That first time I ever hear a song like it on the radio, I sit there sweltering in the heat of a Bay
Area summer vacation. All of thirteen years old and two months off from starting high school,
the sun bears down through the car window as my mama turns our car – pale gold, as old as I
am, still wearing the marks from half a decade ago, when I leaned forward in the backseat and
drew a crooked heart in pink gel pen on the tan headrest – off the intersection leading out of our
nearby outdoor mall. This time, I’m sitting in the front and I’m so pleased to be all grown up.
The radio is buzzing on low, our local station playing that 2 PM mix of Billboard Top 40 and
90’s pop hits. The songs switch from something upbeat and dance-worthy to something calming
and slow, and I close my eyes idly, ignore the red spots behind the lids, and think I might have
found a new favorite musical artist. The song sounds sweet and innocent, and she is angelic in
love. Her voice is high and clear; it stretches on vowels like honey, with a pretty lilt I want to
sing along to. Slowly, then all of a sudden, I think I might understand, just a bit, what she means
when she sings, “I can’t change, even if I tried, even if I wanted to…”
I know I’m turning red from where I’m pasted onto the seat, and I feel feverish in a way that has
nothing to do with California sun. I can hear now, all the places where she croons she where he
is supposed to go. I keep my mouth clamped shut as my eyes fly open. Feeling like a wild rabbit
spotted by game hunters, I chance a look at my mother. She’s quiet too, not paying any attention
to the song on the radio. Why should she? It’s just a love song, like any other. I wish I could
believe that. I want to reach forward, turn the music down, or maybe turn it up. My nerves thrum
with an electric energy, each second passing turning me more afraid that she would hear it;
worse even, that she would understand it. I remember, then, every time she has turned off the
radio with a disapproving scowl, commented that nowadays music promotes terrible, immoral
ideas that corrupt good kids. Could I bear it another time?
We hit a stoplight with a jerk, yellow flashing into red overhead. The songbird on the radio is so,
so shy when she asks her crush, “do you like kissing girls?” I slam a button and the song cuts off
abruptly. My dreams, my dreams— Am I trembling? My mother turns to look at me curiously.
Could she divine it in my eyes? The tilt of my jaw? The set of my mouth? Mama, there’s
something very wrong with me. Mama, I think I’m not a good kid. There’s no way to
misinterpret, no way to explain away, I’m trapped, trapped—
She asks, in Arabic, “What’s wrong? Didn’t you like it?”
“I don’t know,” I respond, and I’m not lying. The seatbelt feels too tight and hot against the skin
of my throat as I answer, “It was too loud.” It was somehow still too loud, an endless echo, and I
was terrified of what my answer might be if I listened again and heard the woman’s honey voice
setting me on fire: my love, do you like kissing girls?
I tug my seatbelt down as I make my excuses and the radio stays off for the rest of the car ride.
An inane conversation spins on, and we keep driving, and I know that no one sees me burning
Jessica Joudy is a queer, Arab-American author, poet, and essayist based in California. Currently a fourth-year undergraduate student Computer Science and English, she works as a student researcher in rare and unrecovered texts. Her research is published or forthcoming on Arthur’s Attic. She can be found on Twitter @JessicaJoudy.