You were sixteen, and all you were prepared to know about love would fit neatly onto one-half of a cassette cover. The cassette cover had been custom made for you, typed out with meticulous care, in his father’s study, on a weeknight, after everyone had gone to bed. You knew that this is how it happened, and imagined how he would have had to think about exactly what message to send you, since he would know that whatever he wrote would become a permanent relic of whatever it was that existed between the two of you. Even if you could not understand his motives, you sensed that he understood, like you did, that each word was precious because of its scarcity, and the fact that it was clandestine made it that much more impossible to resist.
No. It was not love, not by a long shot. But it was that rare brand of infatuation that only teenage girls can know or understand. His father was a doctor, and everything you needed to know about him you already knew. He was smart, he was funny, he was gorgeous. He was the Prom King, he was the Homecoming Prince, he was the Valedictorian, and he was all of the things that you were not. He lived on Agnes Street, which was notable in the peculiar manner of small towns with mixed socioeconomics. Agnes Street housed some of the wealthier of the town’s inhabitants, where the beautiful people lived in clear view of everyone else, and even if there were alternate, more valuable pieces of real estate, nobody from outside could see them, which meant they did not exist. And so Agnes Street sat proudly smack in the middle of town, happy to serve as a beacon of hope, a symbol for the universal accessibility of the American dream and to suggest a common purpose where there was none. It was the way of small, insular towns: it was his way, and it had not yet occurred to you to question it.
Few people would ever know that he had taken to dropping by your desk, during the many off-moments of his computer class, where you would be a few times a week to type out notes from the Student Body meeting. Perhaps it was the freedom that only a fourth-period, Senior year elective course can inspire that freed him from social and personal constraints to such a degree. At any rate, it was strange the first time he delivered to you a cryptic poem that he had composed and printed on the classroom’s computer. Strange, but also a little bit like a surprise gift, or a sign from above, and even if you did not understand it, you were instantly grateful for it and hoped it would happen again.
And it would. Over the course of that spring, he would bestow upon you these peculiar gifts of poetry, doling them out slowly from week to week, in plain view of the rest of the class and the instructor, without explanation. For your part, you would receive the poems with grace and studied nonchalance, appearing always to be far too absorbed in your work to give them your immediate attention. In truth, the poems absorbed all of your attention, and each of them you would preserve, carefully, in a special folder designated for this sole purpose, in the bottom drawer of the desk in your bedroom. When you were alone, you would devote hours of careful study to the poems, searching for clues or hidden meanings, or any suggestion of what you meant to him. Because even if you could not allow yourself the pleasure of believing it, reason suggested that you must have meant something to him, even if it was only that you were the girl who might understand the poems, or endeavor to understand them, rather than find him strange for writing them. And so it was that you learned how to close read by pouring over poetry written by a seventeen-year-old boy, because nothing is so effective in allowing one to see all possible permutations of word-choice as is trying to decipher the secret message sent by the object of a teenage crush.
The truth was that his poems were inscrutable and bad: he would become a doctor like his father. But the fact that he had given them to you was of the greatest import. The small gestures carried a world of meaning then: your world was an Edith Wharton novel ripe with possibility. The fact that you both were reading The Sun Also Rises during Geometry Honors Freshman year (even if enjoying this happy coincidence required that you un-remember the detail that you bought the book because you saw he was reading it); the day when you discovered that he had found you “intriguing” since Sophomore year, and had told people as much; the connection you shared over music (he liked the Smiths! Him!) and that brand of intellectual humor that is accessible to teenagers — everything, all of it, suggested to you a connection that was simply outside of its proper time and place. There was an inevitability to the two of you, you thought, and this was enough to keep you going, through the painful years before medication, before you had even had a chance to catch a glimpse of yourself and what you would someday become. The hope that he represented allowed you to persevere, and perhaps that was why it was so essential that you barely knew him, because if you had known more, the spell might have been broken.
This was not to say that there were not plenty of things that bothered you. You had never spoken to him on the phone, and rarely outside of the context of school. The fact that his gifts of poems were hiding in plain sight, that the whole exchange was made to appear innocent by the delivery of the poems in the public space of a full classroom. That he was so secure in the knowledge that you would never tell, and that nobody would ever believe there had been something to tell. And his girlfriend. His beautiful, unfailingly sweet girlfriend, the yin to your yang — that his public face of adoration belonged to somebody else, a somebody with whom you could not possibly — did not even want to try — to compete, even if fantasy and the secret code of your relationship nagged at you, trying to convince you were the one he truly loved. Eventually, the unfairness of it all became just another part of the mythology of high school, you and he were victims of an unfair but de riguer class structure that would place you two so closely in sight of one another, only to erect a barrier that strictly kept you apart.
On the day that he handed you the cassette tape, “The Sheer and Unmitigated Power of Bob Mould,” you thanked him, and then went home to look up the word “unmitigated.” Because you supposed it must be important, and because you were sixteen, and this was all you had. And you tried, but you could not find anything there. And so you listened to the songs themselves, even though they sounded tinny, empty, hollow, and unremarkable, like they were born out of some inauthentic piece of experience you could not place. You endeavored to enjoy them, and when you could not find meaning in the lyrics you just looked harder. You worked at it, just as you would do with Nine Inch Nails, because he had suggested it, and because work was what was available to you, the work was yours.
But truth be told, you would never manage to fully grasp the sheer and unmitigated power of Bob Mould. You kept the cassette close your anyway, for many years, strewn on the dashboard of your car and later, in the plastic crate with all of the other music that you would sometimes go through for the sake of nostalgia. You carried the tape with you, thrown in somewhere amongst your possessions, for years after the poems had somehow disappeared, and people had stopped using cassette decks. You did not need to listen to it to be reminded of the days when people made tapes for each other, before CD burners, and before iPods became so popular as to make everything else irrelevant. Somewhere in the blur of things you lost it, though, and stopped thinking about the days when you puzzled over a set of stolen moments and imagined connections. And one day you fournd out that you had been living within a few miles of him for years now, and yet had never seen him, or even thought of him. Or, if you had, you both had become so unrecognizable to each other as to render those earlier years imaginary, apocryphal. And you thought that maybe this, finally, was the sheer and unmitigated power of Bob Mould.