I Won’t Be Home Tonight, He Said

There were six of us in the basement at first. It was a party, so far as a half-dozen high schoolers aimlessly lounging around an adult-free house is a party. The others were drinking vodka sodas; they would haphazardly pour water into the depleted fifth and replace it in the liquor cabinet before we left in the morning. I wasn’t drinking. It would be several years before I did, and that self-imposed isolation felt not only important but like an apt metaphor for my social circumstances. It was, although not quite in the way I imagined at the time.

When the couple that had brought us all together disappeared upstairs, we third-through-sixth wheels idled away the hours with the kind of awkward, meandering conversation that only unfamiliar teenagers can have. I don’t remember a single word spoken that night, but I vividly remember the uncomfortable juxtaposition of socialization and isolated, existential dread that I felt.

It was the last Saturday night of summer. That Monday, my senior year of high school would start. I was miserable, not for any particular reason, but because I was naive and lonely, because my privileged childhood had left me with no real understanding of what life after high school would be like. What I knew of the world, I knew from movies and songs that told me that these were supposed to be the best years of my life. But there I was, stone sober, once again unable to make a connection with the people who should have been my peers. If this was as good as it was going to get, then why wouldn’t I be miserable?

Driving home on Sunday morning, I listened to “Falling in Love” on repeat. (Being very into Lisa Loeb was both in opposition to, and perfectly in keeping with, my punk rock-adjacent aesthetic.) The song is beautiful and cinematic. It tells its story exquisitely, but I was too inexperienced to understand that story as I wound through suburbia, making my way to even more suburbia. Listening to “Falling in Love” then, I understood only its longing sadness and the simplest interpretation of its lyrics. I wanted a gray sky made romantic and I thought that the poetry of the song’s chorus—“the time between meeting and finally leaving is sometimes called falling in love”—was an inescapable, predestined curse of tragedy.

“Falling in Love” spoke to the fear inside of me, the voice that cautioned against attempting any emotional intimacy, that wanted to stay distant to protect against being hurt. It reinforced my worst social habits, allowing me to feel superior for holding myself above the tawdriness of “high school romance” while simultaneously wallowing in self-pity as I worried that the absence of any such romance in my life would doom me to a loveless existence. But I misunderstood “Falling in Love.”

I didn’t appreciate then that Loeb’s narrator goes back into the world, hurt, of course, but looking once again for love. I didn’t understand that the past is not a perfect indicator of the future, that as we grow and change and live, we have the capacity to steer the course of our lives towards where we want them to go. I couldn’t see that, with effort and purpose, it’s possible to build healthy connections and a life in which each day is better than the last for a long, long time.

But that was then.

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