Mixtape #1: Interpol, “NYC”

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:

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.

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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.