#408: Sinead O'Connor, "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" (1990)

Devin decided to change. She told me to sit tight but then changed her mind. “Will you just look in on him?” she asked. “Make sure he isn’t dead.” She dropped her wine glass off on the kitchen counter and went back into her bedroom. I got up and peeked in on Troy, her boyfriend, passed out drunk in her waterless bathtub. He was face down and ass up. Orange vomit speckled the fixtures.

I watched his back inflate and deflate, inflate and deflate, and gave him a nudge with the tip of my shoe. I knew practically nothing about him besides what I could see right in front of me and what I’d heard from friends of friends, most of it not super flattering. He was tall, broad, handsome like a rock climber; he was also, I understood, a melancholic drunk who tended to grab things and shake them—like parking meters and people’s heads—and then get sad and apologize too much. Part of me wanted to pee into his beautiful hair. Instead, I backed out and quietly closed the door.

Down the hall, the door to Devin’s bedroom was open. I leaned just right and could see the bare skin of her back, the very edge of it, could see it stretch and move as she did, the shadows and indentations, the curve of it into her shoulder and the back of her neck. Then she moved forward and out of sight. Was maybe stepping out of her shorts.

“Drink another beer,” she said. She stepped into view again and in her movements I could make out the cage of ribs along her side, a purple cluster of bruises. In another scene I walked back to her bedroom, steady and with purpose, noiselessly, harmlessly, and pressed myself gently into her back, enveloped and coated her like warm wax. In this one I did nothing. I turned away, wondering how I’d arrived here, how my footsteps could possibly have brought me to this place.

I busied myself with her CD collection, which she’d stacked in tall crooked towers on a desk. “What time is it?” I asked.

“Oh, I think we’re beyond that by now,” she said. “It’s either late or it’s early.”

I wanted to glance back but kept my eyes on the cases. Browsing the titles I could trace our history, which stretched back like nerves. They were stacked in no discernable order but I started organizing them in my mind, finding all the points of intersection where our lives had overlapped and all the giant gaps in between where we’d drifted out of sight. So much of it was music that I hated—too caustic and pissy. She was “Bullet with Butterfly Wings;” I was “Tonight, Tonight.”

I ran my fingers over the spines, tapping each disc I recognized, marking them with invisible white dots. This one tasted like cigarettes and puke. This one felt like the worn cushion of a couch against my back in an un-air-conditioned apartment. This one was cold outside, and wet, and perfectly dark. This one had her fingers in my hair as I drifted near sleep. I turned around but Devin was nowhere to be seen.

At the bottom of one stack, pinned like a fossil under the strata, was I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. It took some doing, but I wedged it free. The case had a busted hinge and came apart in my hand, and suddenly Devin was standing next to me, her arm a vine around mine, her cheek on my shoulder. She’d put on old jeans and a tank top and had gathered her hair back in a messy bunch. She looked very tired.

“Aw lookit,” she said. “Look what you dug up.” She took the half of the jewel case that held the liner notes and started flipping through them. She burrowed her hand in mine, took it out again. “Oh man,” she said. She rubbed her eye on my sleeve, tossed the liner notes down and walked away. I plucked out the disc, examined it for scratches. It was in pretty good shape.

“Don’t play that,” she said from the couch. She held a long, thin paintbrush and a small jar of paint. She dipped the brush and started painting her toenails white. “I don’t want to hear that voice tonight. It’s too perfect.”

The voice was everything. I’d said as much years ago when I first played Devin the album. I liked the softness of it, she liked the spit. It was the only time our tastes in music had so perfectly overlapped. This one was a bone-cold winter and a week under heavy blankets, when we sucked each other’s breath and lay together with our clothes on, when we put vodka in spaghetti sauce, when we sat shivering on her roof and I flicked the cigarettes out of her mouth if she didn’t smoke them fast enough, when we watched the first and last fifteen minutes of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, when she pressed her nose to my temple and cradled my head in her arms.

It had been the voice—that voice which was strength and an ache, both delicate and jagged. I’d played her “Three Babies” and said, “Doesn’t this song make you want to weep?” She gave me a withering look, played “I Am Stretched On Your Grave” and said, “Doesn’t this song just make you want to fuck?” She played it over and over, that pulsing, rhythmic outro. She sang the words, though I could tell she’d never really listened to them, each time with a different look in her eye that I couldn’t quite seem to make sense of or translate quickly enough. We’d only tasted each other—only nibbled, never bit—and at the end of that week her father got sick and she’d gone home. I didn’t see her again for eight months.

I looked at her now, with her heel dug into the couch, staring emptily at her toes, and wondered if she was waiting for me to leave. From the bathroom came a thud that rattled the light fixtures. We both pricked our ears but neither of us moved.

“Maybe I should go,” I said. She looked at me but didn’t say anything. Her face was unreadable. “Should I go?” I asked, but got no answer. For a second I thought she might cry, though I’d never seen that before and would have no idea what it might look like. She finished one foot, brought the other up and started in on it.

I set the CD in its case and put the two parts carefully back together. I wanted to play it; I wanted it to communicate something for me. I thought about wedging it back into the bottom of the stack but then just left it where it was, sitting out separate from the others, figuring she could put it where she liked. There was another thump against the wall, but this time she did not look up.

I fidgeted, looked around. I thought she might be waiting for me to say something. “You want me to stay?” I asked.

She snorted. “Yeah. The three of us could have brunch together.” She leaned in close for the smaller toes. She was doing a pretty haphazard job, though she was staring intently.

“No, I mean.” I put my hands in my pockets, took them out again. “Devin, do you want me to stay?”

She laughed but it didn’t last, and when it was over her face went dim. Her mouth opened and closed and I could see her swallow. If there was something she was waiting to hear, this was as close as I would get to saying it. From the bathroom came a sound like strangulation and a series of poundings so violent I half expected a bare foot, a bloody elbow, to come bursting through the plaster. Devin looked at me and smiled.

“No,” she said. “Nope, I don’t.” She set down her paint and brush and stood up. We looked at each other over this long gulch. It was perfectly silent. Neither of us moved.

—Joe P. Squance