Before she takes up with Gaga, before Americano means anything but an order at Starbucks, Carmen streaks her hair red in what she tells herself is an act of rebellion but is mostly a way to get her parents off her back about taking voice lessons.
"You have a gift," her father says, tugging on one of her red strands and making a face when his fingers come away streaked with red. "I don't want you to waste it."
"The kind of music I want to make doesn't need singing lessons."
"Don't you dare touch the furniture," her mother says, smacking her with the towel Carmen should probably have thought about before she used it in the hair dyeing process. "If you have to make yourself look like a delinquent, at least go to the protests, yes?"
"The protests, the protests, college has made me so political," Carmen says, grabbing the towel and stomping down the hall to her room. College has made her nothing; she's still a girl from east LA, with admittedly amazing parents but not even the shitty band she had in high school. Her fellow bandmates all rode off into the sunset, headed to college or jobs that were, if not out of state, at least a solid few hours away. Carmen, she stayed stuck, combat boots planted in what she knows.
The red streaks are the start, though, the first step that she teeters on for weeks before falling headfirst down the elevator shaft of totally fucking weird.
It's the middle of May, end of her freshman year, and Carmen e-mails her last paper of the semester at 3 AM. She's due for her shift at Starbucks at 5 AM, so she heaves a sigh, grabbing her laundry basket and some change off her nightstand. Theoretically, the apartment complex has its own washer and dryer--more than one of each, even--but when they're not broken, they're shredding clothing. The laundromat is will have at least one crazy in it at this time of day, but whatever. It's a quick walk, and she's down to spectacularly awful floral print shorts and a wifebeater.
Carmen slides her key into her back pocket and walks the two blocks to the laundromat. A car screams by, bass thumping, which gets her heart pounding the rhythm she's been trying to work out in her head and on the guitar whenever her parents are out of the apartment. No one around, might as well go for it. "Mis canciones son de la revolución," she sings, tilting her head back. "Mi corazón me duele por mi generación."
She's right in front of the laundromat doors, so she cuts herself off, feeling stupid. Some girls in leather are staring, but she can't tell if it's because someone else is choosing to wash her clothes at this hour of the morning or because they heard her singing. Mercifully, they turn back to each other after a second.
"I'm not saying that you never have ideas, I'm just saying this one deserves to be lit on fire and left for dead," one of the two bleach blondes says, eyeroll made more dramatic by the sheer amount of eyeliner she's wearing. The rainbow colors are fucking awesome, Carmen has to admit, not that she's staring. Much.
"I'm just saying you're a control freak bitch," snaps the blonde in the most leather. Brave, considering it's May in fucking LA. "We can't all freak out about art or whatever--"
"What we need is a neutral party," says the third girl, a pretty redhead, in a much deeper voice than expected. Carmen blinks, reorienting her mental bearings, and then she mentally cusses herself out for being an asshole. "Hey, girl with the shorts. Wanna help us out with something?"
"What?" Carmen asks, wary. Most of her music friends dress about this weird, but she can at least vouch for their not being crackheads.
"We can't pick a name for our fucking band," Leather says. "I mean our band, sorry, you're just an innocent bystander. I think A Problem Like Maria is fun without being cute, but someone disagrees."
"Highway Unicorn," Rainbow retorts. "It's so Andy Warhol that it turns in on itself, spewing glitter over everything."
"What does that even mean? I took the same fucking art class you did and I think you're just making shit up."
"Making shit up is what artists do."
"I kind of liked the glitter explosion idea, so I went with Lightning Highway," Peacemaker explains, patting Carmen on the shoulder in consolation, or maybe to keep her from bolting. "What can I say? I'm a huge fan of the Boss. Also our working class roots, Iris, stop looking at me like that."
"You guys are trying to do a Patti Smith," Carmen says. She has their full attention now. "Blending three-chord rock with high art, right? So start with what kind of music you make, and then I can make an informed decision." She sounds like the essay she turned in like half an hour ago.
Iris tilts her head and uncrosses her arms, studying her with something like a smile. "All right, Flora, we'll see you at four PM sharp. We heard you outside." She lunges, hand closing around Carmen's wrist, and scribbles an address on her palm. "We normally do auditions, but listening to all our bullshit with a straight face is more than enough to score you an invite."
With that, the trio sweeps out of the laundromat, wrinkled shirts in hand, leaving Carmen to wonder what the hell just happened.
By the time 3 PM rolls around, Carmen is so tired that she's pretty sure that the events of 12 hours ago were just a really surreal dream. She still has the address she texted herself, though, not trusting the pen to remain on her hand through an eight-hour shift, so she sets off for what turns out to be an apartment the size of a postage stamp.
"When we first started, we were the Balcony Jammers, because that was the only space we had for Heidi's drums," Peacemaker says, grinning.
"Like the little Swiss girl," Heidi says, raising a hand and looking like anything but a little girl in denim cut-offs and a black corset-looking thing. "I don't speak German, but I can if you like."
"She can't really," Peacemaker stage whispers. "I'm Amore. Yes, that's my real name, and yes, I'm a girl. A lady, even."
"It's great to meet both of you," Carmen says, feeling her cheeks heat at Amore's last comment. Well, at least the awkward pronoun question is out of the way. "I brought my guitar, I hope that's not too presumptuous--"
"Perfect," Iris says, clicking out from the bathroom in some seriously impossible heels. Carmen gets a look at her eye makeup in full daylight and is tempted to fall on her knees and beg her for a tutorial right then and there. "Can't wait to see what you've got, but first you need to listen to our one and only complete song. No point in joining a band without a name."
"What makes you think I'm joining your band?" Carmen asks, arching her eyebrows.
Iris arches hers right back, which is admittedly more effective when one's eyebrows are drawn on in black swirls. "Like I said, we heard you sing. I don't care whether you know sweet fuck all about guitar, you can sing where us poor bitches just shout."
"I harmonize beautifully," Amore sniffs.
"Yeah, okay. Anyway, this is 'Elevator.'"
Heidi cracks her sticks together, counting off, and then a wave of sound crashes forth, discordant in a way that sounds more deliberate than accidental. Carmen finds herself drumming her fingers against her thigh, keeping time as the tempo shimmers weirdly up and down, matching Iris's wails of, "Ele-le-le-e-e-vator." There are maybe some other words in there, but Iris wasn't kidding about the shouting, and her enunciation is so bad that everything slurs together. The song ends in a crash of cymbals and a prolonged chord that leaves Carmen wincing in sympathy for the guitar.
Nice to know that the surreal feeling lasts outside of 3 AM.
"That was something," Carmen says, as the three girls turn equally expectant smiles on her. "I think that all the names you came up with are names for bands with a slightly less unique sound." The smiles disappear. "No, really! You're like the musical equivalent of Lewis Carroll."
"High on opium?" Heidi asks dryly.
"Really freaking weird." Surreal, surreal, it all comes back to surreal. Carmen forgets to be shy, pacing back and forth in the first real musical inspiration she's had since her half-finished song first popped into her head. "Punk rock Dadaists."
"Sometimes we mix it up with a little dance pop," Iris says, but she's leaning forward, eager. "But do tell."
"Gaga," Carmen says, and it all slides into place, like the resolution of a chord. "Gaga walks the line between the stupid and the profound. It's a nonsense word, but it's also an homage to an art movement that redefined modern art." She laughs, high on inspiration given name.
"Gaga," Iris repeats, soft. "I like it."
"How come the new girl gets to pick our name?" Heidi demands, but Amore is nodding along.
"Now let's see what you got," Amore says, so Carmen picks up her guitar.
Her parents are convinced that the Gaga girls are a bad influence. They give them a chance, of course, no longer fazed by the clothes after attending a few of Carmen's high school gigs, but then Carmen gives two weeks' notice at Starbucks within a week of joining the band.
"Mija, we just want you to think about your future," her mother sighs. She only breaks out the Spanish endearments when she thinks Carmen is especially guilty. Carmen cringes. "As long as you keep working part-time while you're in college, you'll have enough saved to transfer wherever you want by next year."
"Think of my sanity," Carmen pleads. "Think of my sleep!"
Her father sighs. "Think of getting a new job, all right? Maybe somewhere that opens after 8 AM."
"They were way cooler about it than my parents would be," Amore says, smiling sadly.
Carmen feels like shit for telling them the story now. Amore works her ass off waitressing at two different restaurants. Iris works at one of them, and Heidi calls her parents weekly to claim that she's still taking classes and reassure them that if anyone tried to stab her, she would stab him first.
"I just," Carmen starts, and sighs. "This guy comes in and hears me repeating back an order in Spanish. When he orders, he starts speaking really loud and really slowly, like this isn't LA where every third person is bilingual, and I have to smile while I make his drink when all I want to do is yell at him that I don't speak no Americano, then pour his fucking Americano over his fucking head--"
"Hold it," Iris says, grabbing her wrist in a move that's starting to get familiar. Heat rises in Carmen's face. "Go back."
"His fucking Americano?"
"I don't speak no Americano, yeah, it's this thing the baristas and I have going on." But Carmen catches the spark in Iris's eye and feels it kindle in her chest. "You think I should put it in the song I played for you."
"Babe, it should be the whole fucking chorus," Iris says.
Carmen can't reach for her guitar fast enough. Iris just has that kind of effect on people: she's the force, the girl who's pushing them toward making a demo, the guitarist that carries them on through the melody while polar opposites Amore and Heidi fit themselves underneath and in between. Carmen still isn't sure where she fits in with Gaga's sound, where she fits in with the girls, but they've put together a pretty sweet cover of "Whole Lotta Love" where Iris and Carmen sing the lines in English and Spanish at the same time, and then in the instrumental breakdown Amore and Heidi go wild with a triangle, some sheets of metal, and maracas.
They've got originality in spades, but "Elevator" is still Gaga's only original song. Carmen's under some pressure to produce, to say the least.
"It's not like there's a deadline on this thing," she sighs, after the fifth reworking of the chorus to "Americano."
Iris shakes her head. "Your mom makes the most amazing churros I have ever put in my face. For the sake of my taste buds, you're finishing school."
"It's sweet that you care," Carmen mutters, and Iris kicks her in the shin with one pointy, high-heeled foot.
"Just let us know when you decide to consummate that shit," Heidi says, when Iris and Amore are crammed into the bathroom trying to figure out new and exciting ways to draw on their faces.
"You're seriously musically gifted, I'll give you that--not to mention seriously idiotic for not majoring in music, what the fuck is even communications--but Iris does not just let people walk in and play with us. She likes you, man. You guys should make out, get it out of our system before we have our first gig," Heidi says, pointing to a calendar that definitely wasn't on the wall yesterday.
"We have a gig?" Carmen asks, her brain latching on to the first part of the conversation she's willing to process. "How can we have a gig? We have one and a half songs!"
"Two weeks from today. Hey, I didn't book it."
"Oh my God," Carmen moans, and starts scribbling down more ideas for harmonies. Iris has been a godsend with the lyrics, and oh my God, Iris likes her, and Carmen's never looked twice at a girl before, but Iris is like the face of Gaga, rainbow eyes and strong fingers and unwavering faith.
"So make out with her," Heidi hisses, as Iris and Amore emerge from the bathroom. "It's what I do when in doubt. Not with Iris, though, except for that one time we were super drunk."
"Thanks," Carmen mutters.
"I hate everything. I everything in the whole world, and especially guitar strings," Carmen says, too tired to even inject any anger into her words.
"Why guitar strings specifically?" Iris asks, pushing her hair out of her eyes, then slumping into her hand as though she just exerted her last bit of energy. "They are evil when they break, but I don't remember that happening in the past... six hours. Six. Six is a depressing number. I pick six to hate."
"Six," Carmen mutters.
It's a shame that they can't really manage a conversation except when worn out to the point of delirium. Carmen didn't mean for things to get awkward, exactly, but a sexuality crisis at age 19 means she can't handle intense conversations with Iris, like, "Hi, how are you?" Heidi keeps making kissy faces at her and Amore contributes a few obscene gestures to the mix. Nothing about this situation is conducive to songwriting, which means all the mythology surrounding art's dependence on misery is fake.
"Guitar strings, though," Carmen says. "They keep expecting me to start at the beginning of the song, not a quarter of the way in. My song has no beginning."
"'Highway Unicorn' has no ending," Iris says, muffled by the fact that she's talking directly into the table. "I just kind of trail off at the end."
"Yeah, but it works. Whoever heard of a song without a beginning? Our gig, our amazing curbside debut, is tomorrow, and I have no start to my freaking song!" Oh, the awkwardness is back: Carmen tries to wipe the tears away without being noticed.
No such luck. "Hey, babe," Iris says soothingly, picking her head up so she can reach over and rub Carmen's back, which is not having the intended effect on her stress factor. "Here, let me get you started. Um. I met a girl in east LA who cooked amazing fish fillet. Now that's poetry. No, no, I'm kidding. I met a girl in east LA in floral shorts as sweet as May... Now you finish."
"Now it's a song about me in third person." Iris's hand on her back stills, but stays pressed against the fabric of Carmen's T-shirt. A voice in Carmen's head that sounds suspiciously like Heidi keeps whispering about kissing. "I guess, um. You would decide how the rest of the story begins, then."
"Nah, I think you would," Iris murmurs.
Carmen clears her throat. "I met a girl in east LA," she starts, voice wavering. Iris nods encouragement. "In floral shorts as sweet as May." And here comes the hard part, the improvisation, the inspiration, the feelings. "She sang in eighths in two barrio chords / We fell in love, but not in court."
When did she shut her eyes? She's afraid to look at Iris, but there's that rush that comes with making music, and it's enough to give her the courage to open her eyes again.
"Beautiful," Iris says, and kisses her.
Carmen can hold a conversation in English and Spanish, sometimes both at once, has collaborated on countless lyrics, but the minute Iris's lips touch hers, she knows that there are no words for this. Nothing springs to mind except, "Just as good as jamming," which won't mean a damn thing to most people. It's a hell of a thing for a musician to say, though, and Iris's go wide when Carmen breaks off the kiss long enough to say it.
"I felt it the minute you burst into song outside that laundromat," Iris replies, and then they're kissing again, shoving the kitchen table aside so they can fit closer together.
When Amore and Heidi get back from their drumstick expedition, all Heidi says is, "Told you so." Amore lets out a shriek of delight that could shatter what little remains of their eardrums, but even so, Carmen is content to stay right where she is, this strange little place where she belongs.
Nine people attend Gaga's very first gig, because it turns out to literally be on a curb. It does mean that the three lost tourists get a free show, though, and the acoustics are actually not the worst Carmen has ever experienced. Besides, her parents are here to be reintroduced to Iris as Carmen's girlfriend, so she couldn't really care less about anyone else in the audience.
"Terrible performance attitude," Iris chides her when she shares that sentiment, but at the end of the concert, she kisses her again.
"Maybe you could do your song at a Pride parade," Carmen's mother says thoughtfully.
"Maybe," Carmen says. "At least then being outside won't be a surprise."
"Look, they said the place had a view when I booked us," Amore says.
"Good show," Heidi says. "Now let's get out of here before someone calls the cops."
Carmen and Iris leave hand in hand.