[Illustration by ALEX FINE]
A Teenage Memoir Of Midlife Crisis
BY COLLEEN REESE By the time it was over, high school finally made sense to me: Clean lines were drawn between the extraordinaires bound for leafy private colleges and the Joe Regulars headed to state schools; between the part-timers headed to community college and the free spirit do-gooders who would travel the world and eventually settle down for a little missionary work in Uganda or whatnot; and let us not forget the sons of working class shlubs doomed to endless summer apprenticeships with their neighbor’s landscaping companies. And, as predicted, they all moved on in logical directions.
The kids who lived outside the gated communities all worked full time and bought motorcycles and paid for their own health insurance. The university extraordinaries entered their freshman year of college the same way they did their first year of high school, abiding strict self-constructed regimens of ass-kissing and good grades that would land them on the fast track to Senator or CEO. Some got into NYU or Marymount Manhattan and posted millions of picture of themselves on Myspace, carousing at hip bars with underground musicians or reading Tolstoy on the subway. Meanwhile, the girls at West Chester rock n’ rolled all night and worked their asses off every day toward degrees in nursing and education. The floaters moved into their parents’ basement and sold weed and Adderall and ate mac-and-cheese out of paper dixie cups. Each and every one of them made sense somehow.
I made sense, too. I was supposed to be hip and accomplished, edgy and artsy and a little bit political. I was supposed to go to a big city, settle into the scene. But where? New York was too obvious and expensive and the West Coast was too far and expensive. That left Philadelphia — that is where I would go to make sense. It made perfect sense. Everyone agreed.
But in the end I wound up here, one year later: a college dropout working at a suburban Starbucks. It doesn’t make any sense. I used to be every struggling blue-collar single mom’s hope. In elementary school I was a problem child, come middle school I was a charity case, and come high school I finally turned into a promising adult — someone that my friends’ parents confided in and asked about when I was away. I edited my school newspaper and upgraded it from ‘sucks’ to ‘sucks less.’ I made sure we stood up for the little guy, i.e. my fellow students. I took on teachers and superintendents without second glances. I spent hours circling commas and fixing date formats, pretending like in the end someone actually gave a damn. Regardless, I actually gave a shit about commas. Still do.
Nothing really changed in college. I excelled in my classes. I took a lot of advanced classes where I was often the only freshman and managed to make my presence known during class discussions. I started looking into New Media and found myself attracted to its quirk and creativity. I even got a job for an online media outlet covering the Democratic Debate at the Constitution Center. My first real journalism job at 19 and I didn’t even write for the college newspaper. Another hurdle leapfrogged! I was on track. I was happy. I made sense.
But only on paper.
Just before school started I was confronted with a $5,000 bill from Temple. This was not part of the plan — or, as it turns out, I just didn’t understand the plan. After pow-wowing with the Financial Aid peeps, I walked away with the impression that I only needed to come up with $5,000 for the whole year, when in fact I needed to come up with $5,000 per semester. The murky financial waters that my Dad had roiled after years of mostly NOT paying child support payments only complicated the situation. And by the time I figured it out, the money Temple sets aside for kids like me was already spent on other hardship cases. They suggested I take out a loan. “It’s not the worst thing that could happen,” they said, handing me a pamphlet about private loans. So, I applied — as a sole borrower I would have to pay 14% interest. In other words my $5,000 loan would multiply into $15,000 by the time I graduated. Whatever. College was worth everything to me.
Second semester came and I looked at the same bill, knowing full well this time that I wouldn’t be able afford another loan. But I rode it out, making as many professional contacts and soaking up as much knowledge as I could. Sometimes I wrote other people’s term papers for cash. At $50 for every 500 words, I made mad money writing college comp papers for non-verbal science majors and sub-verbal frat boys. And now I smile forcibly at friends of friends when they ask me when I’m heading back to school. “Oh in the spring. I’m trying to save up some money.” They usually tell me they wish they had done that or that it’s really smart of me to take some time off, like I’m doing something to help the world. Instead I feel wrong and lost and look in the mirror and wonder who I am and how got here. How I stopped making sense.
The sad truth is, I know exactly how I got here. Deep down, I knew this would happen. I’ve always known, really. I’ve always been here — sitting at the computer since age 12 at all hours of the night trying to write myself away from the horrible truth that I am now and will always be just a few fuck-ups away from becoming my parents. Let’s see, the choice down to this: alcoholic and homeless like my dad, or divorced and struggling like my mom. The day I turned 19 last January, as I stared at the OUTSTANDING BALANCE notice folded underneath a sheet of red security paper inside my dorm hall mailbox, hungover after a long night of partying, I realized that my Dad never left me. He is always around.
When I was a little girl, my mother moved us — me and my three siblings — from Rockaway Beach to North Wales, 40 minutes outside Philly. The plan was to have my father follow us after tying up some loose ends. We waited for months, but he never showed up. I suppose this is where my life really began, my current life, anyway. At first it was a typical divorce. My mother was awarded primary custody of her four children. We still visited my father until I was almost nine.
My mom did her best to shield us kids from the harshness. She never told us about the unforgivable amount of back child support he owed her. Whenever I asked my mother why my Dad didn’t live with us anymore she would always say the same thing, “Mommy and Daddy love you so much that they don’t want you to see them fight with each other anymore.” My father, of course, had a different story. He would admit that it was my mother’s idea in front of all four of us, my younger brother being only four at the time. Our visits were typically weekend stays at whatever low-rent apartment he was staying at for the next three months or so, usually about how long it took for his lies and bullshit to catch up with him or the landlord to get fed up with his excuses and empty promises of paying the rent.
When you are nine years old, it’s hard to understand why Daddy has to take a four-hour nap at eleven in the morning, or why his breath smelled funny all the time, or why he was so angry at my older brother. I know now, of course, it was because he was a drunk and my older brother was the only one old enough to even vaguely understand what was really going on. And so he yelled and hit and tore down my oldest brother in front of the rest of us so that we would never dare make the same mistake of asking Daddy why he throws up every morning or why he never had a place to live.
The visits ended after the time he wouldn’t take me to the bathroom when I was sick and I threw up all over the basement floor. After his mother called up mom cursing and screaming, telling her she was a horrible mother and that she would see her in court. After we stopped shutting our mouths when he hit one of us, after we all realized what a goddamned drunk-ass liar he was. Soon after that he stopped calling us on our birthdays and Christmas. I was 11.
Once, when I was eight and finally realized that he didn’t have a job like everyone else’s dad, I asked when he was going to get one. He looked down at me and smiled the most genuine smile and said, “On the 31st of February, honey.” And hearing this I bounced in my seat all the way across the Ben Franklin Bridge, down 476, and all the way to the back patio of my grandmother’s house and recited the information to my mother thinking that this would mend all the broken things that divorce brought us. My grandmother spat and cursed. I couldn’t understand why. This was good news, right?
And then he was gone.
Gone for the next eight years of my life. We lived with my grandmother in a small suburban town, walked to public school, did our homework and said watched cartoons every Saturday morning. My grandmother taught us how to roller blade and bought slip-and-slides and scolded at us when we fell out of line. My mom found a job interpreting for deaf kids at a local high school. All things considered, this was a good time for us. We didn’t really notice my father’s absence because my grandmother tried so hard to fill the empty space. But then my grandmother died of lung cancer when I was in the sixth grade and we were back to square one.
Without the financial backing from Gram, we struggled mightily.
Branding begins at a much earlier age than most people care to realize. When I went to elementary school I quickly learned at age nine or ten that the rich kids wore better clothes and attended much more advanced preschools than me, they were already members of swim clubs and soccer teams. Their poster board was thicker and straighter. They had pencil grippers and their own plastic rulers. The only kids who went to divorce counseling at school were other poor kids from my neighborhood because wealthy parents could spare their children such embarrassment with private therapy, covered by their company insurance. But when they assigned us to honors and non-honors classes to prepare us for middle school, someone saw past my Wal Mart wardrobe, the bad handwriting and my chewed-up pencil. They were placing me in honors, they said, because I showed an interest in history and writing at an early age and spoke loud and clearly when I read from chapter books.
“They must’ve switched yours with Maddy’s, she got put in 5.0s,” Derek said to me looking down at my seventh grade schedule. Derek was my best friend. Still is. Maddy was a girl in my classes who lived on the other side of Main Street, AKA the right side of the tracks. Derek just assumed, as did everyone probably, that she was inherently smarter than me because she was better dressed and thereby probably better equipped to handle honors classes. At that time, it irked me something fierce that nobody could accept that I had just as much potential as the girl with pink mechanical pencils and purple grippers (the rubber foam ones that slide on to cushion your fingers when you write) even if I only had a stumpy, gnawed-on No. 2. And so I got angry with my friends — and stayed that way.
I grew up angry with my friends. That’s the worst part.
I know what if feels like to vanish, to make yourself disappear completely. I know how to make people ask ‘Whatever happened to her?’ It’s not that hard, really, to fall off a path, to lose your purpose and wind up circling the drain of go nowhere part-time jobs and endless shit-talking in all-night diners. Trust me on that. All you have to do is stop pretending you have control and surrender to inertia. That’s how I wound up here — and everyone knows this is nowhere.
I used to make sense. Now I’m an ex-journalism major working at a part-time job for tips at the mall. I used to have big plans. I was gonna be somebody, with places to go, people to see. I was gonna have deadlines and get my own byline. I was going to ruffle feathers. I was going to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I was going to wear heels down Broad Street, dammit.
Instead, I’m a barista at the Starbucks in the Montgomery Mall, fetching nonfat lattes for Macy’s clerks and soccer moms. I almost joined the Navy. Almost. I went to a recruitment meeting in flip flops and a sun dress, doing my best to hide my nose ring. I was the only girl in the room. I scored thirty percent over the national average on a test they make you take to help them decide where to put you. When I got home, my mom started crying when we started talking about advanced nuclear propulsion courses and overseas tours of duty. In the end, despite the opportunities it presented, I couldn’t pretend like I was ready for the service because I’m clearly not fit for it. Girls with MIA fathers and serious commitment issues don’t up hold well under six-year contracts wit the U.S Military.
And then I ran out of denial. It happened in the middle of the night. I was laying on my mother’s bathroom floor, naked and shamefully drunk. I could smell the bug spray still lingering in the rug from when we had a spider problem when I was nine when I finally admitted it: I am really not going back to school. Earlier that night, I broke down crying in front of my best friend after too much Pabst and sangria. I told him about the times my father called to tell me that he had gotten married or had a baby (he’s now the biological father to six children and a step father to two more), and years later to ask me how “that journalism thing” was going. I told him that I didn’t understand what I did wrong.
My father is currently living somewhere in Texas, or so he told my sister. After he was released from jail for non-payment of child support, he flew to Texas to meet his new family. Lucky them. He’s forty-nine but, like most lifelong alcoholics, looks at least ten years older. He tested positive for cocaine while on probation. I think he’s going to die soon. I always expected to feel relieved when that finally happened. It’s something that I’ve been preparing for since I was very young. Funny, now that it finally seems to be happening I don’t feel like I thought I would. There is no sense of relief, of a burden suddenly lifted. It will change nothing. It just makes me feel older — old and alone. Scared because I will no longer be able turn around and point the finger of blame at him. I will have to own my piece of this: All those years of drinking too young and boyfriends that were too old. And then I will have to finally do all the things that I promised myself I would do because I will have lost my last and best excuse: My dad. This is the lesson that every child of a broken home must learn. Even if it’s all somebody else’s fault, you only have yourself to blame. That’s just the way it is. And you can never go home — because home is broken and can’t be fixed.
So, this is my plan: I will have to take a year off and read books all day, take road trips across America and dip my toes in every body of water that surrounds the U.S. of A. I will go North of the border into Canada to drink beer and maybe develop an accent. I will spend my lunch breaks learning Spanish from the Mexican cleaning staff at the mall, or sign language from my mother. I will bike across the Ben Franklin every day. I’m going to start running and eating vegetarian, maybe even spend some time in a monastery. I will turn off my cell phone for fourteen days and play six degrees of separation with 50 monkeys on 50 typewriters. I will buy a bunny and name him Bernard or Ferdinand, and finally visit my sister in West Chester. I will outbid everyone on eBay for a powder blue Smith Corona typewriter upon which I will, come hell or high water, pound out a book. In fact, I already started it. What do you think, this isn’t a bad beginning, eh?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Collen Reese is 19. She works at the Starbucks in the Montgomery Mall. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.