Mix TapeBy Wendy C. Ortiz
May 01, 2013
“Losing My Religion,” by REM
There were the religion classes I was forced to attend in my Catholic high school.
Operation Desert Storm was a month old. I was a senior and attending protests against the war. I had lost my religion, literally, several years before. I used to read the Bible, to silently call to God for wishes, for rescue, until just before I met the junior high teacher who would become my lover.
At seventeen, when the song came out, my teacher was less in my life than before. He had already told me, after mountains of Sunday brunch buffet food and a load of mimosas and mini-champagne bottles, that he loved me, had always been in love with me, as we sat at that hilltop restaurant in Burbank that later burned down.
In one of our conversations, growing fewer as I neared the legal age of eighteen, he told me that “Losing My Religion” was one of his favorite songs. Because, he said, he could relate. He remembered his early Catholicism, which seemed like a costume he’d worn as a child, discarding it when he hit college.
He was one of the most reckless, drug-addled, sexually perverse adults I knew.
I ran with this image, this idea of ‘losing one’s religion.’ Did Geoff understand that it was a Southern expression, a way of describing righteous anger, the act of losing one’s temper? I certainly didn’t.
The song, which still plays on the radio in my car at least once a week on various stations, has a tendency to make me think of the first time Geoff and I had sex, if you could call it that, on my mother’s living room couch.
After he left that day, he called me from a pay phone, anxious, breathing hard, dare I say hysterical. I just broke the cardinal rule of teaching, he cried.
I was fourteen and couldn’t give a flying fuck. I wanted our affair to continue so I tried to talk him down. I never forgot those words because the word cardinal was something I associated with Catholicism. I’d already stopped reading the bible, stopped praying to God, shifted from the heavy rotation of Depeche Mode and skipped backward to the music of Geoff’s youth in some effort to connect. In fact, I behaved as though this man was my religion. Weed and Ecstasy and LSD were the eucharists of this new faith.
Oh no I’ve said too much
Years later, on that hillside overlooking the Valley I’d grown up in, at the restaurant that would burn down after I moved a thousand miles away.
At that moment, I, seventeen; he, thirty-two; whatever religions we’d clung to, shapeshifting into something we couldn’t quite recognize anymore.
I haven’t said enough
“Life During Wartime,” by Talking Heads
“Take Me to the River,” by Al Green, performed by Talking Heads
Heard of a van that’s loaded with weapons
Packed up and ready to go
On one of the bong-smoke-filled afternoons at that house in Van Nuys, Geoff explained to me the lyrics of the song “Life During Wartime.” It was music he’d listened to when he was in college.
Listen, he said. This is a song about the IRA. The Irish Republican Army. Young people who are used to war and have given their lives over to what’s important rather than some bullshit fun and games.
I pretended like I knew what he was talking about. Irish, huh? I knew Geoff was Irish, but what army and what war was he speaking of? I didn’t ask.
I liked Talking Heads, but knew more of their 1980s songs than their 1970s songs. I had written a short story in seventh grade based on the song “Road to Nowhere,” when I still wrote stories that wound their way through looping mystery and horror territory, ending in destruction.
Rather than ask questions, I luxuriated instead in the silk fog wrapped around my head, the remains of his semen dripping down my thigh that I hadn’t wiped off, his voice, his direct conversation with me, his attention. Sixteen. I thought I was in love with the man explaining lyrics to me.
The song is not actually about the IRA. It’s about New York.
Geoff told me once, later, while he was living in an apartment alone—a rarity—that he met a homeless guy and started talking to him and eventually invited him to come and sleep at his place because, Fuck! It’s the least I could do! And it’s nothing, really!
In a way this was shocking to me, and also unsurprising. Geoff was one of the first adults in my life to point to social injustice.
At the tender age of thirteen, when we met, I was particularly sensitive to injustice. I felt it when I entered the mall in my all-black outfit with heavily eyelinered eyes and bangs hair-sprayed straight up. I felt it when my parents kept me at home with the fumes of their alcohol-soaked weekends threatening to suffocate me. I felt a low-grade chronic thrum of injustice whenever I was with Geoff. When he refused to kiss me. When he called the shots in almost every facet of our relationship.
Later, when I got to college, I began my love affair with Talking Heads in earnest. I listened to “Life During Wartime” and kept wondering why CBGB was in the song. That was a club in New York, right? So why was it in this song?
In those years, my early twenties, I believed my calling was to confront every social injustice I could see or uncover.
A member of Sinn Féin, the left-wing Irish political party, came to my little college hidden in the forest of the Pacific Northwest, and I went to hear the speaker, partly because I was a political economy student and felt the pressure to go, partly because my secret crush Seanna was going, and partly because in some weird way, it might make me feel closer to the man I had already left behind, but who would haunt me for years, in the ways one is haunted by Someone Who Fucked You Up.
I don’t know why I love you like I do
All the changes you put me through
Years earlier, I’d written these words, in block capital letters, on sheets of paper that I snuck to Mr. Jarvis, before I deigned to call him Geoff (that mysteriously spelled, one-syllable, bite of a name). It was my way of telling him: You’re fucking me up. I love how you’re fucking me up. But you’re fucking me up.
I’ll never know what happened to the various missives I had the courage to write him over the years, the letters always heavy with various lyrics. I imagine the smoke curling up into thin black wisps, his lighter flicking on and off, the papers folding into themselves, disintegrating into ash.
“Take A Chance on Me,” by ABBA
“Does Your Mother Know,” by ABBA
Because lyrics told the stories I couldn’t yet tell. Because lyrics could be code, could be short-hand to telling someone how deep I wanted to go with them. And because I was slightly aware that ABBA might not be cool at all, because it was music I listened to with my parents when I was a little girl, I wrote out the lyrics and cited it ARTIST UNKNOWN in purple ink.
If you change your mind I’m the first in line
With all of my thirteen-year-old heart, I wanted my teacher to know that I could be whatever he wanted me to be, and he didn’t have to wait until I was eighteen for my sake. When he broke up with his girlfriend over and over, a broken record of misery that made him drunk and compelled him to keep his phone off the hook, a symbol of his disconnect to everything, I wanted him to know I was still willing, and that although I’d never had a boyfriend, I could be the girlfriend he’d always dreamed of.
Whatever that was.
He brought a photo of his girlfriend to school once. We’d already been talking on the phone for a few weeks. He’d already told me he wanted to go down on me. He’d already asked me to come to school with a short skirt and no leggings, which I never did.
The photo was of a buxom, dark curly-haired woman in a bikini with supple, olive skin.
I wore glasses, had short hair, covered up as much skin as I could, wore gothy make-up and boots and a constant blank look on my face that I worked hard to maintain.
She was clearly a woman. Fawzia. A woman with a mysterious sexy name, someone who had him. Had him salivating and gushing and red and showing off her photo to his eighth grade English students.
She was my competition. Okay.
I listened, biting my lip, as he told me about her breaking up with him. Of her cross-country, job-related move. Of their daily phone calls, and how he could tell her what kind of underwear she was wearing from 3,000 miles away, because he knew her that well.
I got drunk on wine coolers in my bedroom on the nights I knew they were out on a date.
I secretly celebrated whenever they broke up, with wine coolers in my bedroom.
I would meet her a few years later. It was one of those Saturdays I happened by his house.
Who knows when I’d fucked him last but we’d been fucking off and on for some time. I was stopping by before I went to my boyfriend’s band practice where I’d have to sit around for hours getting drunk on Boone’s Farm before I might leave and have sloppy sex with my drunk-off-his-ass boyfriend.
Geoff’s garage door was open. I parked, not having seen her yet. I’d thought for a moment that I was sure to get a joint and a let me show you around my garage and maybe get a nooner kind of visit.
Fawzia popped out from behind something and I kept the composure everyone was starting to know me for. Neck regal. Feet in rainbow Converse tennis shoes firmly planted (I was a hippie now), standing across from an A-line skirt, arm-baring sweater, short heels.
She was kind, she was courteous, and she said, Geoff has told me so much about you. I thought of when he told me how she’d asked who I was after seeing a photo of me on his mantle. One of the smartest students I have, he’d said, who’s gonna go on to be brilliant at whatever she does.
I did the intelligent thing and accepted the social niceties and made up a reason why I had just dropped by and then I got out of there. Huffing as I unwrapped a fresh pack of cigarettes and pretended I wasn’t crying and fuming all at once, trudging away from a scene I couldn’t really explain to anyone at the time.
Oh you can take your time baby, I’m in no hurry, know I’m gonna get you
Fawzia left him for good not long after. She was always leaving him.
I was always arriving—on foot, by bus, stepping out of the cars of strangers.
Ah, but girl you’re only a child
“Bring on the Dancing Horses,” by Echo and the Bunnymen
We met when I wore a uniform of black clothing and heavy make-up that I applied after my father dropped me off at school or the public bus stop. We met when I was reconsidering bible study. We met when I was writing letters to a guy in prison who I’d found in the back of the LA Weekly advertising for pen pals and when I was writing letters to my former English teacher who’d returned to Boston with his fiancée. We met when I was still praying that my parents would stop drinking. We met when my parents were reaching their ultimate hate crescendos. We met when I contemplated just how I might run away, just how I might kill myself and make those parents sorry. We met when I was just starting to understand that men in the world found me alluring for some inexplicable reason, and I thought the reason was for my darkness, and in fact, I was partly right. The silences I could keep. The hardened stare with pout lips. The coolness and the supposed depths that they might try to swim in me.
Shiver and say the words of every lie you’ve heard
I was really a thirteen-year-old who would rather read books than do anything else, because life inside my head was much better than life in front of my eyes. I was really a girl who was learning about power and its underbelly, getting in cars with strangers, monitoring the slow flow of adrenaline as it pumped through me each time I pulled a door closed, smelled the scent of an unfamiliar car, plotting a way to get where I needed to go, sometimes having to do things I’d rather not do, sometimes having to do nothing but give directions to my destination. I was really an adolescent who put a lot of stock in songs and poetry that I started writing in red and blue marker on the walls of my bedroom, inhaling the toxic smells, burning incense to cover up the pot smoke, feeling every single hair on my head scream when I listened to my music loud with marijuana urging me along. I was writing on the walls to my mother’s dismay. But she couldn’t stop me.
First I’m gonna make it then I’m gonna break it til it falls apart
This was a romantic refrain to me, something I carried with me through my twenties, allowing it to edge in, slither around my head, around the glass that my fingers were holding that transported amber liquids into my body, my belief that I was a destroyer. An astrologer had told me so, after all.
See the way Mars and Pluto are situated in your chart? You are here to destroy.
Well, then, I said. Let us begin.
(5) “Bus Stop,” by The Hollies
From day one, in his classroom and outside of his classroom, Geoff crooned old music, often changing the lyrics to suit him. Fifteen, before I had my learner’s permit or access to my mother’s car, I stitched together my passage from home to all the areas of the Valley I wanted to lose myself in.
Bus stop Wendy she’s here asking
Please share my umbrella
Geoff and his friend and sometime housemate Ed sat at their dining room table talking. I pulled out a seat and sat down with a sigh after a few moments of standing awkwardly in the living room, wishing for an invitation. I slipped off my sandals and let my feet touch the carpet.
So, Geoff began, looking at the glass tabletop, how’s Bus Stop Wendy?
Fine, I said, looking from his face to Ed’s. Ed smiled broadly at me. We met one of the numerous Saturdays I happened by, records in hand, wishes blooming in my chest.
But I didn’t ride the bus here, I said, picking up my bag and looking inside for a lighter or some matches. I hitched.
I felt Geoff looking at me. He sighed sharply, stood up. Ed watched him and then looked at me and shrugged. I knew Ed was attracted to me. He made it obvious. I looked away, itchy and nervous.
I’m going to explain this once, and once only, Geoff said before he left the room.
He came back with two pairs of knee-high stockings. My lip curled when I saw them. I was reminded of my mother’s wardrobe, the drawer that held such strange items as knee-highs and pantyhose, tan, limp pieces of fine mesh.
Why do you have those? I finally laughed, finding my voice.
Yeah, man, what are you doing with those ugly things? Ed asked.
Wendy, sit back in that chair, Geoff replied.
I looked up at him and laughed. I settled deeper into the chair and he used a hand to push my chest back, straight, my back flush with the chair back.
So. Let’s say you’re out there in the world, and you’re hitchhiking. Geoff was talking to me in a sing-song voice I immediately didn’t like. He lengthened one knee-high stocking in his hands and threw the other three on the table.
And some guy picks you up and you tell him where you wanna go, but he takes you somewhere else. Someplace you haven’t been, and don’t want to be. Geoff began tying one of my ankles to the chair leg with the hosiery. Too tight? he asked, looking up at me.
A little, I answered, my eyes wide, trying to form a casual smile that wouldn’t come.
Good. He took another stocking off the table and tied my other ankle to the chair. If it were someone else, they might use a cord. Or electrical tape. Or rope.
What the fuck, Geoff, I finally stammered as he bent one of my arms back and tied it behind me to the metal arm of the chair. I could not look at Ed; this suddenly felt private and insane, a flaw in Geoff’s composition, something I had always wondered about, but could never put my finger on.
When both of my arms and legs were tied to the chair I said again, weakly, What the fuck.
Oh, wait, one more thing. Geoff stomped to his bedroom and returned with a bandanna.
I get it, already, I began, resting my eyes on Ed.
Geoff, man, she gets the picture, Ed said, taking his eyes off my tied ankles for a moment. Geoff raised one finger at him and turned back to me.
Okay, Wendy. You hitchhike, and this is but one possible fate. Do you know there are people out there who will do this to you and any other girl that’s out on the street looking to get from one place to another? I mean, how can I make you understand? Look, I have a fucking hard-on here, he said, smacking his crotch through his pants with an open palm. I looked down at the smoke-scented bandanna on my mouth and felt sleepy. My nostrils flared like they do right before I start crying.
You don’t want to get raped. You don’t want someone to do this to you. But when you get into their car, you don’t know who you’re fuckin’ dealing with. Some asshole, maybe? You’ll never know. He paused dramatically. He untied the bandanna from around my mouth.
Tell me, Ed, did it not turn you on to see a pretty young thing tied up like that? Geoff said, turning to Ed matter-of-factly as I shook my arms and legs out, the stockings falling to the carpet like small, shed skins.
Oh, Geoff, man, she understood, she understood, Ed said. Why are you friends with this guy? Ed said, turning to me.
My tongue ran over my lips.
Can I have some water? I asked, already hating the demure tone I hear in my voice.
Geoff moved into the kitchen, retrieved a mug. He let the tap run, filling the mug. He handed it to me with both hands, touching mine as I received it. I drank. My heart slowed, beat faintly.
Don’t hitchhike to get here, okay? That’s all I ask, he said when I put the mug down. He gave me a playful kick under the table. I kicked back, stung, speechless.
Let’s have a smoke, shall we?
I licked my lips again, wishing for more water. Soon a joint was being born on the glass tabletop.
(6) “Fortress Around Your Heart,” by Sting
Under the ruins of a walled city
Months after my eighteenth birthday, I visited Geoff in yet another residence, this one across the Valley, this time shared with one of his many cousins. When I pulled up to the house, located in a well-to-do suburbia I rarely frequented, I immediately felt like a visitor to another planet.
His cousin answered the door, a nerdy balding guy who politely let me in and then disappeared somewhere inside the house. Geoff received me and his booming voice reminded me that we were still in hiding and his cousin might be listening.
As I return across the fields I’d known
He ushered me into his bedroom, and without giving me time to look around and notice this new place that I would not be visiting again, he presented me with a gift.
I recognized the fields where I’d once played
I opened up a card that was margin to margin full of his small, shaky handwriting. I couldn’t take in everything written there, so pushed ahead to unwrap the gift.
It was a Tiffany stained glass, an image of a river flowing to the ocean under a bright sun. Geoff rambled something about the meaning of it, how we were rivers that would meet the sea? Or I was the river and he was the sea? I felt the presence of his strange cousin in the house and wanted to hurry the visit along. I wouldn’t read the card closely until I got home, after stashing the stained glass back in its box, not knowing what to do with it.
Underneath the congratulations on graduating from high school, the wishes for a happy eighteenth birthday, were the complete lyrics to a song by Sting. A song that had come out the year before we met, when I was twelve. At eighteen I felt like I was psychologically light years from Sting, what he represented at the time. I was frequenting punk shows and Dead shows and Sting, was, like, an old man.
My feelings for Sting were not too different from what I was feeling for Geoff.
Had to stop in my tracks for fear
Of walking on the mines I’d laid
I knew we were looking for an ending.
(7) The Blues (public radio stations and the Long Beach Blues Festival)
It was cool and relaxed on the lawns. Everyone was friendly and smiling and Geoff shared a joint he had brought with me and a man and woman nearby. They were sitting on a pastel-colored blanket and sipping at wine coolers bought from a concession stand. Geoff nodded at one and said, Want me to go get you one?
I nodded and my eyes followed him as he bent a knee against the grass, pushed himself up with a grunt and stood over me. Don’t run away now, he joked, and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
I knew he noticed every man who turned in my direction, and his response was to lean in closer to me or look me in the eye and shake his head like he couldn’t believe their rudeness.
With Geoff gone, my eyes devoured the crowd, the bobbing heads, the walking forms of people safe in their adulthood. I swallowed and willed myself to take deep breaths, aware that I was young here, alone, just turned eighteen, and that it would be awhile before Geoff got back to this patch of grass.
I was alone in a sea of people who loved the blues. Everyone waited for the genius of B.B. King to take the stage. This was the umpteenth concert of my young life, and very much different from what I was used to at concerts. Everyone had a stony semblance of calm and happiness, a contentment that felt like milk over hot skin, soothing and exciting at once. I turned and looked, thinking I heard Geoff’s voice, but he was nowhere in sight. My eyes returned to the stage and I tapped a bare foot against the grass, the sun falling down the length of the sky.
Before I made it to my boyfriend’s house that evening, I endured countless pinpricks of innuendo that Geoff pressed into, against me. In the car, navigating the parking lot traffic on our way home, his mouth slightly open, I thought of his teeth. I knew the feel of my tongue in the gap between the top two. A sense of random endearment flooded me, a bizarre and new feeling of wanting to protect him.
It would be just a few months later when we attempted a leaving off with one another, the sound of nighttime tide accompanying the separation, and months after that, the painful crush of kisses in a parked car that would make our ending final.
(8) “Love is the Drug,” by Roxy Music
Ain’t no big thing
To wait for the bell to ring
Here’s what I did.
I swallowed sleeping pills. I ate laxatives. My body melted down and thickened up, up and down, equivalent to the lust and denial I was living off of.
Jump up bubble up what’s in store
I went on a date with one of Geoff’s friends. Became intimate with another of his friends. I slept with a number of men the whole time I was “with” Geoff, under his influence—attempts to fuck his memory and his inattention and his meaningless words out of my body. My boyfriend knew and broke up with me. Then we got back together and I resumed my sluthood.
Love is the drug and I need to score
I met a man I liked and when it was clear he was into me, I lied about my age. It wasn’t a big age difference—I was 19, he was 27, but he had to learn that I was not 20, but turning 20 after we’d been together for a while. It was the first lie I told him.
Stitched up tight can’t break free
After escaping to the forest a thousand miles north of my home, ensconced in college, I met another man who came in the form of my apartment manager, who reminded me strongly of Geoff. This man was married, clinically depressed, had a room full of martial arts weapons and liked taking runs around the lake by our apartment building. It was on one of these runs that I told him about Geoff.
Love is the drug got a hook in me
It seemed inexplicable at the time.
Soon, this man was asking me out for coffee. Soon, this man was professing his attraction to me. In this instance, I did something different.
I started seeing a woman who I would talk to weekly in an office downtown. I started telling the story of me and Geoff to someone who could remind me what it all might really mean, and what it absolutely did not mean. From her couch I’d watch pigeons walking around the nearby rooftop. I spent ten years in this woman’s presence, unraveling storylines, piecing others together, braiding some, taking scissors to still more.
I stopped getting high but I got drunk a lot.
I looked back at my junior high and high school diaries.
I started writing the story of us.
Dancing at the only club in my newly adopted town in the Pacific Northwest, “Love is the Drug” playing, I felt the kind of blushing fuck-me-ness you can’t really explain to anyone and don’t want to explain because you just want to feel it and move with it and remember, maybe, where it began, even in its darkest, most unholy beginnings.
Oh oh catch that buzz
The song still has the power to make me want to pull over, walk into a bar and hear the ice clink around some liquid that will start a raging fire in me.
As I entered my thirties, I considered that I was now in the age range where Geoff had been when we parted. I got married at the age he was when we broke things off. I got divorced the year after. I fell in love with a woman who has many qualities that remind me of Geoff—her humor, her charisma, the way she confessed the hold I had on her, the manner in which she’d tell me she wanted to fuck me. All of it reminiscent of him.
Love is the drug I’m thinking of
We made our own mix CDs for each other during our courtship. Our seven month age difference means we grew up with much of the same music. A different vocabulary of melodies and riffs and lyrics took up space in my brain. We can make each other laugh with all the song lyrics we know that no one else knows we know. We sing songs to each other at The Smogcutter, a karaoke dive bar on Normal Street in Hollywood.
At dinner with friends one night in downtown Los Angeles I heard the overwhelm of Arcade Fire above the din.
I excused myself, stood, made my way around the maze of chairs and tables and people toward the bathroom.
I carry the names of the songs and the artists of my favorite mix tapes. I hold the order of them inside my body, where they are left intact, never to be cut, melted by heat, unspooled.
In the square of the private bathroom the speakers belted out the music I would come to think of as the soundtrack to the life I had a hand in authoring, more so than in previous lives I’ve lived.
The music pounded into me. I gripped the sink. I closed my eyes.
I took it in.
What a stunning amazing piece of writing!! This isn’t the PC version of this kind of story — this is the much more complicated real deal. I’m ready to read the book that tells the whole story.
Those tiny beautiful human moments wrapped up in something that is truly creepingly awful. I want, need to read the rest…
MORE! I want to read every single page of the book that contains this piece. A stunning, stunning essay. I’ll be sharing this one with my students.
This is some terrific writing. I love the way you used the mix-tape as structure. Such an artifact. So elegantly places the writer on a timeline. Thank you, thank you.
Such honest beauty, beautiful (if scorching) honesty. Wendy, may your life from here on move with as much grace as your writing.
The honesty in this piece is stunning — nearly peels my skin back, it’s so raw and human. Fabulous work. Would love to read more.
This is powerful (and great) writing. I am disturbed and intrigued and excited to read more of this story.
Love is the drug I’m thinking of… Awesomeness, Wendy.
I’m stunned by the mood this piece evokes in me. Although I grew up in a different era, and we’re of different genders, the mood cuts through the trappings of popular culture to get at what is human in us both. There’s a kind of rawness in the mood. It tastes like bourbon over, and I don’t even like bourbon. That makes the mood a little dangerous. Hellacious writing, Wendy.
Oh, there is darkness, but there is a beam of powerful light that comes through this writing. Wendy illustrates the risk it takes and craft you must harness to bring a story like this into the world. We need these stories among us to create a common language of trauma, healing and the art we make of it. I always want to read more of Wendy’s words.
I love the structure of this piece. Love this “I carry the names of the songs and the artists of my favorite mix tapes. I hold the order of them inside my body, where they are left intact, never to be cut, melted by heat, unspooled.” that brings it all together at the end. LOve how much I can feel the music in me. I want to hear more of this story.
This is a beautiful, evocative, haunting and extremely brave piece of writing. The circumstances are too familiar to me, and you get right at that inert, frightened, sleepy place that allows girls to become the victims of sexual predators. Thank you for bringing your experience to light, Wendy, and I cannot wait to read the book!
Beautiful, Wendy. Thank you so much!
An amazing piece of writing, la verdad… BRAVA on your upcoming book too!!
Love how songs lyrics bring back memories of a time and place. Songs remind us of who we were in those moments and when that song comes on the radio, we are there. This mix tape does this beautifully, and although the experiences are not mine, they will haunt me for quite some time.
Relationships between young girls and older men have a long-lasting, profound effect on the women the girls become, but have generally been written about from the perspective of the men. Wendy Ortiz has visceral new insight to offer. Gimme more, please.
Thanks for this beautiful piece, Wendy. I just did an essay for Salon on a similar topic and I have been overwhelmed by the “me, too” emails and comments. And surprised by the common sense of isolation surrounding the experience. Yours is an important voice, and I was so glad to hear it today.
A spectacular essay.