I now watch the teenagers through the lens of adulthood. Today at the train station there’s five or six of them with skateboards and bikes, their heads bouncing to hip hop music that pulses from their iPods. When I was their age, we were sutured to our walkmans and listened to Nirvana; we wore flannel and dreamed of moving to Seattle. When did I start using the expression “when I was their age”?
These are the kids who worry guidance counselors and teachers; solemn and cynical with no direction. The girls wearing low-slung jeans, heavy eyeliner and piercings sit on a bench watching the boys perform risky stunts on their skateboards. They are supposed to be the bad-ass girls, the anti-cheerleaders, but they behave exactly as their sugar and spice counterparts do, passively applauding boys’ daredevil maneuvers that result in stitches and broken bones.
My observations are melancholy, but they seem happy for now. They’re happy to be away from classmates who don’t like them and from teachers and parents who insist they aren’t living up to their potential. These aren’t delinquents; just ordinary, bored kids trying to create excitement where there is none.
They are not yet afraid of what they will become. They don’t yet see themselves in the struggling families shopping at Wal-Mart or eating at Denny’s, stuck in futureless jobs and married to people they settled for simply to stop being lonely. No, these kids are completely absorbed in the present. All but one.
She is ever so slightly different. Her clothes are the same, adhering to the rigid tribal codes of adolescent fashion, but her face is kinder, eyes dreamy. She is happy to be included but is clearly on the fringes of the pack. When the train whistles as it rolls toward the platform, she is the only who looks up.
I know what she’s thinking.
Will I ever get out?
I hope she’s smart enough to know that she can’t stuff her treasured possessions in a backpack and take off one day after another fight with the parents or stepparents who don’t understand her. She can’t flee small town misery at sixteen with a wad of cash she saved from babysitting. The ones who try to don’t survive; they sink anonymously into sordid gutters until they become tragic headlines.
Getting out takes planning and preparation. She has to study the map others have left behind; study in general. If she stops hanging out here and gets good grades, she can go to college in the city, it will buy her time. If she can find a job, endure the criticism and cruel competition, she can get a place to live there, even if it is up six flights of stairs and smells like a litter box.
Those were my plans.
She’s watching me. Do I cut a glamorous figure with my highlighted hair, my new winter coat and high heels? Is it me she wants to be?
You shouldn’t envy me, I want to tell her. I’m a fake, a phony, a poseur. I don’t have an exciting career or work on a famous street; I’m not even traveling to meet a lover who does. I’m a washed up local who takes the train on her day off to walk around a gallery, buy something cheap but unique, and hope that someone spectacular will smile at me.
I’m just like you, trying to create excitement where there is none.