Mike was popular. Girls giggled whenever he was around. And the boys did everything they could to try and impress him. He was that guy in the fourth grade. I am absolutely certain everyone knows a that guy.
I was 10. I was so not that guy. I was awkward looking—gangly. Pale as hell. I had impossibly frizzy hair. (I’m the one on the far right, dressed in blue. This shot was taken a year or so after fourth grade, but you get the picture.)
My family and I had just moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania. Not only did I feel awkward and uncomfortable in my own preteen skin, but I was also an outsider. I had a strange accent (i.e. not a southern one). I knew not one person at my new school—not one.
In fact, since we’d moved to North Carolina that summer, only one kid had spoken a word to me. His name was Aaron. He lived on my block. He eventually became one of my closest friends. He made me feel OK. He had a way of making most people feel OK.
Other than Aaron, who did not ride my bus, I had no one to talk to. I did have a Walkman and a pair of headphones and they kept me company. Every day, to and from school, I would put on my headphones and disappear. I was really good at it. Escaping everything and everyone around me came easy, easier than actually talking to people. I would turn myself into a ghost by entering a fantasy world that ran adjacent to the one I was supposed to exist in. In my imaginary world, sometimes I was popular. Boys liked me and girls invited me to their slumber parties. Sometimes I was cool. I usually had straight hair. I wasn’t pale. My freckles were gone. Sometimes I could do flips off a diving board or tap dance. My fantasies changed daily, but my worlds always had a soundtrack. Sometimes soundtracks would change along with my internal discourse. It was George Michael sometimes. Then it would be Michael Jackson for a bit. Cyndi Lauper made several appearances. There was a ton of Prince. Sometimes Blondie. When I was really young, like 5 and 6, it was George Burns, Olivia Newton John, Sylvia, and Kenny Rogers.
I loved music.
I still love music. Music has been my confidant, my most trustworthy friend since as early as I have memory. It sticks by me no matter how awkward I am. It stood by me no matter how many times I thought I’d never survive a broken heart. It was there to see me through the deaths of several friends. Music has walked alongside me throughout my entire life. When I’m hurting, I listen to music. When I’m happy, I turn to music. Without music, I don’t think I would have survived, quite frankly. I know that sounds dramatic; and there’s no way to know if it’s indeed true. But I feel pretty comfortable saying that music has been the brightness during my darkest hours, the darkness when I needed more. Music allowed me to escape one minute and arrive the next. Music made me realize that pain was usually temporary, but also very real. When I felt lonely, which was all of the time back then, I knew that as long as music existed, I would never ever truly be alone.
So, back to the bus, Mike and George Michael.
At that time—the beginning of fourth grade—many of my fantasies were born from the song “Careless Whisper”. I loved that damn song. I listened to that song over and over and over again. I would finish it, rewind it, play it again. I did this so many times, I knew exactly how long to hold down the rewind button on my Walkman before hitting the end of the previous song. I was good.
In truth, I really wanted a boy to notice me. I thought that if a boy took notice of me, maybe girls would like me too. I wanted a boy to fall in love with me and write songs about me, maybe even play the guitar. And “Careless Whisper” helped me come up with some pretty remarkable, totally unbelievable fantasies. Sometimes, depending on my mood, my fantasy would become a comically dark one. One that would end with my dying in an enormous, very dramatic, fiery car crash and my imaginary boyfriend would be devastated upon hearing the news. “Careless Whisper” became the song that would remind him of me. And he would cry. And, somehow (I think because I liked the idea of ghosts) I was able to watch him mourn from another mysterious plane of existence. It felt good watching someone miss me that much.
In my fantasy world, nothing was off limits. Even unicorns.
Sometimes, my imaginary boyfriend would leave me for another girl only to realize that the new girl wasn’t nearly as cool and beautiful as me and so he’d leave her, try and come back to me, but I was long gone and in love another amazing boy. I made up fantasy after fantasy to the song “Careless Whisper”. I was really, really good at shapeshifting reality.
I feel so unsure
As I take your hand and lead you to the dance floor
One afternoon, returning home from school on the bus with my headphones on, I was listening to “Careless Whisper” fantasizing about my imaginary life with my super cute boyfriend, when Mike the popular guy walked up to me.
As the music dies, something in your eyes
Calls to mind the silver screen
He hands me a folded, red heart made out of construction paper. He blushes and returns to his seat.
And all its sad good-byes
I open the paper heart.
You know how when you’re in a moving car with the window down and something like a receipt, or a dollar bill gets swept up into a swirling stream of air, and the pressure from the air outside the window sucks that thing right out into the universe before you can even figure out what the hell it it? That was my fantasy that day. Full swirl, then sucked right up and out the window, out to mingle with the humid North Carolina air.
Mike thinks I’m cute?
“Careless Whisper” became even more meaningful after that. I didn’t need to fantasize anymore about the popular boy because a popular boy in my REAL life thought I was cute. I could just listen to that song and relive that entire moment, over and over and over again. I did embellish it a bunch though. He would sometimes sit next to me. Sometimes, he’d hold my hand. My creativity went to shit whenever something remotely real made an appearance.
Anyway, I carried that construction paper heart everywhere I went. It was like a hot secret, burning holes through my paperbacks, my pockets, the bottom of my pillow at night. And for a week I waited for him to write more, say something—anything. I would have settled for a glance. Nothing.
So one day, a popular girl started talking to me. I have no idea why. This wasn’t normal. I’m guessing it was all part of the plan. But she started talking to me about boys and school and I figured maybe I could confide in her about the heart-shaped note. So I told her. I told her Mike had given me a note on the bus saying he thought I was cute.
She laughed. “Yeah. I know. We dared him to do that. I can’t believe he actually did!”
I’m never gonna dance again
Guilty feet have got no rhythm
Though it’s easy to pretend
I know you’re not a fool
While the song still held meaning and I continued to listen to it, I no longer fantasized about Mike and his careless paper heart. I no longer fantasized about anyone to that song. That song was put on a shelf and whenever I did listen to it, I did so simply to enjoy it. Which was perfectly acceptable if not normal for most people.
There are days where I’m amazed that I survived my youth. There are days where I worry about what my kids are going to experience. There are days where I wish I could tell everyone it’s gonna be OK and mean it. I want to say that you should find your friend, even if it’s music, and let that hold you. Because it will mostly be OK.
Time can never mend
The careless whispers of a good friend
To the heart and mind
Ignorance is kind
There’s no comfort in the truth
Pain is all you’ll find
Over the last 24 hours, I have watched messages scroll across my computer screen. Tweets, Facebook posts, articles—thousands of people mourning the loss of George Michael. Some people might call us silly because we didn’t know him. He didn’t know us. But I think many of us needed him. He, like countless other musicians, made us feel OK; they made us feel safe. They were our friends.
Please don’t judge a person for how they mourn or who they mourn for. Compassion grows out of real emotion, and if 2016 has taught me anything, it’s that we need more compassion.
I owe a great deal of thanks to so many musicians. George Michael. Olivia Newton John. Ted Leo. John Darnielle (of the Mountain Goats). Michael Stipe. Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia). Greenday. Quicksand. The Rolling Stones. Lou Reed. Kenny Rogers. Frightened Rabbit. Old 97s. George Burns. Sonic Youth. Built to Spill. Blondie. This list goes on and on, but these few stand out.
Thank you, musicians of the world. You are the everything. You save us all one beautiful note, one relatable lyric at a time.
You are the everything.