are requesting cheerful pop songs about tank tops and boardwalks.
But I'm leaving Miles for good, so I turn the station to NPR.
A man with a self-assured resonance is talking
about his famous, institutionalized mother and reading from
his book of poetry. I have already put the dog in the car and
packed everything that stands for independence and solidarity:
my best red shoes, a soft pair of jeans, a picture of my mom
(at 24), a bag of jelly beans, Tupperware, my own pillow, my
flat-filtered coffeemaker, and the oil painting I made for Miles
in my "Art in Landscaping" class. I'm driving to Colorado.
The air will be cold until 10 a.m. The dog licks my hair.
There are plenty of songs about dumping your boyfriend.
There are more about your boyfriend dumping you. They all lament
the same thing: It didn't work out.
In the 8th grade I had a crush on a slouching
skateboarder who listened to radio-edited rap songs about tying
your girlfriend up in the trunk of a car and rolling her off
an embankment. He drew me pictures of people with round, protuberant
eyes and winked at me when he wasn't calling me a retard. Once
he sat by me on the bus.
like your shoes," he said. He fumbled with his backpack.
The straps kept slipping off his shoulders. He was getting sparse,
fuzzy facial hair.
When he started going out with a gum-popping ninth-grade
nymphet who wore black lipstick, I got my ears pierced twice
and only listened to brooding, throaty female vocalists who
played the piano and sang about going crazy.
A blithe announcer reports the weather on 99.5
FM. Hot today. Eighty-seven degrees. Scattered clouds. A maternal
voice advertises canned soup.
In high school, I dated a debate-team captain
who switched the station at every commercial break in order
to find the good songs. He liked industrial rock with low, indecipherable
vocals and lots of hollow, reverberating noises. He was always
trying to talk me into one thing or another.
On the weekends he would come over to my house
where we'd drink cheap beer and play rowdy card games. If I
were winning, he would narrow his eyes and make fun of the stuffed
animals on my bed. If he were winning, he would playfully pinch
my knee, my arm, my toes. Afterward, he would take off my pants
and push me up against the frame of the bed. My stuffed animals
would fall all over the floor. He would ask: "Why don't
you go on birth control?"
Once, when he was mad at me, he invited our best
friend, Mary, over to my house as a distraction. This way we
couldn't have a serious confrontation. The three of us sat on
the carpet and played cards and concocted sweet cocktails with
lots of alcohol. Mary could drink anyone under the table. When
this happened, she became slinky and raw, her stretched shirt
collar slipping off one narrow shoulder. She wanted to talk
about blowjobs. She smirked tentatively, which made her appear
both precocious and unfledged. Her hair smelled like artificial
don't you guys just make out or something?" said my station-surfing
boyfriend. He didn't have a hard time talking me into that one.
A listener asks a question about the validity
of New Age psychotherapies on SMAK101.1, Talk Radio. The announcer
makes dry jokes about acupuncture and past-life regression.
My sister prefers radio advice hotlines and the
weekly top 40 on Z-100. She once told me that I fall in love
too easily. We had been lying on her quilted bed, reading magazines
and eating salted peanuts under a dim lamp. She was reading
an article about the success rate of personal ads.
"It's dangerous," she said, "not
to mention totally empty. You should wait at least a month before
you decide you're in love." My sister is three years younger
than me, and she was already married and had a well-furnished
house, stainless-steel cookware and a hyperactive dog. This
conversation had been prompted by the fact that I had recently
become obsessed with the idea of Miles wanting to tie me to
a bedpost and feed me candy from a paper bag.
"He's actually very sensitive," I told
my sister. He'd send me cute cards with animals on them. He'd
make cookies that were soft in the middle. He'd take me to watch
pornography in sleazy theaters with gum stuck to the vinyl seats.
My sister shifted and turned her back to me. Her
magazine crinkled. I could feel her spine against my hipbone.
"Gross," she said.
John is singing that song about the L.A. girl in blue jeans
on a classic rock station. The station wavers and cracks; the
song sounds furry.
In college, I slept with a public communications
major who would often call in and request this Elton John song
while recording himself on air, so that he could hear the sound
of his own voice. He would play the tape back for me while we
smoked pot and he carelessly shaved my legs. He liked avocados.
One time, on the day before Christmas vacation,
I thoughtfully browsed the produce section of the grocery store,
touching and squeezing nearly every avocado for the perfect
three. Across the aisle, a teenaged couple in faded discount
apparel and huge black boots handled vegetables and made crude
jokes about cucumbers and banana squash. They touched each other's
hips and chins. I dug into my pocket for a "Save 60 Cents"
coupon. When I got to the communications major's apartment,
I sliced the fruit into thin green strips and placed them on
a ceramic dish with cheese, apples and crackers. I wrote a flowery
note signed with Xs and Os. He pressed a piece of cheese into
the plate with his thumb. He did not read the note.
"I only like avocados in the form of guacamole,"
he said. His cat darted around the kitchen, pushing an avocado
pit across the linoleum until it got lost under the oven. I
went home feeling dejected. I took a bath. I never told him
that I hated that song.
I stop at a 7-11 on Interstate 25 to buy beef
jerky and seltzer water, Cheerios for the dog. The radio is
filtering 50s love songs through the intercom system.
Miles always liked Dusty Springfield. So did his
father. Once we were sitting at the kitchen table over steaming
bowls of take-out Chinese. We kept poking the vegetables, blowing
steam off the fried pork and not making eye contact. There was
a television on in the apartment upstairs. We could hear an
argument, a car accident, a gloomy soundtrack.
Miles spoke, it sounded too loud.
"My dad knew every word to 'Son of a Preacher
Man,'" he said. "On Sundays we'd drive all the way
to Hood River in his Ford pickup with that song playing, the
windows rolled down, the heat on."
He paused to stick his tongue into a spoonful
of rice. It was still too hot.
I'd heard variations of this story before. One
time they drank a half case of beer on the way there. Another
time his dad ran over a possum. Sometimes it was a two-hour
drive. Other times it took all day. No matter what, they always
went for the Hood River cherries, because they were huge and
red and messy. "Not like the ones at Safeway," he
said. They'd buy two huge paper bags of them for a dollar a
sack at a produce stand, and I imagined them spitting the pits
out the window until they got home and both sacks were empty
and wrinkled, tossed under the dashboard.
I loved the way Miles looked when he said his
father was "a real cool guy." His face looked far
away, a half-smile curling the corners of his mouth. I wanted
to roll him up in a ball and put him on my lap. When he asked
me about my father, I couldn't tell him that he existed almost
entirely in my mind, an image contrived from other people's
fathers, fathers on TV, even his father.
There was an uproar of laughter in the apartment
upstairs. Miles speared a pair of boiled tomatoes with his fork.
you want these?" he asked. I reached my hand across the
table and plucked the tomatoes off his fork. He pressed his
lips together. His hair was all over the place like he needed
Later, as I cleared the dishes and scraped hard
little grains of rice and mashed vegetables into the trash,
I could hear Miles on the telephone in the other room. He was
having a seemingly intense, muffled conversation while typing
on the computer. I couldn't make out anything he was saying
except when he raised his voice: "Oh God, Juliana, you're
hysterical. I'll be right over." Juliana was an abrasive
high-strung blonde, with whom he screwed around intermittently
for three years.
She was an aspiring actress who took antidepressants
and called Miles at 2 a.m., usually crying about some perceived
injustice. Miles hung up the phone and muttered "shit"
while walking around in his socks, his hand on his chin. When
he came back into the kitchen, he pinched my waist and then
put the clean dishes in the wrong place on the shelf.
An in-studio guitarist is playing a song about
wildlife preservation organizations. He messes up his chords,
laughs about his late night and no coffee, then starts again.
A few years ago I had an affair with an ad salesman
who only listened to independent college radio stations, run
by 20-somethings with impudent attitudes and political agendas.
I'd never heard any of those songs before. But his live-in girlfriend
seemed to have every one of these grainy, basement-recorded
albums stacked on the bookshelf in their living room. I remember
sitting on the edge of his bathroom sink one morning, with an
eyeliner poised between middle and index finger, ready to apply.
The mirror was fogged around the edges and this svelte paramour
was standing next to me, shaving his throat.
"Let me get this." The ad salesman wiped
his chin with a wadded towel and grabbed me by my hips, swiveling
me around as easily as if I were a doll. He shuffled through
my make-up bag, held my chin and stuck mascara in my eye. His
face looked like a furtive mouse, collecting things. There was
a smear of shaving cream under his eye. I could not suppress
"Hold still," he whispered, his palm
pressing into my cheek. His movements were precise and efficient.
He could've been an artist or a doctor.
at you," he said after a moment, proud and nodding. There
was a half-moon of thick black eyeliner under each of my gray
eyes. He had always preferred severity. I thought I looked like
a somber rock star. We laughed. Then he went quiet and his gaze
became profound and hesitant, something you could feel in your
stomach. His mouth was wet at the corners. Then his tongue was
between my teeth like soft fruit. His fingers fit perfectly
into the curves of my vertebrae. I slipped into the base of
The ad salesman eventually became monogamous,
but before I was out of the picture, I stole a stack of his
girlfriend's records, and later held them to a flame over my
kitchen sink where they melted into oily pools of black.
A deejay advertises a concert for a popular country-influenced
rock trio, whose band includes a cello. You can win tickets
if you're the third caller and answer one question correctly.
I used to turn the radio up so Miles couldn't
ignore me anymore. I liked to play the country station because
the women's voices were huge and certain, filling an entire
room. Miles would sit in the middle of our red art-deco couch,
watching a news broadcast about credit card fraud and filing
his fingernails. He had beautiful hands. Each nail an individual
"Could you turn that down!" he'd shout,
voice sharp. There was fingernail dust on his green polo shirt.
I would pretend I couldn't hear him so that he might pin me
to the floor, sit on my stomach and tickle me until I'd feel
like peeing. I liked the song that was blasting through the
living room. It was the popular one about domestic violence
that played every day at the same time, like a revolving aerial
fan. I reorganized the magazines in the magazine rack. Eventually
the song faded and Miles did not budge from the couch.
"Hey," I said. "Remember how we
sat in the bath and did that compatibility quiz in Details Magazine?"
We were compatible for at least 12 of 15 questions.
sniffed dryly and placed a heel on our good coffee table. He
licked his cuticles. I sat on the arm of the couch. If I were
to have extended my arm, I could've touched his ear. But I didn't.
The dog crawled into my lap instead. She shoved her smart, yellow
face under my chin.
By the time I get between the Rockies, the sky
is completely orange. The dog is resting her chin on my thigh,
and I have to turn down the air conditioner. I'm getting nothing
but static on every station.
I turn the radio off.