I’m pretty sure that I remember where I was when I found out. It’s weird that I’m only pretty sure though, because I have a solid memory for events and big deal moments and even quite a lot of minutiae. But for whatever reason this moment has blurred and melded into other moments and from there it stretches into a series of anecdotes until it barely relates to the original moment I was trying to remember.
This is what I am almost certain of. On April 5, 1994 I was babysitting for a family that lived on Lake Huron. They had a huge house, three children, a Dalmatian and a bird. They had a private stretch of beach, a large boat and a jet ski. To my 16 year old mind they were RICH. I know now, at 36, that they weren’t truly rich. I know now, at 36 and having seen more of the world, that there is probably no one in Port Huron who is truly rich. True wealth doesn’t go to Port Huron, why would it? But in relatively small world I lived in then, they were certainly well to do and it was definitely a plum babysitting assignment. There were good snacks, full cable and the kids were old enough to keep themselves occupied most of the time. So I was making use of that full cable, watching Mtv when the announcement came on that Kurt Cobain was dead.
Here’s where things get fuzzy.
I’m pretty sure I called friends. We weren’t big fans but we knew this was a big deal. I remember actively knowing it was a big deal, the kind of big deal where you knew that someday, say 20 years down the road, you’d be telling someone where you were when. And then for some reason, my brain insists that this was also the day I got asked out on a date for the first time. It wasn’t. I know it wasn’t.
I know that my first date was to Homecoming in October 93. A boy the year behind me at school asked me. We went in a group with a friend of his and a girl I’d known since 6th grade and another couple I can’t clearly picture. The boy who asked me, we’ll call him X, he was a Republican, something I found weird even then, because I knew that young people were supposed to be liberal in their politics, their prized possessions were not supposed to include a photo of them shaking hands with Ross Perot (technically an independent, but seriously). They were not supposed to think Engler was a good guy. Anyhow I knew this kid beyond that he was a republican, sort of, we were both in the marching band, his dad was the pastor at the church that my family got kicked out of (not exactly kicked out, more told we could leave) though he took the job after we’d left, I knew he was taller than me and skinny and had a big smile. I didn’t like him or not like him, but it was nice to be asked out.
I remember he was running with the cross country team in my neighbourhood the day he asked me out, which was not the day Kurt Cobain died, he ran backwards and asked for my number and I was trying to be cool by being sarcastic and sort of cocky, which is how I thought cool people acted. It isn’t how cool people act though, I know that now, I also know that it probably just made me seem more awkward and weird which goes a long way towards explaining why I was 16 and only just getting asked out. I gave him my number and the number of the house where I would be babysitting that night. So I was sitting on the counter in the big shining kitchen of that house on the lake when he called later and asked me to homecoming.
Just like 6 months later when I was sitting on that same counter talking to my friends about the death of a rock star who I knew to be important even though I couldn’t say exactly why. I think that’s where the mix up happens in my memories, but now that the mix up has occurred, it mixes more and I need to think about the actual date. It was not a very good date.
I wore a long burgundy lace dress with matching burgundy choker and earrings and even burgundy platform maryjanes, I was a vision in burgundy. We had a group dinner at the Victorian Inn where X worked as a dishwasher. I had filet mignon even though I could not pronounce it. He introduced me to the kitchen staff. It was sweet, I guess. Later at the actual dance, we regarded each other stiffly, neither of us especially sure what to do with our hands while we danced around the gym. We didn’t have much to talk about, though we did try. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I remember feeling like the gulf between our political views was insurmountable, like why were we even trying, what was the point? Looking back I imagine that if it was awkward (and it was) that most of the blame can be placed squarely at my feet. I’ll take that burden. We didn’t hang out afterwards, we were still friendly but there was no chemistry and there was unlikely to ever be any.
Years later via Facebook I would find his profile and his diamante choker wearing profile picture. Yes, dear reader, X was gay and out and happy and living in California. We sent a few messages back and forth ‘Are you still a republican?’ I asked. His response was the word no with a smiley face. We joked about how we both got as far away as we could. And we lost touch again. Amicably, both of us, I hope feeling less awkward than we had that night back in 93 when we stood on my back deck after the dance and tried to figure out if we should kiss each other tonight (we didn’t).
But back to 1994. April 5th is also my dad’s birthday. He would have been 51 in 1994. I don’t remember how we celebrated that year. I do remember that 2 years later on April 5th I came home from college for the weekend and immediately got into a friend’s car and went to see Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith do a show in Ann Arbor. My mom was mad at me for coming all the way home only to ditch out on my dad’s birthday. I remember explaining my reasoning to her in that still cocky and sarcastic way I was holding onto.
‘Listen, Mom,’ I said all sure of myself, ‘Ginsberg is old and he’s done a lot of drugs, he’s not going to be around long, Dad’s got awhile left to go, I need to do this.’ And I ignored her frustration (sorry, Mom) and went to the show. I know that all sounds callous, but the thing is, I was right. Ginsberg was old, and apparently pretty unwell, too. He died exactly one year later on April 5th, 1997. He had cancer. I remember a girl in my creative writing class saying, ‘But I was supposed to have coffee with him!’ When she found out. I never had coffee with him but at least I saw him read part of Kaddish in person.
13 years later, in November 2010, a few days after my dad died in a hospital in Detroit I sat on the floor of my kitchen in London and read Kaddish silently to myself, an attempt to mourn halfway across the world for a man who had left specific instruction about how he did not want to be mourned. I probably cried. I can’t remember for sure. I cried a lot during those early days following his death, sometimes I’m surprised these 3+ years later to realise that I ever stopped. And then in December of 2010 on Christmas day I got a message on Facebook. Did you hear about X? And saw status updates popping up as people tried to piece together what had happened. He’d had a heart attack in his sleep, aged 32 and his sister found him on Christmas morning. I think about her still, I don’t know her but whenever I think about him and how he died I want to hug his sister. I want to tell her how sorry I am and I want to tell her about that lousy date in the Autumn of 1993 and I hope it would make her laugh and give her something unexpected about her brother. Because I like it, now, when people tell me an unexpected story about my dad, I like it when I learn something new and funny about him.
I don’t have anything unexpected or special to say about the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. You probably don’t care that some kids at my school put up a banner in his honor, but that they misspelled his name Kirt, and that we made a sarcastic joke about it in the school paper. That’s barely even a full anecdote, it’s just an eye roll. I only have this muddle of memories that the mention of that day brings up and the general sadness you feel when you think about someone who died sooner than they should have