It was very loud, her childhood. At least that’s how it plays back in all of her memories. The idle hum of an old Fender Twin, the tubes warming up for a couple of hours while her father tinkered with the humbuckers on a custom Les Paul, trying to generate the perfect ethereal sustain of feedback, the kind that lingered long enough to work its way into your bones but not so shrill it pierced your eardrums.
Her father was a magician with amplifiers and guitars-- at least that’s what people said. Keith Richards actually spent an entire afternoon playing tea party with her when she was seven years old while he waited for her father to replace the neck on a guitar he could not bear to let out of his site.
Their studio apartment in the Village was always buzzing, if not from the sound of transistors, then with the persistent stammer and shout, shrug and chuckle of musicians and artists, poets and communists who argued, sang, danced and played music into the wee hours of the morning. It was no way for a little girl to grow up, floating in free orbit around her father’s experimental parenting, his work and the rotating cast of characters who paid him to do it, but it was all she knew.
Caught up in the spirit of the times, her parents had never married, opting instead for an open relationship. They believed marriage represented oppression and it was a political tool engineered to insure a male dominated society. Just after Sarah’s third birthday, her mother married a stockbroker and moved to the Upper East Side. For the first few years she sent Sarah a card on her birthday and one at Christmas, but those eventually stopped.
When the cards came in the mail Sarah would ask her father about her mother. He would look down and shake his shaggy head. Sometimes there would be tears in his eyes, sometimes his eyes would be dry, and the muscle in his jaw would flex, but he never said a cross word about her. He opted instead to say nothing at all.
When she was in college, her father had finally told her that the cards had never stopped, only that he had put them into a shoebox in his workshop. Sarah was angry and hadn’t talked to him for two months until a parcel arrived at her dorm room on a rainy afternoon in early spring. It was an old Nike shoebox with the unopened cards. She had sat cross-legged on her narrow bed, carefully opening each envelope with the care and fastidiousness of an archeologist.
There had been twenty-eight cards in total, two a year until her eighteenth birthday. They were consistent in form and tone and changed very little from one year to the next. Sarah had read and reread the two or three handwritten sentences in each of the cards as one who is trying to cypher a coded message but in the end, she found that the messages were as contrived and impersonal as the ones printed in the cards themselves. “To my beautiful daughter on her eighth birthday. I hope it’s a magical day!”
Looking down at the stack of colored envelopes with no return address and the small pile of crisp bills in graduating denominations beside it, she had cried miserably, not for herself, but for her father. Later that night she called him from a noisy campus bar where, completely out of character, she had blown nearly the entire seven hundred and twenty-five dollars on drinks and food for anyone who wandered in. “On the house!” she had called out raising a swaying mug in salute.
Even though it was impossible to understand her over the noise in the bar, her father had been happy to hear from her and happier still to hear the reckless freedom in her voice as she told him what she had done with the money. Sarah was natured so much like her mother, that he was happy to finally catch a glimmer of himself in her, a little bit of “fuck the man,” a little bit of joy for its own sake.
As Sarah sits at the table in her sunlit kitchen and looks out the window across the perfectly manicured Bermuda grass, she misses the noise.
She has been pining lately for the chaos of her childhood which makes no sense because she has spent her life up to this point carefully engineering her days to be crisp with purpose and measured routine. She was the valedictorian of her graduating class from Brown and without so much as a month’s break, she went straight into law school at Emory University where she graduated and passed the Bar in just under two years. Now she is in line to be the youngest partner at the oldest law firm in Atlanta and all she can think about is the swampy smell of weed and patchouli and the way White Room sounds on vinyl with the volume cranked past the point of reasonable.
Sitting in her flannel robe, Sarah traces the edge of her coffee cup with her index finger, feeling restless and languid all at the same time. Looking forward, looking back, she has the distinct feeling that she is completely missing the bit in the middle.
She’s never had an orgasm, at least she doesn’t think she has, because, well, she would know, right? It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. There have been many stalwart attempts, starting as early as when she was fifteen and Anthony DeMarco had pinned her to the bottom bunk of his bed as she stared up at the pasty face of Larry Bird driving the lane to the basket.
Sarah has always been beautiful, willowy, with good cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, so there have been many men to pass over her and under her, but to be honest she has never understood the fuss. It’s a couple of sweaty moments, some heavy breathing and then, it’s over and you’re still the same people except now it’s awkward and messy. She’s just come to accept it as part of the equation, because clearly it is, but it’s not what she solves for.
Jeremy left for work only moments ago, the aura of his aftershave, still lingers around the breakfast table. He is a good man, she thinks. She chose him carefully. It was not a passionate or hasty decision, but one based on very specific criteria: taller than her, ambitious, good hair, intelligent, rational, enjoys documentaries, loves sushi and enjoys quiet.
They spent the morning as they have every weekday morning for the last five years, both skimming work email from their phones over coffee and toast and occasionally conversing about an interesting headline in the news or what their plans are for the weekend. But this morning, after the first five minutes, she had set her phone down and just watched him. He hadn’t looked up once, even when he talked to her. She had the urge to throw open her robe, straddle him where he sat and bite his lip, maybe even draw blood. But that was ridiculous. Instead, Sarah had kissed him sweetly before he left for his early meeting and confirmed that she would meet him at their favorite spot in East Atlanta for dinner if she could get through the stack of research she had to do.
She was going to turn forty in less than a week and the idea made her chest hurt for reasons she could not explain. It wasn’t the prospect of sagging boobs, crow’s feet or even childlessness. She had never had that instinct, a trait she used to attribute to her mother until eight years ago when a bright faced young man showed up at her door and she found herself looking into her own blue eyes. The young man, Charlie, had told her he was her half brother and that she had two other half-siblings, Jan and Carol who lived in Anaheim and Houston.
Charlie had dreadlocks and wore glasses with enormous black frames. He smelled vaguely of sandalwood and body odor. Sitting cross-legged on the edge of the couch in her living room he had sipped the cup of tea she offered and nodded sincerely and with great interest as she answered his queries about her life. When asked about his own life, he was not as forthcoming, but Sarah figured out quickly that he had been a disappointment to their mother and his father, the stockbroker. Apparently he was a musician and that’s how he had come to learn about Sarah.
Charlie lived in New York and when the headstock of his favorite Strat was snapped off during a particularly raucous show he had taken it to the best guitar guy in the city. When Sarah’s father was taking down Charlie’s contact information in one of the same short-order cook style carbon ticket pads he had always used, he paused over the kid’s last name: VanBosselman. It was a unique name to be sure, but it was also one seared into his memory. Against his will, her father had actually liked Charlie and allowed him to come and hang out at the shop on Sunday afternoons when he opened it up to friends and customers. These invite-only jam sessions were legendary and it was not uncommon for players like Béla Fleck, Eric Clapton or Steve Morse to drop by if they were in town. Her father treated them all the same, that was part of his charm.
True to his free-spirit way, her father had given Charlie Sarah’s address when he found out their band’s tour would be taking him through Atlanta. He might have warned her, given her a head’s up, but that was not her father’s way. After she got over the shock, she had found that she too liked Charlie and they had kept in touch over the years. He had, on one occasion asked if she had any interest in meeting their mother. She had emphatically said no. Charlie understood completely and never asked again, another reason why she liked him.
Sarah knows she has to shake free of this daydreaming, take a shower and head into the office, but for the first time in her whole career she does not want to go into work, in fact, she is surprised by a feeling she has never experienced: dread. She wants to put on her favorite pair of jeans, maybe go to Waffle House and eat a big plate of hash browns, smothered and covered, strike up a conversation with the waitress or maybe a trucker on the stool next to her. She has the urge to talk to people who don’t have it all figured out. She is tired of having it all figured out. She is, in fact, stifled by having it all figured out.
Sarah reaches for her phone, opens the photo album and flicks back through the history of spontaneously recorded events until she came to what she is looking for: the surprise birthday party she had thrown for her dad back in January. She finds the picture she is looking for and zooms in on his face. It is so unlike her own, except for maybe the lips, full and generous. He looks so old with his long gray mane of hair and his wire-rimmed glasses, but there is the same hopeful sweetness in his expression. Easy. That was the only way to describe him.
She dials his number and walks across the kitchen for another cup of coffee as she waits for him to pick up. On the fourth ring he does.
“Uhh, Yeah?” her father’s voice is warm and still thick with sleep.
“Morning Daddy,” she says. “Did I wake you?”
“Hey sugar, no, no, I was just climbing the Pyranees,” he says. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine. Just missing you this morning,” she says as she wanders into the living room with her fresh cup of coffee.
“Well, this is a nice surprise,” he says, now more awake. “What are you up to today? Aren’t you usually in the office by now, making the world right?”
“Yeah, I’m procrastinating,” she says and then paused before adding “I’ve discovered something this morning.”
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” he asks. Sarah can hear the horns from taxis and a siren in the distance.
“I’m not happy,” she says. “I don’t think I know how to be happy.”
“Oh sweetie, I don’t think that’s true,” he says. “I think you just try too damned hard at everything. It’s what you’ve done since you were my little pixie, organizing all the tools and parts in my shop.”
“No Daddy, I think it’s true. I’m not happy being me. Shit, I don’t even know who me is at this point,” she says, surprised by the emotion welling up in her throat.
“Hey, take it easy sugar. It’s okay. Let’s talk about this,” he says. “You’ve made a great life for yourself. You’ve married a good man, you’ve got a nice house and you do meaningful work.”
Sarah appreciates his words but she believes they are just words coming from her father. This is not the life he would have designed for her, not the life he could live in for a minute, but his love for her has always been stronger than his desire to make her in his own image.
“Daddy?” she asks in a voice that sounds so small. “Do I remind you of her? I mean, am I like her?”
There is a long silence. Sarah hears the rustling he has been doing in the kitchen stop and in the silence she can hear a dog barking somewhere.
“I’m not sure what you want me to say here Sarah,” he says, his voice low and thick. “You are your own person, not your mother, not me. You were a gift to both of us.”
“Yeah, if I was such a gift, why the fuck did she leave and never come back?” Sarah says, her throat choked with emotion.
“I don’t know sugar, I wish I did. It’s been the biggest mystery in my life,” he says. “But the one thing I do know is that it’s not you. To be honest, I think your mother and I were young and foolish and we thought we could reinvent the world, change the way it had always been. But then you realize that the world has worked a certain way for a reason. Bottom line, I think she realized she made a mistake with me and thought she could just have a mulligan. Just pretend that it was a phase like disco and move on.”
“That doesn’t help me much,” Sarah says.
“I know, I know,” he says. “But she’s the one who’s suffered the most, because she missed out on getting to know the greatest person to ever live.”
There was another long pause and Sarah can here her father take a sip of coffee, open the blinds and settle into the couch – the same ugly green thing that he has had since she was a girl.
“Look,” he says. “Would it help if I told you a story about your mother? I never talked about her because I never wanted you to have to think about her. Maybe that was a mistake.”
“Yeah, that would help,” Sarah says.
“Let’s see…” he says. She knows he is looking up at the ceiling now like he always does when he is trying to summon something from memory. She hears him scratch the whiskers of his beard.
“Okay, I’ve got one,” he says finally. “Did you know that it was your mother who got me my first real guitar?”
“No, I didn’t,” Sarah says. “Which one?”
“It was an old Rickenbacker,” he says. “You know, like the ones the Beatles used to play?”
“Yes, Daddy, give me a little credit, I was raised by guitars, remember?” she says.
“Yeah of course,” he says. “Anyway, it was a thing of beauty, at least it was at the time to me. Looking back, it actually sounded like shit and would never stay in tune, but that’s besides the point.”
“When your mother and I met we were barely out of high school and I didn’t have a pot to piss in. I was working in a vacuum repair shop and she was in school at NYU. Like everybody else we were rebelling against the world. We fell in love quick and shacked up.”
“Your mother knew how much I loved music and she knew that I had never been given the chance to learn to play. Your grandpa would rather I’d died in Vietnam than be a musician. Anyway, long story short, your mom pawned all of the gifts her parents had given her for Christmas that first year we were together and bought me that guitar.”
“She wrapped it up in funny pages from the Sunday paper and put a red bow on the headstock. It was leaning against the kitchen table when I came back to the tiny apartment after work the day after Christmas.”
Sarah lets the story sink in and tries to visualize all the details. It is no more real to her than some melodramatic movie like The Way We Were, but hearing something positive about the woman whose genes she carries, loosens the tightness in her chest.
“Is that a true story Dad?” she asks. “I mean you didn’t just make it up to make me feel better.”
“No,” he says. “I would never do that to you sugar. It would be much easier if people were consistent. If she was just some icy bitch with no redeeming qualities, but that’s not how it is.”
“No, I guess not,” Sarah says. “I love you Daddy. Thank you.”
“I love you too sugar,” he says. “You gonna be okay?"
“Yeah, I’m gonna be okay,” she says. “I’ve got you.”
“Yeah, you’ve got me,” he said. “Always.”
Sarah had wandered upstairs and is now in their expansive white bathroom filled with sunlight. She looks at herself in the floor length mirror behind the door, her mind already busy working through what she needs to take care of today. She leans in close and examines her face, trying to see who she is, who she wants to be.
“Daddy?” she asks.
“Yes Sarah?” he says.
“Do you still have that guitar?” she asks.
He laughs in the wry, raspy way that she has always loved.
“No sugar,” he says. “I sold that sucker so I could send you to summer camp when you were ten.”
“Oh,” she says, unsure of how to feel about this fact.
“I didn’t need it,” he says. “I bought myself much better guitars by then, and besides, I had the only gift I ever needed from your mother.”
A few minutes later, in the shower, Sarah decides she will ask Jeremy if he wants to skip dinner at the farm to table restaurant tonight and instead grab a burger and go hear some music. Not jazz or some whiney folk, but something scrappy and raw played in a place where the only beer they sell is PBR in a can. She realizes that she might be fifteen years older than everyone there, and certainly the only one in a business skirt and heels, but that’s okay. Once the music starts, as long as it’s loud, she’ll be fine.