While I haven’t written a Pine Curtain Storyin a while, they’re always on my mind, waiting for the right time and way to be told. I know they’ll be back soon. I think about those stories all the time. Not because I’m living in the past or wish to (no thanks!) but because I feel they’re important and timeless; both the smaller focus on my friends and I, and the larger focus on what it meant and still means to have been a teenage girl in a specific time and place.
Like any good daydreamer, I have a list of songs that I would choose for a soundtrack to my future Pine Curtain movie. It evolves, but it’s mostly eighties and early nineties alt-rock. The latest addition is Rickie Lee Jones’ “Satellites,” which to me perfectly describes the relationships in Pine Curtain Stories.
“So you keep talking in many languages/ Telling us the way you feel…”
When we were younger we had so many creative “languages” to communicate in – folded notes, made up stories, prank calls and other outward expressions, even collages and cartoons and of course, the treasured mix tape. If we could think of a way to express an emotion or idea, we did, even if it was weird, risky or poorly-executed.
And that goes away.
Now there are text messages, emails, social media…meetups and video calls and viral videos…and all of those things are clinical and ultimately dilute the message for the sender and the receiver.
And yet, we are satellites. Some of us are in touch more than others and we are all busy and scattered, at the same time we are bound by those years we spent together. I can think of something that happened in 1991 and immediately feel exactly how I felt then, and remember who was there and what their voices sounded like and what style of clothing they were wearing. If it was nighttime, I can hear the cicadas or wind blowing through the pine trees. I can remember what was playing on the stereo and the sound of car wheels on gravel when we pulled over to socialize on the nights we cruised endlessly between the local mall on one side of town and the Sonic drive-in on the other side.
Satellites homing in on a shared constant.
I wish there were more songs that brought to mind early friendships. Most of the songs on my “future soundtrack” are pretty angsty or about boys. But as the heroes of these stories, we need an anthem just for us. This is a strong contender.
Looking back, I wonder if my hometown school system was inspired by the game Pick-up Sticks. Order, chaos, order, repeat.
Kindergarten through sixth grades were at small elementary school campuses across the city. In seventh grade, we were shaken up and thrown together on a huge campus with a residential street running through it. (Inspired by Pick-up Sticks AND Frogger?) After a year, just enough time to get our bearings, we were spit up again into two junior highs, East and West. An “Us vs. Them” division perfect for sports team rivalries, petty factions and bullies looking for a reason. For our final three years, we were all flung onto the single high school campus to try and get along until we graduated. Quite the social experiment.
Prior to the seventh grade, my friends had come from three groups: church, my mom’s friends’ kids, and kids who had been seated near me from kindergarten through sixth grade. Until I was twelve, my friendships were mostly “you get what you get” situations.
So, I was overwhelmed on my first day of seventh grade at the big Dunbar Intermediate School from the moment I stepped off the bus into moving traffic. I was immediately lost in a sea of kids who not only didn’t go to my church, but who I had never seen before in my life. Who were these people? Had they been in Lufkin all this time? And they were all supposed to be seventh graders? Teased hair, acid washed denim, puff painted sweatshirts…in my memory, those kids looked like 30-year olds. At least compared to me, in my long skirt, button-up blouse and red scarf tied “nicely” around my shoulders. Dressed from bow-head-to-squeaky-loafer in Wiener’s finest that was chosen by my mom, likely with some input from my great-Aunt Lucy, a saleslady there. Thus ensuring that my only school friends would be the lunch ladies.
I don’t think I blinked once that entire first day, and maybe not the day after, either. Getting from class to class was a wild-eyed obstacle course. I kept tripping over my skirt. I regretted all previous life choices almost immediately. My elementary school friends seemed gone forever.
But then came Computer Science class, or what passed for computer science in 1988-89. I remember two things from that class: one, that I met Valeria and two, that she taught me to say “I love you” in Spanish. (Don’t get excited, she wasn’t saying it to me. She taught me so that I could say it and impress some pre-teen twerp who didn’t care.)
This is important, because Valeria was the first friend I ever made on my own. I came from the rural “bubble” and she lived in town. I was an only child and pretty isolated. My life advice until that point came mainly from people who were raised in the 1940s. Valeria had a big, busy family and lots of neighborhood kids to play with. So, we were different in some ways but we still clicked immediately. Even when we were too young to fully articulate it, we looked around this bisected city block full of future “*Lufkin bozos” and wanted so badly to fit in, and also wanted so much more than what we saw. And neither of us had any idea how to be anything other than exactly how we were, which was mostly braces, eyebrows and imagination.
We tried so hard. We passed notes by the hour, updating each other on the highs and lows of the day, a cycle of plotting and rehashing that has continued for 30 years. (Now, we text and Instagram message.) We were on the newspaper staff and made a whole column about who was dating who, who broke up, and what we thought about it. (Strangely, our sponsor never actually published this.) We made up unflattering, permanent nicknames for, well, pretty much anyone that so much as looked sideways at us. (Sorry, Hobbit Man. How are the grandkids?) We were each others’ biggest fans.
Valeria was not my only friend in seventh grade, but in general, I struggled to fit in. I ran for student council but was disqualified because I mixed up the date and passed out my campaign materials early. I was targeted by a group of “devil worshipers” who were going to “get me” at the mall. Groped in Science class. That sort of thing.
And there were other little dramas, some that I instigated, and right or wrong Valeria was there to egg me on or pick me up, whichever was called for. We have seen beginnings, endings and entire story arcs over the course of our lives together. She was there when I finally got a boyfriend, and she was standing at my side when he walked out of a school dance and broke up with me instead of inviting me to the dance floor.
At our ten year high school reunion, she was next to me when he approached us, recounted that day down to the detail. “I made a left out the door, and there you were.” He said it was something he deeply regretted. He blamed the whole thing on a mutual friend who had died in the 90s and could not defend himself, and implied that another shot would be pretty cool. I knew he had a wife at home. I never liked her, but I wasn’t going to do that to her either. Anyway, if you didn’t want me with my unibrow, then you don’t want me, mister. Valeria and I laughed it off. Our feet were hurting in our class reunion heels. (No more Wiener’s finest for me! I had since discovered Nordstrom Rack.) We were eager to go to Sonic and talk about all the people we’d seen. Maybe some new nicknames were in order.
Between seventh grade and our class reunion, Valeria and I did get the things we wanted from life, even if it hasn’t always gone how we imagined it would. But does it ever? We both muddled through junior high and high school, friendship mostly intact but our paths diverged a bit as friendships often do. She went to Nashville and I went to Austin. We found each other on Classmates.com sometime in the late 90s and resumed our “note passing” almost immediately. She eventually moved back to Texas. She got married in an actual castle! We were in each others’ weddings, our husbands get along and I saw her a few months ago with her baby. She has a little girl and twin stepdaughters who are in college. I look at them and know they will have great lives because Valeria is their mom.
As I said, Valeria was my first chosen friend. This is important because growing up in the “bubble,” it was implied that people outside the bubble were scary, and possibly even mean. Valeria was proof-positive that this wasn’t true. Meeting her, finding our commonalities, our shared goals and humor – this was the first step for me toward something different than was being handed to me. I have had someone to figure things out with since 1988 and that has been priceless. It was the first step in making my world bigger, in trusting myself a little bit, in seeing that maybe it was okay and valuable to trust in and care about things that I had to cross the street to get to. Valeria wasn’t mean – I am much meaner than she is – so maybe others wouldn’t be, either.
If not for my friendship with Valeria, I would not have had the courage to form close friendships with Courtney, Michelle, Mallory or others who came after.
Earlier, I used the term “Lufkin Bozo.” It is a given that any time something weird is in the news, it will have a Lufkin connection. Second only to “Florida Man.” The most recent “Lufkin Bozo” is the Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker. Our hometown crime blotter is famously weird. Valeria and I are fanatical about the adventures of the Lufkin Bozo, texting constantly when they appear in the news, mapping any possible connections to us, our family or friends. We know that but for the grace of God, etc.
What would have happened if I hadn’t met Valeria? Would I have erased all my eccentricities, or completely devolved? If she hadn’t met me, she would still be just fine. If nothing else, she had a pretty, popular, older sister that has no problem making people correct themselves. But I had an echo chamber. An echo chamber that cared for me, but an echo chamber nonetheless.
If I had not met Valeria, I wonder if she’d be somewhere in her life reading online about a new Lufkin Bozo, because they are definitely created in echo chambers. Or if this Lufkin Bozo would have ever had the courage to be seen at all.
We were never afraid of cemeteries. In rural East Texas, they were often tucked into curves in the road near our houses, set against our properties’ back pastures and in other ways integrated into our daily lives as just somewhere else to be. The cemetery, while always a place of respect and to be treated as such, was also place to walk safely, to contemplate quietly, to “visit Grandma” and in our older and more mischievous years, to pass through on hayrides, and to park in and kiss boys. Now, I don’t like them after dark, but back then it felt normal to be there.
Our town’s biggest cemetery was just on its edge, past the local community college and in between the “ritzy” neighborhood and the evangelical campgrounds. It was alongside a major highway, and spread across many acres. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was larger than any of our city parks. It was certainly nicer and safer.
Late at night, we would visit this big cemetery, park our car, and walk. Reverent, careful to stay on the footpaths, we would scan the headstones as we talked. “Looking for Our Names,” we called it.
It was 1990-something and “Michelle” and I, with our friends “Renee'” and “Mallory” had just discovered The Smiths, particularly their “The Queen is Dead” release. We wore out those tapes in our cars: “There is a Light That Never Goes Out”, “Boy With a Thorn in His Side,” and “Cemetery Gates,” among other tracks.
We were fairly privileged teenagers – middle class, stable families, no real barriers and no real experience with the malaise that Morrissey sang about.
But, by the time we were 16, we had already started losing young people – classmates and church friends and peers from other schools in our area. Just as cemeteries themselves were integrated into the fabric of our lives, so was the circle of life itself.
As we “looked for our names” we sometimes encountered the accidents, overdoses and suicides who had once sat beside us in Algebra class.
I’m pretty sure that “Cemetery Gates” was the theme song behind this activity, but now I think a more accurate soundtrack would be “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.”
Looking back as an adult, I wonder if our seemingly-cavalier relationship with graveyards, through this activity and others, was a way to normalize what was happening around us each year. Or if it underscored how normal it felt to be in such a place. I’m not sure that we lost more peers than other school districts, but our world was a lot smaller. Regardless of how well we knew the person, we did know them, almost every single one. There was a very defined hole in our daily lives after each midnight phone call. And back then, I don’t remember any special counselors, after-school vigils or anything like that. We went to the funerals, hugged grieving parents and siblings, and were released back into our routines to figure it out on our own.
There is a light and it never goes out.
When I think of Michelle, Mallory, Renee’ and myself, I think of us at that age, almost exclusively even though I am still in touch with most of them and am fully aware that they’ve aged as I have. (And by that, I mean with strength, grace and beauty of course.)
There is a light and it never goes out.
My lost peers, acquaintances and friends, too are in perpetual youth. We’ve outlived them by so many years. What would their lives be like? When we were still in the “same timeline” it wasn’t something we really thought about. Now, looking back over 25+ years that not everyone got to have, seeing my friends’ children approach the ages etched on some of those headstones, it brings a greater depth and a profound sadness.
There is a light and it never goes out.
Our relationships with cemeteries may seem strange, or even disrespectful to some. But there was also a message in the familiarity. It said “we remember you,” “we aren’t afraid,” “we can still be where you are.” It said, “don’t be lonely.”
It said, “one day, our names will be here, or somewhere like here. But for now we are as alive as we will ever be, and in this moment, within this light of memory and shadow of loss, so are you.”
*This was a story I really wanted to get right, so I had a few versions of the art. While the top piece is my top choice, I liked this little messy one, too:
I wasn’t allowed to call boys when I was growing up. To do so was a sin worse than murder. I might was well have been dancing on tables in my bathing suit. But that didn’t stop me from calling boys, I just found a loophole – prank calls. Probably because I didn’t actually know how to talk to boys like a normal person since doing so was such a Big Deal.
Anyway, we spent most slumber party nights on the phone dialing out with made-up scenarios, intriguing lines of questioning, new and exciting personas and in some cases, multi-call serial dramas. We even did sort of spoken word bits to different types of background music. (No, not rapping. Not nearly that cool.)
My friend had a Swatch “funky twin” phone making it easy to group up on the call. Of course this was before anything digital, like star-69 or even saving numbers in Contacts. I kept doing it into college, and only stopped when my friend and I got bored and called a random person while were were vacationing in Florida only to have him call back (justifiably) pissed off and asking for the person we were staying with, by name. That was our introduction to caller ID and the last time I ever prank called anyone.
To this day, prank calling was some of the most fun I’ve ever had. We were never hurtful or harassing, and in retrospect, it was probably entertaining for some. Like their own, personal, interactive podcast, just with more giggling.
Do young people have social dances any more? I don’t have kids, so I honestly don’t know. But before cell phones, texting, social media – all the things that make it easy to plan for yourselves and/or socialize without leaving home, the dance floor was THE place to be. My church hosted one every few months, and in between, there were school dances, Teen Nights at grown-up clubs, dance parties at the Episcopal church…we were dancing nearly every weekend. We definitely could not relate to the anti-dance histrionics of “Footloose,” because our parents knew that if we were all thrown together in one room, a chaperone in every corner, a few stationed along the walls, and one weaving through the crowd to move errant hands, then a dance was the safest place in town.
As I have mentioned before, my social group was largely unchanged from kindergarten on up. I made other friends at school through the years who I loved just as much, but as far as Saturday nights went, I was with the same ten kids, give or take a few for disciplinary groundings, etc. So that’s who became our dance partners.
Our parents: “Tired of seeing this kid? Too bad, you’re dancing with him. No, there are no other options. This one’s a known entity. You can dance with him or you can sit down over there.” More or less.
Anyway, the pickings were slim. There was a group of nerds who clustered together and did the “California Raisin” dance to every song, and there was my mortal enemy who spent ages 6 to 35 trying to take me out, Wile E. Coyote vs. Road Runner style.
So that left “Eric.” He was taller than me, which was a plus. Good-looking, but I didn’t “like” – him – like -him, so there wasn’t any hormonal weirdness to contend with. He wasn’t caught up in the raisin dance and he wasn’t trying to throw dynamite at me. A catch! And an easy, low stakes dance partner.
But off the dance floor, things were harder for Eric and me. He was a part of the cool group, and I was in a… different group. I had it bad for his best friend, who thought I was an irritant at best and treated me accordingly. So, Eric was my friend away from school, and in school, he was something else. Meaner. Sharper.
But for some reason, at the time, that was okay. I didn’t know any better, and accepted it as the way things were. After all, if “Wile E. Coyote” could destroy my belongings, hurt me and be invited back over to do it some more, then what Eric did was nothing.
Anyway, I loved him. I still do.
After the drama of high school, we settled in to an easier, more friendly rapport.
But as some of us went on with our lives, learned about the larger world, made other friends and got a better sense of how relationships worked, Eric stayed the same. The last time Courtney and I saw him together, he took us to see where his trailer had burned down. He’d lost everything in an electrical fire, and was living in a half-finished shed behind his parents’ house. He did okay for a while. Proximity to his family was a good thing.
I saw Eric once more after that, in the late 90s. He was the last person I dropped off after a night out, and invited me to stay and catch up a little longer.
We sat in his parents’ garage into the wee hours, talking, smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio. Sometime just before sunrise, “Love Hurts” by Nazareth came on. Eric stood up and extended his hand to me. My old dance partner and I shared one last song, slow and even then, bittersweet.
In 2013 a friendly acquaintance and the object of many a schoolgirl crush was arrested on live TV, tackled to the ground in his driveway, charged and convicted with trafficking exploitative images of minors. We couldn’t believe it! Him? He was so nice! His family was great! You think you know someone.
Within a year, in a separate case Eric would be arrested, charged and convicted for a similar crime. Unless something changes, we will be in our sixties when he’s released.
When he was sentenced, I went down an internet rabbit hole and found five other familiar names in his prison system, for the same type of thing.
Maybe we don’t really know anyone.
It was hard to absorb. Even with all of his challenges and volatility, we always felt safe with Eric, at all hours of the night and in all situations. He had never laid a non-consensual hand on us in violence or otherwise. Maybe other young women had different experiences. I don’t know. I believe victims.
I won’t speculate on guilt or innocence because Eric was tried and convicted by a jury whose job was to do that. I’m not going to describe what he did or ascribe motive, because it’s not my story to tell. To say more would be disrespectful to his victim and the families involved.
But I can tell you what it did to me.
When you’re fourteen and someone says “this is your friend. This is your dance partner.” You don’t question it. “This is my friend,” you think. Once before a duet at church, Eric shared that his bestie had called me a “butt ugly b*tch.” (I was no such thing, not that it matters.) I bounced a peppermint candy off of his face, then we went on stage and sang our song. Beautifully. “This is your friend,” I had been told, my whole life. The implication was “Forgive him. Love him.” So that’s what I did.
I assumed that was just how it was, with certain types of friends.
My in-laws live in Houston, and when we drive there from Dallas, we pass the state penitentiary. I “wave” to Eric every time. Maybe that seems flip, but I don’t mean it to be. My husband doesn’t get it. How could he?
Every now and then, I think of sending a letter. Eric’s brother died by suicide when we were in junior high, the first domino to fall in many ways, for both of us. For years, Eric and I would leave notes on “Charlie’s” grave for the other to find. I’m not sure why, or how it started, or even if it was appropriate. But Eric and I had always found a way to communicate. It’s too hard now. I know my husband wouldn’t like it, and what would I even say? Even in offering love and friendship, I can’t absolve, which is different than forgiving. I certainly can’t forget and I know I can’t be part of Eric’s life anymore in any real way. It’s not just one thing. It’s all of it.
Looking back on the situation, I try to connect the dots to see if the way he treated me had anything to do with his choices as an adult. I’m sure there is some commonality, in terms of respect for women, respect for boundaries and the lack of consequences in our fairly insular culture, but I know that it’s more complicated than that, too because not every bully grows up to break the law.
All this to say: Love hurts? It’s not supposed to, not really. If someone’s not your friend in all situations then they’re not your friend. If someone punches your boyfriend, it’s like they’re punching you, and they know that. I know that now, too. Love them anyway and forgive them, but only if you feel like it. Set better boundaries. Put the best of your love somewhere else. Life is long and bigger than your dance floor. YOU choose your partners. There’s plenty of people out there happy to break your heart, in ways you can’t even imagine. You don’t have to break your own.
*I struggled a lot with whether or not to write this. I still am in touch with Eric’s family who are wonderful people and have been dealt an unfair hand. And as I mentioned, I still love Eric. But at the end of the day, he chose to do these things and it’s public record. I’m not speculating, editorializing or really adding anything new to the story. It helped me to write about it, and maybe it will help others who are in complicated situations, to know they’re not alone. Names have been changed, details lightly fictionalized.