A large clear plastic bag rolls down the freeway shoulder, exemplifying elegance. Its aged dust-colored translucence personifies delicacy; tendrils of plastic whirl like an undersea creature. Trundling parallel to concrete, the bag hops happily and transforms into a frisky terrier. A gust carries it aloft, twisting the bag into a floating pair of lungs. Pareidolia—one of the finest functions of our brains. Urban landscapes of the corrupted, the corroded, resonate when we attach meaning. Weeds bursting through concrete symbolize victory, just as floating-lung bags suggest freedom. What higher mental function is there? Why waste time on anything else but the cinema of creative interpretation?
I first rode my first the bus at 13. It was a twice-daily injection of anxiety and dread. No one I liked sat with me because I fidgeted non-stop. When I realized I had to sit alone, only one place I could sit existed—the very back seat. The roar and vibration of the engine soothed me in a way I did not understand.
Unfortunately, the back seat had been claimed by a loud and popular boy. Never mind that I hunched timidly across from him and kept quiet–my very presence offended his soul to its deepest core. His name was Michael, and the previous year I had my first crush on him. I adored him so openly that it was a source of amusement and derision to much of the sixth grade.
Michael was hyperactive, bossy, and athletic—the boy elected team captain and scolded as a smart-alec. His blonde hair curled with unkempt charm above eyes I never dared look into. I never spoke to him, but I watched him, meticulously recording nuances for future innocent imaginings.
One fall day, Michael asked me to the school’s Halloween Carnival. His shyness startled me—I had imagined him to be universally bold and confident. Thrilled to my core, I shared the news with unabashed enthusiasm and pride.
Oddly, my girlfriends weren’t excited for me. Accustomed to them not sharing my joy, I shrugged it off. My date with Michael was all I could talk about for days. My girlfriend’s non-verbal signals went completely over my head.
Then, Tina, an inscrutable and troubled girl, pulled me aside. “You know, Lori, he doesn’t really like you. He asked you as a joke. If you show up at the carnival, he’s going to tell you he was joking in front of his friends. Right by the apple bobbing station. They are all going to bomb you with wet sponges.” Stunned and humiliated, I turned every shade of pink and red.
Nevertheless, it made sense. I wondered, why didn’t my best friend warn me? Or any other girls from our circle? Tina belonged to another clique and had a reputation for being unpleasant and rude. Why did I have to hear this from her? For a brief second, I thought she was being nasty, but I realized the truth.
Once I knew, word went around quickly. Michael and his friends mocked me openly. I was most puzzled by my close friends’ reaction, which was, “Well, you should have known,” or silence. The humiliation lasted for days. I did not attend the carnival. I did, however, remain loyal to my friends, even though their reactions puzzled and hurt me. Once I made a friend, I stuck around, always expecting better from them.
The next year Michael continued tormented me—but only when his friends were near. I sat at the back seat out of sheer cussedness. No one was going to tell me where I can sit. Eventually, my parents waged a war to stop the harassment and my hurt dissipated, but memories of the ill-treatment lingered.
When I was seventeen, I won a work-study position as a teacher’s assistant for remedial math. Students ranged from disaffected kids destined for the trades to those with more criminal leanings. All struggled with fractions and percentages. I clicked between desks in slick second-hand boots with heel plates as the teacher zoned out, sipping coffee laced with spirits. When our sotted instructor drifted off, I illustrated fractions with outlandish and off-color stories. We misfits bonded. No one was stupid or less-than here. We simply saw math through a different lens, and all anyone needed was a new prescription.
One day Michael showed up in class. Acne-ridden, overly tall, and bony, he was a ghost of the boy I knew. I recognized him with a visible shock, compelling him to hide his face with a pathetic hand gesture. Even his hands had pimples. I vowed to be as kind and patient with him as the other students. So, I told my stories and helped with homework with warm ease before the teacher reeled in. Retreating to the back of the class for the lesson, I graded papers until it was time to aid students with their lessons. Red-faced, Michael never looked up, and I did not approach him. He quit class the next day and eventually dropped out of high school altogether to work in his brother’s car repair shop.
Although schadenfreude struck me when I spotted him, he was so pitifully changed it didn’t linger. He reacted like a beaten dog withering from future brutality. What bitter forces created the initial bully? When I think of villains, I am tempted to reflect on those girls who kept silent. Did they lack bravery or compassion? All the players made indelible marks upon me, so I thank them for teaching me to be a kinder person.
In winter 1993, I socialized with two engineering classmates named Susan. Susan One had long red hair permed to a glorious frizz and cystic acne that made her cry. Susan Two was a sweet-tempered plump Latina with unconventional Nordic features. Since the three of us frequently collaborated on projects, we often socialized on our down time. This Friday, we debated over what movie to watch in the lobby of a mall cinema. The Susans were undecided and I pleaded for anything that wasn’t a romance. Neither of them was interested in seeing Leprechaun, so we were at an impasse. When a noisy cluster of my Nukestock friends arrived to see Groundhog Day, the solution seemed simple: merge our two groups for the best evening ever!
Susan One grumbled since she wanted to see the Christian Slater film, but the compromise sat well with Susan Two and me, so we joined the Nukestock crowd. Loaded with sodas, popcorn and red licorice, we selected seats as shoddy theater ads scrolled before us. Vaughn remarked that the ads resembled xeroxed business cards. Chris produced a laser pointer and bounced its red beam on selected words for humorous effect.
Obviously, this This required musical accompaniment, so I sang words to the tune of My Favorite Things. Soon the Nukestock crowd joined in. “Musical theater!” someone outside our group cried, and raucous laughter erupted amongst the audience. What a delightful evening!
Susan One, however, was not amused. She announced that she was leaving to watch Untamed Heart (with Christian Slater). I assured her our antics would cease the moment the film began, but to no avail. I glanced at Susan Two, who gave me a sad, conflicted look. As their dark forms exited the theater, tears welled in my eyes. They abandoned me. My Nukestock buddies piped down but joked to comfort me. I sat slumped and sullen until Groundhog Day began, then slipped away to find the two Susans. Susan Two was happy to see me in a strained too-friendly way that left me wondering if she was sincere or smug.
I simmered through every dull, insipid moment of Untamed Heart. To tolerate it, I tabulated the parts I loathed the most. Ugh. What do you mean you have a *literal* baboon heart? Oh, God, they’re kissing, again! This dialogue is so corny I am embarrassed for the actors. And so on. I missed my tribe, the odd, eccentric, the fellow haters of romance. Yet, the Susans had a right to their tribe. As excluded as I felt when the Susans left me, how must Susan One felt to storm off? Susan Two was a peach to join her. After all, I had six hilarious friends to hang out with.
After the movie, I sulked as the Susans chattered about the romantic scenes of the film. I longed to remind them I despise romance but kept this to myself. Finally, I gleaned that Susan One had a Christian Slater crush and was too embarrassed to state so outright. I regretted not reading between the lines. A movie is a stupid reason to piss yourself off.
I said, “Good grief, Susan! I would have seen anything if I knew!” She replied, “Well, I dunno. It just seemed silly to mention it.” “Pffft! I’d drag you guys to Albuquerque to see Gary Oldman shirtless!” I said. They laughed. All forgiven.
In six months the Susans graduated and moved away. Susan Two quickly married a wealthy South American. She confessed her degree was for prestige, not practice. It was an expectation from her family, just like military service is for some men. No matter, she is now a happy grandmother to a dozen sweet-tempered grandchildren. Susan One had a harder time. She was diagnosed bipolar and sent me several sad and disturbing letters before vanishing completely. I’ve tried to track her down to no avail. I miss her very much. My Nukestock friends still play with lasers and engage in fascinating adventures I “like” on Facebook.
Give me a stable, constant, predictable life. I smirk as I write these words from my well-appointed room, cuddled under pink blankets after a delicious chocolate smoothie. First world problems, to be sure. But they don’t feel first world. They feel existential, immediate. Life or death.
When I studied evolutionary psychology in the 1990s, understanding I evolved to thrive in a world that no longer exists struck me. How out of place am I? If you hauled me off to the Neolithic, my anxiety, complexity, and determination would be assets. Why don’t they feel like assets now? My brain needs more exciting things than getting my son ready for school.
And how many female forerunners thought the same? Didn’t they choose intelligent mates to make a better world for their children, and so on? All that ambition for me to sit here and feel sorry for myself in comfort and abundance.
The core of me strives to better the world for future generations, but the world will always storm and churn and make its occupants miserable one way or the other. Maybe we need that discontent to evolve, not our bodies, but our understanding of what it is to be human.