WASHINGTON - If Michael Jackson had married me, none of this would have happened.
That was the plan, from way back in elementary school. I was going to graduate, become a world-famous model and actress, and marry Michael Jackson.
There were several scenarios as to how this would happen, most of them dreamed up as I lay on my pink bedspread with yellow, green, and blue butterflies in Indianapolis, about 150 miles from his hometown of Gary.
I fell in love with Michael listening to Jackson 5 45s and LPs. For women of my generation, loving Michael was a rite of passage. We first saw him on The Ed Sullivan Show or American Bandstand or on the pages of teen magazines like Right On! We fell in love with Michael before he became the world's "Thriller," when he was still chocolate brown and had a wide nose and a big Afro and belted out love songs in a voice that hadn't yet changed.
We didn't have videos, but we saw him every night in our dreams, where he sang to us the way a man sings to a woman he loves deep down in his soul.
I had a special relationship with Michael, one that I argued about with girlfriends as we debated who was better suited to be Michael's wife. "People today just don't understand how much he meant to us," said Carolyn Winbush, 52, a nurse in suburban Bowie, Md., who has been mourning by playing her Jackson records with her two daughters. "We just loved him. There is no other way to describe it. There is no relationship today like we had with Michael."
While today's tweens, teens, Gen-Xers, and millennials feel the pain of Michael's passing, they haven't loved him long enough to feel it as deeply as the baby boomers of his generation.
They love the superstar he became after moonwalking on Motown 25; we were there when the Jackson 5 were competing with the Osmonds for most-talented musical family. Since his death, they've devoured his CDs on Amazon, while we've headed to the attic to pull our old albums out of cardboard boxes.
"We had him first. We grew up with him," Winbush said. "He was our age. That was the debate I was having with my daughters. Everybody would know when the Jackson 5 was going to be on and everybody would watch it back then. There was pure excitement and pride, and love that was so deep."
We did cheerleading routines to his songs. We had our first slow dances to "Maybe Tomorrow" and our first kisses to "I'll Be There."
We broke up with boys in middle school because they never measured up to Michael.
"There is a Michael Jackson song to go along with every phase of our childhood," said Cheries McElroy Dupee of Des Moines, my high school best friend. "His music defined us."
We spent long afternoons fantasizing about meeting Michael. I went to every J-5 concert, including one when I was in the eighth grade. I saved my babysitting money for weeks to buy a ticket, sixth row center - close enough, I thought, for Michael to see me from the stage.
I blew more babysitting money on a white jumpsuit, something that would catch the stage lights. In my plan, the house lights go down as Michael begins to sing. Suddenly, connecting with him on a psychic level as none of the other 49,999 screaming fans can, I stand up. The lights stop on me, Michael notices and beckons for his stage manager. By the time Michael segues from "Never Can Say Goodbye" to "Got to Be There," I'm onstage. He looks deep into my eyes, tells me I'm the most beautiful girl he's ever seen, and asks me to marry him, right there in front of everybody.
I've spent most of my waking hours since his death remembering Michael. I had a party with some girlfriends where we sang to Michael's LPs, danced to his videos, and ate pizza. It was like a slumber party again, until we started talking about recent years, after the nose jobs and the skin and the balcony scene.
He had changed, but we loved him anyway. We never turned on him, as the newbies had, only to come flocking back after his passing. We always knew his idiosyncrasies had resulted from failing to find personal happiness because he focused on giving it to us.
In one televised interview I've seen repeatedly in my electronic vigil, a tiny Michael in black and white described how he put so much feeling into his songs. "I don't sing it if I don't mean it," he said.
That interview melded to a grown Michael, skin white and lips red, describing how he had spent three hours a day with a tutor before heading to the recording studio to work late. A park was near the studio, and every day he saw children playing there, he said.
And he would cry because he never got a chance to play.
That's when I cried, for the boy I had loved, the sadness he had obviously lived, and the tragedy that he died before he got another chance to be happy.