Editor’s Note: “Living in Spin” is a 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.
The following essay is the 3rd and final installment of the 3-part “Living in Spin” series inspired by the discography of blues & soul legend O.V. Wright. Read the 1st installment here and the 2nd installment here.
It is the final heat of the summer persisting into the fall that keeps you restless at night. That’s what you attempt to convince yourself. You try to ignore the thoughts of him, always poking at your bruised corners, that make sleep elusive. And you miss him. You guys still text pretty much daily, but not around the clock anymore, and not about sex at all, his tone is completely different. You are just friends now. He calls you man and bud all the time, to emphasize your place with him. You want to be able to do that, be his chum, because you can’t think about not knowing him anymore. But, of course you want the other part back, too. The fiery mirage on the horizon that he used to be. The wanderlust he woke up in you. And you don’t know how to stop wanting that.
You dive into records, think obsessively of the vinyl you have, the vinyl you want. You pull one after another out of the crates. You clean them, care for them, examine the black discs for wear. You are always returning to the turntable to check a song title, to look at the year on the album cover, to mentally note where the music resides in the soundtrack of your life. You play all the songs, all the sad ones, every single one that make you feel the pain. This is for you, it’s yours, and it reaches, it permeates, the way that only music can sound for the bottom of your unspoken sorrows.
You start to play O.V. Wright’s The Bottom Line around the clock. Every song is him. Every song is falling or breaking. You stagger back and forth between them. You let yourself go whichever way the wind blows you, adrift in it, unsure of the course, of the destination. You can barely tell what your feelings are anymore except for the way the words of O.V.’s songs speak them, the way he charts the pain and angst of letting go, and you let him take you there over and over for weeks.
“There’s no easy way to say goodbye / No matter how you do it, somebody’s gonna cry / There’s no easy way to say we’re through / Of all the things in life / it’s the hardest to do.” It’s so, so, so hard for you to do, even though it seems easy for him. How could he switch like that? You try to give him a break—he’s young, he didn’t mean to do this to you, he obviously still cares for you. Not the way you want, maybe, but you mean something to him, you are sure of that. But she is physically there with him, sharing his life and his bed, and you are so many miles away from that, and him, that the geography between you might as well render the miles uncountable. He may as well be the coordinates to Bora Bora—you know in your heart you will never get there, no matter how you imagine or pine for it.
The weather cools. You still wake though, sweating every night, the bed and sheets entirely soaked through. You are aware of what this means—the night sweats are back, which lets you know the cancer is growing inside of you again. You are due for your next blood work and you know before your doctor tells you, that the results are bad. The marker has more than doubled in the last three months. It has never grown this fast in you before. It is feeding, encroaching on your healthy cells, creating little islands of blight in your internal archipelago, and so it is time to do the radiation that will kill it back. This means going on a diet for months that consists of few foods, eating the same meal day after day to deplete the iodine from the ocean of your blood so that you can take the radioactive pill, the torpedo that will stop this assault, but contaminate your waters for years to come after.
How the fuck can you possibly do this alone? How can you face the endless armada of doctor’s appointments, that lead up to the treatment? How can you spend the years that seem to go by while sitting for an hour in the waiting rooms, alone except for the gentle tide of wan, frail women, their heads wrapped in scarves, their skulls showing through their skin, that ebb and flow through your awareness? Your ex-husband had been with you through every other treatment, and it had mattered that he was there, inarticulate with tenderness, rage and fear as he was. His presence had made it somehow bearable, knowing he was waiting for you on the other side of the lead shield, for the hour you had to wait to see if you threw up after your body started uptaking the poison. It made it possible for you to sit there that long without crying or screaming, although both urges were ripples on your surface.
This is too long for a text, so you email him. You have not told him about the cancer. It was not one of the countries in the fantasy world you created together, partially so you could find an escape from the place you’d been living. But you break it down for him, every detail, every step, because you are an expert, seven years in, on how to articulate what is happening to your body, and you already know the questions that will come, so you cover it all. You wonder if he even checks this old email anymore, maybe it was just a burner account, a secret lair where his fantasies dwelled, so you text him, telling him to check it. You want his acknowledgement so badly. You want the comfort that will come from talking to him.
In the time that passes waiting for him to respond, you listen to O.V. singing, “You said your love is for real / but is that the way you feel?” and you don’t know what the bottom line is with him. Are you actually friends? Do you mean anything to him beyond a rueful recollection of a wild moment in time? You feel a deep gratitude to O.V. for mapping the patterns of language that you hurt too much to form for yourself. “I keep wanting to believe in you / but you got me so confused by the things you do.”
But behind your pain about him, building and forming from far away, there is a tidal wave of fear, and beyond that, fear’s terrible mighty sister, a water spout of rage that is bubbling up from your depths, and whose swirls are already tightening around you, obscuring rational thought. Because, again. Fucking again? Having to repeat this same storm over and over is so infuriating that you cannot perceive the edges of it; you did not know that you were large enough to contain the size of this tropical cyclone spinning inside of you. All of your senses lose perception in short flashes. Power outages. Lightning strikes.
When he texts, asking if he can call, you collapse a little with relief, your hull cannot bear the brunt of the need you are feeling, but it feels safe to capsize with him, even while knowing he will not be yours. He asks better questions about treatment than most people do upon hearing the news. He is physically so far away, but in that moment, he is right there with you. He navigates this for you. Lays it out in next steps until you are both clear on the course. He makes plans to come to Brooklyn. He wants to see you now, and you hate that it took such a thing to inspire him to make the trip, but you want him here. You feel like you can set your sights on his word, and make it to that beacon. You listen to O.V. singing, “Sit yourself down, girl and talk to me / Tell me what’s on your mind / Don’t keep on telling me everything’s ok / cos if it were then you wouldn’t be crying.” And sharing with the one you have cared for most makes you feel like you’ve rid yourself of some heavy cargo.
He texts one night to say his girlfriend has been cheating on him with a bearded banjo player and she doesn’t want him anymore. He is broken by this. He is completely beside himself with pain and disbelief. He has spent years lassoing the moon for her, just because she might want it, and he can’t believe she would walk away from all that he gave her, from his utter devotion to her. He doesn’t see the irony of telling you this. He doesn’t count the months he spent sexting with you as a way of cheating on her. You help him through that night and many others. Every wounded or desperate or angry thought he has is texted to you, and you drink all of it. You try to reflect back love from your inner pool, because you do love him, and he has just recently finished breaking your heart, so you know intimately how much he needs comfort.
It is the week of Thanksgiving when you will do your body scan to see if the cancer has traveled beyond your thyroid bed. You are staying at the corporate apartment near your job to make the early morning injections easier to get to. You are weak from the diet you’ve been on that depletes the iodine from your body, so all you can manage is to sit and knit by the window, looking at the Brooklyn Bridge, and listening to the soul music that has been floating you through the shallows whenever you scrape the bottom.
You have arranged for friends to visit you there every night, including him, even though he is something other than a friend, but every single person cancels that week. It is the holiday, it is nothing personal, but you are alone and it took everything you had to be vulnerable enough to ask for help. When they cancel, one by one, you feel adrift and sorry for yourself. On the day he’s supposed to come, there is a blizzard and he cannot make the trip. You can’t stand the way it wrecks you. You sob and knit on the green loveseat until sleep comes that night.
You can’t allow yourself to believe he will come a few days later when he has promised to, and you suffer so much when the time passes when he said he’d arrive. You pace and smoke on the small patio, and you scan the distance for a car that might have the right out of state plates. He is late, but he texts that he is parking. You are flushed. You have dressed casually for your first in person meeting with him—a baggy sweater and a skirt—nothing like the vision of sex appeal you had always imagined yourself dressing like for this occasion.
When he gets to the door you are surprised by how skinny he is. You knew he was tall and lean, but the pictures you’ve gotten from him were always accentuating his incredibly ripped abs or his muscular arms. Even the dick pics have set you up to expect a different body—girthier to match his endowment. But he is so slim. Instead of the man you have been imagining for months, you find a boy standing in front of you. The look on his face says that you are not as he expected, either. You wonder if it is your face or your body he is questioning. It makes both of you a little awkward, the reality after so much fantasy. But you are both also wearing grins. There is a pleasure to getting used to each other after so much time.
The body scan is finished and so is the diet, so you are going out for dinner tonight—you’ve been planning on this salmon for a long time. You walk together the few blocks to the restaurant, small snow flurries sailing around the cobblestones at your feet. You haven’t eaten much that day and you reel along the uneven paving like a drunken sailor, having to take his arm when you think you might go down. He talks about her at dinner. About the massive disillusionment and pain he feels. You have to tamp down your own feelings of abandonment and betrayal about this skinny youth across from you while he talks.
You go back to the corporate apartment and listen to songs together. On that little loveseat you sit cross-legged facing him, telling stories, laughing, trying not to flirt, but flirting anyway. He calls you out on it, and says you’ve been flashing him, and that he won’t not look, but wonders if you should be doing that. You very deliberately spread your legs as wide as they go and give him an eyeful, totally aware that the crotch of your panties has pulled slightly to the side, and he is seeing much more than cotton and lace.
You have been straining at the ropes to get yourself the places you need to go. You have been clear-eyed about the journeys and the risks involved in undertaking them, so when he gently tells you that he is too heartbroken about her to think of being with you like that, you already halfway know he will say it. The long hug goodbye betrays him and confuses you. He presses himself into your soft belly until you can feel the length of him growing against you. Your arms are around him or else you’d be swaying, feeling the weight of the whole ocean in that extended moment of your life.
Across the room, the music playing is too hard to listen to. The music playing is the whole truth about the end of the world where the water pours you right off the edge into nothing. The song is “The Bottom Line.” “I keep wanting to believe in you / but you’ve got me so confused by the things you do / You said these things are supposed to make a love strong / but I keep adding it up / and it keeps coming out wrong. Two plus two is four / no less and no more, no / No matter how you try / you can’t make it five, honey / you know that ain’t the score.”