Sinking, Singing

by Gwynne Garfinkle

This story originally appeared in Not One of Us #60

People always ask me why the Untimely Ripped never made an album. It’s not because Ed and I broke up, though that’s usually what I tell them.

I remember the first time I saw Thelma and the other two. It was a Monday night in the spring of 1997, and we were the second band on the bill (which was good, because I hated dragging in to work in the morning after a few hours’ sleep). The first band hadn’t gone on yet when those girls walked into Spaceland, the three of them, with their waterlogged goth look, and I wondered if it was some kind of a joke. Then I saw Ed staring at them as they floated toward the bar, and I had a sinking feeling. He hadn’t looked at me that way in what felt like a long time. I had thought I looked good when I put on my Jackie O dress and sixties eyeliner, but now, seeing him smolder at these chicks, I felt dowdy.

I nudged Margot. “Hey, check out the mermaids.” 

She peered through her cat-eye glasses at them. “Oh, that must be the Sirens,” she said. “Annie saw them play here last week.”

We were standing by the sound booth, near the entrance to the club. “Colossal Head” by Los Lobos played over the PA. “Isn’t that name a little on the nose? And wasn’t there already a band called the Sirens?”

“That was the Screamin’ Sirens,” Margot said.

“I remember them.”  They’d been an all-girl cowpunk band. “Is that what these girls sound like?”

Margot glanced at them again. “I think they’re vocals only. A cappella. They’re supposed to be good.”

“Huh.” The fact they were a band and not just some random, annoyingly beautiful girls irked me even more. They’d dyed their long gleaming hair greenish purple to look like kelp, and their black lace dresses looked drenched somehow, clinging to their bodies. They had on motorcycle boots, which seemed to complete the effect. “I wonder if they cover ‘Song to the Siren’?”

She shrugged. “I think Annie said they were from Boston. Or maybe New York? I guess they’re on tour.” Margot was shorter than me, and a little heavier. She looked cute with her short black hair and swirling pink psychedelic mini dress. She kept turning to look fretfully at the people walking into the club. Her boyfriend had dumped her, and I knew she was afraid he would show up with his new girlfriend. I don’t remember whether he did or not, that night. I was always telling her she could do so much better. She always fired back that I could do better than Ed. Actually I knew that.

I didn’t meet the Sirens that night. The Untimely Ripped played, and when we were done, those girls were gone, I think.

~

The next Monday night, the Sirens opened for my friend Chris’s band. Ed was talking to the girls at the bar before their set, and I walked up. “I’m Thelma,” the tallest of the three told me, and offered her hand. It was cool and strong. I was just her height, but somehow she seemed more imposing. Close up, her face wasn’t beautiful exactly. It was harsh and ageless. The olive skin of her bare arms glowed against the shimmering silk of her green dress. She introduced her bandmates, but somehow I couldn’t retain their names. Those two were beautiful, but less compelling.

I can’t describe their set. I mean, the three of them stood at their mics and sang in harmony. The songs had no words I recognized. I couldn’t tell if it was a foreign language or nonsense words. Thelma’s voice was husky, the other two more ethereal. The room went totally still. Gone was the usual hum of Spaceland chatter. I barely heard the clink of a beer bottle. We were transfixed. I didn’t want to be transfixed. I didn’t even want to like them. I tried to wrench myself free and think critically about what they were doing, about what had influenced them, what kind of folk music or classical music. But I couldn’t think. I just stood there at the lip of the stage—how had I gotten so close to the stage? — and listened with a yearning I couldn’t understand.

When the set was over, we clapped and cheered wildly, longing for more. “More!” we bellowed. But the Sirens shrugged superbly and left the stage, abandoning us in the void where their music had been.

“Damn,” Margot said. Only then did I realize she was standing next to me.

I nodded emphatically.

She seemed to shake herself from a trance. “I should find out if they have a CD. I could write something about them for the SoCal Weekly. But what the hell would I say?”

“I know what you mean.” I couldn’t remember any of their songs, not a note. Only the way their music had made me feel, the long shiver that had gone through me for their entire set. 

A few minutes later I saw Ed at the bar with Thelma, and I headed over. “Your eyes are so green,” I caught him telling her in an awestruck tone.

“Yes, they are,” I chimed in, trying to sound ultra-confident. Ed, busted, took a step away from her. It was true, though — her eyes were astoundingly green, like beautiful marbles. (The other girls’ eyes were blue, I’d notice later. A startling Aegean blue.) “Your set was great,” I added.

“Oh, did you like it?” Thelma asked with an odd inflection. It made me wonder what she’d thought of my band. If she’d even given our gig a second thought.

“It was fuckin’ rad,” Ed said. There was something so nakedly worshipful in his tone. Was it just that he wanted to fuck her, or what?

“Do you have a record out?” I asked.

Thelma shook her head dismissively. “Such things don’t interest us.”

“You really should record,” Ed said. “I mean, I get that for you it’s all about the communal live experience, but everyone should be able to hear your music…” He blathered on, while Thelma sipped her drink and listened indulgently. It was embarrassing. I remembered when Ed and I first met and he rhapsodized about my songs, my singing voice, the clothes I wore. But I didn’t think he’d ever been quite so over-the-top.

“So, are you on tour?” I asked when I could get a word in.

“Our plans are indeterminate,” she said.

“Where are you staying?” Ed asked eagerly.

“The reservoir,” she replied. Did she mean across the street from the reservoir? If so, it was a pretty vague answer. Ed and I nodded as if we understood.

~

The Sirens were still in town a couple of weeks later when a label rep came to an Untimely Ripped gig. We’d had label interest before, and it never amounted to anything. I didn’t really expect this to be any different. Sure, I would have liked the option of quitting my day job, but I was less and less enamored of touring with sweaty guys in a van. That was starting to get old, now that we were all in our thirties. I figured we’d end up putting out a record ourselves. Ed was really hoping we’d get signed, though. He didn’t have a steady day job and didn’t want one. The label rep was a small blonde in expensive jeans and a leather jacket. Before we went on, she told me she’d heard our live set on the radio and thought it was great. 

Our set was a disaster. A couple of songs in, Ed started playing completely different bass parts that didn’t fit at all. I tried to focus, but Luis, our drummer, got completely thrown off. Stan looked like he wanted to swing his guitar at Ed’s head. The label rep watched us with her mouth pursed like she’d tasted something bad. After the fourth song, she headed for the bar and started flirting with the bartender.

Only at the end of the set did I notice the Sirens at the back of the room. Thelma was smiling with all her teeth. I had never seen her smile before.

We took our equipment off the stage in silence, and the next band started to set up. Standing in front of the stage, I asked Ed what the fuck had happened. I expected him to say he was on something. He didn’t seem drunk. He shook his head perplexedly. “I had their music in my head,” he said.

“Whose music?” I asked, though I knew.

He ran a hand through his sweaty dark hair. “Theirs. Hers.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Ed,” I said.

“I’m sorry!” he said. “I couldn’t stop it.”

“I’m gonna kick your ass, man,” Stan snarled — but Ed looked so woebegone, Stan shook his head and stomped off to the bar.

Luis pulled me aside. “I heard it too. The Sirens’ music, I mean. I heard it.”

I stared at him. “You did? I thought it was just Ed throwing you off.”

He shook his head. “It was freaky.”

I walked up to the bar. The label rep was long gone. I ordered a dirty vodka martini. The bartender took one look at me and made it a double. As I ate the olives from the swizzle stick, Thelma glided past the bar with an amused look in my direction. She headed out the door. An instant later, a desperate-eyed Ed followed her. A wave of humiliation broke over me. I drank down the cocktail, salt and burning. Then I set the empty glass on the bar and strode outside. 

People smoked and chatted on the sidewalk. To my surprise, Ed was nowhere in sight. I walked up to the Sirens. Thelma glanced at her bandmates, and the two of them drifted off down the block. “What can I do for you, Lesley?” she asked.

“What the fuck is your deal?” I asked. The martini had hit me hard, and I was ready to unleash. “What do you have against me and my band? Or is it just about Ed? You want him for yourself?”

Thelma laughed. It was a dizzying sound like gulls wheeling overhead.

“What’s so funny?” I demanded.

“Ed!” she cried. “He is of no consequence. There are a thousand, a thousand thousand, just like him. His kind is so easily entangled and even more easily discarded. Really, I’m embarrassed for you. When we first heard your voice, we assumed you would be more discerning.”

“When you first heard my voice.” I tried to figure out what that meant. The Untimely Ripped show at Spaceland, the night I’d first seen the three of them? I hadn’t been sure they’d even stuck around for our set.

“We were far away then, but we heard your music on the wind, along the waves. It drew us here, to this manmade lake.” She shrugged in the direction of the reservoir, a few minutes’ walk from where we stood.

“What are you talking about?” I whispered, although I sort of knew.

“We thought you would recognize us, but you didn’t. You were too enmeshed in all of this.” She waved her hand at the nightclub. “We thought if we stripped it away, you would remember who you are. We thought you would want to join us.”

“Join…your band?” I asked, even as I realized what a ridiculous understatement that was. “You want me to sing with you?” The thought of my voice meshing with theirs filled me with a longing so intense, I almost doubled over with it.

“We want you to come with us,” Thelma murmured. 

“Where? To the reservoir?”

She chuckled deep in her throat. “No. We’re ready to leave here, with or without you. Can you really live without us?”

My mouth went dry. It tasted of olives, salt as the sea. Tasted of a memory. No, not a memory, exactly. A flash of the Mediterranean, so blue it was almost purple, somewhere I had never been. “I don’t know,” I said.

Thelma narrowed her eyes at me. “Would you really turn us down for this?” 

I looked around at Silver Lake Blvd, lined with trees and streetlights and cars, at hipsters smoking cigarettes and gabbing, at the black circles of ancient chewing gum smashed flat into the sidewalk. I looked up at the sign that read Dreams of LA, from back when Spaceland had been a gay disco, and at the marquee with my band’s name on it. I imagined a life of water and music and these women. Swaying the mortals with our power and beauty, with our undeniable song. I had felt a trace of that power sometimes, on stage, when the audience was rapt at attention.

“There you are, Lesley!” Behind me, Margot’s voice as she came through the door. She walked up to me, then hesitated when she saw Thelma. 

“We’ll be leaving soon,” Thelma told me. “We’ll know when you’ve decided.” She joined the other two Sirens down the block, and they walked toward the reservoir, where, I knew, they would climb the fence, heedless of barbed wire, and slip into the water.  

“What was all that about?” Margot asked.

I shook my head, and a wave of vertigo went through me. I really was pretty drunk. “You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.” 

She put her arm around me. “So, that was kind of a mess,” she said with a wry smile. “Are you okay?” 

She meant the gig. It seemed long ago and far away. I put my arm around her. She was soft and warm and a little sweaty in her orange sleeveless dress. I loved her. “I don’t know,” I said. 

Margot’s forehead was corrugated with concern. “Is something going on between Ed and Thelma?” 

I started to laugh. Margot looked surprised, then pleased. She started laughing too. We laughed and laughed, drawing curious glances from the people around us.

The warmth that filled me was purely human. It cut through the vodka and the strangeness of the night. In that instant, laughing with my best friend, I chose. 

An instant later, I couldn’t quite breathe as I realized I wouldn’t see the Sirens again. Wouldn’t hear them again. I wanted to run after them, beg them to let me sing with them just once before they left. But that wasn’t how this worked. 

~

After the Sirens were gone, Ed kept getting drunk and crying disconsolately. It was a really swell time. “It just seems pointless to play music anymore,” he said. “We can never measure up.”

“Speak for yourself,” I retorted.

“The Sirens are true artists. You could never understand.”

I was tempted to tell him everything. Not that Ed would have believed me. I just rolled my eyes at him. 

“Can I punch Ed now?” Luis kept whispering to me during band practice. “How about now? Now can I punch him?” 

Stan joined another band, though he said he was still into playing with us. Then I slept with Luis, which was my way of passive-aggressively breaking up with Ed, which set him off on another round of drinking and crying. Then Ed left the band. We could’ve gotten a new bass player, but somehow we didn’t. 

~

I don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, though Margot does. I haven’t gone to Spaceland in years. It’s not called Spaceland anymore, though it still has the sign that reads Dreams of LA. Whenever I drive along the reservoir, I look for the Sirens, even though I know they won’t be there. The city drained the reservoir for awhile because of the drought, and it was a relief in a way, not to look for them, not to imagine them with their green and purple hair floating in the water like seaweed. 

Today I drove along the reservoir for the first time since it was filled again. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the water shone blue and lovely in the sun, not as beautiful as the Aegean must be, but still. Joggers ran along the path next to the fence. 

I don’t miss those days, twenty years ago. People tell me it’s too bad the Untimely Ripped never made a record, but I think it’s okay. A couple of those songs ended up on the CD I put out myself. I care more about the songs I’m writing now, even though it’ll probably be a long while before I make another record. Between my family and my job, I don’t have a lot of extra time. 

Would it have been worth it to go with them? Sometimes when I feel especially tired, sitting in traffic, I wonder. Mostly the prospect seems lonely, an eternity of music in a vacuum devoid of loved ones. But maybe that’s because I can’t quite remember their music. What is success, anyway? What is failure? You don’t get to decide what stands the test of time. Eventually it all drifts away.

© Copyright Gwynne Garfinkle

Gwynne Garfinkle lives in Los Angeles. Her collection of short fiction and poetry, People Change, was published in 2018 by Aqueduct Press. Her work has appeared in such publications as Escape Pod, Strange Horizons, Uncanny, Apex, GigaNotoSaurus, Dreams & Nightmares, and Climbing Lightly Through Forests. Her debut novel, Can’t Find My Way Home, is forthcoming in November 2021 from Aqueduct Press.


Read the Rest of the May Issue

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: