Strange in the midst of doomscrolling newsfeeds forever thinking what can’t possibly get worse most certainly will that, as you’re contemplating the numbers, the data, the charts, the outrage, the grief, Eddie Van Halen is suddenly before you, dead, and time — which has made no sense at all for months — lets go completely. A black hole opens, and you’re back in high school where all you knew about Van Halen was that someone had asked you to draw one of the album covers and said they’d pay you — somebody was always asking you to draw something back then, always promising to pay — and it wasn’t so much Eddie Van Halen you were interested in, cute as he was, but David Lee Roth since he had the better bone structure, or anyway the kind of bone structure that was easier to draw, and he had that strange expression that was supposed to be fierce but seemed so feminine — and who were these guys anyway you wondered the whole time you were drawing, who was it that listened so much they’d gotten so big? You just didn’t get it, but drawing was, after all, something to do, even when you knew you wouldn’t get paid.
Then you’re in that rooming house in Boston — this was later, in art school, because your brain had jumped again — and your best friend is waking you up breathless and trembling in fear after almost meeting David Lee Roth in person but winding up with a roadie instead who’d invited her to a party at the hotel, told her David Lee Roth and the rest of the band would be along any minute and damn there she was, alone with the dude, and it was clear that David wasn’t coming, or anyone else for that matter, anyone who could save her, and she did the only thing she could think of: she played along. Nancy was all of four foot ten, rocked five-inch, spike-heeled shoes and another four or five inches of spiked-up hair. She’d been to Barbizon modeling school, too tiny to make it as a model but an absolute pro with a tube of jet-black eyeliner and the perfect eyeshadow palette. She knew how to set her shoulders when she walked in those heels, how to stare a man down, the tilt of her chin both a dare and threat, and now here she was alone with this dude, this random, rough-house roadie, and every instinct telling her to scream told her to drop her voice instead. She said, Baby, you need a shower after all that work, and make no mistake he was not having that, but she set her shoulders and tilted her chin, made like she was teetering somewhere between fed up and bored, said Baby, go clean yourself up. I’ll be here when you get out, and she walked to the bed unbuttoning her blouse and pulling off a heel and damn if the dude didn’t jump in the shower. Damn if she didn’t manage to get the shoe back on, get the hell out, flag down a cab she didn’t have money for and shake me awake looking like the ghost of rock and roll itself, telling me how close she’d come to something “really, really bad” and after all that told me she was pissed — pissed! — that the roadie she’d gambled on didn’t get her to David Lee Roth, that he didn’t even know where the party was happening and what the hell had she been thinking, what the hell had she just done.
Jump again and I’m thumb-scrolling through photos of a sixty-five-year-old man who looks nothing at all like anything I remember about Eddie Van Halen but then there he is with the band, and there he is again with Valerie Bertinelli, and there he is old, there he is young, then old again, young again, old, and I can’t figure out where forty or so years could possibly have gone. I can’t figure out how the soundtrack of a band I paid zero attention to is suddenly playing itself perfectly in my head with lightning-bolt images of high school dances, art school parties, and all the early days of my first marriage. I can’t figure out how, after months of grief and fear and the daily disbelief of hundreds of thousands of dead and dying, that this one picture I’d come to of this one beautiful young man, this rock and roll icon I’d not thought about once in a decade suddenly stands as icon of a generation taking care of its parents while taking care of its kids. This beautiful, long-haired boy with a beautiful, ear-to-ear grin stands as a symbol that, while you were distracted by so many things, an entire generation was passing away — and not the last remnants of your parents’ generation, YOUR generation, the best and brightest, rocking and rollingest part of YOU.
How in the actual hell could it be that you’d survived so much just to wind up here, high school a heartbeat away, a black hole in time away, and in a world full of fire and floods, a world full of pestilence, you stand here weirdly surprised that something as ordinary as cancer can still take people away.
For all of what my timeline was telling me, plenty of people were feeling those years warp away, plenty of people had just jumped across thresholds of time and space, smoking their first cigarettes and getting felt up, every one of us realizing we’d been standing on a precipice since the day we were born so afraid of falling we were always willing to jump. Jump in our joy and jump in our sadness, jump in our fear, willing to land where jumping itself had taken us. Ready to jump over and over again, fingers crossed, hoping for the best, hoping someday you’d land in a place that makes more sense than any of this. But here we all are, standing stock still — save for our thumbs — for maybe the first time in our lives trying to think what it means, what all of this means, how we all wound up so tired, too goddamned tired to jump anymore.