I was 16 years old. Back then, I had a tan that I will probably never achieve again in life. I was a golden girl, carefree for the most part, yet teetering on the edge of precocious girlhood and adolescent curiosity. I was "growing up gorgeous" as my father had put it on my birthday the previous summer. Even considering the angles where curves had never come, the scarred knees of a reformed tomboy and questionable fashion choices, I was very easy on the eyes. The worst thing that had happened in that past year was that I realized this. My pending womanhood was already making promises and vanity struck me with force. I never recovered from this, by the way.
So, while spending endless afternoons preening over my reflection, I somehow concluded that my good looks entitled me to immediate male worship. Yes, I was supposed to be adored. Of course, I was selective with the adoration that came my way. Most of it was not welcomed and I had no problem developing a condescending attitude that made this clear.
Inevitably, as goes the story of every girl's teen years, there was a boy. Yes, there was a boy and I liked him in and out, and over and under with every ounce of the chemical formula generated by the brain that creates feelings of intense infatuation. I liked this boy so much and even more so when he liked me back. For a brief moment in 1996, I was immovably happy. I was convinced that this was the world's most profound version of real love. I was quite sure. I felt like the girl in the movie who finally gets the guy or the last chapter of a good book where they start a family and have wonderful children.
Obviously, someone needed a reality check. My brain was rotting away blissfully under the assumption that good looks and mediocre banter could pave the way to eternal happiness. The truth was that I didn't know my ass from my elbow when it came to relationships. I was so innocently young, fresh and green with a capital V. Like Liesl in The Sound of Music, I was basically floating around a garden waiting for my first kiss along with a marriage proposal.
As fate would have it, May 11th, 1996 rolled around. There was a party and everyone was going. I was in position, sporting the very worst in 90's fashion like everyone else. My best friend at the time went with me. The plan was simple, we would be fashionably late and look as cool as possible until this guy that I liked showed up. Little did I know that there was another variation of the plan. My best friend failed to mention the part where she was leaving me at the party to go for a drive. All would have been well in love and high school if she hadn't been going for a drive with the guy that I was so devoted to.
So, I became the designated wall-flower, grimacing in the corner, wondering what to do next. There I was, all grown up gorgeous at 16 experiencing my rudest awakening ever. Oh, but men were cruel. Best friends could be such bitches. Fast girls seemed to get the guys with the fast cars and even the prettiest girls finished last sometimes.
This was the year that Lauryn Hill crept into our headphones with a soulful remake of Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" on the Fugees' The Score Album. I listened to it over and over. My little heart wasn't accustomed to the tremors of such blatant disregard. I licked my wounds in solitude as I waited for graduation and my seventeenth birthday. One of my only friends after that was an older woman who owned a clothing store near my house. I'm guessing she was about 30 at the time. To me, she knew the ways of the world and she had a good nature about her. As I look back now, I think she was deeply rooted to her own past adolescence and I reminded her of what she went through from her first love to her on and off situation at the time. A week later on May 18th, she took me with her on one of her investigative missions. She was a jealous woman and she needed to do a bit of groundwork on the special case of her wayward boyfriend/baby's father. It was then, on a long drive that I told her about my treacherous ex-best friend and the joyride that broke my heart. She said to me, "Girl, let that be two tears in a bucket and f**k it. You've got your whole life ahead of you."
That was the first time I'd heard that expression and I literally tried to put it into action. I cried my little heart out in her car, drank a horribly misproportioned Anejo and Coke and left it all in the proverbial bucket. All I remember after that was the constant replaying of "Killing me softly with his song. Killing me softly with his song, telling my whole life with his words, killing me softly…" in the background. What was really killing me the following day was a terrible hangover.
At school the following week when the inquiring minds of my peers came with questions, I simply said, "F**k it." I was only 16 and not raised that way, but I said it and said it more than once because I, most importantly needed to believe it.
I found my way back to the Waiting To Exhale soundtrack that came out the previous year. I was taking advice from Whitney Houston and Mary J. Blige about moving on like I knew the foggiest thing about failed relationships. It didn't matter to me then that I was embroiled in what they were calling puppy love. It still hurt. It hurt like the disappointment of not getting a track scholarship. It hurt like a best friend gone rogue. It hurt like any other time I felt the particularly deeply penetrating sting of rejection.
Then, there came the summer and I felt like Molly Ringwald in "Pretty in Pink". My best friends were now an older woman with relationship problems and my weird male neighbor who had a crush on me. I didn't have to make a prom dress and show up to steal the show and get the guy. Instead, I wrote a letter to the guy who broke my heart. I thanked him for teaching me to see people for who they are and let him know that what had happened had only made me wiser. I'm sure this letter was full of adolescent quips and penned in annoying colorful ink, but it did get the point across. I'd always been a smart girl who had a way with words. I wrote the letter to make a statement the only way I knew how. I didn't even realize that I was just being myself. Underneath that natural undisturbed beauty of 16-year-old naivety, there was so much more. I was a writer already. It sounds nerdy, but words were my liberation and the very, very best of me.
By the time the prom rolled around on June 22, 1996, I had the guy, the dress and best first date ever. It turned out that sometimes men can change (if only for a while), best friends come in all shapes and sizes, fast girls sit at the no-date table and the prettiest girls win when they play it smart.
Fast-forward to my twenties and buying my second car. I wanted a coupe. I wanted the newer version of the same car that my best friend ditched me to go for a ride in. Since that night, I had always wanted to be the one in the car. But, I wanted to be the driver. Since then, I've always wanted to maintain control over myself even when I'm on the losing end.
I bought that coupe and….zoom.
I still keep the proverbial bucket near and these days, I stay close to the memory of a 16-year-old me. It is here that I find perspective. Lessons have been with me for most of my life and in moments when I'm shell shocked by hurt and disappointment, I've had to go back to 1996. The story was simple then, but the moral remains the same always. I will always be smarter than I am pretty and this is where I win. I will always be able to express myself clearly. I will always tell the very best stories that attach a smile to a memory and I am more than thankful for that. The bittersweet reconciliation of my storytelling is a gift that I celebrate. It makes me feel that it sets me apart from others.
At 16, I was meant to learn that some tears belong in the bucket. The bucket is the place where we send the small things so that our hearts always have room for the things that will really matter. The bucket is meant for the situations we cannot control and we choose not to let them control us either.
Thank you, "C" for handing me my bucket. There will always be your bit of advice, that song and this memory to realign me whenever I fall off. I don't drink Anejo these days, but I do know my way around a good distilled vodka. I don't worry so much about boys anymore either. They will be who they are until their very own rude awakenings break them apart to build something better.
And yes, I still do preen in the mirror at my 16-year-old face under 21 years of crisis, pain, disdain, good fortune, blessings, and everything in between. I still listen to the Fugees and I'm thankful for that amazing album during my coming of age.
Now that I recall, that was an awesome album.
In my best Wyclef voice, "Pick up your microphones. Pick up your microphones…."
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