Long time. Much travel. No bloggage.
I wrote an entry about the Rochester Teen Book Festival, which kicked butt (the festival, not the entry), but forgot to post it before I left for Texas and TLA. Actually, that’s not true. I have had a helluva time prying my computer away from the nine-year-old. How much Club Penguin can one child play, I ask you? Now that it’s spring break, I’m lucky if I get five minutes on my Mac. Sniff I miss my computer. It looks tired of playing AdventureQuest. But right this minute, the computer is mine, mine, all mine! Mwahahahaha!
Also, I’ve running back and forth to the hardware store purchasing an endless parade of supplies. We’re doing a small renovation upstairs. Or, rather, it was meant to be a small renovation until we discovered all the “wrong things” that needed to be fixed. Then it became a home repair death spiral that I’m sure spells financial suicide.
The amazing Andy and Freddie, who fixed our roof last year (home repair nightmare #1), and their crew are here, doing amazing things and teaching me phrases in Albanian. I can say “hello” and “goodbye” and maybe I will learn something more poetic than, “Where is the bathroom, please?” Andy and Freddie and the Boyz like to drink beer, and so I walked to the 7-11 for those supplies, too. (No Wild Cherry Slurpees, sadly, because as we know, they are my preferred beverage.) The funniest thing happened as I was walking back home carrying a 12-pack of Heineken: men took notice of me. I’m telling you, it was like there was a Barry White soundtrack playing behind me: “My darling, I…can’t get enough of your love, babe…” I got a smile and a nod from four different guys, and I don’t think it was the food-stained t-shirt and sneakers that was doing it. Tomorrow I’m going to try walking down the street with a Taco Bell bag and see if turns me into a major babe.
Last week, I was in Texas for the Texas Librarians Association’s annual conference, which is always a good time. This year, it was in Dallas, a hop, skip, and a jump away from my hometown. TLA was much fun, and I will blog about it later, because today, I feel the urge to blog about a weird coincidence.
The first night we were there, we’d all been invited to a party at the home of the lovely Sylvia Vardell, librarian goddess. Susan Geye, another librarian goddess and all-around fun gal, offered to drive some of us to the party. It was a beautiful evening—lovely spring night around sunset, warm enough to roll the windows down. Susan takes Central Expressway past the North Park mall (faster than you can say, “Ohmigod, y’all, is there, like, a Claire’s here?” I can conjure the layout of that place in my mind…) and then we’re cruising down Walnut Hill Lane. We take a left on Abrams Road. At this, my Spidey senses start a-tinglin’.
“OMG,” I say. “My friend Jeannie used to live over here! She lived on Hilldale or Hillview, some HIll street.” And at that, we pass right by Jeannie’s old house, and I am flooded by memories of my misspent youth.
What can I tell you about Jeannie? Let’s just say that everyone should probably have a friend like her, someone who is full of life, who tears you away from the protective cocoon of the known world. A friend who is like a carnival barker inviting you to come with her to see what’s behind the curtain at the edge of the fairgrounds. Even if she hasn’t really investigated the show for herself, she’s sure it’s got to be more fun than the lame rides your parents will give you fifty cents to stand in line for. In short, a friend your mother would describe as “trouble.” (Your mother would be right.)
When we were teens, Jeannie had a C-cup bra and a lot of chutzpah and a not-always-reliable sense that we were Teflon-coated. Ironically, Jeannie moved to Denton from New York City in sixth grade. It’s funny to me to remember that, because she is so 100% Texan with the accent to go with it. When I get off the phone with her, I sound all drawly, too. The day Jeannie came to Frank Borman Elementary mid-year, our teacher, Mrs. Brewer, assigned me to be her “buddy.” It was the sort of thankless job the teacher always handed out to the geeky good girls like me, because we could be counted on to explain the rules of the cafeteria and the virtues of the library without leading anyone astray. I’m sure Mrs. Brewer took one look at Jeannie and hoped my dorkiness would be a deterrent against any rebellions she was hatching and that I’d have her playing the triangle with me in sixth grade choir, singing along to John Denver songs before the week was out. Oh, poor, misguided Mrs. Brewer.
What I seem to recall is that by the time we got to the playground, Jeannie wanted to know if there was a place she could smoke. I was both horrified and thrilled.
Jeannie was in love with Roger Daltrey and had platform shoes and bell bottom jeans and a pout and posters of rock stars all over her walls. I had glasses and braces and double-knit shirts my mother bought at Sears and a place in National Junior Honor Society (although ditto on the rock star posters–she was allowed to love Roger Daltrey if I could have Robert Plant, we agreed). We were an odd mix, to be sure. I was as far from cool as you could get. Every guy in sixth grade was already angling to date Jeannie, and it was just her first day there. I had a pet rock collection. The only thing that saved me was that fact that I was a rocker and Jeannie was a rocker in a town of country music and bad, AM-pop radio.
By that summer and all through seventh grade, we were hanging out at her house almost every day, playing records and coming up with imaginary worlds based on Tolkein and “The Song Remains the Same,” which we had seen about a billion times at the movie theatre downtown. Once or twice, her parents let us have a mixed drink at dinner. (The late 1970’s/early ’80’s were not a great time for parental supervision. The “Me” Generation wasn’t terribly interested in setting limits or boundaries or even, sometimes, showing up at all. Complaints are made these days about the new generation of “hover-parents,” a valid complaint, to be sure, and I would argue that the new parental narcissism is all about living through one’s kids by overscheduling, testing, and pressuring them beyond all reason till they are burnt-out long before their rightful midlife crises. But at least no one’s asking you if you’d like a Mai Tai when you’re twelve. And there are no ferns. Yes, thank god we got rid of all those ferns.)
By the time I was a deeply dorky fourteen (Hello, earth shoes! Hola, wedge haircut!), Jeannie moved to Dallas, into the house near Abrams Lane. I was grief-stricken, and getting to spend long weekends with her in Dallas took on pilgrimage status. Jeannie’s parents were wealthy, and I always felt a mixture of awe and inadequacy and jealousy when I’d visit their home. I longed for the sort of life I imagined they led. It seemed terribly sophisticated to a girl who spent a lot of time in her room dreaming up romantic fantasies in which she was a glamorous, leotard-clad dancer in “A Chorus Line” with an apartment on Park Avenue (because ALL chorus girls can afford Park Avenue apartments, doncha know…). One of the Dallas Cowboys used to live on the cul-de-sac, and once or twice we saw him mowing his lawn, and we decided this counted as a celebrity sighting.
Jeannie had her own loft upstairs–a bedroom with a walk-in closet connected to a fabulous bathroom connected to another, unused bedroom where we would close all the blinds and plug in a black light and watch our hands turn luminescent as sea creatures on the ocean floor. There was a sunken living room and a meticulously trimmed lawn out back guarded by a tall, wooden fence that bordered a long, cement alleyway. But my favorite room was downstairs. This was where Jeannie’s mom had a honkin’ big bathroom and enormous closet, bigger than my bedroom, where we would spend hours sitting at the lighted vanity mirror, our makeup splayed out across the countertop like hoarded treasure. We were “getting ready.” For what, I have no idea. Probably just dinner at TGIF’s, but it felt like so much more. Our expectations were too big for our bodies to contain then. The sense that we were about to burst out, to be discovered or to meet our destinies head-on, consumed us as we dabbed ourselves with perfume or “borrowed” expensive clothes and jewelry from Jeannie’s mom’s impressive closet or made our lips glossy as the waxed fruit my mother once kept in a bowl on a table by our front door. Whatever was going to happen, it promised to be spectacular, and we wanted to be ready for it.
And of course, there were the boys.
In movie theatres, at the malls, in Spencer’s Gifts, on the streets, washing their cars in the driveways of the neighborhoods or diving into diamond-shimmery pools on summer afternoons, they were everywhere, and we had caught the scent of them. We wanted to bend them to us, to make them take notice, Jeannie more so than I. She was confident in her allure, and I was haunted by the sense that I was no beauty, that I could only borrow it for a few hours, Cinderella-style, but the pumpkin was never far from view. Still, her bravado was enough to carry me on its tide for a while, and we walked through the mall together, flipping our hair to make it tousled as the models in Cosmopolitan, while we pretended to be interested in the offerings of the food court but really our senses were on constant alert for the presence of boys. “That one, is he looking? OMG, he is! No, don’t look! Pretend you don’t notice.” It was a new game of tag, and they were always it.
Over the years, Jeannie could be counted on for equal amounts of fun and trouble, and unfortunately for Mrs. Brewer (and my mother), I was less of an influence on Jeannie than she was on me. These were the nights of sneaking out bedroom windows and fake I.D.’s. Of close calls and lucky breaks. That strange amalgam of innocence and awakening that is unique to being a teen. A time when you shapeshift through personas, fashion, hopes and dreams, trying to find the disguise that fits, hoping that one will prove to be more than disguise; it will be a revelation of what you’ve been searching for, a glimpse of who you might really be, and that hope that you might actually like that person. But for now, you are still shifting, still running, putting distance between you and what has come before. It’s like the first time you sneak out of the house, running down an alleyway in the dark, the dogs charging the fences, barking like heralds at your escape, making you yelp then laugh nervously. When you get to the top of the street, the exhilaration you feel at your daring, at the fact that you’ve made it–you’ve outsmarted your captors, those foolish grown-ups—is followed quickly by the realization that safety is sleeping in the dark house of your parents, and a whisper-warning wraps itself around your insides, cautioning that this is the beginning of something new and scary–this ride–and you will have to leave safety behind for it. You are beyond their reach now.
I think that’s one of the things I remember well about being a teen–the isolation. The growing sense that you are apart, that adults speak a different language, that they are ignorant of what goes on in those alleys, the cars on the strip, the malls, in your head when you lie in the dark listening to songs that seem as if they were written in code only you and your friends can decipher. Those people in your house don’t sense the yearning you feel. It’s like your skin can’t possibly hold everything firing from your synapses; the switch has been thrown to “full” and you might burn up with the electricity of this new restlessness. They are sleepwalkers and you come alive in the nighttime, attuned to everything that lives then. They have forgotten the language you are just starting to learn. They have forgotten, and there is no time to teach them how to listen for it in themselves again. It’s too late. The dogs start a new round of barking, and you are off.
I don’t know that we ever really do forget the language. We simply stop using it. It is replaced by other tongues: we rationalize, we defend, we explain, we ignore, we keep busy. On good days, we accept. I hadn’t forgotten all those feelings—it’s why I do what I do, I suppose. But I don’t think I’d felt it quite so viscerally in a while. Standing in the backyard at this party was like someone had thrown the switch again, and the secret language of youth returned full-force. It was as if I could reach across the fence and touch the fingers of my adolescent self. I could see her there, lying in the sun slathered in baby oil, listening to the radio, turning it up when a good song came on. I could see her tugging at her swimsuit, uncomfortable in her body, imagining the one she might have. I could hear the echoes of that song bleeding out of car windows rolled down to catch the warm Texas wind at sunset on the way to a party, a club, a concert or just nowhere in particular, a moment of boredom, of stillness in the storm, two friends singing along to the radio, their eyes on the road, oblivious to the twists and turns ahead—the exhilarating possibilities—some squandered, some spent well—the heartbreaks and silly, simple joys, the bad choices and the just plain dangerous mistakes, the corrections both large and small that are necessary in every fully lived life.
These things that you think you’ve put away come back to you. They come back to you on the other side of the fence on a warm April night in a town where you no longer live in a neighborhood haunted by ghosts. They come back. And if you’re lucky, they will make you smile.
I’m off to Boston for a few days. Will blog about TLA and Rochester when I return. Go make a few memories of your own. ☺