We all have stories about music.
“What song makes you think about your first date?”
“What song was #1 in your senior year?”
“That song makes you think of…?”
One day, back when I was in high school, a girl who I hardly knew, came out from out behind the front doors and asked, “Hey John, you wanna listen to a song for me?” We did not circle in the same social orbits and had little in common. I was loud, manic, unfocused and classes were a downer. She seemed focused, purposeful, overprepared and disciplined. Never being one to turn down music, I said, “Yeah, sure.”
Searching through a green canvas style bag, she pulled out a hand-held cassette player. Pushing her straight brown hair behind her right ear, she began talking to me, like she knew me or had been practicing what she wanted to say, as she walked to the edge of the front porch of the high school to sit down.
Fumbling with the clunky player, she kept talking about what the song did to her, what other people couldn’t hear, why she wanted me to hear it, what I was supposed to be listening for.
Then, she pushed play…
It sounded unremarkable, at first, like an overused metaphor, cliché, but with a knife behind its back. As it worked up its nerve the song sounded like the first light of dawn after you’ve been astray on the city streets. Like the first time you tell that person you love them, when you go to ring that doorbell, look into their eyes, write that note. It was all there, the introduction to life at the lip of the Blackhole that made the peer pressure, the way you brush your hair, the desire to be included, and minor things like eating and breathing all worthless pastimes you do to fill your time between the moments like this one.
First time we listened to it, she told me to just listen to the words. Then she told me to just listen to the music.
When we came to one particular passage it seemed to provide both tension and release like words could never give. After listening through it completely she stopped the tape hit rewind and pushed play. We listened again and then hit stop hit rewind, push play and listened again.
Stop, rewind and play.
Stop, rewind and play.
And like the process of burnishing a lamp I could see what was below the worldly varnish and hear what words could not show. I could see the pain she was afraid to relay. I could see the hope that she had. The lights, the intensity, the musical equivalency of emotional that fell on us was the answer to so many unfinished sentences our teenage brains and hormones had created. It was perhaps the single most intimate moment in my life.
Soon the music began to slow down as batteries began to give out. And looking up for the first time we saw that the warm winter’s day was giving way to the cool blue night. The buses that we both took to school had long since stopped running, so I offered to walk her home. On our way, a car came up behind us and honked. It was her father… and he was angry… at me. (I seem to have had that effect on parents, particularly fathers)
He threw open the door to the rusted green Bonneville and she obediently sat down. But she gave something to me that very few people have ever been brave enough to share. Something I still cannot describe to this day. It had no boundaries, no walls, no limits, no fear, no presuppositions, no end.
And it’s taken me the rest of my life to settle for the “standard issue” given in relationships these days. I would see her in the hallways, and we would sit together in the lunchroom…saying nothing. Nobody asked me if we were dating, it’s like no one saw her at all.
Shortly after that, her mother took her, and they left for West Virginia. I never saw her again. And when I think of how best to communicate something to someone that I find important, I think back to that moment. Because she transmitted a message that created a musical symbiosis that cratered any hope of just consuming music like anyone in the room, she left and left me searching for a way to better understand and express who I am and what I am. But I’m not alone, I have her soul, and I know her heart, and I know her hopes because I know her music.