seventeen

The year that Mrs. A.’s husband died suddenly, E.’s mother died, too. This was junior year. It rained on the day of Mr. A.’s funeral. There were so many people there at the church that lines formed out the door and back toward the parking lot. People stood out there in the rain, crying. There were a few rows reserved for her students but D. and I slipped into a pew toward the back, kept our heads down. Adolescent misanthropy made us cruel and dismissive in our assessments of the high school faculty, but Mrs. A. was spared most of our disdain. She was kind. When you spoke to her, you felt her listening.

Later that year, when E. stood at the door of the church, looking crumpled and pale as we filed past him, he said: Come by the house after and have some food with us. I nodded, but I could only bear so much sadness. I drove back to school and found a dark corner of the cafeteria. Someone was playing U2 on a crappy boom box, over and over. I spent the rest of the afternoon with my spiral notebook, writing down evidence against the existence of God, or at least, against a God that was not capricious and petty and mean.

No one was surprised to learn that L. was pregnant. We had watched her slip off campus in the afternoons with the boy who drove the red Trans Am. They were bold. He’d drive right into the parking lot and honk the horn by the windows of the gymnasium. She’d run out, her skirt rolled up at the waist, slide in next to him and they were gone. On some days, the particularly brazen days, they’d sit out there in the lot for a few minutes, with the passenger side door open, L.’s bare leg still extended as if she would only be leaning into the car for a moment, but instead, they would kiss, right there out in the open, in the full sight of God and everyone. In our theology class, we said a short prayer for her spiritual guidance. She did not return the next year.

It was the year we rented limousines for the spring dance. For several awkward hours in the bland hotel ballroom – emboldened by the sickeningly sweet blackberry brandy smuggled in by M.’s older sister – we danced on the fake wooden floor tiles that had been nailed down over the worn carpet. Our bodies were slick with sweat by the time we headed to the beach behind D.’s house. We left our strappy high-heeled shoes behind and walked barefoot on the cool damp sand.

Were I to draw up a list now, of things to tell my younger self, things that I wished I had known, it would carry, I think, the familiar, the well-worn: Listen to your heart, believe in yourself. Know that you will get through, etc.

But for that seventeenth year, I would also add these:

When E. asks you to go back to the house after his mother’s funeral, go – even though you don’t want to. Go because E. is so filled with grief and confusion that the only way he knows to relieve it is to write down the names of his friends. Your name is on that list. Stand next to him in his living room, while relatives he has never met try to cheer him. It is alright that you don’t know what to say. He only needs you to stand there, next to him. You will learn this yourself, a few years later, at your own mother’s funeral.

When you turn the corner in the locker room to find L., sitting cross-legged on the ground with her head in her hands, sit down next to her. Take her hand. You do not need to say anything. She is not looking for advice. She knows already what she will do. Sit with her there for the few minutes before the bell rings. We all remember kindness.

When huddled together on the damp sand as the sun comes up over the water, and C., your date turns to you and says I think that was the best night of my whole life, don’t hesitate; don’t pause to think about all the little ways in which the night was not like a movie. Don’t look away for a moment before turning back and saying: In your whole life, like in all seventeen years? He will not think this is funny and you will sound crappy and mean. Just say this: Yes. And thank you.

Say yes. Say thank you.