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

  But the strangest thing was happening around me. Everywhere I looked, people were falling over in and out of their seats. Every now and then someone stood up and wobbled and a teacher ran forward and caught them. It was mostly girls. A few of them were crying. Students were swaying back and forth and teachers were running this way and that, trying to keep them from falling over. Some of them were so overcome by the movie, they just fainted outright.

  Across the auditorium, upstairs near the front of the screen, Joey stood up from where he was sitting with his World History classmates. He started down the long concrete steps that led to the next level, down to the floor, and that’s when I saw him, teetering there, before a teacher caught him and handed him to Lance Powell, who led him out of Civic Hall.

  He could have died falling down those stairs, I thought.

  When the lights went on, we got up and filed out with our classes. I felt a little shaky. The room had gotten hotter and hotter. So many students were missing. Later I learned they had been taken to a room—all girls, Steve Kutter, who was a hood, and Joey.

  When Joey recovered the ability to speak he said to Steve, “Man, that was some film, huh?”

  Steve said, “Shut up!” He walked to the other side of the room and faced the wall, too embarrassed to even look at Joey. He didn’t talk to him again for a week.

  As I walked out of Civic Hall I thought, However bad drugs are, they can’t be as bad as what we saw in that movie. Drug films were every bit as dangerous as drugs themselves.

  Jennifer and Joey


  Everyone looks particularly tired and Midwestern across the room today.

  —Joey to Jennifer in Mrs. Thompson’s Russian Lit. class

  Mrs. Thompson taught my favorite class of all time, Russian Literature. It was very popular and everyone took it at one time or another even if they hated English or reading or school or Russia (which a lot of people did at that time because we were so afraid of nuclear war).

  Mrs. Thompson was petite but had enormous black hair that seemed almost suspended above her head. Her husband worked at Earlham with my father.

  Joey and I took Russian Literature together. My girlfriends Hether Rielly, Hillary Moretti, and Diane Armiger were also in there, along with Gina Hurd (whose brightly patterned outfits we loved to make fun of) and Sean Mayberry, who was so big and strong and gorgeous it was hard to know where to look. Sean was good friends with Tom Dehner, and I sometimes caught him looking at me, which was, I thought, the next best thing to being flirted with by Tom Dehner himself.

  I was wild about Russian Literature. I loved the books and the writers—especially Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I read every book Mrs. Thompson assigned us, and I never used CliffsNotes like most of my friends. Joey and I both did well on our papers and participated in class, and something about all that excitement made us especially prolific when it came to our note writing. We sat next to each other and not only passed notes, but after a while we carried on entire conversations in our spiral notebooks. Not about the class, of course, but about the people in it (usually Sean Mayberry and his intentions toward me, or Gina Hurd and her crazy wardrobe) and about Mrs. Thompson, and about all the other many, many things in the world that interested us. The paper never left our notebooks—we just each wrote down our side of the dialogue on our own pages and looked over now and then to read what the other had to say. Through it all, we were very quiet. We didn’t speak a word. Unfortunately, Mrs. Thompson wasn’t stupid. She watched Joey and me like hawks.

  Every so often she separated us, placing me on the opposite side of the room by Diane, who had chosen to separate herself from Joey, Hether, Hill, and me because she said we distracted her too much, and she would never get anything done sitting beside us. When she saw me coming, she did a bit of eye rolling. Now, because we sat in a kind of half circle, I was directly across from Joey, which meant we could mouth things to each other. Every time Mrs. Thompson would turn to the board, Joey would mime something and I would mime something back. Sometimes Joey would write something down in his notebook, big enough for me to read, and hold it up. The unfortunate thing was that everyone else could read it, too.

  I still remembered some sign language from sixth grade—from the time Heather Craig and I learned it so we could communicate across the room—so after school one day I taught some to Joey. Unfortunately, I had only taught myself the individual letters of the alphabet, so it was very slow having to spell out words, much less entire sentences, one letter at a time. Joey and I tried this the next day in class, but it took too long to spell things, and Mrs. Thompson kept turning around, which made us have to start over again. Every time she turned around, she’d look at us, first Joey, then me, and she’d frown.

  Finally, after a week of this, she let us sit together again, but she gave us a warning. She said, “My eyes are on you.” She looked mostly at Joey as she said it. “I know you are good friends. You are two of my best students, but don’t let me catch you talking to each other anymore during this class.”

  I decided it was best not to point out that, technically, we weren’t actually talking, because I had learned my lesson about that back in seventh grade after an unfortunate run-in with my sewing teacher. Instead, we promised Mrs. Thompson and nodded and said we would be good. The next day, I opened my notebook and started copying down Mrs. Thompson’s lecture dutifully. To the left of me, Joey made a little noise. I ignored him. He made it again. I looked over out of the corner of my eye. On his paper, he had written, Gina is looking especially lovely today.

  And we were off and running.

  Joey and I were, as a rule, competitive with each other—in speech meets and in English classes. I wouldn’t cheat for him on quizzes, much as he asked me to, and he sometimes beat me at grades and I sometimes beat him. Somehow we almost always came out even. But on one memorable day, Mrs. Thompson gave Joey an extension on some work, which I thought was unfair.

  Teacher’s pet, I wrote to him. She looooooves you.

  He wrote back, Oh, calm down. It’s a one-day extension. Not a proposal of marriage.

  I wrote, A one-day extension that no one else got, Mr. Sensitive. Did I hit a nerve?

  He wrote, Um. No. But you’ve certainly got nerve.

  Suddenly we were fighting. This had never happened before. We sat side by side, not writing back and forth. I didn’t hear a word of Mrs. Thompson’s lecture. Hether slipped me a note but I didn’t even open it.

  That night, Joey didn’t call me and I didn’t call him. My mom said, “The phone is awfully quiet.” She picked it up to make sure it was working. I sighed at her and went up to bed early and didn’t even turn on the television. I just got in my bed and lay there wondering if this was it, if the very best friendship I’d ever had was over. Suddenly I had visions of myself alone in Richmond without Joey, trying to survive RHS on my own till graduation, and it was terrifying. Of course I blamed him. He was too touchy, I told myself. It wasn’t fair that he should get preferential treatment. Just lying there, I got mad all over again. I hadn’t been this mad at him since he stole Tom Dehner’s class schedule from the guidance office and managed to get changed into all his classes when I hadn’t been able to change a single one of my own.

  The next day, Joey and I sat in class not writing notes. Mrs. Thompson seemed relieved and happy. To be honest, she seemed elated. She smiled. She laughed. She practically skipped from her desk to the blackboard. The happier she was, the madder I got. Over and over, I glanced at Joey out of the corner of my eye, but he wouldn’t look at me.

  I went home that night and once again he didn’t call me and I didn’t call him. The next day I couldn’t stand it—Mrs. Thompson skipping and smiling, uninterpreted glances from Sean Mayberry, a particularly outlandish outfit from Gina, and Joey sulking at me (he could sulk better than anyone I knew). I wrote him a note.

  Since this is a week to say what we want, let’s quit being chil
dren. Shall we? I’ll apologize for teasing you, if you apologize for snapping my head off. Really, Gina is too good to waste today. Besides, the class is wondering why we’re so quiet.

  I passed the note to Joey. He wrote, Well I don’t really appreciate being forever told Mrs. Thompson is catering to me when she gave me a one-day extension one time. It’s not like I’m working any less hard than anyone else. But it’s a good thing we cleared this up because I need to say two things: 1st, how good Sean Mayberry looks across the room, and 2nd, where in the hell did Gina buy that outfit, the Circus Shoppe?

  We wrote back and forth for a bit, wondering if Gina got dressed in the dark, where Mrs. Thompson had her hair styled, what Sean Mayberry was thinking when he smiled at me like that. Then, at one point, Mrs. Thompson turned around from the board in midsentence and froze. She was looking directly at us. We weren’t doing anything that she could see. Joey was writing on his paper. I was writing on mine. We were being the epitome of subtlety. But we were smiling in a very familiar way. All the color seemed to leave her cheeks. She stopped speaking. Slowly she turned back to the board, and, after a moment, began writing again.

  Joey wrote: Poor Mrs. T. For a while she thought we were finally split up.

  I wrote back, It will take a lot more than Russian Literature to tear us apart.

  Jennifer and Joey at the Carl Sandburg House in North Carolina

  How I Spent My Summer

  I just want to go far, far away from here—some place where they’ve never heard of Indiana.

  —Jennifer to Joey, 1985

  My friends liked to come over to my house to get a little culture. My parents did things that many of my friends’ parents didn’t do. My mother played the piano. My father smoked a pipe. My father drove a classic old Jaguar with real leather seats, and later a Mercedes. My dad ran marathons in faraway places like Boston and New York City. My mother wrote books. My parents had both been to college and even to graduate school. They spoke foreign languages. Our walls were painted bright colors, not just white or off-white. My parents collected Japanese art and Persian rugs and had once lived in Asia. My dad could speak Hindi and Urdu. My mom still remembered some of the Okinawan dances she had learned when we were living there. We were Quakers. My father was a gourmet chef in his spare time. My parents had wine with dinner. And during spring break and in the summers, we traveled.

  All of these things gave us an air of fascination to my friends, most of whose parents had been born and raised in Richmond, and hadn’t been to college, and worked sensible jobs, and came home to sensible houses with white walls and art that had been purchased at Hackman-Eickemeyer Furniture or Bullerdick Furniture or Target or Webb’s Antique Mall in Centerville. They ate casseroles for dinner and during summer they drove to Indianapolis or Dayton or Brookville Lake, or just stayed home.

  In the ninth grade, I competed on a history team with some of my classmates. We won the regional and state rounds of competition, which meant we traveled to Washington, D.C., to compete in nationals. My parents chaperoned us and, when we weren’t performing, they took us to see the sights since they were familiar with the city.

  When we got home to Indiana, Ruthie Mullen wrote my parents a thank-you note: Visiting Washington with you was very interesting and definitely a terrific experience. I now want to become a balloonist, a first lady, an astronaut, an architect, and, of course, a historian with a foreign accent. My parents helped open the world to my friends.

  I first went to New York with my parents in June of 1982. Rick Springfield, whose posters covered my walls, was playing at Carnegie Hall. When they told us at the box office that tickets were sold out, that they’d been sold out for weeks, my father spent an hour talking to scalpers until he found the very best seats. The only catch was that he could only get two tickets together (or so he said). He and my mother argued over who would take me.

  “You should go with her,” my dad said. “She’ll have more fun with you.”

  “No,” my mom said. “You bought her the tickets. You should go. I insist.”

  “I wouldn’t hear of it. You go.”

  “No, no. You.”

  Back and forth, back and forth, politely but firmly arguing because neither one of them wanted to go to the Rick Springfield concert. In the end, my mom lost, and my dad walked us there and dropped us off and then practically ran for the nearest deli, happy to be free of the mob scene of chattering teen and preteen girls and their mothers. My mom spent the entire concert in the lobby with the other mothers, Kleenex stuffed into her ears, while all the girls but me screamed and cried over Rick and I tried hard to hear him over all the noise. It was my first rock concert.

  We went back to New York after that for visits here and there, and in the summer of 1985, while my dad stayed in Richmond, too busy to join us, my mom and I lived for almost a month in the city while she organized the papers of playwright Horton Foote. We stayed in Horton’s apartment in Greenwich Village and sorted through boxes of letters and old manuscripts and finished and unfinished scripts.

  Joey came to visit and stayed for a week. Joey’s mom had been born at Reid Hospital in Richmond. She graduated from Richmond High School in 1964. Mike Kraemer came from Wisconsin, but he had lived in Richmond for thirty years and never planned to live anywhere else. This was Joey’s first time in New York and he fell in love with it instantly. We sat on the floor of Horton’s office and held the Oscars he won for Tender Mercies and To Kill a Mockingbird. We pretended they were ours and took turns posing for pictures with them. Then we stretched out on the floor, side by side, and looked through the family albums because we knew that Horton’s daughter Daisy Foote, which was one of the funniest names we had ever heard, was dating at that time a boy we were very much in love with: Matthew Broderick. We wanted to take all the pictures he was in for ourselves and slip them into our own photo albums, or take them back to school with us and show them to our friends or to the girls who were mean to me to show them how cool we were in our real lives outside of Richmond High School.

  My mom took us to Broadway shows, to Lincoln Center, to the ballet, to museums, and to Sunday brunch at the Waldorf. We sat on the hood of a cab at the U.N. and posed for pictures, and did Bloomingdale’s, and Trump Tower, but the highlight was seeing Biloxi Blues on Broadway. At one point Matthew Broderick’s character said, “I just want a girl to say, ‘Eugene, I’m here, come get me!’” and we burst into a fit of giggles that made Matthew forget his next line. The usher had to come down the aisle and ask us to be quiet, but we wanted to stand up then and there and shout it back to Matthew: “Eugene, we’re here! Come get us!”

  In the afternoons and evenings, Joey and I sat in the big picture window in Horton’s bedroom, three floors up from the world, above the trees, legs dangling, and looked out over the transvestites and young professionals and thugs—all the humanity! We could see the lights of “Liberty” down the river and the outline of the Twin Towers and the sound of distant laughter from down below, from far away, from over in New Jersey, and we talked about how our lives were just beginning, about all the things we would do, the places we would go. In the mornings, we walked down to the corner store and bought bagels for breakfast. Then we walked back and stood outside the apartment building and looked out at the river and the Statue of Liberty in the distance and talked of future times when we would be famous.

  One day, on our way back to the apartment, we passed a patch of freshly poured cement at a construction site. Joey picked up a rock and wrote Joe Kraemer. Below it, I wrote Jennifer Niven, which was the name I wanted to use one day when I was an actress or a writer. Joey added an and in between our names, and below them he wrote forever.

  At the end of the week, Joey went back to Richmond, and then it was just my mom and me. We worked in the apartment during the day, organizing Horton’s papers. At night we slipped out into the city and went to see A Chorus Line or an off-Broadway play or met friends for dinner.

  About a week after Jo
ey left, my mother and I were fixing lunch, around twelve-thirty or so, when the telephone rang.

  “Mom, would you get that?’ I said, because I hated answering the phone there.

  “No, my hands are full, you’ll have to get it.”

  Oh God. Sigh. Complain. Complain. Groaning, I turned the TV volume down to low, and on the third ring, picked up the phone. “Horton Foote residence, Jennifer McJunkin speaking.”

  “Hi, is this the answering service?”

  Not knowing what to say, I said, “Yes.”

  “Oh,” the voice said. “Could I speak to Daisy, please?”

  (Panic … momentary curiosity … a quiet, nagging thought in the back of my mind.)

  “She’s not here right now, could I take a message?”


  “Well, yes, could you tell her Matthew called?”

  I KNEW IT!! I knew it! I knew it!

  “Sure, would you like me to have her call you?” (How I got the words out and remained calm, I’ll never know.)

  “No, just tell her I called.” (Pause.) “You know, this doesn’t really sound like an answering service.”

  (Laughter from both as I said:)

  “We’re friends of the family and we’re staying in the apartment.”

  “Oh … then Daisy definitely isn’t there. You checked under the beds and everything?”

  “Yes, and even in the closets.”

  (Laughter from him.) (I made Matthew Broderick laugh! God!)

  “Okay. Well, tell her I called.”

  “Okay. Bye.”


  I hung up. I screamed.


  My mother came running out of the kitchen to make sure I was all right and that I hadn’t hurt myself or been attacked by murderers. After I told her what had happened, word for word, I sat down and wrote everything to Joey. And then I called him and told him all about it.

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