mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns can be found here.
North New Jersey, the immediate region outside Manhattan’s skyline, is industrial, depressive, and idyllic for mass graves. Flat land trashed by freight cars and construction equipment parked for reasons–practical reasons–beyond expansion or development. Factories and the occasional smokestack. A random stadium stands alone amid the sprawling vacancy. The train approaches Newark. People on the platform stood atop the cement, angry, engaged in conversation or dead-eye-trapped inside their own heads. Inside the train, I could see my eyes in the reflection of the plexiglass.
I am en route from New York. The city is behind me, as is the life I’ve carved out, and the white earbuds dangle from my ear. It is Easter weekend—Good Friday, to be exact—and I’m listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. I can’t stop listening to the album, despite tweeting about it seemingly without end, to say nothing of the Liner Notes column I wrote about it. I am listening to “Mortal Man” and feeling melancholic about the whole affair.
I don’t go home often enough—ninety minutes away, but it’s been six months since I’ve made this trip—and when I’m home, I’m never there long enough. I miss my family, sometimes. I’m listening to Kendrick rap with ferocity. I’m listening to the Fela sample in the background. I miss my family with a ferocity, sometimes. I miss—the attempts we’ve made at being a whole unit. Cohesive. One melody. We are scattered. We are an Afrobeat sample, dispersed. I am a bassline without drums, without horns, without words.
The train ride is swift; thankfully, I made the express train. Little stops are skipped for the larger hubs. The train is packed. So packed, so inhumane in the way bodies are piled on top of bodies. Large, sweaty men with gold bands on their left hands let their eyes lurk to the exposed thighs of a single woman sitting quietly, a weekender in her lap, occasionally straightening her skirt. She is on guard. I don’t blame her. We are animals, men. Getting at women. Trying women. This is the mood I’m in when I go home: histrionic, maudlin, and a bit insufferable.
“As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression.” Kendrick drudges up the dreaded word. Depression is out to get me. Depression has tried to kill me since 2006. I haven’t let it. I dosed myself with antidepressants, once upon a time. Talk therapy. Sun therapy—sitting in the light on a bench in Brooklyn, back when I relaxed in my ex-girlfriend’s neighborhood. I haven’t been depressed in a year. This has been the longest stretch without depression since 2010, before my marriage. Before my divorce, before the recriminations. Before the affairs, before the time wasted on situations which left me habitually drained. Depression has tried to kill me, but I’m still here. Kendrick is still here. I, myself, do not have an army to lead. Only words and a cabal of friends—creatives, mainly—who have my back, I think. This is what Kendrick’s “Mortal Man” speaks to—it’s why I keep it on repeat. I’m an opinionated writer on the Internet—outrage will find its way at my door soon. Will my friends still be my friends? Will they make room for mistakes and depression?
I change the music.
I am at my father’s house. A two-story house nestled in the wooded suburbs of south New Jersey. This is not my childhood house, not my childhood town. My father and stepmother moved last year to this new place. I am comfortable here, but it is not mine, if you understand. I did not grow up here. This building is not in my blood, as it were. The connections I feel are related to the people here, this man who looks like me, who ages gracefully but ages all the same; time is a source of fear.
My stepmother douses the house with gospel music. I am unfamiliar with the performers. I only know God through half-assed readings of Revelations and the signs He leaves me in the world, like the feeling in my gut when I think of my lover, who is not here with me this weekend. I miss her. I feel unhinged a bit, and I miss her. A lot is happening, and I miss her. I miss the way we listen to music together in bed. The quiet we share allows us to decode D’Angelo’s Black Messiah. “Another Life” reminds me of her. Of us. She is in my writing, and I associate music with our time together, and I give her my time: my lover, then, has all of me, all I can ever hope to give to another life.
Late night, and I’m still awake. I partake in a bit of vodka and later, in bed, I listen to Thundercat’s Apocalypse. I love the track “The Life Aquatic.” There are no words. Thundercat drives the melody with his pitch-perfect bass. He goes low, goes high, he rides the electronic tones attempting to add texture to an otherwise straightforward beat. It all comes together and, before I drift to sleep in this queen bed, alone, I think about my life.
What else is there to do when one is alone and sleepy and half-drunk? I’ve pulled myself out of hell (what we talk about when we talk about depression) and I’m happy, but not quite. Not at this exact moment. Traveling makes me feel unsettled, and it is a feeling I sometimes seek out. It shakes me up. I am out of my comfort zone. The music I love becomes background sounds for different thoughts. With space, I think about my lover, my family, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the world, my life, and it is all so fleeting. It will all end.
Except for this music. Thundercat is on repeat as I drift. “The Life Aquatic” is playing again, three hours later.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.