John Travolta was the first.
Though the alleged incidents occurred before I developed the capacity for memory, family lore includes tales of me shaking my Pampered-clad ass to You’re the One That I Want in our sunken suburban den, my feet clomping through shag carpet so lush it rose to the tops of my ankles, my toddler-soft shoulders breaking into a shimmy whenever Sandy and Danny together cooed “ooh, ooh, ooh, yeah.” The whole thing sounds delightful, but I cannot recall a single second of those days – then again, I also cannot recall a time when I didn’t know the entire Grease soundtrack by heart. I’ve forgotten hundreds of things throughout the passage of the years. I willfully surrendered real estate in my brain to far more essential matters like Caddyshack quotes and remembering what that one guy’s pores looked like – a dreamlike version of Orion – but even though I’ve forgotten phone numbers and names and bold intentions and grand promises, I’ve never forgotten a single lyric of any song in Grease.
Visions from my childhood often appear like opaque puzzle fragments in my head, but some memories arrive solid and clear. I can instantly remember, for example, how I liked to sing the boy part in Summer Nights because I knew, even then, that the boy lyrics were dirtier –and dirtier made everything so much more fun. I remember thinking Danny Zuko looked extra handsome when he was smoking a cigarette. I can gaze inward and immediately an image of myself springs into focus: I’m four years old and sprawled on the front lawn near the cherry tree and I’m holding a buttercup flower underneath my sister’s chin. After confirming from the reflected glow that she definitely likes dairy, I pull blades of grass out by the root and fantasize about being a high school student like Rizzo because how nice would it be to go to a school with a ferris wheel right there on the football field?! And more than any of it, I remember how I knew – I just knew – that one day I would wear a pair of pants like Sandy did in the movie’s final scene and when I finally smoked the very first cigarette of my life, I would totally put it out by tossing that butt from my crimson lips and grinding it against the dirt before jamming my nicotine-and-turf-stained heel up against the chest of the gorgeous man who was kneeling before me.
Even now – even all these years later when that shag carpet no longer exists and that suburban house with the sunken den is owned by strangers and I recognize the harm both smoldering ash and the spiky heel from one of my peep toe slingbacks can inflict on a man’s chest and John Travolta is a confirmed Scientologist – I can still close my eyes and remember the shiver that traveled up my spine during the quick zoom to Danny Zuko standing near the front doors of Rydell High. It’s hard to know what the toddler version of me was responding to exactly, but since I only buy about a quarter of what Freud tried to shill out to the masses, my guess is I was responding less to my first encounter with blatant virility and more to the first moment I came face to face with cool.
Men armed with those perfect smiley-smirks, the kind that are simultaneously a gift and a curse…they’ve been on my mind recently. I’ve sort of been going through an exploratory phase, an excavation into my past to better steer the choices I’m making in my present. To make the whole analyzing-myself-thing feel useful instead of purely existential, I decided to combine it with some much needed spring cleaning. I started the process in the bathroom and the crammed vanity alone yielded a bevy of personal insights, like how I’m inexplicably a hoarder of expired medication. I hold on to antique Benadryl the way my Nana protected her piles of pilfered Sweet n’ Low and I’m pretty sure both products could cause a lab rat to croak in well under a minute. I ended up throwing a shitload of potentially fatal allergy capsules and armfuls of melatonin into a trash bag and that’s when it finally came to me: I have a very hard time saying goodbye to things.
But maybe it’s not just things, because I also have a hard time saying goodbye to people – but only if they’re people who have transformed somehow in my head into an idea, a walking manifestation of a theme wrapped vice-like around a conflict. Just as the head of the T-Birds equaled cool to three year old me, the people who have remained in my heart and in my thoughts and in my dreams and in the most traumatizing of my fully-awake nightmares are the people who represent something I’m still somehow drawn to and maybe that’s why I keep some tangible memory of each one. Maybe the thing I hold on to exists so I never actually have to experience a full goodbye.
So there I was, sitting yoga-style on the floor of my office. The bathroom excavation was complete and everything toxic had been removed from the house when I moved on to tackle the next space. I pulled it all – every piece of paper, every loose photo, every love letter I’ve ever mailed (I’m odd; I tend to keep a copy of my written longings, all the better to later berate myself with, my dear) and every love letter I’ve ever received – from the bottom drawers of my towering bookcase. As I slowly perused the relics, I found myself continually stumbling upon the image of the lips of the men who have caused me to pray for darkness, long for daylight, and twist my body into positions that would cause a contortionist to applaud. Yes, starting with my reel life crush on Mr. Travolta, the male figures in real life I’ve crawled towards – sometimes literally, but only on very special occasions – have had a few particular things in common, but perhaps the greatest commonality they share is their capacity for cool.
I’m not sure what it is about the concept of cool that has always moved me. Maybe it’s how I define it… For me, cool connotes edginess. Cool gives off a chill that probably comes from all that adorable withholding. Grasping cool in your hands is almost impossible, but there’s nothing like watching cool dissolve right in front of you because of the skilled movement of your own hands. Cool is somewhat unattainable, its meaning ever-shifting. But this I know: Cool requires strategy. I mean, Sandy didn’t just show up in those shiny skintight pants at the carnival because all her pastel tea-length dresses had period stains on them. Girlfriend was trying to shock in the way only the coolest of the unexpected can.
Rifling through the papers and pages of my past, I realized that the first cool moment of my life started early, with my birth announcement. I have a copy tucked away and I pulled it out and lightly traced my fingers over the cream-colored paper with the dark violet calligraphy. It’s a small announcement, just a card folded in half with my name, birth weight, and birth date on the inside, but on the front is a Salinger quote from Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenters and Seymour: “A child is a guest in the house, to be loved and respected — never possessed, since he belongs to God. How wonderful, how sane, how beautifully difficult, and therefore true.” While I’ve always been a bit surprised my parents chose a quote with the word “God” in it (they weren’t exactly the most conventionally religious couple), what really comes to mind whenever I see that announcement is how fucking cool it was for my parents to use Salinger to announce my arrival. It was also kind of them to go in that direction, especially considering that I was born so quickly after my mother’s water broke that I showed up in the world with bloodshot eyes and a cone-shaped head and coloring that could most kindly be described as “mottled.” With two deep dimples denting my cheeks and making it look like I’d been socked hard in the face, I wasn’t much of a looker. Still, yet another bit of family lore includes a story that allegedly took place seconds after my birth as my father stared down at me while my mother held me close.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” my father asked.
“She’s cute,” replied my mother.
So yeah, if accuracy was what they were going for, they could have chosen this line from It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City: “I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova.” Seriously – I was born fast. The doctor caught me in mid-air like I was a football.
Quick life lesson #1: The recovery is difficult for sure, but C-section babies are way cuter than babies birthed the natural way – especially when that baby is in a rush to get out.
Quick life lesson #2: There’s a Springsteen quote for fucking everything.
Suddenly motivated to really understand my life after reacquainting myself with the announcement of it, I opened the first of the quilted journals I keep in a stack in that bottom drawer. Some are written in fully. A few even have lines of poetry lining the inner cover because I ran out of pages. One has the lyrics from Depeche Mode's Somebody written in vein-blue ink:
He will hear me out
And won't easily be converted
To my way of thinking
In fact he'll often disagree
But at the end of it all
He will understand me
And that's another thing about people who are unequivocally cool – they have opinions. Strong opinions. Unwavering opinions. Opinions so stirring they strike me as otherworldly. Those I've been most drawn to throughout my life are the ones who wield opinions like swords and, when they cut, the blood tastes almost sweet. I’m usually tolerant when confronted with opinions that differ vastly from my own, but there’s a caveat to my tolerance that probably makes me a bit of an asshole: I have to have massive preexisting respect for the person with the opposing opinion before I hear it or my eyes will end up rolling so hard and fast that there’s a chance I’ll pass out on the spot. This last election season, for instance, challenged me in ways I almost can’t explain because some peoples’ opinions actually caused me feel the internal swelling of violence, but since I’m relatively certain most people felt exactly the same way I did at some point, I probably don’t even need to try to articulate any part of it. What I will say is that the coolest of the people I’ve encountered can eloquently and passionately speak their truth, listen to me rant and rail in response, and then make me wish the two of us were spooning under the stars in a universe where elections never ever transpire.
Flipping open each cover, I saw the earliest of my journals was from the summer before my senior year of high school. There are very few references to politics inside, unless you count the reminder I wrote myself to rent All the President’s Men the next time I ended up at Blockbuster. (Also on that must-see list? Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and Serpico. I must’ve read some article about seventies cinema that night…) There are no other lists or reminders. Chronicled instead in that small book is a longing so palpable that the words almost rise from the page. Reading it back now, I see I was longing for connections and for clarifications of those connections. I wanted with my entire soul. And while it's almost embarrassing to remember myself as the emotionally-craving sixteen year old I was – a girl who thought too much and felt too deeply and wondered until the sun came up – it's also jarring to see how, while so much about me has changed, so much hasn't.
I want you to want me but I don't want you to know this.
The coolest of my teachers was a tall guy with dark blonde hair who taught Theatre – and the above line was not written about him, though one of his assignments inspired it. He wore J. Crew sweaters, spoke to us like we mattered, and he made me believe that I saw people and movies in a different way than anyone else. I remember rushing to his room the morning after I saw Boyz in the Hood to explain how the moment after Ricky was gunned down in the street slayed me because his brother and his friend brought the body back to his house and laid it upon the sofa. "In every other movie, there would have been a fade out to the hospital or to his funeral. But when you're desperate and overflowing with shock and grief and you're young and you don't know what else to do, taking the body home makes sense. It’s maybe the most powerful movie moment I’ve ever seen," I said to him at 7:30 AM. He hadn’t even had his coffee as I yammered away about my take on cinematic brilliance, but he poured himself a cup and offered me one too and invited me to sit down in his office so he could share his own impressions of the scene. Then he wrote me a pass to the Science class our discussion made me thirty minutes late for. I trusted this man. At one point I handed him my journal and allowed him to basically critique my feelings and the manner with which I communicated them. He encouraged me to write a short play and then he entered the piece without my knowledge in a Young Playwrights contest that landed me an honorable mention. On the day our entire class showed up looking collectively ravaged from all our chewy adolescent angst, he cancelled his planned lesson on the spot, had us lay on the floor in the dark, and guided us through the first meditation experience of my life. My eyes swooped inward and I could hear my breathing and the breathing of my classmates and I felt a sheer gratitude that this man existed, that he got us. And it was this incredibly cool man who one day challenged us to write, in just one sentence, our feelings about someone we felt love for and it was then I scrawled out those words that were colored with neediness and the illusion of cool.
I found myself on the phone with the first guy I ever loved a few weeks after that assignment. He was in the same class; he’d written his own sentence about love. That guy? He was cool – and by that I mean he was hilariously funny and he wasn’t scared off by my intelligence and he had amazing thick hair and he never stopped making me think. He spoke in a sexy whisper and laughed extra hard whenever I’d tell him a story that caused me to laugh so hard that I couldn’t even finish it and he said Good Night better than anyone I’d ever known. But he also had the other cool personality parts down fucking cold. He could lavish attention one day and temper every part of himself the next. He spoke of wanting independence and then told me he loved me. He all but moved into the center of my brain and evicted whatever ability I’d once had to demand consistency and I knew I needed to visibly pull back from him before everything imploded. But he had skills, this guy. He knew how to pull me back, to make me invest, to make me fall hard – again and then twelve more times – and the strangest thing is I saw it all as it was happening. His manipulation was stealth, but so was my awareness. Still, I admired his form and I eased the emotional door back open when he asked me to read him something I’d recently written. I chose a poem and then, feeling bold, I read him the sentence I’d written about how I defined love:
I want you to want me but I don't want you to know this.
“I know this,” he said softly.
“I know you do,” I replied.
There’s some sort of calmness inherent in coolness that I haven’t always been able to master and as I continued to turn the pages of my past, I formed a theory. Perhaps I was made to learn too early in my development – first through divorce and then through death – that some losses are forever so I sought, somewhat unconsciously, to guard myself from any sort of loss because of how frightening I viewed the concept of forever. And speaking of fear, maybe that very emotion is my trigger, the thing that reminds me of dreaded loss. And maybe my desire to never give in to the fear that leads to the anxiety that ends with a loss is why I’m drawn to those who are so cool. Because the coolest of them all? They never show fear, and though I’m perfectly aware they still feel it, a portion of me will always admire an exterior carved out of steel and smelling of aspirational composure.
I kept my new theory in the back of my mind and put the first journal down and read through the next few that catalogued the final days of high school, freshman year of college, and a few musings from more recent years. Most of the entries were at least dipped in some form of sadness and I was again reminded that I’ve never been able to write effortlessly when I’m surrounded by happiness. It’s an affliction that plagues me to this day, one that potentially explains why I haven’t written all that much recently. But even when I’m not crafting something longform, I always write. I’m constantly jotting down words I hear that cause images to dance wildly in my head. I listen to the radio on the way to work and a song lyric I’ve heard a thousand times suddenly settles in a manner it never has before and I wait until I reach a red light and I grab my phone and speak the lyric into my Notes app so I can look back at it later and figure out what caused it to finally move me. Sometimes it’s just the syntax, the structure of the words. Other times, it’s a connection to something someone else crafted that instantly makes me feel understood. During an interview Tom Hanks recently did with the Almighty Springsteen, Hanks – while making a joke – responded to something Springsteen said with the comment, “And we will follow you into hell, sir.” I heard it on the radio and the words felt immediately meaningful but I wasn’t sure why. It couldn’t necessarily have been the hell reference since I don’t believe in hell. Stories of demons roasting soul-first in maroon pits of smoldering fire that are fed kindling by creatures wielding pitchforks and void of sentiment and empathy strikes me as too convenient. Remember how when you were little and you were afraid of the thunder so your parents, who just wanted you to fucking go to sleep so they could get a minute of rest themselves, would tell you some story about where thunder came from? I think my parents settled on Greek Gods bowling in the heavens and I bought it because it was a damn good story and the thunder really did sound like ten pins being knocked down in the sky. That kind of thunder explanation reminds me of the idea of hell. Society required a setting for cautionary tales of the greatest magnitude so it settled on a land down under that was perpetually in flames.
But while I fully believe hell is merely a symbol, I heard Tom Hanks say that line and I repeated it over and over in my head until I had the chance to write it down because it meant something to me and I finally realized it wasn’t the hell part of the line, but the aspect of following someone you truly adore anywhere. There are only a few people who have existed in my life with whom I’d link arms and travel to a literal or metaphorical underworld, but they exist. Also true? If hell is real, some of them probably belong there. For the absolutely coolest one, I’d pack his suitcase myself for his forever-sojourn to the bottomless pit that Manson’s girls never managed to locate and I’d talk him into going by reminding him of how much he loves the heat, how evenly he tans, and I’d attempt to pull off probably the coolest move of them all – giving a mere shrug of the shoulders as I waved goodbye – but the truth is, I’d want to go with him.
Like all bumpy trips down memory lane – at least the ones on my itineraries – I ended up with more questions during my day of exploration than insights. And just as I leafed through a stack of photographs of me dressed as an angel one Halloween in my twenties, I decided maybe it was time to stop thinking for a while, to play it cool in my head long enough that the mindset would consume me and start radiating from my pores in a way that wouldn’t look shiny. So I gripped the pictures and opened the bottom journal with the black leather cover to put them inside so they wouldn’t get bent until I had some time to organize them, an activity I’d most likely execute a year or so after I turned eighty. I pulled the pages open at random and saw, in capital letters that I’d clearly tried to write neatly, a sentence alone on the page:
I will never forget him and I will never regret him.
For a second I just sat there. I heard my breathing, like on that day my teacher led us in meditation. I felt my heart beat hard and fast and my chest filling with what I’d swear felt like molten hellfire. But then I felt something else: a laugh in the way back of my throat. I felt it before I heard it and the sound triggered some imaginary mental button to click on, causing images of three or four men to flash like a slideshow through my mind. The line in that journal could have been written about any of them. Each one at some point caused me real pain, but the pictures in my head didn’t capture any of that. Instead, what I saw were their eyes the second we first saw each other, the curl of their lips that caused me to experience the same spine tingle Danny Zuko once did, and sitting there, I felt only appreciation for a past that suddenly didn’t seem as complicated anymore. And with a swift move of my hand, I pushed shut the drawer with my journals once again stacked neatly inside and I stood up and with some softness and just the slightest hint of cool, I returned to the present.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Also be sure to check out her website at nellkalter.com Her Twitter is @nell_kalter