A red glow washed over the amorphous designs on the table. Thin, bent tubes housing neon bordered the metallic siding. She sat in the hollow space carved out by the fish tank wall wrapping behind their customary booth. He hadn’t answered her question, the question she had asked him her to pose. She knew he knew how much his reply meant. She knew he knew how strong she had to be to even consider probing into his opinion on the matter. Judging by the song humming low from the half blown-out speaker belonging to the jukebox, a full minute had passed. Still nothing. She softly cleared her throat and uttered it once more.
“Should I stay?”
After a moment, his eyes shot up from the tan packet of raw sugar he had been crunching between his fingers. Their eyes – hers two changeling spheres varying from sea green to auburn hazel depending on the weather, his creamy brown as the coffee swirling against the walls of the glossy black mug – embraced. The gaze opened a portal. In it played a highlight reel of the last four years since they had established the oft-times quaking yet perpetually gratuitous friendship. These flashing moments filled the space across the table, their brilliance had sparked in the minds eye of their respective beholder. In this rendering of stopped time, moments built to what they had now solidified as – acquaintance to friend to lover to solace seeker to engrained in the sense of self to the point you nearly take the others’ unwavering companionship for granted. Both had needed someone and needed to be needed by someone and so their union became respected as the best unplanned-for coming together either of them had experienced in their lives. Here and now, at this late-night diner rendezvous, a scene that looked to the waitresses nothing unlike those they had seen the two engage in myriad evenings prior, both knew an inevitable breaking point lied in wait. Each had become master of suspending that moment when externalities might worm between them and cause a slow tear in the perforated seam wearing thin between them.
“This is a good song,” Derek mumbled, pointing to the speaker as a wry smile broke into wrinkles into his cheeks like a wave rippling onto dry sand. It was a trademark gesture she had come accustomed to. It was clear to by now that this was not a mere attempt to direct her ears to listen. Of course she knew the song. He had included the track on the first mix disc he’d burned for her.
“I know it is. It is one of the best, but I think it sounds better sandwiched between 18 other tracks that this really great guy picked out once. I hear he has an impeccable ear for grouping music that cuts right to the emotional chase.” She spoke with a sentimental conviction peppered with impatience.
“Oh yeah? I think I’d like this guy. I bet he listens to those compilations long after the people he’s made them for are out of his life. They’re his musical time capsules.” Derek reached for the last swig of coffee and downed it without compromising the pull of her gaze.
“That is sort of interesting. It seems a little sad, though, too. My theory had always been that he uses other people’s words to speak the feelings he can’t say himself.”
“Maybe that’s it.”
“No, Derek, you know what else I think it might be? I think that he thinks the people he gets close to are eventually just going to forget about him. So he builds these playlists chock full of the songs that will force their recipient to think of him whenever they happen to hear them again. You know, because he went through the time to burn them and no one really does that anymore and long after the CD itself had been tossed or got scratched or lost so one day that person is chatting at a party or flipping through a tabloid in line at the market and suddenly their ears perk up because from some distant speaker in the cereal aisle the opening bars of one of the songs on a mix Derek Jordan burned them 14 years ago has just started to play. By then it’s too late. They’re captive to the emotion triggered by the sound waves. They are forced back. They see his hand lift slowly, a finger pointed to some phantom speaker above, and he’s telling them how good a song this is. He’s telling them to listen. He’s pulling on their arm saying ‘pay attention,’ not just to the song, but to themselves and to the lingering memory of the guy who arranged the mix. The guy who sat across the booth from them and listened to them talk, the guy that stayed up with them to watch the sunrise after a night of drinking, the guy that called them 20 minutes into a blind date to see if they wanted to come over and play Scrabble because ‘the poor bastard wouldn’t know how to handle you even if he fooled you into getting that far.’ I think it’s a tether.” She stopped for a breath and a lukewarm sip of tea. “Again, just a theory. It’s like a throwback to some nostalgic moment from the late-20th century that our generation missed out on that he is somehow trying to preserve. Isn’t that the motivating operative at play here?”
“You are such a psych major.”
“No shit, Derek.”
“Are you accusing me of not being aware of these things? I mean, come on. Why do people write love letters to each other? Isn’t it close to the same thing? You feel something in the moment and you want the person you feel it about to know that. It’s a record. Sure. It is a time capsule.”
“But you get into their head. It’s more than just being romantic. It’s like you need them to become schoolgirl obsessed with you. And you know what the worst part is? You are always the one who leaves. You maintain all the control. I’ve known you long enough to see it happen a few times. Shit, you’ve told me about all the others. You and your self-preservation. You’re monkish ideals. That, my friend, is not how you find love. That is how you destroy it.”
“Do you have any idea how many mixes I have made?”
“Exactly what I’m getting at. I could approximate. I could also approximate as to how many of those mixes were thrown away along with the letters and the pictures and the little notes that dripped with sentiment as they waited under those pillows or the visor above a drivers seat.”
“Okay. You are hitting the nail. As per usual.”
“I’ll tell you what. It feels fantastic.”
“Well do me a favor right quick. Let me cut in for a sec?”
“You are worried, right?”
“Am I supposed to answer that? We’re all a little worried, aren’t we?”
“Please just let me talk.”
“Fine. Just don’t ask me questions with ambiguous answerability.”
Derek looked down and his coffee cup was full, though neither had noticed the waitress come over to the table. She had furnished in her service a certain brand of brazenness over the years. Her pot tilted for his cup whenever it was empty, no matter how fiery the conversation appeared. He picked it up and blew at the swirling vapor rising from the round surface of liquid.
“You’re heated, like more heated than I’ve seen you in a long time. I’m not as savvy with psychology as you are, but let me take a stab at why that is. You have this decision you have to make, and like the decisions you’ve made in the past, you need to include me on the whole process to give you some kind of sense of stability or sanity or whatever. Only this decision isn’t like the others. This decision would change a whole lot of things, one of which would be this.” He backhands the air that exists atop the table and between the two of them, a swath toward her, a swath back to him, and another to her. “That freaks you out. You need to see if it freaks me out, too. But, I mean, I am put in a unique position. I am sitting here trying to decide how much I reveal to you. There’s this arena in my head. In one corner is the heavyweight champion of wanting you to jump at opportunities like this. In the other is the contender, a lean and scrappy composite of jealously, doubt, and self pity. I won’t allow jealousy or selfishness control what I tell you I think you should do here, but I also won’t pretend like it isn’t going to hurt. You know me enough to know how I feel. We may or may not be some kind of steadfast presence in each others’ lives, like long-term, and if we are it might not be the way either of us pictures it happening.”
He took another sip and caught a mist over her eyes. “You’re telling me these things about me, though, and you’re acting as if I don’t already know. Like burning mixes that end up tethering me to the girls I’ve loved in the past. That does go both ways, you know. It’s compulsive at this point. In second grade I made a mix tape for this girl in my class and gave it to her on the playground after lunch. It was in a black case with one of those little index card looking things in it where you write the names of the song and artist and I named it like I named the discs that you drive around with in your car. My sister had this stereo that dubbed CDs onto cassettes and she helped me make it, but after I told her it was for a girl at school she cautioned me that I might be a bit young to be giving a girl a tape brimming with love songs. I didn’t heed her warning. So, does Francine DeMarco, who has I’m sure married into another name by now, hear one of the golden oldies I threw on that mix on a TV commercial while she’s picking up after her twin boys after they just went down for a nap and think, ‘Derek Jordan, I wonder what he’s up to now. Oh gee, what a different life I might have had had I made it clearer that I, too, had a crush on him.’ Doubtful. Maybe she does remember that song as one I included on something I curated just for her. The kicker, though? I have made a lot of mixes for a lot of girls. I have felt a lot for a lot of girls. What do you think happens when I hear those songs? You think I involuntarily travel back to them, urgently and immediately? You don’t think that depending on the track and who it registers in my mind that my eyes don’t swell or my grin widens or both happen at the same time? All of that happens and it happens all of the time.”
“I believe that, Derek. I believe it all. I believe that is exactly why you do it. You need some kind of documentation of the fact that you have loved and were loved. You need emotional cues where you can either trigger those dormant feelings yourself. Don’t think I haven’t noticed that you always make a copy of my mixes for yourself. You have the control. You can tap into the memory of whoever it is you made that particular mix for. Honestly, that’s a little bit twisted. Or, if the song just happens to come on the radio, there’s a split second where you think maybe somewhere she’s still thinking of you and you see picture her or maybe you see yourself with her or wonder just what might have been different had she still been a part of your life right then.” She was aware of her deflection. The topic of conversation was no longer about whether or not she should leave. It was about his tendencies in dealing with torn relationships, his lust for loneliness. It was about her being filed into some CD book that lived in the dark under his passenger seat.
“What would you have me do differently? Or do you think this is some crippling psychosis?”
“That’s just it. I’d have you no other way. I never really entertained the idea before meeting you, but I’m fairly certain by now that we continue loving those we have loved in the past, even if they go away. You never seem to have a bad break-up, at least not in the way that most relationships sour. You are always the one who leaves, which I still haven’t been able to wrap my head around. I just wonder why you do it to yourself? Why do you want to remember all of those relationships that might have been something good? It’s not self-preservation. It seems more like self-deprecation. I mean, eventually you need to move on and until you do you can’t expect to find someone who you’re going to want to stay with for life. Plus, if you’ve made so many of these mixes, doesn’t the novelty wear off?”
“Whoa, wait. No. It doesn’t.”
“Who doesn’t the novelty wear off for? Them or you?”
“You loved them, didn’t you? I loved making them for you.”
“I think you made them for you as much as you did for me. I know you’re convinced that nothing is permanent and you need that disc lying in wait for the moment that you miss me so much you have give it a listen and smile or tear up.”
“You know me.”
“See, I know you will do the same. Maybe others have thrown them away, but you won’t. And at least we have that. We never have to tell anyone else. Shit, we most likely won’t even tell each other. But yeah, I’ll listen when I need to, because you are the reason for the mix. You know the answer to the question about if you should stay or not. You should not. You should go. I’ll make you a mix about being the one who is left.”
She felt the advent of a laugh forming in her chest and before she could suppress the impulse, she let it fly across the table and into his ears. The accompanying smile loosened the shallow pool of tears held in her eyes. She wouldn’t let herself forget any of this. She would hold fast to that tether. After a short sniff, she kicked at his calf from underneath the table. “Deal.”