Who was the best friend you ever left behind?
Do you still have a secret world?
We would go visit them, my big sister and I. Five kids! The biggest kids I had ever seen, all piling out of the same car. Sometimes it was the stationwagon, other times the pick-up with the cover and the windows. I would get lost back there.
They weren’t our closest cousins — we saw others much more often. But they were different somehow. Older, with homework and boyfriends. There were so many of them, they could be in each other’s way. When I was the youngest I couldn’t remember all their names. But they weren’t mad. They hugged me just the same.
Their house seemed as big as my school. They had a big field behind it that my mom said used to be a farm. One year they told me they had caught a rabbit back there and had cooked it. I thought they were joking, but they got some out of the refrigerator and showed me. I couldn’t believe it. My uncle even ate some and asked me if I wanted any. I took a bite and it tasted like a sweet, scrawny chicken. I wouldn’t eat any more.
They didn’t have regular games and toys like we did. They had roller skates and keys. And charades and plays under the pecan tree. And after bedtime they had flashlights and ghost stories about the big empty house through the trees with the broken windows. They had ghosts.
I remember one year we went to their house for the weekend. When we packed up to drive back home, the car wouldn’t start. It made me scared but my dad didn’t even get mad. We just stayed another day. A free Monday with no school and my dad and my uncle drinking beer laughing and working on the car all day until they got it fixed. It was a magic place. A magic house full of kids and fun and days without school.
The memories, they filled up suitcases. I carried them with me everywhere.
When I was in third grade they were all going to come to our house. We were so excited, even my new baby sister. But when the day came they just called on the phone — they were all sick with the stomach flu so they couldn’t come. My older sister and I were so sad all weekend. Then the next year we moved away to Florida. They came to see us there. We had fun but something wasn’t the same. I don’t know what it was. That was the last time we saw them all together.
Years later I would see one or two of them, at a family reunion or a wedding. I even stayed with one a few times when I started college. I enjoyed seeing them, but it didn’t seem like the people I was talking to were grown up from those kids. Maybe I didn’t either. If they remembered the Monday with the car, they never said anything. Neither did I. Maybe it never really happened.
One of them told me they sold the house, and I was lost somehow but didn’t know why. Then I looked and realized my hands were empty, my suitcases left packed in the back of an old broken-down car on the side of the road somewhere. Or forgotten in the house, locked up tight in the attic. Ghosts.
If you asked them about the pecan tree, or the rabbit or the roller skates, they might smile and nod, but those little moments, they were like dreams. Tiny little dreams you hold in your hands, diamonds in that moment when you wake but then they slip away even as you’re remembering them, even as you’re holding onto them. Maybe that was all real once, for a little boy who isn’t little anymore. Maybe it was real. But now it’s gone. Just a smile. Just a dream.
Had a dream the other night: I found myself back in Hampton, Virginia, where I went to high school. This is 2,700 miles away from where I am today. Even in the dream I had no idea how or why I was there. I found myself moving through the old hang-outs and streets. Everything was different – and I was infuriated by this. Completely infuriated.
This woke me up, all clenched and tight. My heart was racing and I was really enraged for a few minutes. Then the bizarre nature of this reaction occurred to me. Why would I care? I haven’t stepped foot in Virginia in 23 years. I shook my head and went back to sleep.
I wonder what that was about…
A few weeks ago we witnessed a once-in-a-decade event. That’s right, Sade released a new studio album. Now, I know that (and this) may seem random, but stay with me here.
I never would have guessed at the time that of all the 80s MTV bands of my youth, a 2010 record from Sade would be an event. She wasn’t huge at the time, never at the forefront for me, and I didn’t even start buying her stuff until her third record. Over the years, she has taken her lumps as being a Bed Bath & Beyond-type act (the entirety of JD Considine’s review in Spin magazine of her 1988 record Stronger Than Pride was a mere three words: “Faster than Sominex”). But think about it: who else does exactly what they used to do, and so well? What other memorable 80s act has survived with its style and grace – and audience – intact?
Not R.E.M., they lost me even before Bill Berry’s aneurysm. Sting was boring by the early 90s. Depeche Mode lost me in the 2000s. Ditto Madonna. Duran Duran? Please. Peter Gabriel… don’t get me started. Morrissey has come back better than ever, but his style changed completely in 1992 (plus he had something to come back from). U2 is bigger than ever and filling stadiums, but they don’t do the same thing anymore – their new albums are never flashbacks to The Unforgettable Fire.
But Sade is still making the same album she made in 1986, just with new upgrades every decade. The album has gotten more… sophisticated, but it’s the same album. Sameness is okay only if it’s stellar. And in her case, it’s stellar.
The 2010 album is no disappointment. Very strong. “In Another Time” is breathtaking – the distillation of smoothness, tears, and wisdom, each of which she’s always done so well. The 2010 version of the album is a little more monolithic, a little more down-tempo, but that’s not a problem. She’s not making distinct, self-contained albums anymore, she’s merely adding to the career-spanning playlist. She knows what’s already on your iPod, so those bases are covered. She’s dropping in the songs that aren’t there yet but could have always been there.
Listening to the record is like brushing away the cobwebs and hearing glimpses of the other records – and catching flashes of the you that first heard the other records. Reviews are calling the title track and lead single “Soldier of Love” bold and aggressive, different than anything she’s done before. They are wrong of course – it is merely a continuation of “No Ordinary Love” from her 1992 record. And that last sentence is not a letdown. It is not “different from anything she’s done before” – and that’s good news.
The opening of the next track, “Morning Bird,” also takes you back to 1992, with echoes from “Pearls.” She sounds great, and her voice is only slightly raspier, slightly narrower than it always has been. But then, on the fourth track, the playful, upbeat “Babyfather,” it happens. At 71 seconds in, you hear it, a crystal-clear moment in a dream. You’re not sure exactly how it happens, but you hear it: the Sade of 2010 slips into nothingness and the Sade of her second record Promise is suddenly there, singing. You don’t know how you know it, or how she did it, but it is – it has to be – an undiscovered vocal from 1986 and suddenly here you are, not 2010 you but 1986 you, driving in your dad’s Volkswagen on Fox Hill Road in Hampton, VA with the windows down with the brand-new “Sweetest Taboo” on your radio on your way home from high school working up the courage to ask a girl to the prom. And then suddenly here you are, 2010 you, driving in your Honda past Fox Hills Mall in West L.A. with the brand-new “Babyfather” on your iPod on your way to your kid’s 4th grade classroom to pick him up after school. You are both of these in the same instant.
Now, think about this: Sade of 2010 is old enough to be the mother of 1986 Sade, of the Promise Sade. And you, the 2010 you, you are old enough to be the parent of the 1986 you. Just think about that for a minute.
But you can’t think about any of this because Sade sings and suddenly there is no Honda, no Volkswagen, no Hampton or L.A. And there is no you, no your son, no your dad – there is no difference; these are not distinct, separate people. It’s all the same you, on the same street, hearing the same music. 3,000 miles and 24 years apart, but now it’s the same space in the same moment. Parent and child, baby and father, in the same person, the same song. Tears and wisdom. It is all just one instant, all the same thing smooshed together. It is all the same. Sameness is only good when it’s stellar. And in this case, it’s stellar.
What am I trying to say? It’s this: it is actually still 1986, right now. No, that’s not it – it is that, yes, but there’s more.
It’s really this: Once a decade we need to be reminded – I need to be reminded – that 1986 did not exist. There is only 2010, except there isn’t, because 2010 doesn’t exist either. There is only now. Because time – time itself – does not exist. Time does not exist. There are no distinct years, no distinct “you”s, no distinct Sade records. The same 1986 record is still playing, and the 2010 record has always been playing, and you’re still the same person listening to it. Right now.
There’s just you, and Siddhartha, and the river. And Sade.
For what or when are you homesick?
It was 2006 or 2007. I was leaving work, pulling my car onto Flower Street, when you zipped by right in front of me on your bike. I had to brake to miss you. I could have sworn it was you. But what would you be doing – at our age – zipping a bike through downtown L.A.? 3,000 miles and 20 years away from home? We made eye contact and you disappeared behind parked cars. I know it was you – you gave me that look. It was 1987 you, the last time I saw you. But it was you.
Are you even still alive? Google won’t tell me.
Last night I had this dream. My two sons (age 9 and age 4) and I had broken into your house. And you were pulling into your driveway and we were desperately trying to get out before you could get inside. But we couldn’t find our way out. You were putting your key in the door and we had to hide from you and get out before you could discover us. You try doing this with the 4-year old whose idea of playing hide and seek is yelling out where he is as soon as you stop counting so you can find him. Terrified of never being found again.
Somehow we made it out and walked past on the sidewalk just as you went inside. But you knew. You knew. You glanced backward and gave me that look again. That look like you knew something I didn’t.
My dad was in the military when I grew up so we moved around. Not nearly as much as some do, but I changed schools a few times. Different states. It’s rough when you’re a kid, but one huge thing I learned was how to come into a new situation and figure it out immediately. Intuitively. The politics, the dynamics of the relationships, all that. Every time we moved my parents told me not to be sad about the friends I left behind, but instead to just go to school and make new ones. I got practice at this – I got good at it. Figuring out who to be friends with and who not to. But there was one thing I never learned.
When my dad would come home from work and tell us we were moving again, we would be devastated. We would cry, we’ll never see our friends again, all that. But you learn to put that aside because it hurts too much. You learn to figure out the place you’re moving to, not to dwell on the one you just left. You learn to forget your old friends. But I never learned how to say goodbye – it hurt too much. Terrified of never being found again. So I never have.
So I never did.
Are you still alive? I saw you. Are you a ghost? I see ghosts. Different states. I see dead people. I saw you. Sometimes it feels like I can’t see alive people anymore.