I’ve turned into one of those insufferable people who gets painfully nostalgic about high school. You know my type. Give me a drink and a copy of the ’04 Wilson High School yearbook and I’ll be happy for days.
Freshman year, I fell into a crowd of smart, offbeat girls who, like me, were into “Kids in the Hall,” bathroom humor, and “alternative” music. (What does “alternative” music even mean? I don’t know, either.) We all gave each ourselves hilarious fake names (mine was, somewhat regrettably, Shmoomaster) and passed coded notes through all our classes. When I say “coded notes,” I mean that we had developed an elaborate code with an alternative alphabet and replacement words for important people and philosophical ideas. My best friend was this beautiful, quiet artist-type named Jessica Thompson, who held my hand in the hallway (that was a big deal in a decade when homophobia was a choice you were supposed to declare out loud), and made mix tapes for me of exclusively Ben Folds Five B-sides. Halfway through the year, we met a group of like-minded, similarly offbeat boys, who, like us, ate their lunches by the lockers instead of in the cafeteria, and listened to liberal talk radio during break periods.
I wasn’t cool. That maybe should be a given, because I am an adult with a blog. But I wasn’t UNcool, either. I belonged to a dozenish oh-so-Portland clubs (Students for Social Justice and Activism, Students for Environmental Action, Fair and Unbiased Standup Comedy Club), wrote for the school paper, and sometimes hosted Trivial Pursuit parties at my house. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. I never tried drugs. I DID color my hair every month in varying Jolly Rancher shades so that people would THINK I drank or smoked or tried drugs.
Sophomore year, I got a tall, handsome boyfriend from another school. That was a big win for me. When we broke up, I pretty much immediately started dating Ben Stevens, who was in the offbeat talk-radio-listening boy group. For a while, Ben and Jessica and I had a pretty good thing going. We liked to see off-color comedies at the megaplex in the suburbs; then afterwards we’d spend way too much money at the Denny’s-knockoff pie shop (it was called Banning’s) and play cards until curfew.
This is the way I am choosing to remember high school. I am omitting the between-the-lines stuff — like how I stopped hanging out with that group of girls once I started dating boys because I just didn’t have time to be a good friend AND a good girlfriend. I am omitting how I had crying fits at football games sometimes, and got caught lying to my mom all the time, and skipped school regularly because I was struggling with bipolar disorder and I went through entire weeks where I felt like I couldn’t focus. I’m cutting from the record the night that I screamed at Ben in my living room until he told me he had to go and drove away, and I chased him down the street in bare feet and screamed even LOUDER until finally a neighbor called the police.
The paper trail my diary leaves from high school does not reflect the glowing record I’ve provided for myself, either. Diary-writing Sophie was VERY sad, ALL the time. Literally every entry reflects some variation on the end of the world; nothing was good, and adolescence was torture. Back then, I very much lived in the future. I wrote a lot about what I would be doing in ten years. I fantasized about how things would get figured out for me, in ways I couldn’t predict.
For instance, I was going to get married. I had my wedding all planned out within the first two months of having my first boyfriend. There are pages in my high school diary about the kind of dress I wanted to wear, who my bridesmaids would be, and the kind of dessert I would serve. (It would be pie, obviously; I could not fathom why people who had weddings still insisted on serving cake, which no one likes. Seriously: ask 150 people what their favorite dessert is, and find ONE who says cake. NO ONE WILL SAY CAKE. People tolerate cake. They are not passionate about it.) Also, I was going to work at a big magazine in New York. This was going to look a lot like “The Devil Wears Prada,” right down to all the cool sample dresses. Even though I planned to work for The Atlantic, or some other respectable magazine, I figured there would be a back room with cool dresses for the staff to take home if they wanted.
Really nothing made me happier than planning out my future. Actually, no. It wasn’t planning I was doing. Nothing made me happier than daydreaming about the future I would inevitably have, with a wedding and a magazine job and a dog and a workout regimen. In high school, I liked thinking about ten-years-from-now almost as much as I currently like thinking about ten-years-ago.
Last week, during my perennial Christmas trip home to Portland, I got in touch with Jessica. Jessica is one of four friends from high school I’m still in touch with, and she’s really the only person I try to see when I go back home. Jessica suggested we go see “Into The Woods” at the multiplex in the suburbs. We each brought our respective partners (because we’re adults now, and you don’t call your boyfriends “boyfriends” when you’re an adult), and followed the movie with a trip to Banning’s, where we spent too much money on gigantic slices of pie. After the requisite banter about whether the movie was good or not (our average grade for it was a B+), Jessica told me she’d gone to our ten year high school reunion.
I didn’t even know we’d HAD a ten-year high school reunion! She said it had been posted about on Facebook, and people went, but not many people she knew. I couldn’t understand how I missed it; I felt like someone should have TOLD me about it. Honestly, I had been thinking about our ten-year high school reunion since our class' senior grad night party. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. At grad night, the parent council had us write letters to ourselves in ten years. They said they’d hold them for us. Writing my letter, I was thrilled. Ten years seemed so impossibly far away, then. When I received this letter, I would be living inside the life I spent so much of my time imagining. At various points throughout the interim between writing the letter and now, I considered what it would be like to read it. I pictured myself opening it; I tried to imagine what it would be like to remember things I’d forgotten. Now, I’d missed my reunion. So where was my letter?
I was brooding about this when Jessica said, “I got your grad night letter! I have it in my bag. I picked up yours and Ben Stevens’. You guys weren’t there and I didn’t know what would happen to them, I hope you don’t mind.” I could have kissed her.
The letter, which I read out loud at the table at Banning's, was remarkably unremarkable. I listed the things I liked very much (Arial size 9 font, sad songs, vanilla), and things I didn’t like (the dentist, sanitary pads, Republicans). I wrote about Jessica — I said she “squeaked a lot.” About Ben I wrote, “If you’re not married to Ben Stevens, find him and see how the hell he is.” I told myself I was fat, I told myself I had a headache, and I told myself to take a moment to remember the boys I had already loved (Alex, Eli, and Ian). And that is all. I signed it “Let’s have sex later,” which I guess was apt.
I had imagined there would be so much more there — that I would have told myself all the things that had mattered to me at 18. I think I thought maybe there’d be some deep truth resting in this old letter — that I would have forgotten the things I felt back then, and that I would be reminded of something deep and important when I read it.
But I had also imagined, as I WROTE this letter, that my future self would have more to bring to the table. I imagined a person with a husband (apparently, the husband was supposed to be Ben Stevens), and a steady job, and a secure future. I had imagined that the person who read this letter would be someone who didn’t cry openly and uncontrollably on the floors of public restrooms, and who remembered everyone’s birthday, and who went jogging all the time. I had expected more from Future Me. So it makes sense that the version of myself who received this letter — really, when it all comes down to it, the very same self — is likewise disappointed with the version of myself who wrote it.
I wish I could write back. The thing I hadn’t counted on was not being able to write back; instead, I am stuck with a pen pal who is a ghost, and there’s nothing I can say to her. She’s stuck there in high school, brooding and whining, thinking that there is some way things are supposed to turn out.
If I could, I would say: It’s not as bad as you think it is. Everything that seems so broken right now and so important eventually won’t feel that way. Eventually is never as far away as you assume, either. Things have a way of working themselves out. There is no perfect life stretched out on the horizon, waiting for you. If that sounds bleak, don’t worry, it’s not. The truth is, the life you think you want is here and now. Enjoy the people you love, because your love will change. Be generous with your time, because one day you’ll look back at this time and these friends and the way it is now, and you will miss it, in a way. But also know that it ends up ok in the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end. Your dad is going to tell you that someday, because he will have read it off a magnet and he will have liked it. It’s a good magnet quote. Oh, also, spend less time waiting for shit to load on the Internet. The Internet is gonna get WAY faster, so if you can hold off on that AltaVista web search for 10 years, you’ll save yourself probably about half an hour.
When I read that back, I get the sense that it’s all stuff I need to know right now, too. There’s no skeleton key in the past or in the future where everything makes sense; there’s just this now, which must be worth every breath.
Maybe I’ll write it up and put it in a drawer and wait ten more years. I am a much more reliable delivery person than a parent council, after all.