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The Body is Still Warm


April 30, 2006

What I listened for, as a young listener to rock or new wave or punk, was a sense of initiation and danger. Somewhere in the perfect combination of chord changes and cryptic lyrics, the song would spell out my future.

____________________________

There’s a particular song you don’t hear much anymore. In my high school years, though song and singer and band hailed from a prior era, the era of dinosaurs, the band was one to which so many then-contemporary groups paid homage. You could still hear the song in people’s memories, not just on classic rock stations. And whenever the dinosaur band toured, it triumphed by upturning more recent heirs.

I was never a big discographer type: I didn’t cotton to factoids about when a song was produced, with which producer, in which recording studio with which acoustics, who sat in on keyboards or lent which vocals, or what fracas ensued from the master tape being owned by which devil. What I listened for, as a young listener to rock or new wave or punk, was a sense of initiation and danger. Somewhere in the perfect combination of chord changes and cryptic lyrics, the song would spell out my future.

My best friend in high school was a tall Serb-Cherokee, a child of academics in Berkeley of the Eighties, which was like a town inhaling during the corset of the Reagan years. Conspicuous consumption was on the rise in Alice Waters’ gourmet ghetto and beyond: the future to avoid was a gaping dragon’s maw made up of money and blandness, evidence being the yuppies with their loud laughs and candy-colored Izod shirts emblazoned with little alligators, their own reptilian mouths half-open, caught forever in their own moment of consumption, all of it spilling out of San Francisco’s new zinc and chrome bars, all of it foreplay for the advent of Silicon Valley. If those streets had possessed a subtitle, they would have said I am hungry and nothing will stop me.

For all sorts of reasons not to enter now, I’d often been told I was one of those textbook foster kids, one of those resilient kids who patch together some version of a parent out of the few strong fleeting adult connections they make. I’d lived in group homes waiting for placement but finally around third grade ended up settling in Berkeley with a nice wealthy older widow whom I called Ma almost immediately, because I’d seen that doing so increased my chances of staying longer in a good situation, but in this case it soon felt right. Ma became my mommy: kind, benignly negligent, wanting to fill her nest, ensuring I wanted for nothing. In certain moments, an access of tenderness would flood her and she’d even call me my egg.

As a pale-faced girl who looked like she could cry easily,
I’d been a minority, had been beaten up
not infrequently at school.

Stationed in her grand house, I went to public school in Berkeley and Oakland during the height of busing, went to schools with Black Panther principals named Big Daddy. I was obedient to every part of my new regime. I learned how to do the Robot and dance to Miriam Makeba and to Native drums, learned how to sing Japanese kite songs and incubate a chick and how to carry around a big pad and pencil as transcriber for my own self-appointed third-grade yearlong project of Say Something, whose highlights I can quote from memory.

To wit:

Me: “Say something.”
Local Informant #3267: “Something.”
Me: “Something else.”
LI #3267: “Something else.”

As a pale-faced girl who looked like she could cry easily, I’d been a minority, had been beaten up not infrequently at school. When I escaped from spelling-bee whizdom and shy dorkiness and Say Something, all of which delighted Ma, when I came to the small shaggy private high school that was to become my own incubator, I first sighted my future best friend in the halls, like a dark flash, laughing

Her first act was borrowing money from me gleefully in the Safeway near the school. She didn’t know me and from another checkout stand she called out, her gangly self and freedom from shame making her hopelessly attractive.

Later on—that day? that week?—we took a bus to Telegraph Avenue, where all the Vietnam veterans sat on the street, congregated among streetsellers of tie-dyed t-shirts, jewelry beaded or in silver and turquoise in homage to our conquered indigenous nations, and handmade incense in honor of spiritual quest. We saw the black-bereted Bubble Lady selling her own chapbook of poems (today we might call it a ‘zine) and blowing bubbles at passersby. We bought a stick of sandalwood incense from a passing man, burnt it as we walked, and we felt outré, entering the dying world of the hippies with the secret sincerity of mobile, ironic youth.

Once, when it rained, we borrowed my mother’s nineteen-fifties’ constructed bikinis and, unlicensed, bikini’d, took the family car to a nearby clearing under some trees where we lay on our backs and received the drops in some odd undrugged ecstasy of communion.

Over only a few weeks, we became a bubble unto ourselves in the high school. To my friend’s credit—I’ll call her L—she was a jokester, the middle child between two brothers, and possessed a certain oblivion to the feelings of others which I welcomed.

On the day we were to dissect pigs in biology class, knowing of my squeamishness, she stole my lab book for long enough to insert a thick slice of ham between the pages. Another time, she filled my locker with water balloons that poured out in an explosion. Once, when it rained, we borrowed my mother’s nineteen-fifties’ constructed bikinis and, unlicensed, bikini’d, took the family car to a nearby clearing under some trees where we lay on our backs and received the drops in some odd undrugged ecstasy of communion. We went to upperclassmen’s parties but instead of entering would sit nearby under some trees under a white sheet – and who had brought along the white sheet? and for what use had we intended it? – smoking small oregano cigarettes we had rolled ourselves. Or peed out the window from second-story locked rooms at a party, our joked-about potential crushes walking on the street, seconds away from sighting our bare rear ends, shameful windowsill teenage moons.

Our school had its own odd topography. Stoners sat on the roof of the school, listening to Neil Young and entering into dense, eloquent silences. Future Izod-wearing lawyers were almost indistinguishable from the many oddities, like the guy who looked like Trotsky and carried a small black briefcase around everywhere, a ruler within it to measure the straightness of the nose of any potential future wife. L and I belonged to no group but liked to travel among them all, which was possible in a small high school. Just as I did, she had an older soccer-playing brother at the school. Certain older boys who according to my older brother may have had a crush on us to us were just silly background: we’d see them in the halls and, following L’s lead, I’d squeal something and run back.

L’s humor could be cruel, and from the start I was so besotted with her I didn’t become a conscientious objector. One very assured sophomore girl had a slight limp which made her lift her right toe, pointed like a ballerina doing a parallel pas de chat, and when we saw her, we indiscernibly pointed our toes. To do so felt less like cruelty and more like crafting a bridge between our solipsism and every element of the external world, connecting to the world in a fit of girlishness, like a Giacometti drawing in which the potentially isolated figure bursts forth a wild network of lines between the self and the surrounding room.

Sometimes we would say we were sorority girls in Phi Delta Kappa, or would topless-sunbathe at a local lake and when the lifeguard caught us, would pretend to be French or Swedish. Sometimes we were sisters, sometimes cousins, sometimes we may as well have inhabited the same skin.

Weekend nights we had certain rituals. We would walk between my house – in the south flatlands of Berkeley – through wooded campus, rape-oblivious, to the highlands of her parents’ house in the hills, in the misty perfume of north Berkeley. We’d stop to climb a plum tree or enter the fluorescence of the 7-11 for bubble gum. We would eat cereal in the aisles of Safeway with spoons and bowls borrowed from the store. Often enough, we’d walk past Frat Row, with its endless parties. We were not so discerning about the actual frat boys: we saw them as adults and we were fourteen, fifteen. The boys were not interesting in themselves, not really: what was fun was the taboo of our statutory bubble’s entry into a place we didn’t belong. We’d walk into a frat house or a coop. Invariably a party was going on and we’d make ourselves at home in any number of ways, helping ourselves to yogurt chicken or speaking in foreign accents. We spent a lot of time giggling in bathrooms. We’d bring water pistols and spray it among earnestly dancing sorority girls and boys, or let some over sincere boy show us his room redolent with athletic socks, speaking with us about how he liked athletic girls. Perhaps our real enemy was sincerity, feeling too much. We were both numbing ourselves from various injustices in our past, but our numbness must have been oppressive to the more sensitive types with whom we consorted. We used to visit the dorm room of a boy named Paul Savaso, whom we’d met him on a soccer field where we’d been tanning our legs and cracking sunflower seeds, until the day he got fed up with our folie à deux jokes and forbade our return. Two frat boys threw us, not without our shrieking complicity, into a fountain at Bancroft and College as recompense for our unwitting form of the tease. Because making ourselves at home in a fraternity house or someone’s dorm did not mean we ever kissed or slept with the boys: what was fun was the sense of unilateral exchange, a budding power which we didn’t fully understand, our bubble of oblivion keeping us content. We created biographies that changed daily, but kept our names as Lola One and Lola Two. Sometimes we would say we were sorority girls in Phi Delta Kappa, or would topless-sunbathe at a local lake and when the lifeguard caught us, would pretend to be French or Swedish. Sometimes we were sisters, sometimes cousins, sometimes we may as well have inhabited the same skin.

Really, we might have been Catholic-school girls, rather than girls whose parents had no idea where they were in the Berkeley of the eighties: our friendship kept us that chaste. To borrow a term from another era’s lexicon, we were teases. But being a tease suggests true knowledge and manipulation when we were both virgins, dancing on the brink of understanding a power that had been given us a little too early. We didn’t want to look at the power. Or rather, we wished to use it but not possess it, like enlightened despots of pubescent sexuality willing to listen to our peasants without ever taking all the charges of stolen cows and pilfered land as seriously as the workers might have liked.

Behind all these travels in best-friendship played a couple of movies and a soundtrack. Both movies were from swinging London of the sixties: Quadrophenia, featuring The Who in pill-addled, bonking high spirits, and Performance, in which Mick Jagger plays a gangster living it up, rousting about in leopard-print velvet pads with various actresses to whom, in our Tease moments, L and I had been occasionally referenced. Both somehow signified our mischievous candied future, our ability to hold power among danger without either element mastering us.

Our love was probably less sexual than total,
Californian in its appreciation of the other’s physical being, an annexation of identity. We gave each other long massages with oil in invented steam rooms powered by blow-dryers under a sheet. . .

We had all along been physical with each other in some sort of jokey nipple-tweaking way. We had nicknamed each other Buxom, as if to simultaneously name and defuse one site of our power. Our love was probably less sexual than total, Californian in its appreciation of the other’s physical being, an annexation of identity. We gave each other long massages with oil in invented steam rooms powered by blow-dryers under a sheet, horrifying L’s father when he saw us engaged in such sport. But the actual sexual act was not conceivable. Music must have been our kind of lubrication.

Perhaps inevitably, we befriended a guy who must have been only in his twenties but who might as well have been in his fifties, a big genial bearded bear of a man who worked in a Telegraph Avenue used-record store and went by the name Big George. He’d hand us old records on the sly so that we each amassed a great collection, with Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, The Who, The Clash, and The Kinks figuring predominantly, a real departure from the Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens and the Oakland lesbian groups whose work I’d memorized in my earlier years. Go back into the darkness like the wild thing that you are. Sing out a song of the soul. I would go through the desert for you.

L’s older brother had great musical taste and we considered him a real saveur. By some implicit agreement, she and I divvied up bands. We shared a love of all the obscure songs in the Rolling Stones oeuvre, and bits of David Bowie. L’s brother had initiated her into Dylan, we both went to an early Clash concert and were smitten, and we used The Doors and The Kinks as mood regulators, getting dressed in our uniform of tank tops and plaid shirts before going out on a nighttime walkabout, ready for serendipity.

But there were three songs that could move me so deeply in my marrow, more than any others, and now that I don’t see L anymore so often, I marvel at the iconic power that certain chord changes and lyrics can signify.

The first song, about a relationship gone sour, began like this:

Angie (lucid, sad guitar riff), Angie, when will those clouds all disappear?

And L, during the peak of our friendship would like to twiddle me a bit, playing “Angie” unexpectedly at me, like an instrument of war, because its A-minor sentiment always made me cry. With no loving in our souls, and no money in our coats, who can say we’re satisfied? Did I hear in those lyrics the end of my friendship with L? Did I hear the future adult malaise of other relationships?

The second song came from my foster brother’s domain: the Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here”. Can you blame a cold spring rain, a smile from a veil – did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts – wish you were here.

But the last song was more core, more essential to my budding sense of self, and had loaned us our nighttime names. It began deceptively bubblegum, danger-free, like this:

I met her at a party down in old Soho
We drank champagne that taste just like coca-cola
La la la la Lola.

It was by The Kinks, the band that I got to implicitly claim, whether by affinity or prior knowledge. In the song, I must have heard my future without L, a song of experience.

My junior year of high school, I went away for a semester abroad to Jerusalem, living out the unfulfilled desires of Ma. When I returned, punk and new wave formed L’s new soundtrack, without much reference to our old tracks. We did both like The Cure, and The Psychedelic Furs, with their bleary morning-after tenderness and mumbled lyrics and fluted British nasalities over simple, grumbled guitar, but there were whole areas I didn’t wish to follow her into: The Smiths, for one, or her habit of not showing up for our walkabouts, or her new highly hair-gelled punk friend who went out with L’s older brother and whose disyllabic name, whenever I heard it, bored into me like a gut punch. Firing back against loss, our senior year of high school, we both took on serious older boyfriends. I didn’t go to my senior prom but instead went with my new mate to see her new mate singing in a San Francisco club, and then went out to some cold San Francisco beach to lose my virginity. Another defloration occurred in that I went to a different record store – Big George had moved on — and bought The Ramones and The Replacements and XTC on my own.

Went with other people to see Elvis Costello and King Sunny Adé and even The Kinks perform. L and I had become musically unfaithful. We lacked reference to our past. The girlhood bubble had popped.

Recently, a friend was trying to figure out the song “Lola” on the guitar. When he hit the chords right, I felt that marrow shiver return. The song has an intro that goes like this: C (repeated eight times), D, E major. The stuttered insistence of the C is the first foreshadowing of the danger zones into which the song will slip later, the C a temporary illusion of ease. I used to feel that if I listened closely enough, I’d find my future.

I’m not the world’s most passionate man
But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man and so is Lola

Somewhere around so is Lola, a potent danger chord enters, but really it’s just the return of that sneaky C, naturalizing the sharp of the A-D-E structure carried by the rest of the song.

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed-up world, a shook-up world<
And so is Lola.

Later on, in some understanding of the world, based on the choice of a single upperclass girl both L and I had glamorized in our high school, I applied to a fancy college on the East Coast, early admission, and to my surprise got in. If I hadn’t got in, I had been considering joining some confected, touring all-women’s band for which I’d auditioned as a keyboardist, though that would have not been true to the widow’s Rosetta Stone and the culture of our three-person family or high school, only true to my fantasy life (cf. Performance, Quadrophenia).

L and I, in a last-fling attempt at girlhood, that summer before college, had gone budget-traveling together in Europe, following our idea of both Kerouac and Hemingway, luminaries admired by her older brother: we stayed with heroin addicts in Paris, slept in rosebeds in Cannes, on parkgrounds in Pamplona, at a surfer’s home in Biarritz, under boats on the beach in Greece before the policemen came to wake us with their flashlights. Bad things happened to me along the way, happened to both of us, and we couldn’t find a way to get our own connection flowing again: the fuses didn’t connect. I thought, too, that she was taking men too seriously, including the budding rock-star boyfriend she’d left back in San Francisco. In On the Road, Dean Moriarty and Sal hadn’t let their conquests stir up their friendship, had they? She read my diary and was dismayed at my dismay. Once, on a Greek island beach, I saw a trace of the female tenderness that had been hiding under four years of her irony and teasing and manic activities, a maternal tilt to her head, but its unfamiliarity made our sundering complete, as if she showed a breed of motherly pity we’d never have dared feel for the other all along.

What had been sacred for me about my bubble with L was that sexuality hadn’t consumed it: our friendship was a vessel for all those odd hormonal energies, but hadn’t been named by it.

In college at the time, in the years after college, it almost came with the curriculum and post-graduate sensibility to perform a certain kind of lesbian experimentation and feel the act was political. One more strike against the patriarchy! Girls from Boise and girls from the South Side and girls from Berkeley joined the Women’s Center and tangled limbs and found a way to bring to earth all that highfalutin and heavy-breathing French literary theory and feminist film theory and deconstruction that surrounded us. After college many of these same girls ended up growing their hair long and in oddly conventional marriages to stockbrokers (welcome to the nineties, the zeros). We may all be on a spectrum ranging from the heterosexual to the homosexual, but apart from those of my friends who had innately strong sexual feelings for women, I felt that college girls who’d lacked an L in high school, who hadn’t had the body-friendliness of California, who hadn’t known the completeness of female camaraderie, were more likely to take their flings seriously, as cartoon-flipped signposts for their future, rather than as some sort of theory-driven gangway, or, more psychologically, as a way to link to Mother when one was undergoing one’s first big separation, homelessness, individuation. They were finding some breasts to hide between.

What had been sacred for me about my bubble with L was that sexuality hadn’t consumed it: our friendship was a vessel for all those odd hormonal energies, but hadn’t been named by it. Thinking of that epoch of Lola One and Two, I wonder if there’s a name for the complete love one teenage girl can have for another, a place defended against the onslaught of precocious American heterosexist socializing or adulthood’s torrid-water echo in homosexist theory. This indefinability makes me understand why a pop song about an initiation with a British transvestite became the marrow-song of my four high-school years. I must have known that the moment of getting to live in an oblivious female bubble was precious, undefinable, fleeting, cruel and foolish, a last song of innocence.

Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed-up world, a shook-up world
and so is Lola.

Edie Meidav is the author of The Far Field: A Novel of Ceylon and Crawl Space . She recently won the Bard Fiction Prize for writers under 40, and is currently in residence at Bard College in New York.

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