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


  When my classmates and I weren’t actively engaged in simulators, we were busy checking one another out. Tentative friendships were already forming. After years of knowing the same old people, here, suddenly, were all these new ones. It was like a curtain being lifted to reveal a brand-new world.

  The Test kids fascinated me most. They were shiny and golden—as much as anyone in Richmond could be—as if they came from somewhere else. Their king was Tom Mangas, who had reportedly been president of the student council. He was tall and blond with long, tennis player legs, blue eyes, and a big nose, the kind that immediately brought to mind Jimmy Durante or Telly Savalas. He wasn’t great-looking, but he had so much confidence that you thought he was. He was smart and clever and funny and he loved to argue with teachers, like Mr. Kemper, who was no match for Tom intellectually.

  “Who can tell me the proper procedure for exiting a parallel parking space?” Mr. Kemper asked. He sat behind his desk, hands folded.

  “Put the car in reverse and pray to Jesus,” said Tommy Wissel.

  “That’s enough, Mr. Wissel,” said Mr. Kemper. Tom Mangas raised his hand and Mr. Kemper looked at once hopeful and wary. “Mr. Mangas?”

  “I need some more information before I can answer the question,” Tom said. “For instance, how far am I from the curb and from the cars in front of me and in back of me? Am I on a hill or on flat ground? Am I on a busy street or on a residential street or in an alleyway? Am I surrounded by cars at all, because if not that simplifies things.”

  Mr. Kemper covered his face with his hands and began rubbing his temples.

  I thought Tom Mangas was the most exciting boy I had ever met, and every day during class, we made eye contact.

  We eventually reached the part in the course where we’d had enough practice on simulators and were let out on the road, three to a car, with one of several teachers sitting shotgun, feet hovering over the passenger-side brake. I had Mr. Fleagle, who normally taught Health and P.E. and looked just like a weasel. He was tall and skinny and his eyes were too close to his nose. He always looked as if he had just popped up out of the ground and was having trouble seeing in the sunlight, or like he was smelling something unpleasant.

  I was the only girl in my car, which meant I spent most of the time flirting—with Tommy Wissel and Mike Shockney, not with Mr. Fleagle. I wasn’t a bad driver. The only thing I couldn’t do well was parallel park.

  One sunny afternoon when it was my turn at the wheel I accelerated a little too hard when backing up. We jumped over the asphalt and into a cornfield—Tommy yelling: “Yeah! Floor it!”—and Mr. Fleagle slammed his foot against the emergency brake on the passenger side of the car so that we came to a really hard stop and almost went through the windshield. He shouted, “For God’s sake, McJunkin! Brakes! Brakes!” He couldn’t stand girls anyway, especially behind the wheel of a car. He thought they should all be taking home economics, learning the things that would be useful to them later in life, like cooking and sewing. I know this because he said these very words to me while we were sitting in the cornfield.

  Then he made me get out of the car and sit in the passenger’s seat. He got behind the wheel and, after checking each mirror at least five times, slowly backed us out of the corn. “Dude, that was awesome,” Tommy said to me.

  The next morning, Mr. Fleagle came to class and handed Tommy the keys. “I want you to get on the interstate and just drive,” he told him. Mike Shockney and I sat in the backseat while Tommy drove up and down I-70 going as fast as he damn well pleased. Up in the front beside him, Mr. Fleagle closed his eyes and took a nap.

  Back in the classroom, Mr. Kemper began showing us films. Each day, he showed us one gory film after another about every possible horrifying thing that could happen to us in a car. The most horrific of all was one about underriding, which was what happened when a car followed a semitrailer truck too closely and then accidentally crashed into its rear end and went underneath it. Nine times out of ten, this led to decapitation, but sometimes—rarely—people survived, usually living out the rest of their lives as vegetables.

  As we sat there in the dark watching accident film after accident film, eyes huge, the color drained from our faces, even Tom Mangas and Tommy Wissel fell silent, except for a “Great Jesus” or a “Holy shit” from Tommy every now and then. At night, when I slept at all, I dreamed about people getting their heads chopped off.

  On the last day of class, Mr. Kemper perched on the end of his desk and told us we were, for the most part, a good group of kids and that we’d all passed.

  “Of course, it doesn’t much matter,” he said. “It will be a miracle if any of you live to be twenty-one.”

  Somehow I got an A– in Driver’s Ed. And on the last day of class, Tom Mangas asked me to a movie. I decided I was ready for high school. I might never drive again, but clearly the boys I would meet there would be so much more exciting than the ones I had known at Dennis.

  Jennifer and Joey

  Best Friends

  My best friends are Heather, Beth, Maya, Tia, Regina, Tina, Rhonda, Vicki, Sharonda, Becky, Andrea, Susie, Shannon, Kara, and Ned. My other best friends are Kelley, Melissa, Merri, Julie, Nancy, Shelley, Maida, and the paper boy who lives near us. His name is Matt Hanes and he is 15 years old and he hits Maya and I on the head with the paper.

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

  On the first day of Geometry class, first period of my first semester, Bernie Foos called me to the board to draw a trapezoid. I stood there, chalk in hand, and had no idea what to do. I drew a sort of fat, drunken triangle and then sat down. Mr. Foos crossed his arms and gave a fifteen-minute lecture on the basics of geometry. “How can we hope to learn when we don’t even know our triangles?” he said.

  A boy sitting next to me leaned over and said, “I hate all things math.” He wore glasses and had hair more shiny-blond than Marcia Brady.

  I said, “Yes.”

  When the bell rang, the blond boy and I walked out of class together. He said, “My name’s Joe Kraemer. You may not know this, but we’re going to be best friends.”

  I said, “Oh, really?”

  He said, “Yes. In fact, I think we’re already best friends. Call me tonight and I’ll prove it to you.”

  He gave me his number. I called him that night and we talked for four hours. It was then I learned: He loved to write, just like I did. He was trapped in Richmond, just like I was. He was counting the days till he could leave. He felt above the place and beyond it and like he wasn’t really a part of it, yet he wanted badly to be a part of it, like I did. He was from Richmond, but he wasn’t of it. It was platonic love at first sight.

  One month later, he broke into Mr. Foos’s room during lunch and changed one of my grades and three of his own and also two grades of Alex Delaney, the cutest boy in the class.

  “Joey!” I said, after he told me about it. “What if you get caught? What if Mr. Foos finds out?”

  “No one will ever know.” He was unnervingly calm.

  I let the enormity of what he’d done roll around me and over me and through me. Then I said, “Why did you only change one of mine?”

  “Because you were doing better than me. I needed more help.”

  We went to class the next day and watched Mr. Foos carefully. I didn’t breathe as he pulled out the grade book and took attendance, running his finger down the page. Mr. Foos ran his finger all the way down to the end of the list and then closed the book and put it back in the desk. I started breathing again as he got up and walked to the board and began to draw a perfect triangle.

  One weekend, not long afterward, Joey picked me up in his mom’s red Oldsmobile Calais, and we barreled down I-70 East from Richmond to Dayton, Ohio, at ninety miles an hour, singing “Rebel Yell” at the tops of our lungs. This was our very favorite song to drive to Dayton to. I balanced pictures of Tom Dehner on my knee. I had stolen the pictures from the school paper, where I was a staf
f member. Joey craned his neck to see. “Hold them up,” he said. “So I can get a better look.”

  “This one’s my favorite,” I said. In it Tom and Pierre Hogg were wearing their football uniforms. Tom’s fist was raised in a cheer.

  “Oh, that’s a good one,” Joey said. “Let me see that.”

  “He looks so good here,” I said.

  “Yes,” said Joey.

  We both sighed.

  All of a sudden, the car lurched and went careening toward the median. We looked at each other and then down at the dashboard.

  “What was that?” I shouted over the music.

  “I have no idea,” Joey shouted back.

  We kept singing and driving, and after another mile, the car started thumping and bumping in a way we didn’t recognize.

  I turned down the music. We listened. The car thumped and bumped. “I think we have a flat tire,” I said.

  We were, of course, in the far left lane, the fast lane. We looked over our shoulders and no one was coming because there was never any traffic on the I-70. Joey steered the car in the direction of the far right shoulder. The Calais drifted and wobbled in slow motion, finally limping to rest safely off the highway.

  We sat there in silence. “Now what?” Joey said.

  “Do you have a spare tire?”

  “I don’t know.” For about five minutes, Joey searched for a way to pop the trunk. After he found it, he got out of the car and went to check. I waited. He came back. “No spare.”

  “Do you have a jack?”

  “Hold on.”

  He disappeared and then reappeared a minute later. “No jack.” He got back in the car and we sat there. “Now what?”

  We looked around us. There was only highway as far as the eye could see. I suddenly felt very small and very sixteen.

  “We have to get help,” I said.

  We locked the car and climbed down the gulley, then up the hill beside it. At the top of the hill was a wire fence and across the fence was a neighborhood of small brown tract houses, each exactly the same as the one next to it. Joey held the fence wires apart so that I could slip through, careful not to pull my hair or clothes. Then I held the wires for him. We began walking through the neighborhood.

  Joey stopped in front of a house. “This is as good as any,” he said. He marched up to the front door and rang the bell. No answer. We went to the next house and rang the bell. No answer. We tried the next house. No answer. By the time we reached the last house on the block, we were in a panic. Joey rang the bell.

  The door flew open and a man stood there. He was in his mid-thirties. He was wearing an Ohio State T-shirt and holding a beer. There was the sound of a television blaring in the background. He looked us up and down. “What?” he said.

  Joey explained the situation, how we were from Richmond, how we were headed for Dayton, how we’d hit something on the road and gotten a flat tire, how we had no jack or spare. The man sighed. He turned around and stared at his television. He looked down at his beer. He set the beer down. “Let me get my keys,” he said.

  His name was Dave. He drove us in his car—an old two-door Mustang—to a local garage where he knew the guy who drove the tow truck. The guy was missing his teeth and stared at me in a way I didn’t like. He said the tow would cost one hundred dollars, and we told him we didn’t have that kind of money. Dave drove us back to his house.

  “You’re sure you don’t have a jack and a spare?” he said.

  “We’re sure,” Joey said.

  We helped Dave search through his garage for his own jack and an extra spare tire that he said belonged to a friend. He ran inside to check on the score of the game and then the three of us got back into his car and drove down to the highway. From the I-70 West, we passed our car on the opposite side of the road. We took the next exit and circled around and got on the highway once again, this time headed east. Dave kept the radio on low so he could listen to the game.

  I kept apologizing. “We are so sorry to interrupt your day,” I said.

  “Yeah, man,” Joey said unconvincingly. He knew nothing about sports. “I hope Ohio State wins big.”

  “Thanks,” Dave said.

  When we got back to the Calais, Dave popped the trunk and removed the gray flooring and there, in the tire well, were the spare and the jack.

  “What are those doing in there?” Joey said. “Seriously.” He looked at me. “Who knew there was a secret panel?”

  Dave sighed and then kneeled down on the ground and jacked up the car. We stood a few feet away watching. After he changed the tire, we wrote down his address and thanked him again and promised to send him something for his trouble. “You have about eighty miles on that tire,” he said. “More than enough to get you home.”

  He drove off in a cloud of muffler exhaust and we climbed back into the car.

  “Should we go home?” I said.

  “I guess. Of course, it’s only twenty more miles to the mall. And then forty back home. That’s only sixty.” This was the only kind of math we were good at.

  “That’s true.”

  “We’ve still got time,” Joey said. “The day is still young.”

  “And so are we,” I said.

  “An’ I love it,” he said. “So very, very much!”

  We popped in Billy Idol, rewound “Rebel Yell” to the beginning, and headed east toward Dayton. (Eventually, all told, we drove another hundred miles all around Dayton on that little spare, which Joey nearly wore to the ground and which, his father later said, almost ruined the axle.)

  “I just want you to know that the children are okay,” Melanie Kraemer told my mother when she called her. This was how Mrs. Kraemer and my mom began most of their conversations with each other when Joey and I were out together: “There is nothing to worry about, but …” “Everything is going to be okay, but …” “The children are fine, but …”

  “They’re fine and the car is fine,” Mrs. Kraemer said now. “They called me from Dayton to say they’d had a flat tire, but that they got it changed and it’s all okay. They decided that instead of coming home, they would just go on ahead with their plans.”

  “Of course they did,” my mom said.

  We’d only known each other three months when we discovered the Dayton Art Institute. It was a night when we were tired of Richmond and the usual people and parties. Joey picked me up in the red Calais and we put in Billy Idol and headed to Dayton, as fast as we could. The Institute sat on a hill overlooking the city with steps that lit up at night, and we sat on the highest one and looked out at all the lights. It was so open to the world, yet so removed from anyone who might know us. Joey smuggled vodka from his dad’s liquor cabinet, which usually only contained Budweiser or Michelob Light, and we drank straight from the bottle and were cold in the winter wind. We pretended we liked the cold and pretended we liked the vodka. We got caught as a neighboring church let out and the congregation swept over us, Joey hiding the vodka under his XXXL shirt.

  Afterward, we drove home fast to “Rebel Yell” and, back in Richmond, climbed a lonely train that sat in the factory yard outside the Purina building. It was just one boxcar that stood abandoned for some reason, as if it had been forgotten. We sat cross-legged on its roof and stared off down the tracks and out toward the high school, its spire lit up in the distance. From where we sat, the high school seemed less intimidating, less grand. Its halls were empty, its students scattered across town, some of them tucked in their houses, sleeping. We talked about what it would be like to some day leave Richmond far, far behind, and about all the places we would go.

  Members of student congress: Bottom row—Jeff Shirazi, Ross Vigran, Danny Dickman, Tom Mangas, Ted Fox; Middle row—Robert Ignacio, Teresa Ripperger, Michele Long, Amy Johnson, Sarah Rosar, Beth Jennings, Michelle Zimmerman; Top row—Angie Oler, Ned Mitchell, Chris Jones

  The Social Order

  At least we’re still best friends and we’re not starving or Prince Charles or this girl I h
eard about on Hard Copy who was led into the woods by her two closest friends and then beaten to death with a log all because she was more popular than them. Thank God we weren’t too popular. Just think what could have happened to us. Sherri Dillon and Tom Dehner might have enjoyed dropping us from the top of the Purina Tower.

  —Jennifer to Joey, December 10, 1992

  Ancient Egyptian society was structured like a pyramid. At the very top were the gods who controlled the universe. It was important to keep them happy because they could cause famine, make the Nile overflow, or bring on a horrible, grueling death. Pharaohs—human beings elevated to gods—were next in line. Below them were the nobles and priests, followed by the soldiers, the scribes, the merchants, the artisans, the farmers, and finally the slaves and servants.

  Every society from the beginning of time has had a social order, from ants to bees to kings to pharaohs. Richmond High School was no different. We had our own complicated hierarchy just like any other high school. As soon as we arrived, we learned the rules.

  Ranking was somewhat economic. Not usually racial. A cheerleader far outranked a Devilette drill team member. A football player outranked a tennis player. Some football players outranked others. The Richmond High School social structure was like some sort of invisible edict from God that dictated who was who in the order of things. Mostly it seemed random.

  Joey and I set out to try to understand the great mystery of it all, and maybe, in doing so, figure out a way to become popular in the process. There was something we had discovered very early about ourselves and about each other: not only did we share a love for writing, a desire to do big things with our lives, and a need to move beyond our small town, but we wanted to be admired, to be liked, to belong, to do more than fit in: to be embraced.

  The best way to try to sort it out was to break it down group by group, as if we were bees or Egyptians. We decided on Egyptians because they were easier and more exotic.

 
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