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.
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.
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 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.
My passport is a mess. I have been to five countries in less than two weeks. In Luang Prabang, the hills and sweeping waterfront views remind me of San Francisco. I eat at the night markets—grilled fish, noodles, coconut pancakes—and drink intense coffee and fruit-and-condensed-milk shakes out of plastic bags. I try to avoid European and other North American tourists, going undercover as an Asian American tourist in Asia, eavesdropping on their casual racism as they complain about how they’re being ripped off, being charged the equivalent of an extra 20 cents US for fruit. I don’t want to be lumped in with them, but I am, though they probably don’t realize I can understand everything they’re saying. This is why I’m always so uneasy about travel and tourism: in many ways it’s an exercise in enacting colonial fantasy.
Yet I love to travel, I have the ridiculous privilege to travel, a remote editing job that allows me to work wherever I want, and I love to travel alone. I’m on week two of a three month trip through Asia, which will eventually end with an extended stay in Hong Kong, an extended break from having to make any decisions about my relationship, career, and subletted apartment back in New York.
The bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane is nine hours of hairpin curves. We pass houses on the edges of mountains, men hauling bricks, children playing on a bright Saturday afternoon. My seat-mate, a Canadian tourist I’ve just met, shares his iPod with me and we each take a headphone, bumping over the dusty hills on a rattly bus. There’s a man with a machine gun in the seat in front of us. Across the aisle, a woman repeatedly pukes into a paper bag from motion sickness.
Bowie’s “Soul Love” comes on the iPod. “I love this song,” I say, and we play it again.
Vientiane is a small, sleepy capital city, and I have a series of misfires with guesthouses, each one progressively worse than the next. It’s here that I hit a wall in my travels, feeling exhausted and ready to just be in one place for a while, a place that isn’t here.
Maybe I, think, I travel so much to satiate some subconscious, still-buried teenage self, for all the stories I wanted and thought I’d never have. In 1989 I was 14 years old and listening to “Soul Love” on repeat on cassette while sharing a motel room in South Jersey with my parents on Saturday night while my mother sold clothes at the local craft fair one weekend. Someday, I thought, I’d be older, and things would be different, possible. Someday I would be able to go wherever I wanted.
Mixtape #5: Teresa Teng, “The Moon Represents My Heart” 1980s
“She was so beautiful and she died so young.”
“So tragic. So pretty.”
Summer in suburban Toronto, the eight-track player plays Teresa Teng, Neil Diamond, Elvis. “Moon River.” We talk; we eat. The food of immigrant assimilation and overcompensation, post-war Catholic survival guilt, and North American aspirations.
Sara Lee chocolate-chip pound cake. Jello pudding pops. Tang and Nestle Iced Tea (straight from the can), Kool Aid, Hi-C Ecto Cooler. Grape Hubba Bubba, Welch’s Grape soda, candy cigarettes. Fun Dip, Pixie Stix, Lik-M-Aid.
“You have to be good. You have to be careful.”
“Don’t be like your father.”
Pringles, Cheetos, Combos (pizza flavor). French-bread microwave pizza with a shiny silver cardboard reflector to “crisp” the cheese and bread. Swansons’ TV dinners with the fudge brownie and tater tots. Sesame balls and egg tarts and Danish butter cookies, and after, the canister for storage.
“Such a shame. Young, pretty girl…”
“So pretty. What a waste.”
“Would it be as much of a shame if she’d been ugly?”
“Of course. But it’s different.”
Heavenly Hash sherbet, popsicles in long plastic strips of liquid in blue and red and orange, Mint Milano cookies, Goldfish crackers, Keebler’s Elves, Oreos, Duncan Hines’ Soft-Baked Chocolate Chip Cookies, Velveeta and Wispread, Ritz Crackers, Teddy Grahams, Alpha Bits and Cookie Crunch cereal, Steak-Ummms with American cheese, Laughing Cow Cheese, Polly-O String Cheese, Kraft mac and cheese with cut-up hot dogs, ramen with cut-up hot dogs, rice with cut-up hot dogs. A cut-up hot dog with cheese injected through the middle, damp and room temperature in tinfoil for school lunch.
Sloppy Joes. Libby’s corned beef hash with onions and tomato on rice, or fried into patties with Sriracha. Beef and tomato and onion on rice with Tabasco on top. Spam in tomato noodle soup, in fried rice, for breakfast, Spam all the time.
“She’s in danger of getting fat.”
“None for you. You need discipline.”
My 20-year-old self and my 80-year-old self are on the downtown C train. A black bra strap pokes out of my 20-year-old self’s white tank top. Her ass pops from her low-rise jeans. She doesn’t believe in exercise, make-up, combing her hair, or showering more than twice a week; she cuts her bangs with a dull pair of scissors while drunk in her bathtub late at night. Men follow her around the city, hiss and moan as they walk behind her, honk from the driver’s seats of cars and trucks. When she flips them off, they yell, Suck my dick.
She thinks she’s ugly. Her four main food groups are beer, pizza, bagels, and Camel Lights. Her preferred breakfast is coffee and a buttered roll from the cart outside the subway station. The only thing she knows how to cook is instant ramen with an egg cracked over it, bathed in hot sauce. She concocts this several nights a week, four AM, wasted, on the single burner stove in the sorry excuse of a kitchen in her studio on the Lower East Side.
My 80-year-old self waits resentfully for me to give her my seat. She has arthritis in her neck, shoulders, and knees. She wears large round glasses but sees everything; she sees me, even if I refuse to see her. She wears a loose linen blazer over a hot-pink sweatshirt with a hole in the elbow, black cotton pants with an elastic waist. Her hair is silver and pulled into a ponytail, and her sneakers are fastened with Velcro.
Every night, she wakes up at four AM. She takes her blanket and sits by the window, reads the newspaper from two Sundays ago, watches the street awake. Up rolls the bodega gate. Out come the dog walkers. Other old people emerge from their own high-rises for their own newspapers, and inside her studio on the Lower East Side, she cooks chicken soup and steams vegetables on her one-burner stove, takes long afternoon naps to the soothing low-volume murmur of daytime television.
My 20-year-old self is meeting her frenemies for drinks. One of them slept with the guy she was dating, and that night ended with a screaming fight outside a bar. The other one only calls for favors, like carrying a couch up a five-story walk-up. That night ended in puking, as my 20-year-old self accidentally drank too much whiskey before she helped move the couch. Sometimes, a little voice in her goes, Maybe I’m the frenemy. This makes her uncomfortable.
My 80-year-old self has lived alone for her entire adult life. The three flights of stairs in her apartment are hard on her knees, so she only goes out when she has to. But every Tuesday and Thursday she puts on lipstick and goes to meet her best friend for lunch. They have noodle soup, a side of greens, see a matinee movie. They talk about how the city is changing. Nothing is recognizable; everything is different. Have people always been unkind? Yes. We were like that, too.
At Canal Street, they both leave the train. I follow them up the subway stairs and hesitate, unsure where to turn. My 20-year-old self pushes past me as she lights a cigarette, and the sharp surprise of her elbow in my side makes me cry out loud. She doesn’t apologize, doesn’t notice me, and by the time I look up she’s already gone.
My 80-year-old self is easier to track. I follow her across intersections where cars gun their engines at red lights, inching across the crosswalk as she inches in front of them, myself just behind. I fight to keep my steps as slow as hers; my legs itch to overtake her.
She turns onto her block. She walks into a bakery and buys a nine-dollar sponge cake she can barely afford. That night, she will eat it with her hands, and when the first drunk couples begin to argue outside the bar across the street, she will not turn the radio up to drown out the sound. She will lick frosting from her fingers and listen and smile, because she has no one to answer to, because her time is hers alone.
Mixtape #3: Cyndi Lauper, “All Through the Night” 1985
I sat between my parents in the front seat of our Chevy Wood Wagon as we headed home after a craft show at St. Joseph’s High. The year was 1985. Some things did not yet exist: Seatbelts for children in the front seat, digital stereos. Our 1983 Chevy Caprice did not have a cassette player in its stereo—that wouldn’t come until we got our next car, five years later—but there was a radio, at least, AM and FM, with five plastic buttons you could push to advance to pre-programmed stations. A stuffed potpourri strawberry that I made in Home Ec class dangled from the tuner knob.
The stations my parents listened to in the car were 101.1 WCBS (Oldies), 95.5 WPLJ (Power 95), and 106.7 WLTW (Lite Music, Less Talk). Power 95 played Lite-ish top 40: Tina Turner, “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Whitney’s “Saving All My Love,” Laura Branigan’s “Self-Control.” Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” with its insistent keyboard arpeggio.
We had our own business. It started the previous summer with Cabbage Patch Kid clothes, which my mother sewed, “mother and daughter” matching outfits for girl and doll. Later, when Cabbage Patch Kids were no longer popular, she would make women’s clothing in garish geometric prints; we got the fabric discounted from family friends who owned a factory in Toronto.
It was the era of Kountry Krafts, with its cringe-inducing Ks, and one of our neighbors, an actual artist, made wooden teapots to hang from your kitchen walls, painted in Kountry pastels, and fabric stretched over wooden hoops in which she’d paint balloons, a child’s name.
We decided we could do it, too. My father, who worked in the evenings as a tae-kwon-do teacher—during the day he did quality assurance for the New York Telephone Company—brought home boxes of spare boards, cheap wood that his students used to practice kicking and punching.
In our basement, we used a jigsaw to cut the wood into teddy bears and teapots that said “Mom’s Office.” At the kitchen table, I sanded and painted. On weekends, at flea markets, in high school gyms, church basements, and parks in New Jersey towns I would never go to again, I offered craft show customers their personalized names on these wooden pieces, written in my collection of puffy paint pens. I wasn’t sure if people hesitated at having a nine-year-old draw on their purchased Kountry Krafts, but I liked to think that my handwriting was good enough.
Our business’s third specialty was golden trees, which we were not really gold but scrap metal, plastic, and spray-painted wire. Tiny plastic leaves hung from the wire branches through looped holes, and the metal base was also spray-painted and often chipped. They’d be given to us for free, boxes of them, from another family friend from Hong Kong with an import-export business. “Cheap shit,” my father would mutter, eyeing the boxes of trees lining our living room. I’d take them out of the boxes and shake them, bend the stiff trunks and branches, make them look more natural. Instead of evenly lined branches, some should be a little crooked, but just a little.
At craft fairs, we practiced the art of bullshit.
“Homemade,” my mother would tell customers.
They’d ooh and ahh, feeling the trees up as if they were 24K. “You mean you put all these little leaves through the wires by hand? Oh, wow!”
We sold them for 10 bucks a piece and thought we’d gotten the last laugh.
But we weren’t the only ones. Other craft show regulars sold “dough people”—flour and water and paste sculpted into snowman-like figures—spray painted nails bent into the letters of your name, pebbles with googly eyes. Homemade sachets, personalized wooden coat hangers in the shapes of footballs or baseball bats, sweatshirts that played “When the Saints Go Marching In” when you pressed them, and paperweights painted to say “Number One Grandpa” or “Favorite Teacher.”
At craft shows, I’d make the rounds of the tables and eat white people food: egg sandwiches, chili, square pizza. On the way home we’d go to the Fireplace on Route 17 and eat cheeseburgers, a special treat.
Flipping through cable that night, we stumbled onto the Home Shopping Network. A woman wearing a pink appliquéd sweatsuit onscreen lovingly caressed the firm body of a gold-leafed tree on a pedestal, glimmering in the spotlight.
“Buy your tree now,” she said, “because they’re going fast! Only $49.99!”
“Fifty dollars?” We cried, laughing. “Fifty dollars? That cheap shit?”
It wasn’t until nerd camp that I made my first Asian friends. We were public school students from North Jersey commuter suburbs at a boarding school in rural Sussex County, a two-week summer program for gifted students. I was 13 years old. In the mornings, I took a journalism class, writing obits from the week-old faxes sent by local nursing homes and mortuaries. I had a fascination with dates and death, couldn’t help but fill in the blanks between the spare facts on a hastily scrawled form: a woman born in 1892 in Brick, New Jersey had died earlier that month—July, 1990—in the same town. She’d stayed her whole life in the state; already, I knew I had to do anything but.
In the afternoons, we sketched on the top floor of a loft-like building with windows overlooking the quad. One earphone in my left ear, the other in my friend Michelle’s right, her Sony Walkman on the table between us, we drew dried wildflowers in a cracked glass vase, a faded catcher’s mitt and a yellowy baseball.
We’d sing along to the Violent Femmes, Michelle’s dubbed cassette of their first album. Before camp, I’d only known “Blister in the Sun,” but after three days of art class I could chant the count-up of “Kiss Off” with everyone else:
I take one one one cause you left me and
Two two two for my family and
Three three three for my heartache and
Four four four for my headaches and
Five five five for my lonely and
Six six six for my sorrow and
Seven seven for no tomorrow and
Eight eight I forget what eight was for and
Nine nine nine for a lost god and Ten, ten, ten, ten, for everything, everything, everything, everything
In our hometowns we were invisible, or too visible, but here we were normal. Being Asian made you popular, even. Michelle’s older brother Charles, sixteen with a learner’s permit, borrowed his hall counselor’s car, me, Michelle, Betty, and Charles’s roommate Ken all crammed inside. We drove across the quad during a thunderstorm, chasing two white girls, the nerds of nerd camp, who played D&D and quoted Shakespeare in fake British accents. Betty mooed at them and yelled “Run, run” as the girls scuttered away. After a moment of guilt, I realized that it felt good to be the bully for once.
I wore paisley skirts, beaded necklaces, combat boots. In the stairwell between classes, Ken joked with me, stealing the floppy black beret I’d bought at a thrift store in the Village. He had Chess King clothes and his favorite band was Bell Biv DeVoe. He was cute, Chinese American, but I couldn’t imagine a boy actually liking me. No boy ever had, to my knowledge, and I’d already decided that no boy ever would. In my all-white hometown I was racial Kryptonite.
He asked me to go with him to the dance on the last night of camp. The request was passed down from Charles to Michelle to me. I didn’t know what it meant. He’d see me there? We’d go as friends?
The day before the dance, hanging out in the quad before dinner, I met John. He was older, 16, a former camp alumni who’d dropped by to see friends. Blue-eyed, with blonde curly hair, he had a cherub’s smile. He showed me his notebook of sketches with Cure lyrics scrawled across the front. “Cool,” I said.
John lived nearby and had hitchhiked over. Before he left, he said, “Maybe I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The night of the dance, I washed my hair with Salon Selectives and put on a red T-shirt dress that my mom had sewed. When my girlfriends and I arrived at the gym, I saw Ken with Charles and some other boys. Betty elbowed me. Ken walked over. “You look nice,” he said, bouncing his fingers off my arm. He was wearing a bolo tie, his hair spiked and gelled.
“So do you,” I said.
We sipped flat Coke out of paper cups and talked about how camp was ending. “Are you sad?” I asked. Michelle scrunched her face. Ken said, “A little.” I was sad, but I knew I’d see Michelle and Betty again, slumber parties all fall and winter, long talks on the phone at night. They were the friends I hadn’t realized I needed, and this would get me through the long days at school where the other kids made gong noises at me.
A slow song started, couples swaying in the darkness. I’d never slow-danced with a boy before, unless you counted the two minutes stiffly pacing in place to “Crazy For You” with a reverend’s son at a sixth-grade dance.
Ken stepped closer to me. My heart pounded. Then, before he could say anything, I saw John’s round face appearing through the shadows.
“Hey,” he said. “Want to dance?”
I shrugged. “Okay.” We stepped into the center of the gym. John steered me away to the other side of the room. I was terrified he’d kiss me; maybe I wanted him to.
We danced to another song, then another. Then I returned to my friends and asked Ken to dance. His hands were loose around my waist, and he was uncharacteristically quiet, not meeting my eyes. My friends watched us, whispering. Maybe they were whispering about how cute it was that we were dancing. Ken was just a friend. He couldn’t really like me like that.
Michelle and Betty went back to their rooms without saying good night. I stayed up, listening to the Femmes on my Walkman, whisper-singing the lyrics.
The next morning I hugged my friends goodbye and gave them my address and phone number. I looked for John, but I didn’t see him anywhere.
“Call me,” I told Michelle and Betty. “Come over soon.” I told Ken I’d write him letters. I’d write him two, but he would never write back.
The next day, back at home, I called Betty and Michelle. At Michelle’s house, Charles answered, and when I told him it was me he paused and then said Michelle wasn’t home. Betty said, “We’re having dinner right now,” even if it was four-thirty in the afternoon. I told her to call me back, but she didn’t, and neither did Michelle, even when I called them again, and again, and it would be years before I understood why.
What came first, the music or the misery?
– Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
About the Mixtape project:
Back in the late ’90s I had an idea to make a zine called MIXTAPE, with personal essays about songs that had particular meaning for me. It would be a collection of semi-personal writing that combined my greatest lifelong obsessions: music, nostalgia, and the relationship between the two.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been listening to music and writing. I’ve kept a daily journal since I was 5 years old, with accompanying mixtapes, mix CDs, and playlists. I listen to music while I write, when I want to access an emotion, or when I want to feel the most like myself. It’s a straight shot of memory, the closest thing to time travel. Music has provided a running soundtrack to my life, given color and shape to the most mundane moments. When I look back or read back, I can see, faintly, the corners that have been turned. What song had been playing then? I can’t separate the story from the sounds.
I never did make that zine, though I still have a file with a list of songs and a few drafted essays for it. Over the years, I’ve thought about resurrecting it in web form, but never did.
Now it’s 2017, I’m 41 years old, and my first novel is coming out in May. To be honest, I’m a little terrified. Even if it’s fiction, it feels scary to put so much of myself out into the world. I’ve written nonfiction for years, but I never show anyone. But maybe it’s time.
When I heard about my friend Vanessa’s 52 Essays Challenge, I thought, Damn. Then I thought, Well, I do love a challenge.
So: every Monday (give or take) in 2017, I’m going to post an essay inspired by a song, along with the song. A very rough draft of an essay, no polishing, written in a single sitting, in an hour or less. No overthinking, no planning.
Happy new year. Here we go.
Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC” December 2002
It is light when we fall asleep and dark when I wake up, though less than an hour has passed, and I can hear the voices of kids playing six stories below in the Placa de Llana. The smell of brackish water floats up through the open windows of our studio. It’s a deeply familiar smell, one that reminds me of Manila, where I had been two months ago, saying goodbye to my grandfather.
I get up to turn on the lights, but when I press the switches, the apartment remains dark. I go back to bed, where you are still napping. Barcelona’s power outages are also like Manila’s, though far less frequent.
Waking up from a nap in the dark is the loneliest feeling, even with someone next to you. Ten years ago, I’d once woken up at this same time of day, convinced I was almost 30 and a decade had passed without any recollection, like the girl in a children’s story who yearned to be older and pulled on a golden ball of string until she was suddenly, regretfully, old.
Now I am almost 30. I’ve been 27 for three weeks. We live in a rental apartment in Barcelona, where we’ve been since October, and next week, on December 15, we will fly back to San Francisco. I’m too afraid to ask if I’ll still be living with you when we return. I know the answer; I just don’t want to hear it.
It’s almost winter and each day is shorter than the last.
We are reading the same books. I have Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions and Best American Short Stories 2002 and you have Cervantes. We trade books when we’re done. That’s how it had started between us, six months ago. We both love reading and music and drinking and we do these things together, as well other things, very well.
Yet I was unable to believe you truly loved me—unable to believe anyone loved me—so gradually, I have made you stop loving me. It’s the only way I know how to be; it’s how almost every relationship I’ve had has ended.
Several days before we left for Spain, you’d asked me, Do you still want to go? We’d been fighting quietly in my parents’ basement in New Jersey, having traveled east from San Francisco before going to Europe. Upstairs, my father was listening to Ray Orbison’s “Communication Breakdown” and for a terrible moment your question hung in the air as the chorus blared through the ceiling, and I knew that if I said No, I don’t want to go, you would be relieved. I would have given you an out.
Instead I said, Of course I still want to go. Don’t you?
Yes, you said, but less enthusiastically, and a week later we were in Barcelona.
But the end had started before, almost as soon as we met. I’d been in California for less than a year, moving there after spending most of my life in or near New York City. When I met you, I’d lived in four apartments in seven months, and owned one suitcase’s worth of belongings. You owned a two-story house with a study, full of books and rugs. When my sublet ended, you invited me to stay with you.
In your house, I’d look for signs of ex-girlfriends, who I could compare myself to, and of future girlfriends, of a time in which I’d be forgotten. It wasn’t hard. There were letters and photos everywhere. Gifts, given and received. All your exes and most of your friends were white, though you weren’t. Being with you was like an escalator to another reality, one that I never imagined myself a part of: dinner parties, cheeses and wines I’d never had before, extensive record collections. Your friends had enough money to buy homes and go on lengthy vacations, and politics seemed uncivilized, unnecessary. In your crowd I felt anesthetized, like I could stop running. Maybe it was easier to pretend to be naïve for a little while.
Once you accused me of not doing anything with my life. Another time you yelled at me—Make up your mind!—and I had cried. You thought crying was messy. I cried all the time during those weeks in Barcelona, but I wrote my friends postcards that only spoke about the good things—which were many—chocolate croissants, churros, café cortados, long afternoons at the beach. How we saw Interpol at a club and an American guy in the audience had yelled, Fuck Joy Division! and we had laughed. We’d seen them twice before: once in San Francisco, once in New York. I didn’t even like Interpol that much. I would rather listen to Joy Division.
My 27th birthday, November 2002
Later, after we return to California, I will learn that you hadn’t even told your friends that I had gone with you to Spain. In your postcards and emails to them, you were traveling alone. You’d erased me.
In the beginning you had woken up from naps, or in the mornings, and looked back at me, next to you, with wonder. We would hold hands in bed, staring at each other in amazement. Look how we had found each other. Look what a miracle. Now, before the power returns I hold my breath and watch you sleep. I want you to stay asleep, to keep us both quiet and breathing in the dark, together for a little while longer, still figures in a snow globe as the world continues outside. When I whisper, you can’t hear.