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

  “What about UCLA? You mentioned that before.”

  “Too far for now.” As much as I wanted to go far, far away from Richmond, and as much as I loved Los Angeles, I didn’t want to go to the other side of the country. “Maybe for graduate school. I guess I could apply to somewhere in New York.”

  She said, “That sounds great. We can make a list.” My mom loved to make lists. She made lists of everything—chores, groceries, things to do, lists for her work, lists for my dad, lists for me.

  I said, “Oh good,” but she missed the sarcasm.

  In all, I applied to twelve schools because once I got started looking at brochures, I couldn’t stop myself. Amherst, Princeton, Yale, Wake Forest, Davidson, William & Mary, a couple of New York schools, and a little liberal arts college just outside of New York City called Drew University, which my father told me about. My parents asked me to design my perfect college, apart from Georgetown, and I told them all the traits I was looking for: not too large, in or near a big city, a good liberal arts program. My dad had done some business at Drew (all these years later, I am still unclear what it was he did at Earlham), and he said he thought it fit my criteria.

  One good thing about considering so many colleges was that I went to visit some—like the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (which threw fun parties but was way too big) and tiny Davidson just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina (which was way too small and isolated, even though the boys were good-looking).

  For my essays, I wrote from the heart. This is your opportunity to tell us about yourself, the instructions said. What would you most like the Admissions Committee to know about you when reading your application?

  Ever since we’d arrived in Richmond in my fourth-grade year, I had dreamed of the day I could leave. Now that moment was almost here. For the first time, I could practically see it.

  I wrote: In a town and place in which I have never felt quite at home, extracurricular activities and good friends have become very important to me. I seem always to need something which I can throw myself into wholeheartedly, and which will keep my spirits high during difficult times with school, peers, or other such problems …

  My career adviser was Linda McRally, who was pleasant and attractive. She had been a counselor at the high school for fifteen years, working in a cubicle in the Advisement Center at the end of the long upstairs hallway, which was always hot and stuffy, no matter what season we were in. She was Joey’s adviser, too.

  We each visited her to talk about college and our lives beyond RHS. Of course, Joey and I were both planning to go to Georgetown. But as Joey sat beside her desk in a hard plastic chair, he saw an advertisement behind her head for Hillsdale College in Michigan. He liked the look of the advertisement—an embossed gold “H” on navy blue, and underneath it just one word, “Leadership.”

  “Where do you plan to go to school?” Linda McRally asked Joey.

  He said, “Georgetown.”

  She said, “Where else have you applied?”

  He said, “The University of Chicago. I’ll probably apply to Hillsdale, too.” He decided it on the spot.

  She said, “Where else?”

  He said, “That’s all. I want to get as far away from here as possible.”

  “And what do you plan to study?”

  “I’m going to be a Kremlinologist.” When she just stared at him, he said, “A Kremlinologist. An expert on the U.S.S.R. Either that or a lawyer. Or a playwright. Or a short story writer. In the big city.”

  She sat back and started flipping through his file and read some things. She closed it and folded her hands and smiled at Joey, but the smile was tired, especially around the eyes. She said, “There are so many good schools in Indiana. You shouldn’t look down your nose at them just because they aren’t in some big city. I think you should consider applying somewhere closer to home.”

  I sat in that same hard chair and had the same conversation with Mrs. McRally a few days later. She said, “Where do you plan to go to school?”

  I said, “Georgetown.” And I also listed the eleven other schools I was applying to just in case I wasn’t accepted at Georgetown, even though I was sure I didn’t need to apply to them since I couldn’t imagine why Georgetown wouldn’t be happy to have me.

  She said, “And what made you choose these schools?”

  It was such a strange question. I had chosen Georgetown because of St. Elmo’s Fire. The other schools I had chosen because they were in or near big cities.

  When I didn’t say anything she said, “What do you plan to do in college or after college?”

  I said, “Oh, I plan to be a writer and an actress, but most likely a writer.”

  She sat there for a minute nodding. She said, “I think you should consider taking some secretarial classes in case the writing thing doesn’t work out.”

  There were so many things I wanted to say like, What kind of an adviser are you? Shouldn’t you be telling me to dream as big as possible? Shouldn’t you be encouraging students to dream big since so few of them do? I think more of them could stand to, if you ask me. Maybe if you’d encourage them they would. And then who knows where they’d go and what they’d do! And if the writing doesn’t work out, who says I need to be a secretary? Why is that my one choice? Why not an astronaut? Or a rock star? Or a private detective? Or a plumber? Or president?

  But instead I smiled and stood up and walked out and never went back.

  In February of our senior year, Joey and I drove to Dayton for an orientation about Georgetown University. By that time we had seen St. Elmo’s Fire five hundred times and could recite entire passages. We traded lines back and forth as we drove and then we listened to the soundtrack, which, of course, we owned. We were quieter than usual on that trip because we were picturing ourselves in our new lives. There was a full moon, and I told Joey that Sue Weller had died.

  For years he had worked at Morrisson-Reeves Library with her. She was the head of the Boys and Girls Department, the one who read us stories, back when we were children, in her soft, even voice. She was like a little girl herself, with long brown hair curled at the bottom, a pretty smile, a pretty face. She took her job seriously. She worked very hard. She had been married, but didn’t have children of her own. I remembered her as a nice person, a quiet person who kept to herself.

  She had taught Joey to read books on the Bookmobile. He was a little in love with her then and always chose which Bookmobile he wanted to work on during summers based on where she was working.

  Somehow I had heard the news first. Sue Weller had driven home to Liberty the day before and shut the garage door and left the car running.

  Joey said, “I can’t believe she’s gone.”

  “I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s so sad.”

  The music was still playing—the same music we always listened to—but everything felt different.

  Joey said, “I wonder why she did it.”

  I said, “I don’t know.”

  My seventh-grade English teacher had committed suicide. She’d gone home one night and driven into the garage and left the car running and her husband had found her. Afterward, all my classmates talked about how much they loved her and missed her. Everybody felt as if it was their fault that she killed herself. Maybe if they hadn’t talked in class, or if they’d made a better grade on the spelling test. I was the only one who remembered how unpleasant she had been, how mean she could be, how unhappy she had seemed. Sue Weller wasn’t any of these things, as far as we could see.

  Joey said, “I wonder if there were things she wanted to do that she knew she’d never get to do.”

  I said, “Like dance with the New York City Ballet? Or be an archaeologist or a race car driver?”

  “Or travel to Paris or see the pyramids.”

  We drove, looking out the windows at the darkness all around. There was never anything so dark as the highway in Indiana or Ohio, surrounded by cornfields at night. It is nothing but blackness everywher
e and the empty road ahead.

  Joey said, “I don’t ever want to grow old or sad or lonely.”

  “We won’t,” I said. “We’ll be young forever.”

  Orientation was at a hotel in downtown Dayton and for once we didn’t get lost and nothing happened to the car. The room was packed. The only faces we recognized from Richmond were Beth Jennings and Mary Catherine Cox.

  Beth was my friend and I liked her, but Joey was annoyed at seeing anyone we knew. “What are they doing here?” He was staring in particular at Mary.

  I said, “Same as us I’m guessing.”

  He sighed. Beth waved us over. Joey said, “Well, don’t think they’re getting in.”

  We sat with them and wrote notes to each other and tried to be calm. We could feel the excitement in the air. Everyone seemed to feel it, not just us. But Joey and I knew that of all the people in that room, we were the ones who truly belonged there.

  In March, we received our letters on the same day. Dear Joe Kraemer, Dear Jennifer McJunkin, they said. The Committee on Admissions has completed its final review of applicants to the Class of ’90 at Georgetown University. Following a careful consideration of all candidates, they have decided it will not be possible to offer you a place in the freshman class this year. Please accept our appreciation for the interest you have shown in Georgetown. We wish you every success in planning your further education.

  The next day Joey received an acceptance letter from Hillsdale College along with a full scholarship, and I received one from Drew University. We hadn’t applied to any other schools together because it never occurred to us that we wouldn’t actually get into Georgetown. We were shocked that we weren’t accepted. We had been picturing ourselves there for so long that we couldn’t imagine ourselves any other place. I would be Demi Moore. He would be Andrew McCarthy. We would ride around in Jeeps under brilliant autumn leaves and have cool friends and drink vodka and hang out at St. Elmo’s Bar and always, always be together. Now just like that, the dream was gone.

  That week, the Georgetown Hoyas lost to Michigan State, 80 to 68, in round two of the NCAA basketball tournament. For me, it was the last straw. The defeat was symbolic. They had lost. I had lost. I cried for an hour up in my green room watching the stupid game.

  On Friday night, Joey and I packed up our Georgetown letters and a fifth of vodka he bought at the Liquor Barn and drove to Dayton. We climbed the steps of the Art Institute, long after closing, and sat huddled against the wind and the cold. The moon and the stars were almost too bright. There was something unfair about them. We unfolded our letters and read them out loud and then I tore mine into bits and watched them fly away into the air. We passed the bottle back and forth, back and forth until it was time to go home.

  Jennifer, her parents, and their dog Jamey


  First of all let me tell you about my family. My father Jack, my mother Penny, my cat Princess, my cat Michael, and my dog Jamey. Also myself, Jennifer.

  —Jennifer McJunkin, “My Life in Indiana,” September 25, 1977

  When I was little, I used to play a game. I would try to decide who I would live with if my parents split up. It was a game I took very seriously, largely because I knew it would never happen. I would lie in bed or in my green beanbag and really think about it.

  I knew I would probably choose my mom because she and I were so alike. We both laughed and had fun. She was bright and bubbly. Every night before I went to bed, she told me she loved me. She told me again in the morning. She said she wanted it to be the first thing I heard when I woke up and the last thing I heard before I went to sleep. Everyone loved her, most of all me. My dad was quieter, more intense, more brooding. He worked all the time and got impatient because many things got on his nerves.

  But he and I were alike, too. I had his brown hair and brown-green eyes that looked more brown than green but were really more green than brown. I had his stubbornness and his short temper. He was also more relaxed than my mom about some things—he got my mom to loosen up and not watch me so closely and let me be. He was less perfect than my mom, more openly and obviously flawed, and I knew I was that way, too. No one was as perfect as my mom.

  Mom was also a writer, and this was something I was thinking about being. Writing was certainly something I liked doing, ever since I was a little girl and she had instilled writing time into my daily routine. My mother was the director of the Carl Sandburg Oral History Project. She had organized his papers at his North Carolina home, Connemara, and traveled the country interviewing people who knew Sandburg—Gene Kelly and Steve Allen, whom we met in Los Angeles; musician Pete Seeger, who stayed at our house in Hidden Valley; journalist Harry Golden; and even a man in Chicago who had just gotten out of prison for murdering his wife. My dad hovered around during that interview in case my mom needed protection, and I hovered around just in case I could hear something about his time in prison. She made speeches at universities and historical societies and now she was writing a book on Sandburg—the first comprehensive biography of him ever written. Sandburg’s own agent, Lucy Kroll, was representing her. My mother’s work was horribly exciting.

  I loved my dad. When I was little, we were the best of friends. We were more playmates than father-daughter. We got into mischief together and pulled silly pranks on each other and got into trouble with my mom. But as I grew older, we suddenly had very little to talk about. He didn’t want to hear about boys and he didn’t like my music. My mom would say, “Give it a chance, Jack.” And he would say, “That isn’t music. How can you listen to it with her?” And Mom would say, “Because Jennifer is interested in it and I’m interested in Jennifer.”

  My dad was an only child, too, and we were sometimes competitive. When I was little, my mom had to talk to him about letting me win at Uncle Wiggly and Chutes & Ladders. “For God’s sake, Jack,” she would say. “She is a five-year-old girl.” But this didn’t matter to him. Whatever game we played, my dad wanted to win, and I was the same exact way. Whoever lost would fall into a deep, dark sulk, so silent and forbidding that no one could speak to us for hours after the game was over.

  Worse than this, my father ate all the good things that came into the house, hoarding them like a squirrel gathering food for the winter. Whenever there was anything delicious to eat—cookies or lemon bars or cheese biscuits or cupcakes from Joy Ann Bakery—my mom had to dole out fair and equal shares of them (drawing a line down the pan of lemon bars and carving “J” for Jennifer on one side, and “D” for Dad on the other) and then hide the rest somewhere in the kitchen so that my dad wouldn’t eat them all. He always, always found them, though, and ate well into my share and my mother’s. I would climb up onto the kitchen counter and reach into the very back of the cabinet and pull out the white bakery box, and there would be only three cookies where before there had been eight. In times like these, my mom would give me her share and what, if anything, was left of mine. She almost never got a delicious thing to eat herself.

  And my dad was busy. He was the busiest man I knew. In addition to working at Earlham as the business manager and as the director of planned giving (jobs he did simultaneously and which I never understood no matter how many times he explained them to me), he taught Asian history and religion and a squash course at the gym. He chaired the faculty nominating committee, the first administrator to be elected by the faculty to that position, among other committees. He served on the boards of the local mental health center and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, ran at least five miles daily, if not more—twenty-six on weekends. And to top it all off, he was always cooking. He was widely acclaimed in East Central Indiana for his culinary skill. (My parents had even written a cookbook together— The I Hate to Chew Cookbook: A Gourmet Guide for Adults Who Wear Braces, inspired by my mom getting braces at age forty. Then my parents and I wrote Teen Cuisine: A Cookbook for Young People Who Wear Braces.) My dad could whip up shrimp bisque or Marchand di Vin for sixty people easily, and was always trying t
o teach me the right wine to go with beef Wellington. This was maddening because when you are a teenager, all you want to eat are normal things like hamburgers and Kraft Macaroni & Cheese out of the box. My father made his macaroni and cheese from scratch. It took hours. He even made the noodles by hand.

  Time and again, I decided that I would definitely live with my mother.

  • • •

  One day, toward the end of my senior year, I was standing on my head, trying to reach the Men at Work album that had fallen behind my bookcase. There was a knock at the door.

  “Come in!” I yelled.

  There was a pause, and then the door opened and my father walked in. I immediately tried to think of what I might have done wrong because he never came to my room. He didn’t like the clutter—the clothes everywhere and the glasses that needed washing. He didn’t like the posters of boys and rock stars that hung on my walls, and he didn’t like the music I was always playing on the stereo he had built for me himself out of the finest hi-fi components.

  “Jenge?” It was his private nickname for me, based on the name I called myself when I was little, in the days before I could pronounce Jennifer.


  “I need to talk to you,” he said.

  “Okay.” I sat down on my bed and he sat next to me.

  We sat there a long time in silence until finally he said, “I don’t want you to think that there’s anyone else. It’s important that you know that. But your mother and I are separating, and she wanted me to tell you because it’s not her idea, it’s my idea. I just can’t. I just can’t have a family right now. It isn’t you and it isn’t her. It’s me.”

  Your mother and I are separating.

  I felt as if I had been slammed in the head with something, like the time my junior high school gym teacher made me guard Jody Starn in basketball, all three hundred pounds of her, and she had sent me flying into the gym wall. I tried not to cry because my dad hated tears more than he hated my music and my boy talk. I thought about Alex Delaney’s parents who never got along and how I had felt so sorry for him. I thought about Laura’s parents—her mom in Dayton, her dad always gone. I sat there thinking about how your entire life could change in an instant.

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