#423: Diana Ross and the Supremes, "Anthology" (1974)

My mother carries me in body-warm blankets to Vivian Volvo to doze in the backseat, blood hourglassing to my skull as the car careens in the ridgecut’s curve illuminated in the streetlights’ arched, interval orange as the unbalanced tires warp out the black sea on which my breathing rowboats. Burning, burning yearning… Whatever voice from the waking world penetrates a dream is a kind of a god. I have learned to pray, Deus ex cassette tape. Sugar’s Ribs neons on the dark ridge like the expectation of tomorrow’s heat as the brakes scuff and ache time to a slower pace. At the exit ramp’s red light, no traffic passes and yet we wait. He has called her, his wants stamped by Percocet, and asked her to come, and so she goes.

Middle of the night, middle of the summer, I always wait in the car, asleep, not asleep, on these errands, something easy, Motown, in the deck, the whir of the tape as it spools and unspools, not unlike memory, and not like it.

A-side. B-side. A dark figure approached the car. I tensed.

Once she flicked her cigarette out the open window. Outside it parabolaed and whipped into the back, cherry-end sweetening my thigh to a sear. I screamed, she swerved, the road kept going. The road led there night after night. Set me free, why don’t you, babe? I’d mouth into my half-reflection in the window, but I’d never sing. I’d never sing. I’d click my teeth every tree, mailbox, streetlight, driveway, billboard we’d pass. Are we a dream’s dream? She’d get me a warm Coke at the Exxon. My teeth grew soft. I wanted to bite right through them, and spit them out. I wanted to bite right through my lip and draw blood.

Sometimes we’d ride to the pharmacy, where the lights poured out of the drive-thru like whatever imagination I had of heaven was, like chiffon if it weren’t finite, the way a body is finite to the voice that replicates, replicates, replicates from room to cut to track to remaster. Sometimes I wondered dreamily where I began and ended, if I lived beyond the hot car and its sputtering air conditioning, the windshield that said to the night take me, take me. She let me fall asleep before we’d go, so I wouldn’t, wouldn’t I, know what was going on. You can’t hurry love, you’ll just have to wait. How far could I go to become someone else? A lip sync, a practiced dance, a closed-eyes scene. I pretended to sleep. I knew the words but had to pretend to know the lyrics, the fade-out, the call-and-response, the Supremes as conscience.

I wanted to throw that cigarette back at my mother, send it smoke-knotting the air where it might find the floor and set fire, set fire like his apartment that blazed after the fish tank burbled water onto the electrical outlet and sparked like the brilliant seawater scales of the thousand-dollar fish he watched swim like a television, stoned. His two plastered legs clunking on the stairs as he scooted down the stairs. The tank must have boiled, the fish leaping like later mercies from a tower or cooked in their own skins as the plastic sea-plants melted like candlesticks, before the glass ruptured, the fire receding oceanic as the fifty gallons spilled before evaporating and ceding the carpet back to the flame and char, the not-long-after-the-fever of my mother’s, the race of her heart that I would not feel without my ear against her breast, that would only reveal itself in her cheeks that silvered in the rearview mirror as she checked to see if I was awake or asleep, awake or asleep. Baby, baby.

I began to pray, wanted things I didn’t want. I wanted to pop the door lock and walk across the lot, to the dark road that believed in danger more than it believed in going somewhere, the way our car believed in motion more than arrival. I was bored. I was tired. At some point as the road arched up around the ridgecut, I was no longer in the backseat of the car in 1996. I was here, in my bed, in the dark. I gave it my voice. It gave it back. Once I saw a second-story window filled with light. I called it my mother, and I loved it.

—Emilia Phillips