The Madonna Timeline: Song #48 ~ You’ll See ~ Late Fall 1995


{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.}

A castle turret, high above the campus of Brandeis University. The lights of Boston glow far off in the distance. A cold wind blows, deep into the Fall. The window stands open, and a young man walks precariously along the ledge. The burning remnants of a letter leave his hand, swirled into the wind, lighting up the night and disappearing into ash. An act of defiance, of empowerment, of having no other choice. Then the tears fall, the countenance crumbles, and a crushed boy still stands on a ledge in the night wind. He thinks of dropping to his death – he will not deny it. But there is strength to be found in the most trifling pop song – and a legend-still-in-the-making for its singer – and perhaps even its listener.

You think that I can’t live without your love,
You’ll see.
You think I can’t go on another day.
You think I have nothing without you by my side…
You’ll see – somehow, some way…

This is one of those special Madonna songs ~ the ones that coincide perfectly with a life experience ~ and it is, for me, in my top-ten ~ if only for sheer emotional resonance. It joins the pantheon of watershed Madonna moments.

In the Fall of 1995, ‘You’ll See’ was Madonna’s hit from her ‘Something to Remember’ collection of ballads. I was living in a single dorm room at the top of Usen Castle at Brandeis. While I loved it for its rustic charm, and the fact that it was a single (no more room-mate), the shower situation was, quite possibly, the worst I have ever experienced in my life. It was down a flight of cement stairs (super fun in the winter), and so dimly lit that you almost couldn’t use it at night. It was also the smallest shower I’ve ever seen, so tiny that it was a task to simply turn around in it.

Luckily, Boston beckoned, and I wouldn’t have to put up with campus castle-living for much longer. I was about to find a place right between Copley and the South End, which at that time was on the verge of blooming into the unaffordable family-friendly bourgeois battlefield it is today. At that time, it had not yet turned, but Braddock Park looked to be a safe bet, and I convinced my parents to purchase the place.

There was a romantic aspect to the city, in its seductive cobblestone paths and magical tree-lined history, and it was almost enough for me to simply look out at the lofty height of the John Hancock Tower as its windows twinkled in the night sky. In those early days the condo was all but empty. I slept on a thin, smaller-than-single-sized mattress from an old cot, not even supported by a frame. A fringed accent lamp sat on the floor, barely illuminating the bedroom at night. In the kitchen, I stood by the counter when eating a bagel, or drinking from the lone carton of orange juice in the fridge. There wasn’t even a couch or chair in which to sit, but I loved it. Copley was at my doorstep and the whole South End was my backyard. Yet in spite of all that was out there, I remained alone. I had no one with whom to explore the new restaurants, or go grocery shopping, or simply walk the quaint side-streets lined with brownstones. At the end of every night, there was silence, inadequately filled with the static-tinged radio of an old alarm clock.

You see, far more than a place in Boston, I wanted a boyfriend ~ someone to share my life with ~ to be there for all the moments in life, most especially the simple ones. The thought of going to bed while someone else showered or read filled me with longing. It wasn’t the passion or the excitement of love that I was after ~ it was the companionship, the camaraderie, the feeling and security of simply having another trusted person who loved you as you loved them. For all my drama, for all my emotional mayhem, all I wanted was a partner. I wanted the shared quiet, the down-time. I wanted the simple act of existing beside another, with no need for words or fancy outfits, no desire to act out or put on a show. Yet despite the simplicity and earnestness of my hope, I didn’t know how to manifest it ~ and so it turned into desperation, and a penchant for obsession and misplaced (and largely unwanted) affection.

Enter unwitting object of desire. He would be, if things went my way, the third man I ever kissed in my life. But at the start he was just our real estate agent. Yes, I fell for my real estate agent. Let me know when you’re done rolling your eyes and unfurrowing your brow. I couldn’t help it. I fell for his seductive real estate sales pitch and his occasionally-physical sensitive-frat-guy hand-on-the-shoulder moves. I didn’t do the physical stuff ~ I enjoyed a healthy five-feet of personal space around me at all times ~ but when he did it I didn’t mind.

Before we ever looked at Braddock Park, he took me around to visit a few different properties, the first within minutes of meeting him. It was across the street from his office, and the day was bright after a run of rain. The yellow leaves of a maple tree were lit brilliantly against a suddenly deep blue sky. The stained glass window of a former church loomed above us. He let us into the building and we climbed to the second floor. On the clay-colored brick wall of the kitchen a small bouquet of dried and desiccated flowers hung sadly on a nail. All these years later, that image has stayed with me.

He showed me the other places later, both at night. There was something secretive-seeming about going into these empty places, switching on lights and walking across barren rooms that echoed with our footfalls. He offered his ideas on how to improve the space, what might be done with the floors ~ everything a live-in-boyfriend would suggest ~ or a savvy real estate agent.

The first man I ever kissed had dumped me before I even realized we were going out. The second man I kissed I dumped before he even had the chance. The third man ~ this man ~ seduced with a smile, endeared with a twinkle in his eye, and revealed just enough vulnerability and compassion to snag me with all sorts of messy emotions. It didn’t matter that he was only trying to sell me a property, or that he had given me no indication of romantic interest other than the occasional wink (which is always tricky to read) I pinned my sights and dreams on him, and conjured a blissful future all within my mind.

In his defense, he made it very clear where we stood and ~ this is important ~ I never asked him out. I didn’t ask if he was interested, I didn’t ask if he wanted to grab a drink or coffee, I didn’t ask anything. I hinted, I strongly hinted, but that was all. There was nothing between us other than the sale of a condo.

You think that I can never laugh again,
You’ll see.
You think that you’ve destroyed my faith in love.
You think after all you’ve done,
I’ll never find my way back home,
You’ll see – somehow, some day…

The fault was within, the fault was all mine. That didn’t make me want him less. It didn’t erase the need to be loved. That he happened to be the one there at the time was simply unhappy, and unlucky, circumstance ~ as it would prove to be time and time again. It still didn’t take away the hurt,  and sometimes losing what you never had is somehow more painful than losing something you’d never actually had the chance to experience.

When you are told no, when you are told you are not wanted ~ not in that way ~ it stings. When you are told nothing, but can sense enough that you are not wanted, it hurts differently. You may have retained some shred of pride in not forcing the question to a head, you may have let another person off the hook from having to gently but insistently refuse, but you have let yourself down. You have wimped out.

I didn’t have the voice to ask him out. I didn’t have the courage. And I certainly didn’t have the confidence. Instead I saved face, withdrawing before revealing my hand, backing away before any real risk of being burned, but he had to have known. Granted, when you do ask the ‘Do you like me back?’ question there is always the chance that it will blow up in your face (See the insanity of ‘You Must Love Me’).

Yet if you don’t ask you will always wonder, and the darker side of you, the one you pretend to friends isn’t there, will blame the innocent. There was rage here, there was anger, and there was the humbling sadness of having to survive on your own. There was grit here too, and a steely, brutal resolve to pick myself up again, stoically wipe the tears away, and move on in the world. So though my question may have technically gone unasked, his silence and utter disinterest in me was an answer in itself, and one that I largely accepted (compared to what I would do in the future).

My anguish over a non-existent love affair was both silly and debilitating. Coming out as a gay man, as difficult as it sometimes was, did not hold a candle to the obstacle course of love. And to be worthy of love was some out-of-reach enlightened realm that seemed closed to me, inaccessible despite my best efforts. Upon realizing this, part of me crumbled. I had been defeated, and my heart grew bitter. If this was love, if this was what came of love, then I wanted nothing to do with it. Woe to those who followed.

From my hurt grew an icy chill, one that I’m sometimes afraid remains to this day. It’s an edgy bluntness that takes the offensive before there’s a need to be defended. I have to do it. It’s something I need to prove. I took the sadness and the hurt and the anger and turned it into the way I dealt with the world. I took the flippant disregard of a stranger and the questioning wonder of a friend to heart, and I raged against both.

The Fall turned colder. The Winter would be long. And all I had was a song.

All by myself, I don’t need anyone at all.
I know I’ll survive, I know I’ll stay alive.
All on my own, I don’t need anyone this time,
It will be mine, no one can take it from me.
You’ll see…

Back on campus, I opened my empty mailbox in the basement mailroom of Usdan Student Center. I listened as the new Madonna song came over the radio. A flicker of hope and fierce determination to never again be hurt lit my heart, but quickly went out as the song faded and I made my way back into the crisp fall air. There were times I wanted to literally fall down ~ in the hidden corner of the courtyard, at the train station waiting for the other commuters to board, and as I closed the door behind me at the condo.

Visions of sharing the place in Boston haunted the cold nights, rising and falling before my mind’s eye, teasing and tormenting with their just-out-of-reach possibility. I longed for companionship, I wanted for warmth, I wished I had someone to fall asleep with ~ such simple pleas, such basic prayers, and such soul-crushing loneliness. It crept up on me, and as I headed back to the condo one night I almost let it hit me. After rounding onto Braddock Park from the Southwest Corridor, feet shuffling through dry, brown leaves and the scent of burning wood in the air, I looked up at the dark windows of the living room. There was no one there. I hesitated and paused. I could not go in.

It must be said that I don’t usually get lonely. I am often alone ~ at lunch, on trips, in the car, even in my own home ~ but rarely if ever do I get lonely. This was one of the only times I felt it, the chill of loneliness, and it shook me. I turned around, retracing my steps the way I had come, returning to the lights and the bustle of Copley Place. I could not walk into the empty rooms at that moment. I knew that if I did, the loneliness would have its way with me, and I might never come back to the person I was, to the place I loved, to the way I wanted to be. So I wandered around the warm store windows of Copley Place, like I did when I was a kid, when we used to stay at the Marriott and Mom would only let my brother and me explore the adjacent Mall on our own. I didn’t need to talk to anyone, I just needed to be around people, to have them close, even if they were strangers. Once the loneliness subsided, I returned to the condo, and never felt that way again.

You think that you are strong, but you are weak,
You’ll see.
It takes more strength to cry, admit defeat.
I have truth on my side, you only have deceit,
You’ll see… somehow, some day…

There was still the winter to get through, and it would be a snowy one. Up to the very end of March – and even early April – a few late-season storms pounded Boston. Somewhere in that crystalline time, beneath the blanket of dirty snow, I healed, and I got over it. Even if it was all in my head, as most of these things tended to be, it changed me.

To this day, ‘You’ll See’ fills me with both dread and drive – a prickly little ball of courage, conviction, contradiction and inner-strength. Whenever I feel myself slipping, or losing sight of who I really am, under the wishes and whims of others – family, friends, anyone – I reach deep, think of this song, and persevere. That’s what this song has always meant to me – it’s a warning to everyone who ever doubted, to everyone who ever questioned whether or not I could do something, and to everyone who thinks that a fancy wardrobe and a cocktail are all I have to offer the world.

On the Madonna-centric side of things, ‘You’ll See’ debuted, if I remember correctly, at Number 5 on the Billboard charts. They likened it to a modern-day take on ‘I Will Survive’ and thematically that’s pretty accurate. She’s only performed it live a scant few times while on her Drowned World Tour. For the first time she added the song (in place of the lackluster ‘Gone’) for certain stops only. Usually a Madonna show is on robotic autopilot, with little to no room for variation or interpretation. That in itself was striking. That she performed it in Boston moved me even more.
It was my first time seeing Madonna live, and she was singing one of my favorite all-time songs on her Boston stop. She stood on that stage alone, a single spotlight glinting off her dirty blonde hair as she sang. Her husband, perhaps hidden somewhere in the shadows, or not even present at all, lurked only in the mind. Listening to her sing ‘You’ll See’, in the city where so much heartache and happiness had happened for me, I was brought back to the Fall of 1995.

I stood on the ledge of a castle in New England. The letter I had burned had just left my hand, fluttering into the dark air in a bright burst of quickly-fading flames. Bits of silky ash floated back up in the night wind. The stone felt cold against my hands as I reached for something to hold onto. Her voice, and her words, sounded in my head, pulling me back from the edge of despair, pulling me back into the warm light of my room, into the hushed safety and terror of solitude.

All by myself, I don’t need anyone at all.
I know I’ll survive, I know I’ll stay alive.
I’ll stand on my own, I won’t need anyone this time,
It will be mine, no one can take it from me.
You’ll see.

Madonna sang the song for all the broken-hearted among us. Yet for all its empowering qualities, at the end of it I felt nothing but defeated – tired and exhausted from loving those who would not, and perhaps could not, love me back. That takes its toll, that leaves its own casualties – and the parts of you that die from it don’t ever come back. At least not so far.
Years later I would be sitting at the counter in Francesca’s Cafe, reading a book, and the man I thought I loved then – the man who found our Boston home – would tap me on the shoulder to say hello. He would have had no idea what I went through, how much he meant to me, and his smile would betray that. My smile betrayed nothing.

You’ll see.

Song #48: ‘You’ll See’ ~ Late Fall 1995

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