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

  I went home that day and took off my shirt. Instead of throwing it onto the floor or my beanbag chair with my other clothes, I hung it neatly on a hanger and pushed it into the very back of my closet. I didn’t wear it again until I graduated high school and was safely out of Richmond. As far as I was concerned, that shirt belonged to Patty Boomershine. She wore it once a week for the next two and a half years.

  On the way to Dayton from Richmond on the I-70

  Cafeteria Rules

  Jennifer has had a great week at school. She is a great authority on all the Kindergarten rules, such as Keep Your Head in the School Bus and I Shouldn’t Have to Scream to Get Your Attention!

  —My mother in a letter to the family, September 11, 1973

  Technically, RHS was a closed campus, which meant we had to stay at school no matter what, even if we were dying, and never leave it until the final bell rang at 3:15. No one paid attention to this, of course, except the dutiful kids and the ones who were trying for the perfect attendance award. At lunch, it was easy enough to slip out through the art museum and walk down to Rax, on the corner of National Road West and Red Devil Boulevard, or to hop into your car and drive to Burger King or Wendy’s or McDonald’s.

  Hether Rielly and Joey Kraemer and I had the same lunch hour second semester sophomore year, which meant that we almost never ate at school and were always sneaking out. Hether usually drove because we loved her red Cougar. She drove faster than anyone in the world, even my own father who almost always got a ticket every time we left the house. Hether just slammed her foot on the gas pedal and didn’t let up till we got to wherever we were going.

  One particularly restless and dull day in April, in AP History class first period, Joey wrote me a note. He said, I am bored out of my mind. I’m close to dying. I mean it. Let’s do something different for lunch today.

  I wrote back and said: Where do you want to go?

  He said: Anywhere but here.



  Burger King?



  Yes. In Dayton!

  You are crazy. And doesn’t Todd Irwin look good today? Todd was lean and tall and had brown hair that used to be straight but now was curly. He was going out with Leigh Torbeck, who was a cheerleader. They were one of those couples who you knew would be together forever and would never ever break up no matter how much you wanted them to, which meant I would never have a chance with Todd myself. But I still thought he was cute.

  Joey wrote: Hether can drive. We’ll be back in time for 5th period. I just have to get out of this town.

  We met Hether after fourth hour in the Orchestra Hall and the three of us walked down the ramp and past the choir room, the art rooms, the orchestra and band room, and out the back door. Hether’s car was parked illegally in the side parking lot where she always parked it.

  We got in—Joey in the backseat, me in the front, Hether behind the wheel—and peeled out, music blasting, something loud and rebellious. It was a white-hot sunny day, warm for April. We rolled the windows down, and for once I thought to hell with my hair.

  Hether slammed her foot down on the gas and aimed the Cougar toward Dayton. We flew past the Courthouse, past the Promenade, past Glen Miller Park, past the Arboretum, past Target, past the Richmond Square Mall, past Fred First Ford, past the Spirit of 76 Motel, and then out onto I-70 and east under the giant light blue Ohio arch.

  “Let’s see how fast we can go, big girl!” Joey shouted over the music.

  We had just under an hour to get there and back before fifth period. It was forty miles to Dayton from Richmond one-way. Hether accelerated and we screamed. She said, “Hold on!!!” The speedometer climbed past 70 to 80, 85, 90, 95, and finally hovered just over 100. Joey and I started dancing wildly.

  There was a Wendy’s near the airport exit, and that was the one we were aiming for. We knew we wouldn’t have time to go inside and eat, so we would just zip on through the drive-through. In about twenty-five minutes, we saw the sign.

  “There!” I hollered.

  Hether careened across three lanes (there wasn’t much traffic) and raced off the exit. We pulled up to the drive-through where there wasn’t any line. We ordered three Frosties, three cheeseburgers, and three orders of fries. And then we pulled around to the window and waited. We sat there looking at one another. We looked like we’d been caught in a tornado, our hair sticking up and out in every direction. Hether’s face was red like it always was when she laughed too hard or got too excited. Joey was grinning wickedly. I realized I was out of breath from dancing and screaming. I stretched my legs up and put them on the dash. Suddenly I didn’t care if we went back or if Mr. Wysong marked us absent. I wanted to keep driving just as fast as we could.

  Hether handed us the Frosties and the cheeseburgers and the fries and we divvied everything up. Then she hit the gas and peeled out of the parking lot, pointed toward home. “Hold on!!!” she shouted. We were like a bright red rocket taking off across a backdrop of cornfields and silos and barns and farmhouses. We passed tractors and semitrailers and a car or two, but never a cop. Where were they all?

  We made it back to school in under twenty-five minutes, with the whole trip clocking in at exactly one hour, which we were sure was a world’s record. Hether and I slid into Humanities class, hair wild, faces red, clothes askew, just as the bell was ringing. Everyone stared. Mr. Wysong quirked an eyebrow at us and one corner of his mouth shot up. He said, “Ladies. Nice of you to join us.”

  “Thank you,” I said.

  We sat at the back of the room. Todd Irwin was on my other side. I bent down to get my notebook and my pen. I wiped the ketchup off my shoe and smoothed my hair.

  Mr. Wysong was already droning on at the board.

  Todd leaned over and said, “What the hell have you been doing, Jennifer?”

  I said, “Oh, we went to Wendy’s for lunch.” He nodded and sat back in his chair. I couldn’t decide whether I liked him better with straight hair or curly hair. I thought he looked cute either way. “In Dayton.” I smiled at Todd. His eyes widened and the look he gave me—one of surprise, wonder, and just the slightest bit of admiration—was worth the entire trip.

  Jennifer and Eric Lundquist

  First Love

  Who are my current romantic interests? Well, there are several, I’m afraid. They are as follows: Greg Embry, Kenny Gibbs, Tom Mangas, Alex Delaney, Mike Bullerdick, Jeff Schwartz, Matt Ashton, Mitch Gaylord (Olympic gymnast gold medalist), and the lead singer of the music group Wham!

  —My diary, December 25, 1984

  Teresa Ripperger and Tom Dehner fell in love when they were twelve. They grew up two houses away from each other in Reeveston, and they arrived at RHS as the sophomore power couple, becoming king and queen of our class. Considering that Rip (as Teresa was called) wasn’t a cheerleader, this was amazing. She wasn’t feminine or girly, but she was tall and athletic and gregarious and attractive, and she liked to have a good time. The activities she excelled in were socializing and giving really good parties, and (practically) everyone loved her, especially Tom, who was the boy we all admired most.

  Tom was a football player. He was laid-back, smart, and always wore a kind of dreamy, crooked smile. Red hair ran in his family. His older brother John was tall and lean and had dark red hair that he parted down the middle. Tom wasn’t quite as tall, wasn’t quite as lean, and his hair was more of a golden brown with hints of red. It curled in the humidity and he had freckles. His face was broad and square. He wasn’t the best-looking boy in our class (that would be Rob Jarrett) or the most charismatic (Tom Mangas) or the funniest (Tommy Wissel), but there was something about him that drew us to him. He was Mr. All-American. He was a genuinely nice guy. He was sexy, but still approachable.

  We thought Tom and Teresa were the perfect couple. They were who we all aspired to be. Every now and then there was trouble, but only for a day or two, and usually because there were other girls chasing
after Tom. He was so friendly (some said a little too friendly) that he never really turned them away, and Rip would get mad and yell at him by his locker, which was right outside Mr. Alexander’s room. Mr. Alexander taught English and was the best-looking teacher at RHS. He had dark hair and was very tan and always wore nice suits. When Teresa was yelling at Tom, Mr. Alexander would come outside and ask her to keep it down. She always shut up and walked away and then told everyone that she was going to kill those little bitches who were trying to steal Tom from her.

  The next day, Rip and Dehner would be walking down the halls together once again and the rest of us would swoon. If only we could find a love like that—so passionate, so forgiving, so steadfast and true, so obviously meant to be, so forever. If only we could be so lucky.

  Eric Lundquist played trombone in the Richmond High School band. He had broad shoulders and tan skin and shiny gold-brown hair and dimples on both cheeks. He was a sophomore like I was, and his father was a chemistry teacher at the high school. I was copresident of the speech team, just as I had been in junior high, and Eric came to one of our first meetings. That was how we met.

  Eric had a girlfriend named Carrie Hockersmith who was a year older than we were. She wore skirts that came to her ankles and little barrettes that pinned back her hair on either side of her face. She worked after school and on weekends in the shoe department at Elder-Beerman, the downtown department store, and had been sewing since the seventh grade. She was the 4-H Grand Sewing Champion for two years running.

  Eric and I fell in love on a single long speech team bus ride. Until that point, we had been exchanging glances and talking during speech meetings and Spanish class, but on that bus ride he sat in front of me, turned sideways in his seat, one golden arm resting casually across the top of it, and we talked the entire time. He was the first boy (other than Joey) that I could really talk to, who really listened. We talked about everything—speech and school and books and life. We laughed and laughed. I liked the way his dimples showed around his mouth when he smiled. Being around him made me feel warm and happy from deep inside. By the end of the bus ride, we both knew we were meant to be.

  Eric broke up with Carrie, who took it badly. She wrote him notes, asking him to get back together, and gave me nasty, threatening looks. Once, when I was shopping at Elder-Beerman, she left all her customers and walked out of the store. I hated her and was jealous of her because she’d been with Eric first and for a long time. She hated me even more because I was with him now.

  Eric and I started going together on October 13, 1983. We bought matching red sweaters and had them embroidered with “RHS” in white cursive. We wore these to speech meets, and I also wore my favorite painter’s cap that said “Why Be Normal?” We sat in the back of the speech team bus, huddled under our coats, and held hands and kissed.

  We went on dates to the movies and the mall. I spent hours getting ready—working on my hair, my makeup, deciding what to wear. I changed clothes a hundred times. Eric’s father drove us in his station wagon and my dad drove us in his silver Mercedes, when it was running. I liked the Mercedes, even though it must have been at least twenty years old and it barely worked. The insides were leather and chrome and smelled like my dad’s pipe, and there was a sun roof you could open if you had enough arm strength and patience.

  We went on group dates—to basketball games and football games, to dances. One night early in the fall of our sophomore year, we had a couples party in the family room in our basement as part of a plan to find my friend Kelley Robertson a boyfriend and get her to fall in love with David Anthony, who was geeky but cute, and to get him to fall in love with her. Kelley, who was not only my friend but my neighbor, and I had spent the better part of a weekend and after school creating an elaborate board game full of seductive activities such as “Kiss on the couch,” or “Five minutes in the water heater closet with the person of your choice.”

  We had movie and television dates at my house, in our basement family room, which was private, even though my parents were always lurking about, and which had a fireplace and a large, comfortable couch. Eric and I sat close together and watched The Love Boat and kissed. We had dates at his house that sometimes began with me reading aloud to his entire family from a story that Joey and I had written together—usually a short story about an elf who murdered people by stuffing them into washing machines or a repressed librarian who was secretly into patron bondage. Eric’s father and mother and his sister Beth were quiet, churchgoing people. They sat listening politely and attentively, trying not to look confused or horrified, while Eric beamed as if I was reciting one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

  These dates ended in my basement or, more rarely, in his basement den, which was only partially finished and had a work space for his dad with lots of chemistry-type beakers and bottles. Toward the back of his basement was a blackboard that acted as a wall, and a large oval corded rug on a concrete floor, and Eric and I lay there and experimented with things beyond kissing.

  Lying on that rug with Eric, or on the couch in my basement, my head spun and my heart beat so fast that I felt like I was going to throw up, kind of like I always did just after getting off a roller coaster at King’s Island. But it was a kind of dreamy feeling, too, very light and lovely. Afterward, I locked myself in my green room and read Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book my mom had gotten me years earlier, trying to figure out what was happening to me.

  Sometimes Eric and I walked in the woods and the field across from his house and held hands. We lay down in the grass and looked up at the blue sky and talked about everything we could think of, and other times we just lay there in silence, touching arms. I wanted it to always be that way—beautiful and breathtaking and innocent and painful all at once.

  One day I took a permanent marker and drew an enormous smiley face on the blackboard in his basement because it was how I felt inside. Eric walked me to class and wrote me notes and we talked on the phone for hours at night. He learned all my secrets and all my dreams, and for a long time we were very happy.

  After Eric and I had been together for seven months, Joey started giving me his advice about the situation. He thought I should move on and date someone more exciting, someone like Todd Irwin or Jeff Shirazi, who played football like Todd and drove a red VW Bug convertible and had black hair that fell across his forehead and sexy blue eyes. Joey thought I should save myself for Tom Dehner, in case he ever became a free man. Besides, he wanted more time with me himself. Our friendship was already leaning toward exclusivity. We spoke a language no one else really understood. We finished each other’s sentences. We were, we said, separated at birth, and no one, not even Eric, could come between us.

  In June 1984, two weeks after school let out for summer and sophomore year ended, my mom and I drove to North and South Carolina as we always did, to visit her parents and my dad’s parents and all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. The night before, Eric and I said a tearful good-bye and he gave me the shirt off his back to remember him by. We hugged and kissed and then I saw, out of the corner of my eye, two bodies—one enormous and dark, the other slight and blond—crouching behind the bushes by the front door.

  Ross Vigran and Joey were like the annoying brothers I never had, always spying on me. Ross was one of the only Jewish people in our school. He had gone to Test and lived in Reeveston with his parents, both of whom were practically giants. There were rumors of older brothers who had already graduated from high school—bigger, taller older brothers. At six foot three, two-hundred-some pounds, Ross was the youngest and the smallest.

  When Eric pulled the shirt off his back and handed it to me, telling me to wear it over the next few weeks to remember him by, I heard Ross snort. After Eric left, climbing into his dad’s green station wagon, I let them have it for ruining such a beautiful moment for me.

  “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

  Joey and Ross scrambled out of the bushes like dogs. “Oh, Jennifer, here’s m
y shirt.” Ross started to pull up his XXXL polo.

  “No, take mine,” Joey said. He also wore an XXXL polo, but not because he needed to. He just liked the roomy fit of it.

  “You all are terrible.”

  Ross was bent double, wiping the tears from his eyes. His face was the dark red color it always turned when he laughed hard. He loved to cause trouble and to stir people up. He lived for it.

  “I mean it. I’m not speaking to either one of you again.”

  “It was all Ross’s idea, of course,” said Joey. “But while we’re here. When are you going to dump him?”

  • • •

  Eric went to band camp and then settled in to work at Hayes Regional Arboretum, all 355 acres of it, while I made the rounds of relatives in the Carolinas. The first few nights of my trip, I slept in his shirt, inhaling him—a familiar, heady mix of shampoo, Polo cologne, and the great, earthy outdoors.

  One week later, I was in love with Matthew Ashton again. We were in Greer, South Carolina, staying with my aunt Lynn and my uncle Phil and my cousins Lisa, Shannon, and Derek. Matt was a friend of Derek’s. I had met him the previous summer, before I ever knew Eric. He looked like Scott Baio and was one year older than I was. He was, according to Derek, the coolest guy at Riverside High. We had dated and kissed and written each other letters, but then I’d met Eric, and Matt had met the girl of his dreams, and we stopped writing to each other. But suddenly, here he was and here I was and he still looked like Scott Baio.

  Eric kept his promise and wrote me, if not daily at least every couple of days. I wrote him back, careful not to mention Matt. Eric copied down the lyrics to our song—Journey’s “Faithfully”—and sent them to me.

  It was horrible. I was riddled with guilt. I could barely sleep at night, and when I did, my dreams were filled with images of a hurt and furious Eric, tearing his shirt into little pieces and throwing them back into my face. Clearly, something was wrong with me that I could feel so much so quickly for someone else. I still loved Eric, but I loved Matt, too.

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