I'm eleven. My parents are watching Purple Rain in the living room. This is how they watch R-rated movies. Late, after I'm asleep. Something wakes me up, call it instinct, desire or the beat of forbidden music. I slip out of bed and from the landing that overlooks our living room, I take it in. Motorcycles, guitars, and this man who orchestrates it all. Prince. That night, he visits me in my dreams.
Twelve. In a poster on my bedroom wall, Prince wears a ruffled yellow suit. Jacket open to his waist. Every evening, I dance to his music behind my closed bedroom door. My mother is a dancer, but her kind of dancing has rules, steps and posture requirements. Prince's music, my music inspires movement with no rules. When I'm hot, sweaty, too exhausted to keep moving, I stare into his poster eyes. Every night, before I fall asleep, I touch one finger to my lips then his.
Thirteen: I listen to Darling Nikki on repeat. How does one masturbate with a magazine? Is that kind of thing even legal in a hotel lobby? Am I a sex fiend because I keep listening to this song? Maybe it's okay to like sex? There's no judgment in his lyrics. Prince's Revolution is my revelation.
Still thirteen: I fashion a top out of a long scarf that is only slightly see-through. I pair this with a very short skirt. It's an outfit that's beautiful and dramatic, worthy of Apollonia. When I appear in the kitchen, my father chokes on his coffee. This is not a figure of speech. I am not allowed to leave the house until I change clothes.
Fourteen: A local band plays "I Would Die 4 U." The boy I like has sandy blonde hair and skin that turns caramel in the sun. He separates himself from the crowd. His eyes meet mine as he slides one finger across his throat, holds up four fingers then points at me. My world explodes. A month later that boy and I sit in a hammock at his birthday party. Prince makes up most of the playlist.
"I love Prince," I tell him. "I know," he says and kisses me. In this first kiss I understand the physical manifestation of something that, to this point, has been strictly aural.
Seventeen: I'm in college too young, in love with someone too old. I mistake the weight of his body for passion. Sometimes he holds me by the neck, forces my eyes to meet his. "I know everything about you," he whispers. "I can see through you. All your secrets."
When I swallow, his palm is heavy against my windpipe. He goes home for a weekend and I wonder if he's right. Can he really can see all my secrets? I have a one night stand; part test, part escape. Three weeks later, When Doves Cry, is playing on the radio. I look at this boy and know there will be no oceans of violets in bloom for us. "You don't know all my secrets," I say. Then I confess what I've done. For many years, I'm mystified by this act of self-sabotage. Eventually, I understand it was an act of self-preservation.
Nineteen: I'm someone's date at a fraternity houseboat party. I've been dancing for hours. Those moves I practiced when I was twelve are liberated from the secrecy of my bedroom. "Erotic City," "Let's Go Crazy," "Kiss," "Raspberry Beret." The music fills my head like a form of foreplay until it suddenly shuts off. My date appears in front of me holding the mix tape. "Enough fucking Prince," he says and tosses it overboard. The tape floats on the surface of the water for a second then disappears.
This boy and I do not have sex. Possibly, that goes without saying.
Twenty-Two: I've been in Paris for a year. I'm starved for Americans. The girls in the bar have the right accent. Not British or Irish or Australian, but HOME! I want to devour them like peanut butter or goldfish crackers. "Where are you from?" asks one. She looks me up and down, her face filled with disapproval. It's only then I notice how sleek these girls are, how polished.
"Oregon," I say. "I guess it's one of the fifty," she says then turns away. I stand there, stunned at her dismissal, almost in tears. The DJ's spinning "Pop Life" and I let the beat guide me back to my circle of French friends. We dance, uninhibited, the way Prince intended. No one can take this moment away from you, I tell myself. When I remember to look for those American girls, they're gone. Danced into oblivion.
Twenty-Five: I have a job with a fancy law firm in New York City. Any day now, someone will call me out, discover I don't belong here. Instead, I'm discovered by a fourth year associate. "You're adorable," she says, peering in through my office door. "Meet us for lunch." Later, I learn she only befriends the associates she deems worthwhile. It's the ultimate seal of approval. At lunch, she mentions Minnesota, a work trip to Paisley Park. That's how I learn our firm represents the Artist formerly known as Prince.
"Please," I beg her. "Please can you get me on that case? I've loved him ever since I was a little girl."
"No," she says and tells me not to be weird. "He's very short," she adds dismissively.
I don't bring it up again, but I take his connection to this firm as a sign I've found the right place.
Thirty: It's two in the morning and I have a newborn. She's my most demanding client, constantly renegotiating her hours of sleep. I walk from one end of the apartment to the other. Suddenly, I stop. Down Lexington Avenue, where it meets Thirty-Fourth Street, there are animals; elephants, tigers, camels and zebras. It feels like a hallucination. I wrench the window open. Even with the cold air in my face, I'm still not certain its real.
My daughter quiets and together we watch the animals in their slow procession westward. From somewhere below, I hear faint strains of "Purple Rain." For a moment, I'm convinced the entire city is under an enchantment. The next day, I learn the circus always walks its animals through the mid-town tunnel. I don't tell anyone about hearing "Purple Rain." Some pieces of magic are better kept secret.
Forty-Four: I'm driving an SUV through the jungle of Northern Virginia traffic. There are teenagers in the back of my car. Every song on every radio station is Prince. I try to blink back tears then give up and hide behind sunglasses. From the back seat my daughter says, "His songs are all so..." she pauses and I wait, hoping for something deep. "Loud," she concludes.
"Yes," I say. "Yes, they are," and I turn the radio up even louder, smiling at how she's inadvertently summed up my thoughts.
The creator of this soundtrack has played loud in my life, compelling me to move my body, explore the erotic, take chances, be brave, and believe in all kinds of magic. "Electric Word Life," Prince intones from the speakers of my car and I think that's exactly right. Life is electric, filled with twist and turns.
And to slightly misquote the enduring crush of my youth, "[I] better live now. Before the grim reaper comes knocking on [my] door."