Every now and again, a crappy pop song can hit you at a defining moment, etching itself in your memory, making itself feel sacred.
Thirteen years have passed when I hear this song piped through the overhead speakers as I’m shivering outside Royal Farms, pouring forty dollars of gas into my Civic.
I wore my father’s blazer, a little too broad around the shoulders, the sleeves a little too short. I stood at the heart of Whitesboro High, near “The Pit,” a depressed square of carpet surrounded by a set of three stairs, in the main corridor of the school. Monday through Friday, this was the space I passed through en route to French or English or Physics or Pre-Calc.
But this Saturday night was different. It was the Winter Ball semiformal.
I locked eyes with Gina. A year younger. About a foot shorter than me. In that moment, I could see how small she was. I wondered how I could put my whole world, the weight of my teenage happiness, on those little shoulders, bare in a purple gown.
I spent the better part of the fall getting to know her. We hung out at a football game. We talked during meetings for Model United Nations and the school literary magazine, and on the wait for the late bus that carted home the nerds who stayed for after school extracurriculars and the flunkies held for detention.
I thought I was in love.
In the darkened school corridor, Shania Twain crooning over the speaker system, we locked eyes, slow dancing with different partners. She pressed her cheek to the shoulder of the boyfriend from another school whom I hadn’t know about until after I asked her to the dance. I looked at her, straight past my own date, the girl friend Gina set me up with after she saw how disappointed I was that we wouldn’t go to the dance together.
We locked eyes.
My dreams came true
because of you
For a period of seconds, when it was clear that the eye contact wasn’t incidental, when the music was right, when my fingertips felt the velvety waist of my own date’s dress and I imagined she was Gina--for those seconds it felt like something might happen.
I looked away for a second. When I looked back, Gina was mouthing the words to another friend, “I feel sooooooooooooo bad.” We made eye contact again. She blushed and turned her head.
After all of those months, all of that wishing, and those few seconds of substance--
it was over. That moment wasn’t love or passion or a turning point.
It was just awkward.
The fabric of my teenage years.
The Civic is full. I holster the main valve and screw on the gas cap. I haven’t thought of Gina for the better part of a decade now, haven’t seen her or talked to her for longer. But in this instant, I’m straddling the line between sixteen and twenty-nine. My mind flickers to a more recent memory. A more recent winter. Tipsy on Jack Daniels and eggnog. The girl who shot me down when I asked her out in a parking lot. This more recent time, I was older and wiser. A little more guarded and a lot better equipped to handle rejection. But this newer moment was still enough to make me a little melancholy.
And I know this gas station melancholy is about a conflation of memories, new and old. I know this shitty, shitty song is a trigger. I know this winter, too, will pass.
A strong wind blows, fighting me as I open the car door. I duck inside and turn the ignition as those final lyrics sound from above.
I will love you
As long as I live
From this moment on.