First, you’ll have to clean the dust off the needle. Do you remember how to do that? Gabe used to do it, but you haven’t listened to records in a long time. You think about grabbing a dust cloth, but instead, you sit your third glass of wine on the console, grip the arm of the record player, and squeeze the needle between your middle and forefinger. Fuzz comes off and you figure it’s good to go now.
You want to hear that one song. You know the one. But when you pull out Otis Blue, you can’t remember the name of it. All you can think about is the day Gabe came home from the record store with the beat up vinyl, babbling excitedly about what a great record it was, what a steal. You rolled your eyes, but it didn’t take you long to be completely arrested with Otis’s voice. Gabe was right. He was always right.
“The blond on the cover—she looks dead,” you said the first time you saw it.
“Nah, baby, she’s just zoned. She’s listening. That’s what that looks like, by the way,” he teased.
Gabe was handsome. That was one of the first things you saw back at that Catholic high school when you met. Of course, at sixteen, handsome seems like a really big deal, very important. You hadn’t seen enough of the world to know there is handsome everywhere. He was also older, but then, wasn’t every man? You were very young.
You slide the cool, black record out of its sleeve, eyeing the small grooves in the surface. It looks like the middle section of a tree, as if you know its age by counting. You put Side A on the record player and move the arm over, lowering the needle as carefully as you can. The static pops before the music starts are almost sacred, the sound of a congregation falling silent at the sight of a messiah. Then, “Old Man Trouble.”
The horns send you back to a smoky bar you snuck into when you went to visit Gabe during your senior year, after he’d left for college. Picture it again: it makes the music even more poignant. This isn’t the song you need, but you still know when Otis moans, “Stay away” that he’s really warning a much younger you. Gabe is in his Michigan State sweatshirt and there’s a football game on—OSU and Michigan, a big one. He’s cursing and his friends keep buying you beer, even though you don’t drink it yet. One keeps winking at you, not quite leering, but seems to be making it known that if you don’t want to go home with Gabe, you don’t have to. You swallow a bitter sip of beer and smile at him, just to be polite. You feel so powerful, like some kind of Indian goddess, meant to create and destroy. You could have anything you want, and you want Gabe, no matter what.
You are no goddess, and you know it. You are forty—look at yourself. Walk to the mirror. You are forty. Your lipstick has worn off your lips, leaving an abrasive brown outline that almost looks like a cartoon or a clown. Your eye makeup is smeared, your bottle blond hair is falling out of its ponytail. Your wine glass is drained again. The worst part is, you know Gabe would have told you he thought you were beautiful, and he would have meant it. You bare your teeth at the mirror in a growl: they are stained red with wine. Of course they are. You pour another glass. Nothing to lose now.
The next song is “Respect,” and like everything else in the house, it makes you think of Gabe again. When you’ve been married nineteen years, you can’t escape the ghost of your partner. You can almost see your first apartment, sparse and furnished only with frat house rejects. Gabe reaches his arm out to you and motions to you, and you’re back in the memory again. He spins you wildly, both of you laughing, until you fall down. He keeps laughing, but you stop. You stare at him blankly in the memory, and even now. You dust yourself off and say, “I like Aretha Franklin’s better.”
“They’re like different songs,” he says. “I like Aretha’s better and I like his better. They’re just so different. I mean, the lyrics are even different—‘I’m about to give you all of my money’ instead of ‘You know what? So is my money.’”
“You can only have one favorite,” you say to him. You probably roll your eyes, too. Be honest with yourself. You have nothing to lose anymore.
“You’re my favorite,” he says, pulling you close and dipping you. Is this romance? Is this what you wanted?
Remembering is harder than you thought it would be. When he walked out a few weeks ago, you weren’t sorry to see him go. It was hard to tell your parents and friends, sure, but once they got over the shock, you thought it would be fine. After all, it’s not like you hadn’t tried to make things work. You’d gone to counseling, you’d tried being more compassionate. You’d tried greeting him at the door with a kiss and dinner in the oven. You’d read all of the magazines and tried all of their examples, but sometimes, you’d told yourself, goddammit, things just don’t work.
Now—force yourself to remember telling that to some strange man at a bar in downtown Lansing one night. You had gone out with girlfriends, but they’d gone home long ago— their husbands calling and texting and needing help with the children. Remember his name: was it Jason? You are sure he was the first, whether he was Jason or Dave. Those exact same words came out of your mouth then: “Sometimes, goddammit, things just don’t work.”
He reached over and brushed your curly hair out of your face—it was curly and brown then—and he said, “He’s missing out.”
Jason didn’t make much sense, but hell, he was there. Gabe was gone on some business trip to the west coast, some banker’s convention, something you would have loved to have done—if you had finished college. Of course, Gabe proposed at the end of his senior year, the end of your junior year. You’re still a few credits shy. “You don’t have to work,” he told you one morning on his way out the door. You’d made him eggs or something, some kind of warm breakfast. You had a day of cleaning and TV to look forward to. You had said you wanted to go back to school. “I want to take care of you,” he said. “I love you.”
You are still a few credits shy, but now you have red wine stains on your teeth at four ‘o clock in the afternoon. This is not what you thought would happen to your life. You are not being a productive citizen.
You missed “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Down in the Valley,” but if they had been the song you needed, it would have jolted you out of your reverie. You are sure of it. You let the record roll to the next song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” It starts with Otis’s naked voice against the heavy air in your living room and builds to a sweet, soulful full-band sound. There’s a piano part underneath his smoky voice, and of course, like all of the best soul music, there are brass flourishes. Gabe told you who the backing band was—was it Earth, Wind, and Fire? That seems so unlikely.
You close your eyes and think of the last time you felt like you loved anything. You are drawing a blank. You look in the mirror again. Nope. Nothing.
I’ve been loving you so long, please don’t make me stop now... Otis wails, please, please, and you have to get up and turn it off, even though there are only a few seconds left. Everyone has a breaking point.
You wince a little bit. You didn’t mean to remember Jason. It is hard to be angry when you can still remember the way his rough hands felt on you, such a strong contrast to your husband’s soft, gentle ones. You loved the urgency. That makes you wince harder. It’s harder to feel righteous about Gabe’s failures now that he’s gone.
Now you need to flip the record. You pick it up awkwardly by the edge, and the thing just won’t come off the player. You jerk, a little harder this time, and it wobbles out of your hand, falling on the floor. You are shocked that it hasn’t broken. You decide to celebrate. More wine.
You skip “Shake.” You never liked “Shake.” It was one of Gabe’s favorites. “Muddy Waters wrote it,” he told you. No, wait. Was it Sam Cooke? You should look that up. You’ll be shocked and sad when you realize that you didn’t remember Gabe’s words correctly, that it was Sam Cooke, that the only part of him that is still with you is fading and morphing even now. You may be angry for a minute and pretend that Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters are interchangeable, but you know they aren’t. Fuck it. Skip that song. Move on to the next one.
“My Girl.” You should skip that one, too. You won’t—you’ll try to remember your dad singing it to you while he tucked you in at night, but you will still see Gabe, singing into a hairbrush in the bathroom while you do your hair for some big night out.
“Gabe, shut up,” you say. “You’re being silly.”
“Don’t tell me to shut up,” he says, and falls into one of those moods. He’s pouting. You can’t even make an observation. He’s so sensitive.
“I’m sorry,” you say, and you cross the room to him. “Please help me zip up my dress?”
He will. He loves to feel needed, and you know it. You feel the cold metal of the zipper kiss your back as it glides up, slowly, and you know he’s staring at your spine, that sweet dip between shoulder blades, your ass. You feel almost as good as you do when someone else looks at you. Just for a minute.
“I guess you say, what can make me feel this way—” he sings, poorly. Gabe is a horrible singer. You laugh.
“I love you,” you say. And you mean it. You really, really mean it.
You will skip the end of “My Girl.” You should, at least. If you’re really smart, you’ll skip his funky version of “Wonderful World,” too. Of course, if you were smart, you wouldn’t be here. You wouldn’t have left your email open on the home computer. Gabe would have never found out about Tom at the office. (You remember Tom’s name. You already knew him. Plus, you always remember the one who changes your life.)
You listened to “Wonderful World” at your wedding—but not this version. That doesn’t help. Did you have doubts even then? Not more than a normal person, you tell yourself.
Many years in the future, you imagine, you’ll get married again. Maybe. But you’ll have a very small courthouse wedding. You’ll never do what you did the first time, big church wedding, lots of family and music, so much food. You’ll never share your first dance in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express again. Hell, you’ll never have a first dance again. A first anything. You’ve done this all before.
A quick thing: you remember Gabe yelling at you a few months ago, right after he found out. “How could you do this to me,” of course, that’s what everyone says, but maybe more poignantly, “This hurts so bad.” Over and over, he said, “This hurts so bad, this hurts so bad.” You try to tell him that’s how you felt—that’s how you felt back in the beginning of your marriage when he came home from a business conference (east coast that time?) and said, never, baby, it’ll never happen again, I’m so sorry.
If you had thought it would matter, maybe you would have been honest: that something died inside you that night, that you were never able to resuscitate it. That when Gabe would hold you close after that, it was like there was a slender ghost between you. That when he said, “I wish I could protect you,” or “I love you so much,” no matter what the context was, you’d think, “Great job, asshole,” and wonder how he could fool himself into believing those things. Of course, being with Tom seemed like an easy way to say those things—Gabe was just too stupid to understand.
The record is almost over and you haven’t heard the song. Maybe it’s not on this record. You know you can’t get through another: you are on your last glass of wine. This was hard enough. “Rock Me Baby” slinks out of the stereo, electric and wild. Otis sings, “You can rock me baby, you can rock me all night long,” and without wanting to be, you are turned on. You want to be a woman again. That was the whole problem, wasn’t it? You wanted to be that baby, you wanted to rock someone. You wanted to be the tornado, the horrible beauty, the thing worth killing for. Well, look at you now. Wine in a paper cup because Gabe took the china. Drunk in the afternoon. You are a joke, wine-teeth.
Now a familiar guitar intro, punctuated by unfamiliar brass. You love Otis’s version of “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” You have since you first heard it. You watched Gabe dance in that stiff way he did, bobbing his neck forwards and backwards like a chicken. He only mouths the words, though. He isn’t confident enough to sing along with Otis on this one. One night, you guys got drunk at some wedding—not too drunk, but enough—and when you got home, he put the record on and you both danced around awkwardly, not together, but at the same time in the same place. Your feet landed on top of each other several times, and finally, you took your shirt off, trying to be playful, trying to seductive. Gabe shook his head, laughed, asked when you got that bra. You had your eyes closed, you were dancing.
“When did you get that bra, Matilda?” he asked again.
“I don’t know,” you said. “I’ve had it a while.”
You remember that conversation very well not because of what was said, but because of what was not said. You know he was asking if someone else had seen the bra first, and of course, Jason had. He’d bought it for you. Jason, or Tom—someone had. It wasn’t Gabe, is the point, and you know it. But you keep swaying and laughing, dancing to the music. Gabe shakes his head, almost like a cat rejecting rain, and then goes back to dancing, envelops you in his arms. You might allow yourself to linger in this memory for a moment, but not for long.
Stop: why do you think Gabe left this record here? What was the point of that? Didn’t he want it? Of course, there are other things: why did he leave just one white sock hanging from a drawer he took everything else out of? Why did he leave your wedding pictures? Why did he leave the quilt his mother made for your wedding? But of all those things, the most surprising is the record collection. By leaving it, it was like he never left at all. The records were what made the place a home to him.
If you thought a little harder, you’d know why he left the things he left, down to the sock (that was probably his, but you couldn’t be sure, not really). There are just some things that are too hard to face, for both of you. (It has to be this hard for him, too. It has to.)
You keep trying to ignore one memory, but it finally takes you over: Gabe explaining the affair. You don’t remember exactly what he said, but at one point, he grabbed your wrists and said, “Goddammit, you still aren’t listening.” You said something about him being melodramatic and how even when he’s the bad guy, he finds a way to be the victim. Were you crying? Of course. Of course you were.
The last song on the record. This has to be the one. “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” This has to be it. Now, you need to close your eyes. Put yourself in Otis’s hands.
“Now that you’ve left me, oh, how I’ve cried
You don’t miss your water ‘til your well runs dry.”
This was the one. You haven’t allowed yourself to cry, not for a moment, not even right after he left. Now you need to cry. You can blame the wine later. One of the last things he said to you was, “Why are you crying? You never loved me.” He said it while he was packing his suitcase, the one you’d gotten him for an early anniversary, on your shared bed.
The record will begin to skip: “I need, I need, I need,” Otis will stutter, over and over again. You can’t finish the song because the record is old and busted. You have a different version of the song somewhere—Gram Parsons singing it with the Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo—but it seems like an awful lot of work right now to find it. Especially since you know it’s different. This is the version Gabe loved, and since he left, his favorites are your favorites, even though you used to love country and he always loved soul.
Alone, now, you should sing, “I love my water and I want my water,” over and over, just like Otis did. You have to finish the song, even though you know how it’s going to end: with heartbreak, longing, and regret.
Katie Darby Mullins is currently finishing her MFA at Spalding University and teaching at the University of Evansville. In addition to being nominated for a Pushcart Prize and editing a rock 'n roll crossover edition of the metrical poetry journal Measure, she's been published or has work forthcoming in journals like Hawaii Pacific Review, Harpur Palate, Broad River Review, Big Lucks, The Evansville Review, and she was recently a semifinalist in the Ropewalk Press Fiction Chapbook competition and in the Casey Shay Press poetry chapbook competition. She’s also the writer and founder of the music blog Katie Darby Recommends.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Otis Blue and wondering how much different it would sound to me if I was heartbroken. I think heartbreak changes everything in your life, including the way you listen to the songs you’ve always known—there’s magic to hearing something for the first time, but tragedy allows familiar material to feel new again.
Q: What does your writing space look like?
A: Wherever I feel like I can focus best, which is usually on my bed.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I’m not sure I have one specific process, but a few things tend to happen every time: I always get through as much of a first draft as I can in one sitting, often “finishing” a short story in one go; I edit meticulously for weeks before I feel comfortable thinking about it as one of “my” stories; and I often listen to music from the era or time I’m writing about. I’m currently working on a piece that is mired in grunge music, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Pearl Jam, Mother Love Bone, and Alice in Chains. For this story, I guess obviously, I listened to Otis Blue.
Q: What living writer do you admire most and why? Is there a particular book you refer to again and again?
A: I love Lorrie Moore because the ordinary is always extraordinary in her hands. I admire Dave Eggers because he uses his writing to create real, tangible, good change in the world, which is remarkable. And the book I go back to most often is Ben Greenman’s Please Step Back, not because it’s my favorite book of all time (though it’s close! Currently my favorite is Neil Gaiman’s American Gods) but because it was the first book that made me realize I really could write whatever I wanted to, create whatever space I wanted to, and immerse myself in telling stories with music, which has always been a part of my language with anyone I’m close to.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a larger project based in the grunge era. I’ve been thinking a lot about identity, how much of our own identity we gain from our parents (whether they’re present or not), and, at the same time, how hair metal was the perfect lead-in to grunge music in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I guess I’m exploring those connections right now. (I’ve been inspired, mostly, by documentaries for this: Cameron Crowe’s brilliant Pearl Jam Twenty and a documentary about punk rock fathers called The Other “F” Word.)