Column: The Skips

by David Aloi

The exact place Tiff heard J* Starr for the first time was in her bedroom. The exact moment the song came on the radio, she was putting on a pair of hip-hugging boyfriend jeans – loose, charming, essential, “practically a way of life,” the girl at the store had promised. Tiff stood there, shirtless, and zipped them up above her underwear line. She curled her index fingers into the belt loops and, in time with the beat of the song, swung sharply from side to side in the mirror. Boyfriend jeans, she thought, how silly.

Pretty soon that J* Starr song was everywhere and everyone, including Tiff and even Mr. O’Malley, could be caught humming it down the hallways of Hempstead High. The only radio station worth listening to, 102.5 Kiss FM, played it at the top of the hour, every hour, for an entire week, for basically all of April. For Tiff, it was an utter delight, the perfect pop song. Its verses poetic but clear, its refrain sugary. And when the chorus hit, it was pure catharsis, like howling into a train tunnel.

Tiff never got tired of it. She bought one of the last copies of the CD single in town. The guy at Lakeshore Records said the song was so hot it was almost impossible to get. Like Tickle Me Elmo, he said. She listened to it in the morning, as soon as the sun poked through her baby blue lace curtains. In the shower, she’d place the CD player on the damp tile beside the tub, so even with soapy shampoo eyes, she could reach, blindly onto the ground and press the back button. J* Starr would start all over. In the kitchen making a PB&J, in the basement folding laundry. In the car, with the windows down, she’d do that thing with her hand where it glides up and down through the air like a wave. When she arrived at school, Tiff would listen again. She’d park near the edge of the lot under a row of red and silver maples, sit on her hood with a Pink Lemonade Snapple, and feel the warmth thrumming through her. She’d walk into class confident, but anxious. When is the next time she could hear J* Starr?

Tiff was medium-to-low popular. Brunette bob with bangs, caramel highlights, knobby nose. Had a plum-colored birthmark beneath her left eye. The type of girl who’d take your ticket at the movie theater. She played lacrosse and was on yearbook. She was vice president of the junior class but not the school. She sat with different people every day at lunch. Had a close group of friends but wouldn’t care if one of them suddenly moved away.

When the theme for junior prom was announced – “Dream A Little Dream” – she knew J* Starr would make the perfect prom song. It would be printed on invitations, on banners and mugs, on those little placecards you fold and put on fancy dinner plates. It would be a song the junior class would for sure remember. They’d look back and say that J* Starr defined their time at Hempstead High. That this one perfect pop song was what it meant to be a teenager, to be alive.

But like the king and queen, the prom song would be chosen by a vote. Because of Tiff’s position in student council, she got the lucky job of walking around to each of Mr O’Malley’s English classes and playing for them the top contenders: J* Starr, K-Ci & JoJo, Dave Matthews Band. After each song played, the class would vote on their favorite.

By third period, the J* Starr CD began to skip halfway through the song. By fourth period, it was virtually unplayable, leaving students to imagine the song playing at prom. You all know this song, Tiff pleaded with her classmates, you know how it goes here and here. Tiff sang through the skips. The refrain. The chorus. Her echo bouncing off lockers down the long, narrow hallway.

At home, Tiff counted the votes and found that K-Ci & JoJo had indeed won. This is impossible, Tiff thought, it just can’t be. She counted and recounted and the results were the same. K-Ci & JoJo had it by a landslide, over 80 votes more than J* Starr. Tiff took all the tiny slips of paper with K-Ci & JoJo scribbled on them into her backyard, threw them in the trash and lit them on fire. She made the announcement in the morning over the loudspeaker that J* Starr had won the vote. That the “Dream A Little Dream” prom song would be J* Starr. A few students complained later in the morning, and then a few more by second period. By lunch enough kids had come forward wondering how J* Starr could have won and they demanded a re-vote. After student council agreed and everyone recast their votes, K-Ci & JoJo came out on top, handedly. Tiff was beside herself.

Her days became dark. She ate lunch by herself in the library near old encyclopedias. She felt nauseous and put herself on the BRAT diet. Bananas, rice, applesauce, toast. And even there, alone, beside the dusty books filled with everything she’d need to know about life, Tiff felt an empty void like digging a hole and then staring down into it. She screamed into her gym clothes in the bathroom between periods. Her classmates had disappointed her. J* Starr had disappointed her.

And then someone told her about the toothpaste – the pasty kind not the gel kind – and how it can fix the skips. Tiff held the J* Starr CD up to her bedroom window, the sunlight revealing all the tiny cracks barely. She sat with her legs crossed on the rug in front of her mirror, and squeezed a dime-sized dab of toothpaste carefully onto a damp washcloth. She placed the cloth onto the small disc, rubbing the toothpaste from the center to the edges, softly, like a prayer.

Written by David Aloi