A few years ago, Rob – of My Side Of The Laundry Room – began a series called “F.N.V.,” taking it’s name and inspiration from NBC’s Friday Night Videos (1983-2002). Anyway, I liked it so I totally stole it from him. Kalie liked it and she stole it too, proving far more prolific with her sharing of music videos and stories than I ever am. But I was driving around the other day and I heard a song. It sparked a memory of love gone by…or, more accurately, of an attempt at love gone by. I started thinking this could be a fun premise for a new piece in this series, to walk through some pivotal romantic experiences from my past – some sincerely sweet, most catastrophically awkward – and pair them with the songs that embody those memories.
Before I begin, it’s worth noting that all these stories are how I remember things happening. But as the brilliant Netflix series The Mind: Explained points out so clearly in their episode on memory, our memories are imperfect. They serve more as a force to shape who we are in the present than an accurate record of events in the past. So I don’t pretend this is exactly how things went down nor do I think the women involved (all who shall remain nameless) would remember things the same way. All the same, these stories – these experiences – have shaped me. And for that, no matter how badly some of them ended, I’m forever grateful.
The Buzzcocks – “Ever Fallen In Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve)” – 1978
Okay so this song isn’t so much any one memory but it describes like 95% of my romantic pursuits. “Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t’ve fallen in love with?” Um, I like to call that my twenties, like all of my twenties. So I figured this helps set the right tone for this trip down Romantic Memory Lane.
Aerosmith – “I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing” – 1998
I know there’s no way this is true but, in my mind, the last dance at every single high school dance I went to was either the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” or this tune. While I remember nothing at all about the movie Armageddon, I vividly remember slow dancing to this at a dance during my sophomore year. It was one of those wonderfully cliché experiences where I had no idea what I was doing and my hands kept getting sweatier. Are my hands too high on her waist?? Are they too low on her waist?? Have we been turning in a slow circle to the right too long?? Do I need to start turning us to the left now??? What am I doing here?!!? High school hormones were erupting in all their awkward glory and, confusion and uncertainty aside, it was still a fun night. We only ever sort of dated…it was more like date-adjacent. But that was mainly because, as I mentioned, I had no idea what I was doing.
Melissa Ethridge – “Come To My Window” – 1993
In my early twenties, I had an idea. It was a terrible idea. I reasoned, every romantic pursuit I tried ended up in, to quote John Stewart, “a catastro-fuck.” So, I reasoned, what if I stopped trying to filter who I went out with? What if I just went out with anyone who expressed interest to see what happens? Spoiler alert: NOTHING GOOD.
Anyway, many nights of my early twenties were spent at karaoke bars. One night a rather inebriated young woman came up to me and gave me her number. My brother David and our friends said it was probably a bad idea. But I wasn’t screening anymore! So I was in. I called her and she didn’t remember giving me her number or talking to me or even me at all. This was, clearly, a warning sign but Young Michael pressed onwards. We made plans to go to dinner and, when the day came, she called to tell me her mother was in the hospital and they weren’t really sure what was wrong with her. I said we could easily reschedule but she was adamant that we not. I said I understood she should be with her mom but she said she and her mom wanted her to go out with me. I was conflicted but couldn’t make the choice for her so I said “okay.” She arrived at the restaurant that night wearing what can only be described as panda pajamas. Like there was a big panda on her chest with little pandas all up and down the arms. The pants had pandas on them too. Okay, so she likes pandas, cool. But what followed was a pretty flat dinner. Our banter timing didn’t click. We didn’t have much in common outside of enjoying karaoke.
She called me the next day, asking what I was doing that night. I said I had a Youth Group meeting to run and she said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll come. I’ve got some other things to do. Maybe next time.” Um, excuse me? When did I invite you?? Why would I bring you to my job and introduce you to the kids I work with/minister to? I’m not even 100% sure we know each other’s last names. The next few phone calls followed suit, as she tried to sort of jump far deeper into my life than our one awkward dinner would warrant. Being the mature twenty-something young man that I was, I just kind of stopped picking up when she called. I know, I know…it was a classy move.
Well fast forward a week and we’re back at that same karaoke bar. She’s there too, already preeeeeeetty drunk at 9:30. She came over to our table, wanting to talk. All the seats were taken by my brother and our friends so she proceeded to sit on my lap where she wept openly about how I never called her back and no one ever did and she was probably going to die alone. My brother and friends, being the great people they are, all turned away and pretended they saw nothing leaving me to deal with this on my own. I, again being the mature twenty-something I was, used every cliché I could think of. I’m not really in a place where I can be in a relationship now. I’m really busy at work. I just got a new phone and all the numbers didn’t transfer. I rambled. She sobbed. It was brutal.
Amid the sobbing, the D.J. called her up to sing “Come To My Window” and she did (she nailed it too). A friend of mine turned to me and said, “It sounds like you better go to her window” to which I replied, “NOT HELPING.” We bailed early that night, the place was too busy for us to sing more than a song every hour and a half. But this put me in a weird place. While I had no desire to date/see this woman again, I was sincerely worried about her getting home. She was certainly too drunk to drive and the night was still young. I went over to ask if she needed a ride home. She screamed, “WHAT DO YOU CARE?” and stormed off to the bathroom. One of her friends assured me she wasn’t driving and I hit the road and didn’t look back.
I ran into her a few weeks later, sober and pretty embarrassed. I assured her it was fine and that those things happen to everyone. She seemed okay. And I went back to screening dates and no one has cried in my lap since.
Bruce Springsteen – “Brilliant Disguise” – 1987
I was working a summer camp, again back in the magical land that was my twenties, and had this wonderful flirtationship going with a woman I worked with. She was a waitress at a local restaurant who, coincidentally, my entire family had known for years, being regulars at the restaurant (I rarely went so I didn’t know her). She was a single mom so I got to know her and her son that summer. As the summer progressed, the flirting escalated. She’d make comments about how much she’d love to be together because “Grandma” would really be her grandma and my aunt would really be her aunt and my parents would be her in-laws. She made plans for us to go to Boston together over her fall break. She asked her son what he thought about living with me. (This, admittedly, was a red flag for me. I’ve dated single mothers before. I love kids so I’m okay with that. But relationships end and a child can become collateral damage so navigating the connection with a someone’s child/children is something I’m always cautious about. It’s a responsibility. But she just jumped in the deep end.) All these comments came before we ever even went out on a date, too. Right? I know. But she was cute and the flirting was fun.
Well, I had a wedding to go to at the end of the summer. She kept making comments allllllllllllll the time about how much she loved weddings and how much fun she had at them and what a good date she was, etc. and so on. Finally I asked, “Do you want to go to this wedding with me?” She jumped on the “yes.” The day of the wedding came and, as I was washing the car a few hours before I picked her up, she called. She said she couldn’t go. She got called into work. She needed the money so she decided to take the shift. In one of those the universe gives you a soundtrack like it’s a movie moments, this Springsteen song was playing as she called. “So tell me what I see / when I look in your eyes / Is that you baby / Or just a brilliant disguise?”
As luck would have it, my family had plans to go out to eat that night. When they got there, they asked about her. She wasn’t there. She wasn’t on the schedule. No one needed anyone to fill in for them. Well, long story short, as the puzzle pieces came together I learned she was living with her boyfriend in a far more serious relationship than I thought she had. So this whole game would’ve come undone if I picked her up for the wedding and her live-in boyfriend answered the door. On a related note, I had just bought a home that summer. I learned, through a friend who was an acquaintance of her sister, that this girl sort of moved like a hermit crab from boyfriend to boyfriend. I sort of dodged a bullet there.
The real question, though? Why did she say she had to go into work? She’s a single parent! All she had to say was her kid got sick and he wanted mom to stay home with him. Cut, print, that’s a wrap. No one knows. No one questions it. It’s bulletproof excuse. The flirtationship dance continues. Instead we had one of those horribly uncomfortable, “Um, so, you kind of have to give me some of my stuff back because I’m not really going to see you anymore” conversations. And she was surprisingly angry – like angry – that I didn’t want to hang out anymore. At least the Boss was there to narrate the big twist ending.
Griffin House – “The Guy That Says Goodbye To You Is Out Of His Mind” – 2006
This is a happy story :). There was this girl. I was on a strict, self-imposed “no dating” break. Too many false starts, “let’s just be friends” talks, and catastro-fucks had played out and I was done. Being single was great, thank you very much. Well, this girl and I were friends and she was home for Christmas break. We started hanging out again, catching up, going to movies, going out to eat, and all that sort of stuff. I remember coming home one night and Mom saying, “You know she likes you, right?” I said no, we were just friends. Mom said, “She’s just home for break and she’s seen you six out of the last seven nights. That’s not a friend. You’re not that interesting. She likes you.” Haha, well played Mom. But could Mom be right? Could there be more here than just friends catching up? Turns out Mom was right. Mom’s always right.
The next night we hung out, I paid attention. I noticed the physical contact was much more sustained than “just friends” would be. There was lots of hugging, holding, and nuzzling. We were, it would seem, in the middle of a potential budding Christmas romance. Well, when I think of her and I think of that experience I think of this song. One night we were walking out of the movies. She was lamenting her last failed relationship, wondering what she was doing wrong. I said I didn’t think it was her and, as we settled into my car, I played her this song. I told her, as far as I was concerned, the guy who said goodbye to her was out of his mind.
I don’t remember how long we sat in the parking lot that night listening to this song and talking. We played more of the album too, but we kept coming back to this track. It became “our song” after that, or one of them at least. Music was a big part of what we shared. So I can’t hear this song without thinking of that cold night in the movie theatre parking lot, lost in conversation with each other about life and love. And I can’t hear this song without thinking of her because, just like the end of the song, we never worked out. In fact, it never really grew beyond a really sweet flirtationship. Was it her? Was it me? I don’t know. But we never quite made the leap. Relationships, I don’t know why, they never work out and they make you cry. But the guy who said goodbye to her was out of his mind.
Jet – “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” – 2003
This is another one where Mom had to clearly explain to me someone was into me. Why am I so bad at this?? This is also another one that ends on an awkward and hilarious note which, again, was sort of my twenties. Anyway, shortly after college my brother was taking his karaoke career up a notch and competing in a local American Idol inspired karaoke contest. So he performed around town at different bars each week. Our family and friends would come out to each show to cheer him on and vote for him, to help him make it to the next round. The girl who features in this story was there with us at every show too.
We had meet a few months prior. David and I ran into her and a friend of hers. We all started talking and it turned into our all hanging out that night. We ended up being friends. I remember liking it because there was no romantic tension. You know? It was just new friends. Despite how often this girl and I would hang out, I didn’t have to worry about trying to figure out signals because she had a boyfriend. It was cool. We were just friends.
Except I guess I was wrong.
One night, at one of David’s karaoke competitions, this song was playing during a break in the set and this girl and I were dancing together. Afterwards Mom and Aunt Judy asked, “You know she likes you right?” I said, “No, we’re just friends. She has a boyfriend. It’s cool.” They said, “No one dances like that with someone if there’s not sexual chemistry there.” They then proceeded to tell me my step-grandmother was scandalized and probably went to Confession for the both of us the next day XD. (Writing these stories out it amazes me how many times Mom had to literally explain to me someone was into me. How I ever ended up in a real relationship on my own is anyone’s guess because I clearly suck at this.)
Flash forward a few weeks and I’m hanging out with this girl at her apartment. There’s a knock at the door. It’s her boyfriend. She says, icily, “What are you doing here?” He says, flatly, “I came to kill time in between my classes.” She says, in the same tone, “Well I’m entertaining.” He says, in the same tone, “Well I’ll work in the bedroom.” She says, “I don’t really want you here.” He says, “I’m staying anyway.” And I’m sitting on the couch wondering, if I roll with it, could I jump off her second floor balcony without seriously injuring myself? Because this was THE MOST AWKWARD AND UNCOMFORTABLE I’VE EVER BEEN IN MY LIFE.
He goes into the bedroom. I say, “Hey, uh, I’ve got to get going.” She placed her hands on my chest and said pleadingly, “No, no. Please stay. Please stay.” I said, “It seems like you two need to talk.” And I left. She called me later and said, “As soon as you left my boyfriend told me he could tell that I was thinking about leaving him for you. I told him he was right but I wasn’t ready to give up on our relationship just yet.” This was all news to me. Then there was a long pause and she said, “I don’t know why I told you that. Goodbye” and she hung up the phone abruptly. She called me a few weeks later to say she had broken up with her boyfriend but wasn’t ready to jump right into a relationship with me yet…which was interesting, as I’d never asked her out or anything?
So I, once again, handled things with all the maturity and wisdom of the twenty-something I was. I just ended up being really busy for most of the rest of the summer. About a month later David and I came home from church. There was a small wrapped box on the hood of his Jeep. It was from this girl and when we opened it we found (and I need to underscore this is not exaggerated in any way) two sculpted magnets of our faces. Like, clay magnets that were hand sculpted and my hair and beard and everything were fired as individual pieces. They were impressive! It was also really, really weird.
Now I was in a pickle. I had to thank her for the magnet. How couldn’t I? But I also really didn’t want to talk to her because…well, I’d already been avoiding her and now I had a magnet she had made of my face and if I couldn’t tell she was into me at the start I CERTAINLY didn’t know what to do with this. So I rolled the dice and called when I was hoping she’d be subbing (she was an art teacher and substitute). I was in luck! I got the voicemail and I left a thank you and sort of left the whole thing there. I still have the magnet…although I don’t have it on my fridge because looking Magnet Me in the eyes still sort of throws me off.
Bon Jovi – “You Give Love A Bad Name” – 1986
This is the best story I have. This is it. This is also the best example I have of the universe providing a soundtrack to my life like it was a movie.
This story comes from when I was nineteen-years-old and it’s about the first woman I’d ever say I loved. If I felt these same feelings now, I wouldn’t call it love. As I’ve grown, my understanding of what love is has grown too. That’s only natural. But to deny this love is to deny who I was when I was nineteen and that’s not fair to Past Me.
It’s hard to say how long we dated because it was one of those situations where we were friends first, great friends, and then slowly smoochin’ started becoming a thing we did. We clicked, at least for whatever that means at nineteen. We went to the movies. We went to concerts. We hung out at each other’s houses. We smooched. She was always really obsessed with marriage, though. “Don’t you want to get married?” she’d always ask me. And I’d always say, “Sure, in like fifteen years.” We were kids! What did we know about marriage?
Anyway, fast forward to just before Thanksgiving in the first term of my freshman year at college. She was home for her Thanksgiving break. I, being at a school that was on trimesters, was still in the middle of my finals week. It was the end of the term. She called me up one night and asked if I wanted to go for ice cream. I had a ton of studying to do but, when you care about someone, you make little sacrifices like this, right? So I put my notes to the side, picked her up, and we went to Dairy Queen.
She paid, which was different (not that I minded paying, I noted that just because it was the first part of the evening where it struck me something was different). We sat at our booth and began to enjoy our ice cream. “How do you think you did on your finals today?” she asked. “Pretty good,” I said with a fair amount of confidence. Then she stuck her hand in her purse and pulled out an engagement ring. “I’m getting married,” she said.
Let’s hit that point one more time to be sure you got it. She put her hand in her purse and pulled out an engagement ring. “I’m getting married,” she said.
My first thought was, “Huh…I don’t remember asking you.” I’m rarely speechless. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’m hyper verbal. But I had nothing to say then. I just stared at her. “How do you think you’ll do on your finals tomorrow?” she asked next. “Probably worse now,” I wanted to reply.
As I got in the car after this train wreck of an emotional shit show (by the way, dear readier, I hope you enjoyed meeting my primal emotional baggage just now) – and yes, I still took her home after that. I KNOW! But what was I supposed to do?? I was only nineteen and I was probably too nice to tell her to go fuck herself and leave her there even if I was older. But, as I got in the car after this train wreck of an emotional shit show, I turned on the car and Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love A Bad Name” was playing. Even then, even amidst my emotional pain and confusion, I was able to think, “Ha, nicely done universe. This is a nice touch. It’s going to make the story better too.” What I later learned had happened was she was dating me at home and this other guy at school, just waiting for one of us to propose.
As a postscript, I ended up calling her, texting her, and IMing (yes, AOL Instant Messenger was still a thing then), not trying to get clarity or an apology or any answers. But she had talked me into buying $80 concert tickets for us. She thought it would be a fun thing for us to do over Christmas. When she kept dodging the you-should-probably-pay-me-back-and-take-these calls, I had to go to her mom. When her mom asked, “Don’t you want to go to the concert anymore?” I told her, “Nah, I think she should probably go with her fiancé.”
Ingrid Michaelson – “Can’t Help Falling In Love” – 2008
Alright, don’t worry. I’m not going to end on that terrible note. We’ll end with a cute story. Ingrid’s cover of “Can’t Help Falling In Love” always makes me think of this one girl. We shared this mystical, sacred connection that I still don’t fully understand. It burned. It blossomed. And it changed everything. It left its own indelible mark (although, unlike Ms. “Hey, I’m Engaged,” a good one) on my heart. One day when we were driving around, listening to music and talking about life, the idea of changing your name in marriage came up. I said this was never anything I felt was necessary. If I was to get married, I wouldn’t want or need the woman I love to dissolve her identity into mine. I didn’t need to stamp my name on her person. She countered by saying how pretty she thought it would sound, to take my last name. Then, as we talked, this song came on and she said how this would be a beautiful first dance at a wedding. There was so much good between us, so much beauty and strength and support and so, so much fun…even if it never ended in a wedding or a first dance.
This song. This song. I love this song. This song is one of the rare cases where I prefer the cover to the original. In fact, I’ve always found something richly symbolic about love in this cover. This is an Elvis Presley song. But here, Ingrid Michaelson sings it in a way that honors the original while also making it all her own. And that, I think, really speaks to the journey of love. Each time we fall in love, it carries echoes of what we’ve experienced before. But each time we fall in love, each journey, each person, is its own beautiful, unique thing. There’s nothing like it. There can be nothing like it. Because it only exists between you and the person you’re sharing the love with. Just as cover songs take something familiar and make it new all over again, so too does that happen each time we fall in love.
Every romantic experience of my life – the women I’ve liked; those I’ve liked-liked; those I’ve lusted after; the flirtationships; the relationships; those who never really fit a clear category; and the very few women I can say I sincerely, deeply, and truly loved – are important. Each and every one helped teach me what love is (and certainly what it isn’t). And now, at thirty-seven, I can offer far more of myself in love to another than I ever could have at nineteen just as I can be a more careful and compassionate steward of what is offered to me in return. So no matter how awkward or heartbreaking any experience of searching for love is, they are all important because they’ve all helped get me to this point.
I will always carry these experiences with me, in funny stories I like to share about bad break-ups, but also in the way I’ve learned to live and love. I couldn’t be where I am today, loving the way I can, without these steps in my journey. As the Sufist mystic poet Rumi writes,
A thousand half-loves
must be forsaken to take
one whole heart home
And that, after all, is what it’s all about.
 Coleman Barks (trans.), Rumi the Book of Love: poems of ecstasy and longing, (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2003), 30.