by gigi bella
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher opens with violins that sound like ambulance sirens wailing in an underwater darkness. It is midnight. I find myself in the emergency room on the other side of town. I have to wear a mask and no one can come with me until they determine how long this stay will be. My IV’d arm is too stiff to play tetris so I just lay and listen,
“i hate livin’ by the hospital, the sirens go all night. i used to joke that if they woke you up somebody better be dyin’.”
Fitting. Since the pandemic began in March, there have been 900 deaths where I live. The ground is already so haunted. I think of Phoebe Bridgers’ “Garden Song” often. The ground in Old Town where I used to recant ghost stories to strangers about the graves they never relocated from beneath our feet. All the places a body could end up after the spirit has departed.
“Everything’s growing in our garden, you don’t have to know that it’s haunted.”
My mom works a front facing job with students at the university. My dad has been a teacher for most of my life &, now, sits at his kitchen table poet-ing equations to his students on zoom. I spent most of the months leading up to August saying prayers to candle faces that my parents wouldn’t have to go back to work. So far, my prayers for that worked but not my prayers for the death of the white house pendejo. Being in the ER alone for the first time in your adult life is eerie enough as is. My mental illness runs wild with images of me contracting an unshakable cough & giving it to everyone I love all because of my little “emergency.” How do you believe a body that is actively sending a message for help yet simultaneously betraying you with every thought?
I got sick right after my book came out. Thought that broken hearts and encouragement for suicidal somebodies were all there was to write. I didn’t really think I’d be googling, “intestinal methanogen overgrowth.” One night, my whole body flushed red; a strawberry sweatsuit of, “why the fuck is this happening?” My temperature would not regulate. The nurse hotline was less than helpful. I did not want to go back to the ER. I didn’t want to increase the risk of hurting someone close to me. I think this is what Phoebe’s music is all about; hurting so someone else doesn’t have to. It is a deafening experience to listen to Punisher from a hospital bed (not that I would recommend it). Phoebe defines a “punisher” as the kind of fan who talks too much with reckless abandon simply because they are so full of every emotion which, sometimes, leads them to say things they might later be embarrassed about or regret. Mortality is, in a way, about the times we probably said too much and couldn’t take it back and how we move forward unapologetically until the very end, haunting our friends with those same misgivings from the great beyond.
Over the course of trying to heal from my massive overgrowth, there were so many times I woke up with the words,
“i’m gonna kill you, if you don’t beat me to it,”
in my head. As if I was singing the lyrics to my own body. I experienced some of the worst suicidal ideation of my entire life during this time. Many people are unaware that the gut flora directly impacts your mental/emotional health and this was my biggest proof. I flocked back to suicidal ideation and self harm like old friends. My chest heaved while I whined and cried and could not get myself to stop. I played, “I Know the End,” on repeat because it was comforting to think about dying while I was in so much pain. However, the turn of, “I Know the End,” as well as, “Graceland, Too,” is just a girl driving toward all she knows she can be whether that’s toward the apocalypse or an Elvis song. I pushed for my own healing. Did every horrible uncomfortable thing it took until one morning I, suddenly, felt well again.
I was reminded of what drew me to put together my book, Big Feelings, in the first place. At first, many of these poems were just napkin scribblings from the inside of a restaurant host stand in Brooklyn. I wrote so much of this book through the greatest heartbreak I’ve ever experienced. Forfeiting a person I thought I could marry to alcoholism. Loving someone else who was too severely broken to ever love me back. The latter loved Phoebe Bridgers. He always said my songwriting was like hers if she ever wrote anything happy. Phoebe also, coincidentally or not, looked very similar to his ex before me. A white woman he continually compared me to. Whether he was in a suicidal rage or not. The first time I heard,
“baby, it’s halloween…we can be anything,”
I was transported back to begging him to meet my sister. Pleading for some kind of forced matching Halloween costume. On November 1st, he refused to leave his room. Refused to see us. Almost left me while she was still in town. I should have let him. Instead I let him turn my self-esteem non-existent. I started bleaching different sections of hair to see if he’d change his mind and love me. Instead he never left the bed. Told me all the ways I wasn’t “Kate”. Until I found myself thrashing on the floor threatening to kill myself in an apartment complex in Texas. I found Phoebe Bridgers because of her hit, “Motion Sickness”. She sings,
“you gave me fifteen hundred to see your hypnotherapist. I only went one time, you let it slide.”
After he stole my ID from my bag and threw money at me for an appointment so someone else could do the work of fixing me because I “needed help,” I knew what I needed to do. That appointment and my discovery that we’d moved to Texas together just so I could catch him on a dating app were enough for me to become the girl I’d wanted to be. To, finally, leave him and drive toward my own personal apocalypse.
Big Feelings became, simply, a scrapbook of all the times my world ended. Every time these men broke me in half. Every time I let myself be broken. Every time being Mexican in this country felt too big to hold. How I have always felt like too much no matter how many times I fussed with the volume dial.
In writing the last poem in the book (that just so happens to be about the end of the world), I did not realize I was predicting the very near future. I never expected to release these stories during a global pandemic. I also didn’t expect to have no job and no book tour and all of the big things I was looking forward to pulled out from under my feet. All I could think was that it was the right time for people to hold my book in their hands. Maybe they needed it most right now. Punisher was and continues to be that piece of art for me.
My boyfriend and I watch Phoebe play live at red rocks and swayed on our couch. We headbanged to her Tiny Desk performance and both quietly pretended our best metal scream. A week later, he is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. I walk the neighborhood listening to, “Scott Street,” and cry so he does not see me cry. I think of a picture Phoebe posted of herself and drummer, Marshall Vore, leaned up against a tree in skeleton jumpsuits. The famed skeleton jumpsuit now iconic in its representation of Punisher. I think of the Mexican tradition of Dia de Los Muertos or “day of the dead,” and a poem of mine that says
“our people paint death on their faces to prove they are unafraid to look it in the eye.”
I tell my love that I have nothing good to say. That I fear I am not a strong enough partner for this. I have driven as far as I can drive. We hold each other. On the track, “ICU,” Phoebe sings,
“I feel something when I see you,”
and I remember the first song I ever wrote for this glowing boy that I love so much. I called us both ghosts and sang,
“but I’ll see you, if you’ll see me.”
Right now I see him. He is all I see. Then I think of another Phoebe lyric from her first album,
“I have a friend I call when I’ve bored myself to tears and we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves but then we laugh until it disappears.”
We break up. At this point, loss stays with me like a bad tattoo. A definition I inhabited but did not want. But we will all lose eventually. The pandemic world feels different in every possible way. I notice it most in all of the big feelings it inhabits. I think I was writing about pandemic feelings & loss before I even really knew it could exist like this. I think Phoebe Bridgers was too. Punisher is largely about saying too much. Wishing you would have said something different or left other things unsaid but ultimately you didn’t.
You didn’t for a reason. None of us know how long we have with one another or how it’s all gonna feel or what comes next; what, exactly, we will lose. All we can do is live our biggest feelings unapologetically. Say it all when we can. Scream and scream and scream after we pass our last big billboard,
“Yeah I guess the end is here…the end is here.”