Exploding Balloons

Wake
December 18, 2018
Foreword to Issue #3
December 18, 2018

Exploding Balloons

Ever since my teenage years, I’ve had a tendency to pair up most of the relevant moments and prominent phases of my life with a concert I attended. Not counting the live shows my parents took me to when I was too little to care—I  fell asleep to Roger Water’s legendary rendition of “The Dark Side of the Moon”—the first proper one I went to of my own volition was a birthday present. The concert was  the day I turned fourteen. I had started my first year of high school a few months earlier. Many things had changed: new school, new classmates, new teachers, new responsibilities. That’s what December 8, 2010 means to me: change, new beginnings. The band was Thirty Seconds to Mars (still my all-time favourite, but for both my sake and yours, I will try not to gush about them too much). It was me and my four best friends (and our moms, but they had been bestowed with the role of coathangers and were swallowed up by the crowd, bless them). We were waiting for the beginning of the show, hanging around the sixth row, and I was about to cry because the tallest guy in the whole venue was, of course, standing directly in front of me (an occurrence that has proved to be quite common over the years). The room went dark and screams filled my ears, a flash flood of sound bursting its banks.

To this day, I have yet to find a feeling comparable to the one that I get the moment the lights switch off, just before the start of a concert. Sometimes I’m downing sugar sachets (depending on how much strength I still have in me after hours—or days—of queueing), other times I’m complaining about my whole body aching, or maybe I’m just standing and patiently waiting for the show to begin. Every time though, it’s the exact same feeling. A mix of adrenaline and sudden carefreeness. Blissful joy. That first day I didn’t know what I had signed up for and the rush of it all caught in my chest in the best way possible. My heart jumped into my throat, the ground vibrated under my feet, the stage lit up, and the curtain revealed the silhouettes of my heroes. It was too much, and not enough. People were pushing me from every angle, attempting to get closer to the band. Searching for relief, every now and then someone would pop one of the huge balloons, half-filled with water, that were floating around the venue. Elbows were digging into my hips, dozens of pairs of Vans and Converse were stomping on my feet. But I didn’t care about the multitude of bruises I would find all over my body on the next day. Whenever I closed my eyes, my eyelids would turn into a canvas, onto which my brain projected a reel of all the times I’d heard those same songs in the previous months: muffedly blasting out of my grandpa’s old car to psych myself up on my first day of high school, lulling me back to sleep during those nights when insomnia had taken control, coming out of the speakers in my headphones at full volume when the sound of my family fighting had become painfully ear-splitting. But that day they were playing right in front of me. They weren’t recorded songs on a worn out CD. They were real. And it felt surreal, to a certain extent. I sang my heart out in the hope that they knew how crucial that night was for me.

♫♪

Indeed, that night was all I could think about for months. I wanted—no, I needed more. In February 2011, I bought a ticket for my second concert. Same band. I was on a hunt for that feeling. In several entries of my old journals I wrote: “Can’t wait for June. I just want to feel alive again.”

My grandma passed away two weeks before the date of the show. I’d never felt so empty before then. Life was pointless. My whole world had crashed down on me. Her illness had developed and consumed her within a month and a half. I wasn’t ready to let her go, not so soon, not so quickly. My mom’s decision to take me to Rome to see the show anyway was definitely a make-or-break deal for me: June 18, 2011 is marked on my calendar as the day that got me through. In the wake of my grandmother’s death, I also lost my only grandfather, my maternal grandma, and my uncle. A deadly ripple had struck my family , and I was a withering flower losing a petal every time I lost one of my kith and kin. Like clockwork I would chase the overwhelming emotion I could only feel again whilst being squeezed in a crowd of thousands of people, tears digging grooves into my cheeks.

Yes, I cry at concerts. It’s something I do. People always think I’m sick. Security guards often try to escort me to the venue infirmary, though I protest every single time. Over my dead body will anyone detach my hands from this barrier. In reality, apart from a couple of rare cases (I did faint once, but that’s another story), I never feel poorly. The emotions just get too intense: it’s like being hyper-aware of the gears working in my brain. My teary eyes are the result of finally being able to release all the pent-up pressure and uneasy worries. It’s both a coping and a freeing mechanism. It’s liberating. Whilst sometimes I felt trapped in my family, my house, my school, my country, myself, all these dates I’d scribble on random pieces of paper and on my skin had the shape of liberation. Unchainment. I would look at the fading ink on my hands and feel my fears and issues slowly ebbing away as the countdown shortened.

♫♪

November 17, 2012 was the first time I genuinely smiled again after my grandpa had died in the February of that year. July 6 and 13, 2013 helped me stitch my broken heart back together. November 2, 2013 was the night I decided I would try to love again.

On June 10, 2014 I was moving on. My best friend and “concert buddy” Roberta had dragged me to a Linkin Park concert, her favourite band. Considering that she’d already come to three Mars concerts with me (and a fourth one was on its way, only ten days away), I figured that I owed it to her. Of course “dragging” is an exaggeration. Our discussion on the matter more or less played out as following: “Linkin Park are coming to Milan in June and we’re going,” was what she stated. “Of course,” was the only appropriate answer. Fast forward  a couple of months  and we were regretting all of our life decisions while melting under the unbearable Milan sun, the two or three layers of suncream already applied to our skin doing nothing to combat the scalding sunburn-in-the-making. We had slept outside of the venue, like proper, crazy 17-year-olds.

Around 1PM, this bald, bulky, friendly security guy started walking around the queue, giving the first 1000 people a wristband that would  grant them access to the area closest to the stage, enabling them to move around freely. We were number 286 and 287. Though the caption on that yellow strip of paper around our wrists said “PIT,” it felt more like we had just been granted admission through the gates of Heaven, or something equally as cheesy. When security started letting people in at 4PM, we had been waiting for around 20 hours already. I hadn’t slept much; the ground wasn’t that comfortable and it certainly hadn’t helped my ever-present backache. Nonetheless, after they had checked our bags and tickets, we started to run. I sprinted through the moving throng for about 0.01 seconds before being hit by the harrowing reality that: one. there wasn’t an ounce of strength left inside my body, two. it was at least 35°C, and three. my name is not Usain Bolt. One could say I’m everything an athletic person is not. For this reason, a 1.5 km race to the stage under the burning sun wasn’t exactly something I was looking forward to. But this venue—a racecourse—was humongous, and the spot where we had been queueing was at the  opposite end of the location from the stage. Roberta didn’t have many problems: her long giraffe legs allowed her one single stride to every five steps of mine. In the rush of it all I’d forgotten to close my tote bag and naturally dropped my phone, which disassembled into several pieces. Playing building blocks with its debris, I  proceeded to drop the contents of my cap-less water bottle on my phone, or what was left of it. Nonetheless, I somehow managed to put it back together and resumed ‘running’ (slowly jogging). Dozens of people were breezing past me—some would make eye contact, our tomato-red faces leaking sweat from every pore, clouds of dust and dirty soil raising from the ground with each stomp, and I swear I could read the words “I’m sorry” in the eyes of some of them. Others’ would just read, “Hah, yes, die you weakling.” I could feel myself slowing down; Robertawas gradually becoming smaller and smaller, nothing but a dot on the horizon, until she turned around and yelled my name with the drama worthy of an Academy Award, urging me to reach her. By then my pace was a semi-quick walk. “Go on, conquer the first row,” I shouted feebly in her general direction. “Leave me behind, I’ll manage.”

She did conquer the first row and I did sort of manage to reach her. Half an hour, one anxiety attack and a dozen panicked phone calls later, but I managed it. On that day I didn’t even care about Linkin Park that much (I loved their songs, but I was mostly there for Roberta), but touching the metal barrier still resurrected me. I was a phone finally being plugged in after being on “low power mode” for two days. My second wind had turned my veins into live wires and I remember thinking it was worth it. The show was thrilling and unpredictably poignant: the two of us tossed and danced and cried. Chester Bennington’s voice reverberated in the crowd and echoed from my hand to Roberta’s through entwined fingers: “With shadows floating over, the scars began to fade.”

♫♪

Ten days later, Roberta and I were once again hugging the barriers of the front row like long-lost lovers, this time in Rome, this time for me; for Mars. I knew virtually everyone in the first five or six rows, this big group of people to whom I feel connected on so many different levels. They understand. We almost only ever met at concerts. We used to be scattered all over Italy – now, we’re spread all over the world. They might not know my favourite colour but they know about that one thing that broke me in 2013. They don’t know what I’m up to lately, but they certainly could tell you the contents of my nightmares. It felt like we had reclaimed that concert, it felt like ours.

“I do wanna bring somebody on stage, but they have to be the craziest person in the world,” was what Jared Leto uttered mid-show, the resulting horde morphing me into the barrier I was  holding on to. Thousands of sweaty bodies pushing against me, trying to get closer. Roberta alternated between pointing at me while yelling, “Her, pick her!” and giving Jared the praying hands, mouthing, “Please, please,” the same word I was chanting in my head. After having picked someone from the audience, Jared turned and looked straight into my eyes. “And this girl who’s crying over here, yeah come on over here, with the flowers on her head.” It dawned on me that I was the only person wearing a flower crown, and I  gasped audibly. Now, I should mention that I had been crying since the first note of the first song. Non-stop. I was exhausted but extremely exhilarated. Jared was wearing white trousers and a white tank-top. His hair was long and his beard was scruffy. A warm yellowish beacon of light was following him around as he walked on the stage, causing a fuzzy magical glow to radiate from behind his body. A halo. So you can’t blame me too much if in that moment the thought that flashed into my mind was “Jesus is holding an acoustic guitar and he has listened to my prayers” (insert epic cinematic shot where time freezes—everything and everyone around me fades away into darkness—and the camera slowly moves from my swollen red eyes to Jared’s twinkling sky-blue ones). Of course, the one time I actually wanted to be picked up by bodyguards, they wouldn’t hear of it. “But he chose me,” I yelled at them, like I had been chosen to be the next prophet and needed to pursue my destiny. When they kept ignoring me, I just catapulted myself on top of the barrier, Roberta’s hands hoisting me over (truly the bestest friend; in this scenario, she would be one of the new apostles). At that point, one of the undoubtedly exasperated guardsdecided to give up and collected my precariously planking self from on top of the barrier. I pathetically hugged his neck as I was escorted on the other side, bride-style. I finally stumbled on stage, hands on my face because I was ugly-crying while standing one metre away from the owner of the voice that had literally saved me from hurting myself on so many occasions. “Aww, oh bella,” Jared sweetly said into his microphone while looking at me. I walked towards him and he turned me around and hugged me. (It didn’t help with the crying.) Then he kissed my hair. (That didn’t help either.) “What’s your name?” he asked, pointing the mic at my mouth. “Brenda,” I attempted to say, but it came out more like a broken wail. He bulged his eyes, dramatically turning his head to the crowd, “Bella?” And then came my finest moment, I (somewhat angrily) shouted my name in his face. Jared Leto’s face. There were—there are—so many things I would want to tell him: heartfelt thank yous for everything he and Mars have done for me; the way a few tracks of their CDs won’t work anymore because of all the times I’ve played them to help me pick up the pieces; about the time my necklace with their symbol (which I used to carry like a rosary) had poked holes in my hand because I was holding it too tightly, because I was too scared. However, I obviously wasted my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity by screaming at his face. It was a few days before it hit me that I had cried and yelled my name in front of 35,000 people. But I couldn’t care less, to be honest. Jared’s hand was burning on my hip,  he was right there. Who cares if he asked me whether I was crazy for requesting a song from their first album (which, for the record, he didn’t sing in spite of the supporters of their old-school era). June 20, 2014 was the day I learned that wearing flower crowns at concerts is the best way to turn dreams into reality.

♫♪

There’s one more band I should mention: Muse. May 15, 2016 was our fifth Muse show. Roberta and I have always argued that if Mars was “my” band and Linkin Park was “hers,” Muse was ours. Together, we’ve seen fourteen shows of these three bands combined. It was not the best concert, in terms of the setlist—Rome 2013 at the Olympic Stadium wins the gold medal—but it was definitely the most life-changing. We were—should I even bother saying it by now?Right in front of the stage, which was, for this tour, round and positioned in the middle of the venue in Milan. The band was playing on a rotating platform, each member facing the audience in turn. The watershed moment occurred during the fourth song. Matthew Bellamy’s voice did its signature move where youcan’t really differentiate it from the incredibly high notes of his electric guitar. It seeped through every fiber of my body, so deeply that all the hairs on my arms and neck couldn’t help but collectively perform a standing ovation in his honour. At that moment in time I was still attending my first year of university in Italy. I wasn’t happy. I pretended to be loving it though. Every day I would leave my house with a fake smile to convince my parents and myself that it was what I wanted to do but, even though I wasn’t even able to admit it to myself, each second I spent there felt like a wasted chance. I wasn’t living my life like I wanted, I didn’t feel alive enough. Realization finally hit me that night during, ironically, the song ‘Dead Inside’: “on the outside you’re ablaze and alive, but you’re dead inside.” I sang, feeling called out, exposed, naked. The day after that show I started looking into universities abroad.

♫♪

One year later, on May 22, 2017, 23 people were killed in the Manchester Arena bombing, during Ariana Grande’s concert. I remember waking up to the news the next day. I started crying as soon as I heard about it. I was sad, scared. I was terrified. Ever since the Bataclan massacre in November 2015, an unerasable fear had started to claw at the back of my mind, but I forced it away. After what happened in Manchester, though—perhaps because I was older or maybe because I couldn’t keep pretending everything was okay—I became more aware, more frightened. Our fourth Linkin Park concert was scheduled in June, and every day I would stare at the ticket hanging on my wall. I would picture me and Roberta jumping and singing, hands in the air, but then my brain would transmute my fantasy into us bleeding on the ground. It made me so angry the way terror had taken control over me, exactly the way they wanted. I was furious: something that had always been a safe place for me, a place to feel the life flowing in my veins, had now transformed into a life-threatening event. We debated whether to go for weeks, but in the end we decided we wouldn’t let them win. We wouldn’t let them ruin our memories. Not that time, not ever. I was going to move 1500 kilometres away from home only two months after the concert, and both of us knew it would have been our last occasion to attend a show together, at least for a long time. And so we packed our bags and went on the road for one last adventure. After 40 hours of queuing (go big or go home, right?), we were finally there. June 17, 2017 was the day we came full circle—it was the day before Roberta’s twenty-first birthday. It was the hottest week of the year and we were too tired to resist all those hours under the sun’s rays. We had already seen them play from the first row. Three times. And so we decided, just for once, to abandon our spot at the front (in hindsight, that gesture was rather symbolic). We left a few hours before Linkin Park would start playing, standing instead at the back of the PIT area, which was still reserved for five of the ninety thousand people present. During the opening act, balloons had started floating around the crowd, dozens of hands fighting to make them bounce. While we were waiting for the actual show to begin, a balloon popped. My first instinct was to drop down and put my hands above my head for protection. “This is it,” I thought, “I’m going to die.” Then I realized it wasn’t a bomb exploding. “It’s just a balloon, just a balloon,” someone said. I looked at Roberta with a sort of raving smile, and tried to laugh it off. A few others had had a reaction similar to mine, covering everyone in a thin layer of tension. But then the lights were switched off and every last trace of fear dissipated. During the show, Chester went amongst the crowd to perform a medley of their most heartbreaking songs, culminating with ‘One More Light’: “Can I help you not to hurt anymore?” It was such an intimate moment to witness. No one was pulling him or tossing him around: people only touched him, caressed his arms, hands, and face,as he gently screamed the lyrics. It was  a mutual act of comfort. Roberta and I were staring from afar, spellbound, our hands intertwined and our eyes full of tears. The truth of me leaving soon was hanging heavy between us. I was regretting leaving our beloved front row. I wanted to be there with them, I wanted to experience that moment from up close. “Next time we’ll be closer,” I thought. “Next time.”

There will never be a next time, but of course I couldn’t have known. A month later, Chester committed suicide. We called each other in tears, hiccuping into our phones. I turned my sadness into anger—how was it possible that he had saved so many people, and yet we hadn’t managed to save him? I was mad at myself, even though, rationally, there was nothing I could have done. I found solace in reminding myself that I was there, that last night, singing with him and thousands of people while witnessing what, in retrospect, could have been his way of saying goodbye. That day I decided I would never let another opportunity slip through my fingers.

These moments, these memories, even the future ones, they’re mine. And I will cherish them like an old CD, a rusty necklace, or a collection of wrinkled concert tickets. I won’t be scared. Not of feeling alive, not of exploding balloons.