Chris Isaak is still playing “Wicked Games” with my heart after all these years! His newest album, First Comes the Night, awoke and exorcised the ghost of a past relationship for me. It’s funny how music can do that. It’s like when someone walks past me wearing Tommy Hilfiger cologne — the scent transports me back to junior high. Chris Isaak’s lyrics escorted themselves, unannounced, into my dead-bolted heart, and transported me back to a time when I was so in love I was barely aware of my feet on the ground.
Jacob. He was the dreamy frontman of a band that Prince Rama toured with: another wacky DIY basement group from the indie scene. He was funny, generous to all of his bandmates — selfless, really. I had a lot of respect for him and the music that he wrote. He also possessed a deep sadness that kept him on my mind all the time. In his song “Insects,” Isaak sings the words that I wanted to tell Jacob: “If you gave your heart to someone/You’d be better than you were.”
Once we started dating, the honeymoon period lasted almost the entirety of our relationship. I remember taking long walks together in the sunlight holding hands and laughing with our iced coffees; traveling the world and being creative collaborators; listening to “Layla” by Eric Clapton and making out like high schoolers; having a late-night conversation on my couch about marriage after a fancy event; countless lazy mornings (that would turn into afternoons) with only an appetite for each other’s affections and loving gazes. I honestly never thought I could be taken out of this daydream — especially by Jacob.
In “Reverie,” Chris Isaak sings, “Where do you go when it’s over/When the reverie goes up in flames?”
During the summer of 2012, everything changed. My sister and I were part of a documentary called A Spell to Ward Off Darkness that was filmed over the course of a month on a remote island off the coast of Estonia with twenty-five other people from around the world. There was no electricity, no running water, no wi-fi and no Jacob. To my surprise, I didn’t crumble or scramble blindly, directionless without my boyfriend. I felt fortified by the bonds I was making with new friends and proud of the hurdles I was overcoming (such as, ahem, not showering?!?!?!). A maternal instinct that I didn’t know I had blossomed as I became the caretaker of the little kids on the commune, and gratitude for this experience spilled out through my hands as I cooked for everyone each night.
As my heart expanded beyond what I previously thought it capable of, I realized I wanted to embrace more challenges, cultivate more friendships and be of service to more people — solo — before I committed myself to living my life for one person. When I got back to New York, Jacob could sense the shift. My needs had changed and his had stayed the same. Jacob hadn’t done anything wrong, so I saw no reason to end our wonderful relationship. But the honeymoon had ended.
“There’s no such thing as tomorrow/When you love me and leave me this way,” Isaak continues in “Reverie.”
There followed long silences where there used to be laughter. Then there was that story he told me about how his mother asked him, “When are you going to travel the world on your own and quit riding the coattails of your girlfriend?” There was an incident in which I slammed the car door in his face after he refused to kiss me because the hat that I was wearing made me “look like a bro.” And then there were the countless nights (that turned into weeks) that he chose work over me.
In “Dry Your Eyes,” Isaak sings, “I hang on because I love you/I can’t help if I still care.”
Even after the reverie went up in flames, I wanted to fight for our love; it had grown so deeply over the three years that we were together. I think that that sadness I sensed in him when we met came from how guarded he was. I had thought that, over time, our closeness had melted the steel walls around his heart. But, like Isaak describes in “Insects,” “Emotions never touch you/You stay distant like a star/I thought somehow I could change you/But you’re just the way you are.”
Jacob broke up with me. It came as a surprise, especially because I hadn’t shared any of my feelings with him about the trip to Estonia. I hadn’t done anything wrong, he said, the relationship just wasn’t working.
In “The Way Things Really Are,” Isaak reflects, “We had a love but lost our way/I guess there isn’t much to say/I could see in light of day/The way things really are.”
Jacob tried several times in the weeks after our breakup to undo what he had done. But I was on tour, halfway across the world, and, anyway, I felt the same way Isaak does in “Please Don’t Call”: “I don’t want you/But I want you/To remember how it felt/When I held you/When I love you/If you’re lonely/Now blame yourself.”
And as quickly as I was out of Jacob’s reach, I was into another man’s arms. Solo Nimai was here to stay! That pink cloud of being recently single was another reverie that eventually combusted…
It’s funny for me to think back on that time as being “single” because I was actually with a lot of different men. Chris Isaak, writing the scroll of my heart, sings, in “Kiss Me Like a Stranger,” “Don’t say a word/Words never last/Here, there’s no future/Here, there’s no past/Kiss me like a stranger.”
I wanted to recreate that love, that happiness that I felt with Jacob — but I did not want the commitment. As my sister says, I was on the S.S. Fun Ship and I wasn’t looking to dock anywhere, only CRUi$E. About a year into cruisin’, though, I started to lose steam. Had I gone off course? Where was the substance that I was craving when I left Estonia?
In “Down in Flames,” Isaak describes my situation: “Add up all my misbehavin’/And I’m past the point of savin’/What’s it to ya? Hallelujah!/I’m goin’ down in flames!”
I was feeling burned — burned by my past relationship, burned by being “single.” I was like an amputee still trying to function with her phantom limb instead of embracing life without it. After a year, I still cried when I visited the coffee shop that Jacob and I used to go to. I couldn’t listen to Fleetwood Mac. I stopped hanging out with our mutual friends.
On the title track, Isaak sings, “I still see you/Wherever you are/I still feel you/You’re still in my heart.”
Still, Chris Isaak sings about the silver lining of a breakup on that same track: “First comes the night baby/Then comes the day/First comes the heartache darlin’/It ain’t always gonna hurt this way.”
Like Isaak says, the night was the hardest for me. I couldn’t wait for the world to wake up so I wouldn’t feel so alone. Day did come after night, though. It didn’t hurt that way forever. After a while, I remembered how fulfilled I felt in Estonia without any sexually charged interactions. So I scrolled through my phone and started reaching out to girlfriends who I hadn’t spent quality time with and checked in to see how they were doing. Playing with little kids in the commune had awakened a tender spirit in me, so I looked up a volunteering service online. With a friend’s help, I made my own online cookbook to share with everyone. Cooking for others is an act of gratitude, and gratitude is an attitude that I hope to never lose.
The new memories were exorcising the old ghosts, and as I started to exercise embracing life without Jacob, I got stronger on my own two feet. There have been a lot of growing pains along the way — but that seems like the protocol for most breakup boot camps.
So, if any of you are going through heartache, let me leave you with this last bit of Chris Isaak’s wisdom from First Comes the Night: “Sometimes I wanna give up/But somethin’ won’t let go/Things are gettin’ better/Any day, I know.”