*written on the morning of my 20-year high school reunion
You arrived at that red-brick high school with long hair that you literally bleached blond (with a jug of generic-brand hydrogen peroxide, head stooped over the sink). You thought your hair was amazing, but now you look at pictures and it’s like: What the hell was I thinking? You had dreams of varsity football players, who were definitely going to understand you in a way that boys your age did not. You knew all the lyrics to “Paradise City,” even the fast-hard parts. You wore a James Avery cross around your neck, like every other girl at that school with acid-wash jeans and a splatter-paint bow in her hair, but you could also hide a can of beer in your cleavage. This was a neat trick.
You wanted to be an actress. You wanted to be a writer. You wanted legs like Jennifer. You wanted clothes like Laura. School was, what? Boring? Dumb? Fine? Stephen King was the greatest, and assigned reading was crazy-dumb. Ivanhoe. Romeo and Juliet. Screw that noise. You made sarcastic comments to the boy who sat in front of you in English class, and you could make him snort, and you thought – for the very first time – maybe I’m funny.
Sophomore year was better. High school was like this: Each year a little more powerful, a little less lonely. You stopped bleaching your hair to the consistency of straw. Can’t look like the lead singer of Poison forever. All that gawdy 80s hair-metal excess was headed to the EXIT doors anyway, replaced by thumping club beats that required grinding, thwacking, pumping. Lots of active verbs on a late 80s dance floor; the whole place looked like dogs humping. There was also the culty goth stuff, the Smiths, the Cure. Cool girls wore black lipstick, studded their ears with piercings, but you were listening to 10,000 Maniacs alone in your bedroom, writing strongly worded essays about world peace and fantasizing about Martin Luther King. You went to one of those dance clubs one night in the West End, where everyone moved freely, like they were swimming in air. Every second made you anxious and queasy, like you were enduring a breast exam under black light.
You worried so much then. You worried about the way you talked. About the way you sat in a chair. You worried about weight constantly. You saw calories the way a dog can smell food. At night you did leg lifts on your bedroom vanity chair. You didn’t even have to watch the exercise tape; you had that video memorized. Sometimes you put on makeup for no reason at all – for fun, to kill time — and looked at yourself in the full-length mirror, marveling at how pretty you could be if only the angle stayed just. like. that.
The varsity football players never noticed. But a guy in your own grade did. He was clever, strange, sweet, the kind of person you wanted to be one day. He played DJ to the next two years of your life: Primus. Jane’s Addiction. Red Hot Chili Peppers. He was a bass player, and every song had that low, buzzing throb. His car shook when you were parked. Well, his car shook for multiple reasons.
You spent the next two years in a passenger seat. You rode around in his Chevy Nova, in the Mercury Sable Stephanie borrowed from her mom, in Jennifer’s Volvo, in Deborah’s Honda, in Catherine’s Ford Explorer – you rode around in a car that did not belong to you. Where were you headed in those cars? You can’t remember now. A park. A parking lot. It didn’t matter where you were going. It mattered that you were going. You liked the blur of the street lights and the windows rolled down so the songs could reach all the way to the pavement. U2, En Vogue, REM. You sang harmony parts, because you were an alto, and that’s what you learned in choir. To split the sound as it hit the air. To bend your voice so that it wrapped around someone else’s.
A month before graduation, you and the boyfriend broke up. This was to be expected. You weren’t stupid or blinkered enough to think you’d date forever. You totally got it: You guys were teenagers. And yet, it still felt like the ground had cratered beneath you. Things that are expected still suck.
You went alone to prom. You loved that dress, but you knew it would have looked better if you lost five more pounds. Your mind punished you like that. Your parents took a picture of you in the living room, in front of the bookcase where you posed before every dance, and your mother said, “You are going to look back at this picture and be amazed by how beautiful you look.” And you thought: Moms say the dumbest things. But for years afterward, you would see that picture and think: Seriously? I looked like that?
This is the part that freaks you out, the part you can never get your hands around. You don’t see yourself clearly in any given moment. You don’t feel the shimmer until it fades. You don’t understand that you are beautiful until you feel less beautiful, that you are young until you feel less young, and what is the solution to this? There is no solution. This very moment and its place in the trajectory of your life will remain a mystery to you. Joni Mitchell sang: You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. But I’m not sure you know, even then. What was all that, anyway? The story changes every time you tell it.
You arrived at that sprawling university campus in Austin with wavy shoulder-length hair you pulled back in a scrunchie. You wore halter tops and dangly earrings that made you look positively sorority next to the college girls in bohemian skirts and beads in their hair. You tried to play it off like high school had been horrible, because that’s what interesting, creative people did – what a nightmare, those philistines – but the embarrassing thing was: You missed it. Even in your stories now, you focus on the bad parts, the middle years when you felt misshapen and marooned, and you forget how good those high
school years were. What a comfort that place had been. How fantastic your friends were. How sad you were to watch them scatter. You had your whole life ahead of you at that sprawling university, and the embarrassing thing was: You wanted to go back.
You did not go back.
But 20 years later, you can.