Ethan is the only person who has ever made me want to listen to a song I don’t like a second time.
Ethan is an average little brother: a sophomore in high school, water polo player, good at algebra, watches Marvel movies, despises emotions.
Before I left for university, I was his best friend. He helped me carry my suitcase up the stairs when I moved to Berkeley, and I promised him he would make a lot of new friends once he started high school — “It’s just a few weeks away.”
You’ll find someone to watch Marvel movies with, and do math homework with, but you should always tell me when you’re sad, I said.
I’m a second-year at Berkeley now, and Ethan doesn’t often tell me he’s sad. I want to be more convinced he isn’t, but I’m not sure; I don’t think he’s made any friends. I miss him when he texts me — “Bustin’ a move on my skaten board” Sunday, 10:22 p.m. It happens sporadically: three blurry pictures of the salad he ate for dinner, a slew of gifs referencing a video game he hasn’t played before, links to songs he likes.
He sends me remixes of Avicii tunes, electropop bops, EDM playlists, Eminem raps. I always send him something back: Saint Motel, Watsky, Portugal the Man, Regina Spektor, The Black Keys, Glass Animals, alt-J.
Our tastes zig-zag around each other — his favorite Eminem song is “Lose Yourself;” the only one I’ve ever heard is “Not Afraid,” playing through the gym doors at a dance in middle school. He likes Kygo; I like Arctic Monkeys. He finds obscure auto-tune songs, synthesized into shape; I played “Little Lies” by Fleetwood Mac while I picked him up from swim practice.
If I were sitting next to him, I would muster up a polite comment and turn back to my own laptop. Now, a text with a song link, out of the blue on a Thursday afternoon, is the first time I’ve heard from Ethan in a month.
I want to ask him how he’s doing, if he’s still being bullied, if he’s made any friends, what he ate for breakfast this morning, when he’s going to eat lunch, if he remembers the time we watched all of the Star Wars movies back-to-back in two days, if he wants to go see the new Thor movie with me when I come home for Thanksgiving break, if it’s water polo season or swim season right now, if he ever told his coach about the time his teammate kicked him, if he ever told his teacher about the time someone took a picture of him eating lunch alone in the library and told him there was a reason he didn’t have any friends, if he feels like he can talk to our mom, if he misses our dad, if he misses me.
But when I ask lots of questions, the answers plod back slowly, nondescript — one word, or two words, he left his phone in at the pool, he has to study for a math test tonight, he’s too busy to talk right now, he sat down to watch TV and forgot to respond.
So I send him a link to one of my favorite songs instead, because hearing anything from him makes me happy.
At first I worried that Ethan didn’t want me to know anything about himself, but now it seems like he doesn’t know how to say the things he wants me to know about himself. So instead, he sends me music, and I send him music back.
Music I don’t particularly like and music I know he won’t particularly like either, but we listen to it anyway because some things transcend taste.
The songs he sends me make me feel closer to him — the way he shares music feels like the way I share emotions. When I listen to the melodies, I think about the way he is listening to them, what he’s feeling.
After he sends me “It Ain’t Me,” I think about him sitting on the steps of the theater at his high school, listening to it and learning to be alone. Months later, when he sends me a link to “Dying For You” and a picture of himself drinking soda pop with the kid who lives across the street I know I was wrong about him having to learn how to be alone.
Ethan will make a lot of friends, even if it takes him a little bit longer than it took me. And when he does, they’ll be the kind of people who share his taste in music, who will listen to “Without You” from Avicii and speak effusively about it.
Just, in the meantime, Ethan, send me all the music in the world.
Olivia Jerram writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on experiencing art through other people. Contact her at [email protected].