The Perfect Birthday Present

           Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.

             I never know what to get my best friend for her birthday. Despite knowing each other since middle school, all my well-intentioned presents somehow miss the mark: that industrial-sized bag of her favorite tropical-flavored Starburst I got for her fourteenth birthday? The candy jammed her braces. The fancy calligraphy set she pointed out while we were strolling through the mall after high school? She had wanted it for her sister. That autographed copy of The Wheel of Time I bought for her after college? She already had it. A fancy bottle of wine for her 21st birthday? Left her sick. A massage getaway before her wedding? She spent the entire weekend reading books in her room, too embarrassed to disrobe in front of strangers. She’s always genuinely appreciative of my efforts, glossing over my shortcomings with a hug and a kiss, but my best friend deserves a perfect birthday present, at least once. This year, I think I’ve finally found it.

 

            12 October 1997; local time: 8:37 p.m.; Everett, Washington

            When I step out of the time machine, I’m greeted by ominous clouds that hang in the sky like gloomy dollops of whip cream. They obscure the moon, casting this cool fall evening into darkness. The threat of rain makes me button my peacoat snugly.

            I’ve arrived in the parking lot of my old middle school where I first met my best friend a lifetime ago. She offered me Sour Patch Kids that day while we waited for the bus, laughing when the candy’s tart taste contorted my face into a grimace. From such inauspicious beginnings, did our friendship begin.

            But I’m not here to tickle nostalgia’s underbelly. The parking lot functions as a safe, deserted space to leave my time machine while I walk to the nearby park. As I’m double checking my phone’s time, a group of crows perched on a power line above my head caw at me with menacing intent. Drawing my fingers into the shape of a gun, I blast the birds into oblivion, but the murder flies off unscathed.

             It’s nearly 9 p.m., so I pull a plain black Venetian mask from my coat pocket and slip it over my face, adjusting the strap so the mask fits snugly without obscuring my vision. I feel like Zorro but look like Kato from The Green Hornet. “Who loves ya baby?” Or was that Kojak? I leave the vacant lot and race towards the park. The sidewalks and even the streets are empty on this lonely night, though streetlights spotlight me in eerie halos every few feet. My large coat slows me down, but it’s too late to toss it. I ignore a growing stitch in my side and press on.

            The park entrance eventually stumbles into view. Slowing to a trot, I catch my breath whilst surveying my surroundings. The road remains deserted and no homes nestle nearby, so I leap over the “Closed After Dark” sign perched on the locked gate and enter the park.

             A narrow concrete path invites me into a small thicket of trees. The moonlight fails to penetrate the dense forestry, slowing my progress to a fumble. Because the light on my phone isn’t working, I carefully make my way down the gently sloping path. Low-hanging branches catch in my coat. A pinecone is smashed under my feet. And somewhere, an owl hoots. Just before my eyes adjust to the darkness, the trees give way to an expansive field. A single streetlight illuminates a baseball diamond to my left, but it’s the dimly-lit jungle gym to my right that sends a chill down my spine.

             It’s just an ordinary jungle gym: rope ladders and wood plank bridges connect the plastic monstrosity, with rusted monkey bars resembling gallows standing to its side. But taking a cautious step into the wood-chipped playground floods my mind with horrific secondhand memories. After passing a motionless merry-go-round, I find what I’m looking for: two swings—one red, one blue—swaying slightly in the breeze.

             I’m a few minutes early, so I scan my surroundings for the best cover. The open field provides insufficient hiding spots, even on this dark night, so I settle on the giant, twisting serpentine slide opposite the swings as my hideout. Climbing the adjacent rope ladder to reach the slide’s entrance proves difficult; all the running and leaping over fences have zapped my energy, and my forehead is flush with sweat when I finally fling my middle-aged body into the slide’s mouth. Thankfully, the slide’s plastic is cool as I lean my head against the interior, jamming one leg up and to the right into a sideway “K” to keep from slipping to the bottom. Wiping my brow and readjusting my mask, I slow my breathing and listen for the sound of footsteps, voices, or a heart breaking.

             An eternity disguised as a few minutes passes before a young male voice rings faintly in the distance. A young female answers. As their conversation grows louder, I strain my ears to confirm their identities. I can’t make out a single word, but the young man’s voice drips with pubescent hunger. Most of the words flow from his mouth, though the young woman’s occasional sweet laugh keeps their conversation balanced.

             Their sneakers softly crunch wood chips as they approach the jungle gym, but suddenly their conversation and footsteps die. I freeze, not even daring to breathe. Do they suspect something? Oh my god, can they see me? How did he find out? But the sound of laughter calms me as he invites her over to the swings.

             The swings creak as the couple pump their feet, lifting themselves higher and higher until they can almost reach out and touch the moon with their teenage hands. Woops and cheers fill the sky as they soar amongst the stars, hands held, leaving this world behind. It’s a beautiful, innocent moment.

             Eventually their laughter dies down and the squeaky swings give way to silence. Trapped in the slide without a view, I can only speculate on what’s happening, but I bet he’s moved his swing close to hers so he can feign chivalry by draping his arm around her. Gazing into her eyes, he’ll lean in for a soft, gentle kiss. Caught off guard but pleasantly surprised, she’ll allow his lightly chapped lips to press into hers. He’ll start tenderly, but her submission will awaken an animalistic desire, reducing the kiss to sloppy tongue-mauling. Alarmed by his passion yet trapped like a passenger on a runaway train, she’ll try to pull away, but he’ll continue to devour her face as his hands start sliding over her breasts, down her torso, and into her thighs before she shouts:

            “Hey, stop!”

            “Oh c’mon, you know you want it,” he sneers. “We’ve been going out for months now.”

            “No, get off me!”

           A hard, cold slap follows.

            “Fuck!” he shouts.

            “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you, I just wanted you to stop,” she pleads.

            “You fucking bitch!”

            Suddenly, the swing set comes alive with the sound of struggle. Now’s the time to act, but I’m suddenly immobilized by a toxic cocktail of fear and doubt. What if I’ve inexplicably misjudged the situation and no foul play is involved? What if he overpowers me? What if…what if I can’t stop this from happening? Tormented by indecision and drenched in sweat, I remain hidden, even as a body hits the ground with a sickening thud.

            “Somebody, help me!” the girl shouts.

            “Ha, no one can hear you!”

            “Please, anybody, help!”

            “SHUT UP, bitch!”

            “HELP! HELP! Somebody, please help me!”

            “I SAID SHUT UP!”

            “What…what is that? Where did you get that?” she asks him. Whatever’s in his hand causes her voice to quiver with fear.

             The unmistakable “click” of a disengaged trigger safety finally galvanizes me into action. Dropping my leg allows me to soundlessly slide from my hiding place onto the wood chipped ground below. The young man is a few feet in front of me, his back facing me and a gun in his left hand pointed towards a crying young woman on the ground. Seizing a perfect opportunity, I reach into my inside coat pocket for the handgun I’ve been hiding. But static electricity charged from my descent down the slide bursts as my fingertips brush against my coat, causing me to flinch.

            “Fuck!” I yell involuntarily, shaking my hand.

            The young man whips around to face me, gun pointed squarely at my chest.

            “Who are you? Where did you come from?” he demands.

            Catching my first glimpse of him leaves me stunned. Acne dots his face in angry red mountains, while moonlight bounces off his braces. I knew he’d be young, but he’s just a child.

            “I said, ‘Who are you?’!” he repeats. “And why are you wearing a mask?”

             Raising my hands in deference and taking a slow step backward, I tell him he doesn’t want to do this. “Put the gun down,” I say as calmly as possible.

            “This is none of your business, man!” he seethes.

            “Please, just listen to me. Don’t do this! You’ll ruin her life, and yours. Just let her go!”

            “I’m going to blow your fucking head off, man!” he spits, taking a step towards me.

            Unable to reason with this agitated young buck, I switch tactics:

            “NOW! Do it now!” I shout at the crying girl on the ground.

            Confused, the young man spins towards her to see what mischief we’ve planned, but her perplexed expression lets him know he’s been duped. He spins back to face me, but he’s too late: I’ve already retrieved the handgun from my coat pocket and fired a shot. Though I’ve aimed for his hand, the young man grabs his arm, instead. Still, the rubber bullet has successfully distracted him from noticing my rushing advance. My head lowered and my elbows jutted outward, I ram into him at full speed, sending his gun flying as we crash into the wood chips.

            Despite falling backward, the young man scrambles to his feet before me to frantically search the playground for his gun. Capitalizing on his disarmament, I charge towards him again, eager to subdue him, but he’s ready this time, squaring his shoulders and bracing his body for impact. This time, it’s my gun that flies off when we crash to the ground.

            Standing proves painful, as a sharp, piercing sting ignites below my chest anytime I move. Thankfully I’m not bleeding. Clutching my side, I hobble to my feet to find my gun while the young man does the same. The young woman lies on the ground and sobs.

            Searching for a small, dark object at night is as difficult as it sounds. After mistaking too many stray pinecones for my gun, I settle for sifting wood chips with my sneakers in hopes of finding my weapon. The young man mirrors my action just a few feet away, desperation fueling our efforts. We both understand how this game ends for the loser. There is no second-place trophy in this twisted game of Find The Firearm.

            His laughter peels through the air like a wolf’s howl. He’s found his gun. Turning towards the sound only confirms my suspicion: a menacing barrel is pointed at me. Before I can protest, he fires a shot in the dark that connects directly above my fractured rib.

            Time grinds to a halt. All the air is sucked from my body, and unimaginable pain radiates from my chest in blinding shockwaves. I sway like a drunkard before collapsing in a heap.

            “You KILLED him!” the young woman shouts to the young man.

            “He was going to kill me!” he protests.

            “You killed him! You killed him!”

            “SHUT UP! It was self-defense!”

            The couple are silent as the young man stares at my motionless body. Convinced I won’t rise from the dead, he returns to his deplorable task, a confident sneer displaying his intentions.

            “I’ll deal with him later. Now, where were we?” he says.

            In a flash, he rushes over and pounces atop her stomach. She twists and turns like a sheep trapped in a python’s grip, but she’s powerless beneath his oppressive weight. With one hand waving a gun wildly in her face and the other fumbling with his zipper, he unsheathes his hard on.

            “Quit struggling!” he shouts as he awkwardly slides her pants halfway down her legs, exposing her virginity.

            The young woman screams just before her innocence is shattered.

            A sound like the world being ripped in two rings through the night, causing the young man to halt his trespass. The young woman holds her breath, relieved that the strange sound has temporarily stopped her boyfriend. She watches as he continues to loom over her like a vulture, waiting for the right moment to strike. Suddenly, he collapses on top of her, the full weight of his body pressing into her with unstoppable force. Expecting the worst, she closes her eyes and screams, telling herself this will all be over soon…

            …but the young man doesn’t stir. He lies on top of her, as if lost in deep slumber. Unable to fathom what’s happened, the young woman remains motionless, hoping and praying this nightmare will end. It’s not until a warm pool of liquid oozes its way onto her chest that she summons the courage to shove the young man off her own untouched body. Pulling herself into a seated position, she finds me standing nearby, gun in hand.

            For a second time that night, the young girl screams, “You killed him!”

            “I didn’t mean to! He must’ve grabbed my gun when…”

            But my explanation falls on deaf ears as she’s on her feet, wrapping me in a giant hug. Her surprisingly tight grip sends a fresh jolt of pain through my broken rib, and the bloodstain from her boyfriend bleeds onto my coat, but I let her cry her heart out. With her head down, I readjust my askew mask before gently cradling her in my arms.

            “He was going to rape me.”

            “I know, but it’s over. You’re safe now.”

            “I thought he shot you,” she says, pulling away whilst considering my masked eyes.

            “He did, but my gun had rubber bullets. He must’ve found mine on the ground. Still hurts like hell, though!”

            The young woman’s stare has turned morbidly curious, so before she can reach up to remove my mask, I pass her an ancient flip phone.

            “Here, call your parents on this,” I say.

            She breaks from her wary gaze to carefully dial home. When her mother answers, she spews an abridged version of her close call, deleting me from the narrative. She promises she’s unharmed, but that she needs a ride from the park.

            “Am I alone?” she asks her mother while looking at me. I nod twice.

            “Yes, I’m alone. Call the cops and have Dad pick me up. Please hurry!”

            With her parents racing towards the scene of the crime, she flips the phone shut and hands it back.

            “Will you be OK here by yourself?” I ask. “I can’t be here when your parents arrive, it will look suspicious…”

            “I’ll be OK,” she says, shivering.

            “Good. I’m glad you’re safe,” I say. Unsure of whether to hug her, shake her hand, or pat her on the shoulder, I opt for walking away, instead.

            “Wait…who are you?” she blurts out before I’ve managed two steps.

            “A friend,” I confess.

            “But how…”

            “Just a friend,” I interject with finality.

            “OK,” she says sheepishly.

            I stare at her in the darkness, unable to pull away. Hesitantly, she asks one final question:

            “How did you know I’d be here tonight?”

            Though the mask obscures my face, I feel her eyes searing into me like hot daggers. She senses a familiar presence, yet my identity remains frustratingly out of reach. I consider my words carefully.

            “…Because it’s part of my plan,” I say.

            “Plan? Plan for what?”

            “My plan to finally give you the perfect birthday present you’ve always deserved.”

            “But…but it’s not my…”

            I don’t wait for her to finish as I trot towards my time machine, leaving her alone in the park.

 

            15 August 2018; local time: 12:16 p.m.; Paris, France

            When I exit the time machine, blinding summer sunshine stands in stark contrast to the cold fall night I’ve just come from. The weather is perfect, with not a cloud in the sky. Removing the mask from my face, I grab a neatly wrapped box with a bright blue bow, and make my way down a tree-lined Parisian boulevard. Birds sing, children whizz by on bicycles, and a dog barks happily in the distance. My rib still aches, reducing me to a leisurely shuffle, but otherwise it’s a glorious day.

            When I arrive at the correct townhome, I knock three times. My best friend opens the door in a checkered blue and white apron.

             “Matt! What a surprise! What are you doing here? And is that blood on your shirt?”

            I flash her one of my trademark I’m-up-to-no-good smiles. “I was in London visiting Cody, and I thought I’d pop over for your birthday. I got a bloody nose on the train,” I lie.

            “That’s so sweet! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were in the area! Come in, come in! Charlie’s taken Max to the store to buy him some crayons, but I’ll text him you’re here! I’m finishing up some cookies, but we’re going to grab lunch near the market for my birthday. You must come with us! I’m sure Charlie will let you borrow a clean shirt.” She steps inside to put a kettle on, but I grab her arm.

            “I’m sorry, I have to catch the next train out of Paris if I’m going to make my flight out of London. I’m just here to drop this off for you,” I say, handing her the box.

            “A present? And it’s even wrapped this time! To what do I owe this honor?” she teases.

            “Oh, stop it. Just open it, will ‘ya?”

            She laughs and smooths a crease from her apron as I hand her the present. She studies the box’s size before declaring:

            “It looks small enough to hold a cupcake.”

            “Or a human heart.”

            “You’re terrible!” she says, lightly slapping me on the arm.

            “Go on, open it!”

            With the townhome’s threshold dividing us, I watch as she tears off the blue bow and opens the lid, curiosity dancing in her eyes. Her smile fades to a confused frown when she sees what’s inside. Picking up the tiny, crumpled object in her fingers, she shoots me a quizzical look.

            “What is this? Is this a bullet? Why did you get me this?”

            “Close your eyes,” I say.

            “What?”

            “Close your eyes,” I repeat.

            My best friend’s patience is wearing thin, but her weary sigh means she’s complied with my request.

            “Alright, no peeking, OK? Promise not to open your eyes until I say?”

            “Yeah, fine, whatever.”

            Convinced she’ll keep her word, I grab her free hand and tell her to ask me about the present again.

            “What?”

            “Ask me why I got this bullet for you again. And then you can open your eyes.”

            Even with her lids shut, I see her eyes roll, but she obeys:

            “Why did you get me this bullet?” she asks in flat monotone.

            When she opens her eyes, she’s transported back in time twenty-one years, the same masked man in a blood-stained shirt from that horrific night standing in her doorstep, still clutching his rib. Frozen in disbelief, her mouth agape, she cannot speak.

            “Because I want to finally give you the birthday present you’ve always deserved.”

            Dropping the rubber bullet to the ground, she hugs with me the conviction of a woman just saved.

            “Thank you, it’s perfect,” she says, reduced once more to a young woman crying on my shoulder.

            “Happy birthday,” I say.

Murdering an Ex

 

            Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.

            9 May 2017; local time: 12:03 a.m.; Seattle, Washington

          “I can’t do this anymore!” I exclaim, tossing my dinner jacket over Chrysta’s couch whilst unraveling my bowtie. I’ve drunkenly stumbled to her apartment after a charity event downtown—no time travel necessary—and I’m raiding her pantry to mix myself a vodka-Sprite. Carbonation bubbles float up my highball glass like tiny tempers let loose.

          “I keep running into him everywhere I go! Why can’t he just leave me alone?”

          “Scott again?” Chrysta asks. Her sleep mask rests in her tussled hair, stray strands of which radiate in every direction like blonde solar flares. She crosses into the kitchen and shoos me away from the fridge I’ve propped myself against to add a splash of cold milk to her mug of hot cocoa.

          “Yeah, Scott again,” I say, plopping down at her kitchen bar.

          “What happened this time?” she asks, yawning.

          “Same old bullshit. I didn’t know he’d be at this event, and he came out of nowhere to talk to me. Things were cordial at first, but I was a little drunk…”

          Chrysta shoots me a motherly glance, which I promptly ignore.

          “…and I asked why he blocked me on Facebook.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He gave some lame-ass excuse about needing to cut toxic people out of his life.”

          “Well, he is toxic for you,” Chrysta says as she takes a satisfying first sip of her cocoa.

          “Yeah, he is toxic for me, not the other way ‘round!”

          “Why even talk to him, then?”

          “Ugh…I try not to, but he’s so damned charming. One word and I’m hypnotized.”

          Chrysta’s cat, Warhol, hops atop the bar, and I nuzzle the top of his head as he purrs affectionately.

          “And he means well,” I continue. “He’s apologized for cheating, and I’d like to move forward as friends, but whenever we try to negotiate any kind of peace…” I let the sentence die while cradling my empty highball.

          “What did you say, then, after he mentioned cutting toxic people out of his life?”

          I sigh heavily before confessing that I called him a balding asshole.

          “No!”

          “Wait, it gets better. He responded by calling me a narcissistic loser, so I called him a flat-assed failure with abandonment issues.”

          Chrysta shakes her head but demands the denouement.

          “At that point, he threw a drink in my face. I was so pissed that I threatened to murder him with my bare hands, but security kicked us both out before I could take a swing.”

          “God, your guys’ fights put world wars to shame!” Chrysta marvels. I dip my head into my hands, frustrated and drunk. I can already feel tomorrow’s hangover creeping in.

          “You need another drink. Let me pour you another vodka-Sprite,” she says as she moves toward the pantry.

          “Your readiness does not negate my sorrow,” I caution, but she refills my glass just the same, neutralizing my bitterness with figurative and literal sweetness:

          “Of course not, dear,” she says with a smile, dropping a maraschino cherry into my drink. “You know what will happen tonight, though, right?” she asks.

          “Thank you,” I say, regarding the garnish. I take a sip and am impressed with her perfectly-mixed proportions. Still, my predicament’s predictability leaves me acidic. “Do tell, oh All-Seeing Oracle,” I mock.

          “First, you’ll get drunk… you’re already well on your way there…” she says. I raise my glass in a faux toast.

          “Then you will be filled with that familiar tug of regret for Scott…” She pauses just long enough for my disgust to register.

          “…and then you’ll flounder for reason, like a fish gasping for breath on a boat deck. Finally, you’ll break through and get to the most essential task you’ve been called upon to fulfill,” she says.

          I’m impressed by her midnight eloquence but maintain my bitterness: “And what is that?”

          “Why, the task of being Matthew Fucking Craven, of course!” she says with a victorious smile.

          I reach across the bar with my half-empty highball and clink it against Chrysta’s mug, flattery trumping logic once again. Warhol jumps to the floor and weaves his way between Chrysta’s legs while I watch in silent contemplation.

          “I wish I had never met him,” I finally declare to myself.

          “He’s certainly not the most positive influence in your life,” she says as she bends down to pick her cat up.

          “No, I mean it. I wish I never fucking met him. I want to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind him out of existence. POOF, vanished, never existed!” I say, mimicking exaggerated smoke clouds with my hands.

          “Well, there’s no way for you…” Chrysta realizes her mistake a second too late when a wicked grin dances across my face.

          “Matthew Joseph Craven, you better not!” she says, dropping Warhol to the ground and rushing around the bar to confront me face-to-face.

          “Calm down,” I say, my hands raised in surrender. “You know I’m too drunk to fly the machine tonight, anyway.”

          She is not satisfied with my answer. “Promise me you won’t do anything rash.”

          “I promise not to do anything rash,” I say, crossing my heart and bonking my finger on her nose to diffuse the tension. And I won’t. A plan is germinating, but a cursory stroke of my chin reminds me I’m sporting only a few days’ worth of stubble, and I need a full beard to pull this off.

          I finish my drink in one long gulp and grab my dinner jacket from the couch. Chrysta senses my sudden elation, but not even flattery can ground me now, so she settles for a warning: “Time has a way of correcting itself,” she says.

          “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, kissing her on the cheek before rushing home.

 

            18 January 2015; local time: 12:17 a.m.; Portland, Oregon

          I kept my promise to Chrysta, as nothing about my month-long preparation could be considered “rash”: I stopped shaving and patiently waited for my stubble to blossom into a thick beard and mustache. I replaced free-weight-training at the gym with punishing cardio so I could squeeze back into my old “Why I’m Single” tank top. And I’ve dabbed gallons of moisturizer and anti-wrinkle creams on my face to achieve my long-lost glow from yesteryear. A thorough examination in the mirror verifies my efforts were not in vain: I’m the spitting image of 2015 Me.

          Aesthetic simulation was a piece of cake, though, when compared to my plan to finally eradicate Scott from my timeline; the expert coordination, deception, and guile of my strategy will win me a Machiavellian medal if I succeed! Still, a nagging voice—the same nagging voice I’ve silenced all month long—whispers uncertainties in my ear as I descend into Portland. Can I really do this? Do I want to really do this? The time machine lurches upon landing, whipping me forward and pinning my hand between my chest and the console. I swear in pain, but as I feel my heartbeat, I’m reminded of the sting Scott left in my heart. That’s sufficient motivation. I flex my hand, ensure an extra iPhone 6 is in my pocket, and step out into a rainy Portland night.

          As I pass empty restaurants and closed shops in the Pearl District, a fresh specter of doubt materializes. What if someone recognizes me? What if I recognize me? My plan suddenly feels sloppy, unrehearsed. It’s not too late to turn back…no, this will work. I was hammered that night, so there’s no way 2015 Me will remember any of this. I zip up my dark jacket and quicken my pace until the rainbow flag above CC Slaughter’s welcomes me to my destination.

          CC Slaughter’s promise of cheap, stiff drinks and dance floor frivolity were a Siren’s call too irresistible for my friend, Jake, and I to ignore when an impromptu road trip led us to Portland over MLK weekend in 2015. This return to the scene of the crime marks the start of Phase I of my masterplan. I stand in the modest queue and reach for my wallet to pay cover, but the doorwoman ushers me inside as expected, 2015 Me having already paid. I hold my breath as I cross both CC Slaughter’s threshold and the point of no return.

          I slide out of my jacket and linger in the dark entrance to let my eyes adjust to my surroundings. The main bar stands in front of me, the dance floor beckoning from beyond; bathrooms are ahead, to the right. Large crowds on both sides of the bar provide perfect camouflage, allowing me to scope out the dance floor from the safety of the shadows. It doesn’t take long for me to spot Jake and 2015 Me dancing—already sans tank top and snapping a fan—to Katy Perry’s “Birthday”. God, I was such a mess that night! Luckily, that will play to my advantage, now.

          Having found 2015 Me, my next task is securing a suitable one-night stand. Scanning my surroundings like a sexual panther, I quickly reject two young twinks, an older Asian man, two college-aged lesbians, and four dude-bros in backwards caps. Then I catch a guy, early thirties, just under six feet tall, checking me out across the bar. His wrinkled white button-up and un-gelled brown hair are discouraging, but his drunk smile swaggers with ignorant bliss. He’s perfect for tonight. I feign nervousness by locking eyes with him and quickly looking away. When I look back, my shy smile encourages him, and he flies over like a moth to the flame.

          “Hey, what’s your name?” he asks.

          “Hi, I’m Matt.”

          “I’m Jason,” he says as he reaches to shake my hand, sloshing his drink all over my arm in the process.

          “Nice to meet you,” I lie whilst suppressing an eye roll. “Looks like you need another drink.”

          He looks at his half-empty glass, but fails to reconcile the math, opting to shot-gun the remaining liquid instead. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asks, the sticky stench of his Jäger-breath forcing me back a step.

          “Sure, but I just got here and need to find my friend first. Will you order me something, and I’ll be back in a minute?”

          He catches the sinister undertone of my request, but I have this horny boozer firmly in my grip. When I scratch the back of my head—gratuitously flexing my bicep the entire time—Jason’s eyes light up like Christmas lights.

          “OK,” he says.

          “Excellent.” With this part of my plan complete, I make to leave, but Jason points at my chest and slurs a question I don’t catch.

          “What?”

          “Single. Why are you single?” he asks.

          “Oh, my tank top. Because I’m waiting for Mr. Right,” I lie while turning my attention back to the dance floor.

          “I’m right here, baby,” he says, taking a stumbling step forward, his free hand reaching for my waist.

          “Whoa, slow down, tiger!” I say, dodging his pathetic seduction. “Whiskey sour, please. I’ll be back as soon as I find my friend.”

          My confident, dominant tone must turn him on, because Jason staggers back into the drink line like a compliant school boy, smiling stupidly the entire time. I reciprocate with a dopey smile of my own until he finally turns to the bartender, allowing me to duck into the bathroom undetected.

          The stench of stale piss hits my nostrils as my sneakers strike the dirty tiled floor. Suppressing a gag, I duck into a stall to peel off my tank top, securing it tightly through my belt loop. I place my jacket over my forearm to conceal my tattoo, and I sneak out of the bathroom with a loud gaggle of gays.

          I manage to find a dark corner near the back bar with ample views of the dance floor, but out of Jason’s lusty range. Jake and 2015 Me dance and twirl under the neon lights and shimmering disco ball as I bide my time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

          Finally, Jake leaves the dance floor for the back bar. Though he crosses within a foot of my hiding spot, his mission of mirth renders me invisible. Once he’s in line, I slide onto the dance floor, shimmying and shaking my way past drunk revelers towards my prize.

          2015 Me is dancing next to a mirror, his fan temporarily sheathed. He’s easy to sneak up behind, though his sweaty forehead causes my finger to slide when I cover his eyes.

          “Guess who,” I taunt.

          When I uncover his eyes and he spins around, 2015 Me’s toothy grin melts into confusion at seeing his dance floor doppelganger. His eyes narrow as he staggers unsteadily, pointing at me, then himself, then me in the mirror, then himself in the mirror, our identical black jeans and unruly face fuzz overloading his flooded circuits. When he starts to speak, I grab his shoulders and slam him into the wall next to the mirror. His puzzlement gives way to fear, my smoldering sneer frightening him further. Just before he can shout for help, I lean in close and whisper, “Welcome to the best moment of your life,” before thrusting my tongue into his mouth.

          2015 Me initially struggles against my invasion, but soon returns my kiss, hints of his watermelon gum tickling my tongue. Incredibly, the animal intensity of his probing tongue arouses me as we continue trading sloppy, mouth-devouring kisses. An involuntary image of the two of us, naked, fucking each other’s brains out, flashes through my mind. Good god, Scott was right: I am a narcissist!

          Thankfully, thinking about Scott refocuses my attention, allowing me to reach for 2015 Me’s fan while maintaining our kiss. I know he can’t resist, and sure enough, he snatches the fan out of my hand and snaps it open with a satisfying prrrrattt! With the Oriental accessory shielding our incestuous embrace from curious onlookers, I reach into his pocket and extract his iPhone 6. Sliding the stolen phone into my own jean pocket, I discreetly drop a replica on the ground.

          “Your phone!” I shout, breaking our kiss and pointing to the floor. With continued confusion, 2015 Me investigates the ground to retrieve the duped device, while I retreat to find Jake at the back bar.

          “Hey girl!” I say, jumping into line with Jake and lightly punching him on the arm. The crowd in front of us suggests he might be waiting awhile for drinks. “I’ve got a massive, mega favor to ask of you, mate,” I add, affecting the bad British accent I lapse into when drunk.

          Even through his booze-filled filters, Jake smells a rat. Though he can’t pinpoint anything specific, my appearance is somehow slightly off. Brow furrowed, he scans me up and down for signs of failed facsimile. When he finds no obvious faults, he settles on the jacket slung across my arm.

          “Where did you get that?” he asks.

          “That’s what I want to talk to you about. It belongs to this super cute guy named Jason. We’re going to hook up, but he can’t host…” I draw out the last word, hoping Jake will piece it together on his own, but he refuses to play along. “…so I need to use the hotel room for a bit.”

          Jake immediately protests, but I’m ready.

          “Here, take my credit card. The rest of your drinks are on me tonight. And you can grab a late-night breakfast burrito at a food cart afterwards. Oh, and stop by that strip club, Silverado, you mentioned on the way in; I didn’t want to go to that, anyway. All of it’s on me. I just need the room until 4 a.m.” I dangle my credit card in front of Jake’s face while flashing my most innocent smile.

          Jake glares at me but snatches my card just the same. “Matt Craven, I fucking hate you!”

          “Thank you!” I say, wrapping him in a hug.

          “You can have the room until 3 a.m., not a second later. And you’re buying brunch tomorrow!”

          “Deal! Love you, bitch!” I say, kissing him on the cheek. Jake dismisses me with a pithy wave and returns his attention to securing drinks while I cut back across the dance floor. Jason is milling near the front bar, a drink in both hand, casting his eyes nervously about. Relief washes over him when he sees I’ve returned.

          “Hey, where did you…” he starts with excruciating pauses punctuating each slurred syllable.

          “I found my friend and he said it’s cool if I bail,” I interrupt. “Do you want to get out of here?” I ask.

          “Yeah,” Jason manages.

          “OK. Now listen, this part is extremely important,” I say clearly and slowly. “I have to be back at my hotel at exactly 2:50 a.m. Walk me back, call me a cab, I don’t care, but I absolutely must be back at 2:50 a.m. on the dot. Can you do that?”

          Jason’s confusion infuriates me, so I kiss him on the mouth to seal the deal. Remnants of Jäger, too many beers, and his sushi dinner nearly activate my puke stream, but he disengages just in time.

          “Get you back to your hotel at 2:50 a.m. exactly,” he repeats with the sobering clarity of a man desperate to get laid.

          “Good boy,” I say. “I’m going to go dance to one last song while you close out your tab. Come grab me when you’re done.”

          “What about…?” Jason asks, holding the drinks in his hands aloft.

          “Here, I’ll take care of that,” I say, reaching for both whiskey sours. Jason watches in stunned wonder as I swallow the drinks in one gulp a piece. “Go close out and let’s do this,” I command, handing him the empty cups and twirling towards the dance floor.

          Jason nods in approval and shuffles back to the bar to close his tab. Drunk 2015 Me will find him an acceptable prospect, and I’ve already informed Jake of my intentions, so no suspicions will be aroused. When the bartender grabs Jason’s attention, I sneak out of CC’s. Phase I of my plan is complete!

          The rain has stopped, and the cool, crisp air is refreshing after the carnal humidity of the club. After verifying the hotel keycard is nestled amongst the credit cards in the stolen iPhone’s wallet case, I slide my tank top back on and zip up my jacket while hailing a cab. It’s time to implement Phase II of my plan.

          The cab zips through late-night Portland while I unlock 2015 Me’s phone to open Grindr. I breeze past unanswered “hello”s and “sup?”s until I find Scott’s message, but I click too quickly and accidentally enlarge his photo instead of receiving his introduction. I’m brought face to face with my tormentor once more, only this time his stormy eyes, dirty-blonde five o’clock shadow, and disarming half-smile leave me dumbstruck. I forgot about this photo. He’s so rugged and handsome, and I’m reminded of why I fell in love with him in the first place…

          …but I’m not here to rekindle old sparks. Exiling sentimentality from my heart, I start the conversation that will erase him forever.

          “How’s your night?” I type.

          The green dot next to his name indicates he’s online. He was drinking at home with a friend that evening, I remember. Thankfully, his response is prompt:

          “Hello! I’m drinking wine with my friend.”

          “LOL, I’m drunk, too!”

          “Lol. Where are you?”

          “Leaving CC’s, heading back to my hotel.”

          “Cool.”

          Pleasantries sufficiently exchanged, I up the ante:

          “Want to come over? LOL” I ask.

          I glance out the cab’s window when Scott doesn’t immediately respond. We’ve stopped at a light on the Northwest Broadway Bridge, near the hotel. The area is deserted except for an angry, tweaked out homeless man howling obscenities at the moon. His long, unwashed locks and dirty coat obscure his profile until he turns and catches me staring. A dangerous growl escapes his lips as he hurdles towards us, throwing an empty whiskey bottle at the cab for good measure.

          “What the fuck was that?!” the driver exclaims as the bottle shatters inches from the cab’s bumper. The light turns green.

          “Go, go, go!” I shout.

          The driver peels off, leaving the homeless man to his continued wailing. I exhale a sigh of relief once we’ve cleared the bridge, though I wait until we’ve almost reached the hotel before I check Grindr again to see Scott has responded.

          “I’m with a friend tonight,” he repeats.

          “LOL, I know. But I’m only here tonight. I leave tomorrow morning.”

          “Oh. Where do you live?”

          “Seattle.”

          “OK.”

          Scott’s indecision is infuriating but not unexpected given our countless arguments regarding his hesitancy. He’s weak concerning matters of the flesh, though, so a few of my modeling pictures—including one of my untrimmed stomach he loved so much—should do the trick.

          “Wow, your hiot!” he replies, his misspellings betraying his drunkenness.

          “Thanks! You’re cute, too!”

          I arrive at the hotel, paying the driver and using the keycard to enter the building. Spotting the concierge behind his desk, I take an unbalanced step with half-closed eyes in his direction.

          “Hey man, I checked in earlier,” I say, pausing to let my head bob a few times, “but I’ve had a few drinks, and I don’t…I don’t even remember my room anymore.” I shrug my shoulders and smile stupidly, fixing the concierge with one eye.

          “Last name?” he asks, ever the consummate professional.

          “Craven. Like Raven except with a C. Caw caw!”

          “You’re in room 301.”

           Thank you!

          “Thanks, man! I gotta go sleep this off now, caw caw!”

          The concierge nods and points me to the elevators. Once I’m upstairs and inside my room, I turn back to my phone to see Scott has responded.

          “Friend leaving soon but I’m drunk.”

          His interest piqued, I strike with my trump card.

          “OMG, is that a Gambit tattoo?!” he asks after seeing the picture I’ve sent.

          “It is! He’s my favorite X-Man!”

          “I love the X-Men!” I know. They were one of our most endearing bonds.

          “Wanna see it in person?”

          “OK,” he responds.

          “OK?”

          “Yeah.”

          “LOL, I meant now.”

          “OK.”

          “I’m at the Marriott Residence Inn by Union Station.”

          “OK.”

          “LOL, quit saying OK. Are you coming?”

          “Yeah.”

          “Great, I’m in room 301. See you soon!”

          “OK.”

          My plan nearly finished, I close Grindr and pace the hotel room, knowing Scott can’t resist an attractive Asian with an X-Men tattoo. His place is only a ten-minute walk from the hotel, which gives me plenty of time to eviscerate him upon his arrival. Once the door is locked and he can’t escape, I’ll remind of him of every fight we ever had, including the one back at the train station that cold, rainy November afternoon when I should’ve left him for good. I’ll recall all his deplorable actions—forgetting my birthday, hitting me, sleeping with someone else!—and I’ll belittle every weakness and flaw he’s ever exposed to me. Fueled by righteous anger, I’ll bury him in an onslaught of vicious verbiage until I’ve exhumed all his foul memories from my soul. Finally, decimated by my disdain, I’ll deliver a death-blow by reminding him he was the worst thing to ever happen to me.

          Of course, Scott doesn’t yet possess these same memories, so he won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. He’ll assume I’m one of those Grindr psychopaths who lures innocent men back to hotel rooms for ritualistic murder (he should be so lucky). He’ll run back home, screaming the entire way, never to bother me again. Just to be sure, I’ll block his ass on Grindr, ensuring we never date; when I return to my time, he’ll be wiped from my memory, like he never existed. This thought makes me break into an evil grin. Scott, you’ll finally be eliminated!

          My smile fades when half an hour passes and Scott hasn’t arrived. The neon green numerals on the microwave clock tell me it’s just past 2 a.m., so I’m cutting this close. Checking Grindr every few minutes does nothing but affirm Scott is offline, so I pace nervously around the hotel, rooting through refrigerated takeout and rifling through dirty laundry. I fold 2015 Me’s socks, and I repack his weekend bag while I wait, cursing him for not stocking the fridge with vodka.

          Scott still hasn’t turned up at 2:45 a.m., so I pull the plug. Jason will return 2015 Me to the hotel soon, with Jake trailing close behind, and I can’t risk running into them. Naturally, I’m incensed. Where is Scott?! Did that loser pass out at home? I send him a “Fuck you!” on Grindr whilst chuckling darkly at the realization he’s once more derailed my ambitions. Resorting to Plan B, I fly out the hotel lobby and bolt straight for my time machine.

 

            19 January 2015; local time: 11:02 a.m.; Portland, Oregon

          I’ve barely closed the time machine’s hatch before I’m off to the next morning. My fists clench at Scott’s absence, but my mission remains salvageable if I catch him now. The journey only lasts a few seconds before the time machine shudders to a halt, yet I manage to crack each one of my knuckles while impatiently waiting for my phone to acclimate to the new time. Once my phone displays the correct local time, I open Grindr, ready to draw Scott in again. Strangely, he’s been offline since last night. How is he still offline?! Is he still asleep? Despite becoming more trouble than he’s worth, I set the dial for the next afternoon…

          …to find he’s still offline.

          Scott’s legendary ineptitude has me teetering on the precipice of rage. I need a drink. I grab my jacket, slam the time machine hatch shut, and march through the wintery mist and fog towards the nearest bar.

          The bar is dimly lit and almost empty, with peanut shells lining the floor. The counter looks like it hasn’t been washed in a century, so I place my jacket over my lap, instead.

          “Apple martini, two cherries, please,” I tell the barmaid once I’m comfortably seated on a stool. When she disappears, my anger ebbs and I suddenly feel hollow. I bury my head in my hands, pangs of defeat ringing loudly in my ears. Scott, you win again.

          When my drink arrives, it’s watered-down and weak. I roll my eyes at my continued misfortune, allowing me to spot the small television nestled above the bar. A local news channel is on. At least it’s not sports. Swiveling my stool towards the TV, I watch with bored disinterest until an attractive female correspondent reports a man was found dead in the Willamette River. I take another sip of my martini and ask the barmaid to turn the volume up. The correspondent’s amplified voice reports the sordid details:

          “The body was found early Sunday morning near the Northwest Broadway Bridge with lacerations on his abdomen, arms, and hands. A large chunk of glass was also found embedded in his chest.”

          The correspondent is replaced by a police officer, who states the Northwest Broadway Bridge has seen increased transient activity and associated crime. I shudder when I remember the tweaked-out man who attacked my cab. The officer adds that additional patrols will sweep the area after dark, but that residents should remain vigilant.

          The correspondent returns to the screen, but with my attention waning, I return to my drink. I’m about to finish my martini when she says his name.

          “Scott was last seen at his apartment around 1:00 a.m., Sunday. Police believe he was stabbed to death on the bridge and his body dumped into the river.”

          My stomach lurches and my heart sinks. It can’t be! But an image of Scott—in a grey X-Men t-shirt and smiling ear to ear—appears on the screen, confirming my suspicions. My thoughts swirl and I can’t breathe.

 

            9 May 2017; local time: 10:37 a.m.; Seattle, Washington

          I’m back at Chrysta’s apartment, the morning after I left. She’s still in her pajamas, cradling Warhol on her couch while an old Police LP plays quietly in the background. My Portland expedition has erased our previous conversation from her memory, although the extra plate of scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and homemade hash browns she’s prepared tells me I was expected, anyway. I recount my last few hours in between mouthfuls of hearty breakfast.

          “The same homeless guy who came after my cab must’ve also attacked him when he tried crossing the bridge. Scott was probably looking down at his phone and didn’t even see it coming,” I say, concluding my story.

          “And then stabbed to death and dumped into the river! How awful!” Chrysta responds.

          “Yeah, and all that broken glass from earlier would’ve made the perfect weapon.”

          Chrysta shudders at the gruesome image and hugs Warhol harder.

          “You don’t…you don’t remember him, though, do you?” I ask.

          “I’m sorry…” she starts.

          “I didn’t think so,” I interrupt.

          “But you still remember him?”

          “Yes, and I don’t know why. If he died, that means we never dated, which means all my memories of him should’ve been erased when I came back here. What’s going on?”

          “I don’t know. Maybe being a time traveler shields you somehow, like you’re in the eye of your own storm.”

          “But that means I’ll always remember him?”

          Chrysta knows better than to answer that. “Why don’t you go back in time and save him?” she asks instead.

          “You know I can’t do that. Altered timelines become fixed. Their consequences are irreversible.” Anger fueled by frustration, remorse, and sleep-deprivation has shortened my fuse. I slam my fists onto the table, causing my empty plate to jump.

          “Listen, I know you’re upset,” Chrysta starts in the warm, motherly tone she adopts whenever she’s serving me cold, hard truths, “but isn’t this what you wanted?”

          “I wanted to forget him, not, you know, murder him.”

          “You didn’t murder him!”

          “Well, I’m the reason he’s dead now, right? Isn’t that murder?”

          hrysta drops Warhol and joins me at the table. Her hand is warm when she lovingly touches my wrist.

          “I know how much he meant to you by how upset you are. But you didn’t murder him. Time just has a way of correcting itself, that’s all.”

          “I know,” I reply bitterly.

          “Well, just because I can’t remember him here,” Chrysta says, touching her temple, “doesn’t mean he doesn’t still exist in here,” she says, taking my hand and placing it on my heart.

          A lingering silence fills the apartment as the Police record stops spinning.

          “You’ll find a way to survive this, just like you would’ve found a way to survive your breakup with him,” she adds.

          “Thank you,” I say, “but I need to go.”

          I attempt to bring my dirty dishes to the sink, but Chrysta leads me to the door and traps me in an embrace.

          “Take care of yourself. And don’t try to erase anybody again, OK?”

          “I promise,” I say, kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Thanks for breakfast.”

          After she’s closed her door, I breathe in Seattle’s warm, spring morning air. My heart feels heavy, but I remember what Chrysta said about Scott staying with me. Placing my hand over my chest and closing my eyes, I whisper, “I’m sorry, Scott, for everything. I promise to never forget you.”

Boys! Boys! Boys!

Welcome to the dog days of summer, where oppressive heat and Despacito’s sustained success zap your will to live. Thankfully, British wild child, Charli XCX, is back like a blast of air-conditioned bliss. Though best known for adding bratty, party-pop hooks to Icona Pop’s I Love It and Iggy Azalea’s Fancy, her new single, Boys, is perfect minimalist electropop. With deliciously-vacuous lyrics—“I was busy thinkin’ ‘bout boys, boys, boys”—and an excellent Super-Mario-coin-snatching hook, it’s a glorious late-summer jam.

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Give us a kiss! Charli XCX’s new video brings all the boys to the yard

But Boys’ music video is its true highlight. Employing a multitude of her famous male friends, the Charli XCX-directed video is a veritable conveyor belt of stunning men hamming it up for the camera.

Though far from the first video to flip the script by objectifying men instead of women (check out Janet Jackson’s Love Will Never Do Without You

and Shania Twain’s Man! I Feel Like a Woman),

Boys shines because of its admirable diversity: we get tattooed indie boys (Frank Carter), sensitive singer-songwriter boys (Charlie Puth), hip-hop boys (Wiz Khalifa), pancake-eating boys (Joe Jonas), superstar-producer boys (Mark Ronson), Asian boys (Jay Park), ripped boys (Cameron Dallas), more-to-love boys (The Fat Jew), and beautiful British boys (Tom Daley), to name just a few. This rainbow of men means there’s something for everybody, and because spotting all the cameos is half the fun, the video is sure to warrant repeated viewing. It’s a calculated and clever way for Charli XCX to make her late bid for song (and video) of the summer.

Five Forgotten Video Classics

MTV turns 36 today, but because the channel is the television equivalent of Peter Pan—refusing to ever grow up or even acknowledge their past—today’s programming remains an endless sea of Teen Mom and Catfish detritus. It’s a shame MTV won’t air music videos today, because the channel’s role in transforming the medium from a cheap touring alternative into a legitimate art form cannot be overstated.

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MTV debuted on August 1, 1981

I absolutely love music videos, and if MTV refuses to celebrate its success by playing any videos today, I’ll take the reins by spotlighting some excellent clips. I’ve forgone popular classics by Madonna and Michael Jackson to present five underrated gems, instead. Watch these and remember why MTV was once such a potent force.

 

The Sun Always Shines on TV—A-Ha: Sure, they’re mostly known as “that ‘80s one hit wonder with the cool, hand drawn video to ‘Take on Me’,” but Norwegian band, A-Ha, had another ace up their sleeve with the equally stunning video to “The Sun Always Shines on TV.” The introductory image of lead singer, Morten Harket, and video vixen, Bunty Bailey, continuing their cartoon love affair acts as a red herring; the black and white performance video really starts when the drums and guitar kick in, with the band playing to an audience of mannequins. The result could’ve been colossally cheesy, but expert, award-winning editing created haunting, chilling scenes of motionless mannequins singing, raising their hands aloft, and even playing violin, enabling this video to stand as the quintessential forgotten classic.

 

Karmacoma—Massive Attack: British collective, Massive Attack, made their name in the ‘90s by marrying inventive, iconic imagery to their trip-hop masterpieces. The tower-block terror of “Safe From Harm,” the singing fetus in “Teardrop,” and the creepy chase in “Angel” are all outstanding, but the surreal hotel visitors—including a paranoid gunman, a typist missing a “K” on his typewriter, and two crimson-clothed call girls—in “Karmacoma” are impossible to ignore. Despite knowing nods to The ShiningPulp Fiction, and American Psycho, the video manages to thrill on its own accord, with disturbing, vaguely sinister undertones that perfectly match the song’s trippy vibe.

 

Giving Up the Gun—Vampire Weekend: Early DIY videos for “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma” marked New York indie band, Vampire Weekend, as a creative tour de force, but they upped the fun factor on their second album with the playful video for “Giving Up the Gun.” The video stars a precocious young redhead burning her way through a tennis tournament until she’s faced with her doppelganger in the dramatic finale. But it’s the hilarious cameos from Jake Gyllenhaal, Joe Jonas, Daft Punk, RZA, and Lil ‘Jon that make the video such a treat. Tennis has never looked so silly and fun.

 

We Come 1—Faithless: Riding a wave of big British ‘90s beats, Faithless burst onto the scene in 1996 with seminal dance track, “Insomnia.” Though hailed as an instant classic, the song’s simple, black and white promo left much to be desired; it wasn’t until 2001’s “We Come 1” that Faithless created a visual treat to match the music. The video starts with lead singer, Maxi Jazz, sitting on a sofa in Gandhi-like gear. Then, against the catchiest beats of Faithless’ career, the video ignites in a strange explosion of protest and club-dancing imagery. Rocks are tossed while couples kiss, ambulances are tilted while revelers shake their ass, and a full clash with armed police ignites while the dance floor loses their mind. By expertly walking a line we never knew existed, Faithless created an unforgettable video that still resonates today.

 

If I Had a Gun…—Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds: Because Britpop icons, Oasis, were not renowned for their music video prowess, not much was expected from Noel Gallagher’s post-Oasis project, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. However, the video to third single, “If I Had a Gun…” delivered in spades. It centers around Peyton List (Mad Men, Frequency) as a bride whose wedding is interrupted by a horse-riding cowboy from her past. Sparks immediately rekindle between the pair, leaving Gallagher (in a hilarious cameo as the wedding officiant) to shrug in confusion. Devoid of dialogue, perfectly executed details—a bridesmaid’s telling laugh, the best man preparing for fisticuffs by removing his cuff links—make this video the authoritative guide to wordlessly ruining a wedding.

 

Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life

What a strange, enigmatic pop star Lana Del Rey is. Despite nearly torpedo-ing her career before it even started with that infamous SNL performance, she’s carved her niche as a YouTube-generation torch singer, thanks to the atmospheric “Video Games” off 2012’s Born to Die.

Subsequent releases have been rapturously received by both critics and her rabid fanbase, yet excepting a fluke remix of “Summertime Sadness,” her songs rarely grace top 40 radio. Unburdened with the need to generate huge singles, Del Rey’s albums instead function as masterclasses in evocative dream-pop.

Del Rey’s fifth LP, Lust For Life, continues this trend, with each track infused with her trademark lush, Wall-of-Sound production. Booming lead single, “Love” exemplifies this best, with the song’s nearly operatic grandiosity enveloping you like a warm embrace on a cold evening.

Likewise, the Max-Martin-penned title track shines, as Del Rey and the Weeknd trade surreal lines about “dancing on the H of the Hollywood sign” against the best production this side of a Phil Spector song. And as always, Del Rey’s vocals stun and enchant with effortless beauty, allowing her to glaze over some of the album’s so-so lyrics (“high tops in the summer/don’t be a bummer”).

Despite largely preaching to the choir, Lust For Life still manages some subtle surprises: the confident, hip-hop swagger of “Summer Bummer” recalls past Born to Die glories. The echo-y “In My Feelings” is a brilliant fuck-off, with Del Rey sneering, “get that cigarette smoke outta my face.” And while she normally sings solo, the album is sprinkled with surprising guest vocalists, including Sean Lennon on ‘60s-love-letter, “Tomorrow Never Came,” and a meeting-of-ethereal-minds duet with Stevie Nicks on “Beautiful People Beautiful Problems.”

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Lust For Life includes guest vocals from The Weeknd, ASAP Rocky, Sean Lennon, and Stevie Nicks

Also, while the album tackles familiar terrain (summer in “White Mustang,” love in “Groupie Love,” and America in “God Bless America—And All the Beautiful Women in It”), Del Rey struggles with an existential millennial dilemma in “Coachella—Woodstock on My Mind,” as she fails to reconcile a weekend of music festival bliss against mounting tensions with North Korea. This small, toe-dip into politics—along with her recent announcement that she’ll stop using American flag imagery because of President Trump—stands in stark contrast to Del Rey’s typically unrelenting Americana obsession, whilst expertly showcasing her growth as an artist.

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Del Rey won’t utilize her familiar American flag imagery in direct response to her disdain for Trump

Because so many of Lust For Life’s songs sound like silky smooth stoner anthems, the album lacks the dramatics peaks and valley associated with more traditionally-pop albums (and it’s about three songs too long). This relative uniformity won’t convert any newcomers, but to her slavishly devoted fans, Lust For Life perfectly encapsulates Del Rey’s enigmatic, singular brilliance.

Chester Bennington’s Five Best Vocals

On July 20th, 2017, singer, Chester Bennington, committed suicide. Bennington rose to prominence in 2000 as the lead singer of Linkin Park. The band’s debut album, Hybrid Theory, was the perfect distillation of alternative rock, nü metal, and rap, and went on to sell over ten million copies in the U.S.

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Hybrid Theory, Linkin Park’s first LP, was 2001’s best selling album

Subsequent albums—including 2003’s Meteora and 2007’s Minutes to Midnight—solidified the band’s sound and cemented their status as America’s favorite hard-rock band. Bennington played a key role in the band’s success, his striking vocals acting as the perfect foil to Mike Shinoda’s MC-skills.

Despite Linkin Park’s success, Bennington’s personal life was embroiled in chaos. Sexually abused by an older male friend, and the product of childhood divorce, he fell into alcohol and drug addiction at an early age. As an adult, he was plagued by health issues, including a recluse spider bite during OzzFest 2001, a hatial hernia that sidelined him in 2003, and a shoulder injury that required surgery in 2011. Even with all his fame and fortune, he couldn’t catch a break.

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Bennington is all smiles for this radio interview, but a series of health issues threatened to derail his career

It’s heartbreaking to imagine the demons Bennington battled, but I hope he’s finally found peace. To commemorate his talent, here’s a look back at five of his most impressive vocals:

Crawling—Linkin Park: “One Step Closer” was Linkin Park’s introduction, and “In the End” became the massive single, but “Crawling” provided Hybrid Theory’s most stunning vocal. Utilizing a familiar ‘90s alt-rock sonic template, Bennington delivered deceptively quiet verses before detonating in the throat-shredding chorus. Despite being a literal pain for Bennington to sing live, “Crawling” marked Linkin Park first step towards world domination.

Numb—Linkin Park: Built around an unforgettable keyboard-synth hook, “Numb” is the ultimate outsider anthem. Bennington’s searing vocal raged his frustrations in the verses (“Every step that I take / is another mistake to you”) before exploding in the cathartic chorus, with a generation of disaffected youths finally finding their voice when he screamed, “All I want to do / is be more like me / and be less like you.”

Shadow of the Day—Linkin Park: One of Linkin Park’s best ballads found Bennington surprisingly restrained. Stripped of the rap and electronica elements they built their empire on—and borrowing liberally from U2’s “With or Without You”—the track’s sparse production perfectly showcased Bennington’s sweet vocals in this delicious lullaby of a song.

Waiting For the End—Linkin Park: Later Linkin Park singles suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but “Waiting For the End” is their mid-period masterpiece. The soaring, alt-rock power ballad is best remembered for Shinoda’s impassioned reggae-inflected verses (including the epic line, “the hardest part of ending is starting again”), but Bennington’s crystal-clear chorus provided the bedrock from which Shinoda soared.

Crawl Back In—Dead By Sunrise: While writing for Minutes to Midnight, Bennington found some of his songs were too dark and personal for Linkin Park. Rather than tossing them aside, Bennington formed a side-project, Dead by Sunrise, with members of industrial-rock group, Orgy. Sadly, the super-group’s lead single, “Crawl Back In,” is generic post-grunge rock, but the conviction of Bennington’s distinct vocal saves it from the bargain bin.

 

 

Kesha’s Triumphant Return

Kesha started this decade as one of pop’s brightest stars. Though initially signed as a songwriter, she parlayed her guest vocal on Flo Rida’s 2009 hit, “Right Round,” into her own music career, launching her debut single, “Tik Tok” later that same year. The Auto-Tuned, half-rapped/half-sung vocal and her trashy, poor-man’s-Lady-Gaga aesthetic polarized critics, but the song was a runaway smash, sailing to #1 for nine weeks and kick-starting an impressive run of hit singles.

Then, of course, came Kesha’s claims of sexual assault and battery against her producer, Lukas “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Gottwald denied the allegations, hitting back with a defamation countersuit, and the resultant legal brouhaha sidelined Kesha’s once-blossoming career. In 2016, a New York judge dismissed all of her claims—keeping her chained to Gottwald’s contract—though near-unanimous support from A-listers like Adele, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift granted her victory in the court of public opinion.

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Kesha cried in court when a judge refused to release her from her contract with Lukas Gottwald

Kesha returns under these dramatic circumstances with “Praying,” the lead single from Rainbow, her first album in five years. The song’s simple piano introduction immediately differentiates it from the party anthems that built her career; “Your Love is My Drug” this most certainly is not. Against this stark production, Kesha details the struggle of surviving—and being strengthened by—a tormentor (obviously Gottwald). Despite one understandably bitter lyric—“when I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”—the song stands as a testament to empowerment and even forgiveness, as she sings, “I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees.” Eventually the piano bleeds into a gospel-organ, weepy strings, and a big, stomping drumbeat to match the rawest, most righteous vocal of her career. And I dare the most cynical of hearts not to tear up when she hits that high note after musing, “some things, only God can forgive.”

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“Praying” previews Rainbow, Kesha’s first album since 2012

The stunning music video also perfectly showcases her recent struggles. It starts with Kesha asking, “Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams?” as pig-masked, suited men hover over her casket. In between symbolic black and white images of the singer adrift at open sea upon a raft, she successfully escapes her piggy antagonists through a thrilling Technicolor, desert trash-scape dash. The heroic, cathartic video concludes with the words “the beginning” announcing Kesha’s rebirth.

“Praying” is a perfect, rise-from-the-ashes reinvention. Stripped of Auto-Tune, shorn of the ironic “$” that once stylized her name, and baptized by the fires of her legal trials, the real Kesha Sebert finally shines. It’s a glorious, triumphant return, and I cannot wait to hear what she does next.

Calvin Brings the Funk

Hard to believe, but 2017 marks ten years in the biz for Calvin Harris. While the former Adam Wiles was an instant U.K. success, it took his massive, 2011 Rihanna-collaboration, “We Found Love,” to break him Stateside.

Since then, an irresistible run of dance-pop hits has crowned him as the world’s top paid DJ, with a Las Vegas residency, a steamy Calvin Klein underwear ad, and high-profile romances with pop chanteuses like Rita Ora and Taylor Swift further expanding Harris’ brand.

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Harris’ sexy Calvin Klein ad

Having reached the apex of the EDM empire, Harris uses his fifth album, Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1, to experiment with nu-disco. While his former compositions bounced with big beat exuberance fit for cavernous clubs, the ten languid, tropical songs on this compact collection are aimed at sound-tracking summer barbecues and chilled, stoner beach parties.

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Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 1 is Harris fifth studio album

To achieve his new sound, Harris traded his normally-British cast of rotating vocalists (Ellie Goulding, John Newman) for rap and R&B heavyweights (Snoop Doog, Migos), infusing each Funk track with a decidedly hip-hop flavor. Unfortunately, most of these new collaborators fail to deliver. Pharrell adds the excellent, silky smooth hook to the “Get Lucky”-esque “Heatstroke,” but similar attempts by John Legend and Nicki Minaj fizzle rather than sizzle. Contributions from the occasional pop vocalist are especially underwhelming: Katy Perry’s dreadful, “baby, I know you ain’t afraid to catch feels” chorus to “Feels,” surely has Harris’ former flame (and Katy Perry-antagonist), Taylor Swift, cackling.

Strangely, it’s the lesser-known talents who shine brightest on Funk. Up-and-coming Oakland hip-hop singer, Kehlani, rap-sings with convincing spite on “Faking It,” while Canadian newbie, Jessie Reyez, ups the emotional ante when she sings, “I’d rather be hard to love than easy to leave,” in album-closing slow-jam, “Hard to Love.” Harris’ quirky vocal, which previously powered hits like, “I’m Not Alone” and “Summer” is also conspicuous in its absence.

Despite the album’s shortcomings, Funk succeeds in providing a relatively cohesive summer playlist that connects with fans: the album debuted at #2 in both the U.S. and the U.K. Whether Harris has permanently traded dance-y beats for tropical vibes remains to be seen (although the Vol. 1 in the title suggests as much), but for now, EDM’s Golden Boy can light a spliff and bask in the summery glow of his continued success.

Can Imagine Dragons Evolve With Their Third Album?

2017 radio is strangely devoid of rock music. While guitar-driven rock songs dominated the mid-‘90s, rap and pop currently command the airwaves, with only the occasional rock hit finding a home at top 40 radio. Las Vegas rock band, Imagine Dragons, hope to buck that trend with their third album, Evolve.

Imagine Dragons burst onto the scene in 2012 when sleeper-hit, “Radioactive,” crossed over to pop radio.

The Grammy-winning single crystallized what the band did best: namely, fusing electronic, hip-hop, and alternative music against booming drums and lead singer, Dan Reynolds’, trachea-shredding vocals. The amalgamation of styles struck a chord, as “Radioactive” spent a record-shattering 87 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, propelling parent album, Night Visions, to multi-platinum success. Their ambitious follow-up, 2015’s Smoke + Mirrors, became their first #1 album, while contributions to the Divergent, Suicide Squad, and Passengers soundtracks further solidified their position as rock music saviors. The pieces were in place for their third album to launch Imagine Dragons into the stratosphere.

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Imagine Dragons’ “Levitate” can be heard during the closing credits to the Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt space-drama, Passengers

Sadly, Evolve fails to deliver anything new, with too many of the songs retreading previous glories: the rap-like verses and vitriolic vocal of “Believer” is “Radioactive” MK 2.0. The mid-tempo, lighters-in-the-air chorus of “Walking the Wire” is this year’s “Demons.” And the echoing drums that give “Thunder” its punch are the same ones heard throughout Night Visions. Similarly, instead of expanding their sound, the band simply dialed up the synth-y, vaguely-ethereal production of their first album, resulting in Tangerine Dream-lite soundscapes that sound more like the soundtrack to Molly Ringwald’s first kiss, and less like a brave step forward for rock music’s torch-bearers. Consequently, while none of the songs sound abysmal, they all suffer from familiarity.

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The album cover to Imagine Dragons’ third album, Evolve

Furthermore, the album’s occasional sonic deviations are a mixed bag. “I’ll Make It Up to You” twinkles with simplistic beauty, thanks to one of Reynolds’ rare, restrained vocals, yet “Yesterday” and its hand claps, punishing piano, and waltz-like melody is the unholy love child of Ariana Grande’s “Dangerous Woman” and Queen’s “We Will Rock You.” Strangest of all is “Dancing in the Dark.” Sadly, not an inspired Bruce Springsteen cover, the closing track’s distorted, “if you ever want to join me/I’ll be dancing in the dark” chorus and minimal, floaty production acts as the perfect homage to cold ‘80s synth-pop. It’s a bizarre detour for rock’s reigning royalty.

Evolve certainly has its strengths, namely Reynolds’ commanding vocal, which impresses whether he’s spitting rapid-fire verses like a pseudo-MC on “I Don’t Know Why,” or belting out his trademark sing-shout style in the chorus to “Start Over.” The visuals—including excellent, Tron-inspired single artwork, and the amusing boxing-against-Dolph-Lundgren music video for “Believer”—are also noteworthy in their attention to detail.

Despite not being the evolutionary leap forward its title suggests, Evolve delivers solid, if unspectacular songs. But most importantly, it’s a hit: the album debuted at #2, and “Believer” recently became the first rock single to make the top ten in 2017. Imagine Dragons fill an essential void in popular music, and as long as guitar-driven music continues to die out, their music needn’t evolve so much as rock.

2017’s Winners and Losers (So Far)

Hard to believe, but the year is already half over. And between Beyoncé birthing twins, Lady Gaga triumphing at the Super Bowl, and Ja Rule taking the fall for the disastrous Fyre Festival, it’s been a jam-packed year. Let’s look back at some of the biggest winner and losers of the first half of 2017.

Winners

Justin Bieber: Once pop music’s most notorious laughing stock, Bieber rose from the ashes with a troika of aces off 2015’s Purpose; currently between albums, his stock continues to soar thanks to vocal guest-spots on DJ Khaled’s first #1 single, “I’m the One,” and Daddy Yankee’s song-of-the-summer, “Despacito.” With rumors of a new album dropping in time for Christmas, 2017 might finally convert the most adamant haters into Beliebers.

The Chainsmokers: Though the NYC duo successfully transformed from kitschy one-hit wonders (2014’s “#Selfie”) into dependable hit-makers, their frat-boy image and simplistic melodies made them the EDM Nickelback: critically-reviled, million-selling populists no one admits to loving. Critics and closet fans be damned, though, as the Chainsmokers spent 2017 planning a Las Vegas residency, modeling for a Tommy Hilfiger ad, collaborating with Coldplay, and basking in the glow of a #1 album.

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The Chainsmokers became Tommy Hilfiger brand ambassadors in 2017

Drake: How to follow up a commercial high-watermark like “One Dance”? Well, if you’re Aubrey Graham, you lock yourself in the studio to record the critically-appraised, genre-spanning More Life. The album topped the charts and broke single-day Spotify records, solidifying Drake as the King of Streaming. If that wasn’t enough, Billboard announced that a combination of endearing hits and scene-stealing features has allowed Drake to chart at least one song on the Billboard Hot 100 every week for eight consecutive years and counting! It’s Drake’s world, we just live in it.

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Drake scored a seventh chart-topping album with More Life

Ed Sheeran: Everyone’s favorite ginger-haired singer-songwriter released his third album, ÷ , in early March. It stormed to the top of the charts and granted Sheeran his first U.S. #1 single with the dancehall-inspired “Shape of You.” ÷ even necessitated a rule change in the UK charts when massive streaming of the album enabled Sheeran to lock down fourteen of the top fifteen songs that week. Expect him to clean up once award season rolls around, as he’s a critics’ darling.

Harry Styles: Long considered the most talented member of One Direction, Styles’ solo debut was amongst the last out of the gates, as Zayn Malik’s 2016 album initially grabbed all the glory. The wait was worth it, though, as Styles’ epic debut single, “Sign of the Times” perfectly blended the Beatles, Bowie, Blur, and the remaining best bits of British music into five and a half minutes of soaring power pop. An upcoming world tour and a role in Christopher Nolan’s war-drama, Dunkirk, ensure a busy rest of the year for the former boy-bander.

 

Losers

Camila Cabello: Cabello was riding high in 2016 as one-fifth of girl-group, Fifth Harmony, thanks to their slinky hit, “Work From Home.” However, encouraged by modestly-successful collaborations with Shawn Mendes and Machine Gun Kelly, and with an eye on becoming the next Nicole Scherzinger, Cabello struck out on her own. Her bandmates were blindsided by her departure, resulting in an ugly war of words that sapped public goodwill. Subsequently, Cabello’s debut single, “Crying in the Club” has failed to crack the top 40. Time to kiss and make up with her old band?

Miley Cyrus: Cyrus twerked her way into infamy at the 2013 Video Music Awards in a crass, calculated attempt at distancing herself from her Disney past (riding naked atop a wrecking ball didn’t hurt, either). And it paid off in spades as her antics became the talk of the town. The world patiently awaited her next move…sadly, unexpected new single, “Malibu,” is a snooze, the song’s mellow, soft-rock breeziness acting as stylistic sedation. Also, the song’s complete about-face from the hip-hop influences of her last album has not gone unnoticed, with Cyrus having to answer fresh accusations of cultural appropriation.

Gorillaz: Despite positive reviews and an eclectic host of talent that encompassed everyone from Mavis Staples to Grace Jones, the triumphant return of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon band was marred by lack of a hit. While previous songs like “Feel Good Inc” and “Dare” were gloriously ubiquitous, none of Humanz’s six singles took off at radio. Even more damning was the album’s lack of streaming success: innovative, colorful music videos are the band’s endearing hallmark, yet none of the promos found an audience this time.

Katy Perry: Is Katy Perry OK? “Chained to the Rhythm,” the lead single for her fifth album, Witness, was supposed to represent “purposeful pop,” but the song was an awkward, Technicolor hot mess with one too many syllables in its title. Follow-up singles, “Bon Appetit” and “Swish Swish” barely bothered the charts. But it’s her Witness press that’s been most troubling. Perry’s erratic interviews mirror Mariah Carey’s Glitter­-era meltdown, culminating in a tearful breakdown during her 72 hour livestream. Get the help you need, girl, and come back, whip cream bra guns blazing.

PWR BTTM: PWR BTTM found out the hard way that not all press is good press. The once-promising queer indie-rock group’s fortunes were torpedoed just before the release of their second album, Pageant, when band member, Ben Hopkins, was accused of sexual assault and making unwanted sexual advances towards a minor. The band denied the allegations, but the fallout was swift and severe: their music was pulled from online retailers like iTunes and Amazon, and they were dropped by their label. The band have also canceled all upcoming performances. Is their career already over?

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Pageant was supposed to elevate PWR BTTM to a whole new audience