By Dorothy Fortenbery
(Editor’s Note: I’m very happy to welcome back Dorothy Fortenberry—a writer I’ve known since my adolescence—to kick off this issue. Here she talks about the ways we yearn to remake ourselves again and again. Dorothy Fortenberry is a playwright from Washington, D.C.currently living in Los Angeles. Her plays have been produced in New York, LA, and Chicago, and her essays have appeared in the magazines Real Simple and Brain, Child.)
I'm in the backseat of a car, a car driven by, for the first time, a peer – okay, not a peer, he's in high school and I'm in 8th grade, but still – not someone's parent. Another kid. Another kid is driving, drove six blocks from the high school I don't yet attend to the nearby pizza parlor. We just finished watching the high school play. We are going out for pizza. I am in the back seat, contemplating for the first time not wearing a seat belt, quizzing myself about what to do if anyone orders beer. Most of all, though, I am struggling to act cool, to act like I do this kind of thing all the time, even though I've never done anything like it before. Because in the back of my head, I hear a voice saying, “It will all be different now. You will spend hours in this car and get pizza hear every Friday. This is the first day of the rest of your teenage life.”
I'm at a concert. I'm sixteen and I read a review of an album in the “Weekend” section of the newspaper and it sounds like music I would like, so I'm there. I asked my mom to drive me to Virginia to a bluegrass club I've never been to across from a mom and pop waffle restaurant whose awning reads “Wafle Hut.” I have no memory of what my mom did during the concert – drove home, right? She must have driven home – because I'm there by myself, but I don't mind because I love the music. I buy a t-shirt, the last of the hand-painted ones since the band just signed with a major label and won't have to make its own shirts anymore, which makes me both lucky and prescient. I'm in love, with the music, with the lead singer who's married to the guitarist who took her name because that's how feminist we are in 1996, and with the notion that this is what you do. It's why there's a Weekend section, to learn about new music and go to concerts and buy shirts and lose your heart to bands.
Senior year, a month to graduation, and I'm running. I taught myself to run using a schedule ripped out of Seventeen magazine and pinned to my bulletin board. It started with “Walk 9 minutes, Run 1 minute” and by the end of 8 weeks, you were supposed to “Run 9 minutes, Walk 1 minute.” Insanely, I actually followed it, and more insanely, I signed up for a charity 5K with my friend. She's a better runner than me and on the field hockey team and the softball team, but for whatever reason, I am flying past her this morning. I am running along the Potomac River at 8am and I am faster than I've ever been and I know: This is my new life. This is who I will be at college. “Do you have any hobbies?” “Oh, I'm a runner. Do you run?”
After the pizza outing, of course, I never ride in that kid's car again. And, after the concert, despite becoming a fervent fan of The Nields, I never read about another band and then see it live, on a whim. My first 5K is my last 5K, and whoever I am in college, it isn't “a runner.” When I think about being a teenager, I think about how much it was like visiting a city that you think you might move to. You go out to coffee and imagine, “if I lived in this city, I'd have coffee at this shop every day.” But if you actually do move to that city, you probably never go in that coffee shop again. While visiting, you get off at a subway stop and think, “Ah, if I lived here, this would be my subway stop,” except probably it wouldn't be. Probably it would only be your friend's subway stop and the easiest way to get to your friend's place might be the bus.
I don't miss a lot about being 15 because I have a fairly nice adult life and a very good memory, but I miss the misapplied certainty about what the future would hold. I miss the internal narrative voice telling me that anything done once could and probably would be done forever. I still make little pacts with myself like, “now that I bought this nice sunscreen, I will be a person who moisturizes daily” or “oh look, I'm early to something, maybe I'll be early to everything now.” But it's not the same. My promises now are only ever in the realm of self-improvement, so they're more New Year's resolutions than prognostication, and I don't ever keep them. The worst part is I don't ever even believe I will.