The Madonna Timeline: Song #40 – ‘You Must Love Me’ – Fall 1996

{Note: The Madonna Timeline is an ongoing feature, where I put the iPod on shuffle, and write a little anecdote on whatever was going on in my life when that Madonna song was released and/or came to prominence in my mind.}

Where do we go from here?
This isn’t where we intended to be.
We had it all – you believed in me.
I believed in you.

I don’t remember the first time I saw him. Is that strange? For someone who supposedly meant so much to me, I don’t recall the first time we were in the same room together. It must have been in the Literary Criticism class that we were both taking – my final requirement for an English degree from Brandeis University. I had tumbled off the commuter rail a bit later than anticipated, and had to rush up all the hills and steps before making it to the humanities building. In a sleeveless gray shirt and tattered jeans, I didn’t care how I looked when the weather still clung to August. I was decidedly not dressed to impress, not that first day. (It was a bit of an anomaly, as every day thereafter I would wear a different outfit, as impressive as I could muster, for the remainder of the semester.)

Sitting here racking my brain for our first moment of interaction, I still cannot come up with anything. In a way it makes sense, I never shit where I eat – so when on campus I was never looking for love, or even open to any bit of flirtation. It was probably what got me through college. I saved my obsessions for city folk, for unattainable real estate agents, would-be actor-waiters or gone-in-a-flash T-riders. At school, I was all business, and that Literary Criticism course was the last one I would have to take seriously.

The summer lingered on a bit. I always forgot how hot the start of the Fall semester could be. Above, the sun hovered, slowly traversing the sky over the duration of those September days. There were blue skies then – the gray of November was a distant impossibility.

The first bit of interaction with him that I can recall was a simple exchanging of glances in a second floor hallway. I was sitting on a couch waiting for my next class to begin, and he was headed in the other direction. My eyes followed and caught him turning around as he went down the stairs. From that moment onward I noticed him. He was usually smiling or laughing, entertaining a giggling gaggle of girls, and across the room in our literature class he occasionally smiled at me, raising his eyebrows in question or acknowledgment or invitation.

Certainties disappear,
What do we do for our dream to survive?
How do we keep all our passions alive,
As we used to do?

Dappled sunlight beneath a fiery grove of maple trees. A Nathaniel Hawthorne day in New England. The smell of warm leaves, the whisper of copper-colored pine needles. He sat on a rock, thumbing through a notebook. I stopped and said hello. I mentioned his Structure sweater, explaining that I worked there and could spot them a mile away. He told me he liked them, but all his sweaters ended up unraveling at the end of the sleeve – “something I must be doing with my hand” – and I let the entendre go by without a wink or a saucy word. My nervousness rendered me quiet and submissive around him – an incongruity to what made me fun to be around, and perhaps the fatal flaw in my ultimately winning over those who most impressed me. I left him there, beneath the trees, amused at my own “discombobulation” as Suzie would call it, and wondering at what was going through his head.

A few days later, we got our first set of papers back. After a stern lecture on how this first batch had disappointed him, and how they weren’t at the level we should be at, the professor gave a lovely build-up to what I assumed was a disastrous grade. He went on to say, in one of those dastardly frightening professor moments, that he would leave them on the table and then leave the room, as he didn’t want to see the looks on our faces when we saw the grades. (Still a bit lighter than the sign next to one professor’s office hours that read, “Professional Slaughtering”.)

There was a mad rush for the papers, but I didn’t bother. No sense is hastening the arrival of bad news. I slowly got up and saw my name, but couldn’t quite get to it. He then reached over the other students to grab my paper along with his, and handed it to me. I think I fell in love with him at that moment. That he knew my name, that he struggled against the others to find mine, or that I got a ‘B+’ – I don’t know what made me feel happier. Who can say why we fall when we do?

We continued to see each other around campus – he would always seem to be where and whenever I least expected him, and I was continually caught off guard – the way my whole experience with him threw me off guard. And I couldn’t entirely be fabricating that there was something on his end too, could I? Certainly, I had lived out further-fetched fantasies of love and affection before him (wait until ‘You’ll See’ hits the timeline), was this just another etching solely in my mind?

At work, I confided to my manager who said I should just ask him out. I balked at the idea. I couldn’t, and that would never be my style. Even if I could, what would I say? “Do you want to go out sometime?” I would feel ridiculous. I was too shy for that. I liked to play it off as aloof and nonchalant, but it was simply me being shy, and an acutely killing form of shyness that I was nowhere near ready to combat at that moment.

Deep in my heart I’m concealing
Things that I’m longing to say
Scared to confess what I’m feeling
Frightened you’ll slip away,
You must love me,
You must love me.

A few days later, I thought I might be ready. In the cafeteria of Usdan Center, I saw him arrive at his lunch table. He was alone. My heart was pounding. I picked up the nearby pay phone (yes, there were such things back then) and dialed my store manager and friend John for one last bit of encouragement. He told me to just do it. Thanks, Nike. But it was enough. I marched quickly over to his table, and in what can only be the quickest blurting out of a pathetic pick-up line, said, “I was just wondering if you wanted to hang out sometime.” He smiled and said sure, he’d like to, and he gave me his phone number. It would be one of the only times in my entire life that I asked a guy out.

That was it. I smiled, said hello to the friend who had just joined him, and then said goodbye. If only we could have left it there – when there was nothing but possibility ahead. If only I could have kept it all in my head, living on the remote chance of all the what-ifs my racing brain could giddily conjure. If only… I hadn’t been so lonely. But I couldn’t see that then. All I knew was that he said yes.

I almost danced out of the student center, taking steps two at a time, bouncing off the walls in gleeful celebration. The boy I liked said yes! He said yes! And I was off – literally, figuratively, mentally, you name it – off on a thrilling one-man race that had but one inevitably sad destination. I did not know that yet, and for all the happiness and hope I felt, there was the one nagging worry – what if he didn’t like me the way I liked him? I put my faith in Madonna, and her latest Vanity Fair cover story, where she quoted from The Alchemist:

If you want something bad enough, the whole world conspires to help you get it.

How I wished and prayed that was the case. How my heart yearned for it to be true. There was another quote that haunted me from that Madonna article though, and they were her words directly. It stayed in the back of my mind no matter how hard I tried to dislodge it:

Power is being told you are not loved, and not being destroyed by it.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

We shared a few late-night phone talks. I was in my bedroom in Boston – lying in bed looking up at the ceiling, then sitting on the cool hardwood floor, staring out the window, then back beneath the covers – warmed by his words, enthralled by his high school stories, and touched by the recitation of some of his writing. Maybe that was the moment I fell in love with him. This once-overweight kid, out of place, hurt by his family – my heart ached for him and his childhood, and for the fact that I could easily have been one of his torturers. (That’s just the kind of mean kid I was.) I wanted to hold him and make it all better. A surprise to myself, this fierce shard of protective instinct, this desire to shield him from the worries of the world, when so often I assumed it was me who needed to be protected.

We talked of silly and frivolous matters too, Broadway musicals and Madonna, and I ended up giving him a copy of Madonna’s latest single, ‘You Must Love Me’, hoping he would read into it all that I intended. There was shared laughter over the phone, and once there was a crash and he admitted he had fallen off the chair. It didn’t necessarily mean anything – all college kids are prone to romantic delusions during late-night phone conversations. The deciding moments would be determined during the day.

He sat next to me when we had class again. It was jarring, and strange, since most of us didn’t shift our seats much – not from one side of the room to the other – yet it was intoxicating to be so singled-out. As uncomfortable as I felt, as much as I was sure that all eyes were on us (and as sure as I am today that they were not), it was another little gesture that stirred the dormant heart.

Being close to him left me dizzy with nerves, erasing my wit and replacing it with a silence that could only be read as disinterest, or, worse, haughty superiority. Yet I couldn’t be myself around him, not with so much at stake. I couldn’t believe that I was someone to be loved, even if it was all I wanted him to see.

Why are you at my side?
How can I be any use to you now?
Give me a chance and I’ll let you see how
Nothing has changed.

I think we shared a book in our next class together, and it was easier being near him. Maybe we wrote a few quick words to one another, as if we were two silly kids in high school, sharing a secret moment of fun amid the criticism of Kant. On one of our phone talks I asked him if he wanted to attend ‘Master Class’ with me – I had just gotten two tickets. Suzie and Anu were coming into town for the weekend, and if he couldn’t make it, I reasoned, I could go with one of them. He accepted, and we agreed to meet up at Copley, have dinner with the girls, then go to the show. It would be, unsaid and unacknowledged, our first official date.

I wore a red velvet vest, and I greeted him as he rode up on the escalator. We walked quickly over the glossy stone floor of Copley Place – me pushing us faster so we wouldn’t be late. I was too nervous to talk much, and the rest of the evening those nerves wreaked uncomfortable havoc with any of us having a particularly good time. After the show, I walked him to his car. We paused in front of 500 Boylston, and he said it was one of his favorite buildings in Boston.

I looked back at the Courtyard in front of the building. It suddenly felt cold. And then it was over. We either hugged or shook hands as we said goodbye, but we did not kiss, and somehow, as I walked home alone, I knew. We would never kiss.

I left a series of phone messages the next few days, and he didn’t call back. Yet I didn’t give up. Oh boy, did I not give up.

You must love me…

There I was, trying desperately to turn this treacly little love song from a command to a realization, and failing at every turn. Who knows why we fall in love? Maybe it’s the turn of someone’s step, or the little smile that seeing you elicits, or maybe the simple act of grabbing the paper you couldn’t reach – of seeking out your name, or just knowing it. A midnight phone conversation that you don’t want to end, and when it finally is over the inability to sleep for all that hope and happiness. What do you do with that? And what if it meant more to you than it ever would to him?

Like most of the major mistakes I made in life, my honesty was to blame for setting me up for the most embarrassing form of getting rejected I could have ever crafted. I couldn’t be left in the dark, not knowing whether he felt the same, or if he wanted to go out again, and I just had to know. I did what I would do time and time again, with equally disastrous results: I wrote him a letter. (God only knows what that says about my writing ability.) Laying it all on the line, my feelings about what I thought we could have together, how much I liked him already, and all the things you are never, ever supposed to tell another person until the day after your wedding, I wrote down everything. I did everything ‘The Rules’ said not to do. I even gave him an easy out (well, easy for him). I said that if he didn’t feel the same way about me, to simply not sit next to me in class the next day. [Pause for reasonable absorption of The Worst Idea in the World, culled from the annals of teenage nonsense.] So certain was I that he liked me too, it never occurred to me what I might feel or do if he declined. That wasn’t a possibility in my mind, that wasn’t an option.

I gave him the letter the next time we met, along with a mix tape (it was still the 90’s, and I was apparently still trying to live the teenage dream), and then it was up to him. When our next class rolled around I was a nervous mess, and rightfully so. No matter how it ended up, it would be awkward – whether sweetly or disastrously so, it would be awkward. A tinge of regret already loomed over the overcast morning.

I still remember the shirt I wore that day – a loose black Nehru-collared number with grommets that laced up the top half. Part peasant, part pirate, part tragic historical figure – I loved that shirt. And I would never wear it again.

Sitting down in class, I took a deep breath and waited. Students started coming in, taking their seats, and I took out a book to appear busy and uninterested in whatever the outcome might be. On a blank page, I started writing – well, drawing – fake lines of non-existent words, intended to look like writing – anything to distract. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him walk into the room with one or two other classmates. He crossed to the other side of the room to his old seat. The one beside me remained empty.

I looked up, pretending to notice him for the first time. He gave a faint smile and a conciliatory shrug. Smiling my own “that’s that” type of smile, I looked down and pretended to be engrossed in my notebook. I began writing so I wouldn’t have to see him again, and this time words came out. Simple words of simple instruction that I implored, willed, forced my physical being to focus on and accomplish.

He did not sit next to me. He did not sit next to me and I will have to get up and walk out of this room when the class is over.”

It was a tiny act of survival, and the written words made it both real and palpable, designing a way of dealing with the situation I created, starting with the simple act of standing up and walking. When the interminable hour was up, I hurried out of class, not looking back. I made it down the steps of the building before he caught up to me.

He was kind. Most of the men I’ve liked have, in their way, been kind. He explained that he felt like I was running, going too fast, and he just wasn’t ready. It was as good an excuse as any, surely better than, “I just don’t like you that way”, even if the latter may have been more honest, and heartbreaking. Blame the intensity, blame my neuroses – just don’t let it be something intrinsic to my being, don’t let it be… me. Even if it was.

Before we separated, he said he liked my shirt, and that it was his favorite so far. I thanked him for that. If I had nothing else to offer the world, I would always have style. It was a sad recompense.

I did not cry. I would never cry in front of him. I would save it until I made it to the very edge of campus, ducking into a small building and finding an empty bathroom, then letting it all out in heaves and gasps. No one noticed my red and swollen eyes on the commuter rail. I slumped into the window, watching but not seeing the barren landscape rushing by. This was the Fall. We were well into November, and in a few days I would board the ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ plane bound for San Diego and a family wedding, at which I would come out to my brother as a gay man and tell the sad tale of this recent heartbreak to little if any consolation.

Deep in my heart I’m concealing
Things that I’m longing to say
Scared to confess what I’m feeling
Frightened you’ll slip away,
You must love me,
You must love me.

Back from California, there were just a few more class days left of my last semester at Brandeis. Having spurred my coming out to my brother, my grief then prompted me to tell the story to my friend Danielle. We walked along toward the bottom of campus on a cold December day – and I simply said I loved someone and he didn’t love me back. I still remember our hug at the end of that walk, and how soft her hair felt. I wondered if those hugs could be enough to sustain someone throughout life, or if they were only there to catch us when we fell out of love.

Near the end of the month, with the semester finished, and my final papers completed and submitted, I was standing near the ATM when he came around the corner. Though the afternoon was young, the light had gone, and in the dim shadows of an early dusk we said a quick hello, and then it was done. My time at Brandeis was over. My memories of him, once emblazoned upon my heart and head, would only fade, lacking nourishment, first from him and then, months, maybe a year later, from me.

But at the end of 1996 I only had Madonna to snap me out of it. She triumphantly returned with her star-turn in ‘Evita’, attending the premiere in this gorgeous Galliano ensemble (he was okay then), and for me it was a welcome distraction to the tumultuous turbulence of an insatiable heart.

In the darkness of that December, I made the determination to never be ignored. No matter what it took, no matter how outlandish I ended up, I would make myself into the brightest ball on the fucking Christmas tree. If he couldn’t see that, if he couldn’t realize how wonderful it could be, how wonderful I could be, then I would make the rest of the world see it and know, and when they were all pointing at me, when they were all whispering, and his was the last head that turned to look, I wouldn’t even care.

There was rage, there was want, there was hurt and pain and tears like I’d never shed before. All for a boy – a silly boy who didn’t sit next to me in class.

If anything, I learned a lot from that last semester. I learned that those games were played for a reason. I learned the unattractiveness of wanting something so badly. And I learned to hold back, to hesitate, to hold my heart in check. I learned to not feel, to harden myself off to people. It was a reluctant lesson, one that I fought against until I could not fight anymore. And it was, I am foolishly happy to report, something I would forget when the next cute boy showed me the least bit of interest. My heart would not be tamed so easily, even if my head knew better.

Years later, I would wonder at the craziness of my behavior at the time, at the strange fixation I had on someone I hardly knew. I would wonder whatever came of all the intense, seemingly-insurmountable feelings I harbored for this man. On the few surreal moments where we randomly encountered one another in later years (the first being a Madonna concert) the magic and enchantment that once held sway over me in regards to him had dissipated, not even the merest wisp of longing or desire remained. In its place was a strange sort of war-torn affection, a feeling that we had been through something important together, and a realization that it was mostly one-sided. I would always wonder what, if any, effect I had on him, if he remembered me fondly, if he remembered me at all. And after all the time that had passed, and the way our lives had gone, all I seemed able to muster was a befuddled amusement at the whole thing, a sheepish bit of foolish pride in how ridiculous I once acted, and the reluctant admission that I would do it all again if given the chance.

Post Script: Both the-boy-that-got-away and I ended up getting married – to different, and wonderful, men. I remained in sporadic touch with him, at strange and fortuitously key moments in our lives, but that’s a story for ‘Celebration’. (And rest assured it has a much happier ending.)

You must love me.

Song #40: ‘You Must Love Me’ – Fall 1996

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