Midnight Ramblers

Digital Painting by Stephanie Khattak. iPad Pro, Apple Pencil, Adobe Fresco

Nights were dark behind the pine curtain. I have written before about our relative comfort with cemetaries. I’ve been thinking on that a little more lately, perhaps because it’s the “spooky season” and it’s getting dark a little earlier. But there is more to say, because the bigger picture is that we were just pretty fearless.

We were never really afraid of the dark, period. Literally or figuratively. We weren’t afraid to go out at night, we weren’t afraid to take risks to pull pranks or do silly things. We loved who we loved, no matter what, and we were so loyal to each other long before “Ride or Die” became part of the pop culture lexicon.

As the Bible says, to paraphrase Romans 8:31, if you are for me, then who can be against me? The verse is referencing God, but for us, it was each other as well.

During slumber parties, after we tired of making prank calls, we would inevitably clean out the hosts’ toilet paper supply and load into someone’s car. (Sorry for any rude awakenings, moms and dads!) We would then drive to a house or two or three and proceed to toss toilet paper into the trees, across the shrubs, over the mailbox and whatever else we could. When plain toilet-papering became too predictable, we upped our game to “Oreo-ing” (Take an Oreo apart. Stick the icing half to house or car windows. Eat the other half.); “Forking” (Plant a million forks in someone’s yard); “Hot-Tamale-ing” (Similar to the Oreo, bite a Hot Tamale candy in half and stick it to windows” and general sign leaving (posterboard, markers and phrases that ranged from encouraging to amorous.)

During these attacks of extreme creativity, we were chased by angry people on four-wheelers; had popper firecrackers thrown at our legs, bumbled into a herd of geese and were almost always made to go back and clean up, if the victims’ parents knew ours. Once, in an impressive counter-attack, someone was hiding in a tree watching for us, jumped down and ran to his neighbor’s house (next on our list!) and woke him up so that they could lie in wait for us. I don’t remember what they did to defend themselves, but it was extremely well-played. (Unsurprisingly, that person went on to join the military and plan counterattacks and defensive actions for the government.) Another time, a house light came on and in our infinite wisdom, we fell down in the yard and “played possum.” That person didn’t confront us then, but his college-age girlfriend was absolutely ringing my phone the minute we got back home.

When you’re a champion, others try to knock you down. Once, a group of guys planned to wrap MY house when I was having a slumber party. Luckily (for us!) my mom had turned a mailbox into a bird feeder and hung the metal part from our biggest tree. One of the wrappers, sneaking around, stood up under it and saw stars. They all had to come inside for the adults to decide if he needed medical attention. (He was fine.)

All of these things took place after midnight with very, very minimal supervision. Before we could drive, our parents drove us, but then we were set free. My friend Courtney and I were recently brainstorming ways to entertain her daughters. Wrapping came up, but was then dismissed with “well, now they’d just get shot.”

We could just as easily have been shot then! Or the cops could have come, or someone could have come out of their house and cursed at us, or hurt us in other ways. Were we naive? I don’t think so. I think we were just confident in the dark.

Because we may have been vandals, but we were a UNIT of vandals! My bestie may have thrown that particular toilet paper roll, but if it knocked over a rose bush, we accepted that were all in trouble. We had faith in God, too but at the time we didn’t really articulate it as such. We certainly didn’t go around saying “Every Oreo Stuck Perfectly. God Bless Us, Every One.” or anything like that. But we did have a basic faith that something, someone, somewhere would make sure we would be ok.

And I know we were lucky. I do realize, especially as a grown up, that in some communities and some groups, this kind of “fun” would not be fun at all. We were lucky, and privileged. The worst we got was cleaning duty.

It’s October, almost Halloween, and I had originally wanted to write about things that scared me. But honestly, looking back, the things that scared me weren’t shadows in the dark or bumps in the night, or even the desolate streets and spooky back roads we drove after dark in our clackety “starter cars” before cell phones existed. As I have thought about this and other things we did, I think “wow, we should have been more scared!” Some of the things we did make my heart skip.

But my friends were with me. We were emboldened. We were safe. If we were together, if we were for each other, then who could be against us? There were so many things I truly was scared of – being made fun of, doing something wrong, the asshole on the school bus, my English teacher. But not this. Not this darkness, and not these risks. WE were the things that went bump in the night. WE were the prowlers, the instigators, the throwers of toilet paper and catchers of fireworks and consequences. And we loved every minute of it. Call it naivete’ or call it faith, I mostly call it friendship.

’80s Ladies

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.