Some late evening some time ago, I received a text message from Mindy (whose excellent blogs can be found here and here) challenging me out of the blue to write a story about making a mix tape/cd for person one had never met. We have had a few discussions prior regarding the sometimes agonizing process of making mixes for people we already know all too well. The idea of making one for a person one would know very little about would be torturous. I thought this was a great idea, so her idea sat in the back of my thoughts for several days with no solid story line popping into my head. Then one day soon after, I received an email with her very raw and emotional story using this theme (please read it here!) and I knew I had to get my act together. Here are the so-so results:
Chuck was quiet and insular, so he didn’t make friends easily. The friends he had earned were close and lifelong, but he had been looking to branch out and get away from the environment he had grown up in. Going to college was a huge step, but he still relied on his parents and his old friends too much. He needed to find his own way. This way began here with this job and his first studio apartment. He liked the group of guys he found himself working with at this place so far, but he hadn’t reached a level of trust with any of them yet to feel comfortable about inquiring about the hot girl on the second floor.
What enticed him most about this woman he was lucky enough to see around two or three times a day, as he made his rounds through the offices to grab packages to be shipped out, was that she reminded him of the women who sang on some of his favorite indie records.
Chuck was a music enthusiast. At that time, “alternative” music was setting the world on fire, which was something he had often hoped for during his formative teenage years. He would wonder why his punk and post-punk bands didn’t get the exposure they deserved. To his ears, there wasn’t anything not to like about this music. Instead, in school, he had been labeled as the guy who listened to “fag” music, while most everyone else had love affairs with bands like Bon Jovi, Poison, and Def Leppard. Yet, now that music inspired by his genres of rock had climbed into the mainstream, all he could feel was mild disdain. This stuff wasn’t as good as his icons, nor was this music forward thinking. Instead his realm of music had flown further off the charts into the most minute scale, so much so, that he had to buy (and buy he did) nearly all of it via mail order directly from bands and small labels. His collection had become almost entirely stocked with limited edition, colored vinyl 45s that would arrive in his mailbox with handwritten notes from the artists themselves. Still, he would wonder to himself: why aren’t these bands getting more exposure?
Over the years, his efforts to extend exposure for this music he was so passionate about, generally involved making mix tapes for his friends. Almost always, they were thoughtless compilations of all the brand new stuff that had him watering at the mouth. A few times though, he had stressed over a mix that he hoped would open doors for him with some particular girl who he was attracted to. Those were painful exercises, as he would fret over what songs would convey his interest for the girl without going too far and becoming creepy. This always proved more difficult then it would seem on the surface, because in these instances, he would realize that his taste in music seemed to always coincide with lyrics of severe longing, loneliness and depression. Not exactly the “hey, here are some fun songs, I kinda like you” vibe he strove for, then again, small town, Bon Jovi, etc. Those girls probably didn’t listen to lyrics anyway, since they seemed to enjoy their music with a heaping dosage of spandex, teased hair and keyboard enhanced power riffs. In other words, these tapes were fruitless and would become a part of his long lonely drives through town late at night, as he hoped to run into someone else who might be out and about in the dead town with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Now Chuck was in the city – a place where there were good bands to see nearly every night and multitudes of people who shared his interests, and though he didn’t know the woman from accounting, he believed that she was a kindred spirit. In his short time at this company, she’d always shown up to work with a different hairstyle. Her hair was short and a little butch, but she was very feminine. One day she arrived at work in a black leather jacket, a short black dress and tattered fishnets. Another day, she wore an oversized white T-shirt with a big black question mark adorning the front. She always wore lots of brightly colored bracelets and skull earrings. She didn’t dress like anyone else there and she clearly didn’t care that she wasn’t following the ‘business casual’ dress code regulation he remembered reading in the employee handbook.
That particular morning, the first chilly one of the fall, he saw her arrive to work, while he was standing at the front truck dock stacking a bunch of boxes onto a pallet. She was wearing striking make-up around her eyes and what looked like a vintage bomber jacket with its fur lined hood framing her stunning features. It was at this moment that he’d decided to find a way to get to know her. He would try and say something to her as he passed by her cubicle, while pushing his orange squeaky cart through the office. If she wasn’t around, he’d keep making casual passes until she returned for as long as he could stall without being noticed by anyone else.
His heart raced as he approached her domain, which she shared with two other older women. He could tell that she was at her desk, because he had already become attuned to the magical scent that would linger whenever she passed nearby. His routine up to that point had always been to approach everyone’s cubicle, check each person’s outbox and transfer whatever was ready to his cart and move on wordlessly. The only evidence of his presence was the shrieking wheels of his cart that would howl obnoxiously in the hushed environs of the office. This time, he was announcing his arrival and talking to everyone, in order to build up some courage to talk to the hot accountant.
“Good morning,” Chuck declared to the three women, all sitting with their backs to each other, working silently on their PCs. “Do you have your packages ready?” he continued.
“No, Chuck, but you’ll be back by later for a final run, right?” asked this new woman of his dreams, as she leaned her chin against her upraised hand and smiled at him.
“Oh, sure, of course,” he agreed, not sure how to respond, “I was just checking. Thanks!” he shouted a little too loudly. She knew his name! “I’ll see you later!” he added with enthusiasm as he shoved his whining cart away with a huge grin on his face. It was then that he knew he had to make her a mix tape.
That evening Chuck eschewed trying to make himself a meal, in favor of focusing on creating the perfect mix tape for this new woman in his life. This was a big one; the tape he had been practicing for all along. He didn’t know much about this person, other than where she worked and a small sampling of her fashion sense. He hadn’t learned her name. He began to doubt his earlier resolve that doing this was a good idea. He played some scenarios through his mind about how his encounter might go the next day. He could ask her if she liked music. And she could respond sarcastically and make him feel small. He decided to scratch his pessimistic mindset and simply make the mix. He had already pulled about 100 selections of amazing songs for the 90 minute limit. The records and CDs were strewn all over his small studio apartment in small groups. The songs were matched to each other based on how they would sound together and on a macro scale were organized in a way to make the tape flow from light upbeat and catchy pop songs to more meaningful and powerful songs. He imagined her listening to the tape over and over again, always thinking of him.
He was up all night testing songs against each other and debating internally over which songs would make the cut in order to make the subtle message he was attempting to express. He was excited by how easily it all came together. Still he found himself tossing and turning for the few hours he had left before having to get ready for work in a state of worry about some of the lyrics. Plus those scenarios about how to give this tape to her out of the blue plagued his thoughts. Who makes mix tapes for people they don’t know? He kept thinking to himself. He could’ve simply asked her out, but this step had always proved too difficult for him. He had been down that road a few times and it always led to instant rejection. If only the music that he loved so much could do his talking for him. It would do so much more elegantly.
He was startled awake by his beeping alarm clock with a sound so terrible that he had always awoken before its repeated screeches in order to avoid its harsh reminder. He pounded the off switch with the back of his fist, took a deep breath with his face smashed into his pillow, and then pushed himself out of bed. He showered, put on some cologne that he had never touched, chose his lucky shirt – the only shirt that anyone had ever complimented – and snagged the new tape on his way to the bus stop. He flipped the tape case over and over in his hand nervously. He had titled it: “Forgotten Favorite” after the Velocity Girl song. He went through the list of songs he had so carefully written down on the J-card in alternating black and blue ink. He played bits of the songs through his mind as he examined the song titles. It sounded really solid to him, which built his always sagging confidence.
It was all he could do to wait till his first go round through the office at 10 am. He hadn’t seen her arrive that morning, so he feared that she would not be there and his resolve would fade. At the same time, he could feel a small part of him hoping that she would not be there, so he could take a breath. It was a Friday morning, and if she hadn’t been there, he’d have been stuck with this heavy anticipation and self-doubt the entire weekend. At least if he had made his odd move and if it all went down in flames, he’d have the satisfaction of having made the effort. It was little consolation in the face of another failure that he would no doubt stew on.
As his cart squawked his arrival through the office, he finally approached the big cubicle. He could hear her voice over the grinding wheels of his reject cart and his heart stopped beating. He felt light-headed, like he might pass out. He grabbed a couple of envelopes from the basket, peered slowly into the doorway of the cubicle and warbled an unsteady ‘good morning.’ It was at the moment that he realized that he hadn’t said a word to anyone since he’d left work the prior evening, so his throat was not ready for use.
“Hey! Good morning Chuck,” she responded with a bright smile. He loved how friendly and genuine she presented herself.
“Do you like music?” he asked with zero transition.
“Sure! Love it! Who doesn’t? Why do you ask?”
This would’ve been an opportune time for Chuck to invite her to a show, but his mind went blank as to what was coming up, despite having looked at the city’s culture weekly paper not ten minutes before in search of weekend shows to attend. Plus, this new strategy was way off script.
“I-I was listening to this old mix tape I made on the way to work this morning, and I thought that maybe you’d – maybe – want to check it out.” He held it out toward her and she reignited her smile, more likely from his rambling suggestion, as opposed to the gift he was offering.
She took the case and examined it for a moment, turned it over and looked at the song listing and told him that she really liked his handwriting.
This was not what Chuck had been hoping to hear, but it wasn’t as bad as what he thought would happen. He nodded a thank you as she offered the tape back to him.
“Thank you, that’s really sweet of you, but I don’t have a cassette player,” she apologized, as their hands met for a second during the exchange. A shock went through his body.
“Oh, okay. That’s cool,” he barely managed, before abruptly turning his cart away from her desk towards his next destination. He wasn’t sure what had just happened, and there didn’t seem to be any songs in his collection that would help him at that point.