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Vanessa fidgeted with a straw in the crystal tumbler. She had expected to be nervous when she accepted the invitation to Paisley Park. She knew she would wrestle with the basics: how to respond to the first come on, whether to seem eager or play it cool, whether to view the inevitable trip to the bedroom as an opportunity (cynical wisdom) or an adventure (traces of innocence left over from her twenties). But nothing had prepared Vanessa for the conversation that began once she was escorted from the limousine and ushered up to the parlor on the highest floor, a spacious expanse of cream-colored walls and burgundy furnishings illuminated through slanted sheets of stained purple glass.
“Tell me about that song,” Prince said as he leaned forward on the leather ottoman and adjusted the tails of a periwinkle jacket. “You know the one I mean.”
Vanessa shifted on the tasseled cushions of a love seat. For the better part of an hour, ever since she arrived at the mansion, she had been trying to find something else to talk about: the platinum records framed between tied-off silk curtains or the white Stratocaster hung above a marble fireplace. She would have settled for a discussion of the bubbles in her club soda. Each time Vanessa attempted to move the topic away from herself, away from a reluctant account of what remained of her musical career, the host kept bringing it right back.
“No need to be coy,” Prince said. “You know you did something good.”
If this was his method of seduction, it was working. Vanessa felt her cheeks flush. She could see where the man got the material for his songs. What Vanessa did not understand, however, is why he would bother, why he would still insist on working so hard at getting laid. Perhaps, she thought, he just liked to play his little games. Maybe that’s what kept it interesting after all these years. But, of course, that didn’t explain why, out of all of the eligible candidates in the Twin Cities tonight, he had chosen to play his game with her, why he would send his personal assistant—in a high-collared pinstriped jacket, no less—to greet her when she came offstage at Bedlam and invite her to the estate for a nightcap.
“You can take them off if you want to.” Prince was gesturing with an open palm towards Vanessa’s Doc Martens. She was running her shoes through the lush fabric of the cream-colored rug. “Everyone wants to know how soft it is.”
“The carpeting?” Vanessa said.
Vanessa took a sip of her drink and said she was fine.
“Whatever makes you feel comfortable,” Prince said. “What were you wearing when you wrote that song?”
It always came back to that song, the untitled anthem she had been closing her sets with for a decade. Vanessa knew she had something special the moment she wrote it: a blend of funk chords set against a stark plaintive melody, haughty and haunting all at once. It felt less like a song to her than a creature, an entity, some form of life that existed solely in the realm of sound.
She had written it during a feverish weekend in her early twenties. Those were the days she shared a fifth-floor walk-up with three roommates and still believed she could screw the system with a hit single. The song had never been released except on the CDs that Vanessa sold at the clubs after each gig. As far as she knew, it had never made an impact on anyone outside of her small fan base until tonight.
Prince had apparently been listening to her performance through the PA system in a private room behind the bar. There were rumors that he had private rooms in clubs all across Minneapolis and St. Paul—a way of keeping up with the new music without drawing attention to himself.
“I can’t remember what I was wearing,” Vanessa said.
“It doesn’t matter,” Prince told her. “But you did write the song on the piano, didn’t you?”
“Keyboard,” Vanessa said.
“I knew it. I could tell by the chords. You may be a tough girl onstage but once upon a time you had a mother who made you practice your scales when the other kids were out playing.”
It had been a long journey for Vanessa from those piano lessons to garage bands to a brief flirtation with blue-eyed funk before she started performing solo with an amplified acoustic guitar. There had been dreams of greater success, of course—headlining in hockey arenas, guest slots at packed stadiums—but Vanessa was well aware of how the supermarkets and the savings banks and the shopping malls across America were staffed with weekend musicians who would have killed for what she had: three to five gigs a week and a twitter account with tens of thousands of followers scattered across the Twin Cities.
“Your mother knew what she was doing,” Prince said. “A song like that happens once or twice in a lifetime. If you’re lucky.”
“Could it be a hit?”
Vanessa blushed as soon as the words left her mouth. Although she was willing to acknowledge that whoring herself to a faded pop star was the best career move available to her right now—perhaps the only one left—she didn’t want to be so damn obvious about it. Then again, to paraphrase one of her favorite Prince lyrics, it was much too late to be shy.
“Those days are over,” Prince said. “At least for most of us.”
“I’m sure you could have another hit anytime you wanted,” Vanessa said.
“I’ve already had more than I could bear.”
Prince took a sip of club soda and then placed the crystal glass on a leather coaster wedged in the corner of a zebra-skinned cocktail table.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I’ve got no right to complain. I made my peace with this business a long time ago.”
Vanessa leaned forward.
“I’m not sure I ever will,” she said.
“You don’t strike me as the kind of girl who’s afraid of doing what needs to be done,” he said. “You weren’t afraid when you wrote your song, were you?”
“It was the third bar of the bridge, wasn’t it? I could feel the hesitation.”
Vanessa could still remember how, even in the throes of her greatest inspiration, the Saturday she abstained from everything—food, sex, even the pleasure of a cigarette—that time when the rest of the world could go to hell because she was composing the greatest song she would ever write, there was still a moment of trepidation as she reached the bridge, an instant where she had to consider whether she was, in fact, simply full of shit.
It was a distinct possibility. Vanessa had already quit two bands because of disagreements about the quality of her songwriting. She liked to blame it on the limited imaginations of her band mates—she had a particular contempt for the bass-player who was fixated on mid-tempo dance grooves. But she also knew that there was a fine line between originality and incompetence. In the end, genius was in the eye of the beholder.
Although Vanessa managed to barrel her way through to the final chorus and complete the song, there was always something missing in the bridge, an emptiness that lingered in the third bar. After many months of trying to find a successful harmonic resolution, she gave up. The awkward melody became a badge of distinction, a manifestation of her quirky allure. She began earning standing ovations everywhere from bowling alleys to dive bars. There was no need to keep searching for missing notes.
“You can still learn if you want to,” Prince said.
“How to not be afraid of writing a song?”
“Among other things.”
Vanessa decided this was her cue. If she was going to see this through to the end, she would have to act now.
“Will you show me?” she said.
“I thought you would never ask.”
Prince floated off the ottoman and offered his hand to Vanessa. They proceeded down a vestibule lit only by electric torches. Framed black and white nudes—both men and women—were hung between the light fixtures. Trophies, Vanessa figured. She wondered if she would get a chance to pose for her own portrait or if you had to earn your spot on the wall.
“I was once a pretty young thing like you,” Prince said as they turned left down a mahogany-paneled corridor. “Believe it or not, I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
Vanessa felt her palms growing clammy as they proceeded down a high-arched passage with panels of dark marble extending to the vaulted ceiling. She wasn’t particularly nervous about the sex. She had slept with enough aspiring rock stars to know that one dick was not all that much different from the rest. Seeing Prince naked would be neither a delight nor a disappointment. She was more concerned about what would happen when they got their clothes back on.
Although Vanessa liked to think of herself—or at least project herself—as street smart, she had no experience in leveraging one-night-stands into anything more advantageous than a taxi ride home. She didn’t want to leave Paisley Park with nothing to show for it.
“I’m sorry we had to walk so far,” Prince said as they approached the padded metal door at the end of the passage. “This is the quietest part of the house.”
Vanessa couldn’t say for sure what she expected to see when Prince turned the steel knob. At some level, she had anticipated a clichéd master bedroom with bearskin rugs and a roaring fireplace. But it wouldn’t have been surprising to see something more clinical, furniture that was cold, metallic and stark like his early dance music. What she certainly did not expect to see was a recording studio.
Vanessa’s gaze shifted from the purple façade over the reference monitors to the woodcarvings on the arched ceiling. Two couches—one purple, one red—bracketed the electric guitars hung from an oak-trimmed wall. Vanessa followed Prince down three carpeted steps past a mixing console with what seemed to be an infinite series of switches and knobs.
“I’m sorry if you were expecting the orgy room,” Prince said. “It’s closed for renovation.”
Vanessa didn’t know what to say. She started to follow Prince towards an array of keyboards, stopping for a moment to run her finger down the thick E-string on a guitar propped up on a metal stand, the model with the interlocking symbols of the masculine and the feminine welded to a white fret board. The instrument was designed to look like the glyph Prince had used instead of a name when he was still fighting with Warner Brothers, trying to force the record company to keep up with the pace of his productivity and put out more albums.
“I come here every night,” Prince said as he twirled the round cushion of a piano stool. “It’s part of my deal.”
“Everyone has to make a deal in this business,” Prince said. “Most people figure if you want to get ahead then you have to make a deal with the devil. I went the opposite way. I made my deal with God. It’s worked out pretty well, but I do have to keep up my end.”
Prince gestured behind the mixing console towards a rounded door bathed in soft neon purple light. With a network of metal rods radiating across the chrome surface, Vanessa knew all at once that it must be the entrance to the Vault. Like everyone else in the Twin Cities—like everyone who had even a passing interest in popular music—Vanessa knew the legend of the Vault, the strong room filled with the masters of thousands of tracks Prince had recorded but never released.
“You have to make a new song every night, don’t you?” Vanessa said.
“Every single one,” Prince said. “It’s somewhere between a habit and heaven.”
“You can’t help yourself.”
“I never could.”
Prince leaned over the keyboard and played an arpeggio that slowly decayed into a low resonant hum, a soft moan hovering on the edge of silence.
“So I bet you’re wondering what this has to do with you,” he said.
“You know that I can play every instrument here myself,” Prince said. “I can be whatever I need to be: the man, the woman, the sky, the stars. Most nights, I can climb up to heaven and bring back my own salvation. But sometimes, like tonight, I just feel like I need a little bit of accompaniment.”
Prince gestured towards the keyboard.
“I only use that to write songs,” Vanessa said.
“When you’re alone.”
“When I’m alone.”
“You can share your loneliness with me tonight,” Prince said, “if you want to.”
Prince walked across the wooden floor to the white grand piano set up next to a mirrored wall panel. He pulled out the bench and carried it to the keyboard, kicking the stool aside as he set it down. Lifting the tails of his jacket, he slid onto the cushion and indicated that Vanessa should join him.
“What do you want to play?” Vanessa asked as she lowered herself onto the bench.
“Girl, do you have any doubts?”
Vanessa gingerly placed her fingers on the keys and struck the opening chord.
“You never did tell me the title,” Prince said.
“It doesn’t have one.”
“I guess I’m not surprised.” Prince hummed a bit of the melody. “It sounds like a question mark set to music.”
“If you ever did figure out a title, you’d probably never want to play it again.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“You ask the best questions.”
Vanessa began to play, awkwardly at first. It was difficult not be aware of her audience. She started and stopped three times, struggling to get the chords right as she stammered through the first stanza. By the second stanza, she had recovered. She voiced each syllable with a kind of tender interrogation, investigating the implications of each word before she let it go.
“Is anyone ever going to hear this?” Vanessa asked after gliding through a chorus. “Anyone besides us?”
“Oh Vanessa,” Prince said. “Does it really matter?”
Vanessa couldn’t say for sure as she played the riff that carried her to the bridge. She sang the first two bars solo and then she heard it, a tiny whispered squeal in that one empty space, a squeal that was so perfect in pitch and placement it made her tremble, the kind of involuntary shudder she had always imagined she would feel when she finally heard herself for the first time singing on the radio.