Last month, my friends and I saw Mitski live. I didn’t know that many Mitski songs, but I went to her concert anyway because the songs I did know made me certain that everything that happened inside of me had happened inside of someone else before.
At the entrance of the venue, a woman who was checking IDs glanced at me and said, “You’re definitely under twenty-one, right?” I laughed her off because I wasn’t planning on drinking anyway. She drew an X on the back of my hand with Sharpie.
My friends and I joked about how the opener, a band called The Weather Station, had a vocalist that sounded similar to Mitski. All the merchandise was expensive but I bought a shirt anyway, a $30 mint-green crop top, partially because it was cute enough and partially to remind myself that I was a thousand miles away from the life I used to have.
As the main act was about to begin, we wiggled our way through the crowd and found a spot where, if we held our heads just right, we could see most of the stage. As the first notes of “Love Me More” drifted in, Mitski stepped out, and the audience erupted into frenzied cheering.
The first Mitski song I ever heard was “Your Best American Girl.” Her voice starts slow and smooth, like honey, until it climbs into the frenzied chorus. She sings of heartbreak that creeps up on you: don’t wait for me, I can’t come, that slow realization of an insurmountable abyss. Lyrics like your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me suggest that the fundamental incompatibility between the two lovers is steeped in racial and cultural differences.
In the music video, Mitski, a half-Japanese woman, waves at a white boy, who waves back until a white girl intrigues him more. Mitski’s smile falters. The boy and girl begin making out. Mitski makes out with her own hand. When I watched the music video, I felt embarrassed on her behalf. Why was she so enthralled with this mediocre man? Why wouldn’t she want to be with someone who thought she was beautiful, and not just beautiful for an Asian woman?
I was young enough to think that I already knew everything there was to know about myself. I didn’t know how easy it is to become what you once scoffed at. I would never be with a boy who makes me feel that way, I thought, not as a promise but as an observation. And this has turned out to be somewhat true in that I have never had a boyfriend who is fully white, but this has also proven untrue in other ways because I have had boyfriends whose families were much wealthier than mine.
I met my first boyfriend through a high school chemistry class. We were both ambitious and eager to prove ourselves. We’d attended the same talented and gifted program when we were younger, but at different times, so our lives had never overlapped before. Attending such a program had given both of us an easy hubris, the sureness that we were destined for somewhere better than our public school in Portland, Oregon. (I cast my arrogance off after I arrived at MIT, like it was a kitschy scarf that had been silly to wear. I don’t know if he ever cast off his. We haven’t spoken in years. Apologies for spoiling the end of the story so early.)
In mid-September of that school year, he made a Facebook account and we started chatting through the platform. Later on, I would learn that he had made the account just to talk to me, a move that struck me as both flattering and questionable. But mostly flattering; after all, he was the first boy to ever confess his interest in me.
We had a lot in common, I thought. We both wanted to attend MIT. Our class differences were subtle enough that I didn’t notice for months. The car he drove was a hand-me-down from his brother, old enough to still have a stick shift. Most days, we took the same school bus home. I didn’t pay specific attention to fashion, but his clothing seemed inexpensive and functional.
After we began dating, I visited his house, which had few walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, and remote-controlled blinds. One got the sense that every detail had been meticulously planned. The renovations, I was told, gave the place a valuation of $4 million. What was it like, I wondered, to have the confidence and the resources to wreck and rebuild your world to align with your dreams?
We spent many evenings there, studying. He was good at chemistry because he actually liked it, and years later, he would go on to pursue a chemical engineering PhD. I have always been drawn to people who are genuinely passionate about what they do, and I found myself growing quite fond of him. When measuring against the intensity and depth of the adult relationships I’ve had since, I wouldn’t describe what we had as love, but there is no denying that I liked him. I liked him a lot.
My boyfriend’s family owned a beach house on the Oregon coast. Some weekends, they asked him to go there. “I hate being here,” he texted me on one such visit. “Next time you should come with me.”
“Haha maybe,” I texted back, hoping he wouldn’t ask again. (It’s only now that I realize what he wrote wasn’t a question, but a demand.) And I did get what I wanted: the topic of me visiting the beach house never resurfaced.
For him, I did a lot that I would normally never do. He was one of the top chess players in the state, so I learned the rules and sat across from him at the board. But after a few rounds, he got bored. “You’re not good enough for this to be exciting for me.”
So I tried other things. I sat through Inception. I listened to his bizarre theories about the psychological differences between the sexes. I edited his literature essays.
In the winter, we started studying for the chemistry olympiad, which we’d convinced our teacher to host at our high school for the first time. I bought a used copy of Atkins’ 3rd edition of Chemical Principles and learned all the subjects our high school chemistry class hadn’t covered, like the Schrödinger equation. I sent him links to recommended textbooks, but he didn’t purchase any. I downloaded practice tests, but he didn’t want to bother with them, so I completed the exams alone.
The day of the contest came and went. When results were posted, we found out I’d received the highest score in the school. He had scored ten points below me on a sixty-question test. I was frustrated. Why didn’t he try? I wanted to do math, not chemistry. I had studied for him, and he hadn’t even made a respectable effort.
And no, this boy never did any AMC practice questions. He never listened to the K-pop I liked, he didn’t read any of my writing. When I won a schoolwide slam poetry contest and moved onto the citywide competition, he didn’t attend the performance.
But I can’t truly blame him for not trying; after all, I had never asked him to do any of these things. He was a sixteen-year-old boy and it hadn’t occurred to him that his girlfriend had a life of her own that he could participate in. And it hadn’t occurred to his girlfriend that she should expect to be more than a piece in someone else’s jigsaw puzzle.
I was so distracted that year, I didn’t realize that spring had arrived until it was almost over. May in Portland happened in fits and starts, as if it weren’t certain of its inclination to warmth. To me, it was AP exam season; to my boyfriend’s family, it was boating season.
He asked me to go, and I said I had to study, I had to work, I had to volunteer. I told him he should take our mutual friend instead.
He stared at me. “Why will you never go out on the boat with me?”
I had run out of excuses, and we both knew it.
I fumbled to explain. “It’s too bourgeoisie . . . I’m not like that. I don’t know how to do things like that.” To make matters worse, I wasn’t even certain if I was pronouncing bourgeoisie correctly, having only ever seen the word on paper. That was something he made fun of me for, my mispronunciation of words I’d never heard spoken aloud.
Honestly, I barely understood my own hesitation. I knew how to swim. I didn’t want to explain to my conservative parents what I was doing with a boyfriend on a boat, but that was a surmountable discomfort.
I imagined myself sitting in a swimsuit, the boat knifing through the Willamette River. The sun spilling itself all over us. The endless water. Closing my eyes whenever I wanted, red summer against my eyelids, knowing I wouldn’t drown, not in a place like this. Excess. When I was a child, my family had been on food stamps.
But wasn’t that the point of everything? To end up somewhere better than where we had been? Why would I let the past anchor me?
That June, Imagine Dragons came to Portland. My boyfriend’s family had tickets, but his older brother decided not to go, so my boyfriend invited me in his place.
We all knew Imagine Dragons. Their chart-topping single “Radioactive” had made them rock stars, but I had liked them since they landed on the Billboard Hot 100 with “It’s Time”. These were box seats, seats my family couldn’t afford ourselves. Honestly, concert tickets were a luxury we wouldn’t indulge in. I wanted to go, I really did. But the concert was the evening before my SAT exam, which I was taking for the second time.
I texted him that I was very sorry, but I couldn’t go see Imagine Dragons. He wasn’t happy. He asked, not for the first time, why I cared so much about this exam when I had already received a score in the 99th percentile the first time I took it. To placate him and assuage my own guilt, I suggested he bring a mutual friend instead, the same girl he took on the boat.
When my mother heard, she shook her head.
“You told him to take her? How can you be so naive? Rona, you don’t understand anything about men.”
I recalled a story Mom had once told about a family friend. When his future wife met him, she knew this was the man who could get her out of China and into America. In the months leading up to their immigration, she wouldn’t let him talk to any other women, not even female friends. She wasn’t willing to risk losing her new life for his wandering eyes.
I knew what my mother was implying, but I trusted my boyfriend. Anyway, he had already asked her, and I wasn’t about to demand for a change of plans.
He went to the concert with our friend. I took the SAT and got a score high enough to satisfy any college in the country.
Three months later, we were broken up and he was dating the girl who had said yes to everything I had said no to.
When asked about her motivation for writing “Your Best American Girl”, Mitski said: “I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love. I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life.”
I got into MIT early action and my ex-boyfriend was rejected. By the time we received our decisions, the breakup was far enough in the past that this victory didn’t grant me any vindictive pleasure. Besides, he didn’t need to get into MIT, not the way I did.
When Mitski sang, You’re the sun, you’ve never seen the night, I thought about the ease with which he carried himself, unmarred by any notion of scarcity. When she sang, I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl, I recalled the requests he made for me to fit into his life, how he never tried to understand mine.
The boat was never mine. The concert ticket was never mine. Those were gifts from a boy who could reclaim them and give them to anyone else just as easily.
But that SAT score, that MIT acceptance letter, those belonged to me. They are mine even now, remnants of a younger self who didn’t know where she wanted to go but knew she needed more than a boyfriend to get there.
As Mitski sang, the spotlights cast her in eerie, otherworldly colors: fuchsia, lime-green, indigo, lime-green again. I felt like I was made of guitar strings strummed by her voice; I wasn’t sure where I ended and she began.
I didn’t get to see Imagine Dragons, but here I was, years later and thousands of miles away, seeing Mitski instead, enveloped by friends and strangers and music, my own best American girl.