I did something I shouldn’t have. I was on Facebook, idly reading the news feed, and someone I went to junior high with had commented on a photo. I peered at the thumbnail and recognized it instantly: assembled before a spindly tree at San Marcos Junior High, it was the “butt rockers,” a moderately influential clique of flannel-wearing, Metallica-worshipping, self-styled eighth grade rebels. They allegedly spent their weekends smoking pot and crystal meth and dropping acid. I had no idea if this was actually true, because they never invited me.
Despite their cringe-inducing moniker and recreational drug use, I longed to be accepted into their ranks. They were the first people I encountered who seemed truly cool in a James Dean sort of way. Before the butt rockers, “cool” was the mantle of the popular assholes at my elementary school. But those people weren’t cool; they followed their leaders like a flock of sheep and wore cutesy outfits. The butt rockers were…weird. I admired their courage. I was not willing to admit that many of the butt rockers were also assholes, at least to me.
I clicked through the entire album and remembered how lonely I was that year.
I was friends with a few of them, and I pined after a boy on their fringes named Andy (the names of everyone from junior high have been changed). At their center was a beautiful pixie named Nicole. She was built out of doll parts, tiny as a jewel, with a high, wide forehead and Slavic blue eyes and cupid’s bow lips. She had a pierced nose before anyone in my known universe had a pierced nose, and she wore long johns under baby doll dresses with combat boots, as though she’d walked to school straight from Seattle. If she was the duchess of the butt rockers, then Roger, her long-haired, good-natured boyfriend, was their duke.
Nicole had faded, like the rest of them, into the mythology of the past – she had moved before starting high school with all of us. I only saw her again once. I ran into her in the parking lot of the supermarket where I worked the summer before starting college. I approached her gingerly, not sure if she remembered me, still resenting her status, years later.
“Did you go to San Marcos Junior High?” I asked dumbly.
“Yeah,” she said, not quite friendly. “I remember you.”
“Wow,” I said, marveling at the years. “How are you?”
“I had a kid,” she said too quickly. “He’s two.”
“Oh,” I said. “Wow. That’s amazing.” I tried to seem warm, congratulatory, but I was horrified. Pregnancy, at that age, was equivalent in my mind to a death sentence. It was my worst fear.
“I’m going to Hampshire College,” I stammered in return. “It’s in Massachusetts. I got a scholarship.”
She smiled tightly.
“Well. Nice to run into you.”
“Yeah. Take care.” She got into her car.
It was Nicole who posted the photo. She had a deep archive of school pictures and snapshots dating back to the early 90s, and she had lovingly scanned and labeled each one to the best of her memory. The album was called “Friends.” Underneath each one, various former butt rockers made affectionate comments, none more affectionate than Nicole herself. Under a picture of a homeroom class posed outside in the quad, she wrote, “That was seventh grade. I was so mad I had to leave my old school. Didn’t LOVE San Marcos till the end of seventh. Super loved eighth!!!!” She seems to have had a genuinely good time in what was, for me, a year of hellish awkwardness.
She had photos of boys I hated. Here are Aaron and Craig in the hall: Craig, taller than everyone, is crossing his eyes, his arms flailing to make himself look retarded. Craig, as far as I knew, was just a dick. Rude, dismissive, juvenile, brash. Aaron, tiny and spry, gesticulates wildly to Craig’s left. I don’t remember what Aaron said to me that was so cruel in seventh grade, but whatever it was, it stung, and I hated him, too. Here is Erick in a science classroom: another boy who, like Craig, looks about 17. He is good-looking, square-jawed, like a blue-collar antihero in a movie that takes place in Texas. Again, I don’t remember the exact reason I didn’t like him, but at first glance, I am flooded with the memory that he was mean, cold.
Not everyone was a dick. Dear Andy was thoughtful and nice. Roger was amiable and warm, even if he didn’t know you. Several of the girls were nice, too, or at least not mean. But none of us became great friends. The prevailing attitude was one of disinterest; I simply wasn’t visible to them, the way I was to my old friends, whom I was stupidly trying to forget.
In Nicole’s version of eighth grade, it didn’t seem to matter who was a dick and who wasn’t, because they were all unfailingly nice to her. Maybe it was her preternatural beauty; maybe it was something generous in her personality that made them feel invited. Presumably, she is the photographer of many of these snapshots, and in them, the boys tend to have a look of vague wonder on their faces, an almost-unguarded interest. It was a look I personally never saw on the face of a single boy in junior high, except maybe Patrick, a fellow-nerd with a fabulous sense of humor and horrible glasses who grew up to be gay.
Here is another of Nicole’s comments, under a picture of two boys, Phil and Sid: “Awwww. I love him.” (Note the use of the present tense.) “He used to call me Ladybug. I still have something that Nathan and either you or Sid made for me in art class…I’ll scan it. It’s rad!”
She wasn’t just friends with difficult boys, she was friends with difficult girls. Mean girls, devil-may-care girls, icy girls in the upper social echelons. In the pictures, and in my memory, they are laughing, tackling each other, having a ball.
Paging through the photos, I remembered why I found San Marcos so depressing, why I fled 3,000 miles away, never to return. I remembered the judgment, the small-time ambition, the not-quite-friendliness, the tight smiles without the eyes. Subtle prejudices behind covered mouths. A deep mistrust. Like what you would imagine in a small Southern town, except with a veneer of California openness, coastal sophistication. Growing up, I got the sense that many of my classmates were raised by people who did not encourage empathy in their offspring.
My campaign to join the butt rockers was only fractionally successful. Before school, I stood near them, and we exchanged cursory hugs. I tried donning their plumage, but my J.C. Penney jeans weren’t quite long and trashed enough. They were supposed to pool at the bottom and drape around your Converse high tops, but in a woeful miscalculation, mine only came to my ankles, and my mother wasn’t about to buy me another pair. I dutifully penned band names on them – Metallica, Nirvana, the Dead Kennedys – but only after I noticed everyone else doing it. I didn’t even listen to the Dead Kennedys. I had a few concert t-shirts I wore under plaid flannel shirts, but mine were the mass-market kind that all the alterna-boutiques carried, nothing obscure, no shirts bought at actual concerts.
Once, a random boy, a boy on the fringes of no group I was aware of, whose name I forget, accused me of being a poser.
“Last year, you were a nerd. And now you’re trying to be a butt rocker,” he said.
Who was this kid? How did anyone notice what I’d worn to school, or whom I’d hung out with, the previous year? Obviously, he was right, but I wasn’t the only one. We deluded ourselves into thinking we weren’t searching for an identity, weren’t constantly remaking our images, hunting for the best expression of what we thought was cool. We wished it to be effortless, to have been born with it. We imagined that Nicole had been born a grunge goddess, hadn’t crimped and hairsprayed her bangs in elementary school, hadn’t worn preppy Cosby-Show-inspired ensembles the year before. But she did. The pictures prove it.
I don’t think Nicole and I ever spoke. I was just aware of her, the way everyone knows when a famous person enters a room, even if you can’t see them. The fact that we never became friends was the most obvious evidence that I had failed to become a butt rocker.
Of course, it doesn’t matter that we weren’t friends; it was no great loss on either part. What did we have in common? In the parking lot at Albertson’s, you could see us sailing out on our different trajectories. In the recent pictures on her Facebook page, she is still beautiful. She’s married and has two sons. The older one is 13 or 14, and he has her same eerie beauty, that faraway face, like a puppeteer.
I have a weirdly vivid memory of my childhood and adolescence. The butt rocker bust was one of a string of rejections dating back to kindergarten, when I found myself on the receiving end of a tsunami of teasing that came out of nowhere, only to be re-welcomed into the fold a week later. The rift never quite disappeared, though; I knew I was marked somehow, irreducibly different. Similar episodes recurred in third, fifth, and ninth grade. In college, I was consumed with a desire in my freshman year to befriend the coolest, most acid-tongued bad-attitude clique in school, a bunch of art students captained by a razor-jawed dyke named Mary. They chain-smoked and listened to Journey and blew off schoolwork until the last minute. They drank too much and smoked pot till dawn. I wasn’t interested in emulating them, exactly; I hated being high and had a far more monastic schedule. But I couldn’t take my eyes off them; maybe they reminded me of the butt rockers. They were mercilessly funny and seemed to be having a great time. I was friendly with them for several months, and to my astonishment, Mary herself seduced me one night. After that, they dropped me. Encounters with them at parties turned awkward and snide; Mary stopped calling, except to retrieve her wallet, which she’d left in my sheets.
In my darkest moments, I wonder, and am not sure, this happens to everyone. What if it doesn’t, and I really am an alien among humans? In San Marcos, I may as well have been from outer space. Teachers’ pets had little protection where I was from. You developed your own psychic armor, or not. I asked too many questions in class, wore deliberately strange outfits, and walked home from school reading Babysitter’s Club books, occasionally tripping on the uneven sidewalk. I learned nothing from the tough-minded, smart-mouthed girls in my neighborhood. I didn’t learn to defend myself or anyone else; my sincerity remained raw, my retorts stubborn and slow. It wasn’t so hostile a place that I had to learn how to fight, but the exact dimensions of my weirdness meant there would always be an invisible tension, a friction, a half-beat of warning. Under my skin, I had different bones.
The children who ascended, who rode at the front, were bad-asses, hardy and quick. I didn’t cultivate aggression: I was an only child, with no haranguing brothers or sisters, and maybe I was naturally a dreamer, someone who sat beneath trees, like Ferdinand. My mother only ever accorded me a comrade’s respect; she was not a screamer. It was safe to be myself in our house, even if I was a weirdo everywhere else.
In college, after Mary’s snubbing, I still hadn’t learned my lesson. By the following spring, I was fixated on a similar character from nearby Smith College, a filmmaker this time. She had a cowboy’s swagger. I thought she was beautiful and fascinating and far away, like she was riding on the back of a horse miles in the distance, and I was stuck on some farmhouse porch, wistful. The physics of these relationships are always the same: I am pulling, not pushing, on a heavy, stubborn thing. I’m pulling so hard that if I were to put my whole body into the effort, my feet would leave the ground. She and I hung out a few times (she called me!), but nothing came of it. I went to a party with her at Smith, and she disappeared soon after we arrived. At the end of the year, as she was about to graduate, she invited me to a screening of her films. She barely said hello. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed with her work; I thought it was unambitious and self-indulgent. (Now she’s a fairly well-known artist in New York with her own Wikipedia entry.)
The feeling I came home with was exactly the same one I carried off the bus after a day of chasing the attentions of the butt rockers in eighth grade: empty, hungry, full of shame that there was something wrong with me, if I could only put my finger on what it was. I moped into the kitchen of the campus apartment I shared with a gang of good friends, none of whom knew the girl from Smith, and flung myself into a thrift store chair.
“That sucked,” I announced. I told them the story. I know, looking back, that they must have seen my fruitless pattern, even if I didn’t.
“I just want to be friends with cool people who make good art,” I declared. The memory of this comment makes me cringe. It’s hard to believe I was still searching for my tribe, as though I weren’t actually sitting in its headquarters. As though I wasn’t surrounded, right then, by excellent people who loved me, who were smart and funny and incidentally, made good art. Ethan, generous as ever, ventured a response.
“I want to be friends with people who are nice to me,” he said.
I’ll never forget it. The folly of my dance was suddenly obvious, clear as day. What the hell was I doing? What was I after? I hated myself around the girl from Smith and her hipster friends, I felt nervous and tense around Mary, clumsy and self-conscious around the butt rockers. For years, I’d been asking for rejection.
I realize now that most of the butt rockers weren’t assholes. The few who were really mean, I learned later, hailed from truly fucked-up homes. I’m pretty sure the parents of one fellow-bus-rider, Samantha, made crystal meth in their house. She was always pissy and agitated, not just to me.
The problem with the butt rockers, with all the tribes I tried in vain to join until coming to my senses, was that I was barking up the wrong tree. That’s not how friends find one another. Friends know each other before they know each other, and when they finally meet, the recognition is instant. You feel safe, you feel free, and you want to show them your best self. It’s easy. The problem was that I ignored common sense. I tried to defy physics. We weren’t right for each other.