4. The breakup playlist: Shuffle



1. The breakup playlist: Shyness

The last time I saw him I cried.

I tried so fucking hard not to say that thing. But I said it. The mental masturbation and emotion was so pent up that when it was dislodged, a burst of feeling came with it.

“I can’t be the stronger one. I just can’t.”

He sat on my bed. I was leaned over with my arms around his neck, my face against his. I sobbed. He knew what I meant. He knew why I cried. He needed someone to take care of him. I couldn’t do that again. I just couldn’t.

That thing that you try so hard not to say, that is the thing that needs to be said the most. Even though it was hurtful. Even though by saying it I owned it, and owning it meant it was impossible to stay together. It had to be said. What is true must be said. That thing that you try so hard not to say, that is the thing that must be said the most.

That wasn’t the end. The end came two weeks later after a concentrated repeat of the rest of the relationship — my initiating dates, him constantly sick or oversleeping or finding reasons to visit his parents in the suburbs. He’d planned to accompanying me to a work trip to Boston but canceled, only to spend the weekend at his parents’ home. The house was empty. They were on vacation.

Yet all the while he made plans for me to meet his family, attend a big celebration for his father’s 75th birthday, have dinner with his friends visiting from the west coast. He hinted at what it might be like to live in my neighborhood, and vacations in the summer with my kids. I clung to these gestures with hope. Ultimately, it was clear that he wasn’t interested. But like dates and sex, ending it wold be on me. Finally, one weeknight evening he keep me hanging on about whether or not he’d make it. I’d booked and canceled a babysitter, and he still left me in limbo. I texted: “It’s 7. You stood me up. I’m done.”

I suggested we meet for coffee. I felt guilty for being so cold. And by text — not classy, I admit. I also secretly hoped to see, in person, a reaction. Some glimmer of emotion that had been so absent from the previous four months.

He ignored my request.

I didn’t cry again.

But the next day there was an email notification from Spotify. From him. He’d added to the playlist, 4m-ah, that he created when we met. They were songs about breakups. Pretty and sad songs and ugly and angry songs. Emotional songs.

I listened to every one. Then I listened to them again.

I admit, I felt satisfied listening to Ryan Adams,

And with you and I just barely strangers
I’m pretty much just left the fool
Damn don’t the streets look empty though
Just wandering round here without you

And Beth Orton,

I think about you on a moonlit night
And the stars all seem to weep
When there’s so much to lose
There’s never any time for sleep

Look at me doing all these things without you
We always laughed, and you were untrue
Where was it we tried hard not to go to?
I think that’s how I finally came through

All the things we took for granted
The words still live on in my head
All the times I took for granted
All the words I never said

A little overwhelmed (I mean, really, the melodrama) hearing Red House Painters tell me,

Glass on the pavement under my shoe
Without you is all my life amounts to
A final sleep no words from my cutting

Mouth to your ear or taut wicked pinches
From my fingers to your bitter face
That I can’t heal

A chance for calm, a hope for freedom
Outlet from my cold solitary kingdom
By the forest of our spring stay
Where you walked away
And left a bleeding part of me

Empty and bothered, watching the water
Quiet in the corner, numb and falling through
Without you what does my life amount to?

Is that how he felt? Were those words he could not say, but turned to someone else’s music to express himself? Isn’t that why humanity needs artists? To give form to feelings most of us are incapable of conveying on our own?

In my heartbreak I listened to every lyric and scrutinized every melody. I was surprised to also realize he’d been building the playlist the entire time we’d dated. I hadn’t been listening. I don’t subscribe to Spotify, though they send me email ads, which I systematically delete. Some of what I thought were ads were likely really notifications of songs. Songs from him.

I went back and listened. Listened to the great music and I listened to what he was saying all along. What he was telling me, but I had not heard.

While I may have been frustrated he couldn’t say the horny things I craved, Erykah Badu’s intoxicating, sexy voice and slinky refrain told me,

Oh on and on and on and on (my cypher keeps moving like a rollin stone)
Whew on and on and on and on (all night till the break of dawn)
I go on and on and on and on (my cypher keeps moving like a rollin stone)
Ohh on and on and on and on (mad props to the guy ja bone)

Jeff Tweedy gave a remarkably accurate — and hopeful — take on our sweet if fits-and-starts relationship,

You and I, we might be strangers
However close we get sometimes
It’s like we never met

But you and I, I think we can take it
All the good with the bad
Make something that no one else has

And again Tweedy offered a spot-on plea full of self-awareness in “Please be Patient With Me,”

How can I warn you when my tongue turns to dust
Like we’ve discussed
It doesn’t mean that I don’t care
It means I’m partially there
You’re gonna need to be patient with me

The xx reminded me of how I can be so difficult to love,

And I was struggling to get in
Left waiting outside your door
I was sure
You’d give me more

No need to come to me
When I can make it all the way to you
You made it clear
You weren’t near
Near enough for me

And from Ryan Adams I heard what he needed from me, which was to feel safe enough to be vulnerable. Which is what I most craved, too:

And all the walls we built they must come down
Hey, you’re my wrecking ball
Won’t you come and maybe knock me down

When relationships end I always second-guess myself. With rare exception I question whether the breakup was the right thing, or had I been too hasty, too fearful, too lazy to work through something that had potential. After it’s over I always send that late-night text to say hi, or pursue one too many post-breakup hook up — all the while interrogating to death my instincts and rationale.

In the days after this breakup, I felt solid. It was a release from a frustrating situation, and I felt no broken attachment to heal. But now, hearing these songs, my feelings were no longer sure. How could I dismiss a man who cared so much, apparently felt so deeply, to create this audio tome dedicated to me — about me?

Everything was upturned. Had I listened to the growing playlist (which would eventually reach more than 5 hours and 70 songs) during the relationship, would I have been so frustrated by his lack of expression?  Would I have felt so rejected and lonesome, had I been paying attention when, early on in our affair, he’d sent me James Blake’s “Retrograde.” In all its harrowing rawness, I heard him say to me over and over the very exact words I’d needed, but did not hear until now, when it was all over,

I’ll wait
So show me why you’re strong
Ignore everybody else,
We’re alone now
I’ll wait
So show me why you’re strong
Ignore everybody else,
We’re alone now


Would things have been different if I’d heard those words from the beginning? Would James Blake have made me feel safe enough to try again to open up? To be vulnerable in his arms?

Would those hundreds of lines and melodies have forged a connection between us that was otherwise missing?

In my newfound confusion — not unlike my usual post-breakup confusion — I longed for a strong, confident voice to sit across a cafe table and grab on to my shoulders and tell me, No, you’re wrong. We are supposed to be together and we’re going to figure this out. 

In these post-breakup tunes I heard a confidence that I longed for, to latch on to now.

I heard Feist’s crystalline voice, whisper to me,

We don’t need to say goodbye
We don’t need to fight and cry
Oh we, we could
Hold each other tight tonight
We’re so helpless
We’re slaves to our impulses
We’re afraid of our emotions
And no one knows where the shore is

Did he send me Romy Madley Croft to tell me,

And I’ll cross oceans, like never before
So you can feel the way I feel it too
And I’ll mirror images back at you
So you can see the way I feel it too ?


Or Nick Cave to plea (in an eerily biographical depiction of each of our spiritual beliefs, and my minor obsession with his arms and shoulders), lyrics that spoke directly to my specific longing to lay in bed in my former lover’s arms.

I don’t believe in an interventionist God
But I know, darling, that you do
But if I did I would kneel down and ask Him
Not to intervene when it came to you
Not to touch a hair on your head
To leave you as you are
And if He felt He had to direct you
Then direct you into my arms

There were so many things I needed to say. But perhaps even more, things I needed to hear. So late one night I sent him a message,

Thank you for the songs. If it makes you feel any better, I’m sad too. I’d like to get together for coffee.

You’re welcome. I don’t know what there is to say. You said you’re done, no?

I guess I had things to say in person, and it would be a shame not to stay connected in some way. So get together to say goodbye or hello … or I don’t know, honestly.

I’m not sure what to say right now.

It seemed like you were trying to say stuff with the playlist …

Yeah, you’re probably right. I was feeling glum. 

I could feel the hurt, and my response was full of it, too: “I’m glad you’re only glum, then.”

Because when you share, and you are not heard, it hurts. It does.



5 thoughts on “4. The breakup playlist: Shuffle

  1. Hi Emma,

    I’m sorry, it sounds so sad. Those songs are amazing. At the same time, I have to wonder why he didn’t follow up and ask you about them during the relationship. It seems kind of passive that he didn’t, when you didn’t say anything. It seems like he has great potential, but maybe it’s still not enough, or he’s just not there yet in terms of taking responsibility for communicating his feelings? I don’t mean to impose my views, and obviously I’m way outside the situation. Bottom line is that it’s just sad and crappy. You have my admiration for putting yourself out there and saying what needs to be said. Sending my thoughts!


    P.S. — It’s helped me (to the extent that anything can help at times like these) to read a book called “It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken.”

  2. I, too, have been here. Have finally said the thing which could not be said but ever so badly needed to be said. As if all the nervous energy I put into keeping it from coming to the forefront, could keep that away. As if mentally smoothing the wrinkles out of a difficult reality would make everything okay. It couldn’t. It didn’t. But I avoided confronting the boyfriend about it because I wanted to believe we could overcome it. Funny thing, I think I was the only one trying. I was the one manipulating the puzzle pieces to get them to fit – if only we just turned it and twisted it a bit… I thought we were both doing that, but no.

    This relationship you had fits so many parts of my past relationships. The flake who spent time with his parents (parents?) instead of me, the shy guy who couldn’t muster any emotives, etc. I appreciate how you share these details of your life with sincerity and candor. It helps me see the troubling spots that I also spent a great deal of mental energy reflecting if giving up was the right thing to do. It was. And so it is for you, I think. This man has a lot of issues that you can’t help him overcome. He may have so many great qualities, as do a lot of guys. But a play list is deep for 14-year-olds. We’re adults and I just don’t believe we have to settle for anything less than we deserve.

    My new litmus test is to see if I have to google my relationship issue. If so, then I am probably not getting the level of communication that I need.

    I’m just say’n.

    1. ” He may have so many great qualities, as do a lot of guys. But a play list is deep for 14-year-olds. We’re adults.” That one hurt but I needed to hear it. Thanks for that.

      “My new litmus test is to see if I have to google my relationship issue. If so, then I am probably not getting the level of communication that I need.” ==> cracked me up. BEEN THERE (true confession: I may or may not be there right now). So funny.

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