Nina, 27, Writer / Teacher
It was my first year of college. I was seventeen. When a space opened up in the San Francisco State dorms, I packed up my stuff and got out of the suburbs.
By the time I moved in, the other kids had already settled into social groups and I was shy. So while they sat in their rooms playing guitars and laughing and drinking whiskey, I walked by a series of shut doors to my own sad little closet of a room, plugged in my electric kettle for tea, and pressed play on my favorite mix tape.
Just to be clear, this was 2000. CDs were being burned by everyone else, but my high school friends and I had a weird collective nostalgia for a time that was not our own. We carried around walkmans and wore giant headphones and stayed up late rewinding and fast-forwarding and flipping to side B.
This particular mix tape was quite possibly the best mix tape in the history of mix tapes. It had been passed down to me by my friend from L.A., made by a guy named Mike who was rumored to be an asshole but famous for his great taste in music.
Anyway. I had no friends in the dorms.
Then, one day, I heard a knock at the door. It was a girl who lived down the hall from me. She was there to tell my roommate something, but my roommate was in class, and I knew: this was my moment. So we talked in the doorway for a minute and when my electric kettle started ringing she walked in.
Her name was Blair and she had Betty Paige hair and she didn’t smile. She fit right in with the mysterious people I was about to meet in my new San Francisco life. Soon we would be sitting in cafes together, having fascinating conversations and drinking endless cups of coffee.
She was from Stockton, which made her immediately less intimidating, and she worked at the downtown Urban Outfitters.
“I love Urban Outfitters,” I said. “Are they hiring?”
She cocked her head and asked, “What’s that song?”
I don’t remember the precise song that was playing because there were so many great songs on the tape. Jen Wood and Neutral Milk Hotel and Ida and this amazing track by a guy named Justin who, like us, was just out of high school and hadn’t been signed yet—every day and every night that tape came to my rescue, made me feel less lonely, or maybe just made me feel like being lonely was okay, so I have no idea what made me say sure when she asked if she could borrow it. I said it so casually, as if it didn’t matter.
And then I popped open the cassette deck.
I handed her the tape.
Days passed, and I kept waiting for the trip down the hallway when Blair’s door would open and she would say something like, “You must be an amazing person to own such an incredible mix tape.” And then she would let me into her room and it would be decorated with all the Urban Outfitters stuff that I liked—the tapestries and owl-shaped lamps and novelty books—and I would pick up her guitar and be suddenly able to play bar chords and the shyness would fall away.
But the next time I saw her was in the bathroom. I stepped out of the shower stall and she was fixing her hair. I tried to start a conversation about the water pressure but I failed to be interesting.
Finally, I just said, “Whenever you get a chance, I’d love to get my mix tape back.”
“Oh,” she said, looking a little bewildered. “I thought I already gave it to you.”
I don’t know if she noticed the alarm in my face. The mirrors were too fogged up to see. On her way out, she told me she’d look for it.
A few days later I saw her door close right as I stepped into the hall, as if she caught sight of mine opening and ducked back inside.
I thought I heard her breathing in there, but it could have been my imagination.
Weeks passed, and I rarely saw Blair. When I did, she was speaking urgently into her cell phone, or laughing with other people, or disappearing down the hallway and into the shutting elevator.
Meanwhile, dorm life was getting worse. I hated the dining hall because I had no one to eat with. My roommate had terrible fights with her boyfriend late at night. She would yell and cry at him over the phone and I would lie in the dark four feet away from her, wondering if it would be better to pretend to sleep or to wait the storm out in the hallway. As if the fights weren’t bad enough, she had nightmares. I would wake up, panicked, to her screaming, “Get the fuck away from me.”
It was getting to be too much for me to handle. Soon a room was going to open up in a friend’s Presidio apartment, so I decided that, for now, the suburbs were bad but they weren’t as bad as the dorms. I packed my clothes and my kettle and my boxes of tea. I rolled up my Ani Difranco and Bob Dylan posters and I packed my boom box with its empty tape deck. And then I walked down the hall and knocked on Blair’s door and waited.
I’m moving out tomorrow. Don’t forget my mix tape! I wrote on the chalkboard that hung on her door.
And then I was gone.
The car I drive now has a tape deck. I no longer own any tapes. Sometimes when I’m sick of the radio I drive around and try to remember the songs I could be listening to. Ten years later, they still sound amazing.
Blair, I want my mix tape back.