The good thing was, Kid A arrived just in time for my twenty-fifth birthday, as though my brother had known precisely how many days it would take a package to get from Los Angeles to the kingdom of Tonga. It meant more that this occurred in Tonga, as virtually nothing there happens on time and even less happens soon enough. More fortuitous: I’d missed the package at the Peace Corps office when I’d stopped in, but a friend of mine had seen it and grabbed it for me before we met at Fua’amotu Airport. We, along with our Tongan counterparts, were flying to Samoa for a one-week workshop on “Capacity Building for Environmental Management in the Pacific.” The workshop itself would be meaningless, but it would get us all out of Tonga and fill our pockets with enough per diem to buy black pearls and war clubs for our parents back home and enough beer to maintain a buzz through the humid evenings in Apia. I was glad to have a new CD to serve as a soundtrack for my first escape from Tonga in more than a year, and gladder that it was Radiohead.
The bad thing was, I’d gotten dumped the day before: my intra-Peace Corps affair had been abruptly euthanized after a soaring beginning. Distance was a problem (sixty miles between our islands), but the deal breaker was her being a rookie who was still loyal to the idea of Peace Corps, whereas I was halfway through and increasingly disillusioned. I wanted to run off with her to anywhere and be in love, which we were. She had the same easy urges at first but had lately come to equate me with something that stood in the way of her self-actualization, or something.
Anyhow, she’d dumped me rather clumsily the previous night and had spent the day dutifully writing a grant proposal to get lawn mowers for her village’s youth group while we jaded Capacity Builders flew to Samoa. I remember nothing about the flight other than getting half drunk on a sugary Irish liquor that Ed from Connecticut had bought from the duty-free shop. We got to the hotel in Apia around midnight. I had a few more drinks with Will from St. Louis, a sympathetic friend from my island whose own psyche was tangled up in a complicated courtship with a Tongan girl, before I retired to my private air-conditioned room to give Kid A a listen.
Within the first couple bars of “How to Disappear Completely,” I knew I was in deep shit. The strumming of the D and F-sharp-minor chords was gentle and distant and sad. The bass line was brooding and stubborn, complementing the denial in Thom Yorke’s refrain: “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.” There was also a mournful effect that sounded like the grieving of a lone humpback whale—an obvious simile at the time because a few weeks before, my girl and I had camped on the deserted southern tip of her island and watched a humpback surface just off the edge of the reef. Ugh.
There’s a specific satisfaction when a sad song comes on amid your own heartbreak. It’s as though the random forces in your corner of the universe were conspiring to take your misery to a cathartic crescendo, having noted that, while your Keatsian heart still likes to handle these things this way, you’ve outgrown the phase wherein you were deliberate about it. In college, my roommate and I would turn off all the lights and listen to Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street” in order to milk our suffering for all its worth. I would also walk across the soccer fields at night in order to brood, as there were neither misty moors nor rugged seaside cliffs on campus. At the time, that kind of deliberate orchestration of all things morose seemed like a good idea, but it feels dopey now. Sad songs work best when you don’t select them from a CD, jukebox, or iTunes playlist. (It won’t be long now before we have celebrity-breakup playlists.) And when the song is brand new the effect is amplified. If the first time you hear it coincides with the climax of a personal catastrophe, and your wounds are still damp, there is the added recognition that, from now on, that song will remind you of her, the loss, the rejection, or whatever it was that removed your viscera and pitched them into a gray, gritty snowbank. In time, you manage to gather up your vital organs, shore up your anima, and do it all over again. But that sad song and that catastrophe will remind you of each other for a long, long time. Three years removed from my South Pacific love burn, “How to Disappear Completely” no longer sends me into a self-pitying nosedive, but it does take me back to the hotel room in Samoa: cool linoleum under my feet, a glass of sickly-sweet liquor on the nightstand, and the inescapable awareness that I had lost something huge.