fight.” She rolled her eyes. Stupid. Like something from high school, if she had dated anyone in high school.

“A big one?”

“Pretty big.” She turned her face to me, straight on, and I saw the red welt blazing beneath her eye. My hand went to the body of my camera, as if by instinct, before I pulled it back.

“Can we start calling him J. Geils again?” 

I thought she was going to tell me to get lost or to go fuck myself. It was 50/50 on that one; that’s how into him she had been. Instead I got that lopsided smile of hers, the one I could never catch on film, the one I’d pay a million dollars to see again. 

Still life. Evergreen Avenue loft.

Call this one “a study in misguided affection”: a table with a Formica top. An ashtray logjammed with cigarettes. Three mismatched glasses containing various liquids—​clear, pale yellow, dark brown—​in varying amounts. A pile of scattered coins: nine quarters, two nickels, one dime. A CTA fare card. A spray of keys. A stack of bills—​utility, credit card, student loan—​unpaid, unopened. A large manila envelope, jagged-​mouthed along one edge, addressed in cursive to Miss Katherine Conboy. A folded page from the Tribune classifieds: circled in red is an ad for a music teacher/band director at Northfield High School; next to the ad, also in red, Kat’s mother has written “Think about it!!!! XOXO Mom.”

Color mock-​up. Cover of the band’s debut album, Chica-​go-​go. Kat and the others slouch against a wall, à la the Ramones.

I dated this guy Milo for longer than I should have. He was thin without being too bony. His hair was neither too shaggy nor too expensively cut. His whole wardrobe was short-​sleeve button-​downs—​thrift-store issue, though he had a good eye for it. The patterns were neither too dorky nor too Euro. He wasn’t too bright, but he wasn’t an idiot, either. That was Milo. He was neither too this nor too that. He was, for a time, just right. We called him Baby Bear.

He did something with computers during the day, and at night he played trumpet in a ska-​Krautrock outfit called Rudie Kant Fail that had yet to land any of the big bookings that he believed were its due. He bemoaned “the tyranny of verse-​chorus-​verse” to anyone who would listen, even though it was a swipe at the music Kat was playing. Milo was the first person I knew who had an e-​mail address, but since no one else had one it was pretty useless. He probably works in an office now and every time some entry-​level programmer gets the grand tour of the cubicles, someone will elbow the new guy and say, You ever heard of Kat Conboy? That singer who died? Milo over there used to date her roommate. And the new guy will be like, No way, because he’ll look at Milo and he’ll picture Kat and he’ll go, Does. Not. Compute. But back then, when we were young, before 99 percent of the people we knew moved on to Life Plan B, it did make some kind of sense.

Milo was in the loft on the night Kat told me that she’d met the guy from Matador, the one who would eventually sign the band and release their first album. The Matador guy had gotten hold of one of her cassettes—​she had given them to two people, in other bands, and within a month they’d multiplied like rabbits. She was viral before there was viral. She had run up the stairs and her eyes were glowing when she told me, but the light went out when she saw Milo was in the loft. He’d heard everything. “Dat’s da bomb!” he said. 

Kat told him to pipe down. That’s just what she said—​pipe down—​which was something her father used to say. Milo was loud, it was late, and Kat had grown tired of his penchant for saying things like “da bomb” or “word” or “fly” or “fresh.” She thought it made him sound foolish, like the joke was on him. She told him it was a question of authenticity. 

“But you’re talking M to the A to the T to the Dor. That’s dope.”

Matador was dope. If they were interested in Kat, then it was a sign of good things to come. 

Kat shrugged, and I could tell that she wished she hadn’t said anything. Not in front of him. She looked at me like I’d tricked her, letting her share this good news when Milo was right around the corner, waiting to ruin it. 

Exterior. Daylight. Rock Island Centennial Bridge. Kat leans over the guardrail, spitting into the Mississippi.

This is how she explained it to me: There just aren’t enough hours in the day. But then you figure out that if you take the right pills, there still aren’t enough hours but there are more, and you need all the time you can get. You don’t take the pills to feel good, you take them because if you don’t you’ll be miserable about all of the things you don’t have the time or the energy or let’s face it, the strength, to do. Because working a job to pay for bad food and a lousy apartment and banged-​up equipment and posters for every show takes time, and rehearsing takes time, and touring takes time. Oh, does touring take time. Do you know how long the drive to the Quad Cities is? Hours in the van to be the third act at an all-​ages show in a broken-​down roller rink, followed by an immediate and equally long return trip because half the band will get shitcanned from their nametag jobs if they miss one more shift. And if this is an honest-​to-​God tour, a go-​out-​on-​the-​road-​and-​don’t-​come-​back-​for-​a-​week-​or-​two tour, then you will be sapped in other ways: sleeping on one couch after another, or on a series of floors, getting acquainted with the many verminous regional varieties of upholstery and shag carpet. Figuring out if there’s anyone at the show worth fucking in exchange for a night in an actual bed. Remembering where the van is parked so you don’t get marooned in Carbondale or Macomb or Terre Haute.

And to bring this back around to the pills, and their utility: How else does anyone stay awake at the wheel for a drive like that, a superhuman effort necessary to keep the members of Pope Joan from going the way of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper, albeit in a flightless, much-​less-​famous, not-​inspiring-​the-​next-​“Miss American Pie” sort of way?

So yes, pharmaceutical intervention is necessary for the drive across the murderous Midwestern prairie, and when you start to think about it you realize that every day asks for a kind of heroism—​and even, at times, for the kind of effort that would grind lesser mortals to chalk. How else do you start a day on three hours of sleep and then endure a double shift at your copy-​shop job and then a few hours at a sparsely peopled backroom club showing support for a friend’s latest band (and inking with your presence an unspoken contract that he will do the same for you)—​and only then, after seventeen or eighteen misspent waking hours, will you finally be able to get to the part of the day that matters? Because if you don’t do it—​if you don’t sit your ass on the busted springs of the couch with your guitar cradled in your lap and a spiral notebook in front of you bristling with gibberish that you need to wrestle into lyrics; if you don’t fit words to the tune that has been ticking in your head all day long before it evaporates, leaving only a crust of failure around the bathtub rim that is your skull; if you don’t do this, then you will go to bed—​a collapse, a surrender, call it what you will—​filled with the knowledge, now more apparent than ever, that you are a fraud, a faker, a failure. So if taking a handful of red or yellow or green or blue pills, administered daily, can keep that gnawing thought at bay and make it possible to get those sounds out of your head and into the world, you really have to ask: What’s the harm in that?

Box 7, Spool 2.

KAT: Hello? Hel—​Dad, is that? Dad? Dad, it’s Kat—​I mean, it’s Kitty. Kitty. Kit-​ty. Your daughter, Kitty. Yes, like kitty cat. No, a person. I’m a person. Remember, from Christmas? I gave you …Uh, huh. Uh huh. Uh. Huh. Dad, is Mom there? Is she there with you? Mom. You know, the woman. The woman who lives in the house. Yes, the lady with short hair. From dinnertime, yes. No, it’s not dinnertime. Not yet. No, it’s not. Not yet. Is the woman—​is—​hello? Hello? Mom? What the hell, Mom? When did Dad start answering the phone? I didn’t—​I—​I’m not accusing you of anything—​

Exterior. Night. Rainbo Lounge. Damen Avenue.

One night Kat told me we needed to go out. The band had been touring the Midwest—​Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Champaign-​Urbana, both Bloomingtons—​and we hadn’t seen much of each other. She told me she missed me. She told me she had been a bad friend. She told me the only way to drive out a nail is with another nail—​that was another of her father’s sayings. Her stated goal was to find me a better, post-​Milo boyfriend, or at least a reasonably unembarrassing one-​nighter, but sometime after all the 2 a.m. bars closed and the dirty stay-​outs migrated to the last of the 4 a.m. bars, we ran into Giles. In the best of the pictures from that night, Kat had just made contact with his jaw and his head was twisted to one side like someone was trying to screw it off his neck. It had rained earlier in the evening, and behind us the neon lay on the puddles like splattered milk. To the left of Giles was his new girlfriend, the lead singer for a band called Augustus Gloop; she was wearing a silver lamé jacket that shone like woven crystal. Her face appears on film as a collage of spheres and circles: her eyes so wide that they seem lidless, her mouth rounded into a big O. If I remember it right, she was about to say “Oh, snap!” which probably made Kat want to punch her, too. Authenticity, after all.

Exterior. Night. Lincoln Avenue just west of Halsted. A line of people; a man checking IDs with a small flashlight.

Ask anyone who knew Lounge Ax and they’ll tell you: The place was a shoebox. If you believed the fire-​marshal sign posted near the door, then it couldn’t hold more than 150 people, but most nights the bodies were wedged chest to back and there could have been 300 or 400 from the window facing the street to the front of the stage. Risers lined the walls, prime spots where you could see above the bobbing heads to the back of the postage-​stamp stage, and where you were less likely to get groped. 

I have a picture from that night, before the really bad stuff, or the really good stuff, depending on your point of view: She has just finished her set and is standing behind the stage. The crowd is in a frenzy, screaming for the inevitable encore. She is making them wait and she is frozen in place, her hands knitted on the crown of her head and her elbows flared like wings. It’s the posture of a runner at the end of a marathon, a way to open up starved lungs for a drink of pure air. She looks dazed, she looks happy, she looks like she might just lift off into the night sky, if not for the low ceiling, the apartments above, and the simple facts of matter and gravity. 

OUTTAKES: Var. boxes, var. spools.

KAT: What does this look like to you?

ME: Yuck. What is that?

KAT: I know, right? 

ME: How long has it been like that?

KAT: I don’t know. I just noticed it. 

ME: You should get that looked at.

KAT: I am getting it looked at. By you.

*

KAT: (singing) Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. Found my way downstairs and—​shit, are we really out of coffee?

*

KAT: Not now, okay? Please? Can’t you just—​seriously. Stop it with the camera, okay? Stop it. Cut it OUT! Why can’t you just be my friend instead of a goddamn—​

Interior. Evergreen Avenue loft. Kat, backlit by windows, scissors the sleeves off a T-​shirt.

People will say, isn’t that wild that you two knew each other in high school? What are the odds? As if Kat becoming famous and me receiving some degree of—​what? highly focused niche acclaim?—​were independent of each other, like lightning striking the same place twice, or sisters winning the lottery one week after the other. But the truth is simpler than any of that: Kat became Kat because of the times and the tastes and the ways that her personality made her catnip for a certain breed of music fan. If she was cast as the Red Queen of post-​punk pop, I was her court painter. But if we were monarch and courtier, we were also model and artist. People who only know me for my photos of Kat talk about her like she was my life’s work, when she was only my first subject. If I was lucky to have a subject who became famous, even notorious, then Kat was lucky, too: lucky to have someone get it all down on film, to create a public memory of who she was every step of the way.

And there’s this, which gets overlooked: The pictures aren’t good only because Kat is in them, they’re good because I took them. She was perfecting her art while I was perfecting mine. 

Interior. West Randolph Street condo. Kat’s face in profile against a black-​and-​white tile floor.

Someone at the party called me. Someone who knew that Kat had a roommate who might be able to put her back together and get her home, though I don’t think getting her home was as much of a priority as getting her out of where she was—​where in this case being the gut-​rehabbed third floor of a former slaughterhouse west of the Loop, a place owned by a guy who called himself a club promoter, which meant he had access to enough drugs and big enough speakers to turn any room into a party. This was when Kat was losing a lot of friends. This was when Kat was making worse decisions than usual. This was when Kat had started going places without me.

I rang the buzzer and the alleged club promoter pointed to a door and he didn’t say, Hi or Thanks so much for coming or We’re really worried about her, he just said, In there. And in there was nothing I hadn’t seen before, though maybe a little worse. She had one arm draped across the back of the bowl, and she was trying and failing to keep her hair out of her face. She had already puked a ton. I flushed the toilet, which Kat hadn’t had the will or the ability to do, and she startled as the water roared in her ear. She looked at me through the sweaty fringe of her hair. I thought she was going to say my name, but she just said, So sick over and over again like it was her mantra. She wretched and threw up, wretched and spit out a little more. She looked up at me again through her bangs and her eyes were rolling in her head. She seemed like she was trying to focus. If I was a good friend or any kind of friend I would have held her hair and stroked her arm; I would have put a cool washcloth on her forehead and told her that it was going to be all right. I would have kept flushing with each heave, instead of letting the bowl fill up with a night’s worth of casual poisoning. But instead I swung out my Leica—​a bulletproof camera, the one they use in war photos—​and started shooting. I got her leaning there using the toilet bowl like a pillow. I got her with the stuff pouring out of her like tar. I got her lying on the cool floor, the frazzled burr of her head against the smooth solid base of the bowl.

Contact sheet. Twenty-​four-​exposure study of an Econoline van during load-​out. Location unknown/forgotten.

You should do a book, someone said. You should put them all together so people can see what she was like, before. And I could. I have thousands of pictures. Each one different. Each one telling the same story.

 

Kat on her first night as a blonde—​her first night looking the way that most people remember her, the way she looks on the cover of the first album, with her bleached hair and black jeans spray painted on her skeleton’s legs. 

Kat getting the thorn-​wrapped heart tattooed at the nape of her neck, the one that she’d rub with her index finger when she was deep in thought or bored or distracted or nursing some grudge.

Kat in that ridiculous ski hat she used to wear—​pom-​pom on top and earflaps down each side. She is tottering toward me on an icy sidewalk with her arms spread wide and her lips puckered like she’s about to plant a big wet kiss on my face, or on the lens.

Kat at Montrose Harbor in the bright sun with the sky so clear you could put your fist through it. It was late fall and the wind was tearing at her hair and beyond her you can see whitecaps and closer to her the lake is hurling itself against the rocks, and in the middle of all this motion and light Kat looks so. Goddamn. Tired.

This is my fear: that it would be like watching a whole carousel of slides from your neighbor’s trip to the Grand Canyon. You’d “ooh” and “ahh” for the first five pictures or so, but there would be another ninety on the way. Somewhere in the middle, you’d stop caring, and before you reached the end, you’d hate your neighbors, hate the Grand Canyon, hate the entire Eastman Kodak family of companies. None of this is going to make her more real for you. And none of it is going to bring her back.

Interior. ICU. Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Close-​up of Kat’s hand cupping three pills: pale blue, dull yellow, off-​white. 

No one agrees with me, but her last album was her best. Most people stopped paying attention during her years in L.A. They got tired of watching her push it too far, they said the music was never as good as those first two albums, and they all wondered why she didn’t just get it over with and die already. Instead she came back to Chicago and after laying low for a while, she put out an album with a small indie label run by guys too young to have been burned by her on her way up. I imagine that recording it, playing all the instruments herself, and knitting the tracks together, must have been like those long airless days in her parents’ basement. I say imagine because I wasn’t there; I had abandoned Chicago shortly after Kat left town. I had planned on sticking around and being smug about how I was keeping it real, 312-​style, but when I saw my chance to go east, I went. By the time I came back to see her, after months of promises and see-​you-​soon messages, she was sick and then she was gone. Anyone who had guessed overdose or razor to the wrist or self-​immolation must have felt cheated. She got a stupid cancer, one that had nothing to do with any of her more toxic habits, and that was it. Right before her body betrayed her that one last time, she was tiny and bald and her skin was like cigarette paper. I wanted to scoop her up and carry her back to our old loft, to the couch where we had curled up all those years before, watching reruns of Cheers and M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore and everything else WGN threw at us. Kat had fallen asleep on my shoulder that night. I listened to her breathe. I watched her dreaming eyes twitch. Her face was soft and full, despite the bruise that painted her left eye. Seeing her in that hospital bed, that’s what I wanted: to carry her back home.

That’s what would happen in the dream sequence where the best friends are reunited after the falling out, the bitter words, the long silence, the gradual thaw. But I did not spirit her away. When I found her in that bed, wiped out and with little left to give, I aimed the lens and started to shoot. Because not getting those pictures would have wrecked it—​for me. And,  I hope, for her.

Looking at all of the pictures now, I can pretend that she was the only one with the what-​the-​fuck? look, the what-​makes-​you-​so-​special? look, the do-​you-​even-​believe-​your-​own-​bullshit? look. But she’s also the only one with the thank-​God-​it’s-​you look, the just-​trust-​me-​on-​this-​one look, the I’m-​sorry-​please-​forgive-​me look, the look-​that-​I-​only-​give-​to-​you look. This is when I wish that there had been another me as devoted to me as I was to her. Someone to offer me proof that I looked at her like that, instead of just gawking with one big dumb glassy eye that only asked for more, and more, and more, and more. 

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