I grew up in a house of dust. It wasn’t filth. It wasn’t old age accumulating with legless spiders in corners and coppery flies between window screens. Was it—the silent parts of things locked in sunlight, all body and no skeleton? What I learned for certain: dust reaches in one direction, stops, and then reaches elsewhere.
On the stair landing, my dad plucked at an acoustic guitar. I can’t remember the song he played, only the guitar itself: broad-bodied and stiff-necked with a squat black nose protruding from what I thought was its heart. In the living room, my mom nursed uneasy silences with John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses.” We sang, “Ain’t that America, for you and me? Ain’t that America, something to see, baby, Ain’t that America, home of the free, little pink houses for you and me.”
When my parents divorced, I did not see a broken family, only longer silences. I saw my father’s guitar propped against the wall, scraping its own pale shadow with its tuning keys.
On the night of Glenn Frey’s death, snow fell gray and heavy in the quavering streetlights. “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” played on the radio. My mom drove through the dark, noting that she never attended an Eagles concert. Outside the car, the night deepened in a way it does only in winter, from within somehow, where I feel the stars wheeling closer through the clouds even though I can’t see them. I wouldn’t want to die in the winter, I think as I watch snowflakes gather on the window. I examine them as I would the underbellies of insects, noting the similarities in anatomy among small things. Always composed of crossroads and dead ends. Always built not with surfaces in mind, but with the spaces and the emptiness between them. Observe: a snowflake folds itself into asymmetry.
I got a peaceful easy feeling and I know you won’t let me down ’cause I’m already standing on the ground.
In the fourth grade, I played the clarinet. The instrument required too many fingers at once. Not to mention, I couldn’t read music well, although I pretended. During band practice, I opened my book to “Hot Cross Buns” and watched half-notes and whole notes climb shallow staves club-footed and shy under my control. When I put music to them, they cried out raspy and provoked, probably because I got the reed too wet with my tongue. I gave up the clarinet during the second semester of fifth grade.
In sixth grade, I began to write seriously and listen to songs until I wrung them of their novelty. I devised just a rule to which my writing music must abide, which I still uphold today, albeit unofficially: poems of loss require not just sad songs, but music that aches with a body it does not have. When my grandmother died, I knew that I needed to give her a poem. I forced the first attempt from me in painless fragments. I shed the second as a sad skin and wrapped it around stanzas as if a meek protection. The final poem—it filled up from within, but I did not witness its birth. I paced my bedroom. I put in Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here and waited for a stir, flinch, a quiver.
A truth: I cannot write without silence, but I cannot write without sound either. I approached the problem with a solution in tentative steps: Enter a song afraid to write. Leave it at its fade, clutching words like things that might gets away, like sparrow feathers sensing wind or sparrows sensing quivering earth. Crawl into my quiet through an unseen void and pull it close around me until the words feel a cathartic tension in the air and break into a feverish flight.
Some things die surprisingly quiet deaths: crickets pocketed into pajama bottoms, baby birds swept up by storms, records that labored under the needle for decades before retiring to dust. On a cold morning in early February, Don McLean learned of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. Years later he would write “American Pie,” lamenting of a day that music died.
In high school, I learned that Ritchie Valens feared flying. I imagined no greater injustice than dying because of the thing you feared most. For a while, then, I began to regard fire even more warily than before. I feared even the potential of fire, particularly flames that begin in the dark. One night I stayed out too late and cowered before the parked car, waiting for a blaze to light it from within, furious and fatal.
Sometimes anxiety fills me, emptiness upon fullness. My body is all nerves, no skeleton. I struggle to stay inside my own skin; I need to flee the swelling of my blood, the heavy quiet of my brain.
I marvel at the anatomy of the acoustic guitar: full-hipped, warm-wooded, maternal in its quiet sympathy until urged out of it. I moved to a new school in the eighth grade, one that was supposed to help me learn how to break silences, namely the one that surrounded me daily like an amniotic fluid, keeping me from reaching out, as if I had anything to reach for.
Unfortunately, most of the other kids at the school faced the same dilemma: they did not fit comfortably within the boundaries of themselves.
In music classes, I sat in a corner with a guitar, pantomime playing, singing to myself, “You see I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name. It felt good to get out of the rain. In the desert, you can remember your name because there ain’t no one for to give you no pain.”
If I surround myself in song soft but resolute they could never break through. Then, and even now, I construct my life around self-talk. It’s always firm, stoic, but sometimes it lowers its voice. Sometimes it raises it. Sometimes it reaches for a high note but falls short, and I am left with the silence of my body waiting.
About the author:
Melina Papadopoulos is a recent college graduate. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Plume, Booth, The Monarch Review, among others.