Last week was my friend Janet Jackson’s birthday. Her name is not really Janet Jackson, but she used to dance in the streets of our college town like Janet Jackson — Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty — did in those videos from her hit album Control. What did you expect? It was the 80s after all.
Typically, Janet Jackson and I mail birthday gifts back and forth. Usually, the gift is emblazoned with the logo of our college alma mater.
That’s where we met. College. Janet Jackson and I lived on the same floor in the same dorm. Bigler Hall, Clarion House, 1985. We lived at opposite ends of the floor, which is symbolic of how we live at opposite ends of the state of Pennsylvania.
Initially, Janet Jackson thought I was weird. Can you imagine that? Closeted college-age butch weird? (Three things that are really weird about Janet Jackson: 1) She has abnormally short fingers. 2) She gets all blotchy when she drinks beer. 3) She thinks the Liberty Bell is in London.)
At first, Janet Jackson wasn’t charmed by yours truly. In addition to finding me strange (the outrage!), Janet Jackson thought I was annoying. There were many weekends when she banned me from attending
parties after-hours collegiate activities with her and her gang of co-eds. (Not only was real Janet Jackson’s blockbuster album called Control, but pretend Janet Jackson had control issues. Oh, the irony, said the English major.)
But then something happened, and Janet Jackson and I became co-horts, friends even.
We had such adventures.
There was the time that we attended a kegger on top of a mountain. You can read about that here. Or the time that at the bar when we encouraged people to chug a beer from our friend’s shoe. It was a brown flat, if you must know. Who can forget the time that we organized the “You’re Flying Higher Than a Kite” bar tour or carried buckets of grain punch out the windows of Janet Jackson’s dorm room as the resident assistant busted our party?
But it was always more than just beer and parties and hangovers and crazy stories the following the day that always started with the words “it was really late, and we were really drunk.”
We had contests concerning whose permed hair was taller (again, it was the 80s) and gave each other silly nicknames. We spoke in running jokes. A word or short phrase — “the cranberries” — would cause us to laugh hysterically.
When we left school, we kept in touch. We both got married and had kids. But we always made time to get together. Janet Jackson and I returned to our alma mater for football games. We took road trips. We saw The Lion King on Broadway, visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, went to a Steelers game.
And then I came out.
I waited for my world to change. I thought my friends would be ok with it all, with me, but I wasn’t sure. How could I have been?
But they were ok. And I was ok. We were ok.
I often wonder about the science of friends. Sometimes we grow apart, sometimes we outgrow them.
And sometimes we grow together like different branches on the same giant oak. We take our own paths, twisting and turning this way and that way as we aim for the bursts of sunlight that shine through the leaves. But at the end of the day, we share common roots.
Dorm meetings and frat parties, painted faces and football games, Sunday brunch at the dining hall, late nights at Roy Rogers … those are our roots. The roots that Janet Jackson and I share.
Keeping with tradition, I did get Janet Jackson a birthday gift. It will mail out tomorrow — nine days after the fact. Janet Jackson won’t sweat the delay, because we’re those kind of friends.
But here’s another gift from me to Janet Jackson:
Dear Janet Jackson, I hope in 100 years we’ll still be growing together, our knotted, gnarled limbs reaching upward as we sway and creak in the wind.
Oh, and one more thing.