performing nostalgia for how the light was

Long time no write. Well, not really. A few days, but things have been extraordinarily busy here, and that’s likely to continue for a bit (as ever, I know). I do have an interview with a friend who’s making a film about DADT coming up (I’ll post tonight or tomorrow depending on how much my day gets away from me), but for now, I want to talk about not about people I know, but people I used to know.

For me, it’s reunion season. For folks that went to large or, well, normal, high schools, reunions are milestone affairs set at five or ten year intervals. Certainly, having spent a couple of years at a large public school in New York, I do have that experience as well (my 20th was, in fact, last year), but the one that always looms for me is the Hewitt reunion, even if last year was the first time I actually went.

I didn’t graduate from Hewitt. Very few people in my year did. Of the near thirty girls I started with, there were only eight by the time of graduation. Most of us fled to other private schools, boarding schools, or, in a couple of cases, public school. But I spent ten years of my life there, and it has affected every single moment of my existence in a way Stuyvesant has simply been irrelevant to. Because Hewitt didn’t just teach me how to write and how to speak, which it did on both counts, rigorously. It taught me how to perform.

And I don’t just mean performance under pressure as came by way of writing two-hour essay examinations in every subject from sixth grade on. And I don’t just mean performance in terms of our required music, dance, and acting classes (geared less, I always thought, towards making us artists than making us cultured about actual artists; we were educated to be patrons, nothing else). I mean that Hewitt taught me (and it would be nice to say inadvertently, but I don’t really think so) a lot about performing class and money that served me, if not well there, than at least as a sort of necessary evil, even if it has often left me in a pretty awkward place in the rest of my life since then.

I do feel grateful for all the access I have had to secret worlds and my ability to move in world in ways I might not have otherwise learned, but it’s hard for me not to look back on those years I attended Stuyvesant after I transferred (and the faint echoes I still carry of the whole mess) and be in awe of just how much I did not know what the hell I was doing. That’s what happens, I guess, when you grow up in a world that doesn’t quite exist, that’s dying and doesn’t know it.

Last year, I went to the Hewitt reunion and it was… weird. It was good to see people and the school, an old private home, looked so much smaller and so much more modern than I recalled. It looked like a school, and I don’t remember it being that way when I was a child (to be fair to everyone, there has been some extensive remodeling). The school choir sang our spirit song (did we even have one of those when I was there?) and I felt teary and wished I could have loved the placed and been as gorgeous and coltish as the set of my childhood deserved. I’d worn a dress and felt just as much like I was pretending (and in drag) at the reunion as I had when I had worn the uniform skirts of my childhood. I walked down the central grand staircase as I had never had the honor to do as a student, never being a senior there or faculty.

But this year, despite all of that and the more fundamental No Useful Purpose of actually going, I think I’m going to go. Because there are still people I’m hoping to run into from that life, and no, actually, I can’t just look them up on Facebook.

In part, it’s that some of them aren’t on Facebook or really online at all. Some that I’ve found have been happy to click OK, but not to actually connect with words and recollections. And mostly, I’m afraid of being too motivated, or showing, after all these years, that I care too much, that I remember too well (as was noted to me at last year’s all classes gathering), that I am flawed (or rather, a desperate loser) for so cherishing the few true kindnesses and movie magic moments I remember — it was the book fair to buy our required summer reading list books and light was spilling in from the massive floor to ceiling windows in the library, and there were piles and piles of books that had that smell like ink and popcorn and no matter how many books you had to buy about girls surviving the wilderness to get into eighth or ninth grade, you still made sure to pick up a book or two that might make you cool, whether it was a teen relationships advice book you need parental permission to buy or The Vampire Lestat.

I bought both, the first because everyone did, even though I knew no boys and my parents must have been rolling their eyes at me in all my appalling wishful thinking, (“You don’t want to be sexy, do you?” they’d asked me once), and the second because my best friend, knowing I was terrified of vampires, dared me too. She changed my life that day, possibly by what was a bit of petty cruelty, actually. Say what you will, but when I read that book, it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone say that being emotionally demonstrative wasn’t wrong.

Memory is a funny thing. It plays tricks on us and makes more sense out of events than ever existed in them in the first place. We lie to it and it deceives us. It convinces us we were better than we were and more courageous than we are. It’s something of a bully and a wound. It is the private manifestation of the public performativity I learned as a survival mechanism in school. I remember, at Stuyvesant, that my friends and I took the public bus to the prom, because it stopped across the street from my house and went right to the Plaza.

I had the luxury of leading that little act of rebellion because of the school I had come from. I didn’t have to prove I could afford a limo, because it was presumed I could, even though I couldn’t, and I remember feeling so pleased that people were impressed with us for taking the M30. I remember too, lying on the roof of my parents building, 38 stories up, afterward, and not telling my year younger than me prom date that I was in love with him or kissing him or anything. I felt like a coward then, but looking back, maybe I was brave to be silent, or at least, not to perform that too. I did find my prom date on Facebook. He has three kids now; the thought of it is like the ocean around my ankles between us.

When I was nineteen, I was part of a truly ridiculous social circle in New York City, even as I lived in Washington DC. We were all people who had met on the brave new world of the Internet, before anyone talked about social media and PPP was a shocking and novel technology. It was 1991 and we were all living in a lot of strange castles in our heads. We were going to found an off-shore stock market in the British Virgin Islands. I would have five sons. There would be a hacker revolution. We would change the world. Believe me, no one is clearer than me, no one how jejune it all sounds now, even if I can find a clear and vivid thread from there to here in things like Anonymous and the global financial crisis.

In that moment in my life, I was involved with a man twice my age, and we knew, in passing (also from this Wild West of an Internet), a boy a couple of years younger than me, seventeen and delicate and luminously beautiful. And one night, I took him back to a friend’s apartment (he lived at home, I was visiting from DC), and we made out all night, because the older man I was involved with said I should. I should be ashamed of this. Embarrassed. Tell you how appalled I am at the way I let people treat me then. I could, and none of those things would be untrue. There’s a reason this is not a story I tell early, often, or at all.

But what I remember about it is that this beautiful too young creature, whose real name I’m not sure I ever knew and certainly can’t quite remember now, kept telling me thank you and kept looking at me in awe and kept acting like it was important to him that I be the happiest person in that room; I don’t think he’d ever touched someone before. Not like that. At any rate, I certainly didn’t have such grace about such things at 19, and I can’t even imagine having it at 17. We stayed up all night; I remember talking at dawn; and we never really spoke again for no other reason than the world was busy and complicated. It wasn’t, in the end, particularly important.

Like the girls of my private school years, like my once best friend who saved my life with vampires and doesn’t even know it, like the people I can’t really bring myself to look up on Facebook, I wonder from time to time how he is and if he would have any recollection of me as anyone other than that mad girl who remembers too much and merely did as she was told with a kindness she could not offer herself.

So when people ask me why I go to reunions for any reason other than to mess with people, why my high school and college years can seem so complicated, or why I don’t just look up the people who matter on Facebook, all of this is why.

I remember too much, stories are too fragile, and I am often expected to hold a certain cynicism for my teenage years that I was not able to muster at the time and still can’t seem to muster now. But somehow, in spite of all of that, of all my mistakes and trying too hard and petty cruelty and really misplaced generosity and completely poisonous nostalgia, I just want to know that someone remembers, as I do, the way the light was on some of those days.

And I can’t do that on the Internet, because it doesn’t feel safe or possible. I can only tell you about it. Which, thanks to a school I once went to that taught me I had to perform myself in order to survive, is often quite good enough.

6 thoughts on “performing nostalgia for how the light was”

  1. I worry that now, for all your understanding that the world treated your teenaged self with more harshness than you ever deserved, you still are too hard on yourself. There is a certain amount of cynicism that comes naturally when you look back at your teenage years as an adult, yes. We were passionate and gawky and naive and far more confused than we even realized at the time. But while experience teaches you that the emotions that the hot-house that is high school breeds are overreactions, that the reason your first love was so intense was simply because it was first, that the things that seemed so important at the time weren’t really very important at all, it does not negate those emotions. They were real, they were legitimate, they were earned. To demand that you view them with cynicism now is in some ways a betrayal of your younger self. Who had enough betrayal at the time. The younger you was flawed and innocent and made mistakes. Twenty years from now, the current you will also look flawed and innocent and you’ll rue the mistakes you make today. But that does not mean you must be cynical about any of it.

    I remember the light in those years, too. Mine were different, of course–but everyone’s was different. Younger me was an idiot, but she tried and she lived and I value her for that.

  2. I just want to know that someone remembers, as I do, the way the light was on some of those days.

    This is actually something I was thinking about yesterday. About how surprised I am any time that someone reveals this sort of luminous memory to me, because even though I know we all have our internal lives they are so rarely out in the open.

    This is a profoundly beautiful piece of writing.

  3. I don’t think anyone who at 19 did something well-intentioned that everyone involved was enthusiastic about needs to be ashamed of it, unless what you mean by stating the fact that it wasn’t your idea is that you weren’t that enthusiastic about it yourself, in which case you are not the one who was at fault there. I’m not getting the sense that the differential of power was bigger between you and your 17 year old make-out partner than it was between the two of you and the guy you were actually with, who manipulated you both.

    If your 17 year old make-out partner handled everything with grace and was more concerned than your much older partner that you be happy about what you were doing, I think your 17 year old partner was probably more of a genuinely sexual adult than your older man was, even if that might not be saying much. He certainly seems to have understood the concept of enthusiastic consent far better, in that he was thanking you for attention that you didn’t have to give him and taking care of you rather than manipulating you into doing something slightly dodgy for his own amusement.

    I think age is less relevant than unbridled enthusiasm when it comes to consent, and also that age is less relevant than caring and empathy when it comes to maturity. In every case of ‘statutory rape’ that feminists in the enthusiastic consent community have rallied around, I’ve been of the opinion that while the age of the victim made matters worse, the crime was such that I would consider it rape even if the victim had been 35–they’ve all been cases where powerful, privileged people used their power and privilege to gain ‘consent’ from a vulnerable person, or cases where there was violence, manipulation, and/or reproductive coercion.

    From a personal standpoint, I don’t think the things I did with my boyfriends at 15 and 16 which I knew that I desperately wanted and thoroughly enjoyed were abusive, even though some of those boyfriends were older than I was. They were 20ish for the most part. Like you at 19, they were very much still kids themselves.

    The date rape was abuse. That happened at 16. It would have been abuse if it had happened ten years later.

    I was 31 when I married my third husband. The things that happened in that marriage were far more coercive and damaging than anything that I did at 15. I still don’t know why I tolerated it as long as I did. He was four years younger than I was. But he was an entitled little shit with no sense of personal responsibility, and I was mentally and physically ill at the time.

    1. It was sketchy because someone else told me to do it, and me and this kid didn’t know each other or have designs on each other in any way. I have no idea why it turned out to be aok, but it did, but damn, there were so many points where anyone with any sense would have yelled at pretty much everyone involved. That no one did (and there were a lot of bystanders to the conversation that set the whole thing in motion) really underscores the intensely toxic nature of that social scene, and it wasn’t bad in the sense anyone was abusive to anyone (although there were several unrelated and epic bullying situations as well as the standard interpersonal drama you can expect from sex and the Internet), but in the sense of it being an intensely self-respect free zone. I’ve never seen so many people so desperate for approval in such an emotional circle-jerk of badness. It truly boggles the mind. That swathes of it was partially documented in the media makes it all just weirder.

  4. Your passion, and the eloquence with which you communicate it, are the reasons why I like your blog so much, and I agree entirely that passion is, in a sense, learned. The adult world seems to push the idea that you need to stifle your emotions, that you’re not supposed care too much, or else you get branded melodramatic and crazy. You have to swallow a lot of self-consciousness to come to terms with the idea that it is OKAY to care about something passionately. That you have the right to be upset by terrible things; that some things are worth getting angry about.

    It’s easier to be cynical than to be passionate. I knew this guy, an IRL troll, who I used to get into arguments with because he would wind me up on purpose, saying things that he didn’t even believe. And I would feel embarrassed for getting so worked up, because these were subjects that were REALLY DAMNED important to me, while he got to sit there with the presumed rational high ground, since he was the one keeping his cool. When I finally recognized what he was doing, I stopped being embarrassed and started being very, very angry. Because what he was doing was trying to shame me for caring, and that is precisely what the world needs less of. Jackasses like him, so proud of their ability not to give a damn about anything, are going to live colorless, passionless existences and it’s nothing less than what they deserve.

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