Outside above the harbor,—Denis Johnson, “Traveling”
clouds were moving freely over the sun’s face,
and the shifting illumination in the place
made it seem we were traveling.
I don’t know if my parents were in the middle of an argument, or if it had already ended, or if it was about to start. Their fights, at this point, were a regular fixture in our family life. It was 2000 or 2001. I couldn’t see Mom’s eyes—I was hiding, directly above my parents, on the second level of a water tower-cum-boutique vacation rental—but I recognized the visceral, sweeping pain the argument caused her. I can still find its remnants these days over Zoom: in her knuckles, white and nervous, and in her face, the way her wrinkles crease along her cheeks, below her eyes, canals for tears. Even as quarantine wanes and restrictions loosen and we endure another wave of infections and deaths, we live on different sides of the country. It could be years before we’re in the same room again.
If they couldn’t see me, my parents figured, I wasn’t there. I pressed my ears to the floor, trying to catch their every word, wanting to hear none of it.
With its litotic title, Sinéad O’Connor’s second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, is built, first and foremost, on a lie—or at least on a muddying of the truth. It’s difficult to accept its multiple, unprovoked negatives as a forthright declaration. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. “Feel So Different,” the album’s opening track, is constructed almost exclusively of absences: “I am not like I was before,” O’Connor sings, stretching out her vowels, reminding us of her existence. “I thought that nothing would change me.”
Three possible adaptations of the original title: I Want What I’ve Got, I Do Not Want What I’ve Got, and I Want What I Haven’t Got. Is one any better or less painful than the others? In my opinion, no. Each comes with its own curse.
I woke up—I pretended to wake up—somewhere in the middle of the album and descended the stairs. I had been expecting someone to rouse me, to return us to a family unit, to release me from my self-imposed second-floor exile. In the kitchen, to my surprise, I found my parents dancing, throwing their hands in the air, sliding about the room. I’m almost certain they hadn’t resolved their argument; I know now that their relationship would soon reach its inevitable end. By all evidence, they haven’t spoken in years. But here they were, laughing, smiling, as if nothing had happened, as if their anger had flared and disappeared in a vacuum.
I’ve heard that if you smile hard and long enough, you can eventually make yourself happy. I’ve tried it in moments of heartbreak or despair, and it sometimes works. But mostly it doesn’t.
O’Connor’s singing throughout the album is aspirational, often reaching for a note or a pitch that’s just out of reach. When her voice strains, I imagine her chords constricting, depriving her lungs of oxygen, hurtling her toward death’s door. “Why can’t you just leave it be?” she croons in an upbeat chorus, a warning as much to herself as to the object of the song. I know this feeling. I’ve found myself, recently, so angry at the world. I don’t know where it came from. One morning about a month ago I woke up, and, like a cockroach, there it was. I can tell my brain not to think certain thoughts (like how I feel that with this distancing I’ve lost some friends, some of the second family I cobbled together, when the truth is I lost them years ago)—but isn’t telling yourself to not think about something the same as thinking about it? In the album’s final song, the a cappella title track, I hear O’Connor inhale sharply before each line, and I realize I’ve been holding my breath too. As much as I Do Not Want is an album that’s pretending to be something it isn’t, trying to be hopeful in the face of despair, it’s also one to which my family and I could pretend, for a few minutes, to be a family.
At “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the album’s undeniable highlight, Mom began to sing along. Her voice warbled, halted, stretched. I’ve always thought the great singers are the ones who say they can’t sing, who are self-conscious of the way their voices sound. These days I live with a woman, Danielle, who is like this, and she has the best voice I’ve ever heard. “I went to the doctor and guess what he told me,” Mom bellowed. “He said, ‘Girl, you better try to have fun. No matter what you do.’ But he’s a fool.”
When the song was over, without a word, Mom went to the CD player, an old beat-up boombox, and played the track a second time. We had to hear it twice, to hear it perfectly. I think now, in retrospect, of Rachel Kushner’s anecdote about Denis Johnson reciting his poem “Traveling” three times: once for rhythm, once for effect, and once “to try to remember what work he’d originally thought the poem might do.” Nobody—not me, not Dad—protested. I believe Mom wanted to live in that moment for a little while longer, that already she anticipated what was to come. I believe that in spite of themselves my parents wanted me, us, to have this. I saw tears catch in Mom’s eyes, before she quickly wiped them away.
Years later, heading off to college, I grabbed the CD of I Do Not Want for myself, stuffing it in a suitcase next to a small bag of dried-out cannabis. Why did I take it? I can’t say. When a water tower is converted into a living space, each floor becomes progressively smaller: it rises to a point until finally there’s not enough room to move, only enough space for one. I’ve found, in my time in this world, that it’s often easier to act without thinking. Life can be easier when you don’t think too much about why you feel the way you do.
Mom must have noticed the CD was gone—it’s one of the few she kept in the transition to iTunes and Spotify—and I suspect she knows I was the thief. In an act of generosity, or guilt, she’s never brought it up. She has granted me, in this way, an incredible opportunity: to forget. To move forward without the burden of the past.
Yet here I am, writing this, still playing these same songs, trying to remember the work they once did for me. I Do Not Want is what remains of a life I haven’t got, and a small part of the life I do. Yesterday I streamed the album three times, once in the morning, once in the afternoon, once at night. Each time I was tempted to dance. In fairy tales, it takes not one, not two, but three times to make something real. “I feel so different,” O’Connor repeats. “I feel so different. I feel so different.”
The thing is: even if we don’t believe it, even if we don’t want it to be true, she is different. We all are. By the time you read this, I’ll have moved to Atlanta. I’ll be a new person. Less angry, I hope, and kinder. Perhaps distance, knowing that I can’t see my parents and friends without putting myself and them danger, will make me want them all the more.
On the third rotation, Danielle still at work in the other room, I gave in. I was alone, but I still felt nervous, or embarrassed. I moved awkwardly, self-consciously. Do I shake my hips or my feet or both? Where do I put my hands? It doesn’t come to me naturally, and I won’t lie and tell you it finally did here. I’ve always perceived myself as cruder and more grotesque than I probably am. But, in spite of myself, I danced. I closed my eyes and wiggled and tossed my body about the bedroom, letting my muscles take over, almost forgetting myself and where I was.
I recently adopted a dog, Rosie, possibly to fill the time or my heart. There are days when she wants to play or eat a treat, but a lingering fear from a life of trauma makes her second-guess herself. I can see her literally leaning in two directions, her body casting itself both toward and away from me. I’m sure you’ve heard that people choose pets that are like them. In this case, I think that’s true. It’s a kind of trust that convinces her in the end to take the treat—a willingness to believe, in spite of everything, that we can change. It’s a kind of trust that convinces me to dance. I can dance to I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and I can pretend for fifty minutes and nine seconds that things are alright, and I can know that I’m pretending, and I can know that as long as I find my way back, I’ll be fine.
— Dylan Fisher
Denver, day 80