A band released an album in 2009 that became, for me, a cross by the highway that marks the dead. Inside each track lurks a hologram of that summer, a descending fluorescent half-dome that yanks me across time and space. Suddenly, I’m driving away from John’s house on highway 16 in the dry and blinding Temecula sunrise, my retinas overexposed, my corneas zig-zagged with streaks of sun-poisoning. It was June and already my left arm was as brown as the finches, resting in the open car window, speeding past the strip beyond the dealership. I was hungover, I was spent. But after all that we’d been through, I knew we’d make it. After the wait.
The question, the song went, is the truth.
“Listen to track four,” he told me, handing me the disc through my car window. I knew his lips like my own flesh and blood, but these farewell kisses were worse than a stranger’s. Beneath his calm, I sensed the panicked division and transference of two men. One cold, one caring. He scrambled to toss me a lifeline as he slipped beneath the carefully remade horizon.
He always gave me something to listen to on the hour ride home. He liked songs that were unusual, little bursts of flavor and texture on a barren grid of four-way stops. I pocketed them all like gold tokens. They weren’t him, but they were. They were.
He was my world back then, back when my world was a series of meadow-lined routes between Carrollton and Senoia, each as smooth and sunbaked as a torqing synthesizer under ecstatic two-part female harmony, fanning out into a cryptically-worded cacophony of Artistic Integrity that sometimes hurt my ears. I tapped forward through the tracks like a patient searching for the right morphine drip. But even still, the passing song fragments of Bitte Orca absorbed into my bones like x-rays, saturating me with dreams and free radicals, neither doing me much good.
Definitely you can come and live with us, the lyrics went, as I passed the house full of abandoned yard toys for the hundredth time, behind the field of propane tanks. I know there’s a space in the basement, yeah. All you gotta do is help out with the chores and the dishes.
And I know you will.
I will! I will!
But I spent my weekends with my phone at the dirty lake beach, waiting for a call that never came, my Gatorades floating in long-melted ice.
The horizon bright and motionless, the song went. The EKG of a dying woman.
“What if I just snuck over?” I asked him one Saturday night. I hadn’t seen him in 12 days. Twelve days, 8 hours and 45 minutes. My tan lines were fresh, my heart as empty as a shell. “After your kids are asleep?”
“No,” he answered, and laughed slightly, as if I was just a kidder. “There’s no way.”
To him it was amusing that I’d even ask such a thing, but to me it was a red flag so big he could’ve wrapped my corpse in it. Hearing that, my right arm barely had enough will to live. I leaned against the wall, trying to keep the phone to my ear. I could feel the sand embedded in the metal seams, the residual scent of Hawaiian Tropic.
I wasn’t above begging.
“But, I could leave early in the morning, before they wake up?”
“I can’t, sweetness. I’m sorry.”
Is there someone else? I wanted to ask, but dared not.
“What are you up to tonight?” he asked, steering the conversation away. Don’t confront me with my failures, sweetness. Hot stuff. Wonderbucket.
I love you, I thought, but instead said, “Nothing.”
But that night I would be up to more than nothing. I hung up pleasantly, a terrified witness behind the arbitrary lines, and sauntered to the shower in a daze. I was used to the pain. I was used to letting my mind wander safely above the truth. It came in handy, since tonight I didn’t want to look too closely at anything. I shaved with a dull razor, dressed robotically and sent a flurry of text messages to people I barely knew.
An hour later I stood awkwardly in some stranger’s high-end kitchen, watching strange people mix drinks, lighting torches meticulously, twisting semi-naked with each other out on the deck, swapping partners, trading wives, reaching out their unfamiliar fingers to tug at the belt loop above the zipper on my shorts. I found my hands stroking the two-day stubble on some guy’s chest, fighting back the grief it left in my scored palms, his attractive face like needles in my eyes. I could smell the geranium nearby as he kissed me, like a failure. It was Saturday night, and all I wanted was John. John’s hands, John’s bed. John 3:16. John’s eyes like two doves. John the holy ghost.
I picked up my flip-flops and my keys and skirted the light, seeking the end of the driveway.
“Where are you going,” the guy called after me. “Whoa, whoa. Wait. Please.”
He was wiry, crew cut, tan, but with the slick and empty mannerisms of a man who gauges all his movements on their likelihood of procuring sex.
“I can’t,” I turned to face him, planted at the hood of my van, staring at my feet. “There’s this other guy I’m seeing.”
Seeing, I thought. That’s all I did. I saw him. In my mind. In thumbnails. In music videos in my mind.
“I don’t want to wreck it,” I managed. “I don’t want to cheat on him.”
Wreck what? I wondered. Wreck the illusion. Wreck the compartment I lived in.
I tend to keep things in compartments, John had once told me, in an email. I’m sorry, I guess it’s a guy thing.
A guy thing.
“If he’s so great, where is he tonight?” this other guy asked.
I know, right.
“He’s got his kids,” I said, which always shut every question down so nicely. Even my own. Is your boyfriend imaginary? No silly, he’s got his kids.
“So, you’re leaving me?” he huffed. “You just got here. I thought we were having fun.”
He had me cornered, the back of my knees now against the bumper, my air invaded by his Hollister cologne. I just wanted my car. I wanted to go home and sleep so I could shut off the dirty projector in my mind, where my fantasies glowed inside the unfulfilled film reel of Track Nine:
When I’m ready for my whole world to open up and surrender, I’ll look for you. I will be searching the garden and the street, I will look into the eyes of everyone I meet.
“You can’t leave me with this,” this douchebag kept saying, taking my hand in his and placing it squarely on his hard-on. There was rage somewhere in that, concealed behind his puppy dog eyes, his drunken purr. “Baby.”
“That feels nice,” I teased. Sometimes I was the most friendly when I was the most frightened. “I can’t.”
I kissed him again, a reformed cannibal, and backed into the driver’s seat, backed out of the driveway, back into the safety of my memories. Back into my Johnsongs.
Call on me, it went. Call on me, call on me, call on me. But I couldn’t. Ever. Least of all now.
I sunk into the disappointment of my headlights, leading me around the curving two lane road, back home. I didn’t want to feel this bad right now, so I thought instead about how John and I had put the clean sheets on his bed that night, before crawling in them to make sick love. We hadn’t seen each other in so long. Fifteen days, ten hours. Twenty-two minutes. He’d been busy.
“Yay, we finally get to have a sleepover,” I’d kidded, standing in panties and a gauzy t-shirt on the other side of his bed, stuffing his pillows into their clean cases.
“Yay,” he laughed, doing the same on his side. “Sorry I didn’t have this ready when you got here.”
“I don’t mind.”
My thighs shook for him, sticky and hot, panting on the inside, while on the outside I played it cool and cautious, always afraid of somehow scaring him away.
“This is the best housework ever,” I added.
It was the essence of him that made me feverish. The arrangement of his words, his blue suede Addidas sneakers waiting by the front door, the way he sketched out football plays like boyish works of art, the way he washed all his pots and pans and left them drying neatly by the sink. He reminded me of someone I wanted to impress, someone I wanted to be, someone I’d never had. But most of all, of someone who didn’t want me back. And that was the part of him that I wanted worst of all. I wanted the push of his opposing magnet stuffed deep inside me, claimed and reversed, converted and annihilated into shining union.
“Can we have sex tonight?” I asked all at once, after the puffy comforter had been aligned into the corners of his four-post bed.
“Of course,” he said, in that polite understated way. My eyes rolled up into my head, imperceptibly.
He rolled back the covers and switched off the light, even though I’d asked him to leave it on. It didn’t matter. I didn’t need light to find my way up onto legs, his fingers, his lips, his cock. I could spellbind him blindfolded and backwards; just the thought of him made me condense into single-minded instinct with superhuman and slave-like talents. I wanted only to pleasure him into submission, into a decibel of need as combustible as mine. He responded to me in kind, with the same sort of ridiculously rough, hair-pulling passion.
I don’t know what I should be looking at, but I will look wherever I’m told. That was exactly what he’d said. Only, he’d used Track Six to say it.
Outside his bedroom window, the whole dim unlucky world seemed to lapse into second place, falling short of the prize of being me, being us. I stretched out across the bed, across his naked body, across the stratosphere, as far as the rubber band of my life could go before snapping back in the other direction. For a tight, straining, airless second, I was suspended at the farthest most beautiful outpost of pleasure, the other half of my life reduced to a speck on a dark sleeping planet.
But that’s where I spent the summer, banished to the outskirts of the galaxy, in Carrollton, with a copy of Bitte Orca like an instruction manual for a stalled spaceship. I memorized it behind my sunglasses, through Sharpsburg and then Newnan, past the cow pasture where I turned left, past the highschool and the second CVS, I played it past the gas station where I’d bought gas on the way in as the heat and the fumes shimmered on the asphalt, past the restaurant where we’d eaten on the patio, at the traffic light where the sweltering morning sun radiated with all the blistering promises of Track Four, and also a suffocating loneliness that seemed big enough to swallow an entire earth full of summer.
I know that I will always love you, from now until forever baby. I can’t imagine anything better.
“I’m glad you enjoyed the songs,” his email said. “But sadly, there wasn’t any kind of hidden message in any of those songs. They’re just random tunes I thought you’d dig.”
But, that song. It had already saved my life ten times. It was my only way back to his planet. It was the only thing I had that was real.
Don’t defend a silver lining, around the halo of what is already shining, when all the planets are aligning, for an afternoon that’s never-ending.
Not that. Don’t take that one too.
I closed his email and swiveled over in my swivel chair, clutched the arm rest for life support, and cried. The grief was so massive, like a huge animal that could only be expunged through my face, in a silent yawn of pain. One by one, the stars in my sky were blotted out, sucked through a straw into the black hole of cyberspace.
After all that we’d been through, I know we’ll make it. After the wait. The question is the truth. The stillness is the move.
But the song would always be just the song.
copyright © K. Dawn Goodwin 2016