Starla

by Yousef Al-Refae

Starla was fabulously over-dressed, as usual. The summer night was cool; a breeze lightened the dreary dampness in the air. She ordered Mandarin chicken, a light champagne to go with it always was a classy girl. I watched her mouth move like a machete through a jungle. Swiftly, without falter, overpowering my own capacity speech, she provoked a daydream in me, though I'm not sure why I had the particular daydream I had. All I could think about was the night I saw her and Otto come out of the Motel Six together, how I was glad to finally have escaped that past how proud of myself I was for sitting there casually, sipping wine, lathering toast, and crumpling crackers with the girl years after the fact...

I had never been to a roller skating rink, per say. Aside from sixth grade phys ed class, my experience with the world of slip and slide had been confined to ice skating in the middle of a desert. There aren't many ice-skating rinks in Kuwait aren't many roller skating rinks either. In fact this was the first one ever. Well, I mean, there had been people's basements and concrete outdoor parks before, but those got too hot for the hundred-and-twenty-degree heat in the summer. This was the first gig that was spacious, that served drinks and all that first one with indentured Pakistanis and Filipinas to smile at you while you placed an order. What a show the young studs put on, criss-crossing like swans to make figure eights. They used the ramps as launch pads, tried to fly momentarily in hopes of attracting the prudish and sexually destitute curvaceous figures that lingered beneath their wheels.

Otto, our jukebox, provided the background music that night. AC/DC and Blink 182 as usual. Otto was the spotlight, the one all the girls went crazy for. The rest of the band was hopeless. He was the engine of the band, exhaling cigarette smoke like steam rising violently from a machine. That was before, when he was jamming everyday. I even played with him a few times we shared cigarettes (that was when I used to smoke). He smoked at least a pack a day and I caught him in the corner behind our third-story classroom at least once a week. We shared infectious sticks of poison with one another and bonded in the stress of misery. The school day had been full of anticipation. Otto was standing anxiously outside of "that bitch" Sanford's dungeon of an English class, ditching fifth period after lunch as usual, poring through sheets of tablature printed out five minutes earlier.

"Shit man, what am I gonna do?" he lamented between puffs, "I haven't played half of this before, do you have any of this Chili Peppers chickenshit on CD? I hate their music. How can Salim like this stuff?" That wasn't really Otto's style anyways. He wasn't emotionally flamboyant more of an uptight smoker type. "I can't do this today, it's too much. But I said I would have this stuff down. I told the whole group!" Puff. "Shit."

Starla closed the lid on the piano with an official clip. She was a refined and cultured girl imbued with the wide hips and old age of the Nile and with the breasts of a princess. Her petite body suited her frame best when she was at, or rather, when she was the piano. She pounded away at the keys, her face animated slightly in the light, wild and vivacious with rapture. She seemed possessed sometimes, ravenous from the power currents that jolted her nerves with electricity and ran through her fingers like slippery eels swimming in the ocean.

Otto's show was only twelve hours away. She was up early tensing her fingers, playing secretive scales in the piano room at seven, as she did every morning. She had to be ready. Everybody was always asking her to improvise here, stand in there, accompany me tonight no me no us... seemed like she conducted the whole god damn orchestra sometimes. Our pelican-nosed music teacher Ms. (or was it Mrs.?) Summers frequently borrowed Starla, bent the nimble delicately crafted fingers to suit her vocational needs, her own musical ambitions and purposes (lacking sufficient talent herself). Tonight one of the twins was opening for Otto and needed an accompaniment to "I Believe I Can Fly."

Sometimes Starla was the foundation of the piece, sometimes she was in the background and sometimes she was just messing around beneath the noise. But she was always the rhythmic pulse leading an orchestra, a choir, sometimes a band. She filled the stage dwellers with a sense of structure, coherence they suckled energy from her and fed from a Telltale Heart bursting exuberantly with passion.

Yet she liked to tap delicately at the keys sometimes; liked to feel emotion sway in her gut and well up in her chest, to transmit it into the piano through the PA system and out of the loudspeakers for all to hear. It was then she felt that finally, naturally, somehow out in the open, she became an extension, an abstraction, and naked in the moment with the beautiful music of the dancing cosmos thumping away to infinity. Beneath the furnace, beneath the sturdy hearth of her chest lies the pulse.

I felt cold and frustrated as we entered the novelty rink in search of Otto's show. Nobody had been here before and none of us knew the way. I had to drive us all as usual the whole band squished together in the backseat with Starla riding shotgun.

She was half leading the way as I wandered lazily, dazed in a cloud of suffocating cigarette smoke. It was easy to get hooked on stuff like that back then. Still is now.

"Nadia wants me to do the music to her play," she confided in me so that no one else could hear. Whispering now: "You know, the play's really bad, and I don't know what to do or say about it." She was always critiquing everything, nitpicking at imperfection (imperfection I translated as the subtlety of originality). We were too early and ended up watching the entire roller blade competition. Ah, the zeal of the amateur.

"Just do it, you'll have fun with it. Why do you have to be so stuck up about your stuff?" I pressed her. She had been annoying me lately; senior year has that effect on a warped eighteen-year-old mind.

She seemed lost. "No, I mean, I really want to do the music. But she also wants me to act in the play and she cast me as an Italian whore. I have to wear a bunch of blush make-up and eyeliner the whole thing is really cheesy and unoriginal; I'm some sort of cliche gypsy or something." Half ignoring her string of criticism, I looked around the rink for signs of a familiar face to save me from my chatterbox. Alas, nobody appeared.

Starla continued, "I really want to see Otto play tonight. He's so good. You know he spent the whole summer in Lebanon playing scales and arpeggios for two hours a day? How boring!" The spotlight came on. As Starla rose effortlessly to hurry backstage, I felt awkward that she was close enough to Otto to know that. The twin soared for a few moments in song, spun in mid-air beneath the furious crescendo wave created by the pale convulsing fingers. Actually, it made the twin believe in the charade for a while, at least before she returned from suspension to find her feet solidly locked onto the ground. Starlike accompaniment wound toward resolution, moving melancholically down a natural minor scale that was the sweet spot for Starla. Screw the entrance. It's all about style the exit.

Somewhere behind the stage a loud self-contained stomp of a power chord hung dangerously in the air, threatening the cadence the precise key-pressing fingers were making. Here was a new energy to behold, a primal fever that made that you want to chant and rave about in a mosh-pit. "Hells Bells" began as the hypnotically seductive introductory riff pulled the crowd in, allowed focus to center on the lead guitar. There was a rush of sixteenth notes at a quick tempo, roughly resembling a blues scale more molded and patched up rather than a neat and tidy style of blues. A novelty smoke emitter sprung a leak; the smell of tobacco smoke intermingled with the smell of gasoline and air conditioner coolant filled the room. Maybe that's why the frenzy of teenage girls adored Otto they were hallucinating from fumes.

Otto's figure blurred slightly behind the perfumed smoke. His long skinny fingers danced along the fret-board, convinced of their pathway and eventual destination. When it was finally over, the estrogen tanks in the crowd cheered. Starla yelled jokingly, "Othman, I wanna have your baby!!" Thank god the song finally ended. Longest five minutes of my life.

After the second song I went to the corner and smoked a few cigarettes. Why wasn't I this good yet? I couldn't play a guitar like that. I didn't have a four-piece band with chemistry that was organic like that. I was just plain old carbon, failing to keep time, falling off rhythm and flat onto my face in roller skates, and sliding on slippery sheets of graphitestubborn as a rock-solid diamond. Yeah, that was me Axl Rose without the resume.

Otto's band was still playing. Starla was transfixed, glued to the shuffling bits of intertwined lick, riff, and solo that were emerging from Othman's girlish hands. Somehow everyone was having a ball but me, though I couldn't understand why. I fled to the parking lot, lighting cigarette after compulsive cigarette as I ran. What was I then? The dull thump of Otto's brash single-coil Strat was something I made a point of ignoring as I raised indigo flame to cool white stick. I needed to cool something. Drawing the soft gray steam evenly into my lungs, I tried to stifle the eruption of heat in my chest, the disquieting sensations of loneliness, shame, and insignificance I felt rising in my gut. Death creeps slowly when you're addicted to satisfaction.

Starla found me mourning in my asylum of smoke on the tar-splattered asphalt outside. "Haven't you smoked enough yet? Why do you have to come outside to do it?"

"To get away from you... and Otto's babies" I muttered sarcastically. I felt safe in my alienation.

"Oh, come on, I was joking around." Right. She was a joke around me. I knew that I didn't have to get pissy to get her attention, but I felt like doing it anyways, for the sake of conflict, argument, and eventual resolution if for nothing else.

"Whatever," I mumbled, smoke emerging from the upturned edges of my lips. She enjoyed the rest of the show uninterrupted. I smoked quietly beside her, escaping at intermission to refill the dwindling regiments, the legions of my cigarette pack. Otto was the man.

When it was finally over we went out to dinner at Starla's favorite hookah bar Classicals. I ordered apple. She got strawberry. Otto got melon. He got up to go buy some coffee down the street at Paradise Caf Classicals place made it too strong; the Turkish aroma was overpowering, you had to smoke two cigarettes to mask the taste. Starla drank two cups that night. Puffing away at his cigarettes outside the caf in an uncomfortable metal chair, alone at last, Otto looked forward to savoring the grilled shish kabob he had just ordered. Pressed freshly, served delicately like fingers on a platter for him. Yum. Dinner was a refreshing break food was the only thing that slowed Starla's stream of gibberish. Starla shared Otto's kabab.

Sitting across from Starla at a table on 5th Avenue is a little perplexing to do. It doesn't seem to make sense. It's weird that I'm able to do it now, able to withstand every complaint (and mistake) that erupts from the mouth of that furnace. Therapy never did the trick for me, though I tried it for some time. I learned to translate my emotion into something primal like Otto used to do. I got him back good, of course. Paraplegic. Hmph. Hasn't jammed in decades... nothing to stand up for, you could say (if you wanted to be cruel). But that's all beside the point now. The point is that Starla let me be free, she released me from the trap the spinster lays, the allure of the 'classical.' Now I just make my music, let it flow naturally, smooth and crisp, like Otto's Mediterranean fingers did the night he fucked my Starla. I mean, hey, wasn't it John Lennon who told us to Let it Be? And he got shot. In a cloud of smoke he was gone. Poof and then Puff, you smoked another cigarette in remorse, let the spirit of the seventies trickle to a halt until it died; let the weight of a generation piled on and on fall to the ground in a resounding crash. Everyone heard, felt that eternally silencing echo. You lit up again and again to pass the days so that you could stop counting. It's like that when anybody dies, whether literally or metaphysically. When they go that suddenly from you snap, boom, just like that it leaves an impression. Maybe Starla fucked John Lennon too. Who knows? Mmm, I haven't had one of these in a while... Camel did always make tasty cigarettes. Like fresh shishkabobs on a platter. Yum.

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