Listen

By Wendy C. Ortiz


The three of us, my mother, father and I, are on the living room couch. I'm standing between their bodies. I feel warm, lulled by the music playing from the speakers housed in the massive stereo-television console.

Oh, babe? What would you say? The voice calls through the speakers.

The rest of the words blend together, but I hear piano and horns and a voice that sounds neither male nor female.

My parents keep playing the same forty-five over and over. With a loud click, the small record drops, the needle falls from its clasp and plunges to the whirling vinyl. I love this song, because I know it's about how my parents feel, and I hear the words "lollipop" and "milky way" somewhere in the mist of lyrics floating by on the melody that sounds, also, sad.

On the yellowish-green satiny couch, with its loosening buttons and cushions that give way too easily, my head is at my parents' eye level, but I feel like I'm not really there. I'm standing between something that is large, beautiful and unspoken that doesn't involve me, that happens in the space between their faces, excluding me.

The song plays again.

Finally, when the record snaps into place and the needle touches it another time, I slip into an easy sleep, leaning against the shoulders of both of them. The music dissolves into a pink memory that floats like the sheep that jump softly over fences in order for sleep to come.

~

There's another song my father loves, but never sings. He plays it over and over on the eight-track player.

My father takes me to baseball games at Dodger Stadium. We have season tickets. The song he likes says it's all in the game and is slow, melancholy. The man on the eight-track croons something mysterious about winged fingertips and ends with the words, like a warning: and your hearts will fly away. Those are the only words I can make out in the song, and I never ask my father what it means. I think it's about a ball game, or maybe the man's girlfriend has died, and it's a song about her.

My father doesn't like a lot of questions. He juts his chin down into his chest and looks at me with his dark eyes, so that I know he's either done answering my string of questions, or he's pulling my leg. He calls me grenuda, and when I ask him what it means, he says "little girl with messed-up hair." It's true that I hate to brush my hair, or let anyone brush it, because they are never gentle enough.

Mostly, though, he calls me "little girl," and he's the only one who calls me by my first and middle names. I like hearing him say both names, because they seem like such a normal, common name, and it's me. In first grade, I am already feeling strange and uncommon on the private school campus I get dropped off at every morning. There are so many things, like the words to my dad's favorite songs, I don't understand.

~

Sometimes his eyes look overly wet, but there are never any tears. My father is strong and never misses a day of work, not even the days after a bottle of whiskey and a six pack of beer.

But I never really count the beers. I only notice the presence of the near empty bottle, amber liquid sloshing, perched on the uneven grade of our olive-green carpet.

I find my happiness lies

Right under my eyes

Right in my own backyard—

My father sings this refrain over and over. He sings it when I ask him why he's home late from work; he sings it when I've barreled into his arms so he can pick me up, high over my mom's head as she worries aloud that I'm getting too old to be picked up. My father sings this refrain standing on the cement in the backyard, patiently moving the garden hose from tree to tree, the fruit trees I believe he really comes home for—the trees, and his bulldog.

I never learn what the song is called, if it's a real song or something my father dreamed up. I never learn the actual tune. Our house remains, though, carried aloft by music much of the time, music that plants strange seeds in my memories, songs that I sometimes have no desire to hear again.

~

My mother and I watch Sonny and Cher on television. We watch it in the room we call the TV room, only my mother has taken to sleeping in there every night. She unfolds the hide-a-bed and says it's because of my father's snoring. We can hear him snoring even when the door is closed. Sometimes she says she sleeps in the TV room because she has to wake up so early to go to work and doesn't want to disturb him.

She doesn't seem to care about disturbing my sleep. There are closets all over the house, but all her clothes hang in my bedroom closet. Five in the morning, she comes into my room and I learn to cover my face with a pillow to ward off the light and the whispering noises of her hands taking clothes off hangers. She is gone by six, on the Hollywood Freeway, on her way to work. I sleep soundly until my father wakes me with his incessant whistling in the kitchen and my daily breakfast of Lipton chicken noodle soup from a packet.

Besides Sonny & Cher, we also watch Donny & Marie, and another song and dance variety show that features a blonde woman that my father says he's in love with.

Is that all there is

Is that all there is

If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing,

Let's break out the booze and have a ball.

If that's all there is—

My father loves a woman who sings on television and this makes me angry. I leave the room, not wanting to watch this show anymore.

I am five, maybe six. I have already told my mother that when I grow up, I am going to marry my daddy. She is holding my hand when I tell her. She laughs. She says that I can't, that she's married to him already, and little girls can't, don't marry their daddies.

I think of his black hair, his tattooed, muscled arms, how he boxes a punching bag in the garage, never skipping a beat. He can grow fruit trees and palm trees and banana leaf trees, and he never misses work, which my grandmother says is a very good thing.

I drop my mother's hand.

~

Later, my mother spends her time in the living room, my father in the TV room. When Dance Fever is on, my mother and I sit on the edge of our seats and watch the competing couples dance to disco and pop music. The women's skirts twirl, showing their underwear; the men's pants are tight and their shirts look hastily put on, unbuttoned down to their flat, hard stomachs.

Sometimes my mother and I dance in the living room, careful not to hit the edges of the low glass coffee table. Our bare feet make stomping sounds that rouse my father into the hallway, where he watches us, rolling his eyes. We don't care. Our foreheads break out in sweat but we are smiling, and I see my mother the way she once saw herself, and maybe still does. And later, when I hear Dancing Queen by Abba, I think of my mother and her first husband, how they danced away their young adulthood in East Los Angeles. Even my grandmother brags about my mother's dancing past, her affinity with a good beat and a dance floor.

~

When the stereo-television console breaks down, the stacks of forty-fives find a home in the new stereo cabinet. I like the little clicking noise you have to listen for, the plastic yellow piece fitting into the record hole before you place it onto the turntable no longer meant for forty-fives.

The stack of miniature records are puzzling to me. They contain names of people I imagine are dead, or very old. Some make their mark on my family's lives. I learn to sing "Blue Bayou" when I'm six, and can be easily talked into singing with an electronic microphone at my aunt's house in Wilmington.

Aunt Josefina's is also the place where I hear other strange music; when it begins to play, and cousins begin to clear the wood floors, my mother is up, preparing to be the focus of attention. Someone—an uncle? a cousin? never my father—stands opposite her, and once the lilting trumpets and violins and guitars sing out of the speakers, everyone presses into the outskirts of the room to watch. They dance a precise, choreographed dance that makes perfect use of my mother's high heels and the wood floor. Mariachi music, I learn. The music fills our own house after the squat glass bottle has been emptied and my father retires to the patio or backyard, this music in a language I can't speak, but my parents understand.

~

I learn the lyrics to the Broadway musical Annie when I'm eight or nine. My father has bought the album, and I am left wondering how he even heard it in the first place, since we don't go to shows of any sort. I sing the songs in the patio with the sliding glass door closed, and when I'm feeling especially bold, I leave the glass door open and sing loud enough for my mother to hear me. I sing the songs of dramatized orphans and let the words collect in my head as if they are mine and I am merely speaking what I know well.

One day, my mother listens to me from the couch. I know she's listening: her book is face down next to her, and the television is off. She gets up, and I think she's going to close the sliding glass door so I can't be heard.

Instead, she steps into the patio and says, "That's good, mija. Maybe you should take lessons. You have a good voice."

I turn red with her recognition and my own bravado. I knew she would notice at some point. I want to make her promise me lessons, but all I can do is keep singing.

~

At age ten, I begin buying my own forty-fives and thirty-three rpm LPs. When my father brings home a forty-five of the band Blondie, I play it over and over, wondering at my father's taste, his flirtation with pop music. Blondie? He buys "Delirious," a catchy pop song by the (then) little-known Prince, whom my mother and I watch on the newly burgeoning music video shows.

"Disgusting," my father says when he finally catches a glimpse of Prince.

My mother and I share something: we are in love with this man who sings about when doves cry, this man my grandmother calls "the grasshopper in heels."

But 45s are becoming a dying breed in our house. At eleven and twelve, I invest in a few more: David Bowie, Human League, Fine Young Cannibals, other British pop artists my parents wrinkle their noses at—that is, until my mother starts going through the "change." Her musical tastes suddenly reflect my own, and I am never sure why. Suddenly, my collection is welcomed, played loud, and played all weekend which is reason enough for me to drastically change what I listen to. The miniature records get replaced with tapes and later compact discs. I am starting to resent my mother and want everything to divide us, right down to the music line, a divide we had never reached before.

~

My father's son from a previous marriage, who is a good sixteen years older than me, gets married the year I'm twelve. It's a Catholic wedding, which I have never witnessed, and there are hundreds of people. The wedding is held in the town my half-brother grew up in, in the San Joaquin Valley where my father also grew up.

I am made to wear a dress and pantyhose and nice white shoes. I wonder if I am going to get to taste some wine at the reception. I feel as though I am wilting through the ceremony, it's so long, and I watch my half-brother and his new wife kneel on the altar, wondering if this will ever happen to me.

When we leave the church, cries, shouts, and laughter permeate the air. I feel moved along in a wave of people, some of whom I recognize as my family, others I think of as my brother's family—his mother, my half-sisters, his friends. On the sidewalk outside the church, I am startled by the vibrant sounds, melodic, sharp. There are men in black suits and crisp white shirts, sporting sombreros and playing real live instruments. My father's hand is on my shoulder, pushing me towards these men, and we are surrounded by people, listening to this music which sounds amplified but is not. The trumpets blaze in the sun, the guitar is played boldly and the singing sounds sorrowful and exalting and beautiful all at once.

I don't understand why tears jump to my eyes, how I can understand what this music is saying when it's not in a language I think of as my own, so I smile through the tears so everyone will think it's the wedding and not the music that makes me feel sad and deep like a bottomless ocean.

~

Dancing at Studio K, the teen dance "club" at Knotts Berry Farm. The Cure, "Close to Me" reverberates in the dark warehouse-like room, and I'm aware that my make-up, the make-up I have so carefully applied several times this day already, is running down my face.

There is so much that must go unspoken, because there aren't words for it yet—I can only sing along to this song with its heavy panting background and catchy clap-clap beat and think of strings of things that make no sense and then perfect sense: Marc Hendricks, my classmate since the second grade who will never love me; kissing with my eyes closed for the first time; the nights when my hand rubs against my underwear in a frenzy that brings me to a place without a name, just bliss and panting—like this song. I want someone to find me attractive, take me away from my friends, give me all of their attention because my dancing is so irresistible. I want someone in make-up and hairsprayed hair to take my hand and lead me out of this dance, into a dark place where my skin feels hot and no longer aches to be touched.

But it's not meant to be yet—at thirteen, I must be patient with my body, which is getting closer to the place that will frighten my parents, make my father threaten me with curfews and shotguns to potential suitors. I am suddenly warned nightly to make sure to close my bedroom blinds, take off my bronze eyeshadow, wear a sweater over that shirt, for crissakes. And I can no longer run into my father's arms; not only am I nearing his height, but his affections are suddenly dry and almost non-existent. I wonder if it's because he knows I secretly lust after Duran Duran, or he's overheard me talking about boys on the phone, or if it's because somehow my parents know what I'm doing in my room with my door closed.

I'm not yet a woman—I don't feel like one—and I've lost, I think, my father's love.

~

Two bulldogs have come and gone by the time I'm thirteen. My father's trees aren't getting watered every day. I have to remember to grab handfuls of pellets to throw to our pond of koi fish. Sometimes their orange bodies float to the surface of the murky pond, bloated with neglect.

I peek out the blinds of my bedroom window one afternoon. I'm bitter that I have to stay at home, imagining my friends hanging out at each other's houses, listening to their new compact discs, and watching videos on MTV.

My father's at home, busy in the backyard. From my window, I can see the front lawn and the brick wall that secures the backyard. I open my bedroom door and venture on tiptoe into my father's room. I think about what it will be like if he moves out. Maybe I can have his room that's twice as big as the one I've had since I slept in a crib.

I peek through the blinds in his dark bedroom and spot him on his hands and knees on the backyard cement.

He is wielding a brush, and there's a small can of paint next to him.

I open my eyes wider, fingers on the dusty blinds, trying to take in just what he is doing out there.

He stands up to survey his work, takes a long swig of beer.

I'm straining, flexing my toes to stretch myself longer, as I stand on his bed peering out.

I can't see what he is painting exactly, but it looks like words, right onto the stippled cement that was once painted, like a fresco, in muted blues and greens that fade into gray as the cement slopes down toward the fish pond.

I come down off the bed and tiptoe back to my room.

Sitting on my bed, I wonder when he'll be finished, when I can see what he was composing. What it will mean. What my mother will say. How permanent it feels, to paint on cement, even as everything else is feeling quickly, freakishly, impermanent, out of my grasp.

~

It's clear that my parents will be divorcing soon. My father stays away for days sometimes, now that I can take the bus to school on my own. A part of me hates his absence, and another part, a larger part, feels a guilty sense of relief, this sense that I am now free to be a teenager, allowed to lust after boys in the open, lust for girls in private, yell back at my mother, curse her when she is too drunk to remember appointments or the day of the week.

When he is still living with us, but we no longer think to expect him home, my father might burst through the front door in song.

Daddy's home, he'll sing, daddy's home to stay.

My mother angers quickly when I rush to hug him; she calls him St. Bob and says that I forgive him of everything too soon.

The third or fourth time I hear the refrain in the foyer, his low voice calling Daddy's home, I feel old enough to roll my eyes and say Yes, we heard, thank you. Which is always met with a bitter laugh from one or both of my parents—and then their fighting resumes.

~

I turn fourteen, and my father's fifty-sixth birthday is right around the corner. I ask him what he would like for this occasion.

"Find the record with Mama Cass singing 'Dream A Little Dream of Me'," he answers.

I'm fanatical about record stores, sometimes riding buses from my corner of the Valley into Pasadena to quench my thirst for rare albums. I start to collect the decorative plastic bags from each store. The bags hang on my bedroom door, maps of where I've been.

I find the album easily enough: it's a song on a "best of" album. I've heard of the Mamas and the Papas, but wait until my father unwraps the record before I swoop down and claim the record as my own after he has listened to the song a few times.

I am never sure where my father heard this song, or why it means so much to him.

I learn the words to the song, applying them to my own secret situation, the one in which I am in love with someone unattainable, and can only hope that he does, indeed, dream of me. I imagine running away with this man who is not old enough to be my father, but old enough—this man who tells me that I must continue writing, and that I must never write anything down about us. He was born at a time when the song was playing on the radio and he knows what I mean when I tell him that I love Mama Cass and her haunting voice. He understands so much more about me than my father does, and it is him that I dedicate the lyrics I listen to, sing silently, waiting for the phone to ring, his voice on the other end.

When I begin to write on the wall next to my bed, in tiny block letters, poetry I have composed and lyrics I have heard, my parents don't say a word. When my father leaves for good, the divorce finalized, my walls become a canvas of multicolored marker writings, written mostly in my hand, sometimes by the hands of friends.

My own poetry appears next to my bed, where only I can see it. The poetry gets surrounded by songwords, and then friends arrive, bringing different songwords, sayings, and then when I am fourteen, fifteen, posters get taped to the walls, so that lyrics can flower around their edges, and then sometimes I drunkenly write the jingles of television commercials that I find hysterically funny in my inebriated mind.

It's real, I know it's real,

No other reason for the way I feel,

oh yeah, it's as real as it gets.

Then there are the closet writings. My mother has removed much of her clothing from my closet. She has to—I am pushing my way in, crowding the space with my bell-bottoms, loud jackets, quilty sweaters, fringe moccasins and platform shoes. I stand with the doors wide open for light and write in red marker an erotic poem I have read somewhere. In blue marker, I write songwords that are bittersweet and get caught in my throat.

My mother cannot do anything about the writing on the walls; she merely shakes her head and reminds me that one day when I leave home, I will need to paint the entire room, and it won't be easy. I have never painted anything in my life but I am writing multitudes on the walls.

~

When I go outside to look at the backyard cement, I feel like I'm looking at something secret made public.

I find that my father has painted, in large block-letters, the refrain of a song that feels vaguely familiar to me, a song I have heard on the radio for years but never quite paid attention to, the singer someone I cannot place.

Now, years later, the words completely escape me.

I want to believe it's one song, but I wonder at my memory and question it mercilessly. Song lyrics are sticky in my head, and each year, more find their way into my memory, so that I'm singing them in the cars I will later drive, in the clubs I will dance in, in the apartments and houses I will inhabit.

My mother lives alone in the house we all once shared. The backyard, overgrown with the occasional tumbleweed passing through, looks like the desert that was underneath the lawn all those years. The fruit trees are long dead, plants pulled out, pine needles carpeting the cement bottom of the former koi pond.

The words on the cement have worn away.

Erased by strong rains, the grit of Santa Ana winds, the relentless sun.

I realize I will never be able to retrieve those words.

The words I painted over in my old bedroom. The words on cement in a corner of the San Fernando Valley. Disappeared. Gone.

Much can happen in fifteen, twenty years, to words on cement.

Much can happen, too, to memory.


Wendy C. Ortiz is a marriage and family therapist intern in Los Angeles. Most recent publications include The New York Times' Modern Love column, Specter: A Brooklyn-based Art Journal, and PANK. Wendy co-founded and curates the Rhapsodomancy Reading Series (www.rhapsodomancy.org).

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