AN OPEN LETTER TO MYSELF, AT AGE 14
by / Meredith Zeitlin
Dear Freshman Year Meredith,
Where do I even BEGIN? Well, there you are on the first day of ninth grade, starting at a brand new school. An all-girls’ brand new school. Yeesh. This isn’t going to be easy, but you can definitely do this. You will survive the first day, and the first week, and the whole four years – so please, calm down. Just be yourself.
I know… self-esteem isn’t exactly flowing through your veins at the moment. It’s not your fault you have braces and stupid bangs and a nose you haven’t grown into yet, although those are indeed the facts. But guess what? No one actually cares but you. They’re all very busy worrying about themselves and their braces or whatever. I swear to you that this is true.
So, even though I know you’re going to put up your CHECK OUT MY SUPER PERSONALITY! defense shield the second you walk through the door, can you at least try to peek over it every now and then? People will like you even if you aren’t always “on.” Really.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m proud of you for being outgoing, and quick with a comeback, and willing to boldly approach groups of girls who’ve known each other since they were babies. That isn’t easy, and I know you’d much rather be safely ensconced with your old friends right now. But do me a favor, okay? Don’t show off your improvisational limerick-writing skills in homeroom the first week. That teacher you write a poem about is going to fish it out of the trash and somehow figure out you wrote it, and she is NEVER GOING TO GET OVER IT. And she is the meanest teacher in school. You are going to live in fear for four years, and this will be your fault.
Are you listening? Please do NOT try and suck up to that junior after you get cast as a lead in the school play. She’s pissed off, and she’s going to twist your words around and use them to torture you. Then when you are old you will write a YA novel about it. This can be avoided – just don’t talk to her! Stay away!
There are a few other things I want to tell you. A guy making out with you is not a litmus test for being pretty. So be choosy. On the other hand, if you find out a guy likes you, don’t automatically assume there must be something wrong with him. (That’s going to turn into a pattern that’s tough to break, let me tell you.) Oh – and you are not fat. In ten years, you’re going to look at pictures of yourself now and realize you were a minuscule human being your freshman year. The amount of time you spend thinking you’re fat could much better be used mastering nuclear fusion or sailing across the world. And burgundy lipstick? Not a good look for you. Yes, I know it’s the 90s. But trust me. NO. Also, listen to your friend Georgia when she makes you grow your bangs out. It’s worth getting through the awkward headband stage, especially because your mom is going to hate how you look without them. That’ll really come in handy sophomore year when you’re trying everything you can think of to get her to give you up for adoption.
You turn out okay, kid. You have lots of great friends and silly adventures and a life that truly makes you happy. And the fact is, you probably need all the dumb mistakes and embarrassing moments and self-deprecating phases (and there are going to be LOTS) to get there. To make it worth it. To turn you into the adult you become. To give you stuff to write about, for crying out loud.
Just try to enjoy yourself, okay? Relax. And don’t push your luck.
Love, Grown Up Meredith
P.S. That junior you go to the spring semi-formal with, the one you spent weeks agonizing over asking and have such a huge crush on and are devastated by when he doesn’t try to kiss you at the end of the night? The guy who makes you think you must be the ugliest girl in the world and that no one good will ever want to go out with you?
HE TURNS OUT TO BE GAY.
I know. I couldn’t believe it either.
Excerpt from Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin
So, tonight is the Foreign Scarves concert, and there are some major questions to be answered. Such as: what should I wear? How can I make sure Keith doesn’t mistake this totally platonic outing for an evening of romance? What are the chances the band will spot me in the crowd and pull me on stage with them?
I call Em for a fashion consultation, and after a lot of back and forth, we agree on a perfect outfit. I wriggle into my new jeans and an amazing wrap sweater that I got with my Urban Outfitter’s giftcard. I apply eyeliner in fabulous smoky-eye fashion, flatiron my hair, and dab on mint-infused, subtly tinted lip balm.
Of course my lame dad insists that I have to take a car to the club with someone because the subway at night is too dangerous. Well, I certainly don’t want to go with Keith – that would seem very date-like, I think. Better to meet him there. I convince Cass to come over to my house so we can go together – despite what she said at lunch the other day, I know she doesn’t want to go with her gross brother.
My mother is heading to a late work meeting of some sort and is devastated to only have a few minutes to gush about my “First Adult Dating Experience” which, based on the 87 photos my dad snaps with his new digital camera, is actually with Cass. My attempts to point out for the millionth time that this is not, in fact, a date, fall on deaf ears.
We FINALLY leave. The second we get in the car, Cass goes, “So, do you think you’ll hook up with Keith tonight?”
“Cass, this is NOT – ”
“I know, I know – it’s not a date. But still, like… maybe you’ll change your mind?”
“Um, no, I will not change my mind, unless Keith magically transforms into Jordan. Besides, even if there were no Jordan, Keith is too short. And there’s that freaky eye thing…”
“Kels, there is no eye thing. Keith’s eyes are totally normal.”
“Cass, what’s your deal? I’m not into Keith. He’s nice, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t like him like that! Are you new?”
Cass flops back in her seat, pouting. “Okay, fine, just asking. Don’t freak out or anything. Jeeeeeez.” She passes me the water bottle she brought, which is filled with cranberry juice and the 3 drops of vodka she managed to swipe. I think the driver is onto us, but he doesn’t say anything.
At the door to the club, we get the humiliating stamps that mark us as underage, and I text Keith, who comes out to find me. He looks nice, I guess, but he’s still no Jordan. Cass goes to find her brother, who is up in the nosebleed section somewhere, and Keith and I elbow our way to our unbelievable floor seats.
Keith talks a mile a minute throughout the sucky opening band and I learn that he used to make model airplanes (weird), is allergic to melon (weirder), and wants to go to Yale (are people already thinking about college?). Sheesh. I didn’t know there was going to be quite so much sharing. So, what – am I supposed to show him the scar I got ice skating and reveal my childhood fantasy of working at the McDonald’s Drive-Thru Window?
He hands me a little flask with his dad’s initials on it, and I take some and pass it back. Then there’s an ear-splitting blast of feedback, all the lights go out, and a single spotlight hits the stage. The whole audience is silent, waiting, and when the Foreign Scarves finally come on, we all basically lose our minds. Everyone is bouncing around and dancing and mouthing the words to the first song, which is one of my all-time favorites.
I take a second to glance around and see if I can spot Cass, but I don’t see her. Keith looks over at me and grins – oh, Lord. Did he think I was looking at him? He starts dancing very close to me and sort of flinging his arms around in a bizarre way. He’s very smiley and offers me some gum for about the 6th time.
I suddenly realize that there is no getting around it: Keith is going to try to kiss me.
Craaaaaap. What do I do now? It’s not like this is totally unfamiliar territory – I could’ve hooked up in middle school, with Keith or someone else I wasn’t that interested in. I just… I wanted my first kiss to be special, so I never let it happen. I mean, I think it’s a big deal, even if everyone says it doesn’t matter. But how long am I supposed to wait for Jordan to get it together? And should I maybe get some practice in before he does? But if I do make out with Keith, will I be able to live with the knowledge that I abandoned my fantasy of the perfect first kiss just because I didn’t want to be branded some kind of 14-year-old prude? And is this going to be a prolonged, tongue-ing sort of affair or just a kind of pecking situation?
And then, before I can finish reviewing the complete list of pros and cons, Keith goes for it. He lunges in, and suddenly his tongue is flopping around inside my mouth like a fish dying on a dock.
I think I may be choking to death. He tastes like… Rum & Coke and spearmint gum. And panic. If a tongue could sweat, I think his would be.
I extricate myself from his clutches and manage to squeak, “Keith! What are you doing?”
“Sorry, sorry. I couldn’t help it, Kelsey – you just look so hot tonight, y’know?”
Of course he has now said the perfect thing (note to self: wear smoky eyeliner every day from now on, even while sleeping) and I figure, Okay – I might as well give it another shot. So I kiss him, brimming with empowered-woman confidence.
And it is still TOTALLY awful!
What the hell? On TV it’s all delicate and nice-looking with the rare big slurpy-yet-sexy moment, but NOTHING like this mess. My chin is all wet and I think I’m going to barf if he doesn’t stop gagging me with his tongue. This can’t be right; he must be doing it wrong.
I pull back, and he goes, “What’s wrong?”
“Look, I don’t think you’re doing this right,” I tell him. “It’s way too much tongue or… something.” I attempt to wipe some of the spit off my cheek with my shoulder in a way that I hope isn’t too obvious. Blech.
Keith glares at me and shouts over the band, “Well, it’s more like YOU’RE not doing it right. Have you ever even made out before? My brother is in COLLEGE, y’know, and he told me everything there is to know about Frenching when we were in seventh grade, so I THINK I know what I’m doing, Kelsey. But don’t worry – I’m happy to practice with you til you feel more confident about your skills.”
First of all: did he just say Frenching? Seriously? and second of all: He’s happy to practice with me? Really? Well, how thoughtful! Maybe I’ll buy him a model airplane kit as a thank-you for his kind attention to my kissing education.
Yeah. I’ll get right on that.
I look at him witheringly for a sec and then say, “Keith, I have to go to the bathroom. I’ll be back.” Of course, getting to the bathroom in this place will probably take an hour, which should give me enough time to think of a way to convincingly act like this never happened.
I wonder if you can decide to be a kissing virgin again. No one saw. What if I pretend I didn’t just have a gross foreign tongue in my intestines and issue myself a well-deserved Do-Over?
I shove through a million people and finally make it to what is clearly the world’s longest bathroom line. I take my phone out of my pocket, contemplating sending a text to Em. But what can I say in a text that could possibly convey the level of anxiety I’m currently dealing with? Writing “GAAAAAAAAH!!!” just about sums up my feelings, but might be somewhat unclear. Better to call her later when I’ve figured out what my story is, anyway.
I look back toward the stage, where the lead guitarist is playing an unbelievable improvised solo. I cannot believe I’m missing it! Stupid Keith. Stupid me.
I scope out the line again, which is down to about half a million people now. I move forward two inches. My pocket buzzes with a text from Keith, which reads, “R U coming back?” I respond, “Huge line,” and snap the phone shut.
The two girls in front of me start giggling, pointing up at the balcony behind us, and I look up to see what’s so funny: it’s a couple making out like they just invented it. Is that how I looked when I was with Keith? Horrors.
The guy starts sucking his partner’s neck like a crazed vampire, and one of the girls ahead of me in line snorts derisively.
“I know, get a room, right?” I say to her. It’s always nice to make friends in the bathroom line.
“Seriously!” she replies. “I mean, if you’re gonna spend $85 bucks, it might as well involve a bed, right?”
I laugh, looking back up at the balcony. Then the stage lights do a sweep over the audience, and for a moment, the girl’s face is illuminated.
It’s Cassidy. My Cassidy.
And she’s kissing…
My stomach drops to my knees.