6 February 2013 § Leave a comment
On forgiving days I remember musical instruments stacked near the front door waiting to be thrown away, and thinking I know he hates me but will he teach me how to drum, or how to pluck the bass strings wide as my pinky. Music beat me from the inside, pounded at my ribcage wanting out. It wasn’t so different from him, really, but I couldn’t see the bruises on my insides.
The man who lived with us acted in more than one way like an overgrown baby. He wore diapers and had a beard and played Doom on Windows 3.1. He liked guns and spanked me with a faded red ping pong paddle when I didn’t do what he said. On Saturday mornings, while my mom slept after her night shift, he made hot dogs with my little brother, and told stories about his motorcycling days. Travel stories leaden with broken headlights at night and semi-truck collisions and friends’ midnight roadside funerals.
I wasn’t allowed to get dressed until dusk because the bleach and ammonia he charged me with which to clean the floors might ruin them – and I didn’t want, he said, to make them as dirty as I was. So I sat on the floor with my ammonia rags, and wiped the same cookie-sheet-sized spot for hours. “That’s okay,” he said when my four-year-old brother pointed out that I wasn’t moving very much, “he’ll clean another spot tomorrow.”
In between my bleaching shifts – that is to say, in the ten minutes before bedtime – I trekked to the living room, and stared at the dormant instruments in the dining room. Because I was “dirty,” I wasn’t allowed in the dining room. Ever.
I didn’t care about his rules, but I did care about night time, when my mom was gone. I cared about the black leather belt he tied around my feet before pulled my pants off. He lifted me up by it with his big biker arm and made me yell out loud the Smacks up to ten, twenty six, or fifty one.
Sometimes I skipped numbers. I wanted to confuse him. I wanted to kick him in the face. I wanted to shoot him with the gun with which he shot his dog Buck right in front of me. He had asked if I wanted to dig the grave. My rebellion earned me darker bruises, higher numbers. My third grade teacher Mrs. Sap sometimes asked why I insisted on standing up during class. I told her that I just wanted to stretch my legs.
One time, when I thought he was sleeping, I walked into the dining room. A blue and gray audio mixer rested on the dinner table. I’d formed the faders into a tidal wave. Cables sprawled from it and went everywhere, like Medusa’s serpentine dreadlocks. Microphones attached to black stands whose arms stretched farther than mine reached out to inquire about what I had to say. No one had asked me for my voice before. The curious mics waited for me to speak. I put my lips to one, barely able to stand for the shaking in my knees. I whispered to see if it would reply. It didn’t. I tapped on it. “Is this thing on?”
And guitars. So many guitars. Hanging from the walls, leaned against each other, strings still. Waiting to be moved. Under the table, bolted into a giant black box were horizontal boxes that featured lights and numbers and knobs. Pretty lights and words I didn’t understand. Compressor. Noise Gate. Reverb. Unity. Phantom Power.
Bill Major’s baritone mumbles rumbled like an earthquake through the cardboard french doors of my mom’s master bedroom. The sound of his footsteps rattled the metal wires that gave the snare drum its snap. The snap that sounded like ping pong paddles and the screams of my nerves as the dwarves from my brain ran with fear and messages of danger down their escalators, my limbs, to my feet.
He must have noticed the tidal wave that I’d created. As my mom set our plates in front of us for dinner, he offered with a smile to teach me about the mixer. “Can I play bass too?” I asked, excitement seething. “Absolutely,” he said.
That night, I blacked out from the pain, and the scent of ammonia in my cleaning bucket burned my throat. I wished to God to never think about music again.
At my intake interview for Charter Psychiatric Hospital a few days later, I refused the chair. The interviewer offered me a stuffed panda bear if I would sit. My mom normally insisted obedience from me, but that time she didn’t push the subject. The therapist took notes.
A year later, my foster brother Brian first put on his new copy of Jar of Flies. I was nine. His CD player sat on top of the dresser we shared; he had the top four drawers, mine the bottom three. We shared a room because my foster (his adopted) parents couldn’t fit all their compassion under one roof and provide it privacy.
When he dropped to do his bedtime pushups, the little boombox rumbled bass through our neatly-folded clothes at night. I sat on my desk doing the homework I’d told the Powers That Were I finished hours ago.
By day, Brian taught karate and opened doors for girls. Every morning he made his bed militarytight and bounced a quarter off mine at my request. He sat at a desk to write and listened to Pearl Jam and Green Day. 19 and just learning to drive stick. Sometimes he let me shift. Feel the car, he’d tell me, you’re one with it. Undoubtedly something he’d heard that day from Don, our adopted/foster dad. Not that I cared.
When I wrote, I pushed the pencil into the paper so hard it crumbled onto the page. The graphite spear tore into the paper, my anger its momentum. At school I sharpened pencils as an excuse to not write. When I’d overused the sharpener, and Mrs. Mirabel handed me a pen instead, I inked pages like the tattoos I wanted on my skin. My nerve dwarves via their fast elevators brought rage and sadness and fear through me to my fingertips, and the pen translated them into my silent voice.
Alice in Chains faded into my consciousness about the time I’d stabbed enough holes in my homework that I had to start over. Brian did his pushups. I couldn’t move from the bed. I’d never heard a man cry like that stereo did. Harmonicas and violins and pain. I didn’t understand the words, but I felt their edges. On the cover of the EP, a boy’s eyes stared at me through a jar of flies. I thought it was a mirror, and I saw myself for the first time in a glow of orange and pink and dying insects. Now, in my late twenties, when I walk into record shops, I look for Jar of Flies to feel that sense of peace again.
In the way that teenagers swear that songs were written just for them, then transform radio hits into anthems of adolescent suffering, I listened to Alice in Chains at nine, ten, eleven years old, oblivious to their myriad references to heroin, and pounded my fists on my knees and stomach and chest to the rhythm of I stay away, no excuses, don’t follow, bleed the freak and grind your angry chair down in a hole. I tried to tell my music inside that I heard it, and how could I get it out? And if I could, would I?
The stacks of instruments lay comatose near the door for years. Some were given away, or sold. Music sounded to me a beautiful and foreign language spoken by people I would never love. When I tried to speak it, my mother ordered me to turn the volume down. Lower the noise. Lower your voice. You have no voice. I drew triangles from the circle of fifths, and turned sixteenth notes on their puny heads. I tapped my foot from 4/4 time into Idon’tgivea/fuck, and practiced scales until my calluses turned my fingertips into stoic statues incapable of feeling. When I finally failed at playing with others, I went to school to learn how to engineer audio. To manipulate it to my desires. I wanted to know how to listen to others, and which way to turn the knobs to mimic the music pounding inside their chests.
From music I learned that musicians were different from people who played instruments. From music I learned that I could not play the music of my dead best friend. I could write the discombobulated history of my family with one masochistic scratch of my pen across my wrist, but I could not erase the scars.
Instead I followed the outlines of my leftover bruises until they reached the sea. Voiceless and broken open, I stepped aboard a vessel in Alaska, started nourishing myself properly, and only when I’ve lost my direction do I look backward.
Music teases me. I play with the idea of working my way inside her again. We live in each others penumbras, know the other like old lovers, and keep our eyes keen for when the sunmelody sings new curves upon us, ears open and still ringing, for the last time will never be like the next, no matter how I misplace my memories. And as soon as I remind myself that I’ve moved on, that I’ve found new loves that meet me better, she’s there to reject me out of hand, like it was her idea all along.
It’s a game, and I swing on this idea that the rules are ever-changing, like the tide and guitar strings and the flies in my jar, who die and come alive and die again, as I wish to remember them.