It’s 1994 and we’ve just learned that Kurt Cobain has died. There is a poster of him scotch-taped to the wall in my walk-in closet, the same walk-in closet where my brother and I sneak cigarettes at night. We go in there and stare at Kurt once our parents go to sleep.
The house is old, so old that we’ve just had a 200-year birthday party for it, so old that our friends refuse to spend the night because of the way the floorboards bend to our weight, the way the train tracks across the street are so close that the walls start shaking just when we’re drifting off to sleep. The neighbors joke that George Washington’s ghost rides through the streets at night, and that if we listen carefully, we can hear the trotting of the hooves and the squeaking of the carriage wheels.
The walk-in closet was built around a window, a square window low to the floor that swings inward and holds no screen. Our father caulked it shut some years ago, but my brother fixed that with a Swiss Army knife. When I picked out my clothes in the mornings, I felt the cold draft from the low window’s cracks licking at my ankles. I read once that Kurt Cobain had written “Heart-Shaped Box” from inside a closet, and I wondered if he had any cigarettes in there with him while he wrote.
I dug our supplies out from under the pile of jeans we hid them under: a cardboard shoebox with an empty paper towel roll stuffed with dryer sheets, a lighter, an ashtray, some tweezers. We each emptied our pockets: I had three cigarettes I swiped from our mother’s open pack on the dining room table; my brother produced a full, unopened pack from the carton in her bedroom. He was always more of a risk-taker than me. As he flipped the pack upside down and tapped it against his palm, packing in the tobacco, I went to work with the tweezers on my straggler cigarettes. Our mother smoked menthol lights, and we never felt like the intensity was there, so we removed the filters.
When I’d finished, my brother flicked his thumb over the lighter, and we each pressed down on the filterless ends, lifted them to our lips, inhaled. When we exhaled, we blew the smoke through the paper towel roll stuffed with dryer sheets, towards the open window. We sat cross-legged, and when we leaned back against the wall, we stared up at Kurt. It was a black-and-white poster. His hair mostly covered his face, and we craved the intensity in his eyes.
“Do you think you could ever do it,” my brother asked, nodding towards Kurt.
I studied the poster, the dangling blond hairs, the charcoal eyeliner that rimmed his eyes, the way I could hear him sing when the radio wasn’t even playing his voice, the way his sound sat ever-present in the air. “I don’t think so,” I said. “Hadn’t thought about it.”
My brother passed me the paper towel tube, and I exhaled. “Have you?” I asked. He pressed his thumb to the lighter’s metal gear, spun it down again and again with a flick, flick, flick.
“Thought about it,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve thought about it.” He pressed the cigarette to his mouth, inhaled deeply, his sound a soft, slow intake. This time he exhaled right in my face, a cloud of menthol smoke that flooded my nostrils and throat, and my breath caught, and then we were both coughing and laughing, coughing and laughing, the breaths and the words stuck somewhere in between.
Before we got up to leave, we stubbed out our cigarettes in the ashtray with the butt of the lighter and shoved the shoebox back under the pile of jeans. He stood up in the tiny closet, eye-level with Kurt, and held his hand out to help me up. I grabbed it, stood, kept holding it.
“Don’t,” I said to him.
“Don’t what?” He smiled, an intensity in his face like Kurt’s.
“Don’t leave me,” I said.
He nodded, squeezed my hand once more before letting it drop.
Later, when he did leave me, I wondered if this was his way of not breaking his promise to me, the way he didn’t use a gun or a rope or a handful of pills, but a bottle of rum and a foot on the gas pedal and a seatbelt unbuckled and a sharp pull of the steering wheel around that impossible bend in the road. The way I was left wondering.