Tegan and Sara’s album The Con came out ten years ago, in the summer of 2007. That was a year full of significant events for me: I turned 15, came out as bisexual, and dated someone for the first time, that someone being, notably, a girl. And all of it is linked inextricably in my mind with The Con, because it was the soundtrack of my year. The soundtrack of my first real romance.
This was the era when someone’s taste in music seemed to say something about them, when MSN Messenger away messages and Facebook statuses were peppered with oblique song lyrics, when I’d creep someone’s Last.FM page alongside their LiveJournal if I wanted to know their heart.
That fall, I had the burn-your-life-down kind of crush on a purple-haired girl I’d met the previous semester in English class. I hadn’t really noticed her until, early in my sophomore year of high school, she confessed to me via Honesty Box that she loved my writing, and then revealed her identity to me, sheepishly, but wanting me to know. She was only the second girl I’d ever had tingly romantic feelings about, but I still recognized them immediately. Oh shit, I am in trouble, I thought one day when our eyes crossed from across the hall and I saw her blush as I felt blood rush into my own cheeks.
“I think I have a crush on her,” I confessed to my best friend, the first person I’d come out to earlier that year, in the girls’ bathroom.
“You should ask her out!” my wildly brave and confident bestie suggested. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She likes you too.” I feel a certain kinship with 15-year-old me, because a decade has passed and I’m still that girl who refuses to accept anyone could be interested in me until they tell me in their own goddamn words. I just don’t see myself as worthy of that kind of revere.
As I pined over her, summer hardened into autumn and I listened to The Con on loop. It jibed appealingly with my fledgling queer identity, giving me an image of gay women who were neither fully butch nor fully femme, and who didn’t quite fit the stereotypes of effusively romantic women nor stonily reserved men. They existed in an in-between space that felt familiar to me then. And though their love songs were ambiguous enough that they could’ve been about anyone of any gender, I felt the specialness of these being love songs written by women about women. If there is a particular aesthetic or mood unique to sapphic infatuation, I felt that in the songs of The Con.
One day we had plans to meet up at lunch, but my crush had earned herself a lunch detention, probably for being late to class – she was always late. She told me she’d be stuck sitting on a bench in the office at the time we were supposed to meet. I vowed to come visit her. At the appointed time, she snuck out under the guise of using the bathroom, and we chatted awkwardly and grinningly outside the bathroom door. “Kate! Your face is so red! Are you feeling okay?!” a friend of mine asked when she walked past and spotted us. I blushed even harder. No one was supposed to acknowledge my obvious massive crush on this girl; we weren’t at that stage yet, I felt. I just wanted to luxuriate in the pretense of mystery for a while.
Weeks of coy flirtation elapsed. She called me a “pretty girl” in a Facebook message and I squealed with delight as I read the text to my best friend over lunch. I saw the way her friends eyed her knowingly when she talked to me between classes, like they knew the significance of this because she had told them. We rode the subway together after school and a sudden movement of the train threw me against her as we were hugging goodbye, igniting a million fiery sparks in my nerve endings.
I don’t remember how exactly I decided, but one night I came to the conclusion that I needed to ask her out and I was going to do it by writing her a letter. Tegan and Sara are as likely an explanation as any; there’s a verse in “Soil, Soil” that goes, “I feel like a fool, so I’m going to stop troubling you; buried in my yard, a letter to send to you. And if I forget, or God forbid, die too soon, I hope that you’ll hear me and know that I wrote to you.” I wrote several drafts of the letter and eventually gave it to her at the end of a party. To my surprise, later that evening she called me and said, “So… We should date.”
We had talked many times before that night about how “Call It Off” may have been our favorite track on The Con, an especially perfect jewel on an incredibly perfect album. I even quoted it at the top of the letter I wrote her: “I won’t regret saying this, this thing that I’m saying. Is it better than keeping my mouth shut? That goes without saying.” But it’s a song about a break-up, and I didn’t see the dark prophecy of that at the time. It wasn’t until later that I recognized the foreshadowing as foreshadowing.
Our relationship only lasted five weeks, ending in a tearful phone call where she broke up with me for somewhat vague reasons: “I’m not in a good place to be in a relationship,” “I feel trapped,” “I don’t know what I want but it’s not this.” She cried more than I did. It was a small trauma that has informed every other relationship I’ve had since then: whenever I’m dating someone, I live with a constant anxious fear that they will suddenly decide they don’t want to be with me, and will break up with me for reasons I can neither predict nor understand. That was precisely what happened at the end of my last relationship, almost ten years after that initial blow, and it felt almost exactly the same: a shattering and a crumbling and a sense that I would never adore someone like that again. Like O, like H in your gut.
The break-up was compounded by the fact that we remained friends afterward. Immediately afterward. This is the sort of mistake I doubt I would make now; I’m an emotional masochist in many ways but I also know how to set boundaries and I know what will make me miserable. Remaining friends with my first sort-of-love after she dumped me made me miserable. She told me over and over again, in many different ways, that she regretted the breakup, wished it could’ve gone differently, thought we were a good match, wanted to get back together with me eventually, and didn’t want me to see other people. She was 15, so I forgive these ridiculous manipulations now – but at the time, they felt like knives going in.
“I may have done the upbreaking, but to quote ‘Call It Off’ in its entirety, well, I won’t do that because that would be weird and you probably know the lyrics by heart, but you get where I’m going,” she told me in a loquacious Facebook message a month after the break-up. “So really I’m the heartbreaker for breaking my own heart, except not quite to that crazy heartbreaking angst-ridden extent. And then I had a good thirty-six hours of physically restraining myself from attempting to grab the phone and call you and shout, ‘JUST KIDDING!’ or something to that degree but less comical.”
I listened to “Call It Off” in bed every night, sometimes crying, sometimes just numbly staring into space. “Maybe I would’ve been something you’d be good at,” Tegan warbled. “Maybe you would’ve been something I’d be good at.” It was my first introduction to the idea that sometimes what you mourn after a break-up is not the relationship that was, but the relationship that could have been. The idea of the romance you wanted, moreso than the romance you actually had.
It wasn’t until many months later that the spell finally broke. In July – more than seven months after our break-up – I told my ex-girlfriend about the new girl I was seeing, who absolutely, fully adored me and treated me well, both emotionally and sexually. I was excited and wanted to share the news with my ex, who was also one of my closest friends at the time: I’d just had sex for the first time, and it was great! But I worried she was anti-my-new-relationship, and told her as much in the message.
Her reply came back sooner than expected. “I am not, repeat, not anti-you-having-sex. This is because I am very much pro-you-being-happy-and-doing-whatever-you-want-and-not-giving-a-rat’s-ass-what-anybody-else-thinks,” she wrote. “The only reason I tend to shudder and vocalize rude things at points such as these is because I also happen to sometimes be pro-my-own-sanity. But really, who needs sanity? And anyways, do I really have to go into why I don’t like picturing you having sex with people, when honestly you can probably guess?”
It occurred to me then, as an uncharacteristic blinding rage swept over me, that she was holding me prisoner in a relationship that was never going to be a relationship. Seven months after breaking up with me, she was still moping like it had been anyone’s decision but hers. Still acting like she had any right to withhold love from me, even love from other people. It disgusted me. I couldn’t believe I had been stuck on her for so long.
I stopped clinging to the fiction that maybe we could get back together someday. I stopped hoping against all logic that she might someday be the girlfriend I needed. I stopped obsessively checking her Last.FM page to see if she’d been listening to Tegan and Sara, with the assumption that her musical nostalgia would signal romantic nostalgia about me. We remained friends, but I refused to continue “walking with a ghost.” I had better things to do.