Making mix tapes and lip-synching hits together on lazy afternoons made my big brother my own teen idol—until one uncomfortable bedroom moment brought everything crashing down.
We were like radio bandits. Raiding Casey Kasem and his American Top 40 radio countdown show with our own versions of the latest hits, while interjecting our own made-up commercials. It was 1980. I was nine. Raja, my brother and co-host, was twelve. The Iran Hostage Crisis had taken over the daily news; disco was going out as new wave was coming in. Crafting our own advertisements for Nair Hair Removal, the Just Say No anti-drug campaign and The Mighty Hercules, my brother and I thought ourselves brilliant. Kool and The Gang’s hit song “Celebration” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” ruled the airwaves and were weekly standards in our repertoire. “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” I would sing the back-up vocals while Raja mastered his dance moves, singing lead.
Looking back now, I find it interesting that of all the songs in our show playlist, the two tunes we routinely sang were about joy and death. My family lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, at the time while my father fulfilled his duties as an aircraft mechanic for the United States Air Force. Because there was only one U.S. radio station that the military provided, these limited four hours of American Top 40 were our only connection to American pop music – rare glimpses of our past American life.
Every Sunday I anxiously waited for four o’clock to arrive, for this is when we would tape the program and then spend the rest of the week reconstructing and recording our own version of the show. Raja and I often argued over who got the most microphone time and I would usually end up surrendering, but not without a good fight.
“No! It’s my turn!!” I’d scream. “You promised after the last song, I’d be next, you prom-ised!”
Raja warned me to keep my voice down or we would get in trouble.
“Sssh..Sssh..I’ll let you have it in a second, hold still. Geesh, be quiet or Daddy will get mad.” As a child, I was afflicted with the kind of deep shyness that could consume me at any moment. I often imagined myself a ghost. I longed to live in a way where I could participate in life as if invisible. I was terrified to be seen, and yet at the same time I longed for someone to notice me. When I eventually got a hold of the microphone, I was too afraid to sing in front of Raja (a pseudonym) , or anyone, for that matter. I would lock myself in the bathroom for thirty minutes with my brother’s boombox, and the mic, where I’d quietly listen and then tape record my version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Pressing play, the thumping piano at the intro of Dolly’s now-classic hit revived something in me. I was alone with the music, and the echoes of the bathroom walls surrounded me like a protective shield. In this solitude, I was pulled out of my insecurities as I entered an otherworld. Slowly, I moved my mother’s plastic rat tail brush closer to my mouth, and as I pressed the play and red record buttons simultaneously on the tape player, I softly mumbled what I thought were the lyrics: “Pour myself a cup of that bitchen.” By the end of the first chorus I was well on my way to singing full voice. “I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!” My brother waited patiently on the other side of the locked door. The rest of the world had Hercules. I had my brother. He was my hero.
Growing up, Raja was a soccer champion and an honors student at every school he attended. Being from a military family, we moved around a lot. He made friends effortlessly. I, on the other hand, struggled with maintaining a C average, had very few friends and preferred to spend my time alone in libraries, or backyards picking out four-leaf clovers. I was terrible at math and my brother was a genius at it. And although he was very talented at solving problems, he had neither patience nor capacity to teach me. Asking him for help on my homework was like a five-minute speed game of “Jeopardy.”
“No Starina, 3/4 is not an equivalent fraction to 8/12 …dummy, think about it… the answer is 4/6.” Any chance my brother had to mock me, he did. Yet In spite of all his taunting, I somehow knew he loved me.
* * *
It was the spring of 1982, a couple of years since our last recording of the American Top 40 Program, when I was introduced to the world of theater through a half-day workshop with the Wiesbaden High drama students. I fell in love and quickly found my calling as a pantomime artist. The art of expressing emotions without uttering a sound seemed like the perfect match for a young girl terrified of her own voice.
Without hesitation I signed up for the Wiesbaden-Mainz Germany American Elementary Schools Creative Arts Festival. Established to encourage art and culture among American elementary school kids like me, the lineup would include pink-sequined feathered dancers, a magician, a cheeky comedian and a couple of out-of-tune singing groups. All were welcome.
My dream was born. I would write, prepare and rehearse my routine daily until I mastered my scene perfectly. I would style my own costume and take what little babysitting money I had to buy the necessary makeup for my performance. I would win first place at the talent show, and finally secure my place in the world as somebody. I would have purpose. My parents and my brother would be so overtaken by my brilliance that they would be left speechless by my performance.
“We never realized Starina! Where did all this talent come from? You are beautiful!”
“That was pretty good, Starina.” My brother would say coolly.
My father, who fancied himself a musician, would probably try to take credit for passing on artistic genes, and I would entertain his boastful remarks. But soon he would succumb to the knowledge that my beauty and talent came from the higher gods of theater and not his Armenian record collection.
Raja had well moved on to pursuing his interests in soccer full-time while I stayed in the backyard playing with my dolls and fantasizing my life as a professional pantomime artist living somewhere in Paris.
This new endeavor for the Creative Arts Festival would be my first solo artistic venture.
One week into preparation, I was stumped. My script had a beginning, middle, and an end, but seemed boring. The set up: Girl wants to fly a kite. Middle: Girl builds a kite. Ending: Girl flies the kite in joy. I created a lovely scene with no conflict, and thus no resolution. All of the Top 40 songs that I enjoyed listening to had some sort of struggle: a long-lost lover, a deadbeat boss, bad dreams tempered by new love. My little scene had none of this. One Saturday afternoon, a week before the talent contest, while rehearsing my scene in the dining room while no one was around, my brother came home and saw me distraught.
‘Whatcha doin’ Starina?” He seemed curious.
“Oh Nuthin’. Just this talent show thing I’m doing.” I sighed.
“Aw,” he teased. “You gonna do a little dance routine at the school talent show, Starina?”
“NO. Pantomime. And I can’t figure out my scene.” I was near tears.
“Hmm.” He seemed interested. Let me see what you got.” I was doubtful of letting him in, but I felt so defeated that I took a chance.
“Hmm, that’s an interesting story. Are you gonna use a real kite?” He was intrigued.
“No, no, crazy,” I scolded. “It’s pantomime, ya’ know? Like Marso Marso. Its all air. Geesh.”
“Well in that case, why don’t you fly the kite in the beginning, and then the kite gets stuck in a tree, you try and get it out of the tree, the kite tears and gets a hole in the middle and then you sew up the hole with fishing thread. It’s fixed, and then you go flying it again.” I was suspicious and confused by his quick revision of my overworked script.
“Yeah, but how will people know there’s a hole in the kite?” Then with his smarty-pants smile, he pantomimed his hand going through a hole in the center of an imaginary kite.
I paused. I was miffed and felt humiliated. I couldn’t tell if he was mocking me or being serious,
“No, that’s ridiculous! Why does it get stuck in a tree? I’m at the beach!” I argued.
He sensed my sensitivity and lowered his voice.
“Starina, no one in the audience knows where you’re at. You said it’s pantomime, like air. You can be anywhere. Think about it.” Then he paused in reflection as if amazed by his own cleverness, and announced, “It’s a great story…a GREAT story!” With the offering of that bit of brotherly advice he triumphantly left to go play soccer, belting out the chorus to “Hercules” as if he were the mighty Greek hero himself.
I thought about it. He was right. It was a damn good story.
I left my house that Saturday morning in red overalls, a white T-shirt and a full face of melting white pancake makeup that I had purchased from the local art supply store. My eyes lined in black kohl, lips painted red, I left ready to overtake the universe. My parents had no idea where I was going until the morning of. I told them the night before that I needed a ride to school for a special event. I didn’t want them there. I didn’t want anyone I knew there. I didn’t want to risk losing my concentration; I was extremely nervous as it was. Looking back now, my hands shook so much, the upside-down triangles under my eyes that were supposed to symbolize tears looked like the tragic goth makeup of Siouxsie Sioux. You can imagine the look on my parents’ faces when I entered our beat up Mercedes-Benz in full pantomime regalia.
“Starina!!! What is it on your face???…” My mom screeched in her Thai-Indian accent. “Where you go? Oh my God..John, do you see this?? Your daughter. Oh God. She go out house this way? Crazy girl.”
“Starina,” my father demanded. “Where are you going?” My father spoke in a stern baritone. Being of Armenian heritage, but having grown up in Calcutta, India, his accent was a weird mix of Ian Mckellen as Iago and Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. His tone alone commanded attention and could cause anyone to look down.
“I’m going to my school’s talent show.”
“Are you play a clown, or what?” My mom’s mouth was still agape.
“No. It’s pantomime.”
“What? Pant-o what..?” My mother’s eyes got bigger.
“It’s enough, Vilo. Shut up,” my father interrupted. “How come you didn’t tell us about this?”
“I just — it’s nothing. It’s no big deal. You don’t have to come.”
“You sure we don’t need to be there?” My father’s voice always made every question seem like an interrogation. And though I desperately wanted him to see me perform, and tell me how proud he was of me, it was a risky situation. I was still getting over last Christmas.
* * *
“Sing louder Starina!” My father yelled.
“I can’t sing that high. Maybe Raja should sing it.” I looked to my brother for salvation.
“Nu-uh, no way.” Raja jumped up and ran out of the living room.
It was Christmas 1981 and my father had the ingenious idea to make a recording of “Winter Wonderland.” I would sing lead vocals and he would accompany me on harmonica.
“But who’s gonna play piano?” I asked.
“No one. This is a father-daughter duo. Let’s try it again,” he said.
“But it hurts to sing it that high.” My voice shrieked as I tried to hit the notes: “Sleigh bells ring…”
“Well, you’ll have to try your best.” He rested his harmonica on his lap and looked at me. “Starina. Don’t be difficult.”
It wasn’t until many years later, when I became a musician, that I realized it was probably the only key he knew how to play the damn song in. We made the recording, and as squeaky as I sounded, my father’s harmonica playing was sweet and melodious.
“We now have a demo tape, Starina.” He was extremely pleased and told me he planned to take our demo to my school’s music teacher, Miss Finely, and request that we be the opening act for the upcoming Christmas recital.
“Wow! Really, Daddy?” Suddenly my recorded voice didn’t sound so squeaky. A week later the Christmas show lineup was announced. Miss Finely wrote on the chalkboard with swift precision the names of the students who would be singing in the reindeer chorus. My name was in the middle of the list between Smelly Nancy and Goofy Paul. I was confused; I thought my father and I were going to perform our song together. I can’t be in the chorus if I’m singing lead. Just then, Miss Finely bounced around like the lady in the Clairol commercial, with a pretty smile on her face.
“And for the grand finale, we have a very special musical guest who will be joining us on harmonica for ‘Winter Wonderland.’” She winked over at me. Miss Finely was enamored with my father. Her face blushed as she spoke about his amazing musical capabilities.
“You must be so proud of your father!” she exclaimed.
They were now the new duo. With her on piano, he no longer needed me. I had been replaced and demoted to a singing reindeer. I hated them both.
This recent memory traveled quickly through my brain as I thought about inviting my father to my pantomime performance. Hell no.
“Yeah. It’s O.K., you don’t have to come. It’s Raja’s birthday and you planned to go see his soccer match. It’s O.K., I’ll be fine. I’ll call you when I’m done.”
With no family in the audience, my nervousness evaporated and I eased through my performance with confidence and grace. I nailed the kite bit, hole and all. Marcel Marceau would have been proud.
I received a standing ovation and earned an outstanding performance award. I won the admiration of many of my peers and my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Baxley, who couldn’t stop singing my praises. I was finally the star of the show. It was the first time I felt I had purpose and that maybe, just maybe, I had a shot at being somebody.
* * *
My mother worked various retail and banking jobs on the Air Force base. Because she failed the German Autobahn driving test (three times in a row), my father had to drive her to and from work, about forty-five minutes each way, on a good day. With all the work and driving to and from the base, my parents were rarely at home.
My mom was a restless and nagging worrier, but also a beautiful Goddess. It was easy to see how my father fell in love with her instantaneously. Years earlier, my father walked the streets of Nakhon Phanom, Thailand, with a guitar slung on his back. He was one of the many G.I.’s stationed in the Thai province during the Vietnam War. He had the perfect amount of charm and swagger to convince my very strict Indian grandfather entry into the Gulati home, but I believe marrying my mother was one of my father’s regrets. She didn’t stimulate him mentally nor share his passions, nor did he do any of this for her. They married without knowing each other, and with no apparent desire to find out. When I grew up and eventually tied the knot, I carried the same delusions into my own marriage. Always worried about money and my father’s extravagant spending habits, my mother started using what she called “The Headache Pill.” As it turns out, she had been on antidepressants my entire childhood. Which sadly, explained why she was always so checked-out and oblivious to her surroundings.
Puberty came fast and hard, and when I started to grow breasts and underarm hair, it was my best friend Shelley who did the explaining. She helped me pick out which bra to buy and what deodorant to use. I once tried to tell my mom that I needed a bra, that all the other girls in my class were wearing bras now and that it was time I had one too. She scoffed at me, dismissing me as childish.
“Oh, you think, huh? You crazy, you have nothing. You just want ’cause Shelley has now.”
“No, look mom, see? See? I have breasts now too!” I bounced up and down in front of her so she could see my new development. She tossed her hand up to shoo me away. I felt hurt and angry by her disapproval, but this didn’t stop me. I collected all my babysitting money, and within a week I had two new pairs of “My First” bras and a block of powder fresh Secret deodorant. With the remaining money I bought a tube of strawberry scented Kissing Potion Roll-on Lipgloss. I longed for my lips to shine like the golden-haired ABBA singer on the cover of “Voulez-Vous.”
While I was blossoming, my mom was withering under the pressure of being married to my father. The headache pill was her solution. And honestly, I don’t blame her. My father was one huge, raging migraine. Tall and good-looking, he had a large appetite for porn, which he would often leave out. He hid the glossy erotic magazines, dildos and other sex paraphernalia my brother and his friends would later find in his closet. But there was always a reel–to-reel tape cover box of some blonde naked lady in feathers hanging out in front of my dad’s glass stereo cabinet. Always. A reminder of the role my mom was expected to play, but could never fill. It was something my brother and I secretly joked about, my dad’s porn, and I secretly hated it. Even as a child, my father’s oblivious lack of boundaries disgusted me. Handsome and seductive, he could be charming like magic, pulling you in closer, and then suddenly explode for what seemed like no reason at all. If you happened to catch him in a bad mood, or asked him the wrong question at the wrong time, you might just get yelled at, shoved, slapped or hit.
We all got hit, but Raja got it the worst.
If I sit quietly and think about it now, I can see the red of his brown face wet with hot fear. I can hear my brother wailing as he is being cornered and whipped with my father’s belt.
“You lie to me boy? You think you can lie to me?! Shanzahck!! I show you not to lie to me again…” I can feel the rage in my father’s hands. The watch on his left wrist stinging the cheekbone. Metal to flesh. Blood to face rising.
“I’m sorry daddy, I’m sorry daddy. I promise I won’t…”
I watched my brother get smaller and smaller, his manhood belittled and betrayed by his very own father.
* * *
The school day was over and all the American kids who lived off the military base were boarding the yellow school bus. It was 1982, a hot spring day, midweek, and everyone was antsy to get home. Everyone hated the bumpy school bus. It was tiny and overheated with no A/C. As the raucous kids got on in droves, laughter echoed throughout the fragile walls. Paper airplanes were launched and spitballs fired in every direction. Our bus monitor was new and her fat, sweaty armpits told me she was terrified of the journey home. The bus was overcrowded, and, as I dreaded, all the seats up front were filled. I was forced to take a seat somewhere in the middle. Amongst the crowd, I searched for my brother. I didn’t see him anywhere. I began to panic. I walked up the aisle and confided my fears with the bus monitor lady: “We can’t leave until he is here. I don’t know if he knows where the bus is…”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry, go back to your seat. We won’t leave without him.” She wiped her forehead with her paisley pink cotton handkerchief.
My brother disguised his pain behind an outstanding report card and an athlete’s pride. It was on this hot afternoon day that his defense failed; I saw my brother in a way he did not want to be seen.
Raja showed up to the bus on cue, glowing like a movie star. His skin glistened and he wore a victorious smile. He had just finished playing a game of baseball and his team had won. I couldn’t hide my joy and relief at seeing him and I bounced up to greet him. He walked down the aisle with such a strut; even the bus monitor was silenced by his presence. He passed by me with a nudge.
“Sit down Fartbina. Whadya think? I’d miss the bus?” He let out a cocky chuckle. As Raja approached the back of the bus his opponent saw him. A player from the losing team, this kid was wild and foul-mouthed and apparently didn’t care for my brother’s celebratory pride.
“You cheated, man. You a damn cheat.” he yelled.
“What you mean, man? I didn’t cheat, I played fair game.” My brother dismissed the kid with a snicker.
“Nuh-uh. You a damn cheat! The rascal was standing up now. “You better wipe that smile off your face…”
“What you talking ’bout man? Our bases were loaded…”
The kids on the bus were now an audience to a fight that was about to take place. The yellow tin bus was the boxing ring and all tickets were sold out. Kids egged both sides on. “Fight Fight Fight!” As I stood up to assess the situation, I saw the bold movie-star face of my brother replaced with fear. I recognized this face — the same one my brother had whenever he was about to be beaten by our father.
Without a second thought I moved toward the barricade of kids. I was ready to fight to protect my brother; my heart held no fear. And yet I quickly realized that breaking through the barrier would be impossible. That’s when I rerouted my plan. I darted to the front of the bus where the monitor was arguing with the bus driver. Interrupting their conversation I said, “My brother is about to get beat up. You have to stop the fight.”
Within minutes the bus monitor had separated the crowd and the would-be fight ended.
My brother pretended like he had everything under control, but behind all the bravado, I knew he was secretly relieved.
Later that evening, at home in the kitchen, my brother dismissed my concerns. “I wasn’t in danger, Starina. God, you’re so dramatic.” Watching him casually pile a large spoonful of day-old pad Thai on his plate, I started to doubt myself. Did I, like he said, imagine the intensity of the whole event? Was I being dramatic? I stared at him hard now. Wildly stuffing rice noodles in his mouth, he looked up from his plate and saw me looking at him. A piece of noodle dangled from the corner of his mouth as he tried to laugh. Then he fumbled and dropped his fork.
* * *
It was a hot summer day. School was out, and my parents were both at work. I figured my brother and his friends would go bike riding to the apple orchard to hang out, like every other afternoon in the summer months. My brother would occasionally invite me along, as I would beg to ride with them.
More and more, though, he would say no, and I had gotten used to playing alone. This particular day was different. Instead of going to the orchard, he invited his friends over to our house. It was unusual. Neither of us was ever allowed to bring friends over without our parents’ consent. And honestly, neither of us cared to. I emerged from my bedroom to find not one, but three of my brother’s friends hanging out around his room. Yikes! I recognized one of the boys from the school bus and found him super cute. I was so excited and couldn’t wait to call my best friend Shelley to tell her the news. As the boys talked, I listened and leaned casually against my bedroom door frame, pretending to be a part of the conversation. I had no idea what they were discussing; I just knew I wanted to be involved. They barely noticed me. After a few chuckles, someone said “Let’s go,” and my brother started to head out. As he gathered his things, I asked, “Can I come along?” The other boys overheard me and laughed. Then the one that I recognized from the school bus leaned into my brother’s ear and whispered something. They both laughed.
“No man, let’s just go.” My brother shook his head, smiling. By now, all three of the boys were in on the joke and pressuring my brother to make his move.
I sometimes wonder if this is where my brother broke, under the peer pressure of wanting to be liked and not wanting to have any of his bruises be seen, or if he really truly hated me and wanted to hurt me.
“O.K., Starina. You wanna come with us, then you gotta take your clothes off.” My brother’s words didn’t seem to come from his mouth.
“What do ya mean?” I asked.
“I mean, you gotta get undressed for us if you wanna come with us. That’s the deal.”
I was suspicious and felt that there was some sort of game, maybe an initiation being held. Maybe all the boys had undressed for each other. Earlier that summer, I had peed from the limb of an apple tree in an effort to prove to my brother and his friends that I was brave enough to hang. I figured that this was part two of the same initiation. I needed to prove my courage.
“Sure,” I said casually.
My quick and solid response stopped my brother and all his friends.
Raja looked at me as if to say, “Really?”
It couldn’t be any harder than peeing off the apple tree, I thought. I was scared at first of doing that, but I did it, and then it was over. So I quickly unbuttoned and unzipped my pants a bit and flashed them a small piece of the waistband of my underwear.
They all started laughing.
“That was nothing,” my brother said. “You gotta strip!”
“What do you mean, strip? Naked?”
“Yes, Starina.” He was talking down to me now, as if I was stupid and didn’t know what strip meant. I had seen enough of my father’s porn to know what being naked and stripping meant.
“Strip. Get naked. All the way.”
I crossed my arms. “You’re nuts. I’m not doing that.”
“Well then you don’t get to come out with us. Serve yourself. Have fun hanging out alone.” My brother motioned to his friends. “Let’s get out of here.”
“Dag, Raja! I can’t believe you asked your sister to do that,” one of the boys snickered as they started to leave.
“Wait.” My voice stopped them. I was so tired of playing alone. Maybe if I promise to not talk, I thought, or ask any stupid girl questions, and vow to keep up on my bike.
“What Fartbina? You’re dragging us.”
“What is it you want me to do again?” I crumbled.
Raja had a funny smile on his face, which I couldn’t figure out.
“Strip naked and get on the bed.” He pointed to his bedroom.
The boys crowded around the doorway of Raja’s bedroom. Every cell in my body rejected the idea, even as I complied. I slowly rolled my jeans down to my ankles, still holding on to the waistband. I was wearing a pair of worn-out white briefs spotted with faded pink and violet flowers.
“Now get on the bed with your underwear completely off and pose for us.”
I remember wishing I had been wearing a dress. Then, I thought, I would have been able to maneuver in a way that would’ve given them what they wanted, while covering parts of myself. “Hurry up! You’re slowing us down,” he demanded. I thought to myself, “Be brave, you can do this.” And so I did.
The air seemed still and vacant. Naked, I laid on my back on my brother’s bed like he asked me to do. I was tense and stiff, holding my breath while I tried to focus my eyes on the orange carpet floor. I started to count all the pieces of confetti dirt and debris that cluttered his floor, making it look like a piñata had just been broken. 1, 2, 3, 4. I imagined a vacuum cleaner sucking up all the dirt and making the carpet of my brother’s bedroom floor clean again.
“Spread.” My brother’s voice was strange and it scared me. I submitted right away.
Silence took its place – until a burst of laughter broke my vacuum-cleaner dream. They were all laughing again. My brother was smirking and shaking his head.
”You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you did that, Starina. You’re so gross. I’m gonna tell mom and dad.”
And then they were gone, laughing out the front door. And I was alone.
I don’t know if I cried that day. I don’t know what I did the rest of the afternoon — if I ate lunch, played with my dolls, or took a nap. I remember laying in my bed for a very long time.
At one point, I looked across my bedroom and saw the black Sony boombox my father bought me as a birthday gift just weeks before. He finally gave in to my incessant pleas to have my own. It was much smaller than my brother’s ghetto blaster, but it marked my entry into young adulthood. I thought about playing it now, and couldn’t. Nothing seemed to matter. Every pop song seemed boring and trivial. Melodies, that once filled me with so much hope now seemed non-existent in the world I had just landed in.
Later that night my brother taunted me at dinner, whispering into my ear, “Did you tell mom and dad what you did today?”
I told no one. I told no one for eleven years.
It wasn’t until many years later that my brother and I would speak about that day. Sitting on a park bench near my apartment in Chicago, he looked at me with deep remorse as he listened and acknowledged the abuse in its entirety.
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” he asked.
I looked at him with a blank face. “Who was there to tell?”