Editor’s Note: “Living in Spin” is a new recurring Albumism column, in which Grace Curtis taps into firsthand narratives and vivid recollections to examine the moments in life when the aural, carnal, and emotional impulses converge.
We’re in Ben’s 280Z, heading to the Wall by the Deering Estate in the rich kid part of Miami. The Wall is where everyone we know parks down by the water to show off the power of their speakers while teenaged couples make out in other cars and would-be artists spray paint their tags along the rim of the Wall near the ocean in an attempt at making the moment they are in last beyond the moment they are in.
Sign O’ the Times (1987) is in the tape deck, as it has been for weeks in his car, in my car, on the turntable at my house, and after hours at the record store where I work. After hours only, because everyone I work with is already sick of me playing this record. It’s a month after the record came out, and we have learned every word to every song. It’s Prince, so the title track is on the radio everywhere. The dance music stations are playing it, but the rock ones are too.
But we’ve moved way beyond that song. We are deep into “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” and “Strange Relationship.” I sing along with all of these songs, but with more intensity than I sing the happy songs like “Play in the Sunshine” or “Starfish and Coffee.” I am 17, and Ben is 19, and he is my boyfriend, but he’s not. He is cheating on me, but he is not, because he is actually cheating on another girl with me.
Ben is tall and Cuban, but he thinks he is just like Prince, and somehow he is. He has the wisp of a mustache over his pouty lips, the curly pompadour, and the dark, soulful, dramatic eyes that stare into me meaningfully, that allow me to imagine the depths of what he is thinking. He can dance just like Prince, and he shoots me a wicked grin after grinding his hips and spinning, because I am watching him like a true fan and he loves the adoration. When we go to Rocky Horror in Coconut Grove, he even wears a purple lace shirt he has to hide from his macho father, and if I squint my eyes just right, he could actually be Prince in brief moments.
We spend a few nights a week together. I am escaping the house where my mother had her stroke six months ago, before dying in the ICU a week later. I am escaping my father and the woman and their child, the little sister who had been a secret to me until they moved in a month after my mother died. I am escaping the known little sister I grew up with, who has been shutting herself in her room after dinner every night since my mother died. I am escaping the weight of my mother’s last words before she slipped back into the coma forever, “Take care of her.”
And sometimes I do take care of my sister, in the only way I know how, which is to bring my music home and dance with her, as we have always done, whether we’re at war with each other or getting along. And she feels Prince the way I do, so we dance to that together, silent except for singing the words while we move. She will sometimes grab me in the middle of a powerful moment in a song, and I know exactly what she means when her face wears the classic “oh my God” expression, and I nod, grinning, and we keep dancing.
Ben is the best thing in my life. But only because I have never been loved back by a boy I love before. And what he shows me is a kind of love. Not the happy love I have come to expect from listening to poppy Madonna songs that would allow me to be dressed up in it. Ben is the strange relationship that Prince lets me know is just as real, or maybe more real. When Prince sings, “Baby can I dress you? I mean help you pick out your clothes when we go out? Not that you’re helpless, but sometimes, sometimes those are the things that being in love’s about,” I understand it and know that it is true. It feels like love when Ben chooses things for me to wear, when he decides what we should do each night. It feels like love to let him decide what our relationship is, what it will be, because I want to surrender myself to him, to love.
And Ben is more than love. Ben is sex. It is sex that I think about all day in class the next day, but not the first sex I have, because he didn’t want to be my first. He broke up with me right after my mom died in October. In the breakup, he told me that he didn’t want a girlfriend who wouldn’t sleep with him, but that if he took my virginity, then I would be in love with him forever, and he didn’t want that, either. I couldn’t see past my desire for him to who he actually was, so I picked a random guy I barely knew from school and asked if he would like to take my virginity. Ben was wrong about the being in love forever thing. I barely even thought about Allen again afterwards. I waited less than a week before calling Ben to tell him I had solved the problem of my virginity, and we could get back together.
The 280Z has bucket seats in front and a tiny hard bench in the back. We have remembered the sickly sweet wine coolers, but forgotten the condoms. I don’t care. I want him now. I know I can assert the only power I have with Ben and make him forget the sensible thing to do—driving to the closest Circle K to buy a pack of rubbers. But we are here, in a good, private spot, under a banyan tree.
My bare feet are on the dashboard and my skirt falls around my thighs, showing him my tan legs and a glimpse of my turquoise panties underneath. I point my toes to the ceiling and expose more flesh and panties. “It” starts playing and I sing the words, low and husky in my throat, “I wanna do it, baby, all the time, all right. Cos when we do it girl, it’s so divine, all right.”
Ben groans as I grind in the bucket seat next to him, with the eternity of the stick shift between us. I’m not looking at him, I’m just grinning to myself and singing. I pop the tape out with the eject button that sticks if you don’t push it just right. I know that after “Starfish and Coffee” comes “Slow Love,” and that is nothing like what I’m looking for tonight. I want Side 3 for the beats, and for the way it makes me feel—sexy but longing—and I crank the volume and push the tape in hard before pulling the chrome door handle and bursting out of the car into the trees.
He chases. I run. I am giggling and singing “U Got the Look” over my shoulder at him, my bare feet getting cut on the roots and twigs, my skirt getting snagged, but I don’t care! By the time he catches me, I am out of breath and the music is almost muted by our distance from the car, except for the tinny notes of the drum machine. But that beat is enough. The first time is quick, standing against the corded strands of the closest banyan trunk still (mostly) dressed. I can’t look at him during “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” but that doesn’t stop me from kissing him slowly, inch by inch. By the time “Strange Relationship” comes on, I’m looking up at his face again, ready to face the truth of us. “I came and took your love, I took your body, I took all the self respect you ever had, I took you for a ride and baby I'm sorry, the more you love me sugar, the more it makes me mad.”
Prince’s reluctant rejection of the woman who wanted a good man in “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” reminds me that this is all temporary, that Ben has no compunction about leaving me, that I will never mean as much to him as she does, his other person. So I make this one count. I outdo my own wanton thoughts and surprise him with my fierceness. I am as free as I have ever been. I hate the slimness of the choice he offers me, but I choose this over nothing.
Automatic reverse flips the tape as we walk towards the car, our arms slung low on each other’s hips. He stops me every few feet and bends to my mouth, and kisses me long and slow. On the ride to my house he is crooning, “Until the end of time, I’ll be there for you, you own my heart and mind, I truly adore you.” I am looking out the window at the rows of pink stucco houses, at the mango and palm trees, the yucca and hibiscus we drive past. I ask him, “Which song on this album reminds you of me most?” He laughs and says, “Starfish and Coffee” because it’s so crazy like you. Which song reminds you of me?’ I don’t even think before answering, “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night.”