By all rights, it shouldn't have happened. You met him, after all, in a bar.Though he'd been there as many times as you had, and his sexual history was as incestuous as that of this whole awful town, you'd never once laid eyes on him before. Leaning on one elbow and absently chewing his straw, he stood by silently as his companion spoke in great drunken arcs beside you. The expression on his face was that of helpless boredom and hopeful expectation, and for a brief, sick moment the image of a child locked in a cage flashed in your mind before you chased it away with your own hopeful expectation. He was wounded, of that you were sure. You could see it in his eyes and smell it on his skin. You mentioned the fragrance (though not by name), then he sniffed his wrists and offered one to you for approval. Days later as he wrapped you in his arms so gently that it hurt, and your nose found warmth in his neck, you smelled something different--your scents commingled. Together they composed an aura of hope and despair, which, as usual, you mistook for hope and repair, your biggest, most enduring mistake to date.

He surprised you with gestures. A hand on your elbow as you crossed the street; an unexpected reference to your eyes; your own toothbrush in the cabinet when you spent the night. You suppressed the dread that coiled in your brain when he revealed a sudden, subtle knack for inflicting pain with well-placed silences--because he spoke so well through music. His stereo not working, he slipped a CD into a Discman as you sat on the couch, and carefully placed the headphones on your ears with a gentle kiss to each. The voice was sad and sweet with reverberation, the lyrics crept into your heart, flooding it with deep crimson lines of longing and possibility. It was Joseph Arthur and he told his story as if it were your own, about "being caught in between all you wish for and all you've seen." "When you showed me yourself, I became someone else," he said over loping guitar and lush strings, the occasional blast of mournful harmonica, alternately advancing and retreating in tone, and he sounded every bit as fearful as the two of you completing that intimate triangle when he wondered, "If I find my way, how much will I find?" You fell instantly in something almost like love, with the song and the person who wrapped it around your head like a gift.

(A month from then you'd be crying in a bathroom stall, high on painkillers and head in your hands, while Arthur sang that very song, "In the Sun," live, just 20 feet away.)

He told you your friends didn't like him long before they told you themselves. You told him that didn't matter, because you feared your friends wouldn't like you either if they knew the truth. Arthur put it this way: "I don't know who you are, coming out of my scar, driving my crashing car that needs a coat of paint."

It only took a matter of days for things to begin to decay, though you turned an unseeing heart to it as long as you could. Then, you made only quiet notice. The waning tenderness, the bored, distant looks, the hair elastic that wasn't yours on the bedroom floor. You spent all of your nights together and then you spent none together, although he promised that would change once he didn't have to work so many hours. But you were once too much like him to believe such excuses for long, because you wrote most of them yourself. You handed them out like notes tucked in fortune cookies to guys you were no longer interested in, but weren't yet finished with. They devoured them happily as you bartered your time until, as always, they began to hate you--because that's the only way you knew how to end things. You took solace in angry, ugly scenes because then the drama wasn't yours; it was theirs. They got too clingy and they made a big thing out of nothing, or so you'd tell yourself when, inevitably, it came violently to pass.

But at that moment, that album, an intoxicating seduction called Come to Where I'm From, let your mind spin forward to a place where wounded people found fortification in one another. They knew how to dress each other's fractures and stitch up the punctures that self-sufficient people inflicted with their ever-astute observations. "I feel like taking a razor blade and on my wrist, write an invitation. I feel like takin' a loaded gun in my mouth, blowin' up the ocean. Come to where I come from."

The two of you were a Bukowskian model of fucked-up misery in that bleak cinder block apartment, its kitchen almost an afterthought, wedged in the brief hallway between couch and bedroom. Even then it bothered you because dream therapy says the kitchen is symbolic of the soul (and life is but a dream), and that kitchen in particular was just a barely registering blip between seduction and passion.

He disappeared when you might have if he'd given you the chance to do it first. And later, when you looked at the picture without the music, it was of something you couldn't have believed in anyway. The truth was there all along. You both were feeding a multitude of addictions while pretending they had long since been sated, and before the sham was exposed, he became the question that would never be answered. But not before he brought out the behavior you despised most in yourself. The kind that, in the past, you'd brought out in so many others. "You are a rapist and your only victim. You are fact and you are fiction."

A month later you were at the Baltic Room, where Joseph Arthur was performing. You had a new guy in tow, someone who'd just moved to town, who you so hoped would be different from all those who lived here. You glanced up and saw the one who slipped out of your life, seated in the balcony, his arm around a self-conscious-looking girl as he surveyed the scene from above. You'd gained some knowledge in the weeks since he left, and because of that, his perch, and his choice of companion, struck you as fitting. You thought of Arthur's song "Speed of Light," and its consoling line, "And if you hate your life, just remember there used to be a time when we could not feel a thing." You hoped he'd play it next but instead he began "In the Sun," and suddenly you found yourself pushing through the crowd. The two songs juxtaposed were too much to take and you excused yourself and sought refuge in the bathroom. Crumpled on a toilet seat, your head in your hands, you wept silently as you realized that all it ever was was the music. And that's something you still had. Neither you, nor he, could ruin it.