I remember as a kid hurtling onto my parents’ bed to watch Sweet Dreams, the Patsy Cline biopic. I wasn’t yet ten, but I knew the music in my veins. On sleepy afternoons, those were the songs that stirred my mother to romance the vacuum cleaner as she swayed through the living room with half-closed eyes, and those were the songs which first conveyed to me the purchase of longing over logic because when you listen to Cline, all you can do is feel your stomach lift up and press against your heart in an exalted slow dance that could only eventuate in tears. My mother screwed her face into an ecstatic grimace as she howled “I’m hoping maybe you’ll be lonesome too” along with Patsy, and I, years away from puberty, was certain that even if I saw the pyramids along the Nile and watched the sun rise on a tropic isle, I’d belong to her.
Years later, I’d discover that the songs I’d come to think of as Cline’s were not, strictly speaking, her own. “Crazy” was written by Willie Nelson, several by Hank Williams. But my sense wasn’t that the scrim had been removed and I disabused. I pitied the celebrated men. In something like countrified parlando, Nelson’s high notes resembled emphatic conversation lodged in his nasal cavity, and as I listened to Williams’ rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” his voice just didn’t achieve the fly of Cline’s. When he sang, “But sleep won’t come the whole night through,” the lyric was a grumpy prediction nothing like the rueful, sultry, rapturous form assumed on Sentimentally Yours.
My mother would have been about to turn thirteen when that album was released by Decca Records in 1962. I don’t know if she first heard Cline then or not, but roughly three decades later, we settled in to watch Jessica Lange play Cline and Ed Harris her second husband Charlie Dick. I crawled into my mother’s armpit, as I was accustomed to doing when there were late night TV opportunities, which there frequently were, because watching television is the primary form of being in my family. It is more anomalous for the TV to be off than on.
Back then, my mother had her shows: Good Morning America, followed by Days of Our Lives, conversationally referred to as Days, or else General Hospital, and during dinner Entertainment Tonight or Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy. Her sister, who solicited the nickname Pee, once watched Silence of the Lambs something like ninety-seven times in row. She would explain to anyone who asked, and there were few of us, her reason for preferring Home Alone 2 to the original Home Alone. After timing both films, she’d determined down to the second that the sequel introduced funny dialogue sooner than the first.
These days, my parents generally watch the Food Network while eating their meals, legs propped up on recliners, plates in laps, forks drawing their own food to their mouths, eyes bolted to the glowing spectacle of television studio cooking they’ll never taste. When I visit, they are apt to invite me to “watch something.” It is not that they suggest viewing a movie they specifically want to see or think is particularly wonderful. It is that it is more interesting to be when light and color and emoting strangers fill your house. Sweet Dreams was different, however. Sweet Dreams was anticipated. The desire to watch it preceded the desire to watch something. These were the days before DVR, where you needed to attend your television in order to catch desirable programming. A movie, even one seven years old and now showing on a non-premium channel, might become a cinematic event in your household.
And I was rapt. I don’t remember the first time I heard “Walkin’ After Midnight,” but I do remember the first time I saw Jessica Lange with her bushy brown wig, fringe-lined sequin vests, and neckerchiefs: Patsy. Patsy drinking beer in the front seat of her mother’s car. Patsy galvanizing the cogs of dancing couples in a crappy Virginia hall. Patsy disappointing her mother with unflappable joie de vivre. Then there was her initial encounter with Charlie Dick, in which he corners her in a hallway and demands that she fetch her coat so he can ferry her off to a drink and dance and get to know each other better. He hasn’t even introduced himself.
“You want a lot, don’t you?” she says. “Well, people in hell want ice water. That don’t mean they get it.” I was hooked. Here was someone who didn’t do what she was told, a fantasy enticing to most children, and who privileged her own preferences, a fantasy to narcissists everywhere. In a later scene, Cline tells Dick, “See, I figure when you say you want to get to know me better, what you really mean is you want a ten-minute screw in the back seat of your car.” She was clever enough to know means from ends. But I wasn’t. I hadn’t yet figured out that a coy rejection might be one step in extended foreplay.
Because of course the two do screw, and then the two do marry, which didn’t bother me much until the parts of the movie where Dick insults Cline, misses the birth of their first child, and eventually, beats her through a couple rooms of the beautiful house she has purchased for their family with money earned by her music. When finally it seems she might leave him, I waited for the cathartic moment when the triumphant woman would rise to the stage in a crescendo of freedom. I wasn’t familiar with Cline’s autobiography. Clutching a teddy bear in the passenger seat of a Piper PA-24 Comanche, she screams a man’s name. Then the plane crashes into a Tennessee forest, fire blooming like orange cauliflower over her death.
I was devastated. It was as though for most of the film, she hadn’t understood: she was Patsy Cline. She should have had a life to match that voice. And when, finally, at the age of thirty, it seemed that she was on the brink of leaving the man who didn’t deserve her, to veer toward happiness, instead: the end. In Sweet Dreams, the first time Charlie Dicks asks Patsy Cline what she wants, she says, “I want it all, and I want to make it right. I do. I mean, since I’ve been about eleven or twelve years old I’ve had my life mapped out.” But of course the geography of her life never did quite follow the cartography of her dreams. What was the point? I wondered. What was the point in having almost it all? I cried for what I estimated to be the most enormous waste in human history. I’d loved Patsy Cline’s music so much, but somehow, I hadn’t entirely understood that country was built on the premise that people in hell want ice water.
My mother used to keep three cassette tapes in the car: a Boston Pops record, Gloria Estefan’s Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, and Garth Brooks’s No Fences, but Brooks— Garthy Baby, as Mom called him— easily took the top spot in our car ride musical rotation. She was a terrible singer and her impressions of accents were even worse, but that never stopped her from belting out “Friends in Low Places” with a ham-handed twang and the windows rolled up, mugging up the limelight of her own mini van. Like many awful singers, she miscalculated high volume as equivalent to high notes. It didn’t matter; the country lyrics seemed to answer for incompetence, implying that when your heart’s hanging like a loose tooth, there’s no elegant way to yank it. There’s just confronting the pain with the swagger that follows from knowing nothing else much matters— especially not finesse. Country singers know what Dr. Phil does not: that when you pile anguish upon anguish just so, it is elevated into glory.
At the peak of her love affair with country music, my mother wrote a paper about it for her composition course. She had become a mother and had a kind husband who raved about her grammar, but since her childhood, having it all had come to mean more than a full house. The period following Christmas became difficult. She said she liked having something to look forward to. So she decided to take a night course at a nearby college. Considering her instructor both intelligent and discriminating, she was justifiably proud when she returned home with a bright red letter circled at the top of her assignment. My father, whose grandest compliment for a home-cooked meal was that it was “restaurant-quality,” told her the essay was “magazine level.”
“Your mother got an A,” my father told me.
“An A+?” I asked.
“Well,” my father said. The paper had received an A minus.
“Minus means less than an A,” I said, with the asshole innocence of a child. “It’s not a real A.”
No matter, my father couldn’t be stopped. Besides bestowing superlatives organized around the principle that the accomplishment meant your skills might belong somewhere better, my father liked to tell people that he’d been bragging “on” them after the boasting was over, which was his way to convey congratulations. To praise you was to praise you to someone else and then mention it to you later. So one day, when he’d invited over his couple friends, two lawyers, my father set to bragging on my mother and her A minus. They were sitting in white plastic lawn furniture set on the porch, wine and mosquito repellant laid atop the table for the guests. Mrs. Lawyer smiled with the portion of her face below her nose and asked what my mother planned to do with the course.
“I don’t know,” my mother said. “I’m just doing it for fun.”
“Fun!” Mrs. Lawyer said, as though my mother was an adorably misinformed youngster she enjoyed indulging. Then she made some exclamations, emphasizing the adjectives— wonderful, just great, terrific— with about as much pomposity as she could muster, which was a lot. After that semester, my mother didn’t reenroll at the college. The lawyers stopped coming over and if they were ever mentioned once I was a teenager, I would say snotty things about the Harvard-sized egos stuck in their Suffolk-sized brains to make my mother feel better. They didn’t. And perhaps it didn’t bother her that she never wrote another essay.
Soon she was otherwise occupied anyway. She’d enrolled me in lessons at a cut-rate dance school headed by a manic quack with powerful calves and crispy hair who, during tap classes, could be heard screeching, “I can’t hear you,” as she craned her ear toward the floor to listen to the shuffles and ball changes. In my first recital, the other little girls and I were supposed to hide under laundry baskets at the beginning of our number to “Splish Splash” before springing out from underneath. Under this creative direction, the laundry baskets were meant to suggest bathtubs, and I think we were supposed to be tap dancing bubbles, but I can’t be sure.
When the dance instructor began calling me her protégée— which truly might have terrified many parents— it was decided that I’d be entered into a pageant as a children’s division soloist. This, of course, would necessitate private lessons, while my mother would steer the costuming and musical selection. She searched her tapes for the perfect song for my debut at Talent America until we agreed I would tap dance to Patsy Cline’s “Heartaches,” a lesser known cut from Sentimentally Yours. “What does it matter how my heart aches?” Patsy sang as I hammered away at the floors with my patent leather shoes. Then, closer to the competition, to accompany the cowboy hat, my mother sewed an enormous black sequin appliqué to my silver jacket, so that if somehow anyone failed to grasp the lyrics, their meaning could still be registered.
That year, at Talent America, I took third place, which the contest runners insisted upon calling “second runner-up,” probably to aggrandize the worth of the prize. My mother advised that I abbreviate, simply say I’d won second. A woman who claimed to have been Tom Cruise’s first agent approached my parents about representation. She said that to my benefit, the girl-next-door look was very hot right now. I guess that was her way of mollifying any concerns that I wasn’t a stunner. She also cooked us turkey meatballs the night before my first audition. I don’t know what those were for. In all likelihood, Tom Cruise’s purported first agent hoped to indicate that she wasn’t a slick salesman who’d take advantage of a seven-year-old. After all, how cunning can someone who doesn’t know that no one prefers turkey meatballs to any other type of meatball be?
I didn’t get that first job singing in A Christmas Carol on Broadway, and I really wouldn’t get that many ever. I was shy, and I didn’t like being watched. I still don’t. More importantly, mine was a total absence of vocal facility. At every audition, I’d dance my dance, recite my lines, and then they’d ask, “Can you sing?” Yes, I could sing— if I were an entirely different human being. My mother brought me to auditions in New York City for a little over a year, and then, when it became clear I wasn’t going to “make it,” I stopped dancing. Sometime in the years since, my mother began favoring adult contemporary music such as Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook series. This started around the same time she started referring to herself as an old person.
Why did my mother stop taking her college courses? Why did I stop dancing? Maybe we’re just quitters. Admittedly, I have purchased more than one instrument after the age of twenty-two, generally spending several hundred dollars and then never learning how to play. I have a keytar that I spent more time shopping for online than playing in my mid-twenties. Its primary use has been the time that I leant a friend the strap for a last minute gig. There was also the sparkly electric guitar that I really loved looking at but which, purchased in a fit of delusion amidst personal financial collapse, seemed to mock my incipient poverty until I sold it for a third of the original retail price. I gave away a juicer after making less than thirty-two ounces of juice when I realized how tedious the thing would be to clean.
But I don’t think it’s merely that we lack resolve. As snide as the lawyer might have been, her sentiment was not unusual. Why would anyone spend money to take a college course unless the intention was to graduate? And why would anyone earn a degree other than to parlay it into a coveted position? To most people, there must be a point. That’s why every two months or so as the survival of the humanities appears dubious again, an academic writes a long, vague article about the benefits of majoring in English or the social sciences. The benefits are never English or the social sciences. The point must demonstrate that the phenomenon means more than the phenomenon alone is. The point, it seems, must always exist remotely.
I am often baffled to hear some person ask, “But is the relationship going somewhere?” Ostensibly, the somewhere they’re referring to is first a pronouncement of commitment, then marriage, perhaps children, and finally the side-by-side plots that mean no disaster except death has torn the couple apart. In between, there might be honoring this woman in sickness and in health, but the vacillations in medical matrimony are mostly auxiliary to the trajectory toward ritualized milestones. Ritual announces the presence of the point. “I just don’t want to bother if it’s not going somewhere,” they say, as though getting dating over with is pragmatic. Or else, “He’s fun, but where is it going?” like pleasure isn’t quite a satisfactory use of time. In this cultural moment, if you like it, you shoulda put a ring on it. Liking simply isn’t sufficient. You were supposed to lock down your girlfriend yesterday, or preferably at the exact moment you realized you liked her, for the perfect epiphanic proposal.
Because the point, even as it is portrayed as a discrete success or closure, tends to be conflated with permanence. Permanence is significant. The classes are justified by the life-long career. The dinner-and-a-movie dates lead to the last relationship of a person’s life. The dance lessons culminate in lasting fame. The obsession with the point might then be understood as a stalwart against the threat of the insignificance we attach to impermanence. Having it all means having the rest of time, because otherwise, how can we prove it meant anything at all? “I Fall to Pieces,” a Patsy Cline single from 1961 concerns itself precisely with this. As she sings, “You want me to act like we’ve never kissed. You want me to forget, pretend we’ve never met,” it becomes clear that this is a song about the threat of erasure. You, whoever you might be, wishes to deny the significance of the kiss, the meeting, the entire relationship. There is no symbol available to signify that it all did mean something, even if it didn’t last.
“Crazy,” released in 1961, centers around erasure as well, but this time, it is as though obviation ought always to have been expected. “Crazy for thinking that my love could hold you. I’m crazy for trying, and crazy for crying, and I’m crazy for loving you,” Cline reproaches herself. She is crazy because all that loving, trying, and crying was for naught; the love expired.
But longevity isn’t importance, and perhaps what makes Cline such an extraordinary singer is that even as the words she sang might say that loving is crazy, the coloring of her voice suggests something quite different. Somewhere in the wrench of the vowel breaking through that recognition of conventional wisdom— “Cra-zy”— is, too, a diversion from the paradigm of significance, permanence, and ritual. Cline’s vocal styling matches that mid-word fissure of “crazy” with “feeling” shortly after, and in this moment it’s as though she answers the demand for a point with the performance of emotion. To the charge of time wasted on an unworthy love, Cline’s velvety legato and panging howls respond that no time is ever wasted because though the point connotes substance, we might remember that the point also suggests a closure to possibilities, a static end. Maybe that love didn’t mean anything. Maybe all that’s left is longing, but even as longing might look toward a point, it’s the longing itself that is pleasurable. We can’t only value the eventual meaning, because to do so is to take heed only of death, the termination of hope. The pleasure of longing: that’s living.
Somewhere along the way, it became an unquestioned truth of the TED Talk soundbyte variety that meaningful work and meaningful relationships are the keystones to a good life. But what is it exactly that meaningful things are supposed to mean? The twin catchphrases point and meaningfulness have asserted themselves as governing principles of pleasure, but neither constitutes pleasure itself; they simply place it one analytical degree in remove. So what’s the point in a point? Why must a delicious home-cooked meal be restaurant-quality to be desirable? What does it matter how my heart aches?
Except it does matter how a heart aches, much more than it matters if it aches, and it’s not a monumental waste to go up in flames as much as it is to seek experience that gestures outside of itself. How our hearts ache or exalt, or sometimes, with the right song, both— that’s being; that’s the material of our lives. Cline’s music raises us up with low-down crooning blue, soaring with the knowledge that longing can’t be enervated. It doesn’t follow the mapped-out life. It doesn’t obey death. And it sure as hell doesn’t comply with lawyers.
What is the point of watching television or vacuuming or finding the quickest way to laugh or writing A-minus essays? What is the point of making turkey meatballs or condescending or bragging on or tap dancing? I don’t know. I just know the brazen thump of the heart, the voice of longing as it sings: “Sweet dreams of you, things I know can’t come true.” And I don’t want to call it quits.
Tracy O'Neill is the author of the novel The Hopeful. In 2012, she was awarded the Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for Fiction, and she has published fiction in Granta, Guernica, Vol.1 Brooklyn, and The Literarian. Her nonfiction has appeared in Grantland, TheAtlantic.com, RollingStone.com, The Rumpus, The Millions, Bookforum.com, The L Magazine, Publishers Weekly, and the San Francisco Chronicle.