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Admission & Performance by Lisa Mangini

1. Days of the New 

September 16th, 2000 – Webster Theatre, Hartford, CT 

                “Since I know how low

                To go, I won’t let it show.

                Won’t you touch me? Touch.”

-From “Touch, Peel, and Stand”

Your very first ex-boyfriend, Tom, is home on furlough for his fifteenth birthday and asks you to attend his first concert with him. This could be due to any of the following factors:

a). You only kissed six times over the course of a year.

b). He was moved by the letters you sent to him at the juvenile detention facility he lived in, mailed without fail monthly at a minimum, with secret code you established to elude the social workers who intercepted his mail before handing it off to him, scribbled  in a plethora of gel pen colors, little magazine clippings taped to the margins.

c).You are the only one in town who hasn't completely forgotten his existence during his residency in a dismal compound 85 miles away.

d).Your mother is a bit of a sweet sucker who will agree to drive both of you to and from the venue, waiting in the car with a stack of grocery store circulars to paw through for the duration of the show.

You are most puzzled not by this invitation to join him, but rather that this particular concert – some young guys from Indiana with a slight twang in the vocals – is his choice, despite having made you mixed tapes comprised of such melodic and charming acts as Cradle of Filth, Marilyn Manson, and System of a Down. You beam, because just this once, you have more life experience than he does: you do not have an absent father, nor an asshole stepdad hellbent on getting you out of the picture; you do not have an older brother who introduces you to vodka or pot or percocet, you do not know what it's like to be hit beyond a handful of open-palmed spankings which you rightfully deserved – but here, now, you know the drill at the Webster Theatre: what side of the sidewalk the line forms, to leave any large chains in the car or prepare for their confiscation, to expect a worker in the lobby to rifle through your bag, to pose your limbs like Da Vinci's Vitruvian Man so someone can run their palms up the insides of your legs and arms to search for weapons and clear you for entrance. When you explain all of this to Tom, he shrugs and says, “Just like home.  I'm used to it.  At least they don't make you strip first here.”

You remember nothing of the show itself, other than a rustic tree projected in yellow light as the stage's backdrop, running your fingertips over the dark blonde toothbrush fuzz of Tom's buzzcut, the surprise of it after last seeing him with purple locks down to his ears.  

But that was in March, and this is a new school year and everything. This is post-break up, and there's even an older boy you've got your eye on, but so rare is it that you have some tactile evidence of another body that vaguely welcomes yours. You reach for his hand. Acoustic guitar strings let out their distinctive squeaks.  He squeezes back. 

2. King Crimson 

November 11th, 2000 – Webster Theatre, Hartford, CT 

                    “Have to see the world

                    For what it is: a circus

                    Full of freaks and clowns.”

                        -From “ProzaKc Blues”

Your diehard prog-rock uncle offers to take you to his favorite band – so you can hear some “real” music – but catches strep throat and can't make the trip from Upstate New York. Tom the ex-boyfriend has been released for good, it seems, and you take him as your stand-in, part a kindness and part reciprocation. But all his charming gloom and gratitude is gone: he has freedom now, and entered the venue of sex without you, having paired off with some senior from his high school twice now. She drives and can't quite buy his cigarettes, but will be old enough to by Christmas. Guitarist Robert Fripp has made it abundantly clear that there is to be no smoking at this event, and anyone in violation of this request will promptly be ejected without refund.

Tom is sour-faced through the first six songs, with the exception of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the only one you both recognize from a few afternoons listening to it on your dad's old turntable in seventh grade, along with some pretty beat copies of Dark Side of the Moon and Master of Reality that would frequently pop and hiss when under the needle's touch. When the song is over, he marches to the hallway with the bathrooms, finds the cigarette vending machine, and pulling its little pinball machine handle, procures a pack of Camels and waltzes right past the paper sign exclaiming NO RE-ENTRY.  You hesitate for three or four bars of a syncopated, complex melody before following him into the November air and onto the curb. You can't go back to your mother napping in the car this early: it'll arouse suspicion and that'll be the end of your concert-going days.  You run your hand down his back and he wriggles away.

“It's not like that anymore,” he sends a mouthful of nicotined spit to the sidewalk, and slides the pack over to off you one. It is this strange blend of chilliness and generosity that confuses you, the easiness with which he can be cruel and considerate at the same time. It reminds you of the time when you were twelve, before you were ever his girlfriend in his basement bedroom, both of you sitting crosslegged on his bed in the musty dark, when he suddenly leaned in very close up to your face, peering into your eyes, eyelashes brushing for a moment, before he snapped back abruptly, laughing loud: “you thought I was gonna kiss you, didn't you, didn't you? I would never kiss you. You're not even pretty,” and then, still taunting you, flung his favorite KoRn T-shirt at your face and told you to keep it.

A taxi blasting reggaeton speeds by, sending a curl of cold air around you, bare-armed and hugging your purse as if it can keep you warm. Without a word, Tom slips each shoulder out of his army surplus jacket and places it over yours. You start to cry, eyeshadow and glitter beginning to run. Tom pretends not to notice, tracing a design in the soot with his stubbed-out butt. You ask, with the most poise you can muster considering the wet warble of your voice, why, after all your waiting and collaged care packages, the collect calls that drew long into the night, all the hallmarks of everything you could offer from that distance, why not you? He fusses with a ball chain bracelet for a minute before feeding you a line about how you're too good for him, too kind, too sweet to do something like that.  You roll your eyes, but he's not looking at you.  You are whining and lying about how that's sooooo not true, and when you grab his arm, he finally turns to meet your gaze with a look of rage: an icy blue glare simmering with violence.  It is the first time you have seen anything in his face that might make you believe he really did need to be sent away for all those months, that there was merit in that gospel of caseworkers and discipline and medication. Without looking away, he gently lifts the jacket from your shoulders, stands, extends a hand to help you up, and asks, “what, do you want me to just say something about you being fat or something? Do you want me to sit here and say I don't care about you? For fuck's sake.” He strides briskly ahead of you, towards your mother's car, where you both sit in the backseat, and you silently rummage for an old drive-thru napkin to wipe the makeup that has migrated down beneath your eyes without drawing attention to the evidence of your tears, but you're caught when your mother asks about your smeary eyes, about why you're out so early.

“Oh Mom, it was so smoky in there, I just kept sneezing.  It was awful; I couldn't even breathe.” Tom gives you a look with a slight nod, as if to say “nice save” – acknowledgment that this is the first potentially believable lie he's ever heard you orchestrate, and you are feeling like you have just won your first hard-earned badge into some special Bad Kids club, whose membership you'll come to pledge with mixed authenticity for a number of years.

3. Taproot, Incubus, and Deftones 

November 22nd, 2000 – Connecticut Expo Center, Hartford, CT 

                    “Maybe if I look

                    In my heart, I can find a

                    Back door.  Find Yourself.”

                        -From “Privilege”

It is the day before Thanksgiving, and your parents have put their collective feet down: if you want to go to this show, somebody else's parents have to “step up” and drive you.  Easy enough, in theory, except all your friends more or less, go to the other high school in town, living far enough apart to pose an inconvenience to any parent picking up a cluster of kids before driving to the capital the night before a major holiday. Your parents, despite your pleas and promises of using the very last of your hard-earned summer tobacco farm money, have also flat-out forbid you from attending tomorrow's concert – on Thanksgiving Day – featuring Nine Inch Nails and A Perfect Circle – which, truth be told, you'd much rather see than tonight's line-up.

Through some miracle, your friends Amy and Travis, who are dating, have convinced their parents into chauffeuring you to and from the venue.  All three of you have freshly-tinted hair: Travis with green-tipped spikes atop his dirty blonde, you and Amy both with bright magenta stripes. You are debuting a fashion find you are most proud of: a khaki mechanic's jumpsuit culled from the clearance rack of a JC Penney's warehouse, covered in a couple dozen patches safety-pinned throughout the arms and back.

You are trying hard to find the appropriate balance of giddy and disaffected, your enthusiasm giving away your in-authenticity of coolness every time. Once you are dropped off, however, you can recover your aloofness outside the venue and while being funneled inside, realizing this place is palatial compared to the humble Webster Theatre you're used to. You are more bewildered and overwhelmed than anything else – the concert-goers (despite your numerous visits to Hot Topic) have piercings in places you heretofore did not know existed, real mohawks taller than your upright open palm, which surely they must've held up by the coveted recipe of Elmer's glue and Knox gelatin you keep trying to uncover while on your dial-up internet; in the event you're ever allowed to style your own, you want to do it right.

You meander in a quiet reverie at all the people – old enough to be parents, some not much younger than you, people deeply more bad-ass than you who are openly smoking pot indoors, some preppy kids from high school you would not have expected – it is like how you feel in a museum: so genuinely interested with your own banal curiosity that everyone around you – including the subjects in this case – is uncomfortable with your thorough dorkiness that you become uncomfortable yourself.  Because of your wandering, you've become separated from Amy and Travis, so you spend all of Taproot sulking and pacing towards the back of the cement pasture that is general admission-style “seating.”

It gets more crowded when Incubus takes the stage, so you edge closer to the crowd huddled by the front. When you look around in the hopes of finding your friends, you see that it's mostly a milder, younger crowd, with the more serious folks still loitering in the back, smoking. This strikes you as odd, until most of the crowd begins to sing along with Brandon Boyd for the big radio singles, like “Drive” and “Wish You Were Here,” so many vibrant and mascaraed girls in flared jeans jumping and squealing whenever they recognized a catchy song.

Between acts, still looking for your the ever-elusive Amy and Travis, you catch eyes with a group a boys from study hall.  This clique includes both the boy who broke up with you around Halloween and his best friend, Jimmy, whom you've found yourself a bit flushed and stuttery around on-and-off for a while now.  You give a shy wave, say hi, and after a few pleasantries about what a “sick” show this is, you chew your lower lip and blink a bit, asking Jimmy to pack your box of Marlboro Reds for you, because it “hurts your hand” when you try to do it yourself. You're still shifting dumbly from foot to foot next to him when the lights begin to dim and the crowd starts cheering and the headliner begins filing on stage.  But Jimmy's friends are worming their way ever closer to the stage and you can see in his face he's mentally calculating where to stand, what to do. He gallantly lights your smoke, squeezes your hand, and snakes away to follow his friends.  You feel a fleet of fire ants spreading out from that hand, something like faint tapdancing on your skin, beneath your khaki mechanic's jumpsuit.  You event have to unzip yourself into a v-neck from your collar, but this is certainly in part to the surge of body heat now contributing to your flush, the crowd having drawn itself more compactly around you, your arms and legs grazed by others', your neck catching the breath from those behind you.  And yet there is still some minor charge to you, a faint electricity that you carry in your blood through “Shove it,” through “Around the Fur,” through the iconic Weezer cover you so hoped they'd play, all the way into Amy's Dad's van as he talks to you about Frank Zappa while his daughter falls asleep slouched on Travis's shoulder, upon which witnessing your elation lightens a bit at your own jealousy, until you neutralize completely when you waltz through the door after eleven and your mother, worried sick, is up making mashed potatoes in advance for the family dinner just 14 hours away, and she scolds you for not wearing your coat in late November.

Lisa Mangini holds an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of the poetry collection, "Bird Watching at the End of the World" (Cherry Grove), as well as two poetry chapbooks and a fiction chapbook, all released in 2014. Her work has been featured in McSweeney's, Weave, 100 Word Story, Words Dance, Silver Birch Press, and others. She is the founding editor of Paper Nautilus, and teaches English composition and creative writing at handful of colleges in southern New England.