On ex-boyfriends, and making art

He was the first guy (but not the last, thankfully) that I didn’t find completely boring. This isn’t his real name, but for the purposes of this story, let’s call him Vlad. I fell for him hard and fast after we started chatting online. He had a green card and a guitar, which was really all he needed for me to give serious consideration to throwing out every single plan I’d made for my future after high school. It was summer, and we were both 19. I’d just graduated, and he had just emigrated.

He absolutely would have labeled himself a musician back then, but I didn’t yet call myself a writer. I was mostly just writing down every single thing that happened to me in a notebook, and reading a lot, which isn’t the same as being a writer. Not really, anyway.

Our relationship was geographically challenged, with him in Ohio and me in New York. We spent a lot of time on the phone together, late at night when the rest of our households were asleep. He came to visit a couple of times, driving 7 hours in his Buick— a very American car for a very foreign guy. Our relationship came to an abrupt end after a couple of months; he dumped me via e-mail while I was visiting my sister in Hawaii.

We both started college that fall. Vlad, multi-talented as he was, had a scholarship to play soccer. I got on a plane and moved to Texas, where I planned to study journalism. It seemed like a safe way of continuing my love affair with words without having to face the truth that gnawed at me: that I wanted to tell my stories, not report on someone else’s. We kept in touch until we didn’t. College being what it is, I found other guys and he found other girls. Eventually I stopped looking for his return address in my mailbox or his screen name on AIM, stopped dialing his number when I felt lonely at 2 am.

This should be where the story ends, but the world is never as big as you think it is.

Eleven years later, we were both living in Austin, both so far from where we had started. He was new in town and invited me to his housewarming party. I hadn’t thought about him in a very long time; he’d broken my heart, sure, but it wasn’t even close to the worst heartbreak I’d felt in the years since. Now, though, I googled him, piecing together his life since I’d last had a clue what he was up to.

Digital breadcrumbs led to hours and hours of YouTube videos, dozens of MP3s posted to Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Vlad is the common denominator, but other than that, the style of his music varies wildly over the years. There’s a lot of straight up rock. Some pop. Some electronica. There’s a few tracks in Hebrew, and another where he used auto-tune (I don’t mind saying that I don’t hate it; it’s pretty catchy, actually).

Back when I was convinced Vlad and I were going to be together forever, I fell asleep every night listening to songs he’d recorded with his band before he left Tel Aviv. What I heard now, over a decade later, was different. His voice was smoother, his lyrics more sophisticated. A river rock shined with a high polish into a gemstone. It is the transformation that can only come from a dedication to craft, from showing up again and again, whether or not it is easy, enjoyable or going the way you want it to.

I get the impression that he used to play a lot of gigs, and on YouTube you’ll find two or three versions of the same song. The lyrics and chords are the same, of course, but each rendition has a slightly different energy, depending on the venue, depending on if he’s solo or with a band, depending on how many drinks he’s had. Watching things back to back, it easy to pick up on small details, like the way he wipes sweat off of his forehead with the back of his hand. It’s easier, too, to judge each song against the rest of his oeuvre. Some of his songs beg to be played on repeat and others are just passable. The thing that was impressive to me, though, wasn’t so much the overall merit of each song but simply the volume of what he’d created and put out into the universe.

My favorite discovery from my deep dive down Google is a song from a set he performed at a bowling alley. His band that night was upright bass and a violin, and combined with the richness of his guitar and the swoop of his voice, I felt a jolt of electricity down my spine the first time I listened to it. There is purity in the crescendo of a song, much like there is in a perfectly wrought sentence.

I’m trying to remember why teenage me fell so hard for Vlad, other than his hotness level, which I perceived to be off the charts. Part of it, I was think, was his tendency to revel in the mundane, to think deeply. Vlad could turn seeing a dead squirrel on a morning run into a rumination on if he was dead inside or merely assimilating to American culture. It was a proclivity I shared, a talent that mostly just made me feel bizarre compared to my friends. More than once, they laughed when I recalled some tiny detail, or made a connection that hadn’t occurred to them. I didn’t yet realize how essential that is to writing well, that it should be something I was proud of. Instead, I learned to simply keep my observations to myself. But with Vlad, though, I was in good company, and it was easy to be enamored by him.

Post-college, while Vlad was organizing low-budget tours with his band, I was busy writing in notebooks that I never showed to anyone, and finding new writing-adjacent career paths to pursue (library science, book indexing, content marketing). How was it that Vlad could put all of this music out into the universe while I was still listening to my inner critic insisting that I wasn’t smart and/or talented enough to really be a writer, the kind with a completed manuscript, an agent, and some legitimate bylines?

It’s been years, again, since I’ve talked to Vlad, but I’ve been thinking about him lately. It’s partially an effort to get back inside my own head at that time of my life so I can write about it convincingly, to remember the desperate longing and confusion of being 19. But I’ve also been thinking, too, about what I can learn from his music, how I can apply that to telling a story that tugs at my soul every morning I wake up. While I have no insight into Vlad’s process for creating art, I imagine it begins like this: a word that keeps showing up; a feeling, of being lonely, of being foreign, of being confused, that you can’t shake; a thought that keeps turning over and over like a stone; a melody you can’t escape. When it’s time to put pen to paper, don’t box yourself in; write for strings and auto-tune, too. Write in a different tongue, for that matter. Tell the same story, again and again; at some point you’ll get it right. When you’re in the middle of it, wipe the sweat out of your eyes and keep going. But mostly, don’t stop working at it.

A couple of months ago I started writing a memoir. It came out of nowhere and announced itself on the page, like nothing I have ever written before. One Saturday I was able to get away for a half-day writing retreat. I went south of the river, which I so rarely do, and found a cabin tucked into the woods. Rain fell on the tin roof, a fitting calamity for the outpouring of what can only be described as a shitty first draft. The retreat host noted that I seemed really focused when I set my intention for the day during introductions. It is, I think, the most clear and focused I’ve been in my entire life. It was the first time I held the gaze of someone I didn’t know, told the truth about myself, and didn’t feel like a fraud.

That morning I plugged in my headphones, put my fingers on the keys, and prayed for a lightning strike.

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