I started writing this piece with the intention of covering thirty years of one character's life. When I thought back to my own childhood, the first thing that came to mind was my mother singing to me, and I knew I wanted to capture her musicality in this story. Sharing songs is a way of expressing love, either familial or romantic, and with this piece, I looked to explore how sound can follow you even when you're far from home.
Ryann Eastman is an M.F.A. candidate at Indiana University and a California native. She reads for Indiana Review and was recently chosen as a finalist for the Lascaux Prize in Flash Fiction. You can find her at ryanneastman.tumblr.com or on Twitter @ryanneastman.
When Camila is born, her mother writes a love song. She sings it sweet when her husband comes home, plastic grocery bags rustling against the screen door, and she sings it low when Camila wants to sleep, her head framed in the nook of a soft arm. Growing up, she hears her mother’s voice from every room in the house, even from the farthest point in the backyard. In the evening, her father and mother stand at the kitchen stove and whistle folk tunes together, turning bell peppers and onions over in oil, heating up cans of black beans. Her mother never writes the song down, but Camila remembers the notes, deep and flexible, and when she grows up, she still hums it sometimes when she’s washing dishes or walking in a parking lot by herself. Mostly, Camila keeps her mother’s voice, the dip and drag of it, and remembers the sound as the opposite of delicate.
After her first growth spurt, she follows a boy to the next town on her two-speed bike because he plays acoustic guitar. Outside the drug store, she asks him to teach her a chord, and he asks what she’ll pay for it. She learns on his used Yamaha, orange-painted nails plucking strings, silver jewelry she stole from her mother’s bureau clicking on the spruce top, and she pays him in boxes of Jujubes, finished algebra homework, and one time, standing behind the volleyball net during third period, a short glimpse of her bra. “Is that real or a training one?” he asks. Sometimes, she takes his guitar during lunch and plays her own love songs in the girl’s bathroom. Older girls crouch beside the stalls smoking cigarettes, and eventually, someone offers Camila one.
He’s the first boy to give her a compliment, a birthday present, a silly, upbeat song he wrote about her. And he’s the first one to see her leave, packed into her dad’s Ford Explorer with all her clothes and sheet music folded inside plastic bins. Camila stands with the boy in the dirt driveway, and he says, “In the songs, the girl always moves to California, not out of it.”
She drives to Nevada and trains to be a blackjack dealer. She plays a couple sets at the casino bar, singing Motown or jazz standards on a pink-and-blue-lit stage, but after a few months, she stops asking for gigs or favors and learns how to catch someone counting cards. She memorizes the smell of the casino carpet, metallic and infused with cigarette smoke, and the chain of pop songs they play over the stereo, linked together by the same upbeat rhythms. She gets used to the artificial cold of the casino, wearing a jacket in July.
Every few months, she gets a postcard in the mail with a photo of a different Bay Area landmark: Coit Tower, the Bay Bridge, the clock at Jack London Square, the Ferry Building. Each one comes with the same inscription on the back: “Still in California. Still without you.” After a decade of postcards, one arrives with a photo of the Claremont Hotel. Still in California, still without you.
Camila remembers sitting with him at the foot of the Claremont’s driveway, looking up at the pale, white mansion. “I bet it has two indoor pools,” she said, and they kept guessing what could be inside, each suggestion more outlandish, from indoor roller coasters to a room full of popcorn, until the boy said, “I bet the room you stay in chooses your future. There’s one for luck, one for health, one for bad omens.”
“But who’d want to stay in that room?” she asked.
“I guess someone who wasn’t afraid,” he answered.
by Ryann Eastman