[Wo]Men & Songs

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We move through our young adulthood like hippies, high on the idea that the pursuit of freedom, a hunger for experience, and a restless chase for a kind of uncompromising purpose will end our wandering woes. We long for such things; we lust after love with a kind of neurotic thirst that once quenched, leads us into the cryptic, deathly hallows of alcoholics anonymous where we can perhaps shed the bad habits of past lives, if we choose to.

But as you gypsy through the grass, meander through the meadow of your twenties, homes too, will change. We pack and we part, saying goodbye to episodes of ourselves, the frail facets of our youth-hood and the characters within them – the people we were and the people we knew, until we are one day struck by the realization that they too have drifted away.

It will happen like this: you will be sitting on the floor of your kitchen, the linoleum cold against the flesh of your thigh, and around you, a disarray of cardboard boxes and masking tape, chipped dishes and broken plates. You will be packing or unpacking – leaving or arriving at the various homes and the various people whom you will call home throughout these indeterminable years of almost adulthood. You will feel safe there; you will feel safe with them and with the illusion of permanence they create. These fleeting moments of clarity will bring a sense of security until the vexing volatility of your thoughts scares you back into the deafening reality of your troubling, transient existence.

So perhaps you will leave them or perhaps they will leave you. And so, in these marked up boxes you will find trinkets from tragic endings, obsolete ornaments, dated décor, amorous artifacts, crumpled stubs, old writings and journals, yellow sticky notes of poems and lyrics, mementos of milestones from graduations and formal events, kindred keepsakes. These, you think, are the kinds of things your mom would refer to as cluttering junk – the kinds of things that prompt you to drive by old houses, to revisit the person you were and the people who inhabited the scenes of your chapters, to see if the light in the window is still there.

It may have been a welcomed departure, a foreseen and reasonable conclusion, or perhaps it was a frightening finality. Some have ended ambivalently, others understandably, some tragically. The idea of time is troubling but still, it is not the duration of these interactions, but the depth of them. There are, of course, planetary passings lasting only until the bar’s last call, and the self-deprecating reckless romances that we contentedly wallow in – the ones that oxidize the metals and marrows of our bones. We acquire tarnish, skeptical that a day might come when our gleam is restored. And so we persist, parts of us lost, parts of us gained, stolen glances, lost chances, and the remains.

But perhaps you might meet someone in the AA of twenty-somethings with the same transit marks – rolling stones damaged in delivery – and so dangerously, you linger in the darkness a little longer, sharing it this time with someone fraught with scars and scabs that resemble your own, harbouring despair deep inside their bloody crevices.

Because everyone there is lost and lonely, crippled by the life they have lived, smothered with the anxiety of the life that awaits them, bracing themselves into some distant, unknown future. Because surely there is something wrenchingly romantic about mutual loneliness. So we revisit their homes, sometimes finding only warm bodies, broken resolves who seem light years away from the people they once were, or maybe they’ve stayed the same.

Because the things we carry along with us, they have shifted in transit; they break and they budge, some are lost in our nomadic journeys and some are purposefully left behind. Whatever the case, we are irrevocably altered from these experiences – these people.

It is no extraordinary tale; it is simply the story of our lives and the people who made them. The twenties are not a period of equanimity and so, all of these experiences too have run their course, conversations running dry, things left unsaid.

But how did we arrive here? Elbows and knees scoffed with dirt, jeans ripped, hair tangled, eyeliner smudged. From decrepit dorms and college classrooms, to lifeless first jobs and post-grad parties and the people we met there.

Of course, all have not been deeply profound interactions entrenched with meaning. Some have been brief: pleasant nods, tight-lipped smiles, or weak handshakes, elevator eclipses, and bump-ins at bars. Others have been lengthier, though somehow with a lonelier ending. Many of them, I’m certain have long been forgotten courtesy of the booze soaked rooms in which they were born. But some have ignited some kind of thought – perhaps even sparked a chain spawning incomprehensible wavelengths, so powerful that they leave claw marks and carvings in the bark of our hearts, reminders even when we finally shake them.

And so as I recall the boys I’ve met journeying towards manhood, look back on the countless interactions of college and wonder about the ones that lie ahead, I can’t help but be fascinated by the words spoken and the word withheld, searching for what swims beneath the murky dialogue, underneath the idiosyncratic tendencies of every person. The way a subtle curl of the tongue or the clenching of a jaw can alter the meaning of a word and the way language is never unequivocal; wordplay is a gamble of betting and bluffing.

There have been flirty banters through hazy eyes, platonic arguments about films and bands, passionate discussions fueled by morning coffee, existential meltdowns, shared moments of tenderness, and guarded almosts that blur the lines. And I have perhaps rather foolishly and naively, allotted myself to become wholeheartedly windswept in these exchanges.

***

One of the most poignant childhood memories I have is from spending Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s house in upstate New York. Binghamton – or Vestal (it is on the border) is one of those small-towns where everyone seems to know each other from high school and over my countless Christmases there, I had developed quite a liking for the place. Non-residents who found themselves amidst the mountainous terrain would likely describe the place as “boring,” and having, “nothing to do” though I find myself curious as to what sorts of entertainment they were seeking. (Usually, the people who would say such things were not avid museumgoers or culture-seekers anyhow.)

I, however, found the place to be remarkably charming as was the drive up the interstate, through the parkway and between the mountains, up to their cottage-style home right at the top of a hill. Occasionally, you would even see a deer gallivanting through the woodlands of their neighbourhood which was wonderfully fitting since it was usually the holiday season when we were visiting (it is these sorts of quiet almost coincidences that sway the agonistic barometer in favor of faith.) This, I thought, was certainly the suburban ideal, a few-hour drive from the bustling labyrinth of New York City.

Anyway, I remember one instance in particular when I was sitting with my Aunty Yvonne around the kitchen island after dinner. I wasn’t young enough to where alcohol was permissible, and so was fixated on stealing a gulp from her glass of wine whenever the adults turned around to cling-wrap some of the leftovers. Most of my family would be sitting around the dining table playing Texas Hold ‘Em, nibbling on pizzelles or gift basket toffee, but I much preferred sitting here, listening to her as she’d tell me stories about the men of her twenties. I remember the way her eyes gave her away; they would glisten in proportion to her affections and it was almost as though she was no longer present, but lost in her reminiscence.

“Oh,” she sighed, “I thought I was going to die without him,” she said of one guy in particular.

Even then, as a budding wordsmith, I recognized the cliché, but still, I was struck by the bleak, unchecked emotion that oozed from her words – one so emblematic of being twenty and tainted by the delusion of lust or love, or the idea of it. But of course, she did not die. She is still very much alive today. And although life has necessitated her to abandon parts of her bohemian lifestyle, she will occasionally let the person she was escape her. Usually this happens at a casino, or on a patio, or a similarly buoyant environment.

But even so, the fact remained that she at some point believed them; she was so relinquishing to every feeling. Maybe I’m oversensitive and maybe the statement is an overdramatic one, but it resonated with me throughout my accumulation of my own snapshot memories – some bright and some exquisitely painful. Ones that would perhaps one day serve as placeholders for the Volumes of my own anthology, vignettes that would arise when I would hear the songs that reminded me of them.

As I got older, she’d bring me out to holiday parties her friends were throwing at the different bars around town. There was the time at Uncle Tony’s, a dark and narrow bar in downtown Binghamton that was frequented by regulars and The Root Cellar, where we went to see her friends’ high school band reunite decades later. Inevitably, we’d run into numerous men from her past, some short and stout, and others whom had maintained their allure well into their fifties. Once, after a few Michelob Ultras, she told me about how she’d run into a guy she’d been engaged to at the grocery store the week before. Her eldest son was with her, though of course, he was oblivious to the reason for the flush across her cheeks and how she was uncharacteristically speechless. She told me about their exchange; it was brief but loaded with the nervous duality that occurs when wonder collides with reason, and past lives with present ones. She talked about what their relationship was like in a time when drive-in-movies, disco-techs, and pot seemed to dominate the stratosphere. They were engaged, she told me. And they’d called it off.

I remember being awe-struck by her stories, her escapades, her life that led her into an adulthood that was willfully subdued rather than defeatingly complacent. Not because each Volume or man was a perfect fairytale romance, but because they all ended. Some were as predictably erratic as traffic lights, some were stable, and some were just maddeningly fucked up. But each had a soundtrack, a record of events, scribbles of lyrics to remember them by, because these men and songs were all chronological Volumes of her own life. Even when an old hit would come on the radio in the car, she’d snap her fingers along to the tune, bobbing her head as she recalled the period of her life from which it originated, embarrassing her son in the process.

“Mom!” He would yell. “Stop it, jeez.”

My dad too would tell me tales too about the Volumes of women in his life and the various editions of it they inspired, though his narration was emotionally laconic in comparison – at least in the ways he told them. There was this one story of a young woman he met on board a train to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He and his buddy were graduating high school and decided to make the trip across Canada to commemorate the occasion. My dad said his friend dared him to go talk to a cute girl sitting with her book across from them in exchange for a beer (I pictured a Before Midnight interaction). He of course obliged and easily struck up a conversation as the train made its way down the tracks, the vast Canadian landscapes racing by in the window. Anyway, a few months later, my dad unexpectedly received a package in the mail. It was a scrapbook of poems she’d compiled just for him – her own anthology of meaningful Volumes perhaps. And bizarrely enough she included a lock of her hair. He never saw her again, but somehow he wasn’t nearly as baffled by her inclusion of her DNA strands. He thought it was cute and thoughtful, not the least bit creepy, apparently.

Another story I managed to extract from him came from finding an old photograph I found one day when I was sifting through albums my grandmother had in her apartment. It was one of those pictures that upon first glance, is apparent holds some kind of story. In it, both my dad and the woman are wearing these joyful expressions and embracing one another in a kind of candid exuberance that only belongs to the young. She had these wild, dark, unruly curls, but her peaches and cream complexion and the gentle roundness of her face reminded me of Kate Winslet. The woman’s name, I learned, was Kathleen Sullivan.

My dad told me he was visiting a friend in Atlanta, Georgia and he met Kathleen out one night. They began their courtship shortly afterward. What struck me about the photograph though, was how direly opposite it was to my own collection. For one thing, it was so real. It wasn’t captured in a dimly lit club on a cell phone where the subjects are posing so as to create the perfectly elongated leg, tilting their head this way and that to showcase the sharp definition of their cheekbone. He said her mother took the picture in their backyard but it looked to me like they were in the middle of the woods somewhere.
“I sort of thought every girl I dated back then was it,” my dad told me. “She was real gorgeous though.”

It occurred to me then that perhaps we ascribe significance with permanence. Maybe it is our weak attempts at distracting ourselves from our own fragility – our own impermanence. He did, after all, think she was it. But there would be women after her just as there had been women before.

And Kathleen was certainly beautiful in a timeless way. But even time does not spare the beautiful. My dad said she’d passed of Crohn’s disease some nine years ago; her mom would call him up to see how he was doing every once in awhile and she’d told him. They say cats have nine lives, maybe we have nine Volumes, and then, just like that, gone.

And so I made it a point to begin my own collection, my own playlist, the various Volumes of Men & Songs, making houses into homes, packing and unpacking baggage, taking trinkets with me and leaving some behind beside the stale water on the night stand. Because it is in these sparse moments of connection with another human being that we can truly get out of our own heads or as I and the similarly twisted much prefer, get further into them.

Like many stories of our time, many of my Volumes have started with the same five words, so simultaneously open-ended and obvious in their implication: “We should hang out sometime.” Surely, you have heard it or used it too. So here it goes, Volumes one through to be determined – the curated track lists, a mixtape for the mixed up. And so I remain, collecting Volumes and EPs to go with them. TC mark

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