Sometimes I miss painting Star Girls. When I first started creating art, I was in a place that was confusing and stressful, and I gravitated toward the idea that perhaps there were benevolent beings just beyond sight. If they didn’t have it all under control, they were there and that was enough. This was an early work that I’ve always liked. We all need a little help untangling the universe sometimes. Even if she can’t fix it, she gets it.
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.
I had a friend, let’s call her “Michelle.” We were always mistaken for twins although we were polar opposites of each other. She is blonde and tan, I am pale, with very dark hair. If she is California, then I am New York City. Or Transylvania.
But, we are both tall and we went everywhere together. Like Gori and Washimi in the anime “Aggretsuko.” (We wish, haha.)
Michelle and I discovered the “alterna-kid” lifestyle at the same time, which coincided with our year on the Pre-Drill dance team.
On Pep Rally days, we had to wear what the general population called “chicken suits.” They were about what you’d expect for a small town school in the early 90s and by that I mean MODEST and poorly-fitted: a loose, polyester leotard with puffed sleeves and a high neckline, topped by a full, circle skirt that was too short to lay right and too long to be flattering or alluring in any way. And they were really, really yellow, accented with purple, including purple bows in our fluffy, teased hair, which didn’t really help with the chicken comparisons.
By the third month of high school, we had made cool new friends: guys and gals who wore plaid, combat boots and thrift-store t-shirts. Most days, we wore these things too. (Sporadically, since our parents had just spent money on “normal” back-to- school clothes that they wanted their money’s worth out of.)
But on Pep Rally day, we were were two baby chickens in a cloud of bats. We were “alternative,” dammit! That wasn’t going to change just because we sometimes had take a break from stringing beads and scribbling penciled Morrissey lyrics on the sidewalk to shake pom-poms and kick our legs in formation.
Maybe we weren’t the only “alternative” kids on the dance team, because some of our show pieces were choreographed to alternative rock. Including R.E.M.’s “Shiny, Happy, People,” complete with Happy Faces on sticks. Although it’s possible that someone in charge just didn’t have a firm grasp of irony (some say the song is based on Chinese propaganda posters.) Or, maybe they did, and Michelle and I weren’t the only ones sneaking in small rebellions back then! Who’s to say, really.
Anyway, fast-forward to that May, neither Michelle nor I were chosen to advance to the varsity squad. I would like to say I was too cool to care, but I wasn’t. I was devastated! I believe I may have even fallen to the floor, “railing at God” style.
We had practiced for hours! We had shown leadership and displayed team spirit! We had done everything that was asked of us! Maybe we weren’t the best, but now it was implied that we were among the worst? Just because when we did a drill turn to the left in our auditions, we ended up facing each other? Or some other minor offense? No way. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
But here’s what happened after that.
We continued to hang out with our friends, having adventures and those minor, essential, thrilling rebellions. We had more time to explore our personal preferences, discovering more different types of music, books, trends and movies that weren’t really mainstream in East Texas. We developed our own unique tastes and perspectives.
We had more energy and mental space to pursue other extra-curriculars that we really enjoyed, like Future Homemakers of America. We fit in and excelled there, volunteering with special needs kids, competing at conferences and learning life skills that I, personally still use.
I even tried out again the following year. I didn’t advance that time, either, but my life was much more full and diverse then. I was briefly and appropriately sad, and then hung up my dance shoes for good to focus on other things.
In the big picture, Michelle and I weren’t meant for the dance team, and that was okay. First because it had to be, and then because it just was.
Taking a cue from Stipe and co., eventually we took that disappointment and “Put it in (our) heart where tomorrow shines.”
There’s a saying about “gracefully letting go of things not meant for you.” At the time, I didn’t let go of that part of my life as gracefully as I should have, but in my defense, I was 15 and kind of dramatic histrionic.
But maybe Michelle and I weren’t meant to be “Shiny, Happy People,” ironically or otherwise. Maybe we weren’t meant to be two more chickens when we had other lives waiting just outside the coop.
East Texas is hot as sticky as a swamp. Thankfully, it’s also full of places to swim if you’re not too picky. We’d mix it up each summer spending most of our time at Boykin Springs, with Lake Tejas and the occasional drive to the Bolivar Peninsula or Galveston. Mud, silt or sand under our feet, seaweed and in those days, the mud puddle that was the Gulf of Mexico. Watching braver kids cannonball off of high dives. Burning to blisters. Wishing it would last forever.
My story begins, like many teenage girls’, in the hours between midnight and sunrise, aka, when you have to be home after curfew, but you’re not sleepy, so you retreat to your room with your books and your stuff, and if you’re lucky, a phone line. And if you’re very lucky, or if your uncle works for the phone company, like mine did, you have a private phone number and answering machine. After we shut the door and said goodnight to our parents, it was time for Act 2.
If no one was spending the night (rare!) I would read, or write stories or letters to my pen pals. Eventually the phone would ring or I’d call someone who had likely been doing the same, and just as likely had been out with me an hour earlier.
My friends and I were prolific writers and creative thinkers. We passed notes all day long. My best friend went to a different school, so we’d write notes and stockpile them, and trade the stacks at church on Sunday. We wrote about everything, folded up the notes in elaborate origami shapes and palmed them back and forth like contraband. I still have many of those notes, and my some of my closest friends today are the writers. The interesting thing is that their words haven’t lost importance at all. It would be easy to look back and say “we were so silly,” but what we worried about – our fears, celebrations, observations and our questions – are still so important to who we are today. Even then, we wanted to be loved and accepted. We wanted to be good people and make good choices and have interesting lives.
If we could have written notes to each other while talking on the phone, we probably would have, but instead we would collaborate on stories, write poems about boys we liked and then read them to each other, and design elaborate games, worlds and alternate realities for ourselves. As a young adult home from college, I found some of that stuff in a forgotten trunk. My friend, as serious as I’d ever seen her, said “Burn it.” So, with privacy in mind, I won’t share any real details, but suffice it to say, in a different world, we might have combined D&D with that “Girl Talk Date Line” game and become millionaires.
I’m an only child and I grew up in the country so I was, and still tend to be in my own head a lot. These days, I’m afraid to sleep in my childhood bedroom, because it is too quiet and dark. I typically stay at a hotel when I visit home. But back then, my room was nothing less than a sanctuary and an incubator for the person I would become.
In East Texas in the mid-90s, only a few radio stations came in clearly. One was country and one was pop. We were pretty happy with that until we discovered the “alternative rock” station out of Nacogdoches, the college town a few miles away. It was a student-run radio station and it played the best music – The Smiths, New Order, 10000 Maniacs…it was all new to us and we loved every note.
Needless to say, no one played this type of music at the dances we went to (and were quickly becoming too cool for.) So, we made our own fun, and we called it “Dance Party USA”. My older friends had cars and those cars had radios, so we would drive to a kind of small pasture that’s now a park behind our town’s DPS, turn on the radio, and dance to the music we liked.
In retrospect, I guess we are lucky that we didn’t run down the battery in those cars, or get interrupted by people who might hurt us. At that time, what we were doing was one of the safest things that teenage girls could do on a Saturday night, even in the dark in a place where none of our parents knew. Every now and then some guys would join us, but just as often, it was just we three or four, and that was totally fine.
When I think of how the world has changed and how even our hometown has changed, I think back on nights like this and realize they’re probably not possible anymore. It was definitely “of a time.” Even the way that music is consumed is different – who needs to spin the dials searching for a college radio station when you have a whole jukebox on your phone in your pocket, and who needs to cruise around looking for fun when you can make a whole night’s worth of plans without even speaking out loud.
We had one particular friend whose dancing was pure, un-self-conscious joy. When I think of her I often think of Dance Party USA and how I wish we could have all been more like her then, and stayed that way.