I figured this’d be the only time her eyes would look into mine. Or, considering I’d stood in this same spot for the last however many Sundays in a row, the last time they’d do so—the final occasion when our gazes would be level, my weight shifting from hip to hip as I counted her eyelashes and was shocked by her pores. A soaked-behind-the-ears 19 years old, I’d yet to see a society-deemed masterpiece in person. Still a few semesters away from being battered by Taiwanese teens as I crawled toward Mona Lisa’s glass enclosure, another couple years until I’d accept “Crash Into Me” as the greatest song extant thanks to Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. But this portrait, emanating its own glow by some feat that flew over my English-majoring head, felt like something worthy of a pilgrimage. Taller than me, the picture’s dimensions rendered it almost holy, the blue gradient behind her heavenlike, her honey-blond hair a Botticelli wet dream. Like an angel sighing over William Orbit synths, she appeared to be descending from on-high. A ray of light, incarnate.
“Oh brother,” said a man to my left. “Madonna.”
As should be gleaned from my freshmen year’s weekly solo trips to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, my social skills were, generously speaking, fetal. Developed enough for me to pregame with my new girlfriends under the Pinterest-recommended glow of string lights but stunted enough for me to return to my own dorm as soon as they left for house parties—asleep by midnight and wandering a Mario Testino fashion photography exhibit by noon.
“Yeah,” I responded.
He looked as might be expected. Silver-haired and cashmere scarfed. An Irish Spring bar soap of a man.
“There’s this quote of Joni Mitchell’s I read once, I hope I’m remembering it correctly,” he said, rocking back and forth on the heels of his oxfords. “Madonna…Madonna’s like Nero; she marks the turning point.”
I laughed, politely, knowing an insult when I heard one even if I had no idea who Nero might be. Jokes made at Madonna’s expense have never been anything new but the denial of my limpwrist-jerk reaction to defend her inimitable place in pop cultural history was. But such was the person I was trying to be, charting out this new version of myself at this new college in this new city. Hopeful that my burgeoning interest in Liz Phair proved that my taste in music didn’t belong to some gay, Gen-X uncle but to a cool, gay, Gen-X uncle.
I’d spent, tragically, every bit of 30 cumulative minutes standing in front of that Testino shot during my trips to this exhibit but the Oracle of Joni’s Jadedness was the first person who’d considered it alongside me. Negatively so but still. Fellow patrons of the MFA had given it a nod or a hmm!-frown, granting the picture a few seconds of their time before promptly moving on to the sexier displays of J. Lo in boxing gloves and Tom Brady snarling at a doberman. But, for me, this photograph of Madonna wasn’t just some Stendhal Syndrome shit, it was a confirmation. That the very same image of a woman I admired so deeply proved just as arresting for me in 2013 as it did when I first saw it, 20 years ago now, in Jillian’s bedroom.
Someone was looking out for me the day it was cosmically reckoned I’d be the only son. Le petit prince arriving in the wake of Jillian and Lindsay, an Aquarius and a Cancer respectively, sisters eight and four years my senior. I might have felt even more alone as a kid, had it been older brothers for me instead—forced to confront a blood-related mirror constantly reminding me just how bad I was at being a boy. I might have ended up straight. The horror. But, by some act of grace I don’t know what I did to deserve, I had my sisters.
We fulfill the virtues of our birth order pretty glaringly. My youngest childness proving, with each passing year, fatally on the nose. And whether that has everything to do with the manner in which I’ve been emotionally-accommodated and fiscally-assisted all my life, well, how should I know? My sisters, meanwhile, always seemed so complete. Like they’d fully arrived at every age they were, whether it was 13 or 21 or whatever, ages that felt so ill-fitting once I finally got there myself. If I have any sense of romance at all about coming of age, it has so much more to do with them than with me. Identifying, despite all reason to the contrary, with the chiptune ringtones of their flip phones as they solidified Friday night plans, with the way their hair mousse and Calvin Klein Romance lingered in the bathroom long after Katie’s dad or Jessica’s mom came to pick them up. Leaving me behind as I, envious and admiring, chased after their maturity, their femininity.
While Lindsay and I were close enough in age to revel in actual sibling rivalry, the eight years that separated me from Jillian always felt like something altogether different. It was such a huge span of time, leaving us developmentally and culturally so far apart from each other that she became less of an oldest sister and more of an idol. A celebrity that joined us for dinner most every night of the week in her periwinkle Patagonia “housecoat.” Jillian watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer so I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Jillian wore Sketchers so I wore Sketchers. And Jillian had a copy of Madonna’s Ray of Light among her towering CD collection so, whenever I stole it for my own, I too had Ray of Light.
I can’t say my allegiance to Madonna was cemented in that moment, at so young an age. Just as often did I steal Ray of Light as I took Mariah’s Rainbow or the CD single (!) of Monica and Brandy’s “The Boy Is Mine.” But, still, there’s something specific about the memory that album holds for me. I could be just Brian Williams-ing this but I’d swear on something important that I remember, and so clearly, Jillian holding a copy of the Ethereal Girl’s newest record in the backseat of our childhood Dodge Caravan as she listened to it on her Discman. A vision too specific, and too sweet, for me to accept as anything other than the truth. I was only four years old when Ray of Light was first released so sentience as I knew it was, really, just beginning—that particular point in time when each and every memory seems to be filtered through something so warm and familiar. Though Entertainment Tonight was surely intellectually-stimulating enough to guarantee a nightly airing in our home, I couldn’t have known Ray of Light resulted from the shift in Madonna’s life after giving birth to Lourdes, her first child. Coupled with her recent discovery of yoga—1998, folks!—and her practice of a certain branch of Jewish mysticism, life for Madonna may have seemed as new to her as it did to me. And maybe I felt that.
Or maybe I was just faggy enough to like what I was seeing during the 19 seconds TRL would play of the “Frozen” music video.
As we speak, somewhere amidst the solemn hills of steaming trash in the blighted, post-apocalyptic terrain of a New Jersey landfill, lies Lindsay’s EnV cell phone. A Bush-era relic that—in addition to Snake and unironically abbreviated text messages—contained a video of me, at 13 years old, chanting in the parking lot of a Mexican restaurant.
“Vunde gurunam CARAnaraVINDE sandarsiiiitaaaa,” I intoned, aware of my audience but cringingly-earnest nevertheless. “Vatmaaaaaa sukhavabodhe nihsreyase jangalikayamane sansara HALA HALA!”
If my commitment to memory of a song sung entirely in Sanskrit wasn’t testament enough to my burgeoning obsession with Madonna, I don’t dare ask what else could have been. The year prior, I’d caught Evita on HBO one day and—in perhaps the gayest possible fashion to become enamored with one of the gayest pop artists of all time—I was converted. After coercing my father into buying it for me on DVD, what with my “interest” in “Argentinian history,” I sufficiently made it through that phase before moving onto Madonna in general. Poring over her Wikipedia page, uploading her entire illegally-downloaded discography to my iPod Nano, and just about Rosetta Stone-ing the primary liturgical language of Hinduism by listening often enough to “Shanti/Ashtangi,” the eighth track off Ray of Light.
I want to say Jillian was driving, that we were in her car, when Lindsay recorded this outburst of mine. Outburst truly being the word considering my disposition at the time. Closeted. And hostile. Despite the blatant messages being sent out by my shoulder-length layered hair and popped Hollister polo collars, I was exhaustingly policing myself more rigidly than ever, regularly privy at school to the consequences of being too effete, too much. And then there was New Hampshire. My parents had sat me and Lindsay down that year to tell us that, come the following summer, we’d be moving. And that Jillian, already enrolled at Rutgers, would be staying. Being 2007 and all, my natural response to this crushing news was to invest all my energy into The Secret, manifesting my desire that I will stay in New Jersey, I will stay in New Jersey, I will stay in New Jersey. That August, we moved.
As far as adolescent traumas go, I realize moving from one state to another in the same general region of the same country is pretty minor. With hindsight, I’ve even come to accept that living in a state with an official motto of “Live Free or Die” made for a pretty distinctive experience. But, still—fuck. I was so resistant to making things feel even remotely like home that I, willfully, stunted myself. Positioning every piece of furniture in my new bedroom exactly as it had appeared in my last. Telling my peers I was (half-)Jewish so as to give my rants about Gilford, New Hampshire’s entire lack of diversity some personal context. Desperately trying to prove to my parents just how poor of a decision they’d made while failing to realize who was really getting punished in that process.
Besides an irrevocable fear of committing myself to any job, place, or person (…), the move wasn’t all for naught. Because, missing one sister, I sought out another. How conscious I may have been of what I was doing, I don’t know. But, in Madonna, I found someone to listen to, to be exposed to things by, to grow because of. In the boredom and isolation of her upbringing, I saw my own. Madonna wanted so badly to remove herself from the life she’d been given, starving with the desire to be seen but on her own terms. Constantly searching for something she lost, knowing—despite herself—that whatever she found wouldn’t prove to be enough. That she’d run and she’d run and, still, she’d be running away.
More so than any other song or album or era of Madonna’s, Ray of Light—for me—proved to be just that. Despite all the revelatory joy in Madonna’s life that precipitated its recording and release, the album is a sullen affair. Even the manic title track, easily the most ebullient of all thirteen songs, begins with the rhetorical new age-y question of, “Zephyr in the sky at night, I wonder, do my tears of mourning sink beneath the sun?” Madonna was nearing 40, she was receiving critical acclaim for the first time, her triceps looked spectacular, she had a daughter. And yet, instead of releasing a lullabic LP waxing poetic about the joys of new motherhood, she retreated inside herself. Confronting all the ambivalences and losses and fears that arise when one thing ends and another begins. I won’t pretend that, when I was religiously listening to the album as a teenager, I was picking up on all this. But, somehow, it did provide the antithesis I needed to all the family members and hair dressers and guidance counselors who, confronted with my unhappiness about this new home, urged me to make the best of it. Worrying that, if I did so, I’d betray my past, I found refuge and I found solace in Madonna as she traveled around the world, looking for a home, having nothing else to lose and no more heart to bruise, wondering why all the things she says sound like the stupid things she’s said before.
I didn’t have the stamina for angst. By the middle of freshman year, I harbored no less contempt for New Hampshire but I, at least, no longer felt like making friends and smiling in front of my mother and father was sending the wrong message to the universe. Plus, I had something to look forward to. In what was surely a combination birthday present and peace treaty, I’d received tickets for me and Jillian to see Madonna. It’d be the first time for both of us, my first huge concert period. The show, sometime in November, fell just a few days before I’d turn 15. Wearing Kenneth Cole patent leather slip-ons and skinny jeans from the girls side of PacSun, I was exploring a louder version of myself than ever that night and presenting it to a sister who, living 400 miles away, only saw me a few times a year. These changes, and the implications of such, surely more noticeable, more dramatic for Jillian than anyone else in my life. But as we took our seats, Jillian sneaking me sips of her $20 vodka-soda, I didn’t get the sense that she saw me any differently. And as the arena roared in response to the dimming lights, I looked to Jillian before returning my eyes to the stage, hungry for her arrival, trying to remember where it all began.