A dozen years ago, I came back from class to a dorm room of unfamiliar music. My freshman roommate Tara handed me a silver CD with “Ben Folds—Rockin The Suburbs” scrawled in black Sharpie. “It’s really good,” she said. A girl downstairs had burned her a copy. Skeptical at first—the same guy who wrote that sad song “Brick” years ago?—I was sucked in from the first piano notes.
The fall of 2003, my first college semester, was caught in the transition from music’s Before to After. I stored music on my computer in Windows Media Player but I was a couple years away from playing them on an iPod. I ripped everything onto CDs and popped my creations into my red Discman. Those silver discs were stacked on desks and traded freely without care. I was also split between two worlds. Technically an adult at eighteen, but nervous, frightened and unsure as ever.
Through my twenties, I had fonder feelings for my early teens than the later teenage years. The mistakes made in the name of cool at thirteen are misguided yet sweet. By eighteen, I should have been a bit wiser. Thinking back on that freshman year is a little embarrassing. I want to forget that I wore a baby blue t-shirt advertising an Outer Banks bar & grill on move-in day. It’s the Joan Didion quote that will be reblogged on Tumblr until the end of time:
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
The most embarrassing part of all is that I thought that t-shirt was really cool.
There are times when I know I’ll like something before I ever experience it. Some things just appeal to my sensibilities—fast-talking teen shows, Wes Anderson movies, anything that combines sweet and salty flavors. It feels like cheating, making a decision before actually taking a bite, but if I see Bill Murray in the trailer, I know he’ll make me happy. When it came to Ben Folds, it was the opposite. I thought I would give him one listen and be done. Instead, he sunk into my consciousness in a way I was never expecting.
Annie waits for the last time
Just the same as the last time
Annie says, “You see, this is why I’d rather be alone.”
“Annie Waits” summed me up in ways that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the time and not only because Annie was my childhood nickname. Waiting was a constant state of my life. I didn’t just feel unrequited love. I majored in it, I specialized in it, I could have taught classes in mismanaging it. I was always, always, always waiting. Little crushes smoldered in my heart at all times. When the fire for one went out, the kindling for another would ignite. My editor at the campus newspaper. The quiet boy in my sociology class. That one cute guy I’d only ever see in the laundry room when my underwear was on its way in or out of the dryer. I could never tell any of them, of course. I’d rather wait for them to never figure it out.
“Do you want me to ask him if he likes you?” a new friend asked after one of my confessions.
“No, no, it’s okay, don’t do that,” I told her, looking over my shoulders to make sure no one overheard us.
It sucks to grow up.
And everybody does.
It’s so weird to be back here.
Let me tell you what,
The years go on and
We’re still fighting it,
We’re still fighting it.
Teenagers have a great ability to take songs about something else and twist the meaning so these songs apply to their own lives. Ben Folds wrote “Still Fighting It” for his son, but to me, it became a song about how I wanted to break away from my hometown and everything that I used to be. Listening to it on that Discman while riding shotgun in my parents’ car, I played it on a loop, staring out the window as cornfields and cow-dotted pastures replaced sidewalks and street signs. The chorus beat along with every feeling in my heart.
Growing up, I had always felt like I was too much and not enough at the same time. Too loud, too fat, too messy, yet also not cool enough, not smart enough, not together enough. I wanted to be someone new. I didn’t know who that was yet. Someone different. Someone who cared but like… didn’t care. My brown hair became bright auburn. I put blue streaks in my roommate Tara’s blonde hair and she put purple ones in mine. Without bleach, the purple couldn’t make it through the auburn, but I was satisfied knowing it was there. I bought the kind of bras that scandalized my Catholic mother and made my breasts look fantastic. I learned the minimal amount of sleep I needed to function and that I didn’t mix well with vodka. I figured out the difference between drunk people, high people, and people who were being silly. Tara and I would bring the TV and VCR from our suite living room into our bedroom and watch Office Space over and over, quoting lines while we wrote research papers and became drunk people.
But I was still me. Hair dye and rum couldn’t cover up my naivety. I was my usual goofy self the afternoon Tara and I met a couple of glassy-eyed boys at Borders. They lead us around the store, rambling about movies and making us laugh. I assumed the stoners were into Tara, even if she was shyer and quieter. I was shocked to find out that she thought they felt that way about me.
I don’t get many things right the first time,
In fact, I am told that a lot.
Now I know all the wrong turns the stumbles,
And falls brought me here
It’s hardest to talk about “The Luckiest.” Listening to it, my heart would fill up so full that it hurt when it spilled out the sides. I wanted a great love. I wanted a great love story.
I love you more than I have
Ever found the way to say
I was sick of waiting, but unwilling to shoulder the possibility of pain. Instead, my heart curled inside its shell and hoped an insightful, shaggy-haired soul could crawl inside. If someone’s always carrying Cathy, couldn’t someone carry me?
I am, I am, I am, the luckiest.
I listened to “The Luckiest” so many times, so often, that I eventually couldn’t hear it at all. I actively pushed past it for at least three years. By then, I was in my early twenties, hitting the next button when it came on iTunes shuffle. The raw emotion that Ben displays reminded me of my own and I wanted to forget it. I couldn’t deal with the memory of who I had been, of who I was becoming, and how the two intertwined, leaving my current self behind. The Joan Didion quote of remaining on speaking terms with our former selves still haunts me as much as my former selves do. I can’t read some of my old journals. I’m not at that point yet.
A year after I first listened to him, I went to see Ben Folds play a free outdoor show. By then, Tara had transferred to another college. My new friends weren’t as into his music as I was. The show was a couple songs in when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“We’re gonna go to a bar; you wanna come?”
I glanced back at the stage. “No, I’m gonna stay here.”
I stood in the same spot so long my back ached later. My cheeks hurt from grinning. I laughed as he made up little songs on the spot. I was alone and I was content.