|Asexual Mandy in floods on left. Sexy sister on right.|
A kindly cellist tried to tutor me on the art of bangs. Apparently you were supposed to fluff them up. She suggested I try using a curling iron. We all know that didn't end well. A few second-degree burns later and I had decided to cut it all off. Short hair was edgy, right?
I ended up looking like Carol Brady.
I somehow summoned the courage to reach outside of my tight social circle of nerds. I needed hair advice and I needed to bring in the pros. I approached a rather gorgeous and friendly tall girl who had incredibly stylish hair. It might have been one of those asymmetrical short eighties wedges, you may recall. Something akin to A Flock of Seagulls. I figured perhaps we might share a sisterhood of the overly tall and she might take pity on me.
"What should I do with my hair?" I asked. "It doesn't look cool like yours." I laid my cluelessness at her feet and put faith in the kindness of tall girls.
"I love the short hair!" she said. "You just need to update it a little!" She smiled and this encouraged me.
"How do I do that? Where do I go?" I asked. I needed specifics. I needed a salon. I needed a hairdresser. I now had the right vocabulary all I needed was the right person to translate the artistic direction.
"Update it," I told the hair stylist at Mario Max. If I was straight and to the point, it's because I had no other words in my arsenal. But thanks to the beautiful and tall Claire, I had that much at least.
"Do you want it spiky? Do you want it shorter in back? How do you like the bangs?" The handsome gay stylist moved my hair in the mirror and asked me questions as if I had any idea of what he was talking about.
"Update it," I repeated. "Do whatever you think will look good."
And really, what more does a hair stylist need to hear?
In hindsight, I am touched by the kindness of adolescent girls. I blush to think I so naively and without embarrassment sought the counsel of other girls. I was a rube and they must have known it, but they took pity on me still. I did find my fair share of mean girls in middle school and even found them amongst my own tribe of the misfit and the musical. I recall a school trip, to somewhere far. Some place that required a long bus trip, a friend to share a seat with, and a small group to ride the rides with.
Clearly, a trip made for disaster.
I’d recently gotten in a fight with a close friend. I perceived this friend as more popular than I was. Okay, admittedly not an impressive feat. But I was taken aback by her friendship. Her interest floored me. She invited me over to her house. We had sleepovers. She wore brand-name clothes and lived in a big house. What on earth was she doing with a loser like me?
This practically popular friend and I had a falling out, and with that, my entire social standing bottomed out. I should have known better than to have had a fight with her just a week before the all-important school trip. I hadn’t factored in how it would affect my ability to find a group of four to join. At that late juncture, any and all friends I had were already neatly grouped to ride the rollercoasters built for four and no more. But the school said to break ourselves up into groups of four and to sign up as a unified team for the school trip on a list posted in the main hallway.
After the fight with my practically popular friend, my name was unceremoniously crossed off the original list. My eyes scanned the other groups of friends and near-friends to see if there was a threesome looking for a fourth to tag along. No such luck for an awkward tall girl trying to read the list without crying.
Students filed past me as I stood staring at the bulletin board. Some friends stopped to ask what was wrong and I could barely get the words out without crying.
“I need a group for the school trip. Do you guys have any room?” I tried to sound casual but the stink of desperation was on me.
“No, sorry! We’ve already got four in our group. Have you asked so-and-so?”
All the so-and-so’s that might not mind a social anchor like me were all matched up into perfect sets of four and no more. My desperation grew stronger as the day went on. I had an end of the day deadline and a dance card to fill.
At one point I was talking to some friends in the hallway trying to strategize and brainstorm potential pairings for me when I espied my former best friend in the distance. Her collars were popped. She stood in profile and smiled and laughed while my social ship was sinking in plain view.
It was too much. My resolve, broken. The dam began to break and I felt the tears fall in the middle school hall. Tall girl down. And she’s going down hard.
I ran down the hall to the pay phone. I called my mother’s office. It was a Hail Mary pass to be sure, but I was calling this one in to a higher power. I could only hope that the higher power in question was sober, just this once.
“Mom,” I started to speak and my voice broke as soon as I heard her voice.
I explained the situation as best I could, blubbering in noisy school hallway.
“You wait right there,” she said. I could hear the steel in her voice. This was a woman on a mission. Perhaps my tears and torment were enough to sober her up. Perhaps she didn’t drink at work. Who’s to say? All I knew was that my mother was on her way.
I stood by the front doors with my forehead pressed against the glass. I waited for my savior, the cause of and solution to all of my social problems at school. I knew she would fix it, somehow. I had faith in the magic that adults could wizard into the brutalism of youth, hocus-pocusing away our amateurish attempts at cruelty.
I watched her walk from her car to the school. I saw her face through the reflection of my own in the glass and noticed we both looked set and determined. There were moments that I could rely on my mother. Moments she broke through the fog of alcoholism, or depression, or passivity or whatever it was she had going on — not that I could divine any of it at 13.
But this was one such moment. Not unlike the sun breaking through the dark gray cloud that hung over the concrete school. Mother’s love was like Michigan sun. Rare and all the more stunning because of it.
She came through the doors and she looked fierce. You did not fuck with my mom when she was pissed. She walked over to me with a firm and set face, and she hugged me hard, yet briefly.
I sobbed. The tears started rolling as soon as my eyes had set upon her. She indulged my tears for a moment and then she pulled me away and looked in my eyes.
“You stop crying now. It is going to be okay. We are going to figure this out.” She looked into my eyes like she meant business and I believed her like religion.
I nodded my head and sniffled.
“Don’t let them see you cry,” she said. I let my eyes stray to the hallway where I could see a collection of girls watching us.
I sniffled again and widened my eyes in order to dry them.
“Okay,” I said.
At that point, a friend had walked up to us with some other scared-looking friends behind her. They had the “Oh Shit Her Mom’s Here” look on their faces that nice girls will adopt as soon as an adult is present.
“Hi Mrs. Fish. Mandy, what’s wrong?” my friend asked and turned towards me.
“She’s fine,” my mother said. “Just trying to figure some things out.” And with that, my mother and the friend managed to figure out a way to get me on that bus with a completely brand-new threesome of friends. How they conjured a group of three teenage girls out of the atmosphere to befriend and ride with me, I don’t know. But my mother and that kind girl made it happen.
Later that day, the friend I’d been fighting with, the friend who’d kicked me out of my original group, came back and offered me a spot with her on the bus.
“Mandy, you can be in my group. I didn’t know you were so upset!” she said. I had no way of knowing whether she was sincere, whether my own insecurities had conjured this perceived outcast state, or whether it was the cruelty of teenaged girls at play. Both and all are possible. But what I did know was that she would never know it. I would never let her know she’d hurt me or that I cared.
I flipped my hair. Shrugged my shoulders.
“No, it’s fine. I have a group. No problem. My feelings aren’t hurt at all,” I said and tried the lie on for size.
I vowed to keep at it until it fit.
That's the end of the chapter, "MIddle School: Dante's Forgotten Circle of Hell." This is just one chapter in a longer work, a memoir of my childhood. Hopefully I will finish the collection by 2014 and will keep you posted on my work with getting an agent and getting it published. Thanks for reading!