Amy Winehouse overdosed a few months ago. In her honor, you’re wearing a black one-sleeved dress that barely covers your ass and a red carnation made out of tissue paper. “Should’ve gone to rehab” scrawled in black marker on your exposed arm. Amy is still a joke to you.
When you arrived in Máncora earlier that day, you were disappointed. Máncora: a coastal city on the Northern coast of Peru with gated hostels, surf and turf masquerading as Peruvian food, and gringo bartenders who showed up, learned to surf, and never left. Squint your eyes and imagine Miami Spring Break. This isn’t the South America you’re here for. But tonight it’s Halloween and here you are: a twenty years old, a college drop-out backpacking through the continent. You’ve promised your mom you’ll go back to school at the end of the year, but truthfully you’re not so sure.
All you’ll remember about the Halloween party: it’s a bust. Later you’re walking barefoot with a group of backpackers on the beach, berating them for screaming drunkenly in English as you sulk because the night is waning and nothing has happened yet. Okay, maybe you’re also high on coke: your heart pounds, strobing silver like a tacky nightclub. But then a beautiful Brazilian journalist reaches for your hand.
You know the sound of waves slamming the force of themselves onto the shore?
It’s like that: stripped down, dizzyingly slow.
Kissing is a universe.
Everything deep, elongated.
You have never felt so powerful, or so matched.
Like the male body could be an ocean, not vast flat plains.
Animal, but there is love.
That night you lose an earring. You’ll return the next morning to search the shore, probe the sand, but did you really think you’d find it?
Tomorrow, he leaves for the mountains, an eighteen-hour bus ride away, and he invites you to come. You imagine straddling him on the bus, fucking him without discretion in the bathroom, sprawling in his arms come darkness, come daylight. He has carved a door onto your flesh and if you choose to enter, you know there can be no going back. Everything in your body screams electric neon yes. Except for a muffled ‘no’ buried at the core. No: timid and tender and trembling. The part of you that knows sex will not promise the kind of love you seek: secure, sustained.
You ride buses in the opposite directions. You feel his marks on your body fading, so you slice your own. You scrape your legs arms stomach neck hips bloody red with fingernail knives. You claw at the windows. You vow that from now on, you will be the girl who says yes to everything.
You’re on the road again, making your weekly trip to visit your father and stepmother in New York City. You’re only five years old, but already your mother lets you sit in the passenger seat where she can hear you better and you can hold her hand. Your parents have been divorced since you were six months old and your mother will always be the one who says yes. Yes to Chinese food in bed, baths at midnight, watching Lady and the Tramp for the hundredth time. Yes even to letting you say no—to Hebrew school, to the final tap dance recital, to school today, to school tomorrow. Yes you’re too sick, yes come home to me. You always want to come home to her.
Your father and stepmother are strict. They buy you separate clothes, separate dolls, separate toys, and you’re not to speak of your mother in their presence, especially not how much you miss her. Their house is one of prohibitions, the place of no.
In the car, you sing along to musicals: Into the Woods, My Fair Lady, The King and I. You hum along and blurt the words you recognize and the shapes of the ones you don’t, while your mother taps in rhythm onto the steering wheel. When the album ends, the car turns static with silence. Soon you will arrive at your father’s apartment and already you feel the darkness brewing in your belly. You don’t want the music to end, so you belt out a song you know all the words to:
We’re off to see the wizard.
But not like that. You sing it like:
Weeeeeeeeee’re off! to….. see! the….. wizard! thewonderfulwizardof……oz.
And then you sing it like:
we’re OFF to SEE the WIZZZZZZARD, the WONDERFUL WIZARD OF oz.
Then you sing it like a baby. Then like you’re a big man with a big belly.
Your mother is smiling like a glowing star, her happiness warm honey on your tongue and you’ll keep going forever, making your mouth into silly shapes and seeing what pours out. You forget where the car is headed, that you will soon have to leave your mother for the thousandth time.Singing distracts you, a game made of pleasure and play. As you drive on, your body glows orange with music and the warmth of Mother.
Five years later, you travel down that yellow brick road again. You’ve just turned ten years old and you’re auditioning for a summer production of The Wiz in an upstate New York town. You’ve never sung in public before. Lined across the stage of the church, you don’t know how you’ll do it, only that you will. When it’s your turn, you conjure sound from a velvet place and make the room explode. The only surprise is how easy it is—this voice, this power. As if it had been waiting for you.
Your first time. Eighteen years old, you are living at a retreat center in the Northeast when you attend a workshop on North Indian classical singing. The teacher’s thick hair curls at his shoulders and his honey-brown eyes drip with a passion that frightens and intrigues you. There are so many pitches between each note, nuances you only barely discern, but as you glide up and down the scales, your skin burns with the desire to be noticed. Heard. He is more than twenty years older than you, but you don’t know this yet. Your voice stands out in the crowd and his gaze finds you, heavy and hungry.
Later, he invites you to lunch and you blurt out that you’re busy. You eat meals in your room, afraid to stumble upon him again. You’ve never been pursued like this.
But your last night, you surprise yourself: sure, why not? Together, you walk into the night. Moonlight ripples on the body of the lake and the trees regard their own reflection, doubling the world. As he fingers the muscle of your arm, your heart quickens. His lips graze your ear, his breath hot, tongue flickering. Then his hands spill over you like water and you lay down on the soft wet ground. Your skin melts beneath his fingers.All the sensations racing up your spine feel like music and you realize something deep inside youknows how to do this.
Years later, how can you regret this? Yes was an adventure. Yes was a story. Yes was the first man who claimed to love you.
When asked your favorite holiday as a child, you would have said Halloween. But it would have been a lie. It just seemed like the normal kid answer. God, you wanted to be a normal kid. In reality, Halloween was disappointing and stressful. As Hermione Granger in third grade, you wear your grandmother’s thick silver chains with dangling pentacles and carry painted cereal boxes that spell out the titles of wizardry books. But nobody recognizes you amidst all the other store-bought Hermione costumes: they just assume you’re a premature goth.
By ten years old, you’ve moved every two years and attended four different schools.
In sixth grade, when you finally have a group of friends, you expose your midriff as Jasmine and all you can think is “Keep sucking it in.” Your friends eagerly divide candy at the end of the night, but saying no to food comes as readily to you as yes comes to the others shoveling chocolates by the handful.You spend all year dreaming of zany group-theme costumes, but by the next Halloween, your friends decide they’re too old for trick-or-treating.
Really your favorite holiday has always been your birthday, in April after the first stirrings of spring. You always have two parties—one with your mom and her family, another with your dad and stepmother—and in this case, it doesn’t feel like a partition between your two worlds. Your life feels abundant. Your friends wake up early to decorate your locker and even your crush, who rarely looks in your direction, whispers Happy birthday in your ear. On your birthday, you are loved. You are special. You don’t have to dress up, wear a disguise, or pretend. All you have to be is yourself.
At twenty-two, you meet R at a friend’s birthday party. You make a date and spend a chilly September afternoon walking around the park. You quickly discover he is boring, suburban, and self-absorbed. He keeps talking about his band. The date is so lackluster that when he asks if he can see the coop where you live, it doesn’t occur to you that he could be anything more than curious about how eleven people function semi-harmoniously in a dingy Brooklyn apartment. When he pushes his wet & wanting lips against yours, you figure why not? By now this is a song you know so well.
You’re the brand of skinny that turns everything pornographic. You know how you look from every angle. slutwhorebabyangelbabybabybaby. A cutout doll. You are inside his fantasy, the wisp of breath in his lungs your shape. You slide on the condom with your mouth.
But something inside you burns. This is too fast, too much. This isn’t what you want. You ask him to pause—the closest you can come to stop. You lie there a moment, arms awkward around each other’s bodies.
A moment later he is inside you.
R doesn’t ask before he clutches your throat between his hands and presses down hard.
You didn’t say no.
You didn’t say yes.
You are surprised by this in-between place,
how familiar it feels,
hovering between dead and alive.
Afterwards you tell him you liked it, but this isn’t what you mean.
Most of all, you will regret telling him this fragment of a feeling
he will interpret (retroactively)
Horizontal in your twin bed, your bodies do not touch. When he leaves, it is still the afternoon. You kiss him goodbye. Sliver of light fading summer sky.
Your body understands before you do. That night you jolt awake unable to breathe. Naked, you run to the mirror and watch yourself, freshly fucked and choking. Huge white helpless eyes. Mouth so open you could fit anything you wanted. Your own hand around your throat.
Inside you, singing has always been a pulsing glittering yes.
But at thirteen, your body began to get in the way. You sang through a clenched throat, locked knees, a body like a frightened animal. You couldn’t act, or even move onstage. Directors said your voice was outstanding, but they couldn’t place you in a role. In high school, you were cast in the chorus or not at all. You finally chose to study opera, thinking you could strip yourself down to your vocal cords, a voice without a body, but what came out was pinchedand hollow.
Singing has been a series of contractions, a story of starting and over and over and over and over again. You take a couple of voice lessons every year or two, then you stop calling your teacher back. A chasm forms between how a song sounds in your head and how it comes out of your mouth. Singing means to be witnessed in a moment of pure feeling. It means allowing yourself to be seen. But you can only feel the emotion of the music if you shut your eyes and close yourself to the audience. Sex has become the only performance you know how to give.
You trust one day you will sing again. You will write your own music and perform. But every time you reach for the velvet place, the place where the sound lives, you recoil from the touch of something fleshy and throbbing in its place.
The cruelest part is that you carry your voice everywhere you go. Its silences charged & kinetic, always drumming in the carcass of your throat.
How does a girl learn what she wants?
Steep cliff of her desires.
The ledge of yes & no.
The way her body feels and the way she wants it to feel.
Who is supposed to teach her?
The loneliness of no, the dangers of yes.
She has so many hungers.
Halloween is about masks. The perilous line between reality and perception, play and horror. Bloody-faced children with grotesque plastic heads. Girls dressed as the princesses they secretly hope they’ll grow up to be. Adults wearing rainbow feather headdresses and painted-on blackface and saris, because today is their day to pretend. Try it on.
A week after it happens—the it that feels unnamable, beyond and between language—you call your friend, the only person you and R share in common, while standing in line at a grocery store. But your friend says he already knows. R slept at his house that night and talked him through a play-by-play. Your friend says you’ll have to talk to R about it. He said you put the condom on. You buy three bags of chips and two gallons of ice cream.
Later R deconstructs the evening via email with an itemized account, concluding it was “healthy adult consensual sex.” Leaving you wanting to know where the violence lives. Inside of him, or you.
Halloween looms a couple of weeks ahead and you have the impulse to celebrate, escape yourself. Your mutual friend, who knows about the best parties, doesn’t call you back until Halloween day. He confesses that he is going to the NYC parade with R, so you probably won’t want to come.
The most you will remember about that night is how you pulled the covers tight as elastic over your head and that you were not at the parade.
Some days you wake up missing Amy, as if you knew her. When you exhaust Amy’s discography, you listen to covers of her songs on YouTube. But all you can find are a host of performers attempting to imitate her husky voice, her bad girl attitude, her silver-white vocal runs like trails of cigarette smoke. Everyone seems to you a cheap impersonator. You want to breathe new life into her songs. But how do you revive a woman from the dead?
Two years later, you decide to turn this Halloween into All Hallow’s Eve. You will be the witch, the powerful one. The one in control.
Your friend comes over and together you measure herbs, waft clouds of sage. Hands on hearts, pretty glass bottles twinkling in the light, the muddle of herbs submerged in alcohol, rose petals and cinnamon simmering on the stove.
You breathe deeply as she tells you about her romance with a guy she met hiking the Appalachian Trail that summer. Outwardly, you gush and offer advice about how to keep their love alive. But envy twists inside you. That kind of magic—spontaneous, dazzling—will never happen for you again. How could you trust someone with your body? When you consider going out to a party, you dread the long train ride home before you’ve even left. You usually forget to drink, and when you do, there’s a flush of shame afterwards – could you be forgetting something that happened? Once you knew how to angle your head and cast a sparkling look in the right direction. Now that kind of sexy is a dress you can’t fit into.
It is only after she leaves that you chug two glasses of wine, badly cook a steak that you eat with your hands, and gorge on chocolates. All the medicine you made. So much intention. So much desire to heal.
And yet, the taste of food that is about sheer quantity. The hand that never stops grabbing, the mouth that never closes. You always want more. The fridge holds all the answers: Yes Yes Yes Yes. There is always more. Splitting through the abdomen. Stuffed. You say yes & yes & yes & yes.
What kills you about Amy: she celebrated her powerlessness. Sang about it with pride. I cheated myself, like I knew I would. I told ya I was trouble, you know that I’m no good. She was outspoken about battles she fought, clear about her allegiances. If my man was fighting some unholy war, I would stand beside him. She sang about the war she was losing, declared it so boldly the song topped the charts. They tried to make me go to rehab, but I said No, No, No.
She devised a caricature of herself: destructive, wild, hopeless. Amy Amy Amy.
Like Ella, Nina, and Billie, Amy became known by her first name. But as an international laughingstock. As a junkie. At twenty-five, she was so wasted to the bone her stomach protruded like an emaciated child. So broken down, she could no longer play a character of herself. She could no longer perform at all. At twenty-seven, she died from alcohol poisoning and a heart weakened by a previous overdose and years of bulimia.
While Amy was alive, you were like so many others. The truth was you had never listened to her music, not really. It was only after she died that you watched the documentary about her life and her lyrics seared themselves onto your body because you understood.
It’s bricked up in my head, it’s shoved under my bed
And I question myself again ‘What is it about men?’
My destructive side has grown a mile wide
And I question myself again ‘What is it about men?’
Both of you knew men were an easy excuse, a cheap distraction. Men could not feed your art, but you both gave up what you wanted, controlled by their approval.
But at least Amy wrote music about it. Amy said yes to music, yes to creating, yes to cocaine, yes to booze, yes to love. Yes to fucking & tattoos & heartbreak & performing for crowds of millions & needles & fucking up. Yes to a wild & ferocious life. Yes to her own destruction.
By 25, you have learned to say no to sex & drugs & dieting. No to what you love most of all. You will not let yourself sing. You will not let yourself die.
If only you and Amy could have saved each other.
There is a videotape of your first performance, The Wiz, from when you were ten years old.
In the video, there is a girl whose smile is so big it swallows her words sometimes. She doesn’t mean to smile, she is just so happy. She speaks fast, impatient for the music to start, for the audience to start laughing, then clapping. You’ll see a girl who only knew to put a hand on her hip. Yet her rigid body is a wand, her voice a cascade of fireworks. The girl is transformed, electric with joy, like she won’t know how to be again. Not for a long time. You watch her and you want that smile back.
Re-learning to sing means re-learning how to breathe. At first your lungs are like a leaky boat. Defective. You summon your voice and are surprised by how quickly it rises to the surface and how the vibration settles on your lips. But so quickly the sound withers, a hole in the balloon. You are faulty equipment. Maybe you were never good enough. Or maybe you never will be again. Your diaphragm sinks, and so do you.
But every day, you sing a couple of minutes. You jostle and bounce the pancake of your diaphragm, feeling it turn from batter to something fluffy and crisp. Your body changes. Sound ascends your lungs, and you let it out. Sometimes you cough up dead things, or static thick as smoke. Still you are tapping a well. You are learning. Singing as an act of body. Practice. Faith.
You are twenty-seven now, the age Amy was when she died.
One day you will feel the voice beyond yes and no. The voice beneath the mask that knows what it wants, and has always known. That velvet place where the sound lives.
As you sing, place a hand on your chest. Feel how you vibrate. Music becoming the body, the body becoming music. It’s so simple, you cry every time.
Here you are. You have always been right here.
In another version of your life, you respond to the singing teacher’s advances with an unwavering no. You say noto the next person, and the next one, and the next. There is always something wrong. No. No. No. No. The river of life flows past and draws a circle around you, leaving you untouched and dry. You grow old without learning the golden warmth of yes. You will wonder what it might feel like. You will wonder who else you might have become.
Arya Samuelson is a writer, singer, and herbalist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been published in The Millions, Entropy, and Hematopoiesis Press, and was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers in 2018. She is a recent MFA graduate in Prose from Mills College. Arya is currently writing a novel about Jewish immigration, the messiness of desire, and the inheritance of grief. She is proud to be part of Lidia Yuknavitch’s coven of Corporeal Writers.