The Madonna Timeline: Song #111 – ‘Secret’ – Fall 1994

{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.}

This post has already been written. When the lead single to Madonna’s 1994 ‘Bedtime Stories’ album was released, I was at the start of my sophomore year at Brandeis. I was also about to kiss the first man I would ever kissed in my life. In others words, a whole lot of crazy shit was about to go down. As such, it’s a period that I remember more clearly than almost any other, and I’ve written about it a number of times. What follows, at least in the first portion, is the recounting of the time period that formed the backdrop to Madonna’s ‘Secret’ song.


Things haven’t been the same

Since you came into my life

You found a way to touch my soul

And I’m never, ever, ever gonna let it go

If you’ve only kissed girls all your life, the first time you kiss a man is a shock. A rough shock. Literally. My face feels like it’s being shredded by some ridiculous grade of sandpaper. He holds my head in his hands, and this will not be the only way he hurts me. For now, though, it is completely what I want.

In the afternoon light of September, in an apartment on the steep incline of some side street in Beacon Hill, I am sharing my first kiss with a man. The year is 1994 and it’s the start of my sophomore year at Brandeis University. The room is small, and comprises both the bedroom area and the kitchen. A bathroom is outside off the hall.

The sheets on the bed are white, or the lightest of gray, and he doesn’t seem to have many worldly possessions. I’ve always envied that sparse sort of set-up, and those not bound by attachments or material goods. Even in a few short weeks I manage to accumulate things, my closet over-stuffed and scarce of empty hangers. Here, just a small collection of plates and kitchen utensils dries in a wire dish rack. A lone towel hangs on the doorknob. By the window a cluster of books stands on a table.

He excuses himself to take a quick shower, and I am shocked at his simple, instant trust of me, having only met a few hours before this. Already jaded before I’ve even been hurt – or maybe there’s some sort of hurt that I can’t even remember anymore, a phantom pain from not feeling loved or protected – my suspicion lies hidden like a dagger, hidden but always present, ever-ready to strike, to slash, to slay.

He returns wearing only a white towel, and in the light of the bed my summer-tanned body lies atop of his, the cool bright sheets blocking the slight breeze from the half-cracked window. I wonder what the other people on the street are doing in their apartments on this afternoon.

My face and lips feel raw after sliding against his stubble. It tickles and stings and troubles in a dangerous, intoxicating way. He admires me like no one has ever done before, but I’m still uncomfortable as he watches me pull my pants on. It seems odd to just leave, but he mentioned something about his shift, and it’s even stranger to think of staying, so I depart after leaving my phone number.



Happiness lies in your own hand

It took me much too long

To understand how it could be

Until you shared your secret with me


Something’s comin’ over

Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over

Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over me

My baby’s got a secret

I step out of the stale smell of the old brownstone row, and back on the street I look up to his window. He is there smiling and waving. I wave back and walk down to the bottom of Hancock Street. Across the way is the site of a former Holiday Inn that my mother once stayed in with me and my brother. We saw E.T. in the movie theater there that no longer exists. Part of me still feels like that little boy, but as I board the train I catch my reflection, and, aside from the backpack, it is the visage of a young man.

How to explain the heady giddiness of my heart in those early days of fall? Every phone call with him carried me further away from the campus, away from the silly dorm antics, the childish college pranks. I wanted no part of that carefree fun, looking down on my fellow school-mates and disconnecting from that world irrevocably, in a way that risked future regret and silly behavior long past the point when it should have been out of my system. I was far too serious for my own good, thinking I was setting up my life for happiness at some time far in the future, putting off a good time in the moment and mistakenly eyeing what was to come, what was always ahead. I gave it away for him, as I would do for countless others, but in the beautiful light of that flaming September there was nothing else I could have done.

Somewhere there is an old 35-mm photograph of me, taken while I was on the phone with him, showing a rare unguarded moment where the camera was set up just as he called, the sun was setting, and my face betrayed not happiness, but worry. High in Usen Castle, in our semi-circular dorm room on the top floor, I sat on the bed talking to him. He was squeezing in a conversation just before his shift started at the hotel restaurant, from a pay phone no less, back when there were still pay phones around. He must care, I thought.

Every place he moved through held meaning for me. Across the street from the fancy hotel at which he worked was a park. An unlikely oasis in the midst of downtown Boston, it was quiet there, and workers in business suits and sneakers sat on benches reading books. I spent a lot of time in that park. Even when we weren’t meeting, I sat there, reading or writing or just watching the few people who meandered along its walkways.

Sometimes we did meet, for dessert or dinner, and there was a night when we kissed in the shadows of the Southwest Corridor, before the condo was even a glimmer in my eye.

In his apartment, we spent most of the time in bed. The flickering light from a tiny television glowed on the stark white walls. Night air drifted in from the window, along with some muffled shouts and street noise. I asked him how you could tell if you were truly in love with someone. He told me he once heard it said that if you were really in love with someone, you could envision spending the rest of your life in a tent with them and be perfectly content, never wanting for anything more, and never wanting to leave.

Sometimes I tell people that I could envision the two of us doing just that – other times I express doubt that anyone could be happy in such a situation. I never tell it the same way twice because I still don’t know how I feel about it. How could someone who was capable of being so hurtful possibly know anything about love? I trusted in his years of experience, putting a blind faith in simple human decency, only I never let him know. In my silence was acquiescence and the assumed aloofness that would destroy so many chances. I did not know that then – sometimes I don’t know it now.

You know when you’re not supposed to be with someone. It starts with a pang so small you’re not really sure that the doubt is real, but as the days and weeks pass, the pang becomes a full-fledged throbbing, and every moment you’re with them threatens to suffocate with its worry. When it happens for the first few times, you do not yet have the sensitivity to feel it coming, nor fully experience the hurt it leaves. At least for me, this was the case. I liken it to the first time you’re really hung over. You swallow and swallow as the saliva mounts in your mouth, and you know you don’t feel right but you still don’t know how not right, so you trudge along to work or school and from sheer ignorance or refusal, you do not stop to vomit and end it all quickly.

When his calls stopped and the lingering light and warmth of fall gave way to the harsh chill of October and November, I didn’t know enough to feel the pain of having such affection withdrawn. I also didn’t know how to cling or hang onto someone, to emotionally obsess and hold onto something that was already dead. This may have been what saved me – my ignorance of how to feel that pain, how to access that hurt. It would be the last time I didn’t know.

My parents invite me along for a weekend in Chatham, MA and I gratefully accept. In the air is the misbegotten notion that he might miss me, when my absence would only bring relief at the most, if it registered at all.

The weekend is gray and cold. There is no going back to any hope of Indian summer throwback days – we are too far gone. The first thing I do as my parents settle into the room is to walk to the forlorn, empty beach. It is dark and windy, and the town and beach are deserted. Wind whips wildly around in a savage attack, sparing no bit of shelter or respite. I pull my coat closer around me. In the sky is the promise of an imminent storm, but I don’t care. Dark clouds threaten, the cruel wind stings, and as I arrive at the beach, the sand and salt water shoot stinging pin-pricks into any exposed skin.

Part of me wants to walk into the ocean, numb myself with its cold, be helplessly drawn out with the undertow, and let come what may. What else could a thinking person want on such a dismal, gray day, in such a dismal, sad world? Of course I don’t, deliberately walking up and down the shore instead, dodging the tide and peering behind at footprints that will come to nothing. The weekend passes in a sad blur. I return to Boston alone, and think over the previous weeks.

To this day, I can point out which bench I was sitting on when we first spoke. I want to pretend it doesn’t have that power, that it no longer matters, but the memory won’t let me. It comes back, haunting and pulling me out of whatever momentary happiness I have found. I always return to that moment, and it always starts up again…


You gave me back the paradise
That I thought I lost for good
You helped me find the reasons why
It took me by surprise that you understood

You knew all along
What I never wanted to say
Until I learned to love myself
I was never ever lovin’ anybody else

Happiness lies in your own hand
It took me much too long
To understand how it could be
Until you shared your secret with me

Something’s comin’ over
Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over
Mmm, mmm, something’s comin’ over me
My baby’s got a secret

In Copley Square, before the rising spires of Trinity Church, there are just a few benches that face each other. I pass them first, and then pass him. His eyes, sparkling and blue, glitter in the September sun, and I can’t do anything but stare into them. And so I turn around and settle on one of those benches, pulling out the book I’m reading, ‘The House of Mirth’ by Edith Wharton.

I was not meant to be in Boston today. I was supposed to be at a school newspaper meeting at Brandeis, but halfway through it I knew I would never like being told what I had to write. I snuck out as they were touring their make-shift office space and got on the commuter rail to the city.

It is a beautiful September day – a little on the warm side but when faced with what is to come, quite welcome. For some reason the city seems quieter, and despite the recent influx of college kids, less crowded. Maybe it’s because I can only focus on him.

I read the same page about three times before I acknowledge him sitting on the bench before me, and he is the one who speaks first. It would always be the other guy who speaks first because I will always be too afraid.

He asks if I want to walk with him, and I nod. We turn toward the river. I had never been this way before, and if there’s one thing that makes an indelible impression and memory, it’s discovering some new part of a city you thought you always knew. We must have meandered along the Esplanade, past the Hatch Shell, in the dappled light of the changing trees. I remember the walk, but it is dim and vague, and the only thing I could focus on at the time was him. We are going back to his place, and while I had never done anything like this before, somehow I knew what to do, what I had to do.


At the tender age of nineteen, how could I have been so sure? This was before the ubiquity of the Internet, before ‘Will & Grace’, before Ellen. No one had ever told me it was okay. He was no exception. He told me nothing. To all my questions, he gave out no answers, at one point snapping viciously that he didn’t want anything to do with “this education crap”. That no one had helped him to come out, and he was not about to help anyone else figure it out. But all this had yet to come.

There is no use recounting in detail how our weeks together passed. He was callous and cruel in ways that cut me deeper since it was my first time, and because of that it would take years to thaw the icy boundaries I erected to deal with it. The bigger person I sometimes try to be wants to absolve him of his guilt, but I can’t forgive him for how he treated me.

I am now almost the same age he was when he met me, and I still can’t fathom treating another person like that. At first I thought I might, when I reached this age, but it’s not an age issue. My introduction to the gay world was a cold, cutting, every-man-for-himself attitude that should never have been. There were other atrocities too, darker things that I will never put into words, but I’ve written enough about him already, and it’s not fair to post just one side of the affair – God knows I’ve never been an angel. For now, I am done, and the story ends here.

I wish I could say that it didn’t affect me, and that I was mature and knowledgeable enough to chalk it up to an isolated individual, but I can’t. Even if was just one bad seed, it happened to be the seed I tasted. You can’t get rid of that so easily, no matter how intellectually you understand it shouldn’t matter.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

That was all I wrote about him for some time, until I revisited the scene of that fall in these posts. Some kisses changes your life. That was one of them. There was no going back. I had a few more entanglements with women, but my heart had to admit that I was gay, even if I couldn’t express it. I was so young then, so alone, and it was a secret that I couldn’t share. Not at that time. Instead, with a mixture of shame and heartache, I went through it all by myself. I don’t have many regrets, but that may be one of them – not so much that I did it all on my own, but that I felt I had to.

To carry a secret like that can be very damaging. Secrets are by their nature insidious, and one secret always begets another. It would take me a few years before I could come out, and even then some people still wanted me to keep it quiet. When it’s your own family, that hurts a little bit more.

Enter the woman who had just taken the critical and popular beating of her lifetime: Madonna, in the aftermath of the ‘Sex’ book and ‘Erotica’ album. She had fallen from her lofty perch and faced derision and vile press. Rather than hide away, she did what she had always done best, and released a fantastic album. A mid-tempo acoustic guitar-strummer, ‘Secret’ brought her back near the top of the charts, and is a song about finding the happiness within yourself. For Madonna, ‘Secret’ restored her to herself. The ‘Bedtime Stories’ album got pretty good reviews, and the next single would bring her back to number one with a bullet. She found her way back from a very dark place, and that was the lesson I took from the proceedings.

So heavily-laden is the song with the affiliated time period, I can’t enjoy ‘Secret’ on its own musical merit, no matter how great a song it is. Yet as the years pass, the feeling I get isn’t bitterness or anger or sadness – it’s more of a downtrodden ennui. It makes me exhausted, so I don’t often dwell on it. It exists as a talisman of a time that was powerful and necessary, but one that doesn’t have a place in my current world. I had to go through there to get here, but it’s nowhere I’d like to visit again.

It took me much too long to understand how it could be…

SONG #111 – ‘SECRET’ – FALL 1994

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