What It Is

By Heather McClean


It’s my mother coming home with the Purple Rain album and learning exactly where to place the needle on the record to hear "When Doves Cry." It’s us dancing around the house on Saturday mornings in pajamas, the constant quiet of our lives broken up just long enough for me to understand the world is different and bigger than I’ve realized. It isn’t every Saturday, just the ones when she had a good week, when she wasn’t sad or worried or frustrated or feeling lonely. She laughs and grabs my hand and spins me around. I spend most of my days inventing ways to make her happy so I can hear that laugh, but when his music plays, I don’t have to do anything at all but be there and revel in her joy.

It’s Diamonds and Pearls on my headphones on the school bus as I stare at the back of C’s head. He’s a skinny, curly haired, light-skinned guitar-playing enigma, a younger version of the voice singing in my ears about a type of love I can only imagine. C is nice to me, probably because he was raised in a good household, but I try to believe it’s because he actually likes me likes me, not because his mother tells him to be kind to chubby dark-skinned girls with braces who stare at him as though he’s surrounded by magic. I spend the whole bus ride listening to the song over and over while I make up scenarios of how we would ever get together. When the batteries of my CD player run out, I fanaticize about us doing duets—him playing his guitar while I belt out the songs he would write just for me. The ones other girls would sing while they waited for their lives to start.

It’s getting dressed to go out with my friends in college while we get drunk on cheap liquor—Boones Farm Strawberry Hill or Cook’s “champagne” if we were feeling particularly grown up. "Sexy MF" and "Gett Off" are on repeat to give us courage as we plot the night: where to go first, who to try to hook up with, who to avoid. It’s tight jeans and Doc Martens or that one long red skirt with the yellow flowers and the drawstring that has bells at the end. It’s hope and wonder and freedom as we talk about 23 positions in a one night stand, even when we (I) have no idea about one position let alone the 22 others. It’s wanting to be the girl boys would call after, but only if I say they can. It’s coming home by myself knowing that on my lovely campus where I am surrounded by acres and acres of beauty—buildings and gardens and people—I am not the beautiful those boys are looking for. I wash off all the makeup that had looked so right but now looks like I was trying too hard. 7 is playing in the background telling me not to cry. One day I’ll smoke them all and no one will ever compare. I don’t know how this is possible or even if that’s what the song is about, but it doesn’t matter. It helps.

It’s breaking up with the man I thought was the reward for all the others going wrong. I argue over the lyrics to "Nothing Compares 2 U" in the car with my oldest friend as we blast it on our way to the club she’s taking me to as a distraction. My heartache is in his voice each time it breaks on the “…to you…” and I want to believe Rosie Gaines is saying, “try to have fun no matter what you do/he loves you” but my friend tells me it’s “he’s a fool.” Her version makes me sad, which is why I think it must be true.

It’s feeling silly but totally justified for your heart stopping and your throat closing when you learn someone you never met is dead. Especially when you have enough people who are dead or dying whom you actually know so you really don’t have room to be sad for anyone else. But you come out of a meeting in your high heels and your fancy suit and you check your messages and see, “Girl. Prince. I can’t.” from your best friend, the one from your days of Boones and hope and excitement. You sink into a chair trying not to cry in front of your work colleagues, because you have cultivated the persona of one who doesn’t care about much. In the bathroom you hold a tissue under your eyes so the mascara doesn’t run. You text your fiancé one word: PRINCE and he calls immediately saying, “I wanted to be the one to tell you. Are you okay?” Those words make you realize you have somehow managed to get what you always wanted despite everything else. Despite the wishing and the longing and the sadness, you have come to a place where those things are still there but they are not the only things. You think that maybe all that time you spent singing in the mirror and dancing around the house and falling asleep to his lyrics fortified you in ways you hadn’t realized. Maybe you built who you’ve become on a phrase here, a message there, the ones that you were singing without knowing what they meant, but somehow knew were important. Maybe seeing the women in his videos or his quiet confidence in the face of everything seeped in somehow. You think this all in the short minute it takes to scroll through your music and find his songs. As the titles slide by, you remember the comfort found in each one. They saved you when nothing else could many times, coaching and helping and sustaining you as you moved forward and reinvented yourself time and again. You hope for anything other than this truth about the man who let you dream of a life you didn’t even know you wanted. You try to understand how this is happening. You look for solace and meaning. But for the first time there’s nothing. He didn’t prepare you for this. You’re on your own.

Heather McClean is a lawyer and writer living in Chicago who recently received a Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Chicago Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies. She was the 2014 recipient of the Graham School’s Student Writing Prize. Currently, she is working on a series of linked short stories. Her first story, “Before Then Now,” was published on Chicago Literati in September 2015.