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

  On the car ride back to Indiana at the end of the summer, I listened to my Walkman and agonized. Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” Chicago’s “Hard Habit to Break.” Journey’s “Faithfully.” And just to torture myself, Hall & Oates’s “Maneater,” which clearly had been written about me. I wondered if I would ever be able to marry one day, to be faithful to one person, to settle down. I wondered how I could ever break Eric’s heart when he loved me, when I still loved him. Then I remembered Matt Ashton and the thought of him made me light-headed. Finally, I rested my head back against the seat and closed my eyes. Love was exhausting.

  When I got home to Indiana, Eric was waiting for me. We talked my first night back and made plans to see each other the next day. When Eric showed up at my house in his dad’s green station wagon, I met him on the front porch with the shirt he had given me weeks before. He looked happy to see me. His face lit up and he hugged me hard and tight so that the breath squeezed out of me and for a long time I couldn’t breathe. He smelled good and clean and I wanted to inhale him, but at the same time he was too good, too clean, and I wanted him to go away.

  When we finally broke apart, he could tell something was wrong. “What is it?” he said. “Did something happen on your trip?”

  “Yes,” I said. We sat down on the front step, side by side, legs touching. I didn’t know what to say after that. He took my hand. It felt familiar and warm. It was a hand that made me want to hold on to it and tell it secrets and dreams and lean on it and not let it go. I said, “I realized while I was gone that I need some space. We can still date, but we can’t go together anymore. We can see each other, but I think we need to see other people, too.”

  Eric dropped my hand and stared at me. He shook his head over and over. He said, “I don’t understand.”

  So I told him again and again and again. It was horrible and ugly and sad, and Eric still didn’t understand. Afterward I felt like I’d just destroyed something priceless and precious.

  Eric tried for weeks to change my mind. He showed up at our house at odd hours. We stood on my porch in the middle of the night under the lone lightbulb, his usually bright face gloomy and serious. He said, “Why are you doing this? What happened? What can I do to get you back?”

  I could barely look at him. I stared at his feet, at my feet. I said, “It isn’t you. It’s me. I still love you, but I’m too young to be tied down. I can’t be so serious right now.”

  He said, “It sounds like Joey talking, not you. Or someone else. This doesn’t sound like the Jennifer I know.”

  I said, “It is me. It’s all me. I just can’t do this. It’s too much.” And the more we talked, the angrier I got. I just wanted him to go away so that he wouldn’t make me hurt him anymore.

  At school, I did my best to avoid him. And the next time he came to my house late at night, my mother went out to talk to him instead. I never went downstairs again when I knew Eric was at the door. I just stayed upstairs in my room, looking out the window, down on his gold-brown head, while Mom went out to console him and send him home.

  At the end of it all, we stopped speaking altogether. I was alternately flattered by his devotion and angry at his persistence. How dare he try to hold me down when I am so young and vital and full of life, I wrote in the on-again, off-again diary I kept. How dare he try to tie me down in the prime of my life!

  I was dating Tom Mangas again when Eric began going with Nancy Bohlander, who also played in the band and was a member of the Devilettes drill team. Tom was easy and fun. He was exciting. We liked to go to the movies and then go parking sometimes at the abandoned Starr Piano Factory lot in his big old Buick Electra. Tom was smart and charismatic. But he never wanted a commitment. I didn’t have to worry about being tied down with him. I didn’t have to worry about things being too intense. I could still like Matt Ashton. I could still like other boys. I could still feel free if I wanted to.

  Nancy Bohlander was skinny and had short fuzzy brown hair and a sour face that looked squished, as if someone had squeezed it from either side. In many ways, Nancy was much more suited for Eric than I had ever been because they could talk about band things. It didn’t matter that I was dating one of the coolest boys in our class or that I had broken up with Eric, I went home to my green room and felt sorry for myself. Eric had learned to love again. I had been so sure he was going to love me forever, even if he couldn’t have me. I had thought he would always be standing there on the steps outside my house, asking me to come back to him.

  I lay down flat on top of the clothes that were always piled on my green floor (it was too much trouble to hang them up) and ignored all of Joey’s calls and Tom’s calls and Ross’s calls. Instead, I turned on my stereo, pulled on my headphones, and listened to ABBA. I listened to “The Winner Takes It All” over and over again, and then I copied down the lyrics on a sheet of paper.

  The next day at school, I walked past Eric’s desk after Spanish class and handed the piece of paper to him. I tried to look as tragic as I felt. I kept my eyes cast down. I wanted Eric to know how hurt I was. Nancy Bohlander waited for him after class and I marched by her without saying a word.

  When he tried to talk to me about it later, I told him I couldn’t, that I was too distraught. I told him I didn’t think it was completely over between us, and I just couldn’t believe he would give up so easily. He was frustrated and confused and I could tell he didn’t know whether to shake me or kiss me.

  Soon after, I stopped dating Tom and started dating Jon Jerman, a hood. Every day, I walked to gym class through the Smokers Hall just so I could see him. This was not a boy who would make you tapes or copy down lyrics for you. He was lean and taut, with long, feathered hair the color of wheat, and sleepy blue eyes. He wore heavy metal T-shirts, the kind with the black three-quarter-length sleeves—his favorite said Metallica, a band I’d barely heard of. The hardest band I listened to was Cheap Trick, up in my green room with my yellow canopy bed. I knew Jon drove a black Trans Am and that he stared at me every time I walked past. Each time I walked by him, and when he took me out, I felt I was doing something very dangerous, something I never would have done before, when I was going with Eric and we were lying in the field outside his house staring up at the blue, blue sky.

  Jennifer on her green telephone

  The Telephone

  We loved the telephone, and if the words which passed between 962-3827 and 966-1666 might be weighed, I think a globe might wobble beneath the tonnage. We talked about all the many things we wanted to be, on those nights when the moon was out and parties were high, but we were alone together on the phone.

  —Joey to Jennifer

  I was convinced my dad lived to humiliate me, that he lay in bed at night thinking up new and devious ways to mortify me in front of my friends and boyfriends.

  One of the worst ways was the telephone. For some reason, we had five telephones in our house. Whenever one rang, I threw myself at it. On the rare occasion my dad answered it before I could, he used one of several hundred fake accents he saved up just for this purpose. My father had studied South Asian history and languages in undergraduate and graduate school, and because of this was semifluent in languages like Hindi and Urdu and, from his army days, Japanese. The ones he didn’t know he faked. My friends would either hang up without saying anything or leaving a message, or just sit there on the phone in stunned silence.

  Several of the boys I went to school with ended up in the local jail at one time or another. These weren’t boys I hung around with usually, but I knew of them—we all knew of them—so when one of them started calling me collect from the Wayne County Jail, I sort of vaguely knew who it was.

  “This is a collect call for Jennifer McJunkin from Bobby Watts. Will you accept the charges?”

  The first time it happened, I said yes because I didn’t know why he was calling me. I only knew Bobby in a round-about way—he was an upperclassman on the football team who sometimes showed up at parties at Devon Johnson’s h
ouse. Even then, I couldn’t really picture his face.

  “Okay,” I said.

  There was static on the line and then a deep male voice. “Hey. What’s going on?”

  “Uh, nothing much. What are you doing?”

  “Just chillin’. I hope you don’t mind me calling. I was trying to get up my nerve. Your picture looked good in the yearbook.”

  “Thank you.” I had no idea what to say to him.

  “So what’s goin’ on?”

  “Just school. You know. Homework. Hanging out.” Should I talk about the history team or the essay I’d written for Advanced Comp. on shopping? Would he be interested in hearing about the speech team or Ian Barnes’s last party?

  “That’s cool. Well, I gotta go back to my cell. Can I call you again?” I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say no, but he was a convict. I didn’t want to make him mad. I didn’t even know what he was in for. What if he broke out and came to find me and killed me because I told him not to call me? I was standing in the kitchen. I looked out now at the dark, dark woods that surrounded our backyard.

  “Um, sure,” I said, thinking I’d just let my dad answer the phone for a while.

  “Okay. Bye. You stay sweet.”

  “Thanks,” I said. “You, too.”

  I hung up the phone and went to the cabinet to search for the Joy Ann cookies in the special hiding place Mom and I had from Dad—way up on the top shelf, behind some old cookbooks and napkins no one ever looked at or used. Mom wandered into the kitchen. “Who was that?”

  “Some boy I go to school with.”

  “Asking you out?”

  “I don’t think so. He was calling from jail.” Which, of course, was the wrong thing to say to my mother, who wanted to know how he got our number from prison and were they just handing out numbers of young girls to inmates and letting them make phone calls to every girl in town, and however I felt about it I needed to let my father answer the phone from now on, etc. As she talked, I ate my butter crunch cookie—best in the world—and felt a little thrill. I would have to get the yearbook out to remember who Bobby Watts even was exactly, so the thrill wasn’t about him at all. There was just something about prisons.

  Ross Vigran called me one night and said, “Guess where I’m calling you from?”

  I said, “Your room.” Because this was always where Ross called me from.

  He said, “No. Guess again.”

  Ross liked people to guess things, which was very annoying. He would make you keep guessing until you either guessed whatever it was or lost your mind.

  I said, “No.”

  Because I either sounded like I meant business or because he was too excited to wait for me to guess, he said, “I’m in my front yard.”

  I said, “What?”

  He said, “I’m on a cordless phone.”

  This was a very big deal and I was very, very envious. I wanted to get my own hands on a cordless phone right that minute—just the idea of a phone without limits, of one that you could talk on anywhere. I wondered if Target was still open, even though I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Target because it was in Richmond and Richmond people shopped there and they didn’t sell Esprit.

  I said, “No you’re not.”

  He said, “Wanna bet?” And he rustled around a little in what sounded like leaves, making outdoor-type noises.

  I paced around my room, twisting the phone cord as I went. Ross told me all about his cordless phone, and after we had finally exhausted everything there was to say about it, we moved on to other subjects—his ex-girlfriend Tally (they had just broken up), my boyfriend Alex, the upcoming football game, Teresa’s party. Ross was still sad about Tally and I was mostly trying to cheer him up.

  Suddenly there was some sort of static on the line. We both heard it. “What’s that?” I said. It sounded almost like a voice. It was fuzzy and hard to make out. We stopped talking and listened. Static-static. Fuzz-fuzz.

  “I don’t know,” Ross said.

  We went back to talking. A few minutes later, Ross said, “Hold on a minute.” We listened again. This time there was no static or fuzz.

  A voice—thin and clear, though far away, came over the phone from somewhere else: “Tally dumped Ross’s ass, but he’s telling everyone they broke up with each other and that they both wanted it.” There was wild laughter.

  I said, “Is that Cliff?” Cliff Lester lived across the street from Ross. He was the only person I knew except for Ross to have a cordless phone. (Cliff had everything before anyone else—a convertible, MTV, HBO, call-waiting.)

  Ross said, “I’ll call you right back.” And hung up the phone.

  I sat down on my floor and waited, my heart racing. I tried to picture Cliff’s face when Ross called him. Cliff, of course, would click over because he had call-waiting. And there would be Ross, who had heard everything Cliff said …

  The phone rang. I grabbed it.

  Ross was laughing so hard he could barely talk. “That poor asshole. He clicked over and said, ‘Hello?’ And I said, ‘For your information, Cliff, I wasn’t dumped.’ And then I hung up.” We laughed insanely and maniacally for several minutes. This was the funniest thing I had ever heard of involving a telephone.

  A few days later, during Algebra, I wrote a poem about it:

  I copied it down and gave it to Ross for a little souvenir. It helped him get his mind off Tally.

  The best conversations were with Joey. We talked every night and for a long, long time. He stood outside his family room on the back porch, pulling the phone cord as far as it would go. He leaned over the railing and tried to keep his voice down because his parents’ window was just above him and they were always having to lean out and tell him to stop laughing so loudly, stop singing so loudly, stop clapping so loudly, stop talking so loudly, that he would wake the neighbors, that he was keeping them awake. I talked on the floor of my green room or in my green beanbag, the one that leaked beans because the cats liked to sit in it, too, or from the cave of my canopy bed.

  We talked over the school day and about the weekend to come, but there was so much more. We discussed Our Lives Beyond School and what lay ahead for us. And the way we’d been Separated at Birth. We made up crazy stories, both literary and about the people we knew—we laughed about Tim Bullen chasing one of the fat Lawson twins (wearing wire sunglasses) on a beach, and the Seduction of Tommy Wissel (with his parents’ reactions), and the Question of Black and White Love. We became enamored of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, convinced we were them reincarnate, and we wanted to leave as much for posterity and our biographers as they had. We began taping our conversations so that one day we would have a record:

  Joey: “‘The world is too much with us; late and soon …’”

  Jennifer: “This world.”

  Joey: “What would our lives have been like if we’d been born some other place?”

  Jennifer: “I was born some other place, but I still ended up here.”

  Joey: “What would our lives be like if we’d been raised some other place?”

  Jennifer: “Like where? Los Angeles?” I was mad about Los Angeles.

  Joey: “Anywhere.” We are quiet as we imagine it.

  Jennifer: “What if I’d never moved here at all? What if my parents had stayed in Maryland? What if you and I had never even met?” We are quiet again. As much as we hate Richmond, at least we are living through it together.

  Joey: “I would still be best friends with Beverly Quigley. I would be talking to her right now. Probably about Jesus and Remington Steele.”

  Jennifer: “And I would be in Maryland, not quite as miserable, but lonelier because I wouldn’t have you and Laura and Hether and Ross, but mostly you, although I like to think we would have found each other anyway.”

  Joey: “Or maybe we found each other here because here is where we need each other most?”

  We are quiet for what is, for us, a long time (five seconds).

  Joey: “If you were still in
Maryland, you wouldn’t know Tom Dehner.”

  (We begin talking very fast from this point on.)

  Jennifer: “Oh my God, he looked so good today.”

  Joey: “He said hi to me at his locker. I was talking to Teresa and he said, ‘What’s up?’”

  Jennifer: “How did he say it? Like, ‘Hey, I really want to be your friend,’ or literally ‘What’s up?’”

  Joey: “Somewhere in between.”

  For the next hour we talk on and on about Tom Dehner.

  When Joey’s neighbors went on vacation, we walked over to their house and slipped in the back door and popped microwave popcorn while he made long-distance calls—to New York, to Los Angeles, to Paris, to Russia—not saying anything, just holding the line open so that even for a few minutes we could feel connected to another place, far, far outside of Richmond.


  Through all the gripes and grumbles of what we hated about those pop quizzes, ten-minute speeches, and ten-page papers that were assigned, some good prevailed. What an accomplishment we felt when we finally finished that term paper we had worked on for nine weeks, or when we saw that “A” on the physics test we were sure we had flunked. We probably will never cease to be amazed that we actually did learn something in our time at school, even if it was to study in our assigned study halls or to know which stairs led up and which led down.

  Kelley Robertson, Jo McQuiston, and Jennifer in math class


  What cares one for algebra?

  Who delights in solving math?

  I only want to live my life

  Along the creative path.

  —Poem written by Jennifer in Algebra, 1985

  If I wanted to get help with math at home, the only option was my father. My mother was as hopeless at math as I was. My father, on the other hand, claimed to be good at it, but I never really knew if this was true because I did anything to avoid asking him for homework help, and this went for any subject. My dad had majored in history, and one of his great passions in life, next to humiliating me, running long distances, competing with me at almost everything, and cooking gourmet meals, was explaining things. If you asked him a simple question, like “Dad, could you please help me with my algebra?” he would say, “To fully understand algebra, we have to first go back to the beginning of time, to the year 21,000 B.C., before math was ever invented …” And then he would talk on and on and on, leading you up through the years, the discovery of math and all of its branches, the biographies of the greatest mathematicians, and sometime, many days later, he would get around to looking at the actual problem in the actual math book.

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