In Madrid, there is a man who wakes up. Let’s call him Miguel,
though that is not his real name. He sleeps in tight black briefs, nothing
more. His hair is bushy, straggled. He is pale, exceedingly thin, his Adam’s
apple a separate entity. Here is how he starts his day. Standing straight
on a mattress on the floor of his small bedroom, he grabs his ankles. The
mattress is in the middle of the room, placed there to make the most of
a ceiling fan. Standing on his mattress, his feet where his heart would
be if he were sleeping, he pulls his head between his knees so the blood
rushes down. He stays in that position, getting dizzier, until a red cape
snaps across his sight, until he can no longer bear it. He then does a
forward roll toward the foot of the mattress. It feels like diving into
the day, he thinks. He tucks his head under the rest of him and his long
legs tumble over. And when his head comes out of the roll on top again,
he stands at the edge of the mattress. He is extraordinarily graceful.
He has been dancing for many years now. He started, privately, long
ago. At first, he did it as a joke. He had graduated from the University
of Madrid with a degree in letters, but had no interest in securing a task
or pursuing a trade. After seeing him dance at a party, his friends insisted
he study a few videos, practice all the moves, and buy a pair of white
gloves and a portable tape player to carry to El Parque del Buen Retiro.
The first time he dressed in black and pushed his fingers into the one
white glove he brought to the park, he felt liberated. He spun, kicked
his leg in a zig-zag, pointed his white gloved hand to the right as he
looked left, his thin body frozen for an instant. He then grabbed his crotch,
gave a high-pitched grunt, and attempted his first moonwalk. Having trained
as a bullfighter in his youth, many of the moves came naturally. The moonwalk,
however—the hallmark of any such dancer—gave him trouble.
The moonwalk entails a slide back with the left foot while the right
balances on its toes, then a slide back with the right foot while the left
balances on its toes, et cetera. He knew he had too much bend in the knee,
knew he stuck his rear out too far to ever float over the pavement of El
Parque del Buen Retiro. He knew these things, but he persisted and
practiced, and gradually his moonwalk improved. His first attempts at the
moonwalk had seemed more like a shuffling little strut in reverse. But
after a few months, his moonwalk became as recognizable a move as any other.
He made good money, most days. Tourists and lovers who promenaded along
the park’s rectangular lake laughed and threw pesetas into the top hat
he placed in front of his tape player. Occasionally a West African, one
of many who lounged at the feet of the monstrous lion statues that guarded
the park’s monument to Columbus on the other side of the artificial lake,
would watch for a while, smile, and toss a purro into his top hat.
The impersonator at first tried to maintain a very serious, straight
face, even though all those around him laughed openly, made quick and presumably
snide comments, and sometimes even impersonated the impersonator’s impersonation.
But instead of smiling at those who either laughed at him or elaborately
aped an awkward move, the impersonator grimaced. He grimaced, not
at the fact that he was now a popular clown, after once having been a promising
student, but more so, he grimaced at his execution. His moonwalk, he knew,
despite months of practice, was still more a parody than an impersonation.
And this bothered him, made him grimace, for his goal at the time was exact
duplication. Whereas at first he cupped his crotch in his palm and exaggeratedly
squeezed, for example, he now realized that a true impersonator
would only rest the fat of the palm on the pubis, then shift the hand upwards
then back down again. Never did one squeeze. For quite a long time,
he had in fact squeezed, however, and only now did he realize that his
technique was all wrong. And so he grimaced, for it was possible that all
the moves he had practiced while watching a tape of the famous Apollo Theater
show were hardly exact. The television, after all, was not a mirror.
As he danced on the park’s promenade, he watched his legs, studied the
movement of his feet, compared them to his memory of Michael’s in the “Billie
Jean” video. His left cheek froze in disgust, forcing his right eye to
close in a disturbed squint. Those who watched, however, believed that
this look was an essential part of the act. They assumed that, not only
was he a white Michael Jackson impersonator, but he was an overly self-critical
one, as well. Madrid’s young lovers centered dates around The White
Michael, who they thought looked more like a cross between Marcel Marceau
(the famous mime) and Syd Barrett than the King of Pop in red-leather zipper
jacket and jheri curl. The White Michael who focused all concentration
on the perfect zig-zagging leg kick and spin that ended with him grabbing
his crotch, frozen on his toes. The White Michael who squinted his eyes
in negative assessment of his latest point left, look right move,
frustration with his technique so sadly blinding him to the adoration of
all those who lingered on benches across the promenade or casually smiled
as they, for example, gave a Dutch tourist a hair wrap. But the impersonator
seemed more like he was doing a line-by-line recitation of a list of moves
rather than dancing in time with the recording of “P.Y.T.” on his tape
player, grimacing all the while. And then, at the end of each song, he
stood with his bare hand to his forehead, eyeing the pavement as though
insulted by something it said, all set to tear the promenade to pieces
with his one white glove.
One morning, after more than a decade of daily impersonation, he woke,
stood on his mattress and stretched, placed head between knees, and when
he began rolling forward and jumping back to his feet, one foot awkwardly
hit the floor, and he fell. He twisted his ankle. He would not be able
to dance that day. Perhaps he would miss many days. Thankfully there was
a cane in his room. The cane was left by an old friend who, when he stopped
strolling, would lean on it with two hands, one on top of the other—an
affectation that, for the impersonator at least, turned the clock back
several decades. One day, however, the friend left the cane at the impersonator’s
apartment, where it remained untouched for years after the friend disappeared,
as all his friends had, one by one over the years.
The impersonator used the cane the morning he injured his ankle to limp
to his spot at El Parque del Buen Retiro. Sitting on a bench across
from where he usually danced, he felt relieved to see his workplace free.
Every day he had danced there, and by doing so, had occupied the experience
of everyone along the promenade. Then one day he twisted his ankle, tried
to simply sit as a spectator. He sat on a bench and saw all those who had
spent hours watching him perfect the moonwalk. They strolled by, focused
on the empty space where the impersonator had danced, never seeing the
injured dancer a few feet away, just another anonymous body with a bench
to himself and hours to kill, sitting with his back to the park’s artificial
In another part of the park, a man with a tattooed face performs his
own songs. Shaking a jar of change for rhythm, he steps in time to the
left, then to the right, and sings rather wonderfully, albeit in a language
no one understands. But because he holds this jar of coins and uses it
for rhythm, rarely does anyone give the man a coin, since the song would
stop, the rhythm would end, and the giving of the gift would be too conspicuous.
Sitting on the bench opposite where he usually danced, the impersonator
remembered how someone had once dropped a black kitten into his hat. He
chased after the donator, hat in hand, kitten wailing, clawing the brim,
nearly bounding out. The impersonator gave the cat back. It would have
starved. He couldn’t raise a kitten. He lacked the time and the attention.
The donator said he should incorporate the cat into the act, pretend it’s
the panther in the “Billie Jean” video. But the impersonator thought a
kitten’s presence would harm his work, make him soft. Such sacrifices come
with the territory, the impersonator reasoned, sitting on the bench, tapping
the cane on the promenade’s rich pavement.
The impersonator sat on the bench and thought: “If it had not been for
Michael Jackson, I might have done so many things—everything—but, because
Michael Jackson exists, I do what I do, am what I am.” The impersonator,
now gloveless, sat with an injured ankle—an empty workplace in front of
him, a large rectangular lake in which couples lazed in small rowboats
behind him—tallying his memories:
He had been on television several times.
He had been mentioned in several traveler’s guides to Madrid.
He had often been invited to parties at which, no matter how poorly
he moonwalked, he’d been the star.
People had thrown coins, slips of paper with phone numbers on them,
joints of hashish mixed with tobacco, room keys, underwear, everything
imaginable (a kitten!) into his top hat: it was a wishing well, he thought,
an alms receptacle for those who spent their Sundays in the park while
he tried his best, like a channeller of spirits at a séance, to
make someone he was not materialize before everyone’s eyes.
He had once met Diana Ross. She was vacationing in Spain. She told him
through an interpreter that he was twenty years ahead of Michael.
“When Michael’s sixty, honey, he’ll be doing you now.” Despite what Diana
Ross had said about Michael eventually impersonating him, maybe it was
time to give it up, thought the impersonator, sitting on a bench with the
artificial lake behind him. The anonymity of the bench pleased him; sitting
there was almost as liberating as his first few attempts at impersonation.
But what was there to perfect? And how would he pay his rent and feed himself,
not to mention all the ducks and pigeons he’d befriend? He had to admit
it was in his blood, it was what he did: he was an impersonator, he was
the real thing, he knew it. Yet he also felt he was very close to turning
the moves he made into something so real no one would consider him an impersonator
any more. If he just kept it up for as long as he lived, he knew one day
he would be as real as Michael Jackson.
As he sat on the bench, he wondered where Michael Jackson was at that
exact moment, what he was thinking. Surely Michael was not sitting on a
bench somewhere wondering where his impersonators were. He thought about
the joke: “What’s the difference between the astronaut Neil Armstrong and
the singer Michael Jackson?” According to the friend who’d told him it,
the punch line went something like “Well, Neil Armstrong walked on the
moon. Michael Jackson fucks little boys.” He’d snorted when he heard it,
but now that such serious concerns about Michael Jackson’s alleged tendencies
had become all too common, he realized that he would soon have to do more
than impersonate. Yes. He knew he’d have to do more or else forever be
considered a sicko by association.
He would strip down to just his black briefs. Dive into the rectangular
lake behind the bench. Swim and kick despite his sprained ankle. Then drive
himself under. Hold his breath until the murky water lured him further
on. He’d become, with each second that passed, more like a charging bull,
more like a sleek porpoise or seal, more like something he was not and
could never be.
And then he’d burst to the surface, having swum underwater more than
halfway across the artificial lake. Details on the faces of the stone lions
that guarded the Columbus statue would become more focused. He’d roll over
onto his back, lightly kick at the water, his arms out like wings. Over
the churned water of his wake, he’d see the promenade, the line of trees
that had always been to his back as he danced, that cast cool shadows over
him each afternoon. And he’d kick and float on his back toward the Columbus
statue, feeling refreshed, preparing himself for what he’d do when he made
it to the other side of the lake.
Finally, he’d reach the concrete edge of the water, pull himself over
the ornate cast-iron railing. Up close, each of the lions’ teeth would
seem twice as tall as he was. Each tooth perfectly solid in those mouths,
especially compared to him: his once-straggly poof of hair hanging to his
shoulders where it wasn’t water-shellacked to his scalp, his soaked pale
skin, his clingy black briefs. It’d still be too early in the day for the
drummers: they’d show up in the late afternoon and play until the sun dropped
over the trees on the other side of the lake. And so he would hear nothing
except the distant sounds of Madrid’s traffic, a duck’s splash, the electronic
whine of a toy sailboat doing figure eights across the water, controlled
by a silent young boy. This at first wouldn’t seem like quite enough music,
but he’d work with what he had. It’d still be too hot for the West Africans,
who lounged on the other side of the lions at this hour, but the heat would
feel good on his pale skin. He’d position himself beneath the mouth of
the southernmost lion, then tilt his head to hear it all better. He’d immediately
become conscious of concentrating too hard to hear all of Madrid at once,
and so he’d decide to forget about hearing in favor of moving. Kick his
bare leg in a zig-zag, look left, point right, then do a jump.
He’d never done a jump like that, he’d never thrown his hands out and
twisted around while still in the air, hitting the ground to jump again
and twist, repeating it, then standing still, trying to move his whole
body through just a sudden jerk of the knees, letting all his movements
originate in his navel, his nostrils, his tongue, his teeth. His ankle
would no longer hurt him. It’d get later in the day and he’d still be dancing,
sweating, until the afternoon crowd would appear and the drummers would
play, translating his movements into rhythms so loud and chaotic they’d
make the lions shake off their stone encasements, roar with life, and carry
the dancer in their mouths as they galloped through the park, running faster
and faster until their golden coats were lost in the sunlight that fell
behind the trees lining the promenade, where a crowd had gathered around
an elderly man who’d dressed a young panther in diapers, top hat, and bow
tie—a young panther that the man had apparently trained to skip on its
hind paws and sing in a voice that sounded like Sinatra’s in his prime.
And the impersonator, sitting on a bench with his back to the park’s artificial
lake, thought that as he flew over his replacement, he might find a bright
new coin in the airborne lion’s mouth, drop it into the old man’s cup,
and then get on with it, go home: Vaya!