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

  At the very top of the pyramid of the class of 1986 were Teresa Ripperger (everyone called her “Rip”) and Tom Dehner. Teresa played sports and was in student congress. She was fun and outgoing and gave the very best parties. Tom was a football player—good-looking, easygoing, smart. They had been going out since the sixth grade and moved in a stratosphere all their own. They were, quite clearly, the gods.

  Below them, the cool kids (the pharaohs of the school) were made up of many of the jocks, almost all of the cheerleaders, and most of the members of student government. There were always exceptions, based on looks and personality. Having gone to Test Junior High School helped, of course, as did coming from money.

  Then there were the soldiers—the normal kids—just trying to get by and do their work and live through high school. Sometimes they dated. Sometimes they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t date as much as they wished they could. They didn’t always get asked to every dance or go to every dance. They didn’t show up at parties, or maybe the parties they went to were somewhere other than Teresa’s house. Or maybe, every once in a while, they did come to Rip’s or to Tom Dehner’s. The soldiers made up the majority of the school.

  Next were the artisans—the drama nerds, the band fags, the orchestra and choir geeks. These were the diehards who lived for rehearsals, not those (like me) who merely showed up for class or performances and had other things to do with their time.

  Then came the scribes, or brains. There were some who tried hard to be cool and to fit in, and some who didn’t care to. There were brains who didn’t have any social skills whatsoever but who were very good at math and science and computers. There were others who were so much smarter than everyone else that they had no choice but to be nerds.

  The hoods (merchants) drove Camaros and Trans Ams, wore Black Sabbath or Iron Maiden T-shirts, and hung out in the Smokers Hall between classes. They took Auto Shop, and if they played sports, it was usually wrestling or baseball, sometimes football. They liked to cut class and were always in detention. Sometimes they were sexy in a bad and dangerous way. The female equivalent was girls with permed, platinum hair, the girls who put out, the ones who smoked openly and got pregnant and then dropped out of school before graduation.

  The Special Ed students (farmers) were an assortment of sweet kids who weren’t actually retarded but just a little slow; some who really were retarded; and a few lost causes like Johnnie Coons, the meanest girl I have ever known. We were in sixth grade together at Westview Elementary School and I was assigned to tutor her in reading. I will never forget sitting beside her in Mr. Shank’s classroom while the rest of the class quietly read. She pulled out a switchblade and pressed it to my leg and said under her breath, “So help me God, if you teach me one word of reading, I will kill you.” Each day, we sat there and she held the switchblade to my leg and I pretended to teach her to read, and when we graduated and went to Dennis Junior High School, they put her into the Special Ed class.

  Somewhere off the pyramid, in a group all their own, were the few exchange students at our high school, usually Japanese girls. There was one boy from Turkey, a quiet, good-looking, dark-haired boy named Serdar Ouz. We took AP History together and even though he never ever spoke, my other classmates and I had the impression that Serdar was very smart.

  There was one more group that we hadn’t worked in anywhere: the kids who drifted from group to group—that’s where Joey and I fit. We were liked but we also felt like outsiders, because in our eyes we were different, and the only reason we got along so well with everyone was because we adapted to them. We acted like support, like the beams of a building or the stone walls of a foundation, just as the nobles and the priests had so many years ago for the pharaohs and gods in ancient Egypt. We hung out with everybody. But we hung out mostly with each other.

  Jennifer with neighborhood playmates

  Why I Hate Girls

  What girls do to each other is beyond description.

  No Chinese torture comes close.

  —Tori Amos

  The problem with you,” Joey said one day at lunch, “is that you want everyone to like you.”

  I said, “The problem with me?”

  He said, “You’re wasting your time on the cheerleaders. If you want them to like you, we have to go to the source. Teresa Ripperger. She’s the one who decides what they think.”

  I said, “I don’t care if they like me or not.” And of course we both knew I was lying.

  I tried to tell myself I was happy just being liked by some girls and by most of the boys. Wasn’t that enough? After all, boys were more interesting and less catty. They didn’t get upset if you received more attention than they did or if you were a threat to them in any way, and if they did get upset, they didn’t let you know it because they didn’t want to be made fun of. I always knew where I stood with boys. Besides, you could talk to boys about interesting things, not just hair and jeans and makeup.

  But every time I suited up for gym class or stood in line behind the cheerleaders at lunch or ran into them at parties, I braced myself. I got nervous. I couldn’t help it. I wanted them to like me or at least be nice to me.

  I stood up to throw my lunch away. Joey said, “I’ll wait for you over there.” He pointed to the doors where Tom Dehner was leaning in his letter jacket, strong and manly, talking to Teresa.

  I arrived at the trash can at the exact same moment as one of the cheerleaders. (Does it really matter which one? I thought, even as I started smiling—the stupid fake, nervous grin I always got around these girls. Who can tell them apart?) Her name was Staci or Traci or Tammi or Aimee. She said, “Hey.”

  I said, “Hey.”

  She shoved her trash into the can and held it open for me so I could do the same.

  “Thanks,” I said.

  Just then Rob Jarrett walked by and winked at me. “What’s up, McJunkin?” he said.

  Staci/Traci watched him saunter off without turning her head. Her eyes followed him right out the door. Some of the other cheerleaders walked up and immediately looked bored. Staci’s eyes turned back to me. She said, “That’s a cute shirt. Did you get it at Sears?”

  The cheerleaders smiled then because everyone knew that was the last place on earth anyone would ever buy cute clothes. Staci might as well have said, “Did you dig that out of a Dumpster or steal it off a homeless person?”

  Before I could say anything, she said, “I like your pants, too. I wish I was brave enough to wear pants with patterns, but I’m always worried they’ll make my butt look big. I really admire your confidence.”

  Which, of course, translated to: “You must be insane or blind because the pants you’re wearing make your butt look enormous.”

  And then she paraded off, followed by the others. I watched her go, unable to speak or move, and then I saw Joey waving to me. Tom Dehner was gone and so was Teresa. Even Tommy Wissel was gone, which meant we were going to be late for class.

  Later that day, before sixth period, Staci was leaving the downstairs central hall bathroom as I was walking in. She fake smiled at me and I fake smiled at her. I shut myself in one of the bathroom stalls and calmed myself down. I breathed as deeply as I could, given that I was in a bathroom. Then I saw it. On the back of the door there was a new entry written in red Magic Marker: Jennifer McJunkin is a ho-bag. The ink was still wet.

  I thought back to the student handbook I had thrown away my first week of school, trying to remember the punishment for defacing school property. I pulled a purple Magic Marker from my bag and ran it back and forth, fast as I could, across the writing until it was just a big, messy purple blob. Afterward, I threw the marker in the trash.

  I went home that night and put on my stereo head-phones (Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, the album I always listened to when I was feeling upset or lonely or blue) and sat in my green beanbag and cried. I couldn’t help it. I told myself it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t just me. Girls were always hateful to other girls. But it felt personal. I was no
t a ho-bag. The sluttiest thing I’d ever done was kiss my ex-boyfriend Brian Yoder, and we hadn’t even used our tongues (we’d kept our mouths closed, afraid of getting our braces tangled up).

  I decided I wanted to go to boarding school like some of my friends whose parents worked at Earlham with my dad. A lot of the Earlham kids I knew went off to Quaker boarding school for high school—to fine, academic institutions in the Northeast where students no doubt acted like real people and not mean and soulless creatures—but I didn’t want to leave my parents or my cats or my dog or my room (which I didn’t have to share with anyone else) or Joey. The thought of leaving made me cry even harder. I was such a baby. Here I was, the Great Ho-Bag of the Bathroom Stall, and all I wanted was my mommy.

  The next morning I put on plain pants with no pattern and one of my nicest shirts, which I clearly hadn’t bought at Sears. At lunch, I avoided Staci. I didn’t even look in her direction. When I got up to throw away my food, a good-looking senior named Rod Ogren followed me to the trash can and asked me out for Saturday night. As we made plans to go to the movies, I thought, Who needs girls? I decided to wait on boarding school, at least for the time being.

  From The Pierian, the 1984

  Richmond High School Yearbook …

  What’s Out


  Country music, valley girls, leg warmers, bell-bottom jeans, preppies, pink hair, Izods, mohawk haircuts, Dallas Cowboys, morals, saddle shoes, the Go-Go’s, disco mini skirts, knickers, Blondie, the new attendance policy, Converse tennis shoes, long hair, French braids, homework, E.T., herpes, designer jeans, Pac-man, prairie skirts, Mr. T, anything generic, “fer sure,” and punk rockers

  What’s In

  Leather and chains, pierced ears, Prince, baggies, bright colors, being “scared,” bandanas, porno, break dancing, videos, L.A. Raiders, vans, concerts, thin ties, blue-jean jackets, Quiet Riot, Peter Pan boots, Rock-n-Roll, hats, British men, parties, the Flashdance look, pinstripe jeans, parachute pants, curly hair, the Nautilus, Ocean Pacific, oriental writing, and sports cars.

  Jennifer, her big hair, and her pearls

  Dress Code

  Only because I’m in love, I’m getting R.’s picture, there’s a chance I’ll get some hair spray next hour, and the fact that we’re not writing in here today has saved you! But you’re not forgiven! Especially if R. stops liking me because my hair is flat!

  —Jennifer to Laura Lonigro, writing about the impossible

  I was determined from the beginning of high school to be known as a fashion plate, as someone off a New York runway. Unfortunately, living in Richmond made this challenging because our town was, sadly, a good fifty to sixty years behind the times.

  There were several places in Richmond to get your hair cut or styled: Le Crazy Horse, Fiesta Hair Fashions, the Golden Shears, the Hair Event, the Hair Hut, the Hair-port, Jenny’s Cut and Curl, Top O’ the Head, and Wanda’s Beauty Salon—“Watch our hands create heads of beauty.” My mother and I went to Ova’s Hairum, which was just off the pedestrian shopping area, the Promenade, downtown. As my mom said, the name was too good not to go there.

  Richmond was home to two popular beauty schools where many of my classmates would apply after graduation: Amber’s Beauty School (“Serving this area since 1936”) and P.J.’s College of Cosmetology (“Your future begins with us”). There was a Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio on the Promenade (which ran the length of several downtown blocks), and clothing stores like the Fashion Bug, the Secret Ingredient, Maurice’s, and Peggy’s Youthful Fashions for the Fuller Figure.

  Even with this, people still wore feathered hair, parted down the middle. The mullet was popular. So was Jheri Curl. There were rattails and perms. Fluorescent colors. Leg warmers. Belted sweaters. Ripped sweatshirts. Izods in all colors with the collars turned up. Penny loafers. “Frankie Say Relax” shirts. I had even seen more than one pair of bell-bottoms, even though the 1970s were long over.

  I told my parents I would rather be caught dead than shop on the Promenade or at the Richmond Square Mall. It was bad enough I had to live in Richmond, but did I have to dress like everyone else, too? I wanted to fit in, but not completely, not in this way. I needed to express my individuality, and I was very into clothes. My father, who also had a passion for clothing, understood. He never shopped in town. When it was time to buy my school wardrobe, he made sure we went to Cincinnati or Chicago or Indianapolis or New York or, at the very least, Dayton.

  We came back to school in January 1984 after winter break. It had been an especially wonderful Christmas and I was wearing my new favorite outfit—a yellow Esprit long-sleeved shirt with gray and white stripes that almost reached my knees. Over it, I wore a little black vest I’d found at a vintage store, and under it I wore a new Esprit skirt with tights and boots. The whole thing was quite groovy and cool and I felt like fashion icon Lisa Bonet or a glamorous person right off the streets of New York. I loved Esprit. I could have moved into the Esprit department at the Dayton Mall and been happy forever. It was true I was being imprisoned in this town—temporarily—but I was not of it, and I knew it and so would everyone else.

  My hair, no longer feathered like Jaclyn Smith’s, was large and curly (even curlier than its natural curl), thanks to the two hours I’d spent that morning blowing it dry and rolling it with hot rollers, then teasing it and spraying it with Aqua Net. I was wearing shiny blue-gray eye shadow and three different shades of lipstick (no one shade ever gave me the color I wanted), and over that a coating of Bonne Bell lip gloss. All I needed was a soundtrack—something sexy by Blondie or Sheila E—and I was like something out of a movie.

  I was walking down the main long hallway with Joey and Hether Rielly, fighting and shoving our way through the sea of people, and we were talking over one another and laughing. I was also keeping an eye out for any boys I liked so that I could say hi to them or (hopefully) smile at them and have them say hi to me first. This was a very deliberate activity that I tried to make look easy and natural, like I wasn’t giving it any thought at all. I knew the class schedules and, therefore, hallway schedules of all the guys I had crushes on, so I knew when to watch out for them. Right now I was looking for my favorite, Dean Waldemar, who was with no exaggeration a golden god, and who should just be coming up from the swimming pool at any minute, his hair still wet.

  So I was walking and talking and laughing and saying hi, all the while looking out for Dean, when suddenly—at the other end of that long hallway, coming down the steps from the cafeteria area—I caught sight of something that looked strangely familiar. It was a yellow something with gray and white stripes.

  When I stopped talking, Joey and Hether looked at me. “What’s wrong?” Hether said.

  “I just saw something …”

  The yellow was gone. It had disappeared into the crowd. I was trying to find it again. Joey and Hether looked with me, but since they didn’t know what I was looking for, they gave up.

  “What are we looking at?” Joey said.

  “Nothing,” I said. “I’m just seeing things.”

  We went on, heading for the central stairs. When we got there, my shirt was coming toward me—my new favorite Christmas Esprit shirt that I was wearing right that very moment. Yellow with gray and white stripes. It was walking right at me on Patty Boomershine, who was big and tough and who smoked cigarettes and hung around in the parking lot after school sometimes and shouted mean things at people just because she was bored. Underneath the shirt she was wearing ratty old jeans and sneakers. With Magic Marker, she had written “Fuck” on the knee of one leg and “off!” on the other.

  Joey said, “Holy shit.” Joey kept a clothing journal to help him keep track of what he wore. This was so he didn’t repeat an outfit in three weeks’ time.

  When we could, Hether and I would break into Joey’s room and steal his journal and change things here or there so that he would get confused and accidentally wear something twice in a row or repeat an outfit before he was sup
posed to. We would always tell him afterward, of course, just so we could see his reaction.

  Hether said now, “Jenna Lou Anne, that bitch is wearing your shirt.”

  I said, “Turn me around. Turn me around.” Because suddenly I couldn’t move and there were five thousand people coming—including Dean Waldemar, who I could just see heading toward me (gold hair dripping wet) surrounded by ten of his closest friends—and I didn’t want to see them or Patty or anyone.

  Patty said, “Jennifer McJunkin, oh my God.”

  I said, “Hi, Patty.”

  She said, “Look at this. You and me’re twins.”

  I said, “Yeah!” I stood there grinning stupidly, wanting to slink away to the bathroom or maybe just die instantly on the spot. Guys and girls were walking by staring at us and laughing. “Nice shirts!” they said. “Hey, is it Spirit Week?” someone yelled. “Is today Twin Day?” I saw Dean Waldemar straining to see what everyone was looking at. I was already thinking about what to do, trying to remember if I had anything to change in to. Could I get away with only wearing my vest or maybe my ugly gym uniform?

  Joey said, “We’d better go. We’ll be late!” And started dragging me off. My legs weren’t working anymore so I kind of bumped along behind him.

  The rest of the day, I darted from class to class, keeping one eye out for Patty, the other for anyone who might have seen us together. This was the worst thing to happen to me since the time just before Christmas when Mike Shockney made me laugh so hard in Psychology that something flew out of my nose and landed on his book. (I pretended, of course, that nothing happened. Just picked up my pencil and started furiously taking notes, hoping to God he wouldn’t notice. He was very good-looking for a hood.)

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