My dad had the habit of listening to the same cd over and over again. It was inherited, I think, as I am a chronic repeat listener of the same one lp ad nausea whenever I get a new favorite band. It drove my dad nuts when I did it yet he subjected me to the same thing for as long as I can remember. Sometimes, these cds were boss (Like Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black). Othertimes, not so much (Why did I buy him a Barenaked Ladies album for Christmas in 6th grade? Why?). One such of these albums was Sam’s Town by the Killers. I remember how the Killers used to be good and I remember how awesome Hot Fuss was when it first came out but by the time Sam’s Town hit, I grew weary of Brandon Flowers’s cocky attitude and dissing of Franz Ferdinand as my loyalties did and always will lie with Alex Kapranos. Aside from a few track, Sam’s Town never clicked with me and I dreaded getting in the car with my dad. Now, however, it’s different.

It’s summer and I’m walking down the street in the rich part of town at ten in the morning. The houses here are towers with multiple balconies and heated floorboards. I don’t belong here in my scuffed boots, with my hair still knotted from the shenanigans of the night before but I’m earning my keep this week by walking a white fluffball dog named Lola. I have my headphones on and since I stopped being so devastatingly sad, I haven’t cried. In fact, I’ve done everything but cry as my lust for life turned into weeks on end of partying. I justify it with the logic that, as I’m entering my late twenties, I won’t be able to rage anymore. Not like I used to. So I might as well give my mid-twenties one last hurrah while they’re still here, clinging to me like the dirt and sweat and liquor of summertime’s disappearing.

Suddenly, my iPod plays a song I haven’t heard in years and I recognize it immediately: The closing track of Sam’s Town and my eyes burn.

Each lyric from “Exitlude” is heartwrenchingly apt, from the opening lines (Regrettably, time’s come to send you on your way) to the sentiments of the chorus (We hope you enjoyed your stay; It’s good to have you with us, even if it’s just for the day) and even the eerie inclusion of the word “daddy”, making it so perfect for my life that I’m pretty sure Brandon Flowers wrote the song specifically for me, as if he knew that I’d need it one day.

It’d been so long since I’d cried that it felt foreign; it felt like I’d forgotten how. I gasped and I sobbed and it was how I used to spend my days in the ‘before’, when I lived in that transitional time before ‘after’, when I hadn’t yet figured out how to live again. Only now, the tears were different. I wasn’t sad. I didn’t want to die. I didn’t even desperately want my dad here. I’ve accepted the fact that he’s gone. People die. It happens all the time. It just sucks when it happens to you.

It’s strange to cry for a skeleton from your past when you’ve made peace with the its role in your life. Before, I cried that my dad would never get to be at my wedding. Granted, before my dad had died, I’d never given much though to marriage. It wasn’t until after he died that I realized everything I’d robbed him of: He’d never get to tell me how dumb I was when I told him I was engaged; he never got to complain about making the drive to Iowa when I told him I wanted to get married in a barn; he never got to disapprove of the name I chose for the grandkid he never got to fall in love with; and he never got to see me grow up into this super strong pixie sized Amazon warrior I’m becoming. But it’s all about perspective. My dad died and I fell asleep for a few months and when I woke up, I was an adult.

We had some good times when he was here though. 

I fell in love with a band. They were sweat soaked rock and roll and after I saw them, I couldn’t bring myself to listen to any music that wasn’t theirs.

It’d been a week since I’d been home, going straight from vacation to Barnstormer, to sleep in guest houses and beach front cottages and on the floor of the living room of both my best friend and favorite local musician. I’m awake and alive and I’m drinking and smiling and wandering in fields and sitting on couches and kissing a new boy and it’s all electricity and suddenly, I live a life that isn’t mine – Cut off from my closest friends one day, making new best pals the next – and it’s a dream in which I play the part of the girl I used to be, before this sadness overtook my life and I realize – I’m not playing the part. I’m her again.

I’m finally at home after days of suitcase living turned into a week and my bathroom is in disarray. I have unpacking to do and a bedroom to rearrange. Get at it. And I do.

Since I’ve moved in, I’ve used my computer exclusively for music and let my record player, a hand me down from my dad, languish. Today, however, I needed it. I opened the cd tray to put in Strike Hard, Young Diamond, a burned copy from my best friend as I was too busy drinking and flirting away my Barnstormer to actually exchange goods for money. To my surprise, there’s already a disc in the faux-fifties all-purpose media player’s black plastic hull. I realize immediately what it is: The last cd my dad listened to in this record player. It was his, after all. It lived in his “man cave” and he used it fairly often. The day he helped me move in to my house in Ann Arbor, he brought it to me. He died a little over a month later. I regard the silver cd-r with wonder and nostalgia, a smile creeping across my face: This cd is the last gift I will ever get from my dad. I lift it up and look at the writing. In multicolored sharpie are words I’d scrolled on its surface some eight years prior and I remember. It’s a mix of Christmas songs I made for my dad when I was nineteen. We listened to it driving to the suburbs in the snow on the 25th, going to visit my grandma in the nursing home.

He’d always given me shit, the way dads are prone to do. My taste in music was never up to spec for him (I recant this to my best friend and she laughs. “Your taste in music is bad? Yours? Having good taste is what you do!” and it’s true.) but this testament, this one last tangible piece of my dead father, is proof that… My dad recognized my good taste in indie rock. And that approval was all I ever wanted from him.

I remember the start of 2011. I’d just moved to Ann Arbor and I felt wide-eyed and optimistic, on the brink of self-betterment. It’s strange to think about now, the fire and vibrancy with which I lived life in winter. There was a spark in me then and oh, how it burned.

2011, you see, was supposed to be the best year of my life. It was supposed to be the year I quit smoking, the year I cemented myself as a fixture in the music industry, the year that I had a solid family base, the year I got my shit together, the year I made new friends and finally began to settle down from the arrested development of my mid-twenties. 2011 was supposed to be the year everything changed.

It ends up that 2011 was the year where everything changed. Just not the way I expected.

We all know what happened. It’s old news by now but even all these months later, I still find myself having to tell the tale to people still of what, exactly, it was that happened to the girl they used to know – A strange amalgam of old friends I haven’t talked to in years, mainly, as well as ex boyfriends looking to reignite summer flings. Reactions vary from overbearing empathy to shocked disbelief to a sudden end of all contact, the latter of which only comes from the aforementioned exes and I can’t blame them. I used to be a serial-dater and when a former would reestablish contact with me, I usually greeted them as one would an old, dear friend, thus starting a revolving door of repetition, re-dating the same guys over and over with the relationship never being taken too seriously on either side. Now, however, there is a void inside of me and it’s not ineffable. It’s a chasm that leaves me quiet in crowded rooms, feeling cold around the warmest of people. It’s not just my appearance that has changed, you see. It’s me. I’m different. And it’s not necessarily for the better.

The physical change and emotional shift happened gradually but simultaneously. Suddenly, I’m thinner and my hair is longer than it’s been in years. My skin has the pale sheen of lifeless porcelain and my lips no longer curve upwards in a heated display of affection. I don’t flirt like I used to and even though I still fuss over my eyeliner and outfits with the meticulous nature of a perfectionist, it’s no longer with the same intent. I don’t want the approval of  gentlemen. I don’t want to sleep with anyone but myself, you see.  It’s all strange to me – I made so much progress to stop being the girl who physically shuddered at the caressing touch of a boy only to fall into the same phobias again. The idea of kissing causes me a flood of nausea. The thought of being in a situation in which something sexual could transpire makes my body recoil. It’s just like being sixteen all over again, just like the time a boy tried to kiss my teenaged self and as he leaned in, I stood up and without a word ran panicked from the room. When my best friend at the time asked me why, I told her it was because I felt like I was going to throw up on his face. She told me it wasn’t normal to “want to puke on a hottie” and she never really brought up boys to me again. The only difference between then and now is the fact that I currently possess the highest self-esteem I’ve ever had. For the first time in my life, I know I am beautiful and I know I should be desired, the only problem is the fact that I feel no desire whatsoever.

It was about this time three years ago that Okkervil River released The Stand-Ins, an album which is now played with remarkably infrequence around these parts. It was right after the most depressing birthday of my life when a track off The Stand-Ins found it’s way back into my consciousness. That track was “On Tour With Zykos” and I felt compelled to listen to it for mainly one reason or, rather, one lyric – They wish they had me, Like I wish I had fire; What a sad way to be, What a girl who got tired. I sigh and I say it to myself and oh, how true it rings, as does the whole song.

The track describes a girl eerily similar to myself – She balks at the idea of love, preferring to live in an elaborate life of partial daydreams and half-formed desires. She chases halfheartedly after white lie fantasies as her real life slips away – Another day tossed and done.

I go home, take off clothes, smoke a bowl, watch a whole t.v. movie – I was supposed to be writing the most beautiful poems and completely revealing devine mysteries up close. I can’t say that I’m feeling all that much at all… At twenty-seven years old.

I remember hearing that song upon it’s initial release and thinking, at twenty-four, God, if I still relate to these sentiments in three years time, I just might off myself. The idea of such a colorless future seemed a fate worse than death to me in my youthful optimism and in the years since that initial thought formed in my head, I have become accomplished! I have become sucessful! And then… Everything changed.

My physical features, attitude, and overall disposition  aren’t the only things that have turned their intangible backs on their former selves. Two days ago, you see, I quit the music industry. There were a  million reasons but basically, what it boils down to, is the fact that I’m no longer feeling it. Sadly, by “it”, I mean “life”. There’s no fire here anymore. There’s no passion. I now live in a void of depressing firsts – The first Easter without my dad comes quick, proceeded soon by the first birthday ever that I don’t receive so much as a phone call from a parent. It stings more than I let on and I end the day a collapsed mess on my living room floor, knees down on the carpet as I stare at my hands, aware that the only reason I’m not crying is because I’ve drugged myself into an emotional oblivion. I spend my days in a haze and before I realize so much as a week has passed, it’s father’s day. Soon, it’ll be my dad’s birthday, fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and then… It’ll have been a year. But where, exactly, did that year go?

It was a prophetic moment in March when I sat on the sidewalk, smoking a cigarette and thinking “Soon it’s going to be 2012 and I’m going to wonder what happened to my life.”

March seems like minutes ago.

It seems like I was just there, walking awkwardly down the aisle in too-tall-heels as a bridesmaid in my dad’s January wedding. It seems like I just got lunch with him. It seems like I just got the call telling me he wasn’t breathing.

But it wasn’t “just”.

It’s encroaching on six months.

And with each day, I’m that much more removed from the girl I used to be.

I don’t think about you that often anymore. It’s funny because of how enamored I was with you for so long, how much I felt I owed you, and how I genuinely believed severing ties with you was the hardest thing I would ever have to do. It ends up that cutting you out of my life was just the training wheels preparing me for the hardships of being an “adult” and the heartaches that came along with growing up. Now, there’s nothing left of you except some songs I don’t listen to, your shirts in my suitcase, and a few strained memories that wander into my brain so infrequently that I’m shocked to remember I once thought I might love you.

When I think about you, I don’t remember how excited I audibly was when I called my best friend and told her that you’d just kissed me, so unexpected and tender, in the lobby of some venue in Chicago. I don’t remember the first time we met and the way I spilled out my secrets to you, your presence being enough to sever my skin and let all my vices and the loss of my past come pouring out of my stomach like viscera from a freshly slaughtered game animal. I don’t think about the way I undressed in front of you for the first time, taking off my beer stained shirt and putting on your white American Apparel v-neck for only a few moments before you took it off me, your calloused fingers moving with the eager precision of a professional playing the part of an innocent intellectual. I don’t remember the tangles of brown hair that you teased as I lay on your bare chest, taking a drag off your cigarette, listening to you whisper me stories about life on the east coast as I thought this was how it would be from here on out, you and me. Us.

I don’t remember the overwhelming sense of certainty I had about you or the way that the end of our torrid affair was written all over our past conversations, it was sung in your songs, your three minute monuments to all the girls you’d wronged before I came along, all too eager to let you have your way with me.

What I do remember is the last time we spoke, when you told me that you’d had a girlfriend all along, one that you didn’t plan on leaving. I remember the nonplussed look on my face as my cheeks burned because surely this wasn’t really happening, not to me, not with you. I remember reading your apology in my inbox, signed with “I’m sure we’ll speak soon,” and I remember making the conscious decision to not respond, not again, not ever. I remember the way I slowly phased your music out of my life, the way I stopped wearing that v-neck that I used to keep wrapped around me like a security blanket, a sad reminder of everything you’d done for me, a laughable reminder that you cared. I remember how it all felt easier if it was gradual.

I remember listening to the first record you released after we stopped talking and the way I seethed, indignant, when I heard the song you’d doubtlessly written about me, the song lampooning whatever it was that we had, proving the exact amount of nothing I meant to you. It was a song that painted me out to be a needy, pathetic, little girl looking for a savior. You weren’t wrong about me at all but that didn’t make it hurt any less. In fact, having my own naivety pointed out to me in such a public and adored forum only made it hurt all the more.

What I remember about you is the death of a dream and the last gasping breath of my youthful optimism.

I kept my mouth shut about my fuming exasperation at that scathing song and I maintained a professional yet terse relationship with you and your ilk. Never burn a bridge, no matter how much you want to. I kept tabs, of course, listening to your albums as they became available to me but for the most part, I forgot you existed although sometimes, when I’m out, a gentleman will bare a vague resemblance to you and my heart will thump more loudly in my chest. You’re just my type after all and every guy that’s caught my eye since then is a testament to that. You, however, have the distinction of being the first.

I tell myself it’s just a bad day and that it’ll pass but it seems that the past three weeks have been nothing but bad days. At first it was easy to think that it’d pass soon enough but it hasn’t and I find myself longing for the days when I used to feel empty and lackadaisical because at least then I wasn’t the girl who spent her nights at home alone crying.  I’m still optimistic, and I know it’ll get better but it’s strange. I quit smoking. I stop surviving on coffee. I stop drinking in excess and the valium that I used to have to take just to interact with other people hasn’t been swallowed in a while now. I conquer my crippling seasonal depression. My hair is it’s natural color and I stop wearing the black eyeliner I’ve worn every day since I was twelve. Even my staple floral dresses fall by the wayside and I tell myself I’m becoming better. But what I am is different. In theory, it’s for the best, but the sad truth of it is that I feel like a stranger.

I like myself for the first time in longer than I can remember. I’m happy and I have great friends and a great job and my burgeoning career is one I’ve dreamt of. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t ache. And it’s the same sad stuff that makes me cry, the same sad story about the girl who hushed the voice in her head telling herself that her dad’s wedding would go horribly, that she would ruin the whole thing, just like Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married. She told herself that it would go beautifully and that she would look wonderful and she wouldn’t fall in her heels and she wouldn’t get too drunk and she wouldn’t cry and her best friend would be her wedding date and it’d be perfect. It’d all be perfect.

But it wasn’t.

And every day there’s a new reminder of just how much of a disaster it was.

As cinematic of a quality as it has – The girl sobbing off her perfectly applied make up  in a bridal dressing room, wearing a ridiculously fancy dress – it’s all much less appealing when it’s your life. And the thing is that this throws everything through a loop – Friendships, career, everything. Patience isn’t my strong suit so the fact that I still ache deeply after three weeks is almost as frustrating as it is heart wrenching. The fact of the matter that every day since then, I’ve considered quitting my career and severing the aforementioned friendship but it’s something I can’t do. Even though it’d probably be easier if I could.

Things were going so well before and they still are, it’s just all muddled now and I want things to be simple again. Even though I think they were only simple in hindsight and never in reality.

I don’t talk to my mom. I haven’t for some time. And I don’t expect the events of Saturday to ever transpire again, which is to say this was my one and only chance to be a bridesmaid in my dad’s wedding because I don’t believe my dad will ever get married again. Instead of celebrating the way I should have, however, I spent the last two hours of my dad’s wedding sobbing inconsolably at the bar, pouring my own double shots of whiskey while my twelve year old nephew’s date told me “he isn’t worth it.”

That’s how the night ended. It started beautifully but the fact of the matter is that right now, when I think about my dad’s wedding, I don’t think about the gorgeous reception hall or the awesome open bar or how beautiful I looked or how proud I was that I didn’t fall whilst walking down the aisle in four inch heels or how awesome my daddy-daughter dance to “It’s Rainin’ Men” was. Instead, what I think of is the moment my wedding date, someone I considered one of my very best friends, called me and told me he wasn’t coming.

I’d never been heartbroken before. And I’d never been humiliated either. At least not like that. My phone started to buzz in my pocket and I rushed to the theater where, only hours beforehand, my dad and Laura had gotten married. I answered the phone excitedly, expecting him to tell me he was almost here or maybe that he’d gotten lost… Instead, he told me he wasn’t coming. And I went from being the most gorgeous looking girl in the room to being the sobbing bridesmaid who got stood up at her own dad’s wedding.

In that moment, I felt completely insignificant. I’ve been a damn good friend to this guy and I know he’ll never care as much about me as I do about him but that moment, that complete crushing moment of finding out I was going to be spending my dad’s wedding alone, I felt as if the exact magnitude of my insignificance was confirmed.

And at my dad’s wedding, no less.

The funny thing was that things had been going really good up until that moment, not just at the wedding, but in life in general. And people can comfort me all they want, and they can try to cheer me up, and my would-have-been-wedding-date can try to make it up to me every day but the fact of the matter is that my dad will never get married again. And I’ll never be a bridesmaid in a more important wedding. Hell, I will never look more beautiful than I did that night. And I ended up spending it sobbing until I’d cried off the majority of my perfectly applied make up, being hugged by a twelve year old because she was the only person sober enough to notice something was wrong, while taking shot after shot of Jack Daniel’s because I did not want to be sober enough to remember this in the morning.

The reception ended with my dad and his new wife waiting at the bar with me to make sure I had a ride back to Ann Arbor. My dad and Laura ended up spending the majority of the next day – Their first day as husband and wife – texting and calling me to make sure I was holding up okay. I feel like I ruined my dad’s wedding. And I have that guilt to add on top of the humiliation and disappointment and crushing heartbreak that I already feel.

It’s almost funny how good things were going up until that point.

Indie rock crushes have ruined me. It’s something I’ve thought for years, a realization I came to after I interviewed Tim Kasher from Cursive, a band I’d idolized since my early teenage years. It was an interview I’d expected to go horribly, an interview I expected to ruin one of the icons of my youth. I expected Kasher to drunkenly slur his answers at me, to tell me I was a good interviewer, but I’d be better if I took my top off, and to throw an empty beer bottle at me if I didn’t comply. Instead, the man I was confronted with was nothing short of a sweetheart. He was kind, he was gracious, and he even interrupted me at one point to compliment my shoes. And with that, I was smitten.

It made me wonder, afterward, how my fifteen year old self’s crush on Kasher had impacted my romantic choices. Had I inadvertently sought out men who projected the same persona in their personal lives that Kasher did in his professional life? The drunken Lothario unable to maintain monogamy? The more I examined my past, the more it seemed as if that were the case. In more recent years, my ridiculous desire to find a man just like Justin Townes Earle has gotten me mixed up in some real life nonsense but the older that I get, the more I do that whole strange “growing up” thing that I think I’m in the midst of at twenty six, the more I realize that is not what I want. And even if it is what I want, it probably isn’t what’s best. So, in true Amber fashion, I’ve defaulted to attempting to find a fella swathed in shades of another indie rock hero of mine, Josh Ritter.

The Temptation of Adam – Josh Ritter

Let’s face it, no one knows how to create a romance like Ritter does. He writes songs about mummies who fall in love with the archaeologist who unearths him, songs about nuclear scientists developing feelings for one another  whilst engineering a bomb to bring about the end of the world, and his songs are peppered with lyrics like “All the other girls here are stars, you are the northern lights.” Ritter is the kind of gentleman about whom you’d say “They don’t make guys like him in real life”, only he is real life, so where does that leave me?

It sets the bar high, listening to Ritter’s songs and wondering if anyone will ever write anything like that about me, or even think that about me. I used to think indie rock crushes had ruined me because they’d caused me to go after the kind of rough and tumble guys that got in bar room brawls and had hand guns. Now, I realize my indie rock crushes have probably ruined me in a different way. The tricky part is that I know guys like Ritter exist. I know this because I’ve met them. I just haven’t met the right one.

There’s an inherit unfairness in life. That’s nothing new or groundbreaking. I doubt a single person reading this is going to feel as if they just experienced a great revelation based solely on the fact that I just informed them of the inherit unfairness of love but sometimes, the vast amount of injustice makes me angry. Not irate. Just perturbed.

You see, I don’t like love. Love and I are not friends. We never have been and there was a time many years ago when I thought I hadn’t given love a fair shake but no sooner than I decided love was okay did some sort of sick black humor take root in my life in the form of death. You can’t have it all? Try “You can’t have anything that will make you happy ever so you might as well throw in the towel now.” I remember the day I decided to never fall in love. I was nineteen and it was a very conscious decision.  I wanted to be alone.

I didn’t believe in casual dating in high school or college, or after even really, but “after” is a whole different chapter of life altogether. My love life can be divided into three parts, evenly, all centered around the aforementioned game changer of loss in the form of death. These sections of my love life are fairly simple and easy to follow. There’s a “before”, an “after”, and a “post script”, which is what I’m living in now.

Before was boring, marked mainly by my only slightly undeserved reputation in high school and college as a heart breaker. I had suitors. I had gentlemen that would call daily, ask me to dances, bring me coffee to school.  And with each advance, I would spurn them. It was simple enough in my mind: I didn’t want to date. The whole point of dating was to get married, or at least enter a long term relationship, both of which I knew I didn’t want for at least years. So I didn’t date, much to the chagrin of a portion of Detroit’s male population in the late ’90’s. Such aversion to boys resulted in laughable lesbian rumors and, later, the nickname “soul crushing bitch”, which came about when a boy interested in me asked me to have sex with him. I laughed at him, if only for the fact that what guy asks a girl they barely talk to to fuck them in their van outside of a coffee shop in the suburbs? Reportedly, he had had a crush on me for sometime and I imagine his idiotic teenage libido kicked in, overtaking his urge to ask me out and replacing his intentions with the unsexiest proposition of sex ever. After our pathetic encounter, he made it a point to tell a number of my friends that I was a “soul crushing bitch” and use the analogy “You know how a normal person picks up a piece of fruit, says they don’t like it, and puts it down? Amber Valentine picks up that piece of fruit, smashes it against the wall, and then proclaims she didn’t like it.” It remains one of the better analogies I’ve heard a seventeen year old boy say.

Of course, some boy came along and changed my mind, with pretty, sad songs and an acoustic guitar and a wry sense of humor and a shyness that contrasted the mischievous smirk I got to know so well. With him was the first time I felt legitimately understood. And I think, once you lose that, it’s only natural to search for something to fill that void, a replacement of sorts. I didn’t do that, however. Instead, I swore off love. I didn’t want to date. I didn’t want to kiss or be kissed and I didn’t want anyone to look at me the way that he used to, the way that said I was special and that I mattered and that when he was with me, he was home.

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