My mom owned a Tori Amos tape before I did. When I was ten, that fearless shrieking and those bizarre lyrics (“you think I’m a queer! You think I’m a queer! You think I’m a queer! Well I think you’re a quee-ah”) scared the shit out of me. But four years later I needed it. And there were other things, now, to be afraid of.
I bought Little Earthquakes and, like so many people, loved the album beyond all rationality. I had never heard a harmony quite like the bridge from “Silent All These Years,” which seemed to speak to me, a redheaded outcast, in a way no one else would think to: “Years go by if I’m stripped of my beauty I’m the orange clouds raining in my hand.” Though it would be a long time before I saw any beauty to be recognized, I definitely felt like an orange cloud melting through my own fingers sometimes, stained with the natural auburn that I had always wished was blond, or, lately, black.
While I was pouring over other women’s looks, wishing I could change mine, my best friend was garnering massive attention over long-distances with her wit that was sought-after in online chat rooms. By the time she next visited me in New Orleans, she had an online boyfriend who lived in Tennessee. They had never met, and he had never seen her, so it was time for her to take some erotic-as-we-could-get-away-with photos to show off her wiles. This is what friends are for.
We closed the door to my bedroom, with its incongruous floral comforter, and I put Tori Amos’s “Leather” on repeat. The CD player obeyed, and the song’s darkly playful, lascivious, old-time-honky-tonk sound filled the room as I photographed my best friend in various flattering positions and revealing outfits. A gymnast from an early age, I had always envied her flexibility and, even more to the point, her mythically long legs. She wore my favorite dress, a velvet number with black lace straps that shimmered all the colors of autumn, from dark brown to gold to deep, deep red. I don’t think anything was coming into question as I took those photographs. I grew up enamored with pretty girls, after all, and none of it meant anything. Even as she wore short shirts that showed off her model abs, and even as I noticed them and captured them on film, none of it seemed…consequential. I was doing her, well, more pointedly him, a favor, and yes, our photosession successfully seduced the boy in Tennessee. They hadn’t changed anything in me, though.
I had a dream about Tori Amos. No sexually-oriented questions had been asked of me before that. In the dream, she and I were under a blanket, a deep red one, and the image is with me as though it was an event from an hour ago, rather than a dream from over a decade gone. “I’ve never kissed a girl before,” I said, and she took out a rose. I licked it. Then I woke up. Later, I was in another friend’s bedroom and stumbled upon a book of dream symbolism she had. Eagerly, I looked up “rose,” and freaked out internally over its listed counterpart: vagina. All the beautiful women I had looked up to seemed to take on a more vivid shade, a more urgent role: what was this, my many attractions I had never thought about sexually but now couldn’t seem to stop? I remember permitting myself to fantasize about a woman, someone I only knew in passing in New Orleans, and how I physically let go, melting from the inside just having thoughts without stopping them. And how, in a city like my native home, could I keep from noticing the power of the female form? There were idols everywhere: a woman I was once convinced was a fairy from another world who had long, deep-blue hair down to her ankles, a torch-singing mistress of wigmaking and make-up selling who seemed responsible to my youthful head for any prettiness in the world, Tori Amos with her raw breaths, unbarred voice, and the unparalleled lips that produced the sounds, her red hair that almost made me proud of mine. And there was my own friend, with the legs I couldn’t suddenly just not notice.
But there was another world set apart from this realm of endless awkward. It was a world that only seemed to be frequented by people who were not me, and in it, everyone talked who they wanted to talk to and said what they wanted to say and went where they wanted to go and reality didn’t choke on itself as a result: the world of rock concerts. One day, my personal cosmos broke open, and I was allowed into this world. Tori Amos came to New Orleans, and I went with — not one of my not-quite-friends at school, but someone who Knew Something about all this: my dad’s employee, Meredith, who was in college. I don’t remember who asked who, but I do remember talking to her about poetry and mythology in several conversations that confirmed what I had always been told but needed to know: There is life outside of high school, a whole wondrous mess of it.
When I think about getting dressed for the evening, I can see my bedroom as though I’m in it. The bulletin board is still bright with magazine covers baring portraits of Gwen Stafani, and my goth sensibility is nowhere on the walls; it’s in my mind and heart, however, which have been beating to the rhythms of vintage Tori lyrics and Anne Rice storylines for a while now, and I’m well aware that my hometown’s famed above-ground cemeteries are the perfect place to, in young Tori’s words, “dance in graveyards with vampires ‘til dawn.”
Had I ever been spiritually freer than I was in the car with Meredith, on the way to that show? The knowledge that in just a few hours I would be several feet away from Tori Amos, and the just-as-surreal understanding that right now, I was in a car with no parents, just one supercool girl in college, who was telling me about college classes and college books you read and college relationship problems! We had the same songs we put on repeat in hours of need! I could to her campus poetry reading if I wanted to (and I totally did! And it was amazing!)! Life was real. She was real. And Tori Amos was real.
None of the people who shared the stadium with us looked real, though — everyone was a magnificent Gothic creation, all black tulle and shimmer, elaborate wings. I felt like I was on another planet, and I wanted to spend the rest of my life kissing its inhabitants. I remember a girl named Mika in a thick, iridescent rhinestone collar who knew Meredith, and a woman in a black ballgown with a gallantly commanding presence who joked that her cigarettes got their own chair. Most of all, though, I remember the rapture, the audience’s as well as mine, during “Father Lucifer.” I remember the twisting, jerking insistence of “Spark” and the cathardic, teasing pulses of “Raspberry Swirl.” I don’t know how long it was before Tori closed with “Winter,” teaching me what it feels like when hundreds of hearts simultaneously fill to breaking. When I went to bed that night, I had in my head the vivid image of the two-handed kisses she blew to us all, of her grin and her passion. Yes, she was real. And for the moment, there were no questions. Orientation was simply grateful and alive, nothing to fear.