(This is Part Five of a series. Part Four is here.)
The end of Junior Year, the Countess and I were taking our traditional circuit—shoegaze, cigarettes, a self-guided architectural tour through the fanciest neighborhood in town, which was on the opposite side of town from our own, and through which we could (illicitly) cut on the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The Countess had a favorite house, a Gatsbyish ersatz chateau, slightly reminiscent of our hometown’s most recognizable landmark, equipped with turrets, gables, gargoyles and garden follies. It was barely visible from the road. She slowed her dad’s jeep down on the street above, so we could peer through the furred arms of the pines guarding the property. “It would be the perfect house for a form dinner, don’t you think?” she asked.
The Countess was obsessed with hosting a Form Dinner, a Boarding School sanctioned event, in which the entire class was invited to the home of a day student for a meal at the beginning of the semester. Form dinners weren’t cool or fun or interesting. Hosting a form dinner would not make you cool or fun or interesting. But that wasn’t the point. Form dinners only ever happened at the homes of kids who lived in the Fanciest Neighborhood with giant houses or estates, where parents could afford a catering staff and find seating for sixty students. The Countess hosted parties all time, the kind enabled by absent parents that invariably ended with regrets and the sort of bad liquor decisions seventeen-year-olds make when they’ve already cleared out the front of the liquor cabinet, like hey guys, it’s either dry vermouth or Manischewitz, which one will get us more fucked up? Form dinners, however, would not—could not—happen at either of our houses. The Countess found this infuriating.
“I want people from school to come into my house and be jealous,” she said. “I want them to say, look at that gorgeous veranda, and wonder how we got so lucky.”
I wanted to people to come to my house too, though I honestly thought I might be weirded out if they were insisted on calling the porch a veranda. I didn’t want place cards, but to be among some ragged band of unlikely characters with whom I could or set out on a great adventure or pull a heist or start a band or put on a play or create a family. I couldn’t seem to get a boyfriend or even really nail down a best friend, in that particularly cruel exclusionary way that adolescent girls pick best friends, but maybe I could find a reasonably loyal crew to help sail the pirate ship through my last year of high school. If that took throwing a party, then, so be it.
A patrol car from the Fanciest Neighborhood’s private police force sidled up alongside The Countess’s car and observed that we didn’t belong there. “Fanciest Neighborhood has a no drive-through policy, so unless you ladies have some business, I recommend you drive back out to the highway or follow us to the station.”
The Countess sniffed and put the car into gear. I fumed all the way out to the highway. Being a not-rich person at boarding school had proven an excellent gateway drug into class rage. I tried to sell the Countess on righteous anger, because it was a pretty sweet high. She pooh-poohed my bitching, oblivious to the cops still tailing us to make sure we left the neighborhood, still lost in her own imaginary galas.
“What if we just have a party at my house?” I asked. “I mean, that could be fun, right?”
She scoffed like, At your house? Why would anyone want to come there?
Griffing definitely wasn’t a house for form dinners. It had no turrets or terraces or anything a sane person would describe as a veranda. As midcentury tract homes go, it was inoffensive enough. Clean, solid, the décor dated, but safely tasteful like an admissions office or a Talbot’s blazer. The neighborhood was well-located and reasonably desirable. Griffing was fine. It was acceptable. It was far from the worst thing that could happen.
As a family, though, we’d experienced what felt like a near-Dickensian change of fortune. People, places, things we’d always taken for granted had been lost over the last few years, perhaps irrevocably so. In novels, that sort of precipitous decline would have landed us in a drafty garret, where we’d suffer and scrounge in too-small velvet mourning frocks and pray for better days to dawn over the blackened tenement roofs of an indifferent city. In reality, we’d just landed, slightly bruised, in a small brick rancher with a lot of floral wallpaper a couple blocks from a resort hotel. It didn’t feel right. How were we supposed to keen and wail and process our grief in a house so aggressively satisfactory ?
Griffing wasn’t entirely short on sympathetic fallacy. Despite its chipper pink drapes, the house was always dark, on account of being shadowed by a mountain. The inside was damp. The yard was small. The creek in the back smelled like chemicals, which so disturbed my mother that she called up a friend of a friend at the EPA and my sister and I watched guys in Hazmat suitsinvestigate the ditch on the other side of the the deck. I remember thinking, should we be wearing Hazmat suits when we’re outside? Maybe. Several of our pet cats died on property, perhaps poisoned by groundwater. Our pet spaniel maybe got tumors from drinking out of the creek. We were menaced by garbage-eating black bears, a neighborhood dog that hated children, and the old woman next door, who so feared the dark she installed massive floodlamps around the periphery of her yard, which gave nighttime a kind of prison camp ambience. My sister had nightmares about dying from rare blood diseases. My mother lost her dream job and suffered a slew of health problems. Home was a lot of stress and sadness. Save late night conversations, when Mom and I would sit by the hearth in the den, and talk about romance and dating, which she was experiencing again and I was (at least theoretically) delving into for the first time, my life in Griffing was a foggy stopover between all the ways I found to not be home
Because outside of the house, I wasn’t at all unhappy. I felt kind of guilty about it. While the rest of my family surfed between anxiety and despair, I spent a lot of time terrified that someone might notice how psyched I was about attending even Saturday classes (a boarding school feature/bug) or the fact I’d joined the school paper and, like, five different choirs. There is nothing cool about liking high school, and I was just superstitious enough to believe that doing so doomed a person to abject failure at twenty-two (I maybe wasn’t wrong). But at school I had friends. Plural. I had projects. Plural. I did things I liked and talked about things I liked and got moved to tears by things I made with people I cared about.
I had plenty to be worried about as I looked toward the future. Neither of my parents were in a stable work situation. Mom had a a cancer scare. It was becoming increasingly clear that maybe there wasn’t any money for college even though college, ideally competitive and commuting distance from either Boston or Manhattan, was my raison d’etre, my only imaginable endgame. My school advisors, accustomed to students who never worried about it, met questions about financial aid with blank-faced shrugs.
But, I could put off the worry because this black box Shakespeare thing we’re doing is going to be badass and we’re reading 100 Years of Solitude and when you sing the ecstatic parts of a 16th century motet in a candlelit chapel on a cold winter’s night with a bunch of nervous teenagers, sometimes it feels exactly like time travel and all my new friends at school make me feel as brilliant and beautiful and lucky as they are, even though, by all measures, I am not.
Summer, however, was tough. Boarding school meant most of those beautiful, brilliant friends didn’t live locally. There were a handful of other day students that lived nearby—The Countess, Ivy League, The Smile and The Dropout, who’d moved down from Pennsylvania the year before, CF, who I’d had a crush on in grade school, Alice, who worked at the record store. Maybe seven of us, juniors and rising seniors, in a roughly two-mile radius.
I called them after exams, said, bring snacks and meet me on my mom’s deck. I was surprised when they all showed up. Ivy League made hummus. We listened to the Beastie Boys. We hung out for so long that everyone called for curfew extensions, and at the end of the night, we planned another deck party. And another. A regular sequence throughout the summer. Sometimes deck parties would take place at other people’s houses. Alice had a pool. Ivy League had a wide brick terrace, overlooking the lake. The Countess had such minimal parental oversight, we could do pretty much anything there. Sometimes the deck parties loaded into a shitty teenage cars and ended up at Mexican restaurants or a diner out by the mall, or, the weirdo punk rock coffeeshop downtown, where no one cared if you smoked. Mostly, though, deck parties kept happening at Griffing.
My mom was cool with the parties. She never hovered. Sometimes she’d come out and talk to us. She’d listen, offer advice, and sometimes her advice was so fair, I’d come home and find my friends pouring their hearts out to her. She was generous and never condescending. She was with my friends he way she was with me late at night. They loved her for it. I loved her for it.
When my friends were there, the house on Griffing never felt dark or claustrophobic but intimate and warm. And I had one of those slow, dawning epiphanies over the season, as I listened to the growing number of deck party friends talk about their own stresses, sadnesses, hang-ups, fears, families, their own homes, and the people they had pretend to be to survive there. My own tragedies were not unique or even particularly tragic. My family, for all its fraying ends, was not really falling apart. Some of our losses were recoverable. Some of the things we lost, maybe we’d never needed to begin with. I couldn’t host a form dinner, but I could be myself in front of my mother, and know, she’d still love me and accept me, even if she didn’t think purple was flattering hair color. It was just possible that my stupid, boring, suburban home, with the chemical creek and perennial shadows was a pretty sweet joint, all things considered.
Around the beginning of the school year, Ivy League and I rebranded our deck party group as the Hypocrite’s Club. It was a joke, loosely related to Dante’s Inferno, and something we read in the New Yorker. Any allusion to old Oxford University history was entirely coincidental (we were precocious, but not that precocious), but probably why the Boarding School administration, anglophiles all, allowed us to become an official campus organization. We added a bunch of new members—boarding students, day students from the Fanciest Neighborhood (including the one who would years later, indirectly lead me to parties at The Countess’ favorite house). We planned events. I could always find a crowd if I needed the noise and bustle to distract me from my own thoughts. I remember one night in late fall of my senior year, looking at forty people down a long table in a vegetarian restaurant thinking, this is one hell of a pirate crew.
We’d eventually fall apart, as friend groups do. By Christmas, cracks had started to form. By prom, all hell had broken loose. But I was okay, by then I didn’t need everyone around to make me feel comfortable at home. I was home, and in those last few months before I left it for college, it felt like a place worth savoring.
“You know, I could never be around my house, the way I am at yours,” said a friend, a late deck-party addition, just after graduation, after he’d poured out his soul in my living room. “My parents would cut me off and kick me out. I’d lose everything. I don’t know what I would do. I don’t even know where I’d go.”
Here, I thought, though I didn’t say it. For a time, at least, I think you could come here.
He was headed to Europe, then back to his parent’s big fancy house, then onto a fancy college, and a life, full of place cards and verandas, a life much different than mine. “You know, you’re so fucking lucky,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I know.”