By Nate Brown
This is supposed to be a short piece about David Bowie, written on the occasion of his death, which was a terrible surprise. These days, terrible surprises are everywhere. I imagine that’s true for a lot of us. It’s what happens when you turn on the notifications from the New York Times app on your phone. Nearly every morning, before I’ve even registered the time, I’m notified that the world has been made a subtly different and shittier place while I slept.
This is a contemporary problem, and I am a small part of that problem. I want to know things before you do—even the ugly things. It’s as if we’ve all promised each other that we’ll be the one to break the bad news.
So this morning when I got up to pee, I wasn’t surprised that there was bad news on my homescreen. Scrolling through older news notifications, I see refugee deaths, an update about an indictment of an officer involved in the arrest of Sandra Bland, and an alleged nuclear test by North Korea. And yet this morning’s news is somehow worse. So much so that when I climb back into bed I wake my sleeping wife by telling her that David Bowie has died.
This is another way of saying that if social media and technology frequently remind you that the world is a hard and terrible place, it also reminds you that you are a cold and terrible person. Certainly, the Sandra Bland case and the plight of millions of refugees are weightier than the death of a rock star. Yet I’ve never woken my wife to tell her the news out of Syria.
I am not proud of this. I understand that this says something shameful about where I put my care and attention.
I want to stay on track here—to write about David Bowie in some significant way—but I’m having a hard time thinking of death, which is weird, specifically because the man has just died and, more generally, because I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking and writing about death.
Instead, I’m trying to imagine my way into the ignorance you have when you’re a kid, how you imagine your way out of your kid-life and into what you think your non-kid-life will be. How did you imagine you would turn out? Where did you imagine you’d live, and with whom? Did you imagine that you would love someone and be loved in return?
I am trying to remember what it felt like to imagine what love and sex were like before I ever experienced them. I am doing this, I think, because I imagine that’s what serious illness and the edge of death are for me right now: unknown quantities that will one day be known.
Odds are good that at some point, most of us will be old and ill and in a hospital bed when it comes. My hand will be gripping the beige plastic arm of the bed’s railing or maybe the sheets. If I’m lucky, I’ll have caring nurses ushering me out, plenty of opiates at their disposal.
Imagining these things is a lot less fun than imagining your future home, your future job. It’s a lot less fun than imagining the mouths you’ll kiss and the bodies you’ll feel. It’s lot less fun than imagining the people you’ll love and those who will love you in return.
Still, there’s comfort in having known love already, and I can’t help but think that when it comes, the terror of death might be tempered by it. I read today that David Bowie’s loved ones were with him when he died, and I hope that it was a comfort to him. I hope it made it easier somehow or less horrible or less frightening to die.
This is supposed to be a little essay about David Bowie on the occasion of his death, and while my own small sadness has taken expected forms (Spotify playlist, Facebook post, Twitter scrolling, watching Youtube clips of interviews), my thoughts are ping ponging around my skull and I’m finding it hard to get away from these thoughts of love and get to the business of articulately naming the loss I feel.
Instead, as my wife and I listened to Blackstar this morning, I thought of things I hadn’t thought of in years:
- The time a man hit on me at a coffee shop and how, when I asked him why he assumed I was gay, he pointed to the homemade Elliott Smith tee shirt I was wearing and shrugged.
- The time a girl gave me a glass bead from the mall kiosk where she worked and told me to keep it and how, instead, I gave it to another girl who was good friends with the bead kiosk girl. The bead was dark blue and shaped like a tear. The kiosk girl returned it to me with a note telling me to keep it this time.
- The time in college when, after a wedding in my hometown, I snuck a woman into my childhood bedroom to have sex and how, later, when I came out of the bathroom, my father was standing in the hallway. He asked me if I had someone over. A retired cop, my father likes to know who is in his house. Yes, I said. Someone’s here. Don’t worry about it.
It’s probably not so strange to think about sex when you’re trying to write something about David Bowie. Before Labyrinth, I hadn’t known anything about him. Nor had I known that a man could be what he was in that film—somehow ethereal and frightening and sexual and appealing in all of his big-haired, codpiece-wearing weirdness. He was impossible to look away from.
I hadn’t known that this was a way for a person to be, and finding out that there was excited me. There was a guy called David Bowie and he was unlike anybody else..
As a kid, I couldn’t attend a sleepover without having to call my parents and beg them to come pick me up. It wasn’t fear, exactly, that triggered these calls, though I never figured out how to articulate what it was to my parents.
I have a slightly better understanding of it now, and the best way I can put it this like this: when I was away from home, it was as if my family stopped being fully real. The sensation caused an uncomfortable misalignment of worlds that was only rectified when my mom picked me up and brought me home. When I saw that my parents and my brothers and my cats and dogs were all right there, doing their thing, I was fine.
I recognize this now as anxiety and solipsism, but back then, it was intuitive to me that if I was only ever going to have my way of seeing and being—if my eyes and brain and body were, in fact, the things that made me me—then only those things within my detection could be real to me. Given too much distance or too much time out of view, even the most familiar things in my life seemed to lose their integrity.
I realize now that this is also a decent description of memory: time moves forward and events come to pass and as they fade into the past, little bits of our lives are lost to us, too. How did it feel to watch Labyrinth the first time? Remember the joy of dancing to “Let’s Dance” at the charity dance-a-thon in college? Remember learning the chords to “Ziggy Stardust” and being embarrassed to sing the line He was the nazz/ With God-given ass? I can describe those things, but I can’t re-feel them in a novel way, and so it’s not the authentic experience it once was.
If I’m torn up about the death of David Bowie, it’s less about mere affection for him—or the version of him we had there in front of us—than it is about how time swallows worlds.
For my entire life, there has been a David Bowie in the world. Now that’s no longer the case. From now on, it will be a world in which we remember David Bowie instead of one in which we await his next invention. One in which we speak of him in the past tense rather than in the present tense. One in which we’ll note, with fascination and admiration, I suspect, that he wrote and recorded a final, beautiful album that is explicitly about his own death without any of us being the wiser.
Nate Brown’s fiction has appeared in the Iowa Review, Mississippi Review, Five Chapters, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He is the managing editor of American Short Fiction. He lives in Baltimore.