Soundtrack for a Relationship
"I'll still be here waiting on the breeze to bring you down to me…"
1. Moloko, "Sing It Back"
My first few months of college are a delirious experiment testing the bounds of my newfound sexual freedom. I've peeled off my high-school relationship like a shrunken sweater and walked into a saturnalia. I want to fuck everything. Then I walk into an Econ class ten minutes late and take the only available seat, in the back, and the girl I find myself next to makes that urge seem like a distant and trivial memory.
I engage her. A stereotypical New Yorker, she is what I will call dismissive, but only because I'm already too enamored with her to describe it as "bitchy." A few weeks later, a mutual friend introduces us at a party. We pretend not to recognize each other. We dance. I'm a bit too drunk and get handsy; she firmly grabs me by the wrist and places my hand in an acceptable location. I grin feverishly.
Despite her hesitance, we start hanging out regularly. We go out dancing every weekend, and spend our entire Christmas break instant messaging from home. She blocks my repeated advances, calculated to look more casual than they actually are, with the alternating excuses that she values our friendship and that she knows she'll one day hurt me. I'm not as fazed as I should be.
I unconsciously gravitate to music about people offering themselves up to each other with wholehearted abandon. It doesn't matter if she uses my heart to shine her shoes with — it's hers to keep.
2. White Stripes, "Fell In Love With A Girl"
She's finding my wiles less and less cute, and one day she snaps at me and says, straight-faced, "I have no interest in you." I'm more than a little heartbroken, but I hide it pretty well, in my opinion. Later that night, she comes back with me to my apartment and gives me a lapdance. We have our first kiss. I give up on any hope of ever fully understanding her.
I'm the bewildered giddiness of "Fell In Love With A Girl" given human form. I'm aware of how obnoxious it is to be around. I don't care.
Almost immediately, the school year ends, and she tells me that she won't be returning in the fall — she's taking a year off. We agree not to attempt a long-distance relationship. We're both shocked by how hard this goodbye hits us. It's a long summer.
3. Mos Def, "The Boogie Man Song"
For the following year, we are inseparable — never mind that we're already separated. We text all day, every day. We learn each other's secrets, fears, senses of humor. I learn that she's been depressed most of her adult life, that this was the cause of her departure from school. We both wish openly to be reunited. She travels two hours each way to visit me in Philadelphia regularly. For cultural reasons, I can't be seen at her house, but I get hotel rooms for us in New York whenever I can.
We make plans, only half-jokingly, to live together, one day, in New York. We'll see shows, eat at nice restaurants, I'll take her to the ballet and film premieres, she'll wear beautiful gowns, I'll wear handsome suits. It will all be quite grand. I send her the undeniably sexy "Boogie Man Song" and tell her that as long as we are together, nothing else matters. We're implicitly exclusive and have exchanged L words, but she's resistant to the idea of "making it official." I don't push it. We have sex for the first time.
4. The Black Keys, "The Lengths"
She returns to college, not quite over her depression and extremely anxious about jumping back into the fray. Around the same time, we take the plunge and make it official. Things do not go well. After a few triumphant weeks of making it to class and handing in homework, she begins to fall behind. She barricades herself in her bedroom.
As a boyfriend, I display varying levels of competence. On one side, I spend 95% of my free time with her in her bedroom. I wake up early to pick up breakfast and take it to her dorm before class. I do my homework at her desk. I spend my weekend afternoons playing cards with her on her bed.
On the other side, I begin to resent the stark lack of happiness I'm experiencing. When I'm with her, I'm sad that she's sad — the environment is stifling. When I'm elsewhere, I feel guilty for enjoying myself when I know that she's sad. I don't voice any of this, but she picks up that something's wrong, and she panics. She becomes convinced that I no longer love her, that I only spend time with her because I think I have to. When I get up to go to the bathroom, she attacks me with questions about why I'm leaving and where I'm going. If I spend one night of the week hanging out with my friends, she takes it as proof that I never wanted to be with her for the other six, and was just putting in time until I could get away.
I'm utterly exhausted by the constant struggle of having to prove that I love her. I think, "I'm nineteen and in college. Life shouldn't be this hard." I resent her more. I suggest that she spend a weekend visiting her mother so that I can have a moment to breathe, and the conversation escalates into a five-hour screaming and crying match, at the end of which she's quit school and told me to go fuck myself forever. She leaves town the next morning.
The Black Keys' "The Lengths" is dripping with fatigue. It feels like a last plea from a tired soul; it's indignant and bruised, but with an undercurrent of enduring love. I play it on repeat.
5. TV on the Radio, "Ambulance"
Several months go by. I graduate, move to New York, and feel washed over by a sudden emptiness. I call her. She's hesitant and preoccupied. Her voice is the same, but I recognize nothing else about her. She's cold, distant, indifferent. She answers my questions efficiently. She asks nothing about me. We agree not to talk on a regular basis, but exchange emails sporadically over the next few weeks. She casually mentions that she's taken her second-ever sexual partner. It dawns on me that it's really over between us.
I'm crushed. I cry for days. She bluntly reminds me that I had sex with someone else long before she did. But she's never been as casual about sex as I am; for her to get that far with someone else, she would've had to completely excise me from her heart. When I point that out, she doesn't argue.
I grew up in the Caribbean; I remember weathering hurricanes as a child. This is like a hurricane that lasts for weeks. It's dark, quiet, and wet. I struggle to get through a single meeting at work or commute home without tearing up. Music is not my friend — everything reminds me of her, and most song lyrics are like rubbing sandpaper on a skinned knee. "Ambulance" is one of the few I can bear; its voice is that of a man who acknowledges his own self-destructive habits, and embraces them. This is somehow reassuring to me.
A few weeks pass. We try to make a friendship work. She meets, begins dating, and has sex with her third guy. In a typically male way, I ask too many questions, and she answers them without hesitation. I know his penis size, how many times he's made her come, what positions they've used. It is torture. We will agree, much later, that this was a terrible idea. No shit.
6. Corinne Bailey Rae, "I'd Do It All Again"
It's been eleven months since we've spoken. One day she sends me a text. It says "Hi." I need no further convincing. Before long, we're back to our regular rhythm. It amazes me how easily things go back to normal. My friends wring their hands unanimously.
It's not long before we've made the ill-advised decision to resume having sex. I assure her that I've gained the emotional distance needed for us to have a productive friends-with-benefits relationship. Rightfully skeptical, she insists on reminding me as often as possible that she doesn't want anything serious with me, and that I shouldn't read into it. That she's still looking for a real relationship elsewhere, and has no interest in trying "us" again. I pretend that this hurts me less than it does.
I play Corinne Bailey Rae's song "I'd Do It All Again" for her and tell her I have no regrets. She bristles at this and any other romantic notions I bring up. I'm okay with that. I just want her to hear it.
7. OK Go, "Last Leaf"
Unbeknownst to either of us, something happens. Perhaps we're both maturing, or just getting tired of self-destruction. I stop asking questions. We don't talk about relationships anymore. She invites me to the ballet. We dress up and hold hands. We go out to dinner every Friday, we surprise each other with gifts, I rub her feet when they get cold, she lies naked on my chest and doesn't remind me that she's not in love with me anymore. We're supportive and attentive without bitterness or discord. We play house and somehow fashion a better relationship than we had when we were actually dating.
We both agree that this is a temporary thing. We occasionally date other people but, for God's sake, we know enough not to talk about it.
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