This is what I remember: it was night. It was dark. We were in his pickup truck. We’d arrived at our destination and were about to get out of the car, when he told me to hold on, there was a song I had to listen to. I sat back, he slipped in a CD, and Jeff Buckley began singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” He made me listen all the way to the end, to hear the way Buckley stretched out those final, agonizing notes.
I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord
This is what I don’t remember: where we were, where we’d been, or where we were going. I don’t remember, at that point, how long we’d been dating, though I suspect this was early on, when he still wanted to linger with me in the car, hours after we’d pulled up to my parents’ house. I don’t remember if we’d had our first talk yet about whether he would call me his girlfriend. I don’t remember if we’d kissed.
Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
This is what I did: I downloaded that song the day after he made me listen to it. I added it to a mixed CD and listened to little else that whole summer of my nineteenth year. I often put that song alone on repeat. I memorized the lyrics within hours and thought, if I could write a story that sounded like this song, I would achieve all an artist could hope for. I listened to it on the long evenings I waited for him to call.
Baby, I’ve been here before / I’ve seen this room, and I’ve walked this floor
This is what I didn’t do: I didn’t consider what it might mean to be obsessed with such a mournful song, nor what it might mean to be dating someone who loved such a mournful song. Though early on, I thought it could be the perfect musical illustration of our relationship, I didn’t tell him, nor allow myself to understand what that implied. I didn’t listen to that song with him again, but then, I never asked to.
There was a time when you let me know
This is what I know: for months after we broke up, I couldn’t listen to that song. Seven years after the fact, I still can’t listen to Buckley’s version, but I have a collection of covers worth rivaling. I have lived out the lyrics more times than I care to count. In all its incarnations, in all its sorrow, “Hallelujah” is still the thing I turn to for comfort—a very particular kind of comfort I can get from nothing else.
Maybe there’s a God above / But all I’ve ever learned from love / Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you
This is what I don’t know: will I live this song again? Will I hear the hallelujah thread through my veins in a thousand tongues? Until recently, I didn’t know Buckley had left out two whole verses, the last of which says, And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a place where I can say that. But I’d like to.