NEW DAWN COMING
KRISTINE LANGLEY MAHLER
Wednesday morning, September 12th—yes, the September 12th, the day after we thought there might be no day after. A detached voice called in with a request, startling us because we were on the 4 a.m.-7 a.m. shift, Wednesday mornings—you could join us, you could love us, but very few people did. Nathan and I had convinced ourselves we had at least one hypothetical listener—we could see him in our mind’s eye, working at the Wedge, the only late-night pizza place still open, an apron dusty with flour over a grungy t-shirt, wearing a baseball hat backwards to circumvent the “cover your hair” requirement. He’d have KRUI on because we had live DJs all night, a real person in the studio hand-selecting each song. Or maybe he was an insomniac student in the dorms, leaving the radio on overnight, a soft accompaniment for the lonely hours contemplating the distance between Iowa City and his hometown. But we weren’t sure he actually existed until the call came in.
The voice on the phone asked for a specific Pavement song—of course it was Pavement; all KRUI played was college rock, though artists couldn’t get too popular or their albums would go on the shit list of formerly-okayed-but-currently-untouchable CDs handed down by the cool senior producers. I didn’t mind because I liked being told what to do. I had always believed my compliance was my great selling point—I knew I had value, I knew my opinions mattered. But I wanted to make boys confess their love, and I was convinced those admissions required a simple displacement of matter: my pliability would provide the space for the words they hadn’t yet said. Of course, I’d only had one boy take me up on my unspoken offer—my only ex-boyfriend—but I hadn’t had to entice him into much, his “I love you” rotely declared on our first long-distance phone call.
Our caller didn’t linger on the line—like we were that popular! Like we’d hustle him off the landline so we could take the next caller!—and as soon as he hung up, Nathan hurriedly located Pavement on the alphabetized wall of CDs, found the request, and dutifully queued it up to play as soon as the current ambient, producer-approved song was over. We were so flustered with excitement that I was able to forget the unimaginable events that had happened less than twenty-four hours earlier: the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, the plane bursting into the Pentagon, the plane sprawled across a Pennsylvania field. The dark night had obscured reality into a nebulous feeling of disconcertedness, a sleepy nightmare lurking on the edges of my consciousness, static I couldn’t afford to indulge: I had a job to do.
“This one’s a request,” Nathan announced—words he had been waiting to say since we started our stint two weeks ago—and pressed the magic button, releasing the song into the dimness of the pre-dawn. We were listening along in our foggy 5 a.m. haze, hoping to intuit what kind of music we could play to please our listener in the future. As the discord broke into the end of the song and Stephen Malkmus was directing, loosely, boredly, “Hit the plane down…there’s no survivors,” it occurred to us, simultaneously, what we had passively done: played an annihilatory song giving the command to crash a plane the day after terrorists had followed those orders from a faceless leader. Nathan and I stared at each other, no longer tired. The sports columnist for the Daily Iowan—a radio station director—who gave us our orientation wasn’t going to like this. This was worse than forgetting to mention the station name every fifteen minutes. This was worse than bringing in unapproved music. This was worse than cursing on the air and getting busted by some FCC official who’d also drawn the short end of the stick and happened to be scanning our station during his early-morning shift. We had broken a moral code.
Nathan and I had been lazy—we weren’t familiar with the song, but shouldn’t the title “Hit the Plane Down” have been an indication that maybe we shouldn’t have fulfilled the request? Neither of us had considered that we should have promised our caller that sure, we’d get to it, done the necessary background check on the song, and then shuffled the request quietly into the not-going-to-happen category. After all, I’d called radio stations and made requests that never got played, even as the DJ said “Yeah, we’ll try to get that on for you in the next hour,” even as I’d sat by the radio fruitlessly all evening, waiting for something that never came.
But we were too anxious to please someone who’d cared enough to call. We frantically discussed what we should do as the next song in the queue played, and when that song died away, Nathan got on the mike and apologized to anyone who might have been offended, muffling the transgression between us and our listener, as if there was someone else out there, in case there was someone else out there.
But I honestly wasn’t worried about repercussions because the sports columnist had barely even registered my presence when he met us at 4 a.m. during the first week of fall semester to show us the ropes, dimly nodding at me like I was a tagalong girlfriend while asking Nathan what kind of music he was into, demonstrating the technical controls to Nathan, the sports columnist’s blocky body preventing me from seeing over his shoulder or around his waist. I’d sat on the folding chair saved for in-studio guests, opposite the control board, and waited. After a few exhibitions for Nathan, the sports columnist decided we were ready to go on the air and glanced down at his sheet, effecting surprise that we were both actually signed up to DJ. The sports columnist said something like “The girl can go first,” and suddenly the microphone in front of me was switched on and he was waving his hand, indicating I should speak. “This is eighty-nine seven K-R-U-I,” I husked in a low, dark, quiet voice, “and you just heard ‘Life on a Chain’ by Pete Yorn.” As the sports columnist began the next song from behind the controls, he evaluated my performance aloud, saying I might want to speak up, but I did the right thing by not saying “Eighty-nine POINT seven.” Only newbies did that. And then he invited Nathan to sit in the control chair, wished us luck, and went home to sleep it off.
That fall I wanted, I wanted, I craved so many things that I was ashamed to state aloud. I was afraid that to voice my desire was to remove the shimmering possibility of my desire being anticipated by the object of my desire. I obsessed details into meaning and I darted my glance when I actually made eye contact and I swallowed instead of speaking. Tuesday’s missteps shivered into Wednesday with the burnt-coffee smell of vanilla-flavored Folgers at 3:30 a.m., leaving the door to my apartment unlocked so Nathan could come in without waking up my roommates, our friends Lily and Jess. I would throw myself back under my comforter and wait until I heard the door open before I’d roll out of bed in the clothes I slept in, meeting Nathan in the living room, pouring our travel mugs and walking down Burlington in the dark, across the bridge and up onto the med school side of campus, ducking into the formerly-single-residence dwelling where the college radio station was housed. It looked like all the Depression-era converted rental homes for blocks and blocks surrounding campus; it looked like Nathan’s apartment. I’d never felt so much like I was invading someone’s personal space.
The sports columnist had, naturally, handed the key over to Nathan, so Nathan unlocked the door. The lower level of the house was office space for KRUI, half-opened boxes everywhere, and the studio upstairs was located in what had obviously been, in a previous life, a bedroom. The feeling of no oversight combined with the knowledge that we were literally broadcasting out of an old bedroom pushed us into teenage rebellion; after all, we were only nineteen.
A few weeks after our first call, we’d decided our listener wasn’t going to rat us out; he’d made the unforgivable song request anyway, and in those bleak post 9/11 days when everything seemed suddenly traceable, we haphazardly assumed that if we were going down, we’d be able to find out who’d called in—and he’d go down with us. We were supposed to play house music only, and we had to keep a strict log of what we played. If we wanted to add an album into rotation, we were supposed to submit it to the music director who would listen and decide if it was cool enough. We were in college, dammit—we weren’t about to submit to some high-schoolish popularity contest where we’d get turned down.
I didn’t proffer my emotions obviously, so I had a pretty good track record: one confession of love, one (ex-) boyfriend. But I was sure I’d been so explicit with my interest that it felt like I’d been rejected a thousand times—there was the boy my friends had coerced into meeting me at the movies who’d brought his older brother, there was the boy my friends had asked to senior prom on my behalf who’d said he didn’t really know me that well—and who had then taken some sophomore he only knew from marching band. I concealed the depth of my despair, pretending my interest had been shallow anyway, burying the poetry I’d written, cheekbones flushing violently when the boys brushed by me in the halls. Obvious, oblivious.
So we filled out the log book with random CDs we selected off the wall and smuggled in our own CDs anyway, my backpack loaded with the cases of music I’d burned into my heart, having trundled down Burlington like Santa. The radio’s records would show one thing, but the cassette tapes Nathan used to record all of our shows for our personal archives would show another.
It was dreamtime, in-between-time, those silky hours with Depeche Mode’s Dave Gahan urging me, low and vacant, to “Dream On”; Liz Fraser ethereally soaring through the Cocteau Twins’ admonition “Know Who You Are At Every Age.” Nothing seemed like it would have consequences in the morning. So I dedicated a song with the repetitive chorus “Oh I like you I like you I like you I LIKE you I LIKE YOU!” to the curly-haired boy on whom I’d recently developed a crush; if he didn’t feel the same way, hey, it was just a cool song, I had to play it for the station anyway.
I spent the most intimate hours of the dark sitting in a converted bedroom with Nathan, who I truly only considered as a friend—a highly unusual behavior since I’d always twisted the slightest interest in me as a person into a crush-to-be-developed. But Nathan knew I’d spent the previous spring crushed out on our mutual friend Ben, one-sixth of our sextet that had tightened into a friend group we called “Echo Park.” Ben had allowed me to drunkenly fall asleep holding his finger, Ben had invited me to write in a highly suspect “poetry project” where he’d write a poem, I’d write a poem responding, and I could code my emotions under the premise of “just writing.” I loved and hated Ben because he was taken but continued to send me signals right in front of his girlfriend, my friend, another sixth from our group: my roommate Lily. Nathan had a long-distance girlfriend, the other two girls in Echo Park had long-distance boyfriends, and Ben and Lily were dating. At the park, I was the only one left on the swings, waiting for a push. That fall at the radio station, I pinged Jimmy Eat World’s “If You Don’t, Don’t” at Ben uselessly, knowing he wouldn’t have access to our station in England, where he was studying abroad for the year, but it salved my bruised heart to be explicit at last.
The hours of our 4-7am radio slot drooped with raw longing as I played all the torch songs that burned like the tip of a stick of incense in a darkened bedroom, following the moral dictate to cater to the desires of anyone who’d be so heartsick they’d be listening to radio from 4-7am. No one was waking up during those hours: they were racked with yearning and sadness, or they’d left the radio dial on as they’d fallen asleep—I felt that I owed them Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and Smog’s “To Be of Use,” nothing jarring, nothing to distract them from their emotional state. I brought gothic overtones with Stabbing Westward’s “Desperate Now”; Nathan donated cuddlecore from The Softies. Nathan had made unapproved bumper music calling our time-slot “The Nathan and Kristine Show,” but we could have named it “Boy Delighted Just to Be Here, Girl Pining Under Moonbeams.”
I was mutely dedicating songs left, right, and center, streaking them like comets to all the boys I’d loved, including my ex-boyfriend, for whom I’d spent months encoding song lyrics in email subject lines to indicate my relentless obsession with the fact that he’d loved me back, once. My ex-boyfriend’s nineteenth birthday—three years exactly since we’d first kissed—fell on a Wednesday that year, so I hauled in all the CDs I’d scratched through overuse to make one three-hour-mixtape I wanted him to hear, though I knew he wouldn’t. A month earlier, I’d kissed the boy I’d inveigled into hearing my interest—I like you I like you I like you I LIKE you I LIKE YOU—and I would sneak downstairs during Nathan’s sets to send my curly-haired new boyfriend suggestive emails from the junky old Dell that still used dial-up internet. I’m here. I’m thinking about last night. Are you listening? You said you would be. He’d mistakenly shown me one of his journal entries where he wrote about how sexy it was listening to my voice coming through the speakers in the dark, but that he wanted to break up with me because we were too much too fast.
I sent songs across the states, songs across the sea, and songs across the street to the dorm where my new boyfriend lived. My tired, low radio voice, like an exhausted siren drawling her call—if you don’t, don’t.
I purged my emotions into the void of the night and it silently swallowed them, held them in. Nathan didn’t question my song choices; we had an unspoken pact—the previous spring Nathan had observed my crush and quietly wrote a scene into his student film where my character and Ben’s had to dreamily dance together on-screen. Nathan and I didn’t talk much. We didn’t talk about whether my crush on Ben had ended before my lust for my new boyfriend began; talking about Ben would have made us talk about Nathan’s emergent crush on Lily, left behind in the States with Ben’s brotherly admonition to “look after her for me.” Nathan understood, a fellow Cancerian silently nodding his head as I tucked my restless doubts under my hard shell during the day, extended a tentative claw under the silver wane of the moon before exposing my underbelly. In the light of day, Nathan was magnetic, garrulous, bringing home new friends and expanding the boundaries of Echo Park. I was watchful, unsure, waiting for the darkness of Wednesday morning so I could inhabit the one place I could control.
It felt surreal to watch the dawn transpire, people streaming out of the dorms and the AUR-controlled apartments heading to class, to work, and we were walking home, Nathan escorting me back up the hill to my apartment where I would sleep for two hours and wake up in my bed like I’d been there all along, heading to my 10:30 class. No evidence I’d ever left, ever broken rules, ever bared my tender fear of re-breaking my heart. But the cassette tapes Nathan stockpiled, annotated with the real contents of our show, were proof I’d sat in that bedroom in the lee of the morning, using federally-controlled airwaves to beg for acknowledgment from my listener, whoever he was.
My new boyfriend moved out of the dorms and into the bedroom Ben had vacated in Nathan’s apartment; my new boyfriend and I slept together on the mattress Ben had left behind, on the sheets Ben had left behind, and I convinced my boyfriend to stay with me, biting back “I love you” beneath my swollen lips. I wouldn’t speak until my voice was an echo. Nathan, Lily, and I took it upon ourselves to release the other two girls from our friend group to their out-of-town boyfriends, stripping our original sextet to an awkward four-piece core: two boys, two girls, one friendship and one relationship; proposed diagonal hook-ups that would never happen.
Nathan and I didn’t renew our radio show in the spring; we had broadcast all that we were willing to say. For our final night, Nathan wrote an old-timey Christmas radio play about pirates, what did it matter, we weren’t coming back, come fire us. We snuck Nathan’s brother and his friend Jeremy and my boyfriend into the studio that night, situating them on the guest side of the control board. The play was a farce where I only got to interrupt the boys every four minutes with some trite feminine complaint about my character “missing my man,” so my folding chair was wedged towards the door, not firmly behind the controls. The lights were on high, the room flooded with noise and chatter, nothing like those half-lit mornings in the gloaming when I’d barely obscured my desire to please, to be pleased. Something was on the horizon, I knew; I wouldn’t face it yet.