I told myself I wouldn’t cry, I told myself I’d convinced myself that I regarded this story as hysterical and stupid when I would recount it later in life and most people would assume I was making it up anyway. I told myself I would claim I never felt any sense of loss or envy or really anything apart from a mild amusement, but now the court-appointed psychologist was handing me a box of tissues, looking at me gravely.

I was explaining to her that during the transitional period immediately following the grunge trend, it was in a sort of rebranding phase, often called alternative and rather ill-defined. That’s what the marketing people told me. The psychologist stared blankly but made a note.

She asked me how Janeane fit into all this exactly, and I howled and stomped on the floor with my one good foot. I’d basically started at the end, where everything was gone, the production had packed me up and moved me out, and I was left with nothing. I went back, right back to the beginning, where it was all spread out before me—everything, and everything was filled with promise. Contractually, I thought, page by page. I had an agent to protect my image. But I missed the fine print. I didn’t understand the agent was representing the studio, not me.

And I didn’t really know anything else, either. Except for one little thing, the one thing that carved out my niche in the alternative commodities marketplace, the one thing that made me part of the production: my catchphrase.

It was a few years after graduation and, though not a student, I moved to a college town in my home state where a lot of my local scene had headed to merge and grow their image along with the long-established college scene. The clothes and music and attitudes were familiar to me, though there was now an added requirement of being or at least seeming politically well-informed. I listened to others and repeated what they said about AIDS and apartheid.

I was accepted easily because I looked and acted the right way; I had a plausible but not over-the-top anti-masculine, pro-poetry attitude, I had the right T-shirts and records. But the constant threat of cooptation was an ongoing and nerve-racking psychological struggle; I’d seen it happen from afar in Seattle, I’d seen it happen up close and personally with skateboarding in junior high. I was terrified of having myself taken from me all over again. I liked it first. I was here first. I looked and acted a certain way and this gave me power which was diluted by other people looking and acting like me. I was trapped between needing to be seen to achieve some sort of fulfillment or actualized being, but not seen too widely, lest I become a cliché or—worse—a poser. The paradox and very real possibility of being regarded as a bandwagoneer on a ride I’d created filled me with terror and even made most of my nights sleepless. When I did sleep, fitfully and tortured, I could not move from my bed in the morning because I was so despondent, so afraid of going outside and encountering people I did not know who looked and sounded and acted like me.

So we, the whole scene, were outwardly mortified (but also filled with a secret and conniving greed) when word got around that an assistant director and a costume designer were asking too many questions, like about local customs or styles of how we crouched or sat in chairs and if that varied from the scenes in Chapel Hill or Athens. I managed to corner one of them (it was pretty obvious she was from Los Angeles) at the Paradise to ask her just what the fuck she thought she was doing here.

She was like, no, no, it’s cool, it’s cool, we’re making a super-independent film about how to be the right way in a way that the corporations can’t touch. You know. Like…(I stopped listening when she briefly digressed to offer me a gin and tonic, the most underground of bar drinks at that time, and peeled off a crisp twenty from a stack of crisp twenties to pay for it). However else she justified it, I didn’t care. I wanted a part of it. I could secure my personality and style and affect forever. I would not be like others. They were condemned to be like me, to be my stylistic and behavioral echoes, their thoughts of their own pasts and experiences tainted by images of me, the thing they were imitating. And I would get paid for doing it.

So she asked about dancing, like how we danced and whether it was sexy, and I scoffed, because of course we didn’t dance. We just stood there, impassively. No one actually danced. I was baffled anyone would suggest otherwise. She seemed conflicted by this but went on to ask a whole host of questions and I answered them coolly, expertly, but not too eagerly. The answers were rife with a subtle but firm condescension. Then I said something that startled her back into outright sobriety after three more rounds of gin and tonic.

Say that again, she demanded, urgently.

I was confused; I didn’t know which part or why it bore repeating.

No-no, the part after getting evicted.

…you mean…or some shit?

Yes! That was it! She was ecstatic. She removed the handset from what I had mistakenly assumed was a giant ugly purse and placed a call. She found it, she told the other party. She screamed and reveled. The missing and most essential element of the film’s authenticity. They were now beyond reproach.
Say it again but over the phone, she told me. So I did. I was met with orgasmic screeching.

I got it instantly and realized I should’ve seen it coming, maybe even preempted it; I often wanted to pretend it was just this innocuous phrasing particle I used when I was uncertain whether something would have one decisive conclusion or the possibility of a range of potential solutions, but the hard truth is it was a huge part of my identity, in fact probably its most salient part, the one thing that truly distinguished me from everyone else in the scene. A catchphrase.

I was actually known around State Street as the Or Some Shit Guy. Beautiful goth chicks would beg me to whisper the phrase to them under denuded trees as fall winds whipped through the campus, and they rewarded me with kiss marks of Black No. 1 all over my cheeks and neck. Strangers from scenes in other cities like Asheville would ask for photographs. Once, a timid English cool guy with a full-on Elizabethan collar over a biker leather decorated in paint marker with words like annihilation and nightmare approached me at work just to let me know how much he appreciated what I was doing for the scene and the development of a truly authentic lexicon. I was flattered but in no way stunned; it was normal. Setting my mop to the side for a moment, I asked if he was an exchange student for a semester (or some shit, I slyly peppered in), or doing his whole degree here. He was momentarily confused, then he explained, oi, no mate, he’d taken the Concorde here just to tell me this after seeing my photo and my slogan in a very local, very obscure alt-zine called $lamcam which had somehow found its way from Richmond, Virginia to London via an Oslo-based tape trader.

This was the necessary element, she said. They could not be stopped now, she said. You have finally arrived, she told me. We’ll do the contracts soon but that’s just details. She drained her drink, then mine, then asked me to walk her back to the Concourse Hotel.

And we did; we did the contracts, we got the lawyers involved, plans were hatched and firmed up and ultimately we were all descending on a college town in the South I was worried would be totally nowhere but when I got there and looked around, heard some local bands, hung out at the right bars, I was terrified it might actually be cooler than my home scene. Everyone was, for some reason, tan. Nobody had cowboy hats, not even ironically, something which baffled me for days. But they all wore sunglasses. I was revolted.

Then the Hollywood people started arriving with their functions and tools and they were deconstructing what appeared to exist and refashioning it into what they wanted to exist. There was something about the process that sometimes made me physically ill; I occasionally retreated to my hotel suite to shiver and vomit. My own title, for the moment: cultural consultant.

My role in and influence over the film’s production expanded with each passing day. Chit-chat over a cup of coffee (a habit I—bizarrely—did not previously have) would metastasize into script rewrites as I bedazzled one producer after another with my raw authenticity or unquantifiable cool quotient. Changes to wardrobe were made constantly, flippantly, and arbitrarily, as my moods fluctuated along with my new diet and exercise routines.

The assistant director I met back home, Angela, had fallen in love with me, but was privately revolted by my dietary habits and refusal to exercise. These qualities were, she admitted, fresh and edgy and true, but as she’d taken on the traits necessary for success in Los Angeles—the obsession with weight and nutritional purity and the status those things confer in that particular setting—they became core elements of her personality, attributes which could not be muted. She hated how tired I was all the time, how long I slept, how hard it was to get out of bed, how my stomach always hurt, how my pallor stole the natural beauty of eyes which should’ve been bright blue but were usually milky gray, the salty, cheese-like flavor of my semen. She worried about me.

So, contrary to my purpose here, I changed. I did yoga. I got sun. I ate organic food. I felt better and fucked harder than I ever had before. My musculature gained definition. It became easier to maintain a schedule. I stood up straight. Somehow, my teeth were whitened. She clung to me when we were off-set or out of production meetings. She left me covered in wounds from her teeth and nails. She begged me to get her pregnant. She talked ceaselessly about someone named Barbara Loden (a sick and dying relative, I presumed) and would usually trail off and begin crying, and I would make clumsy but sincere efforts to comfort her, and we would fuck again. I became uncomfortable with my passions and weaknesses, which was another way of saying I disliked being tested, I missed the life I seemed to be abandoning in order to, rather paradoxically, I’d say, commodify it.

This unleashed an incredible amount of guilt in me, swirling in my gut like poison, always feeling like I needed to vomit. I decided to become stronger, for her, to embrace the changes she forced in me, and maybe I would become better spiritually, I would understand her, maybe get to know more about this “Barbara,” try and appreciate the gifts she’d given me, a sense of interior worth and humanity. A new knowingness. A cocoon.

I started lifting weights.

I asked the crew, some of whom were kind of husky or built electricians and carpenters and so on, about gyms and where to find them or if they could recommend programs, and everyone thought I was kidding. They loved it, they loved my ironic sense of humor and insisted that be written into the film as well, and I laughed with them, terrified I would be found out. But I consulted the Yellow Pages and I found a weight room not far away. I visited frequently. I learned the art and put on mass. I became a better lover; I could cradle Angela for hours without cramping or needing to shift.

My clothes now fit a bit too tautly and opinion among the crew was divided: was I the purest expression of sarcasm of all scene icons or was I being transformed into something useless? A PA wondered aloud about my newly engorged biceps veins: shouldn’t those things be collapsed?

These were questions that mattered deeply as the actors were now arriving after weeks upon weeks of preproduction and exteriors, and shooting in earnest, doing the realest, most important scenes, was about to begin. The interiors.

I’d anticipated, incorrectly, as it turns out, that they would, instantly and spontaneously, seek me out for my advice on how to act cool but all the talent immediately shuttered themselves in hotel penthouses, the hints of clove cigarettes, long-distance telephone arguments, and furniture-destroying tantrums seeping from under their triple-locked doors, their agents running flak: who the fuck does this motherfucker think he is, trying to tell my client how to act? But I’m necessary, I said. I’m legitimate. They need me. It’s not what you think; it’s not how to act, per se, it’s what. It’s in the contracts. It’s in the fact that they don’t know any AmRep bands. It’s in the fact that they don’t know Nirvana actually had six different drummers. It’s in the fact that when they’re asked whether they like Smashing Pumpkins they reply, no, that’s mean.

But they wouldn’t budge.

Angela told me to persist, so I did; I dropped in on rehearsals, I turned up over and over at their penthouses, I would try to join them for drinks and I was constantly rebuffed, as if I were some sort of fleeting remark.

And a whispering campaign began. I kept hearing scandalous words like steroids and drinking mainstream beer. These accusations were leveled at me constantly and without any ambiguity. It was debilitating. I drink only microbrews, such as Pete’s Wicked Ale, Breckle’s Brown, or any other similarly high-quality yet untrendy nutty brown ale.

Somehow the song listing of the soundtrack makes its way to my inbox and I am mortified. I show up in sound editing, furiously banging on the studio door, screaming at Rachtman, whom I can hear shushing everyone and telling them to pretend we’re not here, and I scream at the top of my lungs, you fucking piece of shit, how dare you try to humiliate me like this, I’ll have your fucking job, you tasteless piece of fucking human garbage, but it’s useless; they just giggle at me. Then I hear a cover of an already terrible Violent Femmes song so awful I wonder if they’re kidding. I just start crying, my back against the studio door, feet extended in front me, sinking slowly to sit on the floor, my face open in a silent scream with tears flowing in steady trickles; finally, I’m collapsed on the ground, flat on my ass, and I can hear them singing along with the song. I want to fucking die; I want to kill everyone here and then myself. Then they start playing…reggae…and it’s another cover…

It dawned on me to finally ask Angela if she could intervene, and she did, eventually being fobbed off on to that same fucking prick PA who insulted my arms and was now clearly neither eating nor bathing to make himself seem more waif-like and indie. She confronts him shortly before a shoot in a “small independent tavern-slash-venue” where one of the characters’ “extremely independent bands” will pretend to perform; in fact, they will be pretending to perform that hideous cover of that hideous Violent Femmes song. The PA looks at me, my trembling lip, my welling eyes; he laughs, and I hear Angela stutter that, no, they don’t understand, that this catchphrase will change the course of this generation. The PA suddenly listens, alert and serious; he suggests to the director they maybe take five and the director orders the set cleared. I’m dragged away by a gang of set dressers while insisting, almost at a scream, that my involvement is crucial to what happens next, and most everyone is so horrified by my desperation they can’t even mock me. Angela looks at me with sad, knowing eyes.

She won’t answer her door later that night, won’t answer the phone in the room I call dozens of times. Maybe she’s not even there.

I don’t sleep. By sunup, I’m wandering the halls of the hotel in a dazed crying jag after realizing I haven’t received a call sheet. I encounter a small mob of cast and crew at the craft services buffet in the banquet hall for breakfast and one of the starlets is there with her horn-rimmed glasses, a work shirt with someone else’s name on it, and a wallet chain that hangs to her shins. This is likely my last chance. I’ll just force my way into the conversation with an extreme, understated nonchalance and then my status will be secure once the starlet is convinced of my value to the project.

I sidle up, falsely confident but at the same time with a forced indifference; I’m subtle; I’m cool. She’s at the imported granola bar and turns to face me. To my surprise, she smiles. I fail to detect any malice in it.

I start in, casual, like hey Janeane, what up, and everyone just starts laughing at me, like bent at the waist guffawing, one guy caustically mouthing the words “what up” in mocking disbelief, and I start sweating, tears stinging my eyes. She tries and mostly fails to suppress the most condescending snort I’ve ever heard. A flash of movement: Angela walks in, holding hands with the PA. I scream and it comes out like a bleat. A handful of security guards rush in at the sound. More laughter. Janeane opens her mouth to speak.

Hey, man. I thought you were already fired…

I lunge at her to stop her from saying it, but I’m restrained by hotel security. I’m screaming, trying to writhe free. There are four guards, each with a limb, trying to pull me up from the carpet after I’ve collapsed while screeching no-no-no over and over. My face is pink, rippled with squiggly, pulsating veins, reflected back at me by the silver chafing cloches tucked under the tables. My nails are sheared off my fingers as the guards pull me free of the carpet.

…or some shit.

I’m screeching in what sound like simian belches now, unhinged, hyperventilating, Angela staring at me in terror, clutching the PA for protection, her arms around his waist, head on his chest, his arm draped over her, the faint hint of a biceps vein visible. They drank of my secret, my key, and they shared it with Janeane, who drives it through my heart and twists. The crowd roars, asking where she got that shit from, the coolest, most authentic, most indie catchphrase they’d ever heard.

Just made it up.

I’m frothing now, my face must resemble a beet smeared with whipped cream, the cast and crew high-fiving each other, the director openly weeping, praising Janeane, who merely shrugs, casually dismissing it as just one more off-the-cuff creative coup in her arsenal of very cool artistic attributes. Chairs and tables are now being overturned in the struggle; one guard hollers to the front desk that the police must be called, that I need to be sedated.

The actor playing the closeted yet for some inane reason also celibate homosexual enters and stares quizzically. I start screaming that I was on the ground floor of that trend, too; that I’d dabbled in homosexuality before they had even heard of it, that I was a much more plausible queer than this fucking square, who seems deeply insulted by this last remark. I yell that his “gayness” (even doing the sarcasm quotes, blood flung from my fingertips in long, stringy bursts) will feel laughably contrived. I am the biggest fag here, I insist, to no avail. They just laugh and point.

My last-ditch effort as I struggle to keep my bloody hands from being ripped free of the doorframe: I insist I’m getting a tattoo, a tattoo on my chest, a tattoo of a Buddha or the Buddha, whatever it’s called. I’ll be the first. I’ll be the only one here with a tattoo.

And then the PA strips his shirt in a disturbingly sensual and fluid motion to reveal a chest tattoo exactly as I just described it. I lose consciousness and collapse, my eyes rolling into the back of my head and my tongue lolling out the side of my mouth, as was testified by one of the guards at the hearing, and that was the last I ever saw of Angela and her film.

Some years later, I slithered into a Q&A with the film’s lead actress at one of the hipper film festivals, although this concept of exclusionary cool is quickly evaporating by this point in history. She was on a panel commemorating the film’s 15th anniversary. I’d gone hoping to reconcile with or at least confront Angela, but Angela wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened to her. I would never find out.

At some point the actress is asked to compare her own…I don’t know, self-image? Avatar? She’s asked to compare her whatever with the “person” she played in the film. She answered that she thought she would’ve turned out exactly like that woman if she hadn’t become an actress.

I stand up and hurl my chair at the dais, but it falls a few feet short. I’m nevertheless tased and tackled by event security. You know, like usual. People scream in shock, then murmur, somehow already convinced I’m a homeless addict with no higher motives. I struggle uselessly beneath the weight of probably six goons. They cuff me, drag me to my feet. No one here knows me, no one here will ever conceive of the reasons for my outburst. The actress doesn’t seem to recognize me at all. She flinches, then laughs nervously, mumbling something about the stigmas attached to mental healthcare issues; sincerely, she does this.

I’m weeping again as I’ve finished telling the story to the psychologist, and I tell her how I realized I’d been used, that the producer-consumer feedback loop had become so distorted it was impossible to tell who was selling what to whom; they thought they were my creator but I created it for me. They tried to steal it and sell it back to me. So I thought. The object and the simulation were so alike I couldn’t tell anymore. But they’re the ones who wrote the history. They’re the ones creating the mythology for the future. They put it in their books and documentaries and people buy and believe this stuff. I’m starting to have doubts myself, whether I was there, whether I was authentic and real. Is that what people looked and sounded like back then? Who would have incentive to lie?