Posted by: Kate | February 25, 2008

You Oughta Know

After my estrogen-intensive lunch yesterday, I was feeling all empowered and optimistic and just me, in a way that I have a hard time describing. I think some of it is a slow realization that the Pill is really not a good thing for me, and the next time I go on it, I need to get right on an antidepressant. We’ll see. With a little luck, I’ll be able to avoid that decision for a few years.

Anyway, on the drive home, I was feeling good. I always listen to music in the car, but often avoid certain albums or songs if I’m not feeling able or willing to handle the flood of emotions that those sounds bring. Like any number of other small things when I was on the Pill, I hadn’t noticed that I’d been avoiding them, until I was suddenly aware of my willingness to turn it on and turn it up. To experience these memories that I’d tamped down, because they don’t hurt anymore. They ache, a little, at times, but it’s no longer acutely painful. Which is nice, because I’d sort of removed myself from several years of my life on a deliberate basis. It’s not that my entire life was just missing into a black void, more that I would distract myself away whenever certain times and topics came up. And college was better than high school; between the ages of 12 and 17 I have simple and one-dimensional memories of things with big blank spaces in between, which I don’t think will ever fill in.

(No, honest, this is a positive post. It feels good to be able to handle things I couldn’t handle before. Really.)

So I set my iPod “Shuffle” setting to “Off,” and played Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill from start to finish, for the first time since about 1999. The album came out in ’95, right smack in the middle of my college years, and some of these songs just create such a hard, intense association to a specific moment in time… well, here. I’ll take you on the Grand Tour.

All I Really Want
Enough about me, let’s talk about you for a minute // Enough about you, let’s talk about life for a while

This one is from the fall of 1996. Willem and I had been dating for somewhere between a few weeks and a few months; I can’t remember precisely at what point this evening took place. He lived in the fraternity house, I lived on-campus for a few more weeks (until I came home and couldn’t open the door because roommate Irene and her boyfriend were in the throes on the floor in front of it, and I decided to get my own place downtown).

His next-door neighbor in the frat house was Mike, who is still one of his close friends. Mike and I very briefly dated during my early freshman year; I think we went to one movie and a few parties together, I felt too messed up to sleep with him, we faded apart. A week later, I was date-raped by a mutual friend of theirs, and let me tell you that I really was too messed up for that. I still cannot handle the taste of rum.

But, flash forward a few years, to my junior year. I was dating Willem, having recently broke off an engagement to Seth (more on him later), and Willem was friends with Mike, so we all ended up in the same room at various events. Which was frequently awkward, because Mike held onto an odd resentment of my unwillingness to sleep with him for a long time. But by this point he was dating Colleen, and we all went out to dinner a few times, and so on. There was this expectation that Colleen and I should be friendly, at least, if not true friends, since our boyfriends were buddies, so we tried.

It was a stretch. Colleen was lacking in a lot of the ways one might measure the strength and charisma of another human being. She wasn’t hideous, but nor had she yet developed a firm grasp on the best way to do her hair, choose her clothes, generally work with what she had. (No fingers pointed there, by the way – I still don’t have a firm grasp for myself, but I think I was a little less self-conscious about my own awkwardness at the time.) She wasn’t the sharpest cheese in the refrigerator. It was a bit of a challenge to get the ball rolling, conversationally. I remember saying to Willem, “She seems nice enough, but…” and never being quite able to finish the sentence. Maybe it was all my fault, fair enough – moral of the story was, we could manage to be pleasant to each other but never would have chosen to hang out on our own.

Much later, I found out that Colleen’s best friend, Heather, was the first girl with whom Willem was unfaithful to me. He slept with her about a week after we’d gone on a triple date, with Colleen and Mike, Bob and Heather. I have since held a much lower opinion of Colleen and her friend.

But, this was before that knowledge had presented itself to me. I was spending some time with another friend’s girlfriend, Jon’s Erika, and had been asked to “entertain her for a while so I can get some homework done.” So we wandered over to the house. Willem wasn’t there, and it ended up with us three girls in various perches in his room – I was on the ladder to his loft, one was on the couch, the other on a chair – listening to Alanis very loud. It was a moment of bonding that passed as soon as the songs faded out, but for that moment it was a powerful thing.

You Oughta Know
And every time you speak her name does she know how you told me you’d hold me until you died

And every time I scratch my nails down someone else’s back I hope you feel it

Bring on the angst.

In the fall of 1998, I had graduated from college and moved to Boston for grad school. Initially, I lived out in Ashland, famous for being the second town on the Boston Marathon route and nothing much else, but then my tiny little truck died and I needed to move in town to be able to use public transportation. I had this tiny, pathetic, 200-square-foot studio apartment on Huntington Ave., a pet iguana, and a relationship which seemed odd since the summer. Willem and I were still officially together, but long distance is never fun and he was still living eight hours away in northern New York. I was alone in a city full of strangers, and achingly lonely.

And then I got an email from an address I didn’t recognize. It was one of his frat brothers, a guy I knew comparatively well and liked better than several other specimens from the fraternity house. The note was short, telling me that he was worried about me because he was pretty sure I didn’t know that Willem had been with other girls, even though everyone else in the house knew. He spent more time begging me not to tell Willem who had told me than actually breaking the news. Even in the midst of my long, slow meltdown, I was able to appreciate his bravery in going outside the code of brotherhood or some such nonsense, in trying to protect me in a very physical sense, since this was the dawning of the age of STDs.

I didn’t tell Willem, right away, what I’d learned. That email came in September or so, and the next time I saw him was at a wedding in October. We attended the wedding, awkwardly – I’m not sure whether he knew anything was wrong, but I wasn’t drinking, which stood out a little given the crowd we were in. And on the hourlong drive back to my mother’s house, I told him what I’d heard. He didn’t deny it. We ended the relationship. My mother was hosting a party at her house – think backyard bonfire and lots of homemade wine – and I proceeded to get obliterated. I don’t remember the rest of that weekend.

By the time I got home, I had slid directly into anger. I would have happily broken up with him and let him go his own way anytime, just say the word. In fact, I knew that both of us had hooked up with other people during prior breakups; we were on again, off again for much of our time together in college.

I started to write him a letter, but pretty soon it devolved into a recitation of the lyrics of this song, and my statement of, “I can’t think of a reason to bother coming up with new words for you when it has already been said. Have a nice life.” Bitter and resentful don’t begin to describe the mindless rage I felt at my wasted time and gullibility and betrayal. Bear in mind that I was already dealing with PTSD and messed-up feelings about sex and trust and boundaries. I didn’t want to hurt him, I just wanted to be away from him. I did want to hurt myself, and found ways to make that happen; most obviously was the fact that I got back together with Seth. Nothing better than leaving a complicated, messy breakup for a complicated, messy ex-relationship.

We’ll love you just the way you are if you’re perfect

Nothing for this one. But it always kind of made my heart hurt.

Hand in my Pocket
What it all boils down to is that no one’s really got it figured out just yet

Not much here. Just that the college radio station would play it uncensored and I appreciated that. Willem later had a show on that same radio station, an after-midnight metal show, after I’d moved to Boston. I introduced him to Godsmack, he played it on the air and introduced a tiny corner of northern New York to the boys from Lowell.

Right Through You
You took me for a joke // You took me for a child // You took a long hard look at my ass and then played golf for a while

After the initial breakup with Willem in the fall of ’98, I was not in a good way. I was one of those women who could honestly say that there was no inkling, no clue that he had been cheating. Every time I was suspicious or the antennae started to go up, he had a plausible, smooth answer. And I just didn’t live in a world where people lied and manipulated to sneak behind someone’s back. In my world, people took what they wanted by force and didn’t much care who knew about it.

I’d been hit by an asteroid, no warning, flattened. And very alone, more so than before. I got back together with Seth because I didn’t know anyone else in town, and we immediately slipped back into the same comfortable, soulless relationship in which he knew nothing about me that didn’t specifically fit his concept of what a relationship should be. I was invisible, and as dark and depressed as I have ever been. I didn’t contemplate suicide, but only because back in my early teens, when I was thinking suicide, no one much noticed. I’d told friends and the school counselor, didn’t dare tell my parents because they tended to refer to me as being dramatic and lame – their words, not my imagination.

I just functioned in this void, didn’t feel much of anything but cried all the time anyway. I refused to take Willem’s calls, and had threatened him with a restraining order if he didn’t stop calling. I was working full-time days through a temp agency at various big businesses and banks in the city, and was taking grad classes four nights a week. I functioned well, except for the crying. I had one boss, at State Street Bank, who was a particularly emotionless and distant creep of a man. “Um. Do you have allergies? Um, Kathy, right? Allergies?” I was creating an Access database for him, and had reached a low where I just let the tears flow down my face as I typed.

After a bit, I got myself together and could work without overt signs of misery (though I couldn’t smile, either). From then on, he treated me as though I had the intelligence of a banana slug (which may have been accurate) and took every opportunity to ogle any body part I cared to display, from legs to cleavage. Whatever. I didn’t care at the time, but now this song makes me think of him.

I confessed my darkest deeds to an envious man

This one reminds me of my first college boyfriend, Matt. Matt was five years older than me, an Electrical Engineering major with a minor in Religious Angst. He was obsessively Catholic, relying heavily on the guilt and rules to point him through life. He was willing to set this aside to provide me with my first consensual physical relationship, and he generally tried hard to be a good boyfriend. We were just too different; I was straight, he was not. Last I heard, he was living with his longtime partner and his parents still hadn’t accepted his lifestyle. Sad, really. He gave the straight-and-narrow a good try – this is the same guy with the produce-section girlfriend before I came along.

You Learn
The fire trucks are coming up around the bend

My sophomore year in college, I had a single dorm room, with two suitemates sharing a bathroom. This album was brand-spanking-new and I was also in a brand-new relationship with Seth. Out of consideration to my husband’s delicate sensibilities, I won’t go into overmuch detail here. Suffice it to say, the head of my bed was at the window, and during an afternoon there, I watched as fire trucks did, in fact, come up around the bend, to deal with a dorm room fire across the way.

And to be clear, this memory truly is a visual one – I remember those fire trucks. I’m fairly certain of the general type of activities happening simultaneously, but no details. I’m sure you’re all crushed. This is what I mean, though, about how some memories are just not there anymore.

Head Over Feet
I’ve never felt this healthy before // I’ve never wanted something rational

Seth was a complicated guy, who was especially dangerous because he didn’t seem complicated at first. He treated me well, obviously was infatuated with me, and even proposed when I was 19. I said yes, but we broke up for good a month later. My mother was devastated; she loved him and couldn’t imagine me finding a nicer, more devoted guy. All quite possible, but I could already see my future laid out for me. His family was very big into specific traditions: Christmas dinner was always Chinese food, summer vacation was always to the same town on the Cape with days spent on the same beach in the same spot, the women were expected to attain a certain level of education and then stay home and have babies and behave in a passive, somewhat ditsy way.

There was a part of me that was drawn to this, to the enveloping comfort of routines and expectations that I could meet, easily enough. But a bigger part of me was watching my own personality fade away and be stifled within Seth’s need to see that which matched his image of a perfect relationship, a perfect day. I went with him, once, to the Cape for his typical summer vacation. The beach was too crowded, and the water too cold; it literally hurt my feet to step in it, because I have Reynaud’s Syndrome. So I asked if we could go to a different beach, with fewer people or more space, on the bay side so the water would be warmer. “But this is where we go,” he said, as though I had asked him to remove his own head and switch with someone else. “We never go to another beach.” And I realized right then, in that moment, that he wasn’t being a jerk, that this wasn’t a power struggle; he simply didn’t see me. He didn’t see anything that didn’t match up with his preconceived ideas of the way things went. I realized I could stay with him, and slowly give into this, slowly stop seeing myself, too. And I left.

It took me years to be able to articulate this, long after the time when he and I had lost touch. So I’m a little sad, still, at the lack of closure, but don’t regret ending that relationship at all. Especially after I learned about some of the lies he told to me, to friends, to family, in order to try and prevent the relationship from ending. Desperation does not equal devotion, in my world.

Anyway, this was one of “our songs.” And he was, truly, the first healthy, rational relationship I’d ever been in. Not healthy enough, not rational enough, but a far sight beyond any prior attempts.

Mary Jane
You’re the sweet crusader // And you’re on your way // You’re the last great innocent // And that’s why I love you

Oh, I weep when I hear this song. If I let myself, if I allow myself to actually listen to the song instead of sort of glossing over and ignoring it a bit. But my sister’s name is Mary Jane, and while this song doesn’t precisely parallel her life – especially then, when she was 6 or 7 – it has enough heartbreak to kick me in the head, anyway.

I think we have to just go through life, on a day-to-day basis, not really deeply thinking about just how much certain people mean to us, and not even peeking at the possibilility that we might have to live without them someday. But some things, some songs or scents or moments in time, make us sit with that reality once in a while. Which is a good thing, but it hurts.

Life has a funny, funny way of helping you out… helping you out

Not the Doctor
I don’t want to be your idol, see this pedestal is high and I’m afraid of heights

Wake Up
And what goes around never comes around to you

Nothing specific for any of these songs, except that there’s nothing truly ironic in the first song, and sometimes the healthiest thing for me has been to hold someone else together. And I was never quite sure what Wake Up is about.

Your House
I noticed a letter that sat on your desk // It said: “Hello love. I love you so, love. Meet me at midnight.”
And no, it wasn’t my writing // I’d better go soon // It wasn’t my writing
So forgive me love if I cry in your shower
So forgive me love for the salt in your bed
So forgive me love if I cry all afternoon

I don’t think it takes a deep knowledge of psychology to understand why this song might have hit me fairly hard, even if the details aren’t right. I almost think it would have been better to have caught Willem in some form of misbehavior, instead of remaining blithely ignorant right up to the end. I don’t know.

So, there. An hour inside my head. I know it’s all dark and brooding now, and it’s hard for me to articulate just how positive it feels to be able to talk about this stuff without heading down a long and nasty spiral. To be able to listen to this album and enjoy the music without shutting down. It’s a good thing.



  1. I love you no matter what! Big supportive hugs from the NW!


  2. Guess what company I work for in Boston?

  3. Good job I’m taking a day off today . . that was a lo-o-o-o-ng post but well worth the read. I have loads of emotive songs, few that bring me to tears but everyone evokes a memory. Lovely to share your thoughts Kate. Hope you remembered where you were driving and didn’t miss your stop after that synopsis!

  4. Oh, I had to deal with a few Colleen’s in my lifetime. Fortunately, none of their friends seduced my man.

    I still have a few songs I can’t listen to because they bring back too many horrible college memories. I remember thinking College was so much better than High School – but after reading through your post, I don’t know if that is true anymore.

  5. Oh, college was better than high school for me… but high school was really, really bad, so that’s not saying much.

    I think this would all make me fairly miserable now, just thinking about it, were it not for the realization that things ain’t what they used to be. Thank God.

  6. Congrats on surviving!! You are working on re-defining yourself which is hard and soooo worth it. I’m happy you are still with me. I understand being brushed off by mom and dad. Dad has never spoken to me about it- which may be good but who knows what insight he might have…Mom basically told me that I wasn’t old enough to understand the meaning of pain yet and that what I was feeling wasn’t comparable to what she was feeling. That sucked and made me not talk about it anymore, which really only made things worse.

  7. I’m glad you were able to rise above your painful past. Music can bring about so many emotions, it’s hard to ever dissociate certain songs with certain times. I learn a lot from you. Thank you for this post.

  8. So much of the way you write and what you write about reminds me of myself. I often find myself smiling wryly and nodding as I read.

  9. I could write a book about my memories from that album. Some of the exact same phrases ring through my head. Crazy…….. I think I’m going to have to listen to it and reminisce.

  10. […] Kate […]

  11. […] or mundane — Kate @ 12:52 pm Tags: Alanis Morissette, angst, meme, music After writing this wicked long post, I found out that my timing was such that this fits into a group effort – posts along the lines of […]

  12. oh, wonderful nostalgia! I have a lot of the same thoughts with this album. I think I’ve buried it, though.

  13. That line from You Oughta Know (Every time you speak her name/does she know that you told me you’d hold me until you died) – especially taken with the next line (well you’re still alive) is the best betrayal/break-up line in the history of the world, ever.

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