We travel, some of us forever, to reach other states, other lives, other souls.Anaïs Nin
Austria is like a dream. The worn cobblestones gleam from years of foot traffic, and the February sun reflects from the surrounding snow-covered peaks and A-frame Alpine homes. The main street is dotted with small shops and tiny cafés, and the snow covers almost every surface, absorbing most sounds save for the click of heels on cleared sidewalks and the faint sounds of birds. Maria Alm is a ski town surrounded by nature, but it still maintains an air of metropolitan Europe. The natural hot springs in the area give the town a faint smell of sulfur mixed with fresh mountain air.
The sensation of finally arriving somewhere you were always meant to be drapes over me, warm and comforting. I wander the streets in awe, curious but unsure, wishing so badly that I was here alone and slightly older than fourteen. Yes, my sister and parents are with me, and this is one of the first family trips I have ever taken to a new country (Austria in February because the plane tickets were cheaper), but this only makes my desire to appear eighteen and independent that much stronger. Since I arrived, the desperation to fit in and become a part of this world has been my sole preoccupation. To start a new life in Europe where the boys are more handsome, the clothes more fashionable, and the hairstyles eccentric and incredibly cool to my fresh suburban gaze.
I wonder what it would be like to leave it all behind: my high school and the imitation of friendship that pervades the hallways; the rumors and gossip that follow me around like a virus; the boredom of upstate New York, where the most exciting thing I have recently found to do is smoke pot. Instead I could exchange it for this. I daydream constantly about how much better my life could be. I play flirty eye games with most of the boys I see—at the Vienna Opera House, or when boarding the metro, or when making side glances while I sit with my family at a coffee shop. I convince my dad to buy me two new blouses, one two shades of pink, form-fitting, with a deep neckline and a collar; the other black, a crop top with the golden face of a lion printed on the front. I get my hair highlighted for the first time, blonde streaks to blend with my pale skin and blue eyes. I sit in the chair at the salon. German syllables float between my ears, but I am mostly unaware. The glow of cosmetic light bulbs envelops me and my new hairstyle, and I finally start to appear as mature and independent as I feel.
The school bell rings, and winter break is over. Ninth grade still exists, and now Austria really is a dream. Part of me yearns for the novelty of the place, the foreign language, the fashionable women and their sleek presence, so far removed from the lazy American style effortlessly perpetuated by every human in my insignificant town. The other part of me walks tall through the high school parking lot, drawn in by the possibility of admiration from my peers. I enter through the side doors of the building to rows of faded blue lockers, the metallic noises of dry hinges and ribbons of steel slamming, the click of combination locks. I prepare myself as I cross the cheap linoleum floor, a fake marble surface covered with skid marks, to my locker.
I feel transformed, like maybe I could be the focus of high school jealousy, the kind that gets you the right friends for all the wrong reasons. The inside of my locker door has a mirror, and I glance at my reflection and adjust a few strands of blonde hair, the corner of my mouth turning up into a shy smile of anticipation. I gather my things and walk to English class. Mrs. G., who’s writing notes about Hamlet on the board, greets everyone with a timid smile. She’s the kind of teacher I could easily manipulate, and I have. But I also like her. She is a humble woman with a thin frame, and she’s the kind of person whose sincerity feels like a guarantee, no matter who you are and how well you do in her class.
Jake, the new kid, sits in front of me, my best friend Carrie to the right, and a blur of other faces fill the gaps in between. Jake has broad, muscular shoulders, a shaved blond head, and an attractive baby face. His torso is trim, and he wears his baggy jeans low around his hips. I have noticed the sharp outlines of his hip bones enveloped by toned muscles and creamy white skin. He has a sharp tongue, and probably a sharp mind, but he mostly wastes this strength on the effort to score girls and drugs and attention. I am not impressed, but many girls are.
Jake turns, looks me up and down. “What’s with the hair?”
I look at him in confusion. His tone hints at ridicule rather than the admiration I was expecting.
“You think just because you went somewhere fancy and got some new clothes, you think you’re better?”
My throat tightens as my Austrian dream begins to chip around the edges. I thought this was my opportunity to finally be cool. Jake dates the most popular girl in my grade.
I am unable to consider it at the moment, but Jake is popular for his looks and his white-boy gangster swag that he picked up from whatever inner-city neighborhood his parents removed him from. I heard he went to juvie, but maybe that’s just a rumor. So what else could he do with a girl like me? Privileged, recently returned from a family vacation to Europe. He doesn’t understand. How could he?
I feel tears welling in my eyes as he continues his smooth smack-talking. The words roll off his tongue and into my ears, and I give up. My entire face blushes and the tears release, sliding down my cheekbones to a place where they can’t be taken back. I am humiliated and crying in front of my entire ninth-grade English class, and my life is over. I look over to Carrie, my friend since middle school. Carrie comes from the kind of family that I have only seen in the movies. Although her friendship gives me a sort of strength that I find myself needing, I hate going to her house. It’s the dwelling of her alcoholic parents and intimidating older sister. She is so much like Jake in many ways: her mouth moves so that her trauma stays dormant, unobtrusive, and unable to alter her cool and swaggering reputation.
Carrie is tough. She’s expert at presenting and reminding me of my flaws. The presence of this unstable friendship in my life has become more important than maintaining my own self-worth. Staying close to Carrie is a survival technique that keeps me from drowning in the teenage suicide of trying to navigate these waters on my own. I have learned the hard way to no longer talk behind her back, because she usually finds out and refuses to talk to me for weeks. Those are the days I eat lunch alone. But this is a good day, and things have been going smoothly. Today she is my friend.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Mind your own damn business, trailer trash! You know you’re just jealous. What the fuck kind of goal do you have, making her cry?”
She bites him with her words, smacks him clear across the face with a defense he had not anticipated. My tears stop, not because I have regained my confidence but because I am in disbelief. I am shocked that Carrie would put herself out there in the high school spotlight, making herself vulnerable to criticism, to the endless cruelty of bored suburban teenagers. Of course Mrs. G. backs her up, verbalizing her disappointment in us as a class, in our failure to support and be kind to one another. But Mrs. G.’s reaction is something I expect, and her support extends only as far as the next school bell, when the dark hallways will swallow us once again.
There have been many days when Carrie has used that same verbal confidence and energy to attack me and my words and my wardrobe, but this time she has used her power to defend me. For the first time in my short high school experience, someone has stuck their neck out for me. I stare at Carrie and think, “I want to be like that.” I want to somehow absorb her confidence, that targeted and purposeful aggression that lives inside of her.
I glimpse something that my mind subconsciously considers returning to in the future. Maybe after all of this is over—the superficiality of high school and the keeping up of appearances, “European cool” or otherwise—perhaps I could instead aspire to what is real. Carrie and her confidence. Strong words in intimidating situations. Defending a friend.
Anaïs Nin, in observation of her lover’s wife, once wrote, “She lacks confidence, she craves admiration insatiably. She lives on the reflections of herself in the eyes of others. She does not dare to be herself.” And I think about what a shame it would be if this is how someone were to describe me.
This occurrence weighs heavy on my heart.