It’s funny to see how markedly our posts change from the late-childhood to early-adolescence period. There’s been more written on the unbearable awfulness and hilarity of that time of life than I could possibly hope to capture here, so I’ll refrain from waxing philosophical about what it means to grow up, or feel adult feelings for the first time. And looking at it from the outside–that is, as an adult watching kids become teenagers, or trying to capture the meaning of that transition–always seems so inadequate. On the other side of puberty, nothing seems as important or embarrassing or exciting as it was in that moment, and it’s tempting to do a little condescension-dance, even (or especially) about our (my) former selves. And frankly, most of the time, those teenage selves–with all their self-centered, drama-queen myopia–deserve it. But because this little project is about, as much as possible, remembering, I want to try to bracket the urge to qualify or apologize for my 13-year-old self, and see if I can give you a bit of a window into how she became who she was–angsty teenage narcissism and all. Interestingly, I think this will necessarily be something of a failing proposition: we live forwards but understand backwards, as Kierkegaard says, so I don’t pretend to offer you something about who I “really was,” if by that we have in mind some access to True Lived Experience. But what I do have is this, such as it is.
When I was almost 12, my family moved out of our main-road house, a few miles down the road into a “real neighborhood,” with a suburban entrance-sign and everything. This marked the first time I was ever allowed to walk on the sidewalk by myself for more than a block, and a new school-bus route populated by new kids–most of whom were much cooler than I was. Sometimes, walking home from the bus, a boy who lived a few streets over would follow me home and throw rocks at me. I ignored him, as I was taught to do. On the bus, I was the quiet, well-behaved kid–I sat in my seat without chewing gum (which was strictly verboten by Miss May, the angry bus driver with pancake makeup and dyed-black hair) and frequently said nothing, other than the occasional request to listen to my seatmate Lindsay’s radio Walkman after she tired of the 45th replay of Ace of Base’s “The Sign.” Miss May would scream at the beautiful, misbehaving cool boys to be more like me when they started raucous paper-football games, which left me simultaneously proud and humiliated–especially after one named Josh sassily replied that he could quiet if he were “antisocial” too, but that he preferred to have friends. Things were changing, and the world was not what I thought it was.
Another time, to punish an older boy, Miss May made him sit with me–and he responded by loudly unzipping his fly next to me in the seat: “Aaaahhhh, it feels sooo much better open.” Again, as I had been taught, I looked out the window and pretended to ignore him. It was excruciating, until Miss May realized what was going on and screamed at him to zip up. And then it was merely humiliating again.
Throughout this period, I remember being consumed with the sense that I was leading a double life: at home I was a little girl, who was afraid of the dark and got in trouble for failing to say “yes ma’am” and “yes sir,” and at school I was attempting–for the most part unsuccessfully–to be someone else. Anyone else, as long as that someone wasn’t a kid anymore. I bought bras, though I didn’t really need them, and saved my allowance to buy clothes at the mall, like the cool girls. And somehow, I had the sense that no one else knew a reality like mine, and that everyone just was the seemingly flawless image they maintained at school.
It’s lucky, I think, that I knew Sharon during this time–and, later, our other ‘dorky’ friends as well. We were a kind of refuge for one another, a place to go where everything made sense and laughter was both possible and inevitable. There are so many incidents that stick in my head as earth-shatteringly embarrassing from the 12-14 years (that time I sent a boy who barely knew I existed flowers on Valentine’s Day, that time I didn’t know what a “skater” was, that time we prank called and then arranged a meeting with the cool boy down the street without having the slightest idea what would happen next, those many times I wore ill-advised outfits modeled on descriptions of Claudia from the Baby Sitters’ Club series–despite the author’s admonition that “on anyone else it would have looked ridiculous”, that time I didn’t know what a “blow job” was, and I could go on) that it was a relief to just be with someone who would still think you were fun even after seeing life on the inside of your house.
This became even more true when we started High School. Truthfully, I was terrified. I remember riding the bus in 8th grade, being hit by a wave of panic when I thought about it–a feeling that, unfortunately, was not helped by the pre-school revelation that (horrors!) Sharon and I had no classes together. We were on our own.
Once things got underway, we were fine, of course. Sharon had warned me never to accept an “Elevator Pass” from an upperclassman–”They try to sell it to you, but the thing is, there is no elevator,” she had knowingly explained. And we were also warned to avoid anything called the “Sappho Club,” which was apparently code-word for “Lesbian,” as our Magnet-and-Arts-specializing high school had a reputation around town for being a haven for The Gays.* So we went about our business rather uneventfully for the first month of school.
And then, in September, everything changed.
Or, it did for me. I have wondered about how I should talk about this time of my life, and even now, it is…fraught (though this description is a sort of grasping) for me. I have, now, lived more of my life on this side of it than before, which is at once unbelievable and deeply sad.
In September of 1995, my cousin–who, as I was quick to tell people in the months and years that followed, was also my friend–was killed in an accident. His name was Brent, and he was 14.
It was a Saturday. I had gone with my mom to the grocery store, where I had gotten my favorite indulgence, frosted Teddy Grahams. They had round rainbow sprinkles stuck to the frosted side, which crackled satisfyingly in my teeth. I was eating a handful–biting the heads off one at a time, with the frosting side against my tongue–when the phone rang. It was my mom’s sister. I told her, between Teddy Graham bites, that my mom was in the bathtub, could I take a message?
No, she said. I need to talk to her right now. I heard the urgency in her voice, which was a mix of tears and anger. I told my father, who ran to get my mother. I stood in the kitchen alone, my heart racing. From the other room, I heard a kind of desperate yelp, and then, uncontrolled sobbing. Seconds or minutes passed. My parents emerged from their bedroom, and my father seemed to be holding up my mother by the sides of her arms, still wet and in her bathrobe. I had never seen her like this–weak, devastated, entirely without self-possession. It was terrifying.
Moments later, we were in the car, racing to the hospital in north Louisiana. I was wearing the Mickey Mouse shirt that Dawn would later borrow without asking. The ride was a blur of darkness and incomprehension, full of words that I heard numbly without understanding them: head trauma, comatose, brain-dead.
I had last seen Brent two months earlier. Every summer, he and his sister spent at least a week with me and my brother, and this year, we had together made a satirical video of a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s show with a skeezy host (played masterfully by Brent), as well as my brother’s birthday cake, which we decorated elaborately with a “Riddler” theme inspired by that summer’s blockbuster, Batman Forever. We had seen the movie twice in the theater, and giggled uncontrollably through much of the second showing, after I stepped in a neighboring patron’s bucket of popcorn on the way back from the bathroom. The last time I ever saw his face was in the parking lot of the Sizzler in Natchez, Mississippi, where our parents met (halfway between our houses) to transport him and his sister, Lauren, back home. He was handsome (if awkward, in that 14 year old way) and smiling, with his dark hair perfectly combed, and his preppy polo-collared shirt neatly tucked into his light khaki shorts. I hugged him goodbye, and smelled the smell of his parents’ immaculate house. He got into his mother’s van, and was gone.
In the hospital, we waited. We waited for days. And then, it became apparent what we were waiting for, as we gathered in an ugly room with wood paneling, where the doctors told us that there was no more hope. I felt myself ripped apart, disoriented, surrounded by an unrelenting flood of blinding pain that I saw repeated and magnified in the faces around me. I did not understand.
Back in the main waiting room, which was equally as hideous but which featured walls painted an institutional light blue, rendered more piercingly grotesque by the fluorescent lights and ticking clock, I sat with my mother and waited for everyone to say goodbye. She and my father had just gone themselves, and she asked if I wanted to go. I refused again, physically recoiling from the thought of being confronted with the visible evidence of this reality. She sighed and stroked my hair, her eyes red. In the midst of our exhaustion, she pulled me onto her lap, and I curled into the fetal position and wept. Through my tears, I heard her whisper over and over again–to me?–it’s going to be ok…it’s going to be ok…it’s going to be ok…
At some point during all of this, my parents gave me their phone card and told me that I could call a friend. At the bank of pay-phones, I dialed Sharon’s number, and spoke to her about everything that had happened. I don’t remember the conversation, but I do remember the feeling of the cold, plastic receiver against my cheek, and somehow getting out the words: “I’m ok.”
It was almost true. In the weeks and months and years that followed, I vacillated between trying to be ok and defiantly refusing to be ok. I wanted, desperately, for all of this to mean something, to fit into my life in a coherent narrative–whether that turned out to be a story of triumphant overcoming or of a sinking into immovable despair. But it was neither of these things. It was senseless pain, utter loss. And as I learned, much, much later, such senselessness simply does not fit, and defies our attempts to render it coherent.
In the face of that incoherence, our lives went on.
That’s what happens, as it turns out. For survivors, I mean. Life just keeps going on, and at some moments, that is all you can say of it. It goes. You do your best to make sense of it–sometimes that involves listening to loud music that your parents hate and wearing black nail polish with over-sized pants, and sometimes it involves throwing yourself headlong into religiosity–but at the end of the day, it just keeps going, regardless of your success.
But the funny thing about this, at least for me, is that the going isn’t always so deadly serious. You join the JV soccer team, and have your first kiss, and still have moments of goofiness that make you laugh yourself silly. You try out new identities here and there, declare yourself an ALFD, and write a bit of terrible poetry. But the kicker is that through all of this “going on,”–living, I suppose–the senseless loss remains. I don’t mean that you stay immovably sad forever. In truth, the fact that I was so unpredictably happy at times was incredibly frustrating to me for the first few years. I mean that through all the “going,” the loss becomes no less real, nor less incomprehensible.
The best thing that can be said, I think, is that if you’re lucky, you have a friend or two to bear with you, through all the going.
*In retrospect, the homophobia involved here is horrifying and ridiculous (especially considering who we became later in life)…and, I hope, dated.