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

  “We are going to stay together for the rest of your senior year. We don’t want you to have that disruption. We’ll stay here together in this house, and after you graduate, we’ll separate. But you cannot tell anyone, not even Joey. We don’t want this getting out into the community. We have to entertain together for my work. We don’t want people talking.”

  I didn’t say anything or ask anything. I just sat there, staring at the yellow of my bedspread, thinking how bright it was, wondering why I’d never asked to paint my green walls when I didn’t even like green, I liked purple.

  “I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

  And I realized I was crying, and, worse, he was crying, which was something I had never seen my dad do except when our Scottish terrier, Jamey, died, and that I had expected because he loved Jamey, probably even more than he loved my mom and me.

  He hugged me then, and it wasn’t awkward. It was wonderful. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged me. I used to ride around on his shoulders as a little girl and pat him on his bald head. I used to hold on to his arms—tanned with golden hairs that turned copper in the sun—when I was learning to skate.

  He pulled away and then my mother came in and she was crying, too. My dad left and my mom sat down and she and I just cried and cried. But even then, I didn’t believe it. This is not happening, I kept thinking, this is not real. This can’t happen, not to us.

  The next day, everything was like normal. My dad got up and I got up and my mom had been up for hours. The three of us sat at the breakfast table not talking because my dad and I were not morning people and didn’t like to talk before eleven a.m. My mom hummed to herself and tried to subdue her morning energy.

  Later, my mom told me we could talk if I wanted to, that it was important to talk and get things out. “You have to let the tears come,” she always said. “Because if you don’t, they will come out eventually—in depression, in anger, yelling, slamming doors, throwing a hairbrush against the wall,” which was something I had been known to do. But I told her I was fine.

  I went up to my green room and called Joey.

  “What are you doing?” he said.

  “Nothing,” I said.

  “What’s going on?” he said.

  “Oh,” I said. “Nothing much.” It was the start of keeping things in, of holding them inside and not sharing them with the people closest to me. It stung then like a fresh slap, but it would become easier and easier with time.

  He said, “Do you want to go to a movie? I think I can get the car.” Sometimes Joey had to share the car with his brother Mitchell, and we couldn’t always have it when we needed it.

  I said, “Okay.”

  He said, “Or we can go to Dayton instead.”

  I thought of driving fast and Billy Idol and turning the music up loud, loud, loud, and I said, “That sounds better.”

  He said, “I’ll be there soon.” We hung up and I waited in my room, watching out the window for Joey, so I wouldn’t have to sit downstairs and talk to my mom.

  Matt Ashton, Jennifer McJunkin, Hillary Moretti, Jennie Burton, Joey Kraemer, Diane Armiger, Brian Yoder, Danny Allen, Ricky Grimes, and unidentified girl—where Laura Lonigro should be—at prom


  My dress is beautiful! Wonderful! Gorgeous! It’s white and light blue (striped) Gunne Sax. It’s kind of a Scarlett O’Hara kick-ass dress. What does yours look like, Hill?

  My dress is plain and pink and pitiful. (If the shoe fits … )

  —Jennifer and Hillary, exchanging notes in Russian Literature

  Our prom, the fifty-third Richmond High School prom, was held at an off-school site for the first time since the 1930s—in the Stardust Ballroom of the newly renovated Radisson Hotel (the old Leland Hotel, built on the site of a casket factory) just off the Promenade downtown. The theme was “Steppin’ Out.”

  Joey decided I should go to prom with Ronnie Stier. This was fine except that Ronnie and I both had other plans. I wanted to go with Matt Ashton and Ronnie wanted to ask Tricia Ahaus. Matt and I were writing each other letters faithfully and talking on the phone. We saw each other on school breaks. The closer I got to graduation, the more detached I became from Richmond and everything in it, and that meant the boys there, too. Besides, Ronnie and I were good friends—bonded over the history team—and nothing more.

  But Joey thought Ronnie was cute and deserved a try. So he organized a Get Ronnie to Ask Jennifer to Prom Campaign. This consisted of Joey writing Ronnie notes every day in AP History class, hinting about prom and me. When he wasn’t doing this, he worked on Cathy Brawley, Eric Ruger’s girlfriend, trying to get her to help him. Brawley thought all girls were whores because they were threats to her relationship, especially girls who were friends with Eric, like I was. So Joey made sure to tell her things like, “Jennifer was just saying what a cute couple you and Ruger make and how she hopes you get married one day,” because he knew how much Cathy would like hearing it. He also worked on Teresa, who was good friends with Ronnie. And on me. At night, he would talk about it on the phone to me, trying to convince me to send Ronnie a note myself—something provocative that would get his attention and make me stand out in his mind.

  “Good Lord,” I said. I was writing a letter to Matt on my best stationery in purple ink. One reason I liked Matt was that he represented Somewhere Else. The last two months of my senior year, I felt strange and distant. There was a separation from my friends that I couldn’t bridge because of this thing with my parents I couldn’t talk about. My parents were still living together, of course. We’d never said another word about their separation. Everything was exactly like it was before my dad came into my room and told me he couldn’t have a family—we ate dinner together at night, went to movies and restaurants together, my parents smiled and talked and rarely argued. I started thinking I’d imagined the whole thing. With Matt, who wasn’t there and who didn’t live there, I felt more like myself. I didn’t tell him what was happening at home, but I could still talk to him and feel somewhat normal.

  “Just do it,” Joey said. “Ronnie will look good in a tux. You’ll look good together.”

  Maybe Joey was right. He was right, after all, about most things. Well, some things. Why not this? Besides, I missed Matt. It was hard being so far away from him. It might be nice to go with someone here in town. I put the letter to Matt aside. Sometimes it was exhausting thinking about my feelings all the time. “Okay,” I said. “Fine. What should I say?”

  The next day I sent Ronnie the following note in AP History class.

  Me: Does that offer still stand?

  Ronnie: For what?

  Me: Sharing your locker, remember? [Note: He never offered to let me share his locker.)

  Ronnie: Did I ever offer that? [Note: He didn’t.] It must have been one of my weaker moments. You’d have to ask Todd. [Irwin.]

  Me: Oh. But would you mind? I mean, I won’t if you don’t want me to, but I hate having to share that locker with all of those girls—I don’t like any of them anyway.

  Ronnie: We don’t have much room, either. But it’s all right with me. I’ll ask Todd. And all this time I thought you loved all those girls in your locker. If I was you I would throw the extras out.

  Me: It’s impossible—I think they breed in there or something. I hate them all. And if I did move into your locker, I know you wouldn’t regret it—I promise not to throw my personal things everywhere … [Note: A line Joey told me to say. Like by writing “personal things,” it would make Ronnie picture sexy bras or lingerie, neither of which I owned. The closest thing I had to a sexy bra was the underwear my grandmother Cleo gave me every year for my birthday, which, while lacy and skimpy, was always three sizes too small because, compared to her, she thought everyone was flat-chested.]

  Ronnie: All right. I guess you’ll have to use the bottom. But watch out for the rats that live on my history book.

  Me: Rats?!!! Well, I guess it can’t be any worse than Mic
helle Zimmerman or Sara Ansel or any of the other fifteen people in there.

  And on and on … I never did move into his locker, of course, but Joey kept up his campaign. Ronnie finally told him, “I guess I’ll have to talk to my adviser on personal affairs—Rip—to find out if I’m going or not.”

  And Joey was off to the racetrack to get to Rip first.

  Never had so much thought and effort gone into prom planning. Meanwhile, Joey was dealing with his own little drama. Joey wanted to go to the dance with Diane Armiger, even though he was dating Jennie Burton. This was further complicated by the fact that our friend Hillary, who was Jennie’s best friend, thought Joey was going to ask her because someone (probably Ross) had told her so.

  So thanks to Joey I now thought I wanted to go to prom with Ronnie Stier. Joey wanted to go with Diane Armiger. Brian Yoder, my seventh-grade boyfriend, wanted to go with Laura, who wanted to go with him, too. Hillary wanted to go with Joey. Jennie wanted to go with Joey. Brian Yoder’s best friend Ricky Grimes wanted to go with Laura.

  Ronnie told Joey that, while I was good-looking and smart, I was maybe too smart and not as good-looking as I seemed to think I was. Besides, he and I were just good friends, bonded over the history team—the same thing I had told Joey at the start. Ronnie asked Tricia Ahaus, who was going with someone else, and he ended up instead with Paula Snow. I asked Matt Ashton, who I’d wanted to go with in the first place, even though he lived in South Carolina. I said to Joey, “Why did you even get me thinking about Ronnie? You knew I wanted to go with Matt!”

  Joey said, “Because I thought we’d have fun with him.”

  Danny Allen asked Diane, which upset Joey, who then asked Jennie, which made Hillary furious. Ricky Grimes asked Laura first, so she went with him, which made Brian Yoder angry. Ricky and Brian were best friends, and Ricky suggested Brian take Hill, who didn’t have a date. Hether asked Jay Something-or-Other, who didn’t even go to RHS. She had met him at the Hardees drive-through.

  The twelve of us had dinner beforehand at Jennie’s house. Hillary didn’t speak to anyone. Ricky didn’t speak to Laura, who had made out with Brian before Ricky picked her up and before Brian picked up Hillary. Laura and Brian played footsie under the table. Hill went outside to smoke the joint she always carried in her purse. Jay sat on one side of me, staring at his plate, self-conscious over his bad grammar and terrified of all of us. Matt and Joey talked and laughed. Hill finally snapped and yelled something at Jennie, who told her to grow up. Diane asked us if she should wear the white scarf she brought with her, and we all told her yes, even though we thought it looked hideous. Danny picked at his powder blue tuxedo, which he said he only wore because he was late picking up his tux, and by the time he got there it was the only one left in his size.

  There was a preparty at Eric Ruger’s house, and we stopped by there briefly—even though it meant driving far out of our way, deep into the country. In our car, Matt and I were the only couple talking to each other and the only one who stayed together at the party. After an hour, we all came back into town in a caravan and went to the Radisson.

  By the end of the evening, Laura had disappeared. Brian got high in the parking lot with some of his hood friends. Ricky sat in the lobby smoking cigarettes. Diane ran around looking for her white scarf, which had gone missing. Hether and Jay were making out in his truck. Jennie and Joey had lost each other, and Joey and I were dancing near Tom Dehner, spinning wildly about in place, while Matt watched.

  “Come here,” he said, trying to catch me. “Dance with me.”

  “I am dancing,” I said. I wanted to say: I’m dancing with Joey. I’m almost dancing with Tom Dehner!

  Afterward, there was a party upstairs in Todd Irwin’s room. Almost the entire floor was rented out to people in our class. Laura had gotten us a room next door to Todd’s. We fixed our hair and makeup—Aqua Net spraying everywhere—while the guys sat on the bed and watched TV and drank from bottles of Southern Comfort that Laura had bought earlier at the Liquor Barn, with her fake ID that said she was twenty-five, even though she was clearly wearing her prom dress.

  “Are we sleeping here, too?” Matt said. He had to shout it over all the noise.

  “No,” I said. Some of my classmates were spending the night with their dates, but that was definitely not happening in my prom party. I looked at all the miserable faces in our room. “We’re just here to have fun and fix our hair.”

  We went next door and joined everyone else. Rip and Tom Dehner were fighting again. Tommy Wissel jumped from bed to bed, knocking people off. Ross and Cliff Lester ran up and down the hallway, banging on doors. Everybody was smoking and drinking, and eventually my head started to spin from the fumes of the smoke and the alcohol.

  Then, once again, we piled into our cars and drove deep into the country, under the stars and the too-bright moon, to Eric Ruger’s farm for the real postparty. There was more running around and drinking and smoking and lots of Rush on the stereo and Phil Collins and other bands like Led Zeppelin and Yes and AC/DC. I lost track of Joey along the way, and most of our group was gone by that point. Matt and I drove home.

  “Your friends are fun,” he said. I wondered if he could possibly mean it based on the evening we’d just lived through.

  “I’m glad you came,” I said.

  We tiptoed inside, but my mom was waiting up, as she always did. We told her about the dinner, the dance, the party, and then she said good night. We went downstairs to the family room and lay down on the floor. We kissed for a long time.

  Matt pulled away and leaned on one elbow. I was lying flat on my back, shoes off, my pale blue and white Gunne Sax skirt and crinoline pillowing out around me. Matt looked dark and dashing, like Jeff Shirazi, only taller and leaner and, I thought, cooler. I loved his southern accent.

  “Do you want to?” he said.

  “I do,” I said. And I did.

  “Me too.”

  I was quiet. Was this it? Was this the right and magic moment I’d been waiting for with the right and magic boy? I thought about Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald and the extraordinariness of their love. I don’t want to live—I want to love first, and live incidentally, Zelda wrote to Scott in 1919. I thought of all my classmates across town who were probably having sex for the first or second or twentieth time even as I was lying there trying to make up my mind.

  I said, “But I don’t think we should.”

  “No, I don’t guess we should.”

  “It’s stupid,” I said, “because everyone is doing it. I’m sure everyone thinks I’ve been doing it. And I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else right now. But I just don’t think I’m ready. I feel like such a baby.”

  “That’s fine,” Matt said. “We can just stay right here and do this.”

  He kissed me again, sweetly. There was passion and warmth. It was pure and electric all at once. I thought of enormous Tim Bullen hoisting himself on me until I pushed him off and of going parking with Tom Mangas in his Party Car. I thought of making out with Troy Hildreth in Eric Ruger’s barn and of kissing Sean Mayberry at the drive-in. I thought of Eric Lundquist and felt a pang, and thought of Alex and felt guilty.

  “I love you,” Matt said.

  “I love you, too,” I said back. I was glad Ronnie Stier had asked Paula Snow to prom instead of me.

  Jennifer giving her graduation speech at commencement

  Castles in the Air

  Me: I’m so nervous—today I’m trying out for graduation speaker. Wish me luck!

  Hether: Best of luck! But when you get it don’t be BORING!

  By early May 1986, most of us had stopped paying attention in class. There wasn’t any need to. If we were going to college, we’d already been accepted. Some of us weren’t going to college. We were getting jobs instead. Or going in to the military. Or not even graduating. We only had a few more weeks of school and you could just feel the buzz in the air—freedom.

  There were parties every weekend and we went to
all of them. On a Saturday, Tamela Vance threw one at her grandfather’s house. Joey and Jennie kissed on the porch swing while Rob Jarrett started a game of volleyball without nets in the dark. The party was eventually broken up by the police who wanted to see IDs. Long before that happened, Laura and I left in her little Chevette, driving around town by ourselves. She was upset about her parents and needed to talk. I couldn’t tell her about my own parents, so I listened. But I knew just what she was going through. We were the two loneliest girls in Richmond.

  A week or so later, Joey wrote me a note. He always hated to be left behind. He knew that what was happening with Laura and that whatever was happening with me that I wasn’t talking about was something he couldn’t participate in. He wrote: I will always think of Tamela’s house as a strange moment in our friendship—one of the only lonely moments. It’s a peculiar time that leaves me feeling odd and strangely mistaken somehow, as if I had turned to look behind me on a street I thought I knew well, only to find I was not on the street I had thought I was on.

  At school, we were barely listening when announcements were made that tryouts would be held for graduation speaker. Unlike most schools, the valedictorian wouldn’t automatically be giving the speech. If the valedictorian or salutatorian, or anyone else for that matter, had any desire to speak, they had to audition, and a panel of teachers would choose three speakers. This was a way to be fair to the entire student body and give everyone a chance. Tom Mangas, who had always been top of our class and who was, of course, our valedictorian, couldn’t believe it. I was in U.S. Government with him when the announcement was made, and I thought he was going to have a seizure.

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