Kara got the cassette from Lucy, who took it from her sister Jennifer, who is a sophomore in high school and very thin and always rolls her eyes at us when she sees us sitting on Lucy’s couch after school.
I slide the tape into my Walkman as Kara and I walk to the playground. It’s after dinner in September, and Kara is meeting two boys from our middle school so they can skateboard in the playground’s parking lot. I always come along because I have nothing better to do. Kara’s legs are covered with bruises since she started skateboarding in June, and she’s even started to wear baggy pants and a thick chain around her waist with a wallet hanging off.
Last year Kara wore flower-printed dresses and had lots of bracelets and earrings. That was the summer we all stood in Lucy’s bathroom listening to Morrissey while her older sister put on eyeliner. Morrissey was gay, Jennifer explained, and the song “Ouija Board” was about summoning his dead gay lover. We nodded solemnly. Every day that July, we made our own Ouija boards out of markers and plain white paper and a shot glass from Lucy’s kitchen cabinet, hoping to catch a ghost who would tell us things.
When we get to the playground, the two boys are waiting for Kara on the curb. I recognize them from school but I don’t remember their names. I walk over to the toddler section of the park, which is empty, and sit on the bottom of the sliding board. I slip my toes out of my flip-flops and dig my feet into the mulch and push play on my Walkman. The woman singer moans through my headphones, saying everyone is pointing at her. It sounds like something I would write if I were older. I press Stop, Eject, and read the singer’s name: Tori Amos. Then I slide the tape back in and listen to more.
This singer has a lot of men in her life, it sounds like, and she doesn’t have to worry about whether boys like her or not. In the third song, she feels like a mermaid in her boyfriend’s jeans; in another, she stands naked in front of a man, ready to put on her leather coat and leave if he doesn’t tell her he loves her. I always worry I will never find a man who loves me, that I will only ever dream about him while falling asleep. When boys look me in the eye, I blush and turn away. I had a boyfriend for six months whose name was Chris, and I liked that he lived far away and we never had to stand in the same room together. We only saw pictures of each other because Bridget—a girl whose mother teaches English at my school—showed him a video of a bunch of us at a sleepover. Chris picked me out, the one with the French braid, and asked for my phone number. He called every day, and we talked for at least twenty minutes. When we hung up, he told me he loved me, so I knew he was a liar. I just said, “Bye.”
Nearby, Kara and the boys have started to play hacky sack, a game she always wins. Boys seem to like her, even though she is a tomboy and has braces. She knocked on my door the first weekend I moved here, five years ago, and ever since then, I’ve wanted her to be my best friend. She doesn’t feel the same way about me, though. Lately, she only hangs out with me when Lucy’s not home.
I listen to the music until Side A ends and then I flip the cassette. Above the playground, the sky is large and bright blue, like all of the sky in south Jersey. A few thin clouds move at turtle speed above the houses. Swedesboro is not even an hour away from Philadelphia, where I used to live, but it feels like a different country.
We moved because my mom got married to Rob, a man with a dark mustache and muddy brown eyes who we pretend is my dad. The day of their wedding, my mom wore an ivory dress that came just below her knees and was made of silk, a material so slick it showed all the bumps of her stomach. She didn’t have a veil, and I wasn’t allowed at the ceremony because it was in a courthouse, and she said a kid didn’t belong in a courthouse. In my grandparents’ dining room, she had a new gold ring on her left hand and stood with Rob for a picture. They cut a flat white cake—not the kind of wedding cake I’d seen in movies—and forced it awkwardly into each other’s mouths. Two days later, they returned from their honeymoon in Hershey Park, grinning and handing me a small silver case of chocolate cigarettes. Rob asked when I was going to start calling him Dad instead of Rob. My face got red and I turned away, taking my new cigarette case out to the porch. I sat on the cement step and puffed the chocolate, resting my elbow on my thigh like a teenager I’d seen in dance class. I mouthed the word Dad, but it felt sticky in my mouth.
A few months after my mom married Rob, we moved into our small brown house in New Jersey that is one story, called a ranch. There are no sidewalks, no candy stores or pizza parlors, just our wide green lawn and open fields outside the development. When we arrived I was in third grade, and I had to take a bus to the elementary school where a train hummed through the playground at recess. Everything in New Jersey seems to be one-story and brown, and for a long while, I pretended we were on vacation, that one day I’d finally go back home. But we didn’t. My mom got pregnant with my brother and we stayed and stayed, even after the fighting started and my mom shouted for Rob to get out of the house.
I haven’t known anything about my real father until the other night, when Rob yelled at my mom in the kitchen and she said back that she’d like to stab him with a knife.
“Hey, where’s her real dad, eh?” he yelled. “He’s in California. But look at me, I’m here!”
My mom didn’t have an answer to that one.
I had only one memory of talking to my mom about my real dad. I was three, and we were crossing the street to get to the bus. I asked if I had a dad like other kids. She said yes, I did have a dad, but when she told him she was going to have a baby, he didn’t want one, so he left. I had a picture in my mind of him closing the thick black door of our old house and stepping onto the porch, my mom rushing to the padlock to turn it, her skin hazy like women in soap operas. After that, I kept wondering if I saw my dad in supermarkets or on the street and just didn’t know it. I thought maybe he was a newscaster I saw every night on TV, or someone who wore suits and took the elevator up to the top floor of an apartment building in New York City. Maybe he had an extra bedroom waiting for me.
My brother Jason is four and looks like the auburn-haired kid on the Pull-Ups training commercial. With him, everything is about cars and Thomas the Train. I have to watch him all the time. When my mom told me she was pregnant with him, we had only been in the new house for a few months. She sat at our round glass dinner table and took a drag of her Marlboro. We’re going to have a baby. How do you feel about that? She smiled with her lips closed, the smoke making her eyes water. I had no idea what it would be like in the house with a baby, and I was annoyed that Rob already knew. From the day they got married, he found out everything before I did.
That December, while my mom was in the hospital giving birth, I was drawing a picture for a cute boy in my class, Donnie, because he looked just like Kevin Bacon in Footloose. The picture showed me, looking very skinny in a red dress, and him, putting his hands around my waist as we gazed at the baby in our carriage. It was the best drawing I had ever done because I made myself so skinny. I slipped it onto Donnie’s desk the following morning, but during recess, he and his friend Adam came over to me and ripped it up in my face. I gazed far off at the patchy grass and shrugged to show them I didn’t care, that it really didn’t matter if we got married, that I could easily find someone else if I needed to.
Tori Amos is still singing in my ears, a pretty song about how she’d like her mother to leave a light on for her when she comes home late at night. I love the sound of the piano in her songs. I’ve always wanted to play piano, but the closest I’ve gotten is a small keyboard for Christmas. We don’t have money for a piano, my mom said. We pretty much don’t have money for anything. When the car company calls and asks to speak to my mother or father, I have to say, “They’re not available right now. Can I take a message?” I am careful to write the man’s name, phone number and extension on the back of a white envelope, but my mother doesn’t call him back. Instead, when I’m watching TV, she talks to a bunch of other people on the phone about how Rob sleeps too much during the day and never helps clean the house or take care of Jason. Before he goes to work the night shift, she tries to make dinner, like dry potatoes and pork chops, but mostly the two of them yell. That’s how I learn that he is lazy and selfish and will die a lonely old man. I really don’t want to die a lonely man, he says when they calm down. She says back, Well, you will. I listen to all of this from the other side of my bedroom door, my ear pressed to the keyhole. I want Rob to leave so that life will feel normal again and my mom will stop staying home all day and wearing ugly yellow sweatpants.
The song fades and a new one starts, only there are no instruments in the background. It is just Tori Amos’s voice rising alone out of the darkness.
It was me and a gun
And a man on my back
And I sang “holy, holy”
as he buttoned down his pants.
Something big is happening in this song. Kara and the boys are far away, taking turns on an orange slide, and they have no idea. In her sad voice, Tori Amos sings about biscuits and her full tank of gas and this man with a gun. It’s a secret, something she is probably not supposed to tell. There’s a lot of stuff like that in my house—things my mom says need to stay just between us, like when she accidentally hits me so hard the pee falls out of me, and she says sorry and rushes to get me a new pair of underwear.
When the song is over, I take out the tape so I can see what the song is called. It must be “Me and a Gun,” right after “Tear in Your Hand” and before “Little Earthquakes.” I click it back into place and rewind so I can listen again. Kara is swinging on the monkey bars now, a sliver of her stomach peeking out of her jeans as she races toward the other side. She seems so young compared to the singer in my ears. Tori Amos sings, You can laugh, it’s kind of funny, the things you think, times like these…. Like I haven’t seen Barbados, so I must get out of this. I know what she means. When my mom gets mad at me or when she and Rob are fighting, I think the same kind of thing. I imagine the beach, or the park, or my grandmother’s house with the smell of spaghetti sauce and people’s voices as they walk by outside. Places that are safe.
I never heard of Barbados before, but I’m sure it is beautiful.
Soon someone’s mother calls from far away, and the boys have to go. On our walk home, Kara tells me I can keep the tape overnight, as long as I give it to Lucy in the morning. Kara always gets bored of things fast, like playing Barbies (which we’re really not supposed to do anymore), or watching a movie, or hanging out with me. I try not to show her how excited I am to keep it, and I have the headphones on my ears all the way home while she skips and picks up rocks in the sidewalk’s cracks. Maybe Lucy will invite me over to her house when I give the tape back. We’ll lie on her living room floor like teenagers, eating low-fat ice cream out of the carton.
Kara and I reach the entrance to our street and wave and I say I’ll call her later. By the time I walk in my front door, I have listened to the song enough to remember the lyrics. I find my mother in her usual spot on the couch, her legs tucked to the side of her as she watches TV. The room is filled with cigarette smoke, and I can hear Jason playing with racing cars in his bedroom. Before my mom got married and we moved here, she’d pick me up from my daycare and I’d change into pajamas while she put on a record and started dinner. She was in such a better mood then. Sometimes, after we ate, she’d lie on the floor and close her eyes, singing “You are so beautiful…to meee.” I’d flip through blue and beige and green album covers and make myself comfortable against her knees until it was time to go to bed.
Before I know what I’m doing, I hold out my headphones and Walkman. “You have to listen to this song,” I say. My heart pounds a little as she looks up and stubs out her cigarette. “It’s amazing,” I insist, and she nods. She puts the headphones over her ears. They flatten her hair and—it’s kind of funny—she looks like a little kid.
After a minute or two a sour look comes on her face.
“Where did you get this?” she asks and stands up, turning the Walkman over in her hands.
“From Lucy,” I stammer. “Lucy’s sister.”
Her face is red, her eyes squinting, and I can hear her breathing heavily through her mouth. I’m getting used to this now, the sharp drop in my chest, like my heart is falling into my stomach. “I don’t want you listening to this crap again,” she says, and takes the Walkman with her into the kitchen. “I’m going to get rid of it.”
My cheeks fill with heat. “You can’t!” I yell. “It’s not mine!”
She slams the Walkman on the counter and grabs a pink sponge from the sink. The kitchen is her favorite place to be angry. Sometimes, the sponge is for pointing; other times, a cushion for her hand. I watch the sponge squish across the counter. It scrubs. It stops. It jumps into the sink and I follow her out of the room.
Finally, she says, as though I am the stupidest person in the world, “Don’t you realize that song is about rape?” She shakes her head and scowls. “I don’t want you listening to it.”
My face gets hot and I want to say something, but I am not supposed to talk back. My job, always, is to look at her while she yells and try not to cry. If I cry, the yelling lasts longer and I seem weak, like a baby. So I bite my lips until they’re dry and stand in the doorway of the kitchen while she goes back to her spot on the couch. I stand limp, my shoulders hunched, waiting for her to cough. A cough is my signal that she has calmed down, that her anger is passing and her body still works. A cough means that maybe she is ready to go back to normal.
Someone on the TV spins the Wheel of Fortune and guesses a letter: R.
“Why are you standing there like that?” She yells. Then she coughs.
I go back to my room and put on the radio loud and open the window, letting my hands rest on the sill as I look out over the tree in our front yard. My room is the only one in the house that gets the shade from the tree, and it means I can stay in my bedroom for hours in summer without getting too hot. In the spring, the tree blossoms into a thousand tiny pink flowers, but now, as fall nears, they fade into a deep, leathery burgundy. It’s the only good thing about living here.
I want to know what my mother understands about the song that I don’t.
Rape is bad, I know, but there are a lot of things that make me confused. If a woman doesn’t want to have sex, how do her clothes come off? And the woman in the song says a man is on her back, but how can two people have sex that way? All I’ve ever seen in movies and music videos is that a man lies on top of a woman’s stomach and moves while she stares up at the ceiling.
Later, after my mother tucks Jason into bed she comes to my door. I am sitting on the floor, listening to Vanessa Williams and painting my toenails purple. Just when I thought our chance had passed, you go and save the best for last.
“Goodnight,” my mom murmurs. I whisper back, Goodnight.
“I don’t want you listening to that tape again,” she says.
Then she makes her way to her bedroom, where she gets in bed and watches TV until she falls asleep. The rest of the house is silent except for the ticking kitchen clock.
Only when I hear my mom snoring do I know it’s safe to get up. I change into my pajamas and brush my teeth. Usually I do everything my mom says, afraid of her reaction if I don’t listen. But tonight I sneak back into the kitchen and get the Walkman she left on the counter. I tiptoe to my bed and pull the sheets over my head, place the soft pads of headphones around my ears and press Play.
You can laugh—
It’s kind of funny, the things you think, times like these—
Like I haven’t seen Barbados,
So I must get out of this.
I guess I’m not the only one hoping there’s something better for me. Something outside this awful town in New Jersey with its huge sky and black streets that absorb all the sun. One day I’ll drive to the beach all by myself, or even a big city. I’ll live in an apartment so I don’t have to take care of a lawn, and I’ll prop my legs up on the coffee table and eat brownie batter straight from the bowl. I won’t have to watch my brother, or wait for Kara to call me back, because she always changes her mind about whether she wants to hang out with me.
Maybe I won’t even talk to my mom when I move out. I’ll have a boyfriend who loves me, who holds me when I’m feeling sad. I’ll find my real dad in California and see if we have the same brown eyes.
I’m never going to come back to this house—to my mom and Rob, or Jason with his racing cars. The only thing I’ll miss is the burgundy tree.
I begin to doze while the rest of the Tori Amos tape plays in my ears, knowing if I fall asleep, my mom might catch me with the Walkman in the morning. For some reason, I don’t care. All that matters to me now is that I get to listen to whatever music I want.
Jana Llewellyn is a writer, editor, yoga teacher, and mom. Her work has appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Friends Journal, Babble.com, The Huffington Post, Pithead Chapel, and The Sunlight Press, and she received Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She is currently a student in NYU’s Low-Residency MFA Program in Paris and is pitching a novel about an ancient matriarchal tribe. She lives outside of Philadelphia with three amazing children and a cat named Myra Mason. You can read more of her work on janallewellyn.net.
Cagibi Issue 6