"The Mixtape" by Leah Reich
One, his song was “Timebomb” by the Old 97's.
He played it for me for when we drove up the coast with no particular destination in mind. Neither of us had ever been farther than the very tip of Marin, with its swooping headlands and impossibly big redwoods, so we figured we’d go as far as we could and then find a place to stay.
The way the coastline runs that ragged edge, and the way the bluffs undulate with sea grass in the strong cold wind: the road swayed in time with The Magnetic Fields “Fear of Trains” and then The Gourds “Ghosts of Hallelujah.”
Somewhere before the day turned dark and we found ourselves unable to afford the few remaining vacancies in Sea Ranch, we claimed Neutral Milk Hotel’s “King of Carrot Flowers, Pt. 1” as our song. We listened to it on the way back to San Francisco the next day, after a night in Gualala in a hotel built somewhere around the turn of the century, where our room was no larger than the bed.
As we drove back through Marin the sun was warm and the breeze blew and the California highway was straight out of central casting, so he played “Sink to the Bottom” by Fountains of Wayne. But as we were crossing the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, he switched to The Old 97's and there it was. The way the song galloped as we sped across the narrow snake of a bridge, the way the road was coming to an end, the way I didn’t know holding on too tight was what hastened the horse to the edge of the ravine.
When I emailed him the lyrics to Jets To Brazil “Sweet Avenue” and his reply was a single smiley emoticon, I started to figure it out.
One, his song was “The Sweetest Thing” by U2.
It was also Shakira “Hips Don’t Lie” from that one day he refused to stop singing “Shakira, Shakira” at me, over and over, no matter how I pleaded until I discovered ignoring him worked better and he got bored. It was a little The Smiths “Cemetry Gates” too, as his hair flopped in his eyes when he would let it grow the way I loved, before cutting it too short. Then again, it was Terry Reid “Without Expression” after the day we drove up Highway 73, thin and beautiful on an early Southern California evening in late summer. Everything was blue and scrub green and warm honey, and the two of us were relaxed for once, laughing. It was also certainly Juanes “Fotografía,” the one featuring Nelly Furtado. I never forgot how he felt about Nelly Furtado or his ex playing her most famous song on repeat, since he hadn’t forgotten it either.
But it was “The Sweetest Thing.” The night I wore a strapless sundress and he wore a tailored suit jacket, the way we were drunk and our bodies were hot, the way he pulled me close to him in the crowded bar and whispered the words into my ear from behind. My limbs went loose like I was stuffed with buckwheat hulls, and every part of me tingled except the part that could think about the meaning of the song.
One, his song was something I don’t remember now.
But he wrote me a song, before I moved away from San Francisco and before he got in a car in the dead of winter to try and drive to me in New York City. Somewhere I have that song on an old index card that he cut in half. I have the guitar he wrote it on too.
One, his song was Ray LaMontagne “Hold You In My Arms.”
He put it on a mix for me when I had to leave him for the summer and maybe longer. It was a whole CD of music he loved, some from the United States, some from Central America, all new to me.
I drove back to Orange County with the CD in my car. I listened to the entire CD a few times to be sure of each song. Then it was hundreds of miles of Ray singing “You Are The Best Thing” followed by Ray singing “Hold You In My Arms” and me feeling around the edges of uncertainty and hope as my eyes welled up each and every time. Just before the Grapevine I stopped and sat in my car, looking around me at the cradle of mountains holding clouds glowing pink and blue from the setting sun. I called him, and he answered.
One, his song was a playlist of over 400 songs. How could we choose?
A secret Tracy Nelson song, if I must.
One, his song was Nick Cave “The Ship Song.”
There were the songs from walking and talking in Brooklyn, songs we threw into the pot as the stakes got higher and higher, neither one quite ready to show or call. There was TLC “Creep” and Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me).” We never agreed on an En Vogue song, although we each stood by our favorites.
There were the songs we threw into the pot later, when we knew the stakes and were ignoring them, did so each time he came around or I did. The Arctic Monkeys “Do I Wanna Know,” which stalked around in each absence, grinding up against the what ifs. Banks “Brain.” Banks “Drowning.” Röyksopp & Robin “Do It Again.” And then Kanye West “Runaway,” when I finally got his message.
Between all of that was the dinner. There were dishes, I’m sure of it, and a bottle of wine, but mostly there were two people talking about life and each other, and life with each other. Then Etta James “At Last” came on, and he looked at me and said “I guess this is it. And I guess this is our song.”
Thanks for entering my world,