When my family made the move from the quaint and modestly populated mountain town of Crested Butte, to the expansive yet questionably cosmopolitan city of Los Angeles, my days of eating wax off the mouth of strangers, promptly ended.
From day one, our parents were warned about the perils of big city life. I remember our apartment building manager, “Joe The Boxer” pulling my Mom aside to tell her she needed to be hyper-vigilant of our whereabouts at all times. We were at risk of being poisoned, sold into slavery, forced to sell Girl Scout cookies, or worst of all, getting coerced into working in the entertainment industry. Joe may have had repeated concussions, but he was probably right on at least two counts.
But after our car got broken into twice, then stolen, then returned, then stolen again, my parents decided perhaps Joe was on to something. Not equipped to deal with the unhealthy theft cycle we seemed to have entered into, my parents decided we needed to live in a better neighborhood. Their strategy was to move us to the safest place they could find: the suburbs. Little did they know the suburbs were home to the fanciest of crystal meth homes, Tupperware parties and Bible-beating prayer circles.
Thinking our best bet was to arm the family with a domestic upgrade, my family moved to a house in Valencia, California- the poster child for generic living. Our house was so bland when coming home, we regularly drove into the wrong driveway. But after a week of getting yelled at by multiple neighbors for letting our grass grow a quarter of an inch too long, we flipped the wrong house the bird and decided to move again. (I didn’t like that place anyway. I threw up in the attic and never got the Chicken Pox. Good riddance I say!)
In the twilight of summer, three days before the start of the new school year, we moved a few housing developments over. This time we landed in the slightly older city of Saugus, known to some as the crappy part of town. Yes, we lived near power lines and a Blockbuster Video-frozen yogurt- mini-mall, but the fear of us getting stabbed, stolen, run-over or lost in our own neighborhood, went down statistically a solid nineteen percent.
What my family gained in all this domestic serenity, we lost in social acceptance. I did, anyway. My sister seemed to adjust fine to all the moving. With her quick wit and natural athleticism, she easily adapted to her classes and found friends immediately. (Because she was funny during sports and sporty during economics.)
Similarly, I was enjoying the spoils of a social pariah.
But come on people, say it with me: Middle school is hard. It’s hard on the parents; have you spoken to a 13-year-old? They are mean! It’s hard on the teachers; have you spoken to a middle school teacher? They are tired! It’s hard on the kids; have you been a 13 year old? It’s just slightly less appealing than say, smashing your finger in a door jam. (Ok, I just did this fifteen minutes ago, so it’s fresh in my mind, but it seems like a fair comparison.) Thirteen-year-olds are awkwardly shaped, swollen, and generally less useful than their older human versions.
Who knew people could be so mean, clicky, spiteful, petty, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and narcissistic? Yep, eighth grade English was a hoot. My year began with being seated in-between Ryan Roger, a sturdy boy with two first names who regularly taunted me with the phrase, “Hey smart girl, did you do your homework?” The tone of his voice implied I had just eaten my boogers instead of merely completing the assignment.
Behind him were the cheer squad twins, Ali and Amy who wore white fringed booties, white denim jackets and blue eyeshadow which would have made Barbie proud. These two blonde cutouts never acknowledged my existence but did manage to gossip about my mismatched socks. Apparently, at my school, something this scandalous was the equivalent of shitting yourself in public.
For the first few weeks of school, I would try the Ol’ Crested Butte small-town greeting of smiling at a new face in the hopes they would smile back, say hello or offer me to join them at their lunch table. However, not only did kindness get me ridiculed, it got me put on every “who-to-bully” list in the school.
In the first quarter alone, I was pickpocketed 3 times, shoved into a trash can twice, and once got my locker firebombed. While the locker was permanently destroyed, the kids did find out a way to break into my new locker and steal my belongings there as well. My first year of middle school was shaping up to feel more like my first year in state prison rather than my doorway into adulthood. Although, perhaps they are the same thing.
One day at recess, Jenni, an alpha cheerleader with dimples and the standard issued blue eye-shadow came over to me and gave me the famous side-arm hug, greeting me warmly saying, “Hiieeee!” so goddamned adorably that I thought for sure I had stepped into an alien parallel universe. Why was she talking to me? Jenni hadn’t so much as looked my direction in any of the classes we shared together. I was an invisible person. Yet, here she was Hieee-ing me like I was one of her besties. Regardless of its surreal nature, I accepted it as the new normal and joyfully laughed and smiled at my insta-friend and all of her minions who gobbled around her in unison, squealing about their shiny white-fringed clothes and favorite weekend exploits.
Finally, I thought, the seal has been broken and I can tell my Mom the good news!
*Side note, every day my mom would come to pick me up at school and her first and only question to me was, “Hey honey, did you make any friends today?” Silently I would shake my head and climb into the car with my mouth full of braces and my heart slowly filling with spite. I hated the fact we had moved from a place where I was well adjusted and respected for being a smart kid. Whereas here, every Babysitter’s Club cliche was validated by the new kid being ostracized, taunted and made to feel like the first sacrifice in an inevitable pagan ritual. (It was the suburbs, who knew what these people were capable of.)
But today was a different day and after school, I was going to brag about how someone acknowledged my existence! Things were looking up for little Storey and her mouth full of corrective metal wires and burgeoning neck acne.
“Today Jenni with an “I” hugged me and told me she liked my shirt!” I exclaimed to my mother as I tore into the Tiger Milk bar waiting for me in the car. Remember those? They were the original ‘protein bar’ which was essentially a chocolate peanut butter candy bar wrapped in a shiny gold wrapper that made you feel like an Olympic medalist. Sinking my teeth into the chocolaty pillow, I felt victorious.
“This is great honey!” Maybe you’ll make enough friends to have a birthday party!” (Don’t get me started on growing up with a September birthday.)
I sauntered into homeroom the next morning confident and at ease, riding the high of feeling like more than a rejected stray sock. I was a legit 8th grader with friends!
“Oooh look who’s all smiley today. Miss know it all!” Ryan Roger teased.
But it didn’t matter. I knew at recess Jen, I could call her that now, right? was going to invite me to sit at the cool kids’ snack table.
Three classes later, the recess bell rang and I practically ran to the patch of grass where Jenni’s crew regularly hung out. But, as only the cruel, underdeveloped minds of pubescent girls can work, Jenni saw me coming, looked me squarely in the eye and turned away from me in an instant. Jenni masterfully Cersei Baratheoned me. And with her back turned, the rest of her clan followed suit. You’re right, you’re right, it was too soon to shorten her name. I may as well have been a ghost, or a nerd, or an adult. I was dead in their eyes and with that, my blissful reign of acceptance ended.
After that, trying to find friends seemed futile, so instead, every day at lunch, I would rush to get a lottery ticket from the librarian in the hopes of getting picked to sit in the library and study. There were a limited number of spots open to students to use the library at lunch. Oddly enough, my number always got picked. Finding comfort and solitude in the library each day, there I would hide out, secretly snacking on my Tiger Milk bar while enjoying The Diary Of Anne Frank. It wasn’t ideal, but the librarian never bothered me as she was too busy eating her hard boiled eggs and checking to make sure none of the books had mold damage. (Her primary function seemed to be yelling out to anyone within earshot about the risks of getting book pages wet.)
One day a boy named Oliver walked into the library at lunch. He was my secret crush and seeing him within book throwing distance was almost too much to bear. He was either researching a paper or he’d been given detention for bombing someone’s locker. I didn’t know which it was, but I was close enough at one point to notice his strong square jawline, his well-groomed blonde bangs, his bulging biceps and his disproportionately small hands.
He was perfect. In that moment, Oliver and I became the only two people in the world. And as he sat there reading about Adolf Hitler’s childhood, I couldn’t help but let my mind wander to what it would look like if he were my boyfriend. Hand-in-hand (my hand engulfing his) Oliver and I would stroll down the halls together, Jen and her pals, watching incredulously at our joyful union. I imagined our children would have generous upper body strength and a penchant for World War II trivia. We’d be the envy of everyone at the class reunion.
My telenovela fantasy was interrupted when the librarian asked me to stop chewing so loudly and to which Oliver cocked his head, giving me a side-eye glance. And so concluded my expeditious romance with Oliver. But I held that fond, fake memory very close to my heart for months to come.
After several weeks of library house arrest, I decided to try eating outside again amongst the plebeian masses of my school. I found a small patch of grass near the gymnasium and parked my lunch sack and twenty-two-pound backpack full of books (by this point my locker was public domain so I was better off developing a mild case of scoliosis rather than leaving my stuff for the teen wolves to forage on) on the ground and tried to enjoy the afternoon sunshine. Two girls sat a few feet from me, and while they never spoke to me, they also didn’t kick me out of “their” spot. This silence I took as acceptance and over the next few weeks, their presence, a mere four feet from me, almost resembled a friendship. At least I didn’t look like I was eating alone. So again, I decided to put this firmly in the win column. One day the girls asked me if I’d ever had lice. I told them no, as I had no idea what lice were. Did I need to get some? Would that be my ticket to acceptance?
A week later while itching my head furiously I saw a black multi-legged creature fall from my scalp. My new friends had given me my first present. At least now I had something in common with them. Bugs bond. That’s a saying, right? If not, let’s make it one!
Going through the revolting process of de-licing my head slowly brought me closer to the girls.
“Ew, do you have lice?” Marcy asked me one day when I sat itching my head alone in the grass.
“Um…” I trailed off not sure if a ‘yes’ or a ‘no” was the best answer.
“It’s fine. We had it.” Meghan said to me as she tossed her big brown ponytail back and forth.
“Just don’t sit too close to us.” Marcy curtly responded
After that tender exchange, the two girls really began to open up and talk to me about the important things in their lives, like why Bon Jovi was unquestionably the best band ever. And, how anyone who disagreed was a Communist.
Their opinions were strong and highly flawed. But at least to the nearest bully on the prowl, it appeared as though I had friends. While the girls never really asked much about me, (I’m almost positive they didn’t even know my name), I learned that both Marcy and Meghan yearned to be cheerleaders and do sophisticated things, like, use pom poms. I encouraged them to try out for the team and told them not to worry, I would cheer them on from the stands.
True to my word, I cheered them on during the tryouts that weekend. And true to the plot of any 1980’s teen movie, they snubbed me the day they got picked for the squad.
Soooo, back to the library, I went. By December, I’d read my way through two-thirds of the Dewey Decimal system and curiously enough, gotten lice twice. (Yay me!) What I lacked in friends I more than made up for in useless knowledge and a collection of loose toothed combs.
Probably the last brick in my house of ostracism came in early January when Santa Clarita Valley was experiencing a cold snap so severe it could kill an orange and harden a nipple. I had decided I wanted to start riding my bike to school to avoid the daily shame of answering questions from my Mom. That and the fact she was typically an hour late to pick me up. One time the principal ended up driving me home and judging from the girth of both the gold chain around his neck and his porn star mustache, I was lucky to have made it to my final destination unsullied.
But the mornings did feel legitimately chilly and so the first day back to school, I rode my bike the three or so miles to the school that morning wearing my one-ton backpack on my shoulders and ski mittens on my hands. Heading into my first class, I beelined for my seat when I saw the tallest girl in the school and I mean like, giraffe neck tall, point out how stupid looking my mittens were.
“What weird gloves.” She hollered out. “What kind of weirdo wears those?”
Mortified, I thought to myself, “Really, tall girl? Rocky I, II, III, IV and V all seemed to do ok wearing these gloves, but somehow I’m a weirdo?” Had I any sort of gumption and/or an additional nine inches on me I would have shown her how cool they were, Rocky III style.
In concert, the rest of the class laughed about my freakish hand covers. This was before the era when bullying was widely recognized as unacceptable, and in fact, the teacher laughed along with the kids. Of course, my math teacher, Miss Jayne had enormous man-shoulders with a Richard Simmonds mullet and was probably happy for once she wasn’t the center of ridicule. By now, I knew to look or act different meant I was destined to be humiliated. And lucky for me, I had closets full of difference exploding their direction.
I’d love to say things got better and I made more friends. I’d love to say mittens came into fashion. But instead, what I can say is, in a moment of quiet desperation, I replaced the mittens for socks as somehow in my mind I rationalized wearing socks on my hands looked slightly less conspicuous. Funny enough, it did not. Especially considering they were my Dad’s white tube socks. Although, I doubt any particular sock style would have been less ridiculousness. What it did do was catch the eye of one of my classmates, Jeremy D. He was stocky, wore a roughed up blue denim jacket with sewn on patches of bands like Rush, Metallica and Peter Paul and Mary (go figure?). He was also small for his age, had a receding hairline and a laugh like a weasel. While we were never really friends, he did give me advice one day when we were put into pairs to work out a classic math problem:
Abby got into her car at 12:10 am pm to drive to her grandmother’s house. Her housemate packed her 3 cookies, a tuna sandwich, 22 goldfish crackers and a diet coke. She drove for two hours then took a rest for an hour and fifteen minutes. If she needs 3500 kcals of energy to stay awake while driving through the night to arrive the 154 miles to her destination, how often should she alternate eating each of her food items and crying on the side of the road because her housemate was kissing her best friend instead of her?
Once we determined Abby’s housemate was never going to kiss her until she stopped eating tuna fish, Jeremy told me to not take the taunting so personally. He confided in me he was born with his heart on the outside of his body and after twelve surgeries, he didn’t give a shit what the other kids thought of him. Before we handed in our paper and left class he said to me, “You’re not cool, but you’re not a loser either. Just stop wearing those idiotic socks on your hands.”
Jeremy’s words toughened me up enough to realize that life would go on after junior high. And if he could survive heart surgery, I could survive head lice, rejection, taunting, and freezing my fingertips off. Spring was only a few months away.