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Music Our Exes Gave Us


Way before we had apartments, we had cars. As teenagers, cars forged a loophole against strict parents and coffee shops, bookstores, diners, and supermarkets across the city that felt we were too loud, too green, too unhinged, too much of anything but not enough of an adult to warrant loitering and taking up space. In defiance we turned to our cars, piling our juvenile bodies along the interior of backseats, knees knocking against cupholders, laughter and loud music fogging up the windows. When I look back on high school, there are few other experiences or rituals that left such a mark on me as being in the backseat, or passenger seat of someone else’s car. Having a mobile hideaway provided freedom from a world of rolled eyes and pleads for us to behave. Additionally, towards the end of high school, it opened the door for young love to climb in, and take the aux cord.

Through the duration of my first real relationship, many days and past-curfew nights were spent listening to music in my ex boyfriend’s white, hand-me-down Jeep Cherokee. While I rarely had the opportunity to control the music (a power struggle that permeated our entire relationship), I still valued the songs he had me listen to, and felt tender towards them as they became a part of us. I can’t hear “Daydreamin” by Lupe Fiasco and Jill Scott without thinking about being parked in front of our old middle school basketball court, with my sweaty palms and the rush of potential love, watching the snow and ambitious joggers move around us. I can’t hear “Another Day” by Living Legends and fail to nod my head the way I did when we drove past city limits and down desolate backroads to a friend’s house party and I was certain every line was about us. Even as the relationship turned sour, I still found myself clinging to Wax, one of his favorite artists, to commemorate the fact that the last summer we spent blaring him through his car speakers would be our last. I found that as the relationship ended, I had a harder time letting go of the music than I did him.

Months, and eventually years after breaking up with him, continuing to listen to and identify with the music that he showed me was like getting the bone of something caught in my throat; it did not belong with me and still I tried to swallow it. Every listen felt forbidden, and I would even go as far as having phases of identity crisis. It was all too easy to slip into the trope of manic pixie dream girl and therefore have a self that only extends as far as a partner’s music taste. I am sure it was only natural, that I was climbing the rungs of my individuality after spending years with someone. But I couldn’t help from keeping a hypercritical mind about why the music punctuated my shadow. It was becoming exhausting to ponder, and in the peak of my exhaustion I began to attempt to make peace with the fact that relationships and all they trail behind (including music) teach us a lot about ourselves even after the person and the Jeep are long gone from our lives.

The inspiration to breathe new life into this dilemma came from a playlist I stumbled across, titled “songs you gave me”. The playlist was created by Olivia Gatwood, one of my favorite poets and people to stalk on Spotify. I do not know the original intent behind the playlist, or if it was even directed towards an ex. However, the title made me see my bitter attachment to my ex’ s music taste in a more nuanced way. In a relationship where so much else was violently flawed, the music that was shared within the confines of our world on four wheels was handed to me like little gifts. Over the years I’ve taken custody over certain songs, raising them as my own and finding the balance between giving them a new meaning and tapping into old memories. They often served more of a purpose in moving forward with my life than a rebound or a new fling could ever offer.

While there were a few handfuls of people in my life after my first ex, I assume that part of why he left the biggest stamp was the music. I was never sure if I really loved him, and I’m still not, but when I dive back into the songs from our time together, I want to believe I did, even if it’s only for three minutes and thirty seconds. I also want to be vengeful, to claim these songs as mine among the rubble from the disastrous end of our relationship. I’ve found that there is room for both. Even with the same song, there are days where I ruminate on the girl in the Jeep, and others where it feels as though it’s taken on a new context for me to explore. Whatever the thought process, understanding that these songs were gifts instead of being forbidden aided me in honoring their place in my life. Further, it stirred the need to make my own playlist of the songs he gave me; to unearth the Jeep and take it for a drive.