Remembering Michael Jackson

27 Jun

I wrote this essay right after Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009.  It follows my love of Michael as a young girl, my trying to find my own “Michael” with my childhood and teen year crushes, and the development of my love for Michael as an artist.  Whatever your feelings for Michael are, I hope the world continues to recognize how truly gifted he was, and the vast contributions he made to the history of music and entertainment.  R.I. P.  Michael.

It’s lengthy, but please enjoy my essay, MICHAEL JACKSON ADMITS TO LOVING WENDY

Michael Jackson Admits To Loving Wendy

I was supposed to marry Michael Jackson. Really. That’s what made the condolence messages my father and sisters left on my cell phone the night Michael died all the more poignant. They knew the impact the news would have on me. My best friend Marci, was the first to call.

“Wendy, are you all right?” she asked.

I was driving, looking for a parking space in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. My daughters, Leni and Darla, ages nine and seven, were in the back seat. There was an outdoor movie showing of the original Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. We were meeting some friends there.

“Yes, why?”

“Did you hear the news? About Michael Jackson?” she said.

“No, what happened?”

“He died,” her tone apologetic.

I swerved and pulled the car to the curb, parked, and yanked out the keys.

“Michael? Oh my God, no! Michael Jackson died? I can’t believe it. When?”

Marci began to speak again and at the same time, my girls asked in unison, “Michael Jackson died? How come?”

I raised my finger as I always did when they interrupted a call. But instead of snapping at them, I sighed an, “I don’t know.”

I was in shock, not crying, not on the verge of tears. I was numb.

When we met up with my friend Anisa and her family at the movie, and we exchanged our dismay over the King of Pop, she had this to say.

“I don’t think I feel as much sadness right now because I mourned him already when he changed his appearance and behavior so much he did not seem like his old self anymore. I felt like I lost him then, and so now it’s not hitting me as hard.”

Immediately her thoughts clicked with me. I too had mourned the old Michael and couldn’t entirely connect with what Michael seemed to have become from the 1990’s on. I no longer clung to every bit of media attention or performance news. I had even turned away from the television, many times, because I found it too disturbing to look at the face that was so not the face I remembered loving.

As families and young adults settled in on blankets around us, and right before they began screening the movie, I looked around and couldn’t believe the whole lot wasn’t abuzz with talk about Michael. I wanted to jump up and scream, “Michael Jackson just died, people! Doesn’t anyone care?!” But I’ve never been one to call attention to myself, so I just screamed inside instead. The movie began. Eyes turned to the screen. All except mine. A cavalcade of memories started flooding my brain. I couldn’t fully concentrate on the movie, or on my thoughts of Michael. Instead, I’d spend the next four days recounting what he meant to me.

I fell in love with Michael and The Jackson 5 when I was in second grade. For years after that I created scenarios of how Michael and I would meet, how he would discover my true love for him and how we’d get married. My first plan, at age nine, was to call Michael Jackson on the telephone to introduce myself.

I had paid my three dollars and couldn’t believe the day it came in the mail: The Private TelephoneBook To The Hollywood Stars. I ordered it from an ad in the back of Tiger Beat magazine. My two sisters didn’t believe it was real, just like the x-ray glasses that could see through a lady’s dress weren’t real either. But what nine year old girl wanted to see through a lady’s dress anyway? I wanted the phone book so I could call up Michael Jackson and tell him how much I liked him.

I waited until after the weekend, and when I got home from school and my mother was still at work, I went to make the call. My older sister Sarah, despite her skepticism, joined me in my parents’ bedroom to do the dialing. I dialed the numbers, my fingers shaking, then hung up the phone before I got to the end. Too nervous. I needed to rehearse what I was going to say.

“What are you doing?” Sarah nudged me.

“I’m too nervous,” I answered. “I have to think about what I’m going to say.” Too shy to practice aloud in front of her, I rehearsed in my head.

Hello, may I please speak to Michael? Okay, that’s a good start. Be very polite, but casual.

Maybe Jermaine would answer, or Tito. I didn’t want it to be Tito, though. I didn’t think he was as cute as the other brothers.

Then what will I say? My name is Wendy. I really like your music. I don’t know what else to say next, but he’ll start talking and we’ll hit it off and make friends. He’ll know I’m special and his best fan ever. Well, not even a fan, but someone better—he’ll want me to be his girlfriend.

I was ready.

I dialed the number, took a deep breath and waited. Ring. Ring.

“Hello,” a man answered. A man who sounded white, and not like Michael Jackson.

“May I please speak to Michael?” I asked timidly, twisting the phone cord with my free hand.

“Who?” came the answer.

“Michael,” I repeated, looking over at Sarah, who sat beside me on the edge of my parents’ bed.

“Michael? Michael who?” the man asked sounding confused.

“Michael Jackson,” I said softly, registering embarrassment.

“You have the wrong number.”

“Oh, okay. I’m sorry to bother you.” I hung up the phone. My stomach hurt, but I was also relieved. “Maybe I dialed wrong,” I said to Sarah.

“Yeah, I don ‘t know. I guess you can try again if you want.” I was glad she didn’t totally dismiss my efforts yet.

I tried again.

“Hello.” Darn, it sounded like the same man again. “Is Michael there please?”

“No. You just dialed the same number again. Who is it you’re looking for?”

“Michael Jackson, you know, the singer from the Jackson Five,” I explained. “This is the number they have in this phone book I paid and sent away for,” I said for proof. “So, I’m trying to reach him—in California. Is this California?”

“No,” the man laughed. “This is Watertown.”

“Oh, um, sorry. Bye.”

Watertown was one town over from where I lived in Waterbury, Connecticut.

“How come I’m not calling California?” I asked Sarah.

“Let me take a look at that,” Sarah said, and grabbed the book from my lap.

After glancing at the numbers, my wiser, older sister came up with the answer. “No area codes. You have to dial the area code for California first, and put a one before it too, see?” She pointed to the index complete with area codes for all fifty states. “Here’s the one for California, around Los Angeles.”

I didn’t have any better luck with the area code with the one in front of it. I was mad when Sarah said, “I told you it wasn’t real.” I looked down at the book that I had thrown onto the lemon yellow carpet. I was even madder at the grown-ups who ran the company that made this fake telephone book and took little kids’ money and lied to them. How could I ever trust another adult, or another fantasy?

Still, just one year later, as my family planned a vacation to California, I worked up my favorite Michael marriage scenario. The one I thought actually had the most chance of working.

Michael is coincidentally staying at the same hotel as us; performing nearby, I suppose. My parents and sisters conveniently busy by the hotel swimming pool and feeling perfectly fine with their ten year old going off on her own, I zipper up my terry cloth robe, traipse through the marble lobby, brush aside a feathery palm plant and push the lobby elevator UP button. The doors open and there is Michael all alone except for his body guard, who isn’t paying any attention to us.

“Hi,” he says softly from beneath his fluffy afro, his pointy-collar polyester shirt glistening under the glow of fluorescent spots of light.

“Hi,” I say back, fingering my robe and studying the pink daisies on my flip-flops, not able to meet his eyes. “I love your music.”

“Thanks. Would you like to dance with me?” he asks, wrapping his cocoa fingers around my cream-colored hands.

The elevator doors glide open and we dance out onto a honeysuckle cloud, Never Can Say Goodbye, our soundtrack, and just like Cinderella we get married, because every young girl knows that first dances lead to marriage the very next day.

During our actual hotel stay, every opening of the elevator door made my stomach turn queasy. But, the trip came and went. No Michael.

I eventually got over my disappointment with the phone call and the no-show in the elevator. In the not too distant future, I would have crushes on boys, and even grow up to date boys, that looked and sometimes even acted like Michael.

In the fifth grade, I had a major crush on the new boy in Sarah’s seventh grade class, Brian Huff. Brian had the same skin color as Michael, but his afro was more square, and his eyes more almond-shaped than the roundness of Michael’s. I didn’t know if he could dance or sing, but that didn’t matter because he was so handsome. He was a friend of Sarah’s too, and seemed like a regular, nice guy. I shamelessly, obviously mooned over Brian to the point of annoyance I’m sure, because one day he turned the tables on me.

I was dressed that morning to avoid gym class and to get noticed by Brian. I had on my blue and yellow polka-dot and floral maxi-dress. The one with the tie-sash where my waist-length hair brushed against it’s bow. I fancied myself more cool than looking like I stepped out of a Little House on the Prairie episode, especially with the patent leather white Mary Janes I sported.

As I walked down the steps of the school to get to the playground, I paused at the landing because I spotted Brian right in front of me talking to a friend of his.

“Hi, Brian,” I mustered with a goofy grin, glad that he got to see me in the maxi dress.

Brian turned and gave me an even wider grin. He walked toward me and wasn’t stopping. I backed myself against the brick wall of the school. Brian leaned his left arm right above my shoulder and leaned forward. I was just sure his afro would have brushed my forehead had I been four or five inches taller.

“So, Wendy, how are you doing?” he grinned, looking straight into my eyes.

I was speechless. I could feel the knot of the bow pressing into my back, the brick scraping my elbows, as I tried to disappear into the wall. After all my obvious tries at flirting and calls for attention, now that Brian was literally in my face, I didn’t have the courage to go any further. He was too old for me and I knew that. Brian Huff had called my bluff. After that day, I never showed any signs of affection for him again.

I continued to adore Michael and The Jackson Five though, not even bothering to argue with friends anymore that they were way better than the Osmond Brothers. I watched their Saturday morning cartoon, bought every album they came out with, caught every TV special they appeared on, and danced in my bedroom to Dancing Machine, imagining Michael giving me private dance lessons.

In 1979, the same year of Michael’s big solo breakthrough with the out of this world, Off The Wall album, I met Danny. I had noticed him dancing at Night Life, one of the local discos in my town. Everyone noticed Danny when he was on the dance floor. He looked a lot like Michael at that time—same skin tone, same tightly coiffed curls and slim build; his face perhaps slightly wider, his cheeks fuller. Danny moved like Michael and Fred Astaire combined. He moved as if the dance floor was a trampoline, just for him, that catapulted him up in the air above the rest of us, who were just trying to look like we were making an effort.

I was surprised and intimidated the first time he asked me to dance. But he egged me on, nodding, smiling, clapping, completely filled with joy and wanting to give that to me, and to everyone around him through his dancing. I was often told at clubs that I was a good dancer, that I danced with soul, but Danny truly made me feel it, just like my imaginary lessons with Michael had. Sometimes when we danced though, it ended up like a scene out of Saturday Night Fever—the dance floor parted, and everyone, including me, watched from the sidelines in awe as Danny claimed the moment.

Danny dressed like Michael, too. He even just about matched the cover of the Off the Wall album some nights out, but instead of the tux he wore a dark suit, sleeves rolled up, and a tiny bow tie; totally sexy. But, poor Danny had a major conflict about his dancing and his lifestyle. You see, he was a Jehovah’s Witness. And the Jehovah’s Witness community and his mother, especially, didn’t think he should be out dancing in clubs. His mother also didn’t like that Danny was dating a nice Jewish girl like me, and never passed on my phone messages to him, but that’s another matter. I thought this whole business about not being able to dance was strange since the Jackson Five were Jehovah Witnesses too, and they danced. As a teenager, I couldn’t see what the big deal was.

Danny didn’t drink or smoke, and tried to get me to not do both, without much luck. Still the lifestyle was not what he was supposed to be living. He had a decent job working as an aide at a residential facility for mentally handicapped individuals, but I always thought he should pursue dance. I know I brought this up with him on occasion, probably thinking that if he did, maybe he would become famous and I’d be his girl, and it would be close enough to being Michael Jackson’s girlfriend. I could live with that.

But, seriously, I know I was sad that he wouldn’t go on to use his talents, and that they were in fact going to be squelched because they didn’t fit in with the rules his religion seemed to impose upon him. He wasn’t sad though, I think. He saw things in a more practical light. I was more the dreamer. We’d continue to date for a year or so, on and off due to distance with my going off to college in Boston, and his conflict with dating me instead of the girl his mother wanted him to date.

He came to visit me one weekend in Boston, and in the middle of an evening stroll down Commonwealth Avenue, Danny broke into song. He ran up the steps of brownstones, leapt across front lawns, and gestured with open arms as he sang, I Can’t Tell You Why, by the Eagles. Perfect, I thought to myself, except for the song choice. Here I was, with my Michael, and he’s singing some white boy song. Why couldn’t he sing, I’ll Be There, or something like that? Now, some twenty-something years later, I finally think about the lyrics and understand.

Alas, Danny and I went our separate ways. I later learned that he married the nice Jehovah Witness girl, and had a job that he was satisfied with. I hope he still dances now and then.

I never had another Michael Jackson boyfriend, and as I grew up, I outgrew the fantasy of wanting to marry Michael. I still loved him, but in a different way. I loved him for his talent, and the thrill he gave me every time I listened to his record albums on my stereo, or watched him perform on television.

Michael’s star was growing bigger, and when Thriller hit in 1982, it was Michael mania throughout the world. Everyone watched Michael blaze the MTV screen with videos like Billie Jean, and the world premiere ofthe groundbreaking, Thriller. My mother bought me two Michael Jackson dolls, one with the Thriller outfit, one with the American Music Awards outfit—the red military jacket with the gold braiding and wide belt. And, while still living in Boston, I got to experience a Michael moment to last me a lifetime—his performance on the 25th Anniversary Motown Television Special.

My younger sister Robin, who was visiting from college in Rhode Island,was with me. She and I sat riveted on the couch in my living room—me oblivious to the fact my boyfriend sat in the armchair nearby.

Robin and I debated about the rumor whether older brother Jermaine would perform or not. The story went that Jermaine and Michael had had a falling out. We wanted Jermaine to be the bigger person and agree to this reunion and perform. We waited.

The Jackson brothers took the stage. Jermaine was there. Robin and I exchanged smiles as the familiar medley of I Want You Back, The Love You Save, and Never Can Say Goodbye was performed. Then came I’ll Be There. When it was time for Jermaine’s bit, he and Michael held hands and hugged—the audience cheered to see the brothers reunited.

And then came history. All the brothers, except for Michael, left the stage. Michael donned his famed black fedora and sparkly glove, turned his body in profile, hand poised atop hat, then arms stretched out away from the body, palms out, left knee bent and slightly ahead of the right. The introductory bars to Billie Jean began playing and even before Michael took a breath, there were chills running through my entire being. Michael’s body pumped up and down, then hand on crotch, in and out. Out kicked the left leg followed by quick, clipped, yet graceful moves—one part Fred Astaire, one part cabaret dancer, one part smooth gangster. Robin and I clung to each other—we screamed, whooped, clapped, and jumped up and down on the couch as Michael performed his magic. My boyfriend didn’t know what to make of us, but I didn’t care. For five minutes I was in heaven. There were no words really for what we all saw that night. What we all saw transcended what words could try to describe. It just was.

Soon after, I got to see Michael perform live for the first time when I attended The Jacksons’ Victory Tour concert in 1984 at Giants Stadium. The following year I moved to New York. I was awed by the narrative and choreography in Michael’s music videos, Bad, and The Way You Make Me Feel, and uplifted by the message in Man In The Mirror. I still loved Michael, but noticed the changes taking place with his face. His eyebrows were thinner; so was his nose. He didn’t need to do that, I thought. I got a job as an Art and Recreation Therapist with mentally ill homeless adults. Michael’s nose got even thinner, his skin lighter and lighter.

“I’m Michael Jackson,” Charles (not his real name) said.

“What?” I asked, repositioning my hand on the subway pole. I was on my way to the Metropolitan Museum for a Saturday outing with eight clients from the transitional housing facility where I worked.

“I’m Michael Jackson. Can’t you see that my skin is white?” Charles said, pointing to his forearm.

Charles wasn’t white, bi-racial maybe, as he was quite light-skinned, but not completely white. “I thought you were Charles,” I said, trying to play my role straight, all the while thinking, even if you are delusional, Charles, I think if you are going to pick a singer to be, you should go with Lionel Richie, because while Michael’s skin is appearing lighter every year, with your cropped afro, sideburns and jowly cheeks, you more closely favor Lionel.

“I’m the world’s greatest dancer. Do you want to see me do the moonwalk?” Charles asked.

“Well, it’s a little crowded in here, maybe later.” I really did want to see.

“Okay, Wendy.” And, then, perhaps slightly disappointed, he turned his head to look out the subway car window.

I went to my first Michael Jackson solo concert in 1988—this time with my sister Robin, and my mother and father. My mom had been recently diagnosed with brain cancer. The prognosis was bleak, and so my father thought it would be good for her to get out, even though he warned us that she might not stay the whole concert if she got tired. He also said that she wanted to go because she knew how special Michael was to me.

Robin, who was now married and living in Connecticut, picked me up at the train station. When we met my parents at the Hartford Civic Center arena, I felt terribly guilty for being embarrassed by the ill-fitting wig my mother was now wearing. She was such a beautiful woman. She had looked fine with the bandannas she had worn after the chemo made her hair fall out. The wig made her look frumpy.

“Do you still like Michael as much as you always did?” my mother asked, standing in the middle of a crowd of concert goers looking for their seats. Her speech was slow; her manner timid. Not the mom I grew up with since her surgery a month ago.

“Yes, mom. I still do,” I answered. I worried that my mother would be drained by the steep climb to the upper tier seats that were ours, but she made it and lasted for the first hour of the concert. Right after that my dad leaned in to tell me that they were leaving—it was too loud and tiring for my mom to stay.

I remember feeling so proud of my mother for venturing out and loved her for coming because she knew how important Michael Jackson was to me. I remembered this moment, when just days after Michael passed, I was organizing boxes in the attic, and came upon a box which held a good deal of MJ memorabilia that my mother had bought for me years ago. Aside from the dolls already mentioned, there was a Thriller t-shirt, three Michael Jackson buttons, a pair of Michael Jackson earrings, a hardcover VictoryTour book, and a newspaper she had made up with the headline, MICHAEL JACKSON ADMITS TO LOVING WENDY.

After my parents left the stadium, Robin and I tried our luck at getting closer to the stage. We got close enough to be within take your breath away distance. This was the year of the white button down shirt, black punk looking nylon pants, and the long, flowing curls of hair. Just as we slid into a row where security wouldn’t notice us, Michael climbed up high on the metal scaffolding at the side of the stage closest to us. Fans blew back his shirt, smoky fog swirled behind him, one hand held on to an upright bar, the other stretched up and out, his face glowed, energy pulsed through his entire body. I never considered myself an extremely religious person, but right then, I knew I was seeing God—the God that flowed through MJ, and radiated pure love and energy; his love for his craft and for us.

That was the last time I’d see Michael Jackson up close and be able to look at his face without wanting to turn away. We all know the stories of Michael’s eccentricities, the dramatic changes in his appearance, the reclusiveness, and the accusations of child molestation. I will even admit I had moments of uncertainty about Michael’s character during his trial, but shortly came to the conclusion that Michael was innocent. But, it is not here that I want to dwell.

Yes, I was sad, deeply sad, from the 1990’s on about Michael. He didn’t seem happy, people made fun of him, his appearance had changed so much from the Off The Wall days, and often repelled me. When a younger person in their twenties randomly mentions Michael Jackson’s name, on impulse I say, “Michael? I was going to marry Michael Jackson.” The reaction is either one of distaste or incomprehension. That’s because they don’t know the old Michael, and because over the last two decades, the media has preferred to sensationalize and place a negative spin on Michael’s life. What about all the work he has done as a humanitarian and philanthropist?

Right before he died, in the back of my mind, I had hoped with Michael’s comeback tour in London, that I’d get my old Michael back, that he would redeem himself with the world, just as I hoped, admittedly with less probability, that he’d go to his plastic surgeon and ask to get his old nose back.

But I don’t feel that way anymore. There shouldn’t be a division between old Michael and new Michael. I accept Michael Jackson, his whole life and who he was from birth until his death. Just like there are parts of my life that I am not thrilled about, I am me and often tell myself and others that all of my experiences make me who I am today, and I have no regrets.

I have come to see that about Michael—no judgments, no good old Michael vs. the sometimes seemingly bizarre, bad Michael, but Michael Jackson, as one—one who brought much joy to me and to millions around the world, who built many beautiful memories into my life as a young girl all the way through my becoming a young woman, and who provided a center to the culture I grew up in, through his music and his genius. That is what makes it so hard, so heartbreaking to say…. I can’t say it.

I know someone who can do it for me.

Hit it, Michael.

Even tho’ the pain and heartache seem to follow me wherever I go

Tho I tried and tried to hide my feelings they always seem to show

Then you try to say you’re leaving me and I always have to say no

Tell me why is it so?

But I never can say goodbye


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