Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Requiem for a cool girl
When I was fourteen, my family moved to Taiwan. At the time, Taipei had a huge US military base which supported an entire suburb of families and a school. My father was a diplomat, though, so we lived in Taipei proper, far away from most other Americans, and each day I took a long bus ride to and from school. At first I sat alone dreaming out the window at this new place called home. But at some point during that first year, an older girl started sitting behind me and talking to me. I don't know why she chose me. I wasn't cool. I was a fourteen-year old nobody. But perhaps that's exactly why she talked to me. Being a nobody in the social hierarchy of school, I was unable to judge or harm her. I was safe.
Her name was Anya Phillips. She was Eurasian and had a slight tendency toward chubbiness. She was not remarkably beautiful or remarkably ugly, or really, remarkable in any way. She was two years ahead of me in school, and way ahead of me in all other ways. She smoked, did drugs, though that was no big deal in our school. Taipei was an R & R (Rest and Recreation) base for the GIs fighting in Vietnam, and they brought lots and lots of recreation with them. Heroin, acid, pot, hash, were consumed like candy at my school, and if that wasn't enough, you could walk in to any drug store and buy speed or downers without a prescription. Only the Jesus freaks or the new kids like me didn't do drugs of some sort. So Anya was just following along with the crowd, trying to be hip. Unsurprisingly, she never talked to me in school, and never called me at home. But on the bus - that demilitarized zone between the worlds that mattered to her - she talked to me about all kinds of things - gripes about her family, music, boys she thought were hot, things she thought were cool. She wanted desperately to be cool. She wasn't quite. Because in high school there were limits on what you could do for the sake of coolness; school dress codes that had to be adhered to, parents who held purse strings and had to be kept mollified.
When the next year started, she took her place behind me on the bus and her confessional monologues began again. That year, for me though, things began to change. My friends and I began to dabble with drugs. Anya was dealing by then, and about half way through the year, she offered to sell and I bought. A few weeks later I received my one and only phone call at home from Anya. She called to tell me she had been caught dealing by the MPs (military police). Then she said, "They said they wouldn't prosecute me if I told them who I sold to, so I gave them your name because you were less popular than the others." As I said, there was nothing more important to her than being cool, and even upset and frightened as I was at the time, I understood the emptiness and self loathing behind what she'd just said and done.
Things changed, of course, after that. My father was a diplomat so I had immunity. But I got scared straight and stopped doing drugs completely and forever. Anya was suspended from school and, when she came back, I stayed away from her. And so, she faded from my life, though not from my mind. I dined out on the pitiful story of her ratting me out for years: "Can you believe she actually said to me...!" And, more seriously, Anya gave me the story I told my teens when we had our talks about drugs; "I bought drugs and got caught and if I hadn't been lucky enough to have diplomatic immunity, I might not have been able to get into college, get a good job, adopt you." It packed a wallop, that little story. So, in a weird way, her bald, craven need for social approval and her lack of loyalty to anything but that need, changed my life for the better. You don't forget people who - for good or bad - change your life.
Well, today I was in a bookstore, leafing idly through a book on the New York punk scene, and there, in grainy black and white, was Anya. It was a night shot of her and a group of punk No Wavers - Lydia Lunch of Teen Age Jesus and the Jerks, and some others. "Girls," I yelled across the store to my daughters, "here's the woman who ratted me out for buying drugs because I wasn't popular enough!" They ran over and were fascinated. When I got home, I googled her. She had been big in the New York punk scene, hung out with Debbie Harry, helped found the Mudd Club, worked as an exotic dancer and an S & M dominatrix, and dealt and did heroin. She died in 1981 from cancer. On a computer chat group full of old and former punks, I found a thread about her. One of them wrote, "I went to the hospital [to visit her] once...but was unable to handle it and quickly ran out to get another bag [of heroin]." Just for the record, Anya, I would have stayed ....
So Anya, you finally made it to cool, babe. You were always cooler than me, but that was easy. In the end, though, you out-cooled everyone: all those boys who wouldn't date you in high school; who you wouldn't rat on to the MPs; who wouldn't give you the time of day even after that. While in life, there was always a sad eagerness for approval about you, but In death you've finally achieved elusiveness, that necessary ingredient for cool. In the pictures from that time, you are thin, smoking, dressed in black, and self-consciously, painfully chic and posed. Strangers see those pictures now and make comments like, "Coolest girl ever!" The beautiful sculptured shell you gave up so much for is all that's left of you now. But in my mind you're still a real and unremarkable girl, riding on the purgatory of that bus, that space between the Hell of home and the unreachable Heaven of popularity in school. You sit, forever, on a seat of cracked green vinyl. But now I'm the one that leans over the dull gray metal of the seat back to whisper in your ear something like a prayer. And this is what I it is. Anya, I truly hope that, somewhere there, in the brief, white-hot heart of New York heroin-chic, wearing your own dreamed-up leather-bondage fashions, doing Chinese white, thrashing to the loud music, you found the antidote you needed to fill your emptiness, to slake your endless aching thirst for love.