And the locker room smelled of Juniper Breeze

This is happening, and it is glorious. Screen shot 2015-06-04 at 12.59.13 PM I am not the only woman of my generation who has a story to tell about these fragrances. In mine, it always starts with a darkness outside. It's either nighttime, or late afternoon in a deep winter, or a gray day where the sun decided to sleep it off. It always starts with a basketball game in the gym, my bare legs glistening in their Juniper Breeze lotion, the cold air shocking them into goosepimples.

I am 15 and cheering at the game, arms flailing, legs kicking. I am 15 and in my best friend's Geo Tracker, listening to a Beastie Boys cassette. I am 15 and wearing ripped jeans and Doc Martens and my Varsity Cheerleader tee shirt on my way to chemistry lab. I am 15 and driving through the Pine Barrens, or along the coast, or into my parents' driveway, or into the 7-11 parking lot, Tori on the radio. I am 15 and ready for anything, except not really, not at all, because my readiness was just a mask for my general fear about life.

I spent a lot of time in the locker room in high school; changing from gym clothes to my cheerleading uniform; changing from my cheerleading uniform to street clothes; changing from a shy teenager to one who stood in front of a crowd in bare legs, bloomers showing with every stunt. And that locker room smelled of Victoria's Secret, scent mingling with scent -- Plumeria, Cucumber Melon, Raspberry. Body odor. Wet pom-poms. Decades of locker room grime. Thousands of teenage girls.

In that locker room I made fun of a freshman girl who stared at herself in the mirror longer than anyone else, only to learn months later she had been checking to make sure her pregnancy wasn't yet showing. In that locker room I burst into tears when my cheerleading coach, who'd been acting weird for weeks, told us she'd miscarried twins. In that locker room I sank into a corner whenever a certain girl would enter to glare at me, until one day I decided she didn't matter; I wasn't afraid of her.

Sometimes I don't know which memories of the locker room are mine, or which are memories of locker rooms I've stolen from books. But I'll never, ever forget those scents; the signature smells of my locker room stories.




220px-Sylvia_plathThe first Sylvia Plath poem I ever read was Mirror, and I read it out loud in English class my senior year of high school, sometime during those long days between winter and spring. I don't think I ever stopped reading it. I was dying to get out of high school then. I'd long since quit being captain of the cheerleading team; the vice principal had called me and my sister into his office to make sure we weren't heading down a wrong path -- since obviously quitting something as important as cheerleading is a blazing red flag, a sign that we were about to go out big, burning everything in our path -- and everyone was annoying me, with their fake nostalgia for childhood. Like they weren't desperate to escape our tiny town, too; like they weren't equally terrified the way I was.

So I found Plath, thanks to a teacher who passed away last year. She's the same teacher who introduced me to the New Yorker. She was a gem, that lady.

The year of Plath is also the year I became close with a friend who, despite our drifts, despite the bad turns our friendship occasionally took, is still someone I think of often. She, like Plath, marked me in concrete ways. The two are oddly intertwined in my mind; today, the day of Plath's suicide, is my old friend's birthday. It's like some kind of fate.

I think of Plath as a rite of passage; a book of collected poems, a bell jar, handed down between generations of college women. Maybe my friend is, too -- someone you love even though you've both done wrong, even though you communicate by text only once a year or so. They're both treasures in their own way.

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Dear Diary

5665152268_e538635ce8I don't know how many diaries I bought as a kid. I just know it was a lot, considering I never (ever) filled them up and never had a lot of money to spend. But diaries were my downfall. The key, the lock, the smooth covers, the fresh, blank pages...there was so much potential in them. In the Thrift Drug in the center of town there was a case of them, pale blues and pinks, and I would run my finger over them and think, "I can say so much in here!" I never did, though. After a few half-hearted entries they'd fall to the wayside, one by one; a graveyard of calm colors dumped under my bed.

I had this yearning to be the kind of girl who wrote in diaries back then, similar to my yearning to always be acting out a scene from Teen magazine, like how, the night before the first day of school, I would almost always hot-roll my hair and put on a face mask and call my friends on the phone, even when I didn't have anything to say and besides, I hate talking on phones, because that is what I thought I was supposed to do as a pre-teen girl; that is the story I wanted to convey. (One year, the mask took so long to dry, and my mom was working that night, and my dad got annoyed at me for not being in bed yet, but I couldn't go to bed because I had to let the mask dry. And then it was too late to call my friends, and even my sisters were near-asleep already, and my whole staged scene was ruined that night. I woke up with red eyes and a lingering hiss of betrayal at Teen.)

Back to diaries: sophomore year of high school my friends and I had a little, fat notebook we called Phat. We used it in lieu of passing notes to each other -- instead, we just passed around Phat, which was filled to bursting with secrets and doodles and song lyrics and crushes and recaps of that day's General Hospital episode. A core group of us shared Phat, with occasional guest posts from other friends. (I like to think of it as my very first shared blog.) Sometime in college when K and I found Phat in our bedroom, its green cover tattered, we realized how dangerous it was. All the original writers were off at college, steeped in new lives and new allegiances, and the level of change made Phat risky. So we shredded it. the only real diary I've ever finished. I still regret it.

Today I found this article about a new kind of digital locked diary, and my heart leapt. I found myself thinking, how could I use this? Would people laugh at me? But what if I kept it secret? Then I would have a secret about a secret diary and...maybe that feels a little much. The drive for a locked book where I could dump everything hasn't gone away, it seems. Even though I know better now. I know I would never write in them.

Today, when I hear other writers talking about how they filled diary after diary as a kid, graduating to proper journals as a teenager, I can't help but think, "Liars." But maybe they're not like me, is all. Maybe they haven't saved it all up to parcel it out, piecemeal, into various manuscripts.

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All this from a Hello Kitty iPhone cover

Red-Varsity-Jacket-GSomething about her varsity jacket caught my eye. It was old looking -- retro. More Danny Zuko than Pinelands Wildcats circa 1994, like my own varsity jacket. I studied her, because I was intrigued. Who was this girl wearing a lukewarm varsity jacket in 10-degree weather? What was she listening to on that iPod? Was she me, 17 years ago? On Fridays during football and basketball seasons we cheerleaders had to wear our uniforms -- some sort of old-school show of support. (Because, you know, actually cheering at the games wasn't enough?) By junior year we had convinced our coaches that our street clothes paired with our "Wildcat cheerleader" tee-shirts would suffice, showing enough school spirit without needing to don those awful skirts that were either always too short or too long; too skanky or too '50s (and we weren't sure which option was worse). I had discovered thrift stores that summer, tiny warehouses tucked alongside the river in New Hope and Lambertville, and my vintage, ripped jeans matched with my Wildcat Cheerleader tee and my white Vans made me feel like I was giving a teeny, tiny finger to the establishment. I'll show you cheer, I'd think.

I thought of those Friday outfits as I looked at this girl on the subway. Something I'm always intrigued about is: how would I be different if I had grown up in NYC instead of South Jersey? How would I be the same? Would I have worn my uniform on the subway after a game? And I saw myself in this girl. Her clothes gave it away. She was:

An athlete: besides the jacket she wore track pants with her number stitched into them on the hip. Fourteen.

A student: a thin backpack strapped tight to her shoulders. Pink. I could see the shape of books inside.

A casual thing: Dirty Chucks with no laces; graffiti and doodles etched along the rims.

A teenage girl. Just as I decided this girl was cool; this girl was above it all, she pulled out her phone, wrapped in a Hello Kitty iPhone cover.

Of course, I thought when I saw it. She wasn't me all those years ago. She was just herself, and all the contradictions that entails.

Happy year-end

I’d be alone in the backseat of her Geo Tracker, but surrounded by stuff – Beastie Boys cassette holders, pom poms, duffel bags, water bottles. A stray pair of sunglasses. A scrunchie. I’d be alone, because even though the driver’s and front passenger’s seats were filled, the air would whip through the Tracker so fast it would build a wall between us, rendering me deaf in the backseat. And I would look out the windows and stare, and think. It doesn’t happen too often, but sometimes, these memories of high school flood my canals. Today it’s of a fall day, junior year; of my best friend’s first car; of the country music I didn’t listen to. Of slurpees and study halls, coasting down the pine tree roads. Of a promise of more, more, more; so much more than Jersey offered.

I make fun of it all the time, and I’m allowed to, but the truth is there’s something about southern coastal Jersey that is overly formative. I am sure you can all say that about your hometowns, whether they are Midwestern or Californian or Canadian. I am sure you are feeling a pinch inside as I imply here that mine was different, special. I don’t blame you.

But there is something to a hard blue sky and a horizon of deep green pine trees. There is something to a Jersey Devil legend and unblemished, near-empty beaches. There is something to the cranberry bogs, the duck crossings, the grainy, sandy dirt that blows across empty football fields.

There is something to being a teenage girl riding alone in the raised backseat of her best friend’s car on her way to cheerleading practice, eating her fruit lip gloss off her mouth and wondering what on earth is in store for her.

I haven’t been to my hometown in nearly three months, and since then there’s been a hurricane that ruined some of my favorite places, a couple of holidays, an engagement. This weekend I’ll hitch a ride down the Garden State Parkway and keep my eyes open for the memories I hadn’t realized I’d forgotten.


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Gimme a...

"Where'd that world go, that world where you're a kid, and now I can't remember noticing anything, not the smell of the leaves or the sharp curl of a dried maple on your ankles, walking? I live in cars now, and my own bedroom, the windows sealed shut, my mouth to my phone, hand slick around its neon jelly case, face closed to the world, heart closed to everything." There is something wrong with the F train these days, and some nights it actually leaves me near tears, because we all just want to get home, presumably, and we never can, at least not in the time we thought we'd be able to. So last night I'm waiting, and waiting more, and brushing condensation off my forehead, which is just another way of saying I was sweating like crazy, because everyone knows Broadway-Lafayette is the hottest subway station in the world, and did I mention I am ready for summer to be over?

And I'm waiting, in a rush, but no F trains come and when two finally do, they're so bursting with people that none of us can get on without risking our lives. And even though I desperately want to get on, I enjoy my life a lot, so I don't push myself in, I don't make the other sweating, smushed people hate me for smushing them in even tighter.

So I read. I read to distract myself from the heat and the anger and the near-tears.

And then I read that passage above, from Megan Abbott's Dare Me, and just like that, there is no subway station, there is no New York, there is no long work day and no jerks leering at me and no exhausted pregnant lady next to me (won't someone just give her their seat already), there is just me and a book, me and my own memories of high school cheerleading, where a new coach came and tried to whip us into better shape, just like in the book; where I took my varsity captainship and shoved it because I had my own awakening at the start of senior year that, wow, I actually hated almost everything that squad had become, and even though I missed the competitions, I missed the lights on my face during pep rallies, my senior year became more about me.

The myth of the cheerleader so often misses the mark -- there are complicated layers to cheering, at least to me -- the power and the flounce and the ponytails all swirl into something kind of dangerous for a lot of us. We start thinking we're invincible.

Dare Me is the first book I've read where the author gets it. She gets what the cheering is all about, what it's for. And who.