Creative Nonfiction: You Freeze Them by Kelly Kelbel

Backmasking is a recording technique where a message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward. It’s a deliberate process. Bands got sued for it. In 1990, Judas Priest was on trial for subliminal messaging on their album Stained Class. A self-described neuroscientist accused Led Zeppelin of using backmasking to promote satanism on “Stairway to Heaven.” Televangelists critical of the impact of rock pointed out that sometimes the words musicians are using have two meanings. Imagine that! Then came the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center by Tipper Gore and pals, whose obsession with Prince’sDarling Nikki” led to them identifying the Filthy Fifteen—songs that we must protect children from. Do y’all remember what a big deal this was? Ok, I don’t. Maybe I wasn’t old enough. There are other examples I remember. Like at the start of “Hell Awaits,” Slayer inserted a backmasked voice repeatedly chanting “join us.”  When that happened, I was at Catholic School, where wearing a Slayer t-shirt on our random casual Fridays was amongst the greatest sins. Satanic panic was alive and thriving.

But there’s another kind of backmasking. Remember, we just learned from televangelists that sometimes words have two meanings? According to The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, “backmasking is the instinctive tendency to see someone as you knew them in their youth—a burned-in image of grass-stained knees, graffitied backpacks, or handfuls of birthday cake, superimposed on an adult with a mortgage,” or even an adult behind bars.

Have you ever loved someone because you’ve backmasked the shit out of them? Because you remember the big sweet way they laughed at every joke or how they loved to hug dogs and believed dogs loved to hug them, or when they were a little older, even though it was kind of annoying, it was also pretty cute when they stole your Z. Cavariccis, your Running Man dance moves and used them on your best friend along with the special nickname Buttercup Nipples? And those little things made them precious. Even though they went on to make big mistakes, to do egregious things that you don’t know how to forgive, you’ll always see that person as who they were at a moment in time. You freeze them. They are forever eight years old with a giant grin and a bowl cut, so many futures ahead of them. On my best days, that’s how I see my baby brother.

I sent him a message wishing him a happy birthday with fifty bucks for the commissary. I remembered his childhood birthdays like a movie montage of cherry kool-aid mustaches, sparklers waving in chubby hands, white sheet cake saturated in confetti sprinkles, icing smeared on cheeks from shoveling in whole slices. I remembered how we scraped our bony hips on rocks shooting down the Slip’N’Slide. Our bloody cuts were magically healed by the song of the ice cream truck. We’d flag it down with our entire bodies. Moments later, Bombpops dripped down our arms as we raced to lick them clean.

What I wanted to send instead of my floppy birthday wish was a slingshot of questions—Will you take note of your birthday this year, even if in a small way? Will the guards stand around eating cake in front of you? Will the mail room read your cards and then lose them? Will the officers at the front deny Ma’s visit again because her bra contains underwire that the metal detectors don’t approve? Will one friend in the ministry program quietly sing you happy birthday when you’re supposed to be praying? Will you look in the mirror, and mark how you’ve aged by the ink on your arms and neck? What is it like to have a birthday when you’re doing life? Can you even celebrate on the inside? 

My Happy Birthday might not have meant much, but fifty bucks in prison is something. 

It’s 166 packs of the cheapest ramen or 55 snickers or a pair of shower shoes and a handheld radio to play the Filthy Fifteen, songs like Madonna’s “Dress You Up,” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it.” So fifty can get you something, but it can’t get you much.

It can’t get you back a single moment of freedom. It can’t promise you that you’ll ever have a new moment with your face toward the sky and no bars cutting through the sunshine, no bars holding you in when what you want to do is run and breathe and be.

My brother and I haven’t spoken in four years. I had forgotten about backmasking, but it got me wishing my brother a happy birthday, remembering him when he was seven and would squish up his face every single time he farted while denying it was him. Maybe he’ll remember how I used to inhale Doritos by the fistful covered in gloppy Fritos cheese and then claim I ate healthy hours later, which irritated him but he accepted because he was my brother, or how I used to bite my nails and spit them out all over the el train into a kind of mosaic, which he found to be totally gross and totally me. Maybe if he does this, if he backmasks the shit out of me, he’ll reply to my message.

Kelly Kelbel (she/her) is finishing her debut YA novel featuring a brazen teen whose obsession with nail art helps her build closeness to a girl temporarily placed in foster care when family violence pulls her from her home. Recently, Kelly participated in Aspen Words and LitCamp writing workshops and won the Asheville Moth Story Slam in April 2022. She serves on the Our VOICE Advisory Board for Safer Drinking Spaces, and her work with survivors of violence permeates her writing. Kelly leads a synthesizer company, Make Noise, that she co-owns with her life partner in Asheville, NC. While hot dogs disgust her, their smell evokes memories of the time she and her partner played at All Tomorrows Parties in a hot dog water saturated room hours after De La Soul performed on a nearby stage that reeked of fish and chips.

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