#120: The Byrds, "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" (1968)

120 Sweetheart of the Rodeo.jpg

Summer for me will forever be tied up with the sounds of my parents fighting. Hot nights now bring a strange feeling of nostalgia for the days when I lay in bed at night, my sheets in a tangle at the bottom of the mattress, sweat beading on my skin, listening to the sounds of crickets and my mother telling my father he’s a dirty son of a bitch and he doesn’t know a good goddamn thing when it’s standing goddamn in front of him hitting him in the goddamn face.

That might make it sound worse than it was, because the truth is, my parents seemed to take a perverse sort of pleasure out of their fights, and they often ended peaceably. After my mother screamed at him, after my father willfully tuned her out, after she screamed some more, after he finally snapped and shouted back, they would dissolve into laughter and kiss each other and go to bed. In the morning, it was as if nothing had happened: they joked at breakfast, asked me how I’d slept, what books were on my summer reading list, and my mother kissed my father goodbye when he left. It was when the fighting stopped that I became worried, and it’s also true that it was during a summer of silence, as if they no longer cared enough about one another to even dredge up anger, that they finally told me they were getting divorced. I was 13 then, and I think they expected me to cry or rant or even beg them to reconsider, but I just nodded and asked which of them would be moving out. By then, maybe I, too, no longer cared.

But over the next few weeks, I pestered them. I’d be entering eighth grade in the fall, and all summer long, my friends called me, wanting to go to the mall, to the pool, to the diner for phosphates and malts, but I always said no. I followed my parents from room to room—my mother during the day and my father once he came home in the evenings. Over and over, I asked them: which one of you is leaving? Which one of you is going away? Their stories changed. First, my mother would be moving out, into a house that had just gone on the market two doors down. Then my father was leaving, getting an apartment across town. Then my father was getting the house two doors down, then they were both moving, to make a clean break. They never answered what I was really asking though, which was, of course: What about me? Where will I go?

In the end, it didn’t matter. Neither of them moved out. My mother transferred her things to the spare bedroom, said she’d always preferred it anyway, and they continued on as roommates. They said they lived better that way, and it’s true that the silence stopped. They didn’t start fighting again, either. They joked with each other and chatted about their days and asked me about mine, and I could almost pretend that we were a family again.

One evening, toward the end of the summer, my mother went on a date. He was the cousin of one of her friends, she told me. His name was Rob, and he was an optometrist. He didn’t get out of the car when he picked her up, and I watched from the front porch as she got into the car. He said something, and she tilted her head back as she laughed. I wasn’t used to seeing her from this distance, and her neck had never seemed so long and pale.

My father had been working late, and I stretched out on the porch swing while I waited for him to come home. When he arrived, he didn’t see me lying there. He trudged up the steps as if his whole body had grown heavy.

“She’s gone, then?” he said when he saw me.

I sat up and used one leg to push the swing forward. It creaked with the movement. My father winced, but settled himself next to me.

“I guess it’s just the two of us now,” he said.

“She’s coming back, you know,” I said. “It’s not like she’s going anywhere. Neither of you are going anywhere.” This was what I had wanted, and yet for some reason, it made me feel inordinately angry.

My father started to whistle a tune I didn’t recognize. He was always doing that, humming or whistling or singing in response to something I’d said. I pushed the swing faster, but his foot was settled firmly on the floorboards, so the swing just wobbled in place.

“Stop it,” I said. “I hate when you do that. I hate when you do that!” I knelt, my knee pressed against the wooden slats, and punched him in the shoulder for emphasis. He flinched. I punched him again and again and again, harder each time. He did nothing to stop me, and soon I was pummeling him with both my fists, crying and still saying, “I hate when you do that! I hate when you do that!”

The next day, my father would jokingly lift up his shirtsleeve and show me the bruise my fists left, would laugh and say at least I’d only attacked his arm. My mother, having returned from her date early, rolling her eyes and saying she’d forgotten how boring people could be, would shake her head in exasperation, would remind me that, despite my father’s reaction, I shouldn’t make a habit of punching. I would retreat into sullenness, and my parents would continue their lives as roommates, a routine they would maintain for another ten years, until long after I’d moved out, at which point they would finally sell the house and each eventually remarry, finding new spouses who never questioned the friendship that still bound my parents to each other.

But for now, I swung my fists at my father, and he waited for my anger to ebb, and the swing rocked back and forth, back and forth, and it creaked with every sway until it sounded like it was groaning in response to my fury, and I finally exhausted myself and laid my head on my father, where my fists had landed just moments before, and he let me rest there, though my weight must have hurt the bruise already beginning to form, until finally, as the light from the first fireflies began to sprinkle the yard, he stood and said it was time to go inside and start dinner, and was I coming. He started whistling again, the same song from before, and I still didn’t know it, but this time I followed him silently inside and just before the screen door slammed behind me, I put one hand out to stop it and instead guided it gently into its latch.

—Emma Riehle Bohmann