i met robert on the very first day of school of the seventh grade in september 1989. i knew as soon as i walked into the classroom and witnessed him commanding space with his beautiful spirit, that the semester was going to be different. i would no longer be the “only one” in the class room.
i sat near him and his crew waiting for an opportunity to connect. in an effort to get his attention and to really confirm that he was a raging queen like myself, i pulled out my “rhythm nation: 1814” cassette that i carried with me everywhere. “i love janet jackson!” robert said as he crossed his legs. i said “ooh honey chyle, me too! i know all her moves!” we were best friends from that moment.
robert and i walked home together today. we talked about how much we loved janet’s “miss you much” and “rhythm nation” music videos. both music videos were included in the “rhythm nation: 1814” long-form music video that has just premiered. we talked all things janet until we got closer robert’s house. “my mom’s on that shit,” he abruptly said. i knew exactly what he was talking about. i simply replied, “yeah, mine’s too.” before robert, i never openly talked about my mother’s addiction. it was not something i could hide but it was something that went upspoken.
my friendship with robert did not go unnoticed by other students and teachers. we were loud and would recite gay reads we learned from our mother’s friends –
“i will read you, write you
erase you and retrace you!”
“i will add you, subtract
and reduce you to your
being called “faggot” no longer sliced me open the way once had done. being with robert gave me a kind of adrenaline that i had never felt before. on some days we were bold enough to do the choreography in the lunchroom. of course, we had to do it without music so we just sang the songs while we danced. most students made fun of us but some others were quite impressed. we laughed at students who teased us because they didn’t know janet’s “miss you much” and “rhythm nation” choreography. we wondered, “what the hell are they doing with their lives if they aren’t mastering janet’s moves?” to us, they were the real freaks!
by the time the “escapade” music video was released in january of 1990, robert was sent away to a group home. i remember feeling a sense of loss and deflation. i loved being alive when i was with robert. with robert away, the lunchroom once again became the place where meals were served with a side of harassment. everything felt heavier. the world felt even lonelier. i found some reprieve from the teasing by spending my lunch period with miss wilson. during our afternoons together, i would tell her about my life, my mother’s addiction, and how robert and i were one day going to dance for janet. when i told her that i was without a radio to play my rhythm nation cassette, she surprised me with a new one the next day. to express my appreciation, i danced to “escapade” for her. also, i really just wanted to show off the choreography.
by spring 1990, i was sent to live with my aunt janet, one of the most stable of the aunts, after my mother found me crying uncontrollably in the corner. i seldom ever cried in front of her so i am sure the sight of me in tears frightened her. “what’s wrong?!,” she asked ready to be mad and kick someone’s ass. i didn’t know how to tell her that i had overheard her own mother and sisters describing us as dirty and ugly kinds. so i just replied, “i want to die.” so off to my aunt janet’s house, i went.
the living situation at my aunt’s house was a stark contrast to that of my mother’s. i slept on the living room couch. we ate dinner as a family. loud music was prohibited and i was expected to go to school…every day.
i hated my new school. in an effort to avoid any teasing, i tried to reinvent myself as “masc.” but of course, that lasted all but three minutes. my voice, my walk, and my incessant need to talk about janet jackson always outed me. so with no other option or school policies to protect my ass, i began to cut class. i would show up for first-period advisory and then walk out the nearest fucking exit. some days, i would kill time at a playground doing absolutely nothing, or on the days i felt courageous enough, i’d sneak back into my aunt’s house and watch music videos while she and her husband were at work. i was missing robert. i didnt know how to say. “i miss my best friend” to adults who didn’t get the connection shared between two gay teens who loved janet jackson.
i soon got word robert stopped by my mother’s looking for me. i immediately rushed to his mother’s house only to be told that i had just stepped out. all of this would have been easier if we had phones, but in the 1990s, that was still a luxury for some. i waited on his mom’s steps for what seemed like hours before robert showed up. “i ran away!,” he told me. i didn’t care, i was just happy to see him. we spent the next few hours catching up talking about crushes, our dreams, and how he was never going back to the group home. when nighttime fell, i had to get back to my aunt’s house. i remember not wanting to leave for fear that he would disappear again.
the next morning, i skipped school to meet up with robert. it was sometime in the last spring so the weather was beautiful. we spent the day just walking around the city before we stopped by a save-a-lot supermarket. i had about $4 lunch money. it was just enough to buy a few sodas, a pack of cookies, and a bag of chips. we found a playground nearby and met a young girl about our age who was also cutting class. we all sat on the swings as we enjoyed our afternoon delights and laughed our heads off.
our reunion was short-lived. robert was sent back to the group home by court order just a couple of weeks later. no long after, i was sent back to live with my mother after i was caught cutting class. i walked to my mother’s with complete dread. i didn’t want to deal with her addiction but i was also exhausted with having to skip school to save my sanity. at least at my mother’s, i could blast my music.
robert and i would reunite several times over the following months. he made running away from the home a hobby! and every time he did, i’d attempt to hide him in my room. my mother, who was deathly afraid of child services because they were notorious for ripping kids from mothers who struggled with crack addiction, would demand that he return to the home. i would cry every time. eventually, i just told my mother that he had absolutely no other place to go. only then did she say, “then he will stay here with us.”
robert lived with us for years. in 1993, he and i, along with a few other friends competed in a local talent show sponsored by PBS. we were crowned the winners after our stunning performance of janet’s “that the way love goes/if” medley. robert was not only my best friend, but he was also my brother.
by 1996, life would take us in different directions. i was deep into my AIDS activism and spent less time at home. my mother and brothers moved to orlando, florida later that year, and robert joined them. i stayed behind in philadelphia. robert and mother went on to share the same kind of life-saving friendship and love until her death seven years ago that he and i shared during our teen years.
janet jackson was and remains an integral part of my friendship with robert. when we speak, we still talk about her music, her videos and her existence. we were surviving so much with so little in 1990 and janet was our spaceship to planets where queer kids weren’t separated by the state. we were stars in our own universe and we always found each other. we still do. and i am sure, we always will.
for robert. love with never do without you