Part FOUR: The Notwist
(Read parts 1-3 here.)
hurt feelings : listening pleasure = 1 : 7
It was 2005 when I moved to a small, East Coast town for law school and began exploring the mate-finding potential of the Internet. My classmates made for an instant but insular peer group, and field trips to bars yielded nothing of promise. I ended more than a few evenings assessing the tiny pool of local eligible bachelors from the safety of my own bed, doing zip code and interest searches for men of a certain age on Friendster. Although I wasn’t sure what to do with the knowledge, I quite enjoyed being able to find men over 28 who liked Radiohead within a five-mile radius.
Bucolic small-town living had its pleasures, but I missed the cultural life of a big city. I sold my car before I moved, and it was difficult to get to the nearest metropolis without one, so I was miffed when I heard that a band I’d always wanted to see live was playing there soon. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum did not make the kind of music I was much interested in, but I’d heard their stage show was vaudevillian Dadaist madness and had to be seen. So I searched Friendster for a local fan and found exactly one: Justin, an assistant professor of psychology at the university. He wasn’t physically my type—skinny with dark hair and eyes and a boyish face—but he looked interesting: he spoke Italian, played piano, and owned a Great Dane. Besides, I was only looking for a ride to the concert.
The show was indeed a spectacle, and Justin and I had enough to talk about to carry us through the three hours of driving and all the concert interstices. There was clear mutual interest, and we made plans to meet the next weekend for dinner, an outing that ended with a goodnight kiss.
Like many women of my generation, I didn’t have much experience with actual dating. Instead, you got drunk with someone you were interested in and any resulting hook-up might or might not lead to something more. This whole kissing-goodnight thing or putting-an-awkward-stop-to-a-make-out-session-and-going-home was weird indeed. It also put more pressure on sex. If you fell into bed with someone it was easy to shrug off any awkwardness, but if there was two weeks of build up you expected something, both physically and emotionally.
The first time with Justin was a disaster. I remember nothing about the sex, but I do remember that he got up immediately afterward to take a shower without saying a word. In the morning he rose to make coffee without touching me and I had to ask if I could have a cup.
This wasn't out of character; Justin was icy. When we watched movies it was from opposite sides of the loveseat, his dog between us. He needed booze before he would get close, and closeness meant only sex, not intimacy. One night his roommate and I had a drunken conversation about how we thought he was insecurely attached. The roommate brought up the This American Life story about the family who adopted a child later diagnosed with attachment disorder, treating him with long bouts of forced hugging. We wondered if it would work on Justin.
At the time, I took his morning coldness personally, and left quickly, hurt and flummoxed. That afternoon he sent an email with an aside about how he'd been grumpy that morning. I responded by telling him I felt insulted, and he wrote back:
I am terribly sorry that I was responsible for making you feel so bad. I know that an apology does not excuse my behavior. It was not my intention to disrespect you or to hurt your feelings, and I had no idea that my behavior was so inappropriate… Clearly I did something wrong (moreso than I had imagined) and your feelings are something that I can't dispute, nor will I attempt to undermine their legitimacy.
I had expected defensiveness and was taken aback by Justin’s willingness to engage with my point of view. It reminded me that from the start I had been attracted to and oddly charmed by his logic. Justin saw the world through different eyes; where I was interested in subjectivity, he worked in cognitive psychology and broke the brain down like a machine. We disagreed about almost everything but respected each other’s viewpoints. Our arguments were often foreplay.
Still, I don’t know if I would have given him another chance were it not for a certain physical characteristic he possessed. I was both erotically interested and just plain curious about the physics of the thing and what it could do.
I accepted his apology and we resumed our dating life, but with unspoken rules and a kind of efficiency. We would meet at his house, never mine, roughly twice a week, to watch a movie and share the better part of a bottle of gin. After a bit of conversation we would retire to the bedroom and no more than an hour later, snuffing out the last embers of the afterglow, I would ride my bike home to sleep in my own bed and get up early for class. It was cold but strangely friendly and very convenient. The time investment didn’t threaten my classwork and the emotional distance made things easy.
Things drifted along until Christmas vacation. I went home to visit friends and family and spent an evening with an ex. The ex. I had been so distraught when our three-year relationship ended that a friend would start singing “I’ll Never Love This Way Again” whenever I brought him up—and only partly as a joke. I saw his new condo and heard about his new life. I cried the whole 20-minute taxi ride back to my friends’ couch. The next morning I read an e-mail from Justin with tear-swollen eyes. I usually found his witty coolness charming, but this left me cold. I knew I had to end it.
I expected indifference, but Justin surprised me once again. Two days after we had the talk (by e-mail, of course), he left a mix CD on my doorstep in a manila envelope. There was no note and no track list—everything was in the songs. He had started it with The White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl,” then brought in the heavy guns of our ‘80s adolescences: The Cure’s “The Perfect Girl” and The Smiths’ “There is a Light that Never Goes Out.” My friends cooed at the adorableness of it but I found it very difficult to square the sentiments with my experience of being with Justin. If anything, it was kind of like watching Spock realize he was experiencing love.
Though I doubted his feelings I appreciated the gesture and thought we should give it another try. This time we were together, on much the same terms, for about five months, before I ended things again for much the same reasons. This pattern repeated itself a handful of times over the next two years. I would decide I couldn’t take the lack of intimacy, or I was bored of the drink-talk-fuck-bike routine, or that I was transgressing some metaphysical law by regularly screwing someone I liked quite a bit but loved not at all. And then he would start e-mailing me again, or we’d run into each other at the bar and the cycle would start again.
Each time we got back together he would put some effort into being more romantic or exciting: a French dinner, a romp in the woods, some reading in bed, but inevitably things would drift back. We were very fond of each other in our own weird ways but we were also relationship noobs incapable of giving the other what they needed, let alone figuring out what we ourselves needed. The closest we got to actually communicating was by exchanging mix CDs.
I haven’t seen Justin in years but I still hear songs I think he’ll like and sometimes I’ll send him a link and a hello. The music that reminds me of him is different. It has a coolness and melancholy and often a synthetic beat. One of Justin’s favorite bands was The Notwist, and I remember hearing “Boneless” on one of his mixes. It’s urgent and pretty, sweet and lonely.
I don’t remember why I ended things finally, in a way that stuck, but we had been off for about four months when he came to a party I was hosting with some friends. He was leaving town in the morning, and I would be leaving before he came back; maybe that’s why things felt so tender between us. We hugged when he left the party and when I saw the text he sent afterwards asking to see me again before I left I biked over to his house and spent the night in his room, my head on his chest. He was gone when I woke up but had left a note. He said he would miss me.
Part FIVE: Neu! and Blood on the Wall
hurt feelings : listening pleasure = 9 : 7
Fantasy relationships can really fuck you up.
For the second semester of my first year of law school I had a class that met three times a week. So, it seemed, did a handsome stranger I often saw smoking a cigarette on a low wall opposite the bike rack. Soft thick sandy hair, scruffy stubble, and searing blue eyes that lingered lazily. Paul Newman eyes. He wore a jean jacket and smoked his cigarettes slowly, thoughtfully, a cowboy completely out of place on this turf- and ivy-covered college campus. I could feel his eyes on me as I rode up and parked my bike and when the weather warmed up I thought about those eyes as I chose my springtime dresses.
I ended things with Justin a second time just before the last week of classes. On that Monday I arrived early at the bike rack armed with a pack of cigarettes. I pretended to be engrossed in something when the handsome stranger arrived. “I didn’t know you smoked,” he said. I tried not to, I told him, but with the stress of finals coming up… He nodded. I nearly swooned when I learned his name: Seamus. Fucking adorable.
On the last day of the semester I exited class into a cartoonishly beautiful spring day of blinding sun and puffy clouds and saw Seamus at the foot of the stairs, holding me in a hungry stare that made my knees weak. He said hi, and asked where my bike was. I told him I took the bus. He asked if he could walk me to the bus stop.
We met for our first date in the quiet courtyard of a tiny café I’d never been to, played pool a few doors down, then watched the sunset from the top of a parking garage with the best view in town. Seamus, I found out, was a few years older, a few years post-divorce. He lived in a sub-divided Victorian full of sturdy wood furniture and healthy plants, none of the particleboard bookshelves or IKEA knife sets I was used to seeing in bachelor’s homes. He studied ethnomusicology and had a music collection that took up nearly an entire room, most of it on vinyl he handled with great care. He was also born and raised in Nebraska, a history that seemed to account for his polite cowboy manners and quiet masculinity.
At the end of the evening we walked to his house so he could give me a ride home in his car and I jumped at the offer to listen to some records he had mentioned. Like a wanton harlot I sat in the center of his couch, but he collapsed into an adjacent armchair. I fidgeted and tried to make conversation. Then, suddenly: “do you mind if I kiss you?” My face grew hot, I stammered out a reply, and he was beside me in an instant.
As a child, visiting the elegant house my grandfather had built, I'd asked my grandmother about the secret to a happy marriage. At the time I had no idea the reason the house had separate wings was that my grandparents could barely stand looking at each other, that when my grandfather was alive he had a series of mistresses he barely bothered to hide. Grandma took the question seriously.
“Well, I think…” She faltered for a moment. “I guess your grandfather made me feel like a woman, and that’s very important."
I thought about the comment every few years, and after I met Seamus it all made a certain kind of sense, so long as I was willing to forget almost everything I believed about gender. He took the lead in most things, asking for my number, planning our dates, making romantic overtures, telling me how much he wanted me. His gentlemanly dominance electrified my body.
Being with Seamus was nothing like being with Justin, especially in one particular area. Justin had been the most generously endowed of any man I’d ever been with, Seamus the most modestly. I’ll cop to being a bit disappointed on first disrobing, but any unfavorable comparisons rapidly evaporated. One night I was to meet Seamus at his house to go to a restaurant in his neighborhood. Our eyes met at the door and he immediately pulled me in, lifted up my skirt and led me into the bedroom to face his antique mirrored dresser. With Seamus I felt sexy and desirable, with Justin I just felt like something that would satisfy his appetite; Seamus was creative and passionate, Justin was mechanistic and inattentive.
In the end I had very little time to enjoy all the hot sex and retro gender roles. My summer internship started a few weeks after the end of the semester and I had to temporarily relocate several states away. We left things open, which is another way of saying we didn’t address whether this was the end or just a hiatus. I had high hopes, but was still too chicken to ask for what I really wanted.
After Seamus initiated e-mail interaction two weeks after I left I could hardly think about anything else. We weren’t in touch often over the summer months, every week and a half or so, but it was regular, even when he was traveling and visiting family back home. It certainly felt like enough to hold the tension that could be explored when I returned, an event about which I fantasized regularly.
In the meantime I immersed myself in his music. As a parting gift Seamus had given me a DVD with more than a dozen MP3 albums, everything from Fela Kuti to Debussy. He told me he had included some albums by Neu! and Can and hoped they would convince me that Krautrock was an actual genre and not just a word he’d made up. The droning clamor of Neu! suited the drudgery of interning and I became obsessed with the slow build of the song Negativland. It started in chaos then grew taut and tense, repetitive grooves atop industrial dissonance that would slowly take over only to be resolved by order once again.
Seamus’ e-mails tapered off towards the end of the summer and I heard nothing at all from him during the two weeks I was back home. I hoped he was just sitting on his porch smoking and reading Cormac McCarthy or something—a distracted cowboy that couldn’t be bothered with computers.
On the day I returned home I invited him out for a drink. He accepted but said he thought I should know first that he’d been thinking we should just be friends. I told him I wished he had made this clear earlier. He said he hadn’t wanted to hurt my feelings. I told him I had no interest in being friends with someone as inconsiderate as he had shown himself to be. The fantasies I’d nurtured were replaced with questions and analysis: what had I done wrong? Was I not attractive enough? How long had he been leading me on, and why?
I knew my anger and wounded pride were excessive given the actual duration of our relationship, but it wasn't that relationship I had to get over—it was the imaginary one I’d been building all summer long as I daydreamed to his music.
When classes started up everything got much worse. Once again we had class in the same building at the same time several times a week. Once again I saw him almost every morning smoking a cigarette before class. Through the magic of shuffle, I discovered a song on an album he had given me that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. Blood on the Wall’s Awesomer was all jumpy guitars, angry drums and grating nasal vocals, not qualities I typically enjoyed. But when I heard the lyrics, “Hey you, get the fuck off of my cloud/I’m sick of having you around,” I knew it was my new musical armor.
Part SIX: Beth Gibbons et al
hurt feelings : listening pleasure = 10 : 10
I had been sleeping with Finn on and off for a dozen years when I finally had to admit I was in love with him. I was 20 and he was 19 the first time we got together, and we had both known it wouldn’t be the last. For about five years afterwards we continued our friendship, always tinged with flirtation, but one or the other of us was always in a relationship and/or living in another city. One summer we were both back home on a camping trip with mutual friends and nursing hearts broken by other people. We found comfort in each other’s arms and discovered each other’s bodies changed: Finn had grown hair on his chest; I had lost weight and gained tattoos. When we reunited in succeeding years I loved discovering the familiar and the new: the old scar on his torso, new crinkles in his eyes when he smiled.
Although we always lived at least 800 miles apart we saw each other at least once and sometimes two or three times a year: home for Christmas, attending a mutual friend’s wedding, traveling for work or leisure. If we were both single and in the same city we would eventually be naked together. What had begun when we were barely out of our teens had continued a decade and become the most significant relationship of my life, but when I realized this I resolved to end it. I was very fond of Finn as a friend but I absolutely did not want to be in love with him. He was a self-destructive womanizer with narcissistic tendencies and no capacity to commit.
And yet I couldn’t stop myself. I discussed the matter with friends and made various promises, going so far as to tell my best friend that if I fell prey on an upcoming trip to the city where Finn currently lived I would give her $200. A week later, I was out $200.
It was already too late. I read Milan Kundera and considered his idea that "love begins at the point when a [person] enters [their] first word into our poetic memory." When I first met Finn he was like the materialization of my adolescent romantic fantasies and over the years my poetic memory had become full of his words: his notes, letters, e-mails, pillow talk. We were both in college when we met but his taste was far more sophisticated than mine. I started listening to Tom Waits and reading Bulgakov to improve myself in his eyes but over the years our exchanges of music and language became a way of sharing where we were in life through what moved us. When he got into electronic music I learned to appreciate Boards of Canada and to love Four Tet, when he sent me a mix with a Komeda song I bought every one of their albums. Whenever either of us came across an unreleased Radiohead track we would alert the other. I remember spending one New Year’s Eve texting the lyrics to this Thom Yorke cover back and forth:
Finn was the person my mind always returned to when I wasn’t seeing anyone else, and he was the only person I was ever even tempted to cheat on anyone with. He spoke to the secret parts of me. I compared everyone to him. Why couldn’t we make it work?
Well for one thing, he could be a total dick. There was that time he called to tell me he had herpes and I probably did too then forgot to tell me it was a false alarm until I brought it up several months later. Or the time he wrote to ask, with a “not-that-it-matters” disclaimer, whether I’d slept with a mutual friend who’d recently spent a few weeks staying with me. I knew he’d fooled around with roughly 20 percent of my female friends but I didn’t really care so long as he didn’t interrogate my sexual history. This is not because I’m particularly into open relationships but because I was so confident he cared for me. After all, a decade in, I was Finn’s longest relationship, too. I was the one he made mix CDs for, the one he wrote letters to, the one he asked for feedback on his writing. This made things very confusing.
One of my dearest and wisest friends had always told me Finn and I were going to end up together eventually and I had laughed it off, but at some point I became conscious of that very hope growing—feeding on all the words and music we exchanged. One of his mixes featured the Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man song "Romance."
I usually try not to infer anything from lyrics but it was difficult not to see the song as a sort of apology. I knew Finn loved me in his way. I also knew that he thought he was terrible at romantic relationships. On the rare occasions when we even flirted with the idea of something more, he had always made it clear that our physical distance meant nothing real could develop. I thought he was wrong. I thought we could work something out. I had seen two very good friends move from long-term on-off relationships or years of partly requited love to wedded bliss and that made me far more optimistic than Beth Gibbons appeared to be.
One summer I came back home from Hong Kong, where I had been living for work, to see family and attend the wedding of an old friend. Finn was, as usual, my date, and that night I learned that he had been going through a rough time and was looking to make a fresh start, perhaps even by coming to stay with me for a few months. I told him he was welcome to stay as long as he’d like but didn’t take the idea very seriously—Finn had talked about visiting me in several different places over the years and none of them had been as far away as Hong Kong. A week later, when I was still in the states, he e-mailed with definitive dates and asked about job opportunities.
It seemed too good to be true, and it was. I was back in Hong Kong in a week, gathering advice on visas and potential employment. I sent him a long e-mail with ideas and suggestions and Finn replied the next day to tell me he wasn’t going to be able to make it work financially. But if I gave him my address, he would send me a mix CD.
I swallowed my pride and wrote back. I told him about the hopes I had nursed for so long; I told him I was willing to make sacrifices to be closer to him; I told him that I was willing to plow uncharted waters. His reply was one line long:
Thanks for writing this. It helps me understand where you're coming from.
I didn’t hear from him again until he sent me a digital mix a month later. I never listened to it. I wept over the final end of things, but I knew I'd made the right choice. Only rarely do I miss my intimacy with Finn, or regret that we never had the chance to see what could have been. Most days I think he’s a narcissist who needs sex and affection to function but is incapable of giving love. That’s certainly the conclusion many of his old friends and exes have come to. But I can’t pretend to understand what really exists between us or what we have meant to each other.
I’m saddened when I hear that people have had music “ruined” for them by exes; for me music has sometimes been the only thing I escaped with unharmed. Finn introduced me to dozens of bands and songs I now adore, and though his mixes sometimes make me a little wistful they don’t make me glum. I’m not living my grandmother’s life, thank god, I’m fumbling through a life of my own creation—and one with a really awesome soundtrack. Men might have introduced some of my favorite music to me, but it’s mine now.
Lily Heron has an excellent music collection.