An amalgamation of sounds, beats, lyrics, and voices can all bring you back to a special place in the story that is your life. Songs can close a chapter, open a chapter, or recall a single moment. I feel like I've experienced every kind of special with music.
This song transports me to my first apartment. Cream plaster walls, arched doorways, wrought iron crank windows, my very own kitchen with--get this--a built-in dishwasher! I moved in with a bed, dresser, TV, and unbridled optimism. Alone, at last. Freedom, independence, no one telling me what to do, oh, it felt so good–
Spiders. Spiders in the corner of the ceiling. Broken dishwasher. Clogged drains. Oh, how I already missed my parents…
Each morning, I'd pull back the mustard-yellow and cream curtains and gaze out into the courtyard featuring a picturesque sky-blue pool flanked by oak and lemon trees and lounge chairs (and my neighbor, Mark, a celebrity hairstylist from the '70s, sunbathing in his orange and yellow striped swimsuit).
I'd step up to the record player and sling on this vinyl I found at Amoeba the day after I moved, The Marias Superclean Vol I.
"Dreamy, sexy, sublime," My friend commented on the sound emanating from the record player one summer day as we prepared frozé and bowls of cherries and olives to sunbathe by the pool. My front door featured an additional screen door, so I'd often leave the door open so we could hear the music in the courtyard. This music. These songs.
This became the soundtrack to my summer of 2020, and this album, in particular, accompanied an otherwise volatile world outside the wrought iron gates of my apartment complex. It made this courtyard, this home of mine, a quixotic paradise of dreams that the outside world couldn't penetrate–it felt like I was over the moon. Buzzing hummingbirds, curious squirrels, the sound of the French man upstairs belting his opera, the scent of Danielle across from me cooking too much pasta she'd inevitably share with all of us; the therapist, Suzanne, holding sessions with her ex-astronaut clients in the courtyard chairs; the screech of laughter from the Caitlyn's (there were two who lived directly across from each other), their feet draped over the side of the pool, glasses of wine in their hands, the LA sunshine in their eyes. This song paints this picture for me.
March 14th. The day I crossed the country to move to New York. I sold everything--my couch, bed, TV, acquired couch, and dining table. Everything that made up my 'home' was now gone--sold off for a third of the price to a guy I'm sure would flip it all for an obnoxious profit.
I said my last goodbye to my mother that morning, receiving a hug I wasn't accustomed to (physical touch from her, how foreign). The airport was seemingly empty -- it felt like a fever dream–fluorescent lights, stale air, pale, zombie-like expressions on every face I passed. 4 AM. Nothing seems to make sense at 4 AM.
As I watched the dark tarmac from my window seat, I played this song.
And I played it in the air until I fell asleep, the blinking lights of Los Angeles getting smaller and smaller below...
Terror, reverence, ecstasy
Inside my head
Inside my cells
And I played it after I woke up as we descended into New York.
I got into my taxi and played this song in one earbud, a faint background to my first conversation in the city. I remember his name–Fernando, AKA Fern (or, if you're really special, Fernie), hailing from Puerto Rico and Queens.
"Welcome to the 'Burg, bonita," He said, dropping off me and my one suitcase in front of my new address in Brooklyn. "Try the pastrami bagel first, trust me."
This song. Pastrami cheese bagels. A Polish man playing on his accordion on the street. A fat rat–truly the size of a cat–scurried in front of me. A screech from a guy on a bike that nearly hit it. A cautious yet satisfied sigh, from me. This song. Opening the door to my apartment building. Turning the key. This song.
Hundreds of text exchanges, phone calls, glances, kisses, letters, poems, gazes, warmth, and suddenly, almost out of nowhere, cold. So cold.
This song carried me home from that fateful January day when it all ended. When I play this song now, I see the parking lot where it happened, where my body froze, and my heart got quiet, my mind ablaze, his words fast and messy, intentional but also adrift.
"You're stoic," He whispered, exasperated by my silence and blank face. I couldn't feel anything. I couldn't cry. It took everything in me to hold his hand as he broke down and broke me--broke us both all at once.
All that played in my mind as he cried was the first time he held my hand (or I, his), the first time I realized I hadn't felt this strongly for anyone before, the first time I thought I loved him, and then the crushing thought that I would have days and nights, maybe years without him, and my greatest fear, forever without him. Will I ever have these feelings again? Do I even want to have these feelings again for someone else? It suddenly all felt very silly, like I was a little girl with an unrequited crush. Maybe he didn't feel this way, ever. Maybe it was special to me and just another cold January for him, I thought.
He left my car and said he'd call me when I was ready to talk. About a minute passed, with me stuck frozen in my seat, before I jumped out and ran. Sprinted. I sprinted down the street to where his car was. I wanted to say everything, I wanted to cry, I wanted to yell at him, I wanted to hold him–one more time? I didn't know that would be the last time I'd see him.
He was gone.
I started my car. This song was the first to play, an old favorite, now forever attached to this moment.
And the time moves slow
When you're out on your own
And the time moves slow
This song held me. The streetlights blurred as I drove, my pent-up emotions finally coming to the surface. I drove past my home, about an hour out, until I was in a neighborhood I didn't recognize, in an unfamiliar city, filled with not a single soul that knew me or my heart or my pain.
I drove up and up, further up a hill past the last culdesac of the neighborhood, and situated into a spot where I could see the big city and make myself feel small, so small, but also so above it all.
At this time of my life, I had an unsettled soul, constantly yearning to be elsewhere, never feeling belonging to a certain place or city. New Y0rk or LA, Europe or Canada, where will I be, where should I stay--until with him, it felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be. But now he's gone, and I'm still here, with this song.
Running away is easy
It's the living that's hard
And loving you was easy
It was you leaving that scarred
After about an hour of tears and replaying the entire sordid last conversation in my mind's eye, this song carried me home. Into my bed, under the covers, for a few days, weeks, until quantifying the sadness felt useless, pointless. This song.
Looking back, car rides were the most together my family ever felt. We spent road trips across the country listening to my parents' favorite station, Jack FM. We didn't have CDs or AUX cords in the car (I'd occasionally drown everyone out with my Walkman), so the radio was where we came together to head nod, sing along, and hum.
Whenever this song would start to coo from the stereo, if someone had been talking, my father would hold a hand up, signaling us to lower our voices. My little sister would yell, "Play it loud! Louder, Dad!" If my mother had started arguing with him, or my siblings and I started bickering, it all ceased for a moment whenever this song came on. And, yes, this one came on many, many times throughout the years, as radio stations so love to recycle the same songs (to our often dismay, except for with this song).
When I hear the intro of Hotel California now, I am transported to the backseat of the family sedan, my sister and baby brother nestled beside me, mom and dad in the front–before any of the anger or hurt would transpire over the next few years, and the inevitable process of growing up and growing apart. Now, the glue that held us together had melted. But, at the time, the space in that car felt impenetrable, safe, so sound. Warm.
Cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas
Rising up through the air
One particular summer, when I was 15, my parents didn't know what to do with me. I was a kid that needed constant stimulation–I was in summer intensive ballet academies, month-long outdoor camps, art classes, book clubs, and Girl Scouts–until this summer, I was not in any of it. I had hit a plateau where nothing interested me, nothing spoke to me, and the cold hand of nihilism was starting to sink its claws into me.
My parents sent me away to Karl and Pat in the middle of the desert on the outskirts of Vegas, where nothing but rows and rows of soulless cookie-cutter new build houses sat situated below the Red Rocks, where the occasional shopping plaza with chain restaurants shops and discount stores and movie theaters were for entertainment.
Their house looked like one of many, but the inside was anything but ordinary. Bookcases filled the walls, and porcelain goods and tchotchkes from Poland, Germany, Spain, and Japan--all places they lived and loved and grew until they settled here. When I arrived, Etta James records sang from my grandmother's vintage stereo, while the scent of Mexican chocolate brewed on the stove.
I had never spent very much time with my grandpa Karl, a hostile war veteran from Kansas City with a History Ph.D. who could talk for an hour uninterrupted about war balloons if you expressed even a modicum of interest in the subject (along with shoving published articles at you that he had written on the subject). He didn't know how to connect with me, and I understood this and accepted it from a young age. I was grandma's girl.
One evening, they were watching American Graffiti in the living room, and I joined them, putting my phone away when I realized my interest was piqued. I stayed and sat with them until the early morning, watching my grandmother's favorite Marilyn Monroe films and my grandpa's favorite crime dramas.
I continued to spend that summer watching their favorite movies (which are now, in turn, some of my favorites), reading and studying the scripts, and writing reviews and analytical essays for my grandpa on what I liked, disliked, appreciated, and understood. I also started accompanying my grandpa to his creative writing group, which met once a week. I witnessed frustrated and struggling writers go at each other with critiques and criticisms I wouldn't dare put myself up to. I found my grandfather brave for stepping into that arena.
And I realized I would want to be in that world someday. My interest in life had returned, my latent nihilism had dissipated, and my heart and mind were swollen with curiosity.
My little world of movies, Etta, writing, and my grandparents eventually had to come to a close. My grandmother is a night owl, and against my parent's wishes, she started the journey to drive me home around 7 PM one Friday evening at the end of summer. Down the long, stretched highway back to California we went, past the occasional Alien Jerky signs and ghost towns, straight on through the desolate desert.
One particular scene plays in my mind as I remember that summer–this song, Etta crooning from the stereo, light and soothing:
The skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
The sun had just begun to sneak behind the mountains at the end of this expansive stretch of flat earth that is the Mojave desert–a warm glow of orange and purple coloring the inside of the car and our faces. I looked over at my grandmother, with painted red lips and dainty gold and pearl earrings, her beautiful vitiligo skin hidden behind her oversized circular sunglasses, a light hum emanating from her throat as she tapped her red manicured fingers to the rhythm of the song she loved.
Towards the dying sun we drove, Etta's poetry filling the space, back home, back home…