A few weeks ago my husband, Clayton, called to tell me he had found a mixed tape in my old boom box. Written on the outside was, “Julie’s Music Sampler II” and he asked if I knew what that was. He said he had listened to the first song and he thought it sounded pretty good. The next Saturday, I played the tape and forced him to sit through the first side, “Music to Get Groovy To,” while we were eating lunch, which mostly consisted of me dancing around the kitchen while he shook his head and rolled his eyes at me.
I met Phil at summer drama camp, 30 years ago, when I was 16 years old. I don’t remember the moment we met, but I do remember a few of our interactions from that week. I had arrived armed with the only two albums that Phil had deemed worthy of anything. “The Joshua Tree” by U2, and the soundtrack to “Pretty in Pink.” Everything else I had was crap. I lived in a small farming community in Illinois and everyone was either listening to country music, heavy metal or whatever 80’s pop music was available on the radio station that we were able to tune into. I’m pretty sure Phil even thought that U2 had sold out with “The Joshua Tree” if that gives you any insight into his level of music snobbery. I arrived at the final camp event (the dance) wearing my hair in a banana clip like so many girls in the mid-80’s were doing. Phil immediately took it out of my hair and told me I shouldn’t try to be like everyone else. To be fair, my hair never looked good in those things so he was right on that front.
He wore Dickies brand work pants and plain t-shirts and had a crew cut with an interpretation of a small duck tail in front. He spoke really fast and looked me right in the eye when he talked to me, which made me super uncomfortable. I don’t think a boy had ever looked at me that way before. After we returned to our respective towns, I received the first envelope of what would turn out to be a fairly vigorous written correspondence. Phil didn’t just send letters, he sent experiences. They always arrived in manila envelopes and were filled with written pages that sometimes stretched over a series of days. There were little trinkets that were probably procured from bubble gum machines. Little bits of trivia on cardboard, pieces of paper with information from I don’t know where, drawings etc. It was like a little package of a journal of his days, walking around school and his town. I imagine him picking stuff up and sending it all to me along with his thoughts in a rambling letter. The things that he told me were probably typical of any teenager but what was so stunning to me is that a boy would tell me these things. Sure, my girlfriends and I talked to each other about the problems in our life that seemed so important and urgent and horrible at that time but I had never experienced a boy revealing these things to anyone, let alone to me. And then there was the music he sent me.
Phil would do things like jump over five rows of seats at an Echo and The Bunnymen show when he saw me in the crowd. He pushed his entire body up onto a slanted glass window when he saw me at a U2 show. He picked me up in his gorgeous antique car and we went out with a few friends one time. I remember him standing up on the booth at a diner and yelling things like Vince Vaughn did in “Swingers.” This was way before “Swingers” came out and somehow it feels different when it’s happening in person. Phil was like a combination of John Cusack’s character in Say Anything and John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity with a healthy dose of adrenaline thrown in when you least expected it. I used to watch movies in the 80’s and think that I wanted to meet someone like those characters. I wanted a boy to make grand gestures like Duckie Dale in “Pretty in Pink,” dancing around the record store singing Otis Redding. I wanted a boy to stand outside my window with a boom box, playing our song up to my window. But in reality, when those kinds of things happen to me, it is really uncomfortable. Years later at my wedding, I had it written in the program that guests should remain seated while I walked down the aisle because I knew I would pass out if everyone stood up and turned to look at me. It turns out that I hate grand gestures.
In person Phil was intense. But letter writing Phil was my lifeline to the outside world. The music he sent me was life changing. There was The Cure’s “Standing on a Beach” singles. There was another mixed tape that came before the one my husband found but I don’t remember what was on it. The second one was my favorite. When I listened to it the other day, I still remembered each song that was coming next. It was like hanging out with an old friend.
I feel like I need to mention that when I met Phil, I was having a difficult time. I never told him this but the previous year I had a humiliating experience at my school. It was one of those things that for anyone else might have been easily forgotten but for a sensitive child, these kinds of events tend to shape the person you become. Sure, in the years before this, I had experienced betrayals by friends and in the years after I would deal with cheating boyfriends and other difficult life experiences. But I can honestly say that this single event in my life became the thing that changed me forever. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Knowing that everyone at school knew about it was bad enough but finding out that my family had known about it before it happened and had done nothing to warn me was what hurt the most. It was at that moment, standing in my kitchen with my mom and my sister that I formed the belief system that would stay with me for a long time. One that I still struggle to de-bunk, even today. The idea that no one is to be trusted and that I am totally on my own in this world. The belief that people who look like they belong are mean and should be avoided at all costs. If the mainstream world didn’t want me, I would reject them first.
And then Phil’s letters came and they contained this music that was unlike anything I had heard before. No one I knew was listening to anything like this. I started dressing differently, shopping at thrift stores, wearing my dad’s old black letterman’s cardigan from the 1960’s. I teased my hair to look like Robert Smith from The Cure. I started talking back to my teachers. I listened to “Dear God” by XTC before going to youth group meetings at my church. I developed my best “What are you looking at” glare. Sure, I still managed to be a pretty good kid but by all outward appearances, I was fairly strange looking for my farm community and that’s the way I wanted it.
Phil and I were never romantically involved, (save for 15 minutes at drama camp) but I think his friendship changed my life forever. Later that year we both went on to date our high school sweethearts and the letters tapered off during our senior year. He went to college in Chicago and I left for the southern part of the state. We re-connected after college for a bit. I looked him up and we hung out for a week in California. I was moving out of the state after a horrible job experience and he was moving in, trying to get something going in L.A. Eventually we met up again in Illinois for a time, saw a couple shows together. I haven’t heard from him in over 20 years. I don’t think there were any bad words between us, no reason for it but it’s hard for me to say. My dad died shortly after that and everything around that time is a blur for me. I know that he had made me another mixed tape in California that had some Radiohead and a throwback “Under the Milky Way”. There was another tape that had Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska” on one side and a Low album on the other, making it possibly the most depressing tape ever made. By this time we had both gotten into Americana and Alt-Country and I had made a little detour into some folk. Phil had evened out a lot, he was much quieter and easier to be with and I was a bit more anxious and depressed.
Phil’s internet footprint is almost non-existent, unlike mine. But I do know this. He looks just as he did the first time I met him and just as he did the last time I saw him. As for me, I occasionally try to fit into mainstream society. It does sometimes make me really uncomfortable. I think I’ve managed to find a balance. To figure out who the real me is and to break down some of my walls. The truth is, no matter how high you tease your hair, and what music you listen to, you’re still the same person underneath. I’ve done a lot of work to figure out who that person is and I’m pretty happy these days. The other day my husband and I went out to breakfast and as we were driving out of the parking lot, there was a man standing there, looking at me. He must’ve looked a little too long because I said out loud, “What are you looking at?” Only those aren’t exactly the words I used. My husband just started laughing and shaking his head. Despite my constant encouraging of him in the last few years to join me in being a little more positive in life, he knows that deep down inside, my 16 year old self is still there, sending out a little warning to the world that I’ve got my eye on you all the time. Just in case I have to put those walls back up, head to my bedroom and put in that mixed tape.
*I created a Spotify playlist if you'd like to check it out HERE.