The Terror And Tenderness Of Girl Groups
Everything Your Mother Doesn't Know is a monthly meditation on growing up. Stories in this column speak to the way adolescence, despite its ephemeral nature, is full of enduring/interesting lessons.
In Blue Nights, Joan Didion wrote about Dr. Karl Menninger’s phrase “the apparent inadequacy of the precipitating event,” i.e., the inclination to grossly overreact to common circumstances. According to Didion, “He mentions the man who kills himself because he has been advised to stop playing golf, the child who commits suicide because his canary died, the woman who kills herself after missing two trains.”
The propensity described by Menninger is not dissimilar to the obstreperous behavior that is often attributed to teenage hormones: the real ways amazing emotions punctuate and define the most mundane occurrences. Deranging quotidian body aches lead to grand contemplations about the future. I don’t know much about psychiatry, but I do know we’ve all practiced death a couple of times in our lives.
I’m reminded of a night out with friends. The alchemy of a group of girls at this moment is wholly sanctified, unintelligible, and yet entirely universal. It’s a Friday night. Ada Whelan—a green-eyed, sunken cheek-boned, high school frisbee star, pad-thai-and-Riesling-loving, DivaCup enthusiast—lives a good life. She smoothes her hair with a hot brush in the mirror. Sadie Barrientos, already planning to write her thesis on the religion of surfing, is a Grand Rapids native who recently gave up nicotine because it makes her feel sick but dates models who are artists and sometimes economists because it makes her feel sick. She’s on the foot of my bed, texting someone new, Charlie. I’ve seen him around on campus, walking his bike while smoking cigarettes. I have never seen him actually ride the bike. Perhaps riding with one hand is too inconvenient, or maybe he’s just never in a rush.
Sadie is playing music from a playlist titled, “if you hate taylor swift you’re a coward.” Other playlists in rotation include: “renata klein on her balcony,” “truant behavior” “a little misogyny as a treat,” “pearl juul money heist,” and “GIVE ME HEAD NOW!!” I am in charge of drinks and read a recipe online that said Swedish Fish is a great addition—sorry, garnish—to the strawberry lemonade vodka that ended up in my room.
The comfortable peace I find in this atmosphere is defined by the mess: clothes on the floor, makeup spilled on the desk, and no one finishing the story they were telling. The scene before me combines beauty and drama in equal parts. Is this the thing our parents work all day for? So we can sit in lecture halls and learn about new conceptions of motion and energy (See: Rain, Steam, and Speed, 1844 and having sex for the first time, 2021), how to depict a figure in the midst of a metamorphosis while walking the fine line between the ideal and the real (See: Liberty Leading the People, 1830 and owning Instagram while going through puberty, 2012 - 2015), and coming to terms with isolation, maintaining—at all costs—a cool, vacant gaze that is at odds with the visual sparkle of the nightclub around you (See: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882 and mastering the urban experience while claiming your newly-minted autonomy 2021- Ongoing).
I was taught that Turner conceived of nature as a vengeful force in human events. I don’t want to talk about the difficult truth that we all, almost indiscriminately, speak ill of each other without expecting it to ever damage our relationships. Every exchange is a tiny moment of truth: the friendship is reset back to 00:00:00, and love, trust, and boundaries have to be won again. I constantly fear the ways that my friendships could erode in an instant.
But now, as all of our lives are tucked into this one dorm room, united under a slanted roof and the intended promise of a fun night, we become one of the most high-performing operating systems ever devised by our species. An unplumbed potential energy fissures up within the bounds of our being. The tight-ass jeans, floating fish in our cups, and shared colors on our cheeks and lips (See also: Benetint Cheek & Lip Stain, sephora.com) become the last fortress, a provisional form of protection from our own cruelty.
We get to the bar early, which is fine because it gives us time to get drinks (not because we are thirsty, but because our hands need something to hold) and go over our plan.
Everyone has each other’s location
No one walks home without a buddy
Keep expectations low
People start trickling in, including Charlie. Right on time! He’s following his friends, who lead him to the side of a pool table (our college bar is a pool hall six days a week). They are all wearing gym clothes. It’s like Wimbledon: almost everyone is dressed in pressed linens and tailored suits, wearing big fat watches. But when the camera pans to a player’s box, you can see the coaches—the actual sovereign masters of the game—watching the action in Under Armour t-shirts and baggy shorts. Those guys hold all the secrets and strategy. I am witness to the level of chill that comes with excellent peach blossom luck.
After waiting a few minutes, Sadie walks over to Charlie. They talk for a while, and then start kissing, and eventually go to dance. Ada and I go get another round of tequila pineapples—I hold her arm so we don’t get separated by the crowd. We run into other people we know and make small talk together. The dialogical consonance achieved in these exchanges feels euphoric. All of the possible hazards posed by the circumstance of a drunken conversation in a bar—invasive gestures, questions you don’t know how to answer, awkward lulls—are no longer sources of anxiety that will bump around in my head all night. I no longer have to wonder if I said or did the right thing, Ada and I can laugh and scream about it later in the bathroom as we struggle to concentrate long enough to zip up our pants.
Ada turns me, and it looks like she’s about to cry. I’m confused, but I should know better. These kinds of things always happen out of nowhere. I take her hand, and we head for an empty corner of the bar. Her lip is quivering. She explains that Sadie has been spending all of her time with Charlie tonight and none of it with us. I tell her that this is normal, and plus the two of us can hang out. It’s just one night, I say as if to remind her that everything about this moment is fleeting. There is so little stopping us from basking in this lapse of control. And more importantly, we are here together, experiencing all of it together, and isn’t that worth something to you? Am I not enough? It doesn’t matter. This is, possibly, a case of two people enduring the apparent inadequacy of a precipitating event. Ada wants to leave.
By the time we reach campus, she is twenty paces ahead of me. Zero words have been exchanged on this journey home. This is the sensation of having all of a sudden descended from a mountain into a valley. We are two human beings who had walked along a part of the road together, and then each had gone her own way. Ada and I are nothing more than two disorientated, unremembered creatures of the night. This is probably what dying feels like. Such concrete, lyrical experiences of the body can only be justified by absolutes. The pain of loss, coupled with the fact that no one else will understand how badly this small, seemingly inconsequential event hurts, hurts.
I watch Ada as she climbs the stairs to her dorm. I pause before I make my way back to my mine. I lay on the wet grass, which is gross, but I need to take stock. My head feels the way those pricy Japanese strawberries from the internet taste. We felt betrayed by different things, and I don’t know about Ada, but thinking about it all over again, I can feel all my insecurities growing unwanted shadows. Life is lived in crowded instants and long, contemplative gaps that change you in ways that you thought only braces or getting a cell phone could. You have probably experienced this before: coming out of the movies, the sun has set, and suddenly the whole world is different—how you walk, the subway ride home, the specific way you choose to move the hair out of your face. And there’s something else: you have never felt more certain that you are alone.
It’s upsetting to think about how teenage girls are still terribly misunderstood by a culture so obsessed and enthralled by us—our suffering, angst, and intrinsic sensibility. Our ability to be sorority sisters, victims of murder, and pop singers. What upsets me more is realizing that I, too, have no idea. I mean, who knows what the dying feel at the end anyway? They don’t return calls.
Getting comfortable with the emptiness of loss, I pick myself up and start walking toward my dorm on the other side of the field. It stands at the foot of the quad, colorful squares of light beaming from various windows—pretty evidence of those who aren’t asleep yet. The dorm seems more welcoming than ever, its red brick standing out against the sky, which is black as berries. I walk with great strides across the grass and reach for the door when suddenly, from the opposite side of the field, I hear the voices of people returning to the dorms—shouting and laughing about skinny dipping in the lake, twice—deep in the gears of their own confusing joy. Up in my room, even hours later, I still seemed to hear them in the hot wind and fading shadows of the night.