Excerpt

Some Strange Music Draws Me In

Griffin Hansbury

March 25, 2024 
The following is from Griffin Hansbury's Some Strange Music Draws Me In . Hansbury is the author of Vanishing New York and Feral City (as Jeremiah Moss). A Pushcart Prize winner and Lambda Literary Award finalist, his writing has appeared in n+1, the New York Times, and the New Yorker and Paris Review online. A trailblazer in the field of psychoanalysis, he was the first analyst to practice and publish as openly transgender.

1984

It happened that green and crazy summer when I was thirteen years old. A stolen first line, slightly altered, because I’m not much of a writer, but I have been something of a thief. And a liar. I might as well admit that up front. It was a lie and a theft that made everything go haywire that summer.

I cribbed the line from Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding. At the moment when it happened, or at least when it began to happen, that paperback was jammed in the back pocket of my denim cut-­offs as I sat on the dirty, carpeted floor of the Swaffham Towne Drug, reading teen magazines. Syrupy tang of blue Slush Puppie on my tongue. Mosquito bites stippling my legs. I want to remember myself as I was then, a girl that is difficult to grasp. What did she look like? My prize article of clothing was a pair of Nike hightops, kept hospital white with a bottle of foamy polish. Nikes weren’t cheap and I had to make them last. Everything else I wore was off-­brand or hand-­me-­down: my wayward older sister’s Lee dungarees cut into shorts, a Michael Jackson baseball tee from Bradlees discount department store, a trucker hat with Pac-Man on the front clapped over my unruly mess of hair. I wasn’t good at hair, didn’t know what to do with it, how other girls achieved feathered wings and lift. But I had good skin. Everyone said so. “You have good skin,” they’d say, admiring what one woman at the Jordan Marsh cosmetics counter called “peaches and cream.” I was a winter, dark haired with light skin that didn’t tan, but only burned and peeled back to paper white. I blushed so intensely, people would laugh and tell me I was bright red, making me blaze with deeper embarrassment. As for my body, it was an unknowable zone, an overlarge assemblage of limb and belly that felt like a thing of its own making, mostly disappointing, incapable of climbing fences or playing baseball, incompetent at dancing, too heavy in its steps. Heaviness had always been with me. When skipping rope in first grade gym class, the teacher scolded me to be light on my feet. By junior high, my mother prayed that I would stop growing: “So you don’t turn into a glump like your big aunt Beverly.” My aunt Shirley, the smaller, told me I walked like a truck driver. I didn’t mean to. That was just the way my body propelled itself through space. My shape, that enigmatic packaging, had its own design and cared nothing about anyone’s objections, including my own. However the message came, the world confirmed what I felt, that my body was off in its most essential calibrations. But even with all its klutzing about, it held deep coils of feeling yet unnamed, and that summer I could sense it getting ready for something new, a quiver of arrows looking for a target.

It was 1984, still fresh in the month of June, and soon I would turn fourteen. Come September, spared the indignities of Swaffham High, I’d be off to Catholic school, an all-­girls academy in a town far enough away I’d have to go by carpool. No more riding my ten-­speed to the crummy public school. No more jeans and T-­shirts. At Sacred Heart I’d wear a uniform, equalized in an ocean of plaid polyester. In that sameness, even with my big bones and heavy feet, I hoped to fail less obviously at girlhood. Something to look forward to. But there would also be no more Jules, my best friend, who could not bear the thought of going boyless in her teen years and opted to stay local. Our impending separation held me in a state of ambivalent attachment, either clinging or pushing away. I believed Jules was too gifted to stay behind. She excelled at science and could play any instrument you put in her hands. On the phone, she could pick out tunes on the push buttons. “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”

No matter how much I pleaded, Jules was going one way and I was going another. It felt like a breakup, like my parents splitting after my sister, Donna, left town in a blaze of shame and anger, pregnant at nineteen by a guy who knocked out dents at Mike’s Gas-­N-­Go and gave her two black eyes before taking her to live in Texas, where she named their kid Stetson because she favored the drugstore cologne and it seemed like the sort of name people get in Texas. My mother told Donna, “Don’t come back,” and Donna didn’t. The house was peaceful, for a little while, without the violent storms between my mother and sister. I lied to myself that I didn’t miss Donna, didn’t go to her bedroom to feel close to her, but only to pilfer from the records and magazines she left behind. If my mother didn’t want Donna back, why didn’t she turn the room into the “study” she claimed to need? Though I’d never seen my mother study anything in her life. By then she’d quit waitressing and enjoyed the luxury of a sit-­down job, working as a teller in a bank. She spent her nights in bowling alleys and discos, searching for a new man, while my father, resigned to divorced life, moldered in our upstairs in-­law apartment, sleeping through daylight and drinking beer until his night shift at the high school, where he mopped floors and it didn’t matter if he smelled of Miller High Life. It had been years since I’d seen him in one of his bad drunks, breaking dishes and threatening murder. His resignation came as relief, but I still avoided him. Like an old fighting dog neutered into passivity, he remained in possession of a body muscled with the capacity for violence. Now and then, my parents would pass each other in the driveway, my mother dressed to the nines and smelling of Ambush for a night out, my father slouching off to his mop. It wasn’t a house I wanted to spend much time in.

We had twelve weeks until high school took us into its unforeseeable alterations, and Jules and I planned to make the most of it, roaming the town’s four square miles of nothing much. We’d spend whole afternoons watching cable TV at her empty house, trying to glean the workings of sex from R-­rated movies like Risky Business. On Jules’ bed we’d lie side by side in the scent of strawberry candles and girl musk, listening to the song that Tom Cruise and Rebecca De Mornay do it to in the movie, that steamy scene on the train, and Jules would insist that the word come had a sexual meaning, that when Phil Collins sang, “I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight,” it meant something different than the utilitarian word we knew. I’d try to connect come to the idea of sex, but nothing clicked. Come where? Jules would rewind the tape and we’d listen again, as if to a riddle we could solve with enough repetition, trying to imagine how such a simple word could hold another, more profound and secret meaning. We said the word to each other as much as possible. Over the phone it was, “When are you coming over?” “When do you want me to come?” “Come now.” “Okay, I’m coming.” If our mothers heard, we were certain they would not recognize our attempts to conjure carnal knowledge through the incantation of a common verb that meant only to arrive.

Our days often began in the town square, the center of our little nothing place in the world with its fire/police station, barber shop and pizza shop, a single-­screen movie theater with a wilted marquee, Red Mike’s Package Store (“the packie,” Massachusetts vernacular for liquor store), and the Towne Drug, where the only reading material for miles could be purchased. That’s where I was when it happened, sitting at the magazine rack looking through Tiger Beat and waiting for Jules. I was in communion with a glossy pinup of Michael Jackson in his shimmering blue jacket with the gold epaulets, arms full of Grammy Awards, when I first heard the voice of the woman who would turn my life in a new direction.

The voice was deep and movie-­star dramatic, like Lauren Bacall, both the young black-­and-­white Bacall and the older one who did those commercials for decaf coffee because “caffeine sometimes makes me tense.” I looked up, expecting an old-­fashioned starlet. She wasn’t, but I could see she was different. In a world of outdated Farrah Fawcett flips, lumpy corduroys, and Dr. Scholl’s, she looked like Joan Jett. Shag haircut, tight black jeans and tank top with spaghetti straps, black cowboy boots traced in purple thread. Tall and lean like the rock stars in Creem, her arms were strong—­from playing guitar, I thought, or maybe the drums. From her leather fringe purse hung a pair of feathered roach clips. She was chewing gum, snapping it in her mouth as she chatted with the pharmacist, calling him “hon,” while he filled a paper bag with pill bottles. He looked irritated. The woman must have intimidated him because of what she was. I could see it in every part of her, a special electricity. She was a city person, confident and strange, a blast of cool in that incurably uncool place.

She felt me staring and looked over her shoulder, giving me that glare perfected by people who attract stares. It was the “what are you looking at” glare, the one that says, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” She sized me up and smirked in a way I took to mean I wasn’t worth the effort, reducing me to the small-­town kid I was, in my stupid Pac-­Man hat, my too-­white Nikes, copy of Tiger Beat on my lap. I felt my skin blush but didn’t know why, except that I felt exposed, like she’d seen something true about me, something I had yet to see myself. When she completed her business, she walked out, shaking the bag of pills like maracas. “Cha, cha, cha,” she said, door slamming behind her with a tinkling bell. I stood to watch her swing into a beat-­up black Trans Am, golden firebird spreading its wings across the hood, and as she roared away, the stereo blasted some strange music I’d never heard, making me wish I could follow.

“Freak,” the pharmacist muttered.

I didn’t know what he was saying about the woman, except that she was different and maybe had provoked in him something of what she’d provoked in me, a feeling of being mediocre. We were amateurs, but she had power. I thought of “Super Freak,” the song we requested from the DJ whenever our Girl Scout troop went skating at Riverdale Roller World.

“She’s a very kinky girl,” we’d sing as we sailed around in the disco lights, holding hands, two by two. “The kind you don’t take home to mother.”

*

When Jules finally rolled up to the drugstore on her Schwinn, I was standing outside in the hot sun. Atop the fire/police station, the noon whistle was going woomp-­woomp, the warning sound of an air-­raid siren they tested every day at twelve, keeping it ready for a fire, a storm, a nuclear bomb. The woman was gone. I’d probably never see her again and wanted to commit every detail to memory. Just by existing, she materialized an obscure part of myself I did not yet know but struggled toward, advancing in a way so private, my movement went unseen even by my own awareness.

Jules stood straddling her bike. Led Zeppelin T-­shirt, cut-­off shorts, a pair of grungy Keds with a hole in the toe. With her dirty-­blonde hair tucked behind her ears, she looked like her usual self, plus the recent additions of black eyeliner, silver crucifix dangling from an infected earlobe, and gauntlets of black rubber bracelets ringing her wrists. Jules had been fourteen for months already and was well on her way to mastering its more mature contours. Born in late summer, I was the youngest in my class. My smarts kept me ahead until the changes of middle school left me struggling to comprehend concepts other kids seemed to know, as if they had access to a textbook written in another language that explained all the things that happened at basement parties and in the woods behind the baseball field. I lost Pauline Grasso, my childhood best friend, to that book. Set adrift on the choppy waters of junior high, I gravitated to Jules Cobb because she was the other odd one of our bunch and no one invited her into the woods. We were the same. And then we weren’t.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing. Just waiting.”

“No good magazines?”

“Nah,” I said. “Same old stuff. I already looked. For like an hour. What took you?”

It hadn’t been an hour, but I was in one of those moods when I wanted to push Jules away.

“I had to wash my hair,” she shrugged.

She had shoulder-­length, stick-­straight hair the color of wet straw and always said she was washing it when she was late. I made a face. I could see her hair was oily, untouched by White Rain, the discount shampoo our mothers bought at Stop & Shop.

She asked, “Did you get a Slush Puppie already?”

I showed her my blue tongue.

“What do you want to do now?”

We walked our bikes to the Greek’s for slices of pizza and cans of orangeade in the air-­cooled inside. I thought about telling Jules about the woman in the Trans Am, but she felt like something I wanted to keep to myself. If I told her about the woman’s cowboy boots, her unusual air, Jules might say, “That doesn’t sound cool,” and I’d have to reevaluate. In her advanced maturity, Jules better understood the differences between cool and uncool, and I would’ve ceded to her authority, letting the woman crumble. I didn’t want to lose the feeling I had. Besides, I didn’t think I could explain it, how I recognized something of myself in the woman, an element I could not name because it came from the future and had not yet formed.

“Whidigat’s wridigong widigith yidigou?”

Gibberish, like the word come, was part of our secret communications. We didn’t use it much anymore, but for two years it had held us together in a world where we felt apart from most people. I don’t know how we learned it, only that it came to us through the ether of girltalk, like the hundredth monkey figuring out how to wash potatoes and then transmitting that knowledge across a body of water, from one island to another, through the mystery of animal telepathy. Like those primate sisters, the feral intelligence of teenage girls is sometimes capable of collective witchcraft.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said, not wanting to play along. Gibberish, I told myself, was for babies.

“Say it right.”

I could feel Jules wanting to close the distance between us.

“Nidigothidiging. Okay?”

To give myself cover, I said I was really in pain over Michael Jackson, I had seen photos of him with Brooke Shields in Tiger Beat, and while I knew they were just friends, it reminded me that I would never be loved by him because we came from “two vastly different worlds.”

“How do you think I feel,” Jules said, letting the orange grease from her slice drip onto her paper plate. “The love of my life is dead.”

“True. At least with Michael I have a chance.”

I believed that. When I wrote my love letters to him in purple glitter pen, I believed my words would reach him and he would pick me, out of the millions, and take me to his mansion in Encino, California, with Muscles the boa constrictor and Bubbles the chimp. There were other kids—­the lucky ones, I thought in the innocence of that time—­who were chosen, but I would not be one of them.

“He came again last night,” Jules said.

She meant the ghost of Dennis Wilson. Jules had a thing for dead drummers: Keith Moon, John Bonham, and now Dennis Wilson, the Beach Boy who drowned in the sea. Drummers, she liked to say, were underappreciated, and loving them felt like doing something important for the world, like saving the whales. Shaggy, druggy Dennis Wilson had first visited her a week before, emerging from the poster over her bed, the one where he sat shirtless, in dirty blue jeans, on the hood of a ’55 Chevy. Dead and gone, in his suntan and windswept hair, he had stepped from the poster and lain on top of Jules, pressing his weight onto her sleeping body. And now he had done it again.

“What did he do?”

“Nothing,” she said. “And everything. He was wicked heavy, and then he got heavier. I could feel him breathing. And other things.”

“What other things?”

She whispered, “I could feel his bulge.”

“Did he do anything with it?”

“He just. You know. Pressed.”

I tried to picture it. The blue jeans, the leather belt with its chunky buckle.

“Did he come?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Did you?”

“I don’t know. I felt wicked weird. Like strange.”

“When you’re strange,” I quoted from a Doors song, “faces come out of the rain.”

Jules gave a solemn nod to the profound truth of that lyric. While she loved dead drummers above all, her heart held space for other departed idols—­Jim Morrison, James Dean, John Lennon—­their tragic ends sweetening the impossibility of her desire.

“Maybe you were high,” I suggested. High was something that happened, not from taking drugs, but from your mind altering itself naturally, because you were a weirdo. When you were high, your head went bubbly, your skin tingled, and you felt things that weren’t there. This was part of girlcraft, the power to set your body on fire without a match, and later, to come without being touched. When Jules and I were really high, we were in the Twilight Zone, where everything became bright with meaning. A phone that rings twice and then stops. Seeing the time 11:11 on a digital clock. Then seeing it again. Coincidences. Déjà vu. We could also get high from green M&M’s, a delicacy we hoarded in our jewelry boxes because we’d heard they produced a psychedelic effect with aphrodisiac qualities.

“Did you take any greens before bed?” I asked, handing over my pizza crust, her favorite part.

“I wasn’t high,” she said. “It was Dennis. He’s trying to tell me something.”

“Yeah, he’s trying to tell you he wants to get in your pants.”

In these discussions, I never stopped to ask why Dennis Wilson, a famous heartthrob who could have any of the sexiest women in Malibu or Hollywood, or anywhere on the planet, would choose to spend his erotic afterlife in the boondocks of Massachusetts to press himself against an average girl still figuring out how to manage a pimply T-­zone. Such a question would not only have been cruel, it would have ruined the fun. Also, I believed the ghost story was true. Dennis Wilson chose Jules Cobb the way Michael Jackson, if he’d ever received my letters, would have chosen me, Mel Pulaski.

After pizza, we went to Jules’ house, where the television got all the cable stations. Most of the houses in that depressed town were the same, plain Folk Victorians with peeling paint, crabgrass front yards, and cracked driveways veined with green. Lopsided garages hung with netless basketball hoops. Chain-­link fences and American flags. “Reagan-Bush ’84” bumper stickers on beaters yet to die in the annual Fourth of July demolition derby. But Jules’ house was different. It was underground, a cinderblock box buried in the earth. You could see the upper part sticking out, with its asphalt-­shingled roof and basement-­style window wells dug in the dirt. If you had long legs, as I did, you could walk right over and sit on it.

We dropped our bikes in the scruffy grass, wheels spinning, and descended a set of concrete steps to the subterranean gloom. The place felt like a bunker, spiked with the odor of earth and iron. It was the brainchild of Jules’ father, Ray Cobb, a bearded, blustery man who smoked pot and worried about nuclear war with the Russians, his paranoia shifting with the evening news, bending always toward a fear of penetration. He wore a knife in a leather sheath on his belt and stayed close to guns, working a forge at the Smith & Wesson factory, like Hephaestus, Greek god of metal and fire. He had a habit of pocketing the irregular discards, so you might find a six-­chambered cylinder wedged between the couch cushions or a snub-­nosed barrel sitting in the soap dish on the bathroom sink, as startling as a severed finger.

Jules plopped on the couch, its wheezing Naugahyde patched with duct tape, and pressed buttons on the TV clicker while I foraged in the kitchen. Cases of Tab soda stood stacked by the fridge, off-­limits by order of Jules’ mother, who’d been stockpiling cans of old Tab since she heard the manufacturers were changing the formula, replacing saccharin with NutraSweet. Ginny Cobb was a Tab fiend, and she did not want to lose the metallic tang of her favorite chemical sweetener, even if it did give bladder cancer to rats. In the mornings, instead of coffee, she heated Tab in a microwave oven and drank it from a mug decorated with a Ziggy cartoon: “Hang in there. Today won’t last forever.” This summed up Ginny’s philosophy of life, in which each day was to be endured until its hotly anticipated end. Maybe it was all the saccharin that made her hair limp and her skin gray, pulled tight over the bones of her face, a pair of drop-­temple eyeglasses that looked like butterfly wings alighted on the bridge of her flinty nose. Maybe it was just the meanness that dwelled inside her like an incurable condition. Ray scared me, but Ginny terrified. I didn’t like being around either of them, but during the day, the Cobbs went to work, including Jules’ older brother, Dale, just graduated from Swaffham High, and the house was ours. I found half a pizza in the fridge and we ate it cold, sitting in the air conditioner’s chill, watching Jaws 3 in 3D, except 3D didn’t work on the television, so it just looked extra fake when the shark smashed through an underwater window at SeaWorld and started eating the park employees.

“My dad’s such an asshole,” Jules said.

“Yeah,” I agreed, though I didn’t know why, in that moment, Ray was an asshole, only that Jules always said so, spurred by some dark thought running on a track in her head. I mostly encountered Ray on Saturdays, when he was on the couch, smoking pot in front of Channel 5’s Candlepin Bowling, and if we tried to hang around, Ginny would come storming into Jules’ room, screaming at us to shut the hell up and go outside, because “Your father is trying to rest goddammit!” Ginny was always kicking us out, and on those lazy summer weekdays in the underground house, I knew it was best to get on my bike by 5:45 so I could be gone before she came home and said, “Melanie, it’s time for you to leave.” No one ever called me Melanie. People knew to call me Mel, the way Jules never went by Julie-­Anne. But Ginny had a cold-blooded way of kicking me out, and I never resisted. She gave me the sense there was something unlikeable about me, and it generated a bad feeling inside, like my stomach agreed I was rotten at the core.

After hours of television, I said goodbye to Jules and set off. The early evening tasted sweet with settling heat on mown grass and honeysuckle, and I didn’t feel like going home. I rode my bike the long way, down the farm roads where the Strawberry Festival had come and gone, and a barn full of cows made milk that got churned into ice cream at the Lazy Meadows Creamery. A bunch of kids clamored at the window, grabbing cones in their grubby hands, and I thought to stop for one but kept going. I worried about my weight. Lately, walking my body through the world felt effortful, my legs grown longer and thicker, but being on the bike made it easy, the way a whale might feel while swimming, unbound by gravity. I had worked up a good head of steam and my body felt smooth and powerful. The sun came in low across the treetops, intensifying the green of their summer-­fat leaves, and the sight of that throbbing light, saturated thick with gold, urged me to stick my arms out like airplane wings.

Unbidden, the woman at the drugstore returned. I imagined her Trans Am coming down the road. She would recognize me, pull over, and I’d rest my palm against the sun-­warmed metal of the car. She’d have one hand on the wheel and the other out the window, a cigarette between her long fingers clustered in silver rings, bright with lozenges of turquoise. She’d be listening to that music, a song I’d never heard, and she’d tell me the name of the band, opening up a new sonic pathway. She’d offer me a Marlboro, and though I’d never tried before, I’d know exactly what to do. The smoke would go down smooth and warm, tasting of the most delicious thing, an adult flavor, toasted and nutty, spiced with the equine fervor of cowboys herding cattle in snowy mountains. Flavor Country. And then? I could not conjure what came next. Only me standing astride my ten-­speed, nodding along to the music, a breeze coming up off the strawberry fields, making the air smell of simmered sugar. Only me leaning down to see the woman’s face dusted with warmth from the falling summer light. That’s when it came to me, gliding with arms outstretched along that quiet road, flanked by sugar maples and pin oaks in full green, that what I had been struck by that afternoon at the drugstore was a crush and the reason I didn’t recognize it was because it was a crush on a woman, the sort of thing that was not supposed to happen. Not to me. And not in Swaffham. I squeezed the brakes and stopped. I had crossed the town line, something I’d never done by myself, and hadn’t even noticed.

I looked back at the sign that marked the border. “Entering Swaffham,” it read, “EST. 1646,” the year of witch hysteria in New England. Nearby stood a sign for Crime Watch Community. “We are watching,” it read above an all-­seeing eye. “We report all suspicious persons to our police department.” Did my new crush make me a suspicious person? I had not asked for this. For some of us, there comes a moment when we realize that the object of our desire lies outside our known world, beyond our towns and families. Out there, we understand, there is another way to want, to have, to be. Sometimes, even when we do not venture out to find it, when we try to want only what we are given, the object comes to us. And the world, without our consent, breaks open and expands.

I took my hands off the brakes and kept going. The sky was turning violet, but I didn’t want to go home. There was nothing there for me except the vapor of my mother’s perfume, a lonely supper of hot dogs and baked beans, my father upstairs with his six-­pack, and television, television.

__________________________________

From Some Strange Music Draws Me In by Griffin Hansbury. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton. Copyright © 2024 by Griffin Hansbury.




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