Hanif Abdurraqib’s new monthly column, Notes on Pop, muses on the relationship between songs and memory.
I find myself most aware of silence when I am thinking about the many ways it can be punctured. Under the wrong circumstances, a hospital room can become a symphony of noises, each of them courting the worst of a person’s anxieties. There might be an incessant but inconsistent beeping, or the sounds of several machines doing the work of keeping a person alive. It is a privilege to be told that someone you love is going to survive. The message comes from some exhausted doctor, eager to give the good news after the tests, or the surgery, or whatever else. I have also been on the other side: knowing that I would be watching a person I love slowly fade until they vanished altogether, and understanding there’s nothing that can be done.
There’s something uniquely challenging about the moments in between, when the good news of a person’s continued living is delivered, but they still have to stay in a hospital room for a few more days before they can go home. From far enough away, underneath a wave of monochromatic hospital blankets, it can be hard to tell if someone is still breathing. Particularly if you’ve already imagined a world without them in it. If you’ve spent enough time imagining someone as dead, it can be difficult to visualize them as simply sleeping. I don’t love hearing the beeping and the sonic hiccups of hospital machinery, but it is worse not to hear anything.
I had never spent a night with someone in a hospital until my early twenties, with a person I cared about a great deal who was dangerously unwell and then suddenly well, but not so well that she could leave the haphazardly wallpapered hospital room. At the time of her hospitalization, my friend’s parents couldn’t make it back into the country from a long trip they were on. The hospital, in a gesture of understanding, allowed me and two of my other friends to pose as family members. We took rotations, watching anxiously over the hospital room and its cacophony of worrisome tunes. My other two pals had stable, serious, adult jobs, but I was a slacker, working part-time at some chain bookstore. With that in mind, I was the one who stayed overnight.
In “Night Shift,” Lucy Dacus sings “I’m doing fine / trying to derail my one-track mind” and it sits in the exact right place in the song—early in the first verse, before the all of the instruments pull up to the feast. Sung slow, so that a listener can feel the weight of every word. A line like this, sung like this, has maybe been traveling toward me for an entire lifetime. When someone you love is alive but still not home, it might be impossible for you to think of anything other than death. In the hospital room, I was given a couch to sleep on, but the couch was shorter than I was, so I stared at the vines and flowers spilling into each other along the peeling wallpaper. I didn’t sleep much, pacing the room every hour and staring at the blankets laid across the sleeping body, waiting in the dark for them to slowly rise.
There are many different night shifts, and I will admit that some of them have enticed me with the romance of moving through the world while everyone else sleeps, and sleeping while everyone else consumes whatever the world has to offer. I suppose this is how I was seduced into the front-desk job I held at a hotel on the edge of a Columbus suburb back in 2007. You needed no experience, just a willingness to be upright and kind of awake, and I figured I could pull off at least one of those things. I was crawling out of a breakup that I didn’t know how to write about or talk about. In those days, I imagined daylight hours as no time to build a graveyard for memory. I couldn’t do what I needed to among the waking, forcing myself to run errands or pulling the shades down against the sun. No, in the middle of the night was when I would piece myself back together.
Sometime in the second verse of her song, when the instruments are inching closer to their promised chaos, Lucy Dacus sings: “Now bite your tongue / it’s too dangerous to fall so young,” and I think of the grand work of getting over someone and the many ways I’ve gone about it. The time I decided to run a full marathon two months after a split. Or how I still shed my record collection with every new breakup and begin to rebuild it in the months after. These, for better or worse (often worse) are my ways of talking through longing and loss with myself. Dacus is a great songwriter, sure. But greater, even, is her ability to make an internal dialogue feel like a conversation with an old friend, which is all getting over people has ever been for me. Talking myself into circles as if the whole world is listening to confirm my worst and wildest ideas.
In my night shift at the hotel, I watched late-night shows on a TV drowned in static. When I began to memorize the 3 AM infomercials, around my fourth day on the job, I brought in a small DVD player and some DVDs from home. I watched His Girl Friday nearly every night, pulled from a Cary Grant box set that had been collecting dust on a shelf. I figured if I had that movie playing, and any guest came in, they would assume it was just something already on the television. But few guests came. A couple would stumble in drunk and excitable or sober and tired every two nights. Mostly it was just me, figuring out ways to archive not only my heartbreak, but the onslaught of memories fueling it. From where the hotel sat, a person could walk outside at night and not see much of anything but darkness for what felt like miles. It was rare for the sky to feel this big in a city, but it did from our little corner. When I’d drive home after my shifts, that same sky would be a quilt of new colors, unfurling to make room for the sunrise. Sometimes, all that it takes to get over someone or something is waking up. You wake up one day, and you’re fine. It is all a matter of how and what the night shifts. On my last day at the hotel, I made the mistake of sitting down at 3:30 in the morning. I fell asleep in a chair behind the desk and was jarred awake by the echo of a man hitting a bell at the front desk nearly two hours later. He was, perhaps, not entirely sober. He didn’t want anything in particular, he told me loudly. The sun was just coming up, he said. And it looked like it was going to be a good one. He didn’t want me to miss it.
I quit the job the next day, after just three weeks. I quit because I wasn’t sad anymore, though there isn’t a good way to say that out loud while hoping for a reference from a former employer.
In the early stages of my current relationship, my partner and I were separated by three hours worth of time zone, with me on the later end. Being in a long-distance relationship worked on the parts of myself that became selfish while I wasn’t looking. If her day finally became quiet at 8:30 PM, we’d make plans to talk then, even though it would be 11:30 PM my time, and I’d be otherwise winding down. I would, eagerly, choose the excitement of staying awake in bed on the phone or with a grainy Skype video in front of me, unraveling all the threads of potential within this new romance.
There’s something about staying up late on the phone that, for me, still feels like getting away with something. Lucy Dacus asks “Am I a masochist?” and though the impulse for asking isn’t the same, I found myself in the grips of that same question. Fighting to stay awake on the phone with someone is romantic, even if the mornings after are less so. But it all becomes worthwhile, when you understand that the voice is the only thing that can bring you close to someone you wish were in arm’s reach.
I learned to value the way a voice can interrupt longing. How it builds a bridge that feels real from the place you are to the place you want to be. How its familiar sound can heal and reassure under even the worst circumstances. The thing about a hospital’s silence, the thing that has always haunted it for me, are the moments when a person you love cannot speak. If they are not awake or unmoving or hooked to machinery. Even after a doctor promises they’ve made it out of the woods. I just want to hear the voice of someone I care for, telling me they’re going to be okay.
Children are made to believe miracles happen in the night. A tooth, free from the mouth’s grasp, becomes currency. From underneath a tree, gifts appear. All of this happens while the eyes are closed, which means that, for the curious, staying awake to peep the miracle becomes a duty.
I didn’t grow up with those particular mythologies. No tooth fairy, or Santa, or Easter bunnies. If I lost a tooth, my reward was the opportunity to grow a new tooth in its place. But I still love the night for what opportunities it might offer in the way of witnessing. Even the unspectacular looks more spectacular when colored by the moon. Broken and mended hearts, alleyways where the whites of dice glisten like small exposed bones, the bar that closes and the parking lot that doesn’t, and, mostly, the potential to dream and not remember anything but the fact that you were granted a chance to dream.
I like a song that sprawls. Six minutes or longer. It’s the potential in it that I love—the song has more space to stretch out and transform. There is a payoff at the end for whatever it circles in the beginning. When the song ramps up, and all of the instruments hungrily stumble over each other, Lucy Dacus wrings the feeling out of the back end of the chorus: “In five years I hope the songs feel like covers / Dedicated to new lovers.”
That’s the miracle, too. The impossibility isn’t in the breakup, but in whatever comes after. The very fact that someone can be driven to write a love song and then a breakup song about the same person. The thing that happens when people are with someone and they can’t imagine a world without them. The thing that happens when people fall out of love and can’t imagine the world they had before. The song, becoming something newer and better as an old wound closes, or a new wound opens up. The pink light of dawn is a salve or a scar, depending on who is doing the looking and what the night offered up or stole away.
Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio.