Notable Birthdays: 1989

February 28, 1989

Venue(s): The Asheville Mall, Chickadees & Rye, 109 Westwood Rd, Asheville

Twelve was probably not the worst year of my life.  But I drifted into it on creeping dread, bolstered by two eloquent letters[1] I received from each of my parents the morning of my birthday. Each suggested, in subtle, spiraling, marvelous language that being twelve sucked for everyone, and I’d need to steel my resolve if I wanted to survive it without becoming a permanently sucky person. Oh, and by the way, adolescence would be exponentially better for me if I’d smile more, brush my hair, snack less, iron my clothes, get some exercise, improve my math scores and try, just try, not being a fat person.

Neither one of my parents were assholes. They knew from experience that actual Hell was likely inspired by a middle school lunchroom and Satan was a bored looking thirteen-year-old psychopath with good hair.  They tried to arm me with the tools I’d need to survive adolescence (encouragement, spiral perms, “Sassy” magazine, the Esprit book back everyone had until it was a Benetton backpack until it was a LL Bean backpack, diet soda) because they hoped, maybe, just maybe, things would be better for me

There solidly non-miserable moments in my twelfth year.  I went to England with my grandmother, for example. That was as close to magical as you could get without a talking dragon and actual evidence of wizardry. But the reprieves made the rest more unbearable. I’d feel a breath of something more and then have to slum  back into my day to day, absolutely sure that I’d not only been born into the wrong city, in the wrong state, in the wrong region of the US, but perhaps onto the wrong continent entirely. I lit off for eedy heart of Daydream City, where I doodled in the margins and designed my own curriculum and imagined my way out of the halls of Hill Street Middle School for as much of the academic day as I could muster. My grades fell. My teachers were dismissive. The popular mantle passed from the mean party girls with purple shimmer lipsticks and tale of libertinism  to triple threats:  the rich, smart, athletic people. They were nerds too, but hot nerds with that looked good in bikinis by the country club pool in between tennis camp and summer programs in Physics at Duke. I was the wrong kind of nerd. I didn’t have a scene or a clique or a crowd that I even enjoyed hanging out with. hadn’t yet pulled up anchor away from the scrap-edge of the lunchroom and just fucked off to become a pirate

I had three friends I called best friends, though I’m not sure any of them every thought of me that way. Only two were in my school. Of those, one was in my grade. None were in any of my classes. Irish name was my oldest friend. I’d known her since before memory. We’d done everything together despite having almost nothing in common. She’d been tracked differently than I in middle school and spent a lot of extracurricular time at youth group. She shared a best friends heart necklace with another girl (in fact, the girl who locked my out of her house during a slumber party), but we were like siblings in closeness (I still know her home phone number by heart, despite not having called it for something like twenty-five years). Ivy League was my smartest friend. She was talented and weird, a year younger than I was, but most likely among my friends to dance around the front yard, reciting Elizabethan poetry to the moon’s reflection in the lake, which was exactly the sort of thing I was into. I figured Sunshine  the most beautiful girl I knew in real life. She was a warm breezy afternoon of a person, gentle and funny and, to my mind, impossibly humble despite looking like she rode in on a seashell on the crest of a frothy green wave.  I’d known her since pre-school. She went to the private Saint school across town, but as with the other girls, we’d stayed friends, mysteriously, marvelously, especially then, in a year where I felt so suddenly abandoned by everyone else.

So when Mom  asked if I wanted a party for my thirteenth party,  I think I probably rolled my eyes. What are we celebrating? With what friends? What I wanted was to spend twenty-four hours with the only three people that didn’t seem to hate me, who didn’t even all know each other, who didn’t even all like each other, who had scarcely more than me and a zip code in a common. I wouldn’t have to pick a clique; I could just wallow in being all of myself in the space between them.

Best Gift: This is real dumb. I went to the mall on my thirteenth birthday with three twenty-dollar bills. It felt like tycoon-level money. I let my friends talk me out of blowing it all at the book store and bought myself an entire outfit at the then-new-to-me Gap. It was nothing special—a pair of stretchy orange pants and a long sleeved black t-shirt, both on clearance (and an enormous pair of orange and back teardrop earrings to match)—but it was the first time I’d ever picked out my own clothes and bought them without even a whisper of parental opinion or approval. I also bought “The Joshua Tree” on cassette.  I thought it was overrated.

Surprise(s): Irish Name and Sunshine sat quietly, without the giggles and scorn entirely deserved, when Ivy League and I capped off our fancy pasta dinner reciting stanzas of Eliot back and forth to each other over the bread basket. Irish name didn’t bring up youth group at all and let fly a “motherfucker” when she got her hair stuck in a zipper at The Limited. It turns that even the endless kindness, coolness and celestial charisma of Sunshine could not encourage me to learn to love the Grateful Dead.

Everyone got along, though no new friendships emerged. They all went home the next morning and we returned to our normal, gross, stupid teenaged lives. Sunshine and I would spend a week at Irish Name’s family at the beach a year and half later. It was a fun trip, but felt nostalgic in advance because we were already drifting apart. Ivy League, Sunshine and I would all end up as day students at the same boarding high school. Ivy League and I would graduate and stay reasonably close well into our twenties, even as she slid into a more accomplished, more secure sort of an adulthood and I confounded (and maybe disappointed) expectation by loitering indefinitely at the frayed and frantic edges of maybe one day having my shit together. [2] I went to her wedding about ten years ago. It was lovely. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since.

When I turned thirteen, I believed nothing could ever be as bad as twelve. The nasty kids, the terrible unmooring of adolescence, my failure to live up to my once-touted potential and the unshakeable sense that I was like Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly,”[3] slowly sloughing off my humanity with each extra pound, every new oozing zit, each stuttered word (and where and how did I get a stutter?), every failure to present like a normal person and would one day just become a grotesque monster, unlovable to everyone. And the only humane thing for them to do would be to just let me go, so I wouldn’t ruin their lives as well.

At twelve, I was well-fed, well-housed, well-loved (despite my misgivings) by still married (if unhappily so) parents. I was only naïve enough to believe that middle school was the worst thing that could happen to a person because none of the big foundation-cracking, paradigm-shifting stuff that could happen to a person had happened to me yet. Thirteen would mark the start of my unsolicited educated in some of those darker mysteries. I made it through, though, armed with (and sometimes only with) the idea that somewhere I had three friends in the world and somehow, against all odds, I’d fucking survived twelve.

After that, anything was goddamn possible.

 

 

[1] Both of my parents are marvelous writers.

[2] Still there.

[3] Which I was told explicitly not to watch, but as with every movie in that category, I did anyway.

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