Mixtape #16: Derrick and Patsy, “Housewife’s Choice”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
Mixtape #12: ABBA, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
Mixtape #13: Morphine, “Cure for Pain”
Mixtape #14: Beethoven, “‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, No. 5, Op. 73, Second Movement”
Mixtape #15: The Replacements, “Sixteen Blue”

*

Mixtape #16: Derrick and Patsy, “Housewife’s Choice”
2000

Your first apartment in Manhattan is 225 square feet and it’s all yours. The rent is more than you will ever pay again, even 17 years later, but it’s okay because you haven’t learned how to have a savings account yet, and you’re making it big as a freelance writer, writing and editing for the Internet. You are 24 years old. It’s the era of Web 1.0, dot-commers, and Silicon Alley, and there are start-ups everywhere in need of content writers. You make a dollar a word writing about tech culture. There are booze cruises at night, open bars where you can get wasted and dance to bad techno and go home with free messenger bags and T-shirts. One job you have sends the entire staff on an all-expenses-paid business trip to Maui for a week, where you have meetings in a resort and go whale watching and bike down a volcano. On the final night, the company pays for a futurist to give a special speech. He’s an older white man with a gray beard and long hair and a flowing black shirt printed with moons and stars, opining about how technology will change the world over platters of sashimi.

All these companies will go bankrupt in less than a year but nobody knows that yet.

Your boyfriend has his own start-up. He works fourteen-hour days, writes code and meets with venture capitalists. Mostly he is drunk, which suits you. You’d reconnected on a road trip over New Year’s, and when he dropped you off in Queens, where you had lived then, you invited him to come in. He didn’t leave for days.

On weekends you wander around the city together, sunshine and crowded sidewalks, and buy records and play scratchy rocksteady on your turntable. At night you go to shows, bars, and you puke in trashcans after last call. You think, I’ve never been happier; I’ve never been so in love. You read the Sunday paper in Tompkins Square Park, get coffee and walk down to the Brooklyn Bridge, where you stand in the middle, away from the tourists, and look out at the city and all its buildings. Maybe this is what it means to pray.

After you leave New York, you’re day drinking with friends in a bar in San Francisco and there’s a song on the jukebox that sounds so familiar, though you just can’t place it. Hush darling, you don’t know I love you or else darling, you wouldn’t have made me cry. A slow, smiley chorus, a song from a forgotten place, and all of a sudden you’re thinking of fire escapes and rooftops, but the song slips away before you can catch it, because someone is calling your name.

Mixtape #15: The Replacements, “Sixteen Blue”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
Mixtape #12: ABBA, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
Mixtape #13: Morphine, “Cure for Pain”
Mixtape #14: Beethoven, “‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, No. 5, Op. 73, Second Movement”

*

Mixtape #15: The Replacements, “Sixteen Blue”
January 2002

Pigeons, on a stranger’s rooftop in the Mission. I tiptoed around them with a girl I had just met. She whispered: “Did you ever have birds?”

Downstairs, the ex I was sleeping with, who was also sleeping with his other ex, who I’d met because my other ex had once slept with his other other ex, was passed out on the couch. He’d messaged me after I had gotten home from drinking with friends earlier, asking if I wanted to meet up. One day we were fighting and the next we were saying we missed each other. I wasn’t sure what we missed; it was like an addiction to junk food, or menthol cigarettes, something that made you ill, that didn’t even taste good. Maybe it was because we had gone through something significant together, that he, a near-stranger at the time, had been the one to see me break down while watching the World Trade Center collapse on the news while we were coming down off E. I hadn’t been able to get through to my father, who worked there, until six hours later.

Months later, we still couldn’t fully let each other go. An hour ago, when I was talking to another guy in the kitchen, he’d texted me six times in ten minutes to see where I was. It felt gratifying to turn him away, to have him be the desperate one.

Up on the rooftop my new friend and I smoked in the drizzle. We crouched down by the pigeons. “Whose do these belong to?” I asked. She said the name of someone I didn’t know, said something about training them. I told her about the birds I’d had as a kid, parakeets named Freddy and Bud and Max. They flew around our house, even stood on my shoulder. I remembered their sharp bird toenails poking into my skin. I pictured that house across the country and wondered what I was doing here, so far away.

It was raining in earnest now. Back downstairs the TV was on, a kid’s show, with an animated frog yelling, “vol-CA-no!” in a child’s voice. On the couch everyone had passed out. The animated frog’s shouts alternated with my ex’s snores.

It was 7:30 on a Sunday morning. I splurged on a cab ride back to my sublet, and the driver monologued about a guy he knew who got busted and another one who had died. I looked out the window at South Van Ness. The pigeons would fly over the wet rooftops, over the city, but they would always return home.

Mixtape #14: Beethoven, “‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, No. 5, Op. 73, Second Movement”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
Mixtape #12: ABBA, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
Mixtape #13: Morphine, “Cure for Pain”

*

Mixtape #14: Beethoven, “‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto, No. 5, Op. 73, Second Movement”
1986

Dad listened to this song when he first came to the US. He had the record when he was a student at Utah State. It was the early 1960s, and he’d moved to Logan, Utah from Manila. In Utah was winter all the time, he tells me, and everyone was white and Mormon.

You are ten years old and your father is 45. Dad has a glass of Scotch on the rocks; you have a glass of crushed ice and Pepsi that you’ve made flat by leaving it out on the counter all day—you despise carbonation—and you have arranged a perfect array of snacks on a metal tray your uncle bought as a souvenir from a business trip to Arizona. There’s an illustration of a cactus on it. The snacks consist of an entire block of Baby Chudder cheese, purchased at the Hickory Farms in the Paramus Park mall; and a handful of Ritz crackers. You alternate bites and sips in a blissful rhythm of snacking: flat Pepsi, Baby Chudder, cracker, Baby Chudder, Baby Chudder, flat Pepsi, Baby Chudder, Baby Chudder. It is perfection.

Dad sits on the couch and closes his eyes as Beethoven plays. Each note on the piano is like a tiny raindrop or a fingertip pressed to a temple or the smooth, soft concave center of a Smarties hard candy. The song nudges, nudges.

I used to listen to this song alone in my room, Dad tells you.

How old were you? you ask.

Twenty-five, he says.

It seems impossibly old.

I used to play this record and light a candle and sit in the dark in my dorm room and stare out the window, he says. In Utah.

You think of your father as a person younger than you’ve ever known him, a continent away from home. What is Utah? What is Mormons? What did he think of when he listened to this song? Did he miss his family, and was he scared?

You eat Baby Chudder and drink flat Pepsi and think about how alike you are, you and your father, and when you move away from home, you will listen to Beethoven at night alone in your room as well, and then you will call to tell him about it.

Mixtape #13: Morphine, “Cure for Pain”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
Mixtape #12: ABBA, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”

*

Mixtape #13: Morphine, “Cure for Pain”
1994

Around the turns they go, sixty miles an hour on a rural New Jersey road marked with a yellow sign with a black squiggle: treacherous turns. The car lurches. He jerks his hand on the stick shift, her hand gripped tight on the passenger-side door handle. His hair gleams in the sunlight. She studies his profile. The symmetrical face — her features are lopsided, a lazy left eyeball that somehow manages to drift into the center of her face whenever pictures are taken, crooked teeth — while his features are oversized, comical when glimpsed at a certain side angle. Wide, almost leery eyes; broad, square teeth; wide mouth; long nose. The blue of his eyes is thin, like the veins she can see beneath his skin. What is like, being him? She could never be him; she’d never want to. She thinks of golden retrievers romping. He lives in a world unfamiliar to her, a mixture of cheery naïvete and unseemly drama. His friends scare her, and the town feels further away from the city that it actually is, everything thrown into sharp relief. His complaints are of things she doesn’t understand, and at first they had felt like satire: the grudge against the waitress who’d looked at him the wrong way, the fit he’d thrown when he misplaced his keys and then found them, later that night. He couldn’t possibly be serious about these things, and to these depths, could he?

He’s older than her, and lives alone. There are secrets hinted at, that could partly explain the rage at the misplaced keys, how genuinely angry he seemed when he showed her an old illustrated story he’d written as an eight year old, yelling, “It’s so stupid, it’s such a baby thing, who wrote that? A baby! A baby!”

At other times he says things like, “I want to be with you forever,” and she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t decide if she’s comforted or frightened.

She is back in New Jersey in a fog of grief, interning at a publishing company and working as a receptionist at an insurance company. A friend of hers died recently, his car going off a cliff. She cut all her hair off and moved back in with her parents, who seem angry with her for growing up. They barely talk; she’s barely home. In the fall, she will go back to school.

He turns to her and says, “You know I’ll never hurt you. I’ll never hit you.”

She wonders if this is a joke, but then she realizes he’s serious.

I never thought you would, she is about to say, but he accelerates around the next turn and the motor roars. She grips the door handle even tighter and sees her friend’s car going down the cliff, again and again.

Mixtape #12, ABBA, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”

*

Mixtape #12: ABBA, “Knowing Me, Knowing You”
1970s

On the third day of the first genuine heat wave of the summer, the wilty too-tall corn plant in a dusty corner of the living room sprouted stunning white flowers out of nowhere and we threw a party for good luck. My mother swore this was Chinese tradition, that throwing a good luck party was what you did when a houseplant unexpectedly bloomed. My father said he’d never heard of such a tradition. I dropped handfuls of Andes mints into plastic ashtrays before guests arrived, eating one for every three I took out of the bag.

Tradition or not, no one could turn down a party. The cars arrived, one by one, from Queens and Brooklyn and Long Island. My father stood guard over the grill in flip-flops, a faded Spirit of ’76 T-shirt, and running shorts, basting a rack of ribs with a large pink brush slathered in barbecue sauce, while my mother set trays of noodles onto a plastic tablecloth and puffed her permed hair. I raced upstairs to wait in my bedroom for the house to fill up. I put my ear to the floor, carpet tickling my cheek, and heard muffled laughter. My heart beat faster.

After hugging hello to the uncles and aunties, I sat on the stairs with a Styrofoam plate of shish-ka-bobs and a cup of fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. The grown-ups danced; the other kids and I built pillow forts and played cards. My father poured drinks from a bottle of Johnnie Walker. If we were lucky, he’d walk on glass. In the kitchen, my mother piled plates with corn on the cob.

During heat waves, suburban lawns sat lush and steaming and each overextended day bled into the next. On days like these I would wait for the thunderstorms to come and the skies to crack open, rushing through the streets, feeding potholes. Outside, the air would smell moist and impatient, the sky heavy and yearning. We’d count the seconds between rumbles to see how close the rain was, pleading for lightning, the build-up, and thunder, the grand finale.

Going upstairs from a party was like entering a parallel universe. The house was busy with people but I was the only one on the second floor. Even my room, that sacred familiar space, felt different in the dark. The objects scattered on the floor looked foreign, like they were displays in a museum.

The storm was approaching. Rain was close, thunder rumbling low. In the living room things had slipped into chaos. A collective murmur rose over the drinking men, each of them jockeying to be heard, to be louder. Someone dropped her glass. Somebody else giggled. When the other kids left I’d lie in bed and listen to the music and laughter downstairs, comforted by the din of voices, the closeness of the crowd. Falling asleep to the party was almost as good as being at the party itself. It felt like nothing could ever go wrong.

Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”

*

Mixtape #11: TV on the Radio, “Staring at the Sun”
2005

During the four years that I lived in San Francisco, I constantly thought about leaving. Not because I didn’t like living there. Mostly, I loved it. But it was easier to imagine missing a place than to be present in it. Just like I missed New York for the entire four years that I lived in San Francisco, I knew one day I would miss San Francisco too, and I would remember its foggy streets and damp sidewalks the same way I remembered the buildings and bridges of New York: with nostalgia and accomplishment. I had been there, once.

I wanted the soundtrack, the scene. I imagined peeling out of California in a car on an epic cross-country drive. The boy next to me, the highway ahead, leaving my misadventures behind. I would return to New York a new person and create a new life there. I would write again. Then, finally, I would be happy.

Instead I ended up leaving California alone, on a cross-country Amtrak train, staying up all night after my goodbye party. I’d quit my job, broken up with the guy I was dating, left my apartment and my roommates. By taking a four-day train ride, my leaving would be gradual, slower. I’d watch the entire country roll past the window and think of everything I had left and everything I had to look forward to. It was, I believed, the most romantic option.

I couldn’t afford an expensive sleeper car with an actual bed, so I slept in a coach seat for three nights. The first two nights, I had two seats to myself, and I slept and slept and slept, crashing from the adrenaline of the past month, all the goodbyes and all I had done to break up with my life. I sat in the scenery car watching the Sierras, the Rockies, and the flat plains of the Midwest, places I’d previously seen only from airplane windows. My arms and legs ached from sitting, and when I walked down the aisles I had to balance myself against the shaky ground, the rattle of the train car against the tracks. In the bathroom, the room shifted from right to left, right to left.

Once or twice a day we’d stop in some city for twenty minutes and so we could get out and stand in front of the station and mill around in the parking lot.

I read books, listened to my iPod, and wrote in my journal. After a brief layover in Chicago, we transferred trains, and now I had a seatmate, an older white man who, when he asked me where I was going, said, “Too many Orientals in New York.” When I went to the snack bar, he cut his toenails and left the clippings on my tray. My book was in my seat, where I’d left it, but now it was soaked with water.

“Did you do this to my book?” I asked. The man looked at me and laughed. I was shaking, I was so angry. I waved the book in his face. “Why would you do this?” He didn’t answer me. I cursed him out and left for the lounge car. For four hours the train sat still on the tracks in the middle of Ohio, waiting for a freight car to pass. When I returned to my seat, the man was gone.

I fell asleep, and when I woke up I heard other passengers talking in thick New York accents. After a few weeks back in the city I wouldn’t even notice the accent anymore, but after being in California for so long it sounded exaggerated, outsized, and I was so happy to hear it I almost cried. I wanted to listen to New York accents all day. I wanted to be home.

I didn’t know it then, but the scene and soundtrack wouldn’t be enough to make me happy, nor would the drama of picking up my life and moving back across the country. Instead, there would still be new scenes to aspire to, new dreams of fleeing to new cities.

After I got off the train in Penn Station it took me days to no longer feel like the ground was shaking whenever I stood up.

Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”

*

Mixtape #10: Don Gibson, “Born to Lose”
1982

As improbable as it seems now, my first musical love was country music.

I was six years old. There was an album, a greatest hits record of classic country western songs, with a brown cover wrapped in plastic. I took it out from my town’s public library week after week and played it on my little plastic turntable from Radio Shack with a drawing of neon mushrooms on the lid. No one in my family listened to country music, or any of my friends. I was probably drawn to the record because it was there. I went to the library every week.

These were my first liner notes: the album opened to a centerfold of lyrics. I’d recently been gifted an old manual typewriter, handed down from a family friend, and taught myself to type, though my fingers often missed the keys and got caught and scratched up in the metal levers. I typed out all the lyrics from the album and stapled them into a little book, so if I didn’t have the record with me, I could still have the lyrics. I wrote poems about the singers and the songs. I recorded the songs onto a cassette player, a Panasonic that required several C batteries, which were held in by duct tape because the lid had broken off. The cassette player was heavy, but I liked to carry it around the house like a mini boom box, playing songs I’d taped off of the record player or off the TV. The sound was horrible and the tapes often twisted and broken and had to be rewound with a pencil.

The sad songs were the best. I loved the Patsy Cline on the record, the Hank Williams, the Kitty Wells. But the song I loved most was Don Gibson’s “Born to Lose.” It produced a feeling that I’ve never stopped being drawn to in the music and movies and art I seek out. Yearning, longing, wistfulness, regret. The romance of solitude. We seek out stories and art that reassure us about the decisions we’ve made, the paths we’ve taken, or make us question our own decisions and uncertainties. Or that make us feel an intense gratification at the possibility of doing all the things we never dared to do, without the consequences of actually doing them. Something gets triggered in our brains that speaks to our deepest memories and desires, so good it’s almost guilty. Our own private nostalgia tracks. Our hidden, late-night Wikipedia romps.

The illustration that accompanied the song showed a pair of cartoon dice. I’d play it again and again: Born to lose… and now I’m losing you. The name of the album that the song was taken from was I LOVE YOU SO MUCH IT HURTS.

Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”

*

Mixtape #9: Mountain Brothers, “Paperchase”
1997

I was 21 but I looked 14. During the school year I was stuck in college up in central Connecticut, another small town after the small town I’d grown up in. I felt trapped, like I had already outgrown my time there, but I didn’t know where else to go.

The internet had recently arrived. In the computer lab, I browsed nascent online journals. Used PINE to send emails. In the early days we still wrote emails like we wrote letters—and I’d written and received hundreds, maybe even thousands of letters by the time I was 20 years old—and I printed out these long, early emails from friends and saved them in a binder. They were my lifeline during the school year, where it felt like it was always winter.

Then there was summer in the city, with cheap smokes and cassette tapes on my Walkman. I wore platform sandals, T-shirt dresses, and stinky Vans. There were house parties in Brooklyn and Queens, running to PATH to catch the last train of the night, 2:35AM, to my parents’ house in Jersey. During the week I did temp jobs at anonymous, identical north Jersey office parks, where I’d word process and answer phones for $6.50 an hour. I had to wear business casual, but there was air conditioning, and the work was easy.

In these office parks, I felt like I’d gone undercover. I spent afternoons doing data entry for a construction company, faxing and shredding forms for a mortgage company, retyping a human resources manual for a software company. I was the perfect temp, invisible and seemingly harmless, though I walked out of every job with a backpack full of stolen office supplies. I didn’t have to buy a single Post-It pad or a pen for years.

One time I was hired to do transcription for a law firm, and when I got there I was handed a pile of yellow legal pads full of handwriting and asked to type them into a Word document. The first page described a man and a woman talking in a garden during a party. Was this was some kind of new, descriptive way of writing a legal brief that I’d never known about?

I kept typing. Several pages later, it was revealed that the woman was actually from another planet. I realized this was no legal brief. Instead, I’d been hired by a tax attorney to type out the science fiction novels he wrote on the company dime. There were lengthy scenes that detailed the legal systems of this other planet and digressions into the logistics of time travel.

The novel was really, really bad. But the job paid well, and I was a fast enough typist that my contract kept getting extended. I told the attorney I was a writer, too, although I’d never written anything near the amount of material he had, not even in my letters and emails. In a way, I was jealous of his dedication. I wanted to write a book, too.

On my last day in the office, he asked me, Do you think the novel can be published?

Sure, I said.

On weekends I crashed in the city with friends, in the crash pads they were crashing in, on the floor, couches, on futons. Once a boy invited me to his apartment and cooked me dinner, and I was amazed at the view from his building uptown, how you could see the Hudson from the living room window. He had real furniture. A dining room table. A real sofa that he’d bought new at an actual store. Now I’m 41 and I finally have a book, but I still don’t have a real sofa.

Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”
Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”

*

Mixtape #8: Elvis Costello, “Beyond Belief”
1989

The song swells. It’s all build-up, all verse, tense until the very end, bright and compact at two and a half minutes. I’m 14 years old and I listen to the tape under at night on my headphones as I write plays. When my friend’s dad asks me, “What do you want to be when you grow up, Lisa?” I say: “A writer. A playwright.” I’m not sure where I got the idea, but when I say it, I know it’s true. So in my room, surrounded by glasses of Hi-C Ecto Cooler, I write.

I take Edie: An American Girl out from the town library over and over again, which isn’t hard because nobody else ever borrows it. It’s a collection of quotes from Edie Sedgwick’s friends and family, a chorus of voices talking about her life, sharing their memories of her at wild parties, strung out on speed. I’m obsessed with a photograph of her in a leotard and black tights, bleached blonde hair chopped short, balancing on a leather rhinoceros while smoking a cigarette.

I want to be known for my beauty, my recklessness, but unlike Edie, I don’t just want to be the muse of some male artist. I want to be the artist. I write on pads of paper my father takes home from work. Plays and stories about a group of friends who are regulars at a New York City bar, writers and artists and musicians. They are 20 years old, an age far enough in the future that it seems both unfathomable yet reachable. They are all on the verge of something, like I want to be.

My alter-ego character is always be a girl who is smart but not recognizably pretty. She has an unrequited crush on her male best friend, who inevitably chooses the shinier, flashier, more beautiful girl in the group, my alter-ego’s friend. My alter-ego writhes in self-pity and rage, sometimes retreating to her apartment, refusing to see her friends. Sometimes the male friend will come to see the errors of his ways and realize the beautiful girl is in fact not as interesting or talented or smart as the alter-ego, and he’ll come running to confess his belated love. Sometimes it’s too late: she’s already left town and moved to California, or she’ll have found a shinier, more handsome man who truly appreciates her. Sometimes he’ll catch her in time, and the play will end the moment just before the kiss. At that age I’m already suspicious of happy endings.

I write many, many versions of the same story, like the Choose Your Own Adventure books I used to read, where you’d go back in time to Ancient Rome or England during the bubonic plague, or into the future to a planet ruled by robots or a space shuttle orbiting the Earth. You could die and rebirth yourself with a flip of a page. I’d devoured these books, wanting to exhaust all the possibilities, wondering what I would do if I only had a day to live, if I contracted the bubonic plague, if I was suddenly thrust into the light and fully seen.

Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s Nice on Ice, Alright”

a pile of blank cassette tape labels on a wood floor with the word MIXTAPE on top

What came first, the music or the misery? 
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

About the Mixtape project
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”
Mixtape #2: Violent Femmes, “Kiss Off”
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night”
Mixtape #4: Towa Tei, “Technova
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart”
Mixtape #6: David Bowie, “Soul Love”

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Mixtape #7: Modest Mouse, “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”
1995-2005

She is good at drinking; drinking becomes her. Maybe this has been decided for her; maybe it was written in her DNA, a legacy of drinkers and addicts. Or maybe it was just a choice, one that for years, makes her feel proud. In New York she drinks at bars with old-fashioned women’s’ names – Enid’s, Alice’s, Mona’s, Marie’s – followed by a plate of cheese fries at a diner in the East Village at three in the morning. She smokes cigarettes on her rooftop, dreamy and muddled, watching the water towers perched atop distant buildings and imagining alternate endings. Whiskey neat, Maker’s Mark Manhattans, gin martinis, extra dirty. No girly drinks, she says; she wants to upend expectations. Gin and tonics are classic. Jack and Cokes sweet and easy. In the summer, the occasional beer or gimlet. Sazeracs, a twist of citrus. There are drinks she’ll never touch again, college PTSD: Southern Comfort, Long Island Iced Teas, Jagermeister, Goldschlager, Carlos Rossi wine in a box, Bacardi 151, Bacardi Limon. In New York there are twenty bars within a block of her apartment; in San Francisco, fewer choices, more regulars. Lucky 13, day drinking at Zeitgeist, beers at the Toronado, fancy cocktails at the Orbit Room. Telephone Bar, Lone Palm, the Uptown. Pitchers of margaritas on a Sunday afternoon, a pint of Jack Daniel’s bought and poured into a flask before a show, half-emptied by the end of the night. There’s the initial warmth, the soak and burn of the alcohol, then the slow side from buzz to sloppy – her favorite – the blurred edges of streetlights and pavement. The arrival of invincibility. Where to? With whom? The cab comes, or the car with a friend of a friend, four people already crammed in the back saying come in, there’s room, and the city is soft and weeping. I don’t trust people who don’t drink. They make me suspicious. She loves feeling like she’s living in a movie, that she’s just an actor in her life, everyone around her characters, the city a set. Nothing she can do can touch her or anyone else, and there is nothing except beauty and stars. It’s a perpetual present. Years later she will take meditation classes to achieve this sense of being present, but by then she’ll no longer drink; she’ll have to experience everything, every feeling, completely sober, she will have to rewrite herself completely. Sometime she will miss it but it’s okay, the city’s a relic and the bars are set pieces for a show she no longer wants to watch.