Loud music filled the room, making it hard to hear anything else. The venue, old with high stone walls and grand ballrooms, was once used for fancy dress events for the city’s elite members. Now, lit in a scarlet haze, it smelled of cigarettes and shame, even after being smoke-free for ten damn years. The shame, though, was probably fairly fresh.
The main concert hall is dark, packed with sweaty bodies, rutting about… Everyone is too loud, too beer-addled, too shadowy to really make out what any other person is doing. I see this mass of flesh moving in unison to the overwhelming bass and screeching singer. Yet, through all of this, all I could really hear was my own heart beat violently jumping in my chest and in my throat and in my ears, deafening me to the avant-garde metal that permeates the room. Everyone else hears music, but the sound in my head is like being stuck in a vacuum, all whirring tumbling terror and frenetic heartbeat while my insides spilled out onto the floor.
I’ve never been afraid here, deep in the city, late at night, on my own. I was always told that there was safety in numbers, and there are numbers here. Hundreds, thousands, maybe. But, I don’t feel safe, holding loosely to consciousness. I know he’s out there. I know he’s looking for me.
I walked into this Milwaukee club like I have a hundred times before, dressed in tight lacy reds and blacks, not very weather appropriate, but ready to get shoved around by strangers, an almost religious musical experience. You sometimes know people here, but the room is usually largely made up of strangers bonding over a shared love of live music and expensive beer.
Music. It’s something I love, that escape that lets the rest of the shit world fall away for a few minutes or a few hours, the thing that makes for a bright spot between the mundane soul-sucking days. The unhealthy coping mechanism that keeps me going.
Pile in. Wait. Lights up. Then the music starts, and it’s like that’s when life really starts. You know? That’s when I really live. It’s like I’m just stagnating day in and day out until hard loud triumphant music rips me open so that I can connect to something, feel something, intangible as it may be. Some days that something is just a song, a catchy tune, a strong thrumming beat, meaningless lyrics lost in feedback or eaten up by the dense atmosphere. Some days that something is the stranger who sidles up behind me, skin to skin, craving human contact of his or her own. But, I’ll take those moments in whatever flavor is being presented for the evening.
Tonight was supposed to make my automaton job dissipate a bit, my sad love life blur in the background. The hate and the pain and the trauma of my substandard suburban existence were supposed to melt away a bit, blur, or even slough off to reveal some kind of adrenaline-boosting, minutely naughty, musical experience. And, for a few moments, precious as they were, it did.
Personal space did not exist here, rooms packed to a suspiciously high capacity. The air you breathe is what someone else has discarded, and it was always much warmer than what most people find comfortable, damp stinky air.
As I began to heat up, slathered in the sweat of each stranger who passed or pressed against me, the tingling started deep in my belly. Fuzzy static anticipation. The opening band was loud and a little clumsy, but I could feel it, the edge, waiting to tip me over into some bliss.
Feeling a hand slide up my back wasn’t unheard of, usually just something I went along with. Human contact is human contact, right? Who really fucking cares what happens in the pit? I didn’t. I glanced behind me to see what kind of lottery I was playing tonight, not that it really mattered. And, he wasn’t the worst looking thing I’ve seen. Handsome-adjacent with strange almost reptilian eyes. Not really in color, but in demeanor. A slight nod, an instant of recognition, but no further communication seemed desired or necessary. He didn’t need a name. I didn’t need it either. I was sated. He’d do for now and maybe someone better would come along further into the night. He really wasn’t important. I didn’t come for him, any him or her. I was here only to surrender to the music.
His hands and their movements barely even registered, on one hip, across the shoulder, back of the neck, maybe; it was enough to notice, but not enough to dwell on. I never looked back again. He was there. He was touching me. It wasn’t particularly fun or unfun. It just really didn’t matter. A fly buzzing around, ultimately inconsequential. The music mattered. Moving in unison with the rest of these scumbags mattered.
At some point I felt a flash of something cold stiff against my skin, which was strange in this hot dank room, the one thing that didn’t fit. But, I was too absorbed in the moment, all flushed skin and anticipation. I didn’t care until I felt searing pain in my lower back, cutting through my skin like warm butter, ripping through tissue and sinew and muscle. My legs gave way, crumbling almost immediately from this disruptive force. Something foreign to this environment, to this experience. As I fell, I spotted him, smiling, more reptilian still than before. Wet red blade being tucked neatly into his pocket.
I scuttled under legs or between them, trying to get to my feet in an environment where you’re more likely to be stamped down than to find freedom. Moving hurt. It was a clumsy task to get to my feet on an empty street corner, let alone in this crowd, gaping wound slowing my pace. Leaving a trail of crimson behind me as I, much like a slug, attempted to flee, gripping the ground and pulling forward.
And, in this loud dark room, there were only corners in which to hide. No accessible dark spots or shadowy alcoves. Of course, there were more obvious places, like bathroom stalls, to try. There were negligent security guards to attempt to flag down. But, when has that ever worked for anyone? Sliding across the floor, the bloody trail in my wake, I found a corner and I sat, slumped against a wall. The floor was wet with a slush of beers and sodas and other mysterious liquids, and no one was really looking down. The action was elsewhere, as were their eyes. So, my vermilion was diluted, mixed in among the rest of the filth. No one saw it. No one smelled it. No one even noticed someone was barely clinging to consciousness, but this moment was more familiar than most. No one really noticed me on my best days. So, why would they on my worst? These few moments stretched out forever. He noticed me. Didn’t he? Did I want that? Like it? Hate it?
I couldn’t see the man from my new vantage point. Maybe that’s all he wanted, a quick malicious poke? I could handle that, right? I think. So far? I mean, what the hell kind of pokes was I used to anyway? Still uncertain what had just happened, I was slapped in the face by the reality instead of the romanticism of the situation. In that moment, part of me died. He’d turned the only good thing in my life, that single bright spot, into something horrible. It hurt, physically, the force with which my heart was beating. I could only barely register the fact that my insides were spilling onto the floor around me. After a time things went blurry and, finally, dark.
I didn’t see the man again, not that day, not in real life. He was on my mind and in my dreams, but in that room, I was alone. I woke, plain and cold like the room I was in, like the rest of my fucking life. I’d lived, physically, anyway. Though, I’m not sure that was the better outcome. I laid in the sterile room, bandages seeping, the pain ebbing and flowing, until someone finally arrived. I was stitched up, filth with new blood, all shiny and ready to go home in just a few days. There were, of course, police visits and sketch artists, performing their duty, collecting their pay. The odds weren’t good, they told me. It had been too long. The venue was too busy. No one had seen a thing. Eventually a doctor with a poor bedside manner essentially slapped on the ass and sent on my merry way. “You, you’re good now, just fine, please leave.”
The pictures started coming about a week later, near Valentine’s day. Classy boudoir photos of a blood encrusted knife against various backdrops, usually satins or furs, sometimes just in silhouette, always the knife. No letter. No nothing. No person. Just the pictures. And, I knew it was my knife, the one that killed the music. I should have been horrified anew. He found me. He knew I’d made it. He was watching, the man who left me to bleed out, unseen amid the unwashed masses. For all I knew, he was the one who called it in? Maybe he’d known the whole time. Maybe this was his plan, the long con, drag it out nice and seductive and slow.
But, in a life lacking all joy, devoid of any light, these pictures were thrilling. A secret threat. A treasure to make me feel again. Each new image, igniting just a faint spark of bliss. I remembered the anticipation before the blood. That pleasure, the release, returned anew each time a brightly wrapped package appeared. I could feel again. All of it, that reprieve I so craved. Adrenaline, but no music, save the laughter that eventually burst forth from my lips.