If I Don’t Go to Heaven, at Least I’ll Have Mariah Carey
As a teen, I wanted to avoid sin—but Mariah offered a fantasy I'm still trying to attain
I kept a tally on the wall calendar in my bedroom: four bars and a strikethrough for the days I prayed all five times. I marked my streak of fasts in the month of Ramadan with a yellow highlighter. I wasn’t trying to go to heaven, but to avoid hell.
Temptation was everywhere in suburban America: sleeveless shirts and short skirts, boys I wanted to be alone with, the glee of being gossipy and unkind. In Islamic Sunday school in Silver Spring, Maryland we read accounts of hell: hot lead poured into the ears of eavesdroppers and backbiters, burning ropes tied around the necks of those who were cruel to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We learned about the sin of looking at yourself naked in the mirror, of jealousy, of impure thoughts and immodesty. Nothing promised in paradise seemed better than my life. Nobody I loved had died; I had no yearning for reunion. I never went hungry. I didn’t have anything urgent to pray for. Honey and nectar didn’t seem extraordinary; America was full of sugar. I prayed to be saved.
I was fourteen in 1995 when Mariah Carey was at the top of the charts with “Fantasy.” The chorus: I’m in heaven with my boyfriend, my lovely boyfriend. Maybe it was puberty awakening my desire—maybe following all the rules became too hard. Maybe it was that my eldest sister, who made the religious fervor somehow fun, left for law school. Maybe I outgrew my friendships with the Sunday school girls. But when Isabel laughed at one of my jokes in World Studies and decided I was cool enough to hang out with, I shed my preoccupation with the afterlife. I discovered what it felt like to hug boys and sit close enough to them for our baggy-jean-clad thighs and bare elbows to touch at lunch. I expanded my potential crush pool beyond Muslim boys to include Dark-Haired Boys Who Read Books, and Dark-Haired Boys Who Were Funny. Almost suddenly, hell seemed a long way off and not worth worrying about. Mariah’s heaven was right here.
The 1994 Bollywood movie “Hum Aapke Hain Koun?” (which translates to “who am I to you?”) opens with young adult Nisha, played by stunning megastar Madhuri Dixit, roller skating through the halls of the university where her father works. She is immature and childlike and impulsive and loveable, playing pranks and fulfilled by chocolate. Her serene older sister Puja receives a marriage proposal from a well-to-do family, gets married, moves to her in-laws’ mansion in another city. Nisha falls in love with Puja’s husband’s younger brother, Prem. In a musical interlude, she dances around her bedroom (decorated with posters of desserts) and wonders in song about what has happened to her, how her preoccupation with chocolates has suddenly disappeared, replaced with a longing for Prem. She trades her western clothes for traditional garb and waits impatiently to be rescued by him from the childhood she’s outgrown.
The story takes a sudden, tragic turn: after Puja is told about the love between her baby sister and beloved brother-in-law, but before she can tell anyone the delightful news, she dies, leaving behind an infant son. To step in as a mother to her nephew, Nisha is engaged to marry her sister’s widower. The formerly childlike, impulsive Nisha resigns herself. This is the trajectory to adulthood: wonder and freedom in childhood, a brief bloom of erotic desire, sacrifice and resignation. In Nisha’s case, the gods (acting through Tuffy the dog) make her true love known, and the family swaps grooms so Nisha and Prem can be together. I watched the three-hour movie more than 50 times by the time I was fifteen. As I typed the above account, I could pause, rewind, replay the entire movie in my head with less effort than it would take me to recount the steps of prayer. Though the family portrayed is Hindu, and Nisha’s clothes are more revealing than I was allowed, my parents encouraged my obsession with the wholesome movie and my connection to their culture, my heritage. They ordered me (modest) reproductions of the outfits, bought me an enormous poster of the beautiful Madhuri-as-Nisha looking over her shoulder in a backless blouse through thick eyelashes. I worshipped her.
At school we separated ourselves: the Brown and Black kids from the white kids. We (but really they—I was soft, young for my grade, babyish, pampered, and goofy) were tougher, badder, ready to fight. After school I got high with a few girls in the creek behind McDonald’s, smoking mostly stems and seeds from the flattened side of a Coke can. We went back to Isabel’s house and painted our fingernails and watched MTV on the television in Isabel’s frilly bedroom. Boys would stop by, calling through her first-floor bedroom window facing the street. They were never there to see me, but I usually didn’t mind. Boys were alien, sublime, rough creatures, a little dangerous, fascinating. I regarded them with universal interest, and they laughed at my jokes, regarded me with little-sister affection.
In the video for “Fantasy,” Mariah rollerblades on screen, cleavage perfect, crop-top stopping a few inches above her belly button. “Mmm, baby, I’m so into you/Darlin’, if you only knew…” the love she sings about exists only in her mind. Her bangs falling perfectly, hair wavy behind her. She isn’t waiting, doesn’t choose between fun and erotic, doesn’t wait to be chosen. Her heaven is immediate and all her own. My breasts were small and my hips were already wider than hers. I was still outgrowing a haircut like the wig ODB dons comically for a few seconds in the video: a thick bob like a helmet with bangs, except I’d cut the bangs myself and they were crooked. That year, an oral surgeon cut into the gums on either side of my four wildly-spaced and jutting incisors, pulled up the flaps, and affixed braces to my shy adult canines. At monthly visits over the next two years, my orthodontist dragged the reluctant teeth into place using rubber bands attached under the gum. For much of 1995 I had only vast space around my front four teeth. I covered my mouth when I laughed and pushed my lower lip up over all my teeth when I smiled. I sat at the white wicker dressing table in my suburban bedroom and stared at my face disapprovingly for what felt like hours. Too-pointy chin. Too-short eyelashes. A mustache. Blackheads on my nose. There was nothing redeeming about it. From the wall, soft-focus-perfect Madhuri looked back at me.
I got my braces off when I was sixteen. Met my second-ever boyfriend at seventeen, married him at eighteen, had my first child at nineteen. My second at 25. Divorced at 30. Had a bout of disordered eating and obsessive exercise and went on a rampage. Every other weekend, I was kidless and completely free. I worked hard and I played hard. Made up for my wasted early academic potential by sharpening my focus and doing. Made up for my wasted youth by refusing to settle. For each year of my life after the divorce, there is a list of accomplishments: publications, degrees, art exhibitions, speaking engagements. There is also a shadow list, one that my close friends know: people I was entangled with, who I loved and didn’t love me, or who loved me and suffered for it. People I disappointed by wanting different things than them.
On the 2016 New Year’s stage at Times Square, revealed from behind a fan of feathers, Mariah in a beige bodysuit is escorted around the stage by male dancers clad in black. She makes mild efforts to sing along until finally, over pre-recorded back-up tracks of herself hitting the high high notes in the song “Emotions,” she says, defiant in her low speaking voice, “Whatever. This song went to number one.” She does not apologize. Even when performing badly, even when she has clearly messed up. The hope is that one day, if we’re good enough, if we achieve enough, we might be able to finally stop apologizing. I watched the New Year’s Eve performance from a sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor of a living room in a brownstone in Philadelphia. On mattresses around me: my sons, two dear grad school friends and their partners. At midnight, we popped open a bottle of champagne and passed it around, took little sips and then turned out the lights and after a bit of giggling and whispering to one another, went right to sleep. In the morning, we took a family portrait—all seven of us, plus Newton the dog. Then my sons and I piled into our little car and drove the two hours back to Maryland. With money I earned, I paid for the gas, and the tolls, and the car, and the denim shirts we all (including Newton) donned in the pictures.
I dedicated that year, my 35th, to fulfilling the quietened desires of my thirteen-year-old self, the one who counted her sins. When making decisions about what to wear, what to buy, I thought of her. More eyeshadow. Redder lipstick. A sparkly case for my laptop, strapless dresses, a sequined jacket, dazzling gold leather boots to celebrate my own accomplishments. Dangly earrings all the time. When feeling miserably not-enough, I reminded myself of how proud my thirteen-year-old self would be of my dinner dates with fascinating people, nights alone in hotel rooms, lunch meetings in the city. How impressed she’d be by my driving effortlessly at high speeds, by how often my phone rings. The stacks of books I’ve read. The books I wrote. Deadlines. Bylines. An apartment in a high rise and no one to answer to but myself. That year, I stopped removing my facial hair. There wasn’t any time. Or rather, the money was better spent at yoga, or sitting on the couch ordering groceries and any book I wanted. The time was better spent reading. Writing.
I would like the moral of the story to be: out of the depths of repression and self-loathing emerges a woman who doesn’t care what anyone thinks, who is exactly who she’s supposed to be. Who eats what she wants and wears what she wants and loves every photo taken of her, because she has earned her place. Because how she looks is the least interesting thing about her. I wanted to say that I outgrew the vise grip of fear when I stopped tallying my fasts and prayers, and outgrew a culture that taught me marriage as ultimate accomplishment. I wanted to point to Mohammed or Madhuri as the source of the equation: Sacrifice + Devotion = Good. But even without those deities, the theorem rests inside me.
In a 2018 Genius Level interview, Rob Markman compliments Carey on directing the iconic video for “Fantasy” herself. He shows a photo of her standing in the black crop top and jean shorts, pointing with authority, directing the video. She rolls her eyes. “I hate that picture, but yes. I directed it.” I scroll the bar back, pause on the photo. I can’t see what she sees. Here’s what I think I’m trying to say: When someone tells me how impressed they are by how little I care what anyone thinks, I am surprised and uneasy. I am trying so hard. The truth is, I am still keeping count. I think about my stomach with some disgust within hours of waking. The hairs on it, the way it folds over itself. I have written two books, I pay my own bills, I make very good coffee, write very good sentences. My chicken korma would rival anyone’s grandmother’s. I’d be better if my arms were less flabby, if my breasts were a cup size larger. The judgment I am still trying to learn to outgrow is my own.