This day has always loomed large in memory – in many ways, it epitomizes my adolescence. First, I have to cop to outrageous thoughtlessness due to the self-centered cloud I lived in. This was a momentous day for my father – in fact, I’ll wager it meant more to him than it did to me.
My indifference to its importance in his life shames me today. I was incapable of grasping a world beyond my transient teen-age hurt over a bad time at a dance or my elation at meeting a new boy.
Natalie and I always egged each other in ways that got us into trouble and this was no exception. (The fact it was a Catholic Youth Organization dance – and in 1968 Lutherans and Catholics weren’t all that ecumenical – didn’t help.) Natalie got grounded too. Maybe that added to the drama and thrill of it all. Since we paid the price, the experience had to be of value, right? When Natalie was alive, no matter where we were, we called each other on February 5th to remember and commiserate.
For me, the ramifications of that Sunday adventure lasted for years. I became obsessed with X (after he dropped me). At the time, I blamed my senior year clinical depression on my obsession with that failed romance but it was a scapegoat – the depression was inside me, just waiting for an excuse. And in some ways, the obsession served me well – it kept me aloof from other serious romantic entanglements that might’ve changed my life – maybe for better, maybe for worse. Like most events of my adolescence, it doesn’t matter; I’m happy with the life I live now.
The highlight of every summer in the early seventies was my trip to Santa Clara to see my old friends again. Since my parents moved to San Diego in early September of 69, I never had the opportunity to go “home” for a summer after college. I visited a week or two by myself, sleeping on my high school friend’s couches. It was never enough time to catch up – which, I guess, explains why – although we remained friends – we gradually drifted further apart.
If I’d stayed in Santa Clara, the changes might not have been as apparent as they were when I visited annually. When my family and I moved to California in the fifties, the Lawrence Expressway was Lawrence Station Road – two lanes bordered by a row of walnut trees, then a path, then the backyard fences of our housing tract. Simply by crossing Lawrence Station Road, I went from Santa Clara to Sunnyvale.
At some point, a fence went up, separating our house from what was becoming Lawrence Expressway. Before long, I was lost in the city I once knew like the back of my hand. Major landmarks like Jefferson Junior High disappeared, replaced (I think) by some business facility. I grew up believing institutions like public schools would be around forever.
We used to walk to Lawrence Square. Macdonald’s Department Store sold high-end clothing. There was a Safeway and a laundromat. Compare Lawrence Square now to what it looked like then. Does it tell the story of our city?
It’s not terribly surprising I was adamant about Santa Clara being my home considering my family left Santa Clara for San Diego a mere six months before I wrote this entry. In contrast, it astonishes me that 47 years later, I still regard Santa Clara as my home – despite the fact I never lived there again. Realistically, hasn’t LA – where I’ve lived the last 47 years – earned the right to be called home?
Yeah, objectively, no doubt about it. Emotionally, not so fast. I grew up in Santa Clara, it will forever be where I spent my childhood, it’s the backdrop for all my highly formative memories and experiences.
Unfortunately, the Santa Clara I regard as home ceased to exist shortly after I left. I’ve covered this in other blogs (July 18, 1969, August 26, 1969) and I’m loathe to repeat myself. Still, Santa Clara’s metamorphoses into Silicon Valley fascinates me.
Someday I’d love to write a historical novel about Santa Clara. I’d approach it as a multi-generational saga about a family who own an apricot orchard, tracing family members and the city itself as it evolves to Silicon Valley. I’ve been warned family sagas are out of fashion but by the time I finish, they might be all the rage again.
Third period physiology was taught in the same classroom where another hapless instructor tried to teach me chemistry. I recognized the Periodic Table of the Elements I failed to memorize as a genuine junior. This time around, my lab partner was Jennifer, a girl who projected calm intelligence – just the type I’d be best friends with if we existed in the same time frame. At the end of the period, as she scrubbed our beakers, I said, “Want to have lunch?”
“Sorry. I eat with my friends.”
Rejection! It doesn’t get much more unequivocal. It felt as crummy as it did the first time I did high school. What disqualified me as a friend of Jennifer? The wrong shoes, my aging face, my lack of aptitude for physiology?
These questions will never be answered. Girls either like or dislike you “because.” That’s as specific as it gets. For what it’s worth, here’s my personal theory about how and why any hope of being BFF with Jennifer died in September, long before I returned to Wilcox.
Female cliques form hard and fast and – once established – they aren’t known for flexibility, diversity or the warm welcome extended to strangers – quite the contrary. The more exclusive and difficult a group is to access, the higher their status. I was four months too late to Jennifer’s party and nothing I did could change that.
In comparison, boys were a breeze. Looking lost and stupid – something I excelled at – was basis enough for a relationship. A boy named Brian showed me the ropes, introduced me to his friends, fixed my car and got me a part-time job at the same place he worked.
The latter was problematical since I couldn’t offer my real social security number (and get paid) without the risk of revealing my true age.
I was 29 years old – married and the mother of a 4-year-old – when I returned to Wilcox, the high school I graduated from, as a transfer student. Technically, I was there to research a script I’d been hired to write based on S.E. Hinton’s novel the Outsiders. The director and producers wanted to know if high school kids in 81 were much different from those in the early sixties.
On a deeper level, I was obsessed with high school and curious about how it would feel to do it again. Would the benefit of my vast college, professional and personal experiences make me more confident? Would I feel like I had all the answers? In a word – NO.
If anything, it was more hair-raising than the first time around. In part, this was due to my realistic fear that someone would notice I looked closer to 30 then 17, assume I was a narc (because why else would a woman my age be posing as a student?) and knife me in the girl’s bathroom. Making the situation even dicier, I was staying with one of my real Wilcox contemporaries – Debbie Callan – who, at that time, worked as a dispatcher/translator for the Santa Clara police department. How could I not be a narc?
There was never a moment I could relax. I didn’t have a fake driver’s license and I needed to carry the real one – which meant taking pains to make sure nobody saw it (especially the birthdate). I didn’t carry credit cards or checks because a 17-year-old wouldn’t. When making reference to music or books that weren’t contemporary, I had to calculate how old my fake self would’ve been as opposed to my real self.
Before I started, I devised an elaborate backstory to explain my mid-semester transfer – an alcoholic mother in rehab, I was staying with an aunt etc. – but it turned out to be totally unnecessary. Nobody I met showed the slightest interest in my backstory.
To be continued in upcoming blogs – because January ’81 was one of the more interesting Januarys in my life.
She didn’t wait till the next day; she called my father long-distance that night. She made Natalie trade rooms with her and didn’t let me out of her sight. I was supposed to meet Alan for church in the morning so we could exchange phone numbers and contact information but it was impossible. Since he thought my name was Natalie, I figured that was that.
Back at home, my father expressed mild disappointment but he didn’t make it into a big deal. I was home free.
A week later, my father knocked on my bedroom door. “I got an unusual letter at church.”
He unfolded a sheet of paper. “Dear Pastor Knutsen,” he read. “My name is Alan Sorenson.” He glanced at me. A surge of adrenalin left me shaky. He resumed. “I’m a Luther Leaguer from Pacific Palisades Lutheran who recently attended the “Get a Light” convention in Palm Springs. I’m trying to locate a young lady I met there named Natalie. She’s tall, around 5’9”, with shoulder-length brown hair.” He stopped. “Sound like anybody you know, Kathleen?”
Uh-oh. He called me Kathleen, not Kathy. “A little like me, maybe?”
“That’s what I thought – but your name’s not Natalie.”
I couldn’t concoct a plausible lie. “All right, Nat and I wanted to try being someone else. But it wasn’t to be mean.”
The right corner of his mouth turned up. He wasn’t angry – he was amused.
Alan was not even slightly amused. He was mortified that he addressed his letter to my father. He didn’t appreciate being lied to, especially about being a PK, the likes of which he’s not really into dating. Tough luck for him, I’m a PK for life. So what if league sponsors spied on me and concerned parishioners gossiped? As long as the pastor in question was my dad, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maybe some people go to their high school reunion with no motive other than to share a good time with old friends. Not me. I RSVP’d to show my former classmates I wasn’t the loser they remembered. Just to be on the safe side, I brought an entourage – my sister Joyce, husband John, and two friends. Sure, it practically screamed insecure, but at least I wouldn’t wind up sitting at a table by myself. I wore my favorite outfit – an ill-advised Evan Picon vested skirt suit that failed to stand the test of time.
I wanted people to think I transcended high school but in truth I was obsessed with it – so much so that at age 29 I posed as a high school student and returned to Wilcox as a student for a brief spell – but that’s another story.
Suffice to say, it’s no coincidence that well over half of my scripts and teleplays concern high school kids. It became my specialty. It was easy to channel adolescent minds, because my own mind was mired in adolescence. While I might be excessive, I’m not unique.
In Ralph Keyes’ excellent book Is There Life After High School, he distills his experience, research and interviews to three major points.
These memories focus on comparison of status and
High school is the source of indelible memories
Status comparisons continue long after graduation, in a society shaped fundamentally by high school
On the outside, I’d travelled far since high school but on the inside the neurotic outsider I used to be ran the show. I drank too much, talked too much, got too giddy and too grandiose. The harder I tried to be one of the cool kids, the more I proved I was not.
Three days before she died, I received a letter from Natalie. Uncharacteristically, I wrote back immediately. I don’t remember what I said but at least I wrote back. Her brother found my letter, unopened, on the kitchen counter, when he arrived in Ukiah after she was dead. My name was on the return address. That’s how he knew where to contact me and let me know she was gone.
Fall, 1961. “A family with a daughter your age is joining our church,” my father says. Natalie is short and round with blue eyes and blonde hair in a Prince Valiant cut. I’m the fourth grade giraffe, tall and skinny with wavy brown hair. She’s an outdoor-oriented extrovert, a born entertainer. I’m a sullen sedentary introvert longing for center stage despite my lack of talent.
Obviously, we’re destined to be best friends.
January, 1967. Natalie and I are sophomores at different high schools. We claim to be cousins and people believe us despite how little we have in common. Natalie’s in Choir and Pep Squad. She’s secretary of the Future Teacher’s Club and wins a speaking role in the school play. The Beatles reign on my stereo while she remains loyal to the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
We graduate from our respective high schools in 1969. She and her future first husband Bobby are voted Cutest Couple and featured on a full page in Fremont’s yearbook. I leave Wilcox as anonymously as I served my time. She goes north to college, first Pacific Lutheran in Washington and then Chico State. I head south to UCLA. Natalie majors in PE and Education, I choose Film Writing. We get together briefly every summer but during the school year we forge new friendships.
Natalie and Bobby divorce. The next time I hear from her, she’s engaged to the man of her dreams. She doesn’t ask me to be a bridesmaid in either of her weddings. The outdoor ceremony takes place on a blistering August day at the Ukiah ranch where they live
Summer, 1988. Natalie, her husband and their daughter spend two days with my family on their way home from Disneyland. Natalie’s jumpy, a restless bundle of uneven edges and darting eyes, nothing like the laughing Natalie I remember from childhood. She smells the same, a summer collage of rose-scented soap, saltwater or tears, sunblock, healthy sweat and new mown grass. She tries to hide the small scaly patches engraved on the skin on back of her hands and elbows. She isn’t any smaller, but in some profound way she is fading before my eyes.
Not long after, she gets divorced again. In the spring of 1994, Natalie’s mother – in many ways her anchor – dies. Natalie spirals down, then goes into freefall.
While at work as a kindergarten teacher, she passes out, drunk, in the ladies room. She’s fired from her dream job. Next, she loses her driver’s license. After that she loses custody of her daughter.
Fall, 1995. I hate it when she calls late at night. She rambles, repeats herself and slurs her words. I make excuses to get off the phone.
March 26, 1996. I open Natalie’s last letter. She never learned to type so it’s handwritten like all the others. The round, precise cursive lines of blue ink on the first page remind me of the tight, controlled perfection of her record acts.
Her writing deteriorated with every line, crazily sloping out of control by the time she signed her name. I wanted to believe her but I didn’t. Even so, I never thought alcohol would kill her at 44.
I hope she knew I loved her. I know you can’t save people who don’t want to be saved but I wish I’d tried harder. Whenever her name is mentioned, I still tell people she was my cousin. She’s buried next to her mother in Massachusetts instead of Ukiah. I’ve never been to Massachusetts but one of these days I’ll go.