Arnold Schwartzenegger was holding his shotgun pointing upwards like a torch, or an obelisk, or a scyscraper: an effort of man to reach the heaven and touch divinity. Except Arnold had reached it already. He was the perfect man, the living sculpture, the image of God himself, and thus an okay idol for a young guy to worship enough to place on his wall instead of bikini babes. Aspiration, not admiration, and even if your eyes wandered past the epitome of Man, behind his right arm, stretched out to protect, nobody knew. Nobody knew you spent your evenings looking at Edward Furlong, fourteen years old, near angelic in his beauty and near demonic in his hidden wrath.
Isak would have died before admitting it to anyone, but he had, sometimes, kissed that poster goodnight, on the lips curved into a scared but defiant expression. Luckily, nobody ever asked. Edward would keep his secret. Edward didn’t mind if Isak called him Jonas every now and then, whispered right against the glossy paper.
Isak had tried kissing Arnold, too, but it wasn’t the same.
He had never even considered kissing Linda Hamilton.
He knew that was wrong.
Isak turned away from the poster and flopped on his belly on his bed. He shoved his hand between the headboard and the mattress, and after some digging he managed to pull out the small, clear plastic box. It had a tape inside it, an unlabeled cassette. Isak had been saving it for a moment when he was balanced enough to listen to it. He needed to protect his heart.
It wasn’t that he didn’t know Jonas didn’t like him that way. He knew. Isak knew perfectly well he was the only boy who wanted to kiss Edward Furlong instead of Pamela Anderson or Cindy Crawford. But knowing it didn’t help. Every time Isak listened to the mix tapes Jonas made him he searched for hidden messages, and every time he found so many they nearly gave him a heart attack.
Jonas had MTV, and a rig that could record music from the television to cassette tapes. He was the sole reason Isak was still sane. Music like that was banned in this house. Most things were banned in this house. They made mother nervous, and when mom was nervous everything went to shit. But dad had bought Isak a Walkman, behind her back, and Jonas kept making his tapes, and Isak had somewhere to hide in his room now. The music.
Jonas never marked the tapes, and he didn’t give Isak the list of songs he had taped until after Isak had listened through the mixtape. It was a form of art, Jonas said, making a good mixtape, and the element of surprise was necessary for the full experience. If the full experience was supposed to feel like a heart attack, Jonas had nailed it every time. Every time Isak heard something like don’t you wanna be more than friends he stopped breathing and rewinded the tape so many times he was scared it would break.
So, the first listen wasn’t a thing to be taken lightly. Isak had to have privacy to die in peace, and he had to be strong enough to not actually die, and definitely strong enough to control his urge to run to the phone and call Jonas and tell him that yes, yes he wants to be more than friends and that soul shakin’ love is a really fucking accurate description you know.
Jonas never repeated songs. Isak was safe from Don’t Let Go, but there were a million other songs just like it. Isak’s heart had been bruised so badly by them all that it had grown to like the pain. Liking it didn’t mean it wasn’t hard. The first listen needed a lonely night, like this one, and even then it could be almost too much.
Isak reached over to the floor and pulled his backpack up on the bed. He dug out the old laundy bag he used for his gym shoes and such, and took the Walkman from it. He opened the player and took the tape inside it out. It was one of Jonas’ mixtapes, because they were all Isak had. Three of them. Isak couldn’t safely hide more, so he recycled four tapes that Jonas recorded over and over again. One was always at Jonas, and three with Isak. His most precious things, slipped between the mattress and the headboard, or tucked in a pocket of an old jacket in the closet, or inside the Walkman Isak carried everywhere with him.
The tape clacked into the Walkman. Isak snapped the lid shut and put the battered earphones on. He was saving up for a new pair, the kind you stick into your ear instead of wearing over your head, but he was still a couple hundred short. His old ones would have to do until then, no matter the padding being plucked to oblivion by his nervous fingers. Isak rolled on his back on the bed and turned to look at Edward. He was getting a bit young for Isak, but it was only three years. Well. Barely, Isak had just turned 17. But soon enough he would need to switch to Arnold.
Isak weighed the Walkman in his hand. Then he lowered it slowly on his chest. The weight and shape of it felt so familiar. Isak had laid like this a thousand times before, if not more. It was his own little ritual. He went to church every Sunday, he took the Holy Communion and uttered the words he knew by heart since he was four, but none of that felt like this. This was his true sacrament.
He closed his eyes. He let his fingers travel along the smooth, plastic surface to the button. He pressed it down, and it stayed down, the satisfaction of activating the mechanism rippled on Isak’s skin briefly. The tape hummed softly as the Walkman wound it from one wheel around another.
Isak didn’t recognise the instrument that started playing. Just the one, in one monotone siren-like howl, over and over again. It sounded almost like a guitar, but not quite, it was flatter and weirder and off. It was an alarm, an alert, and Isak’s every cell was electrified, prepared for what was about to come.
Then the beat dropped. Isak had never heard anything quite like it. It was also a short repeat, and it was full of power, and almost manic, like something was struggling to get released and would succeed any second now.
I’m the trouble starter, punkin’ instigator
I’m the fear addicted, danger illustrated
I’m the firestarter, twisted firestarter
Isak’s eyes snapped open. He was staring at the ceiling without seeing it. All he could sense was the music, the angry, forceful music that pushed its way into his ears and rampaged over him taking no prisoners. It wasn’t a song, it was an attack, a cry of war, and Isak surrendered to it unconditionally.
Three minutes and fortyfive seconds later Isak stopped the tape. He was almost panting. He didn’t know music like this existed. Something this. Angry, defiant and unashamed. Isak had learned to hide his anger and defiance - don’t upset your mother - and this guy, this firestarter, was embracing it. He was channeling his madness outwards instead of inwards, and in Isak’s world that simply wasn’t done.
They played music like this on television. That thought felt absurd. Isak remembered the last time he had felt like this, when he had heard Smells Like Teen Spirit for the first time. It had felt equally insane and brutal, and equally alluring. Isak wanted to throw himself in front of that war machine and get crushed under its wheels.
He turned to look at Edward. John Connor would have loved this song. He would have played it on a huge ghettoblaster held on his shoulder as he was cruising down the road on a motorcycle.
Isak hit rewind. The Walkman whirred kind of slowly. It would need fresh batteries soon. Isak hoped he still had some in his stash. It was too late to go buy new ones, the stores were already closed for Saturday night. He waited, patiently, so scared that the whirring would stop that when it actually did and the button clacked up it made him jump.
“Fuck!” Isak hissed, then looked around, nervous. Cussing at home felt wrong. It had been hardwired into his system with palms and belts. But he was alone, nobody heard him, apart from Arnold, Linda and Edward. Isak was sure they approved.
He sat up on his bed. Then he got up on his feet, and attached the Walkman to his belt with the clip on the back. He pushed play. He danced. He couldn’t dance, not for real, but this song commanded him to do so anyway. It was more like trashing around than dancing, but the worse it looked the better it felt.
It was still light outside. That’s why Isak didn’t see the headlights as the car swerved in the yard. Firestarter was screaming in his ears, so he didn’t hear the doors slam. When the song rolled to the end Isak heard someone calling his name. It was mom. She was coming up the stairs. Isak froze. He yanked the Walkman off his belt, snapping the clip off, pulled the earphone plug off and threw everything under his bed just in the nick of time. Mom knocked on his door, but didn’t wait for him to answer before she opened it.
“Isak? What’s going on?”
Isak was short of breath, and blushed, and kind of sweaty. He didn’t know what to say.
“I saw you from the window, and heard you jumping around. Why?”
“I was just letting the Holy Spirit take me over, mom”, Isak tried. It was all he could come up with on this short notice. Usually he lied better.
Mom frowned. She didn’t look pleased.
“Our Lord doesn’t work like that, boy. The only power that can consume a man is the Devil. Have you been possessed by a demon?”
“Of course not! God!”
Mom’s frown got deeper.
“Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”
Shit. Not the Ten Commandments. Isak hurried to bow his head.
“Don’t apologize to me. Apologize to God.”
“Yes, mom.” Isak got on his knees and crossed his hands to prayer. He let the words flow out of him like from a record. A Walkman doesn’t know what it’s playing, and Isak was feeling the same way. He just played the words like a speaker, and when the song ended he started it again.
Five repeats were enough for mom. She nodded, approvingly, and rustled Isak’s hair.
“That’s my lovely boy. Now, go to bed.”
Isak looked at his alarm clock. Garfield’s tail was pointing at seven.
“But it’s Saturday. And summer.”
“Honor thy father and thy mother.”
Isak swallowed. He was one slip away from discipline.
Mom kissed his forehead goodnight and left the room. Isak toppled over on his side on the floor and closed his eyes. The words were playing on repeat in his head, altering, his own meak voice, mom’s stern voice and the insane British guy.
Apologize to God. Yes, Mom. I’m the bitch you hated, filth infatuated.