_This essay was published in The Bookends Review on May 30th, 2018. _
I want to write you a letter. Email 3 words to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will.
I wasn’t ready for Regina Spektor. Her first song I heard was “Summer in the City,” a deep-cut my first girlfriend played in her Ford Windstar. One month later she’d pack the same van for first year at Gonzaga and a few weeks after I’d leave for a new life at the University of Oregon. We avoided talking about the eight hours of distance. We wouldn’t own cars. We didn’t know much about college, but told each other the one-and-a-half-year relationship would last—we were each other’s best friend and first sex.
Our worries masqueraded as fights about the subtext of Harry Potter, the taste of olives and the verses of a Russian anti-folk musician who I didn’t know existed until then. I strained to listen to the slow, classical piano behind lyrics about castration and cocaine and orgasms.
“Who is this?” I asked. “How did you hear about her?”
“You don’t like her,” she said. She kept looking at the freeway. I could’ve written the rest.
“I just didn’t know you liked her,” I said. I pictured Regina as my girlfriend’s secret partner who whispered and giggled about me while wearing black cocktail dresses and denim jackets stolen from a thrift store so hipster it’d already gone out of business. What did it mean about me that I hadn’t heard of her? Did I deserve to not understand it? Was I in on a joke I was too uncultured and dumb to get?
“Well I do,” she said. She changed the song and looked at me. It’d taken eighteen months for her to show me the music she liked. Growing up her older brothers made fun of her interests.
I could empathize—starting as a toddler my father critiqued my taste in cinema or length of socks or sensitive personality. In 3rd grade after I scored 36 points in basketball he told me I needed to quit trying to draw fouls. At 13 I had to stop the football season because of mono and later that year on a golf course he yelled I was a quitter and would be my whole life. I stared at the golf cart dashboard and was silent, my head warm with shame like a fever. I didn’t know, but that was the year he got sober while he watched his siblings and mother keep abusing alcohol. He and I could only relate through athletics—like his father to him, Dad was my coach. My grandpa, a former college nose tackle and avid hunter, rarely told my dad he loved him. My great-grandma never went to a single one of my grandpa’s football games and the last thing she told him was, you are not my son.
Decades later there I was with a girl I told I loved. Why did I feel like a child? Why did I mock the chorus?
“Summer in the city means
VAGINA, VAGINA, VAGINA!”
We broke up in October. We got back together in December. Most of my conversations the first year in college centered around how difficult the distance was.
I gave Regina a second chance because of a poetry class. I wrote my first poems while listening to her quirky lyrics about The Little Prince and Oedipus Rex. Her songs were specific but stayed true to being any human. I also liked how little people knew about her, as if my taste in music elevated my existence. I emailed my girlfriend throughout the year, venting about feeling isolated from the hook-up scene and not knowing what to major in and how I wished she weren’t in northeast Washington. I included lines from that first song she showed me in one of the emails:
Summer in the city, I’m so lonely lonely lonely
I’ve been hallucinating you, babe, at the backs of other women
And I tap on their shoulder and they turn around smiling
But there’s no recognition in their eyes
She visited in the spring. I ran to the street outside my dorm and watched her get out of that same van. For months she’d exist in one dimension of text or sound and then she’d show up covered in flesh, confusing my senses. “I already have your birthday present,” I said. It was months early but I couldn’t keep the secret. I’d bought two tickets for Regina in Portland. The concert would be in August.
We fought the whole time she visited. “Sometimes I feel like kids who don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. We broke up in June. I was depressed. Could anyone ever love me again? Don’t you only get one chance?
This is how it works
You’re young until you’re not
You love until you don’t
You try until you can’t
Have you been listening to all the albums? I texted her a week before the show. She wanted to go as friends, an idea I first rejected then flipped-flopped on. Maybe two hours dancing feet from Regina would spell us back together. I hadn’t been texting her to appear disinterested and the opposite of needy, self-medicating my compulsions to contact her by listening to the full discography. Two hours passed without a response. I turned off my phone, tossed it in the corner and went running, thinking of her in flashes like an addict. Eventually she responded: I dunno. Not really. I knew what was up—she’d changed her mind and didn’t want to go.
I tried to return the tickets, oblivious that “my high school sweetheart dumped me” wasn’t grounds for a refund. Could I take a friend? No one in my inner circle knew who she was. Try to sell them? The concert was in six days. I called her to offer them but it went straight to voicemail. I got through on her house phone. “They won’t take the tickets back,” I said.
“Yeah?” she said, sounding quieter than I remembered.
“You don’t want the tickets,” I said as if she’d already vocalized it. I paced circles around the flower bed in my parents’ front driveway, staring at the gold and orange marigold tops I used to pick as a kid. Shame spread under my cheeks like bath water.
“You should go,” she said.
“They were your birthday present,” I said.
“I don’t want them.”
I hung up and called my best friend, Sean. I vented for the first time. “This is good,” he said. “You need to hate her for a while.” I felt like I should want to crouch in my sadness, but I felt relief. The relationship I couldn’t end felt finished.
I called my friend Hunter, unaware of my eventual regret. I met him and his partner outside the concert hall on a hot August evening and handed them the tickets, then drove home listening to the songs they were hearing live.
Two months later Hunter and his partner—who’s since transitioned their gender—broke up.
I used to think the tickets were cursed. Now I know—just like my insecurities about my sensitivity or body or ability to be a fan of a sophisticated pop pianist— they are whatever I scoop out of me and fling at the planet.
Love what you have and you’ll have more love
You’re not dying
Everyone knows you’re going to love
Though there’s still no cure for crying
Since then I’ve only been home to Portland for holidays, choosing to live four straight summers in Eugene then moving to California. Lots of playlists I make hold a spot for at least one Regina track. When I listen to her I don’t associate with my ex. I rarely mention her to people, something I used to do to get affirmation for my quirkiness. She’s become mine in a way that doesn’t feel like I’m on stage, cooing and trilling me through college graduation to more lost love to my first office job. Framed on my bedroom wall in San Luis Obispo is a poster for her Begin to Hope tour in Portland, a city I never saw her in and don’t plan to live any time soon.
I almost never think of my first girlfriend. Memories have been replaced by lessons. I learned endings are okay and need to be initiated by someone. I learned the concept of transference: when we react with volatility we might be speaking to someone who isn’t there. I learned not to believe everything I think and that the sentences in the head are likely someone else’s. I learned 850 miles from my father can sometimes feel like a centimeter and that hurt people hurt people.
We’ve seen each other once since—a year after the concert we chatted in a café on the campus of the University of Portland, her new college only 2 hours from mine. We kept the conversation safe and stuck to the positive. “Regina’s kind of my favorite artist now,” I said. I felt dumb for changing so starkly. When I wonder why I couldn’t accept them both the first go around I practice telling myself I’m a work in progress, an animal collection of healthy and unhealthy habits. This is new language not internalized from my father, but hours with support groups and therapists. The generational cycle of pain won’t stop with me, but the lack of acknowledgement can.
“I know,” she said. “I still look at your Facebook.” I told her sometimes I’d look at hers, too.
But not as much as Regina’s.
She hasn’t been on tour since.
Update (July 12th, 2016, 7:17am): Regina announces a new album and tour.
Update (September 30th, 2016): El Rey Theater in Los Angeles. 20 feet from her. 3rd row.
Update (April 7th, 2016): The Greek Theater in San Francisco the day before my 24th birthday. When you learn the hard way you never have to learn again.