We inexplicably had a jukebox in the cafeteria of my high school, and somebody obsessed with Guns N’ Roses’s “Paradise City” played it during lunch period every single day for a year. Punk, new wave, and grunge had already come and gone; Kurt Cobain was dead. Which is to say it was an old song even then. But it still brings me back to high school when I hear it now—to square, pasty pizza slices and paper cartons of chocolate milk, french fries and tater tots, and the sickening smell of cheap sugary industrial ketchup.
I remember my classmates being scandalized by the English teacher—a woman in her forties—who wore short skirts. “Disgusting,” they said, “She’s so slutty. Nobody wants to see that.” But when I had her as a teacher myself, I noticed that even if her skirts were short, she wore them with heavy opaque tights, so that she hardly ever showed actual skin at all.
High school is a time of great negative capability: you can believe, for example, that a musician or friend who says racist things or homophobic things is “just kidding” because no one so cool could actually really be racist—only old people are really like that—to such a degree that it is only when you encounter them again many years later and they are still saying racist things that you realize, all at once and to your great disappointment, that they have actually always been racist, and homophobic, no kidding.
For a year in high school, my best friend was Bobby. We hung around the CD store, hung around his house playing records, we had health class together, we got detention together. We loved the Beatles, Metallica, Megadeth, a bunch of bands we talked about endlessly, and other than that it was the usual high school stuff: crushes, parents, the arbitrariness of rules, getting in trouble. I had a crush on him despite the fact that when his other friends were over, he ganged up on me with them. Despite the fact that he was unbelievably crass, and prone to mean-spirited pranks. Once, when I was on crutches with a broken leg, he threw me in a snow bank and laughed as I struggled to get out.
I remember, still, how the sociology teacher routinely shamed me in class, usually for how I dressed. I don’t think I told anyone that she did this. I did know, then, that the fact that she was bullying a teenager meant that she was a deeply flawed and immature person. But even knowing this, I still felt like she was shaming me, not just what I was wearing but my very personhood.
I remember fights I had with my father, how bitter they were.
I remember fighting with him, although of course I fought with my mother, too. But with her, fighting was somehow a way through. It was a way to reach understanding, a way to forgive each other for being so like and unlike each other. We were always fighting but we were also often making up. With my father, it was different. It was: Why are you like this? I don’t know. Over and over again. And it did not stop, and there was no understanding it—for either of us—until I left.
And yet: once I cut class with Laura, and we went back to her place and we set up a sprinkler under her trampoline, and we jumped and slid around as the water shot up at us, and even though I slipped and fell between the springs at one of the edges and painfully twisted my leg, I thought, this was the best decision we could have possibly made today, even if I end up getting caught. And I didn’t even get caught.
And: touch was so sweet back then. It was so new to touch bodies. Outside of school I remember hugs, kisses, shoves, swats, wrestles, gropes, tickles. Sitting close together and puppy-piling on couches and in cars. Skinny dipping. Fooling around. Spin-the-bottling. Kissing everyone. Kissing boys, girls, friends, strangers. Once, Naomi and I sat at my kitchen table and made lists of the people we’d kissed and then we asked each other if we were sluts. I was kiss-crazy. Kissing was the best part of everything.
And: once, before math class started, Eric, a football player, turned around in his chair and asked me why my handwriting was so weird. I told him that I didn’t know, but if he looked at it sideways and unfocused his eyes and really concentrated, he’d see hidden pictures in it. And he picked up my page of algebra notes and stared at it until class started.
I remember Axl singing the chorus:
Take me down to the Paradise City
where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.
Take me home. Oh, won’t you please take me home.
Bobby moved away and switched schools, but we still kept in touch, and in my journal I sometimes wrote blow-by-blows of our hour-plus phone conversations. Once, I wrote that he confessed that he had had a crush on me back when we were hanging out. I told him I’d liked him too. He said, “Really? Huh.” I did not record whatever we said next.
The same English teacher with the short skirts once pulled me aside and scolded me for my poor grades. This, in itself, was unremarkable—teachers were always disappointed by my apparent lack of interest in the class material—but I do remember that she pointed out in the course of the conversation that she and my English teachers before her had consistently kept me in the upper levels in spite of my tepid grades. It was because I didn’t think like everyone else, she said. Because I read books, ones that weren’t required. Because I gave thoughtful reasons when I complained about the required texts in class. Her point was, being an original, thinking unlike everyone else, was something she valued in the classroom. Even if not all teachers did. Even if I called Thoreau a spoiled brat. Even though I drove her nuts. This was something I needed very badly to hear, even if I didn’t know it yet.
Why am I like this? I don’t know.
When people asked what I was going to do after high school, I said, “Leave town.” I wasn’t kidding. I hadn’t applied to a single college. Instead, in my bedroom closet, I had a camping backpack three-quarters of the way packed: some clothes, an umbrella, a towel, a knife, a flashlight, a small wad of cash, a notebook and pens, a book of poetry; everything I imagined I’d need, wherever I was going. Anywhere else, anywhere new, where I’d be somebody new. I’m leaving this town. How sweet the thought was.
Though we fought, my father sometimes wrote me letters and left them on my bed while I was out. They said that he knew I was unhappy, and that he understood that, even if he didn’t understand me. That he knew he didn’t understand girls, girls like me especially, and that this was not my fault. That he knew school made me unhappy and that this, also, was not my fault. These letters infuriated me. You don’t get to win like this, I’d think. But I kept them, all of them. And I took the habit of writing what is unsayable away with me, too.
During one of Axl Rose’s innumerable wails in the cafeteria of Oh won’t you please take me home, I remember reflecting that perhaps it should reassure me that someone, whoever they were, was enjoying high school, even if I wasn’t. That as I was counting down the days until I could leave high school forever, someone else was enjoying it enough to ritually impose an anthem on it.