When this story began, I was some kind of naive, fanciful, Mr. Darcy-wannabe, asexual loner-alien. This was a fake love story that I invented; I cast myself as the star and broke my own heart. To someone else’s music.
What I mean to say is, in college, I was notorious for Not-Dating. I was no spring chicken at the ripe old age of 21, and anyone on campus who had their eye on me (and there were a few, I hear) knew that I stuck to books and friendly coffees. Not Dating. I was a very late bloomer and a romantic hermit and, although I had enough from-afar crushes on lanky androgynes, fey indie rock boys and smart-ass queer academics to fill Madison Square Garden, I never really gave anyone the time of day. I was more with the hiding, the writing and the Beatles. Not the Dating.
Why Ben was the one person I decided to give a fighting chance, I’m really not sure. Maybe it was his crooked grin, his penchant for anti-racist theory and activism, his stellar taste in music, his obsession with railroad tracks, his earnest, undiluted gaze, or, most likely, his willingness to admit to me over and over again his crushes on Local Somewhat Famous Punk Dudes, whose hairdos he would admire during chance record store run-ins. Regardless, it snuck up on me: my transformation was about to take place, like it or not, from non-dater to dater-at-last, in the unlikely bearded form of Benjamin Kearney.
It was a subtle seduction. One day I was sitting in the teeny college food co-op eating a hummus-spinach-kalamata-kraut sandwich of one kind or a-weird-nother, and Ben ambled up, in his sweet, awkward way. He asked if he could sit with me, and I, not knowing how to refuse such a nice tall man, said yes.
He always started innocuously. “What are you eating?”
“Um, you know. The usual, lots of spicy pickled things. Hummus for protein. I love this place, no frills sandwich brilliance, you know.” I often rambled like this, usually about food, because it was usually in front of me. “How ’bout you?”
“Just peanut butter,” he said. Smiling. “What’s on the Walkman, there?”
Oh no. Chagrin.
“You know, it’s nothing, just some oldies.”
Quizzical expression, as in, Please elaborate.
“Old Beatles, really old,” I said, adding a dismissive hand wave. The truth was, I had a soft spot for old school, boppy love tunes. “I get all nostalgic-like around finals.” I chuckled self-consciously.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. There’s nothing questionable about the Beatles, no need for such weak excuses. Even if you do happen to be a slightly-to-moderately-awkward collegiate who has yet to make any kind of foray into music made any time after 1970, you’re still respectable listening to Abbey Road, or even Please Please Me. That wasn’t the problem. The real problem was that my musical indulgences felt like a painfully obvious metaphor for how grievously behind I was. Aside from being late in every other regard, I also had no musical context, no indie rock-approved foundations. I was living in my parents’ musical shoes. I desperately wanted to be the kind of person who went to the free outdoor punk shows every Thursday, but any opportunistic fly on the wall could easily expose me as the kind of person who’d never heard of any of those bands.
Ben didn’t say anything, just took a thoughtful bite of his peanut butter bagel, and we sat together in comfortable silence. The next week he showed up at the co-op with the Mix Tape.
You know all those firsts? The first person you hold hands with, first person you kiss, first date, first person you bring home to your parents, first person you show your writing, first person you have sex with? Here’s what doesn’t always appear on that particular laundry list: the first giver of the Mix Tape. Ben was my first. He’s out there somewhere now and he doesn’t even know it, but the moment he handed that tape to me, I knew my life would be different.
Which is not to say I hadn’t started my own deeply-embarrassing process of uncovering the musical goings-on of the modern day world. I had unorthodox Yahoo search methods, hungry clandestine Borders Books & Music listening sessions and secret ways of determining who sang the song at the end of whatever TV show I was watching, and finding out which bands they were in previously. I had discovered Elliot Smith and Patty Griffin, my dual-croon-salvation. I used my love affair with the sweet songs of yesteryear to ease myself into love with the genre of indie-rock lullaby. I tried to cut myself some cultural slack. Slowly, steadily, and not without a great deal of grunting, I began to attempt to lift off the rock under which I’d been living. I was determined to go from clueless to extremely, painfully, severely clued-in — without anyone noticing the process.
I can’t say that Ben’s mix accomplished all this for me, but I was giddy with the knowledge that an Indie Rock Boy had deemed me worth the time and artistic intention I soon learned were wrapped up in mix-making. I went home and promptly threw myself on my bed to listen, chin in hand, the classic crushed-out stance. Oddly and appropriately, the first song that came on was Edith Frost’s “Cars and Parties.” It opens with an ethereal bell chime, and I was hooked. Kind of boppy, kind of melancholy, that minor-major play that gets me every fucking time. The song was so grounded, so sad, so simple, so accessible even to early Beatles cheeseball me. I pictured big tall Ben loving this sweet song. I put it on repeat the old-fashioned way: rewind, rewind, rewind. You know that feeling when you can reach right inside a person’s heart just by listening to the saddest song on their mixtape? Yeah.
The next day at the co-op, I peeked over my mug of coffee to tell Ben tat I loved his mix. He perked up and immediately started talking to me about Fugazi and The Ex, about Rainer Maria, Mum, all the shows and tours and LPs and bands I’d never heard of. I had listened and loved and we now had common ground beyond sandwiches! Within moments, I was in: in the conversation, in the music, and in some kind of love with Ben Kearney. He asked me on a train-track walk that night, and for nights after. And each time we would hug shyly goodbye, never kissing, never even hugging, which, admittedly, relieved me. I went home and wore out “Cars and Parties” in melancholic asexual bliss. It was all I needed, all I ever wanted. I filled in the blanks in my head, with my new soundtrack as backdrop. And better yet, Ben didn’t seem to need to need the high-pressure drama of Getting All Involved, either! He loved me for the walks, the conversation, the quiet, the music-talk. It was serendipity, a mutual non-arrangement of the strangest kind.
You will most certainly be less surprised than I was to learn that Ben was a little more conventional than I thought, a little less inclined to the world of theoretical romance than I was. It turned out that Ben was Getting All Involved elsewhere. I found out from someone else in the cookie aisle of the co-op, someone who mentioned Ben’s new-ish girlfriend, the one who had been at his house non-stop for the last two months. I stopped dead in my tracks as I realized just how naïve I had been. I had thought Ben just wanted to be with awkward me. I had pictured us getting older and still walking the tracks together, making each other mixes into the sunset, living in a perpetual music-crush. But Ben clearly had other, more traditional plans, and all I had left of him and his heart was, well, Edith Frost.
And when the two of them walked by me on campus, his slightly lilting gait as visible to me from across campus as his pink Sleater-Kinney t-shirt, without saying hello, I knew it was done. I wasn’t yet home, trudging that day across campus at the slowest pace I think I ever had, but in my mind I was already retiring that mix tape to my bottom drawer. Thank God I had the Beatles to go home to that night.
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