Sunday, April 26, 2015

Make It Yours

I got crushed.

I was in my late twenties and I had been interested in Ingrid for about six months before I asked her on a date. A clumsy effort that entailed following her from my apartment when she left my Christmas party, under the guise of walking her to her car because it wasn’t the safest neighborhood. So I walked a couple steps behind her, trying to catch up, red in the face from whiskey-spiked eggnog, for an effort that culminated in standing outside her car, her edging toward the driver’s side door while I stood on the sidewalk on the passenger side and asked if she would let me take her out to dinner sometime.

One of the more awkward minutes of my life followed in which she giggled and ummed and asked if she could get back to me, before settling on telling me she was “off the table.”

I let it go at that and walked back to my apartment while she drove away, and I was left to spend an inordinate of time wondering, for the weeks that followed, what off the table might have meant. If she were involved with someone else or not interested in dating or a lesbian. The most obvious answer: that she just wasn’t interested in me, and used those words because they were the ones to come to mind, because who ever really says what they mean anyway?

The answer that my best friend so helpfully volunteered: that maybe in a past life she’d been a stripper, and as a non-sequitur she was telling me she didn’t dance on tables any more.

I moped and stewed and lost sleep and wondered and settled on “Stubborn Love” by The Lumineers as an anthem. Lyrics like I can’t be told it can’t be done and keep your head up, keep your love sounding like a call to arms to keep the faith rally and re-try. Lyrics like it’s better to feel pain than nothing at all resonated with the melodramatic teenager within me who had accumulated years of broken heartedness, but still insisted on some romantic ideal.

And I wrote.

Months earlier, I’d written a short story in which I plugged in so many of Ingrid’s physical characteristics and mannerisms into the protagonist. Christmas Eve, when I had three hours to kill before I was due home for dinner, I set up shop in a Panera Bread, bordered by bustling big box stores, ordered a large cup of coffee and set to writing again.

I exploded the short story in every direction. Wrote and wrote and refilled my coffee and wrote some more until I had the first fifteen pages of what would become a new novel. And though Ingrid’s likeness remained in the story, and though an undercurrent of melancholy and hurt underscored every word I had written, just the same, something had shifted. I got into the car to head to dinner about twenty minutes later than I had planned. I listened to “Stubborn Love” once again and it read less like the projectile vomit of my emotions, and less like a song about Ingrid.

Instead, the song came across as anthem. Yes, about love. But about love for my work. For myself. For who I was and what I might be and what I might make of all of these feelings. One more play of the song and I switched to Christmas music, all holly and jolly and smiled a little easier when I got home.

Inside a period of four months, I had finished a draft of the novel, a collection of interlocking stories that circled one another and intersected and overlapped. It was imperfect. It would necessitate months more of revision, not to mention editing, neither of which I’ve addressed fully to this day.

But I had something.

And eight months later I saw Heather. We had met years before and interacted on and off. But then I saw her. At the end of a summer working together, we chatted and an Indigo Girls song surfaced on her Pandora station, and we talked about music. We talked about crushes and I told her about Ingrid and about “Stubborn Love.” We talked about astrology and spirituality and family and travel and surfing and regrets and proper ratio of fruit-to-wine in sangria.

A week later, we stood knee deep in the Pacific Ocean, holding hands on a beach in La Jolla and I kissed her for the first time.

Months later, I shared the novel with her. She read it and recognized Ingrid’s influence in it immediately--in a character with the same hair, who laughed the same way.

Around that time, I started hearing “Stubborn Love” more. It reached the radio station that played in the gym I frequented. It played over a memorial montage video when Mae Young passed away that winter. I heard it upon revisiting old playlists from the year before. Again, in a rental car along a lengthy road trip I shared with Heather, just as a drizzle settled in and the windshield wipers lurched into motion to clear the way so we could see the rows of tail lights and the curve of the lane up ahead.

And I held Heather's hand. I thought of how the sheer electricity of a new crush could give way to heartache. And how that heartache could give way to a new love. Truer. Surer. More complicated and more messy because it was, by every measure real. How feelings could translate to words on a page. How an overwrought, folksy, top 40 song might encompass all and none of this--its meaning dependent not so much on lyrics and guitar chords and bass rhythms, as it was on what I made of it.

Heather kept her eyes on the road, driving at the time. I squeezed her hand a little tighter, leaned over the console and kissed her cheek.

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