We ran out of gas on a black stretch of desert road in eastern La Paz County, having pulled off I-10 back at Salome Rd., a decision I thought was a bad one from where I sat in the backseat, watching the gas needle shimmy on E. I didn’t, of course, have a better fucking idea, which is what I said when the guy in the front seat—the bigger one, the bald one, I think—asked. It’s not as if a gas station was going to materialize on the side of the Interstate. The only structures I’d spied along the road, far off in the dark, were mountains that wore the desert hitched up high under their busts, foothills for hips, the expanses of scrub hanging from the base of each mountain like broad, flat skirts, their ragged hems brushing the edges of the freeway.
We exited at Salome Rd. and the sputtering little blue rental car finally called it quits just as we pulled into a parking lot, drawn like yucca moths to a slumped adobe building glowing yellow in the night. The lights in the windows said BAR and OPEN and maybe BUD LIGHT. Two of our group, us girls, were underage, but we didn’t have any other options. I felt no fear at the time, though I was eighteen in a rented Ford Festiva, with a dangerously compelling girl I barely knew from my dorm and two older guys she knew from somewhere, and we were driving through the middle of a cold January night from Tempe, Arizona, to Los Angeles on a whim and with very little money. Before the trip, we’d planned carefully what we’d stuffed in our Case Logic CD wallets—Smashing Pumpkins, Beastie Boys, Bjork, Tori Amos—but had paid little attention to what was in our actual wallets. Now, we’d run out of gas in front of some place called the Cactus Bar.
Tricia and I lived that year in Manzanita Hall, a fifteen-story tenement for freshmen with windows the shape of the insignia on Superman’s chest. Those big Superman windows were barred shut because, story goes, back in the ’80s, drunk people kept falling or jumping out of them. Three times a week that fall and winter, the fire alarm in Manzy would rouse me from a thin sleep in the room I shared with my roommate Alexandra, and I would file down the stairs with the others from our end of the twelfth floor. Greg from Illinois, barefoot, stoned, acoustic guitar in hand. Tiny Rosanna from Brooklyn, who thought Chicago was a state on the East Coast and whose main takeaway from half a year of college was learning to do laundry. Dominic from “Strong” Island, in voluminous skater jeans and what we all called a wife-beater because it was 1995, then 1996, and we were not yet nineteen and, mostly, we didn’t know better. Jon the athlete, and Curtis the marching band nerd, and Jen who kept a contraband kitten named Hansen, and Suzanne, and Nicole, and two Mandys, and “Big Country,” and Heather, and Pepper, and a thirty-year-old pow-wow dancer named Frank who’d been voted floor president.
Whenever the fire alarm went off, we’d shiver in the desert dark while we waited for the cop-on-call, a stone-faced strawberry blond with a gold nameplate that said R. Kelly if you got close enough to see it, who looked and moved like a sandbag in his tan uniform, to clear the fire alarm, always false. While waiting, we’d prop our flannelled, JNCO-jeaned butts against the chilly U-shaped bike racks that jutted like ruins from the ground around the building. We’d turn our eyes to the football stadium adjacent to Manzy where, we’d been told on our campus tours, U2 had filmed its Rattle and Hum footage back when we were fifth graders in the states we came from. We’d steal looks at our lazy chaperone, the mountain behind the stadium with its letter A shrouded in decades’ worth of peeling latex paint. We’d do quiet accounting of the pairings of bodies in the dark in haphazard clothes, of who’d been in whose bed when the fire alarm sounded. I always counted because I was a virgin who had never smoked a cigarette, had never tasted beer.
It’s not so much that Tricia and I were headed to California, more that we wanted to be away from Arizona. That Sunday, Super Bowl XXX would be played between the Steelers and the Cowboys in the stadium next to our dorm and we wanted like, nothing to do with that meathead bullshit. The university had already cancelled two full days of classes in the run-up to the game, and the lawn I crossed to get to the music building was tricked out in white festival tents. In the week before the Super Bowl, we weren’t allowed to have overnight guests in our dorm; a guard was posted by the elevators to check IDs so we wouldn’t rent out our rooms to football fans. The Super Bowl rules didn’t impede my lifestyle much. Most nights that first year of college, I came home late from practicing piano, alone, headed to the room I shared with Alex, and fell asleep listening to Tori Amos, who occupied two of the three spots in my CD changer. A week before the Super Bowl and our impromptu road trip, she’d released her third album, Boys for Pele.
This third album then filled the third space in my CD changer. Every night, I started my Tori Amos bedtime rotation with Little Earthquakes, my favorite for its pretty melodies that sat, mostly, in the muscled center of her vocal range (and mine); those cinematic string arrangements; a kick drum you could set your watch to. The lyrics weren’t trite or cowardly—she was not afraid to “call a rape a rape,” according to my Cliffs Notes, Rolling Stone—but they were also shot through with imagery I recognized from Sunday School and tenth grade English. The songs were twinkly, coherent. When she went weird—when she showed glimmers of the girl who’d been booted from Peabody for musical insubordination or hinted at the calamitous Tori of future albums—the next track always atoned with straight-up rock and roll or lullaby sweetness. Little Earthquakes was the definitive Tori Amos for me, and inseparable from the circumstances of my introduction to her: my first copy of her debut album was a dubbed cassette given to me at my locker when I was fifteen by an older boy I liked, the track titles written out in perfect comic-book capital letters with a fine-point Sharpie.
On Under the Pink, Tori started layering more of those singalong melodies over floors of cotton-swaddled prepared-piano ostinatos. I was seventeen when it came out—no longer the fifteen-year-old swooning at a mixtape at her locker but a classical music nerd in knockoff Doc Martens who welcomed a little Bartók in her pop music—and Under the Pink’s lyric abstraction and musical pastiche suited me fine. I could sing along with most of the album, even if I didn’t know what I was saying, even if I had to pause for breath when Tori turned “America” into a fifteen-syllable melisma. So much of the record rocked so reliably, I didn’t care who Colonel Dirtyfish Dishcloth was. But the tracks I liked best on Under the Pink were the ones that could just as easily have been on Little Earthquakes: “Past the Mission,” “Baker, Baker,” “Icicle.”
But when Boys for Pele came out that January, I didn’t quite get it. I didn’t admit that to anyone, of course. What true Tori fangirl would admit she liked “In the Springtime of His Voodoo” best for its “standin’ on a corner in Winslow Arizona” allusion to the Eagles? In a practice room in the music building one night, I’d tried to work up my own Tori Amos–esque rendition of “Desperado,” exhaling the vowels on plumes of breath, contorting the consonants like I had a big chewy mouth like Tori’s. I hooked one leg over the edge of the piano bench sidesaddle like she did, moved my torso like she did, strung together what sounded like Tori lyrics to me—rinkydink pinko plays canasta in the foyer while I’m upstairs in a torsolette howling villanelles at the moooooooooooooooooon—and watched myself in the mirror on the wall, overalls and glasses and drugstore dye job. And I saw that I was ridiculous. She’s been everybody else’s girl / Maybe someday she’ll be her own.
Tricia was from Pittsburgh, loud and at least football-conversant, and owner of her very own Terrible Towel. But she was also an art major with an asymmetrical haircut and dorm walls plastered with original photographs and collages. It was Tricia’s idea that we get the hell out of here, go on an adventure. Neither of us had a car, and we weren’t old enough to rent one, but Tricia had a solution for that, too. These guys she knew, they’d rent the car for us, as long as we let them come along. When I picture her pitching the idea—she sang it like a refrain, come on, let’s go to La! La la la!—I see her in an animated composite of the snapshots I have of her, still, in an album in my guest room: in boxers and a bra, an ashtray of stubbed-out Marlboros and an open bottle of Tums at her feet, bathrobe pushed off one tattooed shoulder, brandishing a shot glass, chugging from the plastic straw of a gas-station tumbler, big smiles and hooded eyes and life-of-the-party thumbs up, holding court in a hot-boxed dorm room with her friend Sarah, a hippie whose chaotic blonde curls spilled out from under a man’s knit stocking cap and grazed the frog closures of her oh-this-old-thing cheongsam.
I don’t remember meeting Tricia. She makes her first appearance in my journal on January 28th of 1996, that very Super Bowl Sunday, in a breezy past tense: Tricia and I took a road trip w/ 2 guys named George and Jeremy to L.A. Spent the day at Venice Beach and drove back. Love it there. We’d made it back safely, though we’d failed at our objective, to avoid the Super Bowl. I had an 8:40 a.m. class on Monday—18th Century Music Theory, it must have been—and I was relieved to be back in time for it. The soundtrack to my Sunday-night journaling session would have been the roar of the Super Bowl crowds next door, traffic on University Drive, drunk people, Alex chittering from her side of our room, and Tori Amos on the stereo.
With Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, and Boys for Pele, Tori Amos occupied every spot in my three-CD changer (high 1990s honors, that), but even then, I got the sense that she was shifting toward something new with every album release, while I stayed back, left behind. I loved when she played the piano like it was a guitar, strumming power chords out of her big Bösendorfer. I loved the chunky, driving groove of “Professional Widow,” the gilded and gaudy texture of rock-and-roll harpsichord. I loved her instrumentation and her campy diction on “Mr. Zebra,” “Leather,” and “Wrong Band” because they reminded me of the best part of high school, playing in the orchestra pit for the theatre productions.
But whenever Tori’s music drifted too far from wholesome tonality, from straight-down-the-middle verse-chorus-bridge structure, from musical references I knew—cabaret, anthem, ballad, baroque—I got bored and frustrated. Tori was like an unfathomably cool older sister who’d gone off to college and, with every visit home, grew unrecognizable to her dopey little sister waiting for her, puzzled, in hand-me-downs. How could I be just like her if I didn’t even understand her? And if I couldn’t be like her, then I’d have to pull off the impossible: I’d have to be like myself.
I don’t know how I first gained entry to Tricia’s circle, her intoxicating orbit. I know I'd been looking that fall and winter for any place to be other than my own room, where Alex made me feel increasingly as if my identity were a shared utility, like the microwave she used to heat up mugs of Boone’s Farm. A mistake I’d made right from the start, back in August, was to allow her to pick me up at the airport when I first landed in Arizona for college. Alex and her mother met me at my gate—me in my broomstick skirt, argyle socks, beat-up Chucks and an Army T-shirt that would later get stolen from the Manzy laundry room—hoisted my duffle bag into their car and took me “home,” to our half of a four-person suite. I decorated my side of the room in Christmas lights, rave flyers, a collage of homecoming and graduation pictures of my high-school friends, and big square pages ripped from Rolling Stone.
A snapshot in my album shows Tricia in a T-shirt and boxers, perched on my bed in a WWII-nose-art pose, flanked by boys. Behind her, a picture of Little Earthquakes–era Tori Amos watches over the scene, an attempt to proclaim to my new dormmates that I was a music major from Back East, a classically trained pianist from Maryland, in fact, a would-be songwriter. That I was different; that I’d been the Tori Amos of my high school, that I was available to be the Tori Amos of this here dorm if the position was open. Judging by the ubiquity of Umbra shorts, striped Adidas slides, and white T-shirts on campus, the position was open. To cement the association in my peers’ imaginations, that Fall I subjected my hair to two boxes of red Natural Instincts hair dye in the sink I shared with Alex.
I suppose I hoped I’d be noticed. And I wasn’t too discerning about the kind of attention I got. Two months into college, on Friday, the 13th of October, I awoke in the middle of the night to find that a very pretty boy from the other end of the twelfth floor—someone who’d never spoken to me—had folded his long self into my little bed, arcing and thrusting, hard and sticky and stinking. Alex wasn’t there. Wherever she’d gone, she’d left the door unlocked or propped open so that she wouldn’t have to take her key with her on her stupid lanyard. I wondered, briefly, if the drunk boy was looking for her. For a few minutes, I let him kiss me and pull at me, but then his hands were everywhere at once, reaching and pressing and grabbing. “Whoa, whoa, stop,” I said, and he didn’t. “Stop,” I said, and he didn’t. “Seriously, fucking stop,” I said, and he pulled his head back and squinted at me, a hand on my hip. “Go,” I said, and he said “Fuck” and stumbled out of the room. I shut the door and locked it. Alex could get a key from the RA at the front desk. In my bed, I opened my journal and wrote No sleep tonight—Tried screwing around with some drunk asshole but it wasn’t even mildly fulfilling. I was assertive, though—points for me—I told him to get out when he wouldn’t stop doing what I told him to.
If I perceived any danger, any threat in that room, it wasn’t the uninvited drunk boy in my bed but Alex herself. Back in August, only weeks after her mom had gone back to her empty nest in Illinois, Alex had begun saying things like “Where have you been? Your class ended an hour ago!” When I confessed I’d developed an ill-conceived crush on Dominic from “Strong” Island, she embarked on an all-out plan to get him into her little twin bed. On November 24th, I scribbled furiously in my journal that Alex, who needed a full face of makeup to go to the dining hall, recently purchased 2 pairs of overalls identical to mine—striped and solid OshKosh… Now she makes comments like “Nice overalls, roomie” and “This is my new style.”
It was as if Alex had prepped for college by reading nothing but YM magazine. She said having a roommate was “just like having a sister!” but I was a Sassy reader, and I had a sister and I hadn’t gone 2,300 miles away to college all by myself to get another one. All Fall semester, I spent as much time as I could at the music building practicing piano and when I had to go back to Manzy, I slept or pretended to sleep. I tried to drive Alex out of the room by playing my keening chick music—one of the only things I liked that escaped her imitative grab—on endless repeat. Right before Christmas, Alex’s mom sent us matching, floor-length red plaid nightgowns with ruffled yokes and our nearly-matching names written on them in puffy paint.
And so when Tricia offered me at least temporary access to a room shaped like my own but that smelled like cigarettes and Nag Champa, when that fast and frightening girl said Come to la la la with me, I went.
We pushed open the door of the Cactus Bar and stepped inside. A wood-paneled bar ran along the length of the wall to our right. To our left, a few people sat at tables. There was a bearded man in a yellow T-shirt and a black felt hat with a turquoise band, a red quilted jacket thrown over the back of his chair, several beer bottles scattered across his table. At the end of the bar nearest us, a man in a camouflage trucker cap and a white T-shirt with HISTORIC BARS OF SAN DIEGO on the back hooked his sneakered feet in the base of his stool. At the far end of the bar, a guy with a deep tan, glasses, jeans, and a white shirt, collar open to his clavicle, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, peered skeptically at us from under the brim of his tan Crocodile Dundee hat, his hands curled around a glass of liquor. Along the back wall, there was a cooler case full of Zima and beer and a door that led to a room with a pool table.
I don’t remember who spoke first, but I’ll bet it was Tricia. I’m sure she pushed forward, her snug, striped T-shirt pulling up across her back as she leaned across the bar and told the bartender we’d run out of gas. Probably she lit up a cigarette as she did so, let that shock of short hair fall across one eye, dangled one leg out behind her like a burlesque girl, even though she was wearing, as we all were, raggedy-ass baggy jeans and scuffed shoes.
The bartender said sure, he could get us some gas. The gas station was just down the road. It was closed. “But don’t worry about that,” he told us. “Two of you come with me.” We conferred while the bar patrons watched us. We decided that it was best, safest, if one guy and one girl went with the bartender; the other pair would remain here at the bar. George, the smaller and wirier of the guys, and Tricia went in the bartender’s truck for gas while Jeremy and I stayed at the bar. I pulled up a stool next to the man in the hat, a man I always called Cowboy in the retelling.
“Outta gas?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Hi.”
“You drinking tonight?” he asked, looking straight ahead at the light-up Spuds MacKenzie posted behind the bar.
“I’m eighteen,” I said.
Cowboy nodded. Several long minutes passed. “See the walls?” he finally said. “That’s saguaro cactus. Cactus ribs.”
“It’s not wood paneling?” I asked.
“Cactus,” he said, and finished his drink.
When Tricia and George got back, they signaled to us from the doorway: We’re good. Let’s go. But someone—maybe me this time—suggested we take a picture first and so we did. It is that picture, also stored in the photo album in my guest room, which allowed me to recall the turquoise hatband, Tricia’s striped tee, the case of Zima, Spuds MacKenzie. In the picture, we four stranded travelers are in a row, seated on stools or leaning against the bar. In the foreground, the man in the camo cap looks away from us, talking to someone out of frame. Next to him, George leans to his right into Tricia, who has an arm looped around his neck. Tricia leans into Jeremy, whose arms are crossed in front of him. Jeremy tilts slightly toward me, and I lean to my right, resting an arm on Cowboy’s thigh. Looking at the picture now, I feel a jolt of alarm to find that I’m leaning away from the people I’d come with and cozying up to an older man, a stranger in a bar. Then again, Jeremy was nearly as much a stranger to me as Cowboy was, and at least Cowboy had kindly taught me something. At the bottom of the frame, the man in the yellow T-shirt looks up at whoever is taking the picture with my camera. On the back, in my careful cursive, I have written—I am my mother’s daughter, after all—“The Cactus Bar” (outta’ gas) Cowboy, Andrea, Jeremy, Tricia, George, “Gabe” Jan. 26, 1996.
Back on the road, we were giddy, having survived the setup to a campy teen horror movie. “The bartender owned the gas station,” Tricia said, her long arm out the window holding a cigarette. “He just gave us the gas. And he was the Justice of the Peace! Can you believe that?”
Only a few miles down Rte. 60, red and blue lights appeared behind us. “Fuck,” someone said. “What if that guy said we stole the gas?” A male voice mumbled something about warrants. “Oh fuck,” Tricia said.
But the cop who stood at the window looked only at the driver’s license of the driver. George or Jeremy. “Slow down, kids,” he said. And we were off again, giddy again, California-bound. To La. To La la la.
We arrived at Venice Beach before sunup. We encountered a lone surfer, a middle-aged man, coming out of the water in the still night. We demanded he pose for a picture with us. Tricia and I each looped a proprietary arm around his board. When the sun came up, it did so half-assedly. The whole day was gray. We met a man with a hyacinth macaw named Rocky and took a series of pictures with him; we flung open the doors of the Ford Festiva, climbed onto its hood and took pictures there. George and Jeremy played pickup basketball while Tricia and I walked all the way to the Santa Monica Pier and watched shirtless men fly on the rings, swings, and ropes. We must have eaten something, but I don’t remember what. Before nightfall, we headed back to Arizona.
We topped off the gas tank before we got to the desert proper. Though only the guys were legally allowed to drive the rental, I took a shift at the wheel after our stop. The guys were tired, so they stretched out in the back seat. Up front, Tricia slid her copy of Boys for Pele into the CD player. Despite my waning enthusiasm for new Tori, I matched Tricia’s volume as we sang along to the tracks, repeating and blasting the wordy ones, the ones that were as satisfying to sing along with as “Bohemian Rhapsody,” not caring if we woke up the boys in the backseat.
Because wasn’t that it? Wasn’t that the Tori Amos ethos? Fuck all those boys and what they think of us and want from us. We’re girls. Weren’t these songs all about inner goddesses and volcano goddesses and inner volcano goddesses? When Tricia and I cut our singing swath through the desert under the supervisory gaze of the Harquahala Mountains, the Kofa Mountains, weren’t we railing against the patriarchy and slut-shaming and the erasure of women and girls from world religions?
Beats me. I learned all that studying Rolling Stone. After Little Earthquakes, or maybe half of Under the Pink, I had no fucking idea what Tori Amos was singing about. I was a mimic, a musical dope, or maybe just a late-stage teenager. I knew, or feared, that if I were older or braver or smarter or truer, I would not crave twinkling piano and regular phrasing and V-I chord resolutions and sweeping strings and love songs and suburban melancholy and snow imagery and rhymes like hand/stand and undergrad-poet moves like using “China” as both distant locale and tableware.
And in the car with Tricia coming home from Los Angeles, or each night as my CD changer cycled through the three albums before bed, a whole harmonic series of sad realizations bloomed and hung in the air, distorting the music: I wasn’t one-tenth the pianist Tori Amos was, even if I’d spent my childhood scooping up trophies and ribbons at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. I’d never once been guilty of insubordination, musical or otherwise. I couldn’t figure out how to make all the parts of her music fit together—the gospel choirs and the harpsichord, the brass and the piano, conservatory music and arena music, faeries and philosophy and fugues. Tori knew how to make her disparate, mismatched parts fit together in a way that added up to a brand of out-there, self-assured cool I imitated because I hadn’t yet figured out how to make my own weird parts work together. I didn’t even know what my weird parts were.
And I sure as hell hadn’t been the Tori Amos of my high school because Tori Amos herself had been the Tori Amos of my high school. My real redheaded sister had swiped a bunch of old yearbooks when she was a senior in 1986, and among them was the 1981 edition, complete with a folded issue of the school paper featuring a “Message from Ellen,” a dispatch that Tori, known then as Ellen, had written during a five-week performing gig in Myrtle Beach, and a two-page spread of “Senior Plans.”
“Don’t you like this person?” my sister asked me around the time I left for college, casually offering me the yearbook open to Tori. Next to her picture, under her name Myra Ellen Amos, was a brief list of the activities she’d done at school: Choir, Madrigals, Drama Club. Just like me. “You can have that,” my sister said.
In the senior plans, Tori—Ellen—offered only, “Don’t rightly know.” I reread that quote a hundred thousand times like it was a Zen koan, hoping some of its reckless righteousness, or its righteous recklessness, would transfer to me. If anyone had asked me my future plans as a senior in high school, I would have had to admit I’d be studying music at a big beer-and-football school in the desert that was a punch line on The Simpsons. But no one asked.
The whole identity I’d packed up and brought to Arizona in that duffle bag, the whole identity I was so pissed and so panicked that Alex was trying to steal, was twenty-five percent Tori Amos wannabe and seventy-five percent composite of the three friends I’d left back home. From one friend I’d borrowed one-of-the-guys swagger, from another I’d pinched electronica edge, from a third I’d ganked Doc-Martens-and-dresses chic. That year, I was afraid of all the wrong things: afraid of Alex dressing like me but not afraid—not nearly afraid enough—of a groping, thrusting stranger in my bed. I spent pages in my journal fretting about Alex’s overalls but only one paragraph pluckily congratulating myself for being “assertive” when my first three no’s to that pushy pretty boy didn’t work, insisting on characterizing the episode as “trying to make out with a drunk asshole.” You go girl, I guess? What hope is there for a girl who judges her roommate for wearing makeup to the dining hall but lies to her own diary? For a girl who catalogues her roommate’s every misstep but never mentions that she herself fell asleep at night listening to music without headphones in a shared room the size of a closet? I wasn’t the pianist or the songwriter Tori was, and it was dawning on me I never would be, but—worse—I didn’t know how to believe in or root for girls, or how to be a friend to a girl, or how to be the girl I wanted to be. And, closing in on nineteen, I was running out of time to figure all of that out before I’d have to start learning how to be a woman.
Tori Amos found her inspiration for Boys for Pele in Pele, the Hawai’ian goddess of volcanoes and fire, the volatile, feuding, jealous, shape-shifting, powerful Pelehonuamea—perhaps seeing herself in a woman who spits fire and devours the earth. I was on the edge of understanding that if I wanted into this Volcano Goddess club, I was going to have to be more than a Potemkin girl, an almost-woman of no height, no heft, no contours, no fury, no heat, no shape. And I was probably going to have to stop flattening all the other girls and women I knew—Alex, Tricia, Rosanna from Brooklyn, my friends from back home, my sister—into compressed types, two-dimensional rivals or idols, as if their being paper dolls made me three-dimensional.
A few years later, when Tori released her fourth album, From the Choirgirl Hotel, I bought the CD, mostly as a reflex. And even though I liked it more than Boys for Pele—it was the rock and roll I wanted from her, complete with a classic 4-3-2-1 drumstick count-in to “She’s Your Cocaine,” which supposedly includes a dig at Courtney Love for her malicious meddling in Tori’s relationship with Trent Reznor, so maybe Tori herself was party to some treacherous girl-on-girl bullshit after all—I hardly listened to it. It was the last Tori Amos album I bought, until a (payday) morning in January three years ago when, inside of a minute, I bought six on iTunes: Little Earthquakes, Under the Pink, and Boys for Pele—my Tori Torah—as well as From the Choirgirl Hotel, Unrepentant Geraldines, and Abnormally Attracted to Sin. I suppose it was the sunny chill of January, or the windup to yet another Super Bowl, or—likely—the approach of my fortieth birthday that got me thinking about those dorm days. That road trip to Los Angeles. Alex, Tricia. Tori.
I found that I still liked Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink most of all, but even the underappreciated From the Choirgirl Hotel and the elusive Boys for Pele were evocative and accessible in ways they hadn’t been before. As my mouth formed automatically around words I hadn’t sung in years but never forgot—she’s been everybody else’s girl / maybe someday she’ll be her own—multiple strata of my life collapsed into one another, folded into an impossibly familiar soundscape. The screeching, mechanical noises in “God” were simultaneously the unoiled chains on the swings at a favorite childhood park—when had I last thought of those?—and that tear through the desert with Tricia in the little blue car. Tori Amos’s music was, after all, the musical neighborhood where I grew up, and it had changed and not changed while I was away, as formative neighborhoods always do.
New-to-me Tori on Unrepentant Geraldines became my immediate favorite, especially “Trouble’s Lament.” In that rumbling, sinister tune, the winking strike of a triangle is a glint of sunshine on the barrel of a silver pistol, and we know our girl-hero, Trouble, swaggering through the Southwest in boots and a duster, hounded by the Devil, will prevail, will fight for the souls of girls around the world. Compressed into iTunes digital files and churned out through my computer speakers, that ten-foot Bösendorfer piano sounded flat and tinny. Even so, after my twenty-year hiatus from Tori Amos, her music had new clarity, the highest high fidelity. This time around, my girlhood a friendly ghost, I liked what I liked, without the distorting noise of what it said about me, my taste, my intelligence, or my authenticity. And what I want in music—what I have always been chasing in music, whether it has lyrics or not—is a story.
The story Tori was telling now was not the fire-breathing rage of Pelehonuamea. No longer on a campaign to repossess her rightful fire from the men who would steal it, Tori’s themes were familiar terrain for me in middle age: mellowing and mothering, promising and protecting, reflecting and resisting. The songs were populated with unapologetic women who simultaneously welcome the wisdom that comes with aging and protect their youth. There are no active volcanoes here, but there are mountains. “I’m not going for shock on this,” a fifty-something Tori says in a video interview about Unrepentant Geraldines, “because I think it’s easy to shock... A twenty-year-old cannot talk about what I’m about to talk about. And I can’t talk about what a twenty-year-old’s going to talk about… I’m finding my own way for myself.”
If Tori of yesteryear was a fire-spitting volcano goddess, then those seeking that long-gone girl will call Tori at fifty what they call those volcanoes-turned-mountains: dormant. There are those who say / I am now too old to play, she sings, her 90s magma cooled to solid obsidian. A mountain is less likely than an active volcano to eat you alive, but it is equally unlikely to budge.
Not all of us who reach middle age have Tori’s famously spectacular backstory, such glamorous cataclysm in our histories. Most of us live lives of gradual, imperceptible upheaval. Buckle and slip, tilt and split. This is the slow work of growing up and into ourselves. Pressure and collapse, fold and thrust.
I took my time getting to Unrepentant Geraldines, and finding it was like finding a reassuring message—a jotted postcard, a scrap of map—left for me at a hotel desk by Tori, always ten-plus years ahead. I’m no longer trying to use some combination of hair dye, talent, and affectation to catch up with Tori Amos, or with anyone. I know and love my weird parts now. I am my full size. I breathe fire when I need to. I take up space and say no. I found my way, not for myself or even by myself, but with the help a whole range of three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood women—my mother, my sister, and, thank god, my friends—who have crags and caves, who cast shadows, who support whole ecosystems, who mark the route, who explode every so often and devour the earth when it’s called for.
But that February, when I was not yet twenty, after I returned from Los Angeles, I asked the dorm director if I could move alone into the other half of our suite. The two girls who had lived there in August had recently left—one to sorority housing, one to quit school and become a stripper (or so went the floor rumor). Tricia was gone from my journal by the 12th of February and, I think, gone from Arizona. She transferred to a school Back East and we never talked again. For the next few years, I ingratiated myself into a rag-tag group of boys and became their token girl. For a while there, I was one of those awful women who boast that all their best friends are guys, who lament that girls are soooooo hard to be friends with.
In my new private dorm room, a mirror image of the one I’d shared with Alex, I listened to Edie Brickell as I fell asleep. I entered an intense Toad the Wet Sprocket era, replacing Tori in all the spots of my CD changer, closing her up in jewel cases, replacing her with Jewel. Just as often, though, I fell asleep to silence. For all the fun I made of Rosanna’s paying out of state tuition to learn how to do laundry, the main thing I learned over my second semester of college was how to fall asleep alone, without a soundtrack. I didn’t put my rave flyers or Tori Amos on my new walls. I didn’t put my pictures of my high school friends on my new walls. I didn’t put anything on my new walls. Afternoons, I sat on the floor in my blank new space behind my own dirty, Superman-in-a-straitjacket window with a view of a mountain festooned with the letter A, and I sorted through snapshots from my trip to La, sticking them into the stiff pages of a photo album behind plastic. Turning it all into a story I’d tell.