Posing in bondage

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Her pauses were eternities.

“Closeness, proximity,” she called, her voice growing distant like an aching memory. “I needed, bondage.”

The night before Japanese Breakfast made a stop in Berkeley, I had never been more grateful for acting on a whim and purchasing a friend’s ticket. Michelle Zauner and her band had lit the stage ablaze for the last 45 minutes, a glorious whirlwind of love, joy and grief.

As “Glider” began to fade, I stared at the stark cyan whirlpool lights beginning to swirl within UC Theatre. Cold synth swept through me like a deep ocean undercurrent, leaving my lungs spiderwebbed voids. Even though my limbs were stone, I felt myself swaying with others in the mesmerized crowd; we were but wildflowers caught in Zauner’s storm.

A caterpillar cocooned in my throat. For me, the whole night had led up to this song. In spring 2021, “Posing in Bondage” had blossomed during my drift in quarantine liminality, and I had desperately latched onto it as a life raft.

In the earliest pandemic days, I lived with a high-risk family member. The responsibility weighed on my shoulders; N95 straps cut into my cheekbones, and grocery runs ended with garbage cans half-full of Clorox wipes. I took no risks, and as friends faded into pixels, dissociation defined quarantine as a hazy fever dream.

Zauner sang of loneliness and longing, and the gravity of “Posing in Bondage” tied me to the earth despite my fears. In August, I searched for other ways to ground myself when I moved to Berkeley, and 2021 thus morphed into a sweet landscape of opportunity — all rolling hills and laughter.

Still, even as life gradually returned to normalcy, dread lingered like smoke in my lungs. The slightest risk of COVID-19 terrified me, and while the fear was rational, it was also controlling. Anxiety rose in my throat every time I spotted a slipping mask in lecture. I said no to parties, concerts and games.

For the few things I did agree to, I often felt too guilty to fully enjoy them. Nearly everything I loved seemed to endanger family and friends. I was posing in bondage; whether I sat out or joined in, I felt detached.

This time, however, was different. Zauner graced the stage with numbing intensity, and though I was lost in the crowd, I had never been more self-aware. My feet were grounded, but I was floating.

Ripples of longing — longing for what 2021 should have been — shuddered through me, waves lapping at the shore of profound loneliness. I craved closure and goodbyes. I ached for touch and laughter. Every time I had found myself reaching for what I wanted, an electric shock of guilt held me back.

Gravity took hold of me. Silk threads wafted in my throat; a butterfly fluttered frantically in my chest.

“When the world divides into two people — those who have felt pain, and those who have yet to,” Zauner contemplated.

Only she had the ability to make the inevitability of pain so beautiful.

Then, in the middle of tearing me open, the surgeon abruptly decided to stitch me back up. The lights turned on. Zauner stopped. Someone had fainted.

The anaesthesia began to wear off, and suddenly, I remembered where I was. I felt the tips of my ears bending from the N95. Although the mask was still glued to my face, I shoved an open palm to my chin in desperation.

Before the weight of the guilt could fully sink into my bones, a medic arrived and the song resumed. Zauner’s broken yearning stretched out like a web of ice across the venue, even more fragile this time.

Again, it was shattered. Another call for a medic, a false alarm. Zauner dubbed the song “bad juju” and swiftly jumped into the next song. Pangs of alarm pricked as reality sank in. Colorful lights zipped past — were they bright or blinding?

The rest of the show was beautiful, but I couldn’t escape the profound ache for what remained incomplete. “Slide Tackle” slid by in seconds as the past devoured me.

I was selfishly disappointed, unable to stop thinking about the unfinished song — my favorite song.

The cutoff was painfully fitting, however, as its lack of conclusion encapsulated the song’s feeling. “Posing in Bondage” mourns a connection that is never fully achieved, and since quarantine, all I’ve been able to think about are the moments I’ve lost.

But I don’t want to dwell. What I want to remember is not being able to stop smiling during “Be Sweet.” I want to remember standing in line, watching the horizon glow. I want to remember neon wristbands, Sasami’s laugh and Zauner’s radiance. I want to remember polaroids and posters and walking home and feeling happy.

In 2021, I stood still and let life whirl not just around me, but without me. Absence can be consuming, and I let little moments slip away. But I also learned that life isn’t about dwelling on the past — it’s about being present, feeling present.

The year now wanes into winter, but instead of letting the pearly crescent fall through my fingers, I’ll slip it into my pocket. Even as I embrace closeness and proximity, I know I can brave distance too.

Taila Lee is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].