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


  Alex and I can’t talk fast enough and Danny Dickman is back and I am leaning on his shoulder. His arm is around my waist and Alex is staring at it. Someone—Roger, I think—tells me Jennie and Hill have arrived and I can’t understand him and he points and there they are, so I run and hug (1) Jennie and (2) Hill. I am happy to see them because they are smiling and my friends and I have only five girlfriends anyway, and that isn’t much. They want to know if I’m okay, what with my parents splitting up, they had no idea, why hadn’t I told them what was going on, how was I handling it, etc., and I am so sick of people talking to me about this and wanting to know how I’m doing.

  Ronnie Stier, Larry Peterson, and Ned Mitchell, wearing a Reebok shirt, sit at a picnic table watching Ricky Grimes and Tommy Wissel roll joints. When “Tom Sawyer” by Rush comes on, Ned Mitchell says, as always, “Neil Peart is the best drummer in music today.” No one ever argues with him, but he always feels the need to say it.

  Joey appears, begs Ricky for a cigarette, gets one, pledges his eternal gratitude, and proceeds to puff away in Cliff Lester’s face. Cliff wants to know again why I went to junior year Homecoming with Curt Atkisson instead of him. He begins to lecture Joey, and Joey begins to smoke two cigarettes at once so that Cliff will leave. As soon as he does, Joey scoots down to talk to Ronnie, Larry, and Ned, who are talking about college and virginity. Ronnie crushes a Coors can against his forehead.

  Ross walks by—a great, hulking shadow in the distance—and yells at Joey: “You nearly killed yourself driving like that last night, asshole.” Joey blows smoke in his direction.

  Deanna Haskett and Tamela Vance are talking. “I don’t want to be some housewife or something when I grow up,” Deanna says. “Me neither,” says Tamela. “If I do, I will kill myself.”

  Rip appears and Joey tells her he wants his red tie back, the one he lost at her house after Snowball. She calls him an alcoholic and announces that it is over between her and Tom Dehner. “Where is he?” I ask, and then someone points and there he is in the distance surrounded by Sean Mayberry and the other black football players, the ones who always swarm around him like those fish that stick to a shark.

  Suddenly someone appears out of the dark. He is with one of those old men who is always hanging around—one of those guys who graduated from RHS five or ten years ago but still comes to parties. It takes a minute, but suddenly it hits me: Dean Waldemar. He is a god. Especially now. College has even improved him. His hair is very blond and damp and tousled and he wears a sweatshirt and shorts. He still has that lean swimmer’s body—broad shoulders, narrow waist, flat stomach, tan legs with little gold hairs up and down the calves. And his eyes are large and beautiful and dark and bloodshot and his smile is wonderfully crooked as he says, “Jennifer.”

  There is a twist in my stomach as I think about all that might have been between us, if Tim Bullen hadn’t spread lies and rumors just because I’d turned him down, and if Dean hadn’t listened, and if he had asked me out like I heard he always wanted to. He would have been my first real love, I knew. He would have been worth any amount of heartbreak. We would probably have still been together.

  I say, “Dean Waldemar, do you know I came nine hours to go to your party?”

  He whispers in my ear, “I’m coming back for you in a minute.”

  He is momentarily gone, and I return to the evergrowing group around John Dehner’s car. Alex is watching me, studying my face. I love everyone and suddenly need to lean against something or sit down—not from alcohol, but from Dean. Danny helps me onto the hood of John’s car. I lean my hand on Danny’s shoulder because my dress is slippery and I keep sliding off. He is so sturdy and nice, such a good, steady friend, and Alex wants to know again when I got here, and how I am really, and I keep smiling, taking a sip of Danny’s beer, and tell Alex how much I really like his hair.

  The End of an Evening

  When Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” starts, we all sing along. It is this song, more than any other, that makes me think of RHS, of corn and barns and moonlight and wide open skies. We all climb up on the tops of picnic tables and dance, and when the drums kick in, every single person holds air drumsticks and plays along.

  Sometime much later, Joey and I are standing alone waiting for Laura when we see Tom Dehner, without his baseball hat, coming straight for us. He is wearing a blue DePauw sweatshirt and he is alone, which is strange because never in our lives have we known him to be by himself.

  “Have you seen Rip?” he says to us.

  “She was looking for you earlier,” Joey says, “but I think it’s too late. I think she left.”

  “I hope not,” he says, then hesitates. He stands there and he looks uncertain, as if he doesn’t know which way to go.

  “Will you miss me, Tom?” I ask. I don’t know why I say it. After three years, after we formed a history team for him and a speech team and wrote a play just for him, we barely know each other.

  He pauses and then says, “Yes. I’ll miss you very much.”

  Then he is gone. Joey and I stand there watching him disappear into the night—nothing more than a sincere, regular human being, after all we have built him up to be.

  And the life is gone from the August 6 party.

  Afterward, Joey drives Laura and me to his house, where we sit on his back deck beneath the stars—which, for once, aren’t too bright or too many or too far or too close—and hold hands and cry. We don’t want to leave the deck or one another. We start laughing till we can’t breathe. We are best friends outside in the night on August 6 no matter what—no matter where we go, no matter what happens, no matter who we meet, no matter where life takes us.

  After a long time, we leave Laura at her house, which is empty except for her, and Joey drives me home. We know that it is our last evening together for a long time to come, and there is a sorrow in that, but a richness, too. We know that there will never be a final evening to our friendship—how can there be? The air is damp, the moon is up, the tank is full, the hour is still (somewhat) young, the curfews are late, and the summer is not yet over.

  We decide to drive around a bit, just for old times, before he takes me home. We pass down a backcountry road. The headlights of Joey’s car—actually his mom’s car—are the only speck of light for miles. Then Joey turns off all the car lights and the music and we head down a long corridor walled by corn on either side. We roll the windows down, and everything is quiet and still and dark except for the blue tint of the clock on the dashboard.

  “We’ll be gone soon,” I say.

  “And alone,” he says.

  We shiver, like always, and I feel suddenly separate from everything—from the party, from Joey, from my parents, from myself. In the distance, we can see the lights of Richmond.

  I say, “Do you realize that we’re not going back to high school in the fall, and that we won’t see each other every day, and my room won’t be my room anymore but someone else’s?”

  “Leaving home and friends and traveling many hours to a school where we don’t know anyone to live with someone we know absolutely nothing about,” Joey says.

  We turn the headlights back on, roll up the windows, crank the music. We have gotten ourselves too spooked, too sad. We drive without talking, and when we hit the turn to National Road West, which will take me back to my old house—my dad’s house now—Joey continues straight instead.

  The high school appears, dark and enormous. We turn into the parking lot next to McGuire Hall and pull around back, where I used to wait at the double doors for my dad to pick me up. The lot is empty. We pop in a tape—the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere”—and we turn it loud.

  There is a large, yellow circle on the concrete, used maybe to strengthen technique or precision in a Driver’s Education class. I think about Mr. Kemper and Tom Mangas and Tommy Wissel and the simulators, and Mr. Fleagle slamming his foot against the emergency brake over and over.

  As the music picks up speed, Joey and I r
un, arms outstretched like airplane wings, around and around in circles, following that wide yellow line. We frantically run those lines, following the perfect circles they make, music spilling from the car, yelling. We shout and laugh and sing along loudly. We are alone in that parking lot we’ve known for years, the grand spire of our school illuminated by spotlights high above us. I feel homesick and free all at once as we sing words that echo graduation and a longing to return to bygone places.

  It is our last night to be children, and we are spectacles in the moonlight.

  The Postscript

  In front of my house Joey and I say good-bye, but not really good-bye, and we wonder when we will see each other again. It is all very vague and sad and anticlimactic, and then he drives away.

  I go inside and my dad is asleep and I try not to think of the days when my mom would wait up for me—every single time—until I got in, just to make sure I was safe. She could never sleep until she knew I was home. I think that my dad has probably been asleep for hours.

  I walk up the stairs to my room—my green room—and turn on the light. My posters are still there. My dollhouse. My records. My books. The picture of Laura and Todd Irwin and me at Devon Johnson’s party is still taped to my mirror. Pictures of Joey and me. Of Prom. Of Ross and Hether and Alex and Matt Ashton. Of Jennie, Hill, Hether, Diane, Laura, Joey, and me at my birthday dinner, the night they gave me the Swatch. My yearbooks and dolls and stuffed animals and toys.

  I sit there feeling sad and lonely and the house is very quiet and I am leaving the next day and college is starting soon and I wonder what the world holds and if I’m ready for it and how my dad can really sleep through it all.

  And then I hear something hit my window.

  I go to the window and raise the blind—the one with the funny zoo animals in bright colors that I never replaced even though I sometimes hated them and long-ago outgrew them. Even as I’m peering out into the night, I wonder vaguely what my dad will do with the blinds once I’m gone again, this time really and truly for good.

  Alex Delaney is standing on my front porch step, his hair shining white in the porch light. He is throwing pebbles at my window.

  I turn off my bedroom light and sneak down the hall and run down the stairs, hoping Tosh won’t bark, and slip out the door. Alex and I hug for a long, long time, and he is sexy and warm and we fall into each other and kiss and kiss and kiss and kiss and it’s just like he never left and I never broke up with him and my parents never separated and I never moved, and I wonder if I hold on to him long enough if I can go back in time, back to when we were together and he would walk me to class and write me notes and pick me up in his red car and even back to when he bought me the bear. Back to when my mom still lived here and I still lived here and everything was happy and in its place. And then I shiver and we sit side by side on the step.

  “Why are you here?” I ask.

  “I’m staying with Travis.” Travis Cummins lives around the corner from my old house.

  “He’s in the military now,” I say because suddenly I don’t know what to say and I’m afraid of what comes next. “His hair is so short!”

  “I know.” Alex drops the pebbles into the grass and looks at me. “So how are you really?”

  It is just like when we used to date, when Alex would try to get to know me. “You’re like this series of boxes,” he would say, “and every time I open one box, there’s another one inside, and then there’s one inside that, and then another, and just when I think I’m getting somewhere, there’s another and another.” I never told him that I don’t open the boxes for just anyone, not for most people, and that so far there has really only been one boy allowed to look in them, and I just said good-bye to him minutes ago.

  “I’m worried about you,” Alex says. His voice is small. He looks hurt and lost. “You’ve got so much going on. How are you really?”

  I want to say that he doesn’t need to worry, that everything is fine now because he is here and I’m pretending nothing has changed—my parents’ separation never happened, Tim Bullen never happened. Everything is fine. Dean Waldemar has finally told me what I always wanted to hear and it is just a little something, but a big thing, too. I’m sorry, Dean said when he found me again at the party. I’m sorry I was so stupid in high school. I wish I’d asked you out. I should have asked you out. I wanted to, but I was too shy and then there was all that stuff with Tim, and I let it get in the way even though I knew he was a liar.

  I want to say to Alex that, in the end, Tim Bullen hadn’t won with the rumors he spread and the lies he told because Dean and I had still found each other, even if it was just for a moment at a party in the middle of nowhere, and that it had been a wonderful moment in the midst of too much darkness—brief and bright and lovely.

  But that would be opening too many boxes. And besides, everything isn’t fine. Everything is far from it. Because it isn’t 1985, and my mother isn’t inside, and Alex and I aren’t together, and I don’t live here anymore. There are so many things to say.

  Instead, I rest my head on Alex’s shoulder, and he smells like he always did—of laundry detergent and Clearasil and, faintly, of cigarettes and beer—and I close my eyes and we sit there. “I’m tired,” I say. “But I’m glad you’re here.”

  And then he kisses me again. And I kiss him. And he kisses me. And then he takes my hand and holds it.

  Alumni

  With each name comes a story. But all stories have a common chapter of high school. Those years form our lives. Unlike college or careers, high school touches our hearts in a different way. It opens the door more slowly—allowing us to invest ourselves in other people in a manner that we just don’t take the time for later in life.

  Jennifer then and now

  Jennifer Niven

  Jennifer Niven lives in Los Angeles, where her film Velva Jean Learns to Drive won an Emmy Award and she received her MFA in screenwriting from the American Film Institute. She is also a graduate of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. Even though she’s always wanted to be a rock star and a Charlie’s Angel, her first book, The Ice Master, was released in November 2000 and named one of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of the Year by Entertainment Weekly. A Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer, Jennifer has ten different publishers in ten separate countries, and the book has been translated into German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Danish, and Icelandic, among other languages.

  Jennifer and The Ice Master have appeared in Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly, Glamour, The New Yorker, Outside, The New York Times Book Review, The London Daily Mail, and Writer’s Digest, among others. Dateline NBC, the Discovery Channel, and the History Channel have featured The Ice Master in hour-long documentaries, and The Ice Master has been nominated for awards by the American Library Association and Book Sense, and received Italy’s Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize for 2002.

  Jennifer’s second book, Ada Blackjack, was released in November 2003. It was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick, was optioned for the movies, has recently been published in China, and will soon be released in France and Estonia.

  Jennifer’s third book and first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive—based on her Emmy Award–winning film of the same name—was released by Plume in 2009.

  With her mother, author Penelope Niven, Jennifer has conducted numerous seminars in writing and she has addressed audiences around the world. Although she no longer wears Esprit, she still loves pretty clothes, tambourines, ABBA, hair spray, rock stars, and continues to be fascinated by prisons.

  Joey then and now

  Joe Kraemer

  Joe Kraemer is the Drama Division’s literary director at the Juilliard School in New York City. He oversees a fellowship program for playwrights and has helped to discover many talented young writers from around the United States and the world. He created the program with John Guare and Terrence McNally and has worked since 1994 with the program’s current mentors, Christopher Durang and Marsha Norman.

 
; His plays Find Some Planets, The American Occupation, and Dangerous People were created for actors at Juilliard and performed at the school.

  Joe is also director of creative development for Estevez Sheen Productions at Warner Bros. in Los Angeles. While he has had several lunches with Emilio Estevez, he has yet to mention the impact St. Elmo’s Fire once had on his life.

  Joe received his BA in English from Hillsdale College in Michigan. For the past three years, he has taught play-writing at Barnard College in New York, where he currently lives, and where he drives as little as possible.

  Laura Lonigro

  Laura earned her BFA at Indiana University, with a major in English and a minor in theater. After college, she attended graduate school at Columbia College in Chicago, studying film and video. She has worked on numerous short films as both a writer and director, and has also worked on national spots—commercials, industrials, and feature films. Performance-wise, she has continued training in improv, film, and theater productions, mostly at the Piven Theater (owned and operated by Jeremy Piven’s parents).

  She continues to write and direct today. Her last movie, Brushfires, was filmed, written, and directed by seven different women using the same style of writing so loved by our little group back in Richmond—writing one chapter at a time and handing it off to the next woman to see how she continues the story.

  Laura still lives in Chicago, Illinois, with her enormous handbag, killer heels, and gallons of hair spray, and continues to work on a variety of film and video projects.

 
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