When I am happy, oh God, I’m happy

He was bowed over a Twister mat, the small of his back exposed beneath the hem of a black T-shirt when we first met in 2015. He peeked up at me from under the crook of another boy’s elbow with these glacial blue eyes.

I recognized the print on his shirt, the hooded skeleton riding a motorcycle, as artwork for The Front Bottoms. I first saw them play in a sweltering North Jersey basement, and again years later at a huge festival among throngs of people with dyed hair and Doc Martens.

“They’re my favorite band,” he told me. He said he loved their cynicism, their rawness, Brian Sella’s decidedly Jersey twang. He plugged his phone into an auxiliary cable and the opening chords to “Flashlight” sounded from the speaker in the corner of the room.

That first night, we sang the lyrics that would ultimately encapsulate the unraveling of our friendship: “When I am sad, I am sad, but when I am happy, oh God, I’m happy. There’s just no place in between for us to meet.”

I reflect on our life together like a timeline, the major moments tick-marked by nights spent blasting our favorite songs, by singles and album release dates. He gave me his phone number the same day my purple “Back On Top” record was delivered to my dorm room. We decided to live together the same night I sang “The Beers” on the floor with him and his roommates. I finally had friends who loved my music.

The boys and I would put our playlists on shuffle and watch each other’s faces light up — it turned out our mutual tastes extended far beyond The Front Bottoms. They felt like home, immediately and effortlessly. They toasted to me with shots of raspberry Burnett’s when the top news group in the state hired me to cover concerts.

In November 2016, we saw The Front Bottoms open for emo luminaries Brand New at a massive arena. I worked that concert from the photo pit but managed to find their faces among a crowd of five thousand or so. It was the third of many shows we’d attend together. Each one yielded a new memory, and a new setlist to consider for our daily rotation.

He reached for my hand for the first time in January 2017. We’d split a bottle of sangria from Trader Joe’s. “Rhode Island” was playing from my laptop.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“An experiment,” he said. I didn’t pull away.

The songs I’d loved forever took on a new meaning after I fell for my best friend. Laying together in my bed and playing our songs felt sacred somehow. But by the time The Front Bottoms released “Going Grey” that fall, we didn’t talk anymore. I listened to the record alone and couldn’t get through one track without crying. I felt dizzy with memories, with the “no, no, no” of it all.

So I pulled the band posters down from my bedroom walls. I turned down a job at a record label. I stopped going to shows. I found alternative means of marking my timeline.

Some days it feels like I’ve been missing him for as long as I’ve been alive. Other times I feel like we had that awful phone call just yesterday. It’s been more than 1,000 days since I heard his voice, and nearly as long since I allowed myself to hear Brian Sella’s.

But then The Front Bottoms released “In Sickness & in Flames,” while our country is quite literally being ravaged by both, and I thought maybe 1,000 days was long enough.

It stung to listen. I wish I could know which track is his favorite. I have a hunch, but I suppose I don’t really know him anymore.

I wish I could ask him if his chest felt like it might burst when he first heard the line: “Do I seem anxious to you? Do I seem backed into a corner, as if I had to make a move, but you could tell I didn’t wanna?”

I wish I could know if he ever thinks about me when he hears our old songs.

But listening felt good, too. It felt a bit like coming home.

I don’t pine for him anymore, not in that way. But I still miss the boy who hung upside-down off his bed with me, screaming “Twin Size Mattress” until our faces were red. I miss the bass vibrating up through our feet while the boys stood on either side of me, smiling up at the stage.

The Front Bottoms are playing their first show since 2019 tonight — a drive-in concert in Philadelphia. I have a ticket to see them in New Jersey on Thursday. I’ll probably cry. I might even think about him the whole time. But I’m still going.

I wish I knew how to reclaim something that’s been contaminated by heartbreak. There are still songs I can’t listen to, singers whose voices I cannot bear to hear. I keep those records in a wire basket in the corner of my room, and when I’m ready, they will be there.

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