It’s the day before my 10th birthday & I’m watching Blue’s Clues while lying on the floor of my mother’s living room. My dad walks in smiling and I shoot up like a geyser, hurling my body onto the TV’s power button before anyone can see what I’m watching since 9-almost-10 is too old for a children’s show. It’s Sunday – not my dad’s day to pick my brothers and me up for a week at his house. I’m worried about what this means. The last two times my dad showed up here on days that weren’t his, it was because somebody had died.
I wonder who’s dead this time. I wonder if this death will interfere with my birthday. I consider what tactics I will use to convince my parents to let me stay home and watch TV on my birthday instead of go to someone’s funeral. I think funerals are unnecessary. If funerals are for the living, which is what everyone says, then why do we spend the entire funeral talking and crying about whoever died? Funerals aren’t for the living. I’m alive and I hate funerals.
I wonder if I’ll at least get to see my cousins at the funeral if I can’t talk my way out of it. I remember the scanned and printed copy of a children’s book my parents gave me to prepare me for my grandparents dying. Half the words and pictures weren’t visible because the scanner they used wasn’t very good, but I got the basic idea. People die. Mom wanted me to know that death was a big deal but she didn’t want me to freak out. I don’t understand how those things aren’t mutually exclusive. You can either fully grasp how huge death is OR you can be totally chill about death. You can’t do both. Death requires freaking out. Dead means gone. Dead means nothing happens to you ever again. Dead means no more ice cream. But on the other hand, dead also means no more boring funerals. Maybe being dead wouldn’t be so bad? I wouldn’t have to deal with going back and forth between my mom’s house and my dad’s house if I were dead.
My dad hands me a small ornate box, no wrapping paper. He says Happy birthday!!!!, still unsure how to handle these divorced birthdays. He doesn’t know how to raise a girl, but he’s trying. He took me to see the movie Spice World a few years ago in theaters even though he didn’t know any Spice Girls songs. There’s a scene with bare butts in it and we both giggled at the cheeks displayed across a 50 foot screen.
Look inside the box! my dad says impatiently (or excitedly?) so I open the box and pull out the paper strips he’d crumbled inside. PAPER! I say. I’VE ALWAYS LOVED PAPER. (This is not a lie. I own at least seven sets of stationary.) He waits for me to read the paper. I don’t quite understand what it says. Something about NSYNC. I already have the “No Strings Attached” album, but I wouldn’t hate having two copies! That way I could keep one copy at your house and one copy at mom’s! (I learned this trick from my older cousin Beth. Be gracious when you’re given something you already have, because the giver might not know you already have it. Beth is smarter than me by ten billion percent, so I live by her rules. Would she be at the funeral?)
It’s the “No Strings Attached” tour dad says. We’re gonna go to it. Three tickets. I’ve never been to a concert before. I’ve had NSYNC’s two albums on repeat since their respective release dates. Lance is my favorite, but JC is a close second. One day I’ll walk down the aisle at my wedding to “That’s When I’ll Stop Loving You.” I listen to the albums over and over. I listen and I listen and I listen and I listen and I listen.
So…no funeral? I say. Dad looks confused. He tells me to find a friend to come with us.
Every other weekend I go with my friend Jenny to a swimming pool in town. Jenny, her mom, and their neighbor Jennifer all pile into the van before coming to pick me up. I know the pool is in town but it feels far away. I don’t care much for swimming but those van rides to and from the pool are everything to me. We blast NSYNC louder than my parents ever blast anything and we sing along, even to the dirty songs like “Digital Get Down.” I hate “It Makes Me Ill” Jenny says one day on the way to the pool. Justin Timberlake is a singer, not a rapper. He needs to stop trying to rap. I like the song but I conclude that she’s right. From that day forward, I vow to always skip that track when I listen to the CD. There are only four of us in a giant van with giant music blaring and I feel stronger than I’ve ever felt.
That’s shitty music my brothers always say. No. You’re shitty I say back. I walk around our neighborhood with my bulky portable CD player. It’s one of those fancy anti-skip ones that costs like a zillion dollars. It still skips. I attach a basket to the front of my bike thinking I can listen to NSYNC while I ride my bike to school. It doesn’t work. I eat gravel every time I try, and nobody but Kevin cares. Kevin sits behind me in class and writes my first name with his last name all over his paper. I assume this is a normal thing for friends to do. He finds out from Christine that I love NSYNC and he hums their songs near my ear sometimes. We play tag at recess and he gets annoyed when I tell him I get to miss school the day after the concert. I ask him if he wants to go to the concert. I know dad said only a girl could come with me but I don’t care. Kevin says his parents would never let him hang out with a girl. But my dad will be there I say. He says it doesn’t matter. Says his parents are the strictest in the world.
He tells me this at this top of the standalone slide at the very edge of the playground. We wait together in silence for what has to be fifty years before he shrugs and slides down. I stay for another few minutes, sitting down but looking out at my classmates. I take inventory of which girls told me no already. I wonder which of them actually asked their parents for permission and which of them just didn’t want to hang out with me for an extended period. Kevin climbs back up the ladder behind me and pushes me down the slide, laughing.
I eventually ask my friend who lives across the street from me to go with me and she says yes. I’m not excited to go with her. She’s one of my best friends but she’s never heard an NSYNC song and has never wanted to before now. But she doesn’t want me to go without a friend, so she agrees.
Her name is Amanda and she pretends to be as excited as I am. We have a lot in common, but she hates pop culture. We ride bikes and build fires in the woods behind my house. We make a fort out of broken tree limbs and keep blankets hidden there. We pretend the old man who lives next to the forest behind a long, gated driveway is a killer and our stories are so convincing that pretty soon we both start to believe he’s dangerous. We crush up daisies with flat rocks and dot sweet scent behind our ears, claiming this is exactly how people in the early days must’ve made perfume. We eat different things we find in the forest just to test our stomachs. None of it tastes good. We find out poison ivy doesn’t bother my skin. We find out poison ivy severely bothers her skin.
I buy her a magnifying glass from our school’s book fair so she can help me be a detective after I read Harriet the Spy for the third time. Instead she uses it to light ants on fire. She tells me this is why they’re called fire ants. She’s a year older, so I’m sure she’s right.
On the day of the concert, I choose my concert outfit carefully. A pink shirt with an ironed-on Winnie the Pooh face underneath my green overall shorts with the pink flowers on them. Kevin told me that I looked cute in this outfit once, so I decide it’s fancy enough for NSYNC. I stick my favorite tube of lip gloss in my pocket.
My dad picks us up from my mom’s house. I sit in the backseat of the car with Amanda. I’ve never been in an actual taxi, but this is how it is on TV. Dad is our driver. Amanda and I quickly run out of things to talk about and the road lulls her to sleep. I’m too excited to nap, so I take my anti-skip portable CD player out of my bag and listen to the songs we’ll soon be hearing live.
Eventually we arrive at the stadium and everything looks brighter yet further away. I’m staring up at the stadium, open-jawed, trying to take everything in. Nothing is registering. Nothing that’s happening makes sense. I must be back home and dreaming. This isn’t real. It can’t be. I’ve never been to a big city and this is the biggest place I’ve ever seen. Is this what New York City is like? Is New York City a stadium?
My dad somehow manages to get us inside and into our seats, about midway up on the right side. We’re far enough away from the stage that we brought binoculars, giant and heavy hanging from our necks. Almost nobody else is seated yet because we are so early. Dad asks if we’re hungry and we say no, but dad convinces us that we’ll need energy for the dancing. (When he says dancing, he emphasizes his meaning with a dance example in which he moves both closed fists back and forth across his body, shaking them like he’s holding salt shakers. Amanda thinks it’s funny. I don’t think it’s funny.)
The three of us trek back down to the tables and booths full of NSYNC merchandise and food in the breezeway under the stadium. Amanda and I settle on pizza. Dad settles on beer. We eat the pizza standing up and dad takes a picture. We walk around for a while and dad convinces me that no, I don’t need an NSYNC t-shirt or poster, mostly because I’d have to carry it around for the rest of the concert. Neither of us knows what size shirt I wear anyway.
Eventually we go back to our seats and the concert starts. We’re surrounded by people. Everything is so loud. My dad brought earplugs for himself, because he knew he couldn’t handle all the screaming girls. I don’t remember who opens the show, because I’m too antsy about the main band. I’m nervous, like I’m about to meet them in person. NSYNC finally comes out. Amanda and I put our binoculars on the ground so we can dance. We jump up and down. We scream. I have never been this happy.
Rachel Tanner is a queer, disabled writer from Alabama whose work has recently appeared in Barren Magazine, Tiny Molecules, Blanket Sea, and elsewhere. She tweets @rickit.