Recently I was back in my childhood bedroom in San Francisco going through everything like I always do and I came across a slender, worked-over notebook that chronicles the summer of 1995, the summer before college.
I had an almost smoothie job at one almost smoothie shop, a full-time smoothie job at a soon-defunct smoothie shop. Then there were the parties, the worrying about parties, the possibility of not getting invited to parties, going to parties, being bored at parties, the boys, the desire to see, spend time with, kiss and otherwise be held by boys, the strange gravel-pour of that line between curiosity and the label—always sharp and red lacquered as a lobster claw— of “slut.” Deciding, finally, yes, I am a slut for we did kiss and his hand, I think it went somewhere near my stomach if not my thigh or lower shin, most likely, at one point. Slut indeed! The purchasing, peeing on and praying over a pregnancy test. Being not pregnant. Being back at the smoothie shop. Serving a smoothie to my high school English teacher who popped by, who was nice enough to pop by, but feeling put out by the fact that my high school English teacher popped by for a smoothie. I was that kind of girl and it was one long, lousy, stupid summer.
But it’s best, as Didion reminds, to keep on nodding terms with the person we once were and—I add—probably still are somewhere down in there. “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” That’s Didion in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, so in the spirit of that work and of nodding terms more broadly I provide here a little tasters choice of those high school nods and observations, now nearly 20 years on, the detritus of adult bedroom foraging in a childhood home.
“So I got into Vassar,” I wrote. “Great, I always wanted to matriculate to a school with the word ‘ass’ in it.” (Well gracious if that doesn’t start things off. The mid-90s being the last of the time to affect disinterested cool over good schools, schools that would now quarter my application for saucers and coasters, shredding the remaining pages just to stuff scarecrows and other distractions of late fall pageantry. I did not pass the SAT in any meaningful way and wrote, instead, big, buxom and doe-eyed personal essays—Vassar required several—and made the most of the recommendations I could get while otherwise bulking up participation on a track team I deserted after practice number 3. Getting into college today is a full contact sport, I understand, and there’s a good penny in advising those unfortunate enough to have been born in 1996 or thereafter. All hail to the present applicants for you are stalwart and true!)
My concluding thought on admission went like this: “I hope there is some beautiful boy there who I can hang with, kiss, and then I would be whole and there wouldn’t be any problems getting out of places because I’d already be there.”
Well well well.
Keep it on nodding terms. But it was all so urgent at the time! And I kept notes—the copious, carefully pruned notes of a nervous, snobby gardener constantly second guessing the carrots and casting aspersions on the snow peas: “Things are hectic. This weekend was one of the worst in recent memory and all I want to do is rewind time back to when everything was better. I’m mad at people. People are mad at me. I feel so out of it so much of the time, and more than that—I want to be. Sometimes people throw me some lifeline to grab hold of—some obligatory quick fix of acceptance. The bottom line is, I talk too much.”
On a friend, L, who poured his heart out to me: “He told me all about how his mother neglected him, how S toyed with him and in general of his relationships to women. Then he cried. Now I don’t even consider myself a woman nor is he a man. We’re just these kids here. But he had sex way back when he was a freshman and not since and that drives him crazy. So I held his hand a lot and told him all these stories of when I was young, all this type of stuff. I hope I was a fun date. He bought dinner which was like $12.50 or something and I got a little salad dressing on my dress but took care of it. I think he’s really lonely.”
Onward, but with that certain, special and highly reserved cruelty that high school students have and dole out only and best to each other, a highly potent concentrate that comes once in life—if you’re doing things right—and it is marked with dates and time such that you do and must lose your taste for the stuff. Pull it off the shelf even by sophomore year of college and it’s all corked, nothing but vinegar and you dispatch the lot down the drain. But those last tendrils of high school feed on corked cruelty and I watered the grounds and even found a spare storeroom in which whole ready cases sat in wait, freshly bottled. To that same boy, dear L, oh bless him for he remains somehow and yet a friend even to this day ohhhh L please forgive me!
“L pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to talk and I said, ‘About what?’ And he said, ‘The weather. No. Actually, not about the weather. More about us.’ And I got really fed up right there in that second so he told me that ‘essentially’ he wanted to leave high school on good terms with me and by that he meant hold my hand and pick me up at work and go to the movies and buy me popcorn and so I said, so as to make him die, “L, I need to know exactly what it is you want from me.”
Oh holy mackerel the young and tender are powered only by still-boiling hearts! Cut each and every last one of the 17 year old female of the species and watch the acid and high stench of their mean little hearts pour bile to concrete. What a crow. What vivisection. I got only a fraction of what I deserved in this recorded comeback from dear L, the intrepid soldier in all of us for well do I know he is good and meant only to navigate teenage life as best anyone can though hardly anyone does.
“Have you been to the lost and found lately?”
“Well, I think you should go because you just lost a friend.”
The summer rolled on. I kept taking notes. I wrote everything down but was not much for talking though I could be coaxed into a good cry. The poor, dear, Vassar-bound thing, you see.
“Then we picked up K at his house and came back to my house and met M and C. We went over and dropped K and L at some random party and S and E and M and C and I had some food at Mel’s and S told us all about B and they began to ask me about L but I just wasn’t speaking much tonight.”
Blah blah blah on and on I’ve got reams of the stuff and wrote like a wooly truck driver attenuated to the curves and turns of my California interstate, not yet knowing that I was, as we all were, so soon to be reassigned to the Croatia of our lives, the transition that is college.
“Then all these other people showed up and I went to say goodbye to L and he completely blew me off and wouldn’t come near me. That was it. He did it well and he won.
“So then when I saw M, I just started crying and crying and she hugged me and who knows if she even knew what I was thinking. I spent the night at N’s house anyway with the others and they all helped me out and spoke to me. It was a good thing to be with people at that time. I’m really over L but I miss the affection. It was sort of a rough summer.”