Chapter 8

 

We walked twenty blocks before thinking about stopping in somewhere to eat. Sibyl’s excitement grew as she kept finding different pieces of her singing for me to listen to on her Walkman, ideas she had taped in her apartment or songs she had worked on with some of the other writers. She kept handing me her headphones, then grabbing them off my head quickly when she thought of another snippet for me to hear.

“It’s taken me a long time to accept how my voice sounds on tape,” she said, listening through one earpiece as she searched. “It’s rough around the edges, but I figured, hey, my rough edges are as good as anyone’s.”

Sibyl had graduated from high school with high grades but had chosen not to go to college. Instead, she set out to become a recording artist, continuing her dance classes and taking part-time jobs in pursuit of her dream. Her decision disappointed her father, who had imagined for her a stable career with a predictable path. “He wanted me to pick a degree like a bicycle and roll merrily down the highway of life with a set of liberal-arts training wheels,” she said. “No thank you, not when I live in New York with the music industry right in my backyard. I believe in myself too much for that.”

That particular belief was distinctly important to Sibyl. She came from a Catholic family, but she wasn’t active in the church. She said hypocrisy and inconsistencies had pockmarked her religious upbringing and that she felt her own spirituality couldn’t be organized neatly under a steeple. The church’s idea of God and its rules on how to worship confused her, and she felt better able to conjure answers to most of life’s riddles by herself. Sibyl believed greatly in powers beyond the earthly realm. Religion, she believed, made everything too local.

“I’ve struggled with it,” she said. “I really have. I went to church for answers, and I got pageantry.” She flipped the cassette in the Walkman. “Robes and candles. And confession. I don’t want to have to go through a priest to reach that great black woman in the sky.”

“To reach who?”

“God.”

Sibyl crossed in front of me, directing us into the brightly lit Marlina’s Mexicana. “This place is great. Do you like Mexican?”

We had the place almost to ourselves. An elderly couple sat quietly at a table by the front window, and the wait staff, with little to do, had congregated at the back corner of the bar. We took a booth at the back, by the door to the kitchen.

“Or She might be Hispanic,” Sibyl said with a wink as we settled into the booth.

We gave the waiter our order, and when he brought us our beers, we toasted to new beginnings.

Sibyl was originally from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn and was an only child. Her father, a man of letters, was a professor of political science at Kingsborough Community College, and her mother, who had a Bachelor of Science in sociology, had been a stay-at-home mom.

Sibyl’s father had complicated her adolescence. He suffered from an undiagnosed anger disorder and had a reputation, in both his personal and professional lives, for launching into fits of aggression on undeserving victims, Sibyl among them. Her mother, the only person who could ever stand up to her father, and whose ability to do so won his proposal for marriage, spent much of Sibyl’s childhood shielding her from his hostility, and eventually, Sibyl found her own means for dealing with her father. But it came at a formative cost.

When Sibyl was a baby, her mother recognized she had advanced skills of observation and reasoning. At first, she attributed what she saw in her daughter to the pride of any mother, but when Sibyl began forming two- and three-word sentences at just six months, it became clear not only to her but to neighbors and members of her family that Sibyl was indeed an uncommon little girl. Most telling were the times her mother would find Sibyl, still a baby, in their den on the floor surround by books she had pulled from the lower shelves of the bookcase, all open to various pages, none of them containing pictures. Sibyl was fascinated with words — how they looked on the page, how some words were longer than others, how short words repeated more often (“the,” “and,” “of,” “but”), how paragraphs began with indentations and chapters with numbers or words, the shape and orderliness of tables of contents, the density of endnotes and indexes. Her mother saw how Sibyl marveled at words and typography, so she would sit with her in the middle of the strewn piles and read short pieces from each — most covering complex subjects still inconceivable to Sibyl — while sliding her finger underneath the words as she read. By the time Sibyl was four, she could sound any word she saw, and by the time she was five, she could reason compellingly with her parents on matters like bedtime and Brussels sprouts.

“I’ve been freaking my parents out from almost day one,” said Sibyl.

Her mother realized early on that tremendous focus would be required to raise such a peculiar child in a manner undiluted and fair to the circumstances, and so she decided not to have any more children. This made Sibyl’s father furious, and they argued over it for years. But in the end, it was obvious he had no choice in the matter. However, he vowed, with the usual anger that accompanied his domestic defeats, that no daughter of his would be as spoiled as he had been as an only child, regardless of how brilliant she may turn out. She would have a normal upbringing: she would go to normal schools and not be locked away in institutions for the gifted, she would hang out with normal kids, and she would marry a talented young man with promising prospects. Overzealous parenting or vicarious motivations would not turn his daughter into a freak. His attitude compelled Sibyl’s mother to secretly keep whatever path may unfold for her daughter clear of any obstructions, the biggest of which she suspected would be Sibyl’s father.

“It’s hard growing up thinking you’re the reason your dad’s always angry,” said Sibyl, “even when your mom does everything to convince you it isn’t true.”

“Did he ever hurt you? Physically?”

“Oh no, he’s not a violent person. It’s all in his head.”

As she got older, Sibyl observed the nonclinical way in which her mother handled her father — shutting him down by mirroring his aggression, using well-timed expletives to throw him off-balance, laughing at his outbursts, imitating him, in some cases ignoring him altogether — and began to emulate these reactions to him when her mother wasn’t around. Of course, this behavior infuriated her father, but to Sibyl’s delight, he was never able to convince her mother how defiant toward him her little angel had become.

When she was in the tenth grade, Sibyl decided to do all she could to change her identity completely so that she would emerge nothing like the girl her father expected her to be.

“That’s when I changed my name to Sibyl,” she said.

The waiter stopped by our table, and Sibyl nodded in the middle of speaking when I pointed to her empty beer.

“I did everything he didn’t want me to do. I stayed out past my curfew, drank, got high, started having sex. Pretty much rebelled against everything,” she said, “including my own self-interests.”

During this period, Sibyl’s father would reproach her with increasing fury, causing her to react with increasing defiance. Eventually, his brand of rage parenting was no match for Sibyl’s quick verbal jousting, frustrating for a man accustomed to outthinking those around him. Intellectually, she was able to pin him down every time, and in the end, Sibyl and her father all but ceased to communicate. She reveled in the new quietness that formed between them, but she didn’t see how it was tearing the life out of him.

“And then I did something I regret,” she said. “I tried to put a final flourish on things by showing Daddy exactly how it was going to be between us.” She wiped the sides of her mouth with her paper napkin, then tucked it under the side of her plate. “It was at the beginning of my senior year. I brought a boy home late one afternoon when I knew Mommy wasn’t there. Daddy was sitting in the den reading, like he always did, playing his jazz records. I walked in the front door, right past him, and took the guy straight up to my bedroom and had sex with him. He was a lot older than me, so Daddy knew he wasn’t helping me with my homework.”

“That was bold,” I said. “Did he know what you were doing up there?”

“Oh, sure.” She scraped at the label on the beer bottle with her thumb. Her face softened. “It served no purpose whatsoever.”

The elderly couple left after paying at the register by the door. The manager began counting cash from the register as waiters folded their waist aprons. Sibyl pushed her plate forward and rose to join me on my side of the booth. We sipped our beers as we looked across the small dining room and through the restaurant’s window to the people and cars passing by on Lee Avenue.

“What about you?” she said.

I didn’t know what to tell her in light of my recent past. “I like hearing about you,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’ve monopolized the conversation.”

“But you’re allowed to do that — you’re the star. I’m just the songwriter.”

“You’re not getting off that easy,” she said, shoving me with her shoulder.

Smiling, I rubbed my fingers along the aluminum trim on the edge of the table. “I’m just following a dream, like you.”

“And that dream is what?”

“Well, part one was to get away from the things that kept me from following my dreams.”

“Getting away from home?”

“Yes,” I said, “Well, not home. Circumstances. Leaving circumstances.”

“That sounds intriguing.”

“It’s a little confusing still. I guess you could say I’m finally not letting circumstances stop me from doing what I should have been doing all along.”

“Music?”

“Music.”

“Family circumstances?”

“Yes.”

The smell of salsa drying in its bowl had no appeal on a full stomach.

“Want to get out of here?” I said. “We can talk while we head back.”

Out on Lee Avenue, I told Sibyl of some of the wonders of growing up in Stony Gap and Uwharrie County and how meaningful it had been to share those experiences with Nehemiah. She hooked her arm in mine as we walked. I also told her how growing up there had burdened me with the tendency to see life from inside a rose-colored bubble, but that Nehemiah had often been effective at intentionally puncturing that bubble with harsh spikes of reality.

“When we started learning how to take notes in elementary school,” I said, “he picked up on that quickly as a skill I needed to learn and apply to real life. Know the facts, don’t let meaningless details keep you from seeing the main idea, that kind of thing. As a kid, especially given the things he had seen early on, he thought I was really unprepared for the real world.”

“How cool to have a brother like that,” she said.

“Cheerful indifference, he used to say to me. And he wasn’t making fun of me; he was really concerned.”

“I hope I get to meet him one day.”

We cut through a playground on 9th Street and sat on a bench dappled in worn paint. When I got around to Pop, I hesitated.

“So, this is really the crux of things for me, I suppose — why I wanted to leave.” I told her of Pop and how most people in the area usually spoke our family name with a hint of resentment. “The last thing I wanted was to hang around and be the next-generation bad-news Keeping.” Then I told her what happened to Dad, which just popped out. I didn’t think I was ready to talk about it, but it rolled off my tongue as a matter of fact, with little emotion, in the same stream of facts about Pop and our family.

“Oh, Dal, I’m so sorry.” She took my hand in both of hers and held it on her thigh.

The packed soil in front of us glinted from the nearby streetlight. I didn’t want to create an awkward moment.

There was little traffic on the streets around the park. A patrol car passed by slowly, and both officers looked out at us before turning their heads forward in unison as they drove away. Sibyl watched them, and then settled her eyes on one of the playground animals attached by a large spring to the earth beneath it — the seahorse leaning sideways, wounded and smiling.

“I guess we both lost our fathers, in a way,” she said.

Perhaps she saw her circumstances as she thought I might, that her father was not ultimately lost, that at least she still had a chance to get him back.

“I feel so stupid,” she said.

I put my arm around her. “You shouldn’t.”

“He kept calling my name from the bottom of the stairs. He just kept calling.” Tears formed in her eyes. “Not loudly, but he was persistent. And we paid no attention, we just kept doing it. And then he stopped. He just stopped calling me.” The tears fell onto her cheeks. “And everything changed. He never brought it up afterwards. But it changed things between us forever. I wanted him to keep calling me — I didn’t want him to stop and just walk away.” Emotion finally seized her breathing. She held both hands to her mouth and pressed her face into my chest as she cried.

A breeze brought the chill of night air. In the distance, I heard laughter. Sibyl’s cry was brief, and after a moment, she sat up straight and wiped the moisture from under her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling. “I’m being really selfish tonight.”

“No, you’re not. It’s tough going through something like that.”

“No, I am.” She tilted her head back and shook the blonde strands from her face. “But you should take all of this as a compliment,” she said with a chuckle, reviving from her brief sadness, “opening up to you like this.”

“I do,” I said. “Today has probably done us both some good.”

“Yeah, maybe.” She dried her fingers on her jeans.

The patrol car had circled around and now passed by us again, which we took as a sign to move on.

“I have one can of beer in my refrigerator,” said Sibyl. “We could share it.”

Back at her apartment, a lavender glow from the street-lit windows blanketed the room, and LEDs from the musical equipment dotted its dark center. Sibyl went to the kitchenette without turning on any lights while I stepped my way into the middle of the room to grab the acoustic guitar. I stood in the open circle improvising with a few simple chords, and after a few measures, Sibyl joined in with a wordless melody. She cracked open the beer and made her way over several piles to join me. Then, without stopping, as if she had come into the circle for this one purpose, she stood on her toes and kissed me on the cheek. Her stomach pressed against the guitar, freezing my left hand on an unlikely transitional chord, one that, to this day, I still associate with her. Then she backed away slowly, holding eye contact as she offered me the beer.

For weeks, I had written at night. In my room at the YMCA, a small four-track cassette recorder captured my ideas against the backdrop of city noise that drifted into the shaft between buildings outside my tiny open window. In the day’s latest hours, lyrics came easily, and chord progressions flowed like water over an open dam. Here in Sibyl’s apartment, the open windows provided that same soundscape on which to craft new ideas.

Sibyl made her way to her bedside where she slipped out of her jeans and back into her dress, then performed a quick pirouette with the window behind her outlining her movement.

She joined me again in the circle and we began trading ideas, settling into a long writing session without realizing it. Measures turned into verses and choruses as we reached whatever hour it happens that night begins to feel like morning. Our ideas became silly, our lyrics ridiculous, and our bouts of laughter broadened to the point where one, in particular, sent us rolling backwards out of the circle and onto several piles, flattening them and spreading them around on the floor. This made us laugh even harder.

Once we had caught our breath, I laid the guitar to the side and propped myself on my elbow. When I leaned down to kiss Sibyl, she had already extended her arms, anticipating what in this moment could be the only thing to happen next. Our lips met, gently at first, testing each other’s willingness. Then everything else around me disappeared; all I felt, inside and out, was Sibyl. The tingle from my spine streamed into my head, forcing everything lodged there to swirl together in a mixture of joy, pleasure, and relief. I remember this kiss as if it lasted both forever and no time at all, like the euphoria of anesthesia before waking from a blink.

“Where’d you learn to kiss like that?” she said, her eyelids full of mischief. I had never kissed like that in my life. I leaned in to kiss her again.

But then I stopped.

Her eyes widened with curiosity.

I stared blankly into the air between us, then sat up, my head nodding, mid-tempo, as an idea began to form. I grabbed the guitar and started playing a three-chord groove from earlier in the night.

“What’s that?” she said, sitting up.

“‘Kiss Like That’.”

“Have I heard it?”

“Making it up. Right now.” I kept nodding as I locked in the right tempo. “Our first song.”

She rose to her knees and watched as I began working my way through the idea. The hook came immediately, and when I sang the song’s title — “… kiss like that” — she clasped her hands over her widening smile.

The song wrote itself. As I worked through different chords and different sections of the song cross-legged among the scattered piles, Sibyl felt compelled to move. She stood up between two of the piles and kicked a pointed foot high into the air, leaving it there for several counts before lowering it and holding it briefly over the mess we had made on the floor. Before I knew it, she was dancing all over the room. A raised knee followed by playful stabs of pointed toes at openings in the floor landed her each time in a new spot where she would perform a plié, a pirouette, or an arabesque, some in tantalizing silhouettes as her movement carried her back and forth in front of the two windows. Flowing arms, snapping wrists, and the changing curves of her figure inspired words for the verses and a melody for the chorus, which I hummed, in variations, throughout. I played the song in a continuous loop, using each pass to decorate, develop, strengthen.

She eventually kicked and turned her way back to where I sat, and, in the most surprising moment of her improvisation, took the guitar away from me and set it down carefully beside us as she kneeled onto my lap. She pulled our faces together, and our mouths met with no hesitation. We rolled into more piles of Sibyl’s simple inspirations, pushing notes and clippings around, sweeping thoughts and memories together, and littered them with our clothes as new patterns formed on the floor beneath us.

I called Sibyl the next day, but she didn’t answer. I couldn’t reach her for days. Alone in my room at the YMCA, I finished “Kiss Like That,” stepping out only to eat and to call her from the payphone on 7th Avenue. Eventually, I stopped leaving messages but kept calling anyway, just to hear her voice on her answering machine — distant, illusory, soft. “This is Sibyl. I can’t talk right now. So … I’ll call you back.”

Everything she did to anesthetize me so completely kept me awake for nights. At one point, she had whispered in my ear, “If we were words, we’d rhyme.” And now nothing. Was this abyss worth a kiss like that?

One afternoon when I was leaving the Y, there was an envelope for me pinned to the message board by the desk downstairs. I opened it and on a torn piece of notebook paper was a note from Sybil: “Session tonight at 11, Downtown Sound on Mercer Street, Studio B.”

 

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