High-school football is a way of life in America. For many small towns, it’s the center of their existence. The starting players have signs with their names in their front yards. The cheerleaders wear their uniforms to school. There are pep rallies and booster squads and cross-town rivalries. Everyone is beautiful.
Football wasn’t offered at most of the private high schools in San Francisco, and even though my Connecticut prep school had a team, the games were in the afternoons and, as far as I can remember, no one actually watched. I mean, why would you watch football when you could sneak off campus and smoke cigarettes?
I also sneaked off campus one time to smoke something, ahem, a little stronger than cigarettes and, unfortunately, my best friends took that occasion to turn me into the Dean. Bye bye, East Coast prep school. Hello crappy Bay Area private day school that takes a handful of boarding students.
When my mother dropped me off at the new boarding school my sophomore year, we weren’t on very good terms. I’d spent the entire summer being grounded indefinitely and she saw no reason for that to change just because I was leaving the house.
When asked to sign a piece of paper giving me permission to leave school grounds, she refused, confining me to the small campus that completely emptied out on the weekends.
I went along with her imprisonment for a few days, until I realized that the campus? It didn’t even have a place to buy shampoo. Not that I had money to buy shampoo.
Take this exact conversation the day my mother dropped me off:
“Mom, I don’t have any money and I only have four tampons left.”
“And I’m about to get my period…”
“Well, I guess you’ll have to learn how to conserve.”
After a few illicit trips to places like Walgreens and McDonald’s, I realized that even though there were only 15 other girls in my dorm (the only girls’ dorm on campus), no one seemed to notice when I sneaked away for a few hours. And if they did, I could shrug it off with, “I was taking a walk.”
So when a girl in my dorm, a junior with big boobs, tight clothes and heavy perfume, asked if I wanted to go to the local high-school football game with her and two boys she’d met, I said yes.
The night is a blur. We climbed out of her dorm room window and ran across the abandoned campus to a road where the boys waited in a pick-up truck. Did we all squeeze in front? Did I ride in the back? That memory has been pushed to the back of my mind, probably lost forever because the next thing I remember is being at the game.
I am standing in the bleachers. It’s October. There’s a chill in the air. The stadium is packed and everyone stands shoulder-to-shoulder. The sun has long set, but the lights are so powerful that it looks like the type of daylight I often experience in dreams. Surreal. Metallic. Unforgiving.
The game has already started, but I can’t follow what’s happening on the field. I am self-conscious. Aware that I don’t belong to either of these schools. That I’m an imposter. It feels like everyone’s staring at me.
In reality, they’re looking at my new friend. She’s pretty in a way that threatens other girls. Someone says something. She retorts. We walk away. I stare at the orange gravel track that outlines the field. I don’t know where the boys are. Maybe they’re still with us? They’re not in this memory.
Then we’re parked in a dark roundabout. Under a gigantic Oak tree. I’m in the back of the pick-up truck kissing one of the boys. I don’t like him, but understand this is what I’m supposed to do. Part of the deal.
I don’t remember if the flatbed was hard against my back. Or what I was wearing. Or what he smelled like. It’s almost like I’m watching the memory in a movie. And when they cut to my point of view, all I see is the branches of that tree against the cold, dark night.
A few days later, my mother surprises me by showing up at my dorm at six in the morning. “I know you hate it here,” she says. “So we’re going to look at another school. A school in Utah.”
When I board the plane that morning, I don’t know I won’t be coming home that day. Or that the school is actually a reform school. I don’t know there will be alarms on the doors, or that they will take away my shoes. I don’t know I won’t be allowed to make phone calls or write letters. That no one will know where I was.
I don’t know that my life as I know it will forever change. Or that the last “normal” thing I’ll have done as a 15-year-old is go to a high-school football game and kiss a boy in the back of a truck.