Someone asks me about high school. I smile and say, “Best four years of my life, and I have the pictures and awards to prove it, too.” Science medal, prom queen candidate grin, newspapers with my name as editor-in-chief, my boyfriend and I holding hands at the beach, graduation honors, goofy class trip poses in foreign cities, first place everythings, all packed up in boxes that I never look at anymore. High school, my glory days, my invincible youth, gathering dust in a corner of the bedroom where I practiced walking in stilettos and stared at physics equations until my brain burst with velocities and magnetic fields. The same bedroom where I punched a mirror and shattered glass cut through my fingers and to this day I still can’t quite figure out why.
Here’s the thing you have to understand: we were the popular girls because we knew how to be nice, if not particularly honest. Asking classmates for favors, sucking up to teachers, being friendly-but-not-too-friendly with the boys from the school down the road. We charmed our way to free drinks and mild punishments. Sometimes no punishments at all. God, I remember the Valium days, five of us tripping out and keeping straight faces in the principal’s office, me taking an algebra final as the numbers swam before my eyes. (I aced that exam, of course. Please. I once won a debate tournament with the audience whispering about how my boyfriend cheated on me, I could pass a stupid math test while high.)
Why Valium? I don’t know. Why smuggled liquor in water jugs and muscle spray on handkerchiefs and smoking behind the bleachers? Anything to make time go faster, anything at all. We were the cool kids, we were the socialites, our names were electric, crowds went wild. We were the popular girls because we were pretty. I blowdried my hair upside-down every morning to give it volume; blood rushed to my head and pounded in my ears. Jessica slept with a clothespin on her nose like Amy in Little Women. Grace sucked on chicken bones instead of eating. We knew that we had to suffer in order to be beautiful and that we had to wait five minutes before texting a boy back. I was someone’s prom date four times, at four different schools, and each time I slathered whitening lotion under my arms and skipped lunch for weeks so that I could saunter into ballrooms with my chin up amidst the never-ending chorus of oh-my-God-that-bitch.
High school was starving for calories and attention. Every girl who talked to the boy you liked was the enemy. Every girl with the better grades and the more expensive purse was the enemy. Your best friend was the enemy, if someone remarked that she was prettier than you. Rumor mill, knives in the back, slurs carved into desks and etched on bathroom walls, all of us avoiding Therese like the plague even though it was Katrina’s boyfriend who had forced the kiss, sloppy and sudden and it doesn’t matter if you pushed him away, you’re not a friend, you’re one of the sluts. Why did we all do that to one another? Why did we take such vicious delight in tearing one another down? What kind of age is fifteen to be yanking your classmate’s hair from her scalp because she said you looked like a man without makeup?
I remember the bathrooms most of all. Our heels clicked on the tiles and water dripped every few seconds because someone was always washing her face or gargling out luncheon-meat breath. We powdered our noses and gossiped and giggled, pretending not to hear muffled vomiting behind a locked door. Bulimia was gross but your thighs touching was even grosser. Anne’s friends hugged her by the faucets because someone spray-painted “Anne is a whore” in huge block letters on the front gates of our school. Denise took the abortion pill in the second stall and cleaned the mess with her cheerleading jacket, but the muddy, metallic smell stuck around for a week.
I remember the boys, too. They’d wait in the parking lot, leaning against their flashy cars, gangly and delinquent and we were so in love. Every Valentine’s Day was a competition, who gets the most extravagant bouquet, who gets the biggest box of chocolates. Having a boyfriend meant that you were desirable, that you had worth in the world, and so what if the taste of his cum makes you gag and he doesn’t clip his fingernails and it hurts, at least you get to brag about those shitty roses and those chocolates that you’re never going to eat because he’ll dump you if you get fat. Sixteen years old and down on my Catholic knees and trying to remember the tips in Cosmopolitan as I did what good girlfriends do. The only thing worse than being a slut is being a tease, you know? Sometimes they didn’t like being reminded I was smart, so I’d bat my eyelashes and giggle about how chemistry was, like, so hard. As I said, it was all about knowing when to be nice, and also when to be dumb and when to play the game and when to throw other girls under the bus. I had to do all of that because I wanted love.
"You’re so lucky," someone tells me. "You were popular in high school. You had it so easy."
And, yeah, okay, maybe I did. Maybe I was luckier than most. But high school is the reason I don’t have mirrors in the bedroom and miss the false euphoria of going days without carbs. Denise’s ex-boyfriend always hits on me whenever I’m home from college and I always think, I know what your dead baby smells like. I look back and it’s always the pain that I remember first, until the other things bob to the surface and assure me that, yeah, wild child, party girl, heartthrob, Miss Honorable Mention, best four years of your life. Looking back, I can’t believe we all made it out alive.
I think about the girl I used to be and it’s like watching someone else. The spelling bees, the stumbling home, guzzling coffee to stop growing taller than half the boys in town, comparing cup sizes in bathrooms, not talking to the nerds, one party after another, staking out territory in cafeterias and shopping malls, all of that feels like it happened to someone else. Someone else fought a silent war at fifteen, sixteen, seventeen. If I could go back in time I’d probably find the younger me at a club, with the fake I.D. and the smile like she’s got it all figured out. Who is this person, this child, so hungry and brittle, mouthing along to a song she doesn’t even like? I want to tell her, “None of this is going to matter in five years.”
I want to say, “I’m sorry for what I did to you, and to every girl you did it to. We thought we were so cool. We thought victory was someone else crying in those goddamned bathrooms. It’s okay to be a little different. It’s okay to eat a slice of pizza without scraping off the cheese first. You can say no to cute boys, and the ones who really matter will respect that. If you don’t stop this now you’ll end up in a hospital with bandages on your wrists and charcoal in your stomach.”
But that girl, that old version of me won’t listen, because some stories have to be written the hard way and some battle scars have to be earned. Every teenage girl knows the world is out to get her and maybe it is and she has to get knocked down in the arena once, twice, a hundred times. That was high school. That was growing up.
So this is what I would say instead: “I’m waiting. I’m here. Right now you think happiness is looking like a supermodel and getting top marks on quizzes and having so many friends that it makes you feel lonely, but, when you finally get it together, I’m on the other end of that long tunnel that you have to claw your way through. Someday you’re going to be the person who’s writing this. You’ll make it, Miss Most-Likely-To.”
And maybe that younger girl, that other me, will roll her mascara eyes and flip her hair the way she’s seen on T.V., the way she’s practiced it alone, in secret, and she’ll walk away on those high heels that she once almost broke an ankle in. And I’ll watch her go, with fear and with love and not without a little admiration. Sixteen years old and full of guts and thinking she’s got it all planned out.
I hate you sometimes, but there are also times when I think I wouldn’t have given you up for the world. Pretty girl, Queen Bee, gritting your teeth through cramps and braces and clumsy sex because part of you always knew that you were meant for greater things. I can’t believe you were ever me. There are times when I miss you dreadfully.