This piece was written in response to Dustin Grinnell’s essay from earlier this year, How to Fix a Bluey Heart. We love the idea of publishing response pieces, so keep them coming!
By Sam Cooke
The first playlist I made for someone came in the form of a mix CD that I’d burnt on an old Dell desktop computer. It was a summer mix, meant to be played in my best friend’s pink Sony portable CD player as we skateboarded and biked down the backroads of our small Florida town.
I liked the feeling of sharing music with people in my life. I felt a sense of vulnerability in showing someone “this is what reminds me of you”. This particular mix, carefully curated in 2003, covered everything from “Dip It Low” by Christina Millian to “Summer of ‘69” by Bryan Adams. When the computer hissed—the sound it would make as it finished burning songs onto a CD—I felt a sense of completion. My work there was done, and my first playlist was born.
Music was also my biggest coping mechanism. It followed me through the most troubling times of my childhood. My father, the addict, provided little warmth and comfort to my two sisters and me. Perhaps the only fruitful thing he ever did for us in those early years was share his love of music. There was always a song playing, which meant that every emotion was always associated with music. My morning routine before school became second nature to me: wake up, turn on MTV’s music video hour, and have music videos playing in the background while I got ready for school. Then I’d put in my headphones on the iPod shuffle (the one that didn’t have a screen and didn’t let you choose what song you were listening to) and walk to the bus stop. I was the last of my friends to get a car, but I’d always come ready with a new playlist to listen to on the way to school. Each day, I’d fumble with their car stereos and press play for the ten-minute drive from my house to our high school.
In the age of iPhones and music streaming services, creating and sharing playlists became astronomically easier for me. When I got my first iPhone as a graduation present from my grandparents, the first app I downloaded was Pandora. Remember those days? It was a professional playlist-making service that recorded your musical interests and found songs that you would probably like based on said interests. My days of burning CDs slowly came to an end as cars began building models with AUX adaptors and Apple Music and Spotify took over. I tucked away my packet of blank CDs that were just waiting to be given a musical home and put my thumbs to work. The words “New Playlist” became ingrained in my brain.
I made playlists for myself as well: thirteen songs here and there that brought me back to a moment; a playlist of fifty-odd songs that inspired me to write; songs to listen to when I needed to feel pumped; songs to play in my ears when I was training to become a runner (that was a short-lived thirty songs). Songs were everywhere.
It wasn’t until my early twenties, though, that I realized that I wasn’t making any playlists about love. I didn’t have a high school sweetheart to remember with fondness—days spent at the beach, nights tangled up in sheets (a la “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset” by Luke Bryan). And I didn’t have a first love who would haunt relationships that I’d enter into long after their scent was off my favorite pull-over hoodie. I was twenty-two and realizing, with a jaded and bitter heart, that I had never been in love.
That didn’t mean there wasn’t heartbreak. In 2013, I listened to the song “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift on repeat. Though I don’t have the exact data points, it’s safe to assume that the total play count neared at least five hundred. I’d scream along to it in my Nissan Versa on the way to work at a hospital gift shop. My best friend Jenna and I would listen to it in her Nissan Versa on the way to the beach. When I saw Taylor Swift in concert that year, I swayed with a beer in hand as I sang along to the words, “There we are again when I loved you so.” That was the product of my first true heartbreak, a story of unrequited love with someone I worked with. The words “I don’t feel the same” were never said, I was just left with silence. For someone who constantly has music, silence is deafening.
I wish I could say that in the years that followed, my playlists were eventually filled with love songs. But they weren’t. Even after packing up and leavingmy small hometown for New York City, where I was sure I’d meet someone to fall in love with, I was met with more heartache. I went for drinks with men who looked at their phones. I walked down busy Brooklyn streets with men who thought it was “cute” that I was trying to be a professional novelist. There are various usages of the word “cute”, and these men were not calling me attractive. They pitied me. I was cute. And though I knew many of the men I’d met were simply not a right fit, at the end of the date I’d slip my headphones back in and take the subway home filled with a sense of sadness. I felt there was something about me that was missing. And so, I’d listen to my playlists. I’d play “All Too Well” by Taylor Swift, like I mentioned, but I’d also play deeply romantic love songs that made me daydream about falling in love. These included “If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen and “You Get Me” by Michelle Branch. I was lovesick, not for a specific person, but for the feeling that stirred inside me when I heard a great love song.
One day, I would make a playlist for myself of songs that reminded me of the person I loved so dearly, and I would be able to share that playlist with them. And though they’d laugh at the weird variety of it—everything from U2 to Usher—they would know that my love language was making playlists. They’d listen to it in the shower or on the way to work. They’d start a song over because of a certain lyric that hit in a way they could never describe. Maybe it would be a lyric that reminded them of me. Hopefully it would be a lyric that reminded them of me.
My lack of love song playlists allowed me to really dive into what my idea of love was. I had a skewed perception. My grandparents have been married for 67 years and their relationship started as an arranged marriage in the village of Lefkara, Cyprus. They grew to love each other, though, despite not having a say in the matter. My parents seemed to have married as friends, creating a family together that then fell apart because of addiction. The day my mom filed for divorce, I don’t think she even shed a tear as she accepted full responsibility for my two sisters and me and just went about her life. And then there were my two best friends, who both fell in love at a young age and married their high school boyfriends before we were twenty-five years old. Though there were different degrees of love around me, I’d never understood how to get from first-meet to forever. I wasn’t sure if there was a path for me, or even what that would look like. Come what may, I had my playlists and my books, so I could always slip into someone else’s love story and pretend it was mine.
Then I met Dustin.
Meeting him was one of those moments in life where I wish I had kept a written record of it; what I was wearing, what my hair looked like, what song was playing on the overhead speaker that surrounded us in the lobby of the college that housed our MFA in Creative Writing program. But I don’t have any of that. I assume the first thing we said to each other was “hi”, as we were being introduced. He was one year into the program, writing fiction, and I was the new girl, starting my first semester as a writer for young people. I was in the program to write and to hone my craft, because if I wanted to be on track to be a New York Times bestseller before I was thirty, I still had a lot of learning to do. And after five minutes of talking to Dustin, I could tell he wanted the same thing. He was articulate and intelligent, and he had a sarcastic edge that went underappreciated by our classmates.
We took to each other pretty quickly. We’d eat lunch together and sit next to each other in classes. We were just on campus for ten days, as was how our low-residency MFA program worked, but in those ten days we spent hours together. One afternoon, when we both had no classes to attend, we got into his car and drove into Boston. We walked the streets of downtown and talked about everything from how different it was from where I lived in New York City, to the intimidation we felt when reading books by our favorite authors; Michael Crichton for him, Morgan Matson for me. We sat at a high top in a bar and I told him about a best friend from high school who had died the summer before, and how guilt followed me around because I hadn’t spoken to him in years. He did whatever it took to make me laugh, a trait he still brings to our dynamic two years later.
When I left Boston at the end of the ten days, I knew that what we had was special. He quickly became the person I wanted to tell the best parts about my day to and the person who would help me through the worst parts. And it was easy. To me, it felt like a no brainer that we would end up together. We had identical goals, similar personalities, and care for one another that was deeply rooted. I should be clear that very early on we said we didn’t know what our relationship was. Some days I imagined passionate physical encounters where he’d make my body feel a way it never had before. Some days I thought about what it would be like to introduce a boyfriend to Dustin, have them get along and become friends. Most days, though, I thought about what it would be like to spend my life with him.
As the months of togetherness went on, the insecurities that had been following me around my entire life were on full display. In our early months of friendship, I’d hear about women he’d loved before. Beautiful, petite women with successful careers and wealthy families. The self-image issues that I had tried so desperately to push to the back were front and center again, and instead of trusting that I could share these with him, I ignored it. When I would come to Boston for a weekend to visit him, I would pretend that I didn’t see the notifications on his phone from dating apps or other women. I began to look at myself in the mirror and outline all the reasons he didn’t love me: I wasn’t thin enough, I wasn’t on a secure career path, I was dirt poor growing up, I wasn’t girly enough. Of course he didn’t want to be with me romantically. These were the insecurities that haunted me from men in the past, and now he was paying for it, whether he knew it or not. The assumptions that love could only look like the beautiful woman he’d dated in college settled in on me, and again, I started curating playlists about heartbreak.
Again, though, I was good at holding onto hope. I was growing tired of New York City and wanted a change of scenery. As a preschool teacher, I could find a job pretty much anywhere. So without much thought, I set my sights on Boston. I found an apartment on Facebook marketplace with three other women my age, and Dustin and I celebrated the prospect of us living less than thirty minutes away from each other. I made a playlist.
Living so close together felt like a fairytale. We would meet at a coffee shop and work on our stories over iced coffees and spicy egg sandwiches. At lunch, we’d go to the bar next door and get margaritas and nachos. We’d watch a movie together every Saturday night. Some nights, after the movie, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d make breakfast together the next morning. It felt deeply confusing and deeply fulfilling at the same time. I was so confused how I loved this man as hard as I did, but still felt like a visiting buddy from college when he’d pass me an extra pillow and blanket. And we talked about it constantly. While there were times where we did get physical, the majority of our time was spent talking, often late into the evening and continuing early the next morning. With each day that passed, I knew I was loving him harder than I’d ever thought I could love someone. We were happy.
Just a few months into me living in Boston, the coronavirus pandemic hit hard. I was sent home to teach preschool aged children a few times a week via Zoom, and Dustin worked from home as well. We had an unspoken agreement that we would still find a way to see each other. I’d ride my bike to his studio apartment or he’d pick me up and we’d bring my laptop to a park near my apartment. Without words, I began packing an overnight bag on Saturdays and we’d spend every weekend together. Everything in my life was uncertain. I didn’t know what work looked like, and with one year left in my MFA program, I had no real clue about what publishing would look like in the post-pandemic world. Dustin and I would sprawl out across his living room, me laid back in a tan recliner and him with his legs up on the couch, and we’d ponder the meaning of a writing life. We’d spend hours watching a true crime documentary, and then quote the absurdity of it all. Slowly—painstakingly slow, actually— my insecurities were at bay. They would sneak up sometimes when I’d wander deep into my brain about the type of woman that Dustin should be with. When I eventually started sharing these insecurities with him, he told me I had every part of him. When I told him I was terrified he was going to leave me, much like my father had when I was a child, he told me he was my rock and that he wasn’t going anywhere. In the past, when I’d get lost in dark or deep thoughts, I never had a way to escape them. He notices when I start to have spiraling thoughts, whether they’re about us or a worry about my future, and he grabs my hands and pulls me out of the darkness. He’s constantly pulling me into daylight.
In my years of listening to love songs, it was implanted in me that when you meet the person who brings out a joy in your life that you didn’t know existed, you would feel it right away. You’d instantly make plans to run away with that person, surely ready to commit your life to them. Mornings would be sun shining through the window, lighting the silhouette of your soulmate perfectly. I was positive that’s what love was, that this was the only way love looked. With Dustin, I was learning that sure, love does look like that, but it also looks like the person who will hold you when you’re crying over having missed saying goodbye to your students. Love looks like knowing someone is out of K-cups and ordering them Dunkin’ Donuts on Uber Eats so they don’t go without. Love looks like bike rides along the Charles River and getting into an argument because one of us (me) can’t jump fences. Eventually, without a word of recognition, our Saturday nights turned into me lying next to him in his bed. We’d talk through the darkness, him once remarking that it felt like summer camp. He’d hold me for a little while, until one of us said goodnight and rolled over.
In our two years in each other’s lives, we taught each other what love looked like for us. I never called him my boyfriend, yet every time we left each other for the day, we’d exchange an “I love you”. And I do. I love him on a level that love songs never prepared me for—because it’s not a show. Loving him is not over-exaggerated for a good rhyme or a beautiful melody. Loving him exists on the days that feel so good I might explode, and the days that feel so bad I don’t want to get out of bed. Loving him is there when I stumble over not calling him my boyfriend and when he tells me that I helped fix his heart. “You fix it, you keep it,” we joked on Valentine’s Day.
And so, I made him a playlist: “Daylight” by Taylor Swift, “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd (which was his addition), “I Choose You” by Sarah Bareilles. But there were sad songs, too, because we were learning that love wasn’t always the perfect melody. Sometimes we would piss each other off and sometimes our feelings weren’t affected by each other at all. But we both kept our promise. We stayed put.
I’d spent my entire life thinking that love existed only in a love song, and only in the way that it was painted. You either loved someone forever or never thought of them again. It was only love if you loved them with such a physical passion that you couldn’t see straight. Love was either ‘this’ or ‘that’. To quote the song that Dustin and I both fondly say reminds us of each other, “I once believed love would be black and white, but it’s golden. Like daylight.”
And it is golden. He’ll do anything to make me laugh. He’ll challenge me when I’m being stubborn. He’ll poke me to open up, instead of going into “sad town”. He’ll tell me at all hours of the day that he believes in me, that he’s proud. With him, I have the home I always searched for and the companionship I always dreamed about. There are moments of darkness, sure, but the majority of our life together is daylight.
Sam Cooke is a Boston based writer and educator. Her fiction and essays have been published in Sad Girls Club Lit, Bluing the Blade and Prometheus Dreaming.
Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of Second Chances, is no exception. Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.
Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here