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

  Jennifer’s mom at her office typewriter


  The pen is mightier than the sword, but a well-aimed typewriter packs a good punch, too.


  It was my mom’s idea that I take Typing. Before she suggested it, Typing was just one of the many classes I was vaguely aware of that existed in the new Career Center just off the cafeteria. Everything over there smelled shiny and clean and fresh and cool and looked like something made by Mattel. Ivy Tech Community College shared the facilities with us and there were wildly exotic-sounding classes like Vocational and Industrial Arts Management, which included Auto Mechanics, Machine Shop, Building Trades, Home Economics, and Agriculture. There were also secretarial classes and computer classes, although I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a computer class. Computers were something only the strangest of strange boys studied—the nerdiest of nerds, the brainiacs. Boys who wore ties and didn’t wash their hair and always, always got the labs right in Chemistry.

  My mother typed all the time because she was working on a book—the first official biography in all the world of the poet Carl Sandburg—and my mom said she couldn’t possibly write it without knowing how to type. I had always handwritten my own songs and stories—stories about the Vietnam War and prisons and mysteries and horses, and, best of all, stories about Jennifer Niven, world-famous rock star, who travels from country to country with her younger and very sexy boyfriend. But I thought maybe typing would save me time and allow me to write faster. If I wrote faster, I could turn out more stories.

  I decided to get Typing out of the way as soon as possible and signed up for it first semester sophomore year. The typewriters sat on our desks—enormous blocks—so huge you could barely see over them or past them. They were impossible to pick up, so God forbid you had to move them for any reason. We sat alphabetically. School was still new and we were still new to it and one another. There was a cute boy behind me with blond hair and glasses. He was lanky and had a nice smile. He slouched in his chair, which made him immediately seem cooler than anyone else.

  When Mrs. Young called role the first day she said, “Jennifer McJunkin?”

  I said, “Here.”

  Then she said, “Ned Mitchell?”

  The slouchy boy behind me mumbled, “Here.”

  I sat there thinking, Ned Mitchell. Ned Mitchell. It was a name that was very familiar. And then it hit me with visions of monkey bars and jungle gyms and cracked gray asphalt and foursquare lines on pavement. I hadn’t seen Ned Mitchell since fourth grade when we played Charlie’s Angels at Westview Elementary, when he was Charlie, sitting in the middle of the domed jungle gym, passing out undercover assignments to Heather Craig, Susie Leggett, and me. He was one of my first best friends in Richmond, until he moved away to another part of town, another school district. It was like he’d vanished from the earth. And now all these years later, there he was behind me.

  I turned in my seat and said, “Charlie? Charlie Townsend, is that you?”

  He blinked at me for a minute, scrunching down in his chair, too lazy and cool to sit like a normal person. Then he said, “What?”

  I said, “It’s me. Kelly Garrett. Your angel.”

  He stared at me like I was insane. And then, suddenly, a light came into his eyes and swept over his face and he sat up just a little. “Good morning, Angel,” he said.

  From that moment on, we were best friends again. We exchanged phone numbers and talked every night on the telephone, long into the wee hours, even after I was supposed to be asleep. After my mom told me good night and I turned off my light, I’d dial Ned back and lie there under the covers talking to him. We could talk about anything in the world.

  Sometimes Ned would call me from the bathtub, where I tried not to picture his naked feet, which for some reason bothered me more than the rest of him being naked and soapy. He knew his feet bothered me, so he always mentioned them. Like, “Guess what I’m doing with my feet right now? I’m clogging up the drain spout with my big toe.”

  I told him I would hang up on him if he kept talking like that.

  “I think you can tell a lot about a person by his feet,” Ned said one night.

  “I don’t like feet,” I said.

  “Any feet?”

  “I like my feet.”

  “But no one else’s?”

  I thought about this. “I like my cat’s feet.”

  “People feet.”


  “Why yours and only yours?”

  “I have pretty toes.” I was lying on my yellow bed. I held my feet up then and waved them around so that the nail polish sparkled. On the other end of the line Ned splashed around. I tried not to hear the water.

  He said, “What do you think Mr. Lebo’s feet look like?”

  “Don’t.” I pushed the pillow around my ears.

  “I bet they have hairs on them and long yellow toenails.”

  “I’m going to hang up the phone.”

  “Like a hobbit.”

  I was suffocating myself with the pillow.

  “What about Mr. Fleagle’s feet?” Mr. Fleagle was my Driver’s Ed teacher. I thought about him pushing on the emergency brake over and over again while I drove. “I bet they’re long and scaly like a rat.”

  “Oh my God.” I couldn’t stand it. I had the pillow over my head.

  “What about Mrs. Young’s feet?”

  “She might have pretty feet,” I said through the pillow.

  “Maybe.” I could hear the water splashing. “Tom Mangas has ugly feet.” Tom was Ned’s best friend, but they were always competing over everything.

  I didn’t say anything to this because it was probably true.

  And then, for the next two hours, we went through the entire faculty and student body—everyone from Principal Denney French to Tom Dehner—guessing what their feet looked like.

  One night, Ned and I had been on the phone for an especially long time. The cord to my green phone (which perfectly matched the walls of my room) was knotted and twisted from all my pacing. The cord was so long that to unwind it I had to stand on top of a chair or, better yet, my desk, which was a sturdy old sewing table that no longer had the sewing machine but did have the foot pedal, which I loved to push-push-push while I worked or read or wrote. On this particular night, Ned and I had been talking for at least three hours without a break.

  Around nine, I heard my father come home. I couldn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but his voice was loud and I could tell he was unhappy. A few minutes later, there was a knock on my door. “Jennifer?” It was my mom. She opened the door and poked her head in. “Your father has been trying to call for three hours.”

  My stomach did a little flip. “Oh?”



  “Well, why don’t you tell him good night.”

  After she had gone, I told Ned what had happened and that I was being made to go, and we grumbled about the unfairness of it all.

  The next day, my father called the phone company and ordered call-waiting. This was a very big deal because most people didn’t have call-waiting. For months, my mom and I had been telling him we needed it but he kept saying it was a waste of money.

  My parents sat me down in the living room.

  “This does not mean you can talk for hours on the phone, just because people can now get through,” my dad said. “We did not have this installed so that you could talk indefinitely.”

  “Of course.”

  “It also doesn’t mean that you can talk to one person on one line and another person on another line and go back and forth between them.”

  “Okay.” I had never even thought of this. Call-waiting is a miracle. The possibilities are endless.

  “Do you understand?”


  I couldn’t wait to call Ned to tell him about the call-waiting. I figured now we could talk on the phone all night if we wanted to.

  We were
in danger of failing Typing. Not just because we stayed up half the night talking, which meant we were seriously sleep deprived, but because we typed each other notes in class when we were supposed to be typing things like: The little duck swims in the pond as the sun settles in the sky. Mrs. Young, so patient, so kind, threatened to separate us if we didn’t straighten up.

  Then there came a magical day when the sun was out and my hair actually looked good and Tom Mangas wrote me a note in Spanish class, asking me out to a movie for that coming weekend. My heart was light and free and the very next period I would see Ned and we would type notes to each other about people’s feet and try not to laugh too hard so that we didn’t get in trouble, and that night we would talk for hours, and then there would be just three more days before the weekend and my date.

  I got to class before Ned and was just getting things set up for the hour when he came stalking into the room. He breezed by me and sat down behind me and ripped the cover off his typewriter and threw it onto the floor and started pounding on the keys. I turned around and said, “What’s wrong?”

  He glanced up, just once, and gave me a sort of death stare.

  I said, “What?”

  He said, “I hear you’re going out with Mangas.”

  I thought, Wow, news travels fast. But out loud I said, “That’s right.” His fingers went bang-bang-bang on the keys. I said, “You’re going to break the typewriter if you keep doing that.”

  He said, “Why don’t you turn around and do your work?”

  For almost thirty seconds I couldn’t speak. I just stared at him. I said, “What is wrong with you?”

  He said, “Nothing. What’s wrong with you?”

  Mrs. Young said, “Jennifer, Ned, class has started. Please keep it down. Jennifer, turn around please.”

  Ned smiled to himself, a gloaty, mean sort of smile. His fingers went bang-bang-bang. I turned around and lifted the cover off my typewriter and folded it up and set it on top of my books. I got out a piece of blank paper and slipped it into the carriage and opened my typing book and began to copy the day’s lesson.

  The red rooster runs around the barnyard twenty times …

  Everyone else went clickety-clack, clickety-clickety on the keys, but Ned sat there going bang-bang-bang in my ear. I knew the entire time he was typing at me. When the bell rang, he threw the cover back onto the typewriter and grabbed his books and pushed past me before I could even stand up. He didn’t call me that night. Or the night after. Or the night after. He stopped talking to me completely. Every day it was the same—bang-bang-bang. Bang-bang-bang.

  Mrs. Young would say, “Ned, please type a little softer. You’re going to break the machine.”


  I didn’t say a word to him. I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. Instead I came into class and sat down at my desk and stared at my typewriter or straight ahead and learned exactly what I was supposed to learn. I paid attention. I didn’t talk or write notes. That weekend, I went out with Tom Mangas. I said, “Has Ned said anything to you?”

  He said, “No.”

  The rest of the semester it was the same. I stopped dating Tom and started dating Eric Lundquist, and Ned still wouldn’t talk to me. But I got an A in Typing, and that Christmas, my parents bought me a typewriter—smaller than a car, smart and electric and fast. I set it up on my sewing table desk underneath my window and wrote story after story, poems and songs and novellas about life beyond Richmond.

  Robert Ignacio and Ned Mitchell in Health class

  Our Good Health and Safety

  This hour isn’t just a class—it’s an adventure. Students may be introduced to shuffleboard, archery, and crab-soccer. They also have the chance to skate, but are not required to. Along with fun there has to be safety. One of the big-time happenings in this class is learning CPR. And bandaging each other is really more fun than study.

  —1984 Pierian

  When we first moved to Richmond, one of our neighbors tried to make friends with my mother. Mrs. Harper belonged to several bowling leagues and teams and was always inviting my mom to bowl. My mom was not a bowler and would come up with polite excuses as to why she could never join her. Until one day, when Mrs. Harper asked again, and Mom said no again—she was working on her book; she and my dad were hosting a party for his work; she was helping me with a school project; she had to clean the house.

  When my mom was done talking, Mrs. Harper shook her head and looked at my mother with a great deal of pity. She said, “You poor thing. You must never get to bowl.”

  The summer before my junior year, I took summer school gym because the session was shorter and we did things like play tennis, which I was at least decent at, and which they didn’t do during the regular school year. I signed up for classes with Joey.

  When it came time for the bowling part of class, we piled onto a school bus and drove to the east side of town, past the mall, to 40 Lanes, which had a pro shop, an arcade, a snack bar, a nursery, and a lounge. I wasn’t one bit interested in bowling. I hated the ugly shoes and the stale smell of the place—a combination of socks and old feet and cigarettes and beer. Tennis was one thing. I was good at tennis. Bowling was another. I had never bowled. I might not be good at it, and I didn’t like to not be good at things. When it was my turn to bowl, I said, “I don’t care if I never bowl in my life. Who wants to bowl for me?”

  Joey was the fastest to volunteer. He grabbed a ball and jammed his fingers inside and went marching toward the pins. He said, “I hope you’re watching this. Because this is how it’s done.” He flung his arm back and let the ball go and at the same time he went flying forward onto his stomach and slid halfway down the lane. Just like in a movie. The ball went right into the gutter. We all clapped and cheered. He did this over and over again. In the end, my total score was a nine and I hadn’t once picked up a ball.

  On the bus ride home, Mr. Fleagle came barreling down the aisle, his face red, and shouted: “Where’s McJunkin?”

  I was sitting next to Joey, laughing and talking. I said, “Here.”

  He shouted, “A NINE?!”

  I just blinked at him and shrugged. I didn’t think it was a good idea to mention that I hadn’t done my own bowling. I said, “I don’t seem to be cut out for this sport.”

  He stared at me. I hadn’t seen him this furious since Driver’s Ed. He said, “You can say that again!” He went back down the aisle, back to the front of the bus, sputtering and muttering, shaking his head, talking to himself.

  After the summer of 1984, I never bowled again.

  During our sophomore year, we were forced to take Health. This was where we learned CPR and practiced bandaging each other, which meant we turned ourselves into mummies when our teacher, Mr. Rogers, wasn’t looking.

  Mr. Rogers was very serious. He knew that he had been entrusted with a great responsibility, that he was teaching us perhaps the most important lessons we would ever learn in our lives. Because of this, he tried not to lose his temper when we used up all the bandaging tape on our mummification rituals and went stumbling into walls, blinded and sightless, our arms stretched out before us. Time and again, he tried to impress upon us the seriousness of life. He made it very clear that our homes were “accidents waiting to happen.”

  I was already paranoid about driving, thanks to Mr. Kemper and Mr. Fleagle, and now I became nervous in my own house. Everywhere I looked, I wondered if things were going to catch fire or explode without warning (for some reason, these were the accidents that came to mind). I made my mother buy extra fire extinguishers and test the smoke alarms. My parents bought a rope ladder we could use to climb out of the second-floor windows if we ever had to. We went over an emergency evacuation plan, in case we had to leave the house quickly—who would be responsible for grabbing the cat, the dog, my ABBA albums, my best shoes, my hair spray, etc.

  One day Mr. Rogers announced that we were having an all-school assembly so that we could watch a film on the danger
s of doing drugs. This was exciting, of course, because it meant getting out of class. It was early in our sophomore year, when we were still new to the school. Mr. Rogers lined us up and we followed him down to Civic Hall, where the entire school was gathered.

  Principal French stood on the stage with a giant movie screen behind him. He tested the microphone and it squeaked and squawked, making us groan and cover our ears. He said, “Sorry, sorry. Some of our friends have joined us today from the Richmond Police Department.” He waved at a group of officers who sat in the front row on the floor of the gym. “They’ve been kind enough to bring a film to share with you about a very real problem, and afterward they will be on hand to answer any questions you might have. I thought this was a very important thing for all of us to learn about because drugs are terrible and such a problem not only in this country but in this school. There is drug use going on right this very minute around us, and maybe this will help put a stop to it.”

  I looked around me and wondered who was doing drugs right this minute. I didn’t see anyone doing anything unusual, but then I didn’t know anything about drugs, other than what I’d read in Rolling Stone and the one book I owned about Donovan and the Beatles.

  The film started and it wasn’t animated but real—with real people (played by actors) and real situations. There were a lot of needles. There were kids shooting needles into their arms at school and in parks and at home. Anywhere they could shoot up, they were shooting up with those needles. They shot up in cars and in alleyways and at movie theaters. And then they threw up and walked into walls and yelled at their parents and made them cry, and then they found some more needles and shot up again. I thought it seemed unrealistic, and the acting was really bad—worse than on Fantasy Island.

  After a long time of all this shooting up, the kids who were doing it were then rushed to the emergency room and then there were more needles as the doctors and nurses were sticking needles in their arms to give them IVs. I had seen Trapper John, M.D. and I didn’t think this was realistic at all. There had never been a single episode in which so many kids were rushed to the hospital at once for using drugs.

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