This Love is a Broken Record
Once upon a time, I fell into the trappings of an on-again, off-again relationship. The longest Chris and I went without breaking up was 10 months. After that, we were lucky if we made it more than 2 months before one of us called it quits again. The highs were high, and the lows were low. When I wanted to get back together, nothing but love songs played on the radio. When I wanted to break up, nothing but breakup songs.
The first time I dumped Christopher, Taylor Swift played as my soundtrack. Literally.
Fearless (2008): “White Horse,” “You’re Not Sorry,” & “Tell Me Why”
I played “You’re Not Sorry” on repeat as I shoved his things, mostly clothes, into plastic grocery bags, the kind my mom saved and used for cat litter. There was a Minnesota Gophers hoodie, a faded yellow t-shirt, and a pair of plaid pajama bottoms. I wore them to bed so often that they no longer smelled like Chris. They smelled like me.
I hadn’t been planning on breaking up with him that day, but my parents had come into my room that morning and sat cautiously on the edge of my bed. It was a Saturday, sometime before noon. They had something to tell me. It was about Chris.
Christopher was a twenty-three year old part-time bartender. He tended bar Monday and Wednesday nights until close and Saturdays from approximately 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. He also spent a fair amount of his free time drinking there. I was only seventeen, which meant I never did. My parents informed me that one of my mom’s friend’s daughters had exchanged numbers with Chris at the bar and the two of them had been texting since. He’d apparently been encouraging her to come hang out with him “after hours.” The daughter had been telling her mom — my mom’s friend — all of this and, at some point, she realized: “Chris? Isn’t that Anika’s boyfriend? Do you know his last name?”
The daughter texted him: “What’s your last name again?”
He answered with his last name.
She texted him back, asking, “Do you have a girlfriend?”
He answered, “Does it matter?”
My parents had just finished telling me this when my phone started buzzing. Christopher. I answered, playing dumb. He said good morning and asked if we were still on to hang out tonight after he got off work. I told him I was looking forward to it.
After I hung up, I added, “Wow, I hope you choke.”
When I arrived at Chris’s parents’ house, where he still lived, with my plastic bags in tow, his eyes did that deer-in-headlights thing. “What’s this?” he asked me, and because I’d never had the opportunity to do so before, I delivered those famous four last words: We. Need. To. Talk. We then, ever so discreetly, stepped into the garage to talk privately.
“Who did you hear that from?” he demanded once I told him what I’d heard.
“A reliable source,” I answered. I wanted to protect the innocent.
Chris was not amused by my “reliable source” bit. When I finally gave up my mother, he tried to discredit her, insisting that she’s a basket case — “Your mother is a basket case!” — And then he said how I’m just as bad — “You act like a psycho half the time!” But he didn’t deny or admit anything.
He stomped back into the house, taking my plastic bags with him. When he came back out, he had his car keys in hand. I followed him out of the garage.
“Where are you going?” I asked weakly.
“Back to the bar!” he announced.
Not that it was any of my business since I was no longer his girlfriend.
It figured he fled to the one place I couldn’t follow.
Speak Now (2010): “Back to December,” “Dear John,” & “Mean”
Halfway through my senior year, Taylor Swift released her Speak Now album. Christopher and I were back together (though we’d broken up several more times since our first split) and we were both set to graduate in May. He would be getting his associate degree from North Iowa Area Community College, and I’d be earning my high school diploma.
Christopher had been encouraging me to attend NIACC, but I wasn’t convinced. It was a decent school, sometimes referred to as “the Ivy League of community colleges,” cost effective, and close to home, but I already sort of went there. I’d been attending night classes on-campus since my junior year, and I’d taken a number of dual-credit courses at my high school.
I believed the better idea would be for us to attend the same university. Not the University of Northern Iowa, where Chris had already gone and dropped out, but maybe one of the other major universities. When he decided to apply to Iowa State, I also applied. I was excited by the prospect of us moving onto bigger and better things together: moving out of our parents’ houses, leaving our small, suffocating town. Getting our own apartment.
We talked about scheduling a tour of Iowa State’s campus. Or at least I did.
I kept asking Chris, “When should we go?” And he kept saying, “Not yet.”
He was always making me wait.
Christopher liked to give me vague answers when I wanted concrete plans. If I wanted to know when we were going to hang out, he’d say, “After I get off work,” or “Late afternoon sometime.” He never said things like “I’ll pick you up at seven.” If I asked for specifics, he’d snap, “Do I need to write you a fucking itinerary?” Because I knew he got off work at 6 p.m. on Saturdays, I’d often text him at a quarter past, saying, “Hey, I’m just wondering what time you’re thinking?” And he’d reply, “Soon.” But then it would get to be 7, or 8. Later even.
I ended up booking a college visit to Iowa State University with my mom instead of him.
Chris was deeply unimpressed.
When my Mom and I visited, campus was buried in snow, and it was cold outside, freezing. But it was beautiful, picturesque. I could picture myself there. I was going.
When I told Chris my decision, he announced he’d be returning to UNI in the fall. But he wasn’t going to move to Cedar Falls. No, he’d commute from home, his parents’ house, a 45-minute drive. It was then that I realized he was never going. Chris had never planned to go to Iowa State. He wasn’t mad because I went on a visit without him. He wasn’t that petty. He was mad because I’d thwarted his efforts to keep me from going. He was that petty.
I started planning my future, at least this part of it, without him. And when he scoffed at my dreams, I’d turn up the volume on my car stereo and sing along, imagining that someday I’d be the girl living in a great, big city.
The longest Chris and I ever stayed broken up before getting back together was 16 months. I met someone else at the end of my freshman year, changed my phone number, and didn’t return to my hometown for summer break. I was sick of Chris calling, sick of his recycled apologies. And I was finally sick of listening to T Swift and her songs about some asshole who may as well have been him. I listened to other artists, other albums. I remember months where I listened to nothing but Lady Gaga’s Born This Way record. How free it made me feel.
But eventually Taylor Swift released another hit single, another album.
Red (2012): “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” & “The Last Time”
I broke up with my post-Chris boyfriend while We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together was overplayed on radio stations everywhere, along with Gotye’s Somebody That I Used To Know. That summer, somebody that I used to know sent flowers to my parents’ house with a note attached: thinking of you. He didn’t sign his name, but I knew.
They were from Chris.
The flowers came at a time when I was feeling raw but empowered from my latest breakup (and my latest breakup anthem) but also guilty and untethered. Chris’s flowers made me question my choice to cut him out of my life all those months before, just to end up with my heart on the cutting room floor, broken anew. We’d never been apart for so long. Maybe it was time that we’d needed. I think I really believed we could be better now. Why not try one last time? If nothing else, my heart already knew how to break and heal with Chris; it still had all the old cracks.
We were always, always getting back together.
I remember being surprised by how unfamiliar his kisses felt and thinking he seemed shorter. Smaller, somehow, than he’d loomed in my memories. Our relationship was different but the same. He’d moved out of his parents’ house and with their help bought the bar he’d worked in. Chris was technically a business owner now. There was a honeymoon period, where he said all the right things and showed up when he said he would. But then resentment sneaked in. He couldn’t believe I’d left him like I had, or that I’d loved somebody else. He especially didn’t want to believe I’d become someone else.
History, in many ways, repeated itself, except now when Chris and I fought — which we often did — it felt like I was playing the part of myself. I raised my voice and said my lines, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was bored. It was boring to continue watching someone fail and keep failing to meet expectations I’d set years ago. The bar wasn’t even that high. At least now I didn’t have a curfew and could legally drink to temper my disappointment.
Before my last semester of college, Chris and I were supposed to go on a trip to Seattle. I’d deemed it my dream city based on what I knew from the Internet. I wanted to visit before school started up again, before I launched an official job hunt for the area. I wanted to make sure I liked it there. But while Chris told me he’d move to Mars if it meant being with me, I couldn’t get him to commit to dates or look up flights with me, even when we were alone in a room with a computer and WiFi. At one point he offered me his credit card and told me that if I booked the trip, he’d make it work. I told him to forget it. I wanted Seattle to be something I did with him, not to him.
Ultimately, Seattle was something I did without Chris. Post-graduation, I moved back into my high school bedroom and worked part-time at my former elementary school. I didn’t tell Chris when I started interviewing for an editorial job just outside my dream city because I was afraid he’d send bad vibes into the universe. I didn’t tell him until I’d officially accepted the position and booked my one-way flight. He wasn’t mad, but he was upset. When I left his house, he headed to the bar. I didn’t follow him. And even though Seattle wasn’t Mars, Chris didn’t follow me. Nor did I expect him to.
1989 (2014), Reputation (2017), & Lover (2019)
The year I moved to Seattle, Taylor Swift released my favorite of all her albums. There isn’t a single track on 1989 that I want to skip. It’s best described, by Swift herself, as “the happy place after a breakup,” and that’s exactly what it felt like, what it feels like.
All of Swift’s recent albums — 1989, Reputation, and Lover — play on heavy rotation in my significant other Rylan’s car, whether we’re running errands or on a longer adventure. We both sing along, and sometimes we stop mid-song to exclaim, “Oh my god, Taylor!” or “That is deeply unhealthy” when it comes to some of her more unsettling romantic sentiments. Like the suggestion that anyone should take it as a compliment if you get drunk and make fun of the way they talk. (Don’t be a jerk, Taylor.) Or: the suggestion that if love doesn’t make you crazy, you ain’t doing it right. (Yikes!)
Bad dating advice aside, I still love Taylor Swift’s music. Rylan has even joked that if she were to release a catchy enough breakup song, I’d be forced to dump him.
But that’s not true. I know better now: I don’t need a song, I never did.