My grandpa never calls. Our family history is messy and disheartening. He spent the back half of 2016 in and out of the hospital for reasons unknown to me, partly because he never calls and partly because his wife is the evil stepmother trope reimagined.
When the phone flashes his name, “Lev,” I’m nervous to pick up. I can immediately tell the hospital visits took a toll on his body; his native Russian appears worn. I’m hearing tatters of a language that stands in for a bond I’ve always wanted us to share. Speaking slowly, his breath catching on every syllable, he tells me, “They say my blood is attacking itself.”
“Do you mean cancer?” I ask in Russian, with trepidation and noticing my American accent more than ever.
“No,” he steadies himself, “I don’t think they told me I have cancer. I have to talk to another doctor and get a second opinion. I’m sick, but there are treatment options for me.” Without giving me a chance to respond he continues, “Lately, I’ve been looking out the window more often. It’s very beautiful outside. You should look out the window when you have a chance. Anyway, I just wanted to call you and maybe I should have called sooner. Maybe I should have called more often. But this is how life played out.”
He was trying to tell me that he had leukemia. The diagnosis, like the majority of our relationship, got lost in translation. In the middle of November, on the East Coast, it gets dark before 5:00 p.m. After my grandpa hung up, I slumped to the floor and let the dial tone’s howl fill the room. It had to have been 3:30, but I’d never been more consumed by pitch black darkness.
In that same week, the remainder of my support system collapsed. My then-girlfriend cheated on and left me. My strongest lifeline, therapy, was suddenly out of my price range. This news was not something I could write through. I had no one to call and no desire to touch a phone ever again.
The next day, Kevin Abstract released his sophomore album, American Boyfriend: A Suburban Love Story. Like most things produced by a queer artist, I assumed it was somehow made with me in mind. It was natural for me to cling to American Boyfriend for its familiar queer coming-of-age narrative, for its constant admissions of suicidal thoughts, for its closeted self-hate and family tension, and for its willingness to be young and hurt—no matter what it looked like.
American Boyfriend confronts grief in some of the most childish ways, with its indie rock ballads brushing shoulders with industrial beats. “Blink” is presented as a sloppy and stumbling mess. Kevin’s delivery embodies drunk plodding through a party. I listened to him hunker through his emotions while I drank myself into a stupor on the floor. We were both alone, and scared, and wanted to be kids again.
My American Boyfriend managed to capture my anger on the title track, singing: “Burn bridges, American Boyfriend / No one knows, no one calls home.” Shoulders slack on the floor, I laid there enraged, thinking, Why the fuck didn’t he call sooner? Why didn’t I?
Even the album’s missteps kept me grounded. “Flintridge” invokes Kendrick Lamar’s “u,” in its vocal pitching and self-deprecation. Sidestepping my critical ear out, the heavy influence is a moment of double-communion. Misery demands company. I will always forgive Kevin Abstract for wearing his influences on his sleeve during a time when community was what I needed to be able to push forward.
The most impactful track on the album, “Papercut,” was my most salient lifeline. “Papercut” is the arc of album condensed into a single song, where Kevin battles isolation and self-hatred (“The harshest of all times can't tell my family I'm bi / Can't tell my mother I'm gay / The hardest part of my day is wishing I was fucking straight / Life could be so fucking easy, man.”) The despondence in that last line, how “man” barely makes it out of his mouth, how he can only express his hurt as a whisper through gritted teeth, is what I held on to.
Over time, Kevin Abstract got me off the floor. The closing mantra of “Papercut” (“I take everything for what it is, and I never try to change it”) evolved into my morning ritual. I would mutter to myself while slogging through work while putting in the base effort to keep life going. I tried to replace the anger with the mantra. I learned how to let go.
When my grandpa passed in April, I listened to American Boyfriend while driving to the ocean. Roy Blair’s hook on “Runner” (“When you wanna let go, when you wanna move on”) was his eulogy.
To this day, the album is my “look out the window.” Where each day of November seemed bleak, the dream pop influences and Kevin’s ethereal reaches to dissolve genre brought flashes of sunlight back into my life after that call from my grandpa. I’ve since come to terms with the fact that neither one of us put our best foot forward. I stopped blaming myself for being too young and self-involved, and him for being too proud to pick up the phone.
I’d like to think we’ve all found our peace.
Listening to American Boyfriend one year later feels like a triumph; play this album when I scale the Rocky Steps. Sit shotgun in my car on a sunny day, and you can catch me humming along to Kevin’s proclamation “I wanna die on Sunset,” like this past November was nothing but a daydream.
One year later, I’m proud to say: “I take everything for what it is, and I never try to change it.”