At the age of fourteen, during my last year in junior high school in Gardena, I began to realize that if I were ever to get a date I ’d have to revolutionize my musical point of reference. The faux folk music and light pop I ’d once cherished had to be exchanged for something completely different. I was among mostly Japanese American kids who took their cue regarding dance music not so much from the new rock ‘n’ roll coming out of England—the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other mopheads—or even the catchy tunes from East Coast rockers like Dion and the Belmonts, but from love ballads sung by Black artists from all over—what the guys I ’d wait with at the bus stop near the McDonnell Douglas railroad tracks on 186th Street and Normandie Avenue called slow-dance music.
These Japanese teens styled themselves after Chicano low riders, wore their hair in versions of a Duck’s Ass, slicked their hair at the temples with pomade and Tres Flores, and tucked a stylist’s thin-handled comb into their back pockets. They wore pressed khaki trousers, polished wingtip shoes with steel taps on their toes and heels, dingy white tees, and Pendleton shirts. The music that blared from their pocket transistors was invariably from singing trios and quartets like Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Mello-Kings, Penguins, Chantels, Duprees, Miracles, and Impressions. It was a doo-wop treasure trove of teen heartache, harmonized paeans to blue-balls frustration, and earfuls of echoing reverb, all to a slow and steady two-note bass beat targeted for dancing uptight with a girl, who, for me, remained only a distant, idealized, and exquisite corpse of imagination only.
I started borrowing 45s from the guys who ’d lend them to me, and eventually I began buying my own collection, dropping by the local music store on Redondo Beach Boulevard. Kay’s Music was in a tidy, half-block-long strip mall, next to a shop where my mother got her hair done. Kay’s was one of those standard storefront shops with an all-glass front, a glass door, and an inner accordion security fence that the owner stretched out when he closed up. Kay (short for Kazuo, I was told) was a Japanese American man in his forties; his crewcut hair was cigarette-ash white, and he spoke in short, gentle bursts, a bit taciturn but kind in his manner. I remember he dressed like a pharmacist—black oxfords, dark slacks, and short-sleeved white shirts, always crisply pressed. He was used to dealing with all ages, preteens and teenagers included. He had stacks and bins of sheet music, books on various instruments, and musical instruments for sale. In back were rehearsal booths where lessons took place.
Behind the long counter were all the records, mostly 45s, which he kept in cubbies that stretched along almost the whole length of the store on one long wall. It was amazing, but I don’t think there was ever any record I asked for that he didn’t have in stock. Kay could fit more than a hundred single records in one foot of bookshelf space. He might have stocked over two thousand 45s and another five hundred 33 1/3 LPs in that little store. And he had scores of records I ’d not heard of yet and, once in a while, he ’d suggest something he thought I ’d like and spin it for me. He wouldn’t let you handle the records yourself. You had to make a request or approve of his suggestion and then he ’d turn around and go hunting for it, pushing a wooden ladder anchored on rollers at the top, then climbing nimbly up there, fetching the record, climbing back down. He went over to a turntable in a cubbyhole below the stacks of 45s, slid the record out of its crisp paper sleeve, then placed it on the player, and lifted and lowered the tonearm, settling the stylus carefully in the lead-in groove. I think I first heard “Angel Baby” by Rosie and the Originals there. And dozens of other songs I ’d never have discovered just listening to the radio or talking to friends. The man stocked surf music, Pat Boone and Paul Anka, Japanese enka, shakuhachi, and sankyoku music, Carl Perkins and Elvis, and Wilson Pickett too. But slow-dance sides outsold everything.
Though I ’d have to ask my mother’s permission, after dinner and homework I ’d try to spend every weekday evening in the living room spinning one slow-dance 45 after another, popping up that brushed brass adapter on my father’s Empire turntable, moving its rubber belt down from the 33 1/3 pulley to the one for 45rpm with a cat’s cradling touch of my two hands. It was as though I ’d cocooned myself in a malt shop jukebox every night, soaking in melodies of teen angst and hopefulness, with their naive and soaring harmonies, trying to imagine the body and personality of the opposite sex swaying and dipping under my rhythmic caress on the dance floor. The Penguins crooned “Earth Angel” and I fell into my first lessons on love and poetry, ardor and longing: Earth angel, earth angel, / Will you be mine?
Once, I made the faux pas of praising a white singing group to the gang at the bus stop. I ’d taken a liking to a tune by the Capris, a quartet from back East somewhere that Kay had introduced me to and thought was pretty good. There’s a moon out tonight, they crooned. Let’s go strollin’ . . .
The next day, though, talking to the guys waiting for the bus, I went on way too long about the song and got the silent treatment. On the bus, I asked one of the guys what was up, and he told me, “Fool, the Capris is a white group—they ain’t no brothers, man.” I was shocked. “But they sound so Black,” I said. And my friend turned away and fell silent like the others.
I brooded on this for days thereafter, spinning the Capris’ single and trying to hear whiteness amidst their singing, hoping to spot a tell-tale giveaway they were doing the musical equivalent of blackface. Ooo-oh-oh-ooo, crooned the Capris. And I listened carefully not only to their harmonies, which sounded soulful to me, but to their diction and enunciation, how they ’d slur a word or sing a syllable in a particular way I could recognize as definitely white or Black. It’s true their lead singer enunciated clearly, and I thought I detected an easy suburbanish style of pronunciation as he sang most of the lyrics. But his falsetto was the height of cool, sailing as high and as purely as anyone from the Penguins or Heartbeats, two bona fide Black groups. I could hear no major difference among all these records I was learning to love and that were shaping my attitude toward my own fitfully emerging sexuality, even as I ’d done nothing but moon for imaginary girls and dream of getting an embrace, a kiss.
What was race? I asked myself. Why was it critical in terms of my new listening, identity, and sexuality? And what were its signs in terms of musical styles? Was it fake for white kids to sing Black, imitate soul brothers? If that were the case, what about us Buddhaheads, Japanese kids loving and singing the same songs, dressing in styles we learned from our Black classmates from Compton? The pegger gabardine slacks, high-collar Kensington shirts, and pointed imitation Italian shoes we ’d get at Flagg Brothers in downtown L.A.?
I gave up after a while, but I stopped publicly praising the whiteface Capris, not letting anyone know I was still listening to “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” or imagining taking a girl out for a walk under its silver light. The song simply settled back in the same pile of 45s I ’d stored in my father’s living room cabinet. I just told myself I wouldn’t loan it out, that I ’d hide it inside the sleeve of some innocuous LP whenever anyone came over. Throughout that last year in junior high, “There’s a Moon Out Tonight” was my backdoor 45.
The next year, in tenth grade, my first in high school, I threw a party and invited my gang and all the girls I could think of who I thought would come—about a dozen. I think I even sent invitations I ’d printed up in my shop class, using fancy card stock and type I set myself. My mother and her sister helped prepare the house and make the party snacks—onion dip, chips, broiled chicken livers wrapped in bacon with water chestnuts, and two cases of Coke and orange soda. I put together the 45s in three stocky towers of gleaming black vinyl stacked around wooden spindles my grandfather had fashioned out of unpainted doweling and pine planks. My mother decorated the dowels with red and silver ribbon wound diagonally around the spindles to make them look like candy canes. Our whole living room was packed with Japanese kids in party clothes—the girls in sleeveless monochrome sheath dresses and the guys in pre-disco flash with lots of cologne splashed on. The place reeked of Brüt, English Leather, and Jade East.
I got no action, except for a few dances with different girls who only tolerated my clumsy efforts at slow-dance suavity. But I ’d been introduced to the game and, slowly, I started doing a little better, going to carnivals and school dances, girls chatting with me more and more, even dancing, riding up with me in a Ferris wheel at night and not jumping out as it swung us to the stars. I stopped needing to talk about records and doo-wop singing groups and gradually coaxed out innocuous facts and admissions from the girls—the names of their pets, where they ’d go on weekends with their friends, what desserts they liked when they went out. If it turned out that they liked records too, they were nowhere near as obsessive and enamored of the music as I ’d been. And nowhere near as policed in their tastes as I was by my gang of male friends. A lot of them liked novelty tunes like “Leader of the Pack” by the Shangri-Las, “These Boots Were Made for Walking” by Nancy Sinatra, and the Japanese hit “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto. I hated those, but nodded and proposed casual meet-ups, then dates.
At Gardena High, a “Marine District” school, there were a thousand Japanese American kids attending alongside another thousand African American students, a thousand white kids, and a few hundred Mexican Americans. Although we were called the first “integrated school” in Los Angeles, the actuality was we were self-segregating, kids mostly sticking to their own ethnic groups and rarely crossing lines, particularly socially. If there was any coalition, it was rhetorical—on occasion we called ourselves “The Three Bees”—bloods, Buddhas, and beaners.
I found myself moving along fitfully, no steady easing into sexuality, but fraught with the problematic of being pubescent, male, Japanese American, and bathed in concepts of physical identity swarming around me from television and the movies that told me my body was all wrong, not only barred from heroism (James Bond and the cowboys in Westerns), but in fact made the target of comedy and ridicule. Here was the era of Mickey Rooney taping up his eyes and wearing a buck-tooth prosthesis, playing the role of the salacious and preposterously impotent Japanese landlord to Audrey Hepburn’s fetching Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Here was Marlon Brando as an obsequious Okinawan, slant-eyed in makeup, loose tongue slavering like a serpent, dressed in a short hakama made of rags, sucking up to the American military administrator played by Glenn Ford in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Here was Hop Sing on tv’s Bonanza, the black tail of his queue set swinging as he stalked away, muttering in incomprehensible sing-song Chinese complaints to himself that the Cartwrights, his virile boss ranchers, wouldn’t eat his fried rice while it was hot. Hah-hah-the-fuck-hah. It pissed us all off and we tried to ignore these things, even as the Japanese girls all around us at school saw Asian women exoticized as sexy China dolls, compliant geisha, and demure but available sarong–wearing sirens in old moving pictures like The Road to Hong Kong.
And so we immersed ourselves in Black music—the rhythm and blues coming out of Detroit’s Motown—Black bodies our models for dress, savoir faire, and how to step, sway, and shake to the Cool Jerk and the Slauson Shuffle, Black voices our incorporeal enchantment, imagining our male selves the “breathtaking guy” in a song by the Supremes, imagining our female counterparts wearing the emerald chiffon dresses and white satin gloves that would stop us in the name of love. In a culture where we Asians were never realistically represented, African American music gave us a presence, if only to ourselves, in a way that the absence of our bodies or ridicule of our stereotypical images on tv and in the movies did not.
Bouffant-coiffed Diana Ross cooed like a dove in lyrics about a burning “deep inside,” ending the verse with a long, drawn out Ooo-ah that came from her sweet, warbling throat. It was money and I chased it relentlessly every day in the halls of high school, out in the parking lot after football games, and on the weekend dances I got to till it hurt so bad. I asked girl after girl out, called them up to make time on the telephone, my mother hovering over my conversations, listening to every piece of persuasion I tried to encode as I talked on the wall-mounted kitchen phone. It developed my love of symbolism and metaphor, insinuation, and double-entendre, perhaps my first practices in a language of spectacular deception and hidden meanings.
But my listening was changing. I remember Ken Kawada going off at me and a couple of other guys one afternoon while we were standing around our lockers, bullshitting each other, talking about girls and the Temptations, Wicked Wilson Pickett, or something we ’d just heard on KGFJ, “the soul of L.A.,” the favorite R&B AM station back in the day.
“Why you always only gotta listen to blood music?” Kawada shrieked, using the ghetto insider’s slang term for Black. “Why you always gotta put guys down for listening to the Beatles, Beach Boys, or the fucking Rolling Stones, huh? Why?”
He was high on something—yellow jackets or bennies—that was clear, his voice whining and impassioned, a tone all but forbidden in our style of teen cool and impassivity. But Kawada was right—Why did we only listen to Black music? I ’d internalized the prohibition in pursuing a culture to belong to, that I could join without being put down by its imperious needs to colonize and ridicule my body, which is what we all sensed was the deleterious side effect of participating in white culture.
But so-called “white music” was changing. It wasn’t the pastel sweaters and aftershave stuff of Perry Como, Andy Williams, or Paul Anka anymore. The sixties not only brought us the British Invasion bands, but counterculture pop and blues-influenced hard rock as well. The AM airplay of singing groups (backed by studio contract musicians) like the crossover 5th Dimension (our senior prom band) and the dreamy, turtlenecked Association gave way to songs by the new rockers who excelled playing their own instruments—the scruffy-haired, country-influenced Buffalo Springfield; San Francisco acid rockers like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane; and the folky Greenwich Village duo Simon and Garfunkel. American mainstream music was diversifying, getting freaky, and derived as much from a mix of Chicago electric blues, Appalachian balladry, and other traditional musics as it once may have from the commercial, culturally specious origins on Tin Pan Alley and Vegas lounge acts. And its lyrics meant something—dropping acid (“White Rabbit”), a police riot (“For What It’s Worth”), or the burden of white American guilt (“The Weight”). At an outdoor assembly, I ’d heard classmates cover “Sunshine of Your Love,” that breakthrough acid rock tune by Cream with Eric Clapton playing a driving ostinato on electric guitar throughout the piece. There was no doubt of its propulsive power, the astonishing virtuosity of the three British musicians who made up the band, and my Gardena schoolmates did a creditable job in faithful mimicry, the bassline booming over the asphalt grounds and concrete breezeways of our campus. That the lead vocal was sung by my old doo-wop mentor Gerald Hudson made hearing it all the more remarkable, a Black kid imitating Jack Bruce’s operatic singing style. Here was American Black blues culture, imported to England, now being brought back via the Black voice.
I can’t say exactly how or when, but I started listening differently after that, pursuing the new music, tracking Cream, Buffalo Springfield, the Band, and Jethro Tull and Fleetwood Mac (when both were blues bands). I stopped hanging out at Kay’s and Wallichs Music City and found new record outlets away from Gardena and South Bay. I started flipping through record bins out in Hollywood, Westwood near UCLA, and along the Sunset Strip.
About the same time, I ’d grown bored with most of my classmates and, reciprocally, they ’d gotten completely sick of me. I was reading The Atlantic and The Nation, looking for explanations about our changing national culture, which was full of unrest. Vietnam was going on, there had been student protests at Berkeley and Columbia, and race riots had inflamed our inner cities across the country, starting just a few miles away from Gardena in Watts. I ’d seen the smoke from my rooftop when I was thirteen. My classmates were still focused on dances and the football team, college entrance exams, and keeping their noses clean so they could move up into the economic and social niches their parents expected them to. Recently, a classmate told me that I ’d yelled at a pretty Japanese girl for being petty and politically ignorant, trying to solicit me for some kind of club raffle the day after Robert Kennedy was assassinated. I was also told I ’d pounded a Japanese guy’s head into a locker after he taunted me for singing “Cielito Lindo” in the hallways. I was imitating the ay, ay, ay yodeling of the Mexican singer who recorded it, intoning the polka-influenced verses about a lovely lady with dark eyes.
I was singing it because I ’d gone to a Mexican dance over the weekend, dressing like a pachuco, slicking back my hair with Tres Flores, wearing high-water gabardine slacks with billowing pantlegs, black hightop lace shoes, a tight-fitting maroon shirt, and a borrowed broad-shouldered black jacket of a long and stylish cut. I was seeing Aline, a pretty Greek American girl who sat in front of me junior year in a creative writing class, and we couldn’t hang out at the segregated dances for white kids or Japanese. We were known too well and racial mixing was strictly taboo. Our friend Felipe Garcia, a gay Chicano who sat across from me in class, suggested we go with him to a Mexican dance in his neighborhood. He ’d coach us on what to wear, how to dance, and we ’d have a good time on his turf, more open and without the social segregations of white or Japanese culture that prohibited us from dating.
Aline was vivacious and a good talker, not to mention a beauty; I saw her as a teenage Lauren Bacall, full of quips and anecdotes about her life. She spoke easily about paperback novels she had read—books like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. She found them in her mother’s beauty shop while sweeping up and closing the place. They were left by customers, culled by her from a ragtag library of Westerns, mysteries, and bodice-rippers. And I got off on talk, was starved for it among the taciturn Japanese American kids I was usually in classes with.
Aline spun around one day, spraying her long glossy light caramel hair in a whirl in front of me, taking my breath away, and snapped a paperback book on my desk.
“Here. Read this,” she said, commanding me (Obbedisco, mia donna!). “The guys in here are a lot like you. You’re both McMurphy and the Chief rolled into one.”
It was a challenge and I accepted it, reading Kesey’s book over the weekend, then talking to Aline all the week long thereafter, she handing me more and more novels to read as the term wore on, schooling me in doubled ways with increments of literature and the engagingly proffered romance I began to anticipate would be ours.
I got to hanging out at Aline’s after school, where there was inevitably a crowd gathered around a portable record player that she put out on the concrete stoop by her front door, swing-out stereo speakers blaring a stack of hit 45s. The guys were a mix, mostly white, with a couple of Chicanos and one Filipino guy. Near dinner time, the crowd would dwindle, and Aline would move her record player back inside, inviting me, last to leave, to “stick around and rap.” We sat on a pebble-grain fabric couch and she ’d play records. She had an eclectic collection—45 singles of the Righteous Brothers, Beach Boys, and Beatles. But the records that stuck out were by the Zombies, a British rock group from the mid-sixties, from London but obviously influenced by the Mersey beat sound. They also made covers of blues and slow-dance music by various Black artists. She loved these and seemed completely innocent of issues like the race-crossing and cultural mimicry that these sides raised in my own mind, so I never went there when we talked and started making out. Muddy Waters’s “Mojo Working” played on repeat in the background, the Zombies cranking in a jumbled, herky style like Manfred Mann and His Men, while we got busy.
Aline had a way of unhooking her bra under a knit blouse, reaching back with one arm, sliding the rig around, and, with a grin, pulling it out from under like a rubber chicken yanked from a top hat. It was thrilling. But though she let me fumble around in there, my hands groping and pin-balling with her plush breasts, my arms hitching the lower hem of her blouse up to her heaving belly, she never took her top off all the way, no matter how passionately she seemed to sigh and writhe under my caresses. It made me crazy and maybe her too, both of us fumbling to enact the script written from sixties fantasies about the opposite sex.
I ’d worked up an especially obscene lather one afternoon, when Aline’s father, home from work early, walked in on us. The music was turned up so loud, we didn’t hear his pickup pulling into the driveway or even his door key working the lock. When he came in, the whole house seemed to take in a breath while her father stood for a second at the entryway. He saw what we were doing, the Zombies still working their mojo, then snapped his head aside, looking past us, and walked straight through the living room toward the back of the house. I was frozen, immobilized in my ardor, abashed and still rigid under my school slacks. But Aline, calm and more experienced than me, sat up, straightened and smoothed her knit top, twisting her slim hips, then leaned down and put her unflustered face in front of mine, commanding me to Wait here. She didn’t bother getting her bra back on—it had been thrown limply and now was spread out like a dead, beige-colored octopus on the floor. She walked over to the kitchen, bouncing and shifting freely under her top. I heard the freezer door open, then a rattle and a crunch, a ceramic tinkling, and a tap opening and water running. She came back to me with a widemouth rubberized bag that looked like an inflated shower cap (it was bulging ice), and handed it to me, saying, “Here, put this on Mr. Johnson and you’ll calm down.” I did as I was told, icing myself.
Her father called to me from the kitchen then, scraping a dining chair along the floor. He ’d taken a seat at their Formica table. I hesitated a moment, looking down at myself, handed Aline the ice bag, and stood up. There was a cool dampness on the front of my pants. There was a dark, spreading circle straddling each side of my fly. Water had leaked from the faulty bag onto the fabric and, fool that I was, I hadn’t noticed it for all the chill I ’d been desperately applying to myself.
“Son? Are you coming?” her father asked.
I had no option but to walk in there, hands draped along my sides, wanting to cover up. Yet how could I? There was no decorous way and the little voice inside me kept yelling It’s not what you think Not what you think Not what you think at all! But I stood there, hangdog and silent by the framed entryway to the kitchen, waiting to face the music.
Her father was a huge man, obese and blubbery under his work clothes, a long-sleeved shirt over thick poplin slacks, and I imagined him, in God’s rage, swallowing my whole body in the folds of his flesh. But he was acting oddly calm, even friendly. He offered me a beer, which I meekly declined, staring at the floor, not wanting to meet his eyes. He called for Aline to come help him with his “tools,” and she scurried behind me into a bathroom down a hall next to the kitchen and, under the sound of the Zombies still working the mojo, I could hear her rattling a few bottles in a medicine cabinet. She brought back a package of gauze bandages and a hypodermic needle, placing them all on the dining table in front of her father, where there was already a small glass bottle with clear fluid in it. He started taking his shirt off in front of me, asking at first if I minded, but I knew it was useless to protest. He lay back in the frail dining chair I thought would buckle under his weight, stretching his belly to its full expanse. Then he got it all going—popping a new needle for the hypodermic with his teeth, attaching it to the nose end of the hypodermic, dipping the needle through the rubber cap on the bottle of insulin, then stabbing himself, the needle jerking into his roll of belly fat. He pushed the plunger quickly and extracted the needle, seemingly in one motion. This exposed a little bead of blood at the injection site. Aline tore open a paper package, plucked a square piece of gauze from it, and handed it to him so he could dab himself.
“You know why we live here in Gardena, son?” he said, speaking in a voice thickened with age and strain without any hint of the rage I had expected. “Because we admire the Japanese American people.”
It was the first time I ’d ever heard anyone white use that particular locution when speaking about us, and I was astonished. Usually, we were referred to as “Japanese,” which made no distinction between us and Japanese nationals, as “Orientals,” or worse, as Japs, if the speaker carried a prejudice from WWII times. Our Black schoolmates called us Buddhaheads, picking up the term from us, whose fathers had served in the U.S. army. It came from Hawaiian Japanese and was originally pronounced buta-head, meaning “pig-headed,” referring to immigrant field workers so stupid and resolute that hard labor never daunted them.
“We moved here from Texas as soon as I was well enough,” Aline’s father said. “I was wounded in a battle in France and my whole battalion got trapped by the Germans up in this forest, cut off from the rest of the regiment. It was freezing and you couldn’t tell if a crack was from a rifle or a tree limb snapping off somewhere. We were given up for lost by command and thought, Well, this is it, boys. Better make your peace. We were getting picked off, one by one, losing GIs all over the place, hunched down on hard ground we couldn’t dig into. No foxholes. Machine guns pinned us down and sniper rounds would smack into your buddies left and right all down the line. Most was dead before they could say anything. I was so scared I pissed my pants—kinda like the cum you done right there.”
He gestured at the spreading Sargasso on my fly.
“Well, son, guess what? First, a squad of Nisei boys come up, then another—just two or three guys each—and pretty soon what was left of their whole regiment come to our position. That was the Four-Four-Two. You know who they are, don’t you?”
Aline’s father had been one of 275 soldiers of the 1st Battalion of the 36th Infantry Division from Texas, called the “Lost Battalion” for having been encircled by the German army in the Vosges Mountains near the border of Germany. On October 24, 1944, the all-Nisei 442ndRegimental Combat Team suffered over 800 casualties in a battle that rescued the 211 surviving soldiers from Texas.
Aline’s father’s eyes were warm, his voice so calming, but I could only answer stiffly. I said “Thank you for telling me your story, sir,” and made some kind of excuse that I had to go. I withdrew quickly, trying not to catch Aline’s eye, bowing my head as I pulled open the front door, then pushed on the screen door, finally stumbling down the painted concrete steps to the house. As I walked away, my soggy fly feeling cool against my crotch in the light afternoon wind, a strange mix of things flooded through me—that frustration in my loins, the thrumming panic in my soul soothed at disaster averted, stray tears, and a kind of mixed grief and gratitude for the strange and intense recognition that Aline’s father had bestowed upon me. It was all rivering through my body—a sticky flotsam of race, arousal, legacy, and music. No one ever had told me about it.
I took a black-and-white portrait of Aline in a shop class on photography, using a 4 × 5 camera with a bellows focus and a Fresnel screen that showed me an upside-down image of her as I hunched under the blackout cloth draped over my head and shoulders. She was a great subject, holding a steady pose with a cool, pensive expression. I made several prints, one an 8 × 10 blowup I mounted for her mother, who ’d been so excited when I gave Aline proofs to show her parents. Aline told me her mother praised the photo for the “mature” look on her face, which I captured using a soft spot and reflector umbrella. I ’d studied the photos of portraitist Yousuf Karsh and advertising photographer Richard Avedon, but what most guided me was Karsh’s remark that one had to gaze into the “inner character” of one’s subject in order to capture not only a memorable image, but an expression that revealed something of that person’s inner life.
I felt Aline’s character wasn’t in any stiff grin that populated all the prom photos or the quick, easy one she might give when greeting friends, but something I might see in her deep reflection as she thought about the poems she ’d been reading to me as we drove around South Bay on our dates after school. Cruising Normandie Avenue to San Pedro or taking Crenshaw Boulevard down past Pacific Coast Highway to the sea, she ’d incant the vowel-crowded strophes of Dylan Thomas or the esoteric pronouncements about life by Rainier Maria Rilke, a bona fide bohemian possessed of the most exotic name I ’d yet heard. I ’d asked her to think of “soft roses you do not see” from one of Rilke’s narrative poems, and when I snapped the shot, pushing the metal button on the plunge-trigger, I thought of the slightest shadow on her face as a “fold falling on soft brocade.” The lighting I ’d designed bloomed gently over the rich cascade of her long, straight hair that framed her oval face, painted a faint glister upon her lips and eyes, and illumined the soft feathers of her lashes into stark outlines, fine and sharp in focus.
The portrait put me in good stead with her mother, a Greek woman with a tight figure like Aline’s and a welcoming, cheery personality that was a little unnerving to me, since I was more accustomed to the stolid personae of Japanese American adults. She wore cat-eye glasses and kept her tawny hair in a plain bob, despite her job as a hairdresser. I could divine that she and Aline had the same kind of gladness about them, but Aline’s branched into an inner melancholy as well—one that I tried to let tutor me, as it served to tie so much of experience together in bonds more subtle and sublime than the conformist and regulatory culture of Gardena High School, the cheap, Vegas-inflected desires of our parents, or the instant frivolity practiced widely among our multi-ethnic peers. Aline’s mom would pour me a grape soda in a daisy-specked tumbler made for iced tea and Aline would talk about it later as a column of “pure uprising” like a purple crocus in spring, interpreting the mundane with what she called the eyes of exaltation, a kind of double vision. And this was before acid, mescaline, and peyote.
She ’d gotten this ability simply from reading poetry and the novels of Hermann Hesse, a German who claimed that inchoate gods twisted within the blood of our bodies, ready to spring forth in moments of psychic breakdown or ecstasy. Aline said Steppenwolf, using the Germanic pronunciation of schtepp like a verbal needle, prodding me to move within my skin so the god might shift alive within me as I read the books I borrowed from her. She cast a spell over me, silken webs surrounding the trivial nubs of personae I ’d been till then, cocooning me in a silver shroud of new and strange possibility. It all circled a damp core of budding sexuality that now had nowhere to unfold, given that her father had taken our living room sessions away from us.
I proposed we take drives after school and on weekends. I had my father’s BMW 1800 at my disposal, as he worked nights and didn’t need the car on weekends unless he went to the track. I ’d pull into her driveway and she ’d already be bounding off her front porch, her hair pulled back in a jouncing ponytail, and we ’d be off, headed for a bowling alley and a motley group of friends, a record store out on Hawthorne Boulevard in Torrance, or down to the piers in Hermosa or Redondo. Eventually, we found a routine—we ’d drive down Artesia Boulevard from Gardena to the beach cities, take Pacific Coast Highway to the cliffs between Torrance Beach and Redondo pier, park along the bluffs, and hike down through dunes covered in ice plants to the wide and deep beach below, where surfers would just be showering off from their afternoons of chasing waves. We ’d sit on the edge of the concrete boardwalk or take a blanket, throw it down somewhere, and park ourselves so we could watch the combers curling in long, foamy spirals from way offshore. Speckles of light glinted in lacy trails as they crested and fell, and Aline would read something aloud from Rilke or another one of her books.
I can’t say I felt the words she read to me with as much passion or understanding as she had saying them aloud, but I could see that what she read changed the expression on her face like an invisible hand passing across the folds of a velvet curtain, that a bluster of wind would take hold and buoy her voice upwards into flights of quiet emotion while I marveled silently next to her, admiring the pearls of tears that winked alive in her eyes while she spoke to me and beach sand kicked up around us in small gusts, lifting our hair, speckling our skin.
It was like that for what seemed like the longest time before we began exploring each other again, my hands never at the ready but stilled, kept away like floats drifting free of their net, without the tracery of sea-soaked lace that held them to their purpose. But Aline turned to me, recognizing my shallow despair, draping her arms around my shoulders and hands around the back of my neck, drawing me to the softest embrace and the briefest brush of a kiss. I was encouraged, if still bewildered about what poetry had to do with all this.
What helped was music again. Aline had moved along from 45s of white soul, British R&B, and the Zombies to something new—an LP this time, an album by a songwriter who accompanied herself on acoustic guitar—but she was completely unlike the cheesy folk singers I ’d listened to before. Her music was eccentric, ethereal in a way I ’d never imagined a song could be. My references in doo-wop, faux folk, R&B, and white covers of the blues were all wrong for this. The album was Songs to a Seagull by Joni Mitchell, a record Aline had spinning on her portable phonograph whenever I ’d go over there. Mitchell’s spooky voice warbled out her strange and melancholy lyrics that seemed like short stories of doomed love—one lived out in a foreign country of desperate passions and sorrow I ’d only seen hinted at in tv soap operas. And her voice was so thin and quaverous, it seemed to string icy melismas that frosted the air across Aline’s living room. Her guitar canticled like a tower of church bells ringing. Her voice hung in the air as though from a gothic trapeze of notes. I was mystified.
One day, I came upon Aline sitting on the floor in front of the record player, embracing her knees and rocking slowly on her haunches. She wept as Mitchell’s voice rose above us in the small chamber of her living room. She was listening to the title track, a tune she ’d played innumerable times before, but something different must have pierced her heart—Mitchell’s singing could do that, a leaping note drive up through you like a sliver of ice, severing the knot of pent-up passions so its blood flowed. It could let a sorrow loose, a grieving that wasn’t for anything in particular, but for the pain of life, gentle or acute by turns of Mitchell’s phrasing, and Aline now wept to feel it immeasurably. And, numb to its profound subtleties, I wanted to feel it too, though I didn’t quite, inadequately prepped by my prior musical immersions in more conventional portraits of innocence and experience. Here was a song about a girl’s dreams flying with a seagull out of reach that floated so far away she had to imagine its cry.
Rilke may have been the poet we read, but Mitchell was the poet we felt. Her images penetrated our bodies, prophesying the daggers of erotic grief that might later strike us down, if we were brave and lucky enough, if we could live as Rilke instructed and Mitchell lamented. I marveled at the plain things of life Mitchell transformed into shining talismans of seaworn glass that seemed wrenched from a nature that was better than the one we lived in, where beaches stared up past “dolphins playing in the sea” to skies emptied of pain. A relentless prophetess of erotic sorrows I could not pretend to understand, she seemed a dervish at the crossroads where I ’d soon have to make a deal with love.
Eyes brimming, Aline leaped from the floor and gave me a giddy embrace, brushing away tears and putting on a smile, asking if we would be going for a drive. I gazed down at the record spinning on the phonograph, trying to let the lyrics and melody wash over the vague muddiness I felt inside, hoping it might impart the purer order as Aline must’ve felt. Except for the sheer joy of being in her company, my feelings failed me, yet I was alive in a kind of pleasant confusion.
I ’d never skated on ice before, but I tell myself it’s what listening to Joni Mitchell felt like, gliding on a blade cutting across the face of a white pond, while snowflakes fell around us, my one hand free and pushing ahead, the other grasping Aline’s, whipping her around in a saucy spin, carefree except for the portent of chill weather and crisps of frozen lace gathering over our lashes, blinding us to the path furling in front of us.
I think we both knew what we wanted once we decided to spend a day out on the bluffs along the Palos Verdes Peninsula overlooking the Pacific. I ’d plunged my body against hers, pressing her back into a chain-link fence on the border of Alondra Park, where we ’d gone strolling early one evening, pretending to feed the ducks, scattering bits of bread, then hiking up a gentle knoll under the shade of a stand of eucalyptus trees along where the park bordered the parking structure of El Camino Community College. I not only stole a kiss, but let my hands skim and stroke over her lithe torso, arching under me. In her living room one afternoon, we stood against each other, hips locked, and felt for what mattered under our clothes, while the worlds of mutability and distraction spiraled around us. That I took along my camera, a 35mm Nikkormat with Nikon lenses, and said I ’d snap some shots of Aline with my portrait lens, a mild telephoto that let in lots of light, was only a ruse and a story we could tell others if they asked. I threw a small tripod and white umbrella reflector into the back seat too, saying it was to diffuse the intense California spring sunlight while Aline posed for me in the field of tall grasses under the lighthouse at Point Vicente.
We ’d discovered the spot one afternoon driving down Crenshaw Boulevard to the sea. It was a wide swale of tall rye and sedges that caught the wind in green scallops and billowing waves as though it were a sea too. There was a tawny trail worn through stems of meadow barley, their russet heads ripening in the lengthening days, and swaying grails of fountain grass we walked through on our way to the wilderland of what was to come. There was the occasional churr of cactus wrens flitting up from the steep cliffs against the sea and Aline pointed out black-vented shearwaters that cut through the air above us. Gulls screeched, hovering and then banking swiftly down past the bluff’s edge and out of sight, their cries trailing like peals from skeletal bells along the ridgeline.
When I think back to that time, it’s Joni Mitchell’s tunes and lyrics that are the soundtrack, accompanying the ache Aline and I both felt, not only for each other, but for a life that held more mystery and surreality than the working-class, suburbanite lives we witnessed every day and that the world compelled us to live out too. When I heard Aline intoning the poems she loved, whether Rilke or Thomas, when she spun her records and either smiled or wept at the secular altar where she worshipped that music, I felt deeply that there were other worlds expanding in my heart, taking away the rage and boredoms that possessed and vexed me, replacing them, in the words of one of Mitchell’s songs, with globes of ambergris and “amber stones and green.” The world could be pretty then, and despair wasn’t so much its core, but its trailing lace of fond and sorrowful emotions intermingled in the aftermath of having lived through a miraculous splendor.
Under the bluest ocean of sky, Aline lay down in the scarecrow stems and russet heads of grasses she ’d matted around us and her clothing seemed to spiral off in one immaculate gesture, falling to her sides like petals from a bush sunflower. I lay with her and my life has since been lost to a fragile glory.
Within barely a month we got found out as a couple, but our separate racial worlds were not as gentle with us as Aline’s father had been. A rival of mine confronted her on the edge of the school parking lot and violently grabbed her arm as she tried to twist away. It snapped a bone and Aline, stonefaced, wore a cast for the first spring month of school before her parents moved them north along the California coast near Morro Bay. Her father also suffered from emphysema and had long planned the move, now suddenly accelerated by their dismay that anyone could have hurt their daughter. I felt at fault. But I ’d suffered too—goaded into an after-school fight with another Japanese American kid who ’d been badgering me between classes. Staged in the backyard of another boy, who was eager to see us facing off, it looked for a while like I was winning, but I was smaller and shorter than my opponent, and my punches started missing and his landing, hard against my lips and cheeks. He beat me mercilessly and I was not only injured—lip split, eyes closed, a tooth chipped—but humiliated. At school, Aline and I carried our separate signs of abuse, marking us as outcasts. We barely spoke after that—her eyes darted at me in the hallways and begged me not to try—and, in little more than a month, she was gone.
I sleepwalked through that last half-semester of my junior year; I remember almost nothing except how I had to grow a carapace of indifference and alienation in order to endure the scorn of my Japanese classmates. I took to making long drives around the South Bay and up along the West Side and to the Hollywood Hills, borrowing my father’s car as though I still had dates with Aline. It was a four-speed BMW with perforated black leather seats and a flip-up brodie on the wheel I learned to use navigating the curving roads through the Santa Monica Mountains and canyons above Hollywood. I played the car radio a lot, punching the precise keys of the Blaupunkt tuner, catching the FM stations that were starting up then, broadcasting in stereo, no less. I drove the freeways, criss-crossing L.A. in all directions, desperately trying to get away from the grief I felt from as many quarters as there were points on a compass. I listened to more and more music and music different from any I ’d heard before—Chicago blues and British invasion blues, acid rock from Cream and folk rock from the Byrds, and Bookends, an intensely wistful album from Simon and Garfunkel. I played Simon’s “America” on my father’s stereo all the time and it circled in my head as I drove aimlessly on weekend nights, no Aline to see, nothing to take her place. Simon’s lyrics spoke to the loneliness I felt, to the new, desolate feeling of despair.
On the LP, the tune began with a fade from the song before, then two voices in different registers doubled sweetly on the melody as a guitar accompanied them, at first deftly picked as its strings were bent. Then it was strummed emphatically and a drum kit kicked in, sticks traveling across a set of toms. When Paul Simon’s airy tenor voice sang, Let us be lovers. We’ll marry our fortunes together, his lyrics had me moving with the itinerary of the narrative, boarding a bus with the two idealistic lovers searching for a place to be across the wintry Michigan landscape of its setting, where a moon rose over an isolate field.
The song reminded me of Aline and that Rilkean world of poetry she loved, the feeling just over the edge of the bluff we visited so many times, beyond the gray rim of the sea we could barely make out through the brutal haze of L.A. It was like a sanctuary I could fold my waking self into as I drove, listening, the car stereo drenching the cab with its gorgeous sound as though I sat beneath a waterfall of music spilling over me, slicking over my skin in a tender forgetfulness for the time I could hear it. It drew a pain away even as I allowed it to abide, restfully, turning rage and sorrow into the sweetness of regret, fragrant with its own life, a kind of body just being born within the soul. Out of grief. Out of the loss of Aline’s lithe torso next to mine, her brown hair peppered with burrs of ryegrass.