By Maryann Gray.
I was 13, in 8th grade, and my mother had enrolled me in the John Roberts School of Charm, which was around the corner from the Plaza Hotel in New York City. Every Saturday, I rode the train by myself from Scarsdale to Grand Central Station, took the Madison Avenue bus uptown to 59th street, and devoted the hours of 9:00 a.m. to noon to classes on make-up (called “make-down” in JRP), wardrobe, figure control, and something called “poise and personality.” After, I went to lunch with the girls in my class and then we wandered around the Upper East Side until it was time to go home.
There was something about the ride from Grand Central back to Scarsdale that brought out the melancholy in me. The train started in a long black tunnel, and then emerged into daylight somewhere in Harlem to roll by tenements and housing projects. They were so close to the tracks I could see anemic houseplants reaching for sun on fire escape landings and window curtains fluttering in the breeze. There was something pathetic and brave about these small efforts to prettify urban grit. Gradually the city gave way to the Westchester suburbs, where I could catch glimpses of a stream running alongside the tracks and see the back sides of houses, with their swing sets and cement patios. They were further away from the tracks than the tenements but close enough that train noise had to be a fact of life. I felt sorry for those families – the only houses they could afford were the ones that no one really wanted. The closer we got to Scarsdale, the denser the trees alongside the tracks became.
The train ride home was both comforting and lonely. My day had been devoted to the hope, or maybe fantasy is a better word, that I could be beautiful, self-assured, and popular. Now I was returning to my real life, uncomfortably aware that charm school was not going to fix me. I stared out the window and wrapped myself in depression like a big cozy blanket.
I carried a notebook with me on these days, so I could take notes at JRP. Moisturize before applying foundation, I wrote. Use a sponge. Always stroke upwards. I made shopping lists — eyelash curler, lip liner, good tweezers, natural bristle brushes, a magnifying mirror. I recorded my homework assignments. Walk with a book on my head for ten minutes every day. Do twenty side bends, twenty toe-touches, and twenty twists every other day. Once a week, apply an egg facial. Let the egg come to room temperature. Separate the white from the yolk. Smear the yolk all over your face, except the eyes and lips. Don’t forget under the chin. When it dries, apply the egg white right over the yolk. When that dries, gently wash your face. Pat dry, never rub.
On one of those rides home, tired and morose, I tore a corner off a page in the notebook, and in neat rounded letters wrote, “Help me please.” I folded the scrap, then folded it again, and slipped it in the thin crack between the window and the metal frame.
Even as I did it, I knew I was being adolescent and overwrought. I hadn’t been kidnapped and held as some maniac’s sex slave. I wasn’t dying a tragic death from a rare and painful disease. I was healthy, loved, and heading home to Scarsdale, where my mother would pick me up at the train station and take me to Lord and Taylor, so we could buy eyeliner and maybe a sweater.
But as soon as I tucked that note into the window frame, I longed for someone to find it. I wanted them to wonder about the girl who left it there (they’d think “girl” because my handwriting was pretty obviously feminine). Maybe it would be the conductor, cleaning up the train at the end of the line, a couple of hours away in Connecticut. Maybe he would read the note and remember the quiet girl in the blue dress, and maybe he would be extra nice to me the next time I rode the train. Or perhaps somebody’s father would read it, a businessman on his way home from work. He would feel badly for the mysterious unhappy girl and wish he could find her and give her a hug. Or maybe another girl about my own age would read it, and she would understand. “Help me, too,” she might write before slipping the note back where she found it. Or maybe some cute boy would find it and feel touched by the note’s raw vulnerability. He might start riding in that carriage every Saturday afternoon, studying the passengers until he noticed me and knew right away that I was the author. Maybe someone, an old lady perhaps, would find the note and call the conductor over. “Do you think we should call the police?” she might ask. “Someone on this train needed help.”
What was most likely, I knew, was that no one read it. It probably got plucked from the window and tossed in the trash, along with gum wrappers, cigarette butts, soda cans, food bags, and other notes from other lonely girls.
But it was at least possible that someone read it, and that was enough. The note became my precious secret. I thought about it all the time – while waiting to be excused from the dinner table at home, struggling with pre-algebra homework, and watching other kids flirt on the playground while I sat on the bleachers and pretended to read.
I thought about leaving a note on the train every week, but that first one said it all. I had written down my prayer, although I didn’t call it that at the time, and sent it into the universe.
A few months after graduating from JRP, I made up a boyfriend. That summer, instead of going back to sleep-away camp in Maine, I signed up for a teen tour and spent six weeks traveling across country with 30 girls and 5 chaperones. We started in Denver, made our way west, drove up the California coast, and then flew to Hawaii. We stayed in luxury hotels and traveled to fancy restaurants in a fleet of limousines. We had to wear dresses, and we weren’t allowed to chew gum or date. Everyone complained about missing McDonalds, but I only pretended to miss it because I’d never been permitted to eat there.
The cliques formed quickly. There were the losers – the girl with the badly repaired harelip, the one who was maybe just a little bit retarded. There were the sophisticates – an impossibly thin girl who hid from the sun because a tan would hinder her modeling career, a girl whose last name placed her in one of the wealthiest families in the world, a girl who was going to boarding school in France after the teen tour. Then there were the girls with attitude. They couldn’t believe they had to wear a pastel dress and spring coat to sit in a box seat at the Hollywood Bowl and listen to stupid classical music while their friends back east were on their way to a rock concert somewhere in upstate New York. They sneaked onto their hotel balconies late at night to smoke joints that they scored from boys on the street. They scowled at the chaperones, broke the rules every chance they got, and were staunchly unimpressed by things like museums or even the marble bathrooms in the I. Magnin department store in Beverly Hills. They preferred to hang out by the pool and flirt with boys.
Iris Bishop was the center of this clique. She had long red hair and big breasts. She was as sultry as a 15-year old can be. Everyone knew that Iris had a boyfriend back home in Philadelphia. He sent letters to each hotel on our itinerary, and she was constantly bumming stamps for letters and postcards back to him.
I wanted to hang out with Iris and her clique. I wanted to be one of them, unafraid of adult condemnation, a little contemptuous, ready for adventure. At first, they wanted nothing to do with me. My clothes were too conservative, my manners too deferential. I was a goody-goody, afraid of breaking the rules. To solve this problem, I invented a boyfriend, telling Iris all about him on one long bus ride from Denver to Aspen. His name was Robbie, he was three years older than me, and I met him through my cousin. We had to sneak around because his parents were poor and mine were rich. We hadn’t gone all the way, but we had made out on the bed with most of our clothes off. I loved him, but had broken it off just before the summer because I was going to college and he wasn’t, so we really had no future together.
Iris became my friend. We spent hours trading stories about our boyfriends, and she picked me to be her roommate at each hotel. Under her tutelage, I learned to ignore instructions from the chaperones and flirt with boys just for the heck of it (because I was still in love with Robbie and not ready for another relationship. In Hawaii, I stole a golf cart one evening and we careened around the resort grounds laughing hysterically until hotel security stopped us and the chaperones threatened to send us home. It was the highlight of the entire trip, much better than the 17-mile Drive or Hearst Castle. On the last night of the trip, Iris and I vowed to stay friends forever. “I used to think you were so straight, but that was before I knew about Robbie,” she said, and we both laughed and laughed.
I never told anyone that I lied to her. It was my secret, private information. I didn’t feel guilty about it; if anything I was proud of the way I’d figured out how to make friends. The girl who was in a passionate but troubled relationship with Robbie felt more like the real me than the girl who took notes on make-up techniques at the John Robert School of Charm, spent her weekend evenings baby-sitting for the neighbors, and had never been kissed. She was the false self, all wrapped in anxiety and ambivalence. The real me was bold and sexy, and she would emerge as soon as I shed the cocoon of family and childhood that still encased me.
I had another secret that summer, too. The secret was that I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself. I had no intention of actually doing it. When Iris and I paraded to the beach in our bikinis, shared tokes off a joint after escaping the chaperones, or traded stories about our boyfriends, I felt happy. But as soon as I was alone for any period of time, my thoughts turned to death, specifically suicide. Often this occurred on our bus or car rides, when I felt the same sad sense of dislocation that came over me on the train. A few years later, when I read about anomie in sociology class, I had a label for what I felt, a dull depression that put me at a distance from everyone and everything. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to cry as that it seemed like my smile muscles were permanently frozen.
In Los Angeles, I dared myself, knowing I’d never do it, to fling open the door of the limousine carrying us to Universal Studios and jump out onto the freeway. A few days later, as we drove up the Pacific Coast Highway in a chartered bus, I tuned out the chaperone’s lecture on Cannery Row and wondered what it would feel like to run to the edge of a cliff and jump. Would I reach the water, or land on the rocks below? Would I be scared? Would it kill me? During our surfing lesson in Hawaii, I had the strongest urge to just keep paddling out to sea, until I was out of sight of our group and the shoreline receded and all I could see was water.
I had these impulses everywhere we went. But then I’d hear Iris’ throaty laugh, or someone would poke me or ask me a question, or the chaperones would hand out treats, and just like that it was over. I could smile, I could talk, I was a normal girl again.
Months after the teen tour had ended, my sister eavesdropped on a telephone call I had with Iris. “I heard you,” she said as soon as I hung up with phone. “You made up a boyfriend, didn’t you? That’s so pathetic.”
I hated my sister that day, for listening in and discovering my secret and then for exposing me. Most of all, I hated her for confronting me with my lies. I wasn’t the person that Iris thought I was, or the person that I could believe myself to be when I was with her. I was just me, flushed with shame and full of impotent anger.
When I was 22 years old and had largely but not entirely quit making up lies, I accidentally killed an 8-year old boy named Brian who darted in front of my car. News about the accident spread rapidly in the small Ohio college town. The son of one of my professors played on the same little league team with the boy who died; the department secretary belonged to their church. The local newspaper ran a story about the accident including my name and address. For months, I couldn’t not talk about it. The accident totally dominated my attention; it was all I had room for. I told the story over and over again, to friends, to my therapist, to the lawyer, to the insurance agent. It was an edited story, though, a story that left out some details. I didn’t do this as part of some master plan. I simply had no vocabulary for certain aspects of the experience. Continue Reading…