I spent the last four months schlepping around my hometown of Riverhead, New York, a textbook hometown often referred to by the very predictable nickname “Riverhood,” and occasionally as the slightly more clever “Giveherhead.” If everything goes as planned and I propel seamlessly into adulthood after graduating with a bachelor’s degree next May (lolol that is HIGHLY unlikely but let’s be optimistic for a minute here), then this will have been my final summer spent in this not-at-all-quaint seaside town.
This past spring, my challenging, exciting, fulfilling semester came to a sudden halt as soon as I (and by I, I mean my dad) moved the disassembled pieces of my porcelain white bed frame into my parents’ illegally parked Toyota outside of a roach-infested Staten Island apartment that I called home for five months. We headed east, all the way to the last exit on the Long Island Expressway. And I had no idea where to go from there.
I sat on my bed surrounded by my packed suitcases and giant plastic bins and took note of the posters of the Jonas Brothers I hung up on my bedroom walls during middle school peeking out at me. They are now covered in handwritten Taylor Swift lyrics from my later teenage years but they still suddenly emerged as remnants of what once was, and I swear Nick’s mop of brown hair was curlier than ever before.
I sat there thinking about all I had experienced since last summer—a random combination of big and small events that made me just different enough to feel older than the summer before. I tried to pick out some turning points, creating a list of reasons in my head for my sudden sinking feeling.
I listed internally: I've lived in Italy. I’ve read a lot on my own volition. I had my heart broken. I dyed my hair blonde and regretted it approximately every other day. I finally found a job in the city that I like and am actually good at. I drank too much boxed wine in a friend’s apartment then puked it all up for the first time.
How was I supposed to just pick up where I left off?
In the beginning of the summer, I complained a lot. In the end, I cried a lot. I desperately needed to find a balance between my former life and my present one, between who I was in high school and who I’ve become in college, between my childhood and my burgeoning adulthood. My friends, scattered in their respective summer destinations, helped me do this, whether they knew it or not. My mom helped the most. Standing on the front lines of the battle, she took my punches and kept coming back every time I pushed her away. She always knows what I need to stay present.
I was struck throughout the season by all the ways my life has changed and all the ways it has stayed exactly the same. There were many moments scattered throughout my time at home when everything felt simultaneously old and new. I became a human paradox, a consistent contradiction. The following is a collection of songs that narrated those intricate moments and the experiences they remind me of in retrospect.
“Opening Up” – Waitress Musical Soundtrack
“A small town like ours ain’t much but sometimes home is where your ass ends up."
The day after the drive home from Staten Island, I return to my high school job at the local ice cream shop because it is the easiest and fastest way to make money for the summer. I then refuse to wear the pink hat that is technically part of my uniform (because I’ve been here six years, BITCH!) and I learn that I am now the old one at Dari-Land. I was always the youngest employee—timidly scrubbing away at every surface with a damp and tattered yellow sponge, being referred to as “Kellie’s little sister,” barely speaking to anyone—but suddenly I'm older than the girls who seemed so grown up and mature when I started there.
By the third week back, I witness myself become what I half-jokingly start calling “The Patron Saint of Sad Teenagers." I spend most of my summer nights working alongside sixteen-year-old girls—then driving them home, sharing my dinners with them, asking who they have crushes on (I say, Any cute boys in your life? What about girls? and they giggle at me like I’ve said a curse word), encouraging them to go away to college, listening to their stories, trying my best to give advice, training them (in other words, I say, You see how badly I’m making this sundae? Don’t be like me. Be better at this job than me), acting as an impromptu guidance counselor, making sure they get home safe. At least, I try my best to do these things. I try to treat them the way I wanted my older coworkers to treat me when I was in tenth grade—the way most of them did.
I listened to this song from the Waitress soundtrack when I worked the 2-11 shift (which I complained about A LOT!!). When I drove to Rocco’s mid-shift to get a slice of pizza with roasted red peppers on it, this song somehow made me feel lighter by bringing me back down to earth. The Waitress soundtrack reminds me of the spring semester, when I saw the show on Broadway and cried at literally every single song. (It was truly a concerning amount of tears but I swear it makes me happy.) This song was just enough to get me through the second half of the interminable shifts.
“Even My Dad Does Sometimes” – Ed Sheeran
“It’s alright to cry, even my dad does sometimes. So don’t wipe your eyes. Tears remind you you’re alive.”
Weeks go by when my mom and I hear her car making a terrible sound. When I drive my friend Bailey home from work she hears it, too, but the noise is sporadic and unpredictable. When my dad, the fixer-of-all-broken-cars, drives it he hears nothing. It’s like going to the doctor and saying, “Well, the lump on my neck was there yesterday, I swear it was!”
Finally, in mid-July on his way to the airport, my dad takes my mom’s car and hears the noise. He heads back home and tells us it’s a problem with the brakes. We let the car rest in the driveway for the week that he’s visiting his childhood best friend in Washington State. I take my dad’s car around instead. I always hesitate to take his car because there’s no hookup to play my iPod, and what’s a four-minute commute without a single great song playing?
So I dig through the console of the Toyota Corolla and find Ed Sheeran’s last album. I play the CD and realize how long it’s been since I last listened to it but am impressed that I can still rap all of track ten.
The same week, we lose our thirteen-year-old yellow lab. The lack of her presence makes the whole house feel empty. It is the first time I have to deal with a death that affects my everyday routine and I feel stupid for crying over a dog. People’s children die and they get over it, I think to myself after the fourth night I cry myself to sleep. I listen to this song and blot the corners of my eyes with a tissue before getting out of the car to walk into work.
That Saturday, when both of my sisters are home, we have a “Bella-bration” in honor of our dog Bella, but also as an excuse to eat and drink and celebrate being together while the three of us are all in the same country at the same time – a feat rarer than it ought to be. My dad is still away so I take over his usual job of making a playlist for the night. I hook my iPod up to his sound system in the garage and carefully select the right soundtrack for the night. In creating a collection of songs that will please my sisters, mom, grandmother, brother-in-law, and his mom, I find myself adding plenty of John Lennon, Billy Joel, Amy Winehouse, Simon & Garfunkel, and Joni Mitchell. I realize it’s almost identical to the playlist my dad would have on if he were home. My family doesn’t catch this similarity from simply the background music during dinner, but I do. When I make the connection, I can feel myself blush.
My dad returns from visiting my Uncle Brian and I pull into the driveway in his Corolla and see him covered in grease, with the Toyota Avalon boosted up, surrounded by a bunch of car parts that I could not identify even if my life depended on it. The skin on his pale hands is jet black with hard work. He explains to my mom the entire anatomy of the brakes and what went wrong. He stresses about the price of new parts. I listen and cannot comprehend the jargon he uses. I kept up with academic rhetoric all semester, but I am useless when it comes to this.
I ask him the next day how he learned so much about fixing cars. As a kid, I assumed adults just sort of knew these things without effort or education. I realize now as I get older that I am completely incompetent compared to my dad, and I'm never going to just wake up one day knowing all the things he does. My dad tells me he worked in a garage when he was my age, which I never knew. He goes on to say that when he was a little kid, he’d take apart things like the family lawnmower just to figure out how to put them back together again. He smiles when he tells me this—an unfiltered mixture of pride and nostalgia beams from his eyes. “Usually I could get it all back together, but sometimes Grandpa had to help me out,” he reminisces.
For the first time, I recognize in my dad’s narrow face and light blue eyes the face of my grandfather, who died when I was in second grade. Grandpa used to sit down next to me and teach me how to draw pictures of ships and play checkers. He was very quiet—he wasn’t much of a talker, my mom always says—and I no longer remember what his voice sounded like. When I tell my dad that he’s starting to look like the Grandpa Griffith I remember, he blushes and covers his face with the palm of his worn, working hand.
“Hell No” – Ingrid Michaelson
“Nice glasses, fake red hair, just like me.”
Driving around with my sister Kellie and her best friend from college, I blast a playlist of Ingrid Michaelson songs. Together, we discuss and appreciate the intellect behind the lyrics, identifying her ability as a songwriter to express grand complexities in such simple, universal ways. I am stimulated by our conversation because it is the kind of analysis I have been missing since I left school.
That night, at a casual seafood restaurant out east, Morgan reads me a description of my personality based on my Zodiac sign. I am skeptical at first, claiming I’m simply curious to see what generic character traits will come up. Morgan says something about a Gemini in sun and Aries in Moon. Something about getting bored easily and longing for intellectual conversation. Something about using my wit to attract romantic partners. Something about a strong need for self-expression. Something about being moody, more or less. Crap, I think. It’s spot on.
I realize then that I find myself feeling most vulnerable when people know me too well—as if once my guise won’t work, once someone knows me better than I know myself, once I can’t fool them with that aforementioned Gemini wit, they’ll surely be done with me.
Something about a difficulty with intimacy.
Still, I am comforted by the accuracy of the reading because for a few minutes I find reason behind the elements of my personality that I so often feel are out of my control (and I do not like being out of control). Morgan’s reading makes me feel normal and I start to really believe in all this Zodiac stuff.
Then Kellie’s horoscope sounds nothing like her.
In late July, sitting on my living room couch around midnight, I receive a text from an old friend who tells me she heard this Ingrid Michaelson song on the radio on her way home and thought of me. We were once best friends but we haven’t spoken in eight months. Yet when she tells me she got her heart broken recently, I instantly feel my own heart break. I get a pit in my stomach knowing that she has been hurt.
We text for an hour and I am struck by how easy it is to fall back into old routines. Struck by how your feelings for someone you once loved can last long after you thought you’d sworn them off for good. Struck by the memories I have from when she visited for my nineteenth birthday, when we drove around Riverhead screaming along to Ingrid Michaelson's last album ("Stick" was our favorite track). Struck by the possibility that she may read this post and wondering if and how she'll react.
"Me Too" - Meghan Trainor
“If I was you I’d wanna be me, too.”
I'm sure alllllll of you read my article a few weeks ago about how incredibly shallow and disappointing this Meghan Trainor song and music video are. And don't fret—I change my mind a lot but not that often. This song still makes me squirm.
But working five days a week at a business that plays one radio station every single day, a radio station that only plays approximately twelve different songs on a loop, leads to my hearing this song over and over and over again all summer long. And I've never been one to keep my mouth shut.
So I try to succinctly tell my coworker, Roxana, all the elements of this song that bother me. My passionate but unpolished rambling is ineffective, and she says she’s a big fan of the song and Trainor.
We get home after that night shift and I text Roxana a link to my article, knowing that she is intelligent enough to understand why it's so problematic, and knowing that I'm therefore about to selfishly taint her view of one of her favorite singers.
She reads it, then goes on to read the rest of this blog. She sends me Snapchats of her eyes filled with tears while reading my Italy post at two in the morning. She texts me the warmest and most genuine compliments I could ever ask for and her opinion means more to me than I think she knows. Later on, she is the first one I send this post to.
As the summer drags on, “Me Too” comes on the radio what feels like every thirty seconds. Each time it plays, the oh so dear, sweet, seventeen-year-old Roxana runs to the back of the store to blast the volume on the radio just to irritate me. First I yell at her, but we quickly find ourselves bent over with laughter, far louder than we should ever be when there are customers in the store.
She teaches me Spanish and I teach her about feminism. (She is much better at feminism than I am at Spanish.) She is wise beyond her age and far more intelligent than I was at seventeen but she is incredibly humble (I was less humble than her at seventeen, too). I make her promise me that she'll go away to a college full of other geniuses like her, who challenge her and make her even smarter.
We talk about politics and bigotry, and how to deal with the two. We talk about being good to people. We talk about The Bell Jar, which she reads in about two days after I tell her it’s my favorite book. We talk about our favorite TV shows (she texts me spoilers and I yell at her some more). We talk about any cute guys that walk into the store. We swap stories, old and new. We talk about listening to music with your ears and your brain.
Roxana reminds me of what it's like to be seventeen—to have very little control over your everyday life but to make the best of it as is. And she reminds me of how light life can feel if you keep laughing. These are lessons I find myself needing to learn over and over again.
And to be fair, at Roxana’s age, I was listening exclusively to mainstream country radio, so who am I to judge?
“Sorry” – Beyoncé
“Middle fingers up, put them hands high. Wave it in his face, tell him boy bye."
I sit on my back deck with my childhood best friend as we share a cup of gummy bears and I push the cork down into a bottle of rosé with a screwdriver. As we talk, I think back to the Friday nights we spent at each other’s houses growing up, watching all the new episodes of our favorite Disney Channel shows. Though the subject matter of our conversations has changed, our rapport has remained throughout our lives. With us, confiding is easy. With us, trust is a given. I would say she is family but she deserves a more creative title. With us, it has always been this way.
She turns nineteen in July. I’m trying to be the friend I’ve always wanted to be to her—the oh so wise friend two years her senior, just spewing my experience for her own good. In my head, I do this. In reality, she has always been more mature than her peers and I think this is what has made us feel like we are the same age throughout our lives as next door neighbors. I am trying to give her the right advice to apply to her four-year relationship but I’m struggling to think of anything other than this Beyoncé song - tell him boy bye! Realistically I know that goodbyes are rarely that simple and that she is anything but simple. By the third glass of rosé my words are spilling out too fast and I know there is nothing I can say to help her the way I want to. She isn’t drinking tonight.
In the last weekend of June while on my way home from a winery with Angela, who has become one of the most important people in my life in less than a year, we sing along to this song with too much enthusiasm. I feel lucky because she came all the way from Jersey just to visit me for twenty-four hours. I then walk into my house and unknowingly into a surprise party for my twenty-first birthday, and I am truly, genuinely, incredibly surprised.
I watch my friends from elementary and high school and both colleges I’ve attended all meet each other, laughing and talking and singing Beyoncé songs in my backyard. I am proud to know them and excited for my friends from all different stages of my life to meet each other. (I laugh later in the summer, when I find out there was a very awkward half hour when these virtual strangers waited silently for me to arrive home from the winery…haha, suckers!).
After the initial shock of the party, I hold onto the surprise that my friends and family were selflessly willing to go through all this trouble for me. We eat and drink and roast marshmallows together and I feel very full inside seeing a physical manifestation that people care about me. It is good for my moody, insecure Gemini heart.
“Hard Out Here” – Lily Allen
“We've never had it so good, we're out of the woods, and if you can't detect the sarcasm you've misunderstood.”
I stand scooping a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream on a Wednesday night when a middle-aged man comes up to me and reaches out to grab me by the arm. As I hurriedly step back, uncomfortable and nervous and confused, he tells me he “wants to feel something.” He tries again to reach for my body, and I instinctively resist.
“What, I can't feel the guns? I want to feel your muscles!”
I repeat the word “no” I am not sure exactly how many times.
I can tell he is ashamed. I don't make eye contact with him but I watch him slowly drop several dollars in the tip jar as he looks toward the ground.
My mind floods with questions, some obvious, like, who gave you the right?! But some less so. Like, who is this woman he's with? Is that his wife? Are you fucking kidding me? And I start to theorize. Does he think it's okay to ask any woman in any profession to touch her while she's at her place of work? Would he go up to a female lawyer his own age and ask to grope her as well? I get mad at myself for not saying more to put him in his place and to make him as uncomfortable as he made me. What would happen if I had really talked back? What are they gonna do, fire me? Mostly, I thought about how I would have reacted a few years ago in that same situation. If I were still fifteen, would I have known that I needed to say no? That I had the inherent right to say no and walk away? What would happen if he approached Emily or Krystyna or Hannah?
On my days off, I read a lot of nonfiction. My sister makes fun of the pile of books on my dresser - Sex Object; Guyland; The Feminine Mystique; Girls & Sex; Feminism, Inc.—and I don't blame her. I am anxious to get back to school and begin working on my school's new Women’s Leadership Initiative. I become a walking stereotype. I become the girl sitting on the floor in Barnes & Noble, listening to Joni Mitchell through her headphones and reading the back cover of every book on the Gender Studies shelf.
In July, I meet up with my middle school Latin teacher for the first time since graduation. We get coffee in Aquebogue and make small talk with two of her former students who work behind the counter. I tell her that I was anxious to see her again because she has a very distinct place in my memory as the first self-identified feminist I ever met. My true understanding of her character was limited simply because I was only thirteen when she was my teacher, so I feel lucky to have the opportunity to drink coffee with her at a cute place on Route 25.
We talk for nearly three hours—we have three years to fill each other in on!—and I walk away feeling refreshed. Meeting up with someone who formerly knew you as a middle schooler is unique—she reminds me of how constant my sense of self has remained despite feeling like my life is constantly ricocheting in all directions. She knows me well even though she knew me when I was a dreadful adolescent whom I feel so different from today.
We talk a lot about what it means to be a woman in 2016, and—just like the banner in her classroom reads—she makes me question everything. Our conversation makes me feel passionate about my future again, and her perception of me provides a bit of clarity in an otherwise fuzzy summer.
Knowing I should do so while home for the summer, I make myself a long overdue annual gynecologist appointment to fulfill some idea I've crafted in my head of a brave, proactive, independent, feminist young woman. I go by myself, cool as a cucumber, not at all nervous. Suddenly and unexpectedly, I find myself crying in the stirrups, for a million different reasons and no reason at all. I listen to this Lily Allen song on repeat after that.
“Everything Changes” – Waitress Musical Soundtrack
I head to Applebee’s for half-priced appetizers in true Riverhead fashion after finishing my final shift at Dari-Land. I walk in with some of my coworkers in our bright pink t-shirts like we own the place. I witness the eleventh graders bravely facing the high school reunion they just walked into—apps is a recurring rite of passage in a Riverhead High School social life. They avoid eye contact with ex-boyfriends and bullies and wave politely to the tolerable classmates. I see no one I know and seventeen-year-old Maddie calls me "mom." I am reminded, once again, that I am way too old for this.
After we finish our apps I drive them home, using my dad’s car like a free Uber for teenagers. At this point I know where they all live and I give them each a hug and a few sappy parting remarks when I drop them off and make sure they get inside safely.
After promising Ally sincerely that we’d be “real friends, not just work friends!” I drive the rest of the way home by myself. I start to realize how much I’ll miss these girls. I’ll miss our "ice cream parties" and the stories that were constantly interrupted by customers. I'll miss the nights I sat on the counter in the back to talk to them instead of doing whatever monotonous task I should’ve been doing. I'll miss singing with them to the absolute worst collection of summer radio singles I’ve ever heard. I’ll miss the night we ran around the store for a solid two hours trying to control a bee infestation going on in the garbage cans. I’ll miss texting them after work to make sure someone locked the back freezer and to discuss how annoying the following week’s schedule is. I’ll miss the belly laughs that came more often than we ever would’ve expected when I returned in May.
They gave me a reason to stick with an otherwise unrewarding summer job. They taught me that no job is completely terrible if you're able to maintain a sense of humor during your shift. They made me feel valuable, and definitely not for my scooping skills. They reminded me of what it's like to be in high school but also made me aware of all the ways I've grown up. Most importantly, they helped me find the balance between the two versions of myself I was struggling to accept.
Looking back on the summer, I realize the sad teenagers did more for the patron saint than I ever could have done for them.
“All my mistakes, they make sense when I turn them around.”
A Snapchat we took for Roxana's Story, because teenagers in 2016 LOVE Snapchat more than anything. This is the most important generalization I have deemed true this summer.