7 min read

I Swear It's Not Contagious

I Swear It's Not Contagious

On Alkaline Trio, drunken oracles, and unlikely companions.

THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON MAY 26, 2021


The craziest thing about getting close to someone is how your affection for them can make you reconsider other things in life. Case in point, I spent two decades of my life thinking the band Alkaline Trio was nothing to write home about. To me, they were another band under the pop-punk umbrella not named blink-182 or Green Day or any of the bands that I have grown to love. At best, they were second-tier talent, and though I had no good argument as to why that was true, I would impress upon people that I was correct whenever given a chance.

Then something changed. More accurately, someone changed me.

In March 2009, I found myself on the streets of Austin, Texas, during the world-famous SXSW. It was a hot March night, and I was waiting for the band known as The Gay Blades to perform at a hole-in-the-wall venue called Dirty Dog bar. I was barely in my twenties, slightly tipsy from the copious amounts of free alcohol available to anyone with a media pass, and my body was far beyond the point of exhaustion. With time to kill in a pack of cigarettes in my pocket (sorry, mom), I sat down on the curb outside the main door to watch drunken strangers roam up and down the busy street while awaiting the show. A thin, tall girl with bright hair in a brilliant laugh sat down next to me, And while I immediately noticed her, I had no talent whatsoever for making introductions.

Not long after, a much older and clearly inebriated woman clumsily shuffled away from the bustling crowd in the street and sat down on my other side. She was probably in her late 50s or early 60s, and she smelled every bit as drunk as she looked. Her hair was a mess, and her knees were dirty, likely from tripping somewhere around the city. She mumbled something akin to a greeting while sitting down, then after a few minutes of silence, she looked at me and expressed concern over whatever was happening between the strange girl to my left and myself.

She asked, "What's going on with the two of you?"

"Who?"

"You and her," she said, pointing to the stranger seated on my other side.

I shrugged at the question, then took another long drag off the last American Spirit in my pack before crushing the filter under my aging Converse. That's when things got weird.

"I just need you to to know," she said, shaking me by the shoulder. "The two of you are going to be all right. Whatever is going on right now, you're going to get over it, and you're going to make it work. I can tell how much you mean to each other. You two are meant to be together, so just deal with it."

Now fully aware of the conversation she had become involved in, the girl in question turned to me. Sitting shocked, we politely thanked the woman for her advice and watched as she immediately stood up and walked off into the crowd passing up and down Sixth Street. We exchanged another glance before we burst out in laughter, and before long, we were talking. Her name was Laura, and she, like me, planned her time in Austin around watching The Gay Blades perform. We exchanged numbers and watched the concert together before going our separate ways into the Texas night.

Laura always wanted to be a radio host. With big bright eyes that could easily cut you in half in an instant, she chose instead to use her powers for good. Laura could light up any room with her joyful soul. It certainly didn't hurt that she had the slightest southern accent that made every word out of her mouth sugary sweet to my ears. She was a lonely girl, the kind who wrestles with loving herself, but she always had the kindest heart. There was no one like her in my life when we met, and the same is true today.

We saw each other several more times that week, and we made a pact to try and reconnect again as soon as possible.

Soon after, we agreed over text that we would both take an internship that summer in the city of Boston. I don't know why we chose Boston in hindsight. I was living in Michigan at the time, and she was a Kentucky native who is still living in the bluegrass state today. Neither of us had ever been to Boston, but a lifetime of seeing the city celebrated through music and film sparked our interest, so that's where we went.

That summer was a period in my life that could fill novels. There were epic highs and painful lows. I learned more things about myself than I could count, and I gained a sense of independence that I had previously not known. I also got to see Laura almost every day, and though we never became an item, we were just as inseparable as the lady in Texas had claimed.

Somewhere during this time, Laura told me that her favorite band was Alkaline Trio. It was the first time in my entire life that someone had made such a comment to me, and somehow I found the strength not to tell her my thoughts. Instead, I sat and listened to her tell me why the band was amazing and how they changed her life in-between song suggestions that felt numerous enough to account for the band's entire catalog.

I realize now that I made the classic storytelling mistake of telling you how this moment in life ends. By the time I went back to Michigan at the end of that summer, Alkaline Trio was also one of my favorite bands. I can still remember awkwardly strumming along to "This Could Be Love" until my fingers bled and my voice gave out. It was the kind of dark romance that teens of a particular type embrace wholeheartedly. The pre-chorus and chorus still rattle around in my skull weekly without warning.

I don't blame you for walking away
I'd do the same if I saw me
I swear it's not contagious
In four short steps, we can erase this

Step one, slit my throat
Step two, play in my blood
Step three, cover me in dirty sheets
And run laughing out of the house

Step four, stop off at Edgebrook Creek
And rinse your crimson hands
You took me hostage and made your demands
I couldn't meet them, so you cut off my fingers, one by one

Time has certainly changed my thoughts on Alkaline Trio. Just like the bands that inspired them, the group survived long enough to put out less than revelatory records, and my taste in music began to evolve. But much like the girl herself, Laura's feelings for the band have stayed with me. I will never hear them the way she does, but I recognize it is high art because I understand how much the music helped her. It deserves to be in a museum because, at least to her, it has the power to move mountains whenever she feels weak. To Laura, Alkaline Trio makes the lonely less alone and brings some sense to this chaotic existence. That alone makes them worthy of all the praise in the world as far as I'm concerned, but I wouldn't feel that way without her.

Laura and I would then go nearly a decade before seeing one another again, and we went nearly that long without talking. But throughout the last 13 years of my life, no matter where I am or what is happening, when I hear Matt Skiba's voice, I think of that girl from Kentucky who raised my heartrate without saying a word. I think about how this band I wrote off countless times before meeting her helped her stay alive long enough to enter my reality. The fact that Matt Skiba was able to bless my life without me ever listening to one of his albums in full before that summer in Boston is a testament to the power of the music that he makes. It's magic.

If you listen to High Notes, the podcast I host that tackles addiction and recovery in music, then you know Laura's work. When she's not working as one of the best rock radio personalities in the country (a factual statement, not my opinion), she's serving as the programming consultant and executive producer of the series. We also text daily and speak at least a few times every week. She and I are in a group chat with two other close friends where we facetime and watch movies together. She is as close to me as anyone, and I guess that's the way it should have been from the start.

Math was always my worst subject. To me, words are far more manageable than numbers. But I believe there is a rule in math that will make my point clear. Laura is an essential part of my life. She would never have lived long enough to meet me unless Alkaline Trio was there for her when life felt impossible. So, if Laura only makes it into my life because Alkaline Trio enters her life first, then I only become the person I am because Alkaline Trio writes a bunch of grim pop-punk bangers. I want to say that's the transitive property in action. If it's not, just remember: Math and I are not close friends.

Whenever I feel that The universe is ambivalent and could care less if we suffer, I take a second think about Laura and Alkaline Trio. Without the universe aligning in such a way that a drunk woman whose name I will never know sparked a conversation between us, or without Alkaline Trio writing the music that would help Laura stay alive, my life would be dramatically different. Many of the best moments of my existence would not happen. Music would sound different, feelings would feel different, and there would be a gaping hole in my heart and daily life that I'm not sure anything else could fill. So you know what? I love Matt Skiba. I love Alkaline Trio. I love every stupid song about love and death and sex and drugs and violence that silly band from Chicago has ever written because it brought perhaps the most powerful force in my life of the last decade into my orbit. For that, I owe them everything.