by Akim Reinhardt
I was a minor mess in high school. Had no idea what to do with my curly hair. Unduly influenced by a childhood spent watching late ‘70s television, I stubbornly brushed it to the side in a vain attempt to straighten and shape it into a helmet à la The Six Million Dollar Man or countless B-actors on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. I couldn’t muster any fashion beyond jeans, t-shirts, and Pumas. In the winter I wore a green army coat. In the summer it was shorts and knee high tube socks.
My home life was chaotic. My parents’ marriage was breaking down. My father drank too much, my mother screamed too much. I began spending a lot of time outside the house. I could pretty much come and go as I pleased, which was new and exciting.
I had a solid group of friends that I’m still close with to this day. Good guys. Not exactly Cassanovas. One of ‘em had a girlfriend for a bit. The rest of us didn’t have a clue. Mostly we drank, played pool, played cards, listened to music, and watched sports. I didn’t get laid. I didn’t even come close.
I went to the University of Michigan for college. I’d only applied because my mother’s friend’s son went there; mom told me Leonard liked it and that I should apply. So I did. And I got in. I also got accepted to several New York state schools, which were closer and cheaper, but I chose Michigan, even though I knew nothing about the place except for the funny football helmets. The University of Michigan was never any kind of goal. It was an accident. I didn’t even know it was supposedly an elite school.
I was 17 years old my first semester. Looking back now, I don’t think I consciously understood that I was running away as far as I could from a home life that had been emotionally volatile for as long as I could remember, but that’s exactly what I did.
My first two years I lived in a co-ed dormitory. I still didn’t get laid. Got a lot closer. Coulda had sex a few times if I wasn’t such a fuckup. Girls seemed to like me, some of them, anyway, but I was a deer in the headlights. I’d quit torturing my hair by then, letting the curls flow. I’m sure that helped. Maybe they liked me because I was just being myself. But of course myself had no idea how to mix my raging hormones with theirs.
My junior year I moved into an off-campus apartment with my friend Mark and an older guy (25ish) named Ken, whom Mark had met over the summer. It was originally supposed to have been just me and Mark. But to cut the rent, three of us now shared one small bedroom, a large living room, and a little kitchen. It was in what had once been a large, single family, 4BR home, now sub-divided into no less than six apartments, four upstairs (including ours) and at least two downstairs. It was tight. By the time I showed up from New York, Mark and Ken had already decided to build a loft to make our lone bedroom workable for three people. Great idea. Except it was a Sunday night.
I warned them. Don’t do this now. This ain’t a fuckin’ dorm. People need to get up for work in the morning. You guys grew up in houses, but I was raised in an apartment building, and I’m tellin’ ya, it’s different. Neighbors stacked on top of one another and separated by common walls won’t put up with this shit.
But Mark and Ken didn’t listen. They just kept swingin’ hammers and running that circular saw well into the night. We’re almost done, they kept saying.
Sure enough, someone called the cops.
After the po-po left, I just shook my head and gave them that I-told-you-so stare. But my two roommates were actually incensed. Maybe they were hiding their embarrassment. Maybe they really just didn’t get it. Either way, they stuck to their guns, insisting it had been “unneighborly” to sick the cops on us. They wanted to know who’d done it. They suspected the only neighbor we shared a wall with, that woman in the studio apartment next door.
As it happened, the next evening she came over to introduce herself and, as she later admitted, to see what the hell kind of shit show she now had living next to her. Christ, who cared if she’d called the cops on us. What a knockout.
Her name was Jeanne. She wasn’t a college student. She was a woman. She was nearing her 23rd birthday. She had an English degree. She smoked. She owned a cat. She worked as a secretary at the university. She had long brown hair down to her ass. She was unfathomably beautiful. As in, I couldn’t wrap my head around how beautiful she was. She was undoubtedly the prettiest woman in the entire state of Michigan, possibly the world. She seemed to like me.
At first, ever clueless, I didn’t realize it. She started popping by to chat. The four of us would hangout a bit, first in our apartment and eventually out on the town. Ken was older than us, older than Jeanne even, and he tried to make some moves. She was having none of it. And Mark was already seeing someone.
Me? I was being me, not knowing what to do despite the obvious chemistry between Jeanne and I. So I just talked and joked and smiled and made her laugh, because that’s all I knew how to do. Later she told me she liked that I was young and inexperienced. She’d had some complicated relationships, and some bad ones. She thought I was cute. She thought I was safe.
Even when she tacked a piece of paper to the inside of our apartment’s front door and labeled it “Akim’s Vocabulary List,” I still didn’t realize what was going on. She teased me about not knowing this word or that. The woman with an English degree was going to help build my vocabulary by giving me a new word to learn each day. She’d come over, write one down, and explain it to me. One day it was lacuna. An unfilled space. The next day it was imbue. To fill up and permeate. Shit. Even I could figure that out. What the fuck do I do now?
Jeanne choreographed the dance. She had to. I was dumbfounded.
She began separating me from my roommates. Mark was easy. Unimpressed with our living arrangements and rapidly falling in love with the woman he would eventually marry and raise a family with, he began sleeping at his girlfriend’s place. But Ken, who in his own way was as oblivious as I was, kept sniffing. We’d go out, and he’d tag along. Part of it was that he was new to town and didn’t know a lot of people. Part of it was that he just couldn’t take a hint, and somehow thought he still had a shot. So Jeanne began inviting me next door.
On the other side of our bedroom wall, Jeanne’s little apartment was another world. A small studio apartment with just enough light during the day. The twin size bed was tucked into one corner, the stereo and TV opposite the foot. Across the room was a small desk. Large rugs covered the floor. A young, small, tiger striped cat named Gracie was shy and occasionally playful. A real adult lived here. I was in over my head.
I don’t know how many times I visited Jeanne’s apartment, how many hours I spent there with her listening to music and talking about anything and everything, before she gently coaxed me into sex. It took a while to get there because I was nervous. I didn’t know what to do, and I was too proud or vain to look stupid by doing it wrong. Safer to play it cool and do nothing. It’s like I was lost on the side of the road, pretending I belonged there. Finally, about six weeks after I’d moved into the apartment next door to hers, we consummated things.
Once sex became a regular and joyous affair instead of an impenetrable puzzle, some of my nerves went away. But not all of them. She was three years older than me. Nowadays, at my present age, that wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Back then it seemed like a whole other generation. It was nearly 1/6 of my entire life. We got along really well, I think. But there was still plenty to be intimidated by.
Looking back, Jeanne was also quite young. But at the time she seemed far more experienced than me in every adult aspect of life. Sex, drugs, work, relationships, you name it. Yet it was more than that. It wasn’t merely a list of life experiences she’d checked off, or things she’d done more than me. It was her. She was sophisticated. She wore stylish, adult clothing. She had friends in their thirties. She drank wine. She read poetry. She’d lived on both coasts before moving to the Midwest. She had brown eyes that looked right through me. She owned David Bowie albums.
It was 1987. Bowie intimidated me a little bit.
Not the Bowie of 1987, of course. By then he was an established, mainstream pop artist, and both his image and his music were pretty straightforward. He was also a budding movie actor in mainstream films. I’d seen him play an assassin in Into the Night, a John Landis-directed caper starring Jeff Goldblum. And he’d just starred as the goblin king in the Jim Henson fantasy flick Labyrinth. Is there anything less intimidating than a goblin king surrounded by evil muppets?
No, it was 1970s David Bowie who kept me off balance. Not his music. That was good stuff, some go get it rock n roll. It was Bowie’s subtly androgynous space junkie image that left me wondering. It confused me. I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t know how to interpret it or judge it.
Some people get angry when that happens. Fuck those people. Those people need to grow up. But I do recognize where their anger comes from. It’s a defense mechanism, protecting themselves from the unease and inadequacy they feel about someone or something that challenges and confuses their perceived reality. I felt some of that unease about Bowie.
I wanted to understand 1970s Bowie, but I didn’t, and that was unnerving, because it was rock n roll. And if rock n roll is anything, it’s something that teenagers understand. So if I didn’t understand 1970s Bowie, what else didn’t I understand? If I couldn’t understand Bowie, there was probably something wrong with me, something I couldn’t even identify.
I wasn’t struggling with my own sexuality. I’ve had zero confusion about my inclinations since Day One. And while Rock music is often about dumb heterosexual machismo, which I sometimes reveled in back then, homosexuality and gender bending didn’t much shape my opinions about music. That’s not to say I wasn’t a somewhat homophobic 1980s American teenager, but my relationship to music has always been through the music first, because the music itself goes straight to my soul. If it’s good it’s good, if it’s not it’s not. I thought Freddie Mercury and Queen were generally okay, and that “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was brilliant. I thought Boy George, like much of the Disco tradition he was descended from (and which I’ve always loved), had good songs and iffy arrangements. In high school, I owned every Journey album even though all my friends thought Steve Perry sang “like a fag.”
Besides, it was the 1980s. The influence of 1970s glam gender+bending was widespread. It was unavoidable. Even the dumbest, straightest, homophobic white boys dug guys in makeup. It seemed like nearly every music star was a bit swishy. Michael Jackson was the biggest thing on the planet. Prince was a sensation. Glam metal bands boasted more hair spray than Jackie Kennedy, and sported more spandex than a women’s jazzercize class.
So it wasn’t simply Bowie’s androgyny in and of itself that threw me off. It was that I didn’t understand his androgyny. It boast obvious signposts. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from or where it was going, what was pushing it forward or holding it back. It didn’t fit neat categories or offer obvious explanations.
Freddie Mercury was flamboyant, but stopped just short of coming out in order to protect record sales; fifteen years younger, Boy George was coming all the way out with a flourish; Michael Jackson was confused; Prince was doing whatever the hell he wanted; maybe a few glam metal guys were trans or latent, but most were just typical corporate whores, doing whatever the suits told them to do. But 1970s Bowie? He was mysterious. He did that bizarro rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby. His eyes were two different colors.¹ He was this character, then that one, then another, all of them enigmatic. I didn’t get him. And I knew I didn’t get him. That intimidated me a little.
Jeanne loved Bowie. Of course she did. She was smarter than me. More sophisticated. Wiser in the ways of the world. She seemed to know all the things I didn’t. And she too was something intimidating, something I knew I didn’t understand. Something beyond me, even as I held her tight.
She was a woman. I was trying to be a man. I was a boy.
Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com
¹Contrary to popular belief and suggestive photos, Bowie’s eyes were not two different colors. He had two blue eyes. However, a childhood accident left one of his pupils permanently dilated, making it look darker.