Like all people not wholly destitute of heart, when I hear the opening of “ABC” by the Jackson 5 I experience the familiar jolt of pop elation – that swift giddiness of spirit that comes of being in company with a human thing that is also so pure a distillation of joyousness. This was true before I had kids – before, say, I’d propped their rubbery and squirming little selves on my hip and swung them in woozy circles around a living room in Maine singing “that’s how easy love can be!” – but it was a lot more true, and a lot differently true, after.
I should say, though: I don’t “have” kids, not by the measure of any number of authorities. What I mean is: I was married to a woman who had two very little girls. For some years I was their stepdad. And then, one day, to my steep and unhappy astonishment, I was no longer married to their mom. What I became to them then, and am now, goes by no state-sanctioned title or much-recognized name.
For a while, though, the four of us shared a little house near the coast, and together made our way through the mazy and ordinary complications of improvised family. It was hard – for me, still a youngish man who had little experience with kids and even less with little girls, it was very hard – but it was also, this sudden new life, a daily adventure in ingenuity and invention. Among the rituals we devised for ourselves in the early years, in our hunger for habitable familial forms, was that of the Pre-Bedtime Dance. (When the girls were very little, this was also often the post-bathtime ritual, and so was appropriately named “Naked Dancing,” though because these girls are now composed and stylish teenagers I am a little loathe to mention this…) We would dance to two or, maximally, three songs, and then their mother would take them upstairs for pajamas and books and goodnight kisses, and I would clear the table, do the dishes, maybe catch a few innings of a Red Sox game on mute. Sometimes it was the Cure, sometimes it was the Magnetic Fields, sometimes it was, in deference to their mother’s tastes, the B52s. “ABC” was never not among the selections.
A splendid literary scholar named Jennifer Fleissner recently observed that pop songs are “the new madeleine,” and I can think of few truer critical insights. So we would, the four of us, caper and twist and jump. The girls would take turns being twirled around, and we’d gather them up and sing, “C’mo-c’mon-c’mon let me show you what it’s all about!” I can remember on one particular winter night finding myself looking at our oldest girl, the one whose rigorous devotion to family-wide fairness even then broke my heart a little (“We like all our houses exactly the same,” she would remind her sister, with some sternness), and then, as she gave herself over to three or so minutes of unclouded and full-bodied joy, feeling this shock of helpless, undefended love for her.
Let me confess: I was not, then, as open to these dawning tendernesses as I ought to have been. Here’s what I can tell you about stepparenthood: it’s like a tango on a balance beam. You want to be parental, to share the often incapacitating labors of care with your spouse. But you want to be mindful, too, that these children have fathers and mothers, whom you never want them to feel you are trying, even in the most implicit way, to supplant. These are on the easiest days delicate geographies, and all the other things of grown-up life – envy, money, anger, sex, loss – conspire to intensify their fraught, fractal complexity. The quick-shifting uncertainty about whose role was whose, and what its parameters were, could play a quiet kind of havoc with your couplehood, and because of the stunned, the altogether devouring passion with which I’d fallen in dumbstruck love with the girls’ mother, all uneasinesses around the scene of my marriage put me on edge. I was susceptible, too, to feeling a bit second-string: when a kid falls off her pogo-stick in the driveway, her first startled cry is not likely to be for her stepdad, no matter the breadth of his care.
It tells you a lot about the embryonic state of my achieved adulthood that I had room, back then, to feel a bit hurt by this.
But even I wasn’t so stupid not to recognize a blessing when I saw one, and whatever the turbulence and tedium of raising them – I had been totally unprepared for how much of the labor of child-rearing is ecstatically, mind-scaldingly boring – I knew these little girls, with their weird enthusiasms and slangy playground speech and sudden cloudbursts of tearfulness and hilarity, were a kind of astonishment. Playing defense against my own fears and failings, I would tell myself again and again that perhaps the only genuinely good parental thing I brought to their lives was just the example I gave them, by being so radiantly in love with their mother, of how they deserved to be loved. Still, I cannot pretend not to have had, even then, the dim sense that something else was being transacted between us. For all the impacted circumstances, for all my imbecile guardedness – for all that I had permitted to stand between me and openheartedness – it was also, I knew, simpler, more elementary. I loved them.
But it wasn’t just this. Because when we’d crouch down together and make a four-person huddle of jubilant noise there on the living room rug, when we’d start to soul-clap in the breakdown where Michael shouts out “Sit down girl!” and Sophie would jump up into my arms, all bright eyes and toothy grin and unrestrained silliness, even I couldn’t stop myself from knowing what, with both wonder and not a little dread, I knew. It was right there, easy, like counting up to three.
She loved me too.
You don’t need to be Freud to believe that our lives are, in uncountable ways, far too much of us: too dense with conflict, want, shame, dread, bliss – with all the intricacies of accreted personhood – for us ever really to have a full grasp of them. I sometimes think this may be less a matter of repression than of, I don’t know, the raw mechanics of cognition. Our days are so overfilled with this hectic clamoring of impressions – scenes, textures, a vastness of data at once physical and emotional – that memory, even at its most receptive, could never hope to take it all in. In some respects, this is welcome. There is much we do best not to retain. But in others it’s pure heartbreak, a reminder of the torrent of unstanchable loss at the heart of things.
For a lot of us, I think, this is much of what makes pop songs – those fairy-dust confections, flimsy and cheap – so inestimable a gift, a thing for which no performance of grateful devotion, however outblown or overwrought or objectively absurd, ever quite suffices.
Once, in an airport, in the midst of a harrowing post-divorce trip whose failed purpose was supposed to have been an Eat-Pray-Love-like self-restoration, “ABC” came up on shuffle. And I swear to you, as I stood in the passport line, despairing still again at Italian pretenses to bureaucratic efficiency, I nearly wept with sodden gratitude. I knew then, wordlessly and with a kind of elated certainty: pop songs had once more taken the brokenness in me and, through their weird saving alchemy, bound it up. Because what would we have done, the girls and I, without the Jackson 5? How could our queer unmodeled love have found a language for itself in the first place without that song, and all it allowed? And what would we have done, in the terrible vertiginous weeks and months and then years after I found myself removed from the orbit of their daily lives, had we not had these outrageous gifts from the made world, these songs, where so many of the nameless aspects of our devotion to one another had come to reside? How better to hold ourselves together, even in our distance, than by trading these songs back and forth, and inventing around them a little private vocabulary? How better to nurture these improvised attachments, these loves so suddenly deprived of official titles, a proper name?
So what I heard in “ABC” in the airport that day, and in the years after the stories of our lives together became entangled in so many unhappy endings, was not the joyousness for which I first loved it. It wasn’t even the sound of a damaged family, such as the Jacksons surely were, producing in seamless harmony a thing so purely jubilant, though that’s there too. For me, it was something else. Michael would sing “1 2 3, you and me!” and the groove would shiver up the length of my body, and every least crosscurrent of those living room nights – the smudgy faces, the fraught love, the whole atmosphere of this life I once so cherished – would come glowing back to me. Like so many of us do with the songs we love, I turned “ABC” into a kind of archive, and what I kept there, preserved against forgetfulness or the inevitabilities of loss, were just these bright intensities.
They are there still.
This, I like to think, is our happy ending.
—Pete Coviello: The Best Barfighter Around