It’s Here!

The Leavers is out in bookstores!

For many years, every time I went to a bookstore, I would put my finger into the space where my book would go if it existed and was on the shelves (somewhere between Klosterman and Krauss) and imagine it there, advice I once read from Alexander Chee. 

To actually see it on the shelves, in real life? Wow.

If you’re in New York City, my launch party is tonight, May 2, at the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble. I’ll be chatting about The Leavers with Kaitlyn Greenidge, the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman and signing books.

And I’m doing many other events throughout the NYC area and other cities over the next few months. Hope to see you on the road!

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.

The Leavers Mixtape

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 . . .

Suicide, “Cheree”
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.

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.

The Final Countdown

It’s been a long winter, and somehow it’s now April, with just under a month to go until The Leavers is out on May 2.

Over the past few months, I’ve been steadily crossing things off my pre-publication to-do list. Essays written, pitched, and sold. Book tour and other events planned – check out the video I made below announcing some of the dates and cities! Newsletters, thank you cards, e-mails, and invitations sent and in the works. Q&As and interviews completed and scheduled. Bookmarks, postcards, and other promotional materials created. Website and social media updated. I’ve even bought a new dress and a pair of shoes.

BOOK TOUR!

Of course, these next few weeks are going to coincide with a big freelance editing project, and I’m moving apartments the day before the book launch (note to self: next time, don’t do this), so I’m surrounded by piles of boxes as I alternate between excitement and sheer terror on what feels like an hourly basis. You spend seven years working on a book and think that’s it, the bulk of the work, but then comes publication and the aftermath. A whole other unknown.

So, I’m taking deep breaths and looking forward. See you on my book tour?

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.