Wednesday, May 25, 2005

My Ghetto Fabulous '80s

Please note, this was written in 2005 and reposted here because it's become, well, relevant to my life again.


When I wrote about these long-lost friends, it opened the floodgates of memories of my sweet, budding adolescence. Also known as the 80s.


First things first. I was born in 1970, so I'm a true product of the '80s. My formative, teenage coming-of-age years were right in the middle of this wacky, complicated decade.

There was the ever-present threat of nuclear war.
The tainted Tylenol bottles. Chernobyl. And many more serious issues.

On the lighter side, we had the big bad hair. The leg warmers. The parachute pants.

But my life was not the stereotypical suburban mall experience popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Valley Girl. Instead, I grew up in the not so shiny 'hood, in a large city by the Bay. I lived in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. I relied on public transportation to take me to and from my crumbling public schools. I was also the child of a working class, single mother who had to put herself into hock just keeping a roof over our head, so lounging at the mall wasn't really part of my life.

Yes, I had a Duran Duran phase. Almost every pair of jeans I wore for a decade had zippers on the ankles. I admit I once wore pink polo shirts with the collars “up,” ass-high denim skirts, neon muscle shirts, stirrup pants, and other fashion abominations.

I remember Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street. And Sarah Jessica Parker as a Square Peg, long before she was having Sex in the City. And gangster rapper Ice T dissing the police long before he ever played one on TV.

When I think of the ‘80s, it all comes back through music. But not the synthesized modern rock or the jarring head-banging metal. I think of old-school rap, hip hop, and R&B. My first school dance exposed me to Prince and Little Red Corvette. I fell hard for Dean slow dancing and kissing to Purple Rain. And we later romanced to ballads like “Secret Lovers” from Atlantic Starr. At school dances, EPMD and NWA boomed in the background as a very mixed group of black, white, Asian, and Latino kids mingled and danced together. Songs like Morris Day and the Time’s “Jungle Love.” There was Whodini’s “Freaks come Out At Night” and “Friends.” Bands like The Sugar Hill Gang, Cameo, Zapp, Lisa Lisa, Prince. Doug E Fresh and his “6 Minutes” and "Lottie Dottie." And Run DMC. And Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube. And LL Cool J. And Ice T, before he became a famous actor.

Then there were the cliques—which I've oversimplified here for the sake of illustration. The stoners, with their shearling-lined denim jackets and their black I-got-this-t-shirt-at-the-last-Ozzy-Poison-TwistedSister-ACDC-concert shirts. The cheerleaders in their matching school spirit. The drama crowd with their oddly colored hair. The preppies with their sperry topsiders and their rolled up jeans and polo shirts. The mods in their unusual combinations of vintage clothing. The athlete-gods that got so much preferential treatment by our school’s administration. The gangstas. The surfer-dudes in their Baja ponchos. You name it, we had it. And I had friends in all of those different cliques. which is a nice way of saying I didn’t quite fit in to any specific crowd.

This was also the height of the crack epidemic. There were drive-by shootings on the nightly news. There was gang violence a la "Colors." And huge disparities between the haves and have nots. Yet remarkably, our school was peaceful and cohesive. The kids and the cliques all co-mingled and co-existed, like kids should be able to do in a learning environment. Often at parties or after-school activities, you'd see street thugs and stoners and preppies and mods and athletes—all just chillin' together. Maybe it's because we were all just trying to figure it all out. Or maybe kids in the '80s were more innocent than kids today? Hell, maybe it was all the nicotene. (Yes, can you believe we had a designated smoking section—for minors—back in the day?)

I’m not saying it was chocolate and roses and everyone singing kumbayah. But violence—including today's breed of lone-gunman type school shootings—didn’t spill over into our schools the way it seems to today.

Another contrast with kids today—(I say “kids” like I’m a grandmother, don’t I?)—is the skinny epidemic affecting girls today. Back in the'80s, the benchmark for "thin" was someone around size 6-8, and at a size 10-ish I always felt a little heavy but not terribly large. The "really skinny" girls were a 3-5-7, and they were rare. But today, the ever-growing numbers of anorexic actresses are lowering the bar, and it seems like young people have no idea what a healthy weight is. The funny (or not so funny) thing is that the kids at my high school—even the hard-core thugs—would have been concerned about someone who looked like this and said “Feed that girl!” When I see the emaciated girls that populate my suburban neighbohood today, I realize that there are no more average-sized, healthy teenagers. And the few girls who are of a healthy weight (or even a little overweight) look downright gargantuan standing next to the anorexics. And that’s sad. Makes me wish I had appreciated my curvy, thick little teenage figure as much as the boys did.

Back in the ‘80s, I was a bit of a loudmouth. I know, you’re surprised to hear this. Even though I was a good student, I was sent to the Principal on more than one occasion for disturbing the classroom or mouthing off or passing notes or just being obnoxious. Even then, I was outspoken about my political opinions—but I was lucky that almost everyone I knew was liberal. I didn’t realize—until I got to college—that there were actually Repuglicans in the world.

I was also a bit of a free spirit. Which is a nice way of saying I was two steps away from being a juvenile delinquent. I was given a pretty loose leash by my mom and the man she was dating (now my step dad). I cut school often. Forged my mom's signature. Didn't have a curfew, or at least didn’t stick to one. I'd stay out until 4 am on weekends in my later teen years. I drank far too much than I should have given a family history of alcohol, and made a fool of myself on more than one occasion sobering up. I participated in some nefarious toilet paper incidents that I really do regret. I often went into a neighboring town with friends to sharpen our pool techniques. (One night in that same town, we were escorted to the city limits by the militrooper policemen who didn’t like us inner city hoodlums "kicking it" in their sleepy little enclave.) One of my male friends had a Honda moped and I often went with him on long rides along scenic ridgelines. Occasionally, he'd convince me it was “really liberating” to take my top off. In hindsight, I think he got a really nice show.

I could go on for days remembering the ‘80s, but I admit I’m having a hard time really describing it all. Maybe because it comes in fragments of memories so long ago forgotten. Or maybe because I’m a slacker and so much of the ‘80s has been carefully documented by the cultural anthropologists comic geniuses at I Love the 80s and I Love the 80s Strikes Back.

I’ve long since moved out of the ‘hood and into one of those swanky upscale suburbs that I used to mock and deride and resent so vehemently in my youth. As the child of a renter and a single mom, I never imagined I'd ever own a home, much less be a stay-at-home-mom and wife with a house in the 'burbs.

I guess a lot changes in 20 years.

I just can’t believe it’s been that long.

I'm, like, O-L-D, folks!

Sunday, May 22, 2005

My Bizarre Love Triangle

Note: I wrote this a couple years ago, after Susie Over at Not a Habit, Susie wrote about two new books on the demise of female friendships.

Call me strange, but most of my closest and enduring friendships have been with men—less volatile, fewer mind games, and better suited to my strong personality. I always had an easier time building rapport and intimacy with the male of our species. Even more so after several explosive betrayals by college girl friends.

And I have my own “Friend Who Got Away.” Or rather, Two Friends. Max and Dean. (Not their real names, of course.) Together, we were the Terrible Trio. I didn't think anything would break us apart.


When I first met Max in Junior High, I instantly fell in love with his wicked sense of humor, his geeky charm, and his flamboyant inner confidence. I always secretly thought he was gay, which seemed even more plausible as he morphed into one serious hottie and didn’t seem to by interested in girls. Straight or gay, I adored him like a brother.

Max’s best friend was Dean—a cocky athlete who (even at the tender age of 15) excelled at the fine art of womanizing. Oh, he was a player. He flirted with everything that had a pulse, including me—and for the first year I knew him I was able to ignore his goofy libido.

Then there was me, bubbly and extroverted, with my big bad ‘80s hair and my hoochie mama miniskirts. And a pair of healthy mammary glands that Max and Dean affectionately called “Twin Peaks.”

On some level, Max was the glue that held the three of us together. It was Max and Me. Or Max and Dean. Or all of us together. But never just Dean and Me. At least not initially. That came much later.

When most girls my age were having slumber parties with other girls, I was spending the night at my best friend Max’s house. While the girls might have been watching Sixteen Candles and practicing makeup application, I was with Dean and Max—watching stupid 80s porn and playing naked-coed-truth-or-dare. All of this was, of course, completely platonic—up to a point.

When I was 15, I realized I was desperately, hopelessly in lust with Dean—that “weak in the knees, heart-skips-a-beat” feeling of my first crush. Did I mention he was a dead ringer for Dean Cain? We first kissed at a school dance, then went to a few movies, and started spending time together away from Max. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I soon learned—from Max, no less—that Dean was “going” with another girl. I was a little heartbroken.

Max and I stayed close in spite of Dean’s betrayal—perhaps even because of it. And Max stayed close with Dean—which is how we all ended up spending time together again. First a chance meeting at the movies. Then a group outing to the mall. Before long, we were back to our regular after-school hangout, a cafĂ© where we would study and behave like loud obnoxious teenagers. Within a few months, Dean and I had rebuilt our tenuous “friendship,” though it was obvious to everyone around us—including Max—that something was still brewing between Dean and me.

The summer I turned sixteen, we all went to a wild party—a typical ‘80s fete where the parents go out of town and expensive artwork is destroyed. Dean and I flirted and cajoled, tempted and teased each other relentlessly that night. At one point he put his arm around my waist and stared into my eyes, and my silly schoolgirl feelings erupted into something new. Later that night as he drove me home, he confided that he’d never gotten over me, and begged me to give him a second chance.

So Dean and I started going out again—serious, exclusive dating this time. He was good and attentive and kind and gentle and sexy and persistent and adorable—and fucking hot. We couldn’t keep our hands off each other, and had lots of wonderful, maddening, breathtaking times together exploring our youthful sexuality. (How’s that for cornball clichĂ©?)

But I was still reluctant to “go all the way” with him, especially when I knew so much about his many sexual escapades. This was just the dawn of the AIDS epidemic, but I knew enough to realize that giving myself to him would be a big gamble. My birth control prescription was really the least of my worries.

Meanwhile, Max was furious with me for dating Dean—not to mention tired of being a) a third-wheel; and b) the go-between whenever Dean and I fought. He seemed to delight in telling me “I told you so” whenever I found out about one of Dean’s many indiscretions. At the time, I thought he was simply trying to protect my heart, but I realized much later he was also watching out for his heart, too.

Long story even longer, Dean finally got me into the sack—almost. After a romantic Christmas in 1996, Dean told me he loved me. Not a juvenile “I Luv You.” But a mature, heart-wrenching “I Love You” that came after he finally opened up about a lot of things in his life and his family. Our relationship became very intense at that point, and he spent a few nights in my bed when my very liberal parents were out of town. But right before the magic moment, I had an epiphany. That as much as I loved him—and oh, how I loved him—I couldn’t risk losing it all to a guy who had cheated on me so many times. So I kicked him to the curb.

Max seemed thrilled that were all “just friends” again, but it was obvious that our tempestuous trio was broken. Dean started chasing girls again—many many girls.(No surprise there.) Max found a girlfriend. (Now that was the big surprise.) Even I lifted my head from my Dean-obsession and casually started dating other guys—first a sensitive delinquent, then a rich kid with perfect teeth.

But then I met Mr.Kat—an honest, funny guy who was a year ahead of us in school and planning to leave for college. Incidentally, this is the same guy I’ve been with for 18 years—8 of them married—and he's the father of my sweet daughter. He was honest, funny, smart—and interested in more than just getting me in bed, though I’ll admit I that didn’t take very long. Within a few months, I had fallen madly in love with him. And the rest, as they say, is history.

At the very least, I hoped Dean and Max would be happy for me. Instead, Max teased me for getting “used” by an older man that I probably wouldn’t even see again after summer ended. And Dean became openly jealous, trying to stake his claim to me at school and pursuing me with love notes, flowers, and surprise meetings at my job. Even after it was clear that I was serious about Mr.Kat, Dean cornered me in my room and kissed me, and Max simply withdrew.

Our friendship suffered a final fatal blow one summer evening after our first year of college. Mr.Kat had gone on a family vacation, and Max invited me to his swim club for a night of catching up. What I thought would be some swimming and a casual meal at the snack bar was actually an intimate picnic by the pool in a near-empty club. When I got there, Max and I bumbled through conversation and he started mocking me about “shacking up” with Mr. Kat so young. When I fought back, he finally admitted that he had hoped we would have hooked up. So much for my gay-dar. That came out of left field.

And then arrived Dean, who proceeded to spend the rest of the night grinding up against me in the dark, steamy pool whispering “I still love you” in my ear. All the while, Max sat on the other end of the pool seething with jealousy.

It was a sad, awkward end of a bizarre relationship with both of them, and we never really spoke again after that night.


It's been nearly 20 years, and I often wonder where Dean is today. What he’s doing. How he has aged. If he ever thinks of me. If he’s even alive. Yes, I wonder if his reckless behavior exposed him to AIDS or some other tragic fate. He’ll always be my first crush. My first love. And there are times I see his face in my dreams and his memory haunts me for days.

But when I think of “lost friends”—Max is the one I really miss. He's the one I still feel guilty about. I regret losing touch with him because I know he'd be the kind of guy I'd be friends with today—we had similar feelings about politics and art and travel and food and language.

When my high school had its big 10-year reunion about 8 years ago, Mr.Kat and I were knee deep (literally) in a renovation on our new (old) house. I thought about going to the reunion, then chickened out because I might see one of “them.” I just wasn’t ready.

But recently, I’ve been wondering if I might run into one or the other, since we live less than 10 miles from the epicenter of all this craziness. And since Mr.Kat and I attended the same high school at the same time, there's a little overlap in our friends. It turns out that one of Mr.Kat’s old friends knows Max quite well, and that he married a lovely woman and still lives in the area.

Tonight I googled Max’s name, and it turns out he has finally opened a business, one he always dreamed of, in a nearby city. I’m contemplating getting back in touch with him, just for old time’s sake. He is still the best friend I ever lost, and it would be nice to know he is happy. Maybe he’s got a couple kids and a wife in the burbs.

Maybe he thinks of me as fondly as I do of him.

Maybe time does heal some wounds.