Dear Mix Tape,
How could I have known, when I first received you in the mail, wrapped in brown paper dining hall napkins inside the envelope, that you’d become the ridiculous, potent musical minefield I have navigated for the past fourteen years?
I’ll always remember that July afternoon when we first met, standing inside the cool and quiet post office of my sleepy rural town. You came with instructions, written by hand, telling me I should listen to you once through first, without looking at the carefully copied playlist, so your songs would be a surprise. You were black, with white, specially designed labels written on in blue ballpoint pen, unpeeled, and adhered by my first real, true, passionate love. “For S,” he wrote on your A side. “Love, K,” he wrote on your B side. His musical tastes ran to the 1970s.
I truly hope you realize how honored you should feel to have been included among our correspondence that summer. He, 20, working in the kitchen of our small New England college serving vegetarian lasagna to precocious high school students away at nerd camp. Me, 19, working retail at a fabrics and crafts store in California. We may not have looked like much to a love-letter connoisseur, but they’d be wrong. Simone de Beauvoir be damned. I assure you that as far as real, true, passionate loves go, ours during that summer was among the greatest.
Most of his letters were written on spiral-bound notebook paper, the kind with all the raggedy frayed edges intact, in the varying shades of whichever tiny library pencil happened to be in his pocket. His letters were everything that I loved about the man himself: funny, messy, irreverent, whip-smart, and devastatingly romantic. Mine were no doubt lousy with tortured metaphor and amazing proclamations, and it took every ounce of my teenage will power not to dye the pages in tea, spray them with perfume, and seal them with red wax. But he ate it up. We were ravenous for each other.
You see, we had recently divested the other of his/her virginity, not to mention traveling the full breadth of the continent together on a Greyhound bus. We were both giddy from the tsunami of emotion and affection that followed these revelatory acts. We were going to be together FOREVER. But you know all this.
However, I regret to inform you that not only did we not even stay together through all our college years, but K, your creator, died of an aneurysm a few years after graduation. He never got a chance to be with anyone forever, or even finish grad school, or have a wedding or any children. And I am single and childless and nearing my mid 30s. And for this I would politely request that you feel really, really badly for me.
Mix Tape, keep in mind, that if K and I had fallen in love just one year later, you might never have existed. It was 1998. I had an email account, given to me along with a clunky laptop computer by the college, but I didn’t use it. And neither K nor I had yet to be introduced to the phrases “unlimited minutes” or “nights and weekends.” Across the country was Long Distance, and so we wrote. Every day. He sometimes sent me silly things, like an unused mint tea bag on which he’d scrawled “why on earth am I writing on a damned tea bag? I must be mad! I love you!” And then one day you arrived.
Your effect on me should be embarrassing. You were no feat of musical taste. But in this 1998 world before Mp3s and Spotify, before iTunes and CD burning, you were a feat of something. Heck, who even burns CDs anymore? And who says “heck”? You’ve become a hipster icon. Our love, and therefor you, happened right at the end of something. You are a Relic of Simpler Times. The last unicorn, picture show, samurai, Mohican etc. Your kind are gone as the phonograph and the Georgian England county dance and the hand-written love letter that you were sent with. And knowing you ages me, throwing me to the ancient end of the digital-analog divide.
But the thing is, even though your rattling plastic body is wrapped in cloth, inside a small cardboard box in a storage facility thousands of miles away—you haunt me.
You are Abba, Fleetwood Mac, the Bee Gees, Dusty Springfield, Frank Sinatra, Guns ‘n Roses, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. (And, pieces of dialogue from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, just, you know, because.)
I listened to you so. many. times. I was skewered by you, undone, possessed. When I was adored and worshiped and also, later, when I was dumped and heartbroken. Fueled by your catchy melodies and piercing lyrics, I was flushed and zealous and half out of my mind, as determined as the female title character in The Master and Margarita, willing to go to hell and back, bathed in blood and flowers.
I should tell you, Mix Tape, that most of the time I don’t think I believe in love anymore. I think it’s just another blossoming and fading thing, nothing to get so worked up about. But your easy listening hits of the 1970s and 1980s will never die.
Your songs were not so obvious that I hear them constantly. No. They’re just popular enough to pop up in the background at restaurants and cafés from time to time. On the radios of cab drivers when I’m out on dates. Detonating like bombs in the Muzak system when I’m placed on hold by customer service representatives. And when the manager finally comes on to thank me for holding, after I’ve unexpectedly listened to all four minutes of “Take a Chance on Me,” I’m speechless.
Yes, I’ve been trying to Have a Little Patience, as you seemed keen to remind me last Tuesday at the bakery. And I do appreciate (I think?) that you still find me More Than a Woman, as per the dry cleaner’s radio. But when Someone Told Me There’s a Girl Out There With Love in Her Eyes and Flowers in Her Hair, I had to walk out of the grocery store.
Thank God that no one, almost ever, plays Leonard Cohen’s deliciously creepy “I’m Your Man.”
Mix Tape, do you know it has been so long since I heard you in your entirety, since I’ve even owned a device that will play you, that I could not remember what your other Cohen track was? I had to google “Leonard Cohen song lists” just now, hoping I’d know it when I saw it. K is dead, and so are countless compact cassette players, and I am left to google trivia from my own life.
I guess I’m just writing to say that I remember you, and that I’m getting your messages. Is it worse or better to think, when hearing extremely well known songs pop up as part of the surrounding anthrophony, that it is a message from an inanimate object, instead of the person who gave it? Both are crazy. I know it’s not your fault. You’re not smug. If anything I find you tragically innocent.
(An aside: Please go away. Please never leave me. I hate you and love you for your power to make me forever 19.)
The last time I listened to you in full it was years ago now, and it wasn’t really you. I had to drive up to Toronto from New York for K’s funeral. There was no longer a slot for you in the car, so I made a CD of your playlist, (just, you know, without the Pulp Fiction stuff.)
After the drive and the service and the hellish conversations with freaked out mutual college friends, I just wanted silence. I was the ex-girlfriend anyway, myself already obsolete in my outsized grief. I walked out into the dark suburban street and looked up at the stars. I felt the great wheel of time churn mercilessly forward.
Anyway, you bring out this kind of thinking in me. Just thought I should let you know. You can keep saying hi in these ways if you want. I guess you probably will anyway.
PS. I did recognize the other Cohen track when I saw it. It was “Aint No Cure for Love."