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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Three Smiles of Whitney Houston


I'm in the back seat of a car heading from New Orleans to Florence, Alabama. I'm twelve years old. I have a Walkman and headphones, and I'm listening to Whitney Houston's first album, on cassette tape.

I stare at the cassette cover. Listening to the music--her voice--I flip the cassette case in my fingers, opening and closing it as the car sails along the highway. Whitney's face, her white dress, her shoulders, the pearls. The flowers. I flip the case open, then closed. Open. Closed. Whitney, then no Whitney.

And I'm not really paying attention to much else--I'm not even sitting upright in the back seat of the car--I'm spread out on my side, my head at one end, my feet pressed against the other side of the car. I'm tap-dancing against the armrest of the door.

The headphones come loose. Mom has reached back, plucked them from my head. "Your dad asked what you were listening to." Mom smiles at me.

"This," I reply, and wave the flapping case of the cassette tape in her face.

"Whitney Houston," Mom tells Dad.

"Oh, she's pretty," Dad tells Mom. "She's really beautiful."

This is the first time I've ever heard my dad say a woman of color is beautiful.

Mom asks for the cassette, and inserts it into the car's player. Riding down the highway, all three of us sing along to "How Will I Know." As I sing, I can't help but think about Dad's attraction to Whitney Houston, and how perhaps he and I aren't so different.


"I Will Always Love You," the video, played constantly on Mtv when I was in high school. The best moment of the video came when Whitney looked at the camera--she was sitting in a chair on a stage, and there was some smoke rolling in, and you could see the bare boards and the bricks and the curtain, and she'd look dead at the camera, which zoomed in--and there'd be a pause in the music.


"I wi-ish you lo-oOve,"Whitney would sing.

Then pause. Pinter pause. Long and unusual. The camera zoomed in, her eyes would close, the smoke would roll in around her, and then BOOM her eyes would open, the camera would pull back and no more stage. No more curtains. No more smoke. Boom, and Whitney, still in her chair, was in the middle of a winter wonderland.

And she would hit that note.

"I----I will always love you."

That note. That 'I.' Not many people can do it. It's a note out of a dead sleep, this 'I,' it's a note from nowhere. In the film 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch,' the two cynical characters even manage to acknowledge they wish they could hit that note.

Studio editing? No--Whitney hit that note in live performance. Nailed it to the wall.

As I said, the song played constantly on Mtv when I was in high school. Also playing constantly: my desire for a certain male friend. He was straight and he knew it, and I was gay and I knew it, and we bonded over Whitney's incredible 'I' note.

Straight guy: "She hits it. She just hits it everytime."

Gay me: "From a dead-stop, she goes to 60mph."

Straight guy: "And she's pretty."

Gay me, silently: So are you.


I didn't keep up with Whitney Houston, or any pop musicians. I didn't know Whitney had become a joke until well into the 'Being Bobby Brown' reality show, when Whitney's antics began to hit the blogs.

Fun fact: when Whitney's antics hit the blogs, I was matching her antic for antic.

For about a year, I snorted or smoked anything. I was so bad off that I ended up at a party with Jimmy Fallon. Even worse: Jimmy Fallon left because of me.

Greg had no clue about all of this. Then he did have a clue.

When Greg found out, he said this: "I will always love you."

He also said this: "Get help, or I'll leave you."

So I got help. I went to a meeting to help me, and it was awful. Greg went with me. Both of us sat in metal chairs and listened how drugs destroyed the lives of others. We listened to one guy exclaim, "I have heard all of you tell me why I shouldn't want to smoke meth. I haven't heard any of you tell me why I do want to smoke it."

A few years later, I said this to Greg: " Whitney Houston is coming back."

Greg said this: "Her voice is wrecked."

Me: "But she's trying."

Greg: "If she can still hit that note, all will be forgiven."

Me: "Even if she can't hit that note, I'll forgive her."

Here's the thing: Part of my recovery was because of Whitney Houston. Part of my bonding with my parents was because of her. Part of my coming out was because of her. I really wanted her to be clean, and to hit that note again, but she failed.

She failed, even though she had every chance.

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