I’d thrown (the man who called himself) my father for a loop, the Wherehouse at Stonewood Mall in for the Hello Kitty store that Friday, where I’d spent most of my allowances prior. Another drive begun down Telegraph Road, another journey to buy a pencil case, a trinket, or some other little junk — My Melody, Little Twin Stars, and of course, the Kitty.
“I’m gonna buy a tape this time.”
“Barbara Mandrell again?”
“No. Prince. Purple Rain.”
I was thankful he remained clueless, still very much enveloped and unaware, my Mother gone only three years by then.
He parked the van in the ringed lot that surrounded the mall. Part of me thought to ask him to wait for me there — it’d be fast, run in and get out. The risk, too big, though, I decided, too great. Unaccompanied I might be told, “no,” by some well-meaning clerk, not much older than I, yet wielding so much power. I’d, then, be forced to walk out to get him, faced with his questions, the why, answers I wasn’t yet prepared to give. I’d formed a good plan, I thought, on the twenty minute drive over. Inside by the counter, and loud enough for the staff to hear,
“Wait here, dad. I wanna practice paying by myself.”
He took often to lectures on: the merits of responsibility; budgeting; a sensible career choice; and college, his and, thereby, my ultimate goal. In saying that I knew that he’d take pride. Swift and easy, then, I followed the signs to the letter, “P,” as he stood at the front of the store waiting by the counter, out of time and out of place. I picked out my tape, stood in line for a shake, paid my ten, and got my change.
He never parked in the driveway at home, for some reason, always out front on the street. Clicked in and with the turn of his key I’d lit straight out of the van and into my room. Quickly, frantically, almost, I unwrapped the tape from the cellophane, and popped it into my deck, an early eighties era double deck bought at Sears, a brand you’d never recognize or even heard before,
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing called life
Electric word life
It means forever and that’s a mighty long time
But I’m here to tell you
There’s something else
The after world
A world of never ending happiness
You can always see the sun, day or night…”
He took me to church.
“When Doves Cry” in heavy rotation on MTV, I pressed my forehead against the cool glass of the screen as he crawled across the floor again, steamy and shirtless. I tried in vain to catch that secret glimpse each time it played, thinking there was a way I’d be able to see beyond the bounds of the frame. I was eleven years old — knew nothing of sex or what it was, exactly, that drew me to look, the extent of my knowledge then watching male classmates in Catholic school hump desks in our empty classroom at recess. But he stirred something inside of me, my quasi-innocent curiosity killing the Kitty — he’d set me on the road to becoming.
Mysterious, sexy, spiritual, watching him took me away to a far away place, made me feel like I was somewhere else, some other realm, somewhere far away from my white bread America, suburban hometown — another world, far away from my father’s enveloped in work and grief. I’d taken to flipping through the teeny bopper rags in the bookstore, the grocery, feeling myself passing through another rite as I let my eyes linger over his face and his clothes, so different from anything, from anyone I’d ever seen before.
I sat there listening, allowing the rhythm of his music to take me away, to imagine a different life for myself, one that I could still only feel, one that I wasn’t quite ready to really see yet. I closed my eyes and wondered if there was some future her out there for me, one who would use words like his to speak to me, still little concept of what that wondering would come to mean to me, the depth of that feeling.
I’d no way of knowing, listening to the next, that I would one day find myself in such a dynamic — in which he and I compete for her.
“Is the water warm enough?”
“Shall we begin?”
What they were doing in the water? I tried to imagine, let my mind and my libido go. Were they in it together? With him? The three of them? The normative fixed my gaze somewhat squarely on him, if only for the knowing that that’s what all of the other girls did. I was just as intrigued with Wendy as I was him, though. That butchy swag way she’d lick the guitar with her fingers, holding her own next him and her power over Lisa.
The opening licks of his guitar in the next, I instinctively knew I shouldn’t listen and turned the volume down. His tone and his stroke, I kept listening — my junior high school body doing things it hadn’t done before as I let my ear strain for the creak in the floor that signaled my father walking down the hall to my room. I’d no idea yet of masturbating — definition and practice, alike. I’d no idea yet of most of his allusions. I knew, though, that I dug Nikki. And I knew that I’d find Mine someday.
I’d begun to embrace his subversion. It wasn’t long before I began to embrace my own. I hadn’t had the tape very long before I gleefully announced to Gabriella — my Mother’s closest friend and my best friend’s mother,
“Guess what I got, Gabriella?”
Knowing it’d get a rise out of her,
“The Purple Rain tape.”
She met my rebelliousness, my glee with a litany of Good Catholic judgment, those self-righteous words stinging, enraging — my emotions rendered me silently seething, grasping at air in my mind for something to hit back with.
I’d arrived home that night, defeated, dejected — when it hit me. I rushed to my bookcase and pulled down a volume, looked up the passages, and dialed Gabriella,
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
… and so on and so forth. I recited each one of them to her and rendered her silently seething.
A year later he’d cut his hair, Raspberry Beret his latest track, in heavy rotation on MTV. The first copy of Rolling Stone I’d ever bought was his cover that year, “The Silence Is Broken.”
“Around the World In A Day,” the next leg of the journey, of my becoming — music to show another place he thought his listeners ought to see.
My tastes changed, of course, throughout the years. I kept him with me, never failed to buy the new album.
“The Arms of Orion” playing as I fell asleep underneath a blanket of stars in Lake Tahoe, lying next to Lily in the bed of her truck, Nancy by herself in the back of her car.
“Diamonds and Pearls,” for the first girl I ever had it bad for. High school, at Nixon. Drama department, of course. Sarah Taylor. She was seventeen.
“The Black Album,” fitting for the Susannahbil Lecter era. His music always seemed to encapsulate perfectly a current or recent paramour, recently fled Wendy, or the sweetly painful love I have or had. Or have for a Muse.
Even listening to a song today I haven’t heard in roughly twenty years, I’m just, like. You know that feeling.
Purple Rain overtaking our virtual public squares, my inner life, too. Passings that were hard to believe.
I got to see him play once. The Musicology Tour at the Staples Center, the very top rung. He played a three part set. The first James Brown style funk and panache with a many multi piece band. The third I can’t tell you, because, really, the whole night was about that middle section.
The stage was in the round, you see. The band cleared as a roadie set out a stool for him, swivel, acoustic placed next to on a stand. He sang and played, with us joining in. We were so there. A powerful thing, that collective, all of our voices, one.
My eyes mist as I write this, recalling the scene so many years later. He had paused between songs, or maybe in the midst of one, to rest his hand over his heart, a nod to us. The tears fall as I write this, recalling the scene so many years later. This is my pause between songs, or maybe I’m in the midst of one, to rest my hand over my heart, my nod to him.
Prince Rogers Nelson