"Helplessly Hoping:" A Story about a Song
I told a friend recently that I was thinking of including occasional posts about favorite songs in this newsletter. She told me that that was the most stereotypically male thing she’d ever heard me say. Is this something only men do?
In any case, here’s the first in an occasional series.
I am 19, a sophomore at Cal. I live in Ridge House, a co-op on Berkeley’s northside. I have a girlfriend, Danette, who also lives in Ridge. We’ve been dating since the fall, breaking up and getting back together every other week. “No one can go out the front door to find a date,” the Ridgelings lament, so we continue to turn to each other for comfort.
I truly do like Danette a lot, but I am in love with Robin, Danette’s roommate. Danette has a quick and easy laugh, and we have real heat together but it’s not enough to keep thoughts of Robin from my mind. Robin was recruited to Cal as a swimmer, but refused the regular drug tests that were required and gave up her scholarship to continue to smoke weed. Robin is an English major, and we bond over Bukowski, whom I almost decide I like for her sake. Danette is doing a civil engineering degree, and tunes out when her roommate and I start reciting poetry at each other.
I don’t understand how it isn’t screamingly obvious that I am in love with Robin, but neither woman seems to know.
Robin’s boyfriend, Sean, is a student at UCSB. He drives his VW van up to Berkeley one weekend a month. He is as hilarious as he is kind, and the liking he inexplicably takes to me makes me feel all the guiltier for being in love with his girlfriend. One weekend, we all get high together, and Sean and I end up wrestling on the floor. Robin and Danette laugh until they cry.
On another Friday night, Danette and I fall asleep in her bed. Robin and Sean tumble into theirs, and I waken to hear muffled gasps of the two of them having sex. Jealousy and arousal compete in my brain, and I will myself to sleep. I grant myself the self-indulgence of crying into my pillow.
I wake up to a sound unfamiliar today to anyone under 30. The click of a tape inserted into a boombox, the whirr of the fastforward, then a hiss, and then this song.
I open my eyes. Robin is standing at the window in the early morning sun. She is naked except for a grey wifebeater, and I hear her start to sing along softly. I know Crosby, Stills and Nash are her favorites (with Joni Mitchell a close second). This is my favorite of theirs, as it is many people’s, because it’s about unrequited longing.
Her harlequin hovers nearby
Awaiting a word
Gasping at glimpses
Of gentle true spirit
It’s too obvious, too perfect, or as they say in Hollywood, “too on the nose.” I’ve been helplessly hoping, and now I’m gasping at this glimpse of this woman I love but can never have. It feels very much like the dream it isn't.
Robin wheels around and looks at me. She’s almost completely naked, but she doesn’t cover up, doesn’t flinch, doesn’t smile. She just keeps singing softly to me. I will myself to stare into her eyes. The song ends, and she gives a small grin. The next song begins.
“Fuck, babe, it’s way too early. Turn that off.” Sean is awake.
Robin looks down, presses stop play on the boom box, and looks up at me again. I suddenly know she knows and that she knows that I know that she knows. I can feel pinpricks at my eyes, and I look away. I lie down and spoon Danette, who has stayed asleep through all this, my tears falling into her hair.
Later that day, I walk into the Ridge House kitchen. Robin is alone, making quesadillas. “Want one?” she asks.
“Yes,” I tell her, and add, “sorry about this morning."
I’m not sure what I’m apologizing for. I think maybe it’s for seeing her naked, but perhaps it’s because I am certain that she now knows I’m in love with her. I’ve had unrequited crushes on friends before, and I know what a burden it can be. Robin carries a lot on her broad shoulders. I don’t want my mopey feelings to be one more thing for her to bear.
Robin says nothing, just flips a cheese-filled flour tortilla back and forth over the open flame of a burner. “Get yourself a plate,” she says, and I do, and she turns, plops a quesadilla onto it.
She looks up at me, and I see a grimace cross her face. She draws closer, and for a second I’m not sure if Robin’s going to kiss my mouth or slap my face. She does neither. Instead, with her left fist, she lightly (but not that lightly) punches me on the shoulder. Twice. "Dude, you've got to stop apologizing for everything."
I start to say, “I’m sorry,” but catch myself. All that comes out is a squeak. I stand there, holding the plastic plate with both hands, as if begging for a second helping.
Robin stares at me. “It’s not just you, Hugo. Why do all of you say sorry all the time? I swear, you all want forgiveness more than you want to fuck. It's exhausting. Just… just stop it."
I try and fail to imagine ineluctably cool Sean apologizing for anything. I wonder if I really do care more about absolution than I do about sex.
“Okay,” I manage.
Robin steps away, tosses another flour tortilla onto open flame. “We’re cool, Hugo. We’re cool,” she says, without looking at me.
Three weeks later, I am hospitalized after my first suicide attempt. They hold me for a week. Danette comes to visit me every day, brings me my books so I can keep studying. She also brings me my Walkman and a few of my cassettes. She hands me one tape I don’t recognize. Danette hands it to me with an eyeroll. “Robin made you a mix of that old hippie shit you both like.” (Danette’s tastes run to Depeche Mode and Tears for Fears).
I play that tape as soon as Danette leaves. Side one is a blend of CSN, Joni Mitchell, Manasses, and solo Neil Young. Side two is “Helplessly Hoping,” over and over again, 10 times.
Danette and I will break up and get back together for another year. Robin moves out, and does not keep in touch. I will keep her cassette for five years, until it finally disintegrates in my tape player while I’m driving on the 405, on the very day of the Rodney King verdict.
And even now sometimes, when I catch myself apologizing to a woman without knowing why or what for, I think of this song.