When Michael Jackson died on Thursday, it made me think of my classmate, John. He invited me to his junior prom when I was a lowly sophomore. I wore an over priced black and white gown with long fingerless lace gloves. John dressed like Michael Jackson in the Billie Jean video in a tuxedo jacket, shortened black pants adding a touch of Thriller with a sequined glove.
John had the moonwalk down as well as the triple pelvic thrust followed by the spin. I don’t think he quite made it onto his toes though. He even had the same impossibly wide smile as Michael Jackson, as big as he was shy that gleamed beneath big brown eyes set in smooth brown skin. I can’t remember anymore if John had Michael’s soprano pitch, he so rarely talked, but I do know his voice was colored with a Jamaican accent.
It should have been a great night. Problem was, the moonwalk, the whole Michael Jackson persona was mainly a solitary thing. Anytime I tried to join in with the spins or even a slow dance, John’s hands would sink into his pockets, his smile would falter, and he would make his way to the edge of the dancefloor to watch the other couples. To this day, I have no idea why he invited me. We barely danced together at all. Except for the dress that I got to use again a few months later when my sister got married, the night was a wash.
School broke for the summer a few weeks after the prom and since John wasn’t big on talking, I didn’t hear from him. Whenever Billie Jean came on the radio or MTV in what felt like an endless loop back then (it was 1984), I thought of him and wondered how he was doing. But I didn’t have to wonder long, because I started seeing him everywhere around town, always walking, always with a new look. Soon after he glided across our school gymnasium’s floor in his polished loafers, he turned in his sparkling socks and high water pants for tight black jeans kept together with a row of safety pins. He ditched his jehri curl too in favor of a Mohawk, some days died blond, other days red, or just black, his real hair color sectioned off in spikes. He still had his impossibly perfect smile though and I wanted to believe it foretold big things ahead as surprising as his costumes.
Most people seeing him walk around town in his bright hair dos and strange shoes (my favorites were the silver space boots) would just shake their heads and stare. Once, my mom and I pulled over to offer him a ride, but he politely declined, said he didn’t have much farther to go. People would often say he should have stuck with the Michael look, that at least it was normal (remember we’re talking pre-bleached skin Michael), but I disagree. As alarming as the sight of a man clad in what looked like aluminum foil from head to toe could be in the middle of the afternoon on a conservative suburban street, it seemed a better fit for John than the Michael look, like he was getting closer to who he really was. At least that was my theory. I was certainly trying to find my way to myself through my icons, wearing streaked blond hair and taking up the bass like John Taylor from Duran Duran, but it seemed more desperate with John, less like he wanted to find himself, more like he wanted to get lost.
I wonder how John took the news of Michael’s death. I wonder what his real self looks like now that he’s in his 40s. I was surprised at the intensity of my own grief since I was a mild fan at best, loving Michael when I was a child as if he was one of my brothers and sisters because that’s the way our family talked about the Jackson 5, like they were our family. OFF THE WALL was the last time I was really a fan, because those songs made me want to “leave my nine and five up on the shelf and just enjoy myself.” Even though I was too young to have a job, I already had my share of burdens and dancing to Michael Jackson in particular was one way to temporarily dispel them. The entire album seemed to have the same effect on everyone in my house. If Rock with You came on the radio, an impromptu dance party broke out in the usually off limits living room, all of us making sure to rock and do the bump clear of mom’s prized crushed velvet couch. But once Thriller came out, I wanted nothing to do with Michael Jackson. By that time, we’d moved and I was a black kid in a white neighborhood who hated the spaces in between my teeth as much as Michael hated his nose and zits. Black and white people alike seemed to know where I ought to live, what music I ought to like, what kind of student I ought to be in school just by looking at me and I couldn’t stand it the same way Michael wasn’t willing to be cornered off into the black section of the record store or video playlist, redefining pop with his refusal to be labeled and forcing MTV to play his videos which opened the doors for people like Prince and his sister Janet. Bottom line, everybody liked Thriller and I was determined to be unpredictable. Michael and I had to go our separate ways.
20 plus years later, I burst into tears hearing that he was dead. In memorial, my daughters and I shook our bodies down to the ground listening to Michael’s vast volume of hits. I surprised them with my version of a moonwalk and the news that despite his many changes over the years, Michael Jackson was never white or a girl. I surprised myself at how much of Michael Jackson’s post Thriller hits had slipped into my internal music catalog and the hope I felt listening to them, hope I’d drawn from Michael Jackson’s mere existence – a poor, black boy from the Midwest who defied everybody’s preconceived ideas. When our memorial dance service came to a close, I sent up a prayer that Michael Jackson might know as much love and peace in death as he had given me joy with his music in my life and that John, wherever he might be was content with himself and whomever he had finally become.
What gave you hope today?