The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town by Jennifer Niven

  Jennifer’s house in Hidden Valley

  Snow Days

  Act of God: (Date 1783) an extraordinary interruption by a natural cause (as a flood or earthquake) of the usual course of events that experience, forethought, or care cannot reasonably foresee or prevent.

  —Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary

  Indiana was always cold or hot, but mostly cold. We spent much of our time bundled up in sweaters and jackets and coats and scarves and gloves and mittens and boots. Of course, I never wore a hat if I could help it, because it would have ruined my hair by making it flat and small (no amount of Aqua Net could have helped it). We waddled to work and to school, through snowbanks, skidding down icy walks and streets, and God help you if you fell. You might never get up again, lying there like a fat bug, waving about until someone came along to help you up. My mom and I hated Indiana in the winter.

  My parents naively bought a house with a driveway that sloped downhill. This was something neither of them thought twice about. Why would they? In Maryland the winters were civilized and polite. We weren’t buried under several feet of snow. We didn’t have to leave the water dripping in the faucets so that the pipes wouldn’t burst. Entire trees didn’t snap in half under the weight of ice.

  That first Indiana winter, it snowed and snowed and snowed. And then all of that snow froze so that the entire town was encased in ice as if we were living inside a giant snow globe. It was impossible to get the cars—my dad’s Jaguar and my mother’s Pinto—out of the garage and up the driveway. My dad went out in the mornings and salted the damn driveway and shoveled the goddamn snow. I could hear him through the closed windows of my room swearing to himself.

  Every winter it was the same thing. In the mornings, my dad was in charge of getting the goddamn cars up the goddamn hill that was our goddamn driveway because the realtor hadn’t thought to warn us about the goddamn winters and tell us that we would need to move the cars onto the street in front of our house. My dad was not a morning person to begin with, so this did wonders for his already grouchy mood. And then I had to get into the car, still covered in a sheet of ice, and ride with him to school, sitting in heavy, brooding silence.

  One day, after Dad had gone to work and I had gone to school—no doubt in a blizzard, because we were always being made to go to school in blizzards—my mother was home alone. At two-thirty p.m. she began the bundling process—applying layer after layer after layer, even a hat, because she never worried as much about her hair as I did about my own. At three, after what seemed like several days later, she waddled out the door to pick me up from school. A thick glaze of ice covered the car so that it looked like an enormous ice cube. She couldn’t even fit the key into the lock because the lock was buried under layers of ice.

  She waddled back to the house to fetch all the equipment it took to deglaze the car. My parents kept an entire elaborate kit for just this purpose, things they had acquired after years of living here. She slid the key into the frontdoor lock and turned it and the key snapped in half—one half in her hand, the other inside the lock. It was miserably cold. Now she couldn’t get into the house and she couldn’t get into the car. My poor mother was stranded outside in a day before cell phones and it was only getting colder because there was probably an ice or snowstorm on the way, as usual. She waddled from door to door, from neighbor’s house to neighbor’s house, and of course no one was home. She had to wander a good distance out of the neighborhood, shuffling and wobbling and overheating under all her layers yet still on the verge of frostbite, until she found a strange house on another street where someone, at last, was home to let her come in and get warm and call my father who was, naturally, in a meeting and who grumbled at being disturbed, and who never saw what the big fuss was about the cold anyway, even if he did hate snow and ice and our goddamn driveway. He went running year-round, in shorts and T-shirts, proudly snapping icicles off his beard when he got home.

  Possibly the best thing (at times the only good thing) about growing up in Indiana was that we didn’t have to make up snow days. This was because the state of Indiana believed firmly in Acts of God. The reasoning of the Indiana State Legislature was that snow and ice, like tornadoes or other natural disasters, were things one couldn’t help, and therefore not something that students should be punished for.

  The only problem was that this Act of God had to be a very dramatic one—perhaps one of biblical proportions—in order for us to be released from school. The morning after a large snowfall or ice storm, I would wake up early—the only time I would ever do so voluntarily—and turn on my clock radio to listen for the school closings. My room was the largest of the four bedrooms and it was bitterly cold in the mornings. I would lie there till the last possible second under the covers, soaking in the warmth.

  When the school closings started, I would turn up the volume, creeping one arm out from under the blanket so fast as to not let any of the cold air in. The DJ would always start with all the other school systems: Centerville, Connersville, Fountain City, New Paris—it was maddening. Ours, because it was way down the alphabet, and the biggest, was always mentioned last, if it was mentioned at all. I would lie there in the dark, in the cold, praying to God, making little bargains with him. If he would just cancel school and let me stay home today I would clean up my room, or part of it, or at least pick up some of my clothes. I would take the dirty glasses downstairs to the kitchen, and maybe practice the piano and stick around after dinner to help with the dishes and not pretend I had to go to the bathroom like I always did.

  The most wonderful sound in the world was, “And Richmond Community Schools are closed today.” At which point I would turn off the radio and pull the covers up tight and close my eyes and go back to sleep for four or five hours until Joey called to talk about how wonderful it was and what was I doing and did I think we could somehow get to each other even though all the roads were closed and we lived, so it seemed to us, very far apart.

  This was a problem, of course. So many of my friends lived in other neighborhoods across town, and there wasn’t a way to reach them on a snow day in truly bad weather. I was isolated and really stuck at home, which was still better than being at school, and forced to hang out with people in my own neighborhood who weren’t necessarily the people I hung out with at school. But if I could get to Earlham, that was fun. Because there were wonderful sledding hills. Diabolical hills that could have been used in the Olympics. Sometimes my dad took me because he drove under any condition, if he wasn’t busy. Nothing scared him. And sometimes he got out on a sled himself and spun kamikaze-like down the hill and showed those kids how it was done. I met my Earlham friends there, Ruthie and Holly, and we screamed and slipped and slid and whizzed down hills with the college students and my dad, who was faster and wilder than any of them, and only then on those days would I wear a hat.

  Student Life—Part Two

  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” And so it was inside the halls of RHS as we fought to find our place, whether it was in the cafeteria or in the classroom or on the playing field or on the dance floor. We hoped to be noticed, all the while we prayed not to stick out. At the same time we were trying to figure out who we were, we were trying to blend into the crowd. We judged and were judged on what we wore and who we knew and where we came from and where we were going. And sometimes we were judged on who we weren’t, which was worst of all.

  Joey and Jennifer


  But do they really see

  What he means to me?

  Do they really understand?

  That although he’s a man

  We’re just friends …

  Just friends …

  —Jennifer McJunkin, “Just Friends,” original lyrics, 1984

  Teresa Ripperger had three older brothers who told her that girls who put out were sluts and girls that didn’t were teases. Basically, as far as Teresa could see, it was a nowin situation if you were a girl.

  Teresa thought she wouldn’t have to worry about it if she stayed with one guy—Tom Dehner. This way she wouldn’t be labeled a slut, and teasing was all part of the game to keep a boyfriend. Teresa and Tom met and fell in love young, back in sixth grade, back when he was shorter than she was, when her mother used to call him “Little Tommy Dehner.” By the time they got to RHS, they were like a married couple.

  We all hoped that when we lost our virginity it would be to the right person for the right reasons and that we wouldn’t have any regrets. My best girlfriend Laura Lonigro and I talked for hours about the way it should happen and when, and the kind of boy it should be with. Laura was Italian and loud—a self-described rebel-punk-poet with spiky black hair and dark eyeliner. We were very different, but also very alike. We were both boy crazy and we loved to observe people. So naturally we looked around at our classmates and analyzed their sex lives. Most of them, as far as we could see, were having sex for the wrong reasons. Girls did it to keep boys in a relationship or to get boys. Boys did it with anyone and everyone because they thought their friends were doing it, and then they talked about the girls they did it with. We wondered where the fun was in all of this. Didn’t anyone have sex just to have sex?

  Teresa and Tom didn’t discuss their private life with their friends. What happened between them was their business. We tried to imagine what it must be like to be Teresa, to get to be with Tom Dehner. We liked to think they were having sex all the time—after school, on the weekends, at his house, at her house, after basketball games, at dances, after dances. But we would never know because unlike some couples, they never said a word about it to anyone.

  In the fall of senior year, there was a party at Fiona Ferguson’s house. Fiona was from South Africa and a year behind us, and our senior year she gave a lot of parties. Joey and Jennie Burton sat in the backseat of Joey’s car and the windows were steaming. Hillary Moretti and I bothered them by knocking on the glass. Finally they came out and lay down in the hammock—the one in Fiona’s backyard—and Hill and I piled on top so that we all fell over onto the ground. We hung out in Fiona’s garage and then later by the pool, and someone jumped in. Ned Mitchell and I made out on the dryer in the downstairs laundry room—the first and only time we were ever together—and Cliff Lester walked in on us, and then afterward a group of us gathered in the bathroom, sitting in a circle on the floor—Joey, Ned, Larry Peterson, Ian Barnes, Laura, Fiona, and me. The talk turned serious.

  People thought Joey and I were a couple. This was the one question I got asked most. “So, what’s up with you and Joe Kraemer?” Or, “How long have you and Joe Kraemer been together?” Or, “Have you and Joey done it yet?” I had been interrogated like this since we became friends in tenth grade.

  That night on the bathroom floor, Larry said, “So tell us the truth, are you and Joey really a couple?”

  Everyone looked at us, especially Ned, who wasn’t sure what Joey would do if he knew we’d just been making out on a dryer.

  Larry Peterson repeated his question: “So are you and Joey really a couple?”

  We did what we always did in this situation. Joey put his arm around me. We smiled in a mysterious way. Joey said, “We’re very close.”

  I said, “I love him more than anyone else.”

  Joey said, “She knows me better than anybody.”

  I said, “He’s the only boy who gets me.”

  Joey said, “And who’ll put up with her love of hairspray.”

  I said, “And his love of himself.”

  We were talking in circles around them and they knew it. Ian said, “You’re not answering the question.”

  Joey said, “Aren’t we?”

  Most of us didn’t have a clue about the Village People (I loved the Construction Worker) or George Michael. The first time I saw Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” video, I ran screaming downstairs from my bedroom to my mother to tell her I had just seen the cutest video by the cutest boys with the best hair. The only person I even had an inkling about—that something was different, that maybe he wasn’t quite like other men—was Boy George, and that was only because he wore makeup and so clearly and obviously stood apart that even a blind person would have noticed it.

  Joey wondered, deep in his mind, about why he didn’t want to steam up car windows with Jennie or exchange candy canes with Michelle Zimmerman by mouth when they danced to “Careless Whisper” by the lights of her Christmas tree. There were many times when we let people think we were a couple because it was easier than explaining to them, or trying to explain to them, what we were to each other. We weren’t sure most of them could or would really get it anyway.

  Jennifer and Joey before Snowball; Jennifer and Curt Atkisson before Homecoming

  A Dance Is Just a Dance

  The dream was about Curt, and I was dating him, but then I found out your cousin Jack liked me, but there was the relationship with Curt to consider, and there was a dance and no one asked me and my outfit was see-through and my hair was sticking out badly. These are the stuffs nightmares are made of. This is the stuff from which nightmares are born.

  —Jennifer to Joey, August 19, 1986

  I don’t understand,” I told my mom when I had checked the phone connection for the fiftieth time just to make sure it was working. It was two weeks before Snowball my junior year. “Ross said Dean Waldemar liked me, that he thought I was pretty, that he was asking about me, that he wanted to know if I was free.”

  My mom said, “Sometimes high school boys don’t ask girls out because they’re afraid of rejection. He’s probably afraid you’ll say no.”

  “But I won’t say no.”

  “But he doesn’t know that. It’s scary being a high school boy.”

  “But I won’t say no!”

  “But he doesn’t know that and it’s safer not to ask you than to ask you and be turned down.”

  I didn’t say anything, but I was beginning to think Dean wasn’t afraid of being turned down. I was beginning to think this had something to do with Tim Bullen, who I’d gone out with weeks before. When he tried to kiss me after the world’s worst date, I said no, and then he told everyone at school I’d slept with him.

  I asked Ross to talk to Dean again for me. Ross called me that night and said, “I hate to tell you this, but Tim Bullen told Dean some of the same lies he’s been telling everybody else. Because he doesn’t know you firsthand, Dean decided he’s not going to ask you to Snowball and he’s probably going to take someone else.”

  “Did you tell him Tim was lying?”


  “What did he say?”

  “He just doesn’t want to mess with it.”

  I hung up the phone and picked up a book Joey had given me. It was a book of poetry by Suzanne Somers, which we liked to read aloud to each other. In it, he’d circled a poem called “Beautiful Girls.” It was about pretty girls who were secretly lonely because they were misunderstood, usually because boys thought they were busy and never asked them out. He wrote, Just so you know, this is why you don’t always have dates every weekend.

  Instead of feeling beautiful I felt awkward and ugly. The week before Snowball, Dean asked someone else to the dance instead of me. The day before the dance, I still hadn’t been asked, and Hether wrote me a cheer-up note in Humanities.

  The night of Snowball, I sat in my green room while everyone else in the world was at the dance, and wrote in my diary: I am so tired of this place. The boy I like best of all (Matt Ashton) isn’t here, and I want to be far away. Some days I don’t think I can stand it much longer. I don’t feel like I have anything in common with anyone other than Joey and Laura and Hether. I just want to feel—for once—like I fit in even though I want to get out of here and go somewhere else. Like Teresa or Sherri Dillon. They make it seem so easy. I wonder what it would be like to get up in the morning and be them and not have to worry about a single thing. Not that they don’t have problems—I’m sure they do. But every day they kn
ow exactly where they fit.

  I sat at my desk and copied down poems by Walt Whitman, Lord Byron, Alexander Selkirk, Louisa May Alcott, and Sara Teasdale.

  These were the moments when it was hardest, when I wished I was small and blond with a mouth full of fillings that showed when I smiled like Jennifer Cutter who was crowned Homecoming Queen my sophomore year, and that I knew things like gymnastics and cheering instead of writing and music.

  Our senior year, Joey asked my friend Diane Armiger to Homecoming. He was smitten with her and her platinum blond hair. He slipped her a note during Government class and she wrote him back after several agonizing minutes. Her reply said: I have to make some phone calls. I’ll tell you Mon. or Tues.

  After she spent the weekend trying to find a more desirable, romantic date, she let Joey know that she would go with him, but only as friends. She emphasized this so there would be no mistaking it. Joey finally said, “Diane, don’t worry. I got that message when you told me you had to make some calls before you could tell me yes.”

  When it was time for Snowball, Joey and I decided to take the pressure off ourselves and go together. That way Joey wouldn’t have to worry about asking anyone and I wouldn’t have to worry about whether or not I’d be asked.

  He came to pick me up for the dance—wearing navy blue, khaki, and a red tie—in the Calais. I wore long pearls just like Ally Sheedy in St. Elmo’s Fire, a silky black dress and high black heels, and a quilted satiny black coat that had belonged to my mom’s New York literary agent, who was always giving us her expensive hand-me-downs and then wanting them back at some later time.

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