By Lara Shelton
When I was thirteen my family took a trip to Germany to attend the funeral of a distant relative that I’d never met. We stayed in a little town called Westhausen, and there was only one other family in the hotel at the time. They were American as well. Where, even a year before, their American-ness might have passed by me unnoticed, as a thirteen-year-old everything they did or said mortified me. Baseball caps? Check. Chewing gum? Check. Complaining about the accommodations? Check. I remember thinking: Is this what my family looks like? Is this what I look like? Is it really that obvious? Does everyone see it but me?
In my mid-20s I had a serious relationship with a man who I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with. In many ways he was my polar opposite. He had done a stint in the Peace Corps. He came from a large, poor-but-happy family, who felt and expressed nothing but love for me and talked about their feelings without the slightest hint of embarrassment. He took things one day at a time, as they came, and he never worried about the future. He was, in short, everything I wanted to be. But things went sour, and we broke up. We split up the furniture, and we fought over who would stay in the apartment. I won. But when I came home from work the day he moved out, I found this CD: Blue, by Joni Mitchell. Sitting right in the middle of the the kitchen table.
As we had no kids, no pets, and the break up had been painful for us both, I couldn’t bring myself to ask him what he meant by leaving this particular CD on the dining room table we had purchased together in that first excited rush to be a couple. Was it a parting gift? A whimsical reminder of the color of his post-break-up emotional state? A mistake?
One thing I was sure of, it was his CD and not mine. I still hadn’t moved out of my industrial phase, and 60’s-era folkies were certainly not on heavy rotation in my CD player. Yes, I had heard the song “River” before and thought it was fine, in a singer-songwriter sort of way, but singer-songwriter has never been my thing, and I chalked it up to an honest mistake.
Then the night began to go by. All of my other close friends were in relationships at the time, and I was finding myself in the apartment alone for the first time in years. And I mean really alone. None of the old medicines were helping. Around midnight, with the toilet running and a raccoon rooting around outside in the trash cans, and sleep far away, all of my old CDs reminded me of good times that had passed.
I decided to put Blue on.
And Joni annoyed the hell out of me.
Don’t get me wrong. Joni is top notch, even if she does like to rhyme phrases like “figure skater” with phrases like “coffee percolator.” But that night she reminded me more of me than my own CDs did. It was as if I were suddenly seeing all of the things my ex hated about me, written by laser on the mirror-like surface of the CD. Joni’s got a way of standing at a distance, and judging. She does it even with herself. With Joni, there is no joy in being clever, only bitterness. And there’s no real joy in love, only insecurity that it might someday be lost. Sometimes it sounds as if her piano is her only friend. I don’t even play the piano.
So once the last lyrics on the album ran through the room: I’m gonna blow this damn candle out/I don’t want nobody coming over to my table, I got nothing to talk to anybody about, I found myself less able to sleep than before. Was this a gift, or a little drop of poison? Was this a mirror? Is this what I look like? Does everyone see it but me? I suddenly remembered the phrase “you’re not my shrink, you’re my girlfriend,” which I had heard more than once, usually in the midst of a screaming match. Joni, you bitch, why do you know me better than I know myself?
I took the CD out of the player and snapped it in half. I also cut my finger on the jagged edge.
Let’s just say it was a very dark night, and I began to wonder if everything had been my fault. He wasn’t to blame, as he had no depth—he was always exactly what was advertised on the package. I was the one who was evasive, and cynical, and judgmental.
But let’s say—let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that Joni and I were a couple. We would be like those two cats, in the old nursery rhyme:
There once were two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
Till (excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails)
Instead of two cats there weren’t any.
I lived with this image for a long time. And I began to obsess over this album, Blue, being a secret letter to my innermost self, the self that couldn’t live with itself. From “All I Want”:
All I really want to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you.
From “My Old Man”:
He’s a singer in the park.
He’s a walker in the rain, he’s a dancer in the dark…
And then I’d gone and spoiled it all. As Joni croons in “River,” I’d made my baby say goodbye.
Turns out, thought, that it was all an innocent mistake. He had, in his own, good-hearted, honest, depthless way, thought that the CD belonged to me. Which just goes to prove that he never really knew me in the first place. I found this out late one night, in a tearful, soul-bearing, excruciatingly embarrassing phone call which was met with mostly silence on his end.
Here is your song from me….