I met Drew when I was twenty-one. He was everything a boyfriend in one’s early twenties should be—careless with phone chargers, brooding, musical, beautiful. The first time we slept together, we got obscenely stoned and he played me Bright Eyes. It was the choppy, dirty, sexy “Lover I Don’t Have To Love,” which celebrates the joy of sex for its own sake, a song that glorifies falling in lust instead of dealing with the inconvenience that is love. Thumping drums, eerie, Eyes Wide Shut pings. The lyrics are violent and dark and a little masochistic. The first time I heard Conor Oberst spitting out these words, I was so high I imagined Drew had written the song, that he was playing these words for me:
Love’s an excuse to get hurt
And to hurt
Do you like to hurt?
I do, I do
Then hurt me
Then hurt me
Then hurt me
I sat in the gloom of Drew’s PBR can littered apartment, clutching the fuzzy couch fabric with white knuckles, and felt his body sitting a few feet away. I felt dizzy when I considered what might happen before the hurting. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to orgasming via song.
Walter reminded me of my favorite version of Matt Damon, the Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, all rough around the edges, crinkly eyes, scuffed fisherman sweater, warm heart visible from first glance into his open face. I had just graduated from Emerson College with a degree in acting and had been called in for a play called The Promise. Sitting on folding chairs in a circle with a string of other ingenues, all of us doing our best wide-eyed fawn impressions, we were introduced to Walter, who had already been cast as the male lead. We were told the main purpose of the audition was to determine whether or not our Likas would be compatible with Walter’s Marat, so critical is their chemistry to any successful staging of The Promise.
In those days, it was not uncommon for me to dream about having sex with Matt Damon and wake from those dreams convinced it was possible.
The Promise is a Russian play about three teenagers who meet during the Siege of Leningrad in World War II. But more importantly, it’s a love triangle play, and I was thrilled to be cast as the point of the triangle, even if it was just pretend. At twenty-one, I was thirsty for the extremes of love songs. I wanted to gulp down experience, to feel everything that was big, raw, and real.
When I was cast in The Promise, Drew and I were firmly enmeshed in couplehood, which meant he called me “his girl,” which meant I woke up in his dirty sheets on weekends and tagged along with his crew of hipster boys and an ever-changing assortment of girlfriends, eating greasy omelets and drinking sour coffee in the basement of a bar that still reeked of the drunk patrons from the night before. I pretended I was easy and cool and the type of girl that could hang even though I missed my four hundred thread count sheets and my English breakfast tea and my bowl of fibrous muesli. I was happy seeing the carefully constructed version of myself reflected in Drew’s gaze. When I slept over, I left my mouthguard at home, even if that meant waking up with a headache and a stiff jaw from grinding and clenching.
Drew made me a mix CD. Anyone who has ever dated a guy in a band knows this is a big deal. It is the moment of reveal. Playing the heroine of my own life, I walked through the falling leaves of Beacon Hill listening for clues, and when I got to the Bright Eyes song, “Bowl of Oranges,” I found a bench next to Robert McCloskey’s duck statues and listened to the lyrics over and over again as my eyes welled up and my chest tightened.
Baby don’t worry cause now I got your back. And every time you feel like crying,
I’m gonna try and make you laugh. And if I can’t, if it just hurts too bad,
then we will wait for it to pass and I will keep you company
through those days so long and black.
And we’ll keep working on the problem we know we’ll never solve
Of Love’s uneven remainders, our lives are fractions of a whole.
“Bowl of Oranges” is the hopeful, glass-half-full antidote to the jaded, glass-half-empty “Lover I Don’t Have To Love.” It explodes with idealism and rollicking, joyful guitar thrums. It is warm love, not cool lust. And even though my facade of chill was growing rustier as the relationship progressed, and even though our fights were becoming increasingly dark, Drew’s inclusion of “Bowl of Oranges” on the mix cd felt sacred, it felt like security, like a promise. And it was this song that kept Drew and I together far longer than was right, because this song was what I wanted us to be.
I didn’t think of “Bowl of Oranges” when Walter and I found ourselves on the subway after rehearsal one night, drinking cheap vodka from my engraved flask. Bright Eyes had just released I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, and I needed Walter to listen to Bright Eyes the way Natalie Portman needed Zach Braff to listen to The Shins in Garden State. So we listened to “Lua.” We listened to the lonesome, tinny guitar, and the booming reverberation of Oberst’s darkly beseeching croon. We listened with our heads close together, held taut by the thin wire of my headphones stretched between us as we rocked to the click and the jolt of the train ride.
Cause what is simple in the moonlight, by the morning never is
It was so simple in the moonlight, now it’s so complicated
And this song confirmed what I already suspected, that complication was gorgeous in its disorder, divine in its unknowns.
Like the morning, Walter’s scent indistinguishable from my own, when Drew repeatedly rang my front door buzzer until he was let in by an exasperated neighbor, tired of his noisy persistence. Like the morning Walter and I huddled against the apartment door, and listened to Drew besieging the locked door, calling my name, listened to the sad thud as Drew slid his body down the door onto the floor, watched as my phone silently lit up, Drew’s name emblazoned on the screen, listened to him give up with a sob and finally leave.
Two days later, my friend Josh dropped me off at a rambling farmhouse in the chilly depths of New Hampshire, where I would live for two weeks rehearsing for a touring children’s theatre company. I wept for Drew in Kansas. I pined for Walter in New Mexico. I listened to Bright Eyes. I stared at myself in shitty motel bathrooms and felt reverence for my mysterious emotions. I was high on star-crossed misery.
The potential of great love feels more akin to what the poets write about than actual, realized, watching-movies-on-the-couch love. When life is pulsating and painful and full of what might be, when you’re on the edge of searing heartbreak or bleak loneliness or outrageous joy, life feels lived in a way that cannot be sustained. We cannot walk through the world every day with sparks shooting from our pores, and blood thumping through our veins, and heat burning in our breasts. We eventually make responsible choices. We eventually crave comfort. We eventually grow up.
I’m thirty-five now. The only time I listen to real music is when I’m running, running to escape the ominous buzz of baby monitors and playdate monotony and flu shots and oil changes and preschool interviews and Google calendar reminders. When I’m running away from all that, sneakers thudding against the potholed back roads of rural New Hampshire, Bright Eyes still pops up occasionally on my Spotify, and the music still makes my heart contract, my eyes brim. I feel for old loves, for lost promise, lost fantasy, but most of all, I grieve for the space inside of me that’s no longer bursting with hunger, that’s too tired and too full to taste that need, that pulsing desire to feel everything big and raw and real.