Pills and Thrills and Daffodils

Years before Prince died of an overdose, his music provided a lifeline for Eva Tenuto.

Eva Tenuto | Longreads | April 2017 | 9 minutes (2,181 words)

 

It was the summer of 1997. For my 24th birthday, Rachel, one of my best friends, bought me the best present I could imagine receiving: a ticket to see Prince at Jones Beach Theater—on my birthday, July 23rd, no less. A full-on Prince fanatic, I was out-of-my-mind thrilled.

The plan was for me to drive down from Rosendale, where I was managing a bed and breakfast that had just opened, and meet Rachel and her boyfriend Andre there.

Rachel and I had become best friends in high school drama club, then both moved to New York City to study acting, eventually sharing an apartment on Avenue A between 9th and 10th Streets, across from Tompkins Square Park.

But after a few years, I decided to move back upstate, where I’m from, and take the job at the new bed and breakfast. I had been partying too much in the city. In fact, because of our out-of-control debauchery, once I decided to leave, Rachel wasn’t able to renew our lease.

Prince’s latest album, Emancipation, played a role: after nights of heavy drinking, Rachel and I would stumble up the four flights and blast our favorite song on the three-disc compilation set, an eight-minute track called Sleep Around. We would crank it at top volume and have a two-person dance-off right there in our living room. What we loved about the song was the build and the crescendo. Around minute five there’s a fierce drum solo that never failed to throw us over the edge, inspiring Rachel to bust out her bongo drums. Obviously, this was not something our neighbors appreciated at 4 a.m.

I thought relocation to the country would help calm me down. Maybe there, living in the middle of the forest, it would be easy for me to switch to from shots of tequila and cheap beer to fresh green juices and herbal tea.

But the bed and breakfast didn’t draw much business. With no guests, and many bottles of wine in the cellar, I was left to my own devices, and I partied, well, like it was 1999.

***

Early that July, after regularly drinking way too much of everything and smoking anything I could light up, I learned I was five weeks pregnant. I was devastated. It was a moment I’d fantasized about, but this was not how the day-dream version unfolded. A drunken hookup with a friend had gotten me pregnant. Now a baby was starting to grow inside of me and I didn’t know what to do.

Intellectually I don’t have a problem with abortion. In fact, I’m passionately pro-choice. In college I was a Women’s Studies major. I did an internship at NARAL. I marched on Washington. But, I’d also always wanted to be a mom. Always. I started babysitting at 9. I got my first job helping out at a preschool at 12. I nannied my way through college. I had already raised other people’s kids. Lots of them.

My friend made it clear that even though he’d support whatever decision I made, he didn’t want to have a child at that time. He also made it very clear that if I had the baby, he would help and participate, but we would not be forming a family. He didn’t see a future for us.

I found a local “pregnancy support center” that promoted counseling services to help women come to the right decision for themselves. But it turned out to be a pro-life facility. When they started showing me horrific propaganda videos, I fled. I remained undecided for what seemed an eternity but in actuality was only a couple of weeks. Through all the indecision, I still drank. I couldn’t stop. The pain and stress were too much and at the time, drinking was the only way I knew to find relief. The implications of my circumstances were not as strong as the grip of my addiction.

One day I was talking with a friend and he said something so simple, yet it landed as the ultimate truth. “It seems,” he said, “that you’re just getting started on your path, and going through with this pregnancy could interrupt your opportunity to become who you’re supposed to be.” Even in my drunken haze, I had the sense to know I wasn’t even close to being who I was supposed to be. I had things I wanted to do and accomplish before having a baby—which I didn’t want to do by myself.

Once I made the decision, fueled by the intense desire to put it all behind me I rushed to action. I couldn’t stand my inability to escape the problem growing inside my body. There was no way to not think about it when it accompanied me everywhere and grew with each passing day. I made the first appointment available at the closest place that was willing to knock me out. That was a deal-breaker for me. I wanted no memory of it. My abortion was scheduled for July 22nd, the day before my 24th birthday—the day before the Prince concert.

***

I was told I wouldn’t be able to drive the day after the procedure because I’d be cramping and in pain, which meant I couldn’t get myself to Jones Beach. I contemplated not going, but Rachel encouraged me to find a ride. “It’s your birthday, Eva!” she said. “Even if you just have to sit the whole time, at least you’ll be there, and the music will make you feel better.”

The problem was, all my Prince-loving friends still resided in the city. I didn’t know anyone upstate who loved him enough to take the day off work and drive over two hours each way. The date quickly approached and I was so immersed in the devastation of my circumstances that I couldn’t navigate the logistics of finding a ride to Long Island.

One day, in passing, I mentioned the predicament to my friend Amelia. Before I even finished explaining, she said, “I’ll take you.”

“You will?” I asked. I hadn’t brought it up to get her to offer me a ride. “Do you even like Prince?”

“Not really,” she admitted. “But I’ll see anything once. I just took my mother to see Willie Nelson. I’ll take you to see Prince.” For the first time in weeks I felt as if I had something to look forward to.

But to get to July 23rd, first I had to get through the 22nd. We rode in silence to the clinic. It was a rundown building with a huge, imposing security guard in the parking lot wearing a purple suit. He could have been one of Prince’s bodyguards but, no, he was there to protect Dr. Luck’s patients as they came and went. (Yes, his name was Dr. Luck.)

When I came to in the recovery room, through the slots of the venetian blinds, I could see my friend pacing the parking lot. This ordeal was now over for him but for me, it was just beginning. When we got back to his apartment, I cried uncontrollably until his roommate gave me a Valium. I could not sit with these unbearable feelings without taking something.

The next day, the emotional pain was still immense, but physically I was fine. Amelia and I got into my 1989 Honda Prelude and drove it to Long Island. I’d never been to Jones Beach Theater before. The amphitheater sits right at the edge of a bay, a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean.

We climbed the stairs to our seats and waited. And waited. And waited. It felt like hours. We waited so long it started getting weird. Finally, when we were fairly certain Prince wasn’t going to show, music began and a spotlight started traveling the stage. It then moved to the audience and traveled from one side of the crowd to the other, building anticipation.

Was he sitting among us? Was he sitting near us? The spotlight left the crowd and started sweeping back and forth onstage again. The crowd could barely stand it. We were doing exactly what he wanted us to—begging for him. The build, then, the crescendo.

The spotlight took a bold move stage left and focused on the bay. It landed on a boat sailing to shore. On the boat was a sparkly little five-foot-two, sexy motherfucker. All we heard was his iconic scream, “Oww-ahh!” and we went wild. He jumped off the boat, ran onto the stage and went at it full throttle for hours.

He did splits and kicks and ran across the stage in his high-heeled boots, dove onto the piano, flipped over and played it exquisitely, upside-down and backward. (While I still light up thinking of his performance, it pains me to know that those intense acrobatics are to blame for his need for hip replacement and other surgeries, his chronic excruciating pain, and his subsequent fatal dependence on opiates.)

He looked like a prepubescent cross dresser and yet was more masculine than anyone I’d ever laid eyes on. How did he manage to be so many things at once? How did he managed to be so fully himself without letting gender norms and other labels define him, or put him in a box clearly not big enough for all that he was? Nothing had derailed him from becoming exactly who he was supposed to be. This was so inspiring to me.

With each song the emptiness inside me dissipated. The life force he put out into the stadium was helping to fill me back up. I was grateful.

I was thrilled that Amelia was dancing and screaming like I was. After the concert was over, she looked as if she’d been reborn.

“Better than Willie Nelson?” I asked.

“Oh my god! “ she said. “That was unbelievable. That was like seeing Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and James Brown all rolled up into one tiny man!” She called it a “spiritual experience.”

***

After the intoxication of the show subsided my grief set back in. It lasted years. And because my abortion happened the day before my birthday, it has been impossible to ever let the date slip by without tripping over it.

The pain was insurmountable. Because of my years of activism, I was surprised by how much the grief hurt. While once I’d felt camaraderie and community because of my involvement with this movement, after my abortion, I felt alone. I felt trapped, as if I couldn’t admit I’d been damaged by the loss without offering ammunition to the opposition. I had flashbacks to what was shown to me at the pregnancy support center. I had a hard time convincing myself I was any different from the women I’ve seen on the news who got caught throwing their newborn babies in dumpsters. I’ve never judged anyone else in my position that way, but I couldn’t seem to stop judging myself.

But as time passed, without the interruption of a baby, I got to focus on myself. It took quite a few more years but eventually I got sober. Twelve years ago, perhaps right around the same time Prince was starting to use drugs for his pain, I stopped drinking. For the first time, my intense desire to become a mother shifted. It was replaced by a strong intuition to turn the mothering inward and for the first time take good care of myself. I’d never done that before.

I dove into recovery. Hearing people’s stories in meetings, sharing my own, helped me to realize I wasn’t alone. I began learning how to stop running from everything and stay present through discomfort. I got on my right path. I know now that there is not one clear-cut box I need to fit in. I get to be adamantly pro-choice, mourn my loss and be grateful for my decision all at the same time. I can admit I’m sometimes sad that I have not had children of my own, while also acknowledging, that by giving unabashedly, I’ve mothered myself and others very well. I had the freedom to choose to become exactly who I’m supposed to be.

Last year, on April 21st, Rachel was the one who called me and told me about Prince’s tragic passing. I was driving and had to pull over. We cried together and reminisced about the many ways he inspired us and helped shape our lives. When we reflected on the birthday concert, Rachel reminded me that it was one of the first times she and I attended an event sober.

Prince obviously didn’t know me. But, he showed up for me on the day I needed him most. By giving so unabashedly, he was able to help me heal. And because we were sober, Rachel and I got to experience the fullness of all he had to offer that day. At one point, he looked out into the crowd and said, “You know how you feel right now? I want you to feel that way for the rest of your lives!”

I know Prince believed in an afterlife. I hope he feels now, and for the rest of eternity, the way he made us feel that day. I hope it’s a world of never ending happiness. I hope, released from the grip of his addiction, he can see the sun, day or night.

* * *

Eva Tenuto is the co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit TMI Project, a non-profit organization offering empowering memoir and true storytelling workshops through which storytellers become agents of change by divulging the parts of their stories they usually leave out. Her essays have appeared in assorted anthologies.

Editor: Sari Botton