At 3 a.m. on the morning before Independence Day, I drove six hours from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles on a mission to seduce my closest male friend. Nathan and I had been buddies in high school but drifted apart afterwards; it was only recently that we’d rekindled our connection. We’d spent the past year logging long hours in online conversations laced with a potent combo of flirty chemistry and neediness. Our chats were late-night confessionals on crushes, love, and sex; I was his virtual wing-girl. We were building a strong friendship too, but I knew I was falling for him when I wanted to stay up past midnight basking in the twin glows of my laptop screen and my newly minted role as Nathan’s confidante, instead of crawling into bed with my boyfriend of six years, who I lived with.
Rather than facing the truth that my boyfriend Jamie and I needed to break up, that I had in fact wanted to date other guys for years, and that even though I loved him, I couldn’t stay with my first partner for the rest of my life, I tried to prolong the inevitable. “Let’s try an open relationship,” I suggested, though I knew it would be a flimsy stopgap instead of the brave experiment that only rock-solid couples should try. So after being given the green light to pounce on Nathan (and reciprocating permission for Jamie’s hypothetical illicit crushes), I drove through the foggy artichoke fields and orange groves of Highway 101 to Los Angeles, playing Neko Case’s “I’m An Animal” and Jolie Holland’s “Springtime Can Kill You” to psyche myself up for kissing my first new person since college. I was twenty-six years old.
“If you don’t go get what you need, something’s gonna break on the inside,” Jolie sang.
Nathan and I ended up in what can only be described as a long-distance romantic fling, officially casual and nonexclusive, even as we praised each other on ever-lengthier phone calls, and even as I fell harder every week. It lasted through the six months in which Jamie and I gave our relationship one last ditch effort – trying to reconnect through date nights of frozen yogurt and record shopping. I tried to fall in love with this good man again, but my thoughts wandered often to Nathan, counting the days until our next weekend together. Our undefined romance outlasted by a few months the inevitable unraveling of my relationship, until it met its own inevitable end when Nathan met a woman he wanted to date for real.
She was a hip dreamgirl he had raved about during our crush gossip sessions a year earlier. When the sparks flew between them at a party one night, eight months into our fling, he texted me with nothing but a series of exclamation points, followed by additional gleeful texts the next morning. I played the supportive best friend, assured him how happy I was for him, then threw myself on the couch and left panicked, sobbing voicemails to three of my girlfriends. I was catsitting for a professor in an old Berkeley Victorian. It was the spring equinox.
“I don’t want to share him!” I wailed and hiccuped over the phone to a sweet-voiced friend in Seattle.
“You don’t want to scare him?”
Over the next few days, Nathan appeared to be blazing with the same euphoria I’d felt when he first kissed me the previous July. The things he said made me wonder if all this time I had been tolerated instead of desired. I likely deserved it, after the way I broke Jamie’s heart. Even then, I understood why Nathan thought it was okay to share so much detail with me. I wasn’t his girlfriend. We were this strange friend-lover hybrid, a two-way conduit of sharing in which we each knew the deepest recesses of the other’s romantic history. I had, after all, called him in tears when Jamie told me he was moving out. And I had asked for this. In an effort to be someone the authors of The Ethical Slut would be proud of, I had encouraged him to pursue Ms. Dreamgirl. I had even given him pointers on how to make the first move, thinking we could still continue with the amorphous polyamorous status quo, not realizing that we couldn’t. Of course we couldn’t.
This had been our agreement all along. We knew that eventually one of us would find someone to date without the complications of long-distance or a thirteen-year friendship. I had just hoped it would happen to me first. Or maybe I had hoped we’d say, “Fuck that,” and choose each other. I was subleasing a fantasy that I wanted to pretend I could live in long-term. I didn’t want to listen attentively like a rom-com sidekick as Nathan careened down the checklist of his new lover’s perfections. Every rapturous word about her stung. I wanted his adoration ceaselessly delivered to me and me alone. I was stupidly, moronically, in love with him.
For a moment, I wanted my old life, before the breakup, before the open relationship, just to have someone tell me he wanted me. For a moment I thought that would ameliorate my bewilderment. In the space of three months, I had lost not only my romance with Nathan, but my first boyfriend and our shared possessions – the car, the carrot peeler, the book collections we had consolidated upon moving in together. I could not afford to live in our two-bedroom house alone for much longer. I now had to ask myself if there was any point in staying in Santa Cruz, and if not, where would I move? I had considered L.A., but the city lost some of its charm with no lover waiting for me there. Every possible decision carried with it the weight of disappointing someone. Worry was my religion.
I had thought Nathan’s affection would rescue me; without it I felt unmoored. This, despite growing up with independent women role models, including a backpacking, marathon-running military mom. For ten years I had written ‘zines that lacerated sexist ads, had worn buttons proclaiming, “WELL BEHAVED WOMEN RARELY MAKE HISTORY.” I spent my dateless teenagerhood nailing my flag to the mast of gutsy individuality. I could rail against the patriarchy with the best of them. Yet somehow, at 27, I found myself blindsided and held hostage by the belief that a man, this man, had made me worthy. And the loss of his regard could yank that worthiness away. That even with my full-time job (with health benefits!), my publishing credentials, my coveted baking skills, my handwritten letter from Barbara Kingsolver telling me how much she loved my writing, I had failed at something. I had failed. Because I didn’t have long legs.
Even vague breakups call for music therapy. My tastes had broadened over the years, in part thanks to Nathan. He introduced me to his indie mood music: She & Him, Mazzy Star, My Morning Jacket, Scott Walker, The Tindersticks. He sent me short and sweet mix CDs with melancholy, introspective songs of longing. “All the best songs are sad songs,” he would say, then tell me I had sad eyes and kiss my eyelids. I had a reservoir of twee music at my disposal, but I couldn’t listen to a single song that reminded me of him. There was only one album I wanted to hear, over and over: The Original Broadway Cast Recording of Aida.
Based on Verdi’s opera, Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida is the story of the Princess of Nubia, captured and enslaved by Egypt, her country plundered, her people subjugated to the Egyptian throne. Princess Aida, now a slave, falls in love with Radames, the captain of the Egyptian army that destroyed her nation (This story was obviously written by a white man). But theirs is an impossible love, because Radames is engaged to Amneris, future Pharaoh of Egypt. Then Aida’s people implore her to lead a slave revolt, and she must decide between her people’s liberation and the love of her life. It’s an opera, so things don’t end well.
Such lusciously costumed devastation was exactly what I gravitated towards. Sometimes you need unapologetic cheesiness. Sometimes you need a big gay gorgeous Disney showstopper that makes you want to treat your hairbrush like a microphone and howl out the calamities of your star-crossed existence. Sometimes you need a fucking Broadway musical.
I also needed something Nathan hadn’t touched. I had spent the previous year trying on the costume of the kind of woman I thought he wanted, and by extension, that other hip well-read men would want. I amplified the parts of myself that were subtle and enigmatic and tried to mute my explosive, spastic tendencies. My sense of style shifted from 90s-flower-child-meets-campus-radical to an approximation of what I imagined cute girls in Portland would wear. I prioritized the music he introduced me to. It’s hard to know how much of this could be chalked up to healthy personal evolution and how much was about aiming to please. But now I wanted my comfort-music back, melodrama be damned.
I wanted the grandiose modulations that preceded my experimental affair with Nathan, that even preceded my relationship with Jamie. Aida debuted on Broadway exactly ten years before that day in Berkeley when I hurled my sniffly, rejected body onto the couch. As teenagers, my sister and I were obsessed with the musical. We once spent an entire summer memorizing it on drives to the Jersey shore. Aida spares nothing. It is not interested in subtlety. It is cymbal crashes, timpani drumrolls, harmonious Afrobeat choruses, and powerhouse altos. Pitchfork would never, never review it.
There was no way it could remind me of him. It was rock opera: me, me, me, me, me.
Besides, my feminism needed a reboot. At a time when I was most vulnerable to assumptions about what qualifies a woman as Beautiful and Great, Aida gave me firebrand female characters struggling through their passions and learning to be leaders. And it wins at The Bechdel Test.
I wore out and scratched to bits my sister’s burned CD on the daily hour commute to my Silicon Valley secretary job. As I navigated the winding mountain passes of Santa Cruz, I’d grip the steering wheel and belt out the musical’s boldest lyrics:
“Sometimes in my darkest thoughts,
I wish I’d never learned
what it is to be in love
and have that love returned.”
Or I’d nod knowingly as Radames darkly warned, “You can never know the chaos of a life turned on its head.”
Of course, my life was hardly turned on its head. I was sad that a guy I wanted was dating someone else. It was the most pedestrian of sorrows. Meanwhile, said guy was still calling me at least once a week to hear my thoughts on recent movies, to share his work-stories and ask for life advice; was still extending the most genuine assurances of how important I was to him. Meanwhile, it was spring. I was spending my evenings with warm, intellectual friends for home cooked pasta-and-asparagus dinners. I became a regular at pub trivia nights among a pack of welcoming grad students. The thrilling discomfort of discovering singlehood was nothing compared to the catastrophes the Aida characters faced, let alone their real-life downtrodden counterparts.
But heartbreak seduces us into hyperbole. So, un-elaborate as my life was, I sang, “We all lead such elaborate lives,” through tears. I was Aida, pining for someone unattainable. I was Radames, confounded by unmet expectations. Hell, I was even the nation of Nubia itself, “left with little more than pr-i-i-i-ide, whoa-whoa-ohhhhhhh!”
Mostly, I was Amneris. My favorite song was “I Know The Truth,” Amneris’s hinge moment, sung when she discovers Radames has been carrying on a secret affair with Aida, rendering their approaching nuptials a sham. In this soliloquy, she questions her poor judgment, her self-deception, and wonders aloud what she is to do now that her vision for her future has been shattered. It’s quite the delicious number for a woman scorned.
“This should have been my time. It’s over, it never began,” I howled, letting my voice fly on the word “time” like a diva. I played the track on repeat as I drove home one night after an OkCupid date with a vegan philosophy major who’d kissed me like a scared teenager and made me long for Nathan’s more familiar intimacies. As the crescendo builds, Amneris declares, “I know the truth and it mocks me. I know the truth and it shocks me.” Mocked and shocked I was, by my own feelings. Though the heartbreak pangs gradually dissipated and Nathan and I settled back into close friendship after much time, that song remains meaningful to me, because the truth will always do both of those things to you.
Once, when I was trying to decide whether to break up with the boyfriend of six years who I still loved dearly, when I was terrified of leaving the life I had planned for myself but equally terrified of locking myself into it, a close girlfriend told me gently that I had no good options. It was true. Considering either choice made my heart feel like it was being squeezed in a citrus press. I knew then, as I knew later while slogging through my pain over Nathan and listening to Aida every day, that I simply had to breathe in the place of no good options. I would let the jagged beauty of that choiceless country shine through me. Soon enough I would bite the bullet, weigh the risks and consequences of each path, and just do something. But for now, I wanted a moment to sing through the liminal space. To survey the botched work I had made of my twenties and to wonder, like Aida, “Did I take a step too far?”
Aida was my soundtrack for the realization that no matter what you choose, time keeps unspooling outward, and what else are you going to do but lift up your arms, throw back your shoulders, and belt it out, baby?