I come from a generation of girls who wanted Jordan Catalano for a boyfriend even though he couldn’t read.
I knew the names of the biggest models in the world and I slept in a bedroom with their faces plastered across the wall, aspirational black and white imagery that would become both inspiring and crippling when the day finally arrived and I realized I’d never clear 5’4” without heels and I’d never be able to describe my body as lanky. But sometimes when I couldn’t sleep, I would look up at those pictures and try to figure out what it was precisely about Christy Turlington’s mouth that made it so unique. I thought it might have something to do with the way her lips turned up even when she wasn’t smiling and I practiced smiling that way in the mirror, but my smile was always too wide and I could never pull it off. It was Linda Evangelista who was my favorite, though. In spite of all the rumors that she was the biggest monster around, I found the sharp angles of her face almost otherworldly and arranged the way they were somehow made her almost magically beautiful and besides, there were more than a few days when her haughty bitchiness was what I aspired to the most.
In an adolescence where Google searches didn’t yet exist, the only porn I ever saw was through static. I often wondered if I was the only person in the world who sometimes turned to that snowy channel in the dead of night. Since I was certain I must be, I never discussed it with anybody else.
I played Tetris for so many hours that the game sunk deep into my psyche and I dreamed about falling shapes. I can accurately report back that literal shape-shifting dreams are not at all relaxing. Combine those dreams with some NyQuil, and you’ll end up licking the wallpaper in the darkness like I once (twice) did. It did not taste like snozberries.
For a little while there, I was the single best Super Mario player I knew. Once I was able to get the Princess in one life, though, I lost interest in the game entirely. But to this day, the only men I date have a PlayStation or an X-Box in their homes and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I followed high-profile murder cases on television and I remember well that swoooosh sound cue that accompanied the Current Affair triangle as it came hurtling towards us. I remember that sound as accurately as I do the alarmed look on my mother’s face when I turned to her one night and said, “Robert Chambers is cute.”
I might have been briefly preoccupied by the attractiveness of criminals, but the guy I really longed for was even worse because he was fictional. To say I had a crush on Jake Ryan is nothing short of a massive cliché, but I did have that crush and I know it was real because, to this day, he remains the only man I’ve ever wanted more than I wanted the layer cake swathed in glorious pink icing he presented to a girl as they sat cross-legged on a dining room table. I wanted to be there. I wanted to sit on top of furniture. And I wanted to do things with that icing that would never result in a PG-13 rating.
I was encouraged to read and I received a blank journal almost every year for the holidays because the act of writing about my thoughts and was just something that was expected in my house. I used to write letters to people I loved or missed or had mistreated. I don’t do much of that today, but I still scrawl one out every now and then and I think maybe it’s only because of the heady catharsis that washes over me when I carefully fold the letter and place it into the envelope, to say nothing of the crush of emotion that occurs as I affix a stamp. It’s an I can’t go back now moment that sets in and the pride that comes from having just been brave settles in way more quickly than the feeling of regret that will definitely show up later.
I have a torn yellow folder in a drawer in my office that holds high school poetry, Valentine’s Day cards from my earliest love, and a tiny notebook in which I wrote about losing my virginity. It’s the only tale recounted in there and I have no memory of why I chose to scrawl the intricacies of that defining teenage moment in that itty bitty book. I have even less of an idea why nothing else is written in there because I was always the sort who used every single page of a journal or a notebook and I would write on the inner covers when I finally ran out of space. On the front of the folder that holds all these items is the address of this kid Rob’s house because we’d talked him into having a party one night when we were seniors. I actually remember that night well. I was one of the biggest proponents of him having that party, but at some point things got loud – maybe too loud – and Rob frantically found me and asked me to help him calm it all down. I cannot recall what happened next, but I know that I was fucking miserable that evening because I’d just decided that I hated the guy I loved and he was one of the drunk, loud ones and I was sober and I just felt over him and over hot weekend nights in the suburbs.
The people I formed the closest bonds with were those I talked to in depth about movies and television. It's still that way today. I was never a total believer in movies-as-simple-escapism kind of girl and entertainment posed questions to me and I was just always the type who wanted some answers. I was lured in by television shows that were shot like movies from the seventies and I would search the far back corner of the frame and know that everything on that screen had been a choice and I wanted to be in the room when those choices were made. I read interviews with producers and directors and studio heads and I created a list of the movies they discussed, especially the ones that came up over and over again because I figured those must be the ones that mattered. At sixteen, I had a numbered list in the bottom drawer of my night table with titles like Network and Dog Day Afternoon and I would rent those movies and watch them carefully and then watch them one more time and I’d speak about my reactions to mostly adults because the majority of my friends weren’t particularly interested in films that came out before any of us were even born. I watched The Graduate about sixteen times in one weekend and I wondered about the symbolic value of all the water flooding the picture and I smiled knowingly the next time I heard the word “plastics” because I felt in on something that I thought must be very important.
I was particularly drawn to stories about darkness. I only liked characters who were complicated and difficult and struggling with the sort of inner turmoil that wouldn’t go away, not even while they slept. There was something about a fanaticism within each of them that I didn’t see when I looked into my own mirror. I would think about it while I was in the shower: what is it that turns somebody ruthless? Is it one big trauma that scatters the senses and results in the rearrangement of priorities or is it maybe a series of incidents that have all ended with the kind of failure you can only whisper about from that point forward? What is it, I wondered, that makes some people go silent while others begin to scream?
I spent so many quiet nights lying on beds and floors and the cool sand of the beach while strains of The Doors and Cat Stevens played from someone’s portable CD player. Those were the days when it didn’t seem strange at all to reach out and play with somebody’s hair. I knew the scalps and the faces of those I loved by heart then. I knew who had a tiny birthmark near an ear and I could recognize people by the perfume they wore. But even then, I knew that this wouldn’t be forever. Even then I recognized that nights like that existed just to become memories.
There were times when the world felt very still and I would find myself filled with an almost unquenchable form of gratitude because I knew that I was wise and I knew that I was good and I hadn’t allowed anything to destroy me yet. But there were also times when the sun rising in the sky felt like it was just too much and I’d stare out my window and squint my eyes and wonder if there was something I could say to myself that would stop me from caring. I would wonder if there was any possible way to stay completely in the present even as photos of the past covered my bedroom walls and lined the inside of my mind like a blanket from childhood.
“What are you doing next year?”
I was asked that question again and again in my last months of high school and I would chatter away about majoring in Film and how I hoped my roommate wouldn’t be a kleptomaniac and how I’d probably loft my bed with cinderblocks, but what I never said – not even to myself – was that I didn’t want next year to come. I didn’t want to have to explain who I was to someone new, that I was the kind of person who found it fully normal to watch an episode of Twin Peaks three times in a row or play Father and Son on repeat for over an hour just to rehear the line, “From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen.” There was so much of me at that point that was exhausted by what was and what had been, but I guess part of me still longed for the comfort of being surrounded by the dunes while hearing the crash of the waves as the chill of damp sand pressed against my jeans. Even today, part of me wishes back the time when nobody even had to question that of course my bedroom ceiling was drenched in glow-in-the-dark stars and how the shimmer of light they gave off just made Christy Turlington appear even more beautiful.
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