I accepted a double date invitation from Bruce Chace to go to Cherry Hill East’s junior prom. There’s no other way to put it: Bruce was swishy. He wore immaculately tailored suits and lived in a McMansion’s guest house that had a hot tub. We weren’t really friends, so I can’t figure out why I escorted a blind date as a favor, along with Bruce Chace and his beard. My best guess is I’d just gotten my driver’s permit and had a car, the 1972 Country Squire station wagon, which I rechristened, aspirationally, the “Love Boat.”
A biblical rain came down that night. I dropped off Bruce and our dates; I then drove the Love Boat into the rain, lost and drunk, and sang along to my Purple Rain cassette 30 miles into the Jersey Pines. I took the station wagon deep into Cherry Hill, past Evesham and Ramblewood, way beyond Tabernacle.
New Jersey is so small, I thought. If I just turned around, I’d eventually find home.
Purple Rain’s total running time is 43 minutes and 51 seconds, and those familiar with the film’s soundtrack know the emotional winterreise Prince and the Revolution take the listener on: from “Let’s Go Crazy,” to the do-you-want-him-or-do-you-want-me of “The Beautiful Ones,” to the caterwaul of “Darling Nikki” and falsetto finale of “Purple Rain.” I sang along to it all, and in the process just got more and more lost.
Half crying, I cursed out loud, fuck fuck fuck, and pulled into a Wawa parking lot, the inky sky full of stars. Some Piney kid who worked there played Ms. Pac Man in the corner. He didn’t know how to get back to the highway.
I called home collect. Dad picked up.
“I’m lost,” I said. “I can’t even find the name of the road I’m on.”
He asked where I was, and so I looked outside and tried to read the signs. I couldn’t. He asked me where I thought I was, and I told him the air smelled like cow shit.
He told me to look up at the sky. “Can you find the North Star?”
It felt like we were back in the backyard, looking though the telescope. I started to laugh.
“Find the Big Dipper,” he said. “Look for the two stars at the end of the bowl. Follow the line over to the tip of the Little Dipper. And you’ll see it: Polaris, the North Star.”
“Then,” he said, and this part I remember hearing through the rain, “go the other way.”
Daniel Nester is the author of Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press 2015). He teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY.