Alison Fields | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (3,609 words)
She showed up on an overcast Friday afternoon in January. She barreled into the driveway in an old mustard-gold Buick with a black vinyl top, its back dash decorated plastic bats, novelty skulls, and dried flowers. She was wrapped in black sweaters, black tights, black boots. She wore clunky bracelets, loads of them on the outside of her sleeves. Her hair was long and henna red. She carried an Army surplus satchel pinned with old rhinestone brooches and Cure buttons. She was 19 years old. When I opened the front door and she smiled at me, I thought she was the most perfect person I’d ever seen.
“I’m Gwen,” she said. “I’m here to interview for the nanny job.”
That’s when I noticed the nose ring and I blubbered something incoherent, then apologized because I was both overwhelmed and mortified that someone this cool was going to come into my stupid house.
Gwen was not supposed to be the babysitter. Mom had meant to hire her classmate, a relentlessly chipper double major in theatre and education, whose performance in Pirates of Penzance had impressed both of my parents. After the show, Mom congratulated her on the performance, and asked if she might be interested in making a little extra money looking after her two daughters. The roommate agreed, but two weeks later, followed a boyfriend abroad. Sorry. Once in a lifetime opportunity. But my friend Gwen is available. You’ll love Gwen.
I did love Gwen. Mom, however, looked at Gwen the way she looked at me when I made her watch Desperately Seeking Susan and said, This is exactly what I want my grown-up life to be like — with some combination of confusion, distaste, and mounting horror. But Gwen gave good interview, and I begged pleasepleaseplease and my mom agreed, even though she wished that Gwen would ixnay the oseringnay. She could be a very pretty girl if she would just take that thing out of her nose and brush her hair and smile and maybe wear a little blush. You know, try not to be so weird.
I’d spent the first half of middle school trying not to be weird. I wore the right shade of frosted lip gloss. I bought the puffy high-top Reeboks. I wore them with the appropriate layers of slouch socks in peach, white, and light teal. I submitted to the same spiral perm the other girls had and spent mornings torturing my bangs with a curling iron. I smiled. I wore blush. And I still got heart-dotted notes on my lunch tray advising me to Kill yourself, fat dike [sic]. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. I thought I looked right and acted right. When I’d complain of the relentless abuse, Mom would tell me that I was taking it too seriously, Those girls are just as confused and lonely as you are. I’m friends with their mothers. I know! Had I thought about maybe smiling more? Was I brushing my hair? Maybe if I just tried to lose some weight? If you could lose 40 pounds, your grandmother will take you to New York and buy you a whole new wardrobe. You’ve always been a beautiful person inside — wouldn’t it be great if your inside matched your outside?
At 13, I figured my inside was something like the black hole scribbled in ballpoint on a spiral-bound notebook with such vigor that it turned glossy, then embellished with baroque doodles and four-letter words I wasn’t supposed to know. My inside would probably match Robert Smith from the Cure or, maybe the girl with the pale pink buzzcut, shabby tulle dress, and glitter-stained combat boots I’d spied out the window of a London cab with my horrified grandmother. Deep down, I did wish my inside matched my outside, but I doubted the reality would be great for either my mother or already nonexistent social life.
The week before Gwen came to interview, I watched a boy from my class — the Smirk — unzip his jacket and swagger across the cafeteria wearing a NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF T-shirt until the apoplectic vice principal howled across the room and dragged him by the collar into the hall. In the melee that followed, most of the girls that hated me seemed shocked. Why would anyone wear that gross shirt? Do you think he’s a for-real Nazi? Oh my god, it’s like he didn’t even read The Diary of Anne Frank last year. I didn’t turn around and say, That shirt explicitly instructs Nazis to fuck off, Amanda. Can’t you fucking read? because I was at least three years from being that person. Also, I’d gone so electric at whatever shit the Smirk had just pulled, I lost the rest of the day trying to make out whether I now had a crush on the boy himself or just coveted his gorgeous bravado (both).
You’ve always been a beautiful person inside — wouldn’t it be great if your inside matched your outside?
I remember thinking the Smirk got away with that sort of thing because he was comfortably ensconced in a crowd of polo-shirted, over-achieving, country club kids — the masculine analogues to the girls that wouldn’t sit with me at lunch. He was also a dude, which gave him some wiggle room. And ours was a high-performing school in a hippie town, where some degree of tolerance for weird was baked into the environment, so long as it was the right kind of weird and you were the right kind of person performing it.
I didn’t think I was the right kind of person. I was pretty sure I would never be.
The second day with Gwen, she found me sniffling on the front step trying to dislodge spit balls and rubber bands from my hair. She sent my little sister and her friend upstairs to play. She made me a cup of spicy tea and we sat at the kitchen table. She listened for a while, offering little in the way of advice save Only fascists enjoy middle school. She took off her rings and let me wear them, and she told me stories about her life. She had a boyfriend named Justin. He was an artist and maybe a bass player. They hung out at a club downtown with a morbid name. It was full of punks and artists, freaks, goths, this lame dance crowd that comes in and glitters the toilets. Sometimes skinheads, but, like, not the racist kind. Sometimes Gwen and her best friend danced there — performances with lots of scary masks and candles and fake blood. Afterward, they’d all hang out, sit up on the roofs of buildings, consider the then-empty downtown scene, graffiti old warehouses, pretend it was the end of the world.
Somewhere during her stories I lost track of my days. I forgot about the kids in the cafeteria and the girls in the corridor. Gwen’s tales were broadcasts from an alternate universe, but an alternate universe only three miles from my house, two blocks from my mother’s office. So close. Like seeing a door in the back of the wardrobe, I could almost be part of it.
By the end of the first week, I’d come home clamoring for details: Did the Nazis come back after you painted over their death threats with Barbie pink paint? Won’t you be lonely if Justin goes on tour? I can’t believe that abandoned building was full of old books and crinolines — those are two of my favorite things!
Gwen took me to her house for the first time about two weeks after she started working for us. She dropped my sister off at a friend’s house for a sleepover and endured my babble as I crawled into the front seat. I’d recently learned that the boys at school would temporarily suspend the spitballs and slurs if I’d ask them about their band T-shirts and tolerate their enthusiastic recitation of fan trivia. Did I know that John Bonham was the greatest drummer in history? Had I fully appreciated the genius of Eddie Van Halen? Was I aware that Bono was short for Bono Vox and that was Latin American [sic] for “good voice”? It definitely was not friendship, but it felt something like the distant suburbs of conversation. I told Gwen, “I’m learning a lot about music. Jason from homeroom said I should really get in to Pink Floyd. What do you think?”
At this, Gwen groaned and U-turned in the middle of 5:00 traffic. She drove me through a warren of streets up to a dilapidated bungalow in the same mustard-gold as her Buick. I followed her across the bowed planks of a cavernous front porch and into the house. It smelled like incense and cooking gas. Gwen dropped her bag on the floor beside a naked mannequin and started to turn on a network on string lights hung over the walls and tangled through a derelict chandelier. I gazed at shelves full of religious kitsch and records, broken vintage lamps with cigarette burns in their red velvet shades, a Pee-wee Herman doll riding astride a NO VACANCY sign. It looked like countless rooms in countless houses I would spend time in over the next 30 years of my life, at parties and house shows. But it was the first house I had ever been in that looked like that, and I might as well have been on the moon. I felt like I’d been invited into Versailles.
“Gwen,” I said. “Your house is so totally cool.”
She shrugged, said something about her roommates being filthy pigs, and directed me to a salvaged front seat of an old sedan propped against the wall. She turned on an old record cabinet and with her back to me said, “You should be able to talk to the boys about music. Not Pink Floyd, though.”
We started with the Cure, whom I’d heard, but not what she played. Then the B-52s. Then Siouxsie. Then Joy Division. She heated up leftover curry. I told her about the Smirk and the shirt. She explained about the Dead Kennedys — not really my thing, but Justin used to be way into them. She played “California Uber Alles.” She played Bauhaus. We went up to her bedroom, which was tented in black lace. I goggled at her collection of antique dresses. We listened to New Order, which I knew but didn’t know. She painted my toenails black. I tried on her sunglasses. She told me about hitchhiking to New Orleans and a guy there who said he was a vampire but was maybe just a con artist. I told her I secretly had a crush on the Smirk. She said she’d worked that out on her own. She drove me home at 9:30. My dad was home but hadn’t noticed we were late. Mom came home an hour later, exhausted from work, oblivious that my life had changed.
The trips to Gwen’s house became more of a regular thing. Sometimes she’d frame it as having left something important — schoolwork, her wallet — at home and we’d end up spending the afternoon lounging on ancient velvet pillows in the lace tent. My 7-year-old little sister was less taken with the situation than I was. She thought Gwen was weird, Gwen’s house extremely weird, and Gwen’s associated detritus borderline unsettling. She didn’t like the music or the bathtub full of black balloons. She didn’t understand why Gwen didn’t peel the potatoes before she mashed them. I was too much an adolescent shitbag to pick up on the fact that my sister was bored and uncomfortable, and that maybe John Waters was a smidge mature for a second grader.
I didn’t think I was the right kind of person. I was pretty sure I would never be.
When my sister wasn’t around — unlike me, she had a schedule packed with playdates and extracurriculars — my afternoons with Gwen felt like we were just hanging out as friends. Sometimes we’d go downtown and wander around thrift stores and junk shops on pre-gentrification Lexington Avenue. We’d spend hours trying on gowns from the 1910s and 1920s in the back of dusty shops. We’d strut around displays of chipped china cups in sequins and lamé shoes, Jackie O hats and 1950s prom dresses, decaying Edwardian jackets, moth-eaten flapper dresses, shedding old glass beads and bits of silk thread all over the dusty floors. She’d buy me inexpensive gifts — a lapel pin, a magazine, a few sticks of incense, a plastic sackful of costume jewelry for $1. Don’t tell your mom we’ve been down here. She wouldn’t like it. I hid the rhinestones, the beads, the plastic bangles in a shoe box. Treasures from my best life. Totems that I thought could guide me out of the misery that was middle school in Asheville in 1989.
Sometime around the Ides of March, I had an apex shitty day. Both parents hassled me about my weight. I got heckled all the way to homeroom. My teacher told me she’d reduce my role to a walk-on in the spring play, because students that make Cs on group projects didn’t get the good parts. Then I got another U R SO GROSS HOW ARE YOU EVEN STILL ALIVE? note on the cafeteria tray and spent lunch in the bathroom stall, wishing I could ooze out between the tiles and never come back.
I went home with a stomach ache that lingered over night until the next morning. I told my mother I was sick. She let me stay home. Do you want me to call Gwen so you’re not here by yourself? I did, and Gwen came after her classes. She made me soup with ginger. We watched Heathers, which I’d seen before and The Hunger, which I hadn’t. At some point, I broke down crying about everything. How shitty everything was. Gwen listened. That’s really all she did: listen. Then we listened to the Cure and made collages. By afternoon, I felt like a person again.
After that, I woke up with a lot of stomachaches. Mom would fuss over me and go to work. Gwen would come after class. She knew I was cutting school. She might have even discouraged me, but I was pretty sure I never wanted to go back again. We watched movies and MTV, but after a while, we’d leave and go back to her house. I’d go with her to run errands — to the college, to the health food store, to the alley behind the nightclub where she bickered with her boyfriend, to the bookstore, the vintage store, the record store, the fabric outlet where she helped me pick out yards of cheap lace so I might drape my own bedroom to better resemble hers.
The day we got busted Mom called the house and couldn’t find us. She came home around the time we pulled up in Gwen’s car, giggling, under piles of bulk lace. Mom told me she was very disappointed in me and sent me to my room. She fired Gwen. I didn’t get to tell her goodbye.
Over dinner, Mom referred to Gwen as a terrible babysitter. My sister agreed. I tried to argue otherwise, but I was 13 and didn’t have the right words. Mom didn’t think much of my lace tent idea. It wouldn’t match the floral wallpaper, the white eyelet coverlet and matching drapes. I didn’t match my bedroom either, but I couldn’t seem to make anyone understand that. I cut off a few lengths of lace and put them in the box with my other treasures. The rest I wrapped into a ball and slept with for a while, like a security blanket. I wrote letters to Gwen, long confessions, tearful apologies, because I always thought it was my fault she had to go away.
I never sent the letters. She wasn’t in the phone book. In all those times I’d been to her house, I’d never bothered to find out her address.
By the end of my weeks-long truancy, it was halfway to May. People still gave me a lot of shit in the hallways, but I’d been gone long enough that they’d diversified. A boy I knew had pulled target du jour in the middle school lottery for no obvious reason. Like me, he looked and dressed and acted just like the other boys that picked on him. Unlike me, he wasn’t even fat. He came from the right neighborhood, had the right hobbies. He did everything exactly as he was supposed to. It wasn’t enough.
One afternoon, he boarded the school bus home. The bullies — themselves rich, popular, high-achieving white boys from nice families — waited until the driver was on the freeway and therefore could not easily stop the bus. They pulled the boy out of his seat and took turns beating him as the rest of the bus just watched in mute horror. By the time the driver could exit and stop the fight, the boy had to be taken to the hospital for numerous and severe injuries to bones and organs I didn’t even know people had until we all heard the report. The bullies were suspended, but all were back in class before the month was out, still popular, still tracked into the classes with the same privileges at the same school. The boy they beat up never came back. His parents moved him to a private school. People were careful not to mention his name.
I hid the rhinestones, the beads, the plastic bangles in a shoe box. Treasures from my best life. Totems that I thought could guide me out of the misery that was middle school in Asheville in 1989.
I was horrified by it, no-faking sick to my stomach. It haunted me for years. The kids at school had been talking about the attack for weeks before it happened. The boys planned it. People knew. It happened anyway, and people watched it happen. Those boys that did it still showed up to cotillion class and danced with the prettiest girls in the school. They went to parties. They impressed parents. They stayed successful, some of them astonishingly so, to this day.
I’d spent long portions of the year wishing I were a boy, because the boys seemed immune from the Hester Prynne hallway experience. They were allowed to not wear blush and be sort of chubby and swagger into the lunchroom in their Dead Kennedys shirts. After the thing on the bus, it occurred to me that as bad as it had been for me, as bad as all of seventh grade had been, none of my ribs were broken, no one had kicked me until I coughed up blood.
Four years later, when I was 17 with long henna hair, rhinestone brooches pinned to my satchel, wrapped in black sweaters and tights, my day student friends at my new boarding school and I had a running Thursday morning breakfast club at an ersatz ’50s-style diner. We’d get there at 6:30 a.m., drink too much coffee, and talk about music, movies, vintage dress scores, plans to see shows and sneak off on the weekend to explore the back alleys of downtown.
We were settling up out front one day when Gwen came in to work. She was older, blonder, without the bracelets or the nose ring, dressed in a server uniform. I smiled at her and asked if she remembered me. She said she did, but she seemed vague about it. Who could blame her? I’d been this kid she was paid to look after, a kid that cost her a job. She’d obviously grown up and changed. I didn’t want to be disappointed that she looked so normal, like she’d brushed her hair and put on some blush. But I was.
I wanted to tell Gwen I’d spent the past four years trying to make my inside match my outside, and that it’s hard work, especially when your fear of disappointing people is at least equal to your desire to be real. I hadn’t worked all the kinks out (I still haven’t), but I was sure any progress I’d made started with Gwen.
But I was with my friends. I was trying to be cool. It was 7:30 in the morning, for Christ’s sake, and it was dawning on me that Gwen was eager for me to move on so she could get to work. I blinked away whatever threat of weepy reunion and thanked her for listening to me all those years ago. “Seventh grade sucked,” I said. “You were just about the best part.”
She smiled. She looked stoned. Maybe she was. I thought she was still trying to place me. After a moment though, she asked if the kids at school were still giving me a hard time. “They used to call you names, right?”
“I think maybe they still do,” I said, attempting a worldly affect. “But honestly it’s been a while since I’ve cared.”
I was halfway to school before I realized I wasn’t entirely full of shit.
When I was 19 and at my peak punk rock, I took a job nannying for a family in the suburbs of the C-grade Southern metropolis where I lived at the time. The kids were 9 and 13. The oldest was a girl who fought with her horrible, conservative mother — a mother who called her daughter horrible names. I took out my nose ring for the job, but I did plenty of Gwen-like things with those kids over the course of a year. I introduced them to ungodly music like the Cure, I took them to the art museum instead of making them sit silently upstairs and do homework. The 13-year-old threatened to hurt herself and run away from home. I told her to call me before doing either and that I would do anything possible to help her. I got fired from that job. I don’t regret anything I did with those kids, but I never nannied again. It’s hard to be Mary Poppins; it’s much, much harder to be Gwen.
* * *
Alison Fields is a writer in Carrboro, North Carolina.
Editor: Katie Kosma
Copyeditor: Jacob Z. Gross