At sixteen, I was fumbling through the hormonal turmoil and self-induced drama of life in a dusty little town that was far smaller than my ambitions. The town consisted of a few modest homes, a doctor’s office, two mini-marts and a couple of taverns, the suburbs of another only slightly larger country town in western Oregon. My home was a rusty old trailer house, its fragile outer shell peeling away from the crusty rivets that pockmarked its discolored surface. I shared the place with my ailing mother and loving but strict grandmother, in conditions that drove my daily promise:
“I don’t want to live like this forever. I will get out of this godforsaken town and make something of myself someday. I will break this cycle of hopelessness and forge my own path.”
AMBER: It’s not just the fact that Roshell is outspoken and can be brutally honest, honest to the point where sometimes you just wish she would keep her mouth shut. It’s more than that. I can trust her with anything.
While I tend to be the type to just kind of hang out along the fringes people watching, you can bet that Roshell will be right smack in the middle of whatever is going on, instigating, conspiring and cheering on a good time. She is so outgoing that even when I feel nervous or shy in a situation, I usually find myself forgetting all inhibitions as Roshell steamrolls her way through any and all barriers, and before I know it, I’m totally immersed into whatever scenario we’ve found ourselves in.
I gave a quick spray of flowery perfume and patted the stiff bangs that stood up straight in a style comprehended only by those of us who actually lived through the early nineties. A hairstyle that required a minimum of fifteen minutes of teasing, curling and more teasing until the bangs were feathered and vertical, shellacked with enough hairspray to be considered a weapon. With one last look, I decided I was happy with the result.
“Yes! A good hair day! I’m outa here!” So, it would be a good day, I mused snatching up my ratty secondhand backpack and racing out the front door to catch the bus. I firmly believed that the tone of a teenage girl’s day was always set by how well her hair behaved. A great hair day could have her feeling sassy and almost confident while a bad hair day… well, look out.
I needed a good hair day because after school my best friend Amber and I were heading to the Friday night High School football game, then spending the night at Amber’s house. It was a big deal since I wasn’t usually allowed to join in most of the social events that my peers participated in. Being raised by a devoted grandma who was set in her old-fashioned ways was pretty strict business and usually devoid of anything that even resembled a good time.
Mount Pleasant, Oregon, was benefitting from an Indian summer. Though it was the end of September, the evening had that wonderful between-season feel. The air was still warm to the touch, but in the light breeze there was the hint of the fall that was to come. A pungent yet crisp scent filled the air. It was the scent of autumn leaves as they turn vivid reds and oranges before they wither, die and loosen their hold on the trees.
I took in a deep breath as I strolled alongside Amber, heading to the game, golden leaves crunching beneath our feet.
We had formed our tight friendship at a crucial point. The previous year, Amber’s “bestie”, Holly, had the audacity to drop her for a new girl. At the beginning of eighth grade, I had just moved to Mount Pleasant Middle School and quickly made friends with Mandy, but that friendship burned out as Mandy sought Courtney to be her new bestie.
I was always baffled by the way girls my age swapped their best friend forever about as often as some boys changed their dirty socks. Friendship, to me, was a sacred thing. It was about having a confidante to share secrets with. It was someone who would never laugh at your dreams, or tease you when she discovered who your newest crush was. Someone who liked you no matter what type of house you lived in or how much money your family had, or rather didn’t have.
It began when we were both invited to Mandy’s birthday party. It was co-ed, so guaranteed to be a blast. The party swung into full speed. Mandy cranked up the music and we danced. I was bursting at the seams to show off my moves to the New Kids On The Block hit.
In the middle of some intense gyrations in the center of the living room floor, I decided to end the number with flair by sliding down into the splits. A ripping sound cut through the song’s closing chords. My eyes bulged and my throat tightened as I realized that I had just split the seam of my jeans. Jumping up, I reached behind, fearing the worst. To my horror I detected cotton panties in plain view through the butt of my ripped pants. Holy mother of…
With a sharp intake of breath I clapped my hand over my mouth. “Oh, my god!” And then I did what I always do when in a mortifyingly embarrassing situation. I began to laugh hysterically. To my dismay, so did everyone else in the room. My body went hot with humiliation and my mind went blank.
Fortunately, Amber was smart enough to assess the situation and took matters into her own hands. She untied the sweatshirt from her waist, wrapped it around mine and guided me to a back bedroom down the hallway.
“Come on, don’t worry about it,” Amber whispered and closed the door. “I have a spare pair of jeans in my backpack.”
“Oh, yeah, right! I just gave everyone out there at least three Seinfeld episodes’ worth of jokes and entertainment at my expense. I will never live this down.” I buried my face in my hands wishing to hide as a strangled giggle escaped from deep in my throat.
“Sure you will. Just go out and let them rib you for a few minutes so they can get it out of their systems. Meanwhile, do what you just did. Laugh with them, brush it off and act like it’s no big deal, and then so will they.” Her words, said with such confidence, made me feel calmer, more centered. I took in a cleansing breath, thanked Amber and slipped into the jeans before we rejoined the party.
Of course it worked out just the way Amber had predicted. I was relieved and grateful. Proven friends, we hung out for the remainder of the party and were inseparable from that point on.
Amber with her matter-of-fact and dependable nature was the first friend that I ever truly respected. She had a passion for horses and would get up at 5:30 every morning just to care for the mare that was her pride and joy. After school, she worked at a stable down the road, both to earn money and to gain exposure to ranch life. She was a country girl at heart and wasn’t afraid of putting in hard work for the things she truly desired.
She could hide intense emotions beneath a cool exterior. This trait was especially awesome to me because I have always tended to wear it all right out in the open. But if something was bothering Amber she just sank into her quiet zone. And the quieter she went, the more worried I would become, knowing that a storm was brewing.
Amber didn’t let her emotions get the best of her very often, but when she did, watch out. Her soft hazel eyes would intensify like incandescent rocks, and one look could burn through you, flashing her warning. I soon learned to stand back until she returned to her mellow ways. She exuded a strength and stability that I admired, and needed in my own life.
As we neared the High School we could see the stadium lights and hear the pep band warming up, brass instruments flat-lining.
“How do you French kiss?” Amber blurted the question and immediately blushed, embarrassed.
“Well… I only ever tried it that once with Justin Badger at the jazz festival out in the little field behind the school. You know, behind those trees where all the stoners hang out. Anyway, I remembered overhearing Sean Preston telling his buddies about how when he kissed Beth Dobber, she just stuck her tongue in his cheek and sat there. He said it was like kissing a statue so he stopped. So I figured that when I finally got to kiss someone I was going to do my best to be, you know, into it. I figured if I just didn’t over-think it my body would follow instinct and it would come naturally.”
“So? Did it?”
Even though I had recounted the story multiple times before, I did so again knowing that Amber was counting on me for encouragement. She had been dating Kenney for two whole weeks and since he was a junior, she knew she needed to give up a little kissy-kissy action. We both felt out of place with our own glaring lack of experience and felt pressured to catch up with all our friends before we started catching flack for it.
I pursed my lips then shrugged. “Pretty much. It’s kind of slobbery and awkward at first but then your brain does kind of shut off while your body takes over. It was okay, but, you know, it’s probably better if you actually like the guy.” I pondered quietly over my own statement.
Amber interrupted my thoughts, “Why did you kiss Justin Badger anyway?”
“Cause he wanted to. And he’s kinda cute.” I caught her leery expression. “Look, sometimes you just do stuff to get it out of the way. You know? After all, we are sophomores now, and most of our friends have gone way beyond the kissing stage.” I glanced at Amber and smiled. “Plus I figured that if I royally screwed up the first time, at least it wasn’t with someone that I was totally gone over.” We giggled in unison.
AMBER: And that’s why I love Roshell.
She doesn’t necessarily have to enjoy doing something to do it. She often just jumps head first into a situation merely for the sake of having the experience. It took me a while to realize that she wasn’t crazy, she just has an uncanny ability to disguise her true emotions. Oftentimes her actions are in direct opposition to whatever her internal emotional state is.
Ok, here’s an example. If she is feeling shy or nervous about something she will force herself to be assertive and social. If she is scared of someone, she’ll cover up her fear by acting brash and tough so they don’t notice that she’s intimidated.
That act doesn’t get by me though, I see right through it. She is just like you and me. She has the typical self-loathing and internal strife that all of us young girls possess. It’s just that she refuses to succumb to it. It’s like she’s decided to not only overcome her insecurities, but to banish them from her life altogether.
Her family is skint to put it mildly. But she’s determined with her dancing, and she works so damn hard at it! Her consistent drive has opened doors that you’d expect to be closed to someone with her background. She works hard enough to earn scholarships that provide lessons five days a week. She wants so badly to be a prima ballerina. After years of training, her small physique has been molded into a compact and strong vessel.
Again, I say that looks can be deceiving. Although she is physically small, her personality is anything but. It is immense, frenetic, and all over the place. She is determined to make something of herself someday and I have no doubt that she will as long as she can keep her energy focused rather than getting caught up in wild escapades.
The vitality she exudes can be intense, drawing all kinds of attention. Her boisterous attitude attracts action like a moth to a flame. Ha,ha, like that new Janet Jackson song. Anyway, when you hang out with her you know that things could get interesting before you’re even able to process what is happening. She sounds like an obnoxious pain in the butt and she is, but under all of that, Roshell is a funny and amazing friend that I know I can lean on.
We bounded up to the stadium entrance and flashed our student IDs at the bored-looking doormen. Amber spotted Kenny and a few of his upperclassmen buddies by the concession stand. Trying to maintain our cool factor, we casually headed toward the group. As we drew closer, my attention homed in on the smell of popcorn and hot dogs and my stomach growled in response. The pep band fired up. The off-beat trumpets blared at an unnecessarily loud volume and we gave up all pretense of maturity to belt out the school’s fight song.
The song thudded to a finish. We glanced at each other wondering if anyone had noticed our sporadic behavior. Apparently no one cared, so we shrugged and moved on like nothing had happened.
We melted into Kenny’s little clique just as the game began, Amber clung to Kenny’s arm.
AMBER: I kept an eye on Roshell while we mingled with Kenny’s friends.
She was always odd at large social functions. She would jump in and out of conversations at random while scanning the surroundings—absorbing everything while focusing on nothing. Her body seemed to tune in, humming to the energy and excitement going on around her. Her fingers would be tapping her thighs, or twirling her hair. She looked like standing still would give her pins and needles. You could grasp her attention for small spurts and then she would block you out again and continue to ride the high of being out of her cramped and stifling home routine.
I kept an arm around Kenny and an eye on my weird little friend. Some mystery guy walked up to Kenny and punched his arm.
“Hey dude, Sup?” said the new guy. And so the dude talk began.
I turned to watch Roshell’s sudden and unexpected focus on the situation.
Something inside me just tuned in to the moment, like a radio that’s slightly off-channel and then you find that perfect spot on the dial where the music zaps through fluent and clear. My heart sped up and my mind started taking in the details. Without even being aware, my brain was already doing a copy and paste, hardwiring the moment to memory.
Mystery Guy was, in a nutshell, Greek god beautiful. Thick, sun-kissed blonde hair with deeper tones streaked through it and a slight wave. He had golden brown skin with a stubbly five o’clock shadow that somehow accented his shockingly blue eyes.
Wow, facial hair, I thought, sizing him up. That’s not something I’m usually into, but it sure worked on him.
Normally an unshaven face on high school boys made them seem like they had flunked a few too many times and were on the verge of old and creepy. In this case though, it slightly matured his otherwise boyishly handsome face. He looked to be about five eleven, pretty average guy height but tall compared to my five foot frame.
For once I was speechless. Well actually I thought of a million things to say, but felt like I’d swallowed my tongue.
And just like that, Mystery Guy walked off with half of the clique toward the parking lot to check out Jacob’s new ride. I snapped out of the tunnel vision while the sounds and smells of life going on around me filtered back into my brain. Straightening my posture, bewildered, I took a deep breath and tried to gather myself together.
“Who in the hell was that?” Amber whispered in my ear, looking perplexed.
“I don’t know, but I want you to find out. You gotta grill Kenny. I need details.” I started twirling my hair around my finger—a nervous habit of mine. “Oh my god, what if he’s joining our school? I wonder what grade he’s in?”
“Okay, okay, I’ll talk with Kenny later tonight, after I get this damn kiss over with.” Amber shifted the subject on a dime: “Man, that was hella weird how you got all hyper-focused and didn’t even say one word. Where were the twenty questions you usually hand out? Who are you, man? Where’re you from? How do you know Kenny?”
“Whatever! I was just checking out the situation is all.” I was a little too defensive.
Amber gave a smirk. “Yeah right. Your eyes were popping out of your head and I’m pretty sure that you didn’t blink for like ten minutes straight.”
My face flashed fury, but I paused before I lashed out. I knew that (a) my friend was just messing with me, and (b) she was completely right. I busted out laughing and Amber followed suit.
“You’re right, Am! I am such a total dork! My eyes were practically crossed from staring so hard, huh? Jeez, I hope no one but you noticed.” I glanced around and spotted my other best friend, Sabrina. Time to give Am and Kenny some space. I quickly excused myself and ran toward Sabrina.
That night at Amber’s house, Amber sat down and recounted every juicy detail of her first kiss, gushing over how incredibly wonderful and sweet it was. As the energy of the night dwindled down, Amber looked exhausted and drifted off as she rambled incoherently about kisses and love.
I, however, lay quietly in the dark, my body still buzzing from the excitement of the day, thinking of Mystery Guy and if I might get a chance to see him again.
“Man, good thing it was a good hair day,” I murmured into the dark room, smiling as I too drifted off thinking of possible future kisses.
The chill of autumn came without warning that year. One day the weather was toasty and pleasant with the sun’s rays still warming your skin, the next day the air had a cold bite to it that you felt in your bones.
Monday morning, I sauntered out to the bus stop in jeans and a warm hoodie. Glancing down the road I spotted Sabrina bopping along to her Walkman as she approached.
Sabrina lived on the other side of the trailer park and although we caught the bus at the same stop it was almost a year before we eventually became friends. Sabrina was a year older and only had a few friends. Everyone else got the ‘talk to me and die’ stare from her. She wasn’t outwardly mean; she just put out that ‘talk to the hand’ vibe.
Six other students met at that bus stop every morning, but Tina was the only one Sabrina would talk to. And watching Sabrina talk was entertainment in and of itself. Sometimes I caught myself openly staring while Sabrina fast-talked, hand gestures punctuating every detail of the conversation. The more excited she became, the more animated she was. And the language that came flying out of her mouth was enough to put a sailor to shame. I would listen, amazed, wondering what kind of crass description of everyday life I would be witness to on any particular day.
When we first met, I was perplexed as to why Sabrina had so few friends. She had great skin, high cheekbones and a body that most models would kill for: about five feet five inches tall with a thin willowy build. Her hair; a rich sienna brown, straight, shiny and long enough to graze the top of her butt, and her long, thick eyelashes accented her big brown eyes. Sabrina was a knockout!
So why didn’t her social life reflect the way she looked? After a few weeks of the morning bus stop routine, I was pretty sure that I had solved that little puzzle.
Normally chicks who look that good behave the way they think they’re meant to. They are typically followers that don’t want to break any of the social norms that go with all the petty high school BS... social norms that don’t include describing how Aunt Flo arrived that morning and how you’re pretty sure that you’re going to hemorrhage to death by the end of the day. Was she inappropriate? Completely. Was she funny? Absolutely!
Sabrina just didn’t seem to have that filter in her brain that said ‘don’t say that out loud’ or the ability to judge who not to say certain things to. She was quirky. She had a nervous energy that she channeled into fidgeting and hand gestures, and she had an abrasive, fuel-injected attitude.
Most people just didn’t know what to make of her, so they kept their distance.
She in turn felt unapproachable and assumed that she was either ugly, a freak or maybe a little of both. She honestly couldn’t see her own beauty.
I thought she was actually pretty hilarious and liked the fact that she wasn’t another pretty automaton mimicking her way through life. However, I always kept my distance because I didn’t think Sabrina wanted anyone to reach out and penetrate that no-nonsense shield.
Then one day, towards the end of my freshman year, Sabrina was describing to Tina something about walking to the corner store and sweat dripping down her butt crack, when Tina turned and asked me about our math homework.
“Hey Roshell, did you finish yesterday’s assignment?” Even though Tina and Sabrina were a year older they were in the same remedial math class that I was.
I bit my bottom lip. “Umm, yeah, but I’m not sure that I did the last four questions correctly.”
“Do you mind if we copy it? Neither one of us finished it.” Tina watched expectantly while I dug into the black-hole of my backpack and pulled out the wrinkled assignment.
“Here ya go, but I’m telling you, I just winged it towards the end. I don’t even know why we have to learn algebra anyway. A + B = Pi to the nearest one hundredth times radius up your butt and around the corner.” Sabrina and Tina both cracked up.
As the bus pulled up to the stop, Sabrina kept laughing and said, “I have no idea what you just said, but I totally agree.”
Everyone climbed on the bus and the conversation ended there.
The following few weeks I would smile and say “Hi” to Sabrina. Sometimes I would join their conversation, chatting about pressing current gossip. But that was the extent of it, until the last day of school as we clambered off the bus to head home.
“Hey,” Sabrina said, “maybe we should hang out sometime this summer, you know, since we live so close.”
I was a little stunned. “Uh, yeah, sure, sounds good.” I snagged a pen from my backpack and ripped off a chunk of notebook paper. “Here’s my number, just call whenever. I don’t have any big plans or anything so I should be around.” Sabrina jammed the paper down into the bottom of her own bag.
I forgot about the exchange almost instantly and went about trying to enjoy the summer. Considering I lived in a rural area about ten miles out of town and wasn’t really allowed to go anywhere, I knew the summer would probably drag on endlessly. Situation normal.
I was an only child, but you wouldn’t think it with all the younger cousins I had. I finished school with a ton of wishful plans for the summer, but my babysitting duties were like a full-time job. One of my aunts landed a job at a nursing home, and was relying on me to watch her two youngsters, Chris and Carla. Fixing them lunch was always a challenge. How creative can you get with Top Ramen noodles? I needed serious inspiration or an act of God. Anyway I was staring into the fridge, you know how if you stare even harder then you might see an ingredient that you swear wasn’t in there a minute ago, when the phone rang. VH1 was blasting out Madonna’s Like a Prayer, so I ran to turn it down and got to the phone just in time. I was still humming to the catchy tune in the background, watching the icon on the television screen bump and grind to the beat.
There was silence over the line, then a sniffle.
“So my boyfriend broke up with me and I really need someone to talk to so I don’t go crazy all alone in this house.”
I could hear sobbing from the person on the other line. “Sabrina?” I asked.
Hiccup. “Yeah? Look, I know it’s kind of weird to call you like this when I’m all in crisis mode, but my parents are gone all the time and I think…” Sob, sniffle. “I think… I just really need to not be alone right now.”
“Of course you shouldn’t be alone. Come over right now. Do you want me to meet you halfway?” I was shocked at the event that was unfolding on what would have otherwise been another tedious summer afternoon.
Sabrina sounded more composed. “No, that’s okay. You’re close. I’ll head over right now.” The click of the phone hanging up echoed in my ear. What in the heck had just happened?
Not more than five minutes passed before I opened the metal front door of our trailer, and without missing a beat we hugged.
I invited her in and made my cousins lunch then cleaned up the kitchen while Sabrina talked and cried. She explained how she had been going out with a boy from another school for the past six months and how she recently gave him her virginity on her Seventeenth Birthday.
“Definitely don’t make that same mistake!” Sabrina stated emphatically. “It’s like sex melts your mind or something and makes you all crazy hormonal. You get to where you think you have to be with them forever, so that when they just up and dump you, you feel like your insides have been turned inside out. I mean, I actually feel a little crazy right now, on top of feeling miserable and pathetic. I don’t recommend it.”
I gaped at her. She did look a little crazy with her red tear-streaked face and wild eyes.
“You know what you need to do?” I made a fist as I spoke. “You need to walk straight up to that yahoo and punch him right in his man junk. It would make you feel a lot better.” We burst into delirious laughter and kept laughing until our sides ached.
Sabrina spent the night and we stayed up into the late hours. Swapping stories we discovered we were allied on most topics, from school to books to boys to religion. We had birthdays only six days apart. We were both frustrated with our parents who seemed comfortable with their going-nowhere lives. We were both determined to rise above our upbringings and were now very glad to have each other in that otherwise hopeless town.
By the early hours, the beginnings of a lifelong friendship had been forged.