I hold the mixtape made for my latest potential boyfriend in my hand, turning it over and over as if it’s a Magic 8-Ball. Flipping to the B-side will give me an answer. To give, or not to give? My uncertainty is answer enough.
I slide the mixtape back into its plastic case and plunge it into the abyss of my desk drawer. I take a blank CD and begin to manipulate an “Untitled Playlist” on iTunes. If I’m not certain about a mixtape, can I be so certain about my feelings for him? Is it wrong to weigh your affections for a man by the measure of your desire to make him a mixtape?
I don’t remember exactly what prompted my project on mixtapes. I’m sure my latest failed relationship and a desk drawer full of cassette tapes that were meant for men who would never receive them had something to do with it. Miraculously, the Arts and Humanities department bought my proposed semester-long project that would cumulate in a sixty-minute Memorex with custom cassette art and liner notes. It was five months of self therapy I put on Sallie Mae’s tab.
All of this led me to the Ultraviolet Cafe on Delaware Avenue, warming my hands on a ceramic cup filled with hot chocolate with a microcassette recorder on the table. Across from me was Hans, my research subject who happened to be the record store clerk at my local supplier, Last Vestige. He was wearing a red and black buffalo plaid flannel jacket, well-worn blue jeans, and a pair of sensible hiking boots. He was quintessentially the real-life Jack Black of High Fidelity. I spent Saturdays at the record store listening as he preached the gospel according to whatever artist he was grooving to that week—from Nina Hagen to Neil Diamond—in exchange for twenty-percent off my vinyl purchases. He was living the dream of getting paid to listen to records forty hours a week.
We talked about women. Well, Hans talked about women. I just happened to be one.
“I’m getting off topic, aren’t I?” asked Hans, brushing his shaggy brown hair out of his eyes. I assure him that we were not off topic, that it would all loop back. I trusted him. Apparently, he trusted me. He hadn’t walked away.
Hans was the only one of my interview subjects who was wooing a woman. All the rest were married men pushing forty with kids, cats, and their amps and their youth squirreled away in the basement—a bunch of Jason Batemans, like in Juno. Hans was a young thirty, finishing up his undergraduate work and deciding whether or not he would do anything for love.
“So I’m seeing this woman. She’s 21. Lives in New York City. I had seen her at two of my gigs and I finally got the courage to talk to her,” he explained. A smile crossed his face, and I watched this sardonic record store clerk soften as he talked about his lady love. I never discussed any of the men I dated with such candor to a stranger.
“I made her The Mixtape,” he said, running his thumb along the rim of his coffee cup. The Mixtape. There was pride in his voice. He sat up in his chair, puffing his checked flannel chest to prepare himself for the declaration that followed: “It’s the greatest mixtape I’ve ever made.”
Let me digress for a moment in order to provide those of you who have never had the pleasure of making a mixtape some perspective. There are mixtapes for every affair of the heart. From new love to lost love, to breakups, makeups, and makeouts, it’s a guarantee that you know someone who has dedicated hours, days, even weeks to crafting a cassette for the occasion. If you’re lucky, sometimes it’s for you.
The mixtape is the ultimate way for record collectors to express their feelings. Music junkies like myself have no problems gushing over the pride and joy of their collections. For me, that honor would go to an out-of-print Sundaze reissue of The Beach Boys: Lost & Found!, a rarities album of pre-Capitol recording sessions with studio chatter on sunshine-yellow vinyl. Expressing our feelings towards actual people is a difficult task. So people like us—audiophiles, record nerds, call us what you will—use mixtapes. It’s how we communicate, when our words fail to express our emotions.
Sitting with Hans on that cold, rainy February day warmed my heart. There I was, a maker of mixtapes, but I had yet to make The Mixtape–that ultimate thirty, sixty, or ninety minutes on a cassette used to say those notorious three little words: I love you.
“Wait a minute—you’ve made mixtapes, but you’ve never given them away?”
“Nope,” I replied. “I suppose I’m a coward.”
I go out on dates, or those dates-in-disguise known as hanging out. I don’t have a specific type—any man that strikes my fancy will do. I’ve been tempted to make mixtapes, I’ve made mixtapes, but I’ve never had the courage to give them to their intended listeners. I am the curator of my own heart’s failings.
I envied Hans. I was jealous that not only has he found this woman, the A to his B-side, but he had the courage to let her know. He could get completely rejected by this woman, but he was willing to take that risk. I’ve failed to go that next step. Something makes me balk. I try to take this as a good sign—my instincts tell me that maybe this guy isn’t worth the mixtape. There are various reasons that make me hesitate: too self-absorbed, too over-the-top, or too distant, too vague about his emotions. I thrust my feelings into a drawer instead of into their hands, knowing that those monaural sounds will never find a way into their hearts.
Yet knowing that Hans managed to do this, that he had the courage to record his heart and soul onto acetate, gives me hope. Hans gave off those good vibrations, as Mike Love would sing, that show that this girl is the sun and the moon, the sand and the surf to him. I want to be able to speak of my love like that. I want to be in love like that. I want to find the courage to put my stereophonic heart into some lucky man’s tape deck.
“You’re not a coward, Kate. Judging solely by your taste in music, you’ve got a pretty good sense of things.”
“Yeah, sense enough to keep them at arm’s length.”
“It’s like Buddy Holly versus Elvis Presley: Would you rather die young, leave a great body of work, but have fans wonder what could have been? Or would you rather die later, leave a great body of work, but perish a bloated Vegas lounge act strung out on painkillers in your bathroom? Do you want the physical or metaphorical death?”
“So what you’re telling me, Hans, is that I can make The Mixtape for that one guy or I could make a bunch of mixtapes for some good guys, but never The Mixtape.”
“In a nutshell, yes.”
“I guess that makes me Buddy Holly.”
We talked about his track listing, but I won’t reveal it here. It wouldn’t matter. The beauty of The Mixtape is that its significance is not meant for mass appeal—it is solely for that one person. That person who warrants The Mixtape. All I can say is that I could hear that Hans had truly given of himself for a sixty-minute Memorex. I prayed the girl in question would return his affections. She had to. She had to prove that a mixtape could work.
“What about you? What song would be on your mixtape?” Hans turned the tables. All my interview subjects did that at some point. As I play back the microcassettes, I notice that the interviews were Q&A sessions that evolved into dialogues. That’s why I love to play back the tapes. Not because I enjoy the sound of my mousey voice blasting from my stereo, but because the wall between me and my subject was dismantled brick by brick. They forgot about the spool of the microcassette that they eyed with disdain when they sat down and opened up. They committed themselves to acetate. It was my turn to do the same.
“Beach Boys. ‘Surfer Girl.'” I was shocked at myself for answering his question without hesitation. It sounded like one big jumbled word on the tape, my response was so rushed. But if I was certain of any song, it was this song. It is the definitive song. The right guy will love that song. If he loves that song, there’s a chance that he could love me.
“Really?” asked Hans, folding his arms across his chest. I waited for him to pass judgment, but he, too, was waiting. He wanted my reason. This was a classic response from any record store clerk. Hans wouldn’t say it, but he wanted to know that my love of that song was genuine. If he found me wanting, he’d walk out that door and take my 20-percent store discount with him. I needed to prove that I was worthy of this song. If I could own the song, I might warrant a mixtape yet.
“I have to confess: ‘Surfer Girl’ is my favorite Beach Boys song.” At the moment of my confession, I could see one young man’s face in my mind: unruly dark locks, hazel eyes, and a lop-sided grin—a mere memory of a make-out session that occurred to this very song. I’d never told anyone that and there I was, in a coffee shop, pouring out my guts to Hans. “I have the 7″ 45 RPM single, the original 1963 Surfer Girl album issued by Capitol, and three albums with the pre-Capitol recording sessions of the song. I just love the pops and clicks.”
At “pops and clicks” I made the gesture with my right hand. I held it up to my right ear and acted like I was turning a volume dial. It’s sign language.
Hans uncrossed his arms and smiled.
“‘Surfer Girl’ was my dad’s favorite Beach Boys song,” he said, and I knew that I’d passed the test.
I spoke with Hans two weeks later. His mixtape worked. They’ve been dating ever since.
I slip a cassette case swathed in a French-style printed fabric of petite flowers in muted shades of blue, the kind you might find on pillowcases and draperies in historic colonial homes, into his empty hand. I fill the void where my hand had been only moments before.
“Is this a mixtape?” he asks, examining the fabric case with a gentle touch of his fingertips. The sides of the cassette are accented in a thin white ribbon embroidered with four-petaled flowers. This beautiful creation has been burning a hole in the pocket of my navy peacoat all evening. No mixtape has ever made it outside my bedroom, let alone to the open air. Those huddled masses yearning to breathe free in the confines of my desk drawer. This one managed to escape.
“Yes. It’s for you.”
There’s 23 tracks—eleven on the A, twelve on the B. The closing track is “Surfer Girl.”