30-Day Song Challenge, Day 5: A song that reminds you of someone

"Thinking of Him" by Roy Lichtenstein, 1963

I guess a single day is too soon to go back to the Dad well, and I’ve already linked “Kodachrome” to one of my sister Tina’s first boyfriends. It turns out I associate a lot of music with specific people:

  • I heard k.d. lang’s debut album for the first time at my brother’s house, so “Trail of Broken Hearts” makes me think of Mark.
  • My sister used to sing along to ABBA songs with headphones on and unconsciously would imitate their accents, so “Does Your Mother Know” makes me think of Tina.
  • One night coming back from the bar, a Toni Braxton song came on my iPod and we sat in the car and exaggeratedly sang along with all of her vocal tics, so “He Wasn’t Man Enough” makes me think of James.

“Single” by Everything But the Girl, meanwhile, reminds me of Trainer Brian. Specifically (and perhaps not surprisingly given the song’s title), breaking up with him.

TB was my first-ever boyfriend (and, to date, my last), and it had been sort of mindless how things had progressed. Soon I was staying over pretty much all the time — so much so that my parents, worried that I was never answering my home phone, were convinced that I had become a drug addict. (My friendly answer: “Well, I’m not a drug addict, but you might wish I was after what I’m about to tell you: I’m gay, and have a boyfriend.”)

And two years in, I had become skittish about where things stood. How had I become so inured to this routine—picking up his dog on the way home from work, cooking dinner so it’d be ready when he got home after his last personal training client … and having that be expected to happen?

I had kept my apartment all this time, almost like a little Fortress of Solitude, and one particularly bad weekend I did something that always made me feel a little better when the situation stressed me out: I took a load of “my stuff” back to Garden Place. Nothing big, usually clothing, books or things like kitchen gadgets that I had carted over for a particular reason. I wasn’t trying to make a big statement to him when I did so, but was reassuring myself: “You don’t live here.”

I dropped off my stuff, returned to his apartment and something inside told me: Do it again. So I did. When I got back, I said, “If you don’t get nervous taking a third load out of the house, it’s a bad sign.” And I started — and finished. By then, the dog had started to freak out, but I wasn’t skittish at all as I continued to pack up everything I owned and moved them back home. I left the key, locked the door behind me and called to let him know that when he got home, I wouldn’t be there. We argued, we accused, we ended it so badly that, months later, I was still having random white-hot flashes of fury where I would feverishly concoct ways I could inflict anguish upon him. By the time I hung up, I was  convinced I had done the right thing.

But that night, sprawled out on the couch with “Walking Wounded” playing on the CD player (Everything But the Girl make perfect soundtracks for melancholy days), I was suddenly struck with fear and panic: What the fuck have you just done? There’s no going back.

Have you heard of a decision tree? It maps out the possible consequences of a particular situation to help decide the best way to proceed, and like a family tree it can branch out exponentially from there. My whole life is one big decision tree — no, my life is a decision tree forest. (If I eat here for breakfast, then what does that leave for lunch? [And then what about lunch the following day?] Should that e-mail be phrased this way, or that way? How will the recipient react in each scenario? If I hang out with J on Tuesday, how will M, J or K react, and how do I preemptively address any negativity?) Decades before I had heard of probabilistic graphical models of random variables and conditional dependencies, I was internally calculating everything to ludicrous lengths.

That night, sitting alone, undistracted, my mind was overwhelmed by Terror Trees, and knowing that the decision had been made on gut instinct, without thinking it through logically, only compounded the wild-eyed cray-zee. And Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt weren’t helping:  “Look at me without you. I’m quite proud of myself — I feel reckless, clumsy. Like I’m making a mistake — a really big mistake. … I don’t really know what I think I know.” I didn’t sleep at all that night.

It took me months before I could listen to the album again without tensing up. Now, almost a decade later, “Single” reminds me of that night’s overwhelming feeling of dread of all of the unknowns ahead, instead of the predictable samenesses I was so used to. Looking back, it’s easy to see that they may have been familiar, but they were also deeply flawed, and they were exactly what I needed to get away from.

Oh, yeah: Happy Valentine’s Day. Click on the CD single cover below to hear the song in the allegedly “official video,” on YouTube.

WHAT SAM WORE: 2-14-11
The shirt: Long-sleeved cotton button-up, on clearance for $15 at Hollister.
The pants: Boot-cut khakis, on sale at Banana Republic.
The shoes: Converse All-Star sneakers, from Nordstrom Rack.
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