Don’t take this the wrong way, because I mean it as a compliment, but I’ve never seen you look so disheveled.
I was dancing at a party when someone leaned into my ear and whispered that to me. I was wearing clothes that didn’t fit and no eye makeup.
Earlier that night, a friend and I went to a bar where we knew the bartender. He brought over a cocktail I hadn’t ordered. My friend raised her eyebrow. I looked different from how I normally look—I usually have mascara on my light eyelashes. I looked the way people might imagine I’d look when I was alone.
But I didn’t look like myself. I was dressed as my roommate, wearing his clothes, while he had dressed as me. It was Halloween.
Pain that gets performed is still pain,
writes Leslie Jamison in her essay, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, quoting her friend Harriet. I believe the idea extends beyond pain: pleasure that gets performed is also still pleasure.
Drake would not agree with me there. His first description of his lover in Hotline Bling: ever since I left the city, / you started wearing less and going out more / glasses of champagne out on the dance floor / hanging with some girls I’ve never seen before. He isn’t there—he’s left the city—so he must be seeing a photograph of her with some girls [he’s] never seen before.
Encountering an image online of an ex hanging out with people we don’t recognize is a strange experience. Drake speaks about the photograph as if it were an extension of reality, a part of a pattern, yet he’s unwilling to allow how she seems in it to be true. He insists that the way he saw her—alone—is the way she’s most real.
Why are you interested in Hotline Bling? Is it the story of your life?
you asked when I wrote to you for your thoughts on the song. I said I wanted to examine Drake’s ideas around performance. But is it the story of my life? I asked. I don’t know, you wrote back.
You used to call me on my cell phone / Late night when you need my love
Drake’s songs are less about love than about witness. Drake sees solitude and mistakes it for sincerity; he sees loneliness and mistakes it for desire. He’s hurt when his lover goes out, as if choosing against being alone were choosing against him. Why you never alone? he asks, but means why don’t you need me anymore?
You used to call me on my cell phone,
every day after work, on your way to the train, on your way to the apartment where you lived with a woman who wasn’t me.
When we say Drake, don’t we mean the idea of Drake?
a friend asked me over a dinner conversation about Drake and authenticity. So true, I replied. When I say Drake, I mean a man, or maybe I mean you. When I say you, I mean you but also not-you. I’m performing writing to you for an audience of mostly not-you. But performance, as I’ve said, can be as real as anything else.
The saddest time in my life was also the time the most people said, you look beautiful,
writes Joy Katz in her poem, Suicide Cascade. In college, I had a bad reaction to the birth control pill I had been taking for years. It happened slowly; I didn’t notice how sad I’d become until I felt as though no one could touch me.
But, though I felt lonely, the surge of hormones cleared up my acne. My breasts swelled. One afternoon, I noticed their soreness. I stood in the bathroom of the house where I lived and lifted my shirt to see my breasts in the mirror. Pushed up by a bra, they looked like globes, round and bluish with veins just below a cloud of skin. I went back into my bedroom, where two of my housemates were sitting. Look, I said, and raised my shirt. Whoa, they both replied. One added, looking good.
Would you rather—
is a question you told me you asked yourself. I thought the question you meant was would you rather be with her or with me? But my fear wasn’t that you would choose against me. I feared you weren’t considering me as an option at all.
I didn’t know yet what I should have been afraid of. You would never choose. I would need to face the question of loneliness: would I rather be lonely with you or without you?
Used to always stay at home, be a good girl
Of course it’s a question of public and private space, and what a woman should do in each. Writing is the most public private space, and I would like to ask Drake what he thinks of my writing this essay. A friend tells me about a video where Drake, in disguise, asks people what they think of him. He reveals himself to someone who loves him and they take a picture together.
The saddest time in my life was also the time the most people said, you look beautiful.
I had one close friend living in New York when I moved there for graduate school. But she lived on the other side of Manhattan and worked full time, and my classes were in the evenings. My roommate had both classes and a day job, so I spent my days alone. The poems I wrote then sound as though another person wrote them. I wasn’t in love with anyone, but that wasn’t what the poems were missing. I was lonely for myself.
One night that first semester, I went to a party. Everyone there was a writer. I smiled a lot, though I didn’t know how much people could see me in the dark apartment. A man in my workshop walked over. You’re taller than I’d realized, he said. I was wearing high heels. Tall, he repeated, and ran his finger up my thigh, along the inseam of my pants. I smiled and backed away from him. Later, I stood talking to a man who leaned into my neck and brushed it with his lips as I spoke. I went into the kitchen and saw someone I knew. He and I were talking and then we weren’t talking; he pushed me up onto the stove and covered my mouth with his.
I felt, that night, neither vulnerable nor erotic, but like a vessel—as if my loneliness had hollowed me out and made me cool to the touch, light enough for men to lift up and put back down.
That week, Rachel Zucker read Suicide Cascade to our workshop. The saddest time in my life was also the time the most people said, you look beautiful was a line that would be in my head for a long time, until one day, it wasn’t.
I know when that hotline bling / That can only mean one thing
I had your number for a few months before I called you. You’d saved it in my phone under the name of a famous writer. I didn’t call you at first, I texted and you called back. Sometimes my phone wouldn’t let your calls through, you told me a few months later. I didn’t know if you were lying or not. I thought you blocked me, you said once. I’ll tell you if I want you to stop calling, I replied, not thinking I ever would.
Let me help you,
you said. We were sitting in your dark apartment waiting for my migraine medication to work. You believed sex could make a migraine go away. I liked that idea: the perfect cure for migraine, to flood the brain with pleasure until it can’t hold anything else.
Watching someone in pain is intimate. It’s one of the most private places you can see someone go, and that privacy can be erotic, a barrier to be passed, a place inside a lover that only she has been.
When you said, let me help you, you meant it as an offer of rescue and a question. Could you meet me inside that room, where I was stripped down by pain, and see what I looked like there?
My medication is working, I said, and turned on the light.
You should just be yourself / Right now, you’re someone else
Drake sees genuineness as a binary: dressed up as a costume, undressed as the real. But anyone who has ever been undressed with another person knows that that nakedness doesn’t make us real.
In math, there are two ways to solve a problem,
an engineer I dated told me. The first: imagine you’re in a room, with a door on each of its walls. You can open all the doors at once and, from there, get an idea of which one might lead to a path out.
Or? I asked him.
Or you open one door, and the door beyond it, and the next one, until one doesn’t open, and you turn around and go back, he looked at me. We were sitting in my bed for the first time. That’s how I feel talking to you. I stayed quiet and he explained, when you tell a story, it feels like you’re opening doors until you get to a door you won’t open.
I asked him what good it did to solve a problem this way.
You start to get an idea of how the building is shaped, he told me. It helps you choose a better door next time.
What are you thinking about?
my high school boyfriend would ask me, and continued to ask me after we broke up. We had been friends, and we gave a shot at being friends again afterwards. I went to the beach with his family. One afternoon, we took a long bike ride with his father. I rode much more slowly than they did, and I injured myself trying to keep up. When we arrived at the beach, I got off my bike and knelt in the sand. I told them I’d walk back. His father insisted my ex-boyfriend walk with me.
There was a shortcut through the woods, so we rolled our bikes off the road and through the underbrush. It smelled at once like ocean and forest, and, covered in sweat, we smelled the way we had a month earlier, fumbling in the back of his car every day before he drove me to work.
What are you thinking about? he asked.
You was the answer. We were close enough to the road to hear cars, but closed in enough by woods that the whir of insects and the sound we made pushing through the brush were louder.
I’m hot and I don’t want to be here, I said. We didn’t speak for the rest of the walk.
I never thought I’d meet a girl as chill and relaxed and wonderful as you
is a text that boyfriend sent me when we were together. I should have responded you have fundamentally misunderstood me as a person, but I was seventeen, and I was walking through the bedding section of a Target. I grabbed a pillow and spun in a circle as I hugged it to my chest.
He later described me as awkward. He was both chill and awkward, a gangly stoner who liked music and critical theory. He meant that I made him feel chill and relaxed. I reflected him, and so in public, I became awkward. I was loved for being a mirror, invisible in the parts that didn’t reflect him.
Writers should always date other writers because they understand the need to be alone,
a man said to me while we were getting drinks.
I don’t think I agree, I told him. Writers can be the worst people to date. He was a writer. I mean, not necessarily always the worst, I added.
I need to be left alone to write, he continued as if I hadn’t spoken. That hurts some women’s feelings.
I write in coffee shops and after dinner, when I can shout questions to my roommate across the apartment. I write while on the phone. Writing is my resistance to loneliness. I’m trying to be known and seen.
You know a lot of girls be / Thinking my songs are about them / This is not to get confused / This one’s for you
A few months after we broke up, my high school boyfriend sent me the Drake song Best I Ever Had. I didn’t respond to him, though I listened to the song every day. I thought I had embarrassed myself enough when we were together, and that if he wanted me back, he needed to say so.
This was the time I learned silence. I didn’t realize that silence wasn’t what he wanted. Years later, in Hotline Bling, Drake explains: he misses the good girl who stayed at home. He wants her to be quiet again, but he also wants her to call. He wants silence that will always be broken for him.
How’s your Hotline Bling essay going?
you asked me. I said the tone turned out wrong when I wrote it down. It felt too think-piece-y: anecdote, background proving my right to the topic, proposal of a new turn of phrase, references to other think pieces, preemptive defense against critique, a little anger, a turn back to the beginning and a final question.
The tone was wrong because I wasn’t writing an argument. It’s taken ending things with you, and trying to talk to Drake about it in this essay, to realize that he isn’t wrong. Loneliness can be hot. Or he is wrong; being alone isn’t any more real than being in a crowd. But I’m as guilty of that wrong as Drake is. I believed you were most you when you were with me.
So writing is the performance I mean, also life as it unfolds,
read the last sentence of the poet Eileen Myles’ course description for a class on performance. I struggled with the class, not seeing how the books we read connected to one another, or what performance meant to me as a writer. I was working on a long poem about you that semester. The first time I showed the poem to Eileen, she had two major comments: let it be stranger and put page numbers on it. Never write something that long without giving it a clear order.
I was sitting with friends a few days before giving a presentation in the class, writing questions we would use to lead a discussion. Is the body a performance? I asked, and realized that question was what I needed to understand the class. Writing might be a performance of how my body felt; or perhaps living in my body was the performance itself.
Sweatpants, hair tied, chilling with no makeup on, that’s when you’re the prettiest, I hope that you don’t take it wrong
Can you believe disheveled has become a pick-up line? I asked you. You said it spoke to a larger trend. The model femme of the moment, you posited, is a reaction against the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of the early 2000s. She’s been replaced by, you thought for a moment, the Languid Depressive Fantasy Nymph.
I laughed. Later, it hit me. The model femme, the Languid Depressive Fantasy Nymph, is the woman in Hotline Bling. Drake is writing an erotics of loneliness.
You need to stop making it an issue of men and women, and allow it to be about this particular guy and you,
my mother told me. I was on the phone with her while walking back and forth on a block of warehouses in my neighborhood. I had called my mother to vent: he’s making me feel like I’m pursuing him—but I don’t want to wait around for him to call me—do you think he has too much power in this—what’s wrong with me as a feminist?
Let this one thing not be political, she said. Calling him makes you unhappy, so don’t call him.
Ever since I left the city, you
is the part of Hotline Bling I have stuck in my head most often. I never continue it to the next verse, you got exactly what you asked for. There is a story you could tell yourself about us, where since I stopped calling you, I’ve got a reputation for [myself] now. I’m writing more; I have a better job; I’m hanging with some [female writers] you’ve never seen before. I’m happy. But it’s not instead of you. I think I could have been happy with you, and it wouldn’t have changed any of this.
You make me feel like I did you wrong,
says Drake. I don’t want to be the villain in your story, you told me when I ran into you on the street. I realized you thought my silence was a defiant gesture, and not the end of defiance. I once believed I could call you until you came, and stayed.
They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs,
James Wright says of two ponies he sees in a paddock on the side of the road. I started writing when I lived in Minnesota, and Wright’s poems about his time there brought me to poetry. I loved the idea of a form that could contain such contradictions as They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs. That felt as close to me as words could come to the experience of being in love: we notice our loneliness most when we try to escape it. We try to escape it most when we want to be in the bodies of our lovers, and we discover the limits of knowing another body. There is no loneliness like theirs.
It’s taken me a long time to realize that you’re happy when you’re not with me, and remain yourself when I don’t see you. I imagined you over and over again until I didn’t recognize the version of you in my head. No wonder Drake doesn’t see his lover the way he remembers her in photos of her now. The woman he addresses is a shadow on the wall of loneliness in his mind. Love can make us least ourselves.
Look at me / Falling apart / At the seams — Adele’s newest single,
is what you texted me when I stopped taking your calls. Those weren’t the lyrics—I think the song you meant was Hello, a song, like Hotline Bling, about absence—but you heard what you wanted to hear.
Loneliness might be listening to a song on repeat until you realize it was never about you. Writing is a defiant gesture in the face of that truth: to claim what you hear as a conversation, and to respond.
For a while, I wanted to set everything I wrote about you in a garden. I had a backyard then, and I would go out there to talk to you on the phone. Once or twice we sat in it together. Gardens call up Eden, the sense of before-the-fall, everyone in the future replaying that moment when things went wrong. A Brooklyn backyard isn’t Eden, though. It’s Gilligan’s Island or a reality TV set, a tiny oasis where anyone might be watching us act like fools.
Above us, dark windows of apartments held lives behind them, real and performed and lonely. When you touched my skin, your hand was light, as if you were opening a door with no latch. I felt desire, or heat, or the shifting of loneliness, and when I was quiet, I was thinking of you, just then, in that moment, how you looked when I looked at you, not yet changed.
Leslie Jamison’s essay, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, is published online in the Spring 2014 issue of VQR and in Jamison’s book, The Empathy Exams.
Joy Katz’s poem, Suicide Cascade, appears in her collection, All You Do Is Perceive and in the Fall 2011 issue of Blackbird.
James Wright’s A Blessing can be found in Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.
Hotline Bling was released as a single in 2015 and appears on Drake’s album Views.
Best I Ever Had is on Drake’s 2009 album, So Far Gone.