The Last Slow Song
a short story by David Levinson
About the Author
David Samuel Levinson is the author of the story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will (Viking Penguin UK, 2004), as well as two novels, the most recent being Tell Me How This Ends Well (Hogarth, 2017).
He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received fellowships from Yaddo, the Jentel Foundation, Ledig House, the Santa Fe Arts Institute and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, among others. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, RE:AL, storySouth, The James White Review, The Brooklyn Review, Prairie Schooner, The New Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, and more. He also teaches creative writing.
That night, I rode my bike out of Red Hook to Tam’s, passing through the quiet streets and across the BQE. She lived in Cobble Hill, which at one time had been incredibly affordable, but recently had become clogged with baby-strollers and mean-eyed Jamaican and Polish nannies who surged down sidewalks as if they owned them.
I had keys to Tam’s apartment, which she’d given me a couple months before, not out of any romantic impulse but out of pure, practicable need; when she went out of town, on tour with the band, I went over to water her plants and collect her mail. I grabbed her mail now — bills mostly for Tamara Wing, a card for Tamara Pulaski. She’d changed her last name long ago as a way to rid herself of the final vestiges of her family in Pittsburgh. The card was from her mother, Marjorie.
I let myself in to find Tam on the couch with Otto, her writing partner. They sat there talking softly as Tam cried silently, big, fat tears that reddened her eyes and slid down her cheeks, which Otto caught and wiped away. It wasn’t such a confusing or unusual scene, my girlfriend melting down like this, my girlfriend cracking up into spluttering heaves. I assumed another gig had been cancelled, another song rejected. She’d been working on her music for years and though she’d had some minor success, her friends had more, six-figure deals and the backing of huge labels and it all overwhelmed her. Who wasn’t afraid of being left behind?
I pushed into the room, which was hot and unfriendly, with a surfeit of ions that bumped my skin and brought out a sweat on my upper lip. I had no cause for alarm, yet there I was, alarmed by this business of tears and charged intimacy. Tam shot up when she saw me and, leaving Otto on the sofa, rushed at me, thrusting her body against mine and burrowing her face in my neck. I brought a hand up to her cool, black hair, damp and reeking of smoke. Suddenly, I smelled the beer in the room, the fermentation on her breath as she pulled back and said, “We got a soundtrack, Dan,” and then she was weeping again, blinking past me as if to gauge the world through new and successful eyes.
Otto was up then, gathering empty bottles of Rolling Rock as I slit my eyes and glared at him. Six years of sobriety lost in a moment, six years of meetings and midnight phone calls and trips to the therapist three times a week. Medications to get her up, get her out, keep her steady, help her sleep. Yet, she seemed happier than I’d ever seen her, buoyant and confident and light.
Returning from the kitchen, Otto held the phone in his hand and said, “Where’s everyone going, Tam?” He was a big, out-of-shape man in his forties, with spiky white hair and creepy, bulging blue eyes, which swept the room back and forth looking for what I had no idea.
“We’ll figure that out once they get here,” she said, as I drew a finger along her prominent cheekbone, glazing the tight, warm skin. “You’re going to stay, right, Dan?”
It was our one-year anniversary, though she’d forgotten this, caught as she was in the afterglow of good news. The night was a surprise of candlelight and flowers, of sex and room service at one of the fancier hotels in the city.
I pulled away from Tam and said, “You have fun. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“But, Dan, sweet Dan, I need you here,” she said, and stared off into the kitchen, at the fridge, which was no doubt full of beer. I felt the struggle in her, a deep, muscular tension to hold off her celebratory thirst.
While Otto buzzed someone into the building and the door made that tiny hiccup, as the wind rushed the stairs, Tam took my hand and led me into the bathroom. Once there, she lunged for my lips and slid her sour tongue into my mouth. I broke away from her and stepped into the bathtub, the only available space.
“What is this? What are you doing?” I said, noticing the pristine, white grout, the smooth porcelain surfaces, which the overhead light caught and sparkled. There was an ordered sanity to the bathroom that at once freaked me out and calmed me down. Shampoo and conditioners lined up from shortest to tallest, the labels turned out, each one spaced exactly apart. The laundered washcloths were folded in neat squares. I felt as if I’d stumbled into a secret room, where Tamara Wing fought off Tamara Pulaski, not through the mood-stabilizing drugs — Klonopin, Welbutrin, Paxil — arrayed in her cabinet but through the Comet and Ajax she kept under the sink. It was the only clean room in her apartment.
“I’m a butterfly, I’m a moth. I’m molting, molting, molting,” she said, as if she were the Wicked Witch of the West.
“You’re drunk,” I said.
“I’m happy,” she said. “Sue me.”
“I don’t have to,” I said. “Because you’ve already lost the case.”
“That is so weak,” she said, opening the bathroom door as the apartment filled with the band and the band’s friends and friends of friends and the music was tremendous and swallowed my anger and disappointment whole. Tam drifted away in a wake of stone-cold apathy and at the door, setting down the mail, which I’d been holding since I arrived, I gave one last look around and saw her say to no one and everyone, “No autographs, please.”
“The Last Slow Song” Copyright ©2005 by David Levinson.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author.