While I was working on The Leavers, I made a mixtape that I’d listen to on my headphones while I wrote. Songs that my protagonists, Polly and Deming, might listen to. Songs that helped evoke certain scenes in the book.
I want to share it, and the sections from the novel that each song corresponds to, with you. For best results, turn it up.
Cat Power, “Manhattan”
He wandered out to the rooftop, the city spread wide like an offering, though he knew better than to admit he was impressed by the view. Upstate, snow was everywhere, the season in deep coma. Yet in the city there was minimal snow, heat lamps on the roof and bridges in the distance lit up like x-rays, and there was music, wordless and thumping, bulbs of gold and green, and dancing, arms and legs moving in slow, creeping motion, like animals stalking their prey.
TV on the Radio, “You”
I stepped in farther. The cold water made me curl my toes and the waves lapped at my shins in a sharper, faster way than the dark blue of the river in the village, yet here the sea was cleaner, grayer, larger, more angry and thirsty and beautiful all at once, not unlike New York itself. I took another step. The water was up to my waist. My teeth chattered, but the cold felt good.
Penny and the Quarters, “You and Me”
Winter was coming, yet the sunlight heated my scalp, and I sang “Ma-ma-ma” and my voice was as clear and sharp as morning birds. You squirmed against me. Love spun up like feathers.
Frank Ocean, “Sweet Life”
Just look at the man. Who else—besides you—had made me feel wanted, singular, different?
On the boat, Leon whispered so only I could hear. “What if you lived with me, Little Star? You and Deming?” I wanted to remember this moment even as it was happening, to imagine it as already gone.
David Bowie, “Sound and Vision”
Never had there been a time when sound, color, and feeling hadn’t been intertwined, when a dirty, rolling bass line hadn’t induced violets that suffused him with thick contentment, when the shades of certain chords sliding up to one another hadn’t produced dusty pastels that made him feel like he was cupping a tiny, golden bird.
Arthur Russell, “Come to Life”
Yi Ba’s boat was dark green; brown stripes exposed where the paint had peeled, a patched-over, fist-shaped dent at the helm, a punch from a hidden rock. I’d help him untie it and we’d push out into the current. “Lucky, lucky, lucky,” I chanted, watching the waves lap at the wood like hundreds of tiny tongues. Then the shoreline would grow dimmer and the blue would shoot in all directions, filling the frame around me, the sky so big it could swallow me, and I cracked open with happiness.
Jimi Hendrix, “Angel”
Deming unplugged the earbuds and replaced her iPod with his Discman. He forwarded to “Angel” and pressed play. The guitar and cymbals shimmered in their ears, and he sang along. Tomorrow I’m going to be by your side. Then he got afraid that Angel might think he was singing to her, that he liked her. He hit stop. “You like it?”
“It’s all right.”
“He’s only, like, the greatest guitar player ever in the history of the universe.”
She flipped open a container, exposing a yellowing plastic U. “Do you want to see my retainer?”
Grover Washington, Jr. and Bill Withers, “Just The Two of Us”
She promised she’d never leave him again on the day they found their doppelgängers. Back then, six-year-old Deming and his mother were still strangers to each other, but formed a satisfying pair. Short and thick, with the same wide noses and curly smiles, big dark pupils underlined with slivers of white, a bit of lazy in their gaze. Her hand was foreign in his; he was used to his grandfather’s warmer grip and more deliberate walk. His mother was too fast, too loud, like the American city he’d been dumped back into, and Deming missed the village, its muted gradients of grass and water, greens and blues, burgundies and grays. New York City was shiny, sharp, with riots of colors, and everywhere the indecipherable clatter of English. His eyes ached. His mouth filled with noise. The air was so cold it hurt to inhale, and the sky was crammed with buildings.
The Durutti Column, “Otis”
Without it I’d be dreaming of brown blankets and dogs, you waving to me from inside a subway train that leaves the station as soon I get to the platform. But the pill would push me down and swiftly under, to safety, and every morning I woke up dreamless, the hours between getting into bed and hearing the alarm clock—an urgent beeping from the shore as I struggled to swim to the surface—a dense void, eleven at night and six thirty in the morning only seconds apart.
Cavern, “Liquid Liquid”
There was only the city and its long, Lost Weekend: dancing at a party on a barge; a cab ride over the Williamsburg Bridge with Manhattan shining in the distance, five of them crushed into the backseat, a random girl on his lap, Roland in the front gabbing to the driver about intestinal flora or mushroom foraging; watching A Clockwork Orange late at night and stepping out into a Saturday sunrise, ferocious oranges and purples. Nights like these, the past and present and future rolled out in a sugary wave, everyone he’d ever known riding alongside him on a merry-go-round to a soundtrack of whistling calliopes.
Alicia Keys, “If I Ain’t Got You”
On the bridge above the Harlem River, an ice cream truck had tinkled its song, followed by the snort and stop of a bus. A car had rolled down its window, music pouring out, a woman singing, Some people want it all . . .
The music shot through his headphones in silver waves; it was the familiarity of feeling perfectly like himself.
Diane Coffee, “Green”
Unable to decide whether to hate Vivian or be grateful to her, Daniel had only been able to take the envelope and say, “Thank you.”
He dug his heels into the dirt and walked downhill, down the park’s curved side, slow at first, getting faster, a grace note as his legs bounced upwards.
He would go home. He would call Leon. Propelled, he was almost in flight.
The Only Ones, “Another Girl, Another Planet”
Deming did not want to hide. Three Alley and the Bronx had prepped him, and Planet Ridgeborough was the ultimate test. He had been specifically placed on this mission by his superiors to test his strength and patience. When he fulfilled his mission he would be reunited with his real family. Who were his supervisors? He had that figured out, too. They communicated, telepathically, in Fuzhounese, the language he didn’t have to try to hear. This mission made him brave. So he got out on the blacktop at recess, out there in the open, daring anyone to mess with him.