Unpacking the Past
This week, to paraphrase a popular current catchphrase, I’ve been unpacking some things. Specifically, I’ve been opening boxes I haven’t looked into since the fall of 2011, when I moved out of San Francisco, leaving behind a house, a 10-year relationship, and a life I thought would be forever.
Since then, the boxes have been stored in various places, as I didn’t have a home of my own. Now that I’m in a new house and have room, I’ve been looking into them.
The biggest surprise has been how few things I’ve missed. I thought there would be a lot of moments of “Oh, I forgot all about this!” But those have been few and far between. More often, I’ve found myself confronting pieces of the past: a photo of me and my ex, the sale documents for the house I no longer own, the ashes of three dogs lost during my time in California.
None of these things have been particularly painful. Strangely, the biggest pauses have come while unpacking the boxes of CDs I’ve had in storage. “Why do I have so many Barenaked Ladies CDs?” I wondered, then recalled that my ex took me to one of their shows on an early date because he was a huge fan, and that the CDs were actually his, somehow forgotten when we divided up the collection.
But much of the music in the boxes predates him, often by many years, and those are the discoveries that have caused the most reflection. Taking out Mary Chapin Carpenter’s 1989 album, State of the Heart, for instance, I was instantly transported back to my first apartment in New York. That’s where I first listened to it, over and over.
Enthralled, I bought tickets to see Carpenter at the Bottom Line, where she almost sat on my lap during a moment of crowd interaction, but chose the fellow next to me instead. I attended the show with my then-best friend, Mary, with whom I have not spoken in more than 25 years after a falling out over something I cannot now remember.
Deee-Lite’s World Clique, released in 1990, features the song “Groove Is in the Heart.” While watching the video for that song at the since-closed Uncle Charlie’s, my neighborhood gay bar, I struck up a conversation with the first man I worked up the courage to pick up and go home with.
Almost 30 years later, David and I are still friends. We dated only briefly, but during that time we attended two concerts together—Rosanne Cash and Fleetwood Mac—and the respective albums they were touring to support, Interiors and Behind the Mask, both came out of my boxes this week.
So too did a bunch of Paula Abdul albums, bought as research for the first book I was paid to write, and CDs by Jane Child, Melissa Etheridge, and Faith Hill, purchased in preparation for interviews with those artists that I did for various other writing projects. Taking each one out, I remember people and events associated with it, a literal soundtrack to my life playing as the memories come back.
Mostly, these memories are good. But it’s also strange to realize how much time has passed since these records came into my life. Was it really 30 years ago that I brought that Mary Chapin Carpenter CD home to that studio apartment, unwrapped it, and heard those songs for the first time?
How have three decades passed since that summer night when I left Uncle Charlie’s with David, my stomach fluttering as I walked him to that same apartment? It feels like yesterday.
At one point I took out a Best of Carly Simon CD. “Who’s that?” Cubby asked, looking at it.
“You don’t know Carly Simon?” I said. He shook his head.
I listened to the Simon album daily for the duration of the summer between my junior and senior years of college, when I worked as an intern at IBM and had an hour commute each way. I could play the whole thing between leaving work and arriving at home, and vividly recall singing along to “You’re So Vain” with the windows of my hand-me-down Toyota Corolla rolled down, the summer breeze doing what the wheezing air conditioner couldn’t. And yet, to my 31-year-old boyfriend, she means nothing. He has his own soundtrack.
As we begin our life together in this new place, there is new music and new memories. But there are also these old ones, cherished and battered, delicious and bittersweet. As I take them out of storage, they come back, reminders of who I was.
And as I look ahead to who I will become next, they play in the background, the voices of old friends keeping me company. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author.