Note, Added March 16, 2019: Given the release of Leaving Neverland (which I haven’t watched yet) and the emergence of more details and testimony about Michael Jackson’s treatment of young boys, I’ve been thinking about this story and whether I should take it down. I know numerous radio stations and music outlets are refusing to play his music anymore, and more and more artists and entertainers are denouncing him, and some people are erasing MJ’s contributions and influence from their own work (The Simpsons, Drake, Louis Vuitton). I understand these decisions as a show of support for his victims and survivors of abuse in general, but I’m personally uncomfortable with the erasure aspect of this support. I think there’s something dishonest and disturbing (as well as impossible) about trying to erase MJ’s influence and entire career. It doesn’t undo the damage, and it doesn’t have much lasting impact on the prevalence of abuse or sexual trauma in our culture. Unlike the Leaving Neverland filmmakers and the brave men who speak up in the documentary, erasing Michael Jackson’s work doesn’t effectively confront rape culture or start a conversation about what we need to do now about all this art and entertainment in our cultural history that was created by predators. All it does, it seems to me, is ease the sense of guilt or culpability on the part of anyone who’s ever collaborated with MJ professionally or even just dug his music and dancing. It also creates confusion and more holes in the story of Michael Jackson and his role in rape culture, and in turn, leads to more covering up, if anything.
Not that I have the solution. I’m still trying to sort out my feelings myself. I’m a survivor as well (of adult sexual assault, not child abuse like the men in Leaving Neverland) and I support unequivocally anyone who speaks up about trauma. I feel for these guys — especially given that their abuser is dead (meaning he can no longer be confronted or held directly accountable) and immensely popular (meaning others will defend him or make excuses for him no matter the evidence or the extent of the damage done). I have experience with the latter problem, with having a rapist who everyone thinks is awesome and blameless, no matter what. It makes you, the victim, feel even more like shit, like it’s you who has the problem, you who got what you deserved, you who did something wrong. I’m also a woman who grew up in the 80s, when MJ was at his peak, and who loved his music and videos. As a child, I had posters of MJ on my wall; as an adult, I just like his better music and admire his dancing. Can’t I give up listening to his music? Aren’t there plenty of other musical artists just as great who I can listen to instead? Yes, I can give up listening to his music, and yes, there are plenty of other great musical artists out there — though MJ is hardly replaceable. Which leads to another problem complicating this issue for a lot of people — what do you do when the artist whose work you’re supposed to start giving up was really exceptional, when the art of this criminally imperfect person achieved cultural perfection, as did “Billie Jean” and “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough”? What do you do with the happy memories you have of the first time you heard this perfect song, danced to this perfect beat, saw this perfect video, or the time you were on a date or at a party or in your car or your room, and the song came on the radio and perked you up, made you feel good, made you feel more alive or in tune with the world or with your body or the moment? What do you do with those memories and feelings? But what do Wade Robson and James Safechuck and other trauma and abuse survivors do with theirs?
The story I wrote, “Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson,” is just a story. It’s fiction. It’s not a record of my life — except for the portions of my life where I worked on it. It’s a story I spent some time on, and submitted around to journals for about a year with no success (which is why I just decided to post it here and on Medium). I’m not sure if it succeeds much as a story — part of me has decided it only succeeded in giving me more practice in trying to craft a story, in trying to figure out what works and doesn’t work and what journal editors and readers like and don’t like. But because I worked on it and committed myself to finishing it, I posted it and shared it as a record of my efforts. So in that sense, it is a record of my life, of me.
This is what isn’t fiction though. The story starts with the narrator recounting her memory of where she was and what she was doing the day she heard Michael Jackson died — mourning her deceased mother while house-sitting with a friend’s pet in a Chicago apartment as the friend took an overseas vacation to get over an abusive ex. There’s some truth, some autobiography, in that part of the story — the day MJ died, I was staying at a friend’s apartment in Chicago, house-sitting her cat, while my friend was out of state taking care of her recently deceased’s mother’s estate. My own mother was (and is) alive and well though, and while I wasn’t working at the time, it was because I was taking time out to travel and start my own travel-based business. I was also recovering from an assault the year before — my second, having also survived one in 1998. My second rapist had been a friend — and a really likable, perfect-seeming guy. He hadn’t faced any legal accountability, because I hadn’t reported him, and he didn’t face any social accountability, because when I finally tried to meet with a minister/friend of his to discuss what he’d done, his minister refused to see me and continued his support for him. While most of my female friends whom I disclosed to supported me, two male friends, including one I considered my best friend for over a decade, chose to defend my rapist (whom they didn’t even know) because he was a guy, like them. (I’m not making this up or misrepresenting them — that’s really the reason my longtime supposed friend gave me.) I was struggling badly in all kinds of way and had been displaying symptoms of PTSD, including self-harm. I had also only just begun therapy, at the YWCA in Chicago, and was spending a lot of my time at my friend’s online, in a support group chat room for survivors. I remember the news of MJ’s death came up in the online support group — and the discussion of his molestation trials. There was some argument between people in the group about how to feel about MJ and his death and legacy. Some people took a very clear stand one way or the other, others (like me) weren’t sure what to think, how to reconcile the conflicting feelings and records of MJ’s deeds and accomplishments.
Ultimately I decided to keep listening to his music and mourn him. I read a few accounts of his molestation trials and decided that he had, after all, faced up to the charges and allowed due process to take its course, and had been found innocent — and I let the jury’s decision stand for mine. Meanwhile, in my own situation, I was struggling with self-blame versus fully blaming my rapist, with the perception I had of my rapist before he assaulted me vs. the knowledge of what he actually did to me, with this knowledge and my experience vs. my other male friends’ letting me down and culpability, with my perception of a just or safe world vs. a wholly unpredictable one that offers no guarantee of safety or justice or even sense to anyone at any time anywhere. I wonder sometimes now, if MJ’s death had come along later in my own therapy and recovery, if I would have not compartmentalized him and his abusive history so well, if I had been able to face up to it more honestly and plainly. I wonder how much my compartmentalization of him was a reflection of the compartmentalization I had yet to break down in my own history. And I wonder if a part of me knew how much of a long haul I still had ahead of me (my weekly therapy lasted for about 7 years) and was preserving my energy for my own history’s decompartmentalization while neatly tucking away a celebrity’s complicated history.
A few years on, when I was drafting “Chicago Rides For Michael Jackson,” I attempted to address the charges against MJ at some point in the story — specifically, in the phone conversation between Kathy and her sister. I left it out though because I didn’t really know how to address it in the story I had in mind. I didn’t know how to bring it up without taking the story in a whole different direction and tone that I wasn’t ready to write. I kind of realized even then that I didn’t have the skills, self-discipline, or courage to write the story that needed to be told — about rape culture in our larger American culture, or about how trauma from assault and abuse (both mine and MJ’s victims) complicates grief and mourning. So instead I made it a story about nostalgia and childhood and loss. I took the easy way out, and followed the conventional MJ narrative as well.
All this is to say, I’ve thought about just deleting this story from my site and from Medium — and not because it may not be very good, but because of the renewed attention to Michael Jackson’s abuse of boys. I’ve thought about deleting it not so much in solidarity with his victims (they don’t know who I am for one, and probably are less concerned about people like me having written a story about their abuser as they are about their abuser’s estate continuing to rake in money and accolades while also denying the truth about his deeds), but to avoid offending or angering anyone else who might stumble across it. Which means I’ve though about deleting it to cover my own tracks or excuse myself from my own lapses in rape culture culpability, like The Simpsons and Starbucks people and Drake and Louis Vuitton. That doesn’t feel right to me. It doesn’t feel honest.
So for now, I’m leaving the story up here. I’m deleting it from Medium — I don’t think it got many views there anyway. But I’m leaving it on my own site as a kind of record of how complicated these conversations are (and should be), how compartmentalization works (for me, at least), and how insidious rape culture is. If Michael Jackson effectively worked his talent and our culture to erase the evidence and fallout of his abusive behavior, I don’t think the solution is to erase him from our culture and memories altogether. It’s just further compartmentalization and manipulation. The solution is to start allowing survivors to add their experiences to the culture, to give them space to unpack their own complicated histories and compartmentalizations, to give them (give us) the benefit of the doubt and the respect we deserve when we’re finally ready to talk about it.
If you need someone to talk to: www.rainn.org
The day Michael Jackson died, I broke a window in an apartment that wasn’t mine. It was midsummer and the hottest day in Chicago that year. The apartment belonged to my friend Beth, who was away in rural France for a yoga retreat. It seemed to me a long way to go for exercise, especially since there was a yoga studio on the first floor of her apartment building, and I said as much when she first asked if I wanted to stay at her apartment to look after her gerbil while she was gone.
“You don’t get it, Kathy,” she said. “I’m getting out of the country. Off the continent completely.” It was a phone conversation but I knew she was rolling her eyes at me. We’d known each other 7 or 8 years by then, long enough to know each other’s quirks blind. “It’s the only way I can really get away from Julian and all that…awfulness.”
Julian was an ex-fling of hers, though I’d never define him in that way to Beth’s face. She wouldn’t have minded the ex part. It was classifying him, and by extension her and what happened between them, as a fling that would have hurt her. But I’d never met Julian, and from what I did know about him—a 38-year-old computer programmer with highlighted hair according to his Facebook profile, a gaslighter and worse going by a couple emails Beth had forwarded to me—I didn’t think he deserved a more romantic or generous designation.
But Beth was putting something together. “Remember Yellowstone?” she said.
“Yeah, I remember Yellowstone,” I said, though I’d forgotten about it until now. Yellowstone was her last attempt at a vacation in the States and the last vacation she took post another disastrous relationship. Two and a half days into it, that year’s ex had managed to track her down by text out in the wilderness, spotty cell phone coverage and all, and pester her into a Skype call. He sent some texts alluding to regrets, said he needed to set things right with her. “Immediate as possible,” he wrote. Beth said he even used the word “vulnerable.” It was all a bit much for her, for probably any woman, to resist. She decamped that day and drove all the way to Jackson Hole to check into a lodge, only for Mr. Vulnerable to tell her he’d just gotten engaged to a woman who was opening him up to the redemptive potential of cleaning up his karma, former flings and all. He even tried to introduce his fiancée to Beth through Skype, but Beth slammed her laptop shut before she got more than a glance of this woman hovering at the edge of her screen.
“I can’t let something like that happen again,” she said now. “This yoga retreat is totally off-grid. No possible tech interruptions. So I need to know Zowie’s in good hands cuz I won’t be able to check in much while I’m gone. Hopefully not at all.”
I nodded. She couldn’t see me doing it of course, but it seemed like the right thing to do. “I love Zowie,” I said.
She was quiet then for longer than I expected. When she spoke again her voice was a little distant. “I’m hoping the week away will bring me some clarity about the whole thing. I’m just tired of things always ending badly like this with guys. Having no power, no say so where things stand. Over and over I pick guys who let me down. Just like my dad.”
I didn’t have an answer for her. This was becoming more than I’d bargained for. She’d called, after all, just to ask me to watch her gerbil, told me I could stay at her place in the city for the week, something she knew I’d appreciate since I’d been marooned out in the suburbs for some time. My life had turned to deadweight out there to be honest. So much so that even watching someone’s pet rodent for a week in a cramped, barely one bedroom, stale-aired city apartment seemed like a sudden windfall, an opportunity as maybe-golden for me as off-grid France was for Beth.
Beth spoke again. “You’re lucky you had the parents you did, Kathy,” she said. “Do you know that?”
I blinked. “How can you ask me that, Beth? Especially now.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry, Kathy, I didn’t mean it that way. But you know…it’s been a year. I know you still miss her but you need to move on.” She was quiet and I knew she was waiting for me to say something. But I couldn’t. All I could do was sit and let the silence stretch between us. Finally she said, “I know, I’m in the same boat as you, Kathy. We both need to move on. I’m sorry but it’s true. It’s time.”
I used to live only a few blocks from Beth, in a cramped, barely one bedroom of my own, on the third floor of a red-brick building with a park right across the street. No yoga studio below me, but there was a library nearby, a supermercado, and an old candy factory that sold its goofs out the back door on discount. From one window I had a view of the park, from another a low rooftop where a nest of city cats slept the days away. I worked as a barista and took classes to get my degree in baking and pastry. I dated sometimes, went to music and improv shows when I could afford it, rode the el to school and work in the winter and my bike in the summer. I was independent, a little lonely, and close to the happiest I’d ever been.
I left all that because the year before Michael Jackson died, my mother died too. She was diagnosed with cancer of the spine shortly after Christmas in ‘07. She died the opposite of my father, who was there one day, gone the next from a heart attack when my sister and I were still in our teens. Mom died agonizingly slow, then heartbreakingly fast, in 4 months, 28 days, 9 hours, and 11 minutes. It was Sheri, my sister, who figured that out, who actually took a calendar and counted out every day and minute from diagnosis to death and wrote the final tally down on a small slip of paper that she put away in her wedding album. “Why would you record something like that?” I’d wanted to ask her. But I didn’t because, truthfully, I admired her ability to concentrate hard enough to count anything at all, even in the depths of grief.
“I feel relieved more than sad, Kathy, don’t you?” she kept saying for days after the funeral, her eyes welling up all the same.
I never answered the question but for the record, no, I didn’t feel relief when Mom died. If only I had. Those days of her dying were too vague…I can’t quite explain it. Like they were too boundaryless for any sense of ending or release when she was finally gone and out of our lives and constant care, out of pain. The only structure was a sloggy foundation of forced hope and positivity, of last-ditch chemo treatments and buckets of pills and casseroles and coffee cakes from neighbors and cheap, multicolored ribbons (we could never figure out which was the color for spinal cancer so we decked the house with a rainbow of them, one color good as another, after all, when a case is terminal). When May came, Mom’s death month, it was as if someone spun a dial to the 10 notch and left it there. Mom drifted in and out of consciousness for two weeks, giving Sheri and I, who barely left her side, nothing more of her to cling to but the bare, final spendings of her pain. And then it was just Sheri and me, and Sheri’s family, her husband and 8-year-old daughter, and the leftovers of my former single city girl life.
I left the city to move back with Mom when she got sick. Then I moved in with Sheri after Mom died, on her request, in her suburban townhouse in a neighborhood where the trees were still too young to give shade and there were no paths for walking, but instead a golf course that rolled all the way up to Sheri’s backyard. It was supposed to be temporary. It should’ve been temporary. But as of the summer of 2009, I was still staying there.
Sheri loved it. She’s the need-to-be-needed type. You’d think a husband, kid, and house would be enough to absorb the need, and it did until we buried our second parent. When Dad died, Sheri had just graduated from high school. She spent the summer angry, wild, and blaming the world for her loss and grief, then went away to college in the fall, met Dave her second week and never let him go, never raged or floundered or sprung so loose again. In time, we became so different. She called me every day now—yes, even as I was living in her house. Whenever I broke away to a Starbucks or the mall or the other end of the golf course for no reason but to be on the other end of something, I could count on her call to break the moment of freedom. She didn’t need a reason but she’d act as if she did, pretend like she needed me to pick up something for her or had lost something at home and wondered if I had seen it. I’d always answer, despite the transparency and annoyance of her need, despite my desire for a little time alone. She’s my sister, after all. She was all I had now.
In suburbia my motivation took a death dive, my brain became mush, and I spent my days in mush-brain death dive ways. Riding my bike in circles around the cul-de-sacs, looking for the damn outlets. Running errands for Sheri and Dave while they were at work. Babysitting Hannah. Tidying up the messes left behind every morning after everyone else left for their jobs or school. Missing Mom, missing Dad like I was 13 again. Some days I was pretty sure I’d regressed to 13, to my own sister’s second child, older and bigger than her other in superficial ways only.
No one was more concerned about the health of all this than Dave. One night while I was washing dishes with Hannah, the grownups were watching a reality show in the living room. In a brief break between the shouts of advice and criticism from the reality show judges, I overheard Dave say, “She needs to get back out there. On her own, Sher.” With all the noise from the TV, all the reality and the faucet going on and off, the dishes being racked, I wondered if Dave thought his words would be drowned out or if he’d chosen the moment well and wanted me to hear. If Sheri said anything, she was keeping it down low.
I handed the last plate to Hannah to dry and went into the living room, sitting on the far end of the couch from Dave. It was the worst seat for watching TV because the side-view angle made the screen look like a funhouse mirror. And it was always available, always empty except for the implication that this was the space in the room reserved for me, the lingering aunt, the lost adult child, the side-car side-angle sister-in-law. In the Lazy-Boy Sheri sat with the same guilty, owl-eyed expression Mom used to make whenever Sheri and I embarrassed her in public by whining too loud. I wanted to tell her it was OK, that Dave was right and I was all right with what he’d said. But it would mean admitting to eavesdropping, to crossing a line of privacy we were still pretending hadn’t been crossed and completely erased.
The next day Beth made the offer to stay at her apartment. I waited until the morning I was leaving to tell Sheri and Dave, appearing before my sister in the kitchen with a backpack and the keys to my bike lock. “Why didn’t you tell us before?” she said, following me into the garage.
“I thought I did,” I lied. I swiped at some cobwebs around my bike handlebars. Spiders in the suburbs worked so fast and I didn’t ride my bike as much as I used to.
“You’re riding all the way into the city?” Sheri said. I pressed the button on the wall to open the garage door.
“Of course not. Just to the train station. I’m locking it up there. It’s the suburbs, it’ll be fine. Or maybe I’ll bring it on.” The truth was I was afraid if I told Sheri sooner she’d get Dave to drive me into the city, and even more afraid I’d accept. It was better this way. Harder, but better.
When I arrived in Beth’s neighborhood I went around her block once before going to her building. It’d only been a few months since I was last around, but things had changed. A taqueria where I once went for Beth’s birthday was now a baby boutique, and a Swedish bakery famous for its limpa had been turned into a place called Mmmm that made their own Pop-Tarts and Little Debbies. There was a help wanted sign in the window, beside a fold-out poster of Irene Cara like the kind in the teen magazines Sheri and I collected in the 80s. Through the window I could see a genuine Easy-Bake oven on a shelf near the door and posters of Pinky Tuscadero and the cast of Good Times. Beth hadn’t told me about this place, though she did say I should bring my resume and try to score some interviews while I was here.
I went on to her building and she buzzed me up before I even rung her bell. “Am I late?” I said as I walked in the door. “I thought you said 11.”
“No, just so ready to be away from here. I was looking out.” She hugged me then shut the door. I backed up and felt my backpack knock into something solid but unsteady. Beside the door was a human torso, the seamstress’ kind, wearing a lacy kitchen apron and a pattern of red handprints all over it.
“Oh don’t mind that,” Beth said, steadying the torso then patting it like it needed comfort. She left me to gape at it and went into her bedroom. I dropped my bag on the couch in her living room and spotted another torso, in a corner beside her bookshelf, spotted with more handprints, vintage medals, and cut-out hearts from beauty magazines.
Beth came out of her room pulling her suitcase, a yoga mat tucked under one arm. She had a carry-on already by the door, and she reached down to shove a journal and a French-English dictionary into it. “Beth?” She stopped and looked up. I tried to keep my eyes from wandering over to a torso. I remembered Beth mentioning something on Facebook awhile ago about considering art therapy. Was this the time to ask? I had no evidence, but I saw Julian and Mr. Vulnerable and Beth’s father all over these torsos. Every handprint or torn-out magazine heart might as well have been the name of some guy who’d hurt or disappointed her. It suddenly struck me how little attention I’d been paying attention to her, to my friends this past year, in favor of paying attention to my own grief.
She was waiting for me to say something. “So…what do I need to know about Zowie?”
His cage was in the living room. We looked in at him—small, fat, two years old, black and white and cute all over, sucking on his water tube. “I cleaned his cage and changed his bedding yesterday. So you don’t need to worry about that. Just feed him and change his water every day. And scoop out his droppings and messes. Here…” She opened her hallway closet. A cloud of plastic bags tumbled out. “Use one of these to put his dirty bedding in.”
She led me through the rest of the place explaining the instructions and rules regarding all appliances—stereo, TV, microwave, oven, air conditioner, as if I never operated anything more complicated than a doorknob before. How much had the smell of regression been stamped on me that she’d think I didn’t know how to work an air conditioner? “It’s gonna get hot next week you know,” Beth said when we went into her bedroom where the unit was installed. “You can sleep in here if it’s more comfortable. If you’d rather sleep on the couch, I have a fan you can use in there. Just don’t keep the fan or air on while you’re out and don’t turn the dial on the air conditioner past 7. It makes the walls shake and you might fry the motor. Plus Shauna will complain about the noise.”
Shauna ran a yoga studio on the first floor. “Even at night?” I said. “She doesn’t hold yoga classes in the middle of the night.”
“No, but…just be considerate. I don’t wanna jeopardize the free classes.” She checked the time. She was taking a bus to the blue line to O’Hare, and with weekend traffic she really needed to get going. I helped her with her bags down to the street. When we saw the bus coming I had to ask her, “Are you really going off-grid?” I realized I was gripping the handle of her carry-on like it was someone’s hand. Suddenly I didn’t want to be alone here in the city, even though Beth was still standing beside me. “What if there’s an emergency with Zowie?”
She turned to face me. “There won’t be any emergencies, Kathy. Zowie’s easy.” The bus pulled up to the stop and I surrendered Beth’s bag. She came in close to hug me. “Wish me a better time than Yellowstone,” she said as she pulled away. Then she was on the bus, and I was free.
That was Saturday. Michael Jackson died on Thursday. That morning, before the news hit, I lay in Beth’s bed well past 9, the air conditioner blasting, obliterating all sounds from the street. Since moving back to the suburbs I’d gotten unused to the city noise at night, and Dave wanted the air conditioning on nearly all the time. He said he liked the feel of cool carpeting under his feet. I liked the white noise of Beth’s window unit myself and had braved only half a night on her couch with the floor fan blowing hot air on me, circulating the staleness of the apartment and the chippy smell emanating from Zowie’s cage. Shauna had yet to complain about any noise, and while part of me was relieved, another part was miffed she hadn’t even noticed.
I hadn’t done a thing with myself since staying here. Hadn’t looked for jobs, hadn’t gone for a ride or looked up other friends and old haunts. Hadn’t done much other than go out for an iced coffee and food now and again and look after Zowie. Beth, meanwhile, really had gone off-grid. Every day I checked my email, expecting something from her, even a note to say she’d arrived safely or was just checking in on her pet. But nothing. Lke the sum of my accomplishments this week. I ended every day feeling I’d failed in my side of a bargain. Thursday morning I lay in Beth’s bed promising myself to finally do something.
My phone rang then. I knew it was Sheri, even though it was early for her usual call. She told me she was taking the day off for a dentist appointment. I got up from the bed, turned the air off, and walked with the phone to Zowie’s cage.
“Hey,” I said, as much to my sister as to Zowie, lifting him out of his cage.
“So what’s on the agenda for today?” Sheri asked. Since Saturday I’d been making up various activities so Sheri would think I’d been keeping busy. I didn’t want her to know how uninspired and lost I was feeling, even here, back in the setting I’d missed so much. There was no longer the excuse of suburbia, of no sidewalks and too many chain stores, to blame for my apathy.
“I actually was just about to leave.” I said, from the position of laying on the couch with Zowie on my belly nibbling a button on my pajamas. “There’s a bakery in the neighborhood here and I have an appointment to talk with the owner.”
“Kath, that’s great! Why didn’t you tell me yesterday? What kind of bakery is it?”
“You remember what our room looked like in the 80s?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll tell you later. I really need to get going if I want to get there on time.”
She totally bought it. “Call me right after the interview,” she said, and I knew now, because I said it to my own sister, I had to make it all true.
I got dressed in the most presentable outfit I could put together on a hot day without ironing. The cold air from the air conditioner had already dissipated in Beth’s bedroom. It never had an effect on the air in the rest of her apartment, where the air was relentlessly stale and warm, like the inside of the front pocket on a pair of tight jeans. I sometimes wondered if Zowie noticed the heat. Did he notice a difference whether the air was on or off, the window open or closed? Did he drink more water on a day like today? I stopped at his cage just before leaving. He was curled up in a ball, one eye open, watching me. Was that a look of sleepiness or sluggishness? “Maybe I shouldn’t leave you,” I said. He’d pawed away some of his bedding in one corner, leaving the floor of the cage exposed. Maybe it felt cooler there, and he knew just the right thing to do for himself. I pet the space between his ears with my forefinger. “Wish me luck, Zo. Promise I won’t be long.”
There was a small crowd inside the bakery, huddled around a guy with a laptop sitting at a table. They all looked up as I walked in, then dropped their heads back down to focus again on the laptop. A song I hadn’t heard since the 80s, Human Nature, played on a radio behind the counter and competed with some music coming from the laptop. I looked around the café. Old Pillsbury Dough-Boy ads were interspersed with posters of Mr. T and the cast of WKRP in Cincinnati, and there were a few more shelves with vintage Easy-Bakes.
No one seemed to be working. I looked past the counter to the back of the shop, then back at the laptop crowd, catching a glimpse of Michael Jackson moonwalking to Billie Jean across the laptop’s screen. “Can I help you?” A short woman with straight black bangs and a Wonder Woman tattoo peeking out of the left sleeve of her black tee stepped away from the laptop.
“I saw the ad in the window.” The woman with the bangs looked me up and down. I held my resume out to her. “The baking assistant job. Here.” Immediately I regretted how I was handling this, a basic introduction, how rusty at social skills I’d become. But the woman barely seemed to notice, looking only briefly at my resume, at me.
“Sorry,” she said, looking back at the others. “We’re just…shocked.” She laughed nervously, like she’d been caught writing a crush’s name on a wall.
“What?” I looked at my resume in her hand, at the group, at a dough boy on the wall.
“Haven’t you heard?” a man with black-rimmed glasses and a white apron said. “Michael Jackson died.”
I looked at the woman with the bangs, who nodded and held out her hand, inviting me to join the group around the laptop. That was all it took.
“You must’ve been a big fan,” the laptop guy said, as we all watched Michael Jackson singing, Michael moonwalking, Michael spinning, Michael grabbing his crotch, Michael balancing on his toes. My eyes brimmed with tears. I shook my head at the guy’s comment, said, “No…it’s not that. I mean, it’s just so unexpected.” Truth was, it wasn’t unexpected—people lived and then they died. Why would anyone expect a pop star to be any different from your own mother and father, from anyone else you’d once had in your life for long and not long enough? I just didn’t know what else to say.
“I know, it’s unreal,” the man with the apron said. “It feels like my childhood just died.” He moved away from the group and began dusting the Easy-Bakes, swaying to the music as the woman with the bangs went behind the counter and took out a binder with photos of cakes and pastries. She gestured at another table, where I joined her and looked through the binder with her.
“I’ve been getting a lot of off-the-street resumes and applications since I put the sign up, but yours is the first with some actual pastry experience.” Her name was Michelle and she co-owned Mmmm with Miguel, the guy with the apron.
I flipped through the binder. There were photos of beautiful tiered cakes with fresh flowers and fruits, of Miguel kneading mounds of dough, of Miguel and Michelle slicing loaves of golden-crusted hearth breads. I wanted to ask why they didn’t put these pictures on their walls.
As if reading my mind, Miguel walked past and waved his hand at the wall posters and Easy-Bakes. “What do you think of our décor?”
“Well, I am an 80s child,” I said, trying my best Mary Lou Retton gold-winning smile.
“Kitschy, right?” Michelle said, making that nervous, apologetic laugh again. “But we’re much more than that. It’s just kitsch is what brings people in, what gets ‘em off the sidewalk and past the door. We’d like to do more. More wedding cakes and sweet table, hearth breads. Miguel’s the bread expert.” Miguel smiled and made a beauty queen wave from behind the counter. “We’re adding more menu items for the café and launching Miguel’s artisan breads next month, in time for fall.” She closed the binder, took my resume in hand again, smiled to herself as her eyes skimmed over what I considered a pretty paltry list of accomplishments. I believed her smile though, found something contagious and comforting in her nervous energy, like she and Miguel were maybe my kind of people—fellow pastry nerds, 80s kids, MJ fans, misfits, but with a mission, something I could get behind.
Michelle offered me her hand to shake. “Come in tomorrow at 6 am,” she said, “We can start you off on a two-week trial. See if we have a fit.” We both stood up, and Michelle’s eyes drifted to the window at the front of the shop. She shook her head. “Man, Michael Jackson,” she said. “What a day.”
On the way back to Beth’s, it seemed as if all the city had become a Michael Jackson song, all the neighborhood the opening beats of Billie Jean or the groove of Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. Cars went by with their windows dropped and radios blaring. The King of Pop was dead, gone to the same unreturnable place Mom and Dad had gone, and I had my first job in years. Just like that. Heartbreaking one moment, moonwalking the next.
There was mail in Beth’s box when I got back to her building. I pulled out what looked like a bill and a letter with a handwritten return address but no name. I studied the handwriting on the envelope. I knew it was from Julian.
I flipped it over once and thought about writing return to sender on it and putting it back in the mailbox on the street corner. I could only guess what this letter had in it, waiting for Beth when she returned from her peaceful, off-grid, French yoga vacation. “I think it’s time you went off-grid, Julian,” I said softly, tearing the envelope in half twice and throwing the pieces in the garbage can outside the front door. Then I went up to Beth’s apartment.
I’d forgotten to leave the windows open a crack. Her place was broiling. I went straight to Zowie’s cage. He didn’t look good. I reached in to pick him up, hoping he’d spring to life at my touch. He barely nudged, so I cuddled him in one hand and turned on the fan with the other and held him a few inches away from the wind. The fan’s air was as hot as the apartment, and Zowie felt warm and droopy in my hand.
I held him against my chest and ran to the kitchen, grabbed a small bowl, filled it with cold water from the sink, grabbed an ice tray from Beth’s freezer, and knocked all the cubes out with one blow into the sink. I popped a cube in the bowl, stirred it with my finger, and put Zowie gently on the counter. Was he dying or just sleepy? He barely stirred on the counter, slumped with his head under the lip of the bowl. I dipped my finger in the bowl and dabbed Zowie’s mouth and nose, wetting them over and over until his nose wiggled and he stuck a crumb’s portion of his tongue out, licking the water drops on his face. “Don’t die today, please don’t die,” I kept whispering.
I picked him up with the bowl and fast-walked to the bedroom, setting bowl and gerbil on the bed and turning the air on. It would take a few minutes to feel anything, so I dabbed more water on Zowie’s mouth then went to the window in the other room.
There was no difference even with the window wide open, no air at all. The screen had to come out, but it was stiff and had probably never been taken out before. I hit against its edges with the heel of my palm as a car went by trailing the beat of Billie Jean out its windows. Poor Michael Jackson.
When that song came out, Sheri and I spent days trying to learn the moonwalk. We’d practice in the basement where no one could see us and judge our clumsiness. I’d try, then Sheri would try, taking turns eyeballing each other’s attempts, failing over and over in cracking the code of the movement. “How the fuck does he do it?” Sheri said. She was 14 to my 11 and swore a lot around me then. When Mom walked in on us once, we nearly burned the house down blushing. But she just started moonwalking herself—or trying to, looking more like Chuck Berry duckwalking backwards across sand than MJ backgliding weightless on the moon. Completely oblivious to how bad she looked, she insisted to us that this, girls, is how you do it.
“So when did you become a moonwalk instructor, Mom?” Sheri said. I clapped my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing. Mom said, “Oh girls, I’ve been around longer than your Michael Jackson. I saw Elvis at the International Amphitheatre when I was your age, Sher. I wasn’t supposed to go, but Theresa took me.” Theresa was Mom’s older sister, her Sheri.
Mom started morphing through various other moves. She favored the twist, I noticed that, getting down real low for a woman who, in 1982, would’ve been nearly 40, not much older than Sheri was now. Sheri stood with her arms crossed, studying Mom, not smiling but not laughing either. Within a year, she’d be throwing Michael and the moonwalk over for Prince, then Robert Smith and The Cure. Mom grabbed my hands and had me twist with her, me and Sheri’s moonwalk moment completely out the window. Sheri’d say later how she hated when Mom did stuff like that, how she always had to bring all her sixties boomer shit into everything, to bring her time into ours.
Mom said, “I saw Chubby Checker too, at the Arena in Milwaukee. Theresa drove us, me and our cousin Sarah and our dates. Mine was a boy Sarah knew and he was as dull as dishwater for conversation. But we all danced the whole show long and had the best time!”
I never liked the twist. It’s too easy and repetitive, like the dance floor version of a suburban lifestyle. But Mom was good at it, loved doing it, love dancing no matter the style, no matter the types of moves, regardless of whether she could pull them off well or not at all. She loved the way dancing made her feel. Then she got cancer and died, and now Michael Jackson was dead too, no matter all the things he could do with a pair of dancing shoes and two seconds of backbeat. I thought of all this as I struck against the window screen, the videos they were playing on the laptop in Mmmm, all the energy, all the anger and grace, and I thought of those awful last months and weeks of Mom’s life, her death. I pounded and pounded at the damn screen.
When it gave, it almost fell all the way out, angling towards the sidewalk by Shauna’s doorway. I caught it last-second after knocking it out of the frame, then heard my phone ringing. I yanked at the frame, turning it every angle until it bent where it wasn’t supposed to and I could pull it inside the window.
The phone was Sheri. “How’d the interview go?”
“I got the job, or a two-week trial at least.” I said. I propped the screen against the couch and went into the bedroom to get Zowie. There was so much happiness for me in my sister’s voice. It was something I needed, like a cooling cloth or the softness of Zowie’s fur on my arm as I sat on the bed and cuddled him. With the air on, there were no more Michael Jackson songs coming from outside.
Sheri started talking about him. “I just can’t believe he’s dead. I feel like crying, but it would confuse Hannah. She’d ask me who I was crying about and what would I tell her? For someone I didn’t even know?”
“You have Man in the Mirror as your ring tone. You could tell her it’s that guy.”
“Thanks but I think that would just confuse her even more.” I heard noises that sounded like TV news reports in the background. “Everyone’s crying,” she said. “I get it, but it’s so strange. Even my dentist was crying.”
I looked at Zowie. Zowie wasn’t crying. He seemed OK now.
Sheri was quiet a moment. I sensed she was distracted by her TV. Then she said, “How do you feel about it, Kath? You loved him when you were a kid. You had pictures of him all over your bedroom wall. Remember? You played his music all the time. You drove us crazy.”
“I didn’t play it all the time.”
She started laughing. “You even went to the Victory tour concert. With that little redheaded friend of yours. It was your first concert.” It was true. Dad took me and Jenny, my best friend in those days, and we made homemade sparkly gloves to wear on one hand and screamed our voices out and pretended like my dad wasn’t with us the whole show.
I felt tears coming at the memory of my dad and how I’d treated him that night. I got up from Beth’s bed and carried Zowie into the living room. Why couldn’t I have been a more thoughtful kid? Or a better adult, more like the kind my parents had been?
I heard the volume on Sheri’s TV get lower. Her voice was distant when she spoke again anyway, as if she was still watching the TV if not listening. “People on the news keep saying the same thing, how they feel like their childhood just died. That makes me mad, you know? They’re our age, these people. Their childhood has been over for decades but it takes the death of a celebrity to force them to grow up? I wish we could’ve had that luxury, Kathy. Childhood ended for me when Dad died right after my graduation. And you…you were only 13!”
I was sitting down on the couch now, one of Beth’s torsos in my line of vision. The torsos seemed so less strange to me than they did a few days ago, so more explainable in light of the day it’d been, between Michael Jackson dying and the bakery full of Easy-Bake ovens and Julian’s letter and Zowie and the window. Instead it was my sister who seemed strange to me, so different in life experience and outlook. I focused on the handprints on Beth’s torso, the vintage rock buttons. The problems Beth had. Her lousy boyfriends and father. They say Michael Jackson had a bad father too. I’d had a good one, but he’d been taken too soon. And I felt no less messed up, no more together than Beth or Michael Jackson or anyone else. “I don’t know, Sher,” I said. “I kind of think a person’s childhood is the one thing that never dies.”
“What are you talking about, Kathy?”
“Sheri.” I took a deep breath. It wasn’t that this was difficult, this conversation. Just long overdue. We were sisters, with both our parents gone now, but we should’ve started talking like this long ago. I needed a breath because there was so much catching up to do. “Sheri, do you really think I’m anywhere near to being grown-up? Seriously. You really don’t notice how much I’ve regressed since Mom got sick?” I immediately regretted speaking in questions, like I was asking my big sister’s permission. Even if that was the point.
She was quiet for too long a beat. When she finally spoke, her voice was like the breakable but determined one she’d used to get through Mom’s wake and funeral, the voice she forced out of herself in answer to all the “I’m sorrys” and “My condolences” and “Our thoughts and prayers are with you girls.”
“Kathy, this bakery job is good news,” she said, hitting those last two words hard. “You’ve got to start thinking positive, start looking forward. The same goes for me. Dave has talked to me about this.”
“He has? When?” I began stroking Zowie a little too hard than before.
“It doesn’t matter, Kathy. It’s between us. I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d think it had something to do with you staying with us, and it doesn’t really. It’s a marriage thing. Believe me. Kathy, there are so many good changes headed your way now. I know it. This was just life. I mean, it wasn’t. It was death, Mom’s death. But that’s life. We learned that a long time ago, the hard way. Didn’t we, Kathy? You took care of Mom. You did what life and love demanded of you. And now it’s time to move on.”
When one person tells you something, you can take it to heart or you can ignore it. But when two tell you the same thing, you only have one response really. My sister and friend were both right. Not that what they were telling me was easy to take. Just necessary. There were a lot of changes headed my way. Or at least, a lot of things I needed to get doing. Beginning with fixing the broken window.
I ended my sister’s call, telling her I loved her and her saying it back to me, and rooted around in the apartment for tools for the window screen. It was mostly a tape job, layers and layers over the little cracks where the bugs might get in. I was thinking about Beth’s reaction and how much this would cost to get fixed, and the relief of a paycheck finally to fix things, when I saw Shauna on the street below with a group of cyclists. About 10 of them were stopped in front of her studio and wheeling short spurts up and down the street, pestering the traffic. Someone had a radio attached to the back of their bike playing Thriller.
I watched Shauna take a bike out of her front door, her right hand sporting a bike glove studded with sequins. I called down to her, and as she looked up, so did half the bike crew, a couple other sparkly gloved hands going up in the air to wave at me.
“What happened to Beth’s window?” Shauna said.
“I got a little impatient with it earlier,” I said, trying to shrug so she’d see it. “You know the building manager’s number?”
Shauna nodded and then the cyclist with the radio leaned close to her. He had no sparkly glove but a red leather jacket with zippers all over it. I noted some of the other fashion choices among the crowd. Sparkly socks, zombie makeup, a t-shirt like the one I bought with my babysitting money at the Victory Tour concert, all the Jackson brothers in bright-colored shredded clothes emblazoned across the front like a prairie fire, Michael’s sparkly glove at the center the fire’s brightest flame.
“What’s going on?” I called to Shauna.
The radio guy held his hands up. “It’s Chi Rides night. You got a bike? Come out and join us.”
Shauna said, “We’re doing a ride for Michael Jackson tonight. We’re riding to Lincoln Park first and meeting with all the north side riders there then heading downtown. A group is getting together to do the Thriller dance around Buckingham Fountain tonight. At sundown.”
“Come down and ride with us!” Radio guy said, so excited, so animated and fresh, even in a leather jacket on the hottest day of the year. He looked no more than 20, like someone who wasn’t even born yet when Bad or Dangerous much less Thriller came out. “Got anything glittery?” he said.
“Join us, Kathy!” Shauna said. I thought of my bike, locked at a suburban train station. Though Beth did have one hanging on her wall.
“I didn’t know you were such a fan, Shauna.”
She brought her ungloved hand up to her face, nodded. “I’m devastated. I studied dance. Before yoga.” She gestured at the studio door. “I know every move in every video he ever made.”
Suddenly radio guy gripped the handles of his bike and raised the front wheel in the air. “Rhythm is revolution,” he shouted, everyone else in the group watching him now, readying to ride. “Tonight, Chicago rides for Michael Jackson, King of Pop!”
I nodded, like I understood any of it. You mourn in your way and I mourn in mine, I thought. The radio switched to ABC and the kid in the red leather jacket took off, Shauna smiling up at me and following the crowd up the street, 12-year-old Michael’s voice leading and trailing, all the way.
I would’ve loved to join them. But I couldn’t leave Zowie just now, and I had a job to wake up early for in the morning. It felt like something in me went with them though, like an invisible string or rope was unwinding from inside me, getting pulled along to the center of the city with the cyclists and the song. It felt so good and so painful. Necessary is the only word I can come up with to describe it, even today. I wondered if somewhere in France, Beth had felt the same thing when I tore up that letter from Julian. I wondered if she’d heard about Michael Jackson. I bet she had. There was no chance otherwise, no matter how hard she tried. A person can only get away so much, can only go so far off-grid.
Billie Jean (Motown 25th Anniversary performance)
Billie Jean (Madison Square Garden, featuring audience cameos by Liz Taylor, Macauly Culkin, and Liza Minnelli!)
Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough
Man in the Mirror
I Want You Back (Jackson 5 Ed Sullivan appearance)
Rock With You
They Don’t Care About Us
Thriller (When I was in the 7th grade, my school had a special after-school assembly just so we could all watch this. When the video started, a bunch of macho bullies started making fun of MJ, using homophobic slurs, etc, annoying those of us who were really excited about seeing the video — by the middle though those boys were as rapt as everyone else.)
Michael Jackson does the robot
Upside Down (MJ crashes Diana Ross at her concert in 1980)
Prince and MJ crash a James Brown show…Prince embarrasses himself
I’ll Be There
Carrie Brownstein (Sleater Kinney) eulogy to MJ on NPR
?uestlove Remembers the Times: 132 Michael Jackson Memories