After my parents’ divorce, my mother moved us kids to a trailer on the northeast side of town. It was long and narrow, like a ship’s galley, and the wallpaper’s thin brown stripes seemed to carve themselves into the drywall.
The trailer never felt like home, never felt like a place you could settle.
We tried. We hung the velvet painting of a Siberian husky that my mother bought years earlier, at a flea market, over the loveseat. We stacked our DVDs next to the television, put our pictures on the fridge.
Dayne put up pictures of his kids on the fridge too, and hung a dreamcatcher above the telephone. I would stare at its white hoop when I would call the cops on him, trace the white webbing with my eyes, Dayne’s fists thudding against the walls.
I was out of the trailer as much as I could, staying after school for plays, writing groups, National Honor Society. I rode the late bus home, the one that the wrestling team took after their afternoon practices.
And, sitting in the salt stench of the wrestlers, I stared through the window at the gutted cornfields lining Sauk Trail, fear collecting at the back of my mouth, slick like copper.
These were the days before my conversion, and though I vaguely hoped in Jesus, I believed more in the power of serendipity, in the pleasant surprise of my rescue.
The boys I liked in high school loved punk music, Kevin Smith movies, and girls who carried that indie-girl mystique: shorn hair, fishnet stockings, a strong disaffection for their own obvious beauty.
I tried to pick this up. I listened to ska bands, wore plaid skirts and suspenders, bleached my bangs a fried shade of blonde.
“Oh Allison,” those boys would smirk. “You’re just gorgeous, but no one’s going to see that till you are older. You’re like librarian sexy. Or maybe you’re a lesbian.”
I watched the movie Empire Records over and over again, mostly out of the intense desire to say something to the boys I liked, but also because I liked the early 90s fashion, which was somehow timeless, gentle in its denim washes and wool sweaters. The way I would have dressed if I let myself.
In the movie, the characters ran a record store, and were celebrating “Rex Manning Day,” where Rex Manning, a version of Tom Jones, signs autographs and blows kisses at soccer moms.
The record store is run by kids who hate Rex Manning, and carry existential crises. One kid wants to go to art school; another wants to kill herself; others are desperately and silently in love with each other.
All of them balance on a frail edge. And on that edge, they desired to be loved. To have each fear talked out of its grip on the razor blade.
And, on Rex Manning Day, all the crises are answered with declarations of love, a kegger, and a city-wide dance party.
I watched this movie over and over, sometimes to listen to the soundtrack, sometimes to repeat lines with the characters. I pretended to be Liv Tyler, whose early days made her the queen of that indie-girl beauty—the ivory skin, the plaid skirts and red lipstick. The unassuming self-consciousness that I tried so desperately to wear.
I watched this movie because I wanted to believe that every day was Rex Manning Day, a culmination of unspoken desire, an unnameable communion. A serendipity that my fractured life seemed to deserve.
And on some autumn day, after watching the film one more time, I walked outside. Though the leaves were changing, the air was warm, and I found a container of bubbles that someone left on the porch, the wand pink and sticky.
I dipped the wand and twirled in the driveway, bubbles spinning out in the sun. I spun faster. The bubbles wove themselves around me, and I heard myself laughing, saw the bubbles and felt the sunshine.
It had all the potential of beauty, of escape. A single, unassuming moment of spontaneous joy.
It fell flat, of course; I balanced on a frail, frail edge. I could not squeeze that joy out of myself, could not force that moment to make up for any of it.
Twelve years removed, I no longer hold that balance. But I wonder: how did I survive? What brought me to my couch, this page, with enough sight to see how sharp my edges were then, how precarious it all was?
I think of Mary Oliver: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.”
I didn’t know then, either, but maybe my arms did, lifting up above me as I spun, asking for what my mouth and mind did not know to speak, the sunlight a muted promise of what new days would come.
A promise I couldn’t yet hear.