By Annabeth Leong
I left the cursing out of the headline, but that’s a reference to the Nine Inch Nails song, “Something I Can Never Have,” which was a sort of anthem for me when I was younger.
It’s a slippery song. “You make this all go away,” Trent Reznor sings, and I don’t know if he means that the song’s object takes away the bad or simply takes away everything. I don’t know if the thing he can never have is in the present or the future, if it involves the person he’s singing to, or if he’s lamenting that he and the person he’s singing to can never have a “normal” sort of love together.
Despite these uncertainties, a melancholy magic starts in my chest every time I hear the opening piano melody, and every time I hear his voice crack as he sings, “I still recall the taste of your tears.”
It’s a deeply nostalgic song, and also angry and sad, and I think for me those things all go together. I miss the past and those who populated it. I miss the self I used to be. And I’m also aware that I can never have those things back, and I’m sad about it. I’m angry about the things that changed, the ways I can’t stay in the same place, even if I want to, the mistakes I made, and the thoughts I had that turned out to be wrong.
My heart is rather fickle, so while I identified with the song deeply, for me, its object often changed. (In a song I wrote back then, I included the line, “And I keep thinking, ‘Maybe if you were here…’/ But ‘you’ is a face that changes more than the shirts I wear.”)
But perhaps this is part of what it means for the song to have been slippery. It could contain whatever I was feeling at the time.
At one point, the song was a lament for an abusive partner, a person I’d loved deeply and made fearsome promises to. That person “made this all go away” in the sense that he forbade me from seeing friends, demanded I sacrifice everything that mattered to me aside from him, and generally reduced me to an animal state. The thing I wanted that I could never have was the original vision of who he was and what we could be. All that turned out to be false, but yet it glittered somewhere on the horizon. Even as I knew I had to get away from him, I felt nostalgia for the way it had been at first, the feeling of being deeply in love. And because he was a very early love for me, I felt nostalgic for the idea of there being “one” love, the thought that one could marry the first person to whom one gave oneself physically.
At another point, the song was a lament for a good partner that I couldn’t stay faithful to. He traveled often, and I’d sleep with other people on the weekends he was away, though I didn’t know why I was doing that. He “made this all go away” in the sense that he made me feel like a good and worthwhile person, but he was something I could never have because I didn’t know how to behave in that circumstance. I remember the way I felt years later watching the (admittedly campy) movie Black Snake Moan, in which the main character is a nymphomaniac. I’m not saying I actually have that illness, but I do know that I identify with a particular sort of passive helplessness. Back then, if someone asked me for sex, I didn’t know how to refuse it. I had no real resolve for that, and no sense of what my own desire was and if it included whatever I was being asked to do. There’s always been a way that I could feel other people’s desires, in a sort of overwhelming wave, to the point that I’ve sometimes felt I had no choice but to respond to them. When I think now of that time and the man I was dating, I see a muddled swamp of wanting and not wanting and not knowing which desires belonged to which people. You might think I wouldn’t miss it, but there was something about the way that confusion felt that was freeing and thrilling. I was sad about the things I messed up in the process, but I’ve often wished to do that time over, to try different outcomes, to see if I could use that messy stew to figure out more about who I actually am and want to be.
Another time, the “something I can never have” was an honest relationship with the girl I loved. I’ve written about her here several times before. We slept together, but I didn’t know how to be with her, not for real. She “made this all go away” in the sense that I wanted her with a sort of mind-erasing lust that I didn’t know was possible before her. After the first time we slept together, I wrote in my journal, “I had real sex last night, for the first time.” Then I tore the pages out of the book, ripped them carefully into tiny pieces, and buried them in the trash can under cat litter so they could never be found. With her, that sense of awakening and sense of shame were so deeply tied together that I still feel it now. I still have her picture. I still weep when I look at it. She had a birthmark on the side of her neck, and the studio that took the picture tried to airbrush it away as if it were some sort of blemish, and I fucking hate them for it. She had thick, curly hair that I loved intensely—so much that, recently, on the occasion of running my hands through another woman’s thick, curly hair, I shivered with recognition and longing for a person and a time long gone. I was cruel, sometimes, to the girl I loved, and that was both because I thought I couldn’t have her and a means by which I made it impossible to have what we could have had together.
And so I have a great deal of nostalgia for lovers of the past, and always did. In many ways, they now represent even more of what I can’t have. I can’t go back. I can’t make myself young again. There is only forward. That’s the hell and heaven of it all.