As a lifelong fan—a diehard fan, a grieving fan, a fan still in a state of semi-shock—I began a few heavily autobiographical tributes to Prince in the days following his death, but (to quote an old professor of mine) none of them quite sing. Below is an excerpt from a work of fiction I began years ago and may or may not one day complete. I’m not convinced it sings either, but I’m fairly confident it at least hums. The story or novella or novel is titled The Beautiful One, and it stands as my official tribute to the man as well as the musical genius. Rest in peace, Prince Rogers Nelson. I wish u heaven.
The Beautiful One (excerpt)
We turned a corner and there she was, careening around a schoolyard in white knee socks and blood-red shorts, a trio of bare-chested pre-pubescent boys in hot pursuit. No neighborhood girl in her right mind would be caught dead sporting retina-damaging Mickey Mouse pants, and it was far too warm for the textured stockings, milk white and pulled tight, like somebody from the Alps. Janine wasn’t from the Alps, of course, only from the other side of Teutonically dubbed Auerbach Avenue. But she could’ve been from Planet Claire, for all I knew or cared. Where she came from didn’t seem nearly as crucial to me as where she might be going.
I skidded to a stop and Brandon had to swerve at the last second in order to avoid a collision. I’d only have had myself to blame if Brandon had hit me: rarely did we spot something worth braking for, because braking his bicycle, for a motion-obsessed adolescent boy, is a sign of great respect, if not outright awe. As she would be the first to tell you, I was in awe of Janine Mikulski, aka Nina Mitchell, from the get-go.
“Her name’s Janine,” Brandon said, blinking. At times patterned nervous ticks gave his face the air of a minor appliance or hand-held casino game. He blinked in rapid succession—one long, two short, one long, two short—as though signaling me in Morse code. I sized him up, not for the first time. He was wearing mascara, I was sure of it. He sported a full-blown mustache. His flimsy neon sneakers made his feet look freakishly big, like the kid had flippers where ten human toes ought to be. “Janine the beauty queen,” he whisper-sang. “She lives around the corner from my Uncle Walt.”
“You know her,” I said evenly, trying to keep the envy out of my voice, half ashamed at how the sight of Janine had forced me to lunge for my Huffy’s foam-grip handlebars.
My fey buddy in the purple sweatpants shrugged. “Sort of.”
Brandon explained how he’d gone to school with Janine, briefly, before transferring to Mother of Sublime Grace. His family was Protestant, which was a strange and somewhat superfluous thing to be in a parish full of Roman Catholics, like a self-proclaimed teetotaler at a New Year’s Eve party. “I can introduce you, if you want. She’s Polish,” he added with a smirk, and mouthed the word Mikulski.
Integrated is not a word anyone would ever use to describe Richtown, an immigrant enclave that even today seems more muffin pan than melting pot. Brandon knew that Deanna Hayes would make a disapproving face when she found out about her elder son’s apparent predilection for Polish girls. He also knew that if I went ahead and actually scored with Janine Mikulski—the thought boggled my mind, though other parts of my anatomy didn’t appear to be nearly as confused—I would be the victim of merciless teasing and the butt of numerous off-color jokes. And this just from my parents.
“How about now?” I said, wondering how I could possibly wait that long.
Brandon’s face performed a hand-jive. “What about Queenie?”
What about her? was my first thought. My second thought was that Natalie “Queen” Cole and I had had a good two-year run. At fourteen, and as oversexed co-founder of The Erotic Citizens, a fledgling Prince fan club, I was looking to take our relationship to the next level. (Just what awaited us on the next level I wasn’t sure, but it was certainly set to the desperate pleading of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married,” followed quickly by the bluesy bump-and-grind of “Darling Nikki.”) Although I didn’t go so far as to sport ruffled shirts and shoulder-padded, rhinestone-studded trench coats to school dances like Brandon, I did own a pair of dark purple jeans and did my best to sweep my longish, wavy brown hair to one side, throwing over the then-popular, center-parted “wings” hairstyle in favor of a semi-successful pompadour. Like His Purple Majesty, we wanted to be in the “new breed,” and touted sexuality as all we’d ever need. Never mind that, for us, the sex act tended to take place with much older TV stars—like visions of wanton sugarplum fairies—while we were fast asleep.
Queenie disagreed. Natalie had no desire to count herself as a member of Prince’s new breed, or even as an honorary member of The Erotic Citizens (she thought we should call ourselves The Little Red Corvettes). In fact she had very little desire to speak of. Which made her new, eye-hijacking body the erotic equivalent of false advertising.
“Natalie won’t mind,” I lied, and almost laughed at how silly I sounded. “It’s not like we’re engaged.”
Strictly speaking this wasn’t true. I’d proposed to Natalie a few nights before. Her one-lane road of a body had morphed into some unexpected curves a few weeks back, like an intriguing detour you don’t mind following for a few miles. So when she’d shown up at our special make-out spot looking like a top-heavy Pat Benatar, in a black and green-striped shirt and second skin Sassoons, I lost it. I went down on one knee, scooping up a soda tab on my way to the ground. Neither of us said a word as I worked the aluminum ring over her expectant finger, but neither of us had to. I took the tears ruining her mascara as a yes.
Janine continued to run effortless circles around her tireless, pint-sized admirers, prompting Brandon to slowly shake his head. I couldn’t tell whether his gesture was meant to express sympathy for their longing, kudos for her beauty or condemnation of my lax morals. “Damn it’s hot,” he said, his face blinking like a turn signal, seemingly settling the matter. “Let’s go get something to drink first.”
“I’m not thirsty,” I said.
“Let’s at least towel off, man. I’m soaking wet.”
He was stalling. That’s when it struck me that Brandon must’ve had romantic designs of his own on Janine. How could he not? But Brandon had known the girl for years. What in God’s name was he waiting for?
“You go,” I said, emboldened by the idea of being alone with Janine, even briefly. “I’ll catch up.”
Brandon knitted his considerable brows and, blinking frantically—I couldn’t help thinking Tilt!—reluctantly agreed. “Meet me at Walt’s,” he said, pedaling away. He was already too big for it, a Christmas gift from his parents, and the slight awkwardness, coupled with his hairy limbs and clown-like clothes, put me in mind of a trained chimp or panting circus poodle. “But don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” he called over his furred shoulder, the sort of advice I’d always hated.
Back then, Brandon’s Uncle Walt and his roommate Timothy seemed ancient to us, but they must’ve only been in their late-twenties. Apparently they were waiters at some restaurant or other—they routinely woke bleary-eyed around two in the afternoon after all-night binges and left the house in black slacks and tuxedo shirts, their heads wet, their skin the color of cream soda. Walt was rail-thin, with a throwback pencil mustache and sleepy eyes—John Waters minus the flair. Timothy was fleshier, clean-shaven, better looking. He had frosted, Make It Big George Michael hair. It had to have crossed our minds that, rather than the playboy image they knowingly fostered, they might be gay. Walt was nothing if not an effeminate man (the way he smoked his cigarettes, with an inverted hand on his hip, now seems glaringly girlish). But in 1984 androgyny was in. Brandon and I were oversexed fourteen-year-old working class kids; homosexuality should’ve been an issue, but it wasn’t.
Well, it certainly was an issue for Brandon’s mother, who often described her son’s flamboyant wardrobe as “faggy,” and for my dad, who pretended to ignore the lingerie-clad non-Caucasian women flashing him from my bedroom walls and focus instead on the seven paper doves hanging from my bedroom ceiling. “What are these supposed to be?” he’d asked me the day I hung them up. “Doves,” I answered matter-of-factly. “Take them down. I’ll get you a parakeet.” “I don’t want a parakeet,” I told him. The song’s called “When Doves Cry,” not “When Parakeets Cry.” My dad looked as though he’d just swallowed a bug. “You mean the creepy record by that spic he-she you play non-stop? Forget about him,” he said. “He’s queer as a three-dollar bill.” “No, he’s not,” I said. “He gets all these girls.” I gestured to the tawny-skinned whorish performers hovering like underworld seraphim around my bed. “It’s an act,” my dad pronounced, after he’d zoned out for a full minute staring at the well of Apollonia’s cleavage. “The guy wears lace pants, for Christ’s sake. You want me to buy you a pair? You want to show up on your first day of high school in go-go boots and mascara, like Brandon?” I pretended to think this over. “No,” I said. A smug look swam across my father’s face, but it quickly disappeared when he saw how upset I was getting. “I didn’t think so,” he said, and left the room.
I approached the schoolyard and introduced myself. Janine wasn’t at all surprised by my daring. No doubt she had countless neighborhood guys—grade school guys, high school guys, guys old enough to procure her “jungle juice” and buy her beer—angling for her, er, attention. I deftly steered the conversation toward her “career,” as Brandon had said she called it. He hadn’t been kidding about the beauty queen business. By age thirteen, Janine had won a number of small but increasingly significant pageants, most recently that of Miss Pre-Teen Pennsylvania. We agreed that she was very pretty—too pretty for me. I was not one of the half dozen swarthy Don Juans who routinely stole the hearts and fondled the burgeoning bodies of the neighborhood hotties. As a baby, my own mother had labeled me “interesting looking.” I had no business making a play for Janine. But I was a bright kid, and had procured a certain degree of street cred due to my dexterity with spray paint and colored Sharpies. I wasn’t a true bad boy, but I went to school with a few. Some of their casual arrogance and mindless bravery, if not their dark good looks, had rubbed off on me.
“Where’s your crown?” I asked, knowing full well it had a fancier name but damn, when faced point-blank with Janine’s undivided attention and flawless Slavic beauty, if I could remember it.
“Tiara,” she clarified. “In my room.”
“Can I see it?”
She laughed. “My room or my tiara?”
“Either,” I shrugged, playing it cool. “Both.”
“No,” she said, rather seriously. “No boys allowed.”
“So bring it down,” I suggested, hardly hiding my disappointment. Even if we had known each other for longer than five minutes, there wasn’t much we would dare to do upstairs in Janine’s room that couldn’t be done holed up in an alley or behind the odd oak tree. I had no sisters, but somehow I sensed that a girl’s bedroom was a bastion second only to her body. Seeing where Janine slept, touching her stuff, sitting on her bed would be akin to feeling her up.
“Not yet,” she said vaguely.
Janine shot me a look out of her amazing baby blues that said All hail the newly crowned Idiot-King. “I barely know you.”
Now it was my turn to laugh. Leeringly, I said, “Don’t worry, I won’t touch it.” I all but waggled my non-existent eyebrows.
“No,” Janine said evenly, “you won’t.” I felt her ebb away.
It seemed I’d offended her, so I added, “Just think, one day I’ll be able to say I knew Miss America when.”
“Yeah,” she said, visibly warming to the idea. Then, out of nowhere: “And if you’re really lucky, one day you might be able to say you held her hand.”
Ordinarily, handholding didn’t turn me on. Natalie, of course, had been a champion hand-holder. Still, I resolved then and there to put my time in and, as per Sister Margaret Mary’s advice—which, despite the constant threat of nuclear catastrophe and my soul’s soon-to-be eternal role as Satan’s quick-start charcoal, I normally felt no burning desire to heed—tried to count my blessings.
As luck would have it, I didn’t have to count very high. After pleading my case for a week, something along the lines of pretty girls like you never give un-pretty guys like me a chance, and don’t know what you’re missing, I’d all but bullied Janine into going on a date with me, “date” being shorthand for after-dinner tonsil tickling in a semi-private, predetermined alley. Never mind that she was out of my league. Never mind that I had a spanking-new fiancée. Prince Rogers Nelson wouldn’t let a little thing like being engaged stand in his way of a date with a future Miss America, would he? As co-founder and chair of the Erotic Citizens, I had a reputation to uphold.
Besides which, it was Saturday night, I guess that made it all right, and what did I have to lose? I knew this great make-out spot, a cluster of one-car garages, some of which stood open and empty, secluded from the street. Queenie and I had camped out there two or three times, holed up with Yoo-hoos and Tastykakes, taking shelter from the chilling spring rain as well as from our increasingly alienated families.
Our date was a bust. We never made it off Janine’s front porch. Somehow, someone, somewhere, must’ve heard something, because we were confronted by a dozen pre-scorned teenage girls, spearheaded by my very own cousin Ava—third-cousin, but still—and my blushing would-be bride. I suppose no one is ever really a stranger in such a provincial river ward, even those marginalized people who live on the other side of town, far from the water.
Janine had two much older sisters, women well into their twenties, one a very large, overbearing surrogate mom—I got the feeling she was living vicariously through her stunning younger sister—the other a Runaway reject, sexy in a yellow tape POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS sort of way, who looked like she could kick some serious ass if she was so inclined. Although scrappy Natalie appeared willing to fight for her man, Janine wasn’t sufficiently enamored of me to risk loss of hair or black eye. After all, she had her career to think about. Either that or she’d guessed I wasn’t the tonsil tennis pro I’d made myself out to be.
“You can have him,” she informed the angry mob, before anybody had a chance to say much of anything. “I didn’t even know he was taken.”
Natalie glared at me, huffing like she’d just fought hard for and won something she was no longer sure she even wanted. With Janine out of the way, she redirected what was left of her anger at me. “You’re an asshole, Sam,” she said under her breath. “You, like, totally don’t deserve me.” She fished in the pocket of her pink denim mini-skirt and threw something at me that landed with a light clink at my feet. “I did then but I don’t now,” she spoke through some rather undramatic tears, sounding like something out of Dr. Seuss. “And I won’t with you ever again.”
And that was how our year-long relationship ended, with Natalie stalking off with her posse of angry friends, friends I never even knew she had, and my letting her go. For some reason I pictured them marching back to “chez Cole” and trashing her dad’s bomb shelter, the shower curtains torn free of their rings, balled up and set aflame, the near-identical cans of soup tossed from their shelves and exploding like fireworks on the unfinished cement floor. But maybe this was just wishful thinking. For all I knew they went straight to Ernie’s and threw a pizza party.
“You’re trouble,” Janine said, once the disappointed, bloodthirsty villagers had extinguished their torches and gone home. She came down off her porch, sidling over to where ze monster was seated on the curb and put her arm around my shoulder. I remember thinking This is all there is. I can die happy now.
“I’m really not,” I protested, dissatisfied with the tag of delinquency, despite its obvious allure. This was me at fourteen: hide-and-seek aficionado, incorrigible shape-shifter, a boy desperate to set the record straight even as he longed to distort it. “I’m a straight-A student. I’ve never even had a detention.”
Janine eyed me suspiciously. “Yeah, well Debbie says to stay far away from you.” Debbie, I’d intuited, was the big sister.
I looked into Janine’s cerulean eyes, where I was greeted by tiny twin images of myself, whoever that might’ve been. “Do you always do what your sister tells you?”
Janine laughed, again sounding more like some lascivious witch than, say, Snow White in the company of her budding “Prince” Charming. “Nope,” she said, sounding way too pleased with herself for her own good. “Usually I just do the opposite.”
So where did it get me, my impromptu Prince impression? Well with Janine it got me to first and then second base. And whatever the baseball equivalent is to dry humping on the living room floor—sacrifice fly, maybe. It earned me the admiration of all my friends, and a few enemies I didn’t even know I had. And it got me an “Erotic City” birthday dance. Janine’s birthday, not mine.
Dig if you will the picture of Janine and I engaged in a lap dance. Well not a lap dance, per se (I’m not even sure lap dances were invented yet). Janine didn’t straddle me, although she came damn close. And we were in a rented hall, not the “private” back room of some strip club, surrounded by a roomful of guests, celebrating my new girlfriend’s fourteenth birthday. A chair was placed in the middle of the empty dance floor. I was instructed to sit on it. The lights were dimmed. Music sounded. I recognized the opening chord immediately. But before I could shoot a knowing glance Brandon’s way, Janine appeared, in one of his ruffled white shirts, purple leotards and a veiled fedora much like the one donned by His Royal Badness in the “When Doves Cry” video. She’d choreographed an original dance routine set to the tune of one of his more risqué B-sides (and for a man whose A-sides routinely included lines like I guess I must be dumb, ’cuz you had a pocket full of horses, Trojan and some of ’em used, this was saying something). My eighth-grade Salome was going to dance for me. Well, for me and forty of her closest friends and relatives.
Like Janine’s parents, most of the guests watching this performance were over fifty and spoke broken English. The chorus to “Erotic City” is We can funk until the dawn, making love till cherry’s gone, but it sure sounded like fuck, no more so than on that day. Still, the assembled were all smiles, nothing but encouraging oohs and ahhs as the birthday girl did her tawdry little dance, flailing her arms, mussing her heavily-sprayed hair, pushing her boobs in my face, shaking her ass in the air. I wondered how much of the lyrics these first-generation Poles understood, those who could hear well, that is. But then I suppose actually hearing the song was superfluous; Janine’s horny mime dance said it all. My face must’ve been as red as those goofy shorts I’d first spotted her in. To make matters worse, everyone clearly was getting a kick out of my discomfort; it must’ve been quite a hoot watching this self-styled Don Wannabe from the other side of Auerbach Avenue squirm. I don’t know what was worse, having all those eyes—some of which belonged to other boys my age—trained on my shapely, scantily-dressed girlfriend or having them trained on me. All I know is, if it had been a banquet hall full of my relatives, and my cousin Joanie, say, was writhing to a song like this in front of some guy, the looks on my uncles’ faces wouldn’t have been nearly as innocuous. And the DJ would’ve been a marked man. Gabe, did she just do what I think she did? Joe, did he just say what I think he said? And what’s this about a cherry? That fruit better be singing about a fruit…
Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe the scene. But then, what did I expect? Ever since making a play for Janine, I felt as though I were having a kind of out-of-body experience. At times—most notably when seated on Janine’s front step, my arm slung around her shoulders, her hand resting idly on my knee—I could see us as others must’ve seen us, as Debbie, my nemesis, must’ve seen us: the shifty, strangely-dressed Romeo and his sheltered, secretly rebellious Juliet. What was she doing with him? everybody and his mother wanted to know. I’ll tell you what she was doing: she was flipping her family the bird.
Not quite Beauty and the Beast. More like Beauty and the Interesting-Looking Oversexed Teen. I was a scrawny kid—“gaunt,” as a high school history teacher would later describe me—with my makeshift pompadour and a nose too big for my face. But I had two things going for me. One was timing. Unbeknownst to perhaps even herself, Janine was just itching to act out. She had a wild streak that infuriated her aging parents and frightened her controlling older sister, mostly because that wildness represented everything Debbie would and could not be. The other thing was this: largely thanks to my father, I correctly sensed that regret is a terrible, soul-devouring disease, a disease for which there is no known cure. I resolved then and there to have as few regrets as possible. If this meant alienating friends and family, so be it. If this meant scrawling a hybrid male-female symbol on my forearm, to mark myself as not merely a member of the New Breed, but as a capital-L Leader, well I’d do that too. And if it meant breaking what hearts I could break, and pretending to a beauty like Janine Mikulski that I wasn’t just worthy of her but possibly her equal and more, I was up to the challenge. I was broke and homely looking and not nearly as experienced with girls as I purported to be. But, as the song goes, I was rich on personality. You might not know it now, I thought to myself, whenever I found myself leaning in to kiss Janine and experiencing a sudden, mojo-murdering flash of doubt, as if I were getting away with something, as if I were duping not only my beautiful new girlfriend but also somehow myself. Baby but I are. I’m a star.