Haunted at 17

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Nova Ren Suma’s new novel, 17 & Gone, comes out this week on March 21, and to mark the release of this story about a 17-year-old girl haunted by the missing, she’s asked some authors she knows to join her in answering this question… What haunted YOU at 17? To see all the authors taking part, be sure to visit her blog distraction99.com.

Here's my contribution!

My high school
My high school

I hated high school.

Sometimes it seems as if there's this assumption that because I write young adult fiction, I loved it. That I must want to relive my teenage years -- that there's some kind of nostalgic haze I can't resist.

No. I write young adult fiction partly by accident; it wasn't what I thought I was writing. But partly I think I write it because I hated high school, and high school still haunts me.

Those ghosts creep into my books, and laugh at me.

***

During high school, my best friend plastered posters of half-naked guys all over her bedroom walls. We had grown up together. I met her when I was five years old at a day care center; I still remember the day we first met.

She went to a different high school than I did, but we remained friends even as we slipped farther apart. When I went over to her house for sleepovers, I'd look at those posters of half-naked guys. They bewildered me. I liked dreamy, moody guys, preferably with floppy hair and an English accent. Those muscle heads with their shining, oiled skin were aliens who spoke a language I didn't understand.

On weekend nights my best friend would ride around the mall parking lot with her other friends (I would never have been allowed to go), drinking until she made them pull over so she could puke out the door. She had a boyfriend, and she told me about their dates, about making out in his car. She was so matter-of-fact. It was business.

I could tell she didn't really care about this boy. She did these things because she thought she had to.

***

During high school, I had another friend; I'll call her Stacy. I told her about my childhood crush on a boy who used to walk me home from school way back in fifth grade. Sophomore year, he picked me up in the mornings and drove me to school. The moment I realized that might mean something, I panicked, and I pushed him away. I wasn't ready for anything more than a fantasy.

Stacy was. She wasn't the prettiest girl in school, or the most popular, but she had a demanding, magnetic personality that made her very hard to resist. She took this boy -- my fifth-grade crush -- to prom; they became a couple.

She did this knowing that I had conflicted feelings about him. She did it knowing that it would hurt me.

I acted like I didn't care, but I did.

***

During high school, I was obsessed with a boy with blond hair and blue eyes, a narrow jaw and an awkward bend to his shoulders. He was an actor; he sang the lead of Danny Zuko in our school’s production of Grease. He was my friend, and we talked on the phone for hours.

I filled page after page in my journal about him. I imagined looking into his big blue eyes and seeing myself reflected back—wanted. In the end I broke down. I don’t remember if I told him I had feelings for him, but by then he knew. I had lost the ability to hide it, and he couldn’t handle it.

We ended our friendship by writing nasty notes to each other and slipping them in our lockers. We didn’t speak to each other for months. Once, a mutual friend offered us both a ride home in her car, and we sat in the back seat, side by side, in silence. When he got out of the car I pulled the door shut after him.

On my seventeenth birthday I went to Safeway to rent a movie with a friend. He was in the parking lot, driving his parents’ bronze Thunderbird, and I pretended I didn’t notice him. But he followed me home, and when he got out of the car in front of my house, I had to invite him in. It was awkward. But the spite between us was gone, replaced with a kind of mournful new beginning.

Later that year, he realized he was gay.

***

After high school, I went as far away as I could: I fled Colorado and went to college in Massachusetts. After my first semester at college, I came home and met up with my best friend. We were farther apart than ever, but for once, we shared something. Perhaps we had always shared it without knowing.

At night, we drove down an empty road in Colorado, heading to a local 18-and-over club. Melissa Etheridge was playing on a cassette, and my best friend said, "I think she's gay."

We were both discovering that we were, too.

***

Many years later, in San Francisco, I kissed Stacy. She was a good kisser.

***

In high school, I was haunted by the fear that I would never be loved. I was in love with love -- the idea of it, the fantasy. I wanted Mr. Darcy and Gilbert Blythe and I was really mad at Jo March for rejecting Teddy.

I never loved anyone in high school who loved me back in that storybook way. The lack of it was a specter that ate at me. It was hungry.

That ghost lingers.

Years later, I have found love. I've learned that love can be even hungrier than the lack of it, but still, I remember precisely how sharp the ache was in high school. The specific, hollow loneliness of it.

I would never go back, but I write about it.