Mixed Tape - Music Notes Part III
If I am quiet enough they will let me hang out here for hours. The downstairs of the Addition is the new Boys' Room. It's like a dormitory and has five beds and a few low walls separating the sleeping areas by age group. The walls, ceilings, floors, and built-in storage are all cut from the same splintery wood and blocky style Dad used for the rest of the Addition. He likes things to feel like camping, even on the inside. Mom wants strangers to think it is a barn from the outside, to go with the mock-settler style of the rest of the property. 'Rough-hewn' she calls the surfaces. Although sparse on curves or soft surfaces, the Addition gives my parents a bedroom that is not also the TV room and gives the Boys a chance to get out of the damp cellar in the old part of the house. The stairs down are at the end of the corridor, just next to the thick door with a noisy wrought iron hasp that enclosed my parents' new space. That section housed their bedroom, Mom's vanity, a bathroom, Dad's office, and the staircase up to a loft. We call it the Chambers, mostly because the door is so formidable and you have to get permission to come in. At the bottom of the stairs that lead to the Boys' room, there is a narrow space where I like to sit on the single bed that will be where my oldest brother Ralph sleeps when he visits from college. The space is new but already has a well-worn name, the Rec Room. During the construction, Dad and the Boys talked a lot about the Rec Room and how it would be the best feature of the new Boys' room. Rec stands for recreation which stands for time to relax. No chores or homework. For the Boys this means time for music. Ralph's turntable is there. Stacks of albums lean between the wall and the square plexiglass cover that keeps the dust off the needle. I have no say in the selection and can't touch the speakers because of some things called woofers. I can shut up, get cookies and milk for them, and listen.
The music is so loud no one can talk and this is heaven.
It is 1979 and I am swallowed up with my brothers in rock and roll. I sit on the edge of the extra bed and study album covers while the Boys draw, or wander in and out, or stare at the ceiling taking in the sound. They have peeled off their tube socks after work or practice and the grungy cotton wilts in whatever spot they are left in. The sock smell and the wood smell combine and I feel special to be overlooked and not kicked out. I have studied all the album covers closely, and have a few favorites like Led Zepellin - the one with the ruined house with the peeling wallpaper and a photo of an old man bent over with a bundle of sticks tied to his back. There's The Who's Tommy, where the men in the band are reaching out from the darkness behind a warped fence of blue sky with clouds and doves on its surface. The one I reach for the most is Queen's News of the World. I hold the illustration close to my face. A painted green background surrounds the giant metallic robot that has killed the band by mistake. I know it is a mistake because of the look in its eyes. It is the same look of Frankenstein when he sits with the little girl to toss daisies into the pond. She is so soft and kind to him he drowns her by mistake because he doesn't know the difference between a girl and a flower. He whimpers and you can tell by his eyes that he is confused and sorry, but the villagers can't tolerate a mute monster going after their little girls so he is chased out with torches.
On the News of the World album cover, the band members don't stand a chance because the robot is mammoth and his fingertips are as big as their heads. The glamorous rockers are limp in his palm and falling into nothingness in their little boots and frilly shirts. Where my eyes get stuck is on the bright red droplet of blood suspended from his square metal fingertip. It is so real I pass my small fingertip over it to double-check that it is flat. I know this blood. It is the same drop I have stared up at from my pillow in my grandmother's guest bedroom. It is the same glossy blood spilling from the fresh porcelain wound in Jesus' side, always just about to land on my forehead. This crucifix lurches away from the wall watching over me in case I might try to fall asleep to his suffering. On the album art, the source of the blood on the metal fingertip is a messy pool on Freddie Mercury's belly. With the sharply filed edges on his automaton hands, a gentle poke at this soft being was all it took to gut him lifeless. The News of the World album is filled with booming anthems I bob my head to. They were made for everyone to stomp their feet and sing along. The album art and the title, however, conspire to take away that exalted sense of possibility. As in the final repetition of the song, it goes 'We are the champions ...' (pause) ... then Freddy quivers in a receding voice, '... of the world ...', and it trails off like the bodies falling from the scooping grip of this other-worldly innocent monster. Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do, I think.
The News of the World reports to me that the world of music in the Rec Room, this stadium where we gather, is an illusion, and outside of it we are lost in green space.
I stand up from this writing to adjust the fan. A hot flash has just encroached my throat. I'm on fire, momentarily. It will pass, I think, and leave the studio to go to the bathroom. It is there where I become swarmed by a bout of nausea, vertigo, and a brain buzz I haven't felt in months. I have to hold onto the bowl of the sink to ground myself against the cool porcelain. It is the mental malaise that sets in when I write, particularly when I time travel back to my childhood - or, as it turns out in this case, my early adolescence. Before writing the first paragraphs of this entry, I questioned whose turntable it was and if it was the same as the one from the living room closet that my parents used for entertaining when I was smaller. I couldn't reconcile why my eldest brother wouldn't have taken the records with him to college. I texted Ralph, who is nine years my senior. The vinyl was mostly his after all. He would know the details. I typed, 'Was the Rex room completed the same year you left for Umass? Did you take your turntable or get a new one and leave yours behind for us kids?' With the six-hour time difference from my home to his, I hoped to catch him early in the morning and get a confirmation of my hunch by the time I finished writing for the day.
His message came sooner than expected. "What is the Rex room?" he writes. I realize my middle age myopia, a scarred index fingertip and autocorrect have conspired against me again. "Where we kept the dinosaur?" I quip in response, hoping he smiles in my direction. He confirms that the Addition was complete before he left but that he had kept his room in the main cellar. He continued that he didn't buy his first stereo until the summer of 1981 and that he returned to live home for a year in 1982. That was when he installed the turntable in the Rec Room.
I was twelve years old, not nine. How could I be three whole years off the mark? How could a twelve-year-old feel so small?
I feel confused, out of sync with my own memory. It's true that I did remember the album sleeves being faded and weathered at the corners, with the exception of the newer arrivals like The Sex Pistols, Joe Jackson, The Police, U2, and the B-52s. Age twelve means I was in junior high already. It is also the same year my sister left for college and my end of the house became vacant, except for me. Perhaps that's why I liked to wander downstairs to be with the Boys. It does explain why I had a stereo to play my own albums on after she left. The HiFi that had been discreetly shelved in the living room closet became hers and then was bequeathed to me on her departure. At first, I had very few albums to play. I would memorize the lyrics of the soundtrack to Grease while staring at the yellow urine stain our cat had deposited right on John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John's faces. Then one Christmas not long after, Ralph gave me David Bowie's Let's Dance, Cyndi Lauper's She's so Unusual and Madonna's, Like A Virgin. I swooned at the luxury of having my own records and ignored the raised eyebrows and frowns of Dad and my sister when I tore the paper off to reveal Like a Virgin. They joined the people on the news who criticized the music video and scorned the young woman who was not really getting married but instead was rolling around in the undergarments and corsetry of a traditional catholic bride and singing about how good the sex was. I could not get enough of the album cover and the insert with full-color photos from the same shoot.
I looked forward to being alone with her in my room.
She is rough and soft. The fingertips of her lace gloves are snipped, the edges of her mesh bodice loose and seamless. The silky bedsheets are tousled and look like liquid. Her hair is also tousled but stiff in places with three-day-old hairspray and long overgrown roots. Her face is impeccable. She is cropped in close and looking directly at me. Her heart-shaped mouth protrudes with the tiniest peak under the pout of the lower lip. Her eyes are smoky and loaded with black makeup, but so full there is plenty of room for a sweep of pale blue powder on a half-moon lid and brow bone. Her fringed eyebrows are brushed upward and outward towards her temples, in the same direction as her Egyptian kohl liner. I look in the mirror at my brows. There is no way I can replicate this look with my not-brown not-red run-of-the-mill brows. I don't really see cheekbones on my face and my jawline does not cut an obtuse angle like hers. I wish I was Italian, or at least that I could have brow bones like canvases for painting. I scan the accessories she has stacked on. I can do rhinestone brooches and necklaces - those can be picked up at yard sales or the Salvation Army. The black rubber bracelets she wears in performances my best friend and I can get in the plumbing supply department until, and it doesn't take long, they start to supply them in the stores at the mall. When her movie Desperately Seeking Susan is released in 1985, I get a lot more aesthetic material to work with, to try to imitate, but only in the privacy of my bedroom or at my best friend's beach house where I didn't know anyone. I was thrilled when I found a faded blue suitcase the same model as the one Madonna lives out of in the movie. Hers is black with white skeletons painted on it. I do my best late at night with a black Sharpie marker to replicate the look. I'm sort of happy with the result but hide it in my closet.
I never went anywhere with the madonnawannabe suitcase. I couldn't bear my eccentricity. It never left my room.
In 1988, when it was finally my turn to pack my bags and move to New York City to go to art school, it wasn't with the spunky reckless abandon of Madonna's character. Mom helped me fill plastic bins with a conglomeration of hand-me-downs from every member of the family for my first apartment. These and an oversized suitcase of hers and Dad's from their first big vacation were cinched into the back of our van, held in place for the long ride by my grandmother's multi-colored afghan. I did not take the city by the balls nor dry my armpits in the subway station bathroom as I poked through my stylized retro suitcase. No. I was afraid and homesick from day one.
On my way out of the apartment to go to drawing class one morning early in the term, a package came. It was a small box from Ralph. I opened it in the drawing room before the teacher arrived. I felt like the luckiest girl alive, and opened it slowly so my roommates, who were also my classmates, could take it in as well. This was way cooler than their laundry and food-shopping hauls, delivered in person by their parents, direct from Long Island. I slit the tape with my house key and opened the flaps of the box. I was greeted with a flash of an autumn color palette. With thumb and forefinger, I lifted up fallen leaves in varying shades of change and saw nestled within a few pears, walnuts, and a mixed tape.
Pears! He sent fresh pears and they are perfectly ripe, I emphasized to my onlookers.
On the tape were long white stickers where Ralph's writing was scrawled to title the A and B sides. I held the plastic case like a fragile music box and opened the transparent lid at the hinges. I removed the cassette tape to reveal the liner notes on which my brother numbered and listed the songs he had compiled just for me. It was eclectic and carefully sequenced. It featured You Sexy Thing by Hot Chocolate. There was Ministry and Morrisey, Ballroom Blitz and I Love a Man in Uniform. There were many songs I had never heard before and the mix soon became a soundtrack to a new coolness I could wallow in. My big brother remembered me here, separated from the homestead, and his gift of music reached in and elevated me up and out of the pool of pain. The savoring was an instant antidote to the homesickness I felt in my bones. I ate the pear and smelled the leaves as my classmates looked on.