Robyn. Photograph by Lewis Chaplin. Wikimedia Commons, Licensed under CCO 2.0.
This week, the Review is publishing a series of short reflections on love songs, broadly defined.
Someone I recently kissed sends me a PDF of a rare, out-of-print book by John Ashbery. The fragment I tug from Fragment: “Seen from inside all is / abruptness. As though to get out your eye / sharpens and sharpens these particulars; no / longer visible, they breathe in multicolored / parentheses the way love in short periods / puts everything out of focus, coming and going.” It’s been a while since I’ve been in love, and, most of the time, the idea fatigues me: I can see the end before anything’s begun. But these lines make my clarity of vision briefly undesirable; I miss the blur.
When I was nineteen, an anxious wallflower at my first literary party, Ashbery barked at me to fetch him a gin and tonic. Now these lines of his wind back the tape to adolescence: when everything is seen from inside even as the self strains outward and time exits its usual shapes and the imagination knows no end. Teenagers make love and ontology anew. I remember the smell of wet grass on long night walks with the first girl I loved. The matching pale green stains on our white sneakers. Our long hair mingling, dark brown and red, in the stairwell, the party we’d just left still loud down the hall. That this was the most surprising thing that had ever happened to my nineteen-year-old body, though it was also the culmination of months of cloaked flirting as well as—it seemed—the culmination of every desire ever. Yet I also glimpsed how much more wanting there was to do.
Since I am time-traveling back to that relationship, my first queer one, which careened to a slow disintegration I didn’t see coming, I am listening to “Hang With Me,” Robyn’s dance-pop love song that forbids love. “Will you tell me once again / how we’re gonna be just friends?” she begins, a plea that morphs into command in the chorus: “Just don’t fall recklessly, headlessly in love with me.” This is the brinkmanship common to teenagers and lovers, feigning control over feelings.
“And if you do me right, I’m gonna do right by you,” Robyn sings before she gets to that other condition, the one that gives the song its title: if you don’t fall in love with me, you can hang with me. These are the stipulations of a contract that’s never going to work. It’s clear from the ecstatic production and obsessive insistence that Robyn herself is already in love. And in her demands, I hear seduction, the kind that plays out when you’re already in bed with someone, whispering “we can’t” while you do.
Wild requests, wild promises, nothing that can be kept—going as it comes. The “heartbreak, blissfully painful and insanity” that Robyn is worried about speeds toward her. It strikes me that this song is, like me, revisiting adolescent passions from a distance. The time travel is imperfect. “Heartbreak” is the tell. For falling in love to become possible, I’ll have to forget that heartbreak is equally possible, but the anticipation of pain worms into love that hasn’t yet earned the name.
The internet reveals that “Hang With Me” hadn’t yet been released during the short period of love I’ve just described. At first, I am sure that there’s a mistake. The song is overlaid on so many memories of her. But it seems I made a sequential connection simultaneous. At some point that I don’t remember, I heard this song and remembered my ex, and then, at Ashbery’s instigation, I remembered the song and the story together. Now that I’ve written this down, they’ll never be separate. Such a teenage word, never. Like: Don’t worry, I’ll never fall in love with you.
Elisa Gonzalez is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.
Last / Next Article