• The Middle

    Katie Moulton

    Summer 2021

    By the fourth go-round, I’m shouting the chorus into Maniaci’s face. He blinks back at me, thick, dark eyebrows jumping up his forehead. If he’s singing along, I can’t hear him over the noise. It’s the second and last day of my experiment, a year after Maniaci’s accident, and it’s spring again—sunny but chilly, one of those weird days when April hesitates. In his new room, the light is dim. The stale air is heating up. Through the portable CD player’s tinny speakers, the drums stop-and-fill and surge. The rhythm is a heartbeat, pummeling and skipping. 

    “Remember this?” I say.

    Mani locks eyes with me, mouths yeah.

    I jut my chin in time with the snare and keep eye contact. “Okay, Crotchy, here we go.”

    I lean closer. Mani’s lying in the adjustable bed, wearing an oversized white T-shirt that 

    disappears under the sheet. His mouth cracks open, and I widen mine as we mimic the singer’s heroic yelp—It just takes some (cymbal crash) time! Little girl, you’re in the middle (cymbal crash) of the ride—I notice some spittle on his chin, clean where his dad shaved it, and worry it’s mine. Our faces have never been this close before, and in another timeline, they never would have. I hide my hand in my sleeve, then reach up and wipe off the spit. Mani’s mouth is still moving with be all right, all right, his eyes widen like What the hell? But then he smiles, and I return to thrashing around in my one-girl mosh pit. 

    Michael Maniaci and I sat next to each other in English class every year of high school. First by alphabetical order, then by choice. “Maniac with an i,” was how he liked to explain to our teachers the spelling of his name. Teachers loved me. I was a model student, always ready with a supporting example or observation, so I was confounded that they loved Mani too. He never shut up, yelping non sequiturs like “Gamecube!” or “Poop!”—meaningless inside jokes with his two best friends, Drew and Schmitty, neither of whom were anywhere near our classroom. I’d roll my eyes, and the teacher’s head would snap in our direction. When they told him to pipe down, he’d shoot them a bee-stung grin. By senior year, he was getting handsome, growing into his gangly frame, trading in oversized off-brand polos for thin T-shirts with band names scrawled across the fronts. His favorite quote was, “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” We were the only ones in our friend group who knew all our parents’ old music, though Mani argued that “classic rock” was only still popular because “Baby Boomers can’t let anything go.” He called me his “nemesis,” and I called him mine, because he was always competing with me for grades, and I was always competing with him for Drew’s attention. Neither of us ever won. 

    We grew up in south St. Louis County, a middle-class suburb piled against the bluffs of the Mississippi, where three-bedroom houses with white siding were still affordable. It was a place where big Catholic clans from working-class South City could move up in the world without leaving the zip code. Most of our friends fit that description, though my three-person family from out of state did not. We all lived in the multiplying cells of developments along what had been a rambling country highway, speed limit fifty. When we learned to drive, we learned to drive fast. There was so much new construction that I spent the years on either side of the millennium hanging out in the skeletons of newly framed houses—balancing on ceiling beams and floor joists, sitting with crushes on un-shingled roofs, sawdust in my sneakers. 

    I met Mani and the boys in junior high, at the Resurrection church’s monthly dance. We grinded to Sir Mix-a-Lot, and tall, unselfconscious Mani made everyone crack up with his wiggly “Genie in a Bottle” moves. To hear them talk, the boys’ childhood had been one long summer day: baseball in their neighborhood field, bottle rockets in the street, Huffy bikes tearing through the woods. Through high school, the boys still spent afternoons in those woods, building an elaborate fort for parties and bonfires. Mani, Drew, and Schmitty scavenged tools from garages and pillaged construction sites for unguarded lumber. They worked at night, sliding planks onto the nappy carpet of the “Ass-Pro,” Schmitty’s two-tone Astrovan. 

    By the end of sophomore year, I started dating Drew, and our friend groups meshed. In cars and at parties, we belted along to burned CDs, including one mix that Mani had been copying and distributing among our friends. He labeled each disc in neat handwriting: Maniaci’s Massive . . . Punk Mix, even though most of these bands were barely pop-punk. They were what we called emo, as in emotional. Most music is emotional, of course, or at least evokes emotion. But emo referred specifically to the extreme pendulum swings of feeling; to the idea, were it explicitly stated, that Everything right now is so important and will feel like this forever. Like punk, emo’s chords were simple and the tempos fast, but the music was delivered with the sugar-rush injection of a pop hook. The wailing vocals and the lyrics were crucial—about cruel girls you’d nonetheless love until you died, about glory days you were remembering even as they happened. Our collective vulnerability made it real. 

    Emo was inherently youth-oriented because band members were also our age, and they reached fans through the Internet and not through major music labels. Emo was therefore unprotected by an industry barrier, and most of these bands would implode by the time the guys reached adulthood. Our pop-punk godfathers, Green Day, appeared on Mani’s mix, along with a dozen other bands featuring whiney-toned male singers and names equal parts snark and earnestness: Taking Back Sunday, The Get Up Kids, New Found Glory, Something Corporate, Dashboard Confessional, Brand New, The Starting Line, Fall Out Boy, Saves the Day, Further Seems Forever, Story of the Year, The Promise Ring, plus at least two songs by a band called Jimmy Eat World. 

    Jimmy Eat World’s first and biggest hit—“The Middle”—is what I’m blasting there in Maniaci’s parents’ house, watching Mani watch me. Around the turn of the millennium, Jimmy Eat World didn’t know where they were. The quartet of grade-school friends was too gently measured to be punk, too experimental to be pop. They’d gained a lot of scrappy DIY fans from nearly a decade of playing warehouses around the country, but they lost that audience when they signed to a major label. Then they got dropped from that major label. The twentysomethings got day jobs in their Arizona hometown, where they regrouped and saved to finance an album on their own. They stripped back the layers of production and charted a course straight for the horizon. The result, Bleed American, helped to usher in the third wave of emo. Nearly every song addresses the listener directly as they move through youthful milestones: risk-taking, heartbreak, falling in love, falling in lust, the death of a friend, waking up to the evils of systems of power. After the September 11 attacks, the band re-released the album as Jimmy Eat World and renamed the first single as “Salt Sweat Sugar” because “Bleed American” called up all the news footage of the towers crumbling, limbs pulled from the ruins and, before that, bodies falling through space. In November, Jimmy Eat World released their second single, “The Middle,” which was sweet as simple syrup but as galloping as collective will. There were other bands we liked more, that felt edgier, but Jimmy Eat World were emo veterans, and they gave us an accessible fantasy of the exact moment we lived in. When I first heard “The Middle” as a ninety-eight-pound, barely-kissed fifteen-year-old, it sounded retro yet unmanipulated—a squeaky-clean nonconformity we could take for our own. 

    The song ends again. I turn to the stereo on the plastic shelving beside the bed. Skip back to track three. I’m still dressed in my office clothes, and my collared shirt has come untucked in the front. Do I look ridiculous, bobbing around like that? I turn down the volume a bit and sit beside Mani. 

    “Were you at the very first Jimmy Eat World party?” I ask.

    Mani scrunches his brows, says, I don’t know.

    “You know, the one where we scaled the fence?” I describe what I remember: how we ran through the streets in our underwear, broke into the public pool by climbing a twenty-foot chain-link fence. “Got this scar on my stomach, see?” 

    That’s cool, he replies, but his eyes track right, maybe to change the subject. 

    “You were at all the others though.”

    Hell yeah. Full-face grin.

    “I can’t hear this song without thinking of those parties.”

    “The Middle” was released with a music video. In it, Jimmy Eat World plays in the crowded living room of a dream teen comedy, a house where everybody is dancing, making out, cracking beers, and dressed only in their underwear. It comes off as sexual and innocent at once. There’s a pool—one of those perfect, aquamarine cellophane sheets. That kind of pool only exists behind desert mansions, but we were ankle-deep in this Missouri river valley. Still, on screen, people who could be our friends, who could be us, jump off the roof and into the blue. By the summer after its release, we set out to emulate that scene and make it real. 

    “The Middle” opens with a simple canned guitar line: the clock striking midnight in a bright house without parents. At the signal, we would peel off our jean skirts and T-shirts. Our skin tanned or pale, soft and tight as a snare head. The reliable four-four drumbeat kicks off with the steady chugging bass line and sounds like the hand-me-down cars we borrowed on a Saturday night. Hey, the singer intones, like he’s giving a big-brother pep talk, don’t write yourself off yet. That first night, a night we would try to repeat, we went running out of the house, bare soles slapping concrete. We were half-naked and all nerves, chasing the spaces between us like synapses firing. A tall, dark-haired boy pounded past and snapped the waistband of my baby-blue cotton briefs. We would stay up through first light, talking about bands and how people we want want us back, but imperfectly. We laughed and shushed each other. We wobbled on the lip of the pool, shoulders pricked with goosebumps, heels pulling leftover warmth from the asphalt. 

    I always wondered about my outline in the dark, worried that once I was soaked, everyone would see exactly how little there was to see. My track coach said I had a “K-Mart body”; what that meant I never knew. Maybe flimsy, not built to last. My heart beat like a starling under breasts I suspected would never truly come in. Once, a popular girl who looked like Snow White incarnate told me if I turned sideways, I would disappear. 

    But Snow White was never invited to our Jimmy Eat World parties. Below, in the water, between blurry stars, my friends were already splashing and dunking each other. To my right, in one rushed movement, Mani ran to the edge, stripped off his boxers, and leapt, shouting or singing, and I could hear it, that moment just before the chorus, when the gang of guitar, bass, tambourine, and never-wavering drum beat—all of it—just stops, lifts up into a silent collective gasp at the top of the arc, and the whole world is suspended there. 

    Before you can even breathe out, everything comes crashing back together—clang! While the guitars surge, the drums stop-and-fill every four bars, a tumbling egging-on in the background. Some boy sings, Everything—everything!—will be all right, all right! And I knew it was corny, we all knew it was corny, but wasn’t it miraculous that a bunch of I’s and you’s were transforming into a we? That a moment could feel momentous. That my friends were waiting for me to come down. 

    I realize I’ve gone quiet, and Mani is giving me a quizzical look. I know I’m acting weird, but it’s good to know he’s here in the room with me, not daydreaming, floating somewhere none of us can reach. It’s dusk, so I turn on the lamp and twist the blinds, tinging the walls yellow. On the wall next to the window is a giant whiteboard scribbled with nonsensical messages from friends who’ve come through. Then I see a gilded frame: Mani’s college diploma. I turn back and say, “You really scammed ’em out of that one, huh?” and he laughs. 

    After high school, I left the Midwest, hungry for an East Coast university and its frost-covered gargoyles. Mani and the boys moved down to Mizzou together. Though I sniped that they should branch out, I worried I was missing out on the constantly evolving inside jokes. Even as I soaked up new experiences in college, I felt full to the brim with the memories I’d already made. For four years, the old crew stayed in close touch, reuniting every school break for Bud-fueled hijinks all over our hometown, including poolside Jimmy Eat World parties where we stripped for each other again. We traded group emails that would be unreadable to an outsider, comprised of thickly stacked memories and catchphrases. On Facebook, launched when we were eighteen, we posted photos of one another, documenting every shot of every twenty-first birthday. We tagged each other in videos of us watching our favorite emo bands play live, their voices drowned out, as always, by our own. From mosh pits in dark clubs, I dialed my friends and then held up my cell phone so they could hear a favorite song. 

    By 2008, when we were about to graduate college, the economy was collapsing. I met with an editor at the Boston Globe who said, “Why would you board this Titanic?” Schmitty, who’d finished early, took a job selling ad space and moved into his parents’ basement. Drew got hired in a lab, with a view toward grad school. He talked about moving far away, somewhere warmer. Both had turned more serious about their respective girlfriends. Mani, meanwhile, had joined a frat, kicked ass in his business major. He had interviews lined up. He was going somewhere. As always, Mani was ebullient, but about what was unclear, the details scattered. Like he had something up his sleeve, even if it was confetti. When spring break arrived and it was time for the boys’ annual trek to Panama City Beach, Florida, for once, Mani went alone. 

    There’s no singalong in this part of the story. 

    At midnight on Wednesday, March 26, 2008, Mani was crossing a two-lane beachfront highway. Maybe he was galloping toward friends at the bar—Sharky’s, maybe, the place bathed in neon. I can see him, returning from some walk with a girl on the blackened beach. He’s striding, then sprinting, because why not? He’s sweating in a threadbare Taking Back Sunday shirt, winging his arms wide, inviting the night in. He’s all forward movement. He doesn’t look both ways. Then the headlights. Then the impact. 

    In the middle of that Florida road, a car hit Mani—drove into him, through him. No matter how I arrange the words, that sentence doesn’t sound right. It’s a black hole in the page. 

    We know the driver was twenty years old. She drove a 1996 Chevrolet. What we don’t know: who Mani was going to meet, whether the driver slammed on the horn or the brakes, what neither of them saw, whether he swiveled mid-stride. Later I heard he had been launched into the air, but who would’ve told me something like that? I see his lanky body flung backward, toes pointed up, arms outstretched. Surfing without a crowd, without a wave. The arc of his back. What I don’t want to know: the sound, the moment his big, handsome head hit concrete. What bled. How much. We weren’t there. We don’t know where he went next. 

    Mani was rushed to a Gulf Coast hospital. At home, in college towns, in emails, we waited for word on his critical condition. When we’d had enough, we slept. Was Mani sleeping? His family made a webpage and updated it every day: Severe brain trauma. Broken leg. Induced coma. Intracranial pressure. Doing everything. No change. 

    I passed the remaining days before graduation in Boston, where all I could do was think about my friend. Sometimes I dreamed of Mani’s younger self. My brain replayed the first emo show we went to at a big venue, how we’d pushed to the front rail of the pit. How I fell—I would’ve been crushed—if Mani hadn’t fenced his long arms on either side of me and lifted me from the floor. How, by the third band, I felt like I belonged enough to risk it, turned to him and said, Put me up. How he made a stirrup of his hands and launched me over the crowd. The shock of being caught—a dozen palms outstretched below to carry me—while the blue, white, magenta, and orange spotlights dotted the far black reaches above. Strangers clasped my ankle, palmed my back, my left butt cheek, then pushed me onward atop the sweaty, jumbled wave. 

    In May, I packed up my English diploma and moved back in with Mama. I stored boxes in my old room and slept in her bed. Mani—stable yet unresponsive—was flown back to St. Louis too. That summer we spent mornings at a neighborhood pool and afternoons at the hospital, flanking Mani’s bed. Every day, Schmitty showed up after work, and we gave him shit. “Mani, you won’t believe this,” we said. “Look at Schmitty’s tie. At his dress shirt.” We talked to him, around him. We touched his pale shoulder under the smock. 

    Was Mani floating inside himself? Was he hovering over us, or voyaging through time and space, roaming far beyond our company? Was Mani sleeping or struggling to wake up? Sometimes I dreamed about Mani the way I dreamed about my dead dad—flickering like a hologram, but very close. If he did wake up, who would he be?

    Katie Moulton is the author of Dead Dad Club, an Audible Original memoir. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Oxford American, Catapult, and elsewhere. She lives in Baltimore.

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