Rough N' Tender
Tom Mahony
Break

When I first hear Rough N' Tender on the radio, the song hits me on a deep emotional level. The melody, lyrics, and guitar solo are catchy yet profound. I can't get the song out of my head. It massages some intense pleasure center in my brain. I download the song and listen to it over and over. It sounds better each time, richer. The layers are subtle and complex.

I play Rough N' Tender for my wife. She shrugs indifferently. I try to interest friends and family in the song, but the response is lukewarm. There is not enough time in the day for such a song, they insist. There are obligations to work and family, and we already have Freebird when time allows. What's so special about that song?

It seems I'm the only person obsessed with Rough N' Tender. There's virtually no chatter about it on the internet and I only hear it on the radio during obscure hours. I listen to it relentlessly in my office, house, and car. It starts to define who I am and what I'm about. I am Rough N' Tender. I consider getting the name tattooed on my arm, but abstain only due to my fear of needles.

To my surprise, the song slowly infiltrates the general populace. Friends who had previously ignored the song send me links to it insisting: You have to hear this. You must. It's very important that you listen to this. You must listen to this or I will beat you senseless. The song receives heavy radio play and goes viral on the internet.

But as Rough N' Tender climbs the charts and becomes ubiquitous it fails to access my pleasure center like it did before. I keep listening, hoping to recapture the magic. I play it louder, tweak the equalizer, sip green tea—then green tea with a dash of whiskey, then straight whiskey—but nothing helps. I take a break from the song and return to it, but it sounds flat and stale. I stop listening to it altogether, but the melody sticks in my head. The solo wakes me in the middle of the night. The lyrics enter my brain during unrelated discussions, and I get distracted and confused.

Soon Rough N' Tender dominates the popular culture. The song is played at Hollywood galas, during the opening credits of a hit sitcom, as a rallying cry at sporting events, as the featured act on late night talk shows. It serves as the theme song to a corrupt politician's re-election campaign. There is a benefit concert for starving children featuring Rough N' Tender, talk of a blockbuster movie based on the song, casting for a television cop series with a "rough" on-edge detective slapping around criminals in the interrogation room and his "tender" partner who talks smoothly and scores women. The song wins every prestigious music award and many more that are less prestigious and a few that are downright odd and it's soon apparent that award shows are just an inbred circle jerk.

At this point I despise Rough N' Tender. I can no longer listen to the radio, watch television, or browse the internet for fear of hearing the song. When I enter a fast food drive-thru and a chipper voice blasting through the loudspeaker offers me their newest meal, which is inspired by the song—the Rough N' Tender Spicy Chicken Sandwich—I have a minor nervous breakdown.

My only refuge is my wife, who has always been vaguely hostile to the song. I can hang out with her and the song never comes up in conversation and I don't hear the music in my head or even think about it. But for my birthday, she surprises me with two tickets.

What are these? I ask.

Concert tickets, she says, front row. They're coming to town next week. I can't wait to hear them play Rough N' Tender. I've booked us a limo.

I drop to my knees and weep.

I knew you'd be excited, she says. You were right all along. I'm really starting to like that song.

I recall the time when it was just me and the song, when life made sense, when something mattered. Between sobs I allow myself, for just a moment, to long for the days when I was Rough N' Tender.

Tom Mahony is a biological consultant in California with an MS from Humboldt State University. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in dozens of online and print publications. His first novel, Imperfect Solitude, was published by Casperian Books in 2010. His second novel, Flooding Granite, was published in 2011. Visit his website at tommahony.net.