How Not to Write a Love Song

When you sit down to write a love song, make sure you’ve found a quiet place. Fix yourself a nice cup of English breakfast tea. Then grab an instrument—a guitar or piano will do—and choose a key. I recommend G-major. Pick someone to write about. A cute blonde is usually best. Start with the chorus, something snappy but still heartfelt. Next, write the verses, it’s okay to get a little dark. Then write the bridge, this is your chance to get creative. Lastly and most important of all, whatever you do, do not write a love song about Melissa Petrulis.

Track One: Let’s Get Lost in a Fantasy
I remember handing her an envelope. Inside were the lyrics, hand-written, which was a little silly because I had first typed the song in Microsoft Word and then transcribed it onto paper later. We had been friends, just friends, for about two years. But tonight that would change. I remember standing there with my guitar on my knee, playing the song for her as she sat on my bed. I remember the room being dimly lit, too dim, or perhaps too small, somehow not quite right. I remember she never smiled, except for that one part during the bridge. But mostly I remember playing and singing—what else can you do, really, but keep going and finish the song?—and all of the words seeming to fall a bit flat.

Let’s get lost in a fantasy overseas,
All the children would look up to us,
We could teach their English lessons,
They could show us what it’s like to be young again,
And then we’d all play soccer by the mango tree.

 “I’m really flattered,” she said. This was later, on the car ride to our friend’s house. We were on our way to watch what seemed at the time like a very important football game. “But why did you write it for me?” Her voice hung on that last word.

“I wrote it about us,” I confessed, “It’s about joining the Peace Corps together and getting married and moving to Senegal and teaching English and playing with the schoolchildren and living there together and not caring about how much money we were making and just being happy there, together.”

Except I didn’t say any of that. It’s all true, of course, but I didn’t say it. All I managed was a weak “Because I… like you” and we continued on our way, she a bit confused, and me wondering why on Earth anyone would ever write a love song. We arrived at Bill’s house shortly after with a six-pack of Long Trail and a bag of Tostitos. We were twenty-one, one of those strange in-between ages: old enough to buy beer, but not yet old enough to be sure whether the bottles were recyclable.

Track Two: Watch a Movie With Me
The summer after college was like some sort of strange, recession-fueled high school reunion. Everyone was back in Plymouth, underemployed, and not that sad about it. There was a party—I can’t remember what for—at Melissa’s house, and we spent the evening toggling between drinking games and lounging outside by the chiminea. “You can sleep here if you want,” Melissa told me, “You guys don’t have to drive home.”

I remember Cody handing me his keys with a knowing look. “You can sleep here,” he laughed, “I’ll catch a ride with Bill. You two have fun!” Melissa and I stayed up late watching Taken with Liam Neeson and drinking water in a vain attempt to dodge a hangover. We slept on separate couches.

Won’t you come watch a movie with me?
We can sit on your couch and we don’t have to kiss.
Won’t you come watch a movie with me?
I won’t get us in trouble and we don’t have to cuddle.
Because I’m perfectly happy when we’re just sitting together,
And I’ll make sure to smile and we’ll talk about the weather,
Won’t you come watch a movie with me?
And I promise that I’ll make you happy.

“Did you write that?” my mom asked. I was sitting on the futon the next day, playing softly and singing. I nodded. “It’s so sad,” she said.

“It’s supposed to be sad,” I replied. I would realize, years later, that the song was two kinds of sad. The first was the typical longing sadness that comes with unrequited love. The second was of a much deeper kind, the kind that comes when you’re willing to accept any amount of love that’s given, however small. Perhaps love songs are where you write down the lessons you have yet to learn.

Track Three: You Fill Me With Happy
It was one of those lovely, late-summer beach days. The tourists were mostly gone, but the warm weather was still hanging on. We spent the day sitting on coolers and lying in the sand. And before I knew it, Melissa and I were swimming together in the not-too-cold September water, flirting, playing, embracing. I remember our friend Alec stopped us. “Pose for a quick picture,” he said. We stood close, she in her dark green bikini, me in my navy swim trunks. I put my arm around her.

That night, we lit a bonfire. The group huddled round as the temperature dropped, using damp towels as blankets. Melissa and I lay there cuddling. I vaguely remember a conversation about shooting stars. She had never seen one.

Later that night, I drove her home. It was a pleasant drive and mostly silent. We put the heat on to warm our cold feet. I motored up her steep driveway and put the car into park. “Melissa, can I ask you something?” I said, fumbling, “Today felt different, so… I just wanted to ask. Do you feel differently about us now?”

“Maybe,” she replied, “I don’t know.”

“Do you think we should… give it a try?”

“Maybe,” she said.

I hesitated. “Maybe” was not the answer I was hoping for. She leaned in closer, or maybe I leaned in closer and she followed suit, it’s hard to recall. But I do remember the kiss, soft and warm, rocking back and forth across the center console. I remember her smiling and saying goodnight. And I remember the feeling as I drove home: my bones tingled, my breath was short. Maybe “maybe” was good enough.

Maybe if I were more pretty,
We’d move into the city get a fancy car.
Maybe if I were cooler in high school,
Then you’d be more aware of what a jewel you are.
Maybe if I get you drunk,
Then you’ll remember how it felt when we were under the stars.

Love songs never tell the truth, they tell one half of the truth. On the one hand, those were real wishes of mine: moving to the city with her, getting tipsy and cuddling on the beach with her, seeing a shooting star with her. But real love is not about wishes.

A few weeks later, Melissa and I went out for drinks. She said we needed to talk. We sat on a comfy leather sofa in a quiet room above the bar. I ordered something thick and dark—I was never great at choosing beers—while she got something light and summery. And she told me that, try as she might, she just didn’t love me. Deep down, I believe I already knew.

I don’t remember all of what we talked about, sitting there on that couch. But I do remember bringing up the kiss in the driveway. “When did you know?” I asked. It felt like a real kiss based on real feelings. When did she realize it wasn’t? Her answer: “As soon as I got out of the car.”

Track Four: Fuck You, Romeo
“Hugh Jackman!” she said grinning. It was mid-autumn and Alec, Melissa, and I were driving to Cambridge for a game of ultimate frisbee. To kill time, we played some obscure road-trip game that involved guessing celebrities. All that you had to go on was the first letter of their name—in this case, H—and some vague clue. The correct answer was Hillary Clinton, but we wouldn’t get to that until the ride home.

“You like Hugh Jackman?” I was surprised. “Wolverine?”

“Oh my god, yes. He’s hot!” she replied.

“Isn’t he like forty?” I asked.

“That doesn’t matter,” she said, “It’s the beard and the muscles.” She laughed and Alec followed suit. I didn’t laugh. I remember looking down at my scrawny arms in my T-shirt, feeling the thin stubble on my chin and that familiar shortness of breath.

Fuck you, Romeo. You make all the girls think,
That if they don’t see fireworks, then there must be something wrong.
Fuck you, Juliet. You make all the boys think,
Girls should come in fancy packages.
Fuck you, Natalie. Always looking pretty,
Always in my daydreams when I should be looking out.
Fuck Hugh Jackman. He makes all the boys think,
That to be a real man they need to learn to fight.

They say the second stage of grief is anger. This must have been stage two and a half: a strange mix of anger and letting go. I was angry at her, angry at Hugh, and angry at William F. Shakespeare for all of the love stories he told us, and for all of the overly romanticized visions of love that have plagued us ever since. But Shakespeare was probably just lovesick himself. He’d had a Melissa too, probably.

I don’t write love songs often anymore. A decade later, I’m still single and still wondering how many Melissa’s, Anna’s, Susannah’s, and Anna’s I have to go through before finding someone. Someone that makes me breathe easy. Someone I smile at who smiles back. It’s cliché, of course, but maybe that is most important of all. Maybe the key to finding love is finding love that’s returned.

Years later, I saw Melissa at some frisbee tournament on some summer weekend. We traded smiles and cordial hugs. “I still have the song you gave me,” she said sheepishly. Of course, she meant the first one. I had learned my lesson about sharing love songs. She was engaged at that point; I saw the ring on her finger as she said it. But she had saved it, and that meant something.

I’m not sure where she keeps the envelope. I like to imagine that it’s hidden away in a sock drawer, somewhere secret, out of sight of her future husband. Perhaps she digs it out every now and then to read the words and hum the tune. Perhaps on cold winter nights left home alone, or perhaps when she feels unloved.

* * *

When you sit down to write a love song, make sure you’ve found a quiet place. Fix yourself a strong cup of coffee. Then grab an instrument—an old guitar will do—and choose a key. I recommend G-major. Pick someone to write about, a cute brunette is probably best. Start with the verses, or the chorus, or any other part, really. But when you put your pen to paper, be honest. Make sure you’re writing true. And don’t write it for her, write it for you. You’re the one who needs a love song.



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