In the first of a series on mental health and music, Songs for the Soul, Kristin Garth discusses her relationship with Depeche Mode’s ‘Behind the Wheel’ and female empowerment.
BY KRISTIN GARTH
You’re behind the stage. Peeking through a window to the DJ who is winking at you. Not a boy on the street wink. Not a lecherous wink about a body part and how he will possess it. How he is entitled to it. It is a signal to you in the darkness and the noise. It is a wink between conspirators. It is a wink that tells you on this Friday night, though you can’t see it yet, standing in the darkness, behind a curtain: you have a packed main stage.
A wink that speaks to your muscles the way the music he plays right now speaks to your brain. You lean down in five-inch platforms and knee socks, braids grazing your toes as you stretch, prepare. Your brain hears it in the syncopations inside the beats of Depeche Mode before a lyric is spoken: you are behind the wheel of this body, and you have passengers. Where will you take them?
You are behind the wheel of this body – a passenger in all ways until recently. 19 years of alt-right talk radio car rides, lectures on purity coupled with crude side-eyed glances at your breasts. You make a chauffeur of a boyfriend you love because he takes you anywhere your religiously-oppressed heart desires, to R-rated movies, coffee dates, your first assignations with your body, away from a house of horrors. He drives you there, but he makes you a navigator
Prohibited to learn to drive a car for the same reason you were prohibited to have a job – someone else wanted behind the wheel of this body. He paid for its maintenance. Kept it locked up safe, ready. He would take it where he wanted it to go.
It would never go to this place. –- not while he held the keys -- a place where you braid the truth in your hair and tie it up with gingham bows. A place of honest stares –- not pretense, surreptitious sin. They drink it in, your body, what you allow them. The way you design it: a tartan skirt, legs perpetually covered in a security blanket of knee high cotton.
He would never go to this place, so you love this place. You are behind the wheel of your body here, and you are learning to drive.
You twirl on main stage. Your braids bounce. Stiletto elongated limbs and plaited brunette hair, every cell of your soul exposed before you even contemplate unzipping the cream knit crop top, revealing your breasts. What they think they are waiting for – the answer to the ultimate question of this universe: what color are her nipples? Peach, you could just whisper, as you take their money, but they are on a journey. They think it’s about this destination.
It’s not. It’s about this moment right now. Standing before them, a naked triumphant soul in a schoolgirl uniform. This is much more vulnerable than the peach they will see or the pink they will not. It is quite a journey that has put you behind the wheel of that body. It is inside you, so they cannot see it. You put your finger over your lips to honor it, and you drive them to the destination.
The lyrics begin:
“My little girl drive anywhere.”
You are naked. In this skirt, pink-cheeks, neon lights, the diary-pressed-petal preserved teenager you will always be, you are an exposed, small secret. Taking off your top is anti-climatic. It relaxes you, a backwards free fall onto a plush hotel bed after a tense interstate road trip hours of bumper to bumper traffic: a near-miss crash, fatality.
They see you writhing, open, behind the wheel of your body. They don’t see your near-miss crash. They don’t see the journey. It wasn’t hours for you. It was years – years you worked your way through an epiphany that if you were small enough, you might disappear. Years you believed your breasts were an enemy. The key to happiness is slight -- a bony hip, a straight-line thigh. You look in a mirror at 16, and you see a circus monstrosity. You don’t look in mirrors anymore. You don’t want to be a passenger in such a body. You almost don’t blame a grown man for looking at it. It is a thing you see so bloated and distorted; looking at it is almost unavoidable, even for you. The key to happiness is to be so slight you disappear.
You will be 89 pounds when a teacher intervenes. Shrunken breasts, fluttering eyelids, hands grasping out to rails, walls, your sister, air to catch yourself from falling as everything goes black. On a daily basis. A friend dies, and you go to the scale after his funeral, crying all day. Water weight loss, you think. You are in the 80’s today. Though a good person has died, a teenager, this number, 89 makes you smile then sob. You know in this moment you are mentally ill. You know in this moment that you want to die.
You cannot be a passenger in this body, no matter how small it becomes.
The teacher makes you get help. Your parents won’t sign the forms to allow you this counseling. “We don’t need psychologists.” You are a teenager. You are not behind the wheel of this body. You get it anyway, and you will be forever grateful for this act of subversion that saves your life. It is the best thing that ever happened to you. You have been a receptacle all your life, and now you pour. You spill secrets. You feel lighter; gain weight. You still look away from a mirror, but you want to live. After six months of suspense, your period comes back – and your breasts. They remain your best physical asset, unsullied by their near demise – your glory in their reincarnation. Even you, a reluctant passenger in your body, feel their power.
On this stage, even as you crawl among these watchers, you are behind the wheel of your body. You feel it in the whispers of Depeche Mode, your anthem:
“Drive. I’m yours to keep. Do what you want. I’m going cheap tonight.”
Two boys, a friend and an acquaintance drove you to this strip club, the first time. You go out of curiosity, a passenger – like the stage full of passengers you drive towards their favorite destination: breasts. It will be those breasts, and your braids that drive you to the stage.
As the manager, their friend, they introduce you to socially, pulls you away, you see their nervousness. They believe he sees a passenger. Where is he taking you?
He takes you to the bar. To ask what you do for a living. Have you ever considered this? He does not see a passenger. He sees a girl behind the wheel of a body, and he knows you can drive before you do. The men who work in this place, like the customers, will never touch you. Their gazes and winks are signals in the darkness that keep you safe and make you money. They walk you to your car each night and watch you drive away.
They watch you take your place behind the wheel of this body.
They know your journey, what it means that you can stand on this stage and present yourself this way. The trade secrets, the hide and seek of a body in this carefully choreographed dance. A striptease is a trick, a slight of hand, and your biggest mark is yourself. You’re the only dancer who never takes off her skirt. The house mother calls them “suggestions more than skirts.” You have them made smaller and smaller, as your confidence grows. The slightest movements reveals a g-string in bubblegum. You are behind the wheel of this body, and you can drive. For the first time in your life, you feel safe and in control. You have made your weakness your trademark. You are the girl next door just learning to drive, and everyone wants to be your passenger.
You are behind the wheel of your body; your passengers see what you want them to see. They don’t see your father. They don’t see the wink of the DJ – not even the wink of an equal or a partner. He is your employee after all. You pay him at the end of the night, a percentage of your earnings, and you earn a lot from your passengers. You know how to drive now, and you take these men, each night, on this journey. And then you drive yourself home.
Kristin Garth is a poet from Pensacola, a knee sock enthusiast and a sonnet stalker. In addition to Luna Luna, her sonnets have stalked the pages of Occulum, Anti-Heroin Chic, Faded Out, Hedgehog Poetry, Drunk Monkeys, Ghost City Review and many other publications. Her chapbook Pink Plastic House is available through maverickduckpress.com. Follow her sonnets, socks and secrets on Twitter: @lolaandjolie and her website: kristingarth.wordpress.com