I was watching season four, episode one of Six Feet Under when M said:
“Whoa, you want to hear a celebrity death that will blow you away?”
“In a minute,” I said distractedly. The episode onscreen was heavy, and there were only a few minutes left. From the distance of fiction I watched Nate Fisher bury his deceased wife at the top of a mountain, and then scream into the air at the absurdity of life until the credits rolled. I turned the TV off and walked to where M sat. “Okay,” I said, “who?”
“Michael Jackson,” M said, in a tone of genuine astonishment. I stood for a moment with my hands on my hips, staring at the computer screen with my jaw slightly slackened, and then headed back for the TV.
“He’s not dead,” I said after watching NBC news for a few seconds, “he’s just in the hospital.”
“The TV news can’t say it yet because of HIPPA,” M said, “TMZ already broke the news on the Internet.”
“TMZ”, I said dismissively, and got back on the computer to search for headlines. The TV caught up with the Internet within an hour, and soon we were watching montages of Michael Jackson’s life.
I’d been indoors all day – it’s been hot in Chicago this week and I’ve been moving as little as possible, sitting in one spot like a reptile under a heat lamp, absorbing information through my eyes and ears and only rising to my feet when the occasion absolutely necessitates ambulatory movement. The combination of indoor confinement and uninterrupted television watching was making me twitchy, so I stretched my muscles and went for a run in the waning sunlight, the humidity be damned.
I left the house and started towards Horner Park. I ran slowly, but turned a bright sweaty pink anyway, even the skin between my eyelids and brows turning the color of a watermelon Jolly Rancher. When I got back M was mowing the grass, and our upstairs neighbor and her five-year-old daughter were in the yard. The little girl stared at me as I doused my face with water.
I first became aware of Michael Jackson in grade school, and my friend Anna gave me a copy of Thriller, on vinyl, for Christmas in 1982. I was eleven years old and I thought he was amazing, and – dare I say it, cute. But then I was always a sucker for non-threatening, androgynous male pop stars – I had a raging crush on David Bowie circa the Serious Moonlight tour, even though he was way too old for me; Nick Rhodes, the heavily made-up keyboardist from Duran Duran; and Prince (who I still adore). I broke the plastic seal on the LP and opened it up, revealing the soft-focus picture of Michael Jackson in the center fold, reclining in a white suit and snuggling with a couple tiger cubs. It was the era of disco bashing, and when Miriam Celedonia - one of the preppy girls, saw me carrying the album with me through the halls of I.S. 88, she said:
“That’s disco you know.”
“No it’s not!” I insisted.
This morning on the Red line I heard “don’t stop ‘till you get enough” blasting through someone’s iPod headphones, and the man sitting next to me read the front page news of Michael Jackson’s death in the Chicago Tribune, discarding the paper when he got off the train. I picked it up and brought it with me to the Alliance Française, where I had a volunteer librarian gig for a couple hours. It was a slow shift; they’re between sessions, and only a few patrons came in. On my way out I said hello to Hamid, an Algerian man who’s been working at the front desk for almost as long as I’ve been taking classes, and Frédéric, the shiny bald-headed director of the learning center. Over the years Hamid has shared bits and pieces of his life with me, and his stories have ranged from curiously funny to downright terrifying; he worked at Air France for a number of years and has traveled the world. I’ve never seen him or Frédéric dressed in anything less formal than a suit and tie, even on this Friday afternoon between class sessions.
“Si vous voulez,” I said to them, “j’ai un copie du Chicago Tribune. C’est en anglais, mais…” Frédéric took the paper from my hands and stared at the front page.
“Vous en avez déjà lu?” he asked Hamid, before commandeering it. Frédéric doesn’t speak English well, I’ve only ever communicated with him in French, and I was moved by the fact that he wanted to read the Tribune’s English language coverage.
On the train ride back home I heard “don’t stop ‘till you get enough” a second time, through someone else’s headphones. At home I logged onto facebook, where seemingly everyone’s status updates had something to do with Michael Jackson’s death. I opened a link to a video of “I’ll be there,” and listened to a sweet, pre-teen Michael Jackson sing, music coming from his original, beautiful face. I was doing all right until the line “just look over your shoulders honey,” and suddenly became a soppy, weeping mess. The video ended with the young Michael appearing in the doorway of the grown, troubled, altered-in-appearance Michael, the two of them glancing at each other briefly. I was embarrassed at how much it affected me, and dried my tears with cheap paper napkins. An actual box of facial tissue lives on top of the toilet tank, but I wanted to avoid being seen in this state by my husband, who was taking a shower.
I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes me so sad about Michael Jackson’s passing, and it’s this: he had so much promise, and he was so beautiful, and then over time he became completely unrecognizable. When he spoke his voice sounded familiar, but he looked nothing like the Michael Jackson of Thriller, or Off The Wall, or the Jackson Five, and I stopped paying attention to him because I couldn’t relate to him anymore. He was like the childhood friend who had amazing potential; maybe the one who was voted “most likely to succeed” in high school, only to end up broke, living in a squatter’s apartment and sniffing glue out of a paper bag. Only Michael Jackson’s story was sadder than that because he had it all, and nobody was able to stop him from self-destruction. The problem with achieving that kind of fame and success is that nobody ever says “no.” It’s the reason Donald Trump has ridiculous hair, it’s the reason Oprah gave cars to her studio audience and spent fifty million dollars on a single school in Africa when with the same money she could have helped so many more, and it’s the reason nobody ever told Michael Jackson not to get any more plastic surgery. I’m sad for the wasted potential, I’m sad to have watched him self-destruct over the years, and I’m sad for how unreachably strange, troubled and alienated he ultimately became. In the coming days the preparations for his funeral will undoubtedly be covered with the same unrelenting vigor as the rest of his life, and if there’s one wish I could be granted from my voyeuristic perch it’s for child stars to become, if not a thing of the past, then at least recognized for what they are – children.
My efforts to avoid detection by M were for naught, he exited the bathroom and saw me sitting at the kitchen counter, staring at the computer and holding back a new wall of tears.
“Are you sad?” He asked, and I nodded silently. I finally went into the bathroom to get some tissue and saw my reflection in the mirror, the skin between my eyelids and brows as pink as after a three mile run.