SHOULD’VE KNOWN BETTER by Joelle Renstrom

September 1, 2011

When I was eight years old, I fell in love with Richard Marx.

You remember this guy? He was so perfectly 80s with his fluffed-up hockey hair, his high-waisted faded jeans, his whiny croon. When I was eight, I had this irrational notion that he’d written “Right Here Waiting” for me, that he was waiting for me to grow up so we could get married. And, of course, so he could avoid those statutory rape charges.

I listened to his tape (fascinatingly titled “Richard Marx”) over and over on a family vacation to the east coast. Actually, I’d listen to the first five songs and then rewind; even though I was in love with him I could admit that the last five songs on the album sucked. After “Hold on to the Nights,” the rest was downhill. But that was okay. I’d forgive him anything, because his great songs moved me in a way that I’d never been moved before. The lyrics were, to my eight-year-old heart and mind, sincere and compelling, and underscored by roving guitar licks and his raspy “ohhh”s that punctuated every other line. Simply put, Richard Marx was love on tape.

I’d sit in the backseat listening and staring out the window wistfully, imagining us finally being together. My fantasies included holing up with Richard Marx on a comfy couch and watching horror movies (I had a particularly vivid fantasy about us watching The Shining), so I could cling to his arm and squeeze in closer when blood sloshed over the elevator doors and those creepy little girls showed up. I imagined us roasting marshmallows, which we’d somehow be able to do in front of the TV, and feeding them to one another, giggling over the melty goo on our fingers and lips.

At some point on that trip, I switched from writing in my diary to writing love letters to Richard. He simply got it, that fundamental thing about love that had become so consuming to me at eight years old, and I tried frantically to communicate to him that I got that he got it. If he understood how well I understood, surely he’d realize that we were meant to be together.

My brother teased me incessantly, calling my crush “Harpo Marx,” “Stretch Marx,” or most maddeningly, “Skid Marx.” I defended my love furiously, sending my little fists raining on my brother’s shoulder in the backseat while he laughed at me.  

Soon after that endless summer of love, my affair with Richard Marx suffered two death blows.

First, upon watching Dirty Dancing, I learned that Patrick Swayze’s initial partner, the blonde dancer who gets an abortion and has to be tended to by Jerry Orbach, was none other than Richard Marx’s wife, Cynthia Rhodes. I re-examined the liner notes and sure enough, they said “for Cynthia.” I was crushed. Sure, she was a great dancer and she wore the hell out of leg warmers and a headband, but Richard Marx was too deep to fall for a leggy blonde. His emotional depths could only be sufficiently expressed by him falling for an eight-year-old from Michigan.

Second, I finally got a response to the numerous love letters I’d sent. One day I received in the mail a postcard inviting me to join the Richard Marx fan club for only twenty dollars. Confused, I took the card to my mom. “Why didn’t he write me back?” I asked her. “Sweetie,” she said, “staffers probably deal with all the mail, and it’s their job to send these cards to everyone who writes to him.” I still didn’t understand. “Why would I have to pay money to be in his fan club?”

This is when my mom sat me down and told me that my affair with Richard Marx was about money, not love. “You mean, he didn’t even read my letters?” I asked her. She shook her head and hugged me while I sobbed.

This was the first, but certainly not the last, love affair constructed and conducted entirely in my head.

In retrospect, I realize that my crush on Richard Marx was an early indicator of my tendency to get caught in emotional avalanches, and probably isn’t unrelated to my soft spot for hockey players (and thus, mullets). I had to learn the realities of love sometime, I suppose, and I’m proud to say that I’ve never paid $20 to be anyone’s admirer. Still, every now and then, I hear Richard Marx on an elevator and a flush creeps up my neck. I get tongue-tied and gaze at my shoes and fantasize about him saving me when the doors get stuck. 

Joelle Renstrom lives in Boston where she teaches writing and science fiction at Boston University. She received her Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Carousel,The Minnetonka Review, The Sycamore ReviewGuernicaBriarpatch and others; a chapbook of her poetry was published by the University of Arkansas Press. She is a recipient of the CBC Television Jim Burt Prize in Creative Writing, the Hopwood Award for Poetry, and the Virginia Voss Writing Award. She recently finished a collection of essays about the intersection of literature and life.

 Samples of her work can be found on her website:

 www.joellerenstrom.com/publications.html

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36 Responses to SHOULD’VE KNOWN BETTER by Joelle Renstrom

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