Before I had the self-awareness to even know that I was doing it, I was using music to connect with people in absence of understanding how to do so otherwise. One such glaring example has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s because the U.S. political landscape has made it difficult for me to set aside my differences with Republicans, even those I love. And there is a mixtape that I prepared and gave to someone many moons ago, when like now, I was afraid that any real engagement would set back our relationship.
In the seventh grade, I gravitated to the girl in my class whose hair was the highest and make-up the brightest. She knew who The Cure was because of her older sister. I soon learned that her older siblings were all in their twenties. She was a surprise to parents who were pretty much done with being parents. My parents, on the other hand, were still deeply engaged in the work of keeping me safe. For example, they had a rule that I must dismount from my bicycle whenever a car passed me on the 15 mile-per-hour road on which we lived. Unlike at my house, at Liz’s house, we smoked in her bedroom and experimented with alcohol and boys when her parents were away. She and I were perfect foils. Quiet and loud. Cautious and bold. I brought her security; she brought me spontaneity.
Throughout middle school, we enjoyed new wave, collecting band t-shirts, and playing with black eyeliner and hairspray. We listened to The Cure’s Disintegration in her bedroom while painting our nails black and plotting our next excursion, usually cutting through the neighbors’ yards in her parents’ development to get to the local bar where the cigarette machine was unmonitored by the door. We would be friends forever. I was sure of it.
But something happened. I can’t exactly remember what. Maybe I repressed it. We had traded boyfriends—that may have been the death knell. What I do remember is that as I became more enamored in high school with the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and The Misfits, Liz began wearing tie-dye shirts and moccasins. She had defected to the school’s hippie contingent. Her identity changed. Her friends changed. Our spheres diverged, and our close friendship collapsed.
Meanwhile, throughout high school, I was trading mixtapes with pen pals from across the country. They opened my mind. One pen pal made me a tape that bridged Velvet Underground and Iggy Pop with Pink Floyd and Jefferson Airplane. My little high school cultural walls began crumbling.
After a year or so apart, Liz and I began exchanging friendly hellos in high school hallways. She told me about her long-term boyfriend. We were becoming reacquainted. One day, Liz and the boyfriend picked me up so we could spend some time together. Would we rekindle our friendship? We went to the boyfriend’s house. I watched in bewilderment while they took bong hit after bong hit. I sat awkwardly smiling, unaccustomed to drug use. I waited for conversation to commence between lighter flicks and the gurgling of bong water. It was a cordial visit, but one that was never repeated.
That year for her birthday, I did a strange thing. I wanted to tell her that I loved her and that I appreciated her for who she was and what she liked—that I didn’t expect her to always like what I liked. I wanted her to know that she would always be special to me, even after we grew apart. And I did not know how. I took that tape that my pen pal had sent me—the one with Pink Floyd—I dubbed a copy of it and gave it to her. The beautiful artwork on the tape given to me by the pen pal was replaced with a boring TDK insert for the copy for Liz. I wrote “Happy Birthday” on it. I explained to her that it was a copy of a mixtape that I had been enjoying. Any pride I may have normally had about selecting songs and assembling a mixtape experience for someone was eclipsed by this need to share, to try to connect, and to not think too hard about it–to try something imperfect.
Liz told me that her boyfriend and she listened to the tape in his car before school and liked it. I was thrilled.
We never spent much time together again. As adults, though, we did reconnect. Now we get in touch on each other’s birthdays, on Mother’s Day, and at Christmastime. She moved with husband and children to a farm in the South-Central U.S. while I moved outside of the nation’s capital. Our conversations sometimes remind me of the city mouse/country mouse fable. I suspect we may have divergent politics to match. Last year, I delicately dropped a conversation about wearing masks during the pandemic when it seemed we were sailing into threatening waters.
One summer, my tiny backyard garden produced a freakishly gigantic zucchini. Liz sent me lots of suggestions for using it, including some zucchini bread recipes. She often jokes about how I should come visit the farm and how she will put me to work there. Recipes are our mixtapes now.
The gulf between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. feels insurmountable sometimes. Something like the same raw anger of adolescence possesses me when I hear people echo talking points from Fox News. It shuts me down. It feels incomprehensible. I don’t even want to understand. I rationalize that not talking or engaging with the loved ones with whom I disagree is best. But I know it’s rash, and it’s unfair. It’s unfair to them and to me.
Somewhere, deep down, I need to find the resolve to just connect, somehow, imperfectly.
Sarah runs this website for fun. She loves music and literature. She works statistics for a living. She saved all her mixtapes. She snapped the photo below upon completion of this blog post for posterity. And she changed the name of her 7th grade best friend.