A Song I Can't Play You
382 · 23 May 02
Once, long ago, in a random fit of Charlie Brownian emotion, I fell in love with a little red-headed girl. No, I'm overstating a crush. What really happened was that I found myself starting to write a story around a stranger. It was the cold winter of my junior year in college, and she lived in my House, so I would see her two or three times a day in the dining hall. I knew nothing about her, but her hair was dyed a vivid, orangy shade of red, spiked in grand New Wave style (this was the late Eighties). In my memory she looks like somebody made a pale three-quarter-scale replica of Aimee Mann in the "Voices Carry" video, and then dunked its head (tail and all) in indelible brandy. I had a mohawk at the time, myself, dyed a not-entirely-dissimilar brassy hue; we would have made an adorable couple, and pictures of us, then, would now be hilarious.
But what can you tell from hair? The person with the best hair I've ever seen (another girl, another year) turned out to be one of the most oppressively boring people I've ever met. But since this red-headed girl and I shared a community, I had a little more to go on. I had the sound of her voice (high and elfin, Joey Lauren Adams-ish). I had the way she carried herself, and a time-lapse view of her wardrobe choices. I had her friends. I had that brief smile of noncommittal acknowledgement when I'd pass her in the House tunnels. I knew she was younger than me, which meant she had to be a sophomore, since freshmen live off in the Yard. And I found out her name, which still sounds so cool to me today that I can't bear to replace it with a pseudonym: Lena Strayhorn.
And around these shreds of personality and character, I began writing a story. I mean this literally: the second semester of my junior-year filmmaking course was entirely devoted to making an independent short film, and I was in the process of devising a script for mine. I had already decided to be in it myself, so I began writing the uneasy romance between a boy who looked and acted a lot like me, and the kind of a girl I imagined this red-head to be.
In the movie, her name is Miranda. We've been going out for an unspecified amount of time, long enough to be living together but not long enough for my last ex-girlfriend to fade out of my life. We have a bad apartment, and as the movie opens we are going through the want ads, looking for a better one, when my ex-girlfriend calls. Her name is Beth. (Mine, inexplicably, is Jeremy.) Apparently we were singing partners, Beth and I, and one or both of us holds out some hope for our material long after we've given up on the relationship in which it was formed. Beth wants me to come help with a re-recording of one of our old songs. In a bit of heavy-handed emphasis hardly necessary in a ten-minute movie without anything remotely resembling a side-plot, the song and the film are both called "Colorado". (In the script both are also subtitled "world take a shot at my heart", but when I eventually did the credits I believe I had the sense to leave this out.) The recording session is tomorrow, which I agree to despite having promised, approximately thirty seconds earlier, to spend the day apartment-hunting with Miranda. Miranda is understandably irritated, by my lurchingly expository dialog if not my thoughtlessness, but I am cute and irresistible, because it's my movie, so I eventually cajole her into coming along to the session with me.
The rest of the very short film is this recording session. Beth is very pretty, and a very good singer, and she does not seem to have Miranda and my romantic welfare prominently in mind. In the script the session takes place on stage in the beautiful old Agassiz theater in Radcliffe Yard, which would be a silly but visually striking way to record a demo, but my attempts to secure permission to shoot there were systematically rejected by small-minded administrators with unspecified (but perhaps reasonable) fears, so in the end we shot it in the same anonymously cavernous basement film studio where I had, two weeks before finals the previous spring, fallen off a lighting grid and fractured both wrists. There is a thankless fourth role, with uniformly bad lines, for the session's engineer. "Colorado", the song, gets played twice. The first time through, it is playing over monitors, and we are practicing, slipping into a suspiciously easy mock-combative banter as we go. This is fairly cloying, and Miranda, perhaps as proxy for the audience, opts for a break. If your audience decides it needs a break in the middle of a ten-minute-long movie, you are doing something very wrong. After she leaves the room, I hand the thankless engineer an envelope of some sort.
Then comes the big cut-away. In a spurt of cinematic virtuosity, the film transports the viewer in an instant from the recording studio all the way to a nearby bathroom. Miranda, ruefully examining herself in the mirror, attempts to sing a couple telling lines of the song, failing in a plangently artless manner. She is measuring herself, you see, against my glamorous and talented ex-girlfriend. She snorts, derisively, at herself, just in case you don't see, and heads dejectedly back to the studio.
Beth starts to get mean at this point, as no sooner has Miranda returned than she shifts into crassly flirtatious innuendo towards me, and condescending barely-feigned innocence towards Miranda. I have, unexpectedly, the alacrity to be irritated by this, and abruptly demand that we stop rehearsing and start recording for real. My manner suggests, in the same way that Punch and Judy "suggest" marital discord, that I have something uncooperative in mind. I sternly enjoin Beth to keep singing no matter what, an inane demand she even more inanely complies with. And then, with the song's instrumentation piped into headphones so the movie audience is forced to listen to the whole thing again in unsteady a cappella, I proceed to invent an entirely new set of lyrics, which I sing while Beth sings the old ones.
Taken side-by-side, the song's two texts are a cunning and insightful juxtaposition of attitudes towards relationships and the contexts in which they take place. In the me-and-Beth version, highlighted by the monumentally dreadful line "My wetsuit defenses are down around my ankles", we have nothing but scorn for the fragile, frightened couples who need peace and quiet and time to themselves for sustenance. We are dynamic denizens of a vibrant world, she and I, whirling around each other as if attached by superhero tethers. In the me-and-Miranda rewrite, part of a relationship's cohesiveness comes precisely from treating the world as an outside, and thus implicitly defining an inside. It is not very plausible that I could devise such a self-referential critique and fit it to the song's existing meter on the fly, but it hardly matters, since with the two of us singing at once there's next to no chance the viewer can follow either set of words anyway. Luckily, I belabored the song's thesis back in scene one: to Beth and I, Colorado was a metaphor for cowardly retreat from, presumably, urban vitality. In my impromptu revision, Colorado represents two people's willingness to turn their backs, at least temporarily, on outside noise and lights, and focus on each other. "Is it Colorado they're looking into / When they dream?", the first version bitingly inquires. "This is Colorado we're flying into / On this beat.", the second counters.
Just as I start to sing this last couplet, I point to the thankless supposed-engineer, who executes the most technical maneuver of his entire screen time by turning and handing Miranda the envelope from earlier (no continuity point is overlooked!). She opens it, and finds plane tickets. The audience, perhaps, if they are psychic, intuits that they are tickets to Colorado. How is it that I have plane tickets to Colorado handy, despite the metaphorical significance of Colorado having been explicated for what seemed like the first time only the previous evening? And why, after establishing that the next step Miranda wanted for our relationship was progress on finding a new apartment, do I think a vacation is the solution to anything? These are provocative questions, which fortunately the audience is too confused to ask. But Miranda understands, and looks up from the tickets to the camera with an expression of beatific triumph. And then I, obtusely unwilling to let well enough alone, insist on undermining my own conclusion by making a goofy rock-star gesture as "this beat" coincides with the film's concluding snap to black.
This is not, now that I look back on it, an incredibly flattering fantasy into which to have incorporate my blameless red-headed crush. I have cast her as clingy, insecure and talentless, doting for no demonstrated reason on an insensitive and palpably untalented egotist who seems much more fond of romantic gesture for its gesturality than for its content. Perhaps fittingly, since I knew virtually nothing about the girl, I wrote a part for her that has no appreciable identity. But she does win the boy, such as he is, so it's officially the heroine's role, and in the stunted emotional grammar I had at my command at the age of twenty, it's vaguely sweet.
What I really wish I still had, though, is not the script to this film, but the transcript of what I actually said to the little red-headed girl on the evening I finally spoke to her. I introduced myself, and asked her if she acted. This was a rhetorical question: in 1987 Harvard had not yet adopted randomization for House assignments, and Adams was still the House of hopelessly pretentious and self-conscious arts types. Not everybody took active part in organized dramatic productions, but a sophomore with dyed hair was hardly going to admit, in a crowded and gossip-obsessed dining hall, that she did not act at all. So she said she did, and I finished the gambit by explaining that although I did not know her, she had somehow inspired the lead female role in my student film all the same, and asking if she'd do me and the story the great favor of playing it.
There are many things I can't explain about this series of events, at fifteen years' remove, perhaps most prominently her acceptance. For all our self-consciousness, I guess, it was a far less guarded time. We had both chosen Adams House because of its reputation as the kind of place where things like this happened, dye jobs and remote crushes leading to stardom, of whatever small scope, and were now doing our part to (as we would have said) reify the myth. Or maybe she, too, had a weakness for New Wave haircuts. For whatever reason, she said yes. And here, if life were in a movie, rather than vice versa, would have begun our storybook romance, and years later, in our fondly doddering old age, we could torture our great-grandchildren by dragging out my old movie for the millionth time and reliving those delicious first days, as we pretended to be in love, and in doing so fell in love.
It didn't happen. There was no chemistry between us for real, and even less in make-believe. She was not an actress. I was not much of an actor, either, but it was my movie. In the end it took a lot more courage to tell her I was going to get somebody else to play the role than it did to ask her to play it in the first place. My friend Debbie Copaken, at the time the only genuine movie actress I knew (she had a two-line part in the movie Key Exchange, you can look it up in IMDB; after college she became a photojournalist and eventually wrote the book Shutterbabe), bailed me out by stepping in as Miranda, and after auditioning so many beautiful girls with great singing voices that even I began to wonder if it was a cheap come-on, I secured what would turn out to be the best brush-with-celebrity anecdote from my entire Harvard experience by casting, as Beth, Miro Sorvino's roommate. What became of Lena Strayhorn, I have no idea. A cursory web-search turns up two sets of references to that name, one a world-renowned jaw harp musicologist, the other a tireless defender of endangered marine life (neither of which I am making up, another claim you may feel obliged to verify for yourself), but I have no idea if either of those are her, or indeed if those are the same people or different. I didn't find any pictures, and without our New Wave hair I'm not sure either of us could recognize the other now, anyway.
But this is all suddenly on my mind again, so many years later, because I have another crush on a little red-headed girl. My romantic system tends to shut down, defensively, after traumas, and I feel it just now restarting, three and a half months after the last one. This girl (and no condescension is intended by "girl"; in crushes, we're always girls and boys, not women and men) works at my local whole-foods grocery store. My guess is that she's an assistant manager, but I've never asked. I don't even know her name, although as I tell you this it occurs to me that since she works in a grocery store, she has almost certainly been wearing a name-tag every time I've seen her, which it has somehow never occurred to me to read. She always seems to pop out of the managers' booth to come help sack groceries just as I get to the register, which I'm 84% inclined to attribute to chance, 11% inclined to take as a token of reciprocal curiosity, and 5% Massachusetts meal tax. We've had the briefest of conversations, mostly revolving around new Ben & Jerry's flavors. Her red hair is a darker, subtler, more grown-up color, and in place of dramatic New Wave plumage she just has cool glasses. I don't know how old she is, don't know where she is in her life, don't know anything of importance about her. I don't know what notice, if any, she's taken of me, and since all she would have to go on are my shaved head and my eye for produce, I don't know what stories she would write me into, if that's even what she does with people.
That's what I do with people, and maybe it's not good. Part of me thinks it's a wholly natural human reaction, idly filling gaps in what we know about people with speculation just to amuse ourselves until we find out the real story. I have nowhere near enough solipsistic power, I think, for my fictions about people to displace or obstruct reality, so surely they're harmless. Another part of me, however, isn't entirely sure. Maybe I haven't undone any relationships by comparing a specific real woman to a fictional version of that same person, but certainly I have turned down the ones I have turned down because they did not match my composite story of my imagined partnership. Arguably I have written a fairy tale, and am now wandering around with a glass script looking for the girl whose part it is. I'm not worried that inventing a story about the red-haired girl with the cool glasses at the grocery store would ruin our chances in the unlikely event that we actually met, I'm worried that inventing these stories, about anybody, interferes with my ability to recognize human qualities in the people I do meet.
But the truth is, I'm stuck with it. I'm self-aware enough to wonder if it's healthy, but if it isn't, it's one of my essential flaws. My reference standards, for everything, are the stories I place them in, of the selves to which I suppose they aspire. I can't take people "as they are" as a matter of policy; I have to feel that how they "are" does justice to how they could be. It's recursive: I dream of people who dream of people who dream.
So I am here, and this girl is at the grocery store, and I don't know what I'm going to do about it. In favor of action: I've got no better candidates at the moment, there's nothing obvious at risk, what's the point of instincts if you never test them, and wouldn't it brighten your day a little to find out somebody had a random little speculative crush based on almost no information on you? In favor of doing nothing: it's a far finer line, in 2002 than in 1987 and at thirty-five than at twenty, between cute and alarming; as my last such mistake reminds me, trying to start something before you know whether you'll want to finish it is dangerous, and maybe irresponsible; and really, isn't this time that could be better spent memorizing Japanese verb forms, or learning the rest of the hooks for two-letter Scrabble words? If this crush had happened when we were kids, maybe what I should have done is make her a mix tape, instead of writing her into a movie. But I over-think music so much, I'm not sure for me there's a meaningful difference. I could give her my spare copy of Too Much Joy's concert album, Live at Least, which has the dual virtues of a buoyant version of the apt "Crush Story" and a circuitous explanation in the liner notes of exactly why I think it's one of the greatest pop songs ever. But that's a story just as much as my brief, awkward film was. The songs I love are conscripted into my parables of what I hope for, and the only unusual thing about Live at Least is that my personal liner notes to it are actually printed in the booklet. For all I know, Tim Quirk once dumped her cousin, and she only listens to ragas. If I'm fair, I fear, I can't give her a story or a disc, because to be true to what we know about each other, it would have to be blank. I should choose a song, if for no other reason than that I still call these music reviews, but I can't, and shouldn't, and so I'm straining not to. Unable to find a way out of this knot, I'm now looking for a way farther in. The impulse to give feels right, the impulse to decide what to give feels wrong. I think I'm now taking dating advice from Schrödinger, and trying to figure out how to burn a CDR whose track list is indeterminate until she plays it. I'm trying to write a story in which I don't say what happens. And I wait, to find out, until I hand it to her. And we wait to see if I do.