I was born in 1981, and though fragments of the 80s had been vividly transmitted to my baby brain, my sense of it on the whole was faint, like the voice of a radio broadcaster in the next room. The main plot of the decade–both culturally and personally–were lost in a sea of conceptual superficiality: Life was made of Michael Jackson. Aquanet. Just Say No. Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth. Reeboks. The simple dichotomies of grownups and kids, other people and me.
I can still feel myself standing in that decade; a dimly lit room. A pizza parlor arcade. The air was made of cigarette smoke, and all of the adults wore big glasses that made their eyes look microscopic as they looked down at me. Bicycles were the cars of children, and we all had license to go wherever, whenever, as long as we came back when the street lights flickered on. We stood in packs outside of drugstores, bubble-gum cigarettes dangling from our lips.
Then the 90s came, and as I went from single to double-digits in age, I began to actively take notice of things that made my family different from most. We were a trio of sisters being raised by our maternal grandmother, Nana, nary an invested parent in sight. I knew about mom’s alcoholism. I was told that she was away in rehab, getting better.
But the years rolled by, and mom didn’t return.
And eventually, I’d think to wonder why.
Those warm, blurry summer months nestled between the last day of grammar school and the first day of middle school were the last of their kind. The last of innumerable days spent with my big sister, Lupe (who we all called Lu), engaged in the kind of shenanigans unique to sisters, unique to the time before touch screens and the internet.
Lu was only a baby when I was born, so it didn’t take long before we grew to be the same size. Our Nana, Alberta, had an identical twin sister named May, and they had been knit so close that they claimed to feel each other’s pain and share the same thoughts. Nana did what came naturally to her and dressed Lu and me in matching outfits and gave us identical pageboy haircuts. Lu’s hair was a fine strawberry blond, mine thick and almost black. Like Nana and May, we too, had been knit close in that special way, our DNA a near-perfect mirror-image of one another.
What stands out most in my memories of those early years with Lu are the days upon days we spent happily wallowing together in a mud pit in the backyard. I can even recall a time when Lu and I tried to construct a diving board out of a broken door, my imagination still so grandiose that I visualized myself leaping off the edge, twirling and flipping through the air, disappearing head first into what, in reality, was a 12-inch puddle of mud.
There were entire days dedicated to trying to catch blackbirds under a box propped up with a stick, like something straight out of Looney Tunes. We balled up slices of white bread and hid them in the shadow of the box, beckoning a hungry bird to wander in. Lu and I would hide in a bush, holding a string tied to the stick, ready to yank.
There were the days when we skipped around the backyard, tearing all the petals off of Nana’s Tiffany Roses, enticed by their sickly-sweet scent. We tossed the petals into mixing bowls and empty jars and danced around them while chanting made-up spells. To us, the water that gurgled from the garden hose was a magical elixir with the power to transform those petals into potion and fine perfume.
There were the rainy days spent inside, listening to the children’s stories etched magically into a stack of shiny black records. We would memorize and sing songs, squatting together on the floor in our underwear, leaning against each other like two puppies from the same litter.
Of course, there had been squabbles, too. Jealous tirades when the other was given something different or better. Instances of throwing the other under the bus in times of social and familial trouble. Feuds about mutual friends and whose friend she was first. And by the summer of 1992, we were entering that canonical phase of sisterhood in which she became cool at an exponential rate and I, the little sister, became the thorn in her side.
Still, that final summer before middle school, there were many days spent together, planting giant balloons filled with water in the street in front of our house. When an unsuspecting car approached, we would scurry behind Nana’s Gardenia bush and peer through its leaves to try and catch a glimpse of the effect. The louder and more violent the explosion of water under the car’s wheels, the more maniacal our laughter.
That summer I turned eleven, and Lu turned twelve. Still little girls. Still sisters.
Neither of us knew that those days were fleeting, and what came next would split us apart.
Our mother, Debbie, and our much older sister, Tess, had each attended seventh and eighth grade at Parkway Junior High, in the 60s and 80s, respectively. Then, in 1992, sixth grade was moved from elementary to junior high, re-designating Parkway as a middle school. This meant that Lu would not get to enjoy her first year of middle school without her little sister in her shadow, a fact that was not by my doing, but which she blamed me for all the same.
Parkway was brand-new in 1961, but by 1992 it had fallen into disrepair. The outdoor corridors were drab, dilapidated scenes of concrete and steel surrounded by six-foot tall fences. A prickly sprawl of ice plant consumed the spaces in between buildings. Recreational time was spent wandering the massive, barren black-top, which turned out to be an ideal place for spontaneous fist fights and coordinated attacks alike.
It was the intersection of several factors that made Parkway what it was: The school itself lacked funding and classes were over-crowded, and the majority of students came from impoverished, vulnerable families. Lu and I fit the bill. Our mom had been in rehab for what felt like an eternity, and our dad, a hard-working immigrant from Michoacán, lived across town with his wife and their two sons.
While Nana did a bang-up job keeping us fed, clothed, and housed, she practically shooed us out the door during our waking hours. The negative effect of our parents’ absence was unquestionable. Without guidance, neither of us had ever performed well in school, and we became increasingly vulnerable to the sort of adults who preyed on unsupervised children.
For instance, years earlier, while Lu and I played in the front yard, a stranger approached us with a white bunny in a hat and asked us if we would like to come over to play with it. Without an inkling of distrust, Nana eagerly sent us to his house every afternoon for weeks on end, and eventually, he started showing us cartoon porn.
It’s hard to imagine, but in middle school, the stakes would be even higher.
In 1992, Parkway was the feeder school for several rival street gangs.
Lu eased comfortably into her own niche. She developed a tight friendship with two girls, Marnie and Corinna. Marnie was the little sister of a white nationalist, and Corinna was the daughter of a Hell’s Angel. They asked her to prove her loyalty to them by burning the back of her hand with a red-hot piece of metal, and she did.
Lu didn’t seem concerned about the consequences of her affiliations, but I was scared out of my wits, and I did what many kids in my shoes would have done: I tried to achieve invisibility by blending in.
I became a wannabe; Someone too chicken-shit to march to the beat of her own drum. Someone who would follow the majority, but only to the very edge of her cowardice. I worried that my unwillingness to go all the way would out me as–in the words of my peers, not mine–a pussy. I understood the consequences if I was found out: I would become the target of bullies, without any allies to come to my aid. But the consequences of claiming allegiance to a gang were scary, too: Kids with gang ties could, and did, get shot.
Which was worse?
Outwardly, I was just like any of the other girls affiliated with the Latinx dominated gangs. I adopted the Chola uniform: Starched Dickies, Nikes, gelled hair with two stiff curls hanging on either side of my face. But on the inside, I desperately wanted to be myself: A little girl who still played with dolls.
Early on, Lu tried to include me with her friends.
One afternoon, she let me in her room and she very pointedly instructed me not to knock down a textbook that was resting on the arm of a chair. Thinking that she was asserting dominance over me with a pointless command, I abruptly swatted the book to the floor, sending an enormous pile of weed (which I hadn’t noticed was laying on top of the book) to the floor. Naturally, after that, she saw me as a liability, best kept at arms-length.
For months, I watched from the sidelines as she and her friends got ready for concerts and parties, and while I knew the main reason I wasn’t going along was my own instinctual apprehension, I envied them. Loneliness was new to me, and I was so uncomfortable in it that I began to consider betraying my own instincts.
Eventually, Lu extended an olive branch. She and her friend Marnie invited me into her room to hang out. I watched as they smoked pot from the blue, three-foot bong.
Marnie blew out a puff of smoke and handed the bong to me, “Wanna try?”
I said, “Sure.”
Lu said, “Stand up.”
I stood up.
“Alright now, put your mouth in the top of the bong.”
I did what I was told.
Lu turned the spark wheel of a plastic lighter with her thumb several times until a flame appeared. She brought the flame toward the bowl that had been packed with sticky, stinky weed.
Marnie held her thumb over a hole in the bong and said, “Suck in until it’s full of smoke.” I did what she said and watched the translucent blue chamber fill with a thick cloud. Once the smoke reached the top, she let go and said, “Now breathe it all in.”
As if typecast as the adolescent known for reckless approval-seeking, I approached the situation without the restraint gained only from experience. I drew in three feet of THC in one fell swoop. In an instant I was overcome with a sensation reminiscent of brain freeze – except more like a too-big tickly cloud expanding in my brain cavity, paired with the sensation of crackling hot coal dust glittering throughout my mucous membranes. My lungs – in immediate protest – sent the smoke back out in a violent coughing fit. I coughed so hard and for so long that my oxygen-starved brain went offline for a few moments. When I logged back into consciousness, I found myself on the floor clutching a trash can in my hands, violently heaving my nothingness into its emptiness.
Once my lungs calmed down, I found myself ensconced in a delightfully dumb serenity. The tangible world was suddenly sprinkled with little fish-hooks of hilarious wonder, capturing my full attention for moments of complete eternity, trapping me in a pleasurable hall of mirrors in which all I could do was laugh with every nerve-ending at the gorgeous, otherworldly genius that possessed someone to invent corduroy, or chocolate chips, or paper.
Getting high is harmless, I thought.
Why am I resisting?