Editor’s Note: “Living in Spin” is a new recurring Albumism column, in which Grace Curtis taps into firsthand narratives and vivid recollections to examine the moments in life when the aural, carnal, and emotional impulses converge.
[Stream O.V. Wright's Into Something (Can't Shake Loose) Below]
In the personals section you browse out of a perverse curiosity, but you never answer an ad because most of them seem to want a programmable meat robot instead of a woman. Until you read a silly, funny one about sandwiches and a rambling, discursive list of likes that includes butts, O.V. Wright, and Henry Miller. There is a picture of his articulated abs with his shorts pulled down low enough to show just a little too much pubic hair, that he concedes is indefensible, and welcomes the derision that it might bring.
Henry Miller stops you from clicking the back button. You re-read the ad. It’s good. It’s really good. You are a critical fuck about writing, but you like this. There is voice and style, it is precise, and it’s actually funny. But it’s Miller that makes you follow the impulse to respond. When you were younger, you loved Henry Miller so much that you went on monthly pilgrimages to Big Sur because he'd lived there when his writing turned reflective and luminous, and you wanted to be in the place where he had learned to be the best version of himself. And this guy’s mention of O.V. Wright proves he has good taste in music as well as literature. Listening to O.V. makes you feel unsettled and wistful for something indefinable you don’t have in your life.
You have nothing invested in writing to this stranger, so you are sassy, flip and entirely yourself. You call him out on the poor taste of his photo. You attach a fairly hot one of your lace-clad bum to let him know you’re busting his chops. You have never really taken racy pictures of yourself, but this is a leftover from when your ex- boyfriend spent a month in Italy, and you wanted to remind him what was waiting at home. The pictures weren’t enough to keep him from finding a signorina to keep him company, but they still packed some heat. You have the idea that answering this ad will be a distraction from your breakup with that traveling cheater, and you are interested to see what a fellow Miller-head will say, but you don’t really care if he answers or not.
When he does answer, you enjoy the back and forth. He is sharp and it is pleasing to feel the edge of his wit slide along yours. There are sparks. More pictures are exchanged. You are each in agreement that the other is hot. You start to care if he answers the emails and you check more often. You start to text, to talk on the phone. You don’t know when the switch happens, but suddenly all you think about is engaging in the exchange with him. There are moments when you tell yourself not to go all in, because this is just a distraction for both of you, because you know you are wide open and ripe to be hurt. But it feels good, and the rush you feel from every text alert on your phone is becoming more important than the parts of your life you physically exist within.
Throughout your day you pretend as though you are not living every second mired in the following things: You left your husband, even though you loved him deeply, because he refused to fix the broken things within him, no matter how much you helped, begged or demanded. Your cancer keeps coming back, and seven years of tests and treatments have rendered you sicker and sadder, and now you are partner-less for the first time since the exhausting work of living through dying began. You really don’t know how you will make it through the next inevitable radiation. You are adrift in your career, starting over again for the twentieth time as a new incarnation of capable, detail-oriented and people skills. Your writing is stalled. You feel inspiration, but it doesn’t carry the old call-to-action and you can’t look at your manuscript one more time because it is all flawed, self-indulgent, and pointless to you now.
He lives in another state and you are constantly in an altered state from being sleep deprived. He is a night watchman, and you start conforming to his schedule because the texts come, waking you up all the way, no matter what time it is. There are vague plans to meet, but nothing definite. You tell yourself to stay detached from this one. You try to be strict about it. The texting isn’t real life—you can’t even see this guy when you want to, and you are starting to wonder if you will ever meet in person, but you want to believe you might. You are listening to O.V. Wright more, who you’ve always loved, but now it feels special, important. When he groans, “I done got into something, I can’t, I never will, I never, will, I never, never will, ooh never will, never, never will, I can’t, no, shake it loose, no,” you are afraid that, like O.V., you “bit off more than you can chew.”
It’s only been a couple of weeks since this started, but it is feeding something so hungry in you, and like your boss always tells you, “A bitch gotta eat.” And O.V. echoes it so powerfully in his tender, throaty, slightly wavering voice, “You gotta have love.” So you keep letting it matter, you keep letting him have a bigger piece of your appetite until nothing else feels as satisfying. Consuming or consumed? It doesn’t matter. You feel like you are starving, but the more you eat, the more you want. Because, as exciting as your conversation is, your appetite is not really about that, or about him—it is the emptiness you want to fill. Somewhere in you, you know that no amount of sexy texts will satisfy the void, the uncontrollable unknown that your life has become.
You go away with friends for a few days. You all take turns spinning records in the lake house. You play Syl Johnson, Ann Peebles, and O.V. Wright almost exclusively—they are the conduits to your feelings. You think about this guy the whole time you are there, but you have the obligation to be present with your friends, so you don’t really keep up the exchange while you’re away. But it’s there when you return to your life in Harlem. You ask about making plans. Even though he is a two hour drive away, he comes to the city for shows sometimes, so you want to be at least that important to him, at least as worthy of driving in for as a bad rockabilly band.
One day, he admits that beyond the distance and schedule, he has another obligation that keeps him from coming to you—the girlfriend that he neglected to tell you about while he was describing all of the fantasies he has about you. You are stunned by the confession. You understand that he is just void filling too, but you can’t understand why he let it get weeks in without giving you a choice about whether you want to be involved with him and his situation. Night and day, the contact has been ceaseless if you are both awake. You’ve both been in this all the way, or at least you thought so, until this.
You recognize that this would be the right time to stop texting with him, to stop the phone calls on his way to his shift, his regional accent charming you with that his ripping sardonic wit, and his way of seducing you with mild teasing insults. This is the exact moment to stop the shared fantasies that overtake your daily boring slog. But you also recognize that something good is here, just a kernel of something that may be more substantial than the thrill of receiving dick pics at 4:00 am. And it is fun. It is a distraction from the weightiness that is the rest of your life. His writing, even when the subject is some depraved idea you never imagined you’d want to explore, it’s the real deal. You taught shitty writers long enough to know the sublime ones when you read them. So you don’t stop when you know you should. And he doesn’t either. For all of the things keeping him from being with you, he is getting something from this too.
The summer is passing. You sweat all night in your fifth floor apartment. The fan in the window does nothing to cool you. The street sounds from the bus stop and liquor store across the street don’t wake you up anymore, but the text alerts still do. Both of you request and send pictures, talk about what this is doing to you physically to be constantly aroused and unfulfilled. You don’t talk about what this is doing to you mentally to be the other person, how small it makes you feel, how your feelings for him are expanding and oozing past the constraints of pictures, texts and phone calls. The conversations shift, they get more intense, more taboo. You explore your dark corners together.
You tell each other that you want to make a baby together. Neither of you want to actually have a baby at this point in your lives, but the fantasy of him getting you pregnant is impossibly hot to both of you. You turn the idea every possible way together. You imagine what it will be like while your belly is swelling, when your breasts fill, when the milk comes. You check in with each other to assure that this is still fantasyland. Of course it is—you’ve never even met in person. But you can’t leave the thought of it alone. Now, when O.V. groans, “I feel love growin,’” it takes on a different meaning for you. You talk about other desires and titillations, but it always returns to the intoxicating decadent taboo of eggs and sperm and milk.
There are always soul records on your turntable. You can’t beat your roommate’s speakers, but you play your stuff anyway and the music in your room mixes with other sounds you love coming from his room—Bessie, Miles, Coltrane. You don’t mind the bleed of him composing lonely wavering notes on his trumpet at any hour because you are awake, always texting with the lover you’ve never met. O.V. is singing, “It’s one thing you can’t deny, you gotta have love, sweet, sweet love,” while the horn section joins in short bursts and long compliments to his earnest proclamation.
You take the hour and a half subway ride to your ex-husband’s house to pick up your mail. It smells like sadness in there, like something fried, and like he hasn’t been changing the sheets. The coffee mug you left on the table the day you moved out is still there nine months later, a substantial coating of dust inside. The painting you did of him as a grizzly bear is still propped up on the shelf across from his side of the bed, which is far more deeply dented than the side that was yours for years. The toilet has not been cleaned in months from the depth of the brown ring in the bowl, and the tube of Preparation H on the counter tells you that no one but him has been in this place since you left.
The air is stifling. You turn on the only AC in the house, which is in the window across from the bed. You sit in his dent. You wait for your hot face to cool. There are too many feelings to tamp down while you are in this room, but your sweaty body won’t let you leave it. Your heart rate is up. You think about the pet names he had for you over the years, Bunko, Pit Pony, and Doctor-Senorita-Boogiebat-Brigadier-General. You used to call him King Baby Gorilla or Great Granny Gorilla, and depending on his mood, sometimes Griz. Oh fuck, you loved him so much. You spent a decade loving him harder than anyone you had ever known. And the echoes are still there, amplified in this room while you try to calm down and stop feeling the loss of that love.
You remember how disappointed you were when he changed his mind from being neutral about having kids to absolutely opposed right after you got married. How he took your choice from you. How it is too late now that you have radiation every year, and you are medically forbidden from being pregnant. How you are now far enough past the years when you were so ripe to even consider trying. How years into the marriage you would sometimes lie to him and say it was safe when you knew you were ovulating, because you were sure that once there was a chubby laughing baby that shared both of your curly brown hair and your chocolate drop eyes, its very existence would be enough to make him want it too. And you had started wanting to have a little thing to love so badly. But it never worked. You remained childless. And that was helpful when you weighed out leaving him for the last few years you were together.
You are so tired. You curl yourself into a ball and lie in the womb of the dent in the bed. You hate the smell, dank and too familiar. You hate the wads of used Kleenex in the bed and on the nightstand. You hate seeing from that angle the piles of bits of nail that he bites off and spits out scattered on the floor. You hate the intangible ache of being in the bed that used to be yours. You hate the barrenness of every single thing, of every moment you are in, of the empty belly, the empty life. When the text alert trills on your phone and words flash across the screen, you hate the empty words although you don’t even read them. You push the power button off and hear the harsh click before the screen turns black.