I was sixteen years old. The show was all ages though that was questionable. I was going with two friends, Joannie and Finnigan. Finnigan insisted on being called Flix for whatever reason, but I could never bring myself to call him that, so it was Finnigan to his mother and me. The three of us were looking forward to this and it took careful negotiations with all of our parents, especially Joannie’s who so desperately wanted to be the model permissive liberal parents. They had their limits with trusting others around their daughter. That’s why we all left home looking like your average skaters. Before getting on the bus downtown, the makeup and accessories came out. Finnigan hogged the eyeliner while I applied a burgundy lip. Joannie went for a dark shade of purple. Then came the abundance of rings, silver claw earrings for me, a spiked choker for Joannie and chains all around. My favorite part, the memory that runs clearest through my mind, was when Finnegan took his denim shirt off revealing his tight strikethrough cross Bad Religion t-shirt that looked like it had been treated with a sandblaster. Joannie kissed him below his left eye leaving a perfect bruise of her full lips which he never even attempted to wipe off. That moment always happens in slow motion in my mind. They were fucking beautiful.
You can always spot the kids at these shows. They manage to appear the most disinterested while being the most obsessed about being right up to the stage. The venue was not what I expected even though I had read a handful of descriptions and been told what to expect by the older punks at school. As soon as you step into The Plateau, the smell of beer, stale cigarette smoke, sweat and mold along with a low persistent hum of amplifiers overpowers any other information delivered to the senses. The place is all sounds and smells. Somehow it manages to mix the wet, organic flavours of October decomposition with a warm and unsanitary humanity. One part closed-in neglect, two parts ionized air. It’s oppressively sensual.
When you get passed the narrow hallway and the mandatory coat check operated by an older punk with grey roots to his slicked-back green and pink mohawk, the room opens into an uncanny configuration for a music venue. The shallow stage lines the entire left-hand side of the room. The floor is all open space in front of the stage and the floorboards curl up and bounce from years of moshing and spilled beverages. I’ve been here on nights where the cigarette ash, sweat and beer were so abundant it created a tacky paste, coating the floor. I imagined little silver fish travelling the cracks in the wood, trapped in their own Pompei. The two extra floors above are all standing room balconies with their own bars and look as if the exterior wall of an apartment building was flipped inwards. Moshing is strictly forbidden on the balconies. There’s no telling how much they could take before turning the place into a newsworthy disaster with a death toll. You want to join in the chaos, you go to the ground floor.
We were there before the doors opened. We made a bee line for the stage immediately after proving that we were only carrying makeup and extra layers of clothes in our bags. My asthma inhaler got a strange look from the crusty punk doing bag checks, so I had to spend an extra minute proving it wasn’t some kind of one hitter she’d never seen before. Joannie and Finnegan were leaning their backs against the stage, and I was facing them. We were arguing over which books we wanted to read from the AP English summer reading list. I remember Finnigan wanting to read Crime and Punishment. I don’t know if he ever did. As genuine as Finnigan was, there was also a character he wished to present to the world. He had this innate guilt about being white and middle class and honestly, really comfortable with himself. Ditto for Joannie but she more sensibly looked to Beloved for instruction on how to check her privilege. I had no idea, but I knew I would survey the group and pick whatever hadn’t been touched by the others. I’m still like that. It’s not a purity thing, I just don’t want other people’s ideas in my head before I’ve had a chance to formulate my own.
Over the course of an hour, the place filled up, but we defended our territory fiercely. The crowd first gathered at the bar then shifted and grew outward from the stage. Anticipation for loud music started building through the audience and every time the music from the PA system ended, a moment of silence was observed to see if this was it. We were deep in self important conversation when Joannie and Finnegan abruptly stopped talking and stared directly above my head. I turned to see that right behind me was a guy, at least 6’5”, with a shaved head, chin beard, and a Black Flag shirt the size of a bed sheet. Probably as heavy as the three of us combined. He was staring intently at us, lost in thought but with this toothy smile, completely oblivious to the piano key pattern of grime between his teeth. It was unnerving.
“This your first show?” he said to all three of us but looking me in the eye.
“Yeah” Joannie responded with maybe a bit more edge than she needed to, but she must have also sensed what I had, that his question, while perfectly normal had a tone of warning.
“As soon as they step on stage, this whole place is gonna start spinning.”
“What do you mean spinning? Like people are going to mosh?” I asked.
“Yeah, this whole place is gonna start spinning. Won’t be standing still for long. We’ll take care of you. Everything stops if somebody goes down. Nobody stays down for long.”
Just as he finished that strangely kind bit of instruction, the lights went off and the first band came out. I can’t remember their name. No one does. There was a crush of bodies towards the stage. So much so that Joannie and Finnigan had to bend their torsos over the edge of it and I couldn’t raise my arms without shoving the people next to me.
The sound of those first distorted power chords galloped across the air and I felt this wave of warmth in their wake. I made the mistake of closing my eyes in an attempt to record the sensation. If I hadn’t maybe I would have seen the body of that first kid plow into my right side, immediately followed by a push back from the person now in front of me. I managed to stay on my feet and even in that initial unexpected chaos, a recent lesson on actions having equal and opposite reactions came to mind. I turned back around to the stage and saw I was now a good fifteen feet back from my friends and as I continued to drift across the room with the movement of the crowd, I understood what that guy meant when he said that the room would be spinning. He meant everyone in the room would drag me into an inescapable vortex I was not prepared for. The band was relentless. They didn’t pause between songs, just continuously hammering away on their instruments, creating the low-pressure system that fed the hurricane of bodies I couldn’t step out of. The only lights were the static foot lights on stage and three roaming spotlights that travelled the entire room. I could only see a portion of the faces of the people around me at any given time and even then, they moved so fast, I only registered a smear of features.
About halfway through the set the band finally paused and gave the crowd a chance to stop and cheer. Everyone around me was gasping for air which had now turned into a fog of sweat and exhaled alcoholic vapour. I looked around trying to take in what was happening around me. I spotted the sides of Joannie and Finnegan’s faces, still crushed against the stage, kissing, really making out in that desperate, life support kind of way. It was bound to happen sooner or later, I guess that was as good a time as any. I didn’t want to interrupt so I decided not to rejoin them, not that that was an option because as soon as I heard four fast hits on the hi-hat, the floor beneath me bounced and I was being pummeled again. I didn’t have enough mass to make any difference, I was at the mercy of the kinetics of the room.
The next time I tried looking at the stage, something in the crowd directly across from me caught my attention. Something was reflecting light and for a moment it shined directly into my eyes. When I caught what had flashed in the darkness, a girl’s silver claw shaped earrings, I made a mental note that maybe it was time to retire mine. I scanned the crowd as best I could to see her again and spotted the left side of her face just as the roaming spotlight hit her, ten feet from where she was a moment ago. I noticed the side of her hair was shaved in exactly the same place as mine and the shade of her lipstick was identical. Unbelievable I thought to myself. I spun in place twice, narrowly avoiding several elbows, only trying to face the stage. It was too much. It wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to see the band. I was there to see them, but I couldn’t escape the pit.
When I managed to turn back around, I saw the girl who looked like me. I don’t know how she managed it, but she was in the middle of the action standing perfectly still. And she was looking straight at me. When the spotlight hit her, I could see her smile. The resemblance was so shocking I inhaled fast and coughed. She was still there the next time the spotlight came around, perfectly still, only this time no longer smiling. The claw earing had been torn out of her left ear. Her left ear was gone, and blood was flowing down her neck, draining down the sloping angles of her chest.
I started to make my way to her. If for no other reason than she seemed to be in the eye of it all, a static location in all this movement. Maybe I could save her from further harm. I lost track until the spotlight hit her again. The skin on the right side of her face was no longer there. Ripples of wet, frowning muscle glinted in the spotlight, weeping more blood, dripping down, soaking through her shirt.
Every step I took led to the next tackle. Every step toward her led to two steps back. I was having difficulty breathing. I realized that in my fear and confusion at what I was witnessing, I was having an attack. My inhaler was in my bag, at Joannie’s feet. Still, I was trying to push my way to the girl being torn apart rather than to my inhaler.
Finally, I found a space where someone had pushed through with way more force than I could. Before it filled in, I moved across, closing the gap between us. My chest was tight, not only from difficulty breathing, I hadn’t taken a proper breath in minutes, but also from anticipation of what I would see next. The next time the spotlight came around to where I expected to see her, what I saw finally took what was left of my breath away. The big guy from before, the one who warned me about the whole place spinning, was holding her above the heads of cascading moshers. His bulbous, stubbled cheeks were wet with sweat and tears and smeared with blood from right temple to chin. His lips were shaking. Her left arm was torn off, tendrils of skin and muscle hung around a spike of broken bone. Bloody punctures ran through her exposed mid-section like cores removed to study the layers. A chunk of one thigh was gone along with that section of her ripped black jeans, the same ones I was wearing. I thought I could see through to her femur. Hands of moshers were reaching up, trying to grab more of her. Poking their fingers in the holes in her flesh, coming away with bloodied fingertips and bits of gore. Translucent hands, far too many of them. There weren’t that many people below her. All the while the big guy was crying and shouting down the disembodied hands. Doing his best to protect her. Why was I the only one seeing this? My vision darkened and with the sudden end of a song and the freezing of the crowd, I fell to the ground.
I passed out.
I was on the sidewalk outside breathing in warm, humid night air. The music was still coming through in explosive bursts whenever the door to the Plateau swung open, letting out a fresh group of kids needing a smoke. I was actually taking in air, though it required too much effort. Joannie was standing over me with my inhaler and Finnigan was right behind her, telling some punks to stand back and give me space to come to.
Joannie actually let out a squeak when I made clear eye contact with her and after hesitating for just a moment, took me in her arms. Combination relief and anger at having been made to feel so scared. Finnigan’s eyes were watering.
They got me on the bus and told me what happened. It wasn’t much of a story. Right after the last song of the opening band, the big guy picked me up from the floor, carried me over to my friends, signaled them to follow him and brought me outside. He gently placed me on the ground and walked down the street. He never said a word to Joannie or Finnigan. Luckily, Joannie realized what was happening and reached for my bag which she had thought to grab right before leaving, removing the inhaler, and doing the best she could to get some of it down my airways.
I was exhausted and nauseous. My head filled with images and questions. None of it made sense but I never doubted it. I still don’t. We decided not to tell our parents what actually happened. I never told Joannie and Finnigan what happened to me. They had their own memory of the evening with its enormous highs and lows and thinking that was the night their friend lost her mind did not need to be part of it. We were close at school, in that context it was easy, but once they started dating, they faded out of the scene within a year. Despite our best intentions, I don’t see them often.
Because I never left.
I bartend at the Plateau now. It was a disaster at first, but I had a drive to get better.
I never saw the girl again. The girl who looked exactly like me, being torn apart. I never saw the big guy either, the one who attempted to save her, who actually saved me. I’ve been to thousands of shows over the years, plowing my way through as many mosh pits. I’ve done every drug, seeing if that would help. It didn’t.
I’ve made some friends but alienated too many to count.
I’ve met a few others who have their own stories about the Plateau, but none match what I experienced. Maybe there’s something to that as well. I document what happened to them. I show them care and kindness. We tend to be those who need it.
Some would steer clear after what I saw, but I’ve never done things like other people.
I can’t recreate the exact circumstances no matter how hard I try and maybe that’s the only way to do it.
I still want to know though.
What did I see?
Patrick Malka (he/him) is a high school science teacher from Montreal, Quebec, where he lives with his partner and two kids. His fiction can be found in Five South’s The Weekly, Nocturne magazine, The Raven Review, Sky Island Journal and most recently at On The Run. He can be found online @PatrickMalka on Twitter and @malkapatrick on Instagram.
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