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

  “You’re so complicated, just like a series of boxes,” Alex said to me sometimes, “and every time I open one, there’s another inside. I don’t think I’ll ever get down to that last box.”

  How dare he try to get in my business, I wrote in my journal, the one I never kept for more than a week at a time. Everywhere I look, he is there. It was maddening, this desire of his to want to know me, to understand me, to see inside me.

  I went home that night, after the trip to the mall, and I sat the great white bear in my green beanbag. I said, “You listen here, bear. You tried to kill me in that car, and don’t think I don’t know it. What was that about anyway?”

  The bear looked at me. From my mirror, pictures of Alex, of Alex and me, smiled out into the room. They were everywhere.

  I broke up with Alex a week later. I loved him, but to my mind it had to be done. I was in the prime of my life. I couldn’t, wouldn’t be tied down. Even as I told him good-bye, I had ideas that maybe one day we would end up together in the real world. We would have adorable curly-headed babies, some blond, some dark-haired. But that would be a long, long time from now, someday when we were very old. I would be thirty, maybe thirty-one. He would be thirty-one or thirty-two.

  Earlham College’s Barrett Hall

  Older Men

  I’m worried about Friday. I don’t know what to wear. I don’t know how to act, and most of all, I don’t know how they will act. I only wish we could be going out with Richard (Gere) and Mikhail (Baryshnikov) instead. But we can always dream, right?

  —Holly Ogren to Jennifer, on the eve of their first date with college boys

  Hether Rielly, Holly Ogren, Sara Ansel, and I started lurking around Earlham College second semester junior year. I was the one who first said, “I’m tired of high school boys.”

  Hether said, “Me too. They’re so … high school.”

  I said, “Why don’t we go over to Earlham and look at the boys over there?”

  Holly said, “We could watch a game—soccer, lacrosse, football. That way it’s not so obvious.” Holly’s dad worked at Earlham like mine. She was aware of the need for sneakiness.

  We started going to Earlham lacrosse games. Hether drove us over and we sat in the stands and cheered on the Quakers. Richmond wasn’t always tolerant of Earlham or its students. There was this overall view that Earlham kids were tree-hugging, granola-eating hippies, and a lot of them were, but we didn’t mind. That semester we found them exotic. And the lacrosse players had really great legs. They didn’t look like boys, either. They looked like men.

  We became lacrosse groupies. We met Bill, with the hooded eyes, who Hether fell hard for. “He makes me feel like I’m in a rocket heading for the sun,” she said. “Get it? He makes me hot!” We met his friend Tim, with the darkly curling hair and high cheekbones. We all swooned a bit over him, and no one was sure which of us, if anyone, he liked. We were content just being near him.

  We became their friends. They looked for us at games and we hung out afterward, sometimes in the student union, sometimes in Barrett Hall, which was their dorm. They introduced us to a soccer player, Shane, who radiated a languid ease—a kind of sexy peace-love vibe that was just so cool. He looked like a surfer-boy hippie, tan and golden, big brown eyes, long gold-brown hair that just brushed his shoulders and fell down over his eyebrows so that he was always tossing it aside.

  In Creative Writing class one day, in the midst of Mr. Dunaway’s lecturing and Tommy Wissel trying to steal my shoe, Sara and Hether and I planned our futures. Sara and Tim would live in a small English Tudor home in a valley with horses, an Irish setter, and two children. Hether and Bill would own a large ranch house and have three boys and three girls (Hether came from an enormous family and was used to having lots of people around). Shane and I would live in Los Angeles in a bungalow high in the Hollywood Hills and have maybe one child (a girl) or maybe just cats.

  We hung out once, the group of us, piling into Hether’s car—Bill and Tim and Hether and Sara and Shane and me. Shane and I sat in the back and Hether and Sara were carrying on, being silly and stupid, acting like they were in high school. Sara was making fun of retarded people, not really meaning it, and Hether was laughing. I suddenly felt self-conscious because they sounded young. I could feel a spotlight shining down through the roof of the car on the three of us and it said, Alert: High School Girls! High School Girls! I thought of the bungalow in the Hollywood Hills and my face started burning.

  Beside me, Shane had gone rigid. He said, “You know, my sister’s retarded.”

  Hether and Sara went silent. Then they started backtracking. “We were just having fun.” “We weren’t being serious.” “We would never actually make fun of retarded people.”

  Afterward I asked Shane if it was true. “Is your sister really retarded?”

  “No,” he said.


  “Man, I just couldn’t stand the way she was talking. It wasn’t cool.” And then he told me, “Look, I think you’re cool. I like you. But I don’t like your friends. I want to hang out with you, but not with them.”

  So I began to go over to Earlham by myself. Sara and Hether went over a few times without me to watch some lacrosse games. Hether and Bill started dating, and not long after Sara and Holly stopped visiting Earlham altogether. I spent time with Shane on my own. He took me up to the attic of Barrett Hall, which was off limits to students, but which was where everyone who lived in Barrett Hall hung out anyway. There was old bedding up there, and a boom box that was always playing Bob Marley, UB40, and other reggae music. We climbed up there and listened to music and sat on the floor or on the big exposed pipe that ran the length of one wall, and we talked.

  At first we kissed and made out a little and my head swam from Shane, from the heady mix of Barrett Attic and Earlham and older men and the exotic nature of it all. I was out of my element and we both knew it.

  He put the brakes on things quickly. He told me he thought I was cool, but he needed to cut it off. I was in high school—two years younger. We were in totally different places and he was very conscious of that. If I’d been a freshman in college, he said, he would have pursued me, but in his mind I was off-limits.

  At first I was disappointed, but I wanted to get to know him and I wanted to be his friend. So we hung out in Barrett Attic and talked about life. I told him I planned to be a writer and an actress in New York. These weren’t things I shared with most people, especially boyfriends. But he wasn’t my boyfriend. He didn’t go to the high school. He didn’t know any of my friends. Because the barriers were down, I felt I could tell him anything. And he listened. He took everything to heart.

  Every now and then we ventured down from the attic. We went to Sunsplash at Earlham—the annual reggae festival. Afterward, someone dropped us off at my house, since Shane didn’t have a car and I didn’t drive. My mom was out of town so only my dad was home. Shane was barefoot and shirtless, dressed in boxer shorts and a big floppy hat. We sat downstairs in my basement, him drunk as a skunk, me sunburned and happy from the day. We were sitting close beside each other on the couch but not doing anything. My dad came downstairs and said to Shane, “It’s late. It’s time to go home. Do you want a ride?”

  My dad was polite but firm. It was the most polite I’d ever seen him with a boy.

  Shane looked up at my dad and said, “No, sir. Thank you.”

  My dad stood there, waiting.

  Shane got up, hat flopping, bare feet, and walked up the stairs. I followed him. Outside it was pouring rain. I said, “Dad!”

  He said, “It’s late,” in a tone that meant no arguing.

  Shane opened the front door and the rain poured down in buckets. The sky was black. He stepped out in his bare feet and boxer shorts and said “See you later” to me. And he walked off into the night.

  I thought about asking Shane to the Junior-Senior Prom, but didn’t. Somehow I knew he didn’t belong at a high school dance. Besides, there was
something about my friendship with Shane that I wanted to keep to myself, locked away in Barrett Attic. It was just for him and me, not for my friends at school to look over and dissect. There was no telling how long I would have kept hanging out there.

  I showed up at the attic one day unannounced and surprised him with his girlfriend—a girl he’d just started seeing. She was a college girl, unlike me. I tried to smile and laugh and act like it didn’t matter, and he was cool and I was cool, and everything was cool. We went up to the attic once or twice after that, but I had gotten my feelings hurt. He hadn’t done anything wrong. We were just friends. But I hadn’t realized until that moment that I liked him so much. I couldn’t get the image of him with her out of my mind. I stopped coming around.

  School ended and Mom and I went to New York for the summer. I just disappeared. When I got home, the Barrett Boys and Barrett Attic were a thing of the past, nothing but a bittersweet memory.


  Taking advantage of the variety of clubs offered this year, some students perfected their card skills in a friendly game; others learned more about business, geology, sports, trivia, language; others moved about taking pictures or refereeing elementary sports; and then there were those who chose not to participate in clubs but preferred using the time instead to catch up on studies, sleep, or gossip.

  The newly revised speech team: Front row—Eric Ruger, Robert Ignacio, Jennifer McJunkin, Hether Rielly, Beth McDougall, Joe Kraemer, Ronnie Stier; Back row—Ross Vigran, Ian Barnes, Ned Mitchell, Danny Dickman, Tom Dehner, Larry Peterson

  King and Queen of the World

  Never had a speech team accomplished so much. Truly, never had human potential reached such staggering heights. For RHS, it was a proud moment.

  —1986 Pierian

  In the days when the Richmond High School speech team was at its best, when we were bringing back trophies and ribbons at every meet, when each team member was a winner, we got up early for meets on Saturday mornings while all the rest of Richmond was sleeping. The dozen or so members of the team—a tired, unglamorous bunch—would assemble at school and climb yawning onto a school bus. It was still dark outside and usually cold. Mary Boots was our coach; she was a woman with a frizzy perm, a kind heart, and a talent for getting the best from us. She worked us hard. Her son Stan was copresident of the team with me. I thought he was in love with me until he invited Joey to the ballet in Ohio, and Joey said his mom wouldn’t let him go because Stan meant for it to be a date.

  In the dark, we set out for Rushville, Connersville, New Castle. We were the biggest school of any of them, but we never hosted meets. My old boyfriend Eric Lundquist was on the team. My mom came along sometimes, too, to chaper-one and help coach.

  We had a rowdy cheer we sang to wake ourselves: Beer, beer for old Richmond High! Bring in the whiskey, bring in the rye! Send Mrs. Boots out for gin, and don’t let a single sober person in! We never stumble, we never fall, We sober up on wood alcohol, When we die we’ll go to Hell, we’re the devils of Richmond High! Rah! Rah! Rah!

  Before each round of competition, I locked myself in a bathroom stall and did little breathing exercises my mom had taught me. I got myself so worked up before I went on that I couldn’t eat, and I turned pale and even ran a fever. But once I got up in front of everyone and started performing, I loved it. Afterward, I wanted to run screaming through the halls. I was so full of myself that I couldn’t be stopped.

  In the poetry category, I read from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology and won almost every time. I also competed in prose, reading “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury, which was a mean little short story about a father who cuts up his daughter at a Halloween party and passes her around to the other guests in the dark. I read it very sweetly, standing up at the front of the room in my plaid skirt and corduroy blazer and lip gloss, and it was always fun to see the judges’ faces when I delivered the last cruel lines. I won with that one, too.

  Sophomore year, Stan and I were each awarded the highest degree possible—that of excellence from the National Forensic League, which meant that we had earned more than 250 points apiece and received the ruby insignia. It was kind of like the Academy Award for high school speech. No one at Richmond High cared very much—to them the speech team barely existed—but I knew I was a speech team rock star.

  At the end of our sophomore year, Mrs. Boots told us she was moving away because her husband had been offered another job. We got a new coach—Brenda Frazier-Christie, who looked almost exactly like Mrs. Boots only black. Joey and I took it upon ourselves to hold elections for speech team president. No one ran except the two of us, who, naturally, ran together as copresidents.

  In room 81, where we practiced every day after school, we gave a speech to the few remaining speech team members—the ones who hadn’t abandoned ship when Mary Boots left. Mrs. Frazier-Christie wasn’t there because she rarely showed up for practices.

  Joey did most of the talking. I stood next to him and smiled and tried very hard to look both gracious and commanding. “As copresidents of the speech team, Jennifer and I would work for broadened publicity and individual excellence. We will always be ready to hear your proclamations or protests, or maybe just to hear your material! With good humor and dedication through and through, we hope that by strengthening the individual we will strengthen our group. And by strengthening our group we give backbone to our school. And by heartening our young, we hearten the future of America! A vote for a shared presidency is a vote for a shared future.”

  When Joey was finished, there was a faint round of applause, and then Jonetta Sowers-Clark said, “Who do you and Jennifer think you are, king and queen of the world?” She got up and left the room.

  Joey and I looked at each other and shrugged. I thought, Maybe we should go after her. After all, we don’t have many members left.

  Joey said, “Yes?”

  No one else found it funny.

  By the beginning of our junior year, Brenda Frazier-Christie had left us completely. It was clear that if we still wanted Richmond High School to have a speech team, it was up to Joey and me to save it.

  On a warm October day, Joey and I drove from school across the bridge by Miller’s Cafeteria, past the burned-out shell of Swayne-Robinson, past the post office, down to the old train depot district where the empty warehouses and the factories were. Joey pulled into the Purina Factory lot. Up close the factory looked as tall as the Empire State Building, which was funny because from far away it didn’t look very tall at all. To the right of the parking lot, there was the abandoned boxcar, just sitting there, pointed east as if it had been heading somewhere once upon a time. We climbed onto the top and sat there under the sun, looking out across the Whitewater Gorge toward the high school. We always thought best when we were somewhere we shouldn’t be.

  “I want a team with more interesting people,” Joey said.

  “Like Tom Dehner?” I said. The metal was hot under my skirt. My legs were already burning.

  “Yes. That’s my vision of the new speech team. You, me, and Tom Dehner.”

  I felt a tiny thrill in my heart—the same thrill I always felt when we discussed Tom. “But how do we get him?”

  “That’s the question.” Joey was thinking. I could tell because he was squinting hard into the distance like he was trying to see inside each window of the high school from here.

  “And can he speak, I mean, before an audience?”

  “Does it matter?”


  The air felt heavy and light all at once. The sun beat down. Joey’s fair skin was already freckling. I tipped my head back and let the sun warm my face.

  We got the best-looking teacher in the school, Mark Alexander, to agree to be our coach. Just before Christmas, an article was published in The Register—Speech Team to Expand—which mentioned that ten of the school’s top students will receive invitations to join the varsity squad.

  Then Joey and I sat down together and
went through the yearbook and picked out the fifteen best people to be our new team. The first one we picked was Tom Dehner. Everyone else fell in around him. We didn’t choose many girls because we didn’t like them. We chose Beth McDougall because Joey liked her, and Lisa Fanning because I liked her, and Hether Rielly because she was our friend. We chose all of the good boys—except for Tom Mangas, whom I was mad at for something or other.

  We called them “Speech Team Nominees” because it had a nice ring to it. We sent out letters to our chosen group informing them that the 1985/86 RHS Varsity Speech Team had been tentatively established and that decisions concerning your membership were reached through speech interests, teacher/panel recommendations, extracurricular activities, and scholastic showmanship. You may now feel free to list Speech Team membership on college applications …

  Being on the speech team really wouldn’t take much time, we promised. Public speaking wasn’t nearly as bad or scary as classroom speaking. We added: We have already received over 40 applications, but your spot on the Varsity Team of 15 has been secured. Then we invited our nominees to join us on April 24 at three-fifteen p.m. for a short photo session in the library for the Pierian. Once again, you have made no commitment, you have simply been honored for your scholastic and extracurricular aptitude. If nothing else, the pictures will get you a big spot in the yearbook and add to your momentum on the quickly arriving road to college! Joey convinced Millie Carroll, who was the faculty sponsor in charge of yearbook photos, to send a photographer.

  As part of our publicity push, Joey and I went on the local radio station with my mom and Eric Lundquist on a snowy, stormy night and talked about the new speech team. Afterward my mom drove Joey and me back to Hidden Valley to our house, and the snow was coming down so fast and white and the road was so thick with ice that we went sailing right off the road and down into a creek, screaming all the way. Luckily, the snow cushioned everything and the creek was frozen solid. We had to leave the car and climb up the hill, up to our knees in snow. We kept falling and laughing, and when we looked back, we couldn’t see the car anymore. We got up to the street and walked around the corner, slipping and sliding, to my house in the blizzard, as Joey recited Robert Frost.

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