You Don’t Understand, You Don’t Understand

By Gretchen Kast

harry styles new yorkGuitar strings twang simple chords, repeated once, twice, maybe a third? It’s a familiar tune, really–pleasant and a bit folky. This is music made for teenage wooing, like the Oasis renditions boys used in high school to enchant all the girls. Do they use a different band these days? Have I heard this before?

A voice cuts in, through the rhythm and, nope, this is new. You don’t understand, you don’t understand: confident and slightly strained, young and needy, teetering towards petulance. The rhythm is easy, the refrain bouncing along as the tune grows sweeping: a love letter written in foot-tapping harmonies, jealously dipped in hopeful naivety, melancholy wrapped in sing-a-long chants.

It comes to the end and I hit repeat. You don’t understand. 

I can’t help but smile as the chorus picks up again and again. I’ve been smitten with pop music like this before, just as I have been smitten with boys who intone like that: oblivious boys with minds easily changed. Boys who care much too recklessly–which means, of course, they stop caring the same way. Meaning, of course, they come back the same way. They move on and recant, pick up the pieces, beg for mercy. Casually, of course.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I get it. I’m probably thinking of myself here, actually. Routines established, the flippancy habitual. I dole out my own affections in a similar fashion: liberally from far away, but if caught too close, I brush things aside and pretend they’re not happening until all of a sudden here I am and what’s going on and when did I start caring? I didn’t mean to care! Come back!

Shit. How did this happen? How did this floppy haired teenager, all dimples and teeth and stupid tattoos, find his way into my feelings? Not my feelings toward him–those are mostly superficial, glibly indulgent. A cheeky placeholder for all those other dark-haired boys with whom I’ve shared carelessness. No, I mean my feelings. How did I find myself fumbling with the words of a song meant for prepubescents, listening to my own memories sung back to me on repeat while riding the bus to work? When did I start having feelings at all?

Except let’s not pretend that I hadn’t already long abandoned the idea that these five boys were all 12 years old. Let’s not pretend that I don’t know all of their names. Let’s not pretend that I didn’t sit at my kitchen table and listen to this whole album, song by song, before it was technically, legally available, gripping hands with my roommate and grinning gleefully. Let’s just not pretend, ok? You don’t understand.

Did you know Harry Styles wrote this song sitting in a field in Sweden? Did you know Harry Styles wrote this song as the sun was shining and his chest was bare? I wasn’t there but I saw the photos. I read the story online.

I read a lot of stories online, actually. Stories of familiar people I don’t really know. When I was younger, I tore through supermarket tabloids voraciously, rationalizing the habit as an extension of my inherent curiosity (of my inherent fascination with stories in general, I guess) as I consumed the details and committed them to memory. There’s no need to actually buy such magazines any more, the intimate details of teenage pop stars now available in forms more dynamic, more lucid, more self-aware. Sometimes when I’m feeling poetically glum, my mind glitches and replays this one Britney Spears interview, post-breakdown, post-comeback. In the midst of all the stories and all the photos, her voices catches when speaking of loneliness: face pinched, voice small, she whispers, I’m sad. The words visceral in their inelegance; she doesn’t explain further. Instead, in my mind, she repeats herself endlessly, honestly.

I spend many spare moments of my day scrolling through these sorts of moving images. Seconds looped and motions repeated, again and again. Isn’t it interesting how metaphors of broken records can be replaced by those of GIFs? It’s the same idea, really: the repetition of an idea, over and over and over again. But it’s not broken. It’s supposed to do that. They exist intangibly, forever. Sort of.

Sometimes I wish for the ability in real life. Sometimes I feel like it’s all I’m ever doing. Time repeating, time stopped. A face and a body to analyze (a body, bodies, tangible feeling bodies and faces moving eternally). I watch the movements until I have committed them to memory, until I could recreate with words the angles of a cheekbone with my eyes closed. Look away! But no one’s actually there to break my gaze with words of their own.

An endless loop between reality and fantasy, between what is real and what is imagined: the song bops on again. Vulnerability meets virility and I remember how little you understand about what you do to me. And I’m frustrated with myself because, god, just let it go already. But it’s four am and I know that you’re with someone else and I’m not sure who’s singing about whom anymore.

The first two times a boy mumbled half-formed apologies at me, we were sitting stage left as a party raged on beside us. It was an accident, he explained, he hadn’t meant to be caustic. He hadn’t meant for it to turn out this way. The first two times weren’t even my apologies–these were just cautionary tales I consumed from a distance and rewrote as my own. The third time was mine and I thought it was different because there was no party to be seen–but I should have known better that bad habits are hard to break and easily hidden behind bashful eyes.

Do you remember that night? Do you think she could tell? Could she feel me in your hair? Of course not. Of course she couldn’t, that’s ridiculous! But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t there. That at one point some part of me was in fact touching you. And you me. And maybe she sensed it. Maybe she could feel my traces in your hair. I know you could. And sorry love, but I don’t really care. Sarcasm, slipped under the radar just for you. Anger brewed from closeness and sometimes I layer words both flippant and vicious to throw you off the mark. Go fuck yourself. You don’t know me.

(Yes you do.) (You remember me right?) (That wasn’t just a dream?)

But it’s gone, now. Whatever it is, or whatever it was. But I’m not sure I believe it because I’m really good at not-caring and whatevering and telling people lies so they won’t know that what I’m actually really good at it holding onto things long past their expiration date.

And you know the worst part is always that unshakeable feeling of damn, we’re good. This would be easier if it hadn’t felt so comfortable: just you and me, slipping away any time the world stopped looking and stopped talking and I could hear you and we could trade words like spitfire drumbeats. I’m not sure that ever really went away because, look at us! We can still do that!  We’re on fire!

So, just, like, come on! Be with me? We could be happy. We WOULD be happy. A turn of phrase, a grammatical quirk: happy as an adverb, as a second thought, as in you’re my partner in crime and adventure awaits and of course happiness will just come along for the ride, no need to worry. Happily, as in, you want this too; it’s not just me.

It can’t just be me.

No questions. No room for doubt. Feet stomp and time passes and my voice is raspy, racing to keep up. I want it to be you and I forever. Hopeful (a bit desperate). These are words spoken after too many drinks. These are words spoken far too late. These are words I mean, I meant, but maybe my mind was cloudy and anyway they didn’t work so what does it matter if they mean anything at all?

You see, I thought I had time but I guess I forgot that we never promised each other anything out loud.

What I should have said is that what I want is simple, really. Small moments. Kindness. Closeness in the most quiet of senses. Don’t you want that too? Is it supposed to be this hard? How does everyone have this shit figured out? What have I been doing?

Conclusions are difficult to draw when the narration’s unreliable but sometimes I feel like I’m just repeating my teenage self over and over again, muddling my hands in this looped fantasy as I slither through reality with casual disregard. Except, like, I have to try really hard.

Because when people ask me my age, my knee-jerk response is always 18. Which is not true, which has not been true for many years, which doesn’t even make any sense anyway. Eighteen was the year my grandmother died. That was the year I learned German with a bunch of 14-year-olds just because a man in a tweed blazer told me it was a bad decision for my future. That was the year I lost tennis matches on purpose because the second set always took too long and I got bored and I knew it would be over faster if I just let them win. That was the year I wrote my first paper about the power dynamics of men and women in love (one I’d accidentally write over and over again for the next four years). That was the year I looked into a boy’s brown eyes and saw my own. Except my eyes shift colors in the sun and I can’t remember if it was me who ran or if I made it so he had to. 

It feels so easy in my mind. I just want it to be you and I forever. But the logic so painstakingly calculated over the years, the weeks, the past few hours, unravels upon impact as the words actually come out of my mouth. Big words uttered haphazardly. Did I think this through? Am I asking too much?  Am I actually saying anything at all?

I wake up in the morning with a feeling in my gut to match the dull pounding in my head. It’s potent and unmoored. Unshakeable. Regret isn’t it. Regret is past tense, it’s the desire to erase, to strike from the transcript and make go away. Dread feels closer, but not immediate enough. Dread implies a future; you dread something that is not yet here. But what if nothing’s coming? What if you know nothing is coming? What if you don’t want to take the words back, you just want them to work differently? But you know they won’t. You know you cobbled them together too late. And you can’t stop yourself from going over the pieces, over and over again, until they feel like pages you could annotate.

As a linear narrative, this is a song that describes the vague notion a relationship based on vague notions of possibility. Two people who were “meant to be” but walked away regardless. The walking away is definite, but the actual relationship isn’t really; all we know about it is that it hinged on a possible future, which was broken by a twist of fate. The physicality (of touching skin and traces left behind) are bracketed by hypotheticals (I wonder if he knowscan he feel?, I want). Reality blurred by the imaginary both past and present and future. All of it is buffered by language, all that exists are the words (which means, perhaps, that they’re susceptible to those of other people. I don’t care what people say when we’re together as a reminder, an apology, a promise). The present is nuanced: it has a specific time and place and feeling. We’re on fire now. This is how I feel now. This is what I want now. And this is what you want now too, right? Except all of it is naively one-sided, resting entirely on what is known. It’s 4 am and I know that you’re with him. You know I want to be the one. I know you want to leave. It relies on a certain confidence in the closeness of these two people: I know, you know, I know. But if the past is so unformed, so easily broken, can we be so sure of the present?

It’s dread in the moment. It’s dread in the intransitive. I dread. You dread. He she it dreads. But there’s nothing on the horizon to focus the feeling. And all I’m left with is my self.

Did you know Harry Styles thinks about language? Did you know Harry Styles postulates about how he’s perceived in the third person? Did you know Harry Styles hates the word “famous” because he feels that, as a label, it erases a lot of substance that a person has? Did you know Harry Styles wants to be remembered as “nice” but the DailyMail wants him to be remembered as a “lothario”? Did you know Harry Styles doesn’t sleep very much? Did you know Harry Styles wears his boots until they fall apart completely? Did you know Harry Styles has a face like a lighthouse, meaning “magnetic” meaning “I can’t explain what it is”? Did you know Harry Styles has no home? Did you know Harry Styles probably worries about how he will ever have time to do everything he wants to do in the world and he probably just does things without even thinking sometimes because life’s too short? Did you know Harry Styles probably thinks a lot about things after the fact? Did you know Harry Styles likes to meet new people? Did you know Harry Styles takes people to places they’ve never been and then he puts them down? Did you know Harry Styles still gets nervous? Did you know Harry Styles is probably just a figment of my imagination, a collective fever dream, a projection?

It’s hard for me to talk about next steps in real time. More often than not, my life just keeps happening, just keeps moving and I can’t catch it and then all of a sudden here I am looking back and realizing I missed it. That thing there. That was it, wasn’t it? Why did no one tell me? There was a chance there and I missed it. Can I grab hold of it now? Can we just stop for a minute so I can go back and snag it from its place in my memory and hold onto it here, with me, now? I’m ready and I promise I’ll hold on tighter this time.

Except, I can’t even tell what tense I’m in anymore. Edges blurred and feathered, timelines slighted and forgotten, I’m not sure what ends up. We had to walk away. Past tense. We’re on fire. Present. Be with me is an imperative but Be with me, so happily might be the subjunctive? Not a demand but one of those various states of unreality, of wishes and hopes and all that cannot be proven? It must be that one, but I failed that part of French class and I don’t think we even think about it that way in English so it probably doesn’t matter.

And so the song grows grand and the beat-steady pounding welcomes dashboard drumming and windows wide-open as the words slide into sing-along soundbites of bumbumbahhhhdum dumdumdaaaaahhhdum. We don’t need words we don’t need language we can just sing bumbumbahhhhdum building and building and building dumdumdaaaaahhhdum until a strained shout stops the music. We’re on fire NOW. Pause. Rise to the surface. Deep breath. And dive again. I don’t care what people say when we’re together. Back to the beginning, repeat from the start.

I’ve been told I over-analyze. I’ve been told I get lost in the details. I’ve been told I get caught in my routines. So let’s just start from the beginning, again:

“You know those relationships? Those ones that didn’t last. Not for any particular reason, maybe. Maybe it wasn’t a blow up or a scandal. Maybe it was just poor timing, maybe both of you were busy or distracted or unsure and maybe you thought you had more time. Later, when things settled down a bit, you’d be able to give the other person your full attention. It was casual, really—a brief but comfortable dalliance that fizzled under the pressures of other people’s opinions or other people’s needs. The circumstances didn’t work, there was something you just couldn’t get right when you tried to make it fit with the logical and rational. But when it was just the two of you, god that was great. And if that part worked then the rest would fit into place, right? You could let it go with the understanding that it could be picked back up later. That was the agreement, right? You didn’t say it but it didn’t need to be said, right? And so you just, like, went about your life. Back to the real world, the daily grind. You’d pick it back up later once you got your shit together. It wasn’t a big deal. But then maybe one day someone mentioned a new person. Maybe you stumbled upon a photo of the two of them, or spotted them from across the bar, or heard about them in a gossipy offhand comment. But didn’t you have an agreement? Wasn’t their life just as chaotic as yours? It was just timing, right? Because you were great when you were together. You were on fire. And god maybe it was actually you that didn’t work, maybe it was you they couldn’t be with. But then maybe you see that person one night. And you spend all night chatting like you did before, like nothing had changed. And you know that said new person now exists but you don’t talk about it and maybe that means they were just a passing phase. This works. This had always worked. This will always work. You two should be together. But you’re wrong. You’re wrong because that new person does exist. And they’re still together. But you think that maybe they don’t really want that. You think that maybe they know that they would be better with you. Because that’s what their eyes are saying and the way they laugh at your jokes like before. And you don’t want to say it, to ask, to beg, because you don’t want to break whatever this is here, but you drop the hints that are half picked-up, but ultimately disregarded. They’re with someone else now. And there’s nothing you can do to change it. And you’re not angry or mad or sad or heartbroken, you’re just kind of frustrated, and really stupidly still sort of hopeful. You don’t understand, your voice aches. This could work now! I don’t care what people say anymore! Frustration so easily turns sarcastic, turns comfortable, but the truth behind all of it is simple: I want to be close to you again. Be with me. We could be happy.

You don’t understand because I’ve never really asked any of you to. I’ve never said the words out loud. But language becomes slippery when I’m trying to mean something and misunderstanding repeats itself with every new boy, repeats itself so many times that it becomes the story, the you (no, not you, but I’m sure you still think so anyway). It’s become nothing more than a looped memory, a moving image, a song stuck on repeat.