An ode to the music that brings us together, enhances our most treasured moments, and ultimately acts as the soundtrack to our lives….

by: Jianna Heuer

I believe there are three types of people in the world. The ones that are moved to tears, laugh out loud, and feel chills when they hear music. Those that proclaim to like all music. And, those who don’t care about music at all. When I listen to a song, it’s a full body experience, a phenomenon known as frisson. Scientists who study how music affects humans, vary in their  findings about exactly why music can move many of us so deeply.  I like to think one of the reasons music exists is to help us find our people. 

Jason was thirty-four when we met but looked twenty-seven with his baby face. His face was adorned with a sweet spattering of freckles, his hair was brown, and his mischievous gold-flecked eyes nearly glowed. I was twenty-two when we started taking all our smoke breaks outside Simon & Schuster, the publishing company we both worked for. He was a just out-of-school assistant book cover designer and I was a managing editorial assistant. I was still new to the city when my 23rd birthday rolled around. On a Tuesday stuck at work with no close friends nearby, Jason could sense I was feeling lonely. He thoughtfully ventured to the subterranean hallmark store in Rockefeller Center and bought a birthday card and had everyone in the office sign it. A couple weeks later, outside a Irish dive bar in midtown, drunk off stale bud lights, he kissed me over a steaming subway grate. The kiss lasted nearly a half hour. It was undeniably charged. Despite the age difference and a myriad of concerns about viability of anything working between us, we were both all in. On our first date, he took me to two premiere restaurants, HanGawi and Little Branch, and later we snuck into the Chrysler building. It was enchanting, and I tried to take him home that night. He declined, saying it would be worth the wait, and he expected this to be the first of many dates.

The day after our third date, Jason gave me a burned CD. I dissected the songs like I would have with mixtapes in high school. I looked at every track as a coded message of how he felt about our relationship. Most of the music was new to me, so I had to listen to it repeatedly to decipher what he was trying to tell me. “Maggie May” by Rod Stewart was a departure from the rest of the predominantly dreamy, indie rock: Interpol, Bright Eyes, Gillian Welch, The Killers, Jolie Holland — all of which I could interpret in some positive romantic light. There in the middle of the playlist and with lyrics like “You stole my soul, and that’s a pain I can do without” and “Maggie, I wished I’d never seen your face,” Rod Stewart’s famed hit threw me, and I obsessed about it through our following few dates.

On the morning after our fifth date, as we rode the train to work, I gathered the nerve to ask about the song.

“I loved that mix you gave me,” I started. “I hadn’t heard most of the songs before but instantly loved ‘NYC,’ ‘Wrecking Ball,’ and ‘The Littlest Birds,’ and the other tracks are awesome. But what did you mean with ‘Maggie May’?” 

“What do you mean, what did I mean? They are all songs I really liked and thought you would like too,” he said assuredly.

“Oh, so they don’t have like a hidden message or anything?” 

He burst out laughing. “No, like what?”

My cheeks burned as I squeak out, “Like how much you like me?”

Jason put his arm around me and kissed the side of my head. “Not at all, just music I thought you would like.” 

Jason was the first man I ever dated. The boys I hung out with before wore their fragile egos like red flags. They never said what they meant or did what they said they would do. With Jason, it really was what you see is what you get. He moved through the world with an assurance in who he was I could only aspire to. Over the course of four years of dating, including three breakups prompted by jealous fits of rage on my part and confusion on his, he made me seventeen mix CDs composed of over 300 songs. I fell in love with all the new music he introduced me to, and with him.

Our second breakup took place two years into our relationship, and fittingly, Coldplay’s “Fix You” was playing on my computer as Jason walked out the door. We had just got back from a party at his friend’s house, and he had made a playful comment about a woman he went to school with, saying, “Here comes trouble!” as she walked toward us. He had introduced me to her and everyone else at the party as his girlfriend, but I interpreted his banter as flirting and lost my shit. We had to leave the party early and on the street a block away from his friend’s place I yelled at him that he disrespected me and I wouldn’t take being treated this way. Understandably he was hurt by my accusations and didn’t see a way to move forward with someone who attacked him whenever they felt a twinge of insecurity. He was kind but firm that we could not be together if I treated him this way. I started therapy two days after the breakup. I worked on my anger and intimacy issues diligently. Six months later, still listening to all the music he had shared with me and missing him terribly, I gathered the nerve to call him. We got back together that night.

Five months later, when we moved in together, there was always music on in our apartment. Jason tuned his little wooden radio into WFUV every morning while we made coffee. As we got ready to go to work, our apartment was alive with the music of the Rolling Stones, Adele, Beirut, The Shins, and Bon Iver. It was like a soundtrack, just softly playing in the background. When I was fired from my first social work job and was too depressed to do anything, he played me “Shake It Out” by Florence and The Machine, “The Boy With the Arab Strap” by Belle and Sebastian, and “I and Love and You” by the Avett Brothers to distract me and try to cheer me up while we drank wine and danced in the living room. A night of smoking out our kitchen window, listening to new songs, and discussing my career goals shifted my mood enough to get me job-searching the following day.

We had a lot of parties in our first apartment together in Washington Heights. He would make playlists that rang out from his phone hooked up to the little radio. It was always perfect for the mood we were trying to set and tailored to the company. Jaunty Lumineers mixed with Elliot Smith, Feist, LCD Soundsystem, and the Strokes with some Rilo Kiley thrown in. People talked, ate, danced, and sang, and at the end of the night, the music was still playing as we cleaned up or drifted off to sleep. 

When we got married, we agreed the two most important things to spend money on were the venue and the music. We hired a band we had seen at my friend’s wedding years past. They played a piano-only version of The Pixie’s “Where Is My Mind” as I walked down the aisle. Our first dance was to “Hysteric” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Together we set our playlist for the wedding with mostly eclectic dance music mixed in with a few slow songs for the romantics. Everyone drank a lot and hardly ate as they twirled and bounced to 311, Beyonce, Beck, Rhianna, Billie Holiday, Passion Pit, Fun, Carly Rare Jepsen, and Drake. Our friends and family have told us countless times that our wedding was the best they ever attended, including their own in some cases.

About a year after we got married, we had a party to celebrate Jason’s art being displayed in a local coffee shop. I came home from showing some friends the exhibit to find Jason announcing to the room, “I just bought this radio station, isn’t it grand!” He hadn’t bought it so much as donated $50 to the WQXO membership drive, but that contribution began our ragtime Sunday nights. I couldn’t tell you the name of one song, but we still listen on some Sundays, alongside our Saturday mornings of Reggae on WKCR, and FIP radio on most work days. I always wondered how Jason found new music to share with me. Turns out, it was all the radio stations he “bought.” 

Our music collections had moved from CDs and iTunes to Spotify by the time we purchased our first house in Rockaway. We had no furniture the day we moved in, but we did have that old wooden radio. We unpacked and listened to Sublime, The Grateful Dead, Alice In Chains, Silversun Pickups, Manu Chao, Fleetwood Mac, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Hole, System of a Down, and Taj Mahal. Over the years, I started sharing the 90’s alternative and hard rock that had shaped my youth, and some old bangers I loved became mutual favorites.

During our first winter living by the beach, all we saw was magic. The snow on the sand, the friendly small-town vibes in the few bars and restaurants that stay open year-round, and the cheap rents posted in the windows of retail spaces. It all combined to stoke an old fantasy of mine to open a bookstore and cafe that serves wine, coffee, and baked goods. We started with pop-up bookstores inside local businesses, and somewhere over the years, it went from being my dream to our dream. By our third winter, we signed a lease for a small space on Rockaway Beach Blvd and opened our shop. We ripped down ceilings, built bookshelves and a bar, and painted the space to sound of classic rock, jazz, surf music, and 2000’s hip-hop. We opened Avoid The Day Bookstore and Cafe on February 1st, 2020, with a premium Spotify account and a playlist by the same name as the shop, curated to give the best vibes. 

Jason and I ran our little bookstore for two and half years through a pandemic, protests, shifting government policies, and toxic politics that divided our seaside enclave. Every morning one of us biked over, opened the steel gate, turned on the lights, and put the Avoid The Day playlist on. We were constantly adding new songs to the mix of Arcade Fire, Regina Spektor, Neko Case, Cat Power, Nico, Rubble Bucket, LA Salami, Wet Leg, Modest Mouse, U2, amongst many others. As people browsed the books, I could hear snippets of them singing whatever had come on to themselves. Along with the compliments on our book selection, we received praise for how great the music was in the store. When we decided to close, we were financially and emotionally drained. For all the lip service our town gave us, no one was interested in a bookstore cafe. We held art shows, open mics, book events, tarot card readings, and hosted live music, all to mostly empty rooms. We chose our marriage and sanity over the dream we had worked so hard to build. It was the only thing to do, but it broke our hearts. We dismantled the shop in silence, as there was no music that seemed right for this moment. A month after we closed the store for good, I went to shuffle our Avoid The Day playlist for a long drive to visit friends, and the title made me want to weep. As the opening notes to “No Surprises” began to play, I asked Jason, “What should we change the name of this too?” Immediately he said J & J’s Life Mix.” Of course, our playlist was never just for the bookstore. It was an amalgamation of all the music that connected us through our triumphs and tragedies, an ever-growing life in songs. 


Jianna Heuer is a Psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. She writes Creative Non-Fiction and Fiction.  Her work has appeared in Midsummer Dream House, Hot Pot Magazine, and Underscore Magazine. Her flash non-fiction has appeared in two books, Fast Funny Women and Fast Fierce Women.

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