Nashville, Summer 1987
When I was 10 years old, my father stole my Sign ‘O’ the Times Prince cassette tape. He asked to borrow it and kept it in his car out of my reach for a long time. His 1979 Mercury Cougar was midnight blue, a navy so deep I wanted to stick glow-in-the-dark stars all over it. The car still had an 8-track player, so he used one of those boxy converters to play cassettes. When the car died, and my mother refused to give him the money to fix it, he parked it in the driveway and moved my Sign ‘O’ the Times tape into the kitchen where he kept a boombox that had lost its tape-deck cover. You had to place the cassette inside manually, leaving it exposed to all the grease and smoke his cooking produced.
My father had a habit of giving me presents he wanted himself. He’d remind me that I wouldn’t have the gift without him so I had to let him borrow it, and he always told me he’d give it right back. After weeks of watching the tape’s clear casing become muggy with cooking oil, I knew I had to steal it back. The night I decided to go for it, he was passed out on the couch, Tops papers and a rolled-up dollar bill still on the coffee table. My family knew I liked to read past my bedtime, so I took advantage of that, listening to the cassette in my Walkman, my bed covers pulled over my head. The headphones pulled Prince further inside me, achy lyrics like “Sometimes I trip on how happy we could be…” imprinting themselves on me until, as an adult, I tattooed them around my left ankle.
I let a couple of days pass then I made a big production of asking him where the tape I stole was. He couldn’t remember what happened to it and offered to buy me another one. He never did.
This is how I learned to take music back from the men who said they love me.
New Orleans, Summer 2002
“Jay” was an academic who DJ’d as a hobby. We were long-distance, and this was before digitally shareable playlists, so he would sometimes mail me mix CDs. He was on the East Coast, and I was in the South. He’d include artists I’d never heard of or old soul songs that made him think of me, like the Isley Brother’s “Groove With You,” with its lyrics about two people watching each other, waiting for a chance to tell each other how they feel. I tried to expose him to “urban R&B” artists he’d overlooked like 112 and Monifah or downtempo music like Portishead and the Lovage project, Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By. It amused me to send him music that disrupted his genre-purist tendencies. But it’s Khia’s “My Neck, My Back” that sends me back to the night we met.
Jay was a colleague of my best friend K. They were attending a conference at the university where I worked. Jay’s voice belonged on radio, his rich, soothing baritone dedicating love songs in the middle of a stormy night. He was a skinny, nerdy-looking thing with black horn-rimmed glasses, super-thick eyebrows, and freckles. I wasn’t expecting a voice of winter cuddles to come from that body, but later, when we all went to a club for a tourist excursion, we found ourselves two-stepping near each other. We were trying to keep things cool but soon, we put our drinks down and held hands, leaning into each other while the club DJ went through his old school set. Our bodies shifted closer as the big-band soul of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Shining Star” morphed into the flirty funk of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Tell Me Something Good.” Jay and I were maintaining some serious eye contact as Dennis Edwards' “Don’t Look Any Further” played when the DJ abruptly shifted into “My Neck, My Back.”
The mood went from heady lyrics promising that in the “daylight/ I’ll still be looking in your heavenly eyes” to Khia’s daring commands to lick her pussy and ass crack. We both laughed and sat down. Our knees “accidentally” brushed together, as we tried to figure out how to talk over instructional lyrics about cunnilingus and analingus while the dance floor filled with women asserting themselves by singing along, their heads thrown back in naughty glee. We managed some alone time later, and I found out he was engaged. That didn’t stop our growing attraction. After our relationship took off via frequent emails, phone calls, and weekend visits, we’d often bring up the memory to laugh at how our first dance was interrupted. If I was having a bad day, he’d start to sing the song or text the words “my neck, my back” to make me smile.
We ended abruptly. I didn’t handle the breakup in a mature fashion at all, ghosting before I knew what ghosting was. He mailed me a long letter that I burned without reading. I deleted all of our emails. I wanted no part of him around, fearing I’d keep making excuses to keep our relationship going. Yet later, when we were no longer on speaking terms, I’d hear Khia’s opening command to pop my pussy and I couldn’t help but grin, not just because of its audaciousness but also because it reminded me of the start of a relationship that couldn’t sustain itself. I couldn’t remove the memory of that night and realized I didn’t have to.
I put "My Neck, My Back" on the playlists I listen to when I’m getting ready to hang with friends and when I pretend like I’m going to start working out again without any pangs. I still think of Jay but I can’t let the memory of him get in the way of enjoying Khia’s masterpiece. It was our song, but I made sure to reclaim it after the breakup.
Washington, DC, Winter 2004
I’d wanted “Dusty” the moment I saw him at a dive bar in Adams Morgan, back in 2003. We had several mutual friends and kept running into each other. That first night, he wore a green John Deere trucker hat, perched on the frizzing spirals of his fro that did little to distract from the drunken tilt of his wide, full mouth. His license listed his height as 5’7” but I’m confident he’d added an inch. We looked each other in the eye when I was barefoot. He always gave my heels a second, shaming glance but didn’t mind when they scraped against the bedroom walls.
That was our problem. We should’ve stayed friends with benefits, but I was 27, feeling the pressure to be married by 30, and he was possessive, unwilling to have me accept the attentions of anyone else. So we tried to take the sexual chemistry that burned between us and make a relationship. Unfortunately, he also thought passion included arguments and petty disagreements. I was not a confrontational person and my previous relationships rarely included shouting matches, but Dusty liked picking at me until I was snapping at him or leaving the room so I could cry. He would put down my career aspirations or question the usefulness of my hobbies to get me riled up. When I’d respond in anger, he’d leave and refuse to answer my calls and texts, in effect, punishing me for giving him what he’d wanted in the first place.
As if that toxicity wasn’t enough, his infidelity over our two years together also chipped away at us. In the middle of watching television together after dinner, he’d say, “I’ll be right back,” and take my car without telling me where he was going. But I’d see the incoming texts the next day: “Glad you came by last night.” I thought he was my karma for Jay so I said nothing. My girlfriends told me all men cheat and it was something I had to deal with, no matter how much my stomach twisted over his lies. His manipulation hurt but I thought I had to accept it.
One spring day, after a really hard week at work, Dusty tried to pick another argument over something stupid, and I lost it. Why couldn’t he be sweet to me? Couldn’t he see I’d been having a rough time? Why couldn’t he think of me, for once? Why is he only satisfied when he’s making me come or making me miserable? Can’t he ever try to make me feel good? He stood silently blinking his big, pretty eyes at me, clearly shocked at my outburst but still doing nothing to be helpful, and in my frustration, I went to bed alone and he went back to his place. We didn’t see each other for the next couple of days, only talking via texts and chat, and I cried hot, angry tears, thinking he’d rather let me stew in my own pain than be an actual good partner and try to help me. Finally, he told me to come over.
When I got to the house he shared with his roommate, I thought we’d simply sit outside near his square-foot garden, have some drinks, and talk. Instead, Dusty brought me into his room, which glowed from the flickering candles on every safe, flat surface: windowsills, his desk, the night stands. A red lightbulb in the bedside lamp cast sultry shadows along the drapey fabric hanging from the ceiling. A Prince song played on repeat from the sound system he’d put together from thrift store parts.
That night, Dusty massaged me then made love to me, slowly, while Prince crooned in the background. The same song played for hours. I’ve purposefully forgotten which song it was. I’ve never wanted to associate any Prince song with a specific boyfriend because I never wanted the music tainted by the relationship if it ended poorly. Prince is mine. I don’t want to share him with anyone else who will leave him murky with memories, like an old cassette tape playing too closely next to a frying pan.
As I drifted to sleep from Dusty’s careful attentions, he kissed my shoulder, and it was the softest, most vulnerable moment he’d ever shared with me. A few months later, our relationship ended, crashing in the same passionate fire that had birthed it. When I think of that shoulder kiss, I wonder if it was his goodbye.
Nashville, Summer 2014
I knew “Alexei,” my red-headed Russian, was The One because the first time we decided to Netflix and chill, he queued up Frasier, my favorite sitcom, without even knowing how much I loved the show. That had to be fate, right? He also had really good quality toilet paper, which, no offense, is rare to find for a straight man living alone. At the time, he had recently divorced and was living in an apartment complex he hated. The upstairs neighbor banged and paced when Alexei’s Skype sessions home to his parents in Russia became too boisterous. Alexei was pretty sure the neighbors next to him sold meth and/or marijuana. He was self-conscious about his place, keeping candles lit to combat the strange earthy yet chemical smells seeping through the walls.
He also played music constantly, probably to drown out his neighbors but also maybe because he couldn’t deal with the silence of his single life. He made it very clear to me that he wasn’t interested in anything long term, and at first, I wasn’t either. I’d met him at a point when I was just starting to date again after a long period of both celibacy and some mild sexual experimentation. I thought he’d be someone I could practice dating with, for lack of a better phrase, but I soon found myself falling for him.
Because of our different tastes in music, it was a little difficult for us to find songs we could listen to together. He kept trying to push Nick Cave on me while I would rather listen to the actual original soul and blues music that influenced him. Alexei seemed disappointed when I didn’t respond to groups like Birdcloud, an irreverent country music duo with songs like "Saving Myself for Jesus." To appease his need to teach me something new, I told him I didn’t know much about Radiohead, other than “Creep.” I’d avoided their music at the height of their popularity because it seemed like Radiohead was the band everyone chose to prove how anti-pop and different they were. Maybe Alexei could introduce me to the group? For the first couple of weeks of us hanging out at his place, he’d always have Radiohead playing. “Where I End and You Begin” shuffled up during the first time we had sex, and I’m pretty sure the throbbing bass contributed to the orgasm that still ghosts through me every time I hear it now.
As our time together progressed, we moved through genres and artists, sending each other links or pointing out concerts advertised in the local weekly newspaper. He repeatedly played “California” by EMA, which I hated. He knew I hated the song and played it because he thought it was funny that it got on my nerves. I think the artist reminded him of his ex-wife and I was jealous. I tried to introduce him to Prince’s deep cuts and underrated jams (“Wonderful Ass,” “Girls & Boys,” “Love 2 the 9s”), but I could tell he was only listening to be polite. His ex loved Prince, too. She was inescapable.
Despite his warnings about what he didn’t want in a relationship and the intangible presence of his ex, my feelings for him grew. How could I not fall for a man who would Skype me from across town because he’d been drinking and wanted to see me but knew he shouldn’t drive? He made me herring salad so I could taste part of his homeland and went easy on the mayonnaise and egg because he knew I didn’t eat them. (It wasn’t bad but never again). He grew out his hair because I liked it a little long in the front. He took me hiking. I saw parts of Nashville, my own hometown, that I’d never seen before because of him. I brought him to Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s to meet my family, something I hadn’t done in 10 years.
I like to think he felt as deeply about me but wouldn’t allow himself to. The demise of his marriage was still too new, too disappointing for him. Over the course of a year, he went from buying my favorite yogurt and ice cream so I’d always have a snack at his place to not returning texts in his previously timely fashion, resenting what he’d later call the obligation to indulge in couple-like behavior: checking in after work; spending the entire weekend together, all things he had initiated.
One night, feeling that he was slipping away, I pushed for us to go to dinner. On the way there, one of my random playlists tossed out the Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out.” We sang along, leaning our heads close, belting out lyrics that were too on-the-nose for our situation:
And in the darkened underpass
I thought: Oh God, my chance has come at last
But then a strange fear gripped me
And I just couldn’t ask.
I wanted to ask him to let go of his fears, to choose me and us, to tell me what was going on, to try my love and let go of his ex’s, but I couldn’t.Within a few weeks of that carpool karaoke filled with subtextual sadness, we were over.
He stood in a corner of his living room, playing with a badminton racquet, while I sat on his couch, the heels of my palms pressed to my eyes so I wouldn’t cry. He said, “I am starting to feel what I felt when I wanted my ex to move in with me, and I don’t want to. I can’t.” The St. Petersburg of his upbringing stretched the last word into a whine, imploring me to understand.
It took a long time before I was able to watch Frasier in the same, slightly obsessive way I always had before him, and it was even longer before I could listen to Radiohead or the Smiths. “Where I End and You Begin” still heats my face. I don’t even know what the song is really about, but the bass line sends a muscle memory to my waist and hips. I can’t let Alexei’s memory keep me from enjoying these artists entirely, even if the context of my pleasure has changed. Since the 2016 election, I’ve turned to Radiohead, the Smiths, and other artists like Hozier and Jeff Buckley because their music is one way I get to hear white men in pain. When I need a good cry, I’ll listen to “There Is a Light...” and think of the way Alexei leaned his head back, a hank of auburn hair flopping across his face, and sang, overpowering Morrissey’s morbid begging with the sharp edges of his Russian accent. Alexei stained one of my favorite songs but I have sanded it away, making it shine again.
Nashville, Spring 1987
The local radio station 92Q had been teasing Prince’s newest single from his latest album Sign ‘O’ the Times all day. The entire family was in my father’s car. I don’t remember where we were going but we three kids were arranged by birth order in the back, my younger brother behind the driver’s seat, me in the middle, my older sister behind Mama.
When the drum machine kicked in on “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” I leaned my head back between the speakers and closed my eyes, pulling myself away from everyone else in the car. Prince sang in a distorted, almost feminine voice, offering scenarios that would change him but keep him in his lover’s life:
Would U let me wash your hair?
Could I make U breakfast sometime?
Well then, could we just hang out?
I mean, go 2 a movie and cry together…
The car remained silent while the song was on, the first time that had ever happened without my father’s anger as the cause. The radio DJs were a man and a woman who both exhaled loudly when the song ended. The man insisted on playing it again, and I placed my head back between the speakers, eyes closed, listening to what had to be the most romantic expression of love I’d ever heard in a song. Here was a man willing to become someone else if it meant he could stay with the woman he loved.
That kind of self-sacrifice stuck with me and I looked for it in my adult relationships. How beautiful it must have been to love someone so intimately, to be emotionally vulnerable together while doing something as simple as watching a movie. Who would I find to care enough to change his life so he could love me better?
In “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” intimacy morphs while love stays strong. I don’t know how much love remains for my exes, but my relationships with the music we shared had to change, if I wanted to take back control of those songs and how they made me feel. I know now that the highest level of intimacy I can share with someone is listening to Prince with him, and not everyone is worthy of that gift.