#363: New Order, "Substance" (1987)

There was no ceremony. The curtain lifted on a chance meeting, one tethered to neither time nor place—the setting a crowded room, where bodies bent and wove in a mass to the ebb and flow of invisible balance. Heat and sound, acting out their desires by pushing and pulling strings to guide each tangle of hopes and fears into the infrared of another; the tempo and swirling textures the speakers’ gifts, marking time.

Normally the bar promised solitude, frequented by a few regulars and people accustomed to stewing in their own silence as the music played and the bartenders traded shifts, washed glasses. It was around these times of cold-month celebrations that got everyone together for a debauched class reunion; all the bar’s alums under one roof drinking.

What I was was drunk and lonely, or perhaps tipsy and wistful. This must have left my mind at the frequency of a whale song, unrecognizable over the din of the room but felt in the latent animal receptors buried in the core of another, drink in hand, swaying.

Now I was not the type to advance without a call to arms. My career in that arena of battle is fraught with error, in that enough misfires and friendly fire fill my dossier to hint at the futility of future engagements. But something in the fabric of the room, the evening, the whiff of longing to be approached, the comfortable bubble of public isolation waiting to be pierced had me shouldering my frame between the limbs, sliding on pools of melted snow to the point just before where the whites of her eyes looked grey in the dim light.

Her boots, still clung with snow, shifted in their space, as mine stood opposite.

“I’m not encroaching, I hope,” clumsy, yes, but where to begin? I was never a conqueror; the military jargon too loaded with cheap innuendos, plus flags should never be planted forcefully—the very least acquiesced.

“That all depends,” she rallied, keeping her eyes sharp and pulling at the frayed label of the bottle in her left hand.

“Perhaps that’s not the question, let me try again. May I?” I gestured to the patch of bar floor before her, genuflecting. Don’t bother. I will forever play the fool. She remained coy, myself exciting inspection. “Permission granted,” she said, the label hanging free now like a frayed veil.

“Are you home or did the holidays bring you back north?” I treaded carefully.

“Didn’t you see my name on the mailbox?” she inquired, deadpan.

“Funny, you seem tucked away for someone in her natural element.”

“Well maybe I’m just passing through. Home isn’t really binding.”

“This is true. Wherever you lay your hat?”

“When I wear one.”

“And when you don’t?”

“I can wear my hair however I like.”

“Certainly a perk. It looks lovely tonight.”

“But you don’t know how it usually looks.”

“Yes but I’ve seen plenty of hair.”

“An expert, I take it. Pity I can’t say the same about yours….” She trailed off and here she smiled and the room seemed to widen and contract all at once inciting a sort of spatial vertigo all in an instant like a sucker punch or a hit of nitrous or like waking up from a vivid dream. She pressed her thumb on the underside of a ring with a dull stone. I rolled my ankle, leg stretched back, feeling the cartilage realign and tumble.

“William,” I said, offering up my name.



“I’ll call you Will. What about you, Will? Is this home?”

“No, but it will always be.”

“Seems we’re both victims of an invisible hand.”

“Suppose we are.”

“Where do you see the hand taking us, Will?”

“Another round?”

“How bout I get this one.”


I never got her name. We were headed to the other side of the river to a venue I used to go to infrequently for a dance night that I’d heard about in passing. She knew someone working the door or whatever so we wouldn’t have to pay for entry, plus they had cheap beer and kept the lights real low. What I’m trying to say is that she had the reigns. I remember we talked about how the city looked different, how observing change is a palpable feeling. We arrived outside the venue as a light snow began to fall through the orange glow of the streetlights.

The place looked dingy. Inside the foyer a salt stained carpet led to a guy the size of a lineman who asked for IDs and cover. The whole room was bathed in red.

“I thought you knew the door guy?”

“Gary must not be working tonight.”

“No matter, I got money.” I handed the guy some crumpled bills and so did she and we made our way inside.    

It was packed. I’m talking fucking slammed. We immediately peeled off our coats and draping them over our respective arms made a wide berth towards the bar. I remember sweating, the hot toffee fire taste of whiskey, the cool relief of domestic beer. And I remember it was loud. Although we drank from cans I watched her fingers search for the contours of a label.

After stashing our coats against the wall by some sound gear I felt her grab my arm and then her breath on the side of me face.

“Dance with me!” she hollered above the music.

“You lead!” I shouted back.

Here’s where it gets blurry. I don’t drink whiskey. Rather, I don’t drink whiskey anymore. It makes me forget things, like nights, happenings. But I did that night because something wanted me to. I wanted to. Forget, or just blur the edges. Maybe it was survival instinct. Maybe it was just a mistake.

We hit the floor like it was a robbery, her pulling me to the middle where the lights spun kaleidoscopic, and bodies fenced us in. And we moved. Her hands were on my shoulders pulled close like a high school dance before the chaperones could break us up, I laid mine on her sides, later pulling her close, entwining them behind her back. It was something slow—breathy vocals and reverb.

I remember as the song faded, from inside the swirl of the guitars I could hear voices welling up, and the drive of drums. Then the guitars broke through and the clouds lifted. We broke apart like wrestlers regaining our footing, squaring off, pounding the ground with each snare hit as the guitars jangled and ripped through the room. All around us people were clashing into each other, laughing, and the lights kept spinning.

Our hands formed a lattice as the lyrics broke over the room, something about heaven and hope.  She pulled me in close and that was when we kissed and the ground was so slick with melted snow I almost fell. It happened so fast and being off-balance I didn’t have time to shut my eyes, her silhouette outlined in rose filters hung as we pulled away. Her eyes flashed green, blue, then grey. Or was that the song? She wore the same smile she betrayed earlier, more comely, a little more don’t-make-me-come-over-there. With her arm around my waist she turned us around.

“Let’s get a drink!” I heard her say as the lyrics rang oh no, I’ve never met anyone quite like you before


The next morning it was my head that rang. I remember the walk back in what amounted to a blizzard after the music stopped. Practically a white-out, the flakes falling like wet cotton. I was staying at my dad’s apartment back on the other side of the river. He’d left the place empty for the night so he could celebrate the cold with his new girlfriend, someone he’d met at the gym. All I know is I managed to keep track of the key.

Once we got back it must have been well after three in the morning but we poured fresh drinksI know this because my glass is still half emptyand talked. Then I remember her turning the light out, her breath again on my neck, the weight of her body, her hair. Her voice.

“Kiss me.”

It was tangled, fuzzy, blown out like a speaker. I’d been sleeping on the couch, which offered little room. My head swam laps. Light peaked through the blinds, the sound of wind rushing branches against the windows. We made our own noise. I don’t remember sleep.

The next morning I was left alone with a slip of paper, addressed to Will, with no name. Her cursive was slanted and loopy.

Tonight I think I’ll walk alone I’ll find my soul as I go home

My flight left later that evening and my girlfriend met me at the airport smiling, waiting with a kiss.

—Nick Graveline