If all of life is a song, these are the lyrics that stick with us and rattle around in our heads long after they’re said. I have a certain criteria for these words. They aren’t merely memorable sentences. One probably wouldn’t forget, for example, the first time a romantic partner said “I love you,” or the first time they were called a slur. These are more like milestones, and they are hard to forget. They aren’t what I mean.
No, these are words of a different kind. These are sentences that accidentally reveal too much—about the person who spoke them, or about the person who heard them, or about the relationship they share. They illustrate private worlds, bring us into exhilarating contact with another person’s depths. Their inexplicable survival is proof of their importance, their holiness.
Once you understand what I’m talking about, these sentences are easily recognizable. We all have our own, and I think the ones that choose you (you don’t choose them) say a lot about you. I wish I could know everybody’s. They paint a compelling portrait about your life; where you’ve been, the people you’ve spoken to in your brief time on earth, and what you thought of those people. They say a lot about the way you think.
Here are six of mine, along with why I believe they have stuck around over the years while everything else has gone down the tube or been flattened out.
“… At least something will be behind you.”
Perhaps the most explosive burn I’ve ever heard came from my mother in a completely unwarranted attack on my sister. We were in the car after my sister’s middle school track and field event. I was either in middle school too, or had just left it. My sister, who like me is duck-footed, came in dead last in a race. We rode home in awkward silence, not wanting to reference the whole thing. “So…” my mom finally ventured.
“I just want to put it all behind me,” my sister said, and it isn’t the clever word play from my mother that gets me or the speed at which she came up with it, though those are both commendable. It’s the palpable reluctance when it left her mouth that kills me. I could practically hear her thoughts: God forgive me for what I’m about to do to my own daughter, but this burn is too sick.
“At least something will be behind you.” It makes me laugh every single time.
“Good ‘nuff for you.”
My dad used to drive my sister and me to Catholic school sometimes. It was great when he drove us because on the way from the country into town he would pull into a gas station and let us eat all sorts of junk for breakfast—Zingers, mini-muffins, Hostess cupcakes. It was at this gas station on one such morning that my dad bumped into an old acquaintance.
“Howdy,” the man said. His face had been ravaged by something that couldn’t have been age alone. Some addiction had done it, but I don’t know what. He’d gone to school with my dad, which seemed impossible to me because my dad looked young and this man looked like redneck Methuselah. He asked my dad what we were up to, and my dad said he was taking us to school.
“They go to school up here?” he asked, perplexed. He and my dad had both gone to school in Cache in rural Oklahoma, which is where we should have been going but weren’t. “St. Mary’s,” my dad offered.
“They ain’t going to Cache?” the man said.
“Naw,” my dad said in the country accent he sometimes dipped into when around, let’s call them, “the folk.”
“It was good ‘nuff for you,” the man all but spat, and even as a child I picked up on the profound bitterness, the poison in it that made it almost comical. My dad was a successful salesman, and I could see what this man thought of all that. He must have thought that we thought we were too good.
These words were so intense that my dad, sister, and I continue to use them as an inside joke into the present. Any time we catch each other deigning to look down our noses at something, one of us will spit, “Good ‘nuff for you.”
While writing this, I asked my dad who that man was. So, here’s that.
“I like the saints that started out bad.”
Speaking of Catholic school, my fourth grade class often had a substitute teacher because Sister Tiolinda was very old and God alone can’t fix everything. Our substitute was a young woman (though she must have looked old to me at the time) named Ms. Carol. She wore a navy headband and a neat plaid skirt. This and her old fashioned hairstyle made her look like she’d stepped right out of the 50s.
Ms. Carol had big, watery eyes that made her seem like she was always on the very precipice of weeping, but she never cried or even showed us much emotion in general. She spoke to us with airy detachment and was more relaxed than Sister Tiolinda in all things except handwriting, which she took very seriously.
Twice a month or so, we’d dedicate an entire afternoon to reading anything we wanted from the bins of books in the classroom. The reading wasn’t the fun part. It was the chaos we liked, fanning out and plopping ourselves down on the floor wherever we wished. I found a book of martyrs. On the cover was a woman with her breasts cut off. She was offering them on a fancy silver dinner plate to the sky, to God.
“Isn’t that scary?” Ms. Carol said in a jarring moment of genuine communication. Or it felt that way to me, anyway. It was as if she’d suddenly come into focus as a person, her typical lofty way of speaking put aside so that she might ask me this important question, human to human.
“Oh, I think it’s cool,” I said, trying to seem tough. “Do you have a favorite saint? I like Joan of Arc because she has armor and a sword.”
A smile tugged at the corner of Ms. Carol’s mouth, and I was proud that I’d amused her. “You know what I think?” she said. “I think I like the saints that started out bad.”
I swear I saw Ms. Carol’s entire life open up at that moment: a sudden, violent bloom. I saw her in the back of a car with the top down. I saw cigarettes and booze and all the adult poisons, whatever they were and whatever I thought they might be. I saw a man who’d mistreated her, saw her laughing with girlfriends, her ultimately deciding, in a moment of utter despair, to turn herself off, hollow herself out, and let God fill her up. I saw her eyes glaze over, and her voice become distant, and maybe that was the moment she’d placed that headband on, and maybe it was holding the project of her penance together.
Did I make all that up? Probably. But Ms. Carol had sounded so sad when she’d said it. I couldn’t help but remember, and imagine.
“Teddy bear, teddy bear, where are you going?”
My abuelo likes to pretend he knows things. I don’t mean that in a bad way, though it certainly frustrated me growing up. Abuelo has told me every flavor of lie, and half-truth, and fiction, and wishful fantasy. These are all different things.
I’ll describe him as I would if I were a perfect idiot who took him completely at his word: Abuelo is an Aztec. Abuelo’s grandfather was a mariachi who played for the Mexican president in Chihuahua and he’d played so well that the president gave him a visa. Abuelo has fought the Russians and the Germans and stabbed one of these with a knife. Abuelo is adept in witchcraft and knows how to curse people.
Of the things I can verify about Abuelo, I have these facts: Abuelo grew up very poor and stayed poor. He was the first in his family tree to go to college. He wanted to be a writer, but was never published. He kept all his rejection letters in a box.
My abuela, my cousins, my sister, my abuelo, and I would often take road trips to Texas in their cramped mini-van. We’d go on adventures together. We’d go to Lucy Park in Wichita Falls where there was a swinging bridge, and we’d all file onto it and Abuelo would stand on one side of it, make monster noises, and shake it, threatening to buck us off into the water. We loved this.
My cousins, my sister, and I liked to play at his house because he had all kinds of things lying around to make potions with: concrete, exotic plants, old glass vases in delightful shapes, and other treasures. He had a thick hemp rope tied to an elm tree in his front yard, and we’d line up to play jump rope with it with him working the rope.
It was a spring afternoon. We were playing like that. Abuelo was wearing his brown jacket and his veteran’s cap with all its pins and badges. He was rhythmically turning the rope, us trying to jump in unison. He started to sing a little song while we jumped. “Teddy bear, teddy bear, what’s your name?” he sang. “Teddy bear, teddy bear…” then stopped, fumbled, quickly thought of something. “...Where are you going?”
The rope hit our ankles, we were broken down laughing. I think of this song all the time, of Abuelo’s made-up lyrics at the end of that failed rhyme. It makes me laugh so hard because it sums him up so wonderfully. Abuelo is always singing, always making things up, and under scrutiny it all falls apart, but this represents its own kind of truth. That being: Abuelo rejects reality because he has his own, even if it doesn’t quite fit. I love this about him. I love this song.
“Ain’t you the bitch that got run over at Braum’s?”
My high school wasn’t the safest place to be a student. There was gang violence, hallway fights, and sometimes people died. Our classrooms were falling apart. We didn’t have enough textbooks or desks.
Our teachers were more human than perhaps teachers ought to be, and by that I mean: some fought their parents and spouses over the phone during class. Some fought each other, openly and in front of us. Some genuinely didn’t care about education and let us enter our own grades into the computer. One of my teachers asked me if my dad would hire her, and when I demurred, asked if I could help her put together her resume instead. I enjoyed going to school there because I love chaos.
As for us students, well, it was survival of the fittest. I like to think our wits were sharp because we had to defend ourselves so often. Everyone was being roasted all the time for every little thing. We arrived at school, walked through the metal detectors, were frisked for weapons, and then we attacked each other all day.
This is the stage upon which one of the best things I’ve ever heard was said. During lunch, we were allowed to go off campus to eat. One of the most popular destinations was Braum’s, an ice-cream-grocery-store-burger-shop chain that, any Oklahoman would tell you, is a staple in our culture. We had a thing called “split lunch” because there were too many students and not enough room in the cafeteria, so while half the kids ate lunch the rest of us were still in class.
One afternoon, while sitting in Mrs. Thurman’s math class, a student shouted: “Yo!” We all rushed to the windows to see Courtney lying on the ground in front of Braum’s. The story trickled in later in bits and pieces of delicious gossip. Courtney, a pugnacious white girl who was always getting into fights, had started something with another girl during lunch. She’d been walking backwards while talking shit, not paying attention to where she was going. She’d wandered into the street, where she was promptly flipped over an oncoming car.
Miraculously, she wasn’t the least bit injured, despite fully rolling over the roof the car onto the other side. They came to take her to the hospital, and I imagine everyone in school was doing what we were doing: glued to their windows.
This did nothing to break Courtney’s fighting spirit. She came back, and she continued to fight. I shared a class with her my senior year, a class that was unruly even by my school’s standards. She was yelling at Stephanie, a Mexican girl who shared Courtney’s passion for battle. “You fat ass hoe,” Courtney said. “Keep running your mouth see how you end up.”
It was then that Stephanie, blessed Stephanie with her pencil thin eyebrows, fake mole drawn on her cheek, extensions in her hair, said: “Ain’t you the bitch that got run over at Braum’s?” I don’t respect anyone quite like I respect Courtney and Stephanie; Courtney, for bearing her cross so nobly, for wearing her scarlet letter, for being “the bitch who got run over at Braum’s,” and Stephanie, the wordsmith, goddess of comedic timing, for wielding the most brutal fact of Courtney’s life so capably against her.
There are critically acclaimed plays written by masters of the craft who want what that moment has.
Abuela was a prickly person. Some would call her straight up mean, but those people would be missing the point of her, overlooking the exquisite architecture of her rudeness that served a profound purpose: to tell the world that had tried to run her down, “You thought.”
Abuela didn’t have a laugh so much as a cackle. She enjoyed baiting people into arguments with her, arguments she always won because she had no true objective other than to inflict casualties of the spirit. I have heard her claim to support many different political ideologies just to use people’s passions against them. They would enter in good faith, and she, like water, would shift, rearrange, take up a new position, and flank them.
If cornered with objective facts, she would offer, “Well, to me…” and then not finish the thought. My family still uses this when we are caught in a lie or caught defending something indefensible. “Well, to me…”
Abuela’s favorite sport was locating your weak points, and she rooted these out so efficiently and with such deadly accuracy that one might be forgiven for thinking something supernatural was at play. The mere fact of her antagonism wasn’t as compelling as the ways she delivered it, always allowing just enough room for her to wriggle out of responsibility.
But my favorite Abuelia-ism came to me one day when my sister and I were little. It was a day of false spring in March, the sun taunting us, knowing there were many bitterly cold days still to come. Abuela was staring through the window as she often did, my sister and I eating tortillas on the table.
“Mijo, mija,” she said, calling us to attention as if she were about to tell us an old folktale. She beheld the outdoors, the chilly mist, the mountains in the backdrop and the sun in the sky. “When the flowers are in bloom,” she began, playing the part of village elder, “and the grass rises from the ground. These are abuelita’s signs that it is time for spring.”
“Is it spring, Abuelita?” my sister asked hopefully, becoming, in that moment, against all logic, a child in a Norman Rockwell painting, rosy-cheeked and wide-eyed and innocent.
“No,” Abuelita said, so suddenly and so cruelly, so utterly discarding the character she’d been playing. It was like gleefully popping a child’s birthday balloon with a pin. And then she laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and my sister and I laughed too at the splendid meanness of this woman who was raising us.
Were we proud? Yes, I think we were. Proud that such a perfect, cartoonish villainy might be flowing through our veins as well, indeed hoping it was, because it was such a fascinating, covetable trait.
I know what my sister felt, and I know what Abuela felt, and I know what I felt so clearly at that moment, and maybe that’s why I cling to it so dearly, because it wasn’t often I felt so wholly on the same page with Abuela, so entirely understanding of her. To this day, I swell with happiness when I think about it.
The world can be so dull, Abuela. Thank you for being so ridiculous, and so mean, and so petty, and so small. Thank you, thank you, thank you.