Whitney Houston is pouring out the speakers of my Macbook. I am in the studio room (AKA the cat litter room) sketching cartoon dogs on a piece of paper. She is sitting on the living room floor drawing intricate patterns in her notebook, surrounded by a whirlpool of multi-colored markers. I start to sing, and she joins in and soon we are one with Whitney Houston, really belting it out.
“I wanna dance with somebody!”
“Shh,” I say, over the music. “It’s getting late, we should keep it down.” Even as I say this, I’m already moving on to the next verse.
“I need a man who’ll take a chance on a love that burns hot enough to last!”
My ass is moving in my seat and, despite how wavy it’s making my pencil lines look, I let that ass go. Do your thing, ass. It’s Thursday night, eleven PM. The cat is strolling around, purring, startled by the occasional dance outburst. Our apartment is small, the ceiling leaks. Certain corners seem to be in a perpetual state of crumbling, leaving pyramids of dust and ancient lead paint flakes for us to sweep up each night. Of course, we don’t always sweep them up nightly, more commonly we just watch the pyramids turn into mountains and hope they’ll somehow vanish come morning. The drain in the bathtub adds as much water as it expels so that every shower is also kind of a bath. But in these moments, singing songs together in off-key, tone-deaf unison, we remember: this is all kind of fun.
The song ends and then we hear it. Our neighbors upstairs are at it again. Something crashes on the floor, followed by a storm of “FUCK YOU”s. The guy calls the girl a whore, the girl calls the guy a piece of shit. Whitney Houston sighs as she fades away. Our cat even stops purring.
“Jesus, do you think we sound like that?” she asks.
“No,” I say. And we don’t. We fight often, and passionately, but without the biting violence that makes bystanders place a hand over their phone, ready to dial 9-1-1 should things get too out of hand.
She looks around the living room, makes a comment about how messy it’s getting. I tell her we’ll take care of it tomorrow or something. She fires back with the true, albeit annoying, “you always say that and it never happens” bomb. I sigh. She sighs. Whitney Houston probably sighs somewhere, too. The couple upstairs is still going strong a few minutes later. Then, a door slams and angry feet hammer down the stairs. The guy is calling after her, “FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKING BITCH!” She’s gone.
We brush our teeth and get in bed. The radiator isn’t on. We can see our breath by the dim glow of our phones. The cat, realizing we don’t plan on moving for a while, sprints into the room and hurls himself on top of us. We lay there in the gathering silence. Her bare leg touches mine and then it’s warm again. She shifts a little, her breathing becomes steady and faint. The cat begins to purr. I close my eyes and wonder what song we’ll sing tomorrow.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Michael Seymour Blake is the author/illustrator of the book, 12 Days of Santa Crying. His work has been published at or is forthcoming from Paper Darts, People Holding, Uno Kudo, among others. He has painted various murals around NYC, including one which was prominently featured at Silent Barn in Brooklyn, home to the new Mellow Pages Library. He lives in Queens, NYC.