She danced in the crowd near the stage. The lights were in my eyes and I could not see her clearly. The crowd surged with the music, now bringing her closer, now pulling her away. I kept forgetting the words. So I sang anything, whatever came to mind.
I sang the morning’s grocery list and the lunch she’d made for us. I sang the back of the box of cereal she liked and the labels from the underwear she’d hung from the shower rod and the clothing she kept in the top drawer of my dresser. I sang the morning newspaper, the Sunday crossword and the obituaries and the job ads, I sang of coffee and our first cigarette of the day and her smile. I sang of her hair, long and iridescent as if the sun came from within her, brushing against me as she kissed me on the forehead, on the lips and, for good luck, on the nose. I sang of our little rituals, the music we listened to, the books we read. In the beginning, I sang, when things were good.
I sang the menu from the restaurant where she worked, I sang of waiting for her shift to end that first night and walking together under the street lamps and the kiss, so long ago it seemed to have happened to someone else. I sang of all our kisses, every last one, the warmth of that first winter, the cooling of this spring.
I sang of her tips and the phone numbers slipped into the pockets of her apron. I sang of the job she’d turned down because it would have meant she’d have to move away. I sang of her friends, who were not my friends, who encouraged her to leave.
A collection letter came to my apartment and then another. I sang of this and I sang of the next-door neighbor, an old woman abandoned by her family whom she’d befriended and cared for, who warned her not to trust me, she’d seen my type before. I sang of that building. The landlord banging on the door demanding the rent. The smells of old cookery and must and cat litter. The noise of our arguments, the pounding on the ceiling. The sound of her footsteps, fleeing into the bedroom, the slamming of the door and her weeping. I sang of the woman, a different neighbor, who knocked on the door and asked if everything was all right and would not leave again until she came out to show her that yes, she was all right.
I sang of the alley in back, where a gang of kids beat a child to death and stole his sneakers. I sang the advertisement for those sneakers. I sang of how she’d wept and wept but I knew she really cried for us.
I sang of things we can hold but never keep, have but never possess.
I saw her in the crowd and I saw she was not dancing alone. I knew the guy she was dancing with, he was a good guy, better than me, but she did not love him.
Who was that on the phone?, I sang, and I sang her response, you don’t trust me, she said, why must you be so jealous? I only love you.
I sang of my heart, my tiny black heart, crumbled like ash. Nothing I do, she said, will ever be enough for you.
I sang of my greed, I sang of my hunger and my fear these would one day consume me. Stay with me, I sang, I will try to do better. Save me, I sang in my smallest voice, I am lost.
All this time I’ve wasted on you, she’d said, why won’t you let me go?
I sang out promises, knowing she loved me and wanted only to believe me. If I could not love myself, I sang, I would at least take what I can get. I sang of how she’d grown thinner and paler since she’d known me and how she’d cut her hair short and I knew I had broken something inside of her. I sang my regrets, my apologies. Help me, I sang, I want to be better than this.
Leave her be, I sang in the neighbor’s voice, the old woman’s voice, as she confronted me one evening in the hall, can’t you see what you’re doing to her? If you still care anything at all about her, you would leave her be. She deserves someone who will love her.
I sang of my weakness, I sang of my cowardice, I sang of my selfishness and I did not leave her be.
She had been beautiful when we met but by then she looked like a ghost, her eyes sunken deeper into darkness, her fingernails gnawed to the quick. I sang of what she had lost, I sang of what I had taken and what I had squandered, and I sang of my shame, my remorse for everything I had done and for everything I could not give to her.
I sang of these things, my voice flooded with reverb, like tears.
After the show the people came to me, they bought me drinks and clapped me on the back, they chatted with me, saying, oh, when you sang this or that or such and such it really touched me. It always surprised me when they’d repeat to me what they thought they’d heard me sing, when what they’d heard was always a little something about themselves.
She waited for me by the stage as the band packed up our gear. She waved to me, and I went to her. She was standing with her friend, who watched me, wondering what I would do.
You sang well tonight, she said, leaning in to kiss me. Different, though.
Listen, I said.