“I Wish You Would” (this particular song has pretty much nothing to do with what follows, but it’s the only track off 1989 that I couldn’t stretch to fit my narrative.)
As should be clear by now, I was a movie fan, which meant I would check out whatever was new that week at the multiplex, with no real discernment. If one movie was sold out, I just went to the next one down the list. (I became a pickier, snobbier “cinephile” a few years later after having my world rocked by Reservoir Dogs.)
1989 was the first year of many years in which I picked up a copy of Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies & Video Guide. This tome was the size of a small brick, and was “the essential reference for home video rental, featuring…18,000 films!” It was the Internet before the Internet.
So I had been marking life milestones by what movie I had seen most recently. (The start of summer vacation was not only Tienanmen Sqaure, but also Weekend At Bernie’s.) One of the many changes wrought by 1989 was that my personal events began being marked more and more by music. The big summer albums, as I recall, were the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing and the Tom Petty solo album Full Moon Fever. The strains of “Love Shack” and “Free Fallin’” saturated the hot, dry Northern California air. One celebratory, one regretful and elegiac. It was kind of the sound of the 80s dying, though no one thought of them that way then.
For a little bit longer, though, movies were still my markers, and the last movie I saw before high school was The Abyss. It was the night before Locker Day. Locker Day was the first big event before school actually started, and, as the name suggests, it’s when you get your locker assignment in the high school hallways. It’s also when you get your list of classes. Nick made the trek up from Robbins to see the movie, sleep over, and get his locker with me the next morning. But something had irrevocably changed.
He was on the high school football team.
He was still the amiable, slightly goofy guy prone to malapropisms (he once said “douche” instead of “tush” when someone drew a girl’s backside in a family game of Pictionary — my mom laughs about that to this day.) But practices had already started, and he no sooner set foot in my new Yuba City place than he had to dash off and put on the pads and helmet for the whole afternoon. He barely made it back in time to get changed for the movie. I have to admit, I felt a little jilted.
It got worse. After we got our lockers the next morning, we met up with his new friends — the football team — to walk to Carl’s Jr. for breakfast. Carl’s Jr. wasn’t exactly adjacent to the high school, and over the course of the kind-of long walk, I felt more and more out of place and uncomfortable. By the walk back, I was trailing behind by half-a-block. No one noticed, as they playfully shoved each other and made rude-jock jokes. Nick had found his tribe, almost immediately, and never looked back. As George Gobel once said, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”
I didn’t dwell on it, though. I was far too excited about the prospect of starting high school. A clean slate, a chance to reinvent myself. I may not have been on the football team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peddle my own brand of awesomeness. I never lacked for self-confidence (at least, not yet), but I really was just a puppy tripping over his own paws. I received my class list and locator card that Locker Day, and saw that I had English C, Intro to Physical Science (IPS), Geography C, P.E., Computer Literacy, and Integrated Math. I was in the college-prep C-level humanities classes, but math was my Achilles heel, and “Integrated Math” just meant “pre-algebra.” To my horror, I discovered that “Computer Literacy” was basically a keyboarding class. It didn’t take. I’m typing this right now with two fingers and a thumb. And damn fast, too.
In English class one of our first assignments was an autobiographical essay about a meaningful event in our lives. I wrote about the trip I took to Washington D.C. the previous year. I had always been interested in writing, but I mostly wrote fiction. This wasn’t the first autobiographical essay I had written for a class, but it was the first one I tried to make entertaining and resonant, to inject with some of the passion I used for my made-up stories. “This is really good…” the teacher scrawled at the bottom when the paper was returned. The Holy Bee of Ephesus may just have been hatched at that moment.
I desperately wanted to begin my dating life. After all, here was a guy who already made out with a girl (albeit in a clinical, pre-arranged ritual that could be qualified as “bizarre” — see previous entry — but it counts!) My entire notion of dating consisted of asking someone to the movies. Or possibly bowling. I couldn’t wait to get started. How hard could it be? The second or third day of school I spotted a likely prospect in my Geography C class.
She was incredibly cute. (I didn’t yet grasp the fact that “boxing above your weight class” could be metaphorical and applied outside the sport of boxing.) She was quirky and unconventional. She carried around a clarinet. She wore loud green-and-purple checkered pants that looked like something out of the Joker’s closet. She sometimes wore a beret. The pop-culture term had not yet been coined, but she looked like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
On some pretense, I began a conversation with her. Then I clumsily popped the clutch and lurched into asking her to the movies. I don’t remember her exact response, I just know we did not go to the movies, then or ever. And she did not conceal her disdain in prognosticating, in no uncertain terms, that the possibility of any interaction with her at any point in the future was a highly unlikely proposition. I felt like a dog swatted on the nose with a newspaper. Not really hurt, just chagrined and embarrassed. Manic Pixie Dream Girls aren’t supposed to be mean.
I vowed to do better with the next girl that came along. Maybe lay a little groundwork before proffering the date within five minutes of speaking to her for the first time. I already had a few in my sights, including one I would I would doggedly and ineptly pursue, Wile E. Coyote-style, off and on for the next two years. (Check out This Used To Be My Playground Part 4: Kryptonite and Stomach-Aches for a flash-forward into the early 90s to see how that adventure turned out. She may just as well have painted a tunnel on the side of a cliff.)
Opportunities abounded, or at least I thought they did. Sometime in early September, one girl threw a night-time birthday party with a blanket invitation to the entire freshman class. It was at a park — a park one block away from my house! I eagerly trotted over as dusk settled in. It wasn’t exactly the entire freshman class, but it was quite a crowd. And I knew none of them. The ones I recognized from my classes were already talking to other people. I wandered around aimlessly, had a cup of punch, and went back home, wondering what I thought was supposed to happen, and how come it was so easy for everyone else? I realized it had a lot to do with middle school. Most of the freshman class already had pre-existing relationships with people they went to middle school with (a situation that will come up again later.) That made me feel better. I decided at the next high school social event, I needed a wingman that I knew from middle school, a Goose to my Maverick, a Wedge to my Luke. Nick was already skyrocketing to the top of the social strata and had no time to help out. That left my other Robbins friend, Dusty.
The first dance of the year was coming up – the “Beanie Ball,” hosted by the sophomores to welcome incoming freshmen. I convinced Dusty to make the trip up to Yuba City and go in with me, Butch & Sundance-style, guns blazing.
The one potential stumbling block to my cunning plan was that neither one of us could dance. Or at least we couldn’t “fast dance,” so our all-out assault consisted of standing stock-still, drinking cup after cup of Pepsi, and going to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. We watched as our classmates did the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit all around us while “Bust A Move” by Young MC or “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals boomed from the speakers.
What we were doing was working up the nerve to ask a girl we sort of knew to let us put our arms clumsily around them and sway-and-rotate to a slow number. That was a dance move we could handle. But finding a partner was nerve-wracking. “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx came and went. “Lost In Your Eyes” by Debbie Gibson came and went.
Then something like “Chances” by Roxette would pop up and no one would know if it was supposed to be fast dance or slow dance song. We were running out time. Finally I spotted a pair of girls I recognized from a class, and had briefly exchanged a few words with. They were even guardedly friendly, unlike mean ol’ Joker-pants. Good enough. Dusty and I locked our s-foils into attack position and moved in.
Yelling to make ourselves heard over the likes of “Rhythm Nation” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” we made inane conversation with Brenda and Nikki for just long enough to get to the crucial awkward pause — where we had to ask them to dance, or move on, defeated. I turned off my targeting computer, used the Force, and pulled the trigger…successfully. We got our slow dance. It was “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles.
I spent the weekend swooning over Brenda. (Not her real name, BTW. I used her real name once in a blog a couple of years ago, never in a million years thinking she would ever actually read it, but somehow she did and let me know that the real-life, grown-up woman she became was more than a little embarrassed by the whole deal. Fair enough.) She was on the tall side, with shoulder-length dark hair and dark eyes. She admitted she wanted to be a model, and she just maybe could have pulled it off.
Hurricane Hugo hit a few days after the Beanie Ball, doing to the Carolina coast what Brenda was doing to my psyche.
I literally cannot remember ever having any further interaction with poor Dusty at any time after that. He had served his purpose.
With thoughts of Brenda spinning in my head, I made another attempt to climb the high school social ladder, with predictable results…
Homecoming Week at Yuba City High was the first week of October. On the last Saturday in September, there was a homecoming float-building party for the freshman class at someone’s house on the outskirts of town. Although the invitation was technically for everyone in ninth grade, the subtext turned out to be “don’t come if you’re not important.” After skirting the edges for some time, I finally ran straight into the brick wall of exclusionary high school cliques, as dramatized in film, TV, and Y.A. literature. They definitely existed, although in my case they weren’t cruel in their ostracization, and it may have even been partially beyond their control.
The folks working on the float were absolutely the A-listers. The football players were wrapping chicken wire around the flatbed truck next to the Key Club members. The freshman class president was festooning the chicken wire with colored tissue paper shoulder-to-shoulder with the spirit coordinator. Several cheerleaders were stuffing envelopes to raise awareness for a school bond issue on the ballot that coming election day. I wandered from point to point, helping in a very non-specific manner and trying to make small talk, but probably just being in the way. I certainly began feeling in the way. Nothing rude was ever said to me. It just seemed like an unspoken closing of ranks. These were the doers, the joiners. Coming to this function was my way of trying to be a doer and a joiner, but it was already too late. The ship had sailed. How could it have sailed barely two months into high school? Because despite having “city” in its name, this was still a pretty small town in 1989. About 75% of these people had gone to Gray Avenue Middle School together, which was the biggest one, and drew from the slightly more upscale neighborhoods. They were merely continuing down a path they were already collectively on. If you had something real to contribute, like Nick on the football team, you could climb aboard. If you just wanted to belong without chipping in something, well, that wasn’t enough.
So, no, I suppose there wasn’t any bad blood, really. They were good kids, but oblivious. And I could have made more of an effort beyond just showing up and expecting instant acclamation.
But I was already deciding that being an outsider suited me better than being a doer and joiner, anyway. I never went to anything remotely like the float-decoration party in the future.
Once again, there was no dwelling on my abject failure at the float-decoration party. At the time, anyway. Dwelling on it came later as I wrote the above paragraphs. I started that section as a scathing take-down of high school cliques, and as I drafted and re-drafted, it gradually emerged that I was mostly to blame in that situation. This is why I love the writing process. It will reveal truths about yourself that you never realized.
I think the Beanie Ball was something like September 15. I steered a perilous course over the next couple of weeks, trying to win Brenda over and stay at the forefront of her attention without being overbearing. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point. Before learning the lessons the first months of high school taught me, I tried to be charming by spewing out funny remarks, unfunny remarks, and putting on odd voices. I tried to be smart by correcting people and offering up un-asked-for facts. In late 1989, however, slowly but surely, I was becoming…quieter. It was much funnier if I waited until the moment was right, then said something short and on-point. I could be smart without demanding attention all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with being the first person to raise your hand in class each and every time, but it just wasn’t going to be me anymore. I’m not claiming it happened entirely within this time period, but the process began here, for the social reasons I’ve described. It’s a can’t-miss formula: the less annoying you are, the better you’re liked. A personality much closer to my adult personality was emerging.
Anyway, it turns out that Brenda found me acceptable enough to take me up on my offer of exclusive couplehood. I asked her in the geography classroom, almost on the exact spot of my humiliating nose-swat at the start of the school year. I don’t know if I was subconsciously trying to reclaim that spot in the name of romantic victory, but she said yes. It was October 2. I wrote the date on the back of the wallet-sized school picture she gave me a few days later.
Our first date was a round of bowling, and a donut at Metcalf’s Donuts & Chicken.
The weather turned autumnal sometime between our first and second dates. The clouds rolled in, and northern California was pounded by the first big storm of the season. The townhouse fireplace was fired up for the first time. Our second date was seeing the talking-baby movie Look Who’s Talking. I’m pretty sure this would’ve been its opening weekend, which makes this Saturday, October 14. She would be coming by to pick me up (or rather, her parental chauffeur would be bringing her to come pick me up). While I waited, I read the very first copy of Rolling Stone I ever acquired. It was the Comedy Issue, with future deadly rivals Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall goofing around on the cover. (A year later, I began the subscription that I have to this day.) I took a walk in the rain, smelling the wood smoke from our chimney, and several other chimneys in the area. When she finally rang the doorbell, I thought she looked heart-stopping — her hair was damp from a recent shower, she smelled like shampoo and Exclamation perfume, and she wore a shirt with the logo “AWESOME” across the front. I couldn’t argue.
I had never felt more content. To this day, the smell of a first rain and wood smoke reminds me of that moment in time. (I haven’t smelled Exclamation in a quarter-century, so who knows what that would do to me.)
A third date and many others followed — mostly movies. Worth Winning, Millennium, Halloween 5, The Little Mermaid, Back To The Future Part 2, probably a few more…
The friend that was with her at the dance, Nikki, became my friend, too, and I happened to be chatting on the phone with her one evening, staring idly at the opening ceremonies of Game 3 of the World Series on my bedroom TV. It was between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants. I was a casual A’s fan at the time, more out of family tradition than any real interest in baseball. My head was resting against the bedroom wall, and I suddenly felt a weird thrumming in my skull and molars, for just a second. At the same moment, the TV coverage blanked out.
The Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area at 5:04 pm on October 17, 1989, causing almost $6 billion in damage and claiming 63 lives. Its tremors were felt as far away as…a cranium in Yuba City (about 180 miles from the epicenter.) And 1989 still had a few more tricks up its sleeve.
Brenda’s house was only a short bike ride away, and I became as comfortable there as I was at my own place. Her bedroom had wallpaper patterned with postage stamps, and she had a dot-matrix sign made with Print Shop that said I LOVE MATT taped to her mirror. Her parents liked me. We played Trivial Pursuit with them at their big dining room table quite often. Her older sister, a junior and a huge Prince fan, liked me. Her younger brother, a 6th-grade Trekkie, liked me. I pretended to let him hypnotize me. We had a funeral for her hermit crab (“Hermie”) in her backyard. We watched rented movies like The Fly II and Heathers (I thought she looked just like Winona Ryder in that movie.) We played Tetris on her Nintendo for hours. I would fall asleep seeing multi-colored falling blocks behind my eyelids and hearing 8-bit electronic versions of Russian classical music pieces echoing in my head. We talked on the phone late into the night, buried under the covers of our respective beds. (I’m pretty sure we actually did the “you hang up first” “no, you hang up first” thing.)
Halloween ‘89…There was a small local modeling agency that Brenda seemed to have a legitimate connection to, at least enough to wrangle some invitations to their Halloween party a few days before the 31st. Brenda came as Cleopatra, I was the Devil (just horns, a cape, and a pitchfork), and Nikki came along as a Hershey’s Kiss. I’m glad I could say I’ve been to a modeling agency costume party, but I honestly can’t remember much about it, other than crushing boredom and a tiny bit of Nikki’s foil costume that randomly ended up in my mouth. I experienced the foil-meets-filling phenomenon for the first and last time in my life. I did not feel like a sexy devil as I drooled and writhed on the floor.
On Halloween itself, Brenda insisted on trick-or-treating. I said we were too old and would look ridiculous. She said my Devil costume would benefit from me wearing heavy eyeliner. Now, I had no real objection to the make-up, but I pretended to because I had been threatened that if I refused to put it on, she and her sister would chase me down, tackle me, and sit on me to apply it by force. That situation indeed came to pass, and it was as hellish as I expected it to be.
And we were too old to trick-or-treat, and we did look ridiculous. We packed it in early and went back to her house to watch The Wonder Years (Season 3, Episode 4 if you want to check it out.)
Our romantic idyll continued…
She used to tape songs off the radio. One of them was “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” the Billy Joel song from his ‘89 album Storm Front. It’s not a great song by any measure, its lyrics simply a fast-moving list of historical and cultural events from 1949 to the mid-80s, but it was catchy and inescapable on the radio that fall. With the Internet still many years in the future, Brenda and her sister decided to try and decipher the words. If you’re a typical high-schooler and have never heard of things like Prokofiev, Dien Bien Phu, Chou En-Lai, Thalidomide, Syngman Rhee, payola, and the Ford Edsel, you’re bound to make a few colossal blunders in parsing the phonetics. I really, really, really wish I still had the final version of their painstakingly hand-written and unintentionally hilarious lyric sheet. (“It’s a list of no-gos,” indeed.)
She had a handful of actual albums on cassette in addition to her nightstand drawer full of radio tapings. She definitely leaned towards the rock & roll side of late 80s music. I remember her having Warrant’s Dirty Rotten Filthy Stinking Rich, Bon Jovi’s New Jersey, Poison’s Open Up And Say…Ahh!, and Aerosmith’s mighty Pump. It was the latter album, which had just come out, that rarely left her suitcase-sized “portable” cassette player that she lugged back and forth between her room, the back patio, the front porch, the kitchen counter…wherever we were killing time that afternoon or evening. On November 9, I came over after school to huge news on their family TV.
The Berlin Wall was falling to the strains of “Love In An Elevator” blaring from her speakers. And if that isn’t “1989” enough for you, then I don’t know what is.
And then it was over. My first relationship crumbled like that goddamn wall.
Brenda was pretty, no two ways about it. And she was very social, with friends other than me coming and going from her house all the time. And she certainly attracted the attention of other guys. There was one fellow in particular who kept dropping by a little too often “to say hi.” Let’s call him Alex. A few times when I got to her place, Alex’s bike was already propped against the front gate. I would go in and see him already ensconced comfortably on a barstool (my barstool) at the kitchen counter, and have to make awkward conversation until he finally left. Alex wore tank tops, because Alex had biceps. Alex had a mullet. Alex was stupid, barely passing his remedial classes. Alex tried to kiss Brenda, and she let him.
She confessed as much to me when I finally pressed her on the issue. I was not the jealous type, but I thought I was within my rights to ask her not to do that anymore. To send Alex packing next time he came to “say hi.”
She said she couldn’t promise to do that.
Things went into limbo because the Thanksgiving holiday hit right about then. She left the state to visit relatives. As soon as she got back, she officially ended it, over the course of a tearful three-hour phone conversation on Sunday night, November 26. I wrote the date on the back of the same picture she originally gave me, so it looked like dates on a tombstone. October 2 – November 26, 1989. The whole thing lasted eight weeks. Eight weeks passes like it’s nothing now. Then it felt like a lifetime.
I kept the picture for a long, long time. Some things I’ve written about 1989 sound a little sad, but only in hindsight. I was mostly happy at the time. Except this. This was definitely sad as it happened. I was gutted. I was a week away from turning 15.
We had a birthday dinner when the time came. I invited Nick, who was still pretty much my sole friend close enough to be invited to a dinner where the only other guests were my parents. He got me a Married…With Children t-shirt. It was the last time I can remember socializing with him. We remained friendly until graduation, but just moved in different circles (I didn’t even have a circle yet.)
We all went to see the just-released National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on my birthday dinner night. It snapped me out of my funk, and I laughed out loud for the first time in a week. The movie earned a place in my heart, and has become a Christmas tradition in my house, usually viewed on or around my birthday.
December 13, 1989 was was the day Taylor Swift was allegedly “born.” That same week, the very first episode of The Simpsons aired on Fox and, the U.S. invaded Panama to capture Panamanian president/drug kingpin Manuel Noriega…
So Christmas was kind of a mixed bag, emotionally. As some of the earlier blog entries here have demonstrated, I love Christmas and have a hard time being truly unhappy around this time of year. But I still felt an ache that would stay with me awhile. I received several used Monty Python VHS tapes under the tree. I recognized some of the dings and tears on the boxes. Remember Alley Video? Mom took advantage of their inevitable going-out-of-business clearance and bought up their entire Python stock. Brenda gave me a paperback copy of Stephen King’s It. I gave her a bottle of Exclamation perfume. We tried to be friends. It didn’t work. I fell apart when she started dating someone else — within minutes, it seemed. It wasn’t Alex, but it wasn’t anyone much better.
Speaking of Alex, he was hit by a car early in sophomore year, breaking his femur and pelvis. I’m told it was the second time he’d been hit by a car. He recovered. (What is it with jackasses and getting hit by cars multiple times? Many years later when I had become a middle-school teacher, one of my most obnoxious students, Kevin, told some stories of being hit by a car on more than one occasion. I forgot the actual number. Kevin was in the same class as my son Cade. A few years after having Kevin as a student, I asked Cade how many times Kevin had been hit. Cade simply responded, “He was hit the appropriate number of times.” So be it.)
I began listening to the radio more as the decade turned. Lovesick songs topping the charts at year’s end, like “No Myth” by Michael Penn and “When The Night Comes” by Joe Cocker, resonated deeply. Even the joyous “Roam” off of good ol’ Cosmic Thing took on a very wistful quality to my ears.
So 1989 comes to an end, and I was a changed person. I felt not one, but ten years older. I was so rumpled and careworn I was practically Leonard Cohen. On a more positive note, the explosion of maturity and the shift in how I presented myself to others began to pay dividends. And I now used music as kind of an emotional bellwether. And I now listened more than I talked.
I hope it’s okay with Taylor Swift if I keep a tiny crumb of 1989 for myself. It meant a lot to me.