Ivi Fung

On moonlit nights, howls ricochet across the hills and pierce the quiet. A soloist begins with one long note, soon joined by a second howler, and then another, and another, until their calls swell into a chorus of mournful sound whose original source is impossible to pinpoint. I assumed, at first, that I was hearing local coyotes — maybe they had become more vocal as human activity had declined. I discovered, however, that a human trend of nightly howls has become popular across the United States, particularly in Colorado. As the newly created Facebook group with over 450,000 members titled “Go Outside and Howl at 8pm” asks, “What better time to howl than this time of isolation?” The page encourages members to “take a minute to step outside and let out a cathartic howl!” One of the page’s founders wrote, “We can’t necessarily see the people we want to see or hug the people we want to hug, but we can reach out to people through this.” For a while, I was uncertain if I was actually hearing coyotes or people. Either way, Colorado nights are now regularly filled with the cries of lonely animals baying at the sky.

I have yet to step outside, barefoot and cold, to howl at the moon with my neighbors. Still, I like to think that I have my own equivalent rituals to howling. Returning home after Yale suspended in-person classes for the remainder of the semester, the first thing I did was find the loudest speaker in our duplex and play Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover.” My mother owns a sprawling collection of music spanning four decades and the better portion of our living room: three wooden crates filled with vinyl records, overflowing cabinets of CDs, drawers with cassette tapes packed inside them like sardines. At treasured points in my childhood, she would delicately remove an LP or a 45 from its thin paper sleeve and set it down inside her record player, like a crown or a tribute or something sacred. When “Shark Tale” introduced me to “Car Wash,” my mother played it on vinyl and told me about how in the ‘70s it had made her grab the nearest person’s hand and rush to the dance floor. There were Carole King songs for every occasion — “It’s Too Late” to quiet the arguing between me and my sister, “You’ve Got a Friend” for when we looked mopey. One night, I constructed a fort from chairs and barstools and Winnie the Pooh pillowcases and old, thready blankets as my mother tried to record her 45s onto CDs. We both busily went about our work, and I lay in a chrysalis of fabrics scavenged from the linen closet while waves of music settled around me.

After years of sharing songs, we’ve agreed that while Mariah Carey is not her all-time favorite artist as she is mine, “Dreamlover” is a song we both love — a song filled with equal parts softness and motion. Take me anywhere you want to, she sings, and reminds us of a place that is not so constricted. That first morning back home, Mariah’s voice glided out of the speaker like a velvet birdsong and flowed weightlessly around us. My mother and I danced in the living room, swaying and lip-syncing and attempting to match high notes that were deliriously out of our reach. The best we could manage were gleeful squeaks that cascaded into laughter.

“Ah! I can’t go that high anymore! Used to be I could at least get close,” she said.

“There. Is that a whistle tone?” I held what I thought was an extended high note. It was more akin to a wavering screech, my voice cracking as I tried, mouth open and head tilted to the ceiling. “Dreamlover” ended and receded back into static.

“You know, the silver lining in all of this is that I thought I’d only see you for two weeks in May, and now you’re here for five months!” My mother was smiling.

“Yeah. Yeah.” I had nothing more profound or honest to respond with. I was silent.

“Oh! My boy is back! Safe!” She locked me in a hug, and we stood like that for a fragile bundle of seconds. “It’s been a long time since music last filled this house,” she said. When I first left for college, my mother jokingly informed me that in the event that I never called or texted or otherwise gave her some indication that I was alive at Yale, she’d send me sad selfies of herself huddled in her blue robe, eating oatmeal alone. I had tried to call every Sunday and have yet to receive an oatmeal-selfie. Still, I wondered if she thumbed through her LPs when she was alone, if she still sang in soft and airy tones, how much time she’d spent listening to music since I’d been gone, if the duplex had been quiet without me. Eventually, she released me, I was permitted to breathe again, and I scrolled through my Spotify library looking for another song to play.

“Go ahead! Put some more on.”

“Okay.”

“And put it on full volume!”

“But what if the neighbors hear? What if it echoes?”

“So what? Music is meant to be played loud.”

So, I graced the rest of Oak Street with an afternoon mix of late ‘70s disco, ‘90s pop, and 2000s R&B. Our living room looks out over our front yard, which is filled with flowers that bloom throughout the spring, in soft purples and yellows and whites, for as long as they are willing or until a late frost kills them. Music poured out of every open window and spilled across the neighborhood from our half of the duplex with yellowy bricks. 

In the weeks of self-isolation since, we’ve found distraction in listening to old songs and engaging in these musical antics. We peruse stacks of old disco 45s my mother had danced to at the height of the disco era: “Hot Stuff,” “Play That Funky Music,” “Car Wash.” Sometimes, she asks to hear music from artists I like that she’s begun to get into, like Ella Mai and H.E.R. The music is a comfort, not only because it fills the silence of isolation, but because we can hear voices besides our own. We’ve spent much of quarantine sliding around the living room with frantic enthusiasm, trying to make each other laugh or join the other on a carpeted dance floor.

On a recent afternoon, strolling into the living room, grooving and off-key wailing along to another Mariah Carey ballad, I found my mother locked in a staring contest with the TV screen — Governor Polis was announcing the closure of all nonessential businesses in Colorado. My mother, a self-employed massage therapist, specializes in lymphatic drainage and pregnancy massage. For over 15 years, she’s massaged pregnant women, taught new mothers how to massage their newborns, and helped clients with health coaching and pain relief. Just a few months ago, one of her clients told her, “You have the hands of a saint.” Now, A Mother’s Touch Therapeutic Massage has been shuttered indefinitely, and our future has become uncertain. We took some comfort in the knowledge that Governor Polis had asked landlords to forgo evictions for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the enormity of the situation still weighed upon us. At an increasing rate, our lives were being upended.

“Well. I don’t know what to do now. I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do. All my clients are canceling.” My mother sighed. Her shoulders slumped. She studied the TV screen like it was an answerless riddle, hunched forward.

“I guess, I could always become a phone sex operator. I think I’ve got the voice for it. Problem is, I’d probably start laughing as soon as the guy on the other end tells me what he wants. Then they’d hang up on me,” she joked. I stared at her with raised eyebrows and she raised hers back. I cackled and shook my head.

“Mom, that is the most out-of-pocket thing you have said this month. Maybe ever.”

“I’m kidding!”

“Well, I can help pay some bills. Or pay rent. I have two jobs. I can ask the Admissions Office for extra hours.” I sat next to her on the couch.

“No. I want you to keep that money for the fall. You should save up for rent for when you move off campus. I want you to keep that.” It’s not the last time we have this conversation (about rent, not her facetious musings about backup employment) but its result is always the same. Many nights, after she’s watched the news or the latest episode of “American Idol,” and I’ve finished my homework or said a hollow goodbye to a friend over FaceTime, we sit together on the couch, talking and unpacking what lies ahead and how to navigate it. Often, the most I can do is lay my head on her shoulder or play aging songs that fewer and fewer people can remember the words to now.

“I’m just so angry. I’m so angry. I’m so angry. I’m so angry,” she said one night. The TV was off, the sun had set, and the dark settled around us like an ash cloud. We were still. I didn’t have any words to console her, so I quietly queued the songs I thought might, and we waited for nothing together on the couch. Then, Carole King’s “So Far Away” played — a song she remembered from decades ago. She requested “It’s Too Late” from the same album, and I put it on. One memory sparked another, and another, and we ended the night bopping our heads and dancing to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Feel Lucky.”

“We still have a lot to be grateful for, though. I’m so happy to have you here, bug,” she said.

On April 1, two days after Bill Withers (one our favorite artists) had died, I turned 20. We listened to “Lean On Me” and “Just The Two Of Us” and “Lovely Day” on repeat all week, and I awoke a year older and no less foolish to Bill Withers singing no time for tears, wasted water’s all that is, and it don’t make no flowers grow.

“I’m beginning my twenties in quarantine,” I grumbled that afternoon.

“Well, honey, if it makes you feel any better, I don’t even remember what I did for my 20th birthday!… I know you miss your friends, but, you have me!”

“I know. I’m still lonely here, though.”

“Well, if you ever get bored of me, and you want to take a walk or visit Oma and Opa or your dad, I won’t mind. I get it. It’s a small house.”

“Well, I didn’t mean it like that, mom. I didn’t mean it like that.” Our conversation ended there. It’s just the two of us in the duplex — my father and my grandparents live in different areas of Lakewood, my sister decided to stay in Washington after she graduated from Seattle University, and the last of our pet rabbits died my first semester of college. For the past two months and the next four, we’ve been and will be most of each other’s company. It feels impossible to get everything you want or need from one person, but in spite of that, I still attempt and usually fail to convince myself that I feel content and not compressed here. For all the joy inside, it is still a small house.

When the moon hangs full and round in the sky, and my room refuses to grow completely dark, I lie in bed without sleeping and listen to the howls. One night, I finally stepped outside to join them.

“Awooo…” I howled. A thin wave of responses echoed back.

“Aaaaaawwwooooo!” My mother had materialized beside me, and, with no warning, let loose a long and trumpeting howl not far from my left ear. I screamed, which I suppose counts as a second howl.

“Mom! Jesus Christ!”

“Ah. That felt good, didn’t it? I needed that.” She laughed and I shook my head while holding back a smile, turning my head towards the horizon as dusk seeped in across the sky.

The howling seemed strange at first, but I couldn’t blame my neighbors for looking for ways to feel a little less alone, together. On nights when I cannot hear the howls, I listen to the distant traffic from Alameda and Kipling streets. If I cannot hear even the traffic or other signs that the city is still busy, then I focus on the sound of our duplex’s heater kicking in, and when it finally shuts off, I am left with more silence than I’m comfortable with. There is too much empty space around us; there are too many still streets and vacant parks and noiseless places and not enough sound to fill them. Before the pandemic, my mother worked six days a week, and it felt as if we only ever saw each other in passing, only having enough time to listen to our favorite songs together on Sunday mornings or the rare evening. Now, our attempts at singing and belting and whistle tones have become more regular — our own kind of howling —and, in all this new and startling emptiness, we have begun to fill our house with music again.

This past Sunday, I woke up early and played “Lovely Day” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “Dreamlover” on our speaker’s loudest possible setting and, on an impulse, made banana-chocolate chip pancakes. My mother wandered out of her room in the blue robe patterned with stars and crescent moons that she’s had for years, and found me dancing in the kitchen, lip syncing with my spatula-turned-microphone. She smiled.

I need someone to hold onto, Mariah Carey and I sang. Won’t you please come around?