IV: Grazioso | Searchlight Song: “No Hardship”

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I still don’t know what we were thinking, making the playlist six hours long. We were fully aware the drive from Atlanta to Birmingham would last two hours, give or take a lifetime. I didn’t care, of course. I couldn’t. I was headed to the national speech and debate tournament for the second time with four of my favorite people in the world. Our school couldn’t catch us so many states away. Lorde was seeping from the speakers, dusted with gold and gall, and I could sing along as much and as terribly as I wanted. “Sober II” was a moving-in-the-gauze song, a pulling-out-the-plugs song, and it took me in even as it tore me up. I was the most loose-limbed of threats in that car. The smallest, maybe, but if I could just grin wide enough, the close, sleepy air would forget that.

I had no idea who I was singing for. A, always behind me, tugging my eyes to the backseat? U, the only one here who adored this album like I did? S, who’d jokingly ask me to teach him to sing five months later? Was it of any use to know? I was only certain of three lines of the song—for all the time I’d spent with words, I’d never had a knack for learning lyrics—and my own straining throat. I cycled through the same three lines over and over until they were more whisper than fact. More get-through than get-down. Despite my trip-ups, I sounded good, I thought, better than I had in ages.

Is it ignorance if you’ve worked your blood to fire for it? The final exams I’d thrown aside to get here leaned through my eyes, but they couldn’t reach me. I loomed untouchable in this rented van. I could be the brightest road-trip refrain so long as the windows stayed rolled up. The five of us sat scared out of our minds on a highway we didn’t recognize, but we sat together.

With every mile I swallowed, I outran another dream dashed on the rocks. I wanted to fit easy into the forgiving shine of an afternoon that couldn’t see me. Wordless, we hurtled into the thickening breath of not-quite-Alabama. These wheels wouldn’t stop for a while yet. My best mistakes could hear me for what I was. Through a stereo, over a headrest, I was so seen, so possible. I tipped my head back. Let one beat in.

/

Once the girls had unpacked, we sat perched on the beds in our hotel room, ready to fall. We weren’t nearly as prepared as we should’ve been. My non-school debate team, a group of what amounted to reserve competitors from around the region, only had our case materials one-third written. I hadn’t even seen those teammates yet, preoccupied as they were with getting themselves settled. U kept saying she hadn’t compiled enough counterarguments for her rounds the next day. V had her lines memorized perfectly but wanted to rewrite her introduction. I knew only that I had a few half-baked argument ideas and nowhere to put them. I hadn’t debated in over a year—my specialty was speech events, and I’d qualified to nationals in debate essentially by accident.

We dug our laptops out of our backpacks like they would save us. Maybe they would; it was too early to say. I plugged my earbuds in to pick up where we’d left off on our road trip playlist. If I could get through these songs, I would get through this week. I opened documents upon documents, looking for just one case I’d been taught how to salvage, but all I saw were unfinished logical knots I only half understood. S walked in at some point, as unobtrusive as he always is, and sat alongside us. U and V were already tinkering away at their own materials, earbuds in. They’d each glance up at me every so often. Checking that I was still there. I did the same, and we sat like that until the afternoon collapsed into shadow. The first gasps of Alabama summer lingered outside the window, so near that I could feel them pulling, but my debate cases pulled harder. The hours were starting not to mind, and suddenly, I didn’t either. We could starve the dark clean like this. Prove we didn’t need to make noise to be worth listening to. That was what we’d come here for, wasn’t it? That and each other?

U shifted onto her side. I could see the cover of Pure Heroine on her phone screen from where I was sitting. Our music tastes had always overlapped, a shot of artist-with-a-dream in the haze of growing older. She told us that she was not falling asleep, not on your life, but we could hear her breathing slow. Before long, she lay still with her earbuds in, and the rest of us were careful to work without waking her. V got up every few minutes to pace the room. S moved very little, but his brow was furrowed as he typed. I marveled at it, somewhere below my screeching stress. The way I could fit somewhere without raising my voice.

/

When my debate team didn’t make it past preliminary rounds, I volunteered to be left behind. It was Tuesday. I’d already given the best and hardest constructive speech of my life. I’d written an eight-minute debate case in an hour while the teammate meant to be helping me took a nap. I didn’t want this other thing to fight about that day, or I was desperate to martyr myself one last time, or I felt there was still something left to compensate for. In any case, the drivers who’d come to get us debaters back to our hotel had room for all but one. I told them I understood, told them to hurry on their way so they could get themselves some dinner.

For the first few minutes, I didn’t even think to ask for a ride back. I tried out different positions on the bench my teammates had just abandoned. At the very least, it was cushioned, and I was sleep-on-a-bench-in-a-public-high-school tired. Around me, the chatter of my fellow stragglers, with its rounded, dependable pulse, was thinning out with every minute that went by. It took me four failed attempts at getting comfortable to realize that if I didn’t make myself known outside these walls, I was never getting out of the building.

I texted my friends to explain the situation, punctuating each sentence with a “sorry,” not sure why I did it but convinced it needed to be there. It was my fault for not planning ahead, I reasoned halfheartedly. V responded in disbelief to ask me if there was any way my debate team could fit me in the backseat, if I was truly by myself. S missed me. He wanted to make sure I got that. U shot back straightaway:

Don’t be sorry Christina I can’t believe they ditched you

It had to be nerves that blunted their words. To grow backward into indignance now, without a direction to send it in, seemed pointless—dangerous, even. But it settled warm in my tight, pasted-shut chest when nothing else would. The other debaters would regret what they’d done. My friends would be here for me by six p.m. Someone cared that I was stranded and too sleep-deprived to protest it properly. I’d never had friends so ready to go to bat for me, to stalk outside with my name on their shoulders.

The time insisted on rushing home before I did. Thirty minutes passed, and then the first hour, and the second. I reflected that something must be very wrong when I saw even the tournament officials leaving the building in their beige suits. When the first trio of shouting boys blew by me, a reminder of how small and without protection I was, I crossed the swept-gray floor and shut myself in a hallway hidden from view. I ached to get out my earbuds, but my phone’s battery was teetering on the same edge that I was.

Just as I was standing up to kick the wall, or go looking for that shooting range the school was rumored to have, U texted again, furious and wondering:

Hey you doing okay?

I couldn’t just say no, not when that’d make her feel guilty for something she hadn’t done. I’d describe it to her, I decided. The quiet blanketed me, the kind that tries to trick you into calling it silence despite everything still living inside it. I was loved. I whistled “Sober II” to myself, and it flooded the whitewashed corridor. I was loved. I was a self-taught whistler, but goddamn, did I have a range. I was loved. Just out of sight, a very large vacuum cleaner was whirring its cares away. I was loved. I couldn’t believe I knew so many songs. I was loved. I hadn’t seen a single human being for two hours now, but somewhere, I could make out one low voice.

/

The tornado came on Thursday. When the warning was announced, everyone was instructed to stay low and away from the windows. Glass was stronger than skin if you broke it wrong and held it right. My friends and I crouched in a corridor lined with lockers—we were back together, all having been cut from our main events—and waited out the storm warning. S is the kind of funny that renders you helpless because you never see it coming. V is the wicked kind. We traded jokes about the murder-weapon heels V was wearing or the subpar sleep we’d gotten that week. Some of the adults around us joined in, their “tournament official” ribbons too obvious in the cloud-wrecked light. Nothing like some damage in the distance to make you human.

Our words spread through the air like delicate and restless machines. You can be told there’s something close and ready to kill you, but it’s not enough to stop the body. Not enough to dull you out of the room. The winds weren’t on our side of town, even, but I imagined them into my ears anyway. They expanded in my skull until I could almost pick out a tune, hum it away from me.

My legs started to cramp, but I kept talking. If speech and debate teaches you anything, it’s to keep talking when the pain shows up. V said shakily that she needed to walk to the bathroom. It was just down the hall, but that particular hallway boasted floor-to-ceiling windows that could shatter magnificently if the right wind wanted it. I volunteered to go with her, smiling all the while, though I wasn’t any use except as a theoretical shield. We stepped so lightly, as if the tornado might hear us and was coming for us any minute now. I kept smiling at her until the smile turned real. It pooled sweetly in my stomach. Nothing could hurt two girls who were trying so hard. The right people could help me into safety, but only if I fought for it first.

A few miles away, the storm went in search of better things to take apart. Singing a knife down our spines. All that invincible fear just passing us by.

/

“You,” U said firmly, “are about to be educated.”

U and S had been arguing all week over which film I’d be watching on our last night, and S had finally won out with 3 Idiots. U, oddly enough, was not annoyed in the least. I was given all the disclaimers—yes, the film’s runtime was nearly three hours, and yes, everyone knew that starting it at 3:00 a.m. was maybe not the wisest decision.

They pressed play anyway, and the film was a second skin stretching over us. It coursed by like blood, daring us to laugh along, fast and punchy and contagious. I wove in and out of sleep, gutted by the week I’d had, but the music threw me into waking often enough that I could trace the ridged outline of the story. Friends, young and smart and terrified. A life that asked so much of them. A life they spent at one another’s backs of their own free will. Victory without a taste, though the sound of it would fill them to bursting. I would have “Zoobi Doobi” stubbornly stuck in my head for a solid month afterwards, but I didn’t know that yet, and even if I had, I don’t think I’d have been angry about it. I hadn’t realized there were ways of living with color behind and before the eyes. You could go into the great and generous blue ahead of you and not choose it over anything else.

I’m so bad at being happy. I don’t want to let the feeling be uncomplicated, without a catch to unspool it at the end, so I stare at it so hard that it fades. Like a stain in a shirt. I tell myself I need to have earned a good night before it can just become. I take so long to justify it that by the time I get to the best part, I’ve exhausted all the right notes. I don’t allow the highs any room to swell, and you can tell, can’t you, just by being here so long.

Sometimes all is well, Christina. Sometimes no pointed question will change that. Sometimes it was meant to be. Sometimes you can let it happen. Christina, I swear. Sometimes the songs you remember will suffice. Sometimes you can call it what it is and it won’t run. If you can’t listen to me, listen to the storm that’s chosen to spare you. If you can’t hear it, get back in the car. Put Lorde on loop. If she’s a stranger to you, watch your friends fall asleep while you work alongside them. They trust you that much. Believe it. Believe it. Sometimes people just love you, Christina. And all the while you keep me outside, saying all this to the Alabama rain.

When the credits rolled out their last, that final night of nationals, the quiet returned, a quiet free of obligation and sacrifice. I was sleep-snug in the knowledge that I had absolutely nothing to do the next day. Every lie I’d ever told was blasted wide and far enough away from me. Finally far enough.

/

(Searchlight Song is a column by Christina Im about the music behind identity: how it shapes us, explains us, and finds us when we are stumbling in the dark. This column, along with two others by the HM team and many more pieces by contributors, is published in Half Mystic Journal‘s Issue IV: GRAZIOSO. It is available for preorder now.)