Around the time I started to write this, I was talking with a colleague at work: “It’s almost impossible to write a memoir from the perspective of a kid growing up in the suburbs in the ’90s without making reference to pop culture. It’s unavoidable.”

The reason this came up was that many writers, especially fiction writers, in an effort to make their words timeless, try to avoid mentions of popular culture. The thinking, I presume, goes: if I mention cultural touchstones of the time—touchstones that are ephemeral, items that will fade, product names, Coca-Cola or Pepsi; films that aren’t a proven commodity (we’re not talking Citizen Kane here, but maybe any number of disposable B movies that faded from memory almost as quickly as they were released); even musicians whose genius and place in eternity haven’t been established—then my work with get tied to that time and fade. In the end, it will disappear when I’d rather my work persist, live on through the ages, become timeless.

Perhaps it’s worse in a memoir. How crude and lowbrow it is to admit that a portion of my younger romantic sensibility was formed by cinema! And not just any cinema but teen comedies and melodrama! It wasn’t Shakespeare or Joyce who spawned my love of literature, but Stephen King. My musical touchstones weren’t Mozart and Beethoven but Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan. This hesitance to engage with ephemeral cultural artifacts in writing (and here I’m talking of those grand artistic statements: novels!) tends to ignore the fact that to read, say, Dante’s Inferno is well-nigh impossible these days without using textual references, either footnote or endnote, to understand the cultural moment in which he wrote. Most of the versions of any of Shakespeare’s plays released are now annotated, not only because the language has changed but because he too makes reference to the cultural touchstones of his time.

So why then do these works endure? Where does their timeless quality come from? I’d conjecture theme and aesthetics, but I’m sure there are people much better equipped to answer this question. What I mean to say here is that I’ve tried in the past to do that same thing, the avoidance of markers, the cold shoulder to pop. I wanted to write in a way that allowed my work to be admired in posterity. And it’s exhausting. To try to predict what people will like a hundred years from now. Two hundred. The truth is I look out now and think, it’s all going to fade. If we’re not heading toward some apocalyptic disaster of our own making, there are so many people doing this now, we’re all going to fade. The magic we imbue a writer like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy with comes partially from the fact they had what, five rivals at the time they were writing. There are infinite reams of words being produced write now, as I’m typing, more in the last minute over the internet than I could ever hope to read in my lifetime.

My ambitions as a writer, knowing this, have become slightly more modest over time. I’m hoping to entertain whoever arrives at this site, at these words. I’m hoping to connect for a bit with an audience, to recognize the shared experience of our time, the trails we face in coming of age, searching for love, reaching out to grasp at and develop a sense of identity, of self. I wouldn’t mind if I could make a bit of cash from it either. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hoping. This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned all artistic pretension. I want to tell my story well, in evocative language, memorable scenes. But I’m not going to get tied down in worrying about references to pop culture dating me. The fact that I have a definitive birth date and that I will, at some point, have to pack in and shuffle off this mortal coil is what dates me. I’ve lived during a certain time and references to that time are unavoidable.

“It’s the product of late-Capitalism,” my colleague said. “What you’re talking about. The shift started to happen in the early twentieth century. It moved away from the family as a unit, the thing that defined most individuals, and into ephemeral product being the thing that brought people together. We started to unite around things rather than people. I haven’t seen it touched on much in fiction. There was that book about rock and roll a few years ago, won the Pulitzer, written by a woman?”

Visit from the Goon Squad.”

“Yes, she does it there. It’s an interesting subject.”

Yes, well, someone more studied and learned than me may have to take on the Marxist implications of this. All I know is I’m of my time, not above it. I grew up in a certain region of the world with a certain economic and ethnic demographic at a certain time. And though my interest in the world has grown and I’ve studied and learned about other people, other ways of living, I’m a product of where I come from, what I’ve been exposed to, no more or less than anyone else. It’s true that my connections outside of the house, rather than being made by my family, were created through a mutual identification with music and film; products, I suppose, of our late-capitalist society. The things I liked defined me and my friends. As such we dreamed of living in versions of reality envisioned by the arts we engaged. As a boy, I wanted to move to Seattle or some other big city. I wanted to live a rock and roll lifestyle. Am I the only one who, at twelve, believed his twenties were going to be like the Cameron Crowe movie Singles?

Naturally, this question is rhetorical. When my wife and I first became friends, Singles was one of the things we bonded over. We exchanged our favorite lines (movie quotations have always been a quick way to bond for me). We listened to the movie’s soundtrack in the car on trips. We watched it together, sitting side-by-side on her futon in her little studio apartment off Rittenhouse. And when we got married, our recessional music was “Waiting for Somebody” by Paul Westerberg (the processional was the orchestral intro to The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony“…yes, my wife and I are indeed that fucking cool, though I sometimes wish we’d been brave enough to throw on a leather jacket over her dress and place people she could have bumped out of the way in the aisle like Richard Ashcroft).

In any case, I’d thought my twenties were going to be like Singles. Once I reached my twenties, I changed my mind and thought they were nothing at all like Singles. Now that I’m in my thirties, I think my twenties were as close to Singles as reality could be. In other words, in my twenties I bounced around from one relationship to the next, sometimes serious, sometimes not, refining my idea of what I was looking for, what I wanted in a relationship, who I wanted to be with. I had a great soundtrack to do it with too. While the ’90s gave us grunge and the Seattle sound, the aughts had the garage rock revival, the post-punk revival. We listened to The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Walkmen, Interpol, Bloc Party, Spoon, Art Brut, Wolf Parade, The National. I took the women I dated to shows. I made them mix CDs instead of tapes. Each year I put together a soundtrack that reflected what I’d listened to that year and send it out to all my friends. I went to parties and met women and went home with them. I hooked up with women at bars. I said I love you far more times than I meant it. In certain instances, I was trying it out, seeing how the words felt on my tongue, seeing if I could make myself feel it when I didn’t. In others, I was infatuated, fatuous, and drunk. There have been three people I felt it for in my life where I believe at the time I fully meant it regardless of whether I said it or not. The first was Lana, who I never said it to (unless it was in that final letter I sent; I didn’t keep a copy and can’t recall what it detailed). The third should be obvious. The second was Maggie Bell.

My relationship with Maggie brought my feelings for Lana to fruition, my love for Maggie an extension of the same emotion I’d harbored for Lana during all those excruciating years and couldn’t give voice to. I had just moved into Philly when we met. I’d been living with my parents during college, but now that I’d graduated, I figured it was time to get out. I found an apartment through a friend of a friend, and one of my roommates, Renee, worked at the Borders bookstore on 18th and Walnut. I hadn’t found full-time employment. Instead I worked a few hours a week for a medical publisher while I searched and sent my resume out and went on job interviews. No one wanted to hire me, and I worried about paying my bills and rent, and I spent most of my days in Rittenhouse Square, hoping I’d meet a girl. I was lonely, as was often the case in those years. I’d sit and watch and yearn. Aside from the normal desires of a young man, there was also the desire to avoid my father’s fate. If I could just find a girl who loved me, it would be validation. I wouldn’t have to become like him.

I’d had two girlfriends in college. The six month relationship with Christina before she’d disappeared, and before that, an on-again-off-again fling that lasted maybe two months with a bisexual girl I’d met in a Women Studies class. I had a bit more experience now but still wasn’t good at talking to them. At Rittenhouse, I’d sometimes spot a girl reading a book I liked, and I’d obsess. Obviously she was perfect for me. We read the same material! If only I could talk to her! Sometimes I’d even summon the courage to approach and have an awkward rambling more than likely uninvited conversation before recognizing my attentions weren’t wanted and retreating. Whenever I got bored ogling, I’d go visit my roommate and sit and chat while she served coffee to customers in the upstairs cafe. One day, as I went in, I noticed the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen behind the register. Soft pale skin. Wild hair she’d dyed orange and coiffed in carefully structured disarray with bobby pins. Wide brown eyes. She turned and looked at me and smiled and said, “Hi.” Same tone of voice as Lana used at the train station that summer. The moments were eerily similar if you don’t pause to consider I had probably manufactured both in my imagination based on some deep-seated romantic need. I smiled back and sprinted up the escalator stairs to the cafe.

“Who’s that?” I said to Renee. I was out of breath. “Who’s the girl down at the register?”

“Red hair? Brown eyes? Sort of looks like a little elf?”

“That’s the one.”

“That’s Maggie. All the guys who come in want to know about her. She’s got a boyfriend.”

I was crestfallen at this. Here was a girl my roommate knew. She was beautiful. She was exactly who I’d been looking for. I’d felt an instant connection. And because my roommate knew her, we had a reason to talk, but she was unavailable.

“Is it serious?” I asked.

Renee shrugged.

“Few months?”

I was naive back then. I believed that dating implied some kind of inalienable bond. I didn’t realize that people, both women and men, in their twenties would often date for the same reason I’d dated Susan Osmond when I was twelve. Just so they wouldn’t be alone. Just so they’d have something to do. Waiting around until something better came along. I respected it. I didn’t hear this and think, maybe it won’t last, maybe I’ll have a shot, maybe I should try to wedge myself between them, show her that I’m the better option. I heard this and thought, okay, well, moving on. It was disappointing to say the least. But Renee started to invite Maggie around. We’d all sit in Renee’s room drinking late at night, listening to music and talking. And I’d often wake in the morning to find Maggie asleep in the living room on our sofa, a pile of bobby pins residing on our coffee table. One morning I came out and found her watching TV. Renee wasn’t up yet and neither was out other roommate Joel. I sat on the other side of the sofa for a few minutes as she flipped stations and then said, “Do you want to watch a movie?”

“Sure,” she said. “What do you want to watch?”

I had started collecting movies my senior year of college, and I had a stack in the living room.

“You ever see Bottle Rocket?” I asked. “It’s by the same director who did Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.”

She shook her head, and I put it on, and while she watched the movie, I watched her.

“Can I hold the box?” she asked.


“The DVD box. I like holding the box when I watch movies.”

I gave it over. I found this charming. The way she flipped it over in her hands as she watched, the way she glanced down at it every once in a while. I found everything she did in the beginning charming, from holding the DVD box while we were watching movies to her poor diet which consisted almost entirely of Velveeta shells and cheese. But this wasn’t the beginning. Or, if it was, it was only the beginning of friendship. She laughed at all the right moments. The humor in the early-Wes Anderson films was subtler. There were those who understood and accepted his sensibility and those who found it twee, and I was glad she got it. If she hadn’t, she might have proven me wrong. I might have been misguided. Maybe she wasn’t the one. I watched her laugh. She had a beautiful smile. I didn’t think she was attracted to me, but at least I was close to her. At least I could sit like this and talk to her. A chance I’d never had with Lana. And when I say this was like Lana, I mean she evoked a similar emotion in me, an emotion that made me forget Lana completely. For though I’d tried to put it behind me by writing Lana a letter my freshman year, the emotion hadn’t faded entirely. It was there as I dated those two girls in college. I compared them to Lana. They weren’t as beautiful. I didn’t have much in common with them. But here with Maggie, I’d forgotten Lana. Just as my wife would later make me forget Maggie.

It was August or September, the morning this happened. As we glided into October, my roommates suggested a party. We’d have a Halloween party (though we didn’t dress up, so maybe it was a party around Halloween or shortly thereafter?), replete with booze and music. Renee would handle the guest list. It seemed she knew half of West Philly. She met people at Borders, made friends at the local bars and parks. She talked to everyone. Through this, I also developed a system of friends, a social circle. We all chipped in for booze. I was in charge of music. I’m not sure if the iPod was out by this time, but if it was I didn’t know it, didn’t own one. Instead, I made five CDs for the five disc changer, 80 minutes each. Six and a half hours. I filled them with pop, hip hop, dance music. I went old school, Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart” and Black Sheep’s “The Choice is Yours,” and added some newer stuff, Jay-Z’s “Izzo” and Outkast’s “B.O.B” and “Grindin‘” by Clipse. I took it way back with Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You.” I threw in “Sexx Laws” by Beck. “Where It’s At.” For days when I got home from my part-time job, I’d sit at my computer, making track lists. Ol’ Dirty’s “Got Your Money.” Prince’s “Kiss” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Missy’s “Get Ur Freak On.” I was in my element. It was blissful. Joy. Working with music like this was an art in itself. Imagining a floor full of people getting their bodies moving to music I’d put together. Ease into it, head-bobbing songs for early in the evening, all out bangers later in the night when people are drunk. I’d alternate fast and slow so people got a breather. And shit, just writing this makes me want to  move. (“You’re the only man I know who could mix Elvis Costello and Public Enemy!”) I wanted everyone to depart knowing with absolute certainty that that was a great party. But most of all, Maggie.

Of course, Maggie was coming. I wanted to impress her with my prowess as a DJ. I wanted her to ask, “Who put the music together?” and tell her, “Me!” And have her say, “It’s amazing.” And she did just that. I’d orchestrated this exchange and it happened that night. She stood near the wall with her friend, and I kept gravitating toward them.

“Can I get you anything?”

She’d point to her cup and shake her head. “I’m good.”

“I like your shirt!”

She’d worn a bright red shirt with ruffles down the front.

“Thanks! It’s my party shirt!”

I’d drift away and dance and come back in between songs.

“Why aren’t you dancing?”

“I don’t really dance.”

“Of course you do! Everyone dances! You’re just self-conscious! Gotta get past it and have fun!”

Brazen with alcohol, I grabbed her hand and led her onto the floor. We danced and she laughed.

“See, no one cares! The only people watching are the stick in the muds holding up the walls.” But there weren’t even many of these.

We’d moved the coffee table out of the living room. There still wasn’t much space and people were packed in there, dancing, sweating, hands up.

Maggie was adorable. I watched her the whole night as she moved about the party. I’d made her laugh and smile. I wasn’t sure she liked me, but I’d done that much. She’d broken up with her boyfriend. She was single. But still, I didn’t make a move. Why would she like me? I suffered under the weight of that question. I had become temporarily involved with my roommate, but I’d assumed this was just because Renee was bored and I was convenient. For a brief period lasting from September to October, she and I were a thing, albeit a loosely-defined amorphous thing. Everyone knew about it, including Maggie. It was kind of shitty, I suppose, to start something with someone else when all the time I wanted Maggie. But it just sort of happened. Renee and I came home one night. We were drunk. We went to her room and talked and ended up on her futon, kissing. But we never defined it. Which meant what? Were we dating? Was I free to pursue Maggie? I didn’t know how these things worked. I had little experience. And Lex wasn’t around to consult. We were still on speaking terms, but he lived in New York. I could call him and explain the situation, but he didn’t know its intricacies. His advice would be generalized, cliche. By this point, I didn’t trust him when it came to women. Obviously Renee knew I liked Maggie. I’d told her as much that day in Borders. And there were plenty of guys interested in Renee. But I couldn’t help feeling that if I put her aside for Maggie, she’d be upset. And yet, I knew she got over things quickly. I’d watched her move from one boyfriend to the next. So it was probably best when she ended things with me, though my pride was rankled. Things got tense and quiet in the apartment for about a week. Then one day, Renee suggested, “Why not Maggie? You should go for her. I think you’d make a good couple.” Which lessened the tension and absolved me of any guilt I might have felt about going from her to her friend.

“Why? Did she say something to you?” I asked.

I was twenty-two but felt the same as I had at fourteen. I had to be sure before I declared myself. I needed the feeling reciprocated. I couldn’t handle her rejecting me, I wanted her too much, and as long as I didn’t know, there was hope. But if she’d said something…

“No, she hasn’t said a thing. I’m not sure how she feels about you.”

Time passed, and Maggie couldn’t go home when Christmas came around. She was from Florida. Her parents still lived there. She’d taken off work to go home at Thanksgiving, and the tradeoff was Christmas, so Renee invited her to spend the holiday with us. I planned to spend Christmas day at my parents’ house with my family, but the rest of the week, I had lounged about the apartment with Maggie. She’d caught a cold, and I was attentive. Over the four or five months since I’d met we’d gone from tenuous connection to friendship. But harbored deep within me still were feelings of love, and seeing here there, sleeping in the living room on our couch, I had to take care of her. I was still working part-time for the medical publisher so I was home often. And on my way back from work, I’d stopped and picked up DayQuil and NyQuil. I cooked for her. Made her the things she liked, simple things, grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup and we sat and watched movies. I went to my parents on Christmas day and sat thinking of her through dinner and exchanging gifts. And I took the train back, and we sat and watched It’s a Wonderful Life. I still didn’t think that she liked me romantically, but this was fine, sitting like this and being together. The question was, could I accept this friendship once she’d moved on? once she found another guy and separated from me? when she stopped staying at our place and I didn’t see her as much? Two nights later we went out to Doobie’s bar in a large group that included Renee and me and Maggie and our friends Tim and Peter and Rebecca. And though I worried she might show attention to other guys, Maggie stayed close to me all night. She sat in the booth next to me. Most of the conversation I had that night was between me and her. After the bar closed, we all returned to my apartment, and she came to my room.

This wasn’t out of the ordinary that week. It wasn’t a romantic insinuation. I had a couch placed perpendicular to my single bed for times when I entertained. And since the couch here was more comfortable than the one in the living room, I’d told Maggie she could sleep there when she was sick. Her cold had passed, but she still came and slept there, and I didn’t think much of it. We got ready for bed, and Maggie lay on the sofa so that her head was facing toward the end of the mattress where I slept. We’d been sleeping this way for a few nights, talking as we fell asleep. I shut of the light and lay there, and we talked.

“It was fun tonight,” I said. Or something of the sort. I just wanted the night to keep going. I wanted to be with her and talk to her forever. I didn’t want it to stop. For day to come and her to be gone. I couldn’t be friends. If she found someone else I’d be devastated, and still I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t tell her how I felt. We were quiet a moment, and I wondered whether she’d fallen asleep. Through the silence she spoke.

“Do you like me?” she said. I nodded, which was stupid, since she couldn’t see me in the dark. But she went on. “Because I like you. I like the way you take care of me. I want to be with you.”

The compression in my chest. The sweet ache of hearing these words. I can’t describe. I almost wanted to weep. These were the most beautiful words I’d ever heard. Perhaps the dearest sentence in the English language, simple but all important: “I want to be with you.” Is there anything more tender, more kind and vulnerable, than someone admitted, with the chance they’ll be rejected, that they want you to be not just a part of their life, but the most important part, their love? I still couldn’t speak, so I reached over the edge of the bed and felt for her hand. I caught it and held it there and squeezed it. And she turned and leaned over the arm of the couch. I’d propped myself on an elbow, and our lips touched gently. We eased into it and kissed more deeply. It was at that point the most magical moment I’d ever experienced.

Perhaps if there’d never been a Lana, we would have lasted. Though that’s not right. If the version of Lana I’d created in my imagination had never existed, if I hadn’t clung to it so intensely, then maybe we’d have made it. But that’s not right either. Beginnings have endings. It’s the way of all stories. And perhaps what damaged this beginning the most were the romantic narratives I was fed and believed. The storybook romances of fiction and film. Great Expectations. Or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Or Casablanca. They spoke of love like destiny. And when it ended, it was always for reasons outside the lover’s control and the love went on. For life. I wanted love like that. Without pausing for a moment and reflecting it was imaginary.

Every lover, excepting the movie lover, has failings, faults, insecurities. Every lover has to live a life, look for a job, find a job, do that job. Day-to-day they have to take out the trash. Brush their teeth. Take showers. Eat and sleep and find ways to fill the hours of boredom on a commute. Most of us aren’t Rick or Ilsa. We’re not fighting Nazis in Morocco. We aren’t Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles conducting an affair during the Blitz in London. An affair that ends at the possibility of a miracle. We aren’t Pip and Estella, inheriting fortunes or damaged by another generation’s jilting. Much as I hate to admit it, I was an ordinary guy, loving an ordinary girl. I had failings, faults. And she was a girl with a life before me, a life I wished to ignore. My insecurities, as they were, had to do with this. I wanted us to be new, entirely new. And we couldn’t be. We’d lived entirely too much life for that. I’d spent my life waiting for this type of love and maybe I shouldn’t have. For I couldn’t handle the fact that she hadn’t. That she hadn’t been sitting around waiting for me, waiting for this to happen to her. Which didn’t make what she felt for me any less real. But I couldn’t understand this. And this was our undoing, an ordinary unmaking for an ordinary couple. Over the years, I’ve learned the only conversation that needs to be conducted regarding the past when you fall in love is this:

“Have you been tested?”


“Clean bill of health?”


“Me too.”

That might be a bit jaded, overstating the case. These are the words of a more experienced man who’s divested himself of certain illusions, worked to rid himself of self-deception. I’ve had to recalibrate my idea of romance so that romance fit with life rather than the other way around. I’ve watched myself buy into a narrative regardless of truth simply because I believed my life should adhere to the narrative I wanted to tell myself (though obviously here I’m still creating a story which may or may not reflect reality; it’s just a story of lesser naivety). I’ve never actually had the conversation I’ve outlined above, but you get my point. Nothing good comes from discussing past lovers. It can only arouse jealousy, even in the most secure people. And I was a younger man then, inexperienced, obsessed by numbers. I had to know everything. I asked. I prodded. I saw her reluctance at discussing it and should have heeded this. She knew that nothing good would come of it. And none of it mattered. She told me she loved me, and she did. I’m certain of it. In those first months, those first few blissful months, she looked at me, beaming. “I’m going to marry you someday, Jason Jones!” she’d say. She’d declare it in front of our friends, her voice assertive. And those first five months or so were bliss. We were happy with each other. But I questioned myself. Why? Why did she love me? Why did she love me enough to say this? What was so great about me? Why did she love me more than say, her other boyfriends, her past boyfriends? Was I better in bed than them? If I’d entered this relationship with more experience I wouldn’t have been so scared, but I’d only ever been with one other person besides Maggie. When Renee had discovered I’d never slept with anyone, she’d worked quickly to remedy this.

“But you’ve had girlfriends,” she said. “You don’t seem completely lost.”

“Yeah, I’ve had girlfriends.”

“You just never slept with them?”


“Why not?”

“I guess I was waiting for love.”

“Are you still waiting for love?”


“Okay then.”

Part of me just wanted to get it over with, out of the way. I felt like I’d waited long enough already. I’d passed up chances, opportunities, hoping for love when it looked like it would never arrive. Then a few months later, it did. I was twenty-two when Renee and I had our fling. I felt like a misfit, some kind of pariah. To have to admit at twenty-two that you’d never slept with a woman was embarrassing. I felt like giving in and having that experience would clear things up, make them less confusing or hazy and make me less intimidated. But it didn’t. And it wasn’t just because I was a man. Maggie, knowing I’d been with Renee right before her, expressed concerns, prodded.

“What was it like with Renee?” she asked me one morning.

We were two or three months into our relationship. I hadn’t given it much thought.

“It was different,” I told her. “I mean, you and I are in love. I don’t think you can compare.”

After this, she didn’t ask me again. She accepted my response as truth. And yet, when I asked her about her past, she gave me similar answers, and I’d still ask again and again. I couldn’t accept that she loved me. So I started to test her. I indulged in petty behaviors you’d never read about in any romance, never see portrayed on screen, unless, of course, they were characteristics of an ex, of the guy the director and writer obviously didn’t want you to identify with. In a film or book, you can’t be the good guy for the first half and the bad guy for the other, yet that’s exactly what happened with me. Whenever we hung out in a group in Renee’s room, drinking and talking, I’d leave to see if Maggie would follow me, and if she didn’t notice I was gone, I’d get mad at her. Or she’d go out late to the bar with her friends and come home at three in the morning, and I’d shun her the next day.

Then there was Dick. Dick was a coworker of Maggie’s. He hung out with Renee and the Borders crew, and Dick and I didn’t like each other from the get-go. I used to hold grudges for months, years, and I don’t anymore, but it’s still difficult for me to bring him up and have anything nice to say about him. Do I try treating him kindly here? Understanding his motives? I find it impossible, even with no grudge to bear. And so, if I can’t speak kindly of him, and I can’t avoid him, I might as well have fun with my hate. Dick was a hanger-on, the boxer short lint that accumulates beneath your scrotum over the course of a day. That’s what I had him pegged as when I first met him and he did nothing in the time I knew him to disavow me of this. He was ten years older than the rest of us, but still engaged in the same behaviors we did. Perpetual youth? Peter Pan syndrome? He had this affable me-too go along with the crowd good nature that allowed him to insinuate himself into groups as non-toxic but also uninteresting, bland. I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear him utter phrases like “Golly-gee” and “Aw shucks,” though he never did. And yet, he wasn’t good intentioned, at least not toward me. My first memory of Dick is in the back of Dahlak Ethiopian restaurant. There was a bar back there that we frequented. Dick was with his girlfriend Kelly, and I jokingly reeled off an Outkast line that had something to do with the conversation going on, quoting “So Fresh, So Clean”: “I love who you are, I love who you ain’t, you so Anne Frank, let’s hit the closet and hide out for ’bout two weeks.”

At which point, Kelly decided to drop some science on me.

“I can’t believe you’re sexualizing a fourteen year old girl!”

“What are you talking about?”

“Anne Frank was fourteen!”

“Really?” I said. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

And we got into it. A few people on my side tried to spin it as an appreciation of Anne Frank, a celebration of love over death or some such nonsense. But I thought she was making a big deal out of nothing, fighting a battle that didn’t need to be fought. I started to call her Buggin’ Out, the character from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which only pissed her off more. All the while Dick was in the background playing the commentator. Pasty Flavor Flav to her Penn Grad School educated Chuck D.  “Yeah, boy! That’s right! Don’t be frontin’ on Anne Frank!” Yet, for all this, all his apparent supportiveness, he wanted out of that relationship and into mine. He hid it under the guise of friendship, that doofus guilelessness that’s really guile. He was often the one who invited her out to McGlinchy’s where they’d stay talking with other Borders cohorts until the wee hours of the morning. At first I went along. In those first months of bliss when I felt secure and self-assured, I didn’t notice anything. She was mine, and Dick could covet, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. But Dick wasn’t going anywhere. He waited and watched and exploited each error I made. If I got upset for any reason, if Maggie and I fought, Dick’s was the ear on the other end of the line, telling her she hadn’t done anything wrong, encouraging her to work it out with me, which was perhaps most insidious of all. If he’d spoken against me when she and I were tight, strong, he never would have gotten anywhere. I imagine he’d done this before. He seemed to know when to move in and when to lay back. He never revealed his feelings openly, but they were subtly hinted at. All the while he wasn’t free either. He and Kelly were together. And I used to wonder how much she knew, whether she was aware of it. I’m not sure when I noticed it happening, him closing in. But midway through the relationship, I felt his presence hounding my every step. And the pressure made me moody, irascible. I was frequently out of sorts, and this came out with Maggie. “He’s only my friend!” she insisted whenever I had the temerity to point out that Dick was interested in her. “And besides, he has a girlfriend!” And I’d let it go, even though I never bought this for a second. I was sure he’d break up with Kelly the instant Maggie broke up with me. He just didn’t have the guts to do it otherwise.

But of course, any astute reader can see what I’m doing here, the old bait and switch. I’m making Dick the villain to avoid dealing with my own failings, my own ineptitude. I did it in life, and I’m doing it in my writing. Perhaps this is why there continue to be storytellers. We grow up on stories and love them and try to live our lives like them and they fail us because they’re full of pretty lies. So we try to write what we see as truth but can’t help mixing in our own lies and fooling the next generation who come up on our stories. So I make Dick the villain to avoid my own villainy, to try and keep myself the hero of my story, continue the chain of lies. I don’t want to bear the sole responsibility for losing Maggie, yet it’s all mine. If I hadn’t been insecure. If I hadn’t tested Maggie. If I hadn’t asked and received a number and then pictured her making love to all of them, all of those boys before me, which really weren’t so many, but I only know this now that I’m older. If I hadn’t played games to make her prove her love, Dick never would have been a threat. I act as if it wasn’t me who opened the door and ushered him in, but it was. Every time I spoke to her in anger, I was laying out the welcome mat. Every time I turned my back on her in an argument, I was saying, “What about him? You might not have any of these problems with him?” And looking back, I realize I had to lose her, if only to shed these insecurities. We would have gone on like this. Fights and reconciliations. Misery. Resentments. I needed to lose her to fix these failing in myself. But I didn’t know that yet.

During the summer, she took a week-long trip back to Florida to see her family, and when she came back, I met her at the airport. The whole time she was gone I’d missed her madly, thought of her at night, reached for her presence in bed. When I saw her at the gate, she was smiling. She almost skipped toward me. She was run-walking, waddling with the weight of her bags. I took the bags and we boarded a train and returned to my apartment and made love. A week apart had done us good. We were happy to see one another. When we finished, she wanted to go to CVS, so we walked to 43rd and Locust and on the way she revealed she’d made plans with Dick that night. At which point, all the joy we’d experienced on seeing each other dissipated.

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

She looked at me, heard the tone in my voice. Her face changed.

“I didn’t think,” she said. “I can cancel the plans.”

“No, that’s fine.” I started walking ahead of her. “You made the plans, go and see him.”

“It’s not just him,” she said. “It’s everyone. Renee, Rebecca.” “I don’t really care if it’s him or everyone,” I seethed.

“Did you ever consider your first night back, I might want to have you to myself? We haven’t seen each other for a full week, and here you’ve made plans with Dick.”

“I’ll cancel.”

But it didn’t matter if she canceled or not, if I went with her or not. The night was ruined. I’d gotten mad. We were back to where we’d been before she left. And it was Dick’s fault. Though I’ll take much of the blame, I’m not taking the hit on this one. It was a no win situation for me. If I hadn’t said anything, I’d have fumed, harbored the hurt all night. If I said something, it hurt Maggie. By this point, she was pulling away anyway. I couldn’t see there was much I could do to bring her back, and still I held on and watch our relationship dying a slow death. Making plans was inconsiderate, but we were already at the point where she didn’t question being inconsiderate. We were drifting away from each other. I kept a journal during that year, and though I can’t find it now, I remember that most of the entries struggled with this. I realized I was behaving badly, acting like an asshole much of the time. I was aware of it, but it seemed there was nothing I could do could stop it. My actions were entirely impulsive. There was no forethought or planning. I couldn’t step back and see a problem logically, take her side, act with any semblance of rationality. I was at the mercy of my emotions. I was terrified. I’d found love, and it seemed it was slipping away. And I flailed and lashed out. I’d waited my whole life to meet Maggie, and now I was losing her. If I lost her, there wouldn’t be another. I thought of the way she’d said she wanted to marry me just a few months before. How quickly things had changed. This wasn’t how the narrative was meant to go. I’d envisioned a future with her. I’d set my life around her, made plans. Her friends and my friends, they overlapped. If I lost her, would they have to choose? Inevitably they would choose her, right? And still, the relationship limped on.

In September, she tried broaching the subject. She suggested that maybe she needed some time to herself, maybe we’d just be friends. As if anyone who’d ever loved that intensely succeeded with that transition. I agreed, but we hooked up again, made love whenever we saw each other. When her birthday rolled around, I took her to a restaurant she’d always wanted to try. We made dates, met for drinks at happy hour. We weren’t together anymore, not officially but we were. That indiscriminate area right before breaking up, where the lessening has to be incremental, when you can’t simply cut the other person off but need to ween yourself away. She was separating, but taking her time to do so. Around my birthday, we had another fight, this was November. We were coming up on a year together, but after that fight, she started to sleep on the sofa in my room again. In the meantime, Dick had gotten Kelly pregnant, and I felt a reprieve. The primary threat was gone. If only I could change my ways, show Maggie that things would be different, that I wouldn’t be so angry, so insecure. I tried my best to do this. I treated her kindly all the time. I wanted to get back together. But Kelly lost the baby and Dick moved out soon after, and that’s when I knew that me and Maggie were done. I convinced myself otherwise. She’d assured me that she had no interest in Dick, but she showed up in my apartment Christmas Eve, bearing gifts, with a sad look on her face.

“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” she said.

One of the gifts she’d brought me was Lucinda Williams’ World Without Tears. I’d put it on before she started talking.

“Okay,” I said. “Is it permanent, or just…to detach?”

Lucinda sang in her sad warbling voice in the background. I wasn’t going to get upset. I had resolved that. If I ever hoped to win her back, I had to stop getting mad whenever I felt threatened. I had to remain calm.

“I’m not sure,” she told me.

I want to watch the ocean bend, to the edges of the sun,” Lucinda sang, “then, I want to get swallowed up, in an ocean of love…”

“Okay,” I said. “If that’s what you have to do. But I need you to know that I love you and always will. And I’ll be here, if you need me.”

She nodded and started to cry and I put my arms around her and held her while she wept. I wanted to cry too but wouldn’t. It hadn’t been a year. We still had two days for that. And here she was in my arms on Christmas Eve where a year before I’d cooked for her and given her medicine for her cough and taken care of her, and she was saying we were over.

She stood and I walked her to the door and down the four flights of stairs to the street. “I’m sorry,” she said, and turned to go. And I watched her, somehow believing I could still fix it. When I came back up, I had a few drinks and listened to the rest of the Lucinda Williams album and went to sleep. I’d get her back, I thought. I was getting her back. I thought of what I’d told her. That I loved her and always would. It sounded like a line out of a movie. It was the perfect thing to say. And it was total bullshit. But I’d only learn this the following morning after I woke and dressed and got ready to head to my parents’ house for the holiday. I passed by Renee’s room. She was in bed, with the door half-shut, talking to her boyfriend.

“Dick told me they’re going to wait a month and see if they still feel the same way. I said, yeah right. You and her’ll be together by the end of the week.”

All of the strength was swept out of my legs. I leaned against the wall. I pushed the door open the rest of the way. I didn’t care if they were naked, I didn’t care. I needed to ask, “Do you mean him and Maggie?” Renee and her boyfriend looked at each other. “Do you mean Maggie? Maggie and Dick?”

“You weren’t meant to hear that…”

“All this time insisting…” I muttered.

“You had to know it was going to happen,” Renee said. But I wasn’t listening anymore. I floated through the day in a fog of nausea. I’d recently started working full time and had a bit more cash to throw around and I’d bought my family gifts I thought they’d really like, but I took no joy in handing them over, in seeing their smiling faces. Nothing’s happened yet, I thought. I can still win her back.

On the train ride home that night, I pulled a notebook from my bag. I still played guitar, even though my band was a thing of the past. I’d been obsessed with a chord progression with the last few weeks, and I heard it as I rode along. I didn’t need a guitar to write anymore. I could do it in my head. I scribbled a few lines. “You’re here one day, gone the next, caught in this scene like some machine…” When I got home, I left the notebook open on my desk. I walked in and out of my room, scribbled a few more lines, “It just doesn’t work, so you said, like a ghost without a sheet…” I was writing a song for Maggie. I wanted to mix all the sadness and love I felt at losing her with music and give that music over to her, though the song I wrote was a song of endings. The result was “Where Are We Now?” You can listen to it below (remember it’s a demo, which means low production value). It might be the best song I’ve ever written, and if not the best, it’s one of my favorites. Writing was the only way I knew to process the grief I was feeling, to deal with losing her. And it had its roots in “Streetlight Song,” the first song I’d written for Lana Dalton junior year, my breakthrough, the first song I’d claim as my own, willing to sing in front of others, willing to put my name to.


Where Are We Now

You’re here one day, gone the next
we’re caught in this scene like some machine
that just doesn’t work, so you said
Like a ghost without a sheet.
Your next cigarette, drinking, and sex
if anyone asks that’s all you need.
Behind the wheel, you slam on the breaks
But how could we stop at such a speed?

And so you walk out, into the light
you can’t escape the break of day
cried on my stairs, one Christmas night
but all your tears won’t wash away
just what you’ve done, I’m not the one
who tried to pretend and celebrate
out with your friends, another year ends
why does it feel like such a waste?

So where are we now
if you turn around
but you don’t see me?
Lost in the crowd
feel like a clown
singing I’m lonely
head to the ground
choke on the sound
once one and only
not meant to be
just couldn’t see
how you were unfolding…

But on the way, who’s to say
what this daydream radiates?
get the kids, in the car,
home from school, they grab a plate
I crawl in from work, kiss you hello
ask what’s to eat, and grab your waist
meet the wife, in the house
but she doesn’t have your face.

So where are we now
if you turn around
but you don’t see me?
Lost in the crowd
feel like a clown
singing I’m lonely
head to the ground
choke on the sound
once one and only
not meant to be
just couldn’t see
how you were unfolding…

Now I’m alone, I sit at home
Moonlight Mile‘s on the radio
To settle the score, I’d head for the door
but I don’t feel there’s a point anymore.

So where are we now
if you turn around
but you don’t see me?
Lost in the crowd
feel like a clown
singing I’m lonely
head to the ground
choke on the sound
once one and only
not meant to be
just couldn’t see
how you were unfolding…

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