Sunday, March 07, 2010

I remember the music

Music has always been a part of my life, from my mother's classical records,my father's dance music, and the bluegrass music my grandfather played incessantly as he sat by the window in the dining room in his house smoking and tapping his foot in time. Music has been a constant in my own life, a barometer of my moods and feelings, but it was a young woman who filled the void after the boy I loved had moved to Australia with his family and my best friend and his family had moved back to the States who taught me the most and shared with me a new kind of music. Until that time, I didn't know how music could also heal a little girl's pain.

I was nine years old and my heart was broken. Andy Watson's last words to me were ones of promise and hope. "I'll find you no matter how long it takes." He was nine years old, too. His father was a civilian contractor who worked for the Army and had just been reassigned to a base in Australia. I had briefly worn a charm bracelet Andy got from his sister as a token of promise, a pre-engagement gift, so to speak. His sister took it back before they left and I was left with only Andy's words, words I clung to with the fierce and passionate strength of the young.

Our best friend, Scooter Kennon, was gone shortly after and I was alone. The neighbors who moved into the Kennons' old apartment were nothing like Scooter and his family. They were younger and had three small children, a roly-poly blonde girl with rosy lips and cheeks just two years old and twin girls, as dark as their sister was light, just six months old. The aroma of spices and the sound of Tito Fuentes was gone, replaced by gurgles and goos and wailing in the night and the biting scent of antiseptic and baby powder.

Listless and at a loss with what to do since there would be no more adventures into the jungle that surrounded our section of housing on Fort Gulick wearing machetes in leather scabbards at our waists nearly as long as we were tall, I moped around the grounds, wandering here and there along the cul-de-sac haunting places where Scooter, Andy and I played. Down on the common we chased an armadillo one winter at the Christmas tree bonfire, running after the armored beast like savages on the hunt, coordinating our attack from three sides, herding it toward the trees and into the darkness at the boundary of manicured lawns and the jungle whispering and buzzing with life. There was the guava tree we climbed to sit among its branches and pull green globes from the branches , biting through the tough skin to the sweet succulent flesh inside, juice dripping down our chins and over our fingers while our mothers called to us.

The coconut tree was full of green and ripe coconuts begging to be chopped down and cracked open, but there was no one to share it with, so I didn't bother. The flame flower bushes sparkled with dewy jeweled flowers, their nectar unsucked and the flowers untouched left for the hummingbirds. I'd wear no more flower garlands about my neck or wrist; the boys were not there to make them for me. Even a dried empty husk from a locust didn't make me smile as it was did and I wandered silent and lost in memories . . . until she saw me.

I don't remember her name. I remember her kind smile and the sounds echoing down the stairwell into the carport where I aimlessly tickled a doodlebug with a blade of grass, making him roll into a ball or burrow backward this way and that as he tried to escape the dirt arena I made to trap him.

She squatted down beside me and watched for a few moments before I noticed she was there, a gentle whisper of scent, soft and cool in the sticky summer Panamanian heat. Tears still streaked my face as I looked up and into green eyes like a still pond reflecting the sun on broad-leaved banana trees. She smiled and I couldn't help but smile back at her. That's when I noticed the music. "Is that yours?" She knew immediately what I meant and nodded. "Would you like to come up and listen?" I nodded, swiping away the dirt walls so the doodlebug could go free, and followed her.

The apartment was decorated like stories from the Arabian Nights, as though Scheherezade had just left the room and would return in a swirl of gossamer veils. She invited me to sit on the couch and offered a glass of tea. It tasted of mint and honey, but it was the music that soothed my troubled heart and echoed the anger, sadness and love I felt. "It's West Side Story." She showed me the album and explained the story, starting the record over again.

I knew the story: Romeo and Juliet in New York. Puerto Ricans and Americans fighting over turf, traditional enemies out of which came love and death. I was transfixed, my heart soaring as Tony sings about Maria, exultant when the Sharks and Jets danced and fought and filled with longing and regret when the final song filled the room with Maria's tears over Tony's death when she holds him in her arms as he takes his last breath, knowing they will never have someday or somewhere they could be free.

When the last note faded into silence, the words came, first in a halting trickle and then in a torrent, and she listened. She didn't chide me or tell me I was being silly and it was just puppy love, something that would fade with time, something I'd grow out of. She offered me a handkerchief embroidered with blue flowers, forget-me-nots, and I wiped my eyes and blew my nose and suddenly felt a little better.

Once more she got up and replaced the needle, this time on Tony singing Somewhere full of belief in love and hope. To my nine-year-old heart it was a glimmer of possibility and the beginning of a new friendship. She introduced me to many Broadway musicals and to stories like no other, stories of magic and mystery and stories of little girls lost and found.

I spent many hours in her apartment drinking tea flavored with mint and honey those last few months before we were transferred back to the States, and slowly the pain faded. The memories remain, not only of Andy Watson's promise to find me but of her kindness and what she shared with me. I've had many neighbors in the intervening years. Some have been friendly and some not so friendly, but never have I had a neighbor who shared so much. The names have faded with the years; I have traveled a lot in over forty years. I don't remember her name. All I remember are the sights, sounds, and scents of those autumn days and the music. I will always remember the music.

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