I Was a Teenage Sassy Reader

 While I was growing up, my mom was the queen of subscriptions. Magazines, music clubs announcing, “twelve tapes for 1 penny,” and teen book clubs were just too much for her to turn down. We had subscriptions to Teen and Seventeen and every month we went to Kroger to pick up Teen Beat and Bop. I would tear through the glossy pages and see the clothes I would never wear and pull out the pictures of Corey Haim and River Phoenix, boys who were beautiful and untouchable. My closet door was covered with those smoldering lust-filled boys. Everything was the status quo until the day my first Sassy magazine came in the mail.

Sassy felt different from the beginning. The cover did not feature a pretty smiling blonde girl with just the right amount of west coast charm. The article teasers were not “are you fit to babysit” and “he drops you: how to cope.” Nope, this magazine was totally different. The girl on this cover was tastefully edgy. Her black boots and tights held just the right amount of rebellion. She was cocked back a little with her pelvis thrust just enough. It was sexy, but not scare-your-parents-sexual. This was a siren’s song to me, “Israeli & Palestinian teens tell why peace talks won’t work.” “Yes, this is what I should care about,” I thought to myself. Sassy made me want to buy nothing but recycled paper even though I knew that one erase mark would shred the entire page. However, for me there was a slight backlash.

While Sassy pushed me to worry about the sad life of a 17-year-old stripper, I read Karen Kepplewhite Is the World’s Best Kisser for the sixth time. I was never going to be concerned with being a bearable vegetarian unless that was a secret code for being madly in love with mashed potatoes. I was letting Jane Pratt and her magazine down. The writing style appealed to me, tongue in cheek, with inside jokes sprinkled liberally. If I was ever going to write for Sassy and become best friends with Jane, I was going to need to leave The New Kids on the Block behind and lovingly embrace Evan Dando. I liked REM and The Lemonheads, but I hate The Cure and Morrissey with a passion that cannot be explained. So, what was a teenage girl to do? Fake it. The answer is fake it. I pulled my hair back with an alice band and attempted to morph myself into what I believed a Sassy reader to be. I stripped my doors of Corey and River and covered them with bad poetry and homemade posters about saving the whales and abortion. I pretended to care about the bands and issues listed within the magazine, while at night on the phone with Kristi we tried to tape songs off of 96.9, always angry when the DJ talked over the first few notes. I wanted to love Sonic Youth, but was a dirty little secret Top 40 kind of girl. I hid it with my clunky shoes and baby doll tops.

I was living a lie, but still every month I read my copy with a near savagery. I lined the spines up on my white colonial dresser. The spines were the best part of the magazine. Each spine was a different color and infused with a message: “I dreamed I was assertive,” “Nathan has a boy disease,” “be a lion.” These were obvious inside jokes thrown around a writers’ table, a writers’ table I would never be a part of. The magazine folded around 1994 when I was 19, and by that time, some of the luster had worn off for me. Not because the quality of writing had declined, but by 1994 I had a two year old and was pregnant again. My life was now straight out of the magazine’s pages, but I had long since stopped reading.

When I started writing this post, I Googled past magazine covers to pull off the topics and blurbs and I noticed something. Just like Seventeen was trying to sell me a carefree sun-kissed life, Sassy was selling me something too. Mixed in with the hard hitting articles about STDs, drugs, and rape, ever so casually placed between these teasers, were quizzes about being ready to have a boyfriend and articles called “4 Exotic Ways to Change Your Look. The difference was Sassy had better packaging. Seventeen and Sassy were locked in an east coast – west coast rap battle of wills and the prize was the souls of teenage girls everywhere, and I was Faith Evans forever pulled between Biggie and Tupac.

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Stranger than Fiction

I know what I was wearing when I had my first orgasm: A V-neck purple shirt, a black skirt, and black and white panties pushed to one side. I thought that the outfit had something to do with the orgasm. I wore it again the next time I had sex to try to re-create the magic. It didn’t work. Unlike the characters in my Grandmother’s romance novels I did not start my sexual life being agile and able to have multiple orgasms my very first go around. There was no tearing at my bodice and sweeping me off my feet. I never said no when I meant yes like the women in books. There was nothing even close to rape. Sex was something that I wanted. My virginity felt like a dress that was too tight and ill fitting. I wanted to shed my virginity and I did in a clumsy coupling of groins and lust. I didn’t orgasm the first time I had sex or the seventh. It wasn’t until the fated day that I wore the purple shirt and black skirt that I had that orgasm. I was sixteen and my life has at times been dictated by the sexual decisions I made.

This summer my reading was dedicated to erotic fiction. I enjoyed the world of wealth and privilege, and even had a few not erotic at all dreams regarding a helicopter named Charlie Tango. But I noticed while I was reading the books that my mind often wandered. The main characters have sex multiple times in one night and I think, “God, the chaffing would be terrible.” They have sex in a bathtub and I would say to myself, “No one has ever had good sex in water; it’s too damn drying.” Somewhere near sex scene number 63, I say, “She has to have a rocking urinary tract infection.” It was at this point I couldn’t help but think I had wasted a good deal of my sexual whimsy on a misspent youth.

Like many people I had a false sense of my own sexuality in my late teens and early twenties. And I have little doubt that that false sense was related to a belief that I could do anything without being hurt. Everything was an adventure, whether it was sex in less than desirable places or moving out on my own with nothing more than a minimum wage job and a raging ego. Now, if I was asked to have sex underneath a train trellis I would throw my head back and cackle, but from age 16 to 25 it seemed like a great idea. The fog of hormones and need led me to places that I now would never consider. That fog made me brave and more than a little stupid. The same fog led me to curled toes and fevered kisses.

In my twenties I, without fear, met people on the internet. “Are you going to kill me with an ax?” was the extent of my vetting process. On a night I drank a great many margaritas, I had reckless (although somewhat safe) sex with a virtual stranger. He turned out to be a nice guy and we ended up in a kind-of-pseudo relationship for a few years. Now that well over ten years have passed I recognize it for what it was: a long standing booty call. What I reminisce about is not the sex but the bravery and sureness of my sexuality. My body issues existed but not in the way that they do now. I don’t remember concentrating on the heaviness of my breasts and the rolls on my back as much as I do now. I was naked in both a literal and figurative way in my twenties. I was a part of my very own short-lived sexual revolution. These relationships gave me a chance to be sexual and at the same time live independently due to the long-distance aspect of the relationships. It was “playing house” and practicing for my next real relationship.

My next sexual relationship took place under the watchful eyes of Meg Ryan. I was now in my late 20s and embarking on my first real relationship since being divorced. Above his bed was a large cut-out of Meg Ryan; she was witness to many rounds of Music ADD which was a game that Carvell and I would easily play til two in the morning. Meg Ryan, the patron saint of new relationships. It was in the bed, under Meg, that I fell in love and what Meg didn’t witness, Frank Sinatra did.

Now in my late thirties, my priorities have changed. Instead of becoming surer of myself, I have regressed. I am full of doubt and worry, and most days I question my place in the world. It’s not that I miss the sex of my youth. I miss a world where I wasn’t afraid all the time. I miss the brave me. I miss the escape that sex offered if only for 10 minutes in the front seat of a car. Life and responsibility are too real now and I sometimes want to escape this reality. Books like 50 Shades offer women like me an escape. They offer a world where you know that in the end the characters come out on top (no pun intended). The books offer a world where there is always a happy ending (pun intended). The decisions of my youth are just that, decisions of my youth, and I made the decisions with a sureness that the adult me now admires. 

The Day I Jumped to My Death

There was a house down the road from my parents’ that was brick and worn. The stairs leading up to the porch were painted and the flecks peeled and made intricate patterns like those in some Islamic temple. Layers of red, green, brown, and black peeled away and showed the house’s age. The porch seemed to be miles off the ground and also showed the same wear. Kids perched on the concrete ledge that surrounded the front of the structure. The house amazed me because there was always an abundance of kids on the porch. As an adult I now realize that this was a house that multiple families were living in and I picture kids on bunk beds and asleep on pallets made by their mothers. I didn’t understand poverty as a child; my parents shielded me from knowing how little money even our own family had. I lived a blissfully unaware existence.

On this one particular day the older kids were standing on the ledge, counting to five and jumping off. I watched in amazement as each kid jumped. Some held hands and jumped in tandem, while others jumped alone and screamed “Geronimo!” at the top of their lungs. They each seemed so brave and the ledge seemed so far from the ground. I watched from a safe distance and tried to make myself disappear into the red brick.

“Heather, jump,” one kid called.

“No, no I can’t.”

“Are you a chicken?” the oldest boy called back.

The answer was yes. I was deeply afraid to jump off that ledge, but in true peer pressure fashion I climbed up and stood on the railing. It felt as though I was 12 feet in the air and I could feel the wind in my hair. I scooted closer to the edge and looked down. The ground was a dark brown and only small patches of grass shot out. My blue Kmart tennis shoes inched closer to the edge and I had the knowledge that if I backed down I could never return to the house.

“Well jump then,” the boy mocked.

I paused and sucked in my breath. If I didn’t jump they would laugh. If I did jump I was obviously going to die. So the choice was made, I jumped. I would have rather faced death than face the ridicule of that neighborhood boy. I fell for what felt like forever, and when I finally landed, my left foot turned slightly in. The blue Kmart shoe was smudged with the rich dirt and the tread of the right shoe was caked with the gook. I had jumped.

“Do it again,” the boy challenged.

So again I jumped; this time I didn’t linger quite as long on the edge. I leapt and my windbreaker flared out behind me.

“Again.”

And I jumped.

“Again.”

And I jumped until my hands were black with dirt. The knees of my Pretty Plus jeans were caked with muck. I jumped and it became easier. The weightlessness of the fall left my stomach feeling airy. I wanted to please him and I thought I had. The desire to be accepted goes back to the beginning of time. Cain and Abel probably dared each other to climb the tree of knowledge. Maybe Cain would climb and hang upside down by his knees calling down to Abel, telling him what a chicken (this would presume that the chicken came before the egg) he was. My adventure at the brick house wasn’t over just yet.

“Wanna, see a trick?” I knew something was up almost immediately. I was young and naïve, but I also had a bullshit meter even as a child. “Ever had someone crack an egg on your head?” I knew the egg trick; you make a fist and put it on the top of a person’s head. You then “crack” the egg by tapping the fist and then you spread your hands down their hair to make it feel like yoke running down. I walked closer to him and he placed his fist on my head. With a yard SMACK he busted a real egg on my head. I burned with pain and humiliation. My Dorothy Hamil was sticky with egg white and yoke. I started to cry and ran back home. In our backyard I picked the shell out of my hair, piece by piece.

I never told my parents about that day. I was ashamed of my desire to please the older boy and embarrassed that I had been duped. My dad would have walked to the aging brick house and yelled in my honor, because he was my dad and he loved me. So now I sit and think about what came of that boy. I doubt that he even remembers that day. He probably has a wife and kids and spends his free time playing Xbox. Maybe he lives in a brick house and his kids spend their late afternoons jumping from a high porch railing. I don’t think he was a bully or mean spirited; I think he was just an older kid trying to impress boys that were even older than him. I wish I could find him (I don’t even remember his name) so I could tell him that I remember that day in strange detail. I remember the smell of the dirt on my hands and I can still feel the way the egg ran down my hair. I can still feel the heat in my angry embarrassed face. I would tell him that what he did hurt the feelings of a chubby girl with glasses and a questionable hairstyle. I would also tell him that I am glad I jumped that day. He made me do something I was scared to do.

I am glad I jumped.

Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas and a Farley Oasis

I had a pretty impressive pity party the other day. I felt overworked and underappreciated. The baby was sick. The house was dirty. I had no money to shop and was hungry for food that was only found outside of my home. I sat and whined about my lot in life until a friend sent me a video of Pebbles and Bam Bam singing “Let the Sun Shine in.” I was immediately transported, by some magical means, back to being a fourth grader at Farley Elementary. I was thinking about shared memories and how about 100 thirty-something adults all remember sitting in the AV room floor watching “Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas.” The movie is based on a book by Russell Hoban and turned into a cinematic marvel by Jim Henson in 1977. It’s basically The Gift of the Magi with, you know, otters. The thing that got to me is it didn’t matter what our personal stories were; I’m sure that some were dealing with poverty, a parent’s alcoholism, abuse, or divorce, but for that hour worry was left behind while we watched Emmet and his band sing about Bar-B-Que. I am now 37 and I think back to that hundred or so kids that have the exact same memory. The TV being rolled down the hall on the large metal cart and the moment of joy when you heard a teacher whisper AV room; these are little moments that connect a group of people who are now spread far apart.

Farley is now (sometimes) considered on the wrong side of the tracks, but for me it is a place where I played outside in a tree house built from old scrap wood. The neighborhood kids piled into the rickety structure and had palms full of tiny splinters for weeks during the summers. In the fall and spring our neighborhoods would flood and we would wade and play in the muddy water. Crawdads burrowed into holes and kids equipped with buckets and sticks would go in after them. The neighborhood smelled damp and raw, and when the flooding was at its worst, kids would play in lakes that were once grassy fields. The greatest part of our neighborhood was the “dirt hills” directly next to our house. When we moved there in my fourth grade year the hills appeared huge to me and I pretended they were Indian burial grounds. I raced them and became a BMX biker. My Dorothy Hamill bowl cut blowing behind me while I pretended I was something that I was not. “After Stand by Me” was released I told everyone I had found the body of a dead child and we walked through the woods looking for the unfortunate child and searching for clues of the mythical crime. It was in Farley that I French kissed a boy and moved banana bubble gum between our open lips.

When seventh grade rolled around it was a new world for everyone. Farley and Reidland joined, everyone mixed together, but there was a division that may have only been noticeable to those on the Farley side. No longer were we the same kids who stood outside on registration day praying to God that Ms. Myers was not our sixth grade teacher because everyone knew she was mean and her dress was always six inches shorter in the back than the front. Some stayed and graduated from Reidland and went to different schools, but what really gets to me and brings a smile to my face is if you find a Farley person and say, “Hey, remember Emmet Otter and the AV room.” They will most likely reply, “Yeah, remember Mr. Goodbody and how creepy he was.” The Farley hundred or so grew up and lived their lives, some were successful and others were not, but in fourth grade for one hour, we all played on an even field.

Thank you Farley Elementary for giving us that shared memory.