She was just a college kid padding a resume, but in his memory, she was much more. There was a mixtape tattoo on her right forearm because she lived and breathed music. She loved the ways a mixtape was like a time capsule, carrying the past into the future. It made her sad nobody seemed to make them much anymore.
He was a kid — a punk — or at least he wanted to be, so he wore black t-shirts and liked his music fast and loud and angry. He didn’t have any tattoos because he wanted to be an actor someday and actors couldn’t have tattoos unless they were Johnny Depp. He was not Johnny Depp.
He didn’t know her and she didn’t know him, but there they were, picking up food from the pizza parlor across town because the youth minister had given her a fifty-dollar bill and said — “take him with you.”
She strode across the parking lot, her keys jingling in the fading daylight. The sun was sinking down, so when they climbed in her Chevy Malibu, she turned on the headlights and rolled down the windows. The speakers ignited with some pop number as the engine roared to life, then the world morphed into some brand of slow motion, even though the car shot onto the street and the girl gunned it to fifteen over the speed limit. There was a bounce to the melody in the air, the piano rising and falling.
“you know this song?” she asked and he shook his head because he didn’t. He was a punk — at least, he wanted to be — so loud and fast and angry was the only way he did anything. There wasn’t time or space for this bubblegum romance bullshit.
“C’mon — sing with me…” she said.
“I don’t know the words.”
They sped forward, her Chuck Taylors on the gas pedal and her hands drumming on the steering wheel and she kept singing over and over and over — “have you ever been alone in a crowded room?”
He was only a kid — and he had. He was always alone, but somehow then and there it didn’t seem like it.
This wasn’t romance, he thought. He knew she wouldn’t save him. He’d learned already that no one could, but something in the way he saw the world shifted as her hair blew backwards and her lips synced to the words in the wind.
They reached the pizza parlor and she told him — “wait here — ” so he did, just sitting in the passenger seat and watching her through the front windows as she stood at the counter, the light blurring the lines of her body and her jean shorts stuck to her hips.
He felt himself melting, there in the passenger seat while she placed the stack of pizzas on his lap, lit the engine, and pulled out of the parking lot. The music roared to life again and all he could think was — it’s true what they say, about watching someone love something before you can love it yourself.
This was the moment he decided he loved pop music.
Somehow, watching this girl with her mixtape tattoo love this song, feeling her voice fill the air and seeing her eyes light up with the neon street signs painting the night made him feel complete inside. It didn’t matter that the lead singer wore argyle sweaters instead of black t-shirts or that the melody wasn’t loud or fast or angry or even that the chorus sounded the way strawberry bubblegum smelled.
All that mattered was there was this person sitting next to him and he wanted to sing with her — if only he knew the words.
“have you ever been alone in a crowded room? well, I’m here with you…”
And he was. He was there with her and she was there with him. The speakers were burning down and the sound through the windows drowned out the noise of living — the whole town underwater.
He wanted it to last forever.
It wouldn’t, just like every other moment. And there was nothing he could do — nothing anyone could do.
They pulled into the church parking lot and she killed the engine and he cradled the pizzas in his arms as the world bent back to full speed.
The girl and her mixtape tattoo vanished after that night. Back to college, back to crowds that swallow faces, back to the magnificent infinities that lay at her feet.
The boy he was became the man he is, no longer a punk and never an actor. There was anguish and heartbreak as his bones bent into place, but the songs were there to score the scene — those tiny grains of time and space where a boy became a man. It hurt — a lot, but no one ever told the boy this day-to-day agony was what they called growing up.
It doesn’t matter that he never saw the girl or her mixtape tattoo again. Most days, he can’t remember her name. But sometimes, the man he is now slumps into bed with the windows open, then turns out the lights so he can paint pictures of the past in the dark spots on his ceiling. Then his thumb finds the PLAY button on the Walkman that he paid a dollar-forty for at the thrift store, the kind that plays actual mixtapes. He presses play and the song comes on, the one about being alone in a crowded room.
Time folds in on itself as he presses rewind on a cassette until the tape stops with the “ka-chunk” noise and he’s back at the beginning. The man he is now becomes the boy he was then — just for a little while — and the girl with the mixtape tattoo emerges from the clouds in his memory. She’s half gone now, only an illustration of what he thinks he remembers, but none of that matters. He’s sitting there by her side, the headlights pointing forward and her hands drumming on the steering wheel as she sings. He can feel the air through the windows and this time — when the speakers are burning down and the whole town is underwater — this time, he knows the words.