by Sarah Mania
The woman on the radio is singing about a bird. My mom and I are in her Honda, parked in the lot at Lincoln Park Zoo. I’m in the backseat, young enough to not be self-conscious of my bright purple socks. They’re bunched down around my ankles, or maybe they’re pulled up taut. Regardless, I’m not thinking that they’d look better one way or another.
I’m thinking about how the woman on the radio is telling us about a bird with a broken wing, and how this bird’s husband just came upstairs in their treehouse to find their little bedroom window curtain flapping in the breeze. The bird has a broken wing, but she still flew out the window. I think the husband bird is probably confused and wondering where she went. I don’t ask my mom what she thinks.
Twenty years later, it hurts to think about who my mom was when she listened to this song (married and a mother and then separated, having just returned from living abroad, layering upon the foundation she’s been building since she had a sense of self). Did she see parts of herself in the music? If she did, was it the good or the bad? Did she cry, like I do now when I listen to the same song? If she did, was it while I was sitting behind her?
We’re driving down Maple, past the movie theatre and Baja Fresh and under the El tracks. I’m young, so I’m in the backseat. I’m telling my dad something. It’s not an especially reciprocal conversation; I’m probably telling a story. My dad is saying, “Ah, so.” I tell him the next thing I have to say. He says, “I see.” We keep driving.
Milo’s a smart dog. He knows when you’re happy, and his wagging tail will thwap-thwap-thwap little bruises on your shins, reminders that he’s happy, too. He knows when you’re sad, and if you crouch down to his level, he’ll hook his head over your shoulder and sigh his long sigh. He knows when he’s done something wrong, and you’ll only have to have to ask him once (“Milo, what did you do?”) before the guilt in his eyes becomes too much to incite real anger.
When it gets to be about four-thirty on weekdays, Milo’s on high alert. Somewhere on the road, there’s a silver Dodge Ram 4x4. My step-dad is on his way home from work and Milo is going to be the first to tell us. He’s going to be the first to recognize the truck’s engine when it’s still too far away for us to hear. He’s going to start whining as soon as the truck rounds the corner off of Emerson, glugging its way down our block. He’s going to push up off the floor with his hind legs, front paws rising up a couple of inches before his nails click back down on the hardwood. He’s going to make sure we know that Tony is home, Tony is home!
Milo’s a smart dog, and we love him for it.
My dad and I don’t watch The Wizard of Oz — we listen to it. Every time we drive to see our family in Michigan or Indiana, out comes that cassette, the soundtrack to so many miles, the precursor to when he’ll pull off on some back road so I can start practice driving when I’m eight, nine, ten.
I can’t remember, but I imagine that he hums, tapping his fingers against the wheel. I can picture him singing along to “because, because, because, because, because,” emphasizing the middle vowels in the last “because.” He hits the notes while he’s whistling, dramatizes the sounds even better than if he sang.
I don’t know how old I am when we get our landline. I don’t remember where we’re living when I memorize our number, whether it’s at the two-flat with my mom and dad or at the new house with my mom and step-dad. I’m not sure if we have a corded phone to begin with, or if we purchase a cordless package right away, with three phones to misplace around the house.
Once I memorize the number, though, I don’t forget it. If we’ve always had that number, then we’ve always had it; if there was one before it, I don’t know it.
I’ve always wondered why they assigned little tones to the button pads on phones. Probably for people who couldn’t see the numbers while they were dialing. Who decided on those tones? Who ensures every single phone I dial from resounds with the same unique song every number carries?
That’s what I miss the most on some days. I miss hearing our home phone number being dialed. I wish so badly that my mom and step-dad could have taken our number with them when they moved to Wisconsin. I cry because never again am I going to hear our home’s song, its little calling card.
On weekends between 2007 and 2013, the best indicator to my dad being awake is the sound of his keyboard. Halfway across the condo and through my closed door, I can lie in bed, my eyes still closed, and hear him typing away. Maybe he’s listening to Pink Floyd or Deadmau5 or the Beastie Boys. Maybe the Assyrian church across the street is already celebrating that weekend’s wedding with music that fills the neighborhood, and maybe I’ll get out of bed to join him in craning our necks through the window to see everyone standing outside. Maybe it’s just his stream of consciousness, tapped out across 104 keys.
I can’t tell whether or not he’s at his keyboard anymore. We live in a house. His computer is in the garage. I can’t hear through the number of walls between us.
We put Milo down on a Friday in May. Before heading to the vet, I take him for a walk. He doesn’t resemble the same dog he’s been for the past year, visibly in pain, arthritic, growling at the puppy we adopted in October. During our walk, he is panting, wagging his tail, sniffing all he can. I call my mom while we turn back toward home and tell her how happy and agile he is.
“He knows,” she says. “He totally knows.”
Milo and I are the first to get to the vet, our family meeting us a few minutes later. It’s both relieving and heartbreaking to hear how much steadier his breathing is after the doctor gives him the first round of sedatives. It reinforces the fact that it’s Milo’s time to go, no matter how much I don’t want to give him up.
The worst part about putting him down is that I know exactly where we’re leaving him once we’re out of the vet and getting into our cars. I know he’ll stay at the vet, wrapped in a blanket on the floor, while I start my Jeep and listen to the engine sound the way it’s always sounded.
I’m getting my second tattoo that afternoon. Over the hum of the needle, my artist asks how I’m doing. I tell him we’ve just put down our dog of eleven years. He says he’s sorry and I thank him. I tell myself and anyone who can hear that Milo is in a better place now.
On my drive home, I listen to a CD a friend made. “Pursuit of Happiness” comes on and, at first, I don’t mind. I like the song; I like Kid Cudi’s voice; I’ve got the lyrics written on a piece of paper tacked to my bedroom wall. I don’t know how long it takes, but soon all I can think about is the fact that Milo just wanted to be happy and have a good life and that’s literally all he was doing, pursuing happiness. He didn’t know what else to do. Kid Cudi is singing about my dog. All Milo wanted and all we wanted was for him to be happy and loved.
I begin to cry, and by the time I’m parked in front of my house, I’m bawling. I can’t get out of the car. My dog is dead. He will not be there to greet me when I open the door, no nails clicking on the hardwood. My dog is dead and we did that to him. I don’t want to face that fact, face what we’ve done. I don’t want to go into my house because I am suddenly hyper-aware, uncomfortably aware, like someone is slapping me across the face, your dog is dead, your dog is dead, Milo is dead, he’s not here anymore.
For years, I don’t want to listen to “Pursuit of Happiness.” I can stand the Lissie cover, even sing along, but Kid Cudi is a no-go. I don’t want to remember what it was like to sit in my car in front of my house.
My mom sings. I sing, too, but she sings well. She matches voices on the radio, the CDs. She sings while she’s driving. She sings while she’s cleaning. She sings in the shower.
My mom sings what she’s been listening to since before I was born. But if I’ve listened to it, chances are my mom’s sang it as well. She’s echoing who I am, while still on her own wavelength.
When I’m younger, it’s “Amazing Grace,” a lot. Shania Twain; Dixie Chicks; Martina McBride; Bad Company; Aerosmith. The version of “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” where Elmo’s singing (I also sing that one). Van Halen.
As I get older, it’s Natasha Bedingfield; Alicia Keys; Christina Aguilera; Nickelback (I judge her for buying their album); Fall Out Boy; Essential Dixie Chicks; Johnny Cash; Hilary and Haylie Duff’s version of “Our Lips Are Sealed”; The Go-Go’s original “Our Lips Are Sealed”; Sarah Hudson; Evanescence.
Then, Adele; Carrie Underwood; Blake Shelton; Miranda Lambert; Whitesnake; Rush; more Aerosmith when Steven Tyler joins American Idol; Heart; “Brass in Pocket”; ABBA in Mamma Mia when we buy it on Amazon; “Amie” and “Dixieland Delight” when we’re listening to my country playlist in Wisconsin; Led Zeppelin; Redbone; Des’ree; Jo Dee Messina.
When my mom sings, I like singing with her, but most of the time it’s better to listen.
I’m saying something to my dad. I’m telling him about work or a friend or something else. He says, “I see.”
I think he’s not listening to me. I think he’s not concerned with coming up with a reply. I think I’d rather feel as I did when I was young, when “I see” and “Ah, so” were just remarks, just acknowledgements, when I didn’t consider how much weight two words could hold.
It feels as if Natalie Maines is calling me out. While she’s singing, I read between the lines: “How could you move to California?” she’s asking. “How could you take the same path as everyone else? Who are you to think that what you’re doing is good, that you’re making the right choice?”
Probably other people feel as if Natalie Maines is calling them out, too. The Dixie Chicks have been singing “Wide Open Spaces” for twenty years. It took me about nineteen years to get to a point in my life where, 95 percent of the time, I start tearing up at the 40-second mark, then sixteen seconds later I’m wiping away tears.
I never used to cry when I heard that song. I used it as the title to my freshman year photography final in high school. At that time, I didn’t understand what Natalie was singing about, not really. The song meant something to me because I’d been hearing it since I was a toddler, because it meant something to my mom. That’s it. Natalie was singing about my future and I wouldn’t know it for another seven years.
I’m driving to work when I hear it. It’s the same glug-glug-ing, the same fast, diesel-powered engine. Milo’s not here, so I have to be the one paying attention, swiveling my head as much as I can while staying in my lane.
My step-dad sold his truck years ago, and I’m in Los Angeles now, but I’m still going to look. I have to look.
I tear up when my friend texts me about Mac Miller dying. I don’t understand. How can he be gone? He was one of the first rappers I truly listened to. He was one of those first rappers I still listen to. His happiness helps me to recognize my own. When I’m sad and struggling, he’s there, sharing his own pain.
I cry when I’m getting ready for bed that night. It feels like a really mean joke, like it can’t actually be real. How could he leave? How could he be done already?
As I listen to his music over the coming days, I hear it differently, of course. I hear him foreshadow his death. I hear him disregard dying. I hear him having conversations, coming to conclusions, wondering, hoping. I’m thinking about the music video for “Best Day Ever,” and how his lyrics were on the same sheet, on my bedroom wall, that had Kid Cudi’s. I’m thinking about 2010, when I was hearing K.I.D.S. for the first time. I’m thinking that there used to be a time when none of what I’ve been hearing really mattered to me. Aren’t I lucky it all matters now?
SARAH MANIA is a Midwest-raised girl who loves New England almost as much as she loves ranch. She is learning to once more give writing a chance after having ignored her writing degree for almost as long as she's had it. She over-organizes spreadsheets for fun, enjoys Wikipedia deep dives, and thinks light beers are for when you need to rehydrate.
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