J a n u a r y   2 0 0 2

Guest Writer

Nothing but static
Radio stations
by Amy Nuttbrock

eople are requesting cheerful pop songs about tank tops and boardwalks. But I'm leaving Miles for good, so I turn the station to NPR.

A man with a self-assured resonance is talking about his famous, institutionalized mother and reading from his book of poetry. I have already put the dog in the car and packed everything that stands for independence and solidarity: my best red shoes, a soft pair of jeans, a picture of my mom (at 24), a bag of jelly beans, Tupperware, my own pillow, my flat-filtered coffeemaker, and the oil painting I made for Miles in my "Art in Landscaping" class. I'm driving to Colorado. The air will be cold until 10 a.m. The dog licks my hair.

There are plenty of songs about dumping your boyfriend. There are more about your boyfriend dumping you. They all lament the same thing: It didn't work out.

In the 8th grade I had a crush on a slouching skateboarder who listened to radio-edited rap songs about tying your girlfriend up in the trunk of a car and rolling her off an embankment. He drew me pictures of people with round, protuberant eyes and winked at me when he wasn't calling me a retard. Once he sat by me on the bus.

"I like your shoes," he said. He fumbled with his backpack. The straps kept slipping off his shoulders. He was getting sparse, fuzzy facial hair.

When he started going out with a gum-popping ninth-grade nymphet who wore black lipstick, I got my ears pierced twice and only listened to brooding, throaty female vocalists who played the piano and sang about going crazy.

A blithe announcer reports the weather on 99.5 FM. Hot today. Eighty-seven degrees. Scattered clouds. A maternal voice advertises canned soup.

In high school, I dated a debate-team captain who switched the station at every commercial break in order to find the good songs. He liked industrial rock with low, indecipherable vocals and lots of hollow, reverberating noises. He was always trying to talk me into one thing or another.

On the weekends he would come over to my house where we'd drink cheap beer and play rowdy card games. If I were winning, he would narrow his eyes and make fun of the stuffed animals on my bed. If he were winning, he would playfully pinch my knee, my arm, my toes. Afterward, he would take off my pants and push me up against the frame of the bed. My stuffed animals would fall all over the floor. He would ask: "Why don't you go on birth control?"

Once, when he was mad at me, he invited our best friend, Mary, over to my house as a distraction. This way we couldn't have a serious confrontation. The three of us sat on the carpet and played cards and concocted sweet cocktails with lots of alcohol. Mary could drink anyone under the table. When this happened, she became slinky and raw, her stretched shirt collar slipping off one narrow shoulder. She wanted to talk about blowjobs. She smirked tentatively, which made her appear both precocious and unfledged. Her hair smelled like artificial fruit flavoring.

"Why don't you guys just make out or something?" said my station-surfing boyfriend. He didn't have a hard time talking me into that one.

A listener asks a question about the validity of New Age psychotherapies on SMAK101.1, Talk Radio. The announcer makes dry jokes about acupuncture and past-life regression.

My sister prefers radio advice hotlines and the weekly top 40 on Z-100. She once told me that I fall in love too easily. We had been lying on her quilted bed, reading magazines and eating salted peanuts under a dim lamp. She was reading an article about the success rate of personal ads.

"It's dangerous," she said, "not to mention totally empty. You should wait at least a month before you decide you're in love." My sister is three years younger than me, and she was already married and had a well-furnished house, stainless-steel cookware and a hyperactive dog. This conversation had been prompted by the fact that I had recently become obsessed with the idea of Miles wanting to tie me to a bedpost and feed me candy from a paper bag.

"He's actually very sensitive," I told my sister. He'd send me cute cards with animals on them. He'd make cookies that were soft in the middle. He'd take me to watch pornography in sleazy theaters with gum stuck to the vinyl seats.

My sister shifted and turned her back to me. Her magazine crinkled. I could feel her spine against my hipbone.

"Gross," she said.

Elton John is singing that song about the L.A. girl in blue jeans on a classic rock station. The station wavers and cracks; the song sounds furry.

In college, I slept with a public communications major who would often call in and request this Elton John song while recording himself on air, so that he could hear the sound of his own voice. He would play the tape back for me while we smoked pot and he carelessly shaved my legs. He liked avocados.

One time, on the day before Christmas vacation, I thoughtfully browsed the produce section of the grocery store, touching and squeezing nearly every avocado for the perfect three. Across the aisle, a teenaged couple in faded discount apparel and huge black boots handled vegetables and made crude jokes about cucumbers and banana squash. They touched each other's hips and chins. I dug into my pocket for a "Save 60 Cents" coupon. When I got to the communications major's apartment, I sliced the fruit into thin green strips and placed them on a ceramic dish with cheese, apples and crackers. I wrote a flowery note signed with Xs and Os. He pressed a piece of cheese into the plate with his thumb. He did not read the note.

"I only like avocados in the form of guacamole," he said. His cat darted around the kitchen, pushing an avocado pit across the linoleum until it got lost under the oven. I went home feeling dejected. I took a bath. I never told him that I hated that song.

I stop at a 7-11 on Interstate 25 to buy beef jerky and seltzer water, Cheerios for the dog. The radio is filtering 50s love songs through the intercom system.

Miles always liked Dusty Springfield. So did his father. Once we were sitting at the kitchen table over steaming bowls of take-out Chinese. We kept poking the vegetables, blowing steam off the fried pork and not making eye contact. There was a television on in the apartment upstairs. We could hear an argument, a car accident, a gloomy soundtrack.

When Miles spoke, it sounded too loud.

"My dad knew every word to 'Son of a Preacher Man,'" he said. "On Sundays we'd drive all the way to Hood River in his Ford pickup with that song playing, the windows rolled down, the heat on."

He paused to stick his tongue into a spoonful of rice. It was still too hot.

I'd heard variations of this story before. One time they drank a half case of beer on the way there. Another time his dad ran over a possum. Sometimes it was a two-hour drive. Other times it took all day. No matter what, they always went for the Hood River cherries, because they were huge and red and messy. "Not like the ones at Safeway," he said. They'd buy two huge paper bags of them for a dollar a sack at a produce stand, and I imagined them spitting the pits out the window until they got home and both sacks were empty and wrinkled, tossed under the dashboard.

I loved the way Miles looked when he said his father was "a real cool guy." His face looked far away, a half-smile curling the corners of his mouth. I wanted to roll him up in a ball and put him on my lap. When he asked me about my father, I couldn't tell him that he existed almost entirely in my mind, an image contrived from other people's fathers, fathers on TV, even his father.

There was an uproar of laughter in the apartment upstairs. Miles speared a pair of boiled tomatoes with his fork.

"Do you want these?" he asked. I reached my hand across the table and plucked the tomatoes off his fork. He pressed his lips together. His hair was all over the place like he needed a haircut.

Later, as I cleared the dishes and scraped hard little grains of rice and mashed vegetables into the trash, I could hear Miles on the telephone in the other room. He was having a seemingly intense, muffled conversation while typing on the computer. I couldn't make out anything he was saying except when he raised his voice: "Oh God, Juliana, you're hysterical. I'll be right over." Juliana was an abrasive high-strung blonde, with whom he screwed around intermittently for three years.

She was an aspiring actress who took antidepressants and called Miles at 2 a.m., usually crying about some perceived injustice. Miles hung up the phone and muttered "shit" while walking around in his socks, his hand on his chin. When he came back into the kitchen, he pinched my waist and then put the clean dishes in the wrong place on the shelf.

An in-studio guitarist is playing a song about wildlife preservation organizations. He messes up his chords, laughs about his late night and no coffee, then starts again.

A few years ago I had an affair with an ad salesman who only listened to independent college radio stations, run by 20-somethings with impudent attitudes and political agendas. I'd never heard any of those songs before. But his live-in girlfriend seemed to have every one of these grainy, basement-recorded albums stacked on the bookshelf in their living room. I remember sitting on the edge of his bathroom sink one morning, with an eyeliner poised between middle and index finger, ready to apply. The mirror was fogged around the edges and this svelte paramour was standing next to me, shaving his throat.

"Let me get this." The ad salesman wiped his chin with a wadded towel and grabbed me by my hips, swiveling me around as easily as if I were a doll. He shuffled through my make-up bag, held my chin and stuck mascara in my eye. His face looked like a furtive mouse, collecting things. There was a smear of shaving cream under his eye. I could not suppress a smile.

"Hold still," he whispered, his palm pressing into my cheek. His movements were precise and efficient. He could've been an artist or a doctor.

"Look at you," he said after a moment, proud and nodding. There was a half-moon of thick black eyeliner under each of my gray eyes. He had always preferred severity. I thought I looked like a somber rock star. We laughed. Then he went quiet and his gaze became profound and hesitant, something you could feel in your stomach. His mouth was wet at the corners. Then his tongue was between my teeth like soft fruit. His fingers fit perfectly into the curves of my vertebrae. I slipped into the base of the sink.

The ad salesman eventually became monogamous, but before I was out of the picture, I stole a stack of his girlfriend's records, and later held them to a flame over my kitchen sink where they melted into oily pools of black.

A deejay advertises a concert for a popular country-influenced rock trio, whose band includes a cello. You can win tickets if you're the third caller and answer one question correctly.

I used to turn the radio up so Miles couldn't ignore me anymore. I liked to play the country station because the women's voices were huge and certain, filling an entire room. Miles would sit in the middle of our red art-deco couch, watching a news broadcast about credit card fraud and filing his fingernails. He had beautiful hands. Each nail an individual almond.

"Could you turn that down!" he'd shout, voice sharp. There was fingernail dust on his green polo shirt. I would pretend I couldn't hear him so that he might pin me to the floor, sit on my stomach and tickle me until I'd feel like peeing. I liked the song that was blasting through the living room. It was the popular one about domestic violence that played every day at the same time, like a revolving aerial fan. I reorganized the magazines in the magazine rack. Eventually the song faded and Miles did not budge from the couch.

"Hey," I said. "Remember how we sat in the bath and did that compatibility quiz in Details Magazine?" We were compatible for at least 12 of 15 questions.

Miles sniffed dryly and placed a heel on our good coffee table. He licked his cuticles. I sat on the arm of the couch. If I were to have extended my arm, I could've touched his ear. But I didn't. The dog crawled into my lap instead. She shoved her smart, yellow face under my chin.

By the time I get between the Rockies, the sky is completely orange. The dog is resting her chin on my thigh, and I have to turn down the air conditioner. I'm getting nothing but static on every station.

I turn the radio off.

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