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

  He said, “This is grossly unfair.”

  I said, “You’ll do fine, Tom. You’re a good speaker. Just write a great speech and prove to everyone why you’re valedictorian in the first place.” But I was secretly thinking how happy I was I’d had all those years of speech team training. I’ll give you a run for your money, Tom Mangas, I thought. You’d better write a damn good speech because I am going to kick your ass.

  On the day of auditions, a surprising number of students showed up in hunky Mr. Alexander’s room, considering it was after school and a sunny day and an activity that wasn’t required and, on top of it all, something that took some actual work and effort—meaning you had to have written a speech and done some preparation ahead of time. Tom Mangas was there, of course. And Joey. Most of the members of our former speech team—the real speech team, not the fake one that Joey and I had created—a handful of other students, some I didn’t recognize, others you would expect from student congress … and me.

  My speech was called “Castles in the Air,” which was based on a quote by Henry David Thoreau that my mom had suggested—“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” It was all about building your dreams as big as possible.

  This was something I’d always believed in and something I’d always tried to share with the people around me, even if they didn’t want me to. In seventh grade, a group of my friends came over to my house one afternoon to play. Before we went outside, I made them write essays about their life’s ambitions. When they were done, I graded them on their ability to dream big. “You girls can do better than this,” I told them. “You’re selling yourselves short. I want you to open your minds and let those dreams in, and even if you think they’re impossible, you need to remember that no dream is too big.” When I asked them to rewrite their essays, my friend Beth Jennings said she would rather play tennis in the street. “You have all your life for tennis,” I said. “But we need to get these dreams right while we still can.”

  Mr. Alexander, tan in his dark suit, the man who should have been our speech coach, officiated at the auditions. We spoke in front of the judges while our classmates waited in the hallway outside. When I finished, they thanked me, Mr. Alexander smiled his white, white smile, and I walked out the door.

  Tom Mangas stood there waiting. He was agitated. I couldn’t ever remember seeing Tom agitated, Tom who was one of the coolest boys in school. He said, “How did it go?”

  I said, “Oh, pretty well.”

  “Pretty well?”

  “They seemed to like it.”

  “Why? Did they say anything?”

  “No. But I’ve done so many speech meets, you know,” casually emphasizing my speaking experience, “you learn to read the judges. Good luck with yours, Tom.”


  The following Monday, the results were in. The three students chosen to speak at the one hundred fifteenth commencement of Richmond High School were Stephanie Felix, Debbie Pierson, and Jennifer Niven McJunkin. Beth Jennings and Joe Kraemer would give the invocation and benediction during the Honors and Awards Assembly.

  I saw Tom Mangas in the hallway after first period. He was furious.

  • • •

  I turned eighteen on May 14. To celebrate, my parents hosted a special birthday dinner with Jennie, Hill, Diane, Hether, Laura, and Joey. When it was present-time, my friends wrapped the remote control from our downstairs TV in a brown paper bag and told me to open it. It was very funny, but then I said, “Um, where’s my real present, guys?” And that’s when they gave me the Swatch they’d all chipped in for.

  Then they gave me lots of cards, and Diane had picked out one with six Budweisers on it, and Hether’s face turned very red because she was laughing so hard and could barely breathe. My dad ran in and out of the kitchen serving food, which he loved doing. This was when he was happiest. My mom made sure everyone had enough to drink and eat. They bumped into each other and laughed. My friends didn’t notice but I told myself, If you don’t talk about the separation and your parents don’t talk about the separation, maybe it’s not really happening. Maybe they’re not really going to break up. Maybe they’re working everything out. Maybe everything will be just fine. Everything looked just fine to me.

  The day before, I’d received a package from Matt Ashton: a romantic-type card with lots of lovely writing in it (which I’d already committed to memory) and a cute stuffed dog, which I was still carrying around. During the party, I kept it on my lap and every now and then I picked it up and squeezed it.

  On graduation day, my dad’s parents—Granddaddy Jack and Grandmama Cleo—came from Asheville. Grandmama’s eyes were damp as soon as she got there. She kept dabbing at them so I wouldn’t notice.

  The girls wore white, the boys wore red. The weekend before, my mom and I had shopped for the perfect graduation dress. I found just the thing I was looking for at Zelda’s Vintage Clothing on the Promenade, a little cubbyhole above the Whitewater Opera House. I was mad about Zelda Fitzgerald and couldn’t believe the name on the door when I walked past it. You had to walk up a narrow flight of dark, dark stairs, and there at the top was this tiny little room with just two racks of clothes, a million hats pinned to the walls, some old shoes heaped about on the floor, and an old glass counter full of earbobs (as my grandmama Eleanor called them) and other jewelry. I knew the dress when I saw it. It was red and white polka dots like the RHS school colors, and had a twirly skirt, but was snug in a good way everywhere else. It fit perfectly.

  Because I was one of the speakers, I sat on stage in the Tiernan Center with Stephanie and Debbie. Tom Mangas, as our president and valedictorian, sat up there also. The crowd was rowdy and restless—this was the gym, after all. There were at least five thousand people there, sitting up in the bleachers, and they stomped and cheered at every opportunity. They talked to themselves and acted like they were at a basketball game, not just during the Processional—“Pomp and Circumstance,” of course—but when Principal Brist was giving his welcome and introductions and when local youth minister Lee Gulley was giving the invocation.

  When it was time for my speech, my mother, sitting in the audience with my grandparents and my father, was prepared to stand up and silence anyone who talked or cheered or didn’t pay attention. As I walked to the podium, I thought about something Tommy Wissel had reminded me of—a time in ninth grade, when he was still new to Dennis Junior High School from the Catholic school, and we were in science class together. Mr. Stoner assigned everyone oral reports, and one by one we all got up to give them. No one paid attention to anyone else—it was like an unspoken agreement: “I won’t pay attention to you when you’re up there and you don’t pay attention to me.” Everyone was sleeping and passing notes and talking, doing their hair, looking at their shoes.

  I’d actually worked hard on my report, so when I walked up to the front of the room and no one paid attention, I stood up there and looked at everyone and said, “I’m not standing up here to give this report to myself. I’m not doing it just for fun or to hear myself talk, people. So pay attention or I’m sitting down!” Tommy dropped everything and so did everyone else and no one said a word during my speech. “It freaked us out,” Tommy said. “I thought, ‘Man, this girl actually put some work into this. That’s the kind of student I should be.’” He went home that night and read the chapter I’d covered in my report just to see if I’d gotten everything right. Years later, he could still recite entire lines from my speech.

  Now on stage in the Tiernan Center, I said into the microphone: “All of us here tonight have our own castles in the air. We dream of what the future holds for us. I remember how frightened I was on the first day of high school. Coming to this huge place after junior high was like starting over. Now as we leave high school, we are starting over one more time. Thoreau said, ‘If you move confidently in the direction of your dreams, you can live the life you imagin

  There was applause afterward, but the most amazing thing had happened while I was talking: everyone seemed to be listening. And they listened to Stephanie after me. And after her, to Debbie.

  We accepted our diplomas from board president Jack T. Miller. He told us: “Life is like a journey up a mountain. I congratulate you on reaching this plateau. But the plateau is very narrow. Don’t fall off. Now that you have reached this plateau, continue your education and prepare for the rest of your lives.”

  Each time someone walked across the stage, the audience shouted and cheered and wolf whistled. Every now and then someone would yell, “It’s about time!” Or, depending on how long the person graduating had been at RHS, “It’s about fucking time!” When I stood up to get my diploma and shake Mr. Miller’s hand, I thought, This is it. You’re done with this place. You can finally get out of here and move onward, upward, out of Richmond like you’ve always wanted to. It felt like everything was starting but ending all at once. For a moment I wanted to hand back the diploma and sit down in my seat and go back to class on Monday and stop everything, freeze it just as it was. I didn’t know what would happen next—to me, to my parents, to my friends, to my family, to … everything. And I suddenly wanted all of it to stay the same.

  When the last person walked across the stage to get her diploma, the audience stood up—a few at a time at first and then everyone together—and clapped and shouted. It was a sea of red and white. Principal Kenneth Brist presented our class to acting superintendent Timothy Jackson and then we jumped out of our seats, pumping fists, throwing diplomas and hats into the air, hugging.

  Diane Armiger and Jennifer McJunkin—with vodka—at Jennie Burton’s graduation party

  Graduation Party

  Knowing only that we were young,

  And drunk,

  And twenty,

  And that the power of mighty poetry

  Was within us,

  And the glory of the great earth

  Lay before us …

  —Thomas Wolfe

  The party was at Jennie’s. Because we were in the inner circle, Joey, Hether, Hillary, Laura, Diane, and I were invited to stay the night. We were up and down the house, in and out of all the bedrooms, in places that were off-limits to everyone else. The general public had to stay outside—in the driveway or in the barnlike structure that sat up near the house and whose purpose we were never sure of. What could it possibly be for except to serve as a hangout for us? It had a loft with high beams and was decorated with signs we had stolen and things we had spray-painted, like “Stop, Drop, & Roll One” and “Let’s Go All the Way” and “Red Devils Rule.”

  Mr. and Mrs. Burton were on hand to supervise, but they stayed in the house while we ran wild everywhere. They mostly made sure no one had too much to drink or got behind the wheel of a car.

  Everyone was there, although it was a blur. We were suddenly free. We were no longer high school students. We were graduates now, in the real world. Teresa Ripperger and Tom Dehner showed up. He was wearing a red corduroy baseball cap and looked strong and sunburned, the best we’d ever seen him. At some point, not long afterward, Laura and Tom disappeared together. Joey and I couldn’t believe it. Was it possible that one of us, after all this time, had gotten him? We held our breath, because it was almost like it was happening to us.

  Allison Bing, who was still in high school, followed Joey around like a puppy. Ross had his hands full with both Tally Bland and Amy Johnson, two of his ex-girlfriends. Ted Fox was trying his pickup lines on anyone who would listen (“You’re so fine, I’d like to make you a Fox!”). Diane and I danced madly in the barn, and then Sean Mayberry found me and we went off to the woods to make out. He gave me a hickey on my neck and I ran away from him laughing. Jeff Shirazi passed out in Jennie’s barn, very early, and we all visited him to see how he was doing. Hether lay down after a while and took a nap beside him. Jennie came to find us to say Hill was passed out in the upstairs bedroom because the pot was laced. We all stood over her—Joey, Diane, Jennie, and me (Laura was still nowhere to be found)—and tried to decide if we should get Jennie’s mom. Then we heard shouting, and, back outside, Laura went running by wearing Tom Dehner’s baseball cap, and Teresa stalked past, on the hunt for either Tom or Laura, whichever one she could find. Then there was more dancing, more drinking—Cathy Brawley, Danny Allen, Leigh Torbeck, Troy Hildreth, Jessica Howard, Deanna Haskett, Tom Mangas. Ned Mitchell and I gave a speech in the barn and thanked everyone for coming. More people lay down next to Jeff and went to sleep or passed out, one by one. It became a sleepover. Becky Scheele was there with her camera taking pictures of it all.

  Sometime around four-thirty a.m., Jennie, Joey, Diane, Laura, Hether, and I went upstairs to Jennie’s room and curled up on the floor or the bed or the chair, wherever we could find a place. Hill was already there, sleeping off the pot. One by one we dropped off—Joey and I lasted the longest.

  “We’ve graduated,” he said. His voice sounded far away in the dark.

  “Finally,” I said.

  “I’m drunk,” he said.

  “And young,” I said.

  “And twenty,” he said.

  “And could never die.”

  We drifted off into sleep. It was our first day as adults and we were very tired.

  (On the Way to) The Real World

  Like seniors down through the years, we face the future with a feeling of uncertainty. Though we were big shots this year, we are now preparing to face a freshman year as greenies in college, a period of being a novice in some job, or even time to be spent struggling to find work or start a family. Many of us have grown up together, physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually, and now we separate to go our individual ways. The question on just about every senior’s mind, whether he wants to admit it or not, is: “Is there life after high school?”

  Joey and Jennifer

  The Last Party

  I had a dream that you looked up Tom Dehner and he was as big as a house, and you married Teresa, and I lost all the hair on the top of my head (if you can believe I, Queen Big Hair, could ever go bald). Well, best friend I’ve ever had, it’s hard to believe it all started in a geometry class taught by a man named Bernie Foos. We’ve had the best friendship of anyone I know and have ever known. I have a good feeling that we’ll always be best friends, no matter how far away from Richmond we get.

  —Jennifer to Joey, on the last day of senior year

  Seven days after graduation, my mother and I moved to North Carolina. To my friends, who knew nothing of my parents’ separation, it was just one more summer trip to the South for me and my family, my dad staying behind as he often did, to keep working at Earlham. From North Carolina, I wrote them letters to tell them what had happened.

  But in August I came back to Richmond for the last party before college, and stayed with my dad in our old house, which now had a for-sale sign in the front yard. Dean Waldemar hosted the party way out in the country in New Paris, Ohio, on a farm with a pond for swimming and a barn for dancing. It was one of those nights when everyone was there—not just the cool kids, but the hoods and the geeks and the normal kids and Tommy Wissel, who seemed to fit in wherever he damn well pleased, and us. The barriers were down, for just a night, and we weren’t categories or labels but what we were: a bunch of kids from the same big school in the same small town. For some of us, we’d already reached our peak, and for the rest of us, everything was just beginning.

  Joey and Laura and I each wrote about the party afterward, exchanging our versions with one another, because what happened there felt pivotal and important in some way, and we felt a strange sense of urgency to capture it all on paper so that we would always be able to remember.

  Upon Remembering and Saying Farewell

  August 6, 1986

  By Jennifer McJunkin

  The Beginning of an Evening

  There is music coming from the barn and the sound of laughter and yelling a
s people spill out under the broad Indiana sky. The exact same songs that have played at every high school party I’ve ever been to are playing now.

  Laura and I walk carefully because the ground is uneven and the moon keeps disappearing through the trees. Laura is chain-smoking and drinking Peach Schnapps. Every time she loses her footing, she swears in Italian. Sheila Loeber walks by and hugs me and then hugs her and Laura drops her cigarette. She swears again and squats down to look for it. I get down on my knees in my red and white sundress, helping Laura in her search.

  Tom Mangas appears. “Hey, Tom,” I shout, but he tells me he is upset and would rather talk later.

  The first people we see are Roger Tye and Danny Dickman and Travis Cummins, with his hair cut short. Travis keeps saying things like, “I’m a trained killer. The Marines put me through this program and taught me how.”

  I stand there, grinning stupidly, wondering what I’m supposed to say to something like this, and finally end up saying, “Really? I wondered what you’d been up to!”

  The Evening Is Full of (Blond) Men

  Roger Tye is standing a few feet away with a very platinum Alex Delaney, and I haven’t seen him in a long time, ever since he left for college the summer before my senior year. I choose an opportune moment when Alex is bending down doing something so Roger sees me first.

  “Roger,” I say, waving my vodka bottle. “I’ve been in North Carolina for two months, and you haven’t written me once.”

  Before he can answer, Alex has stood up and grabbed my arm and is staring openmouthed. He smiles and we hug. “Jen!” (I had wondered what it was he used to call me.) “You look wonderful!” His forehead creases in concern. “But I heard about your parents. How are you really?”

  I laugh and don’t answer and tell him I like his hair. He calls me “Gorgeous,” and I change my mind and remember that this was what he had called me when we were together. John Dehner is somewhere around and it is his car I lean upon. Alex tells me so and I remember narrowly the time he and I went shopping at Loehr’s and John gave me a Coke and I was so thrilled I couldn’t finish it.

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