Love & Sex

Soundtrack for a Breakup

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Soundtrack for a Breakup

The five songs that got me through the first terrible week.

April 21: The Smiths, "I Know It's Over"

I hang up the phone and sit in bed, staring into space. It takes a minute to start thinking again, but once I do, I cry for a bit. When I manage to get up, I walk to the kitchen to tell my parents, who, characteristically, turn down the radio and stop chopping vegetables mid-slice. They'd listen for as long as I felt the need to talk, but right now, I can only manage a mumbled recap before shuffling off to bed. It's only seven o'clock, but nothing else seems especially doable. I'm twenty-two years old, and my girlfriend has just broken up with me. For the past two weeks, I've come home from work and spent the evenings on the phone, having horrible, exhausting conversations and trying to convince her that I'm a worthy partner. I guess that part is finally done. After a year of debates and anger, tenderness and sex, food, airports, buses, and trains, my relationship is over.

Pop culture almost always gives grief too much respect. (Steven Seagal's brow furrows as he buries a friend; John Cusack walks poetically in the rain.) For me, it mostly feels like wanting to throw up, accompanied by numbness — punctuated by remembering over and over again the awful thing that just happened. It doesn't feel like death, exactly, but like nothing pleasant or even interesting is likely to happen between now and then.

Pop culture always gives grief too much respect.

I guess that’s what Morrissey is getting at in the song that lowers me into sleep. "Oh, mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head," he croons, endlessly. But in his words, it feels less nihilistic than comforting. He puts some of the dignity back into this feeling, reminding me that "It takes strength to be gentle and kind," a nice thing to remember when you feel like shit.

April 22: Megadeth, "Tornado of Souls"

MP3: Tornado of Souls

Nice try on the sleep thing — I get up red-eyed, after tossing and turning since two in the morning, unable to shake the thought of my (ex!) girlfriend having sex with other people.

In fact, she's already sleeping with someone else — an ex-marine, of course. ("I'm sleeping with someone else." Long pause. "Is it that guy Phillip?" Long pause.) Her explanation was that it didn't matter — sex means nothing, and I would understand that if I'd slept with more people. (This happens to be a bit of a sore spot for me.)

When I get to work, I try to focus, but my rage won't go away. I spent a year building a house with someone, and she spontaneously burnt it down. Besides wishing I still had the shelter, I'm also really pissed about the betrayal. I sort of wish that all houses would burn down. When I try to distract myself by reading an old Carl Sagan essay on the projected effects of a full-scale nuclear war, I find myself relishing the thought.

I should add here that I have the least existentially comforting job in the universe: I temp… at a temp agency. Nothing could be less permanent. It's also not a place that welcomes a lot of feeling — I've already seen the boss dressing down a teenage employee for talking about herself too much — so I hold it together at my desk for fifteen-minute periods, then run to hide in the bathroom, and cry my little eyes out. My coworkers must think I have some kind of bladder problem.

Driving home, I crank the volume on "Tornado of Souls" as high as it goes. Metal to the core, Dave Mustaine once described this song as "Dave meets girl, Dave loses girl, Dave kills people." His characteristic wail fills the car: "This morning I made the call — the one that ends it all…" The end of the relationship, the end of the world — all the stupid and damned, consumed in the same whirlwind of death. Needless to say I am not driving very responsibly.

April 24: Talking Heads, "A Clean Break (Let's Work)"

Today my temporary employers have dispatched me to a coffee factory, where cans of Trader Joe's Smooth and Mellow Blend hurtle down a conveyor belt in a decidedly non-smooth, non-mellow fashion. Evoking Looney Tunes, they periodically get jammed around the label-stamping device, which punches holes in their sides. Coffee beans spray across the floor, and an understandably cranky supervisor comes running to shut down the whole machine and pry the wounded can out of the line. My job is to put tops on the cans, which seems like it could just be part of the whole contraption, but maybe the union complained or something.

Unfortunately, I wasn't born a robot, and so I'm fighting a losing battle.

I've basically been turned into an automaton, which, at the moment, turns out to be kind of nice. I decide to apply the same mentality to my breakup obsession. All this anger and sorrow is exhausting. I will become a robot and stop thinking about the last year of my life.

Unfortunately, I wasn't born a robot, and, mentally, I'm fighting a losing battle. I tighten the faucet, but the water still drips. Thoughts of other things — work, friends, books — get cancelled in mid-spark by my malfunctioning robot brain, which thinks it has something more important to calculate.

The problem is that this girl is in everything. All pathways in my brain lead back to her. Every DVD on the shelf I watched with her, wanted to watch with her, or was given by her. The chocolate syrup I put in my milk (if I can't be a robot, at least I can be an infant) reminds me of a children's book we both liked. Here we walked; here we fought; here we kissed. Everything I did for the past year I either did with her or did while thinking about her. All of these connections have to be rewired, one at a time.

Still, I stand at the conveyor belt, slamming tops on coffee cans and humming this Talking Heads song to myself. As it bounces along, robots cheerfully march through my psyche, carrying piles of memories and associations out of seared and damaged storage banks, down underground hallways, to safety. "That's why we work so hard to take that love away – take that love away – take that love away – take that love away."

This must be what she did to me weeks or months ago. This is how she could be so cool on the phone, when she used to get all hot-blooded and human at the very thought of me. She decided things weren't right (too much distance, different goals, cultures, lives), but all her tender memories kept her from acting. So her little robots worked to take that love away and rewire things so that chocolate milk would make her think of cows, not me. I feel myself getting angry again. Clearly, these robots are slacking.

April 25: The Descendents, "Pep Talk"

MP3: Pep Talk


Back at my normal desk job, I'm doing better until she IMs me "just to say hello." Who does that less than a week after breaking up with someone? She says she cares about me and wants to know how I'm doing, but however I'm doing, it's despite her! Fuck!

Is this how people do things? Am I being crazy here? When I get back to my parents' house, I feel myself teetering from relative equilibrium back towards total collapse. I'm rescued by my friend Josh, who pulls up, leans out the window of his car, and asks how I'm doing. I tell Josh that she just IM'd me to say hello. He looks dismayed, which is validating.

Doing the things I do all day felt ennobled because she was proud of me. Now it all seems pointless.

Josh invites me over to watch the ballgame, then sits with me for three hours as the Sox tank and I rant. He nods, stays calm, listens patiently. Aware how much I still care for her, he tells me she wasn't being malicious, just thoughtless. Mostly, though, he just listens, showing me calmly that I'm not going crazy. I feel better.

Really, there is no good advice to be given, and I think my friend must know this. The upbeat Descendents song we both like is comforting not because of its words: "It's not the end of the world… You're gonna be okay… You can find something better any day… You deserve the best." They're all clichés. The comfort is that someone cares enough to sing them.

April 28: Bob Dylan, "Boots of Spanish Leather"

MP3: Boots of Spanish Leather


The fight is going out of me. My grief and my anger are fading to dull hurt, resentment, and, still, a bit of love. The dumb little things I do all day felt ennobled because she was proud of me. Now it all seems kind of pointless. As I put the traditional box of letters, photos, mix CDs, and books ("DO NOT OPEN") into the basement, I can only muster a sigh.

Like Dylan's narrator, I tried my best to hold on (for verse after verse!) as she pulled back into merciless practicality. His departing lover asks if she can bring him anything from Spain; he replies that "there's nothing I'm wishing to be owning — just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, from across that lonesome ocean." She persists, "But I might be gone for a long old time…" He is hurt, "How can you ask me again? It only brings me sorrow — the same thing I want from you today, I'd want again tomorrow." Finally, he gets a letter that shows him she means it, and he gives up: "Yes, there is something you can send back to me — Spanish boots of Spanish leather." (The consolation prize.)

It is hard and sad to let go. Already so much of my tenderness has gone away — it was a painful thing to keep. But partly, it's a relief, and Dylan's gruff delivery makes it feel like a kind of heroism. Stepping out from the basement, I hit "repeat," and ascend back into the world.