The first day of 7th grade. In the weeks leading up to that moment, I would ride my bike past the middle school, which dwarfed my puny, safe, single story elementary school. This new school had three floors and a basement to navigate, not to mention a new wing complete with a wind tunnel for testing the aerodynamics of the cars I'd make in shop class, a swimming pool I'd have to wear a bathing suit in, in front of other people, and a giant glass encased cafeteria filled with 20 foot long tables with seemingly endless chairs, one of which I would have to claim as my own. Staring up at the dark, vacant windows of my confines, I knew that something would have to change if I were going to make it on the inside. Since I already tried legally emancipating myself from my family to no avail, there was only one thing left for a powerless, 12 year old girl to do. I needed a new look.
Back at home, I sprawled across my sunflower printed sheets and began circling things in the Delias catalog. Though I lived in a small town in southern Indiana, I related to the models' chill, West Coast vibes. I wanted to be both a Valley girl and a surfer. The kind of girl who could pick just the right necklace to wear with that sweater, but who also could keep up with the boys on the half pipe. I was cool, hip, effortless, and meticulously styled, all at once. Or so I desired. When I had drawn circles around nearly everything from baggy burgundy corduroys to a sequined lavender gown, my mother told me to narrow it down to three outfits. This was obviously unfair, as I was her only daughter and dressing me well should be her main priority in life. Andy could wear Alex's clothes when Alex outgrew them, so it was really like they only had to pay to dress two kids, so it makes sense to give Andy's clothes allowance to me. It was a failed and ignoble attempt. But it was time to focus. I was going to have to say goodbye to a lot of excellent pretend outfits and find the most perfect one for the first day of school. After cutting out a dozen or so skirts, sweaters, button downs, and t-shirts and arranging them into tiny paper outfits across my bedroom floor, I had it. The. Ultimate. First day of middle school. Outfit. When it arrived in the mail, I hung it up together on my door, so that it looked like an invisible 12 year old girl was leaning against my closet. I stared at it as I fell asleep, dreaming of the instant fame I would inevitably receive as Northside Jr. High's best dressed student. "Oh this old thing?" I practiced saying to admires in my head. "It's just something I threw together last minute. Thanks though, you're sweet..."
The morning of the first day of school I descended the stairs like a queen entering a ball in her honor. Everything looked just the way I envisioned. In my hair, which I had smoothed free of its natural frizz and flipped up at the ends, I donned a black and white herringbone headband which exactly matched my herringbone mini skirt with attached gold chain belt. For a pop of color, I wore a pale yellow button down with three quarter length sleeves. On my feet, white knee high socks and black patent leather loafers. I was not allowed to wear makeup yet, but I found the Dr. Pepper flavor of Lip Smackers tinted my lips just enough to look like I was.
"Alright Mom, let's go." I said, floating past her toward the door.
"Not so fast. You're walking today."
"I have to drop Alex and Andy off at their schools. You'll be fine. Look, there's the Trace girl, go walk with her. Go, now, you're going to be late."
In my town, a school bus didn't pick you up if you lived within a mile of the school. The distance between my house and Northside? 0.9 miles.
By the time I got to the school's front steps, I was drenched in sweat from the late August heat and my feet were killing me from my new, stiff shoes.
"Hey Lora!" My friend from elementary, Shaye, was waving from the main entrance.
"What the hell are you wearing?" She asked after I ran over. "Nothing, it's new." I said, brushing it off with my hand, and we walked inside.
Immediately I was in awe with how many kids could be legally crammed into a single building, and each one of them was staring at their class schedules, trying to find the way to their homeroom. Mine was on the third floor. After parting ways with Shaye and finally finding the stairs, I noticed that my socks had fallen down in all the hurry, and my already mini mini skirt was creeping up with every step, so I had to walk with one hand on the railing, and the other tugging down my hem. Starting to panic, I got sweaty again, which left embarrassing evidence on my pretty pastel blouse. The humidity had ruined my perfect smooth locks, and now my head looked like a giant, blowing tumbleweed. I was so physically uncomfortable that I knew everyone around me could sense it. In my mind they were all staring, snickering, laughing at the girl who looked like an extra from the movie, "Clueless." And not even one of the cool extras, but one of the extras they blur out. The warning bell sounded, which meant we had five minutes before we needed to be in homeroom. I had a decision to make.
After attendance was taken, a girl named Heather, who was sitting behind me, tapped me on the shoulder.
"Hey," she said. "I like your frog t-shirt."
"Oh, thanks." I said. "Cool hemp necklace."
"Thanks! My friend Audrey has one, too. You should meet her!"
I left my first day of middle school with a handful of new friends, an armful of really heavy books, and a backpack stuffed with the most ultimate first day of school outfit. You see, when the warning bell sounded before homeroom, I made a beeline for the bathroom, where I immediately changed into the Peace Frogs t-shirt and boot cut jeans I packed, just in case. Because sometimes, when you're trying on a new version of yourself, it's best to have the old one stashed away, just in case you need her. And maybe you'll realize she wasn't really so bad to begin with.
Every year at the end of September, just as we were getting into the groove of a new school year – a new teacher, new classmates, new subjects – my parents would pluck us from our scholarly responsibilities and routines to drive us eleven hours south to the Florida panhandle. The weather in Panama City was best at the end of September, they said. Besides, it's not like you're saving lives. It's the second grade for god's sake.
Our insistence to be in class ended the moment we opened the sliding door to our family’s rusty red minivan and felt the warm ocean air caress our cheeks. This was before the Internet, Netflix, and iPhones, so Alex and I did what kids used to do. We played outside, all day long. When the sun came up, my mother would slather us with cool sunscreen that made us shiver and squirm. Knock it off or next time I’ll put it in the freezer. When the sun went down, we’d collect our buckets full of the day’s spoils (small crabs and shells, usually) and shuffle back up to the condominium to shovel in dinner just before we’d fall asleep with the door open to let in the sound of crashing waves.
Once a trip we’d pile back in the red rusty van and drive to St. Andrew’s State Park to walk winding trails around silent lagoons in search for the alligators who supposedly lived there. The sand trails lead to wooden docks over the water, and Alex would insist we all be as quiet as possible, so as not to scare the elusive beasts. I’ll just sneak over to the edge there and they won’t even know I’m coming. Alex whispers as loud as he talks, which is loud. My father is behind him, making sure he isn’t leaning too far over the rail. Hold your breath, Dad. You’ll scare him away. I have fond memories of our alligator walks, even though we never saw one in our 15 years of trying.
We’re old now, well, older anyway. I am 31. Alex is 29. Another sibling was added to our poorly timed vacations, another set of eyes to help us spot alligators. His name is Andy. He is 22. Our parents divorced almost a decade ago. It was hard on everyone. But Alex was in prison when they did it, so it might have been the hardest on him. He’s been in prison more often than not since he became a legal adult. He’s about to be released after another extended stay. I’m not sure what to feel about that.
Somewhere in our mutual timeline, Alex and I stopped being the kind of siblings who got along, and became the kind who didn’t. He became someone I didn’t know, someone I would have never wanted to know. Though always a liar (What happened to all the Cool Whip? Did you take my Chumbawumba CD? What are all these fireworks for?), his words now reeked with rotten manipulation and stung with venom. Lies became truth in that sometimes he had lied so much he’d actually believe himself, only to lash out yet again when the room grew too small to contain our doubts and accusations and he had to break it down just to breathe. Drug use and theft and more drug use and crimes so plentiful I can't hold them all in my brain at once became the collective ax that that split our relationship. It remains in the pieces we left it in 16 months ago at Mom’s house that Christmas morning. I called him a psychopath and an arrogant, selfish, liar. I can't remember what he called me, and I think I can't remember because I'm too afraid it's true.
He went back to prison a month after that and we haven’t spoken since. For a long time I was able to make myself forget him. I’d do my work and walk my dog and love my husband without caring that he couldn’t have any of those things, and without feeling bad that I could. I stopped worrying about his life, and how he was going to fix it, and if he ever would. I started calling Andy more often. We talk about baseball and girls and our parents and our favorite TV shows. When we visit, we always have a good time. Our relationship is relaxed and easy, which I was actually having a hard time getting used to until I realized that that was how it was supposed to be.
Alex gets out of prison in one month, so I’m thinking about him again. But not so much about the person he is now as the person he once was. Or is there a difference? I don’t know. I’m dying to know. I have this day dream where we are back on that dock over the lagoon where the lily pads are the size of dinner plates and the air is so still. Shh, you’ll scare him away, he says. I tell him that there probably aren’t even any alligators in that stupid lagoon. But I sit still and hold my breath, trying not to make a sound. And we both wait. Wait for him to show himself, finally, after all these years.
I don't cry over celebrity deaths. While I feel a great sadness for when one of my favorite idols leaves this planet, it's not like I knew them personally. Hell, I haven't cried at any of the funerals I've attended. Not a one. And it's not because I'm such an asshole. I think. I just don't cry a lot.
That ended today. During me and Ramona's walk, some big, off leash dogs cornered us. Ramona got aggressive, but didn't bite them. It was scary, and fortunately over quickly. As I hurried Mo away when the owner finally rounded up her mutts, I was in such a heightened state of alert and panic and fear that I began to sob. Like, snot tears sob. But my tears weren't over our dog encounter, they were for David Bowie.
Triggered by my heightened state no doubt, all of these memories and emotions flash flooded into my brain. The time I made my little brother a David Bowie mix tape for his 13th birthday that started with "Changes" (puberty joke), and ended with Starman. Smoking pot for the first time while watching "Man Who Fell to Earth." Dancing until the wee hours at Neo, an old punk club he frequented during his brief stint in Chicago. Holding the hands of my best friends at their wedding while singing "Modern Love." From cross country road trips to belting poor renditions of "Heroes" in my shower, David Bowie has always been there, and I think that's why I'm so upset. His death doesn't feel like a celebrity death, but the death of a dear friend's.
When I got home from my epic sidewalk sob fest, I watched the last music video he ever made, "Lazarus." The opening shot is him in a hospital bed with bandaged eyes, looking pale and thin in a way that was no longer intentional. After a melodic intro, he starts to sing. "Look up, I'm in heaven." I couldn't help but look.
Though terminally ill, he made his fans a beautiful goodbye telling us all that he was okay. He continued to give while he was being robbed. Even if the song was terrible (it's not, of course), the gesture is so pure and good that I can't be sad anymore. Instead, I'm just grateful for this wonderful weirdo's body of work I've enjoyed my entire life, and will one day force my children to enjoy as well (until they graduate college, realize I'm not the total lame ass they always thought I was, and start to comb through Bowie's music and movies with the same wonder and awe as I did).
All I have left to say now is, thank you, David Bowie. I don't believe in heaven, but I will continue to look up and see you in the stars.