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Fermata Moment

In our teens and early 20s my sister and I were inseparable, Siamese twins born two years apart. “Do you guys ever do anything separately?”, people asked us at Chabot Community College, half judgey, half in awe. “No,” we told them. “Never ever.”

We both worked at Waldenbooks, both went to Chabot, shared a car and lived at home, at least in separate rooms. When we got off work we sped down Crow Canyon Road all the way to San Ramon, dissed it for the plastic suburb it was, then turned around and drove back home.

What else was there to do?

We were living a fermata moment, trapped in a dissonant chord, not sure it would ever resolve.

Sister, you’ve been on my mind. Sister, we’re two of a kind. Oh sister, I’m keeping my eyes out on you.

But it wasn’t just my sister: I also hung out constantly with her boyfriend Mike. Mike, with his Howard Jones haircut, Pet Shop Boys obsession and karate brown belt, constantly in a state of yellow alert left over from his days as lone white boy at Richmond High. When my mom and sister talked me into going to my senior prom, telling me I would “regret it forever” if I didn’t go, Mike was my date.

We all got along, and everything worked out fine, or so we thought.

Until Mike started to complain.

Mike: “Don’t get me wrong. I like Rebeccah. Really, she’s great. But do you think maybe once we could go out alone?”

My sister told him no.

They broke up a few months later.


In Howards End, my sister was Meg and I was Helen. She more proper, more prone to please, more willing to compromise. Me more intense, more passionate, more unreasonable, the Dean damage closer to the surface.


My sister’s next boyfriend Bill was a manager at a McDonald’s in San Leandro, a job he told us he did for “ironic reasons.” He lived with his Filipino grandmother in a 60s bungalow in the flatlands of Hayward and we would go over to her place and hang out, both of us witness to Bill’s regular round midnight manic episodes: like starting to make homemade pretzels, a four-hour long project, at 11:30 at night; like going through the International Male catalog and giving his two cents on every sweater, t-shirt, belt, socks, pair underwear and pants; like putting on an impromptu fashion show at one in the morning, combining his McDonald’s uniform with different looks and prancing around the house.

Bill: Hey guys, hey guys, hey guys. How does my uniform look with Doc Marten’s? With a black leather jacket? With a hot pink feather boa?

Bill James: Poster child for ADHD before I had ever even heard the word.

My sister and I never blamed Bill when he was annoying; getting on people’s nerves was kind of Bill’s thing. But he was also fun. He introduced us to pupusas and Cambodian food, knew which place had the best moon cakes and sesame balls with black bean paste in Oakland’s Chinatown. He took us to the Sutro Baths and Musée Mécanique when it was still by Ocean Beach down past the avenues, to Mitchell’s for some buko baby coconut and avocado ice cream, telling them to spin the wheel when we couldn’t decide on a flavor. My sister and I were stuck in the East Bay’s drabbest wastelands, the City seemingly light years away even though it was only an easy drive across the Bay Bridge. Bill opened the doors to his white Datsun, told us get in and off we drove.

Bill: Your sister? Of course she can come!


In The Breakfast Club, my sister was Molly Ringwald and I was Ally Sheedy, only she would never give me a look-how-pretty-you-are make-over so the captain of the football team would fall in love with me because how boring is that?


February 16, 1994, Berkeley

It’s my 20th birthday and I’m on Telegraph Avenue with Bill and my sister. We walk past a new tattoo parlor quer gegenüber from Moe’s and Bill says, “Rebeccah, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god. You have to get a tattoo. I’ll pay for it. My treat.”

Why not? I’ll only be twenty once.

I don’t like any of the designs they have on the wall, so we head over to Cody’s and I buy a card with a Chinese character, the I Ching word for passion. But on the way back to the tattoo parlor I run into a Chinese-speaking acquaintance from church. I show him the card and he tells me the I Ching symbol for passion looks like the modern Chinese word for hot and I’m not sure I want “hot” tattooed on my back for the rest of my life. I go back to Cody’s and choose the I Ching character for peace because I’m in my hippie phase right now and it fits.

Getting the tattoo hurts, but not too much. Bill pays 70 bucks for it.

Next Sunday at church I show my Chinese-speaking acquaintance my new tattoo. He starts to laugh. “That looks exactly like the modern Chinese character for vegetable.”

Shit. Too late. I guess from now on I’ll just have to tell people I got the tattoo because I really, really love peas and carrots, reveling afterward in the awkward silence I’ve created.

There’s a bit of Breakfast Club Ally Sheedy in me yet.


November 19, 2016, Berlin

The I Ching character I’ve had on my right shoulder for twenty-two years has faded, the lines blurred, my hippie phase long since passed. Someday I’ll get a new tattoo to cover it up and I know what it will be: a fermata.

A fermata is:

  • a sustained note
  • a bird’s eye
  • a holding point
  • my favorite symbol in musical notation
  • a deliciously smutty book by Nicholson Baker I bought on the bargain book table at Waldenbooks which I read during my lunch break, half-turned on in the Southland Mall food court, and now that’s a feat


April 2000, Berlin-Kreuzberg 36

I go see the Japanese movie After Life at Babylon Kino with my now ex-husband. The movie is about a waystation created for the recently deceased. The waystation looks like a sterile government building; each soul is registered when it arrives and told it will stay at this waystation, watching videos of the happiest moments of its life until it can choose one memory to live in forever: A fermata moment, eternally sustained.

“I want to spend forever in Disneyland,” the soul of a thirteen-year-old girl tells the man in charge of registration. The girl grins as she tells him her version of heaven, an eternity of teacup rides and Mickey Mouse ears.

“I don’t want to be rude,” the man says, “but 13-year-old girls always choose Disneyland. Can’t you think of something more personal?”

The girl stops smiling. She looks down at her hands and nods.

The man has been at the waystation for over fifty years. Like everyone, he watches videos of the happiest moments in his life alone in a room, rewinding each tape and watching it again. But he can’t decide which memory to choose. Later he knows which one he wants, but he doesn’t think he has the right to choose it.

But the girl decides.

Thirteen-year-old girl to the man: I’m four years old and I’m lying on my grandmother’s lap and she is stroking my hair and humming the song she always used to hum and I’m looking at my new black patent leather shoes, and they are beautiful and I’m happy, I’m safe, just there with my grandmother. That’s where I want to spend my forever.

They set up the scene, film it and the girl goes off.

My now ex-husband and I walk down Oranienstrasse holding hands, our salty fingers still slick from the popcorn. We walk past O-Ton, past Dante, past Farben Kacza, with jars of pigment in the window in scarlet, chartreuse, ochre, neon Gelb. We talk about the fermata moment we would choose against the whir of passing cars.

My now ex-husband knows right away: Floating in the middle Sakrower See in the summer, with only the sky above and the water underneath. That’s what he would choose.

My now ex-husband knows his moment but, like the man in the movie, I can’t decide.


In Germany, the unspeakable once happened. Germans still carry this, an Albatross of mea culpa forever dangling from their necks. The Third Reich was a fermata moment made up of an endless series of train robbery diminished 7 chords.

Know this:

Berlin never voted for Hitler,

but he destroyed the city just the same.


November 15, 2016, Berlin, Hallesches Haus

Donald Trump won the election last week and now I’m in a state of mourning. I slept well on election day, thinking, tomorrow Hillary will win and all of this will be behind us and I’ll never have to see Trump’s ugly orange face again. But the next day my husband woke me up at six in the morning and said it looked like Trump was going to win and I thought no, he’s joking.

How could this have happened?

During the Bush years, when the talk was all Sad-damn’s weapons of mass destruction and the axis of evil, Germans walked up to me and shook their heads. “Hey Rebeccah, what gives?”

Germany is the land of reason and my German friends were like Spock: “What your country is doing is most illogical,” they told me. But Bush-era America was a particularly cantankerous Captain Kirk in a cowboy hat, marching out into the world and shouting: Prime Directive my ass!

How could I explain something to them I didn’t even understand myself? “Why do you think I left?” was all I usually said.

But then Obama happened and I thought, my country is changing.

When Obama was president, instead of saying “I’m from near San Francisco,” I’d sometimes tell people, “I’m an American.”

Now it’s November 15, 2016 and Donald Trump won the election and I know the Obama years were just a fermata moment, a hopeful note sustained eight long years.

I’m sad and I’m in shock and I’m trying hard to understand.

But I have to try to do some work, so I sit with my laptop at Hallesches Haus and listen to a public mix on Spotify until a song comes on: solo piano, played with pedal, minimal arpeggios with space between each note, spiraling down like falling snow. When this song comes on, for nine minutes and one second, all I do is listen and cry.

The song is In a Landscape, by John Cage of all people. When I studied music at Mills college, I got so sick of 20th century avant garde classical music. John Cage and his prepared pianos. Lou Harrison and his stupid gamelan. Schönberg and his cronies, with their twelve-tone technique and 25-tone row, declaring war on beauty and crowning atonal king. I once took my somewhat-boyfriend to see Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire at Mills Hall. When the concert was over, he said, “I feel like my ears just got raped.”

But In a Landscape is different.

The song is sparse and beautiful and it makes me remember this:

Happy Memory #9042G

It’s February and I’m on a ski trip in the Alps with my husband and our daughters and two of our friends, but I don’t ski. The house where we are staying is out in the woods and I go for long walks every day on icy mountain trails. I love the mountains, love the thin crisp air, the world so silent I can almost hear the falling snow. People who love me are somewhere out on the slopes and I’m in a beautiful place, feeling this close to knowing how to fly.

This is the fermata moment I would choose:

A moment when I loved and was loved.

A moment when I knew in my bones there is beauty in the world.



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