Just like that? Oh yeah, just like that.

After the decision of a 12-person jury in Santa Maria, Calif., Michael Jackson is now free to be everything that makes us so uneasy, free to resume sleepovers with whomever he likes at his earliest convenience. (And he must be exhausted.)

For years we've longed for someone to tell us what the heck's going with Michael Jackson. So we had this trial, in which seemingly every piece of his private life was unearthed and examined like the ruins of Pompeii, and we peeked inside the locked closet off Jackson's bathroom and found . . . a Macaulay Culkin doll, still in its original packaging.

Jackson was found not guilty on all 10 counts yesterday. What's it all mean? The decision is rendered but we're no wiser. Pieces of the mystery break off and float to the top: Michael Jackson's bedroom is filled with child mannequins. Michael Jackson was once hand-fed by Liz Taylor. Michael Jackson may or may not wear tighty-whities, may or may not climb trees for inspiration or sleep with his simian friends, who may or may not dirty his room when they refuse to wear diapers. An acquittal doesn't clear his name; it only muddies the waters.

Three years ago it might have seemed impossible that Michael Jackson could seem any more freakish, but then came the trial. What now?

Move to Europe, Michael. They still love you in Europe.

"People say he looks weird," Deborah Dannelly, president of the Michael Jackson Fan Club, said during the trial. "I've been very close to Michael, and I don't think he looks weird."

This is actually completely wrong. If the past few months have proved anything, it's that Jackson is even weirder up close than he is from afar. In Santa Maria, we saw him day in and day out -- our most sustained glimpse since he disappeared down the rabbit hole of fame and eccentricity decades ago. The closer you got, the more he didn't make sense. Up close, that face looks as if it's made from puzzle pieces that weren't meant to fit together.

What took place on the central California coast was essentially a conversation about what happens when a particular combination of wealth and celebrity festers and goes bad. Here was a man of such excess, it seemed, social conventions didn't apply. He could share a bed with children if he wanted to. Star-struck parents loaned their kids out just to be near him. He paid them in jewelry and, later, in settled lawsuits. Remember that scene in the Martin Bashir documentary -- the one that started this whole mess -- when Jackson spent an estimated $1 million in a single shopping trip? He ran around, pointing at everything he liked. There was nothing it seemed that he couldn't buy. We didn't like that.

(Of course, the goings-on among the throngs of media and fans off Miller Avenue in Santa Maria were also a lesson in excess. When a Jackson fan gets his own spokesman, as happened in recent days, we can all agree the world has gone horribly wrong.)

Jackson was what kept us looking, not at the details of the trial, which were far too confusing. To follow a trial, you need a clear timeline, not this mess. When exactly did the alleged molestations take place? Observers were never sure. And there was no sense of good and evil, no sympathetic character to root for. Nearly everyone was dirty, or at the very least, possessed of questionable motives.

There were Jackson's former employees with their petty thievings and their tabloid deals. There was the prosecutor, Tom Sneddon, who was accused of pursuing a 12-year vendetta against Jackson and whose disgust for the pop star's pornography seemed matched only by his desire to keep showing the jury more of it.

There was the accuser's mother, who cried without tears and begged the jury, "Please don't judge me!" the way she must've seen a soap actor do. At one point, apropos of nothing, she peered toward the back of the courtroom and addressed reporters, her hand over her heart to signal sincerity.

"You guys are basically good guys," she said.

And there was Jackson, of course, with his geisha act -- the pale, eerie painted mask, the mincing affectations. During a conversation with the court artist, he held his hands together shyly and grinned, childlike, shrugging his shoulders. When he whispered to attorneys, he put his hand to one side of his face, as if he were sharing secrets on the playground.

Only Jackson would use an arraignment last year as an excuse to entertain, climbing on top of his SUV and dancing before a crowd of cheering fans -- as if he didn't understand the gravity of what he was facing or realize this was a bad reason to be in the public eye. He is a boy star who learned to love the spotlight for any reason; he is Norma Desmond, perpetually ready for his close-up. Each trip he took to the hospital (at least four during the trial) seemed more contrived than the last.

When is Jackson not performing? Maybe when he speaks in the "very normal voice, very male voice" described by the accuser's mother, if you believe her testimony about that. Maybe not even then.

There was a sense of being trapped in the trial, trapped by the inexorable dribble of dirty details. We could not turn away. We thought: This must be the way Jackson's lion felt in its cage at Neverland ranch, when he supposedly threw stones at the poor thing to make it roar.

What were we supposed to think of him?

This is a man who loves symbols that don't mean anything. He wears armbands, medallions and charms that hang from his vest. He used to wear a single glove. Maybe these things mean something to him, but they only confuse us. He is a black man who looks like a white woman, or maybe an Asian woman, or maybe an alien. He is skeletal and wears makeup and talks in a falsetto. He had the world's goodwill in the palm of his hand and he shaped himself into a curio, a Diane Arbus photograph.

According to biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, Jackson made up that story about sleeping in the hyperbaric chamber -- remember that one? -- and leaked it to the media.

"Michael has long had an interest in us thinking he's weird," says Seth Clark Silberman, a lecturer at Yale and a Jackson junkie who last year organized a scholarly conference on the singer. Silberman says the pop star knows we find celebrity "even more fascinating if we think there's something lurid behind it."

The past 20 years of Jackson's life have been primarily about making us uncomfortable. He dances right up to the threshold of our cultural anxieties, then denies doing any such thing. Take race, for example. This trial was not about race, of course -- the only folks who brought up the topic were the Jackson family and Jackson himself. (In a radio interview, he compared himself to other black luminaries who'd been persecuted, such as Nelson Mandela.)

But it was about race, because Jackson is a liminal figure, racially speaking, in a way that makes us really uneasy. He gives every indication of a man who wants to eradicate any sign that he was ever black, even if he insists he's only ever had two plastic surgeries, and just on his nose, to help him breathe better. His spacey denials of things as obvious as the features on his face are disturbing. Against all odds, he seems to expect us to believe him, suggesting he believes himself, suggesting Neverland is less a physical place and more a vacuous state of mind. What's wrong with that guy? He's deep in Neverland, man.

During his closing argument, defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. seemed to allude to this: "Does he look like the kind of person who is even capable of masterminding this kind of criminal conspiracy?"

Jackson toys with gender and sexuality, so those, too, ran through the trial. We wondered how a man so effete and exotic could have an ordinary sex life.

Some historians argue our culture is particularly nervous about sex abuse right now -- that the concern that developed as women entered the workforce in the '70s and blossomed during the day-care abuse scandals of the '80s never went away. So it's fitting that the latest Jackson scandal be about the sanctity of childhood.

He prodded this anxiety over and over in different ways, dangling his baby, "Blanket," over that balcony in Germany. He chose Peter Pan as his inspiration, but at some point he must have discovered that J.M. Barrie, who wrote the fairy tale, was -- some suggested -- a little too interested in children. In the Bashir documentary, he declared on camera that he shared a bed with children.

In the 1983 video for his hit "Thriller," just before turning into a werewolf, Jackson tells his date: "I'm not like other guys."

You can argue about intention, and what's conscious and what's subconscious and all that. But on some level, Jackson wanted us to wonder.

And so it all made sense when this trial happened, and there was a sense of inevitability to the whole thing. Jackson was taunting us. He'd trampled too many sacred cows. The notion of him as a child molester gave us a schema to understand him. It fit so well into what we knew of his life, how he lost his childhood to hard work, how he seems naive and stunted at 12. Ah, we thought when he was charged, he molests little boys. Under the spectral mask and the coral lipstick, we figured, he really was a monster.

(For a lot of people, by the way, this is a most unsatisfying horror movie in which the monster escapes at the end. Now the specter of a sequel hangs over us.)

And at the same time, we couldn't imagine it ending any other way. The vision of Jackson in prison was simply incongruous. It couldn't happen. Could the delicate one stand the strain? Who would hold his umbrella during daily exercise?

So he makes the trip home in his black SUV, back up Figueroa Mountain Road. And we head home too, wondering if we'll have to return to this place, or someplace like it. We take one more drive past the strip malls along Broadway for old times' sake. Past the inn with the stale-smelling lobby and the bar with the mechanical bull. Hit the highway and head south, past the sign for Buellton, "home of split pea soup," toward Los Angeles, land of the living.

We do briefly wonder, whither Tom Sneddon? His past 12 years have been about making Jackson pay and he has utterly failed. He is on the brink of retirement. What's his life been about? What does he do now?

And then we decide we don't really care. We only want to look at Michael Jackson. The pop star himself has made sure of it.

For all the clues dropped at the trial, Michael Jackson, shown leaving the court with attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr. after a jury found him not guilty on all charges, remains an unsolved puzzle.Michael Jackson flashes the peace sign to his fans from atop his limousine after his arraignment.