(alternative memoir titles include: My mother was a Dairy Princess and my sister wore combat boots: tales of teen angst in South Dakota or Topher Soup for the Human Soul: a depressing ordeal. My memoir class leads to people talking about Sonya in the abstract.)
I think I am skipping tea with a nice English lady who gave “Pedestrian” an “A?” in order to revise my comp paper. Fuck academic moods.
I wish the internet believed in indenting paragraphs.
christopher mcculloch / near final draft
“You two must be soulmates!”
And it was with that declaration of second period Journalism II that I awkwardly began the friendship which would change things more than any other.
Maren and I were born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota five days apart, and we’ve never bothered to ask if it was the same hospital We had spent the ‘ever since’ in Brookings, a distinction none of our classmates shared. This was all it took our classmates to teasingly declare us “made for each other,” a claim supportable by several odd connections in our lives. My mother alleges Maren and I were in ballet together, a hazy tutu worn by me and several other high school associates. Maren and I suffered orchestra together during lunch in sixth grade, but I only lasted half the year. I possess a single out of tune memory of her presence in that crowded classroom, reeking of adolescence and malpractice. Maren, with steel reinforced teeth, hair long and straight, items soon to appeal to most boys not yet fully restrained, face engulfed by glasses, walked across the graying carpet and up the three over-sized steps that meekly imitated risers, and she handed me a wedding dress Sonya, one of my middle school tormentors, had drawn for me. That was the end of my contact with Maren for four years.
The cruelest part of Sonya’s teasing was it made little sense. Why Sonya didn’t hand me the drawing herself, as she bounced her feet on the book holder below my desk next period in social studies, is lost to me; perhaps it is a bizarre adolescent girl ritual I, and most cultural anthropologists, are unfamiliar with. Sonya and I had further derogatory exchanges freshmen and sophomore year, and it was her confusing idea junior year to label Maren and I soulmates.
By chance, Maren and I worked on various group projects together sophomore year. She would later tell me that the first visit to my home for an English project brings remembrance of a knife and armband, emblazoned with swastikas and inexplicably kept as curiosities in the corner china hutch in the kitchen of my home. I excel at first impressions. That year I also found myself envious of my non-mutual best friend Jon’s foray into her social circle. Jon was far more out-going and seemingly comfortable in his skin than I was, and never fulfilled my unrealistic expectations, which is why I called him an ass. At home I loaded the dishwasher with an air of manic depression while Jon, Maren, and others were having well-adjusted parties, watching movies, and complaining about what a drag Gerb’s essays were. I heard rumors that Maren had once mentioned me while watching a movie. Closing the door to the dishwasher, I dreamed about playing part in these social gatherings.
Entering junior year my social circle was in flux. I had shed the burden of adolescent testosterone embodied by a group of teenage boys, but to Jon, the misplaced affection, I woefully clung. With unreturned phone calls and failed plans on the part of Jon, I shifted my attention instead to Alex and Emma, friends made outside of school but friendships strengthened by the drama of high school theater. I met Emma at a summer camp for gifted youth. A camp where I met another Brookings girl who decided with me to form a friendship based on saying hello to each other in the halls, a social gesture both of us did not have. These were vulnerable times. Alex was a vague elementary and middle school carry-over whose existence, along with Emma’s, was strengthened by another after-school activity for the awkward, Oral Interp. With Alex and Emma at my side, I adopted the pseudo-Bohemian habit of frequenting Perkins and Country Kitchen, the two neighboring family restaurants of Brookings. I spent infinite late nights sitting in booths with overripe vinyl seats self medicating teen angst with coffee and ice cream. Thanks to florescent lighting, the burgundy seats are just as vibrant in my mind as Alex, Emma, or the pale brown in my coffee cup, tempered with a single creamer, always.
Coffee colored reflections lead me back to journalism class junior year; it was under the pretense of coffee and conversation that I invited the journalism kids to coffee. Maren was the only one who came.
The event is a deus ex machina. How did I, the pudgy and insecure dork, lure Maren, the large bosomed but angry girl, on something easily mistakable as a date? Even now I don’t believe I “make” friends; they find and make me happy. Something must have stuck because Maren and I kept going for coffee. In spite of outward appearances, Maren and I found numerous lines of connections. We shared stories of Sonya abuse and intersecting family drama. Our baggage matched.
The first time we really “hung out” we went to Amoco, the local gas station / convenience store / inexplicable youth hang out. Driving home I turned a corner too sharply causing freshly acquired Mexican hot chocolate to come to rest on Maren’s lap. I also excel at second impressions. This is where two years in driver’s education left me.
Senior year Maren had her revenge; on the way to Aberdeen she missed four billboards, two exit signs, the word ABERDEEN in block letters, and, consequently, the turn off, which brought us instead to North Dakota. Our friendship was becoming intimate enough for our natural self-deprecation to cross-apply, and the North Dakota ordeal is something I haven’t let her live down. She doesn’t let me drive.
At Christmas junior year I finally held a party of my own, which for two years Maren might have described as the single most positive change in her life, but which can now only be seen with glasses tinted crimson. The party was a pastiche of new friends and past acquaintances. Jon made an appearance and hijacked Mary and Joseph from the unwitting Catholic Church. The most notably random guest for this story, however, was Seth, a friend from days of Magic the Gathering, “changed” feelings, Dungeons and Dragons, sitting on dirty floors in the back of a hobby shop, and low self-esteem.
Sonya (free of any dressmaking obligations) and Maren took an instant liking to Seth’s wiles and charms, as several compromising photographs can show. Sonya slept over, but it was Maren who Seth eyed lazily, sinister hints in the misdirection of his gaze. I began playing cyber-matchmaker on MSN, a process which traditionally would have been conducted via passed notes and “check yes or no” boxes, but which now ensures a lifetime of subtle guilt for me.
While Maren was brightening my life, and I was attempting to brighten hers, other, darker things were going on in the shadows of things left untold.
A few months after Christmas, Prom was in the air, and a young boy’s fancy turned to not wanting to send the wrong message. I was caught between wanting to go with my newest and maybe-possibly-for-once-what-if-please-God-let-this-be-mutual best friend and not wanting her to think I liked her. There was also the complicating issue of Seth, the boyfriend. I had previously extended an open invitation to Prom online in attempts to draw Maren out, a confused gesture which had already angered another. No move is made if everyone is; a line of reasoning that had led to the open invitation to coffee months before. Despite (or maybe because of) my extreme lack of self-esteem, I feared a girl thinking I liked her. “Soulmate” jibes the previous fall had me fearing Maren thought me a creep. The Prom scenario was a fairy tale where Beast only wanted conversation. I have never been Prince Charming (I’m more of a royal pain in the ass), which is why asking a girl to ‚Äúthe‚Äù dance was monumental.
Eventually I built the courage to pop the question in the most indirect and probably witty albeit hypothetical fashion ever, which merited an indirect “maybe.” In the corner booth at Country Kitchen, I held onto my coffee cup for dear life as Emily perched behind Maren’s left shoulder in the seat of bad conscience. Emily was the best friend I was secretly trying to replace. Emily, I later learned, had tried to convince Maren I “had a thing for her.” Maren sensed otherwise and soon acquiesced to my proposal. I do not remember the specifics, which is telling enough as I tend to forget the traumatic. After these hurdles, my junior Prom began as an awkward joke. I made the faux pas of placing both hands, extended at arm length, on Maren’s shoulders; these are the things my nightmares are made of. I made nervous jokes to cover my incompetence. Dance class in gym fourth period would not come for another year. Maren has since scolded me for my inability to touch her that night.
During what seemed like the fifth encore of “Baby Got Back,” a sweaty monster called Josh did gyre and gimble past in the wabe. Somewhere metaphoric, a closet door unhinged and began to let in some light.
Throughout middle school I spent summers and after schools at Brost’s Aquarium and Hobby. An anthropologist would describe this as a “liminal” environment, existing on society’s border but detached from normal “rules.” A modern Dickens would call it source material. Here socially challenged boys, for there were no girls, aged 12-25 engaged each other in battles of geek testosterone mediated through collectible card games and roleplaying games. Jon began my journey into this underworld by teaching me how to play the Magic, or the devil’s game as one middle school guidance counselor believed. During this first visit to a strange land, I quickly gained the drearily unironic nickname “Shorty,” and encountered Seth for the first time. On threadbare carpet with a freak show of peers, I scuttled along middle school’s social bottom for the next three years, close to drowning but saved by dirty oxygen. I have a knack for bottom feeding class struggles; at my gifted summer camp, the group Emma and I belonged to was dubbed the “rejects of reject camp.” I was not the lowest rung on Brost’s social ladder. This level of obnoxiousness was reserved for Josh, a classmate. A classmate, who, I’d be told shortly before the birth of my friendship with Maren, “had something to tell me.” It was rotten bait.
Josh, an internet gossip would tell me, was gay. I try and escape his trap even now. He became the source the source of my worst and most embarrassing memory. I was soon caught by my mother, which is to say walked in on, which is to say several weeks of silence passed between her and I in the fall of 2001, my junior year, followed by a winter of joint counseling, a secret I kept from Maren. There is a positive side to this story; my mother and I grew closer, and I heard the sad truth of her past.
On the negative side, which stretches far wider, I was lying. In counseling I said I “didn’t really know” and was “unsure” of my sexuality. Worst of all, incidents with Josh did not stop. Almost immediately I began thinking of ways to see him without my mother knowing; darkness grew inside me of shadowy untold truths. I would make some other complex metaphor out of this in regards to forbidden fruits and loss of innocence, but I cannot. Maren and I weren’t close enough yet, and I couldn’t tell her how much I needed her. A moment that sticks with me stems from a change of plans on a Friday afternoon in February. Maren phoned to say she needed to go to Sioux Falls with Seth instead of me, perhaps to work out her own darkness. I instead found myself in the cold grasp of Josh. A scenario continually repeated in varying shades of remorse.
It is a several month string of events that I want to escape, and my mind’s eerie capacity to forget allows mixed blessings of freedom. I fear I will continue learning and forgetting the hard way. To weakly wax poetic in a metaphoric mix-up, a trial by fire bears no fruits if the burns are forgotten.
Awkward fumbling in the dark was not constrained to the dance floor on Prom night. They spilled over into the next afternoon in a mockery of an act most people experience Prom night. My partner here, however, was not Maren; it was Josh. This, my second great mistake, remains traumatic despite its transmogrification into a sort of black comedy, a dirty joke that should not have been told. The punchline was jarring enough to end to the cycle. If I had known better, if I had known Maren better, I could have left the shadows and banished the untold darkness. The lies told in my darkness encompass a space far larger than the metaphorical closet. I left my mother a note the afternoon after Prom which read, ‚”Home late. Working on a group project at a friend’s house.” It is impossible to stress how much I wish that note was the truth.
Following the gross end to acts vulgar in their naivety, I stepped out the shadows and told Maren who I really was. As per my nature, it was slow, awkward, and conducted mostly via the safety of a computer screen. When bits were told in person, it was at Perkins or Country Kitchen with eyes cast downwards into a coffee cup while trying to see through the table to my feet and the world below. The florescent lighting held my tongue. At this time our circle of friends discovered the game “Truth.” We held dareless sessions of the sleepover party variant like torches, illuminating the dark corners of each other’s souls. I ponder if I am meant to know this much truth, but the light comforts my own complicated existence. A few weeks after Prom I turned 17, and things began to improve as my circle of intimates expanded madly.
It was via Truth that new people were brought in, and it was via Truth that we stayed close. It never occurred to me how temporary that closeness would be; however, the dark rooms in which the truth was told will not be forgotten.
Truth, which sheds so much light, is usually held in dark rooms while staring at the ceiling. It is peculiar how new physical darkness obliterated my mental shadows. I now find it hard to keep anything secret, and I tell too much of my life and the lives of others. Is this the dark path tread in becoming a writer? In the spirit of Truth I write this, but I have cheated, no one asked me these questions. I answer them for my own sake.
Truth exposes the tragedies of my friend’s lives, but those dark corners do not belong to me, except in regards to how their revelation affects me. Truth has confirmed suspicions about the double life of every one. Rounds of Truth invariably lead to sex talk; there seems to be no other topic as broad and easily questionable. Much of the darkness is gone, but I have truthed myself into a corner.