I Was Her Stepdad. Now I’m Just Pete.


I’m not saying it was ‘loud,’” I say to the kid. “I’m saying it was nuclear-grade. I’m saying it was, like, squealing karaoke Armageddon. I’m saying it was insane.”

Beside me in the passenger seat, she’s playing it cool. Even now, though, an hour or so after the last encore, you can tell she’s amped up and abuzz, still tingling with that adrenal post-concert elation that—old though I may be—I recognize very, very well.

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“I dunno,” she says, deadpan.

“Dude, it was scary! Didn’t you think?”

“What I think,” she allows, with some faint teenaged side-eye, “is that if I would’ve been the girl he pulled up from the crowd? And gave those flowers to?”

“Yeah?”

“I think,” she says, and there’s mischievous little blaze in her eyes. “I think I would’ve played it way cooler.”

“Sweetie,” I say, my eyes swinging back to the road, “I have no doubt.”

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Grow up playing in bands and going to shows, spend a life in echoing arenas and overcrammed bars, and you will, I promise, know about noise.

So I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I have never heard any sound—no bone-rattling thunderclap, no shriek of feedbacking guitar—remotely as mind-stunning, as deafening and huge, as the EEEEEEE that went up the instant the lights went down in the concert hall and we all became aware that, in bare seconds, Justin Bieber would take the stage.

You felt it, that sound, in your organs, your viscera. You felt it in your teeth.

Later I’d say that it was, in the original sense, sublime.

“Dude!” I had shouted over to the kid, who of course couldn’t hear me, though she grinned and grinned, a frantic sort of wonder stealing across her face.

Put it like this: I was glad to the brink of fear.

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Much of this was just the gladness of the kid herself. A few days shy of 14—this, the Bieber concert, was her present from me—she had walked around the packed pre-show venue all at once keyed up, wide-eyed, and a faint bit nervous. This was surprising. In her daily life she was so steady in herself and, I kept telling people, cool: so self-possessed and sweet-tempered that she was forever putting to rout all the horror stories people try to sell you about teenaged girls, their volatility, their unique awfulness. She was a lot of things, this kid, but “awful” was none of them. She had this watchful easygoingness that never failed to strike me as, if not miraculous, something pretty near to it.

For all that equability, though, she’d kept herself close to me as we navigated our way through the surging crush of kids and suburban parents at the merch table. Again and again she huddled in, reaching for my elbow with more urgency than she’d done in years and years.

I should probably say that I had not actually lived with her for quite some time. She was my younger stepdaughter. Or she had been—until, a few years before, with a shattering abruptness, her mother had left me. The stunned sorrow of that dissolution was pretty well behind us by this time, though of course other wrenching little puzzles remained. For instance: As far as the girls were concerned, I was—what, exactly? The man who used to be married to their mom? Their ex-stepdad? It was not especially easy to say.

We would just have to make it up, the three of us, season by season and day by day.

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I won’t tell you this wasn’t a kind of heartbreak, my newly nameless status in the girls’ lives, because of course it was. I knew well enough that, whatever we were to be for one another, it would forever be a thing uncertified, nonofficial. We would just have to make it up, the three of us, season by season and day by day.

And so, in our dinners out or on in-town walks or in any of the multitude of animated ice-cream-parlor disputes over bands and boys and records, I was mostly just Pete.

Pete are you gonna finish that? Oh my god Pete you are so wrong about Katy Perry!

That, at any rate, is what I was that night, as we went braving our way among the jubilant tween hordes: just Pete.

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You wouldn’t think a Bieber concert would be the most contemplative space. Nevertheless, as I followed her through the arena, I kept finding myself drifting away on little inward reveries. You know that party conversation you have with friends of roughly the same age, where everybody confesses to their first-ever concert? (Mine was Van Halen, HELL YEAH.) I thought and thought and thought about that—that funny little world-making ritual—as we meandered through the congested corridors and angled in the vague direction of our nosebleed seats.

This, the Bieber show, was her first-ever concert. It would always be her first concert. And here she was—with me.

“Pete,” she said, swag now in hand. “Can we find our spot? I wanna be, like, ready.”

Even then, before he’d grown into his tattooed-millionaire twenties—back when he was riding the global wave of “Baby,” his first mega-hit—it was easy to look at Justin Bieber and see that most familiar species of well-monetized fraud: the mass-marketed pop impostor. Such are the mechanics of pop superstardom: Everything about it alerts you to its confected phoniness, its algorithmicized reverse-engineering. This is no less true, god knows, of teen stars—in part because there is not a lot more belittled and mistrusted, out in the wide world, than the enthusiasms of girls.

And yet, and yet.

I don’t think it was just the kid’s own enthusiasm, her wondrous and unfeigned delight, that had worked a kind of contagious magic on me. Whatever the case, I straight-up loved that first Bieber record. Have you listened to “Baby” lately? You should.

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It is chirpy tween heroin: catchy like a virus, gleaming with studio polish, giddy and silly and sweet, and buoyed along by—of all hilarious things—a rap interlude by Ludacris, tuned up for the seventh-grade set and dropped smack in the middle of it.

Forever floating around the rafters of my consciousness back then was a vision of both girls, buckled into the back seat and burbling along word by word, until the great culmination: “Don’t need no Starbucks”—and then, in semi-hysterical unison, “WHOOO!” Disparage Bieber all you want, but nothing can diminish the exuberance of that one sparkling track.

Still, it nagged at me, the specter of fraudulence. But then, it always nagged at me. After all, when you’re an ex-stepparent, you are forever thinking about the category of “the impostor.” How could it be otherwise? From your untitled and precarious position, you think a lot about what it means to be marooned from familial attachment. You never cease knowing that, whatever you are or will be for these kids you delight in and worry over and cherish, for a lot of people it will just seem quasi-real. You think what I guess all parents think, though from an angle very much your own: What are we going to be for one another? What will become of all that love?

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But there we were, the kid and me. And there—after the terrifying cyclone of noise had decrescendoed—was Bieber himself. In these pubescent days, his physique was roughly that of a folded-up ironing board. He wore, over the course of the show, three tracksuits: white, black, red. His sneakers matched. At one point, guitar in hand, he clambered into a heart-shaped carriage-swing contraption, and floated out over the heads of the astonished crowd.

I thought I might never stop laughing.

“That,” I shouted, “is 104 pounds of solid-gold SHOWMAN right there.”

All throughout, I kept stealing glances at the kid, at her in-seat dance-moves, her sing-along rhapsodies, those passages of pure teenaged transport. Now and then she’d look back and strike a superstar pose, mock-glam.

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And then, with a tracksuited Bieber and 8,000 tweens as witness, a new thought dawned. Maybe he was a bit of pop merchandise, a knock-off imitation. Look at the kid, though. Look at that lit-up elation. Look at that—you’d have to call it love.

Imposture, fraud, fabulation: maybe these were not always the right words. Or maybe, in the vicinity of your loves, you could do a lot worse.

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So what would you have done?” I’m saying. “If you’d been the one he pulled on stage?”

“Oh,” she says, cueing up the next track for our drive. “I’d have just been like”—setting her expression to maximum chill—“Oh. Oh hey, Justin Bieber.”

“Dude,” I say, “you’re a star.”

She gives me another sidelong grin, half teenaged irony and half little-kid brightness. And then a big sigh. “I know, right?”



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