Posted on June 29, 2011 by


by Kyla Marshell

A still from the "Remember the Time" video

I was five, almost five, and that meant I could pierce my ears and wear nail polish. That meant starting Kindergarten, being just a little bit taller; and for me and my mother, it meant a new home. The year I was almost five is the year we moved from Boston, living with my grandparents, to Maryland; the year we set out on our own.

She owned a red Geo Prizm. I can still remember, just a little, being strapped into the car seat in the back. Then one day, I was big enough to ride in the front, the gray seats, the black interior. She had a cassette tape deck. She had Quincy Jones’ gospel version of Handel’s Messiah, which, to this day, I love and sing, all the syncopations and modulations (when I found it on the Internet, just a few months ago, I said, How chintzy this sounds, how clearly from 1991). We listened to the radio station which only played solid gold oldies. It would be years before I would hear Nirvana, before I even knew such a thing could exist.

My world then was primarily colored by Michael Jackson. This is the year Dangerous came out, late 1991, and I could feel five upon me; I hungrily eyed peel-off shades of red and pink polish, everywhere we went. My mother played the album in her car everyday—except Sunday, which was the Lord’s day. “Mommy, can we listen to Michael Jackson on the way to church?” was met with a soft but firm, Noonly gospel.

I didn’t know any of the words to any of the Michael, she says, something I may have inherited from my great-grandmother, notorious for the same offense. This is not how my memory reel rolls. I remember turning out of our apartment complex in Teagarden Circle, or driving down a dark road past a farm, a gray shack, a silo, or Saturday mornings when she was still sleeping, and “Jam,” the glass shattering in the first bar. I remember “In the Closet,” the sepia-toned video with Michael in a wife beater, wearing a ponytail, so strange to me, because he wasn’t a girl. I especially remember “Remember the Time,” the world premiere of the video, the dancers’ flattened hands and bent wrists meaning “people on the cave walls in Egypt,” the dancing, the glitter, the gold….

I don’t know how I felt about Michael’s skin lightening. About his long, silky hair, whipped, we call it now, his perfectly coifed eyebrows, his tiny, narrow nose. I remember that my clearest desire at that age, other than to wear makeup and play the piano and go ice skating, was for my mother to marry him, because I knew they both were single, and I knew, deep in the marrow, that it would bring joy to her and me and him. I was so sure they would marry. The kind of sure that can’t turn into wrong; the kind of sure that always does.

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