Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly (With His Song) was the number one Billboard song for the week I was born; although I don’t remember hearing this song when I was a kid – my parents listened to country and western music – hearing it fills me with a deep sadness.
I was 5 years old and I heard it accidentally when I was at a friend’s house. His older sister was visiting from college and she was listening to the radio. I had never noticed her before that moment; she was simply my friend’s older sister who ignored us and didn’t want to be bothered having to watch us while their mother ran errands. Her name was Shauna Jo; she was tall and blonde and the older boys seemed to like her. My friend and I were coming up out of the basement to get some juice; since we weren’t allowed to pour it ourselves, we had to get her to do it, which meant knocking on her closed bedroom door. I could hear the music playing and I thought I heard her singing; but my friend kept beating on the door until, because it wasn’t actually closed all the way, it opened.
She sat in front of her mirror, topless and combing her hair. The mirror was large enough that I saw most of her. That moment seemed to freeze and for an instant. I hadn’t ever considered how she might look different from me with her shirt off; I knew girls had to wear a different kind of bathing suit and that they had their own bathrooms; I knew girls were different because they were girls and I was not. But it wasn’t until that moment, when I saw her bare back, her breasts staring back at me in the mirror, that I began to understand that the curves and the shape of girls meant something more than what was covered and what was exposed by a bathing suit. But as enamored as I was by the sight of her, seeing her topless also accentuated and illuminated the rest of her; her neck line was smooth, melting seamlessly into her chin, which poured beatifically into her face. A young woman’s skin looks different from an older woman’s even at a distance; I had caught random glances of women before – women my mother’s age – because when you are young no one worries about what you see; they assume you’re too young to know what any of it means. But the falling and rolling skin of mothers is different from the taut skin of a woman in her prime; and even though I wasn’t able to articulate that, the understanding came to me in that moment. Differences inside of differences. She was smiling and her lips were moving, hypnotic as she sang Roberta Flack. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes glistened. She looked up and saw me seeing her. Our eyes locked. Her eyes were the brightest and deepest blue.
Then the moment moved forward and she screamed, dropped her comb, and covered her breasts. GET OUT, she screamed, turning, lunging at the door and closing it in a single movement. I stood in front of the closed door for a while and listened. The music played on, but the singing had stopped; but so had the rage. In a couple of minutes she opened the door, fully clothed. She pushed past me and towards the kitchen to interrupt my friend – he was trying to climb up on the counter to get in the cabinet and so he could pour our juice. As she pushed past me she hissed, you fucking little pervert.
For a week I was worried that I would get into trouble. I knew I had done something wrong, though I wasn’t sure why. The things we learn are wrong we learn not from direct instruction but indirectly. We come to know certain things are wrong because other people act like they are wrong and we learn to act and behave from the how the people around us behave. And so I was worried, even though I hadn’t really done anything except for being thirsty.
But nothing ever happened. I was invited over many many timed after that, but Shauna Jo was rarely there and whenever she was, all she did was roll her eyes and dismiss me whenever I looked at her.