Wednesday, October 28, 2015

the old college try

Today I sat in on the creative writing class at Homeboy (yeah, the one I used to teach; another teacher took over while I was on maternity leave and ended up staying, and I try not to have an ego about it), and the topic was: Write about a place. I've already written about all the L.A. neighborhoods I've lived in and about the South Bay, where I grew up, so I decided to write about dorm life. 

I just realized that living in a triple at UCLA is not unlike living in a two-bedroom with minimal storage space and a baby.
We were stacked three to a room in ten-story residence halls, concrete walls as thick as our freshman skulls. The carpet hid stains. Our mini fridges were stocked with diet soda and apples growing soft, as we filled up on waffle fries, Froot Loops and build-your-own omelets.

We'd fled the suburbs to be here--Manhattan Beach, La Jolla, El Cajon, Walnut Grove. We circled the city, curious about its secrets but still removed. A guy down the hall from me said he was on the Palestinian Olympic karate team. A guy in the other direction had a mattress-sized Israeli flag on the wall above his bed.

The halls smelled like Lysol and microwave popcorn. A guy named Matti stayed awake for three days playing video games, then disappeared from school. Or that's how I remember it. Some other guys pooled their money and bought an old boat of a car for $200. We rode around the parking lot, sinking into its vast swaths of duct dape.

Squish into mah sweet ride.
My roommate had wanted to go to Rice, but couldn't afford it; she held it against us that she was here. My other roommate sang "Nacho, nacho day" to the tune of "Macho Man" every time they served them in the cafeteria.

We were young and dumb and smart. There was email, but nothing good yet on the internet. We watched The Simpsons and had deep conversations. If I wasn't deep enough, Andy would let me know. He was an IRA sympathizer and a sophomore.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

find a stranger

When I was in high school, I usually walked home with my friend Karen, who was taking creative writing as an elective. She was working on a novel.

“It’s about four girls who are best friends, and then one of them gets AIDS and dies,” she said.

At the time, it struck me as both melodramatic (I was pretty sure Karen’s experience of AIDS, like mine, was limited to watching And the Band Played On in health class) and genius.

Googling '80s YA book covers is actually really getting me in the mood to write. It's Pavlovian.
Over the years, I’ve started hundreds of novels in my head. Most of them are terrible, influenced more by sitcoms and eighties YA books than by the authors I name-check as my favorites now. The low-stakes playing-around is the whole point.

A lot of the bad-novels-in-my-head are variations on Karen’s theme. Not the AIDS part, necessarily, but the best friends and how they turn out. I’m a little bit obsessed with the idea, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because part of me is perpetually a high school student, waiting anxiously to see what my adult life will look like.

Four friends! What will happen to them??
When I was having my four-year temper tantrum about not being a mom, I imagined a sort of Tale of Four Women, in which the one who seemed to have it all and to work the hardest saw her life go to shit, and the one who was a trouble maker or a wild child or an asshole got everything she wanted. Moral of the story: Life is unpredictable.

More recently, I actually started writing—in the most casual, noncommittal way—vignettes from a novel I called Turning Out. Again, four female high school friends, now grown up and facing their twentieth reunion. One of them was mysteriously missing, and another became obsessed with finding her. Or something. I imagined that the missing one had maybe been an alcoholic for a while and then some sort of ascetic for a while, but didn’t really have the answers any more than her more boring friends.

Don't do drugs!
The theme was going to be something about how the longer you live, the less life has a predictable narrative arc.

Because this is true.

On Saturday, I went to my actual twenty-year high school reunion. The disjunction between what I would have imagined thirty-eight looked and felt like in 1995 and what it actually looks and feels like is pretty much indescribable, but if you’re old enough to feel old, you get it.

Seven or eight years ago, I went to a casual, unofficial reunion that was basically beer pong at the Neptunian Women’s Club. Any fantasies I’d had about all the popular kids coming up to me and demanding to know what I’d made of my life were quickly shattered. I spent most of the night yelling over the bad music so I could talk to Kristy, the member of my high school group with whom I’d had the least in common.

Has someone taken Jessica's place as "most popular girl"?
I expected the twenty-year reunion to be equally boring, more expensive and pretty much unnecessary in the wake of Facebook. But I’ve hung out with my friend-since-third-grade Bonnie a couple of times lately, and I’ve been impressed with what a kind and thoughtful person she’s grown into, and she was interested in going.

So when they lowered the price from $100 to $10, I decided I would Go For Bonnie. As in middle school and high school, though, she was much more at ease talking to people from all social groups, and I just sort of hung around like a sidekick. I felt mildly frustrated: No, I’m totally comfortable in my skin! I’m not an awkward hanger-on!

Novels about BFF drama were right up my proto-lesbian alley.
Monica, the perky girl who’d tried to give me a scholarship to our ten-year reunion, saw me and said: “Cheryl! You’re so cute with the glasses and short hair! I would totally talk to you right now, but I have to go play a prank on someone on the balcony. Otherwise I’d really want to catch up.”

I don’t think Monica and I have ever had a full conversation in our lives, but sure, let’s catch up.

Mostly, though, there wasn’t much to be angsty about. I had a nice conversation with Stuart Sellers’ wife and a woman named Lianne about legal billing. In the same way that you might end up in a conversation about legal billing with some nice strangers at a party.

I observed, for the zillionth time, that people from Manhattan Beach don’t get fat. In fact, as Bonnie noticed too, our fellow cheerleader Sarah appeared to have spent every day of her life since 1995 doing yoga or playing beach volleyball, except for maybe the day she spent getting a perfect haircut.

If Blubber had gone to Costa, she'd be a yoga teacher now.
I actually did catch up with Kristin, the friend who’d gotten me through regular P.E. after I’d dropped out of track. I have fond memories of standing on a tennis court, rackets dangling, and gossiping while not playing tennis. She’s a teacher now, after having worked in museums for a while, and is married to a guy from my sister’s grade, who was also really nice and who got into a low-level debate with someone’s douchey-seeming husband about whether climate change or El Nino caused warm-water lobsters to appear locally.

My big takeaway from the evening was: Huh. Well, that was a bunch of people in a room.

I think this is a book about someone searching for her birthmom, so I guess I should reread it. It seems to also be the story of women with Brooke Shields eyebrows.
A few waves of the aforementioned high school feelings aside, I felt very neutral about the experience going in, neutral while I was there and neutral in retrospect. Despite having made complete peace with the fact that I absolutely do want to show all the popular kids that I’m much better than them now. That neutrality—that gut-level feeling that these were in fact just people, if generally well preserved, slightly provincial and upper-middle-class people—convinced me that maybe I have had some success in smacking down my ego in the past few years.

I was willing to believe that Gina B. didn’t remember me as pathetic and that if we had lunch together, I’d probably think she was a lovely and genuine person.

But I’m not about to find out. I left after about an hour and a half, bought a fast food churro and drove home to my real life-in-progress.