Adoration Revisited, part four
Happy Holidays! Did you know there’s a Smashing Pumpkins Christmas song?
Welcome to Not Knowing How: Adoration Revisited, a capsule newsletter by Lisa Locascio Nighthawk in sixteen parts. Names have been changed. The version of events is my own.
With the sugar sickness
You spy the kidnap kid
Who kids you to oblivion
June 2000. I enroll in summer school driver’s ed. I want to complete the requirement ahead of time so that I can get my driver license on the day I turn sixteen in November rather than waiting until the fall semester ends in January. Most of the time we sit in simulator, but every third day I spend a grueling forty minutes in the learner car backseat, slapping away the hands of a boy who asks, relentlessly, “Are you ticklish? Are you ticklish?”
After class I go home to my air-conditioned bedroom. My boyfriend David is at music camp. My friend Seth calls to argue with me.
“Let me just ask you,” I say. “If you didn’t do it, then what happened to me?”
“You don’t lock the doors of that place at night,” Seth says. “You could be imagining things. Maybe someone came in. If I were you, I’d be scared.”
I wasn’t listening much to the Pumpkins. On May 23, 2000, a few days before Seth and David came to my family’s summer house for Memorial Day weekend, Billy had announced the band’s plans to break up following a final tour.
Feeling abandoned, I listen to the R.E.M. album Up, of which I took notice when Michael Stipe wore a black feather boa to the VHI Fashion Awards. “Lotus” is sexy and “Daysleeper” is about me, in bed with the blinds drawn against the heat of the afternoon.
Two summers earlier at this time I was discovering SP and taking group guitar lessons at my middle school and going to camp. My father took Moira and I to see my favorite band at the New World Music Theatre. Now I am tired, evasive, short-tempered, scared when the phone rings.
Adore was inspired by grief: the expulsion of drummer Jimmy Chamberlain from the band following the overdose death of touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, with whom Chamberlain had been doing heroin, the end of Billy’s marriage to Chris Fabian, a woman I didn’t know existed when I was a teenager, and the death of Billy’s mother, Martha. It feels cheap and obvious to draw a connection to my own losses, something like: When I was fourteen I couldn’t have imagined that, like Billy, by thirty-eight I would be divorced and my mother would be dead. That I would lose relationships I treasured. That we would have that in common too.
When I was fourteen I wasn’t thinking about any of that at all. I was mad and hot and ready. I went through a brief period of telling anyone who would listen that I wanted to be a stripper when I grew up. By the time I was fifteen I was sure that I was going to marry Jeff, very soon, the same way I was sure I would get my license on my sixteenth birthday.
My mother’s death was oldest fear. To survive it has been surreally empowering.
I no longer say “I can’t imagine,” a phrase that made me feel totally alone when people used it in their condolences. Now I am careful to say “I can only imagine.” I can only imagine being one of the most famous rock stars in the world, plummeting from the high of your astronomically popular double album. You have to kick your best friend out of your band, you get divorced, your mother dies of cancer. The album you write about your grief is released to a nearly totally negative response. You are thirty-one years old.
That subjective leap is as impossible as any other. But I can empathize with the way one shitty experience snowballs into another.
And the winding vines
The pretty boys dive
And through the pinhole stars
Into the shadow mind
After Seth did what he did to me and I made everyone who knew promise to act as if nothing had happened, after David spent a year splitting time between us as if Seth and I were his divorced parents, with Seth having custody Friday night and me on Saturday, after all the Saturdays when Seth called my house and kept David on the phone for hours, until David had to go home and Seth hung up, satisfied, after my parents, feeling sorry for the evident dysfunction and neglect Seth suffered at home, hired him to do odd jobs around our house and, seeing he did not have one, gave Seth a winter coat, after the strange period during which I found myself hanging out with Seth alone, again, including a day that looms in my memory like an electrical fire, on which as his trump card in our inexplicably heated argument about whether unicorns were real Seth made a posterboard to prove his point that all unicorns were in fact goats which featured a photograph of a woman having sex with a goat and thrust it at me, alone with him in that claustrophobic room, an image that still makes me want to claw at my face, after the night a year into this when I burst into tears in public and told David that I would be within my rights to break up with him if he did not cut ties with Seth immediately, after David told him he didn’t want to be his friend anymore and Seth found me at school and pushed me up against a wall in the student center, snarling “I can’t wait until your whole life turns to shit”—after all of this, what I was left with was a story.
Originally meant as an old-timey number, like one you'd play sitting on a front porch drinking sarsaparilla; the day hot. But in that the song felt inconsequential, the message lost in tedium and a clock-like wait. Hence the loping synthesizer bass, and the gallop of the one-two beat's back rhythm.
“Daphne Descends” is not a song I feel one way or another about. It sticks in my head, I’ll give it that. When it comes on the album, I let it play. I give it its place.
Seth has an impressively small online footprint. I have followed him as best I can, gaining the barest outline of his life. I heard he worked in his college cafeteria. He married a woman and took a picture by a lake. For a while there was a photograph of him on Facebook, seemingly taken in the dark, Seth smiling grimly in front of a monstrous cake his wife had baked for his birthday.
For some time now he has worked in human resources. Sometimes I think about writing a letter to his employer. Maybe he should not be in the position of enforcing workplace policies, mediating conflicts, receiving complaints of harassment and abuse. But my empathy rushes up again and I feel sorry for the teenage boy with a traumatic home life who was probably only trying to seduce me. As if I have ever tried to seduce someone by pushing my fingers into their body without their permission.
That night David and Seth and I stayed up late talking in the basement, sitting on the wide plastic cushions we’d pulled off the couch onto the floor. First David nodded off. Then I did.
I had engineered the situation, wanting us to sleep together in what I envisioned as a cuddly puppy pile. Just pals!
Back then I was always forcing my vision of platonic intimacy on my male friends. I changed in front of them, sat in their laps, touched their hair, their faces, their hands, convinced of their goodness and my own. It did not occur to me to ask for their consent. I had an ideology to pursue: men and women could have friendships as vibrant and frictionless as the best romantic love. I deserved these friendships.
I didn’t touch Seth like that, though. I did not desire that closeness with him.
I question myself. There was an evening, once, before the summer house, when the three of us lay in a hammock together, stoned. David and I fooled around. Seth was supposedly asleep. I didn’t do anything to him, but he was right there.
My behavior seems so feral to me in retrospect.
Do I include this because I think I deserved what Seth did to me? Because I want to absolve him?
It was all so simple
As you watched him move
Across the darkness in your room
I counted to some number and then I sat up and screamed. Both boys woke up and I said that I had had a nightmare and the couch was hurting my back, did Seth mind if I took the twin bed in the room he was to share with David, and he could stay down here instead? He agreed.
When I was alone with David I told him. I think we cried. It was late. The next morning I was sick with a sore throat and coughed what looked like blood. My parents took all of us to a tiny rural hospital.
When I was left alone with my mom I told her what Seth had done. I begged her not to tell anyone, especially not my father. I made her promise she would do nothing. This was a promise that, like all others she made to me, she kept.
That morning Seth was solicitous, normal, concerned about my illness. When David and I confronted him after we returned from the hospital, he fell into a sullen silence and refused to speak to us for the excruciating remaining hours we spent together. Trying to cheer him up, my mom bought Seth a lighter at the gas station where we stopped on our way home. He left it in the car when we dropped him off.
I feel myself resurrecting Seth out of the crypt of my memory where I have entombed him. I am frightened to see him again.
I met Seth the same way I met David, through my first boyfriend Jeff. While Jeff and David were loud, big personalities with artistic ambitions, and exuded a compelling hedonism, Seth was circumspect, slight, polite. Ferrety and mysterious.
Seth smoked Camels and worked odd jobs. He knew how to fix a car. He dressed in an old-fashioned, dapper style: sweater vests, tapered jeans, collared shirts. Thanks to his mother, an alcoholic hairdresser, he knew his way around hair color. He dyed his hair red. Once, in my upstairs bathroom, he dyed mine red, too. Bright red, fire engine red, emergency red.
I can remember the quality of his voice, thick and sorrowful, and also that he was kind. I cannot remember the manner of his kindness.
When did I begin to describe myself as a survivor of sexual assault? By my first stint in graduate school, it became part of my story, of knowing me.
Was I too comfortable telling it? Did I take some uncouth pleasure in having survived with my sexual bravery intact? When, in the last term of my MFA, a friend submitted a story to the workshop we were both in that included a section mocking my rape story verbatim, and only one of my other friends recognized what had happened, and everyone else told me it was a strange coincidence, to let it go, that she meant nothing by it, questions about the delivery of my assault narrative replaced my the narrative itself.
My classmate’s story was published in a literary magazine whose editors have always written me very kind rejections.I stopped telling my story. I shut up.
But when I became a teacher and my students confided in me, they were certain that the violence they had suffered was their fault, and rare. I needed them to know that they were not alone. I learned, again, to say that I am a survivor of sexual assault.
If asked I will tell the story, but now I get to choose which one, because I survived a second assault. I know much less about the other man who hurt me than I did about Seth. He was never my friend. But I suppose I knew equally little about both of them today.
You love him
You love him for yourself
You love him and no one, no one else
I didn’t want my mom to tell my father what Seth had done to me because I didn’t want to stop having sex. I believed that if he knew, my father would put me on total lockdown, even send me to the Catholic girls’ school. That although he might intellectually know that it was not my fault, in the spirit of the thing I would be the one who was punished. I felt I was lucky that I had had pleasurable consensual sex before I was assaulted. I was determined not to let what Seth did to me mar my connection to the experience I had longed for for so long.
The first year of my sexually active life was riven with conflict with my dad. We fought regularly and terribly about subjects neither of us were able to name. Despite his disapproval, my mother enabled my sexual agency, helping me get birth control, receiving without judgment my narration of my exploits with Jeff and then with David. Because she accepted that I had become a sexual actor, that it was not possible to return me to the state of pre-experience, I stayed open with her.
My mom obeyed my wishes that she take no action against Seth, which led to a cumulative environment in which the details of Seth’s assault were generally known (but never by my father, or so I thought) and yet he suffered no consequence. This was what I wanted, then—even at fifteen I knew the criminal justice system held no promise of justice or rehabilitation—and having it hurt.
Over the years, my mom seemed to forget what had happened, the secret I had asked her to keep. A willful forgetting, borne of denial. She didn’t want what had happened to me to be real. Or maybe she had told my father from the start. In some much-later conversation—I think I was in my thirties—she made reference to talking to my dad about “how Seth really upset you and David” and I became curt with her, asking her to tell me if she had told my father or not, that I needed to know, because I had suffered greatly for the cause of my father never knowing.
My mother fell apart under the pressure. She wept, said she couldn’t remember. She seemed to be willing to do anything to end the conversation.
You will lose him then
On some gentle dawn
This boy is here and gone
For a long time, and perhaps somewhere still, I had a photograph of Seth. Only one, although in high school I loved disposable cameras and used them constantly. I loved picking up the prints at Walgreen’s and Jewel-Osco and making photo albums and scrapbooks of my exploits. In the picture the flash has overexposed him against a dark background, catching his face in an expression of slack-jawed unguardedness, his eyes half-closed. He holds a plastic magic wand topped with a star. The photo used to be in an album, where I had captioned it: The fairy prince is waiting for yooooouuuu!
The last time I held the picture of Seth in my hands, I tried to show it to my first husband. “Want to see a picture of the guy who sexually assaulted me?” I asked, upbeat. I wanted him to look at it with me, scrutinize the photo, diffuse its power. The photo still bothered me, even just the memory of it. I wanted someone to tell me that it was only a picture of a teenage boy, that it has no special power.
“Jesus Christ, no,” my ex said. “Of course I don’t.”
The fourth track on Adore, “Daphne Descends” begins the thematic shift from the comparatively up-tempo first three tracks into the underworld exploration that comprises the remainder of the album. Billy’s self-aware interpretation brings a new layer of complexity to his sad-boy glamour: “Whoever 'Daphne' is, she gets a lot of warning here about 'the boy.’ No, not my band mate's fey, lovesick 'boy' of song, but the kind of boy-child I once was.”
“Daphne Descends” contains a feeling that haunted me when I was in high school, that ring of inescapable pursuit that attended my relationship with my friend Seth, who raped me when I was fifteen, at the beginning of the summer I failed driver’s ed.
Thank you for reading! This is the fourth of sixteen installments of adoration revisited, which will be released every Friday between December 2, 2022 and March 17, 2023. If you enjoy my newsletter, I’d be honored if you share it with your friends. And I’m always interested to hear about your obsessions and memories.
Billy Corgan on “Daphne Descends” from the liner notes of the 2014 Adore reissue.