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February 16, 2024 Fiction

dirty work

El Musgrave

dirty work photo

I am scrolling through an old playlist and I find a song I avoided for years. I put the song on and I lay my head back in my desk chair and I let myself think about it. I think about promising that part of myself away three years ago and then getting close to begging for it back two weeks ago. I think about what life was like, five years back, now, and I think about the minute moments as I listen to that soulful dirge.

Sometime in the intervening years, people my age caught onto the song, beloved by people your age. It ended up in some Marvel movie commercial, in some early 20's remix-style with supercuts of caped crusaders flashing in my face. Title in the chorus as a repetitive, jeering chant. Song title, on the couch I shared with my next partner. Song title, dream and nightmare rolled into one.

When it was time for you to go home, you'd start getting dressed, legs off the edge of the bed. I would curl around your back, this comforting presence in my otherwise empty room, too small for comfort, too big for solitude. I would press my face against your shoulder blades and squeeze my arms around you to keep you from leaving. Some nights you would come over and I would just sleep on you. You thought it was sweet that I cried when you played Colin Hay for me in that same room. It was sweet that you would pick me up and carry me from couch to bed when we were at your house. It is less sweet when I think about how few adults I had in my life, at that time. It is less sweet when I think about why things ended.

It wasn't sweet when I called you. It was the bottom of the barrel. It was, it is Christmas, it is cold, it is dark, I am alone, I am driving and trying not to call you, I am driving past the factory with the cigarette colossus, I am alone in the south, I am alone and all they are playing on the radio is the Eagles and lesser Bon Jovi. I have told myself that it is all right to feel alone, and it is, and I believe it, and yet, the bottom of the barrel has to hold up the rest of its contents.

So I turn around and I tell Siri to dial your number and let the dial tone vibrate against the pavement. I am convinced you won't pick up. You do.

I drive an hour up 95 and back again. I wear the phone battery all the way down with you on speakerphone on my thigh so you can hear me better. I can hear most of what you say to me. I keep telling you about self-preservation, about how well I am trying to do in the face of how hard life is. I keep trying not to say, I think about you all the time, I want to come for you, and I hang up without saying it, and then I call you later from my bed and I end up saying it all anyway.

In the morning I drive home from the pharmacy, windows down in the cold. I listen to the song you told me I would listen to. Later I am on the john and hunched over the bathroom wastebasket at the same time. I am sick for two days while I fumble through regret. I tell myself the universe is punishing me for calling you. I tell myself to remember how this made me feel. Four days later you email me. I am on the west coast and somehow it's colder there. I am glad it's only 9pm where I am because otherwise your email would have been the first thing I read in the calendar year. I am choosing to remember otherwise.

I tell you I miss the parts that are safe for me to admit. I do not tell you about missing the parts that I never had, even with you. I tell you that you did in fact ruin me for other men which was your aim. I do not tell you that men ruin themselves and that that includes you. I tell you about the night that I was terrified I would die, and that that was what made me leave. I do not tell you I was terrified that you'd killed me.

Compulsion is an itch inside my palm and it has the same effect on my consciousness as a strong smell. It's not unlike when I get the urge to drink. Compulsion forgets all the bad and lilts in on the lips and the hips of the good. If I think about something else for long enough it goes away, but like anything else, it has the ability to boomerang back into my awareness with something as simple as a thought. You can come rushing back with something as simple as a song.