Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What Haunted Me at 17--a celebration of Nova Ren Suma's new book, 17 & Gone

Nova Ren Suma’s new novel, 17 & Gone, comes out this week on March 21, and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, she’s asked some authors she knows to join her in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17? To see all the authors taking part, be sure to visit her blog distraction99.com.

I've raved about Nova's first YA novel, Imaginary Girls, all over the internet (including in this review on Rookie) and I am eagerly awaiting my copy of 17 & Gone, so I was thrilled when she asked me to take part in this event.

Okay... what haunted ME at 17?

Well, that's actually quite a list. See, this is me at 17:

And I would look even more haunted a few weeks after this photo was taken when I dyed my bleached hair jet-black to match the lipstick and eyeliner that I'm wearing there.

17 was the year I started listening to Joy Division, Nick Cave, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Bauhaus and The Smiths a lot more than the grunge, riot grrrl, and punk bands I'd been listening to. Disintegration by the Cure had taken the place of In Utero by Nirvana as my favorite album. (Not that Kurt Cobain's lyrics didn't still haunt me and so did his suicide which had been haunting me since 14.) My favorite movie was City of Lost Children, a French film about a mad scientist, who kidnaps children and steals their dreams.

I felt like my dreams had been stolen.

I had a lot of nightmares.

Two were recurring. In one, I ran an obstacle course supervised by anthropomorphic cartoon animals--pigs, cows, bears, like something out of a Richard Scarry picture book. Except they were evil. The pig stands out in particular. He wore mirrored shades like the stereotypical asshole cop. (Oh, pig... cop... Yeah, I guess my nightmarish subconscious had a sense of humor at least...) He yelled at me as I tried to go through the obstacles, my limbs too heavy like they always are in dreams when you have to move quickly. At least in my dreams. That cartoon pig berated me, laughed when I fell. I would never make it through. I would never reclaim my stolen dreams.

The second nightmare was about Him. In it, he chased me through an old house. It was even harder to run from him than it was to do that obstacle course. Like slogging through quicksand. So he always caught me. Caught me and stabbed a big needle into the bare flesh of my thigh. The place where I carved his initial when I went to the bathroom one day during study hall. I carved it and then I X'd it out. With a razor blade. Lots of blood. I felt like I was going to faint, but instead I put pressure on it until it clotted and then I went  back to class.

Yes, He haunted me most at 17. At 16, too. And 15, when I met him. The boy who stole my dreams. The boy who'd turned me angry, then sad, then both. The boy I loved, then hated, but still loved... Memories of his long eyelashes haunted me. His smell. The mixture of unwashed hair, cigarettes, and a deodorant that I couldn't identify by brand, but sometimes even now, more than fifteen years later, I'll catch a whiff in a crowded room of someone wearing it, or someone whose scents combine like his did. My heart will race. I'll panic. I'll feel sick.

He didn't always make me feel that way though and that's part of what haunted me at 17. That I still liked to wear his pajamas. That I could remember exactly how he looked during that weekend he stayed in our guest room because he'd been kicked out of his house. His black hair against my old E.T. sheets.

But the rain--the rain I'd always loved--it haunted me at 17 because it reminded me of the day that haunted me most of all. April 11, 1995. I still remember the exact date almost 18 years later. The day I told him, No. And then he ignored me, tormented me in the subtle, emotionally abusive ways he'd perfected. My friend convinced him to go into a room and talk to me. He only wanted one word, though. Yes. I gave it, and he didn't even notice the tears in my eyes.

Then, in the weeks that followed, there were lunch "dates" in that dirty bathroom by the baseball diamonds at Ridgeland Commons. It had a brown door. A grate in the floor that would imprint on my knee when he told me to get on them, acting like this was sexy, adventurous. With my back to him, I could cry.

That bathroom, which smelled of piss and him and me, that haunted me a lot at 17. Before I left town, I wrote his name in blood on the brown door. And the R-word, even though I wasn't sure I was actually allowed to use it because technically, I'd said yes. Without realizing it, I'd given a blanket Yes that very first time.

That first time was pretty. It was us stripped and sweet. It was Urge Overkill's "Bottle of Fur"  on the stereo. Saturation was the album. The album that haunted me so bad at 17; that haunts me still. I've never really been able to listen to it again.

Loving Him haunted me. I shouldn't have. I shouldn't still miss the good times, I thought at 17.

Hating Him haunted me. The anger it took over my life, so all-consuming that it cost me friends.

My scars haunted me. My nightmares. My stolen dreams. My blood. Almost every thought in my head haunted me at 17, but the thing that haunted me the most was that I had no idea who I was anymore. No idea where I was going. Everything had been consumed by the love/hate/sad/angry/nightmare/stolen dream.

The only thing that didn't haunt me were the words, though. The words the poured out of me into black-and-white composition books, on to the keys of the typewriter I'd decided I wanted more than a computer, into my short stories, into my 'zines. The words were ugly sometimes. They reflected everything that haunted me.

But, somehow, they set me free.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this, Stephanie. So powerful--took me back, made me cry, which is sometimes so necessary. It's comforting to know I was not alone for saying yes when I meant no--for feeling as if the r-word isn't allowed in my circumstance because of technicalities.

Again, thank you.

Zoraida Cordova said...

Love you for sharing <3

Beth said...

I went through something similar and will never be able to talk about it this way. When I got to the end of your post I wished there was a "like" button because I didn't know what words to say.

Marisa Reichardt said...

Brave and amazing. Thank you for writing this.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thank you all for your comments and hugs, Heather and Beth for what you both went through. Big, big hugs.

Mr H said...

I never, ever, heard of you before this day. I found out about your novel "Ballads of Suburbia", and felt it was a strong title, so I looked you up in google. And now, literally minutes after not even knowing you existed, I am touched beyond words for your teenage hauntings. What you wrote is pure emotion. Thank you so much for sharing this. And count me in as a new avid reader of yours.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Wow, thank you so much, Mr. H!