It was about one in the afternoon and I was sitting in my classroom waiting for my last class of the day to come in for ninth period. I had my film clips cued up and ready to go, the handouts were by the door so each kid could grab one upon entering the classroom, and I was certain that I could cover visual iconography of Film Noir in thirty-eight minutes but still – it’s a damn good thing that I speak so quickly because there’s a lot to explain about smoke and shadows, especially when half of my students don’t know what a venetian blind even looks like, let alone the way it creates the look of prison bars when you throw a harsh key light behind it.
I had seven minutes until I had to be on and my grading for the day was done so I used my extra minutes to throw on some lip-gloss and then I checked my email and that’s when I saw it in a message sent to me by E! There’s not a single part of me that remembers signing up to receive breaking news from a celebrity outlet that willingly and continually employs Ryan Seacrest – and then allows him to go ahead and become a producer for goodness sake – but I can’t seem to make myself cancel the updates either because that seems like it would be so much work. I mean, first you have to click the unsubscribe button and then – well, that’s kind of it, but I usually just delete the email before I even open it to find the unsubscribe button. But this time, seeing the headline, I opened the email and I clutched my hand to my heart.
The rumors were true: Zayn had left One Direction.
I got out my phone right away. I needed to hurry; now I had only three minutes until my class was to begin.
Zayn has left the band, I texted. Will we be sitting Shiva at your house? Should I bring a deli platter?
A minute later, my phone vibrated.
Holy crap, wrote my sister. I really don’t need this shit today.
Allow me to be perfectly clear: if Zayn – or really any of the One Direction boys – fell directly from a cloudless sky and landed smack on top of me, I wouldn’t know who any of them were. That’s not to imply anything negative about One Direction. Maybe they’re a great band, but I couldn’t sing a bar of one of their songs even if you pointed a gun to my head. I think my lack of knowledge in this scenario is acceptable; I’m clearly not the target demographic for these guys. I also was never meant to be the key audience for Justin Bieber, that little shit, and the first time I ever saw him was when he was on Saturday Night Live.
“This is a skit, right?” I asked my boyfriend at the time as we stared at the blonde kid showing off his scrawny form on my television screen. “I don’t get it, do you?”
I’m not the intended demographic for the Biebers or the Zayns. The intended demographic does not laugh when these boys sing. But my almost-twelve-year-old niece? She is the walking embodiment of that demographic – and Zayn is her favorite.
How much does Jadyn love Zayn? Here are some examples of how deep is that love:
She has programed the mechanized voice on her phone to say the following when she asks who she is: I have been instructed to address you as Mrs. Malik.
She has Zayn pictures, pillows, and bracelets strewn throughout her room.
She cried when he got engaged, real and rolling tears. Even when I told her that the marriage between two barely-in-their-twenties pop stars would likely either never happen or end in a bitter divorce with filings that refer to infidelity and drugs, she refused to be comforted so I gave up.
I might not get the reasons for her full-fledged infatuation, but I knew something definitively: once that news about Zayn leaving the band got to Jadyn – once she realized it was true and not some bitter rumor – the kid would be inconsolable.
I texted her later that night. I didn’t want to interrupt her emotional day with a phone call, so I just shot her a quick message: I’m thinking about you and I want to let you know that, when Zayn goes solo, I will take you to his concert if he comes to New York.
Her response? Lots of hearts and thank yous.
Let’s be direct: there’s not a shot in hell that this kid is not going solo and praying to the teen idol gods every night that he turns into the reincarnated version of a very-much-still-alive Justin Timberlake. And since Zayn is the only name on everybody’s lips these days since his announcement to quit the band so he could have a more normal life, I’d say that his PR team has been doing its job and should be rewarded with hefty raises and with music that was never harmonized on by One Direction. It’s a good business move, this leaving the band thing, is all I’m saying.
Back when it seemed that One Direction was here to stay forever – a threat that still didn’t encourage me to listen to a single song of theirs or to learn a single one of their names – Jadyn’s birthday was coming around and I asked my sister if she would like me to bake something for the party. When it was decided that I should make cupcakes, I went online to search for a One Direction cupcake topper.
I am an online shopper extraordinaire. The success I have locating what I want is similar to how Magellan located coveted land. But even I had no idea the insane levels of merchandising that this band had going, and when I typed “One Direction birthday” into the amazon search engine, holy shit – this band has their name and likeness on every single thing you can cram onto a person or into a lavender-painted bedroom. There were towels and earrings and hoodies and snow hats and perfume and notebooks and sleeping bags. The last time I saw so much insane merchandising was back in the New Kids On the Block period – before they went NKOTB and pretended to be tough – and every kid who frequented the mall was expected to have her favorite. I never had a favorite. That band never did a single thing for me, and I ignored their popularity to focus instead on tossing myself head-first into my pseudo-metal phase.
And I did it without using Aqua Net and only wearing lycra sometimes.
But for Jadyn’s birthday, I swam through what has to be one of the most profitable licensing examples in modern history and I eventually located the Zayn Holy Grail: round pictures of Zayn’s face made out of sugar that could be placed atop a pink-frosted cupcake. After she was done admiring him, Jadyn would be able to eat Zayn’s face!
I think – for that week at least – I secured the top prize in The Best Aunt in the Land competition. My prize was getting to drive to Westchester without Zayn’s face melting onto thirty-six cupcakes.
I really felt for Jadyn when the Zayn announcement went down. It was something she took seriously, and I remembered how emotionally tied I’d once felt to my very own onetime idols.
Technically, John Travolta came first, but I don’t remember having that crush. It’s been relayed to me many times how I crushed on his leather jacket and that I swooned over his swagger. Catching a glimpse of him even today in Grease makes me understand what it was that drew me in, but I also didn’t know what Scientology was then.
The first crush I really remember was Ricky Schroeder. I loved him and I loved Silver Spoons and I loved the train he rode through the living room and I loved that he was only a little older than I was because that meant that it wouldn’t feel weird for him to marry me. I had fantasies about kissing Ricky Schroeder, the first boy I really thought about that with. I don’t think he even went up my shirt in my fantasies; that’s how much of a gentleman he was.
I spent a lot of time in my elementary and middle school years out in the Hamptons where my father and stepmother had a house. We’d go there on weekends, and my father – anticipating the crippling traffic – would let me watch Silver Spoons before we got back into the car to head home. I looked forward to Sunday nights then and to seeing close-ups of Ricky Schroeder’s blonde head and I liked the devilish glint he had in his eyes and the whole thing really should have served as a warning to the future me that I would always be drawn to the twinkle in the eyes of a man that would lead me to want to ride that twinkle until I was left in a heap on the floor.
But who knows to look for those signs at nine?
While I daydreamed about Ricky Schroeder, I never had his face plastered anywhere. I didn’t have posters or stickers or folders and I don’t think that I ever wanted them. Just watching his show was enough for me then, but soon I’d require more from my televised objects of infatuation.
The next one that mattered? Oh, for him I went all in. I fell in love with Jon Bon Jovi around the age of eleven and it seemed like within one lone day, my bedroom was plastered with images of him and his frosted hair and his hairy chest and the bulge that was pretty well defined in his stretchy pants. I knew every song on every side of all three of his albums and I was very proud that I didn’t only know the songs from Slippery When Wet. No, I was a real fan, and that meant that I knew everything about the man who was twenty-five and that his birthday was the same as my father’s and how nice would it be for both my father and my husband to be born on the same day? Oh, you think that sounds creepy? So do I – now – but you have to imagine yourself eleven years old and stopping by the local magazine store after seventh grade to buy the newest issue of Metal Edge and falling asleep looking at the glow of the dark stars we all had stuck to our ceilings then and wondering if the hair on a man’s chest felt like the hair on his head.
I talked about Jon Bon Jovi all the time. For a little while there, he was all I thought about. I was just getting very interested in boys, but I was a little shy and a lot gawky and it was easier to flirt with the guy in my mind than with the real guy across the aisle in Social Studies.
There were some girls who loved Jon Bon Jovi as fervently as I did and some guys who thought he was cool too, but there was a lot of criticism flying around the stunted hallways of my middle school and nasty comments about him eventually made their terrible way to my delicate ears. Most days I could shrug off the noise, but one day a rumor started and built into a delirious crescendo and I was almost apoplectic with fear because the newest story making the rounds was that Jon Bon Jovi was in the hospital because he had swallowed about a gallon of sperm and he could die.
Now, that rumor seriously messed with my head, much as it would have messed with Mr. Bon Jovi’s tummy had it been in any way accurate. I had so many thoughts swimming through my muddled mind like sperm might have been swimming inside my beloved’s organs. Was my pretend boyfriend gay? Was gay, like, permanent or could it leave if he met me? Would he die? How much sperm did one have to swallow for it to be lethal? And how much came out at once? I mean, when I heard older girls giggle about spitting or swallowing, I never knew that swallowing meant gulping down a gallon.
Maybe I should never give a blowjob ever, I thought.
The rumor was not reported on the news and soon it just went away but I remember still that moment where I waited outside of Science class with a banana clip in my hair and somebody rushed over to tell me the story and how I felt cold inside because the love I had for him felt like it could maybe be real.
I wanted so badly to go to his concert and news came that he would be hitting up Nassau Coliseum soon. The band Cinderella would be opening, and I knew them from being on Dial MTVand I had to go. I had to be there.
My sister, almost five years older, was a huge Bon Jovi fan too. I only heard the band in the first place because she played the albums, but the devotion felt very much mine now and I appealed to her to take me to the concert with her and I figured that she would and I jumped up and down with delight on the morning she snagged tickets for the show by waiting on line at some store. But then she told me that none of those tickets were for me and she wouldn’t take me with her because I had never been to a concert before and she didn’t want to have to be responsible for me.
“But I’ll stand right next to you the whole time,” I begged. “I won’t cause any trouble, I promise.”
“No,” she said, and I still remember the night that she left for the show and that I stayed home and how she returned many hours later and told me how amazing the night had been and that he played every single one of my favorite songs.
For many years, it was one of the saddest nights of my life.
The very last album I ever bought was New Jersey. I was living in the city then and I took the M14 bus home from my school in Chelsea and I got off at Broadway and walked over to Tower Records and I went right to the Bon Jovi section and picked up the record and brought it home like it was a prize. My father thought the band a joke, but he loved that I went to a record store by myself and bought an album on the day of its release with my own money. He saw himself in that moment – and that had to be kind of powerful.
I want to claim now that I remember how and why my obsession with Jon Bon Jovi ended, but that would be a lie because it kind of just faded. I still had pictures of him on my bedroom wall, but I stopped buying Metal Edge and Circus at the magazine store. It would make sense that I got over him the day he cut his hair, but I think the shorn head happened later. I just kind of grew out of that phase and instead went sailing down the River Phoenix.
He’s the idol I actually met. I’d entertained smooching with Ricky Schroeder and asking Jon Bon Jovi for advice on the proper way to apply hair mousse and eyeliner, but River is the first one I met – and I knew I would meet him from the start.
I remember going to see Stand By Me in the theatre and asking my father to stay through the closing credits so I could see who the guy was that played Chris Chambers. My father actually laughed when he saw the actor’s name was “River Phoenix,” but he sat there in the dark with me so I could find out the name of my newest love. And once I found out his name, it was on because those were the days of teen magazines and I would stop and pick up the latest Teen Beat or Bopand I would carefully trim the photos of River from the glossy pages and then tape them to my bedroom wall before settling in to read canned interviews about what River was looking for in a girl and why he was a vegetarian.
Yes, my newest soulmate had a conscience and that conscience shunned both meat and dairy.
I did eventually meet him when I refused to allow a bouncer, a mouth filled with braces, a gawky stage, and nerves to keep me from sneaking backstage at the Paladium when I was just fourteen. But what was weird was that interaction – and we had a full conversation and I didn’t faint during even a second of it – actually made me sad because yes, I wanted to meet him, but I wanted so much more than that. I wanted him to be my boyfriend – and I was shocked that it didn’t happen and wondered if maybe it was because I liked chicken nuggets so much.
My devotion to River Phoenix faded too and I never really had another full-fledged celebrity crush again, though I did have a few discreet and steamy thoughts about Jared Leto when I saw him singing a Ramones song on an episode of My So-Called Life. But I’d moved on by then to liking real guys and my braces were long gone and I had learned the truth about ejaculation and it was time to live an actual life and to smile for actual boys and, without even acknowledging it, my tween idol stage just ended.
But I have never forgotten that time in my life or how real those feelings felt and, even now, when I catch even a single glimpse of River Phoenix in some movie, I hope that he is at peace – and that he can eat lobster in the afterlife.