He reached for the volume knob, turning it up. A second later, a whooshing sound filled my ears, followed by what sounded like a violin, but at rapid speed, and electrified. The result was a noise that would have been unsettling at a normal volume. Cranked as it was, though, I felt the hairs on my neck stand on end.
"Great, right?" Owen said, grinning widely. He was bobbing his head as the chords bounced over us. In my mind, I pictured one of those cardiac monitor machines, each sound causing my own heart to spike, the needle jumping off the screen.
I could feel myself wincing even as I said—or yelled— "What is this?"
"They're called Melisma," he yelled back as there was a boom of bass, loud enough to shake my seat. Over at the next car, a woman loading her squirming toddler into a car seat glanced over at us. "It's a music project. These awesome string players, synthesized and blended with various world beats, influenced by—"
Then he said something else, which was drowned out by a sudden burst of rapid drumbeats. I watched his lips move until it subsided, picking back up as he said, "—really a collaborative thing, this whole new music initiative. Incredible, right?"
Before I could answer, there was a bang of cymbals, followed by a fizzing noise. Call it reflex, or self-preservation, or just common sense, but I just couldn't help myself: I pressed my palms over my ears.
Owen's eyes widened, and I realized what I'd done. As I dropped my hands, though, the song suddenly ended, so the sound of them hitting the seat on either side of me was incredibly loud. Especially compared to the awkward silence that followed.
"You did not," Owen said finally, his voice low, "just cover your ears. Did you?"
"It was an accident," I said. "I just—"
"That's serious." He reached forward, shaking his head, and turned down the CD. "I mean, it's one thing to listen and respectfully disagree. But to shut it out entirely, and not even give it a chance—"
"I gave it a chance!" I said.
"You call that a chance?" he asked. "That was five seconds."
"It was long enough to form an opinion," I said.
"I covered my ears," I told him. "What do you think?"
He started to say something, then stopped, shaking his head. Beside us, the woman in the minivan was now backing out. I watched her slide past his window. "Melisma," Owen said after a moment, "is innovative and textured."
"If by textured you mean unlistenable," I said quietly, "then I agree."
"I-Lang!" he said, pointing at me. I shrugged. "I can't believe you're saying that! This is the perfect marriage of instrument and technology! It's unlike anything anyone's ever done before! It sounds incredible!"
"Maybe in the car wash," I muttered.
He'd drawn in another breath, to continue this rant, but now he let it out, one big whoosh, then turned his head to look at me. "What did you just say?"
Like covering my ears, this had happened without my really realizing it. There had been a time when I was painfully aware of everything I said or did around Owen. The fact that this was no longer the case was either good or very bad. Judging by the look on his face—a mix of horrified and offended—I had a feeling it was probably the latter. At least right at this moment.
"I said…" I cleared my throat. "I said, maybe it sounds incredible in the car wash."
I could feel him staring at me, so I busied myself picking at the edge of my seat. Then he said, "Which means what?"
"You know what it means," I said.
"I truly do not. Enlighten me."
Of course he'd make me explain it. "Well," I said slowly, "you know, everything sounds better when you're driving through the car wash. It's just, like, a fact. Right?"
He didn't say anything, just stared at me.
"My point is," I said, clarifying, "it's not my thing. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have covered my ears; that was rude. But I just—"
"Which car wash?"
"Which is this magical listening station, whereupon all musical worth is decided?"
I just looked at him. "Owen."
"Seriously, I want to know."
"It's not any one car wash," I said. "It's the car-wash phenomenon. You really don't know about it?"
"I don't," he repeated. Then he reached down, shifting into reverse. "But I will. Starting now."
Five minutes later, we were pulling up to 123SUDS, the automated drive-through car wash that had been down the street from my neighborhood for as long as I could remember. I'd grown up going there fairly often, mostly because my mom loved it. My dad would always tell her that the only way to get a car truly clean was to do it by hand—as he often did, on warm sunny days, in the driveway—and that 123SUDS was a waste of time and money. But, my mom didn't care. "It's not about the wash, anyway," she'd tell him. "It's the experience."
Going there was never really planned. Instead, we'd just be passing by and she'd suddenly turn in, sending my sisters and me scrambling to collect change from the floorboards and center console to feed into the machine. We always chose the basic wash, skipping the hot wax, sometimes adding on the optional Armor All on the tires. Then we'd roll up all the windows, sit back in our seats, and go in.
There was just something about it. Driving into that dark bay, the water suddenly whooshing down like the biggest and most sudden thunderstorm ever. It would beat across the hood and trunk, pouring down the other side of your window, washing all the pollen and dust away, and if you closed your eyes you could almost imagine you were floating along with it. It was eerie and incredible, and when you spoke you always whispered, even if you didn't know why. More than anything, though, I remembered the music.
My mother loved classical stuff—it was all she played in her car, which drove my sisters and me nuts. We'd beg for regular radio, anything from this century, but she was stubborn. "When you drive, you can listen to whatever you like," she'd say, then crank up Brahms or Beethoven to drown out our irritated sighs.
But in the car wash, my mother's music sounded different. Beautiful. It was only then that I could close my eyes and enjoy it, understanding what it was that she heard eveiy time.
When I finally got my own license, I could play whatever I wanted, which was great. But still, the first time I went through 123SUDS alone, I flipped around my radio dial to find something classical, for old times' sake. Just as I was rolling in, though, the station faded and my tuner jumped to the next one, which was playing a loud, twangy country song, also not something I would have chosen on my own. But it was strange. Sitting there, the brushes moving overhead, water spilling down my window, even the song that was playing—something about driving an old Ford under a full moon—sounded perfect. As if it didn't matter what was on, but instead how hard I was listening, there in the dark.