’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.

Looking for Our Names

“Looking for Our Names” by Stephanie Khattak. Mixed-media watercolor, ink, gouache and acrylic tape collage.

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:

Shiny, Happy People

“Shiny, Happy People” by Stephanie Khattak. iPad Pro and Apple Pencil using the Procreate app. Animated in Photoshop.

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.


Summer

“Wading” by Stephanie Khattak. IPad Pro and Apple Pencil in Procreate. Animated in Photoshop.

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.

Some Bunny Loved You

“Some Bunnies Loved You.” By Stephanie Khattak, watercolor and custom gouache. 2019.

Think of the most embarrassing thing you did to get in front of someone you liked. “Liked,” I mean. Wanted to date. This thing you are thinking of – this act of bravery or creativity or a wild burst of assertiveness – I guarantee that I can top it.

Take, for example, Easter 1993. I was 16. My best friend, let’s call her Courtney, had just turned 18, and we had spent a busy Saturday being bunnies at our church Easter Egg Hunt. Our outfits were billowy onesies, cut from thick polyester and sack-like, with full hoods and wonky ears that gave us a slightly “off” appearance, similar to that kid in Pinocchio who turns into a jackass bit by bit.

I suppose spending the afternoon surrounded by old people who told us how cute we were went to our heads, because after the last Peeps-sticky kid was ejected from our laps, we decided that the thing to do, while we were still in these RAD costumes, was to pay surprise visits to all the boys we liked.

We efficiently combined a trip to the grocery store for chocolates with a pop-in on one guy who bagged groceries at the local Albertson’s. “Hi!” We smiled and waved our thick, rough mittens, bopping our baggy bunny tails to the Easter Candy aisle without one iota of self awareness.

At the next stop, a dog snarled and lunged at us, attempting to protect its maybe sleepy, maybe stoned master from the giant donkey-bunnies who appeared from thin air and wouldn’t lay off the doorbell. On our last stop, the young man’s parents were home and his mom thought we were really something special, even if our intended took his chocolate, rolled his eyes at us and went back to watching MTV.

It is an understatement to say that in those days, we didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’. We had big ideas, strength in numbers and no one to save us from ourselves, probably because they wanted to see how things would play out and be entertained by it. The way things played out in this instance, unsurprisingly, was that we were hot and sweaty and out $25 for Easter candy that we didn’t get to enjoy. None of those people wanted to date us, before or after. With the wisdom of age, it’s totally fine. Life ended up like it was supposed to for Courtney and me.

But back then, we had so much love to give, and it needed to go somewhere. So we did the best, and in some ways the only thing we knew to do at the time. We gave it away, not once stopping to consider whether or not our gifts were deserved. We just wrapped up all that love in homemade rabbit suits and took it into town with the great hope that someone would see through our goofy disguises to our sweet, terrified, baby animal hearts and love us back.


“I change shapes just to hide in this place, but I’m still, I’m still an animal. Nobody knows when I slip, yeah I slip, but I’m still, I’m still an animal.” -Animal, Miike Snow.

Dance Party USA

“Dance Party USA”

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.

Living in Oblivion

“Living in Oblivion” By Stephanie Khattak. Custom watercolor, gouache, acrylic gouache and metallic ink on paper.

I turned 43 this week, and that milestone paired with a head-spinning run of funerals and news of ill friends has me thinking about my purpose, specifically how it relates to my art and what I want to express through it, and how it can outlast me and hopefully help others.

I’ve been an “artist” consistently since I left my last corporate job in 2016, starting as something to occupy my mind between obstacle-course technical interviews and spur-of-the-moment airplane trips. So, in the beginning, I just drew what I liked, and mostly still do. But I’ve struggled with my “why” and “how much to share.” Many of my friends and connections are people from my hometown, or people who know one side of me – the good side.

But the more I think about it, the stories that I really want to tell – my stories and the stories of my peers – aren’t all good. But they’re so powerful and interesting.

There’s a trend lately in TV and movies about 90s nerds, but I don’t see my experience there. Don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely a 90s nerd. But not the funny, madcap type who solves everything by senior prom. I made horrible choices. I hurt people and prioritized people who hurt me, and honestly, at 43, I greatly miss the former and hardly even consider the latter. It wasn’t all roses, and it wasn’t an experience that can easily translate into “cringe humor.” And by that, I mean, sometimes young people died. I was flying without a net. There weren’t always happy endings, and there was no playbook for what my peers and I wrestled with, and in the era of the anti-helicopter parent, we were left to figure it out for ourselves, mostly. At sleepovers, our parents would throw pizza into our rooms then leave us alone to do whatever until sunrise, as long as no bones were broken. Like a “purge” scenario but make it alt-rock and landline based.

I have wanted to tell these stories, but haven’t known exactly how to do it. When I was in high school, I drew comics which have long been lost or tossed in my parents’ house. I think I had more nuance and bravery in my writing between 18 and 25 than I do now, for sure, and I hope I can get there again.

I am compelled to tell these stories now and it’s vitally important that no one gets hurt in the process. To address that, and to avoid the “you/she/I didn’t look like that” comments about the art, lets just say all this is “inspired by.” Names will be changed, along with major identifying characteristics. And, I promise, no one will come across worse than me in the telling.


So, the opening painting is “someone like me” in 1992 in a Babydoll dress that “an Auntie” made, knee socks and a cigarette. Yes, I’m putting a pearl-clutcher out there early. I smoked. And I loved cigarettes. My favorite were cloves, which tasted like Christmas as they shredded my lungs. Also, I was a truant.

My junior year of high school, I was on the newspaper staff and yearbook staff, both of which allowed us to leave campus for “ad sales” and honestly, half the time I’d just stay gone. Where I spent my time varied, but sometimes, in my infinite teenage wisdom, when my Dad was working the day shift, I’d go home and just hang out, forgetting that my house was surrounded by retired family members with a direct view of our garage. I’d smoke in my car and skip school and not think twice about anything beyond how cool I must look.

A few years later, my grandfather was coming out of surgery anesthesia and asked my mom if I still smoked. “Smoke? What are you talking about?” She thought it was funny that he would get that idea. I agreed. “Yeah, Poppa sure was out of it. Me, smoke? Hah. The rantings of an old man, for sure.” (For context, he was probably in his 60s at the time. And of course, his rantings were correct.)

And that’s the kind of stories I want to tell. Stories of being given just enough leeway to make my own decisions, and some of those decisions being stupid, and then clawing back from them successfully or less so. The stories of getting caught up in things you’re too young for and figuring it out on your own, and of outcomes good and bad. The thrill of discovering life, real life, for the first time. The joy of sleepovers and church dances and how it feels when the 90s hometown heartthrob who looks like a young Julian Sands meets you again in your twenties and how that goes for everyone when it’s real life and not a rom com. What it’s like as an adult to know that the person who called you names and tried to punch your high school boyfriend in order to hurt you is incarcerated for acts way worse than anything he ever did to you. What it’s like to look back in your 40s and realize that your frenemy, your biggest nemesis to date, is – plot twist – also the person responsible for many good parts of the life and perspective that you enjoy now.


I titled this post “Living in Oblivion” because of the 1990 Anything Box song. It was the first non-Top 40 music I had ever heard and in many ways, learning that there was music beyond what I heard on the radio opened the gate to everything that came after, in music and in life.

To sum up a very long post, these are the types of stories I’ll be telling in my art and words for a while. Motivational quotes are good and so are dress drawings and I’m sure I’ll be back to those soon enough. But this is who I am and why I am, and however complicated, this is what I am bringing to the table.

So, if you’re still with me, and I hope you are, please pull up a chair.