My Best Years

 

Dear 1997 through 1999, I miss you and I fear nothing in life will ever be as good as you were. There were several years before you, and there have been ever so many since. But you… you were the best. And I am sorry to say I never appreciated you as I should have, not the way you deserved. Like a wonderful lover who has come and gone—though I had no knowledge of such things then—I did not spend sufficient time basking in your glory, did not appreciate how soon you would be gone.
The first day of 1997 started at Holly D’Andrea’s house, as had the last three New Year’s days. She had a slumber party every New Years that involved sparkling grape juice, candy, candy, and more candy, VHS movies starring handsome men, and fantastic displays of gymnastics—the type preferred by the cheerleaders we all wished we were. Holly had made the pom-pon squad that year, which was close enough. She got to wear the pretty uniform that flattered the legs and butt; she got to perform in front of the whole student body. Technically, it was only an extra-curricular activity, but her acceptance into this particular school activity catapulted her several steps above me on the social ladder, but she still remained my friend. The New Year’s 1997 party was the one I did not merely enjoy, but was grateful to have been invited to.
It was also the last New Year I spent in Oklahoma, that dusty Midwestern state who refuses to admit in mixed company that it wishes it were Texas. That June I moved to Kansas, which everyone in Oklahoma laughed mightily at. “Where? You’re going where?” The Wizard of Oz references started in earnest even before I arrived, and I so dreaded moving once again. I thought 1997 would be my undoing, preferring to stay at my current high school—the devil I knew—to the much larger monstrosity that awaited me in Shawnee, the one that used that non-PC mascot of Indians.
My first semester at Shawnee Mission North was uneventful, but welcoming. The massive school and its artistic-leaning students did not look askance at my torn jeans and t-shirts, as did the Oklahoma schoolmates. I was no longer referred to as “one of those Catholics” or asked any insulting questions by kids in the lunch line looking to score points off some stranger who just looked unpopular. No, the halls of Shawnee Mission North welcomed me, as if they had been waiting, and 1997 ended on a happy note—the first in a long time.
But that mild contentedness of 1997 only heralded the absolute joys of 1998… the year that brought me fully into my own by way of the debate team and the rag-tag group of misfits who populated it… the kids who were nerdy just like me, and they thought that was just fine. There was Snappy, who had a mustache and looked like he just might be the teacher; Amy, who always smiled and made me smile too; and there was Tel, who actually thought he knew more about movies than I did. Fenstermacher wore his hair long and not in an ironic way; he liked it long and that’s how he wore it and he never apologized. It was that unapologetic nature that filled me like a hot cup of soup in a Kansas City winter—though the winter of that year was strangely mild. I too would be me, unapologetically me.
I got rid of that horrid blonde hair that everyone thought I should have and dyed it red, a fierce, nearly purple red that first time, but after that I changed it to the copper color. I went to both my junior prom, and later my senior year homecoming dance. I did not have a date, but I had a dress and I had friends. So by god, I went to those dances. I went to debate tournaments and I won medals. Not a lot, but some. I slept overnight in hotel rooms. I kissed a boy for the first time and then had to rebuff his clumsy, overeager sexual advances. I was a good Catholic girl after all.
1999 roared in with all the exuberance any high school senior feels in their last semester. I went to another prom that I attended with girls and only girls, and it was even more spectacular than the previous year. I had a car to drive for the first time, though none that expressly belonged to me. There was the 1989 powder blue Honda Accord I dubbed Mr. Bigglesworth because Austin Powers was the most awesome movie ever, and later there was the little red Mazda coupe my mother drove. Sometimes on evenings or weekends, I could take one of these chariots out for a ride and, weather permitted, I could cruise around Shawnee, Lenexa, and Olathe with the windows down listening to Sugar Ray’s Someday or the Backstreet Boys’ I Want it That Way.
On those nights when I went out, under strict instructions to be home by 10 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, I shared cheese fries with my friend Tori at Outback Steakhouse while I waited for her to be done with her waitressing shift. She had older men who thought she was pretty and would buy her alcohol if she asked, so we always had a supply of sour apple Pucker liqueur to enjoy after we adjourned to her room, which had a massive N’Sync poster covering the wall. We would intersperse our serious conversations about whether we would remain friends after I went off to join the Marines with a lively debate of which member of N’Sync was the most beautiful. She had her eye on Justin, as so many girls did, but I was all about Chris. I never did care for the blondes.
I only experienced a minor pang of regret for having never dated any of my crushes on the day I graduated. The stadium of our high school never felt so much like home as the day of my commencement ceremony. Having a last name starting with W, I was among the last to trickle in, and as a member of the choir, I did not take my seat with my classmates; I strode to the front to take my place with the rest of the choir on the rafters. There we sang the Star Spangled Banner, swiftly followed by our Alma Mater, our solitary fingers held high in the air like ET phoning home: Shawnee Mission, Shawnee Mission, here’s our toast to thee. There was a genuine sadness as I knew it would be the last time I would sing it, but I was glad—just so damn excited—that I would soon be singing the Marine Corps hymn. I was joining a new family, and that right soon.
That last summer was a blur of car rides and movies, late-night outings, and all-night gab fests with the friends I would soon leave behind me. Remember that trip to Chicago? Remember skinny dipping that one night, even though it was too cold to swim in the first place? Yeah, but we just wanted to say we had done it.
By the time 1999 was over with, I got to say I had done a lot of things. I got to Parris Island in late August, a sinus headache pounding at my skull and my hair gnarled to the consistency of steel wool by the humidity. In the middle of the night, we all stood on those yellow footprints and fought to keep the smiles off our faces as big burly men screamed at us to grab our belongings (trash, as they called it) and get into the barracks. We were all so happy to be there.
We were happy as we had to raise our M16s over our heads and hold them there, over and over in the burning heat, and repeat after our drill instructors. Raise em up! Raise em up, Aye Ma’am! We were happy to be there as we moved briskly through the chow line, shoveling the food in our mouths as quickly as we dared, though I never had one single issue with that. I have always inhaled my food, and those were the days before heartburn.