Conversations with Monica
Kirsti Anne Sandy
About the Writer
Kirsti Sandy teaches memoir and theory at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire. She had the remarkable good fortune to have been a student of David Foster Wallace's back in graduate school in Illinois. Her most recent work can be seen in Anthem, Under the Gum Tree, The Boiler, and A Prick of the Spindle.
It took ten squirts of Love’s Baby Soft on each wrist to make the scent last all day, but all 25 plaid-skirted girls in my homeroom had been seduced by the same ads, the ones that showed a girl caressing a horse’s muzzle or lounging in a field of flowers, sucking a lollipop. Only instead of sweet timothy grass or wildflowers, the powdery cloud mingled with the scent of leather-fringed purses and the half-open packs of Kools that peeked out of their open zippers. I could smell the room before I even crossed the entryway door; my last minutes of being nobody from nowhere were always like this: one sense dominant, my body signaling a warning.
On my first day of high school I had already been the new kid four times over: kindergarten, fourth grade, sixth grade, eighth grade. If someone said, “hey, new girl” I would always turn around; I considered it a nickname. On television, they always present the introduction of a new student in the same way: the principal leads the nervous child into an already full classroom, where the girl’s awkwardness or unusual beauty marks her as different. Then she is introduced to either taunts or admiring stares, until someone turns around to threaten/enlighten/befriend her. Any one of these scenarios is an improvement on what really happens. You follow everyone else into the building, not sure where to go. You can’t find your classrooms and your wandering attracts the notice of hall monitors, who suspect that you are lying about being new in order to sneak out to smoke pot or spray paint graffiti on the locker room wall. You enter your classroom and, after slumping into whatever seat you can find, you realize that your last school was much easier (or harder) than this one. Then lunchtime comes. Even if you sit with a group at lunch, they ignore you—no taunts or overtures, just a glance up, then indifference. Basically, you spend the day feeling like an empty desk that happens to have a girl in it.
This is how it was in September 1982, on my first day of the ninth grade at Keith Hall, a girls’ school in a quiet neighborhood in the shadow of the newly constructed Wang skyscraper in Lowell, Massachusetts. Keith Hall was the sister school to Keith Academy, the boys' downtown, and at one point had been a Catholic orphan’s home. Unfortunately, none of my friends from eighth grade would be joining me, because Keith Hall was more expensive (though it’s hard not to exceed the $24 a month tuition my inner-city elementary school had charged) and because they were either going to Lowell High, which I couldn’t do as an Andover resident (which was just as well, because, as my mother gently put it, “you don’t want to get murdered”) or the vocational school, better known as “the Voke” (or “the Joke” to the girls at Keith Hall, though this was due more to jealousy than snobbery.)
Keith Hall was a tall, ivy-covered brick building surrounded by pine and elm trees; I remember sitting in history class and loving the high ceilings and windows and the way I could see the giant pines towering above us. For all its beauty, though, it was a terrible school. Classes were easier than they should have been, and when I was awarded the freshman prize for excellence in physical science, even my ever-supportive parents were scratching their heads. The nuns at Keith Hall were not the approachable social-worker types that I had grown used to—instead, they wore habits, made us go to the tiny school chapel and kneel penitently for detention, and taught things like how to sit like a lady in a skirt and how to walk with books on our head in gym class. I was very good at this last skill, gliding from one end of the room to the other with my history and Spanish textbooks balanced flat as a mortar board, delighting in my classmates’ impressed stares until Sr. Mary Therese, who taught gym and public speaking, announced that it was easier for me to balance the books because I had an unusually flat head (she was not wrong, but still.)
At each school I attended, I became a different person, not by design but by default. At Keith Hall I was a pudgy baby, one of the sheltered ones. The girls at Keith were some of the hardest I’d ever met, with brassy hair, feather earrings, and dead eyes. Kris, who was in my English class, and her friend Kim, who reminded me of Joan Jett with acne, smelled of smoke and shed their uniforms as soon as the final bell rang, slipping on their tight jeans, concert t-shirts, and suede high-heeled boots in restroom stalls. They often passed notes in class (which happened to have been taught by a descendant of Shakespeare’s contemporary and collaborator, Richard Burbage) that were unlike the notes my friends and I composed, our caricatures of the teachers, word bubbles, and hearts. Kris and Kim could not have been bothered with all of that, or indeed, with anything that happened within those brick walls—they were making plans for after school, usually involving deceiving parents and hopping into Kim’s boyfriend’s makeshift convertible, a 70s Dodge Challenger with the roof cut off, to go where they could no longer be seen.
There were two types of students at Keith Hall: the women and the girls. Usually the women could not be bothered with the girls, but the girls spent a lot of time both avoiding and watching the women. We were afraid of them, but they held a power it was impossible not to want. This was not a gradual realization, but one that happened one day in Western Civ, when the girl who sat in front of me started a conversation by turning full around, narrowing her eyes, and pausing for a tense moment.
“You like Springsteen?” she asked. Her name was Monica and it was rumored that she had a boyfriend in his twenties who had bought her the leather jacket she always wore. Monica’s demeanor was both weary and intense; her voice was deep for her age, the kind that would turn to gravel early, and when she spoke to you, her eyes squinched up and I could see where the wrinkles would appear at forty. She hated school, and it is a testament to how much times have changed that Monica’s threats to “blow up this goddamn school” were met with nods of disapproval or brief visits to the principal’s office, depending on the teacher.
I only vaguely knew who Bruce Springsteen was, and this was two years before Courtney Cox would take the stage in the “Dancing in the Dark” video. I figured I was supposed to say yes, so I did.
“Yeah?” she was unconvinced. “What’s your favorite Springsteen song?” Gulp. I did not know any Springsteen songs. I vaguely knew he had an album named Nebraska, but was that a song, too?
“I can’t…really remember the name.” Monica was not buying it.
“Born to Run? Tenth Avenue Freeze Out?” She gave up, looking at me with disgust. “Springsteen sucks!” she announced, to no one in particular, and as she turned back around I finally let out my breath.
All that term, Monica would turn around and ask if I liked this or that. Without fail, the right answer was no, not that she actually waited for a response. Kris and Kim? Sluts. The movie Grease? Retarded. Duran Duran? Faggots. The Virgin Mary? Liar. I got used to Monica’s questions and her opinions. Whether she truly wanted to know what I thought or just wanted an audience remained a mystery—I was just there, like an attentive house pet, the Marcy to her Peppermint Patty. One day she asked what I thought of the pregnant girl. You know, the twin? I didn’t know her.
“You want to get out of this fuckin’ school before you can drop out?” Monica asked, and as usual, it was a rhetorical question. “You move, or you get knocked up.”
Her assessment of the pregnant twin? “Genius move.” She stopped herself mid-turn, in case I hadn’t picked up on her subtlety. “Just kidding. Retarded.”
But I did know the pregnant twin. One afternoon I was leaving the building to catch the bus, I saw a familiar girl standing in front of a pine tree, smoking. I looked back from the bus window and saw another girl who looked just like her, standing and smoking under the same tree, and I knew instantly who they were—identical twins who had lived on my street when I was five, with whom I had posed for many a Diane Arbus-like photograph. My mother and theirs had argued when the twins’ mother claimed that my parents thought they were “too good for everyone around here.” Mrs. Flynn had won that argument, because two years later my parents had moved from city to the suburbs and joined the ranks of the middle class for good.
I could no longer tell which twin was Maura and which one was Laura (all the twins I knew back then had rhyming names to accompany their matching outfits: Jane and Elaine, John and Don) and so it was hard to strike up a conversation with them. There was another complication as well—they clearly did not want to talk to me. My one attempt at eye contact was either rebuffed or innocently missed; I could not be sure. Soon it became apparent that one of them, at age 14, was pregnant, and she stayed in school for a while, letting out her plaid uniform skirt in increments until it spread so tightly across her belly that the pleats disappeared completely.
The remaining twin stayed at Keith Hall after her sister left, and I wondered whether she too was having sex, and how her sister’s pregnancy had changed her home life: was she stuck inside all day after she got home, still watching the Flipper episodes we had watched as children in the room she now shared with her sister and a baby? I saw her one day on the bus on the way to our Spanish field trip, lunch at a Mexican Restaurant in Dorchester. My only friend was taking French, so her bus was en route to a place in Harvard Square that served crepes; it hardly seemed fair. I slid into an open seat next a field hockey player named Delia, who, despite her buck teeth, looked older than many of us because of her height and pointy breasts. Halfway to the restaurant, Delia grew pale. Then she gripped her stomach and moaned.
Our Spanish teacher, Senorita Verde, noticed Delia’s distress and asked the driver for a bucket. No bucket available, she grabbed a cardboard box.
“Delia, estas enferma?”
Delia looked up, miserable, not in the mood to answer in Spanish.
“Miss Green, I’m going to throw up…”
I made a quick dash for another seat in the middle of the bus before it all went down. Senorita Verde grimly clutched the box as Delia leaned over it. The retching was hard to ignore, but what came next was scary and strange both.
“DOES ANYONE HAVE ANY TAMPONS?” Senorita Verde yelled, louder than was necessary. “Delia IS MENSTRUATING!!!”
I could only hear laughter, but I was shaking.
“Better get an extra big one!” Missy laughed, and I did not know what she meant. Another girl was certain that Delia was lying about her period.
“It’s morning sickness—Jenny said she was puking yesterday too, before homeroom.”
We continued on to the restaurant, but instead of joining us inside, Delia sat in the sombrero-lined lobby with a book, wrapped in a gray sweater.
“I’m sorry you threw up,” I offered, the only thing I could think of to say.
She gave me a dirty look then went back to her book.
Sometime after that, Monica was sharing her views about Michael Jackson (Queer) and the state of contemporary music (Sucks) and she told me she had heard that Delia had been knocked up. “ And I thought she was a Lezzie,” Monica mused. “ Guess she goes both ways.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but conversations with Monica never allowed for questions. Besides, these were all things I was just supposed to know. In some ways, Monica was the best teacher I had at Keith Hall.
She left right before the end of fall term that year. No one seemed to miss her, and I would be lying if I said regretted her absence. We weren’t friends. Yet the girl who took her seat rarely turned around to talk, and now I had to work harder to know what was going on.
It was hard to remain naïve for long, given the role that deception played our school day. Keith girls cheated on tests by writing on their inner thighs and crossing their legs so they could see the answers. This happened more often in classes with male teachers, because it was known that they would be embarrassed to look (“That would make them perps,” one girl in class, whose father was a police officer, told me). It was considered very cool at Keith to shorten your skirt to about four inches above the knee, to which my mother said absolutely not. However, she did agree to my wearing makeup, and I spent my babysitting money on lip gloss, eye shadow, concealer, and mascara, which I got up early to apply each morning. I had learned from Young Miss magazine how to apply eye shadow: brown in the crease to match my eyes, then a highlighter at the brow. In addition to my flat head, my features (especially my nose) were too big for my face, and makeup seemed to help.
My confidence was finally shattered one day in English class. The sad part was that I liked English class—Miss Burbage made it her mission to get us to not only understand but adore Shakespeare. It was starting to work with me, although the texts she wanted me to read (Romeo and Juliet, Richard III) were not the ones I fancied—I favored the gory stuff: the cut-out tongue in the Rape of Lucrece, death by asp in Antony and Cleopatra, and, best of all—the queen eating her own sons in a pie in Titus Andronicus. What she made of our line readings in our Boston-area accents --“Neithah a borrowah or a lendah be”-- I will never know, but she never flinched.
I was making my way down the aisle to write something on the board when I heard the familiar stage whisper of Tina Heil, an athletic, horse-faced girl with dark permed hair who was for some reason one of the most popular girls in our grade.
“Isn’t she UGLY??” Tina hissed. “She wears BROWN eyeshadow.”
I could hear giggles behind me while I stared at the empty board, forgetting what I was supposed to be writing. This was worse than throwing up on the bus and having other girls say I was pregnant (which Delia, after all, did turn out to be). A pregnant girl is a girl who someone, at one point, found sexy or mature enough to seduce. But I was ugly, and Tina Heil’s pronouncement bore its mark. Like Delia’s vomiting and the twin’s uniform skirt, Tina’s insult proved that the real transgression was in trying to pass as one of them. Monica had never managed it either, so I imagined the conversations we would have, ones where Monica would eviscerate Tina with one word: Bitch. Slut. Dyke. Cunt. Never mind that she probably would have laughed in agreement at Tina’s “ugly” comment, too. In Monica’s world, we were all degenerates, and there was a certain comfort in that. No one was spared.
Delia was gone by spring, too, and I don’t know if she even came back, because that summer my family moved up to the woods of New Hampshire, by a lake where millionaires lived. All I had left of Lowell was my accent, and soon that would fade, too. On my first day at my open concept school, everything was clean and angular--even the light that sliced from the skylight onto the white floor tiles felt pure. Somehow my ugliness had washed off, and the dulling of my senses that followed seemed a fair trade. Though I would never be young again, I was something better: I was new.