We coasted down the sun-dappled Fairfax, Virginia streets with the sun roof open, the placid of an early June Saturday morning warm around us. E. pulled into a strip mall with a Safeway, and we tumbled out of her silver Volvo, thick in conversation. She flicked her long tangle of keys around her pointer finger as we skipped inside. We selected snacks and pulled Diet Cokes out of the cooler, chatting glibly, tumbling through the aisles, the staccato of her laughter turning heads.
We pulled up in front of a classmate’s home. I didn’t know her well, and at the time, the fact that she had a serious, handsome boyfriend and had had her uniform kilt professionally shortened to skim just beneath her rear end intimidated me. As a fifteen-year-old, I was not only single but inept with members of the opposite sex; my singular exposure to boys was through the mechanism of my older brother. I’d known half of his friends since well before I’d worn a training bra, and they were therefore more brotherly than anything else — but the other half were tall and intimidating and drank hard liquor and wore their Polo oxfords untucked and oh how I pined after them while shyly, fastidiously avoiding them when I found myself in the kitchen alone with them. At the same time, I owned kilts that hung well below my knees. I’d hitch them up to a suitably short length by rolling the top, as most of my classmates did, so that when the Dean of Students walked by, I could quickly extend the length to regulation-level to avoid a write-up. But this gal was different. The tailoring of her skirt projected a cocksure willfulness I could not quite wrap my head around, and the fact that she not only had a boyfriend — but a long-time, good-looking one with whom, I knew, she occasionally fought (how racy!), was impossibly mature and provocative. She had an easy laugh and beautiful, straight teeth and the kind of caramel tan skin a pale, scrawny gal like myself would have died for. If she weren’t so friendly, my envy might have veered into unbecoming jealousy.
My barreling energy quieted as we descended the steps to her basement, where clusters of boys from our brother school, Gonzaga, sprawled out on the couches and shot the breeze with one another. If any of them noticed me entering the room in my carefully selected denim mini skirt and ice blue, skin-tight tank top, hair ironed stick-straight and worn long — a recreation of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s look in Can’t Hardly Wait — they certainly did not reflect that awareness. I shyly focused my energy on E., nervously chatting about the most inane of topics, scrambling to seem engaged, laughing too riotously. We hung around in the dim basement for thirty or forty minutes as classmates and other boys assembled.
Is there anything more painful than the self-awareness of a fifteen-year-old girl simultaneously batting her lashes and feigning confidence in the presence of boys of a similar age who lack the self-possession to express acknowledgment?
A few of my classmates introduced me to select boys from the group. They’d nod, maybe smile, but quickly revert their attention to a joke across the room or a passed basketball. There were lots of last names tossed around —
“Hey, Hendricks! HENDRICKS!”
“Yo, did you hear what McCrae did?”
When we finally left, an entourage of old cars too fancy for their young drivers — obvious hand-me-downs from well-to-do parents — I erupted into spitfire conversation with E., falling easily into our morning ebullience, recounting overheard conversations and lingering over sparse interactions with the boys in the room, wringing the previous forty minutes for every pip of of gossip and intrigue imaginable.
In the parking lot of Kings Dominion, an amusement park about an hour outside of D.C., we reconvened, slathering suntan lotion on and shooting the breeze while the boys passed fifths of liquor and some of the girls surreptitiously sipped Zimas fished out of the bottom of a dinged-up Igloo cooler. This was my first exposure to alcohol within my extended friend group. Yes, my brother’s posse drank, but his posse was not mine, and they were older. I was shocked and even a little scared. I was horrified at the thought that my parents might somehow find out that I’d been hanging around a group that was drinking in the daytime. It felt too much like a bad anti-alcohol ad: a bunch of rowdy teens from the wrong side of the road passing bottles of rail liquor in the broad daylight. I knew how the cautionary tale would end, and the entire scene made my stomach turn. I was more accustomed to movie nights with my girlfriends and innocuous trips to the mall. I politely declined the passed drinks, anxious to escape the moment, scanning the lot for enforcement of one kind or another.
Inside the park, we removed our tank tops to reveal bikinis as we waited in long queues for a water ride. One of the boys, tongue loosened from his sips of Wild Turkey, turned to me and said: “Damn! You’re tiny!”
I didn’t know what to say. Was it a compliment? An insult? I giggled and maneuvered my way through the line to catch up with E., the sun in my eyes, my stomach in somersault.
I think about this morning often, especially when I am driving in a car around Northern Virginia, as I did on a recent trip home to D.C. There’s a dance to the sunlight on Chain Bridge Road, a rhythm and bounce to its hills. Traffic flows there in a way it rarely does elsewhere in the region — at least, on a Saturday morning, when you’re grocery-bound, and the music is on, and memories lay, resin-like, on the contours of your excursion. Something about that undulation of light and altitude sends me back to the butterflies and exuberance of fifteen, of the erratic movements of the boundaries of my teenage spirit as I dialed up and down the volume of my own amorphous personality. The too-loud, too-girlish laughter. The hushed self-abnegation during maiden interactions with the opposite sex. The pathetically indulgent calculus and unpacking of those nominal interactions: all negotiations with self, and sexuality, and the desire to be an adult when I was so painfully naive, jejune that I could scarcely form a full sentence in front of a boy.
So many of these memories — and especially this one — are shadowed by grief. (E. died when we were twenty-six.) The flick of E.’s keys around her finger; the breadth of her smile; the eagerness of her reply to my puerile recountings of the most modest of verbal exchanges with a boy — all of these nothings are outlined in the obsidian of sorrow. I wish, today, I could pick up the phone and call her. Ask if she remembered the Zimas in that dinged-up cooler, or the way I dwelt upon the questionably complimentary use of the word “tiny,” or the turpentine smell of cheap bourbon. Or find out if this particular Saturday that looms so large in my personal recollection of my fifteenth year registered at all to her. Was it a nothing? Would she remember, instead, some Saturday in September or some Monday night in August? Would she recount to me the details of some forgotten exchange with another boy, on another day of feeling painfully adrift as a teen?
A reader recently asked how I remember so many of the details from years past. I replied by saying that I think I have always been preternaturally attached to words: when someone says something striking, the words echo in my mind for days and days. I carry them with me. I stare at them, I pocket them, I trot them out, I turn them over, I repeat them, I caress them, I agonize over them.
But there is something else. As I mused over the reader’s query, I found myself on Chain Bridge Road, trapped in the memory of that trip to Kings Dominion, brushing away tears I did not know I had in me. Because remembering the minutia of that morning is a kind of rejection of death. Maybe I burnish these petits riens because I worry that one day I won’t be able to pick up the phone and ask Mr. Magpie — “Do you remember that time I threw my clutch on the ground and camera popped out and broke into a million pieces and I was just the worst, most unsufferable girlfriend?!” Or that I will sit here and wonder whether that Saturday meant anything at all to my friend E., whose own memories are now buried somewhere I will never quite reach.
+I ruined a full face of makeup writing this post. I am now permanently hooked on this dramatic, goopy, inky black mascara and MAN does it look good but MAN does it make a mess if tears are involved.
+This post also led me to write some love notes to a few girlfriends.
+Love this midi skirt in khaki. So smart with tidy flats or leather sandals.
+A super chic way to stow wine in a more modern apartment/home.
+Can’t get enough LoveShackFancy — very into this floral mini.
+DYING over these earrings!
+More musings on loss (<<this time, with less sniffles).