#406: PJ Harvey, "Rid of Me" (1993)

Last time there was a working bulb in that socket, I watched her through the mirror, in the shower, as she tossed her head back and around the way women know how to do. While sloughing off  the water hung up in all that hair seems like the primary intention of this motion, it’s just a secondary effect of a much more engaging ritual. A mystery is demonstrated when a body traces one momentary arch in space, there’s your primary purpose: the translation of subtlety into raw power, the way women know how to do. The Greeks talked a lot about furies and passions.  She knew the difference, and conflated them per her whim, blazing and terrifying as retribution and then the lightbulb blew, and then the light just went out. The explosion feathered tiny shards of glass onto the tile like moths. It was an unimpressive sound, I know, but noises get louder in dark bathrooms and the report felt like we were tied together and shot out of a cannon into night, like a release, like somebody putting a fire out.

Nobody ever changed the bulb, so I piss in the dark by echolocation now. Hand planted on the tile above the commode, tapping out a rhythm as though there’s a song in my head or I’m waiting. Sometimes I mumble melodies and words: “Show yourself to me and no one else. I’ll believe you.” But there are no words, no signs. Nothing. “Speak,” I’ll say, “I’m listening. God’s Truth. I’m not lying.” Nothing but the sound of a guy with his dick in his hand, listening for that pitch in the water—deeper in the middle than at the edges, like a tympany—that means you’re hitting your mark, finding some center, finally and for the first time in who knows how long. “Mary. Jane. Pollyanna. Where are you hid?”

She slept sometimes. After fever, after hair doused in gasoline got set alight and set free, and with all the blizzards and demons cast out noisily, then fury calmed, menace hibernated, and passion remained like a halo. I watched the moon come up through the window once. It laid a hazy, gauzy pall on our skin as it eclipsed behind the pendulous arm of a street lamp outside. Those high-pressure sodium vapor bulbs generate this ricking, tacking buzz; the same molecules that float in the ocean excited into a glow that, my hand to God, is the closest synthetic approximation of moonlight you’ll see.

In all the old ballads, everybody’s pure, virginal skin is described as lily white; she slept as I watched the earth’s only satellite swing through the sky, and as I thought of a Cold War and of Yuri Gagarin, and as I wished that I could follow him as he chased Apollo who never knew that the sun could even set, and as I saw the moonlight and the streetlight on our skin, I saw that we were not lily white, that we were less than lily white.

Tonight at the foot of my bed there are stars at my feet. Outside, through the threadbare strokes of the mad sextet who practices infrequently and poorly down the hall, I heard a human howling. I was quickened and terrified by what sounded like someone actively, violently, removing their own leg in a panicked effort to forget a terminal, aching fever in the head.

That night, as she swung from the ceiling, she told me some things. Damn your chest-beating. Please just stop your fucking screaming. Good Lord, you never stop. I’m bleeding. Just you stop your screaming. She screamed this at me and called me by my name, Henry Lee, until I knew her words by heart, until I felt my heart become bigger, until I learned how to walk again with tenderness and rage in me: loud, and with a reason, with passion and fury and ecstasy. Ekstasis: outside of one’s self; so said the Greeks.

And I thought that maybe I had never come back after that light bulb exploded, and so I dressed and went out into the street.

Somebody was playing a Bob Dylan cover somewhere which should have been more pleasant, but which sounded like something breaking hard. I walked in the dark in wide train track circles under security lights. I crawled on my belly beneath a fence to the creek where storm-water overflow runs in miles of concrete basin. I watched ripples in the darkness for some time from the brush and bramble, and a snake wove between my legs, and I was reminded of what I’d heard: that our pre-human ancestors, the ones with acute vision, our ancestors who were better at seeing things like snakes in the grass; they were the ones who didn’t get bitten, who didn’t die from snake bites, and who had children, and by this winding, generations-long mechanism, human vision, the ability to see danger in dim light, increased. I thought of the return of the Year of the Snake and of the divinity of calendars, the divinity of wide wide arcs transecting space, and that you could stand still, for a lifetime, and take solace knowing that at least you’d ridden on the back of something, measuring the length and breadth of thunderstorms and birthrights, standing on the shoulders of a fifty-foot queen who has demands of her own.

I crawled under the fence, came back from the wastelands, and a dry smoke in the streets obscured my vision again, though it could have been the fog of morning that I caught in the face, that moistened my eyes. I wandered in the direction of home as the sky blushed through all the shades of dawn—peach and plum and Rose of Sharon—I saw a woman alone at a bus stop, gesticulating close to her chest, palm up, then pointing, as if in needful conversation with a confidant. As I drew near I saw a shawl, and a familiar calico, and, because it was day now, and not the night, the street light went out, the sodium vapor bulb given rest and repose, just as I walked behind her. I was unrecognized as the pretender. In answer to a question posed by her companion, whom I could not see, I heard her say this, only: …No. I’ve missed him.

I agreed, and I thought to myself, “Yes, I have missed him too. I too have missed him.”

—Joe Manning