Hiding From Desire in Nebraska

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My brother was in eleventh grade when I was in ninth. Thanks to my parents’ somewhat aspirational trust in his judgment, they would often go away on weekends, leaving us behind and creating a venue for my brother to party with his friends.

In keeping with some immutable high school force, the most popular ninth-grade girls would hang out with the upper-classmen and would often come to our apartment for my brother’s parties. As a freshman without much to do, I would stick around and invite some of my friends over.

One party in particular left a psychological mark that I am still processing 30 years later. I had had enough of a drinking game involving a low ball glass, a quarter and copious amounts of beer, so I retreated to the laundry room just off the kitchen and sat up on the washing machine to collect myself. To my great surprise, one of the most sought-after girls in my class made her way into the laundry room and popped up on the washing machine next to me. I don’t recall what she said or what I said or if we even said anything to each other. All I remember is that she put her hand on my knee — my bare knee — and started slowly to move her hand around. I froze, and then, like a wildebeest fleeing a lion across the African plain, I bolted–down the hall and into my room, closing the door behind me.

So why am I relaying this sad, sad story? Because for some reason when I got to my room, I turned out the lights, put on my headphones and queued up Springsteen’s Nebraska. I listened to it start to finish – twice. That darkest of albums chronicling the lives of the beaten-down. The selection still puzzles me. Why, of all records, Nebraska? Had I put on something more upbeat — say, the Stones’ Exile on Main Street — I could have at least attributed my behavior to an inability to handle the excitement of the moment; like an overheated circuit that fails. But instead, I picked Nebraska. Why? Why did I run headlong towards that record like a masochist to the lash?

Like any good child, I blame my parents. I’m not sure how they accomplished it, but I perceived the desire I felt on that washing machine to be almost criminal. Perhaps it was the disapproval I had seen my parents heap on my brother for taking the foot of rope they gave him and un-spooling it for several miles. Perhaps it was Jewish guilt gone haywire. Or perhaps it was their decision to send me to an all-boys school until ninth grade so that when I finally encountered girls in high school I felt like the tribesmen in The Gods Must Be Crazy happening upon the Coke bottle.

It is hard to know why I fled the laundry room like it was a crime scene and hid in the dark of Nebraska. But in retrospect, Nebraska was the perfect choice: the record is the musical equivalent of a cold shower – it has a numbing quality to it, with its simple arrangements and far away, hollow aesthetic that is hard to listen to without shivering. And its grooves are populated with the internally-conflicted, the morally-compromised and the outright criminal, all of whom I felt a need to commune with that night.

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