Abbi and Mandy, June, 1994
At the end of my freshman year I made the curious decision to try out for the cheerleading squad. Now, we can agree that the reputation of a cheerleader is commonly one of less distinguished merit, less respect, less illustrious charm and profound admiration. And while these labels are all fitting, they are more accurate in a throwback sense. Cheerleading, frankly, has less to do with ra-ra, and more to do with acrobatics, physical strength and general rhythm and dance. I’m not an apologist. Just turn on ESPN2 at one a.m. and you’ll see what I mean.
On the day of tryouts, we filed into the gym and were told that this was it: our big chance. We had two minutes to prove that we deserved the honor of cheering on the Mounds View Mustangs! We were also told that one of the judges had neglected to bring her calculator. Did any of us have one on hand? What luck! I proffered my TI-Eighty??? from my backpack and resumed stretching. The tryout was brief and uneventful. We did no-handed cartwheels and back-flips and a complicated handclapping cheer called Get the Beat. A week or two later, the results were posted and then, after a summer of practices and carwash fundraisers, the real fun began.
I got in trouble almost immediately. My “sense of humor” doesn’t always translate. And it may well be that it does translate, but it’s just not funny. Either way, I was captain. That’s right, I was crowned captain solely based on my performance at tryouts. It would probably tarnish your image of this dubious honor if I mentioned that it was captain of JV soccer – so I’ll leave that detail out. At any rate, I made up this cheer called: Eat Me. I don’t know, it seemed funny to me. It involved the familiar hand gesture and, well, bottom line is: I was reprimanded. I was also reprimanded for insisting we do lifts and tosses. It gets pretty GD boring on the sidelines and because we weren’t explicitly told NOT to, I encouraged the girls to be brave and allow themselves to be hoisted five feet up in the air and then dropped into the baskets we made with our interlaced arms. We hit about 75% of the time. The JV soccer coach even commented that he’d never seen such feats in all his days as a head coach. (“All his days” is apt as he looked to be about nineteen and a half.)
Well, we were told that lifts and tosses were not allowed. So fine. Whatever. We could still have handstand contests and I could spot the other girls on handsprings and we could take breaks, as needed, so all was safe; all was sound. All was good, as they say, that is until the epic offense came to pass. Homecoming. 1994. The cheerleaders were in charge of decorating the gymnasium where Pepfest would take place. This was a school-wide song and dance that would occur the afternoon before the big game. We, the sophomore cheerleaders, were given a large white sheet upon which we were to write our class name and decorate, accordingly. This sign would hang above the bleacher section where the sophomores sat. The junior and senior cheerleaders did the same for their class sections – freshmen didn’t get a sign – and lalala, whatever, pretty straight-forward, right? In the past, the sign had always been fairly literal, as in, big bubbly letters that spelled, SOPHOMORES. Well, we weren’t going to do that this year. Instead, we drew a picture. We had one of the cheerleaders position herself on the sheet to depict the shape of a man. Specifically, the shape of a man dancing. We traced her with dark blue ink and added chains and jewelry, tattoos and some kind of braided hemp-belt. And around this ghastly image we wrote the lyrics to Warren G’s Regulator. I say “we” did these things, but perhaps “I” is more correct. When it was finished, I recall gazing upon it with wonder not unlike a High Renaissance artist gazing upon a portrait full of play in light and shadow. It was fun, engaging – different. I was proud. In hindsight, I should have noticed – or cared about – the faces the other cheerleaders made as they passed our sign. I should have listened to the words “interesting” and “risky” and “avant-garde.” (I made up that last one.)
We stayed late to finish hanging the other accoutrement and spread tinsel and some other bullshit. At the very end, we hung the sign above the bleachers where our class of 500 people would sit. Then we stood in the circle drive and waited for our parents to pick us up and bring us home. I retired that evening with a blind ignorance to what was in store. I’m sure I had dinner and lied about having no homework and then slipped to my room where I worked on my living will. I had no intention of doing myself in, I just wanted to make sure that if something happened, my shit would go to the right places. I probably updated this and that and then held my crucifix up to the school pictures of my friends that were tacked to the wall and whispered blessings to them. (I was going through my diehard Christian phase.)
The next morning I got in the minivan and my parents swung north, to pick up my friend, Mandy, another cheerleader. She was not the kind of person you’d have thought would try out for cheerleading. She wore t-shirts with Robert Smith on them and smoked cigarettes and played the piano and had black curly hair and bright blue eyes and kind of didn’t give a fuck about any of it. I think she might have been hoping that she’d become a cheerleader and suddenly she’d get excited about something or get involved or simply care. So Mandy and I walked into the gym that morning and lamented the fact that we had to practice at 6 a.m. As I said, it was Homecoming, and as such, we spent the week leading up to the event practicing an elaborate routine that would be performed during Pepfest and making sure no detail was left to chance. As we strode in I felt a pallor fall over the room. I saw a girl with dyed blonde hair and the fakest bake of all time standing at the helm. Her arms were crossed and her orange-lipsticked mouth was formed into something like a pinched bunghole. I felt all eyes upon me.
The sheet unfurled and a gasp echoed around the gymnasium as the dancing fellow was exposed, along with the words, “G-Funk Step to This – I Dare Ya.”
“Who is responsible for this?” the blond haired girl screamed.
The crowd of ponytails bobbed in protest: not me! not me!
“I did it,” I said. “Why?”
I saw her eyelids roll back as she bared her fangs: “this is disgusting!!!!!!!!!!”
“Why?” I repeated, thoroughly confounded.
“Because,” he crony piped in, “it’s offensive!”
What the hell was this? I was shocked. I stood there, looking at the poster for clues.
“Mount up?” the leader, Emily, said.
“G-Fuck Era?” her assistant, Megan, followed up.
“Uh, yeah,” I said. “Warren G? Nate Dogg?” (RIP)
“This is offensive to black people!” Megan screamed.
“My dad lives near black people,” she continued.
“I know black people,” Emily interjected.
I was speechless.
“Um,” Mandy began, looking at Emily and Megan, “I think you sound offensive right now.”
“WHAT?” Emily intoned. “Who the hell are you?”
“Mandy,” Mandy said with her trademark guileless brilliance.
“I am NOT offensive AT ALL,” Emily insisted.
“But YOU! (meaning me) – you are going to make a new sign and you are going to apologize to everyone. I don’t know who the hell you think you are – but you’re no one!”
“I don’t think I’m anyone,” I said.
“Oh. I’m sorry everyone. I did not mean to offend with my stupid poster. I just like the song. Sorry.”
Well, Pepfest came and went. Ironically, or not, I did the final trick of our cheerleading performance. A move that involved being tossed some 15 feet into the air and spreading my legs wider than miles. Bam. End scene. Our Sophomore sign was blue and green and boring. Fine. Who cares? I didn’t. Life went on. All that bullshit was behind me and I didn’t give it a second thought. That conflict with Emily? A misunderstanding. A mis-fucking-communication, I said to myself. Those girls who yelled at me just misunderstood. And if anything, in their quest to take me and my silly sign down, they exposed their own bigotry or simply their ignorance. So cheerleading wasn’t for me? Big deal. One of many things. At this point I was fourteen going on fifteen. I’d made a lot of mistakes, taken a lot of wrong turns, said/done/felt the wrong thing more than I could count. I didn’t quite know what the problem was – but I knew there was one. And so, I took the position of basically putting my head down and barreling through. I’d coast beneath the radar. When I was seventeen, I’d graduate and then I could find a place – the great, good place, as Pete Hamill calls it. I’d find it and my chemistry would find its home and whatever I was trying to do – whatever that was – would get done.
But before all that nonsense, I had one more battle to do. One more round to go with these ladies, specifically. Of course, I’d have many more indignities and challenges to bear before graduation, many of them self-inflicted, and the great good place would seem forever out of reach, but at that time, it was all I had.
So. The day of the final duel arrived. It was a day. Like any day. A lunch. Like any lunch. Me, at a table, along with my girl, Mandy. Around us tables bustled with fully occupied seating and chatter – the signs of life from which I felt so distant, though I’d grown used to it. WaaWahWaa – either way – this pastoral nightmare was soon to be encroached upon by that blonde, tanning bed loving monster named Emily.
“Who the fuck do you think YOU ARE?!” she shouted in my face.
Mandy and I snapped to. Emily had a friend with her – she always had someone backing her up – this girl appeared to be a fellow tanning bed aficionado. She wore a similar color lipstick and her name was Becky. Looking at them side by side was like looking at the ghosts of Christmas past. You could already see them lounging by a pool in Florida, talking about some trivial bullshit and remarking how much better they were than everyone else. And maybe they were. What do I know?! I thought quoting Warren G and Nate Dogg was a fitting idea for a school spirit-trumpeting event.
“What are you talking about?” I said, with equal parts supreme fear and clueless despair.
“You tore down our hockey sign!” she screamed.
At this point all lunchroom conversation had ground to a halt and attention had been fully diverted in our direction.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” I said.
“Yes, you do!” she howled. “Someone tore down our hockey sign on the second floor – and it was you!”
“No,” I said in the same tone of dumb terror. “No, it wasn’t.”
“You’re a fucking liar!” she wailed.
“Why are you screaming?” Mandy asked in her trademark rational flat affect.
“Look,” Emily said to me, ignoring Mandy, “you are in deep trouble.”
“But I didn’t touch your sign,” I pleaded. I didn’t want to seem weak – and didn’t deserve this humiliation – but I wanted her to stop. You would, too. She was a scary bitch.
Suddenly Mandy stood up. “Let’s go,” she said.
Somehow, I’m not sure how, we left.
The room remained silent as we trundled out. Silent but for the insults hurled at our backs from the blonde beast.
I don’t remember what happened next. I must have wandered through the day in the stupor of someone who’s just been bitched out in front of a lunchroom of their peers. I was familiar with demoralization and humiliation and general shame regarding my own existence – but this was too much. This was a new kind of awkward horror. A poet once asked, “What fresh hell is this?” Exactly.
I probably sat numbly through biology – mitosis and meiosis and blue eyes and brown eyes and all the rest of it, just washing over me like so much shit I’d never retain. I most likely went to Civics and failed my way through a current events quiz. By the time Spanish 2 arrived, I was likely in full on blackout. I’m sure I took the bathroom pass shortly after class began and excused myself down corridor after corridor, a flight of stairs, then another, until I reached the girls’ bathroom.
The high school had several ladies’ rooms, of course, but the one I preferred was far away and desolate – desolate, but cheery. It was like the bathroom time forgot, like something untouched since 1952. Anyway, it’s where I spent a lot of my time during high school. Just sitting, really. Killing time. Just looking out the window or locked in a stall, writing in a notebook, doodling, whatever. Just waiting for…for… something. Waiting for the final bell to ring, I guess, so I could get the fuck out of there and go be weird and absurd in the privacy of my own home. At least until Emilie got back from junior high school. Because as soon as she roared through the door, it was on. I mean, it was ON. The battle for the remote – the phone – the microwave – what have you. It. Was. On. We are talking epic encounters. If you know me, then you may have noticed I have a chipped front tooth. Yes. That’s correct. Emilie Motherfucking Dion.
Well, I feel myself getting distracted and bored as hell with this whole trip down memory lane, which means you probably dozed off long ago. One way or another, folks, we both know this story’s got to come to an end, and now’s a good a time as any – so here we go. Last Act.
When the final bell rang I slung my backpack over my shoulder and flailed down the hall to my locker to retrieve my books – always important to keep up appearances – and as I turned to go I felt two hands clasp my shoulders. I jerked awake from my stupor. It was Mandy.
“Oh my GOD,” she said.
“Basically,” I replied.
“No,” she said. “Oh my GOD, you have to hear what happened after we left the lunchroom today.”
So she told me.
After we crawled out of the lunch room, a hush remained, an eerie silence that was punctuated abruptly by the sound of not one, but two chairs being pushed back from the table, then the raised stature of these two individuals – and not just any individuals, but dudes. Men, practically. Seniors. Nathan and Ryan. The Homecoming King, in fact, and the Hockey Captain.
They got up and marched over to the wall where a 20x3 ft sign was hanging. The sign said something like: HOCKEY GAME TONIGHT! GO GUYS! And was decorated with green and black and gold glitter paint. Ryan and Nathan each grabbed a handful of paper and ripped that shit down from the wall. The girls who had just bitched me out were still standing, conferring apparently on how they were going to make my life miserable, and as this happened they were, at first, too stunned to speak.
Emily regained her composure first. “Put that back up,” she said. She said it in the casual tone of someone who is trying to convince us that she’s in on the joke. “Seriously, real funny,” she said. “C’mon, guys,” she said, tossing her hair and pouting her mouth.
Nathan looked at her and said, “that was really mean–what you did to her. You were really mean to her.”
Then Ryan said in pitch perfect deadpan: “you’re a bitch.”
Emily looked around the room, and laughed. She laughed like: they’re only kidding, you guys – everyone likes me – I’m the best! But no one laughed back. So she flipped her hair and marched out of the lunch room. Then Nathan and Ryan sat back down and people started to talk, and started to eat, and although I missed the whole thing, I can picture the exact sway of Emily’s bright blonde bob swinging as she marched away, her orange lipstick radiant against her bronzed skin.
And as for the calculator I lent to the cheerleading judge… I never got that fucking thing back. And I am positive it led to my enrollment in Trig B.
The Great Good Place, August, 1999