I was in the front seat, the navigator’s seat, an atlas open on my lap. I felt as if I was going to vomit. Staring at the highway, the concrete, the fading yellow lines. Behind me the other six in the van muttered to each other. Jasen, my roommate, a balding gay man in love with tapioca pudding was driving and trying to make conversation with me.
I could barely look at him. In my mind, over and over, played her words, said with ease as we laid naked together on the bed: “Oh, I have herpes.” My eyes blinked, lightning flashed, I pulled my legs to my chest. I had asked her to repeat herself, and she did. I stared at the ceiling and felt myself against the sheets. I sat up, saying nothing, and went directly into the bathroom. I repeatedly scrubbed. The lights were off. My breathing was labored, like I had been running. Even then, I expected to feel the burning. I had dry heaves in the shower. Sweat and steam and no going back.
Those words: “Oh, I have herpes.” Like the tire treads on the road, they repeated. My mouth was dry. Jasen had stopped trying to talk to me. As my hands shook in my lap, obscuring northeast Wisconsin, he put a blue CD in the CD player. There was a brief silence.
She was in the back of the van. Were her words also repeating for her? Was she a human antenna for burning? Could she believe that she would speak again?
The music started: a simple humming. A melody. I listened, finally comforted. “Men reading fashion magazines…”
The same melody, like her words, over and over, building. I closed my eyes and came back to life. I was rescued, if only for this song. It continued to build and I forgot myself. I let all of my uneasiness float away on the melody. “Oh what a world we live in…”
I’ve listened to this song countless of times since–long after it was clear I did not have herpes–in hopes that it will once again take me away from myself and insert me among the living. What, after all, saves us like melody?