Chapter 2: Adolescence

Steam Heat

I wore a leotard, fishnet stockings, a blazer, and a top hat and danced provocatively with boys on a stage. FOR A PLAY, GUYS. For a play.

First of all, let’s be real. Most musicals are not meant for children (lookin’ at you, Bob Fosse). They’re full of wildly inappropriate content and innuendo. That said, I loved them, and I acted in the all-school spring musicals every year from seventh to twelfth grade.

The musicals were directed by the now retired middle school history teacher. She was legendary, the kind you were warned about before you got to seventh grade. Her class was one of the hardest I’d ever taken, and she was a no nonsense, take-no-prisoners kind of woman. She was also a thoughtful and sentimental director, stern, patient, eccentric, and passionate.

My senior year of high school we put on The Pajama Game, a feisty little play set in the 1950s at a failing pajama factory. I’d worked my way up through the roles, from general cast member to supporting character, and I landed the comedic lead, Gladys. She was a sassy, flirtatious secretary for the pajama factory, and was in a relationship with her boss (totally fine).

There’s a famous song in the play called Steam Heat. The song opens act two and comes in hot. Gladys—accused of being a floozie by her boss boyfriend—crashes a union meeting with a dance number to really get those boys fired up and working hard. As I recall, there were about eight of my male peers in the scene, and I sang most of the song with the guys doing backup vocals. I was given basic blocking for the choreography, and creative license for the rest. And I went for it.

Rehearsal days were set aside for this scene because it had so many moving parts. I’d selected a move for each of the boys, who were essentially in a lusty tango with me. When it came time for dress rehearsal, I debuted my costume with all the confidence an eighteen-year-old girl possesses. When I strutted out from backstage, I dropped the jaws of a whole bunch of teenagers, mostly because I wasn’t wearing pants.

I performed that piece to the fullest in front of our very small town, and my teachers, and my friends, and my family. And I killed it. Steam Heat wasn’t even the most scandalous scene. There was also a dream sequence on the part of Gladys’ love interest, who imagines married life with her through his jealous lens. She invites men into the house the moment she kisses him goodbye for work, then shoves them into a closet when he abruptly returns. Real age appropriate stuff right there.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a textbook introvert. But onstage, I wasn’t me. I was my character. I’d rather act without pants in front of two hundred people than have a low stakes conversation with two. I miss those days more than anything I’ve ever done. And in case you’re wondering, yes there are photos and a video of this performance, and no I’m not ever putting them online.

Lesson Learned: Be yourself, even if you have to be someone else to do it.

Broken Legs

I backed into—and knocked over—a blue mail collection box at the post office.

Now that I’m in my thirties I’ve decided that no one should ever operate a motor vehicle at the age of sixteen. Fifty hours of driving with an adult, a test, and a passing grade on maneuvering through a set of cones is all that stands in the way of a child with a barely developed frontal lobe getting into a two ton death machine. Oh, to be young again, when you believed mortality didn’t apply yet.

I failed my first attempt at my license. I would like to go on the record and say not being able to apply the brakes to stop during the maneuverability test is bullshit. In what world would this ever happen? Sorry officer, I didn’t mean to smash that Prius and run over a cyclist, as you know I can’t stop when parallel parking. Them’s the rules.

I did pass my second attempt and got my license. Living in the country means you drive everywhere to get everything, so I was used to long distance travel. Parking was another story.

After the homecoming football game, my parents took me to retrieve my car from the post office parking lot. I’d been on the senior float, so my car wasn’t at school where it would’ve normally been. It was foggy that night, as it always was on Fridays because it never failed to rain. Still buzzing from the excitement of the game and upcoming dance, I threw my Oldsmobile in reverse.

Crunch. Smash. Boom.

The sound of metal on metal was jarring, the impact jolting me toward the steering wheel. I got out to inspect what I’d hit. I’d backed into the blue post office box and knocked it completely over and off the cement pad to which it was bolted. When we tried to stand it back up, it teetered because the leg was bent severely.

My parents didn’t freak out. Not all the way. They demanded I get in the car and go home. I thought I’d get arrested for committing a felony.

We went back to that post office in our sleepy town at midnight armed with sledgehammers. My dad pounded the leg back into shape. They made me stay there until it was standing on four legs again. How we never caught the attention of the police is unexplainable, especially after a homecoming football game. There would forever be a blue scuff on the bumper of my Cutlass as a memento.

Lesson Learned: Parents will do anything for their kids. Even when they shouldn’t.

The Breakup

I almost got dumped at a Longhorn Steakhouse.

“He’s shy, you’re shy, you’d be perfect together!” my friend Hannah squealed. I wasn’t sure about a blind date with a stranger from another school, but I trusted her judgment. Hannah and her boyfriend Greg had been together several years, a lifetime in teenager terms. He’d given her a promise ring, a pre-proposal in advance of the real one, I guess, and to me this was a Very Big Deal. I’d been single for a while, so I agreed to meet Greg’s best friend Luke.

I met Luke in person at a bowling alley with Hannah and Greg after chatting with him a few times on AOL Instant Messenger. I rocked my best distressed flares and chunky sandals and Hard Rock Hollywood tank top. Luke was exactly as described. Cute, quiet, sarcastic, a passive troublemaker. He was six-foot-four to my maybe five feet tall. I liked him. It wasn’t instant, but I liked him.

On our first solo date, he took me to Longhorn Steakhouse, his favorite restaurant. Luke consumed exactly three food groups: pizza, steak, and burgers. He never met a vegetable he liked. A few weeks later, I went to his homecoming at his high school. We kissed afterward. He asked me to be his girlfriend.

We hung out almost every weekend. Since we didn’t have cell phones, we talked occasionally on the phone but mostly on AIM, where all early aught relationships existed—as long as the dial-up was running and no one needed to make a call. Luke specifically did not like talking on the phone, so we didn’t. And that should’ve been a clue for me that this wasn’t going to work out.

Here’s the thing: Luke and I had nothing in common. Nothing. We liked making out. That was about it. Sometimes we had fun together, but it was often strained. He was shy, all right. Painfully so. Or, maybe he just wasn’t really into me. We didn’t go to the same school, so we didn’t have that bond either. Many times we’d sit in gut-wrenching silence with nothing to talk about. I was more relaxed when Hannah and Greg served as buffers. He was going into the military, I was going to college, and deep down we knew it wasn’t a Hannah/Greg promise ring situation.

Cut to six months later, he took me to Longhorn. I didn’t know it at the time, but he intended to break up with me. And didn’t. He mostly stared at the table, making little eye contact and hardly uttering a word. It all felt icky as I sat there trying to lift the crushing weight of the nonexistent conversation. Our food coming was the best thing that ever happened to our dinner out.

Across the way, a party of adults in their thirties were watching us. I kept catching the eye of a woman in the group as I looked anywhere but at my tight-lipped boyfriend. They gathered their things to leave and as they passed our table, the woman bent down toward Luke and said, “Ask her about her hobbies,” and kept on going. He turned white. I turned red. He did not ask me about my hobbies.

Luke dumped me by email a few months later after ghosting me and canceling all our plans, admitting that he meant to end our relationship on that awful date. I cried over the insult of being dragged along all that time, relived that it was finally over. Luke is married now, and so am I, and so are Hannah and Greg. We all got what we wanted in the end.

Lesson Learned: Opposites attract for a reason.

Non-disclosure Agreements #2

The second time someone told everyone I’d had cancer I was a recent high school graduate.

In the summer of my eighteenth year, I worked at an outlet store that sold tacky goods from catalogues, most of it old stock or imperfect items shipped from the corporate office. Think a physical version of Sky Mall. It was an easy gig, I made good money doing it, and I worked with my friends. Win, win, win. 

Many of my summer days were spent in a hot, filthy, smelly warehouse ripping apart boxes, moving pallets, and tagging merchandise for the sales floor. I climbed towers of boxes to find whatever was on our clipboard that day, rifling through packages of slogan t-shirts and novelty ceramic salt and pepper shakers. Aside from the manager, there were only two other males on staff, both of them my former high school classmates. Interestingly, they were never assigned to the warehouse. But that’s a story for another time. 

I’d gotten to know the other women well because there was nothing else to do but talk to distract ourselves from the repetition of the job. I will never forget how one woman, a married mother of teenagers, was a die-hard Nickleback fan. She hung cutouts of Chad Kroeger in her locker at work and watched a DVD of one of their concerts every day. That’s dedication. 

One day, in the perpetual boredom of a long tagging session, my coworker broke the silence with the following: “Can I ask you a personal question?”

Whenever someone asks something like that, it’s never going to go well, but you say yes anyway, even when you know you shouldn’t. I gulped down my nervousness, my face flushed and skin clammy. She asked me if I had cancer. I told her I had. After thinking about it a moment, I countered by asking why she knew that. I never told anyone. 

She replied, “Our boss told me he thought you were lazy and didn’t work very hard, and the reason is you’ve been coddled by your parents because you had cancer as a child.”

It was like being killed and resurrected only to be killed immediately again. I hoped the hard cement floor would fracture and take me as they stared back at me. He said… what?

There are too many violations to count from this experience. The sleight about my parents is indefensible, because the man doesn’t have a fraction of the strength they possessed. Everyone in the store was lackadaisical, including him and the boys he never made work in the warehouse. He had connections with people who knew me well, but I don’t know why he ever thought it would be appropriate to share this. I was a child in his employ. 

I ugly cried all the way home, my heart broken. I chose to bury it instead of putting up a fight. I couldn’t look at him without feeling sick to my stomach. I had a good case to report him, but I didn’t know at the time that I could have. I didn’t know my rights then. I wanted it to go away. If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have ever let him forget me and what he did. I let him get away with it.

The store was going under—and I contribute that to his abysmal leadership and his rampant theft—and we learned we would be liquidating all the merchandise and closing our doors. Since I was leaving for college, I was planning to quit anyway, and this closing seemed like a sign. A shift in the universe to punish him. Though, now that I’ve gotten my feet wet in this life, slimy people like him never suffer long for their sins, they just adapt and slither somewhere else.

Lesson Learned: Do not, under any circumstances, be nice when someone violates you. 

High Octane Attitude

My mom called me a bitch on a family vacation.

I have an attitude. It hasn’t changed. I’m quick to heat and I’m highly sensitive and that creates a volatile combination sometimes. I got in trouble for it then and I get in trouble for it now. We’re all our childhood selves, just with older bodies and a few filters.

As my brother and I got older and wanted less in the way of toys, my parents scaled down Christmas gifts and we took a short trip instead. I have always been thankful for my parents’ love of travel that sparked my interest in exploring the world from a young age.

My junior year of high school, we hopped on a plane to Williamsburg, Virginia the day after Christmas. Being sixteen is hard. Being sixteen on a vacation you don’t really want to go on is equally as hard. I was missing my boyfriend—the guy who wanted to dump me at a Longhorn Steakhouse—and I was in a foul mood from the moment we passed through airport security.

It was the end of December, cold and snowy, and I didn’t want to do anything they wanted to do. I didn’t want to tour old site or read dumb signs or stand among the tourists. I wanted to get on AIM and talk to my friends and not be seen with my family. I’m so glad I didn’t have a cell phone then, because what a nightmare I would’ve been.

I can’t remember exactly where we were visiting, but we were getting passes for a tour that required us to wear them as lanyards. Such suffering. Such pain for my cool, adolescent self. I was whining and dragging my feet all the way to the counter, giving my parents the top notch attitude they always scolded me for. And then it happened. My mother looked me square in the eye and said, “Stop being such a bitch.”

I don’t know if she remembers it, but I do. My jaw must’ve been on the floor. Mom didn’t cuss much, but when she did, she wielded the enormous power to filet us with one well-placed word. I wrote about this charming incident in my journal, which is a hilarious read now. If you haven’t gone back and perused your old diaries or yearbooks, do it. It’s a delight.

Lesson Learned: I am so lucky my parents didn’t abandon me at a gas station and drive away.

Rah-Rah

This one time at band camp, we shared a dorm with three hundred competitive cheerleaders.

I will be the first to admit I was a giant band nerd. I’m not sorry for that. Marching band was an easy target for ridicule, but what people didn’t know was how hard we worked and how much dedication it required to get out there in that polyester outfit with gold plumes on our hats and play our hearts out on the field. We sat through games in all types of horrible weather, still cheering for the football team with gusto when they lost every game of the season. 

Band camp started in July and was a week long, usually held at a college. We got very little down time except in the evenings after the sun set. In addition to rehearsing the music inside the band room and in break out sessions, we’d stand in the sun with a grid of positions, moving from one point to the next, matching it with the music, over and over until we dropped with exhaustion.

My freshman year of high school we were out in the sweltering heat when a fleet of buses rolled in across campus. Three hundred cheerleaders flowed out and into the dorms. The boys literally stopped functioning mid-rehearsal, gaping slack-jawed at a parade of skirts and tank tops. The director yelled cut and turned to investigate the cause of their distraction. 

It got worse.

We shared the same high rise dorm with them. Our girls were on the seventh floor, the boys were on the sixth, and floors one through five were dominated by cheerleaders. The elevators were slow and rickety and the university warned there could be no more than six in it at a time, or it could get stuck. In the hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the cheerleaders, the boys would hit all the buttons, so the doors would open on every. single. floor. 

A hostile rift started to form. They took over the cafeteria. There were a few days when the hot water got tapped out in the showers. They overloaded the elevator and needed rescued by the fire department. And when they walked through the middle of our field during rehearsal, it was mutiny. We made fun of them, they made fun of us, and we got a few stern lectures from our director to keep ourselves together until it was over. The boys? The majority of them were completely broken until the cheerleaders left.

Lesson Learned: Planning, people. Planning.

The Last Song

The last song we sang together was “The River” by Garth Brooks.

I don’t have the words for Camp Friendship. I could write about it for the rest of my life and it would never feel like enough. I’m holding back tears now and I haven’t even begun to retell this story.

Camp Friendship was for childhood cancer survivors and patients ages seven to fifteen. For one week in June, we gathered together to be kids. Not sick kids, bald kids, kids with prosthetics and scars and ports and Broviacs and moon faces from Prednisone. Just kids. We related on a fundamental, unspoken level that never required pity or nuance. I know, you know, we know, let’s eat s’mores.

I’d spent my summers with the same six girls, graduating through the ranks and the awkwardness of adolescence, through many seasons of life. Our last year together was in the summer of 2001.

It was the first time I can recall being keenly aware of a closure of something that would never be again. I was looking forward to driving, and prom, and graduation and college in a few years, but this was something that had a conclusion that felt permanent. And it was.

In years past, we were too cool for the group songs and the hokey games, but we went hard that year, squeezing out every emotional drop. We’d longed to be the eldest class, and we’d arrived. There was a series of lasts. Last campout. Last fire. Last lip synch contest. I broke my ankle right before camp and still had a cast, so unfortunately I missed out on some of the activities. It still hurts to think about.

The last dance was the hardest. We knew the next day meant camp was over for good. No more dolling up in our finest halter tops and shorts and dabbing glitter on our cheeks and eyelids. No more breathless angst for a boy to ask us to slow dance. At the end, during the swan song “Lean on Me,” we held each other, and we cried.

When camp concluded, families were invited to a ceremony for all the campers. Each of us was given a certificate of completion from our counselors and we joined in on a few of the songs we sang together during the week. My mom always remarked at how humbling it was to see us all in one frame knowing it wasn’t even a drop in the bucket of all the kids affected by cancer.It wasn’t even representative of the northeast portion of the state. It’s as shocking as it is horrifying when I reflect on it now.

The last song we sang was “The River” by Garth Brooks. One line that always gets me is, “Don’t you sit upon the shoreline and say you’re satisfied. Choose to chance the rapids. And dare to dance the tide.” That seemed like it was written for us. We swayed to that song, arms linked around each other, blubbering through every line. And then it ended.

Those girls are some of the most important people who have ever entered my life. They are strong, and brave, and beautiful, and I love them with every fiber of my being.

I’m happy to report that it wasn’t over. Not in 2001. Fifteen years later, we reunited for the first time since camp and had dinner together. In a few weeks, I’ll see them again. I am so lucky to know them.

Lesson Learned: Everything ends. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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