25. Song No. 177: “All I’m Losing is Me,” Saves the Day
Stay What You Are, 2001
Saves the Day is one of those bands that’s forever distilled into a moment, no matter the song, no matter the album: It’s my senior year of high school and I’m sitting in a borrowed Ford Focus one early-autumn Saturday morning, singing my heart out to “Certain Tragedy” because I still hadn’t gotten that summer’s Stay What You Are out of my system, waiting for the school to open for weekend rehearsals. Senior year was a year of firsts for sure, and finding myself in the fall play was among those unexpected happenings. Just like I never thought I’d voluntarily spend one minute more in a building that made my teenage heart utterly miserable.
Senior year was also the one year of high school I came the closest to enjoying. I leaned hard into the affected facade of a perpetually annoyed emo/goth weirdo but wound up making more lasting friendships that year than in all of high school combined. I met one of those friends through the fall play and spring musical that year: Tahlia was a year younger than me but light years cooler, and we bonded over similar musical tastes and mutually loved books and all these other interests that suddenly seemed so much acceptable now that someone who imbued their quirkiness with confidence shared them with me.
* * * * *
Saves the Day remained a mainstay in my musical rotation throughout the year, even as the appeal of their third studio album catapulted them into a mainstream fame that Dashboard Confessional, Jimmy Eat World and other darlings-of-the-underground-turned-rising-stars had begrudgingly prepared me for. Any diminished interest I had in them over that next summer bridging the gap between high school and college came back with a screaming vengeance when I made new friends who shared my musical tastes AND found out that son of one of my professors was part of the band in their pre-fame days. But they retained that Indian Summer feeling from high school, and instantly rock me right back to it whenever one of their songs find its way back to me.
Having such visceral connections to my hometown while happily (if not cluelessly) stumbling my way through falling in love with college underscored how I was finally feeling at home for the first time. Reluctantly going home for birthdays and holidays and school-mandated campus closures like the interminable exile of winter break turned my teenage ennui for the town I’d spent 15 years into low-key loathing. I’d bitterly complain on LiveJournal, in AIM conversations, in away messages, wherever I could let it be known that I felt trapped in a bland suburban prison—and friends, especially those who still had a year of two of high school left, started calling me out on my bullshit. My conflict-resolution skills were about as developed as the rest of my immature inner workings so I had no idea how to handle it; thankfully, people like Tahlia were not only infinitely cooler but also much wiser than I was and knew how to get their point across firmly but gently.
With much of my back-home friendships going virtual, we had a chance to have those soul-baring late-night wall-of-text ur-social-media conversations that lend themselves to the forced conversational pauses that, both as a writer and a person who stutters, I’ve always appreciated about written communication trying to happen in real time. Those necessary ebbs and flows are where understanding happen, and getting to reread someone’s thoughts over and over again to fully feel their weight is not a luxury that spoken conversations affords. Tahlia was the ultimate early adopter of all things tech and media, so the Venn diagram of our overlapping gravitations toward similar outlets for vastly different reasons was some circumstantial happenstance that deepened our friendship like a year of being in physical proximity didn’t. The occasional “West Wing” marathons on her mother’s couch didn’t hurt, either.
Music remained a common thread that eclipsed them all, though. We kept finding thoroughly unexpected commonalities: Years later, Ben Folds played at Tahlia’s college campus on her birthday, which became a traditional yearly commemoration after I vomited exclamation points all over her status update back when Facebook was still a glorified online bulletin board. We often found ourselves as the only other person either of us knew who loved some random band with equal ardor, leading us from concert to concert from Philly to New York. Those car and train rides were filled with “Oh, have you heard this band yet?” and shamefully hushed admissions like “Yeah, I mean, I LIKE ‘Harry Potter’ but I don’t really LOVE it like everyone else seems to.”
Eventually, I went my way and she went hers, but we stayed in touch because of course she was already an established presence on every social medium by the time I begrudgingly signed up, too. She was the first to excitedly comment whenever I crossed something off the wedding to-do list; I cheered her on as she started taking jobs that suited her absolutely wicked array of talents, interests and smarts; we raged over the glaring offenses and celebrated the emotional gifts that the “X-Files” reboot dumped into our lives for two whiplash, inconsistent seasons of mostly palatable modern television. She had her life and I had mine, but we always waved and chatted for a bit when they intersected.
* * * * *
Two years and a handful of days ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through Facebook at a job I hated, as I was wont to do to ease myself into another shitty Monday. Someone had posted a childhood photo of Tahlia to her wall. It was adorable, I tapped the appropriate reaction, and moved on with my day. And then someone posted another old photo of her. And another. And I slowly pieced together what had happened, googled her name, and was greeted with not one but an entire screen of obituaries and news items about her sudden death. She was 32.
* * * * *
My childhood hometown has been one of my main beats since coming back to hyper-local journalism in early February, and it has been the weirdest, surrealist pseudo-deja vu to revisit long-forgotten and suddenly familiar roads, developments, local landmarks both familiar and jarringly new-to-me, and my old schools. I wandered around my middle school right before the pandemic and was almost overwhelmed with the memories of adolescent heartache and the urgency that also accompanied it; I’ve retraced old steps that still resurrect the viscerally recalled gut-punch of finding out that the boy I’d hopelessly crushed on for years was sick over a popular girl I could never compare to. I’ve twice been to the same loathed old school I’ve had neither the reason nor desire to revisit since my little brother’s 2005 graduation, each time studiously avoiding the same parking spot I chose the morning of my own long-ago graduation for its easy escape route so I could grab my then-boyfriend and run off the field as quickly as I could, relishing the comfort of watching a building I’d resented with varying intensity for four years fade to nothingness in the rearview mirror.
One of those reluctant returns to my old high school was its recent pandemic-modified graduation, where I caught a cross-campus go-cart ride with a football coach who excitedly chattered about how my graduating year saw one of the most successful years the football team ever had. He dropped names that I vaguely associated with the jocks my friends and I sneered at with the same derision they lobbed at us for being weirdo freaks, and for a minute, dusty memories of two decades ago resurfaced and did not let up for the next two hours as I snapped 402 photos and wondered what Class of 2020 grads desperately wanted to be anywhere else as their similarly loathed high school experience finally ticked down its final minutes as it drew to a merciful end.
The songs that got me through high school have been as much on my mind as the people who did, especially as I’ve found myself driving through neighborhoods of my childhood, some of which are freakishly preserved while others have changed drastically in the 20-plus years since I last saw them. The sidewalks where I rode my bike or walked my beloved childhood dogs for an excuse for an escape are all still there, just like so many houses I remembered for childhood’s endless sleepovers and the secretive illicit behaviors of one’s teenage years.
The apartment Tahlia cleaned out after her mother’s death, the same apartment where we thematically demanded the finest muffins and bagels in all the land to accompany the “West Wing” binges only we could appreciate, is right near one of my frequent stops in town. And I’m hit with a sense of double loss whenever I pass it, never expecting how palpably I feel that gut punch even though it happens every goddamn time. A visit from Saves the Day always resurrects a lot of ghosts, but I’m learning that it takes a conveniently plotted drive to feel like the one I miss the most is only just a song away.