Karl Schrag, Night Music, 1985, handcolored lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1985, Karl Schrag, Gift of the artist, 1993.38.9

Karl Schrag, Night Music, 1985, handcolored lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1985, Karl Schrag, Gift of the artist, 1993.38.9

 

Left Hand Free

by Jackie Connelly


I

They open with “Deadcrush.” They close with “Left Hand Free.” We own all of these songs, her and I, but the song, our song, is somewhere in the middle, and even though I’ve been waiting years to experience it live, with all my pores and sweaty limbs, I watch the entire performance through the screen of my Android.

In the end, I can’t decide what to send her. I package over ninety seconds of flashing lights and incoherent noise into three blurry, pixelated Snapchat videos, knowing full well this is the kind of deafening surprise that makes people groan and wish this app didn’t exist, but feeling like involving her is necessary, somehow. Unavoidable.

It’s a moot point, anyway—she hasn’t opened a Snap from me in over a month. She never responds to my texts anymore, either. I don’t know why I keep sending them. It’s just one of those things you do, like spending fifteen dollars on cut flowers, only to lay them on a grave.

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With the release of their debut album An Awesome Wave, which won the British Mercury Prize in 2012, alt-J was hailed as “the next Radiohead.” The same year, they were nominated for three Brit Awards—British Breakthrough Act, British Album of the Year, and British Group of the Year—and An Awesome Wave was named BBC Radio 6 Music Album of the Year.

All that was two years before the fall I finally came out to myself, when Spotify pitched a single from their sophomore album into the cube where I sat dulling under fluorescent lights, performing some vital task like compiling a color-coded spreadsheet or formatting a blog post about how to market your insurance agency in the digital age.

I maximized my Chrome window as the song was ending, so I could click the left arrow and hear it again, and again, and again. “You need to listen to ‘Every Other Freckle’ by alt-J,” I texted her, on the third listen. She was five feet away, untouchable through the beige, artificial wall that divided our cubes, but the hair on my arms could always sense her proximity the way you can feel a sunburn before your skin even turns pink.

“Holy fucking shit,” she responded, three minutes later. And then, after an hour: “Fuck, I need to stop listening to this song!”

But we didn’t. We couldn’t. Sometimes you eat and eat and you can never get full, and that was us, together: an insatiable, bottomless pit.

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I’ve always found their band name a little tacky, precious. Typing the command alt+j on a Mac results in the uppercase delta: ∆.

They might as well be yelling, “In case you forgot, we know art and computers!” They might as well be yelling, “In case you forgot, we stand for something!”

They’re forcing it. It’s heavy-handed. They’re trying too hard, then failing anyway.

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We were both so susceptible to our cravings back then: two 24-year-old closeted gay women sunk deep in separate long-term relationships, yearning and yearning for an exit but too scared to search too thoroughly, willing to settle for any detour that made itself available.

The first time I let her take my clothes off, which was the first time I let any woman take my clothes off, we pressed Shuffle on their artist page and let This Is All Yours and An Awesome Wave compensate for our mouths, which were otherwise occupied, until the sun burned an optimistic crust around the edges of the hotel drapes. I didn’t even know two bodies could throb at those decibels, let alone for that many hours. I didn’t even know my chest, my thighs, the soles of my feet, could contain an appetite so savage, all animal cries and liquid salt.

And there was the unlikely hero in the background: alt-J, barely even perceptible after a while, but still, somehow, relevant to everything. Like your first language. Like your first love.

That kind of love only feels brave in the moment, though. It’s easy to lie yourself into bliss, but all of us choose the coward’s way in the end.

II

It takes a few songs for me to realize that the way they’re performing is sterile, like we’ve all gathered in a hospital room to pay our respects to the terminally ill, or in a Best Buy an hour before closing, all those gleaming machines performing like a renowned anesthesiologist.

Each of the band members stands on his own platform, facing forward, moving only exactly how much is necessary to play his respective instrument. They’re separated from one another by the rods that host the lightshow, like making art together is actually a solitary experience, and the fact that the guitar and keyboard and vocals and drums and even the strobes happen to share the same rhythm and pitch and drops is mere coincidence—the happy outcome of a random generator.

Disinfected in this way from their human audience, they address us only twice in two hours. I understand this is intentional, integral to their computerized aesthetic, but watching them feels like listening to a long, rambling story, without the mighty blow of the metaphor underneath.

From my seat in the balcony, I might as well be watching reruns on TV—some nameless, weightless show I’ve seen a thousand times, the forgettable backdrop of scrolling through my Instagram feed, detached from all my senses, bored and numb.

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By the time we discovered them that fall, alt-J’s appeal was already on a steady decline, with reviewers lamenting that the band had simply lucked into something their first go-round. A common criticism was that they had no identity, or if they did, it was chaotically constructed.

The band was still a commercial success—This Is All Yours went straight to Number One on the UK’s Official Albums Chart and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album of 2014. But we had no idea critics largely agreed with Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen, who, in a review dated the exact same day we started our affair, called alt-J’s latest offering “a record that’s exactly what you’d expect from a band that finds itself at the top after failing upward, and has no idea what their next step is.”

alt-J’s fall from critical glory seems rather predictable from that perspective. Some things you can never replicate. Some things can only happen by accident.

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∆ can be used to denote any number of mathematical functions. The most common interpretation, and the one associated most frequently with alt-J’s name, is difference, or change, of any adjustable quantity.

I suppose this is meant to be deep, but I find it irritating in the same way I used to hate her favorite phrase: “It is what it is.” An assemblage of words so vague, so vastly open to interpretation, it forfeits all substance whatsoever.

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To help someone cheat is to memorize the taste of their stretched-out throat, their closed eyes, the webbed skin between their fingers—every soft spot that makes them ashamed. It’s a black hole hunger, the kind that unleashes itself inappropriately, catastrophically: on the metro platform at 3 a.m., you barefoot in ripped tights and mascara stains, her a stone, silent fury, boarding the train without a backward glance, everyone staring, or in the stairwell at the office, red-faced from too much bourbon at the company holiday party, rubbing snot into sleeves and carefully studying the floor when a coworker opens the door to ask, “Is everything OK in here?”

It was all appetite and instinct, screaming ourselves sick, then fumbling urgently in alleyways, in used bookstores, in the back seats of cars, coming hard in each other’s hands, mouths, pressing lips against collarbones, the translucent skin on the insides of thighs, all that tender evidence that we were weak and afraid and alive. Redemption, recycled for as long as we needed it.

Everything was not OK. Everything was secret and precarious and therefore precious, terrifying, fanatical. We knew it would never be enough, we knew it was far too raw for eating, but there we were anyway, licking the blood from each other’s fingers, begging for more before we even got them clean.

Karl Schrag, Joyous Note--Autumn Dusk, 1992, color lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1992, Karl Schrag, Gift of the artist, 1993.38.17

Karl Schrag, Joyous Note--Autumn Dusk, 1992, color lithograph on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 1992, Karl Schrag, Gift of the artist, 1993.38.17

III

The floor level is thrumming with young twentysomethings who abandon their seats in favor of grooving on their feet. During the first song, I gesture to the rows ahead of us on the balcony and whisper threateningly to my brother-in-law, “I swear to God, if these motherfuckers stand up.”

They don’t. I keep thinking they will, when a certain song starts or drops, but they don’t and they don’t and they don’t, and the fact of it lines my gut heavy, like when you fall asleep watching Netflix in bed, laptop propped between your pelvic bones and rib cage. “That’s the way all of us should be experiencing this concert,” I decide, jealously, sitting up a little straighter to see beyond the tidy rows of the politely seated, down to the floor that’s heaving with something primal.

But it’s an empty thought; it carries none of envy’s curdling weight. It’s like saying “I love you” when your partner drops you off at the airport—you don’t actually feel that way, not in the moment. The words just fall out of your mouth out of habit.

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That fall, I made a habit of regularly posting lyrics from “Every Other Freckle” as my Facebook status. I stopped after the only response to the line about the wallpaper was a comment from my old journalism professor: “Uh, as someone who's scraped off more ugly wallpaper over the years than any human should, I don't get the metaphor.”

It would be years before I read Cohen’s scathing review, which mocks lines from our beloved “Every Other Freckle” with a scornful, “Perhaps quoting [this song] will get somebody laid.” The word “freckle” itself, Cohen sneers, “bears the least erotic phonetics in the English language.”

A valid assessment, I think, now. I suppose it could have been a different three and a half minutes. I suppose it could have even been a different woman, all else being equal.

But it wasn’t. It was me in the context of her, or maybe her in the context of us, or maybe just the context, period: the locked door swinging open. The lies and the pleasure and the free fall. The all of it, and then the nothing.

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Dig a little deeper into the vagueness of “change” and you’ll find that ∆ can also denote the symmetric difference between two sets or a macroscopic change in the value of a variable. Or it can denote uncertainty or an interval of possible values for a given quantity.

I’m no mathematician, but I take all of that to mean potentiality, not cause and effect, because correlations and coincidences happen every day, and most of them don’t mean anything at all.

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The last time I saw her, at a conference four years later, she was smaller than I’d remembered. Not just shorter but downsized, like a miniature replica of the person who’d been occupying my memory. There was the lead-colored pencil framing her eyes—still electric, but freshly uncommitted to making contact. Skittish like pinballs, mapping routes for escape.

She seemed scraped out, somehow. Faded, bleached, like all your lamps those first few seconds after you plug in the air conditioner, before your eyes adjust to the new normal, and I have to assume she felt the same way, sitting across the table not looking at me.

“We never really fight,” she was saying, referring to her current girlfriend, vowels rounded out by a new up-north accent. “It’s not really a passionate relationship.”

They’d been together for two years by that point: three kids from the girlfriend’s previous marriage, a mortgage in the suburbs, a ten thousand-dollar mattress.

“Well, there’s something to be said for stability,” I offered, transparently, still trying to convince her we were on the same side. I winced, then tried to cover it up with a feeble sip of beer. I don’t even like beer. I couldn’t remember why I ordered it. I tried again: “There’s something to be said for feeling safe, for once.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, “but sometimes I think it’s kind of boring. Some days I wake up and I’m so fucking sad and I don’t know why.”

I gulped and nodded, helpless, because there it is, at the bottom of everything: that unnamable sorrow, colorless as January, resilient as a cockroach.

IV

When they come back out for the encore, they kick off a three-part set with a song I recognize but can’t name. I know all the words, but I also know I’m not a fan; there’s a skeleton here, stubbornly persisting, stripped of anything organic. The eerie, unearned intimacy of overexposure.

The only major song they haven’t played yet is “Breezeblocks,” which seems, by this point in the night, absurdly irrelevant. Another artist’s words slam into my head louder than the bass: “I am drowning in inevitability.” Jeanette Winterson, a book we shared that fall, texting each other passages from the beds we still shared with other people, treason all around.

What if, from now on, every concert is nothing but a flimsy, hollow reproduction of every song I’ve ever loved so deeply I believed it could be constant? “I’m going to go,” I yell into the ear of my brother-in-law, who stays.

From a red light, I text him, “What did they end up playing?”

He replies, “That ‘please don’t go’ song ended it, which is pretty appropriate :) Thanks for inviting me!”

Disappointing. I want to open Spotify to play “Ms” or “Warm Foothills”—a protest against the predictable—but I don’t have an aux cord, and the speakers of my Android will be no match for the white-noise roar of the highway.

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Pitchfork’s review of Relaxer, alt-J’s third album released in summer 2017, likens lead singer Joe Newman’s voice to “a mean-spirited hobbit mocking the singing voice of another hobbit.” Reviewer Jayson Greene accuses alt-J of singing frequently and zealously about fucking, “or at least what fucking might be like, as interpreted by a befuddled AI.”

Besides “Hit Me Like That Snare,” a song Greene deems “blazing wreckage” that is “perversely exciting, in the same way that a screaming, relationship-ending fight technically enlivens a bad party,” Relaxer is nothing but “a realm of tastefully trimmed string arrangements, chamber woodwinds, and terminal boredom.”

When I read this review, I felt personally wounded, even as I found myself agreeing, reluctantly, with its thesis. Still, I sent her a link to “Deadcrush” the day that it dropped. As far as I know, she never clicked on it. It occurs to me that maybe she never even liked alt-J. Maybe I didn’t, either.

Or maybe this is more accurate: I don’t anymore, and I can’t figure out a way to convince myself that’s not the same thing.

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In chemistry, ∆ means the addition of heat in a reaction. In legal shorthand, ∆ represents a defendant. In jazz music notation, ∆ represents a major seventh chord. In genetics, ∆ stands for gene deletion.

Which is to say, the meaning of ∆, its potency, its resonance, depends entirely on the manner in which you encounter it. Where you are, and when. And, most crucially, who.

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At the restaurant, she informed me that her girlfriend had been dropping hints about marriage. The sentiment wasn’t quite mutual, but she thought she’d probably propose, anyway.

When I asked whether she wasn’t sure about marriage as an institution or this specific person, she replied, “Both.” When I asked what she wanted, she looked at her lap, then her beer, then the wall right above my head, and replied, “I don’t know.” And then, after a pause: “I think you live your life on a level of emotional depth most people don’t access.”

She didn’t say this admiringly. She said it like a warning, in the same spiked tone she used to reserve for “Stop overanalyzing everything,” or “Don’t put words in my mouth.” Which made it a non-answer and an answer all at once, because she was wrong, but how could I reveal all the parts of me that had gone extinct, now that my twenties were no longer blinking empty before me like a blank hard drive, now that I knew love isn’t ever enough?

When I left the restaurant, I knew I’d never see her again, and I didn’t feel anything—just hungry. She’d ordered a plate of nachos, but we both forgot to eat. We drank our lukewarm beers and watched the ceiling fans trace lazy circles above our heads, while the food turned into something cold and hard between us.

 

Published February 10th, 2019


Jackie Connelly is a queer editor and writer whose creative nonfiction explores how identity is shaped by queer relationships, unstable bodies and mental illness. Her essay "What Accumulates" was a finalist for CutBank's 2018 Montana Prize in Nonfiction and won 1st place in the 2018 Pinch Literary Awards for Creative Nonfiction, and her essay “20/20,” published in the spring 2018 edition of The Nashville Review, earned a Notable in Memoir Magazine’s inaugural #MeToo Nonfiction Essay Contest. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in Zone 3 Literary Journal, Iron Horse Literary Review, Muse/A Journal, and more.



With Gabor Peterdi and Mauricio Lasansky, Karl Schrag was among the most important printmakers in America during the 1950s. Born in Karlsruhe, Germany, Schrag first studied art in Geneva. He continued his artistic training in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and with printmaker Stanley William Hayter at Atelier 17 from 1932 until the outbreak of World War II. At that time he came to the United States. In New York, he further developed as a printmaker, studying at the Art Students League and working at the studio, Atelier 17, established by Hayter in 1941 as a counterpart of his Paris workshop. When Hayter returned to France, Schrag became director of etching at Atelier 17 until 1951. The artist later joined the faculty of Cooper Union in New York and taught there until 1968.