Some songs have become time portals to my past.
Who knows why or how this happens. I can’t explain it other than to acknowledge that the sounds of certain songs — those mystical arrangements of notes and words and silence and instruments mixed with voice — in some inexplicable way became part of who I once was, and because of this, will always be part of who I am.
Janice Ian’s “At Seventeen” is one. To hear its opening sounds is to once again find myself in 1975, driving home from O.U. in my gold 1972 Camaro. I’m taking two classes in summer school and hurrying home to drop off my books and catch a quick bite before going in to work.
Life is too full. Yet it is not the life I thought I would be living a year ago. I am exhausted between school and studies and working full-time in retail and teaching a few young girls at my church on Wednesday nights. I have no time to think. Or feel.
There are a few nice guys who have expressed interest in a date though I have not encouraged their interest. When they ask for my telephone number, I make excuses. Intentional or not, all nights are safely covered by an excuse that discourages involvement. Perhaps my busyness is deliberate as I’m nursing a broken ego, trying to get past a failed romance.
That summer, my world was getting ready to break open in a new and different way. My parents were moving to Austin, leaving me behind to live life on my own with a girl I hardly knew. But it didn’t matter because her mother and my mother knew each other. It was sort of like an arranged marriage — awkward for us roommates but convenient for our parents who were footing the bill. But all this was in the future, two months down the road.
For now, I am in the car connecting my life with this song. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it. But from this moment on, I will forever listen to this song as I am on that summer day in 1975. I will be young again, driving the highway with my car window all the way down. My long brown hair will be blowing free. And for some reason, when I hear the opening notes, I will once again reach toward the radio to turn the sound way up so that my car speakers vibrate.
But back in the past, I grow sad as I listen to this song. It invites me to wonder about might-have-beens. If I had been prettier, would I have been good enough? Smarter? Funnier? If I have been better somehow, would I be living in the land of happier-ever-after?
Do tears fall that day? I don’t remember. But I know I am sad for this girl in the song. And I am sad for myself. This song and I share a common truth of not being good enough. And even when I pretend to no longer be hurt, this song allows me to confess otherwise. And like any good confessor, this song will not breathe a word of my private truth. My secrets are safe with Janis.