Slow Show was the only song by indie rock band The National that I listened to before I moved to Cincinnati. It found its way onto a playlist that I liked to listen to in the come-down hours after a psychedelic trip. The playlist was made of a bunch of love songs that felt musically like love, with romantic lyrics I would sing to myself to keep my brain from falling into the darkness as it came back online. I loved crawling into the character of this sad and lonely man at a party, loved the idea of being the one he came home to.
I loved the lyrics,
You know I dreamed about you, for 29 years, before I saw you.
I loved that song but I never listened to anything else by the band until I moved to Cincinnati. I didn’t want to listen because — for as much as I loved the idea of someone dreaming about ME for most of their life — I knew that line was bullshit, the ultimate love bomb. One that could convert anyone who has ever longed to be understood and loved [ie pretty much everyone] into a true believer. A nightcrawler that trawls the ocean floor at the end of a hook, passively hunting for anything that bites. I loved Slow Show in the same way that I used to love the feeling of vulnerability before I knew how to protect myself – an existential rush, high on itself, erotically close to death. I know that when a sad man tells me that he dreamed of me, what he’s actually talking about is his own fear of being alone.
I was carried to [Cincinnati] in a swarm of bees. I fell down a rabbithole in March 2020 and woke up a year later in a swamp next to the Ohio River. I was a naked stranger with mysterious injuries, an anomalous childless freak of a forty-year-old. An East Coast cryptid that escaped smalltown hell without the help of a trust fund. I carved out a small place for myself as a storyteller and a listener, the only things of value I had to offer in exchange for a moment of human connection. I became a repository for painful memories, and then an object of projection. My mere presence was a refutation of evangelical communalism, shameful proof that not everyone stays devoted to their abusers.
My life in Cincinnati was held together with the wispiest threads of Midwestern congeniality and hope that one of my dates would baptize me into their life and remove the sin of being an unmoored and unchosen woman in Ohio. I was too poor and too isolated to build a life there any other way. I took refuge in The National, Cincinnati exiles intoning the emotional landscape of the landlocked, the disconsolate, the resigned. I listened to one song, and then another, and then my entire commutes were given over to them. For the next year I blanketed myself in their songs, whose lyrics wove in and out of every strange moment I shared with Cincinnati’s lonely sons.
The National is like Jawbreaker or Bright Eyes for the middle-aged: singing sad songs for sad men that still won’t go to therapy. Music for sensitive people whose brains were shaped by parents who were too distracted or traumatized to love them unconditionally. Baritone romantic failures and fear of change, steeped in twenty more years of regret. I too want to be loved unconditionally. I kept singing along and kept trying to understand my dates, but they mostly just wanted their dicks sucked in their own houses, in front of the TV. The National helped me to rationalize their behavior and empathize with their pain. Their mothers just didn’t love them enough: why should they put work into healing when it was their mothers’ fault they were so damaged in the first place?
One of my dates told me he liked the band, but was upset that they were more often identified with New York than Cincinnati these days. I said that’s on you. It’s nearly impossible to heal when you are still completely enmeshed in the relationships and situations that damaged you in the first place. And that’s ultimately why I left Cincinnati, why I cut ties with all my dates, why I can’t listen to The National anymore. I can’t plant myself in soil that only spits me out. I can’t go back to dating sad men, thinking I can nurture the growth that they don’t even want for themselves. I can’t keep listening to these songs over and over, reliving every painful moment just to feel anything at all. I can’t waste any more time hoping to hear that I have been dreamed about by a sad man. I’m too busy dreaming of all the future versions I will become.
Five months after returning to Philadelphia, I drive six hours west to finally see The National live, to relive the sad memories one more time. I dress for a cathartic last date, donning my favorite red dress and black eyeliner. The concert is in a beautiful old theater, the kind with chandeliers suspended high above the pitched audience and acoustics that make every ticketed experience an immersive one. The band walks on stage, I’m sitting in the tension of knowing I have to do what I have to do. The first song crashes open, the singer is feeling around for his legs. From my nosebleed seat I can see them as humans, as humans performing their music for us all. Where their music was once my secret devotion to my specific pain, it is now released into a congregation of humans, all of us remembering our own specific pains as we sing along. I release a few tears and the rest of the memories come pouring out. I still love The National the same way I have love for all of the sad men I’ve kissed, but I’m ready to go home.