as a sophomore in high school i had a best friend whose name was the same as that of the golden child. this friend was a year older than i was, and, something that was thrilling to both of us at this age, she was dating a young cafeteria worker on campus. he was college age, probably early to mid twenties, and was very impressive and intellectual. my friend, whom i shall refer to as sunshine, confided in me the night they made leap of having sex for the first time. i began hanging out with them as a unit, an experience that inspired me to write a poem, a sort of ode to the joys of being a third wheel. i wrote copious amounts of poetry in high school, which was part of the reason i bonded so deeply with this couple. both of them were writers, she working for the school newspaper and he composing psychological essays that he then emailed to both of us.
in retrospect, it's amazing to me to how great an extent i sought people like me. sunshine confessed to me the summer after i graduated high school, when she and her boyfriend visited me at my grandparents' home, that she struggled in high school with trichotillomania. even hearing her describe her compulsion to tear out her hair, having to keep it short and worrying about classmates noticing her bald spots, i did not connect this with my own destructive behaviors. getting permission from my teacher to go to the restroom, ducking out of class and sitting against the smooth cool tiles of the wheel chair accessible stall's back wall. letting the world dissolve around me for a half hour or more while i grabbed hold of prickly black hairs on my legs with fingernails already spit and flaking from such abuse, and tore them out. the way i panted with relief and a strange, white hot pleasure when the build up of tension inside me was released by each tiny burst of pain. the most my teachers ever did when i eventually returned to the classroom was ask me if i was alright, to which query i would respond woodenly that of course i was fine. why would they possibly think i wasn't?
but the similarities between myself and my chosen friends did not end there. i somehow managed to find people whose home situations were at least somewhat similar to mine. the problem for me was that for whatever reason i could never make them understand the depth of my hurt. either their families were simply less screwed up than mine and they didn't believe me i had it worse and just assumed i was exaggerating, or they were better at dealing with dysfunction than i was, or they chose not to deal with their troubles and were in denial. somehow, i just couldn't articulate the dead seriousness with which my mom threatened to send me away to military boarding school or deny me the chance to go to college by refusing to pay my tuition, in such a way that would stop my friends from asking me why when i had a problem i didn't talk to my mother about it. the fact that i would break down in tears over an intense daily struggle with my anorexia and bulimia before my friends, but refused to even bring this up with my parents, was not something i could make even my closest high school companions understand.
i don't remember many details surrounding these events, but during the time i lived under my mom's roof, the boys from russia were first sent away to military boarding schools, then one by one given a second chance and invited back into the house, then sent away once more. a few of them even were permitted a third round as the prodigal son returning, but to my knowledge at least none of them ever succeeded in staying in my mom's good graces for more than a few months. their repeated exiles branded in my mind the seriousness of my mom's threats. her favorite method, it seemed, of ensuring my obedience was to warn me that if i didn't toe the line she wouldn't pay for college and i'd never be anything. even the idea of this chilled me to the bone, because i wholeheartedly believed that a college degree was the difference between happiness and success and utter failure. if i didn't get into a good college, there would be no point in continuing to live. i remember, as a freshman, sitting with my family around a long table in an italian restaurant's private dining room, and declaring with an easy confidence that was entirely fabricated that i planned on going to harvard university some day. my dad protested this assertion, no doubt thinking of the price of tuition at such a school and worrying i'd turn into a snob by associating with those rich ivy leaguers, but my mom leapt to my defense. what could be better confirmation of her success as a homeschooling instructor than having a daughter at harvard? though i admired christopher mccandless, and would have liked to possess the gaul to run away and carve an existence the alaskan brush, it was clear to me that college was my only realistic chance for freedom; therefore, i oozed my desire to escape in this way from every pore. as important as being the mother of success stories was to my mom, maintaining control over her offspring took precedence even over this, and the best way to assert control over me was to plant the seed in my mind that if i messed up, if i showed myself to be undeserving, college would be taken away from me.
eventually, sunshine told me that i was an emotional parasite dragging her down. she couldn't deal day after day with the deluge of confused and shattered emotions swirling inside me as a result of a painful home life i didn't know how to explain even to myself. i wasn't doing anything to help myself get over my eating disorder. she was sick of the way i waited by the school's rod iron gate for her in the morning, like a little lost puppy. saying these things to me, i don't think she meant to end our friendship. sunshine was in some ways much more mature than i was, with a "living in the solution" pragmatism i could not emulate because i was too busy trying to penetrate through years of brainwashing that had numbed my senses. she had a right to get frustrated just like anyone else. but i was so insecure that as soon as the pathetic image of myself that she'd painted entered my mind, i couldn't bare to be around her, because every time i looked in her eyes that was all i could see, reflected back at me.
indirectly, it was sunshine who introduced me to the individual who would become my next best friend. because she had a boyfriend, it seemed to me that it was high time i find one as well. i already had a habit of scoping out potential soul mates every time i stepped into a new classroom for the first time. i would rank the boys as they filed into their seats based on initial attractiveness. i find this extremely ironic today, because i have learned that when it comes to predicting the impression male looks will have on a female audience, i am completely hopeless. nevertheless, the summer between my sophomore and junior years, i came up with criteria in my mind and set out to award each male in my summer school speech class a numerical score between one and ten.
at first glance, jimmy, (alias) was a nine. he was tall, lean, and beautifully pale. he had enormous, very light blue eyes curtained by long and thick brown lashes. between his socks and kaki shorts the several inches of white calves that peaked out at me were sculpted and very appealing. his eyebrows were dark and sharp and dramatic on an otherwise smooth face, and his cheekbones were high and prominent and his lips were full. he also had what i judged to be a slightly overlarge nose. what concerned me most about him, however, was his hair, which had nearly been shaved to oblivion. later, i learned that he'd decided to start fresh after an experiment with blond hair dye that went very wrong. but at the time, though i was totally ignorant of what the term entailed, i was afraid he might be a skin head. so i deducted a point from my mental rating system.
despite the brazen attitude with which i evaluated my potential suitors, i had no real plan of action to catch one of them. i introduced myself with a feigned haughtiness, and tried to interject into conversations going on around me with some terribly clever remark whenever i could. that first day, my classmates and i were assigned seats at the square, four person tables arranged along the walls alphabetically by the first letter of our last names. i ended up seated across from a boy whose classical good looks could have come straight off a greek sculpture of hercules. it wasn't fair of me, obviously, but i quickly discounted him from the running because he played water polo, and therefore was a jock. also, he alone of the males with which i shared this summer course was in my own grade. the older boys were more interesting to me, because i knew it was a well substantiated truth that girls mature much faster than boys do, naturally inferior creatures that they are.
jimmy really became my crush, despite the fact that our class included a male i'd ranked as a ten appearance wise, as well as another nine in the grecian demigod water polo player, because during a fifteen minute break on the third day of speech class, he asked me a few questions about myself that made me think that jut maybe he might actually care to get to know me.
i was a sixteen year old girl, and like any twitterpated, moonstruck female just discovering the bubble gum punk high of young love, i practiced spelling out his name until i could do so in such a loopy, obscure way that nobody watching over my shoulder could possibly decipher what i'd written. i started drawing little sketches of my classmates in the margins of my notebooks. i remember showing jimmy the portraits of him that i'd made. his comment was that he looked like an alien in them; though i did not realize it at the time, he was not being critical of me, by saying this, but of himself.
in what i hoped was a single, fluid motion, i sprang up onto the top of one of the cinder block benches that marches in rows along either side of the campus's central courtyard or "quad." i took dancing steps across the concrete before hopping back down to earth, feeling the rush of the air as it whooshed up my skirt. i did this for the same reason i'd walked backwards through the corridors of the math and science building while in summer school with my first crush between my freshman and sophomore years. i wanted jimmy to see me as unconventional, a free spirit. i wanted to do something to extend this perfect moment of walking along side him, trying to match his long legged strides, to imprint this shadow of happiness in my memory as a rare delicacy to be savored later.
when i sat next to jimmy, at the table we shared for this particular class period, an utterly new sensation shot upward through my body. it was almost a tingling, the gentle kiss of physical attraction suddenly bringing to my attention parts of my body i'd never had much cause to think about before, beyond the needs of hygiene during my menstrual cycle. the two girls with whom my family was already carpooling at this point served me with huge, ear to ear grins when i chattered at them inanely about how i thought i'd felt "turned on" by somebody for the first time in my life.
i made my first move on jimmy against the advice of sunshine, who was in his grade and therefore already knew him slightly. she'd attended at least one party at which he'd also been a guest, and attempted to warn me away with cryptic hints and descriptions of his unfortunate tendency to publicly strip off his clothes when heavily intoxicated. she also emailed me photos of him, his jaw slack from drink and his arm looped over the shoulders of a skinny blond wearing half of a shirt, which i ended up treasuring but were no doubt intended to be frightening to a person as naive and sheltered as i was. undaunted, i slipped jimmy an essay i'd written, not for school but for fun. it had something to do with ayn rand's "the fountainhead," embarrassingly enough; at sixteen years old, i'd graduated from reading saint books and was now old enough to appreciate what my mom seemed to consider a second bible, "atlas shrugged," as well as rand's other works. personally, i preferred "the fountainhead," to her longer novel. my essay was an unfocused, grasping attempt to make sense of a world with which i wasn't truly even acquainted, yet. i doubt that he ever even read a sentence of this writing.
when it came time to deliver speeches before the audience of our peers, somehow i allowed myself to be persuaded by jimmy to present an argument against gay marriage, while he spoke for it. my argument was philosophical, based on ayn rand and the idea that the right thing to do is not the same as what's nice, and was primarily written by my mother. she explained to me, while i rested my feet on the glove compartment of her car and tried to memorize her words to write down in my outline later, how it was okay to be nice to people who thought they were gay, but it wouldn't be a good idea to become best friends with one such misguided individual. i was so petrified during my delivery of my mom's message that even i could not understand the words i spoke as they fell from my tongue. i was awarded an eighty eight percent for my efforts, an evaluation of my skills i found horrifying because i never got a "b" on anything in high school. it was the same exact grade i would be given on every since one of my speeches in that class. in contrast, jimmy's defense of gay marriage was moving and personal, featuring a tragic story about his older sister's best friend who committed suicide after being bullied as a result of his homosexuality.
walking beside jimmy as we made our way from an almost deserted outdoor cafeteria back to our classroom, i became aware of details about myself i hadn't previously questioned. i realized that i was dirty, and that i wanted to be clean for jimmy, but this didn't mean i actually changed any of my behaviors. i did not wash my ratty black, navy blue, and burgundy polo shirts any more often than before, nor did i take any more showers or devote any more time to my oily hair that was always matted around my neck and hung in greasy clumps speckled with dandruff. i used the fact that i was, at this time, on a diet composed entirely of homemade chai tea frappuccinos and the cafeteria's buttery, melt in your mouth chocolate chip cookies for shock value. but i still felt the shame of it, and the desire to be a normal person even as i was passing my bizarre eating habits off as eccentricity. still, as we passed the towering glass facade of the campus's library, jimmy looped an arm around my waist and lifted me into the air for a moment. i would have squealed in surprise and delight, except that my heart had leapt into my throat, cutting off all sound. like the character i'd created for myself in "the knight game" i often felt that i was surrounded by an invisible force field that kept others from touching me. it was nice to have someone break what seemed to be an impenetrable barrier as far as most people were concerned. i think the fact that he touched me so casually was also exciting because it was a kind of physical assurance that he didn't find me repulsive. wanting somebody to put their hands on me was an entirely new experience for me. my breath caught in my chest, just thinking about the texture of his skin brushing against mine.
i worked hard in order to always fall into step with him when our class migrated as a group from cafeteria back to the square tables of "speech." as the summer session drew to a close, i watched for an opportunity to ask him out. though i was ashamed to be like my oldest sister and make the first move, something considered in my family to be a sign of desperation, i'd learned that i needed to take matters into my own hands and do some footwork if i wanted to accomplish my goals. i ended up choking past a throat that had suddenly closed tight on my airway something along the lines of, "i was wondering if would you maybe want to go to see a movie with me this weekend?" to which abomination against grammar he replied something like "sure. i'll call you." and then we discussed films that were in theaters currently, none of which was even remotely romantic. two girls observed from a few feet behind us, and their eyes glittered with excitement and approval. it was heartwarming to realize how much they were genuinely happy for me.
on the actual last day of speech class, when all of us young scholars played some sort of teacher instigated learning game that was really an excuse to run around on the grassy knoll, jimmy grabbed another girl around the waist and lifted her off her feet. both of them laughed until my lunges ached just listening to them. the girl was much prettier than i was, with a neat, trim, flat belly, small but still eye catching curves, and thick, silken black hair. she had to know i liked him; how could she do that to me?
i felt as though i'd been kicked in the stomach. a sensation of dread shot through me; clearly i'd misread all the signs. clearly, he had no feelings for me, and he'd just taken down my number to be polite. i ended up crying on a red plastic bench in the parking lot as i waited for my mom or dad or the golden child, who by now had her own car, to pick me up.