Remember your first? I remember my almost. We met at an English Studies conference panel in Greensboro, NC, where she gave a presentation on “Trauma & Mental Illness in Young Adult Fiction.” After that, we met in Chicago where we chaired a panel on “Suicidal Closure in Modernist Fiction.” Even though we lived on opposite coasts, and she was five years older, we began to develop intimacy quickly. At the next conference we rented a room together, and even though it was unstated, I, who was still a virgin, assumed we’d “get together.” We skipped the conference festivities, instead snuggling on the room’s king bed, murmuring about our childhoods, our depressions, our sexual questioning. I began to think, after a long absence, of a word like love. This is the way things ended between Manesa Gilnum, Ph.D., and I at the Modern Language Association conference in Austin, TX, on January 10th 2016, the night David Bowie died.
We were drinking at the Marriott’s bar when we learned of his death. She wore a long hoodie and yoga pants. I felt the condom in the pocket of my skinny jeans. We sat at the bar drinking for the third straight night and pretended to watch the Oscars on TV while everyone else gesticulated, discussing that year’s buzzwords: “digital humanities,” “Anthropocene,” “intersectionality.”
The pretentious babble was suddenly replaced by exclamations, shouts of “Who?” and “He What?” and “How?” Suddenly, everyone was intently scrolling through their phone’s apps.
It was then I saw the chyron <<Musician David Bowie Has Died>> scrolling across the screen, as an actress in a $40,000 dress held a trophy aloft and aimed smiles at flashing cameras.
Manesa and I splayed, slightly buzzed, on the bed, each checking our Twitter feeds and Facebook notifications. We traded information about reported causes of death, when we dressed up like Ziggy Stardust for Halloween (me: 2007, her: 2005), rumored references to death on Bowie’s new album, Blackstar. Then Manesa declared, “Okay, YouTube memorial. You first.” She opened her phone’s YouTube application.
“‘Life on Mars’?”
She found the song and snuggled against me, still dressed, closing her eyes.
As we listened to more— “Suffragette City,” “Changes,” “China Girl,” “My Death”—I stopped thinking of whether we’d indulge in sexual intercourse and began to reflect on the lyrics. In the wake of his death they seemed to possess a numinous, or secretive, meaning. We sang them together, humming when we didn’t know the words.
Her first choice, which she saved til morning, was “Under Pressure,” specifically the bridge. She sat up and said, “Listen, this explains me so well, why I have walls.” The bridge verse is structured as a back and forth between Freddie Mercury and Bowie. Mercury asks, repeatedly, why love can’t help the “pressure” the song speaks of, a very special pressure, a breakdown of society kind of pressure, or in Manesa’s case a personal breakdown. But Bowie cautions that it can’t, that this is our “last dance” because:
Love’s such an old-fashioned word/
And love dares you to care for/
The people on the edge of the night/
And love dares you to change our way of/
Caring about ourselves.
“Sorry,” Manesa said. “I don’t know what you expected from this weekend, but I can’t.” The sun had risen and we needed to catch our respective planes. She went into the bathroom, then returned to the doorway. She undressed in the threshold and for the first time I saw her naked body, scars on her thighs, wrists’s arteries, breasts: a flaunted vulnerability. “Don’t be scared of love,” she said, closing the door.
I took her advice, and worked to love more expansively, to develop a form of love that could change how I cared about myself and others—I was hurt many times, and other times I experienced the savage power of hurting others, but I’ve remained on the dance floor, as it were: this is our last dance, after all. So: “Just Dance.” Another Bowie song Manesa and I listened to that night, our unused bodies intertwined like deprogrammed DNA, neither knowing (as I do now, since the news of her act) we would never see each other again in this life.
James McAdams has published fiction in decomP, Superstition Review, Amazon/Day One, Literary Orphans, and B.O.A.A.T. Journal, among others, while presently shopping a collection of short stories. One of his works was nominated for a Pushcart 2019 by The Matador Review. Currently, he is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of South Florida. His work can be viewed at jamesmcadams.net.
Featured photograph by Joshua K. Jackson