Inside Out: The Story Behind “Emphasis”

This essay is the backstory for our song “Emphasis,” which you can listen to below or over here.

I was waiting in an exam room at the emergency veterinary clinic when I found out my cousin had succumbed to the vodka he would not, could not stop drinking. I hadn’t been thinking about him at all — not the blond boy who used to ask me to feather his hair, not the star fashion student at Parsons School of Design, not the young man who’d lost several coveted jobs and his apartment in New York City. I was thinking about my 18-year-old cat, who had kidney issues and an unsettling nighttime wheeze. Recently, there’d been moments when his hind legs went out, rendering him temporarily unable to stand. I had composed my face to display calm concern. Underneath, every artery pulsed, please, please, please.

The main waiting room had offered soft couches, glossy magazines, an aquarium and several people holding hope about pets that had gotten into a scrape. But this secondary vestibule was a sort of isolation booth, windowless, with doors at both ends and beige floor to ceiling. It served as a purgatory where visitors were forced to release any blind optimism harbored in the initial waiting room, and face the judgment handed down by a wise vet.

Mine had a gentle bearing and black caterpillar eyebrows. He was sweetly apologetic when he picked up my cat to take him from this room to one deeper inside the bowels of the building for an ultrasound. He asked if I wanted to return to the main waiting room, as it could be a while. I said no, wanting to feel somewhat geographically closer to my cat in this confounding warren of oddly shaped waiting spaces.

The exam room contained a wooden bench, a small chrome table and one poster. But unlike the whimsical animal posters of the main waiting area, this one was an academic illustration, titled Chelonian Anatomy. It showed a turtle, stomach side up, his bottom shell removed to reveal different cutaways of bodily systems: skeletal, muscles, gastrointestinal, respiratory, circulatory. I took notes on the functions in an attempt to distract myself from how long the ultrasound was taking. But I kept wondering: Where exactly was the ultrasound room? The clinic was so chopped up, with so many doors leading to unseen places — I felt disoriented and a little seasick, as in a dream when you are stumbling through an unfamiliar building, unsure and afraid of what’s around the next corner.

My phone rang and it was my mother, calling from her home in Virginia. She asked if it was an okay time to talk. I said I was at the vet, waiting for some tests on Pepe. She said she hoped he was okay, and then her voice choked as she said, “Bren died.” My cousin, her sister’s son, had been found dead in his apartment. Not yet 40, he had been an alcoholic for years, in and out of rehab. He had moved back to Kansas and was working occasionally for a small shop, doing window displays and making pretty bracelets. He would call me sometimes wanting to chat, entirely unaware that it was 3 a.m. in Seattle. I could never get a grip on where he was calling from, picturing him in a hallway or a lobby, some transitory place.

Though we never lived in the same town, the cousins were close. As we grew up, our little group fondly teased each other about the different fads and philosophies we embraced. I kept hoping the drinking was another phase he’d grow out of, like frosted hair tips. On the phone he always told me he was doing better, that he was thinking of moving back to New York. But he had recently been brought to an emergency room after a stranger found him lying on a public walkway late at night, unresponsive. The doctors did a head scan and discovered that prolonged heavy drinking had caused his brain to shrink. They said his system couldn’t withstand much more. If he didn’t stop he was going to die.

Still, I was naive. When I heard my cousin had said, “I can’t live like this,” I took heart. I thought that meant he was going to turn himself around and get back to being a creatively gifted guy with an infectious, gasping laugh. But the alcoholic storyline has two possible endings.

It seemed like all of a sudden when the vet finally returned to the exam room with Pepe curled into his arm. He said the ultrasound didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. I don’t know what I looked like in that moment but the vet’s eyebrows registered alarm. I’m sure my face was wrong, given his benign news. I hadn’t had time to put the pieces back in the right order.

— Brangien

Song 1 of 11

I was waiting for you to snap out of it
I think I thought you’d come back out of it
but when I saw your hands were shaking
oh my god it was so heartbreaking
even then I did not get it
I can’t believe how I misread it
when you said, “I can’t live like this”
I thought you meant like this
I thought you were gonna change like this
but it’s all in the emphasis
I was waiting in a waiting room
when I found out that the waiting was through
on the phone my mother’s voice was shaking
oh my god it was so heartbreaking
and on the wall was a turtle poster
on his back he could not turn over
when you said, “I can’t live like this”
I thought you meant like this
I thought you were gonna change like this
but it’s all in the emphasis
it’s all in the emphasis

The Argument is Brangien Davis and Daniel Spils. Learn more about the band here: How The Argument Started and 1 of My 43 Things.

The Argument is releasing 11 songs in 11 weeks on Medium. Sign up for new song updates.

Thank you for listening.