by Abby Reed Meyer
I’m 14, in the back of my parents’ Toyota Camry. My mom is driving me and a friend home from a rehearsal of Hansel and Gretel. I’d sung a timid but competent version of “Into the Woods” for my audition, was surprised to find myself with a tiny part. The three of us are quiet in the car, as the leafy trees and airless developments of our New Jersey suburb roll by.
Through the car radio speakers, “Cream” wakes us up.
"What's this song about anyway?" I ask. I know I'm being a little naughty. But the question’s genuine; I don’t know. The lyrics of other Prince songs other have been encouraging to this introverted nerd.
"You don't have to be beautiful to turn me on....
You don't have to be cool to rule my world."
"I've never seen such a pretty girl look so tough."
My mom is silent, willing the moment to pass. But my friend answers confidently, speaking as if to someone very stupid.
"Cream, get on top? Cream, you will come? Get it?”
I don't get it. It will be years before I get it.
I’m 18, 19, 20. I find a boyfriend at college. On our first nights together, we stay up ‘til dawn talking about music. We both have classical music training; mine is prim and insistent on playing the note on the page, terrified of improvisation and mistakes. But he's also a rock musician, plays bass in multiple bands. I love pop music, but he knows way more about rhythm and blues than I do. I explain that music is how I get to the divine, that there’s something holy in people creating music together. I listen to music to be gutted, knocked down, bowled over. He and I listen to music together, intently, passionately. It's an education.
Before college, I had only seen U2 at a stadium. But we take the train from our suburban college into Philadelphia to rock shows at small clubs. He goes with other friends to see Prince at a small venue, the Electric Factory, declares it the best show he’s ever been to, talks ecstatically about it. I feel sullen, left out. I steal his Prince CDs, scratch them carelessly, lose one. I get my own Prince collection at a yard sale when we move to separate cities. Someone named Dolly has scrawled her name in loopy purple cursive on each disc, which makes them seem like they’ve been blessed by Prince.
I’m 23. I move to Chicago for grad school, and some women I don’t know well are going to see Prince. I put on a leather skirt and go too. It’s a small, packed club, and I’m content to stand toward the back like usual. But they grab me and we push to the front.
Prince is shorter than I expect, but commanding, strutting, whooping, wildly alive, a few feet from us. He and his band and the audience share a throbbing pulse. He’s everywhere on the stage, switching between piano and guitar and dancing in a blur. He thrusts his pelvis facedown on top of the piano and the stage, pulls a woman from the crowd onstage to dance with him.
The show obliterates the world around me. The pounding bass drum, the wail of his guitar solos, the perfect, brave whoop of his falsetto. He brings the holy and the raw and we’re all there worshipping together.
I’m ecstatic like my boyfriend was. Afterwards, I tell everyone who will listen, it was the best show I’ve ever seen; you would not believe how sexy he is; photos and videos can't pin him down.
I’m 24. My boyfriend and I reunite. He dresses as Prince for Halloween. He wears orange fake-suede pants scavenged from a discount store, a woman's gold-colored silk blouse tied to show his taut belly. We write “Slave” in eyeliner on his cheek, tease up his hair. We marry a few years later.
I’m 28. I go to still more school, this time law school. Right before graduation I go out for drinks with friends. My husband is working late, can’t come. My friends and I get up to dance when Prince comes on.
“You like Prince?” a guy I admire says. He’s not drinking but I’ve had a few.
“I love Prince,” I say.
“I love Prince,” he replies, and I see it in him, that we share the passion, the fandom. “Too bad you’re married.”
It feels ripe, fraught. I think about it for weeks. I never see him again.
I’m 38. I get a flurry of texts and messages the day Prince dies. One of my friends suggests the news of his death may be a hoax. I'm furious and teary as it comes clear that he's really dead. How could someone more alive than anyone else, someone who exuded life and desire, be dead?
The day after Prince dies, my husband and two kids and I have to drive from Philadelphia to Boston. I pack my Prince CDs, and we set off with the kids in carseats in the back. A couple miles in I realize I left the CDs in the trunk, and we have to settle for the radio ‘til we can pull over to get them. A very pale acoustic cover of “Purple Rain” plays on the radio, and we squirm in our seats ‘til we can get the CDs out so we can hear Prince sing the real thing. We pull over at a gas station, load up the car’s CD changer with Prince CDs, like it's 1999.
Six hours up, six hours back, we listen only to Prince. We talk like we did when we were 18 and 19 about Prince, debate why his music is perfection. The falsetto, the kick drum, harmonizing with himself in distinct voices, the blazing guitar solos. He’s a gospel singer in the church of desire. “Purple Rain,” “Nothing Compares 2 U,” “I Could Never Take The Place of Your Man,” “When Doves Cry.” Yearning in its perfect musical form, all of them.
“Can we hear ‘Raspberry Beret’ again?” my four-year-old asks.
“Sure,” I say.
Some of it is raunchy and I hope it's hidden from them, like it was hidden from me. I turn it down low each time “Sexy MF” comes on, hope that the kids are engrossed enough in their books and tablets to miss the profanity.
I hear my husband sniff quietly and see him wipe his eyes. He’s crying behind his sunglasses. As he drives with his hand on my thigh, we cry together, reveling in the glory and mourning its loss, and I'm reminded again that I married the right man.
Abby Reed Meyer has written for Philadelphia Stories, Kveller, VIBE and WHYY Radio News in Philadelphia. She is at work on a novel called The Marathon, about work, motherhood and loss, which won the 17th Writer’s Digest Dear Lucky Agent Contest. She grew up in New Jersey, and lives with her husband and two children in Philadelphia. She tweets occasionally at @theabbyreed.