I was asked by several of my friends and colleagues this past year to make mixtapes for Cassette Store Day—something I had done in the past. I didn’t make them, though, giving the excuse that I was too busy or I just didn’t have the tapes to do so. But the truth is that I had the tapes, and I had the time. I’m just very hesitant to make others tapes. See, I’ve been thinking a lot about human traces: what we leave behind and how people see, know, and remember us by those traces. Mixtapes, as I see them, are footprints. Just like how forensic scientists can deduce information about a person’s place in time from the mold of a boot print, listeners can do the same with a mixtape—if they pay attention.
The last mixtape I made was for a girl I dated one fall and winter named Katie. Like most late twenty-something millennials who are lost when it comes to the world of dating, I met her online. After a couple weeks of messaging back and forth, eventually exchanging numbers and moving our conversations to text, Katie and I decided to meet for coffee.
Katie and I were both Oklahoma transplants. She was a grad school dropout; I immediately liked her. I have spent most of my life being both around and dating academics. Everything returns, in some way or another, to intellectual discourse. Talking to Katie, especially in that coffee shop, removed me from the often-suffocating conditions of being an academic. We talked about our favorite movies, books, and music, of which there were a lot of similarities and pleasant differences, without moving into pretension and justification. For us, in that conversation, our favorite movies and books just were. It was a line of conversation I hadn’t participated in for years. Granted, I like stimulating conversation, just not in every dialogue. Katie could move in those directions if she needed to but it wasn’t her default. She was the balance I was looking for.
In our discussion of music, Katie confided in me that the last song she would want to hear before dying, if she were aware that her end was coming, was the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” I hadn’t been asked such a question in years. Those questions, for me, at least, seem few and far between. What would I want to hear before I died? And she wanted to know. After a few seconds of thought, I told her My Bloody Valentine’s “To Here Knows When,” a song from Loveless, my favorite album of all-time and an album, surprisingly, she had never heard.
When our cups of coffee reached their bottoms, we returned to our cars. I pulled out my copy of Loveless from the car and handed it to her. At the end of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, when Richard Dreyfuss leaves New York to work on a film in Seattle, he leaves behind his prized guitar with Marsha Mason, a woman prone to falling in love with men who have one foot out the door. In that moment, Mason knows that Dreyfuss will return to her. Lending Katie my copy of Loveless was a gesture on par. I wanted to see her again, but only if she wanted to see me. In a week’s time, I was driving back to Oklahoma City.
Katie met me when I was at my happiest. That happiness did not last long, though. I am diagnosed with persistent depressive disorder, a depressive condition I have dealt with most of my adult life. In December, like an uninvited houseguest, my depression returned and crowded Katie and myself. I began to believe that I would fail her in every way possible. I was never going to be the partner she needed. Because of this, there were times I couldn’t face her. When I was to attend Katie’s Christmas party, I panicked and turned my car around, five minutes from her house. She wanted me to meet her friends but I decided it would be best if I saved her the embarrassment. I started cancelling plans, retreating deep into my apartment. But not only did I doubt myself, I began to doubt Katie: her thoughts and feelings for me. She would often say to me, “Why do you think I’m playing a game with you?” I couldn’t answer. In my fleeting moments of clarity, I would try to make up ground but my efforts often pushed her beyond comfort. I was slowly pushing her away. I really was failing but because I couldn’t get out of my own way.
But I didn’t want Katie to leave. I wanted her to know that she was becoming important to me and that a relationship was something I wanted with her, so I turned to what I love most: music.
I always thought of music as the savior for those who don’t have words, especially boys wanting to talk to girls, like myself, and the mixtape is the perfect vessel. Each side of the cassette is a perfect curation of songs communicating a distinct message, whether it be attraction, love, or just personal taste. If chosen correctly, and with care, the songs work in dialogue with one another, forming an arc with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. Those songs, each with their individual import, build upon one another, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The expression that comes from the mixtape’s creator can even extend beyond the song selection and into the accompanying art, if one decides to go that extra mile. The art reflects the creator’s musical message, reinforcing its intent or, at the very least, allowing insight into that person’s essence.
The first mixtape I ever made was for a girl named Marion. I was a senior in high school and she a junior. We discovered our mutual feelings for one another after already having dates to prom but decided to meet after the dance at our friend’s bonfire. I spent hours that week leading up to that dance selecting songs, recording them to tape, recording over them after not liking the arrangement and choices, until I finally had the tape exactly where I wanted it. Of course, Marion and I never convened and nothing ever came of us. But I spent that entire summer after graduation driving around in my white 1988 Volvo 240—the car I christened Moby-Dick because it consistently broke down, like during the week of prom—listening to that tape and conjuring the feelings I had when making it. If Marion had got into my car after prom and listened to that tape, perhaps she would have known the extent of my feelings towards her, as I spent most of my senior year pining after her, and, well, who knows what would have happened next? The purpose of a mixtape is to communicate to another person your feelings and thoughts by way of music. That’s what I had done for Marion all those years ago and that’s what I set out to do for Katie: I wanted to make a mixtape she could listen to and know exactly where I stood when it came to her.
I spent days, almost weeks putting together a playlist for Katie. The first song on the tape was to set the tone for the rest of the playlist, a song that spoke explicitly to what I wanted her to know, with each subsequent song building upon the last towards a natural conclusion—a point that I wanted to belabor: she was important and a future together was something I wanted to work towards. That first track was Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube.” When Katie and I first started dating, she picked on me for my taste in music. It was too morose, not catchy enough. When I told her to listen to Yo La Tengo, she enjoyed that particular track. It was a song she could get behind. “Sugarcube,” then, became my unofficial song for her:
Whatever you want from me,
Whatever you want I’ll do.
I’ll try to squeeze a drop of blood
From a sugarcube…
Whatever you want from me,
Whatever you want I’ll do.
You’re sweeter than a drop of blood
On a sugarcube…
The tape continued with other pop songs, as I tried to avoid subdued tracks given her penchant for upbeat music, and each song after the Yo La Tengo opener continued the message I set out to express: Bob Dylan’s “I Want You,” the Ramones’ “I Want to Be Your Boyfriend,” “There She Goes” by the La’s, and the Troggs’ “With a Girl Like You,” among others. Since it was Christmas time, and Katie had confessed to me how much she loved the movie Love Actually, I broke my number one rule of never repeating artists and put the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” on the mix since the film parodies it with Billy Mack’s “Christmas Is All Around.” That was the penultimate song. The ending track was a deliberate and strategically placed choice: “Waterloo Sunset.”
While I wanted each song on the tape to communicate to Katie all the things I couldn’t say, I also wanted her to know my presence was on the tape through more than the curated songs. You can talk all you want through the music but I always fear it will ring hollow because you’re relying so much on another’s words. So I decided that every song chosen would come only from my record collection. Records bear the mark of their owners, with each album having its own noise, its own cracks and pops. We may both own Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine, but yours will sound completely different than mine because that copy is yours and mine is mine. When Katie would listen to the tape, she would hear how I dropped and scratched my copy of Ramones or how the pops in Blonde on Blonde was because I didn’t clean it well enough. She would know that I was there, I was present.
Picking tracks only from my record collection didn’t cause many problems, like a scarcity of songs, because I only chose 45 minutes worth of music. Side B was left silent, making “Waterloo Sunset” the last track on Side A. Leaving the second half of the tape silent was an important gesture for me—a gesture to the future and a pivotal part to the whole: we would finish the tape together.
Just like how forensic scientists can deduce information about a person’s place in time from the mold of a boot print, listeners can do the same with a mixtape—if they pay attention.
After I finished the recording process, I gathered my construction paper and glue and turned to the artwork. The cover consisted of paper caricatures of us in a snow-covered grove of pine trees. I wore my brown corduroy jacket, gray hoodie underneath, and blue knit cap, and she wore her blue hoodie—the one that was slowly fading from the countless times it had been washed—and her purple knit hat—the one she knitted herself—with her jet black hair flowing out from under the cap. I wanted to construct a more detailed caricature of Katie, one in which I emphasized all the physical features of her face that I admired: the mole underneath her right eye, her slightly uneven two front teeth. But I am not artistically adept and I was trying to win her over, not offend her through unwitting exaggerations. So I made the caricatures face away, hand-in-hand, as if they were walking to a place reserved only for them.
On December 23, the night before I was to give Katie the mixtape, I completely re-recorded the playlist and altered the artwork. Side A became a disjointed hodgepodge of songs, not a series of carefully chosen tracks, and the artwork no longer reflected the prospect of us. My uninvited guest convinced me at the eleventh hour that I was foolish: Katie wouldn’t care about the tape, and she wouldn’t care about its contents because she didn’t care about me.
I gave Katie the mixtape on Christmas Eve, the last time I saw her. After spending a couple of hours with her at her house, sitting around watching TV while she knitted caps for her family, I believed I was unwanted and left. I said my goodbyes at the door and she asked me to stay and watch Die Hard. I declined. A couple of weeks later, Katie and I quit talking to each other. Not because she thought I was a failure but because I pushed her away. She still has my copy of Loveless, but I’ll never see her again.
Katie never mentioned the mixtape, and I never brought it up. If she did listen to the tape, though, closely, between the tracks, she probably heard how “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” by the Ramones was replaced with “I Wanna Be Sedated,” and that Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube” was recorded over with Yo La Tengo’s “Nowhere Near.” She would have heard confusion and hopelessness in the hissing, pops, and cracks. And if she peeled back one of the trees, she would find that I took myself out of the picture. I cut out a tree and pasted it over my caricature to where Katie was the only one in the grove. That’s how I felt then: present but absent. And the Side B gesture was no longer romantic but a projection of, what I perceived at the time as, her indifference. I was talking; she was silent. A projection far from the truth, but I didn’t know or couldn’t think any better.
But I hope she didn’t listen to the tape. I hope she didn’t peel back the tree. I hope she tossed the tape away because that tape was a reminder of me. It’s my footprint. I really don’t want that legacy. However, that doesn’t mean the legacy won’t survive. It will, even in a landfill. Somebody will find that tape one day and inspect the artwork and see a person beneath the tree’s crackling and fading glue. They’ll wonder who the woman with the dark hair is and ponder the hidden man. Who is that? What’s the man’s relationship with the dark-haired woman? Who hid him and why? That person will then listen to the music—a disjointed, half-assed assortment of songs with no narrative or theme—and compare them to the songs hidden underneath. They’ll finally take the parts and add them up to make the whole and that’ll be my legacy—all through a 90-minute normal bias Maxwell cassette tape with construction paper artwork.
Will I never make mixtapes again? No. I’ll make them again, one day. I don’t know when, but I will, and with reservations. You and everyone else will know me through them—the playlists, the accompanying artwork—and you’ll know me intimately. You’ll know what I was thinking and how I was feeling at that moment in time, and maybe you’ll even remember me that way, as those tapes will leave an impression. That’s how mixtapes operate. And that scares me.
Dillon Hawkins listens to a lot of vinyl, sometimes writes, and has a companionable bond with a dog named Boo. They live in Oklahoma.
Illustrator Sommer Browning writes, draws, and librarians in Denver. Her latest book is The Circle Book.