Much of my late teen years were spent working on an image. I lacked substance. Some people spend a lifetime caught in this phase of life. Others emerge with a ‘look’ all their own and a unique personality that effortlessly emanates beyond the threads they wear.
How It All Began: High School ‘Cool Kids’
In eleventh grade, Vanessa wore a metal upper body brace for scoliosis correction under her loose plaid flannel shirts. In my opinion, the brace passed perfectly with her metal tooth gear. Her sallow skin, too short, self cut, immobile curly hair and body brace restriction passed perfectly to stiff pogo moves at high school dances.
Kris, last year’s originally shy, chubby, blonde girl in pinstriped, pegged jeans with no stretch, appeared willow thin in autumn with a baggy Boy George look, safety pin earrings, and yellow tinged skin. The skin color came from her new hobby: epoxy glue sniffing. From time to time, she spontaneously passed out in Chemistry or creative writing class.
Matt, with his short buzzed side hair and asymmetrical swath of curls dangling over one eye, squinted and pouted in English class. His single, self-pierced ear, looked hot and angry most of the time.
In contrast to my ‘cool’ classmates, through 1984 and 85, I remained vaguely chubby cheeked, my self-cut hair frizzed to a proportion that gave me the uncool nickname ‘Poodle.’ Though I wanted a ‘Pretty In Pink’ Molly Ringwald red bob, my efforts to apply red tinted mouse over brown frizz neither straightened my hair nor tinted it any shade of red.
My father, disgusted and distressed by the ever shorter ‘short back and sides’ but stacked, verging on David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’ or poet Ezra Pound proportions of poof, once snarled that I should go to a salon rather than cut my own wild locks. The one time I did so, I got a gay stylist who pursed his lips together, signaling his own distaste with my later fad: the rat tail. He wouldn’t cut my mullet narrow enough to really look like a braided rat tail, so, when I got home, I got out the further ‘Pretty In Pink’ inspired sewing kit and took a good snip or two with my shiny scissors.
Floppin’ at the Hop
My pleated front peged leg jeans tended to unroll over white socks. The socks flashed a Michael Jackson inspired glittery diamonds over the ankle that scratched. Toughing out the no-stretch jeans and glitter scratch was nothing compared to the sweaty, hot turquoise, puff sleeved angora top. My chalky, honeysuckle scented, roll-on deodorant would cake in my armpits as I took to pogoing with the ‘cool kids’ on Fridays. I felt like a fourth wheel on a tricycle.
Sweaty angora itches like crazy and smells like a wet cat. Cheap perfumes like Coty’s Emeraude and Chantilly only gave me an extra powdered waft wavering on ‘granny worthy.’ My white with black velvet polka dot tights, paired with a short gathered pinstriped pink and white, drop waist skirt and patent purple pumps with equally flashy bows led my father, decades later, converted to Catholicism, to admit, ‘You looked like a whore.’
I never had any whore action in those high school years though. I had crushes that didn’t remedy my secret longings. The best I ever got was a slow dance to REO Speedwagon’s DJ spun ‘Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,’ where Bruce, the willowy boy, whose locker had stood as alphabetically-by-last-name-assigned next to mine for years, bent down close enough to my shoulder, that my lips could kiss his neck, once. Almost out of earshot, he later boasted to friends in the parking lot that he’d ‘French kissed’ a girl. My first, not even returned, kiss.
The ‘cool kids’ skipped class. They smoked in the smoking court between classes and at lunchtime. They tried LSD and smoked joints while I drove to the shopping mall and knitted model sweaters for manikins in a craft shop. I came home to endless homework. I got good grades, took up jogging and went to the midnight screening of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall, ‘ a few times. I watched ‘Brideshead Revisited,’ read E. M. Forster and William Faulkner books, listened to operettas of Gilbert & Sullivan, wished I could step into ‘A Passage to India,’ and stared and day dreamed through lots of MTV videos.
A crush on a guy in theater class led me to listen to what he listened to: Queen. My older sister took me aside one day, when my parents were out of the family home, and asked if I was using drugs. She thought anyone who listened to Queen had drug issues. I told the truth: I don’t do drugs. Or glue. I just like music that you apparently don’t. My older sister was a Gordon Lightfoot fan. Of course I liked Brian May’s hair. Living in a humid state in the American South, I could almost poof my do into a May-worthy mop.
High school required reading in eleventh and twelfth grade English leaned heavily towards depressing: ‘Catcher in the Rye,’ ‘The Bell Jar,’ ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ Craziness. Suicide. Family Secrets. Themes that a teen can really obsess about. Music that fit the anxiety, failed dream and unfulfilled longings of teen life appealed to me.
The Bands Beginning with ‘The’
The ‘cool kids’ found their music some other, mysterious way. Vanessa listened to ‘Rock Lobster’ from the B-52s on a Walkman. Her music source was a guy from another high school in our county. He looked a bit like the lead singer in Simple Minds. I wished he was my guy. But, no. I thought the B-52s were corny and obnoxious. I liked them as much as I liked ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ which was not at all.
U2’s ‘Boy’ and ‘October’ jangled, echoed and clinked with empty glass milk bottle sounds that appealed more than their more successful album ‘War.’ I gave them up and went in search of other bands. Soon the albums in my small collection included groups like The Alarm, The Waterboys, ‘The’ being THE quintessential first part of so many bands in those days. I never did buy anything by The The though. ‘Til Tuesday , Talk Talk and Thompson Twins carried the ‘a band beginning with T’ theme further.
College: She’s (Maybe Not) Got the Look
My younger sister, three years my junior, hip with thin dishwater blonde hair, buzzed asymmetrical and a moody, acne scarred boyfriend on the track team, was kind of an idol for me. She sewed Japanese kimono inspired over-sized shirts and listened to The Smiths, 80s era David Bowie and Modern English. When she chucked clothes and shoes into the charity box in our cellar, I’d fish out everything that appealed, even though the shoes were a size too big for my feet. I took them to my first year of college, stuffing toilet paper in the toes.
I left home for a small college in the desert south west. At Christmas break, I came back from my first semester at college with Lucille Ball colored hair, a Boy George black felt hat, a vaguely shaggy black 50s swing coat from a thrift store which sported ‘wings’ stitched in the shoulder blade regions and three huge round plastic buttons up front. Upon seeing the coat, my mother wanted me to throw it away. I refused. The red hair success was a mishap. One Friday, I drank a bottle of cheap white wine like it was lemonade, colored my hair, donned a plastic bag on the goop, and slipped back to my dorm room for a short snooze. Something like an hour later, I woke and hurried to the dorm bathroom to puke. As I wretched over the toilet, I noticed I left some red dye marks on the white toilet bowl because I’d forgotten to remove the plastic gloves, that were still damp with dye. What a mess! Several shampoos later, my hair turned out a fried yellowish orange.
My black, side laced oxfords, stretch leggings and long Cindy Lauper skirts, slouched riveted vinyl black belt, somehow failed to produce the kind of edge I wished I could project. My face, still pale and round looked so babyish. If only I’d known about Yazoo, or Robert Smith of The Cure, I might have felt my round faced look ‘passed’ ok, but my mullet was still too wavy and heavy.
The 80s types I admired were borderline anorexic and borderline personality disordered youth. ‘The Breakfast Club’ girl combing her hair over a table, creating a kind of oily snow out of her dandruff comes to mind. In my youth, the depressed girl, buns parked on a hard floor, drawing nonsense with a crayon on a wall in The Car’s video ‘Drive’ looked worth imitating as well. I drew better than that but I must be a bit crazy, even my mother called me ‘eccentric’ after all. I wanted my locks to stand as stiff as the curly headed guitarists in The Alarm. I never found the proper hair product. My hair always flopped.
A one-time accessory disaster of mine was wearing real razor blades as dangle earrings to a dance. After a few hours of jumping and spinning around, I felt the sharp pricks and nicks on my neck. Mingled with sweat, the nicks itched like crazy. Why I didn’t hang the silvery blades with the safety side towards my bod, I’ll never know.
Dark Waves in the Desert: We All Make Mistakes
A ‘cool kid’ moved in on my dorm floor, a petite girl with a standing, dyed black, hair sprayed, shag hairdo, raccoon lidded and lined eyes, who always looked sleepy. The ‘Vegas girl’ was my first real encounter with a cutter. The razor slits, scabbing over her pale arms made her look tough and vulnerable at the same time. Rumors of ‘Vegas’s porn photos with empty beer bottles raised her questionable status further.
Taking my cue from ‘Vegas girl,’ who once painted my eyes with raccoon rings of fat black eyeliner grease for a dance she didn’t attend, I privately took my cast off razor earrings and took to slashing my arms as well. At Easter break, seeing my latest seemingly ‘petty attempts to shock and disgust,’ my furious, tight lipped mother’s response was to buy me an electric shaver. Parents just didn’t get it.
Naturally, the result of showing up at the college dances, cafeteria or any class with my sleeves rolled up was mainly to put people off. It didn’t win me any boyfriends either. It earned me a new nickname: Cutter, shouted from a second storey window off campus as I walked by. I guess it could have been ‘cool’ had I a personality that could carry such a name with a kind of dry humor. Instead, it drove me into a rather studious shell. I resolved only to cut in long sleeved seasons. My new fun was hanging out at the college library, drawing medieval inspired pictures, while tucked away in a wood study carol rather than spend long lonely nights in my boring cinder block dorm room.
At the library, I’d also scroll through early 1900s New York Times articles on microfilm, reading the tragic, usually melodramatic style, tales of disaster and crime. Sensational journalism was par for that era and totally appealing to a youth in search of something exciting an a tiny college town, but not knowing exactly what or where to turn to get it.
After a boring summer back home, working up to my elbows tubs of mint and bubble gum ice cream, at an ever-sticky ice cream parlor, I found myself back at college with unwanted groupies. Though I only went alone to dances and usually danced alone or on the edge of groups, that autumn a small group of freshmen started tagging along, dancing in my periphery. Later they showed up on my dorm floor, hanging about like moody flies, hovering around, usually angry or depressed.
Mort, once a squeaky clean farm kid, giggled he’d taken to sniffing glue. He showed up to share his razor art: cuts under his finger nails. His girlfriend, Sissy, cut words on her arms and thighs. Once, after listening to ‘October’ together at dusk, my face in profile to the fading light, the Sissy said, ‘I just have to shiver. I get the feeling of overwhelming sadness off you.’ I had no clue what she was talking about. Maybe the central heating in the dorm building was on the fritz. I never understood why they idolized me. Their self-indulgent cutting habits verged on an out of control that massively eclipsed my few quiet moments of pain.
No surprise: I grew weary, tired, sick of these kids who seemed to find me ‘cool.’ The ‘cool’ I’d unwittingly created, through a few years of fashion mishaps, exploring music not always found on the radio, by quietly imitating dysfunctional youth in books, films, on my dorm floor. How had I encouraged what could only be described as creepy little imitations of a darker, mainly private, side of a not-yet 20 year old me? With some difficulty, I disowned the groupies, earning their spite and sarcasm. I admit, at first I envied their more outrageous antics and fashion creations. Then I just took a deep breath and turned completely away from them.
Winter gave way to a bright desert spring. When I left college in summer, walking the wide tree lined streets late at night, my black winged coat swept around me, blown by the cooler canyon wind. I longed for a more silly, even positive audience. I may never have been a punk, the girl every guy dreamed of, a great artist or dancer, but, without realizing it, I was on the verge of developing into a rather well-adjusted, eternally eccentric, wonderfully human being.