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

  The men were very enthusiastic, especially Joey’s partner, the big, bald tattooed man who had so loved ’Twas the Night Before Christmas. He kept hollering along with the music, making up his own square dancing calls, which sounded more like the hog calling you heard at the local fair. I was looking everywhere for Andy, but he was nowhere to be seen and I wondered vaguely, as I was being jolted this way and that, if he had managed to escape. My partner seemed to be the leader of the inmates—a tall, lean black guy who looked almost exactly like Officer Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues, only without the smile. My mother’s partner kept trying to hold her close, even though there was supposed to be no touching.

  When it came time for the twirl—when we reached that point in the dance where the twirl should have been, and we didn’t twirl—my partner, the leader, stopped dancing and said, “I want to twirl.” He just stopped right in the middle of everyone, men bumping into him left and right, and stared right at Lois Potts with a look that said No One Has Ever Refused Me Anything and Lived to Tell the Tale.

  She said, “I don’t think we’d better.”

  He said, “I want to twirl,” and he said it very, very firmly, so that you could imagine what he might have done on The Outside to get himself in here, in a facility where we were, after all, locked in behind bars.

  They stood staring at each other for what seemed like twenty minutes or so, like the final showdown scene out of a western, before Lois Potts finally said, “Let’s do the twirl,” as if she had thought of it all on her own. The men clapped and cheered, and Lois began the record over. I looked at my mother and Joey. Their faces were flushed. Their hair was messy. Joey’s glasses were askew. I thought, Dear Jesus, if you can hear me. You got us into this mess in the first place, if you want to be technical about it. We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for you. The least you can do is get us out of here alive.

  The dance eventually ended and we gathered our things. We bundled ourselves up in our layers of coats and scarves and gloves and hats and then the guard escorted us out into the winter night. As we walked to our cars, we could still hear the sounds of the men clapping and cheering and singing “Turkey in the Straw.”

  Laura Lonigro, Joey Kraemer, and Jennifer McJunkin from their Judy on Purpose photo shoot

  Experimental Writers Group

  Joey and I were talking on the phone last night, and we pondered on a terrible thought—all we talk about and think about now is Tom Dehner—what if he died? We would have nothing to live for, to fight for, to talk about, to dream of!

  —Jennifer to Holly Ogren, AP History class

  Joey and I thought up Judy on Purpose with Laura Lonigro on the back porch of Laura’s house at the end of summer 1985. Over a bowl of macaroni, we made up our minds to write a play that would make us famous in the world outside Richmond and would also make us famous in the halls of Richmond High School. We planned to cast Tom Dehner in one of the leading roles. Laura loved him as much as Joey and I did, and it was, we decided, the perfect way to get him, once and for all.

  We met almost every day from the middle of July until school started, on the porch of Laura’s house. Her parents were separated and her mother had just moved to Dayton, leaving Laura and her sister Monica alone with their dad, who was suddenly staying away from home more and more. We had the run of the house.

  The three of us had very different working styles. “You couldn’t put three more different people together,” Joey said to us one day that summer.

  He was pacing and talking—and talking and talking without stopping for breath. Laura and I were mostly listening. Laura was smoking cigarette after cigarette and swearing at mosquitoes. I was writing my name in purple ink on my notebook and trying to decide if I liked my toenail polish.

  Joey stopped and pointed at me. “Jennifer, so pretty and girly and flirty and sensual, writing everything in purple pen.”

  He pointed at Laura. “Laura, so loud and Italian and messy and sexy, with those cigarettes and those hand-scrawled pages flying everywhere.”

  He took her cigarette from her and inhaled. “And me, so shrill and uptight—funny, but wicked, and with a real mean streak, trying like a lunatic to organize this shit.”

  I was writing Jennifer loves Matt Ashton over and over. Then I wrote Jennifer & Matt. Jennifer Ashton. Matt and I were still writing to each other all the time and seeing each other when we could on school breaks and holidays.

  Laura looked at me and said, “Uptight? Joey? What the fuck’s he talking about? Oh my God. I would never call him uptight. Shrill maybe. Uptight? I don’t know, man.” She started laughing.

  I was looking at Joey. I said, “Sensual? Why am I sensual and not sexy?”

  Laura said, “Hey. Yeah. I’d rather be sensual. Sexy makes me sound like a harlot.”

  Joey sat down on the edge of the porch and rolled his eyes. He kept her cigarette, crushing it out with his foot. He said, “We are never going to get anything written.”

  We decided our play would be called Judy on Purpose. It would be about a girl named Judy Diamond, the girl next door, who was hapless and sweet, but who bad things happened to all the time even though she was very well meaning and good-hearted. The story would center on Judy and her struggles to live a somewhat normal life in a crazy, mixed-up world, which the three of us felt we could relate to. Judy would have a funny, awful, dysfunctional family, one that drove her to distraction and ruined her life, sometimes on purpose, sometimes by accident.

  She would have a sister Lolita who believed herself to be Margaret Thatcher (and who would walk around singing “God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen!”), an adopted brother named Rock (cynical and sarcastic and sometimes suicidal—no one in the family was sure where he came from or how he came to be there), Rock’s slut of a girlfriend Sharon (who was a fixture in the house), and Mother Diamond (le grand dame), who we decided would manufacture spotlights because it seemed like the most outlandish thing we could think of. Even before we knew the beginning or the middle of the play, we knew it would end with Judy in a clothing store choosing between an Izod, a Fox, and a no-brand-name shirt. It was to be very deep and profound.

  After we briefly outlined the story and characters, we jumped to the most interesting part of the process—casting. Laura, who had acted in and worked on nearly every production ever to hit McGuire Hall, wanted to play Lolita Diamond. Joey wasn’t interested in acting. He did, however, want to direct. We all decided I would be Judy.

  That left the other parts. We pulled out the yearbook and went to town. We cast Holly Ogren as Mother Diamond because she had a certain overly bright quality that we thought suited the role. Jeff Shirazi would be adopted brother Rock Diamond because he had black hair like Laura and was smart enough to understand cynicism. Our friend Diane Armiger was Sharon (the “live-in slut”) because of her platinum hair color. A junior named Kelly Shepard was Father Douglas (the priest) because he was a good actor and had what we thought to be a very ironic yet understanding smile. Tom Dehner, of course, was Michael, the date, the boy who sweeps Judy off her feet—or tries to in spite of herself and her insane family.

  “Do you think Tom Dehner can act?” Laura said.

  “No,” I said.

  “But does it matter?” Joey said.

  “No,” we all said together.

  Our target date for finishing was September 21. When we didn’t make that deadline, we aimed for Thanksgiving. When we weren’t done by then, we planned for Christmas.

  We made detailed schedules for ourselves—scene breakdowns, deadlines. We met after school, during school, instead of school, and on weekends. Joey typed up the schedules for us. It will be done Christmas Eve, 1985, or that’s it, he wrote. Meeting times: Fridays at 3:15, various weekend dates. We’ve got to be willing to give up some weekends, even nights (now that football is over) to get this done!! I’m not kidding!! We have to have goals and rules in order to obtain them! Let’s sacrifice, got that, Laura!!! And no
dates either, Jennifer. I’ll even fork over the cigarettes, what the hell.

  Part of the problem was that each of us had a lot to say and we loved to hear ourselves talk. And we didn’t completely sacrifice our social lives because we were focused on parties with a whole new intensity.

  But we were also dedicated. Joey and I had a meeting with Mr. Sizemore, head of the theater department, about getting our play produced. The Drama Club was known for its annual shows in McGuire Hall. You Can’t Take It With You, Annie, The Miracle Worker, The Sound of Music. Judy on Purpose would be different from anything that had ever hit the RHS stage, but Mr. Sizemore seemed impressed and said he would take a look at it as soon as we could get it to him, that he would consider it for spring production.

  That was when we got down to business. First and foremost, we decided to take some time off from school so we could work on the play. Because I was the conscientious one in the group, I made the mistake of asking permission the first time we took a “creative day,” as we called them. It was Thursday, November 21, 1985. My mother was getting ready to go on a research trip for her book on Carl Sandburg. She would be gone just a few days, and I wanted to take Friday off. My father would stay with me, working too much as always, running on the weekend, cooking, listening to his music, smoking his pipe. The three of us, once so inseparable, moving as a unit, now moved in our own distinct worlds more and more—my mom consumed by her book and her research, my father with Earlham-Earlham-Earlham, me with my friends, my play, boys, parties.

  Mom was in my parents’ room packing. I lurked about in the doorway, waiting for her to notice me.

  She said, “Yes?”

  I said, “Are you excited about your trip?”

  She said, “I’m looking forward to it.”

  I asked her some questions about where she was going and the people she would see so that she knew I was interested and making an effort to be involved, and then she said, “Was there something you wanted to ask me?” My mother had these invisible antennae that could pick up on the littlest thing. It was spooky and unnerving.

  “Well, you know how Joey and Laura and I are working on Judy on Purpose, and we’ve already talked to Mr. Sizemore and he said he would consider it for spring production if we can just get it to him on time, but there is never any time to work on it because we are always having to be in school.”

  “No,” she said. She was folding up her shirts and pants in neat little rows.

  “I haven’t even asked you yet.”

  “You can’t skip school on Friday to work on your play.”

  My mother was like an alien being with her ability to read minds. I was suddenly mad at myself for even asking her for permission. Who did that? Who asked their mother for permission to ditch school? I thought I deserved points for this.

  “At least I asked you,” I said. “I could have just ditched, but I wanted to do it the right way.”

  She stopped folding and looked at me with her most patient impatient look.

  My mother left the next day and my dad dropped me off at school. I met Joey and Laura by my locker, which was just inside the back doors by the Orchestra Hall.

  Joey said, “Are you ready?”

  I said, “I can’t.”

  He said, “What do you mean ‘you can’t’?”

  I said, “I asked my mom and she said no.”

  Joey and Laura looked at each other. Laura said, “You asked your mom?”

  I said, “What?”

  Joey said, “Where is your mom?”

  I said, “Illinois.”

  He said, “Exactly. Let’s go. My car’s out front.”

  I started following them. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my mom’s antennae worked long-distance. She’ll never find out about it, I told myself. How can she? She’s not even here.

  We drove out to the library at Indiana University East, the branch campus in Richmond, and took over one of their private rooms. The room was tight like a box and there were no windows—just a long desk and about a hundred chairs and lots of fluorescent lighting. We settled in and began to write, reading scenes aloud, sometimes writing on our own, sometimes arguing over this section or that section. Joey’s writing was typically clever, Laura’s madcap, mine heart-felt. We propped our feet on the table and leaned back in our chairs. We sprawled out on the table lengthwise. Laura and I sat on the floor under the table eating Oreos while Joey sat at the typewriter and took dictation. At lunchtime, we ordered our favorite food—Noble Roman’s breadsticks with extra jalapeño cheese dip. Joey went outside to pay and intercept the delivery guy, and then smuggled the food inside in his backpack.

  I called my dad at some point and told him that Joey would be driving me home, and then we stayed even later than school hours because we were light-headed by that time from no windows and too much artificial light and too many breadsticks and too much caffeine and too much writing. We came up with the silliest ideas and laughed over nothing.

  That weekend, I practiced my mom’s signature on a piece of her Carl Sandburg Oral History Project stationery because I would need a note. Joey would just make up one of his usual outpatient surgery excuses: To Whom It May Concern, Joe Kraemer was absent Friday due to an appointment with Dr. Burge for Outpatient surgery. Thank you, E. M. Kraemer. He was practiced in evil. Laura was experienced, too. She shrugged off danger. I, meanwhile, was a nervous wreck.

  We went to the attendance office before school on Monday—each in a different line so as to avoid suspicion—and I held my breath as the lady behind the counter took my note. She looked it over, looked at me, and then smiled. She said, “I hope you’re feeling better.” And then I was free to go.

  My mom came home days later and asked me how school was on Friday. “Good,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t sound too thin, a dead giveaway.

  She looked at me calmly. “You didn’t go, did you?” she said.


  “I know you didn’t go to school,” she said.

  This was one of those superpowers mothers have like X-ray vision into your heart, or being able to humiliate you in public by not touching you or speaking, or knowing just what to say to make the tears go away.

  I started to deny it, but then I just sighed and said, “I didn’t go.”

  She said, “But we talked about this.” I could tell she was disappointed in me, which was always the very worst thing.

  I said, “I know. And I’m sorry. But I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.”

  There was a French exchange student living with the Lonigros named Sophie Gourdon. She was little and sturdy and had hair like a boy and barely spoke any English. She worshipped Joey. One afternoon Joey, Laura, and I posed for pictures in Laura’s upstairs hallway, against the background of a white sheet covering the mirror that lined the wall facing the stairs.

  Sophie took shot after shot of the three of us in our most glamorous poses. Jars of Vaseline and crazy hats, Coke bottles, shoes, a red rose, even a mannequin hand were introduced. Clothes were changed, exchanged, and then torn off. We posed for mug shots. We knew by this point that we might never finish Judy on Purpose. Our little one-act play was growing longer and longer. Laura’s home life was becoming lonelier and harder to bear. She was taking care of herself and Monica, having to be big sister and parent. She threw herself into the play because, she said, she didn’t think she would survive without it and us. Joey was struggling with issues he couldn’t yet understand or voice. There was pressure from his parents, from the Catholic church he attended every Sunday—everywhere he looked he got the message loud and clear: Be straight. Only my home life seemed normal, except that my dad was busy all the time, missing dinners with my mom and me, not making it to school events, staying home during vacations while my mom and I went to North Carolina and New York, becoming more and more absent and distant in a way he hadn’t been before.

  Joey, Laura, and I were pulled in different directions, though we still wrote and wrote.
It wasn’t about Tom Dehner anymore. It hadn’t been for a long time. Our one-act play grew past one hundred pages, and overflowed into two hundred. We couldn’t seem to stop ourselves.

  Joey was working on the yearbook—editing it single-handedly because it had been dropped from the curriculum and he alone was willing to put in the hours needed to save it. So he had access to senior pictures. He blew up a shiny 8x10 of each cast member. The three of us drove to Dayton in Laura’s silver Chevette—the one with the holes in the floor and no windshield wipers, Laura driving only in second gear because she’d never learned to drive a stick correctly—and climbed the steps of the Art Institute. We sat up at the top so we could look out over the city, and then we carefully arranged our cast in order of appearance before they blew away in the wind and we had to run chasing after them.

  One day after school—sometime after the deadline had passed for Mr. Sizemore, when we now knew we would never see our play performed at Richmond High School—Joey and I sneaked into McGuire Hall. He moved about the stage, from place to place, while I watched him. “Rock will stand here,” he said, “and Mother here. Lolita will be up there on the staircase they build—big and white and spiraling. A grand staircase, grander than the one they built for Annie. And Sharon over there. Father Douglas will enter there through the doorway, and here, center stage, is where Michael and Judy will stand.” I took my spot. Joey moved into shadow. “Action,” he said.

  I turned to face the imaginary audience. If I squinted, I could just picture everyone—parents, teachers, faculty, and all of our classmates, gathered to watch the play we had worked so hard on.

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