All names have been changed in this essay, not for each person’s privacy — just for fun.
I’m under the impression, based on the stunning aggregate of books, songs, poems, movies, and even body sprays about the subject, that I’m not the only person who truly was at a crossroads at age 17. By way of possible explanation, for many more years of my life than I’d like to admit, I labored under the very firm and very erroneous impression that I needed to be perfect in order to deserve love. What is even more absurd is the fact that, to preserve this external façade of imperturbable perfection, I believed I had to hide, disguise, or elaborately lie about most of who I was.
But by 17 years old, this had reached something of a fever pitch, the world having grown so much more complex and rife with nefarious but terribly desirable options. For example, I was a newly-minted cigarette smoker, having discovered that cigarettes were the missing piece in my anxiety repertoire. They created a self-reinforcing feedback loop in my neuronal network in which I smoked to relieve anxiety, and then smoking made me more anxious — a glorious oscillation that kept me jangly and on the edge of my seat, but also hiding episodically in the Harbormaster’s bathroom during school lunch to smoke, so no one would know I was a smoker.
I’ll tell you the truth: the first time I smoked a cigarette, I felt like I finally had some clue about who I was in the universe. I was at my first ever keg party in Brunswick, Maine, and I had a well-deserved and well-established reputation as a puritanical and straight-laced goody-goody. Naturally: what perfect 16-year-old drinks alcohol or smokes cigarettes? The problem was that perfection was situational to a diametrical, mutually exclusive extent: to adults, these things were bad. But to most 17-year-olds, they were bad ass, a subtle, but crucial difference. The only way to resolve the dissonance was to lie to at least one group.
Case in point: I once feigned drinking a cocktail at the first high-school party I ever attended, at the end of my freshman year. People cheered when I did it, it was so abaxial to my projected persona. Thereafter, surrounded by drunk teens, I proceeded to crack jokes and generally be myself, which everyone at the party construed as evidence of my drunkenness. They thought I was funny and cool, which felt fantastic, so I encouraged the misconception. The next day, half the school was called into the principal’s office and kicked off their various after-school teams. I was called of course, because I was at the party, and I told him I had feigned drinking, and then didn’t correct everyone who I misled. The principal let me go without punishment.
I became a social pariah. If only I had just let him think I’d been drinking, I’d have sailed through the year. But I couldn’t, you see: he was an authority figure, and he outranked the kids in school — I needed to be perfect for him, more than them. I paid for it handsomely: “Anna Tennis Is A Two-Faced Bitch,” was scrawled on the girls’ bathroom stall, and nearly everyone I’d been friends with hated me. I received rough redemption when my parents divorced that year and we moved to Maine, where no one knew what I had done, and I certainly never told them.
Until I smoked cigarettes, I took no pleasure in my secret life. I was, perhaps predictably, deeply ashamed, certain someday someone would uncover my actual self, and all would be lost. In the categorical hyperbole of adolescence, I was a kind of gangly Dr. Jekyll, skin stretched over-tight across the sharp angles and dark valleys of Mr. Hyde. But cigarettes changed everything.
Smoking made me feel like the secret me was powerful — reckless and brave, and immune to loneliness or shame. There is something about smoking that feels bold — like staring death in the face, only more powerful. That old adage about what happens when one stares into the abyss leaps to mind. I felt like, with smoking, I became the abyss, staring back at the world. There was nothing to be afraid of in the darkness — I was already there. I’m well-aware smoking is terrible, an addiction without merit, and still wants to kill me if I ever go back to it. But that doesn’t change the fact that at the moment in which I embraced this little drecky shadow, I felt like I might make it. I can’t change the fact that every beautiful thing is made more so by its obverse.
Hiding my smoking was tricky: my mom knew I tried it, but believed I’d stopped. My hometown was so very small, and clustered together that it was difficult to keep anything a secret, least of all a habit that produced literal clouds of smoke. I had a small group of friends who knew, and we drove to school together in the morning, listening to the Dead Milkmen and smoking before the long first half of the school day. At lunch, I’d sneak off to the Harbormaster’s office. I squeezed my whole self into those moments of my day. I had been struggling, back in Petersburg after a year in Juneau and Maine, after my parents’ divorce. Petersburg was the same, but everything was different: someone else lived in our old house, and now we lived in a small two-bedroom apartment over a classmate’s garage. I seldom saw my father, and was having a difficult time integrating all of these things. I really didn’t feel at home anywhere but in that Harbormaster’s bathroom.
I had a close friend, Tia, in Juneau. She and I had met freshman year, as competitors in the Debate and Forensics Drama Club. We sat together on the ferry ride home from the meet we’d just attended. Tia was breathtaking, nearly six feet tall and deeply olive complected, with sea-green eyes and wild hair the color of redwood bark. She was somehow the most and least intimidating person in any space — goofy and irreverent, until she was painfully earnest and reverent. She and I sat together, and she taught me how to wind my long hair into a bun, then secure it with just a pencil. The process was ridiculously fraught, and we laughed hysterically as I fumbled and created a hairnado atop my head. I still think back on this memory as one of the happiest moments of my life. It was so easy, and so good. We listened to Kate Bush and Steely Dan and grew to love each other deeply.
In December, Tia invited me to Juneau to spend several days of winter break with her and her family. I was to catch a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway — traveling alone. I got myself a stateroom, a modest additional cost. Alaskan ferries are gigantic, and teeming with little hidden cubbyholes and alcoves concealed on each deck. I found spots in which I was able to be with my own mind, smoking cigarettes in the relative open, confident that there I was both visible and invisible. Back in my stateroom, I read books and cried — I don’t know what I thought was happening at the time, but it was so good to be in that room, on that boat. It felt like I was free.
Tia picked me up from the ferry terminal in Juneau, and brought me to her house, a beautiful three-storey townhouse nestled into the old-growth conifers. Her mom was kind and terrifically supportive — she asked so many questions, and then carefully listened to everything everyone said. She made everyone feel important. I loved being there. But this visit was very different from any previous visit: this time, her brother Max was there.
Max was, in a word, beautiful. He, like his sister, had the same nearly glass-green eyes, and a mop of curly red-brown hair. He was brilliant — eloquent and loquacious but also keenly curious and kind, like his mother and sister. He had just returned from living a year in Germany. He was fluent in the language, and eager to share all of his adventures over dinner. We ate spaghetti and salad, and sat together for hours, laughing and talking.
Sitting at their dinner table, I fell into a kind of spell, drawn physically toward every word Max uttered: it was as tangible as magnetic force, the way I felt around him, like I was on a slope, canting toward him all the time. I’d never experienced anything like it in my life; no wobbly crush came anywhere near it. He was so funny, and his perspective so esoteric — suddenly, all of the conversations were interesting and relatable: I didn’t have to translate the words I was thinking into different words to say, in order to communicate my ideas. It was remarkable.
Tia invited several of our school friends over, and after dinner, we all sat in Tia’s room, listening to music, talking, and trying on clothes. I can still remember the smell of her room, of her: patchouli and incense, amber and woodsmoke. She had the most fantastic postcards hanging on her walls, and her bedroom window was a rectangle framing the outstretched limbs of old-growth spruce and fir trees. It felt like we were in a treehouse, nestled together like dovetailed planks. We stayed up all night, of course, eventually watching movies and drinking coffee, and falling into laughing fits that, for some reason, never disturbed Tia’s parents.
The next night was much a continuation of the first, but this time Max joined us. We flopped in various lounging positions in the lofted hallway, and talked all night. At some point, people began to disperse, and it was just me and Max in the hallway. He was telling me about German philosophy, asking me questions about what I thought — what I really thought — about the ideas he was interested in. It was the first time any boy had ever talked with me like that. At some point, very late and very early, we noticed that we had been alone and talking for a very long time. There was a moment, after we realized this, that the air grew heavy and dense. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I pointed out our limited remaining sleeping hours, and we parted. He went to his bedroom, and I returned to Tia’s, in which everyone was still chattering away. Everyone looked at me when I walked in, the whole room a sea of wry faces, every cat with a canary in its maw. “You like Max!” Kelly said, and the room exploded in giddy joy. Tia was grinning ear to ear. “It’s okay,” she said. “I knew you guys would like each other.”
We sat and talked about how I felt about him for the next hour or so. It wasn’t quite dawn, but it wasn’t night anymore, either. The room reached a consensus that I should tell Max how I felt, since I was only in town for another few days. Why not right now? They reasoned, quirking eyebrows and lip corners mischievously, the way teenage girls do. Why not right now. Why not? I felt so safe, so loved, and so entirely confident that I decided to tell him. Right then. The room erupted in cheers, as I marched across the long hall to Max’s room.
I didn’t even knock on the door — I banged it open. I announced, “Max, it’s come to my attention that I’m in love with you.” This startled Max, recumbent in his lofted bed to such a degree that he sat straight up, banged his head on the ceiling, and then lay back down. “Really?” He said. “Yes.” I said. “You should come up here,” he said. So I did.
I knew I was not supposed to have sex with someone I had really only just met. I knew I was supposed to be in a relationship with a good boy that I knew well and had dated for years, and whose letterman jacket I wore, and whose parents went to our church. I knew virginity was like some fragile and precious tiara, sitting precariously on my head as a beacon of my merit and caliber. I knew that if it was gone, no one would ever see me the same way. And in that room with Max, that self warred against the self that had become only wanting. Max’s arms wrapped around me, and that was the truth, the real truth about me: I was exactly the kind of girl who did this.
When it happened, he was warm and that warmth surrounded me. I felt powerful, beautiful, and entirely honest. I felt like somehow, I was all the things I was, at once. Afterward, we lied together and joked around about the world, him bumping his head, and how rosy our cheeks were. It was perfect.
I woke up the next day around lunchtime, and told all my friends that Max and I had sex. They were reverent and loving, everyone hugging me and treating me like I’d done something sacred — it was this gentle deference that made me realize I had. We traveled to the Mendenhall Glacier, and one of my friends put her traditional quill necklace — a ceremonial necklace — around my neck, to honor the rite of passage I’d undergone. I wore it all day, feeling the line of quills and beads every time I turned my head. Max held my hand and paid me careful attention all day, making sure I was comfortable, and sharing the numinous bond we’d forged in long glances and the energy of his affection.
The next two days were spent in the same way, the days filled with laughter and the nights spent in the close darkness, with each other.
The last night I was in Juneau, we went to visit a good friend of Tia’s I’d never met — Isea. She lived in a downtown apartment by herself, which was so utterly metropolitan and cool that I couldn’t really wrap my head around it. Her own apartment? She owned dish towels and hand soap, for chrissake. We ate snacks and talked about music and energy healing, something Isea knew a lot about. After a while, she hauled out a little wooden box, inside of which she revealed a large wad of hash, along with various smoking implements. I was utterly novice where any drug was concerned — even marijuana and its derivatives, in spite of their omnipresence in Alaska, where they were legal. Everyone around me was smoking, and I felt emboldened by my recent experiences, the grip of the special necklace around my neck, Max beside me. I did what they did, and took a long pull from the pipe. My lungs absolutely ballooned, and I coughed and gagged, much more smoke pouring from my mouth than I could possibly have taken in. Everyone laughed, and Isea explained that this meant I was going to get really high. I nodded encouragingly: I didn’t want everyone to know I was terrified of getting “really high.” What did that even mean?
Sure enough, as the moments (hours?) passed, I began to feel like my head was some great thing, disproportionately large for my body. The words people were saying suddenly became more like airplane banners passing in the air around me: I would scramble to assemble the sentence before the words flew away. I felt like I needed to somehow rest my head while I was sitting, but because I was sitting on the floor, there was really no particular articulation of my limbs that would solve the problem: should I lie on my stomach with my head held in my hands? Could I pretzel my legs around and possibly rest my head on my knee? I was suddenly a stranger in my own body — a tangle of limbs and thunderously heavy bits. Isea was right: I was really, really high. I could not tell you how long we sat there, but eventually, Max announced that I had better get to the ferry if I was going to make my trip. I said my goodbyes, relinquished the quill necklace, and got into Max’ car. He drove me to the ferry terminal, where we had a tearful but joyful goodbye, and I clambered the staircase into the depths of the enormous ship, finding my return stateroom, falling into the narrow steel bunk, and then fast asleep.
My hometown of Petersburg is approximately an eight-hour ferry trip from Juneau. Docking in each town is a terrifically noisy and lengthy affair — the horn sounds repeatedly, the purser comes over the loudspeaker over and over again announcing the port and encouraging folks to disembark, and the various personnel knock on each and every stateroom door that is occupied, barking out the port of arrival. I mention all this because these facts make it all the more incredible that somehow, I slept through my hometown, and continued riding that ferry, soundly asleep, for another three-and-a-half hours, to Wrangell, the next port of call. In Wrangell, the horns, announcements, and door banging were fruitful: I awoke like a sleepy kitten (a stoned, sleepy kitten), and quickly put my things together. I can’t remember exactly when I realized the announcements were all saying “Wrangell” but I do remember what I thought: Is Wrangell before Petersburg, now? I’ll tell you, it was not.
I was too embarrassed to ask the purser what to do, so I did what seemed like the next best thing: I got off the ferry. Once I had disembarked, I realized the folly of this decision: I had no next step planned. I scanned the terminal area looking for someone who could help. There was no one I recognized, and the snow was still high on the streets. It was cold and dark, and everyone I could see was headed away from the terminal to their respective cars or homes. I entered the terminal and approached one of the two men staffing the desk. I was still somehow stoned, and subsequently very nervous about conversation with adult strangers, but knew that my options were limited. I approached the taller man, with the close-cropped hair and barrel chest. I explained that I had overslept, and was supposed to be home in Petersburg right now. He furrowed his brows at me for a moment. “Why don’t we call your folks?” He handed me the phone, so I could make a long-distance call home. I spoke to my mom, who was absolutely apoplectic about the situation, and could not understand how I possibly had managed to sleep through Petersburg. I was in no condition or position to explain, so I didn’t.
My mom and the ferry terminal guy, Doug, spoke for a while on the phone. After Doug hung up, he turned to me and explained that I would stay with him and his family until I could take the next boat. We piled into his pickup, and made our way through the streets of Wrangell to his house. His wife, Sheryl Fae, had set up the bed in the spare bedroom. I lay in the quiet unfamiliarity of that room for hours before I finally fell into an uneasy sleep, possibly because I’d already slept so much, and possibly because I was in a strange family’s home, on the wrong island, slowly sobering up after being stoned out of my mind, and freshly ex-virginated.
The next morning, Sheryl Fae knocked on the door and announced breakfast. They had three little kids who stared at me with unapologetic fascination as Sheryl Fae laid out bowls, milk, and a giant box of Cheerios. Before we ate, everyone joined hands, and Doug bowed his head and said grace. It was a long grace for Cheerios, I thought, but then my family had never really been a big grace family. Maybe this was exactly the right length of grace for Cheerios. Doug explained that they were a Salvation Army family, and faith was central to their house. Was faith central to me, he asked? I nodded soberly, which was now possible for the first time in 15 hours. Doug explained that their plan for the day was to go to their church, and serve a special meal to folks who had nowhere else to spend the holiday. They suggested I might like to come with them, and I agreed, mostly out of obligation, but also in some clumsy effort at penance.
The church was tiny, maybe a total of 500 square feet, and dimly lit. At the back end, there was a kitchen, with a cutout window through which food was being offered by volunteers. In front of that aperture, rectangular folding tables had been erected in neat rows, and long wooden benches paralleled the tables across the front end of the room. People sat in both places, at chairs around the tables, or on the benches, hunkered over steaming mugs of what smelled like coffee. At the front of the church hung an enormous, hewn crucifix — more than eight feet tall, the wood ambered and shadowed by time, and if the room’s air at that moment was any indication, cigarette smoke. Because of some conflict of scale between the small room and the massive crucifix, hewn Jesus seemed particularly viciously crucified: I could plainly see the wounds around each nail through his limp, emaciated body. The crown of thorns he wore dug into his scalp with nearly the same brutality. It was both hard to look at him, and impossible not to.
Doug simply said, “go talk to people if they need company” so I grabbed a cup of juice from the kitchen window, and went to sit next to a woman who had, when I made eye contact and smiled, vigorously waved me to her table. I sat, and regarded her as she regarded me. “I’m prettier than you,” she said.
I nodded. “Definitely. I like your makeup.” Her makeup had instigated the comment on its own force, really: she had dark kohl eyeliner drawn neatly around the perimeter of one eye, and then, somehow, drawn approximately a half inch around the other eye, as if the border of her eye was expanding outward, like a wave packet dissipating away from her iris. It offered the illusion that one eye was exponentially larger than the other, making her both asymmetrical and imbalanced, an impression reinforced by her frenetic and unpredictable body movements. She wrung her hands, picked up her coffee, dipped her fingers into it, and smoked her cigarette ferociously — as if she needed to get it done as quickly as possible. But then, as soon as she stubbed it out in the amber glass ashtray at the center of the table, she’d light another, which only burned unattended when sat in the ashtray — in her hands it was incinerated in moments.
“My name,” she said, “is Lola.” She gazed imperiously at me for a long beat. “Do you believe me?”
I nodded vigorously. “It’s a beautiful name.” What followed was a conversation I could try to reassemble, but the particular order of words, truly disorganized at the time, seems less important now than the content of her story. Lola knew she was sick. She knew her mind was wrong, somehow. She knew she was playing a part, drinking this coffee like a person, smoking this cigarette like a person, wearing makeup and that name, just like a person. But she was something other than the majority of the people in that room, or the world. “It hurts me,” she said simply and agonizingly, at one point in our complex discourse. And right at that moment, we understood each other. I know she saw me, too. It was disorienting and grounding, by near equal measure. After Lola left (abruptly, unceremoniously) I sort of milled around, asking people if they needed more coffee or juice, and that passed the time. Eventually, Doug came to tell me it was time for me to go home.
I thanked Doug and he blessed me before I disembarked, an experience I’ve always felt resembled being sung to on my birthday: I appreciate the sentiment, but don’t really know what to do with my face.
I rode the next four hours in the ferry home on the solarium deck, trying in vain to integrate or at the very least reconcile the past week. Inside of me, the delta between the girl who said grace over Cheerios and the girl who had sex, smoked cigarettes, and pretended to say grace over Cheerios grew. I’d keep it all a secret, I decided. Not a delicious one, like smoking, but a precious one, like how Max’s hand had felt on my waist, or how Lola had felt my love and I had felt hers because we were similarly destabilized, in the same moment.
The ocean was heavy and dark around the ferry, parted and rejoined over and over again by the immense boat’s passage between islands. I watched the pattern of the tumbling wake and thought about how enormous and how small one person’s life was, and wondered whether or not that giant wooden Jesus would float. I imagined him, one small body in that profound expanse of blue-black water, bobbing along with the inexorable tide, just riding the waves until one day, he disappeared, to rejoin the silky earth beneath them.
I thought of all of this very recently, all these years later, when a counselor related an anecdote he’d heard from Buddhist guru Pema Chodron. He summarized: “life is like being in a boat out on the ocean, and you know the boat is going to sink, and then one day, it does.” I barked into laughter, because it was so nihilistic, so terse a description of life. He laughed along with me. “It’s so grim and accurate, it’s fucking hilarious” I gasped.
“Yeah, but hear it another way,” he said. “Life is like being in a boat out on the ocean,” he said, his voice full of amazement and wonder. “And you know the boat is going to sink.” He smiled and shook his head. “And then one day, it does.”