IT’S NEARLY MIDNIGHT and I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor four inches from the TV. I’ve got a mixing bowl filled with Raisin Bran and a box of Count Chocula to the side. Einstein says time is just an illusion. Time can change. So tonight, by the flux-capacitating magic of YouTube, I am bending the continuum, traveling back to the days that I first saw MTV…
It was the summer after my parents split and my dad had an apartment midtown. I was sitting at the kitchen table reading a Richie Rich comic, eating Cocoa Pebbles and Cap’n Crunch, Stevie Nicks low on the stereo, singing about tusks and gold dust women.
There was something about the quiver in Stevie’s voice that seemed scandalous, witchy and sweet, like full moon secrets and falling stars. The guy upstairs who always wore bandanas around his long black hair had made me a mix tape of her coolest songs. He told me that one night in Texas Stevie twirled right up off the stage.
“Everybody saw her,” Bandana swore. “Everybody.”
I slurped the last sugary milk from the bowl and peeked through the front curtains for the umpteenth time. And finally, she was there. Ashley Braxton. Standing on the balcony outside her apartment door wearing a white tank top and terrycloth shorts, her brown skin glowing beneath the yellow bug light.
The day before we’d been riding our bikes through the darkest part of the woods when she parked her pink Supergoose and sat against the giant oak. I sat beside her, talking about the time I tried to jump the creek and crashed into the water, only to discover it was a run-off from the sewage drain. She laughed and laid her hand against my chest and it went inside me, through me and somehow everything seemed new. Now I found myself staring out the window towards her door late at night, hoping, waiting…
She caught me looking and lifted her hand. I waved back. She motioned for me to come.
I was barefoot in cutoff khakis and the sidewalk was warm. Wind chimes clinked from across the way. Ashley leaned out over the rail and said, Hey.
I climbed the stairs to where she stood. “Hey,” I replied.
We talked awhile then she shook the ice in her glass, stretched and pushed back her short blond hair. “Mama’s workin’ late shift,” she said. Her tiny turned-up nose was dusted with freckles. She glanced down and to the right, then smiled, shy-like. “Wanna come in and watch some MTV?”
The words were so magical I didn’t reply – totally mesmerized by the glimmer in her pale green eyes. She opened the door, hooked her little finger through mine and led me inside.
The apartment was dark except for the TV light, the glorious chill of a window-unit a/c blasting cold air through two small rooms. We sank into the big black Naugahyde couch.
“MT what now?” I asked her.
“MTV,” she said, reaching over me for the remote. “Music videos.”
Rocket ship blasting, rock guitar riff, moon man planting the MTV flag. Extreme close-up: Rick James.
Snare on the 4. Funky bass. White soundstage, park bench and a pole. Skanky chicks, scary women with thick white thighs and coyote eyes, cheap lingerie and cigarettes dangling from red-smeared lips. Rick James, glitter braids, superstar skinny in his sequined jumpsuit and platform boots.
“Whoa,” I said. “This is awesome…”
“Y’all ain’t got cable?”
“Not this kinda cable.”
We watched Madonna and Motley Crüe, Wham!, Duran Duran. Ratt’s “Wanted Man,” Billy Idol and Bobby Brown, “When Doves Cry” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” Gunter glieben glauten globen.
MTV seemed like transmissions from another planet, some neon sexy Thunderdome of smoke machines and Martha Quinn…a place where street gangs broke into choreographed kicks and chicks danced in cages and guitars turned to swords… where money was for nothing and nothing mattered but the music and the moment.
And then: Stevie. Platinum blond, in black chiffon, strobe lights flashing, dancing while the rooms were on fire.
there is magic all around you,
if I do say so myself
I have known this much longer
than I’ve known you
She waltzed on water and through the flames, beaded shawls and white baby grands, crystal chandeliers and Tiffany lamps, the city of angels beneath her, a million tiny lights in the distance as she threw out her arms and twirled…
I knew in that moment that this would be our song, that something indefinable filled my heart with joy just to sit close and see the light in her eyes while she laughed. I knew so much in that one shining moment, the Naugahyde sticking to our skin, Stevie Nicks telling our story on a nineteen-inch Zenith TV, living after midnight in a cold dark room in the endless summer of youth. I just hoped that Ashley knew too.
“I love this song,” she gushed, sliding her feet beneath me as Stevie’s sad eyes filled the screen.
“Me too,” I whispered.
Every night, after my father was sleeping and her mom was off to work, Ashley would wave me down and we would sit in the dark with only the TV light, the a/c kicked up high, eating Cocoa Puffs and Cap’n Crunch, watching ZZ Top and Pat Benatar, Biz Markie and Lita Ford. Sometimes I would say something silly and Ashley would lay her hand against me and laugh and her green eyes would dance.
We crashed and lay tangled on the grass, her sharp hipbones against me, chest smashed into my face.
“Get off. Heh,” I said, muffled underneath her.
“You wish,” she giggled, tickling my sides.
She smelled like summer sweat and the cool black dirt from the creek bank. When she stood her head eclipsed the sun. “Come on,” Ashley said, pulling me up by the arms. “Let’s try it again.”
There was a trick we kept trying down Kelly Drive, riding from the stop sign at the corner to the cul-de-sac just before the trees, side by side with no hands, reaching out and locking fingers, seeing who could ride the longest without letting go. The Supergoose was steadier and Ashley almost always won. But I was determined to hold tight this time.
At the last mailbox my wheels began to wobble but I refused to let go. Ashley yelped and veered the Goose; I turned her loose and wrecked into the lilies in the Miller’s lawn.
She looped back, standing with one foot on the pedal and the other at the curb. “Come on,” she laughed, holding out her hand. “Let’s try again.”
It was just after eleven p.m., a summer storm blowing rain against the kitchen window. Ashley’s long tan legs across my lap. Her skin was warm and smooth and she smelled like Hawaiian Tropic lotion and Watermelon Bubble Yum. MTV kicked into a Stevie Rock Block and I knew that it was time. Not counting cousins and pecks on the cheek — lip on lip linger, the tingle, my first real kiss.
Gypsy, The Chain and Edge of Seventeen. Ashley sang softly about white wing doves. She didn’t realize I was staring, waiting, hoping… In the bluish glow her freckles faded and she looked older, witchy and sweet. Her fingers worked the frays along the edge of my shorts as she moved her lips slowly, singing along.
you in the moonlight
with your sleepy eyes
Then: Our Song. My first real kiss, in the cold blue dark while Stevie Nicks sang about rooms on fire. As Stevie twirled I shifted closer. Ashley smiled. I turned her face towards mine…
“I have to tell you something,” she said, her eyes serious now. “A secret, okay?”
Ashley looked back to Stevie and the flames. “And you promise not to never, ever tell?”
She took a long slow breath and spoke the words. “I like girls.”
“I mean, you know — that way, I guess.” She winced a little and shrugged. “Like with a boy? I don’t feel the same. But it’s always been this way.”
“Oh,” I said, staring at my hands, picking at the nail of my thumb. “Okay.”
“Swear you won’t tell? You’re, like, my best friend, Jamie.” She sat up straight, both hands holding mine. “You don’t hate me now, do you?” She moved closer, turned my face to hers and leaned in…
The sidewalk was wet as I walked back home. The storm was over now. I waited to feel something. Hurt or angry or let down. I didn’t know what to feel. So I snuck my Huffy out the back door for one last late night ride.
I was wheeling around to the front walk when I saw Ashley, standing on her balcony, pushing back her short blond hair.
She lifted her hand. I pretended not to see her and pedaled away.
I was coasting slow, weaving through the puddles down Kelly Drive. Just thinking about things. When the sound of buzzing tires came up from behind. Ashley cruised past me then circled back, riding side by side.
“Hey,” she said.
We rode awhile, silent. “You mad?” she asked.
I shook my head. Let go of the handlebars and reached out for her hand.
“Betcha can’t make it from here to the trees,” she said, locking her fingers through mine.
“Betcha,” I replied.
As we passed the last mailbox, she lifted our hands and laughed. For just one moment, I closed my eyes and let it be
It’s two in the morning and I’m laid out on the floor, an empty box of Count Chocula by my side.
Stevie fades into a commercial for Sprite, the cola with the Lymon taste, and then there’s another with a jingle suggesting you can kiss a little longer with Big Red. Blast off rocket, classic riff, moon man bounces across the screen. J.J. Jackson with you on MTV in stereo, all day, all night…
I get up, stretch and stare out the front window. The moon is a sliver, hiding like a secret behind the clouds.
I thought eating all this cereal so late might make me sick. But I feel wired and alive, like my heart is filled with helium, tied to a ribbon floating high above my head. I slip into the garage and ease my bicycle through the side door. The streets are empty, black trees witchy against a silver sky. It’s cool out and the air feels good against my skin. I pedal slow and coast, no hands.
Einstein was right. Time is only an illusion.
For just one moment, I close my eyes.