Picture this: I'm sixteen years old. It's very humid in mid-July, and it's starting to get late. All those worries and fears that typically emerge only after the sun descends have begun to surround me, nipping at my ankles like hungry summer mosquitoes.
I'm wearing a cute denim skirt – it’s frayed on purpose – and a black strappy tank that somehow manages to conceal all of my tan lines. I wore flats then, which is to say that my feet don’t feel as though they have been shoved into an iron vice, an inconvenience I started accepting later on as just part of life. Over the last hour the air changed, and now it's so heavy and hot that I can see actual steam rising off of my hair. Since I'm sixteen, my hair is curly. (I didn't meet the God-like apparatus that is the flatiron until I was in college.) I feel like I'm being pressed down against the concrete. Questions and fear race through my mind in the way that often happens before the rains come.
I'm standing on Main Street in Northport just up the block from where Kerouac used to drink and the sky has turned a purplish shade of black. I can no longer see Orion. Then the heavens open and they pour down everything but wisdom and self-respect on top of me.
I'm hunched beneath the awning of Tracks on Wax, the record store that in a few short years would stop selling records, and I’m trying in vain to light a cigarette, shielding and protecting it in a way I should have turned inward. I’m feeling hollow and out of sorts; I almost can’t speak – and he’s right next door at the pizza place, and when the heavy glass door swings open, I hear his loud laugh, the one I would recognize even if I were under water. And I can’t fathom, not even for a millisecond, how he is fine – he is fucking fine – and I am trying to smoke a drenched stick of nicotine, feeling destroyed.
We'd fought an hour earlier down by the harbor. I was sick of what felt like his ever-changing sentiments about me and he was sick of my moodiness, which I patiently and logically tried to explain was due to my reaction to his moods, but the explanation fell flat. He usually liked easier girls, ones who didn't stand up for themselves, and I was, I guess, difficult.
I hated him and still I longed for him – and he grabbed another slice of pizza.
On that night, I was sixteen.
At sixteen, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. It was, I suppose, a classically feminine kind of space. There were a lot of mirrors and photographs of my friends plastered collage-style above my bed. I slept more peacefully then and I’d wake up to the sun streaming through my blinds and gaze at the Barney’s ads I’d taped to my wall, Linda Evangelista perfection in her angles, and I’d get dressed to the George Michael song Freedom.
The telephone next to my bed was cordless and it would heat up slightly if I was on it for too long. A smooth, hot burn would tingle against my right ear and my cheek. Sometimes I’d switch sides, but I’d rarely hang up. Funny: after high school I was never really a phone person. Today there are only two people I enjoy talking to on the phone, but back then? The phone was a cordless lifeline.
Starting at about 7:00pm it was on and I’d loll around my queen bed talking to my girl friends, and with some I’d share my true feelings and with others I’d share someone else’s true feelings, but the night usually ended with a call from the boy whose voice alone made me smile slowly in the dark.
For hours and hours we would talk. I was less shy on the phone than I was in person. He knew the real me just as I was getting to know her.
Snapshot of sixteen: I’m on Carley’s back steps. I'm one of four girls who are always together, and for a long time it was a perfect square of people, where each one of us was as close to any other person in the group. The fractioning off would happen later, but we were too young to know then what life could bring. We’d eaten pizza and invited some of our guy friends over, and then we sat outside, smoking weed off of a Diet Coke can, the yellow zapper frying the bugs in the distance. Crickets and clear air – the atmosphere of suburbia. Even today, I see a lightning bug rising towards the sky, and I’m sixteen again.
“What’s going on with you guys?” my friends would ask me, and his friends sometimes too.
“Who knows?” I’d answer, but I’d smile as if to prove I was a good sport who didn’t need to have things defined.
It was hard to know how to act, though I knew precisely just how to feel.
He’d sometimes get jealous when I was around other guys. Once at Vicky’s house, I was sitting on a bed with Patrick. We were listening Cat Stevens, rewinding Father and Son over and over, when he burst in, drunk and stumbling from some kind of brown liquor someone had brought over. His eyes were wild and he leaned in to me and he smelled like paint thinner and he kissed me sloppily on the lips, hard, and then he turned around and left.
“Sorry about that,” I murmured .
“That was weird,” Patrick mumbled back.
“He might as well just have peed on me to establish his turf,” I said.
“He knows we’re not doing anything, right?” Patrick asked, almost laughing.
“I’m not sure he knows anything at the moment.”
Two hours later, I was holding his thick black hair back as he got sick. My resentment faded each time he threw up more liquidy brown stuff.
“You were always so forgiving,” he said to me last year over email when we spent a night laughing about how we used to be.
“I’m pretty sure that’s a character flaw,” I responded.
Snapshot of seventeen: It's the last week in August and there’s about twenty of us on the beach and there’s a bonfire. Even then, I recognized that I was fortunate to live in a place surrounded by the water and the hills. The terrain of where everything happened makes the retrospect pop, and I can still smell the ashy air. Every guy there has a glass bowl; the days of the Diet Coke cans are over. There’s a bit of a breeze and the trees in the distance start to glow, and someone has put on Automatic for the People, and I’m sitting on a rock while my friend Carrie is trying to braid my hair, and I see him across the glinting of the fire, and he smiles at me and I grin back.
Remember this, I told myself then. It won’t always be this way.