Last week, doing my nightly mindless scroll through my email—I perform this exercise after I’ve exhausted all social media resources and just before I scroll through my iPhone photo album—I found, in a sea of Chipotle queso offers and Lyft receipts, an email with the subject “Your mailbox is full.” I clicked on it without fully processing that it was from my ex-boyfriend.
“Trying to pass on some news, but couldn’t leave a message. Text me.”
My ex and I are not on great terms. After a nine-year relationship, followed by a yearish of will-they-won’t-they, we are fully blocked and deleted from each other’s lives. Make no mistake, I have zero intention of reaching out, as it will no doubt lead me down a rabbit hole of regrettable lunacy. But the message has been popping into my head during the brief quiet moments my quarantined brain allows me, jolting me back into consciousness.
In 2015, I was twenty-five and recently graduated from college. I decided to move to Los Angeles with my boyfriend—we’ll call him M—who was in film and following his dream of being a director. As the writer in the relationship, I pushed for New York, where I had already interned and where we wouldn’t be too far from our Jersey hometown. But after many pitches and prods from M, I gave in to the idea of Los Angeles. “You’re gonna love it,” he insisted. “I know you will.”
We began mapping out a road trip for early November, packing and saying our goodbyes all through the summer. On the fifth, we had a bon voyage breakfast and then hit the road, aiming for Chicago that evening.
The bickering started immediately. I can’t quite remember over what, but it was clear we were unleashing baggage carefully accumulated over the past eight years, dumping our insecurities and fears onto each other clear across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
My sincere apologies to willing residents of the rural Midwest, but on top of the bickering we had to take the ugliest route possible. Many relatives and friends warned us of sundown towns: deeply white, racist cities where we would be arrested without cause at best and, at worst, be attacked or wind up missing. As an interracial couple carrying all our belongings and money, we agreed that it was best to take the northernmost route.
Somewhere in Nebraska, I grew hopeless. Crying in pain from a truly horrendous bout of constipation, I thought, “This wasn’t how the trip was supposed to go! We were supposed to be discovering roadside oddities and posting sunny Facebook dispatches from Everytown USA!”
Days later, boosted by the majesty of Red Rocks and a slot-machine win in Vegas, my faith in our relationship restored, we arrived at our Angelino Heights Airbnb. I flopped on the bed and breathed a sigh of relief. We had made it! Our lives could begin!
After spending the entirety of the hellish trip romanticizing the relationship and life in LA, I was eager to steer us back on track. I’d pictured M and me as two little adults on a Game of Life board: I would have adult clothes and an adult job. We would go to adult dinner parties and have witty adult conversations with our adult friends.
But mainly, we were jobless and broke. We spent a lot of time bingeing God knows what and whining at each other. Our attempts to explore the city were thwarted by more bickering. I began to feel resentment and uncertainty: had I chosen the right partner? Did I actually belong here? What was I doing?
A few weeks in, as we were wandering the Fairfax district, M pointed out a theater he’d heard of online. They screened classic flims and hosted celebrity events. He told me he’d applied to their volunteer program and hadn’t heard anything back. I dragged him inside the theater and made him talk to a human; he got a call the next day and started, I’m pretty sure, the day after that.
In the following weeks, M would stay out late, setting up events and making friends, and I would stay home doing absolutely nothing. I went from feeling my favorite emotion (smug) to feeling angry at having forfeited my sole ally in the city. Pining for the imaginary life I had made up in my dumb twenty-five-year-old brain, I longed for a boyfriend who loved me more than The X Files or a rare copy of The Wicker Man or whatever random arthouse nonsense he and all the other volunteers were nerding out over.
Pining deserves a very specific soundtrack. Naturally, I chose pop music. Carly Rae Jepsen’s breakout album, E•MO•TION, had come out that August, two years after her Billboard chart topper “Call Me Maybe,” to overwhelming critical praise; Rolling Stone called it “a public engagement proposal to the universe.” It had been in my rotation from summer into fall, but it took on a new life that November. It was playful and sexy and joyful, everything my life was not. I’d listen and daydream about the kind of passionate, electric life and shout-from-the-rooftops kind of love I yearned for.
My relationship imploded soon after. Carly was not solely to blame.
Funnily enough, hearing E•MO•TION now doesn’t make me feel wistful or sad. I don’t associate it with misery or loneliness or feeling unloved. When I revisit it I feel hopeful. There are moments in life that bring out such unbridled, unshakeable happiness that we need albums like this to mirror those feelings back at us. I put it on recently and suddenly a dull, unremarkable Tuesday was flooded with saccharine sunshine. It was impossible not to dance, like Elisabeth Shue in the opening sequence of Adventures in Babysitting, swinging around her four-poster bed and lip-syncing to the Crystals classic “And Then He Kissed Me” into a hairbrush. E•MO•TION elicits a similar reaction.
Revisiting it has also made me meditate on the impossible standards to which I’d held that relationship. Is it a self-fulfilling, doomed-from-the-start prophecy to project an idealized version of romance onto another person? Obviously. And yet in my current relationship I’ve had to remind myself that every day won’t bring the levels of elation Jepsen hits in “Run Away with Me,” that a real adult relationship has moments of stress and uncertainty. But I do finally feel loved, in an all-consuming, shout-from-the-rooftops way, and I feel that way every day.
The present is filled with uncertainty and confusion and ex-boyfriends, and it can feel trite to find solace in celebratory pop music when we don’t even have dance floors to celebrate on. But the world is always confusing and vast and scary, apocalypse or not. And there will always be music that reminds me that joy is tangible, real, and worth holding out for.
— Eva Morreale
Los Angeles, day 118