“One pill makes you smaller, and one pill makes you tall,
and the one’s that mother gives you don’t do anything at all,
Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall.”
– Lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit
Most mornings, I’d awaken with a pungent taste on my tongue. The taste of loneliness, frustration and an overwhelming ache that made it hard to swallow. And, I couldn’t help but think, this is what a ravaged heart feels like.
I was still hurt and angry with Jake, and jealous of his insipid girlfriend, Miss Pinched Face. I’d pour through all the notes he’d ever written to me, and the letters, too, in search of clues as to why he broke up with me, yet found none. And, I wasn’t too pleased with myself for getting involved with George, but couldn’t figure out how to get out of it without telling him the truth. That I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than spend another moment with him. Let’s just say, any feeling I had for him flat lined somewhere between our first date and curfew, which for once I was grateful to have. After all, the original intent I had for the relationship had been made null and void the moment I realized Jake didn’t care.
Jake didn’t give a hoot, and the sour taste kept spreading across my tongue, inching down my throat, like an acidic spider crawling down into my stomach, and into a black, vacuous pit.
Nothing could assuage me except for one thing. A tiny, almost innocuous twinge that soon became a burgeoning desire to rebel. For the first time I found myself caught between adolescent rebellion and, as The Who called it, teenage wasteland. In other words, I felt a need to push the limits. No more Miss Goody Two Shoes. Instead, I wanted to be reckless and fancy free.
All my life, I’d been a good girl. I knew the drill. Respect your elders, ask for their blessing, and above all, obey your parents. I knew that if I broke any of the cardinal rules, my father would be brutally unforgiving. I had been told what to do, and what to say. I was, more or less, the obedient daughter, and fully aware that none of my friends had to deal with parents as strict and traditional as mine. A source of embarrassment and humiliation on more than one occasion.
How I yearned to wear long scarves like Isadora Duncan and drive at high speeds in sports cars with the top down, while the silky fabric billowed behind me in the wind. What I’d give to belt out torch songs, accompanied by a virtuoso jazz pianist, and feel the haunting melody and lyrics overcome me with sorrow. Or, dance madly like Zelda Fitzgerald and drink gin from a flask. Sit at the Algonquin Roundtable, drinking and smoking with the rest of them, regaling everyone with stories as pithy as Dorothy Parker’s. I wanted to live hard and play even harder. Be daring, while shocking people by my behavior. And, I wanted to–no!–make that, I needed to get high!
During this time, being high became a natural state for me. Just about every weekend, word would get out that someone was having a party and it was always someone whose parents were out of town. Seemed that here in the suburbs, parents were always going on vacation or weekend getaways, leaving their children to fend for themselves. (Save for mine, that is.) These parties proved to be a teen paradise—plenty of booze, pills and pot. Plenty of room to zone out in while listening to The Who, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and making out. Anything your little heart desired. Go ask Alice, and in a way, Alice was me.
Drugs were a part of the culture, available to me freely and abundantly. Even at school. Once I got so high, that a friend, whom had shared his weed with me, out on the school grounds, had to escort me to my social studies class, and help me into my seat. I could barely sit upright, and yet my teacher never noticed. I was unraveling, listening to the music pounding through my head. Tommy, can you hear me? People are strange…It’s only teenage wasteland…Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall…We’re all wasted!
The bitter taste kept growing like a cancer inside me, and my rebellion continued to manifest itself in a number of ways. Like playing hooky. The first time with Aliana, a senior who had moved here from Turkey. Sneaking her mother’s car out of the garage one school day morning, we made our way from Long Island into the city and onto the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey, just so she could surprise her boyfriend who was already a freshman in college. I might add that neither of us had a driver’s license, though Aliana did have a learner’s permit. It took us the entire school day to get there and back and we had a few harrowing close calls when we were sure we’d be pulled over and arrested, but we never got caught, not even by our parents.
Another time, I was already at school when three of us slipped out and headed to the local movie house to catch a matinee, Secret Ceremony, starring Mia Farrow and Elizabeth Taylor. Though I got away with it, I have never again been able to bring myself to see that film again. Guilt can be as unforgiving as parents.
And, then I remembered James. Just the day before, he pulled me out of study period, and inadvertently distracted me from the destructive course I was on.
His appearance in study hall had taken me by surprise. Even more astonishing to me was how easily I followed him out. Gladly, willingly. I wanted to ask where we were going, but remained silent, listening instead to the joyful ache in my heart to have him so close. With boundless energy, we began to race down the hill, toward the back of the school, past the tennis court, to the field below. And then we stopped, in a spot, shielded by shrubs and out of sight of the school. I was out of breath and so was he.
This was a bolder James, who clearly had skipped out of class and taken me out of mine. Who was still holding my hand, allowing a smoldering sensation to grow between us.
“Give me a chance,” he sputtered between breaths. His grip on my hand tightened and I felt myself swoon.
Breathe. Above us, a flock of sparrows cut a swath across the cloudless sky, and I could feel the sun, vibrant and fresh on my face. Taking in the scent of the leaves, the grass and the blue violets around us, I willed myself to remember this moment.
How funny life is, I found myself thinking. For weeks, I’d been avoiding James, hoping that whatever this was between us would pass. But it hadn’t, had it? And now, here I was, seeing him with renewed eyes. Beautiful, constant James.
James, so young, who’d been here for me all along.
“I wish.” He paused, staring intently, hopefully, into my eyes.
“I wish,” he repeated gently, leaning in, “That you’d give me a chance.” His lips barely brushing against my ear. His breath sweet and warm on my cheek. And, for the first time, I realized that I had run out of reasons not to give in to him.
In the distance, I could hear the school bell ring, announcing the last period of the day.
(To be continued.)
Missed an installment? Catch up by visiting the page, Lightning in a Jar: High School Years.