I’m sprawled across my favorite chair--that big, soft, warm hug of a chair. I’m kind of bored, kind of restless but not motivated enough to do anything I should be doing. Like getting out of my pajamas. Paying bills. Cleaning out my sock drawer. Oh, and writing.
You know the kind of day. And the mood, when you’re just plain itchy in your own skin and it doesn’t have a thing to do with the 110 degree temperatures sizzling outside.
I’m also feeling a little reproachable, like I’m ten years old again and my Mom’s going to come upstairs and find me lying on my stomach in the space between my pink bed and the pink wall reading Nancy Drew instead of changing out the rumpled set of pink sheets for a Spring-fresh set of pink sheets, or whatever other Saturday chore she had sent me up to perform.
So I go to the computer with the best intentions of writing – something, anything. But iTunes pops up instead, and I find myself scrolling through the thousands and thousands of songs. And it is at that moment that I have this epiphany, about mid-way on the Richter-or-whatever scale for epiphanies: I can throw aside the scrap books with all those cherished mementos--like the piece of school bus seat stuffing-fuzz that Bobby Hardy gave me in sixth grade as a sure sign of his unwavering love. I can lock away the photo albums that bear sad witness to my ever-evolving sense of style and fashion. Instead, I can put together a soundtrack of my life.
I read somewhere that our sense of smell is our most evocative memory-producer. And I believed it. I mean how could I ever forget the particular smell of my high-school boyfriend’s red RX-7 on those humid Spring nights on the way to the bowling alley. And there is this combination, of grease and clorox and linoleum and old ovens, that immediately transports me back to my fifth-grade cafeteria when one of those long, heavy institutional lunch tables tumped over on top of Stuart Edelman (you remember how certain boys were assigned each week to push the tables from both ends until the middles rose up almost to the buzzing fluorescent lights and the tables folded together to be rolled against the wall like so many umbrellas awaiting tomorrow’s noon-time storm, all to make room for square dancing or some other activity specially planned to torture gawky, self-conscious pre-pubescent kids) and Mrs. Maddox, the social studies teacher who plucked all her eyebrows then painted them back in perfectly horrifying baby-poop brown arches, reached her hand down the front of Stuart’s pants to check his budding family jewels for lunch-table trauma in front of the entire fifth grade.
Sure I believed the scent-is-superior theory. At least until today. When there it is in odorless black and white: Twelve-year-old me, coveting my older sister’s carefree hipness, sitting outside the ever-slammed door to her haven, a black-light-and-beaded center of teen-age curves and grace and secrets, in contrast to my palace of pink. Hearing wisps of 45's mingled with spicy whispers and loaded laughs. “Bye Bye Miss American Pie.” “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.” Or a friend’s older sister, long, straight hair parted Ali McGraw Love Story- style, strumming “Blowing in the Wind.” Anthems of a generation that rallied together while I was off reading Alice in Wonderland with my favorite stuffed frog. Like a seventies-era March Hare, I would be too late for that party. Or how about pulling up in front of my college dorm on a sunny afternoon. Spring semester, Sophomore year. Dorm windows open, car windows open, Reo Speedwagon. Hi-Infidelity. “Take it on the Run.” blaring from the cassette player.
Here I am in my pajamas, taking a stroll down memory lane with a music catalogue:
· Best of Bread, side two: freshman year of high school, the Friday night parties at Bobby Hardy’s (yes, the bus-seat-fuzz Bobby from third grade. But no longer a romantic interest; my fickleness is long-practiced.) Inside, couples mugging in chairs, in corners to Baby I’m a Want You, and outside on the street, “Cat Scratch Fever” and the clink of empty beer cans rolling against the curb.
· “Uptown Girl”: my crazy college roommate, now suburban housewife, mother of two and kitchen product demonstrator.
· “Take it to the Limit”: my junior high gymnastics team on the way to the regional meet, the Eagles eight-track blaring hypnotically from the coach’s van like a mantra.
· Rick Astley: 1988. I’ve finally finished seven years of higher education. A real apartment. A real job. A fun, rowdy group of single-but-dating girlfriends all piled in one friend’s Jetta (before the radio was stolen for the third and final time) on the way to somewhere or anywhere singing “Together forever, together with you” in wine-induced harmony. The Knack. “My Sharona”: junior year of high school. Freedom to drive. Cruising. Sitting on top of the open car door window, butt hanging outside. Looking and laughing across the roof of Lisa’s hand-me-down LeMans at Tammy, hanging out the other side. Beating out the chorus on the roo’f top. Lisa’s accompaniment of punches at the car horn. “Da da da da Dum dum Dum dum Dum dum... My, my, my Sharona.”
· Laura Branigan (RIP, Laura): two-thirds of the way through the eight-hour drive from home to college, three-fourths of the way to graduation.
· The Bangles. “Walk like an Egyptian”: Aerobics class in the old, cavernous ivy league gymnasium my last year of law school with a classmate, daughter of an immigrant plumbing-store owner on Long Island, first in her family to graduate college and venting the family pressure through bulimia. (Facebook tells me she’s retired from a lucrative Wall Street practice, happily living in Westchester County with a husband and children.)
· Then there is the quadruple-threat memory of that last, forced family car trip, before my Mom and Dad finally accepted the fact that teenagers would rather die than partake of parental bonding. Driving for hours and hours and hours across the vast wasteland we call the Midwest, twisting the radio dial from one backwater scritchy station to the next. And every single one of them had just four songs on the play list: the ever-popular “Afternoon Delight”, “I’ve Got a Brand New Pair of Roller Skates”, “Muskrat Love” and the record holder for the song with the fewest lyrics, “Dog, Dog, Dog Eat Dog.” Indelibly burned in my mind is the absolute hysteria of my sister and me when we walk into the hotel lobby bar to find our tragically-uncool father requesting “Afternoon Delight” from the smarmy piano player.
And of course, no soundtrack could be complete without the “our songs.
· ” Soul Asylum, “I can feel you tremble when we touch”: first year of law school, renting a car to drive to the city for the funeral of a classmate’s father with the most romantic, attentive, ode-to-me writing, soon-to-be politician I never loved.
· Phil Collins, “Groovy Kind of Love”: the one I thought I would marry (but am now relieved I didn’t). I remember him laughing when I described Phil Collins as some old washed up singer trying to make a come-back (no offense, Phil. I’ve never been particularly good at keeping artists straight). And then hearing the original version of the song on a red, beat up juke box in a small-town diner on the way to some weekend getaway. Then Phil’s version, our version, coming on the radio just as he came to pick me up for our first reunion date after we had broken up for the second time.
· The rebound guy (the one I maybe should have married), who tenderly he tried to make me love him while I insisted on living out a good-time-girl phase. He was Guns & Rose; I was Jimmy Buffet, but Barry Manilow’s sappy “Somewhere down the Road” makes me think of him still.
· Back farther, to the High School Prom and my piercingly-blue-eyed date. The traditional post-prom day at the beach. Tar-infested sand with bikini-clad girls brandishing tight tummies and new tans and almost-men flaunting day-old stubble. That would be Rush and Kansas and Styx. And Christopher Cross “Ride like the Wind,” “Say You’ll be Mine.” I didn’t, and last I heard that date was pushing penny loafers at the mall.
· “Colour My World” will be forever tied to balloons and streamers hanging from the school gym. A young couple clenched in an earnest embrace. My head on his shoulder as we struggled to avoid each other’s feet and other body parts, swaying, barely moving in an awkward square to the Last Song of the freshman Homecoming Dance.
· I can go back even farther, to fifth grade choir. Cherubs in a half moon, me at one end on the first row, Mike at the other end of the back row. Singing “Today” like our lives (or at least recess) depended on it, our eyes meeting from across the music room. I will ever think of my very first, sweet kiss, a flustered peck beside a sand trap on the golf course between school and home, when I hear about those blossoms and sweet wine.
· I’ll never hear Seal without traveling back to one living room and that first forty-eight-hour-togetherness marathon. Playing cards with his house guests, who had brought the CD of “a new group” for him to hear. How we laughed when he put on his much-played copy and how we joked together for months after, pretending each time to hear Seal for the first time.
· I’m sure, too, that I will travel across the world to an island in the south of Thailand and a table on a beach, hurriedly carried under a surf-side outcropping of a shadowy cliff, a minor concession to the warm, torrential rain that arrived in synchronicity with a bottle of champagne. Grilled lobster, crashing waves and masterful lightning creating silhouettes of the cliffs along the bay in flawless tempo with the strains of a Thai lounge singer crooning Air Supply’s “Lost in Love.” Too perfect to be true. And it was.
So many tunes, so many times. My life’s soundtrack is long and varied; I’m not quite sure what I would name that playlist. It just goes to show how richly interwoven – possibly even more than scent – is music with memory and music. And speaking of weaving, here’s Carol King’s “Tapestry.” Perhaps I’ll download the original version and the tribute version. Perhaps I’ll even get dressed.