It was in the sixth hour of traffic on the turnpike from Pennsylvania to Boston that I began to gather my courage. I had been thinking about him, musing about the past, since the night before, and now, after these isolated hours of thought and noise and the road, I felt an overwhelming impulse to call. My cell phone rested slanted in my cupholder, tipping into the styrofoam side of the cold cup of coffee that had been sitting there, half-finished, since a bathroom stop in Connecticut somewhere around hour three. My console lit up with numbers and words that looked like bright red hieroglyphics—the display had been broken for years, and only showed random lines, which could be a five, or a four, or a seven, but never what song was playing, what track of a CD, what radio station. I still had to use CDs, since a plug-in for my iPhone had also become uselessness and disjointed – first only playing out of one side of the car speakers, then crackling on that side, then failing to emit any sound at all. Everything in my car was slightly askew, slightly dysfunctional, and yet it was the most comforting place I knew. It was a refuge.
With my iPod wires broken, I reverted to other means to play with the silence other than the wind rushing past the car. I listened, one-by-one, to the sentimental and outrageous history that were the piles and piles of mix-tapes which had accumulated in the glove compartment, the slots on the sides of the passenger and driver doors, and the sunglasses compartment on my console.
Each of these mixes were developed meticulously and anxiously, over hours and hours of my adolescent life. They mostly began with an upbeat and uproarious song, and closed with a slow mournful meditation on life itself, something desperate with a lilting guitar and vocals just above a whisper, something to make you remember me by—whoever you are. The mixes had themes depending on the time of year, the vacation or road trip that was looming, the boy or man I was in love with, the friend who needed a pick-me-up or who I was saying goodbye to.
I stopped and started down 84 to 90 with all of it beside me, rattling. The layers of scratched disks titled with neon Sharpie vibrated and quivered with the shuddering of the engine. I was feeling nostalgic in the traffic, in the car, for days five and ten years ago. Age twenty-five felt like gravel and sand and trying to carve my name into a shoreline. I was still half young and foolish, craving attention and adventure and long nights with friends where we stayed out too late at bars and followed pop-punk bands around and forgot ourselves. But I was half old and wizened, wanting just a little peace and the end of drama and unrest, wanting to sit home with a glass of wine and my boyfriend and watch Robert Irvine re-vamp dilapidated restaurants on the Food Network. I wanted to be a famous writer, travel the world and switch careers constantly, learn to speak French and climb Kilimanjaro. I also, quite suddenly, wanted to get a steady 9-5 job with a source of income that I could count on, a ring on my finger, and to close the physical distance between myself and my family. I felt at odds with myself, like I was in a constant act of betrayal.
I popped in another old mix, a compilation of songs with little in common with one another in theme or rhythm other than their uncanny ability to make me feel. The flow started out serious and grand, a soaring violin over a rock guitar, sad proclamations of love too late. This was the girl who wanted great things out of life. This was the girl who did not settle. I was unsure how to connect her with the person I was now, who had to worry about ever-mounting bills and loans having accumulated from at long last, not being supported by her parents, not being a child whose whims and wishes would be granted. I didn’t know how to be both.
I pressed the brake and my right foot ached dully from the constant pressure and the unchanged position over the hours. I flexed my left foot and stretched it past the pedals, as if one foot’s mobility could make up for its complaining opposite. The world seemed to me, in this moment, to have shrunken to a microcosm that consisted of me, the white pick-up truck in front of me, brake lights bright red and hurting my eyes, and the massive tractor trailer to the right of me. All the rest of it – my e-mails, my family, current love, past loves, my obligations and my failure – they were absent. I could keep driving and never look back, if I wanted to, and I would still be living a life. The world would still go on.
This moment, this section of road filled with all of us strangers braking and stuttering and some of us swerving when we got too zealous and sped up too quickly and almost slammed into our neighbor in front of us, this was all we had right now. Whatever ways our past lives had played out didn’t matter at the moment, all that mattered was the traffic and the ebb and flow of our cars on a sea of tar and dirt and the tired moves we would make behind the wheel in order to steer ourselves slowly closer to home. The places we had come from blurred behind us. We hadn’t cleaned our rear windshields anyway.
I kept staring at the bright red line of cars twisting up the highway and I wanted to call him because the sudden present-ness of my life, the possibilities opening up with every exit and every road, made me wonder what all the fuss was about.
Why do we spend so much time analyzing every past movement and mistake, every failure of ourselves and our friends and our lovers, every insecurity and every story told over and over again, twisted and warped with each telling? Why can’t we just relax? Why can’t we just get past the past? Why can’t we just be, and accept our thousands of errors and inconsistencies as just what they are: the price of being human.
My heart was beating fast and I wanted to call him. I had broken up with him almost three years ago, for someone else, who I was still with, happily and lustily with. I wanted to call him not because of any remaining romantic thread, any misplaced desire to kiss him or to touch him brought on by a long dark road and loneliness, but rather by something else entirely more abstract and perhaps less forgivable.
I wanted to call him because I was nostalgic instead for my former best friend, who I had willingly abandoned along the way in favor of a lover. I wanted to call him because he had been, when I was fifteen, and eighteen, and twenty-one, the only person who I felt had really known me.
I wanted to ask him if that meant anything to him, if that mattered at all. I wanted to ask him how many people do you think you get in life that actually know you. How many did he think? Two? Three? It couldn’t be more than that. I wanted to ask him why a little thing like me not loving him anymore meant I had to lose him. I wanted to ask him why I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to ask him what that saying actually meant. I wanted to ask him if he was happy with the house he had just purchased in the suburbs. I wanted to ask him why he bought a house when he wasn’t even dating anyone – as if homes and marriage were mutually exclusive concepts. Were they? Did he think they were? I wanted to ask him if he would always hate me. Always? I wanted to ask him why he said that when I knew he didn’t really, couldn’t really. I saw his face when he tried to tell me he hated me. It broke within a millisecond of me starting to turn away.
I wanted to ask him if he still believed in love, or if I had ruined that concept entirely for him. I wanted to ask him if he understood that I was never meant for him, that he was never meant for me. I wanted to ask him if he understood how very badly I had wanted him to be. I wanted to ask him if he was still drinking all the time. I wanted to ask him if it made things better. I wanted to ask him why I had to leave him—why I was, and always had been, my own worst enemy. I wanted him to explain it to me.
I picked up the phone with my right hand, my left hand on the wheel, and pulled up my contacts with my thumb. I had deleted his number from my phone months or a year ago. I clicked the button for the phone’s keypad instead, typed in each number a little slower than I might have otherwise.
His number looked like some forgotten language, the algebra I had learned in high school and never thought I would need to use again. It felt awkward and anachronistic there on the crisp display of the iPhone. This number was never a part of this life.
I glanced at it and glanced at the road and glanced at it and glanced at the road, before dimming the screen and putting it back in my cupholder.
The truth was that I was caught between the present waiting for me in Massachusetts and the past of Pennsylvania. I was human, and afraid to let go of everything I used to know so well. I was floundering for a link to a time when things made sense for me, even if it was a link badly broken.
I picked up the phone and lit up the screen again. His number was there, each digit punched in already, the glowing screen innocuously waiting.
I listened to the soaring crescendo of the violin and the alternative rock singer claiming that all of life could be desperation and ecstasy and above all, love, even after you weren’t seventeen anymore.
I hit “Call.”
I tried to picture what was happening. Maybe he had the phone in his pocket. Maybe he pulled it out when it vibrated, expecting to see a call from his mom. Maybe he was at his friend Timmy’s house, sitting on the couch in front of a gigantic TV screen, watching football, like always. Maybe he stared as it as it rang, waiting to see if the call was a mistake or if it would ring until it went to voice mail. Maybe he resolved that it wasn’t a mistake, but that there was no way he was answering, no way he was picking up for me, just when he was happy, just when he was settled, just when he had bought the house and gotten the haircut and celebrated with his friends and gotten a raise at work. Just when he wasn’t having trouble sleeping. Just when he didn’t care.
Maybe he didn’t see it at all until later, and wondered if it was an accident. Maybe he didn’t know I had deleted his number so I would never accidentally call him, even if it was memorized as thoughtlessly but permanently as my social security number or my grandma’s zip code was memorized. Maybe, just maybe, my AT&T service failed me once again, one more especially monumental time, and the call, the simple rings and beeps, which meant so much to me in that moment, never even went through. Maybe he never had to think about it, because he never even saw it.
The generic voice mail repeated his number back to me, but I already knew it.
I did not leave a message.
I inched further down the road and I knew it didn’t matter whether he answered or not, and it didn’t matter whether he saw the call or didn’t see the call or purposefully ignored it or had changed his number altogether (no one would have told me if he did.)
I hit the button to turn the speakers back on and Billy Joel was playing on a mix that could have been from when I was fourteen or when I was twenty-five and it still would have been the same old favorite song even though I never really knew what it meant all those years ago when I claimed it as my favorite– as mine.
Light piano notes rolled around the car and encased me in the music as the truck and the van and the tractor trailers around me shuddered on in their own little isolated worlds, with their own little isolated dramas playing out in their heads, and no one knew that we were really all connected and really all the same and it’s just not worth it to end things like this. I drove on to the piano and the darkness outside with our brake lights painting the highway a brilliant red and with Billy’s charming voice, telling me it would all be alright, for all of us.
“It’s either sadness or euphoria,” he sang.
I knew what he meant.
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to email@example.com keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Gina Tomaine is a Philadelphia-based writer and editor, as well as a lecturer in writing and literature at Saint Joseph’s University. She earned her MFA from Emerson College in Boston. She has been published in The Boston Globe, Boston magazine, Philadelphia Inquirer, Bustle, Complex magazine, Electric City magazine, and Philadelphia magazine, among others. She loves travel, yoga, running, and Harry Potter. You can find her on Twitter @gtomaine and on the web ginatomaine.com.