What’s your favorite song?
My fingers hovered over my phone and Tim’s text. We’d both anticipated hearing Damages, Jimmy Eat World’s eighth and newest album, the month leading to its June 11, 2013, release. I imagined Tim’s red hair and blue eyes accentuated by his pale skin and pockets of freckles. I knew he was commuting to work on a crowded New York City N train. On my Boston inbound commute, the red line halted on tracks over the Charles River. I texted Tim and explained that I needed a few days to decide my favorite. He texted back, I understand.
Tim introduced me to Jimmy Eat World in the summer of 2003, the summer after his senior year of high school, my junior year. We’d dated earlier in high school, clasping sweaty palms at movies; laughing and cuddling on friends’ couches in dark, cool basements; talking in low voices on the phone so our parents and siblings wouldn’t overhear our conversations.
Tim was the first boy to tell me I was beautiful, to give me roses on my birthday, and to show me a starry view of our New Hampshire town from the top level of a parking garage. He was the first boy I dated and the first boy I loved, even though our relationship fizzled quickly, as I think young relationships do so the future can begin. Two years after our first break up, Tim left for college, I left the next year, and then we settled into our separate adult lives in separate cities, but we’ve remained friends.
Our aimless drives began in high school. Tim was always at the wheel while I occupied the passenger seat in his maroon Saturn sedan. We preferred New Hampshire back roads so we could roll down the windows, turn up the volume, and music could drift outside. On those drives, we tried to imagine our future lives and selves as the limitless possibilities of our youth crept to an end with the passing of each summer night. Whenever the drive ended and Tim shifted the car into park and the engine shuddered to off, I wanted to tell him to keep driving. A part of me wanted to stay in the car with the music and my friend and the endless stretch of road that could promise anything and could lead to anywhere.
One humid dusk drive in the summer of 2003, Tim asked me if I liked Jimmy Eat World. I shrugged. I think I said something like “They’re okay.” He instantly recoiled, shaking his head in disbelief. Without a word, he shoved Clarity, the band’s second CD released in 1999, into the car’s CD player. Although the soft and repetitive background melodies relaxed me almost to the point of sleep, the lyrics grabbed my attention because the lines sounded like poetry—like the descriptions I imagined myself writing when I was far away from our boring hometown.
That night, I first heard the chorus to the song “For Me This is Heaven”:
And the time, such clumsy time
in deciding if it’s time.
I’m careful, but not sure how it goes.
You can lose yourself in your courage,
when the time we have now ends,
when the big hand goes round again.
Can you still feel the butterflies?
Can you still hear the last goodnight?
A jolt of understanding hit my chest, and I experienced a rare moment of connection that happens between musicians and their listeners. Jim Adkins, the lead singer of Jimmy Eat World, had accurately defined how I felt at seventeen—driving purposelessly in a car with a boy I’d loved in high school, stuck in a town I felt would only lead to dead ends for a writing career I constantly dreamed of, and the whirling confusion over who I believed I was in my late adolescence and the anxiety created any time I dared to think about the murky years ahead of me. But the song made all of that confusion become momentarily clear. When the music played and Tim sat next to me in his car’s gray interior, we were uncertain of our futures, but that confusion didn’t matter because we were surrounded by songs that, for me, perfectly explained the unknown stretch of road we had to travel before we could both move on and away from the place and the people we called home.
At a smoky college frat party on a bitterly cold February night during my freshman year of college, a boy smiled at me, put a hand on the small of my back, and offered to hold my cup while I went to the bathroom with my friends. At the time, I didn’t realize that I’d provided the perfect opportunity for him to slip something into my drink. From there, my recollections of the night are hazy, fading with each passing year, but we’d shared a cab ride back to campus, and he’d escorted me to my dorm room, which was empty because my roommate was away for the weekend. That boy—whatever his name was—raped me that night on the cold linoleum floor. I did not report him.
After the rape, I spent many sleepless nights on the top bunk, my roommate sleeping below, while I replayed what little I remembered of the assault over and over in my mind and, later, onto the pages of my journal. Between each day’s sunset and sunrise, I’d stare at the cinderblock ceiling with a portable CD player repeating Clarity through my headphones until I managed a few hours of sleep. I listened to that album everywhere: on the way to and from class, on walks around campus, in the library hunched over books, and even in the aisles of the local convenience store. After one of our summer drives a few years before college, Tim grew tired of me borrowing Clarity from him and he had burned me a copy complete with his messy handwriting scrawled onto the front. In the months that directly followed my rape, I played the disc so much that Tim’s handwriting faded and the CD skipped in places, which didn’t matter because I knew every word, every pause, every beat.
My romantic relationship with Tim became part of a before and a past I no longer related to, and Clarity became part of an after and the ambiguous path to recovery. I increased the volume on my portable CD player when I stayed in my dorm room instead of socializing, had flashbacks of that night, or crossed paths with the rapist on campus. But unlike my wavering emotions, the album never changed. The songs stayed in order, the dynamics rose and fell to steady tempos, and listening to Clarity transported me through each day as the drives with Tim had transported me through the summer nights of my youth. I loved the CD because it offered no surprises and a familiar retreat from a sudden, bitter adulthood. With time, I took off my headphones and began to heal, but, in the period immediately following my rape, Clarity gave me the order and comfort I needed to survive.
Now, Jimmy Eat World songs still remind me of Tim’s thumb lightly tapping against the steering wheel, the long shadows of tree branches lining the road as we drove at dusk, the summer wind rushing through open windows and tangling my hair. Regardless of where or how I listen to the CD, I can still imagine myself in the car’s passenger seat, smell Tim’s cologne, or see the sun setting in a mix of fiery colors beyond us.
When I told a friend I was listening to Damages by Jimmy Eat World, she said, “I didn’t know they were still around. Aren’t you getting a little old for that type of music?”
I didn’t defend the band or its music. I’ve abandoned other bands that were once a staple in my younger life because I had grown out of and away from the sound, lyrics, or both, but I can’t abandon Jimmy Eat World because their music simultaneously brings me back and keeps me present. The CD was once the map that I followed every day, even at a time when my life lacked the clarity promised in the album’s title. Whenever I listen to Clarity, I’m reminded of summer drives with Tim and the directionless paths of my youth, darkened dorm rooms with cold floors and sleepless nights, and how I’ve left everything behind.
On the red line, I didn’t hesitate when switching from listening to Damages to another album. I found Clarity, tapped play, and the train finally jerked from its stalled position over the river, to the Massachusetts General stop, and then toward Park Street, the next stop and my destination. Screeching wheels and surrounding conversations gave way to a familiar voice, lyrics, and rhythms. An electronic beep momentarily interrupted the music, and I looked at my phone.
How are you? Tim asked.
We hadn’t texted or spoken about anything other than the CD in a month, and I was eager to catch up. I slid my thumb across the screen, unlocking and opening the message. I told Tim I was busy, but having a good summer. I asked how he was. While I waited for his response, the train arrived at Park Street. In the tinted subway doors, I stared at my reflection. I was no longer the person I was when Tim and I took summer drives on winding back roads, but the music traveling through my headphones was the same.