The Song In Question
I’ve spent the last fifteen years searching for a song that I can not remember.
When I was young, my older sister made me a mix tape. “Musica Para Roberto” was written on the edge of the cassette and the songs were a mix of stuff I liked (Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose”), stuff she liked (Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”) and stuff that was just good music (Simon and Garfunkel's “I am a Rock”).
As I navigated the tumultuous years of high school - where every day was an emotional minefield that could send me on a wave of sorrow or joy - I listened to the tape religiously. I loved the music but more importantly I loved that my sister had made it for me. She had chosen the songs with care, each tune a private message from her to me.
I can remember just about every song on the tape and the order in which they were chosen, except one. The fourth song on the first side of the tape is a ‘90s alternative song full of passion from a guy to a girl he’s trying to coax into joining him on a ride in his car. Before you suggest - no, it’s not “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” by Billy Ocean,” though I have adopted that song as an emotional replacement over the years.
I can’t remember enough of the lyrics to Google it and I can’t remember enough of the tune to hum it. My lack of memory hasn’t kept me from trying to find the song over the years. I’ve searched the internet for almost every permeation of half-remembered lyric and have exhausted the search for songs about guys trying to get a girl into his car. There are a lot of creepy songs about guys trying to get girls into their cars.
Even though I cannot remember a single thing about it, I am obsessed with the concept of the song. I wish I had the tape just once more so I could listen to the song and put my wandering mind at ease. I know that if I was to hear it again, I would never forget it. But I can’t because my sister has no idea what song I’m talking about and I don’t have the tape anymore. I gave it to a girl.
Like the song in question, I was obsessed with the concept of Dawn. She lived next door and I knew almost nothing about her. When she moved into the neighborhood, she and my sister became tentative friends, born of a request my mom made to my sister to help make the new girl feel at home in McAllen, Texas. My family had just moved to McAllen ourselves a few years earlier and my mom remembered how tough it was for my sister and I to make new friends. She ordered my sister to invite Dawn over on lazy afternoons and together Dawn and my sister played Echo the Dolphin on the Sega Genesis and did whatever else pre-teen girls did when left on their own.
Dawn and my sister didn’t hang out too long, my sister being a year older than Dawn and myself. As my sister’s friend, I didn’t pay her too much attention. Dawn would come over and the three of us would watch music videos and I would make lame jokes, trying to get her to laugh. But I was always trying to get everybody to laugh. That was the identity I thought best suited me - the guy who made people laugh. The problem was that I wasn’t too funny and it was hard to get people to laugh without making myself into an idiot. My jokes were terrible, but she laughed. She always laughed and I loved her for that.
It was when my sister and her stopped hanging out that I began to grow interested in this girl who lived next door. I was shy and inexperienced with girls. I remember nearly puking on the bus when I tried to ask her for her AOL screen name one day. She lived next door but I never talked to her in real life. I would go out of my way to make her laugh in class - obsessed with the high I received from her giggle. The thought of actually striking up a conversation with her in person, though, was out of the question.
On AOL we would have long conversations. We would talk about life, dreams, hopes, fears. I would be honest with her in ways I was not even honest with myself. My night could be made or broken depending on whether or not she logged into AOL while I was online that evening.
As we entered high school, I tried my best to work up the courage to ask her to a dance. I made excuses every single time. I was a chicken and eventually she started to date somebody else. The two of them would whisper in the corner of classrooms and I would sit behind my desk, playing games on my graphing calculator trying not to watch them and telling myself how everything would have been different if I had just asked her sooner.
It was about this time that I began to become obsessed with time travel. I would daydream about finding a way to reverse time and correct my mistakes. If it wasn’t going back in time that I fantasized about, it was stopping time. A book by William Sleator titled Singularity caught my attention. In it, two twin brothers discover a room in which time moves slower than in the outside world. Hours in the room equal seconds outside. One of the brothers spends a year in the room - honing his mind and body so that he can break free of his identity as a twin, coming out of the room hours after entering but having aged a year in the process. I fantasized about finding a room like this, where I could slow time - and Dawn’s relationship - enough to give me the opportunity to grow out of my boyhood fear of girls and shed the excess weight I have carried since I was a child. I was obsessed with the concept of change.
And then it happened - Dawn and her boyfriend broke up. The opportunity I had been dreaming about for a year was mine! And I did nothing. I waited months, fantasizing about ways I could make some big gesture declaring my life. I threw parties as a ploy to have her come to my house. I made goofy little movies involving all my classmates as a way to spend more time with her. I took whatever opportunity I could, besides actually talking to her in real life. Throughout all these parties and movies, our conversations in person were limited to a few words. Even our AOL chats were starting to become surface level stuff. We didn’t talk about dreams anymore. I didn’t dare, for fear I would spill my own dreams. I couldn’t ask about her relationship and I couldn’t hint at any affection I had for her.
Until I did.
It was a Saturday night and while all my friends were out having fun, I was doing what I normally did on the weekends - watching movies alone in my room. Swingers was the film of the evening. It was my first time watching it and I loved it. I watched the movie and then immediately watched it again. Vince Vaughan’s speech at the end of the film - when he climbs on top of a table in a diner and yells at Jon Favreau to seize life (“You’re money, baby!”) spoke to me on a primordial level. Swingers is the perfect movie for lonely teenage boys.
I made a mental note to start dressing more like Favreau and Vaughan and then I logged into AOL and, with Vaughan’s words ringing in my ears, I wrote a declaration of love for Dawn. my hands shaking, I hit send on the email. I was money, baby.
Afraid of what her response might be, I quickly went to sleep. I wish I was lying but as I drifted off to sleep I imagined a knock at my window. Dawn would be standing outside with a printed copy of the email, ready to make out. I was a fucking lunatic.
Almost twenty years after the fact, I can look back at my actions as a sixteen-year-old boy and realize I was borderline psychotic. I barely knew this girl and whatever feelings for Dawn I had were born of a concept of her that probably did not exist. More importantly, she barely knew me. I never spoke to her in any real fashion. I was the dorky fat kid who made terrible jokes in class and I sent her an email declaring my love for her at midnight on a Saturday night. And I’m pretty sure I quoted Swingers in the email. I know I did. I was an idiot and that’s what idiots do.
Needless to say, I woke to find a polite “no thank you” in my inbox the next day. She expressed surprise that I was attracted to her (“I never would have guessed,” she wrote), was very flattered but told me she did not reciprocate my feelings. Dawn did everything a teenage girl should do when some crazy dude confesses his undying love for her via email late one Saturday night. I did everything a teenage boy should do once he had his heart broken.
Over the next few weeks I went into a wave of depression. I moped around the hallways of school, putting my head on my desk whenever Dawn and I were in a classroom together. I wanted her to know how sad I was. I started wearing a black beanie - I have no idea why. I grew up in South Texas where it was always 90 degrees or hotter, even in the winter. I thought the beanie would make me look cool, I guess - all it did was make my head sweat.
I started drawing moody illustrations in which Dawn was a beautiful dark angel and I was a red-eyed troll, enveloped in the shadows of loneliness. I got really obsessed with the Alamo (not the Drafthouse) and The Toadies’ “Possum Kingdom.”
Weirdly enough, Dawn and I started communicating way more after she broke my heart. Not in person, mind you. I was still incapable of doing that.
We would write each other long letters on notebook paper, folded into little squares and passed surreptitiously as classes ended. Mine were essays about how I was thinking about giving up on the concept of love. I heavily plagiarized Everclear lyrics. Her letters were kind, reassuring me of what a nice guy I was but firmly telling me she was not interested. We would write to each other about how pop culture and romantic comedies have given our generation false expectations about love and relationships. We would talk about what we wanted to do when we left school and where we hoped to be as adults.
Today, I occasionally read about the Incel movement or Men’s Rights forums and think “There but for the grace of God.” That said, I do feel that even if the internet was as nasty a place in the early ‘00s as it is today, I would not fall prey to those cesspools of toxic masculinity. I was never pushy or angry with Dawn. I respected her lack of feelings towards me. In fact, in my lowest moments I relished in them.
Depression and self-hate are old friends of mine. I still battle with my doubts and shame today. This is a fight I know I will probably always be in. My brain likes to tell me what a terrible, unlovable person I am and it’s up to me to choose whether or not to listen to it. When Dawn said no to me, I listened to my brain more often than not. I would lie in bed, covers over my head and listen to pop songs about endless love and true romance and I would engorge myself on pity.
I went through years of depression as a teenager. I never harmed myself nor seriously considered doing so. I did, however, listen to the voices in my head as they told me I was going to die alone. Can you really die alone, though, when you have a voice in your head telling you what a big piece of shit you are? The voice always kept me company.
Dawn and I remained friendly through the end of high school. I wish I could have found the courage to talk to her more. I wish I had gotten to know who she was instead of being satisfied with the version of her I constructed in my head. I used Dawn. I used her to feel something larger than myself. My unrequited pining for her gave my teenage years an identity. I was the romantic, doomed to never know the kiss of the girl I loved. I loved the way being sad made me feel because when I was sad about Dawn I was not being sad about myself and my weight and my personality and my anger and hygiene and everything else about myself that I hated. Being a scorned romantic was better than being a loser. I felt like I was in a depressing pop song or in the second act of a high school romantic comedy. When I pitied myself, it was better than hating myself.
My parents moved to Houston the summer after I graduated high school. Within a week after graduation, we had packed up the house and were on our way to a new city. Dawn was going to stay in McAllen and go to school locally. With no family in South Texas, there was really no reason why I would ever return. This was probably the last time I would see Dawn and that momentous feeling of purpose gave me that sweet nectar of unearned emotion I craved.
I messaged Dawn on AOL and asked her to meet me outside, in the space between our houses. With sweaty palms, I clutched the mix tape my sister had made for me. I had talked about this tape a lot with Dawn over the last few years, explaining how it was a talisman that got me through the rough times of life. I had made Dawn a lot of mix tapes (well, CDs) over the last few years but I was now giving her the ultimate offering - the most important thing I had in my possession. I wanted her to know how important this gesture was because I wanted her to appreciate it. I wanted her to love it in the same way I loved my sister’s gift. If she loved the tape, maybe she would love me. I pictured her sitting alone at night, years from now, listening to the tape and remembering me. Regretting that she had turned me down.
Like I said, I was crazy.
Dawn and I exchanged a few words. She remarked on how weird my house looked without all my mom’s lawn decorations. I talked about the fact that I had buried a time capsule in the garden, full of drawings and concert ticket stubs. As we said our goodbyes, I gave her the tape. I asked her to promise to take care of it, explained the power it had for me and that I hoped she would feel some of that power herself. I didn’t try to kiss her, or even hug her. I put the tape in her hands, muttered a goodbye and then scurried back into the house to finish packing.
Without knowing it at the time, as I gave her the tape I also gave her a power over me that would last for decades to come. I gave her the song and the memory of what that song was. I gave her my love, or the concept of love. It would be years before I felt any romantic attraction to another person again. I spent college obsessing over Dawn. I would find myself driving aimlessly late at night and then, without realizing it, find out I was halfway to Austin, where Dawn lived. Eventually my feelings for Dawn faded away, like the rest of high school’s memories. Things that felt so important to me in my teens obscured into the fog of adult worries.
The last time I saw Dawn was about six years ago. She was driving through Houston as part of a road trip. We met up at a beer garden. She was with her husband. We talked amiably about life, her trip, a recent trip I had taken. I found myself looking at my watch, eager to get back to my Sunday. She had changed. I had changed. I am still in love with the concept of Dawn but that’s probably because I miss what it felt like to be a love-struck teenager with the whole world ahead of him and the promise of second chances in the horizon. I miss the freedom of teenage pity. Adult pity is an entirely different monster, one that’s a lot harder to self-weaponize.
I’m old enough to know life doesn’t give you second chances. Time travel isn’t real and the mistakes you make in life never leave. They stay on your soul, weighing you down. Sometimes the ghosts of mistakes fall away, forgotten and replaced by newer, fresher mistakes. There are other mistakes you will never shake. I try and not let my mistakes define my life. I try and not let the darkness overtake me. I have learned to deal with my depression in healthier ways and I like to think I’m not as crazy as I used to be.
I’ve thought about calling Dawn or messaging her on Facebook to ask if she still has the tape. Maybe she could find a cassette player and play me the song. I don’t ask, though. She has probably long thrown away the tape and confirming this fear would hurt me in ways I haven’t been hurt in a long time and I’m afraid that would leave me in a position to let the darkness back into my life.
I can’t help but feel giving Dawn that mix tape was a mistake. I will never remember the song in question - it’s forever lost, just like my teenage youth is forever gone. I can’t get back the years I spent pining over Dawn and I can’t fill the hole in my memory regarding the mix tape my sister made for me. I can’t go back in time and I can’t fix my mistakes. But there will be more songs that I will eventually forget in life. Life is a series of forgotten songs and the best we can do is keep discovering new ones to replace the ones that we can only remember the concept of.