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By Kristine Langley Mahler
You were sitting on a curb on the ‘Bash next to Art Alexakis. He wasn’t the real Art Alexakis from Everclear, but they looked the same—bleached hair paired with culpable dark eyebrows—and that’s why you were bothering to crush on him. No, you were bothering to crush on him because he recognized the back of your head at the orientation for Summer Honors camp and you were like the back of my HEAD? And he said, “Yeah, me and my friends know you by the back of your head.” You were strangely flattered—you could be picked out of a crowd by someone you’d never met who didn’t even know you by your face?
“Well, I don’t recognize the back of YOUR head,” you flirted back at Art. “That’s because you’re not walking behind me,” he said and leaned back in his chair, grinning. Who was this guy? He was doing the pre-med track at camp, so he was obviously smart. You felt like you’d just discovered a rock-star right before he hit it big: this smart, hot guy in your grade, from your school, that no one in your AP classes had ever mentioned.
You were uncharacteristically sassy at camp—you and three other girls in your writing class cliqued and gave yourselves ridiculous gangster names like “Prison Bitch” and “Ghetto Snatch.” You were Gutter Pimp, borrowing Trailer Whore’s punked-out green Doc Martens and wearing a black Gothic cross dress to the all-camp dance, swanning around the girls’ dormitory, cussing in the hallway in your cargo shorts and bra because you didn’t give a shit, these weren’t girls who were going to tease you when you went back to your regular life in the fall. No one was shocked by Honors-Class Girl acting like a gutter punk because no one KNEW you as Honors-Class Girl. You started to get excited about college; you realized you’d get to shake off the social confines dictating who you must be based on who you’d been.
Near the end of camp, you ran into Art by the fountain near the student union, and he asked, “You want to go for a walk?” so you wandered together between the bricked buildings, heat lightning shocking through the trees. It started sprinkling and you both hurried under a tree and you were so convinced he was going to kiss you that you were storing away the entire scenario in your mind so you could describe it to your girls back at the dorm, but he didn’t.
Art got your phone number and called you the day you got home from your family vacation a couple of weeks later, asking if you wanted to hang out on Friday night, and you were like YES PLEASE. He arrived with a friend already slouched in the front seat of Art’s Crown Victoria, so you reluctantly climbed into the backseat, and you three headed out of your suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of your middle-of-nowhere Midwestern town towards the grittier, franchise-lined streets all the farmers from a twenty-mile-radius came to shop. Art said he had to stop at his house for a minute, and as he turned onto a side street, you unintentionally crinkled your eyebrows, startled. His house resembled the small ranch house you’d lived in when you were getting free lunches at elementary school; three subsequent moves and three larger houses later, you weren’t exactly picky about that sort of thing, it just surprised you.
Art led you through the vinyl front door and you stood beside the plastic-covered sofa as his friend walked back to the telephone in the kitchen, talking to Art’s older sister, who was pregnant as hell and also the Winter Homecoming Queen two years ago. It depressed you that a girl could go from wearing an ermine-trimmed robe and posing for the portrait that would hang with all the other Queens from the last three decades on the wall outside the principal’s office to winding up here, pregnant and living at home with her parents, the baby’s daddy nowhere in sight. You thought a Homecoming Queen was destined for greatness.
Art’s friend hollered from the kitchen that a couple of boys with two names which you instantly forgot were going to the ‘Bash, and you all headed out to Art’s Crown Vic again. You couldn’t believe where you were heading. The ‘Bash used to be the main street back when people actually went downtown. Nowadays, you could go to Kroger, or you could go to Rally’s, or you could go to Walgreens, but the rest of the ‘Bash was nothing, decades-dead storefronts exposed by broken-glass windows. No one went to the ‘Bash except for one reason: to cruise.
It had been a subject of ridicule as long as you could remember. No one who was ANYONE cruised the ‘Bash. “Cruising the ‘Bash” was a phrase you’d bandy about with your friends, an Option C for bored Friday nights that you’d never actually choose; you’d rather go home than be caught on that street after 8 p.m. It was a lame joke, a pathetic excuse for the kids from the country to come into town.
So as Art drove to the ‘Bash, you were torn between wanting to invent an excuse to make him take you home early, and wanting to see the scene. But it dawned that you wouldn’t see a single person you knew along the ‘Bash: no one with half a reputation would be there, no one from your classes; frankly, no one from your social class. So you shrugged your shoulders and surrendered to the WT—you’d heard the term before and thought it just meant people from a lower socioeconomic class than yours—experience: bowl-cut farmer boys wearing t-shirts with the sleeves ripped off at the shoulders, tapered jeans, cowboy boots, blasting Alan Jackson. And WT boys in their lame Metallica t-shirts from concerts they never attended, greased-back blond ponytails, WT girls in high-waisted, ill-fitting, tight short skirts, platform shoes, smoking cigarettes and hanging on the boys or standing with their arms crossed, glaring.
Art parked the car on the ‘Bash in front of the Walgreens where your best friend’s mom had forcibly stopped her from working on her second day of employment because “it was in a bad neighborhood,” and you sat on the curb next to Art. You didn’t know what you were supposed to talk to him about. How you’d never cruised the ‘Bash before? You had an inclination he already knew that. But Art began talking to you, a conversation that started like it was a topic you two had been deliberating before: how he still spoke to his old girlfriend Allison a lot, how he didn’t know why they’d broken up.
You were about one second away from leaping up and stamping your feet on the curb, your arms flung up into the air, screaming that YOU COULDN’T BELIEVE THIS WAS HAPPENING TO YOU. Why were you sitting on a curb on THE ‘BASH with this guy who wasn’t even treating you like a potential girlfriend, who was talking to you like you were a GUY, like you could RELATE?
But something in you snapped into place, and you decided to just listen; Art Alexakis wasn’t explicitly saying he wanted to get back together with her. Maybe he was testing to see how you’d react to hearing about another girl. So you didn’t exactly tell him to try to hook up with her again, but you also didn’t act jealous.
When Art and his friend drove you home to make your eleven-o’clock curfew, you didn’t expect him to walk you to the door and he didn’t. It wouldn’t have looked cool in front of his friend, you told yourself. So you threw an “Ok, so I’ll talk to you later,” towards the Crown Vic as you walked towards your familiar house. You wanted to call your best friend to debrief but you knew she was probably with her sulky boyfriend, so you decompressed alone, avoiding your mom’s questions about what you did: you didn’t want to tell anyone you’d cruised the ‘Bash, much less your MOM who would be all “So what does that MEAN?”
Art called you a couple of days later, flirting, mentioning your black tank top and how you blended in with his car. You were sufficiently flattered to agree to hang out on Friday night again, and you ran outside this time when you saw his car pull into your driveway. His nondescript friend was in the front seat again, and you headed towards Art’s neighborhood again to pick up another couple of his friends, stopping on the skankier side of 7th Street, and this WT girl in cheap short-shorts and two WT guys in baggy t-shirts and baggy jeans squished in the backseat with you as you all said a curt “Hey” to each other. WT Guy #1, who was pushed against the other side of the backseat with the chick on his lap, leaned his arm out the window as Art rounded a corner slowly. “That fucking dog,” WT Guy #1 muttered as WT Guy #2 asked, bored, “Did you get him?” “Fuck, no,” said WT Guy #1 and your chest thudded for a second as you realized WT Guy #1 was holding a HANDGUN and he had been planning to SHOOT AT A DOG.
Everyone in the car seemed to be utterly nonplussed by the situation but your mind was screaming HOW AM I IN A CAR WITH A GUY WHO JUST PULLED OUT A GUN?
Art drove to a “fun-plex” behind the mall, and you were secretly hoping Art was just giving WT Guys #1 and #2 and their Short-Shorts chick a ride, that you’d leave them there. But Art turned off the engine and you all went inside to watch the WT boys play basketball. You were incredulous—he actually wanted to hang out at that corny place you’d dissed with your friends for the last few years as WHITE-TRASH HEAVEN? You hoped at least Art would win some tickets at Skee-Ball and pick out a prize for you at the ticket counter, but he gave the tickets to some zombie-eyed middle-school boy playing Mortal Kombat.
WT Guy #2 mentioned a party some nameless WT girl was having at her house and you all piled back in the car and drove to a neighborhood out by the federal penitentiary in your town. Art stopped in front of an ill-kempt house with one of those black lawn jockey statues by the front porch; you walked into a lame scene with three skanky WT girls holding cans of Bud Light and lounging on dirty couches while two skanky WT guys sat in front of the TV playing a video game. This was the first no-parents “party” you’d ever been to and it was the most depressing thing you’d ever seen. THIS was what people defied parental rules for? To drink grody beer and watch boys play VIDEO GAMES?
Neither you nor the girls had anything to say to each other, but one of them recognized Art and started talking to him, so you excused yourself to go to the bathroom just to have something to do. When you came back you watched the TV screen intently, like you cared, like you were really into whatever stupid faux-warcraft game they were playing. Your head was spinning and you were grateful no one was paying attention to you, even Art. You didn’t know how you’d wound up out by the Pen with a bunch of WT drinking beer. You thought wildly about how your mom had always told you that, “no matter what,” if you found yourself in a situation that made you uncomfortable, you could call her and she would come pick you up, no questions asked. But the prospect of asking one of the WT girls if you could USE THEIR PHONE and, particularly, the nightmarish fear of everyone in the house listening to you CALL YOUR MOMMY AND ASK HER TO COME GET YOU pushed that escape from your mind.
Besides, how could you explain to your mom what you yourself didn’t understand: how you’d gone from flirting with this guy who looked like Art Alexakis at Summer Honors camp to being dragged into your town’s seedy underworld of lameness? How could you explain to your mom that being submerged in WT didn’t bother you nearly as much as never being asked to sit in the front seat of Art’s car?
Luckily, Art seemed to notice that it was almost your curfew, and told one of the skanks that he’d be back later. To your chagrin, the WT Guys and Short-Shorts decided to leave too, so you all piled back into the Crown Vic and Art wound down the back-roads towards your neighborhood. WT Guy #1 hauled out his gun again and started shooting blindly into the corn fields, the report echoing through the dark night. I AM IN A CAR WITH A GUY WHO JUST SHOT A GUN, you thought to yourself, disbelieving you were where you were.
You got out of the car and tried to act nonchalant as you walked back into your house, knowing all the WT were watching you, or could be. As you laid in your bed that night, you kept trying to piece the whole situation together, convincing yourself alternately that WT Guy #1 DID have a gun, and also that he had been PRETENDING to have a gun. But the shots echoed through your memory, reporting through the drying cornstalks.
It took you four days to call Art Alexakis. He didn’t answer when you called; his Homecoming Queen sister took your message. After a week had passed and he hadn’t called you back, you washed your hands of the whole situation. You didn’t really need another night losing yourself in a White-Trash Hell.
Your senior year of high school began and he wasn’t in any of your classes, but you and Art would catch each other’s eye in the hallway from time to time; neither of you would nod or smile, but you’d lock eyes, acknowledging that you had known each other. Maybe Art thought he’d dragged you too far from your comfort zone once the gun had come out. But the thing was that he HADN’T. He had been there for the handful of weeks when you’d shed your skin, slipped into a girl so far from her honors-class behavior she was unrecognizable, a girl who could sit in a car with a boy shooting a gun, a girl who could sit on the curb on the ‘Bash on a Friday night.
And that girl had taken root; you chopped your hair off, had your mom give you a haircut like the lead character in “Felicity” because your mom swore that your wavy hair would curl up as tight as hers. It didn’t—you looked like a boy getting ready to enter the Armed Forces—but you liked it because it was no-nonsense, no-fucking-around, you-thought-I-wasn’t-worth-kissing-I’ll-SHOW-you-not-worth-kissing.
And Art Alexakis couldn’t recognize you by the back of your head any more. No one could.