A series in which we use the power of song to share a multimedia slice of our memories and experiences across time and bandwidth. Do you remember where you were when you heard this one, or this one? We do.
My spouse was making a 90’s rock playlist the other night around 3 AM while I napped on the couch. I was ebbing in and out of consciousness as songs from our high school and college days played, old friends and lovers threading through my sleepy thoughts. “That song,” I mumbled, without opening my eyes, “I played that track on repeat for days.” It’s lovely and strange how a few lines from a song can cast light on memories of people you haven’t thought about in years, can press urgently on that soft sad spot we carry for our past. This is a mixtape for my lost loves and missed connections, the humans who came too close and left too soon or not-soon-enough. The names have been abbreviated to protect those on whom I am about to kiss and tell.
40 Boys in 40 Nights by the Donnas
Oh, T. I don’t know if I ever liked you like that, but I loved you, the way that two friends who go to the local midnight showing of Rocky Horror as Magenta and Riff Raff do. The way that two closeted queer girls who tell each other our deepest secrets and make nerdy jokes and easily pass four hours tucked into a local coffee shop do. We were BFFs, but it was something else, too, because I had straight-ish best girl friends and it wasn’t like what you and I had. Our friendship wasn’t shopping and boy talk and gossip. It wasn’t spontaneous dance parties and giggling over Cosmo sex tips. It was how cool I felt when you picked me up from school, feeling so grown-up in the passenger seat of your parent’s car as we drove to our weekly coffee friend date. It was sitting in a cafe in the middle of the school day, talking existentialism and Monty Python. It was how you introduced me to the Donnas and Bikini Kill and how you shared my urgent desire to break out of A-student respectability (and my fear of actually doing so). It was how you looked down when you told me about how you tried to kill yourself, with both hands gripping the steering wheel so tight and how I was so glad you didn’t and we both cried. It was how we rarely ever hugged or touched, because there was something between us that said maybe that would be too intimate.
Around mid-senior year, I came out as bi and you disappeared and I thought you hated me. You cancelled our weekly coffee dates. You got a boyfriend and stopped inviting me over. At the end of the summer, we were both about to go away to college. I stopped by your house and gave you a book I thought you’d love about the Doors. You fidgeted and said thank you and then we said, “Goodbye.” We didn’t talk to or see each other for almost five years. Then you sent me that long email, out of the blue, and came out. And told me that you probably had a crush on me in high school and my coming out was too much for you. And you attached a pic of yourself in boi drag and you apologized for pushing me away, but you didn’t need to apologize because I understood. I really did. My heart ripped open for the younger you, gripping the steering wheel, and for what we could have been for each other in our lonely conservative hometown. I wish we had reached across the table at our favorite coffee place. I wish we had let our hands touch.
Nightswimming by R.E.M.
V was kind of a jerk and I really liked that about him. He was bi and intentionally strange and wore pants with leopard print panels he sewed in himself. He was a bit of a savant and failed out of high school his senior year because he didn’t feel like going to gym class or economics. He was more interested in his own financial plans and making a living off his computer programming skills. He pushed buttons just to see what would happen. His room was painted black. My parents didn’t like him. V moved to the midwest after high school, while I was stuck back home. He taught me a lot of things, but mostly he taught me about taking risks. V wasn’t afraid. Or maybe he was very afraid. I don’t know which, but he made his own rules and I learned about breaking rules with him and about what love could look like. We had an open relationship for about two long distance years. We’d talk until 4 AM about nothing, ripping through long distance phone cards. We’d argue about politics. We’d send cards and packages. We’d share about our other dates and partners and we were genuinely happy for each other. Everything about V felt freeing. We were on an adventure and I didn’t want to stop.
It was when V wanted to become monogamous that it fell apart. I panicked. I agreed and then immediately cheated. He probably could have forgiven me, which is probably why I never told him I cheated. I used my guilt as an excuse to cut-and-run. I dumped him by email, citing some vague reason, and then I put on this R.E.M. song and lay in bed and cried. And I remembered the night we snuck into a secluded part of the beach to hook up and how it was romantic but also very sandy. And we laughed a lot. And then the tide came in and the park closed and we had to scale a rock wall and a fence to get back to the car. I remembered how V smelled like Old Spice and how the soft wool of his green army surplus jacket felt against my cheek. We saw each other years later, when I was home on summer break and he was visiting. We stayed up late talking and I apologized and he let me lay in his lap while he played with my hair and he still smelled the same and it could have been something. But I was trying to repair another relationship and it wasn’t the right time and I never did tell him about cheating and that was the last time I saw him.
32 Flavors by Ani DiFranco
Z and I were co-directors of our campus Women’s Center and the lyrics of this Ani song were scribbled on the quote board in our office. It was the early 2000’s and we were chanting “No blood for oil,” and we were cultivating feminist rage and we were marching for abortion rights in D.C. and we were punchdrunk on our own righteousness. Z and I had shared values and totally different personalities and we loved each other deeply. There was something else there, too, but we never peeked behind that curtain. We sloppily kissed at the drag bar once, all tongue and liquor; that’s as far as it went. At the time, I was experimenting with being a third to a couple and Z told me, “I love how you just do what you want. I love how you don’t give a fuck.” If I saw Z today, I’d say it back. Z moved to NYC and then to California. I followed via social media and mostly stayed where I am. I got comfortable. Z got bare and real. Years later, I saw Z performing in a drag king troupe in pleather boy shorts, duct tape, and a collar and I wondered if I’d ever not be just a little in love.
History of a Boring Town by Less Than Jake
N wrote me poems and slipped them into the palm of my hand. We had this puppy love thing, this sappy romance thing. It was silly because I was actually dating N’s best friend. It was silly because we were kids and what did we know about anything? I was 16 and we had our first kiss on the catwalk above the high school auditorium during a rehearsal for Guys and Dolls. N had been sick and tasted like menthol cough drops. We were both into the mainstreamed ska and post-punk and pop-punk music of the late 90’s. Less Than Jake played at a nearby college and all us high school kids were into it. I remember N jumping around to this song in a lil’ tiny punk pit. His family used to own a dairy farm and then just owned a farm farm. We thought we were in some Romeo and Juliet passion play, some chaste ABC Family drama. This song makes me think of him, of growing up in our small town, of hanging in the hay loft of his family’s barn, and of our sweet young heartache. Things got weird after I broke up with N’s best friend. The thrill was gone and the danger and we tried a menthol kiss, but it was hard to keep constructing our own drama and we eventually stopped writing each other poems.
I Want You to Want Me by Letters to Cleo (cover)
It was 2 AM on spring break week. J and I were driving back to her apartment with the windows rolled down, playing this song and screaming the lyrics at the top of our lungs. Our mutual friend was last seen talking to her ex and disappeared and wasn’t answering her phone. We were worried, but also drunk. We went back to her place to wait up, hoping our friend would find her way home before the morning. My MIA friend had invited me to join her for a visit with J in a nearby city on spring break. We were sleeping on J’s futon. She took us to all the gay bars and strange scene bars (like the metal karaoke bar). We went thrifting. We got piercings together. J and I hit it off immediately and I think our mutual friend felt a bit left out. J had just come out as bi. I was newly single. She had red, red hair and lots of freckles and was femme and fierce and shy. J and I had been flirting all week, drunkenly making out on the empty floor of a gay bar the first night we went out. Neither of us was used to making the first move, so we just kind of waited for the other to initiate. Meanwhile, we giggled and held each other like femme girls can and it was familiar and it was charged with curiosity and we didn’t talk about the kiss.
We went out every night. We painted our nails. We discussed how we felt like we were mostly attracted to butches. We talked about boys and bois. We shared makeup tips. We flirted drinks out of two truckers at the metal bar and then ditched them to hang out with each other. We developed a signature friend drink, Alabama Slammers, “more SLAM than AL” and we declared ourselves instant BFF’s. We drove home screaming “I want you to want meeeeeee!!!!” and we set up on the futon waiting for our friend. We were watching Maid in Manhattan when it happened, when we turned to each other and kissed again. And her lips explored mine tentatively and my lipstick mixed and smeared with hers. And then we were lying on the futon, facing each other, and my hands were in her hair. And I had my first time with a woman, right there with Jennifer Lopez strutting through “I’m Coming Out” in the background. J and I didn’t hook up again, but I would sneak into her room in the morning and spoon her and feel the goosebumps appear as I stroked her arm. We were just two femme gal pals coming into our sexuality and cautious of our desires. We kept in touch via email for a few months. Then it tapered off and we lost each other to time and distance. I went looking for her emails recently, but my old email account had been deleted and I felt unexpectedly sad that I’d never be able to read her words again.
Mix Tape from Avenue Q
Yes, I know this is meta. It is legitimately what I think of when I think of this song, though, or of mixtapes, in general. G was a few years older than me in high school. We weren’t friends in school. We just randomly met up when I was home on college break, at a local alternative scene bar, around 2004. I had just gotten out of work at McDonald’s and had pulled on a black tank top and a red hooded sweatshirt with flames on the sleeves. My blue-black hair was pulled back in short pigtails. We started talking at the bar and we couldn’t stop. When the bar closed, we drove to a 24-hour diner and sat for hours and talked over coffee refills and french fries. We told secrets that crossed boundaries that should have been there, but weren’t. We decided to stay awake all night and catch the sunrise over the winter lake. It was December, but the water wasn’t frozen. We drove to a park near the shoreline, plopped down on a frosty park bench and just sat there, letting the silence and the chill hang between us as the sun peeked over the horizon. Have you ever felt like you’re inside a movie? Like everything is so strange and otherworldly and just right that someone else must be calling the shots? It felt like that, like being inside someone else’s self-indulgent indie film.
We would call it “the night” and we hung out a few times after that. We read each other’s poetry. We burned incense in my car and put the seats back and listened to Radiohead on the pier. I made G listen to the Avenue Q soundtrack because he said he didn’t like musicals and he thought the Mix Tape song was hilarious. When break was ending and I was about to go back to college and back to my semi-open-relationship-situation there, he gave me a mix tape on an actual cassette tape. We took one last drive and we confessed our feelings. I planned to listen to the mix tape in my car on the way back to school. Until I got in my car and realized I didn’t have a tape deck. Shortly after, G wrote me and said not to listen to the first song on the mix. Or not to listen to it at all, that he wasn’t implying anything, that it might be weird, that he wasn’t Jesus and I wasn’t Mary Magdalene. I had no idea what he was talking about. About a year later, he emailed me randomly to tell me that “the night” was one of the the best times of his life. And then we didn’t really talk or connect ever again. I finally tossed the tape out when moving apartments six years later. I never did listen to it.
Dig Me Out by Sleater-Kinney
“It’s like we’re on a perpetual first date,” we’d joke. We always acted ridiculous around each other, laughing too loud and fidgeting nervously. We were long past the potential of dating. We were just two queers working in the progressive nonprofit industrial complex, trying to figure out how to align our values with our work. We were in serious long-term monogamous relationships and quite happy with our partners. And we were sitting here over Ethiopian food, fingers yellow from berbere and shiro wat served atop a shared circle of injera, laughing awkwardly. We disarmed each other. We enjoyed each other. It was one of those rare friendships that feels simultaneously heightened and authentic. We didn’t really ask much of each other. We couple dated, planned hangs with our respective partners. We all went to a drive-in movie out in the country and shared grapes and popcorn while watching a Inception/Salt double-header. L’s partner was the photographer at our wedding.
But years back, way way back, L and I were in college together. We had a lot of friends in common through the Women’s Center and Rainbow Alliance. We always had this nervous energy between us, but we weren’t close friends. One night, I was giving L a ride somewhere… or something… for some reason we were parked in my car at night on the outskirts of campus. L was telling me about some shit going down with an her then-girlfriend. I was currently with my ex-boyfriend and things were not great. We jokingly wished we could date each other. I confessed that I had always found her really attractive. She said she had a crush on me, too. We laughed. Nothing happened. The timing was off. I don’t know if Sleater-Kinney was playing in the background, but it might as well have been. We were just two college rebel girls who didn’t meet at the right time, who became friends later when we were grown adults, who were on a perpetual awkward first date.
Chop Suey! by System of a Down
R was my first serious boyfriend. We were together for most of college. It was a hook-up that turned into a long-term relationship, which sums up most of my relationships, actually. Our relationship was grounded in the way that your first serious relationship is. Not your first love, your first relationship where you move past the honeymoon stage and into the taking-each-other-for-granted stage and have to navigate that. This was the first relationship I didn’t run away from when things got tough. It was the first time I had to learn how to communicate and the first time I really imagined myself with someone romantically long-term. R was the first straight boy to love me the way I am, in the body I occupy, as an out queer feminist, and that was a gift. We ultimately decided to break up due to infidelity and a gradual breakdown of trust in our relationship and because it was time. R loved System of a Down and he’d play this album and rock out in true white-boy style and I still can’t listen to it because I had to listen to it every day for three and a half years and it makes me want to claw my eyeballs out.
Breaking the Girl by Red Hot Chili Peppers
I sat next to M on the bus in middle school and part of high school. She and I obsessed over Dave Navarro and Gavin Rossdale and boys in eyeliner, generally. We listened to alternative music together during our long bus ride. We once fought over a boy from another school, but not really. We knew we were supposed to fight over the boy, but we joked about it more than anything. “I guess we won’t be talking tomorrow if he picks me,” she said. We also joked about having threesomes, the way virginal middle-schoolers joke about threesomes, because we were both inexperienced and naive. We pretended to be hard around the edges, but we were just insecure middle school girls who didn’t really fit normative beauty ideals. We were also book-smart, which didn’t help us feel any cooler. We wrapped outsider status around us like a cloak, rejecting pop music for the grunge and underground rock that made us feel like we were intellectual and defiant. But we not-so-secretly both wanted to be pretty and desired or at least I did. And I liked her. I didn’t have any way to talk about girls I liked then, but I think I liked M as more than friends. I think I like liked her. But I don’t think M was queer. I don’t know. I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if she was bi or something, but by the time we got to high school, we’d joined different cliques. I wonder if she made out with girls in college. I hope she did.
Do You Realize?? by the Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips is the soundtrack to my time with S. We were best friends. We said we were soul mates. I don’t know that I believe that any more, but at the time it felt like the realest. S and I met in high school, but really became friends my senior year, when she had already graduated and was attending college. S was friends with V and I briefly dated her ex, which is how we started hanging out a lot. Actually, it was a running joke that S and I kept dating each other’s exes, always getting each other’s sloppy seconds. There was never jealousy between us. We cared about each other more than we cared about our exes. S and I were both bi and we were both afraid to act on our feelings for each other. We kissed, once, under the influence of alcohol and onlookers, but never more than that. The summer after my sophomore year of college, we lived in a four-bedroom apartment together with two other women. I was home on break and we spent summer evenings smoking cloves on the front porch or walking down to a nearby college bar, where the Flaming Lips was often playing. We played board games and watched movies and shared meals and had inside jokes. S had this weird and wicked sense of humor and a flair for the dramatic. She was goofy and spontaneous and masked her real emotions with a perpetually upbeat sarcasm. When I was just stepping out into my queer identity, S was right there, too, and we toed the line between best friend and girlfriend carefully. I think we may have sought out each other’s exes because it was easier than climbing into bed together. We knew how to seduce boys, but we didn’t know how to move from best friends to lovers.
When I had graduated college, S decided to come to my college city and move in with me. Looking back, I think I took S for granted. I was deep into my relationship with my now-spouse and really focused on that. S and I didn’t communicate what we needed from each other. I had fully joined the college queer community and figured out how to flirt with girls and I was out doing my thing. S wanted to hang out at the apartment like we would have done back home. Eventually, she snapped at me about never being home and I told her she wasn’t my girlfriend and… well… the friendship and the shared apartment was over soon after that. She moved out and stopped paying rent. I told our landlord. We stopped talking. We are Facebook friends now and I sometimes think about reaching out when she posts a funny pic of her cat, but I don’t know what to say or how to apologize or what purpose it would even serve to dredge up the past.
Butterfly by Weezer
I knew I wanted to be friends with A in our 8th grade math class. We sat next to each other. I felt something for A that I didn’t know how to characterize at the time. I think now I would probably call it a crush. But at the time, I just thought A was smart and thrillingly sarcastic and interesting and kind of a challenge. There weren’t many people who got to be close to A and I wanted to be one of them. I don’t know exactly how we became best friends. It was just something that happened. My other best friends also became friends with A and we had sleepovers and did the stuff that best friends do in high school. But A was always a little more private and reserved. The rest of us would pile on each other on the couch and get changed in front of each other and play with each other’s hair. A tolerated physical affection, but didn’t often initiate it. Sometimes A got really quiet and introspective and didn’t want to talk and needed time alone. I didn’t know what that was about, but I felt honored just to be trusted to be in A’s space. We had this running joke that we would be friends until we were elderly and sitting in our rocking chairs together. We would send each other “Wish You Were Here” postcards from places around our hometown, just for fun.
High school drama unfolded the way it does and one day I found myself at Bob Evans being officially friend-dumped by A and another close friend. I was crushed and I got all teen emo and listened to this Weezer song and wrote the lyrics down in my journal and it was probably my first real heartbreak. It was never really OK again between us until years later, when A randomly contacted me and visited me at my college town. A came out to me as queer and it was like old times, but better. We stayed close for years after that and A saw me through some of the roughest parts of my relationship with my spouse, in the early (awful) years. After a while, A started dating someone serious and they’ve been together for almost a decade since. We sort of lost touch along the way, the way that people can come in and out of your life without reason. This song will always remind me of A and this complicated friend love feeling that still hangs around my heart, even though we are not close anymore. In a lot of ways, my spouse reminds me of A and I’m pretty sure that if I’d been able to name the feeling I had back then, A might have been my first real love.