#scintilla13: swampwater


I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 1 prompts, “Tell a story about a time you got drunk before you were legally able to do so.“ We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

I feel like babysitting by teens is not the institution that it used to be. The eighties were a glory decade for the teen babysitter. I used to go with my friend Michelle a lot if she got a babysitting job that went late into the night. She was a pro at it and in high demand by parents, because everyone knew she had pulled a lot of childcare duty with her siblings, who were triplets. Kids liked having her as a babysitter because she let them eat whatever they wanted and stay up late. This is really all I know about relating to children.

We went a few times to a particular house that was in a kind of isolated area. It was surrounded by trees and darkness and not very near the main road, the kind of place where it was completely understandable that Michelle would want company late at night. There were two boys in Michelle’s care that night, two blond energetic dynamos who were thrilled to be on their own with the babysitter. Here is what little boys like to do when their parents aren’t home.

  1. run around and bash themselves into hard objects (bedframes, hallway corners, toys, each other)
  2. eat everything in the house, even things their parents have told you RIGHT IN FRONT OF THEM that they aren’t allowed to have
  3. threaten you with the trouble you’re going to be in if you don’t do what they say
  4. ask for money
  5. lie(see 2, 3)
  6. show you everything they own, one thing at a time, so that you can approve of it (my father-in-law still does this so it is possibly something they never outgrow)
  7. intend to stay up very late but fall asleep cutely with tousled hair around 9 or 10 pm

By the time these two were tucked into their beds (more like fallen asleep on top of their covers with their feet on their pillows after crashing from junk food), Michelle and I were on our own. Target one, and there is only ever one target: the parents’ liquor cabinet.

Yes. I know. I even asked Michelle if I should tell you about this, because OMG THE CHILDREN WHAT IF THERE WAS AN EMERGENCY. This is maybe why babysitting by teens is not the institution that it used to be. I just recently rewatched the episode of “Freaks & Geeks” when Lindsay got baked before babysitting and she had to take Upright Millie of the Mathlete Brigade to handle childcare duties. Maybe I was supposed to be the sober one. And also, let me tell you that an eighties’ parents’ liquor cabinet was a thing of beauty. You would not find the prim array of typographically interesting artisanal gins and a token high-end vodka on a glass cart. There was no fucking craftbrew in the fridge. This was a time when the Fuzzy Navel held sway and, to my naïve eyes, an array of Blue Curaçao and brightly labeled artificially colored schnapps was the onramp to Legitimate Adult Drinking. To hell with the wine served at my grandmother’s house (and an occasional sneaky sip of Bailey’s). To hell with the Seagram’s 7 my mother favored. This liquor cabinet had enough bottles to be the booze equivalent of the Wonka Chocolate Factory.

My memory of the night is understandably blurred, but here’s what I remember: We poured a glug from each of a few bottles into a glass, topping it off with some variety of pop. I recalled hearing someone else at school mentioning that parents marked liquor labels with lines showing how much had been used, but these labels were pristine—we had carte blanche. I was thrilled that such a thing as root beer schnapps even existed. You had root beer. You had alcohol. Someone had taken them and smashed them together in a Reese’s cup-style Better Together that I promptly destroyed by mixing it with who knows what. We poured second glasses and laughed hysterically while we tried to watch the antics on the somewhat-still-scrambled Spice channel courtesy of the parents’ satellite dish. Surely penises did not really look like that, nothing like the penises I saw when I changed diapers. It was basically a kielbasa with a mushroom on the end. Nor could sex be such a droning, repetitive, embarrassing-looking enterprise. Why would people do everything they could to have more sex when it looked about as interesting as a Joanie Greggains workout? So much flapping and slapping and arbitrary position changes and lip gloss and bad synthesizer music.

(That is probably, hopefully, maybe the last time you will see the word “penises” in this blog. I mean, some things do not need to be discussed in the plural.)

I don’t know how we managed not to wake up the little boys with our noise and laughter. Surely we did not want to drunkenly explain to them what we were watching or the kids would actually get us in trouble. In the end, we ate enough cheese curls to absorb our Fancy Adult Mixed Drinks and did not throw up. We cleaned up everything and when the parents came home, we truly believed that we did not reveal our altered states in the least. The father drove us home and we sat in the backseat, tired and giggling and probably reeking of alcohol. How we did not get in trouble is a mystery to this day. The last thing I remember is the car pulling into Michelle’s driveway, me opening the door, and collapsing into her driveway, and hearing my laughter echo in the night.

You guys, hopefully Michelle will come by later on today and clear up the stuff I haven’t remembered properly… specifically the degree of scrambling on the Spice channel. This is important fact verification. In the meantime, I have mentioned her a couple of other times on the blog and you can read those here.

well, well, well, my Michelle

This woman knows me better than just about anyone except Myron.

sorry about the picture-of-the-picture—scanning isn’t working today. I think this was 1992.She lives too far away from me, in the house where her grandparents lived when we were kids. I do not see her nearly enough, but the minute we are in touch with each other, miles and time melt away. She knows what I am made of, and when you are with someone who knows your building blocks, you breathe in a deep, effortless way that you cannot at any other time. I have never had to say to her Please be happy for me. It’s her default. Even when I dated someone she still calls Sonic the Hedgehog, she was happy for me.

She has often apologized to others for what I’m made of; she knows it isn’t actually as nice as it should be. “You don’t have to apologize for me,” I would say. She did it just the same. It’s because of the way she loves, which is one of those all-or-nothing loves. I never seem to issue those of my own volition; people have to drag them out of me with heavy machinery. Michelle did it with the phone.

In my childhood bedroom (another Scintilla post I have not written; blame a migraine and everyone else’s great posts which I can’t stop reading), my mother installed a powder-blue slimline phone. She mounted it on the wall and it had a shortish cord, so I had to stand up near my bedroom door to talk. This is not an ideal situation for a thirteen-year-old girl. But my mother did not think like a thirteen-year-old girl, and I was expected to be grateful for any bit of telephone I had. 

Michelle called. Did I have the homework? Did I see what X was wearing? Did I have a crush on anyone? What was I going to wear tomorrow? Did I like Bon Jovi?

Girl loved her Bon Jovi. 

I answered her questions, said Igottagobyeseeyoutomorrow, and hung up.

Years later, she laughed. “I tried! I couldn’t keep you on the phone!” I didn’t know how to have a conversation. But I put in the time in person. We did things with Girl Scouts, with choir, on our own. We laughed once for two class periods straight, uncontrollably, in tears and gasping for breath. Somehow none of our teachers sent us out of their classrooms. We double-dated; I’m still not sure which one of us was actually stuck with the guy who looked like Cousin Itt. We grieved and got drunk and stayed up too late bothering her Nana until three in the morning, sometimes all at the same time. We watched Dirty Dancing (a hundred times) and The First Nudie Musical (once was enough). We made peanut-butter rice krispie treats and pastitsio and we wore matching French maid costumes, and fought with each other while wearing them. We used our criminal minds to get away with murder all through school. We walked around the high-school track late at night singing The Mamas and the Papas and watched meteor showers from her front yard. We edited a yearbook that brought tears of pride to our adviser’s eyes.

Fourth grade, with much smaller hair. Evidently it was a Blouse Year.She shared her family with utter selflessness. During the summers I spent weeks at a time at her house, coming home for clean clothes and to prove to my mother that I was still alive. I did chores and ate meals at her table and babysat with her. We played B94 and sprayed Sun-In in our hair and sprawled on beach blankets in the sun. I basked in the love of her parents and the energy of her siblings. But it was always Michelle who gave the most, who loved hardest, who side-eyed me when I handed out bullshit, who made me feel like I was just fine as myself (even if she had to apologize to others in the process). When my brother died, it was Michelle who picked me up at the airport when I flew home, who held me and demanded nothing. When my mother was dying, she did the same. And when I got married, she drove all day to come here and stand at my side, bearing my mom’s charm bracelet. She’s family, in a way that no one else I’m actually related to can be.

At the end of Stand by Me, the adult Gordie writes: “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?” And no, I never did. I have had fun with other people, and shared secrets, and loved with what my heart had to give, but the love you give when you’re a child is different than any other love, wider and stronger and less judgmental. It depends on nothing and generates its own power like a star. You can apologize for it and let it collect dust and even put it away, but its power can do anything. Thirty years is nothing to a star.

(And she will know why I chose Guns & Roses for this video.)


The Scintilla Project, Day 8: Who was your childhood best friend? Describe them—what brought you together, what made you love them. Are you still friends today?

everything's alright, yes

When I was in high school, I worked on the yearbook. Junior year, my best friend Michelle and I were editors of the vo-tech section, which meant that we took a few day trips with our cooler-than-cool photographer George and took pictures of a world we never got to see—students our own age fixing cars, cobbling circuit boards into radios, and cutting hair. For me it was a little humbling. At the time I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but here were people my own age already planning to make money after graduation. I’d be putting that off for what I thought would be four years (and what turned out to be six). 

you can’t see it, but the table has got about five hundred paper clips in chains.Senior year Michelle and I were the editors of the whole book. Photos taken of us during that time show people bouncing off each other in the aisles between desks of Mr. Pergola’s classroom, someone (ahem, surely not me) using a photo cropper as a gun, more than a few mad, crazy smiles, and chains of paper clips long enough to stretch across a hallway and trip unsuspecting freshmen. It was 1991; the hair was big, senioritis had set in, and it was our book. All the deadlines came down to us. It was our advisor’s first year handling the yearbook, and so we knew more about the process than he did. I look at that book now and I can see the mistakes that would have been printer’s errors when I worked in book production as an adult. But when I look at it with my seventeen-year-old eyes, which I carry around with me in case of emergency jadedness, I feel nothing but pride. That group of twenty kids did this, in years before computers, with deadlines and a budget and forged hall passes. And maybe you could make money doing this, cropping pictures and making sure all the page numbers were where they were supposed to be. (Even though in my plans for the future in that very book, I claimed all I had scheduled was to stick a grape in my ear and let my head ferment.)

This past week was down to the wire time again, this time as part of the staff of my chapter newsletter. When I realized that what I was writing wasn’t romance, I made the decision to let my RWA membership expire. About a month before that happened, I got an email saying that a new online chapter was forming, one for women’s fiction that didn’t revolve around the romance storyline, so I renewed one.last.time. Almost a year after that decision, I’m now part of an amazing network of women, especially on the newsletter staff. Today, bouncing back emails with corrections and tweaking a last-minute bit of code in a few links, I was knocked back to that time, the breathless sense of deadline looming, the crunch. You feel a kind of awe for the people you work with, who make it go. I remembered days at the typesetter, when I stayed until late, knowing FedEx was on its way for the pages I was still finishing, and the production scheduler stayed with me, stamping pages, singing softly by my side.

 try not to get worried
try not to turn on to
problems that upset you
oh, don’t you know
everything’s alright, yes
everything’s fine

You don’t think it at the time. You think it’s awful and a pain in the ass and not worth it at all. But it is; the product is what matters. It’s harder to feel that when you’re doing all your work at a computer and your deadline partners are scattered across the globe, but it’s there. I swear it. And everything really is all right. Everything’s fine.