taylor swift - fifteen
(this post discusses suicidal ideation.)
"be honest: did you read sophie’s world for the philosophy, or the story?"
for someone i was never really friends with, i wound up seeing her cry a lot. probably i wasn’t special in this, probably she cried a lot and i happened to be one of the people who tended to catch it. definitely i wasn’t the only one she was jealous of; i don’t know whether i was the only one she told. it was the first thing she said that day walking into latin class, straight to my face and i don’t remember how i responded. she was older and a better singer than me and beautiful, skin like a renaissance madonna — a comparison she would have appreciated if not agreed with — and she was jealous of me because of some grade on a history test, and what could i say, to that. she had this peculiar boldness, aggressively miserable, too desperate to hide it so she’d throw it in your face. we were never really friends and maybe that was part of it: there’s a looseness in those relationships that come into being only through proximity, occasionally, in choir, in latin, in the bathroom.
in tenth grade i was still in regular math, so during algebra i’d sit in the back, doing the homework and maybe if i finished, drawing. maybe not; maybe i had already stopped, because i wasn’t an artist. it was that kind of place. i don’t feel right complaining, but this much is true: when i was fourteen i drew, i played piano, i read novels, i showed up to club meetings. when i was fifteen i didn’t do any of that. i was a theater kid, so that much i allowed myself, but anything else, if i wasn’t going to compete, what was the point. if i couldn’t compete, it was worthless.
in math i could compete, and that last year before i switched to honors no one could compete with me, not really, so i’d get ahead on the homework, keeping an ear open for when the teacher tried to catch me tuning out. sometimes i’d get up and take a walk, down the hall and back, to the bathroom but not to use it. once i found her there, crying, red splotches on her porcelain skin, telling me, this girl she was jealous of, how she couldn’t stop picturing herself with a gun in her mouth, and what could i say, to that. two years later i’d be crying in that same bathroom because no matter how much my boyfriend told me he loved me, i couldn’t believe him, crying three floors up about a math test, crying so often and so obviously that acquaintances started asking friends, is isabel okay? if there’s a silver lining to that, and how long it lasted and how much worse it got, i’d say it’s this: i’m no longer naive enough to think you can say anything to help someone when they’re like that. but i didn’t know it at fifteen.
i was a freshman when she asked me about sophie’s world, plopping down next to me in the soprano section, waiting for warm-ups to start. i’d never heard of the book, and looking back i think she knew that, or at least would have guessed it; i think she was faking surprise as a power play, a way to make me feel smaller while maintaining plausible deniability. you can make fun of that, and call it pretentious and petty, and it was, and i did. but you can also think about what need she was trying to fill with something so petty, so pathetic, whether it was about being better or about trying to construct rules by which she was enough, and how little it must have helped, if a year later she was in a bathroom, thinking about a gun in her mouth.
it was that kind of place: my boyfriend sent me an email once asking, if wildly successful people had killed themselves, what was the point of living, for someone like him. this was after he got his SAT scores, of all things. he was like her, in this one way: he shouldn’t have gone there. he was so good to me, even when i was awful to him, or at him at least, and i’m grateful enough that i’d give up ever meeting him, for him to have gone somewhere he could have learned to see all the things he was, instead of measuring himself by what he never would or really wanted to be. they were so brilliant, both of them, brilliant in the sense of sparkling, fascinating. he sent me these emails and she cried, often and everywhere, because when you’re fifteen and somebody tells you you’re worthless, you’re going to believe them.
i’ve been thinking lately about what a cheap insult it is to say music isn’t relatable. you don’t need to relate to anything, or like it, or even respect it, but relatable isn’t really something that can be argued; relating is an experience, not an opinion. any young woman who’s had a song on the radio, the one you find most irritating and derivative and banal, go look at her videos on youtube and young women, girls (kids, we were kids, i always forget not to be stunned by that), are relating to her, and to each other through her.
before i let anyone talk me into thinking otherwise, i always read those lines about the cheer captain as being about jealousy, not shame, although how distant are they from each other; isn’t jealousy the flip side of shame, sometimes, what you throw at the world to mask the hollowness devouring you under your skin. like it ever works, but we keep trying. i think now, maybe, that describes me, too, hearing taylor swift for a long time: jealous. how great it would have been to relate to her, for her big problems to have been my big problems. to have believed someone when he told me he loved me, at fifteen, instead of believing i was unlovable — what an amazing problem that would have been. how much easier my very special life would have been, if i were someone who could relate to taylor and not to fiona. wouldn’t it have been nice if taylor had sufficed, if i hadn’t needed four-syllable precision to get at the depths of what i felt — as though privileging four-syllable precision wasn’t part of what had led me there, the lyrical equivalent of pretending i assumed everyone had read sophie’s world.
you grow up, you fall apart. you start to put yourself back together, clearing old debris to make room for something that could be hope, someday. in the mess you find these splinters you’d half-forgotten, that were everything at the time, so small now but carried so deep, and while you’re digging them out what seemed an extrication becomes an excavation (explanation, exploration — she knew so many words for every latin prefix). all the hurt you felt, and all the hurt you caused, the parts you didn’t mean to and the parts you did, even if you didn’t admit it at the time. someone was asking about sophie’s world and elsewhere you were sighing about tests being too easy. you think, who knows what else the cheer captain had going on at the time. maybe nothing, maybe everything you saw was everything she was. but maybe sometimes she left class for ten minutes because that was how long it took to fix her mascara, to make it look like she hadn’t been crying. maybe the girl in the bleachers had bigger problems than the one she wrote a song about, ones too big to fit into a chorus. and if not, so what. it was a long time ago.
and wasn’t i fifteen once, and wasn’t one of those senior boys making eyes at me. not the one i idolized for playing romeo and quoting eliot — so insufferable, so inevitable (invisible, inimical — inimical was a favorite of latin teachers, the kind of word only latin teachers use). the one i met during the musical, who asked for my screen name and messaged me to talk about nothing much. he wasn’t especially good-looking but he was what would later be my type: shaggy hair, shadows of acne across his cheeks, the kind of guy no one could be surprised was a stoner, except me, the most innocent, and by then even i’d figured out what i wasn’t supposed to consider a scandal. he did more than just weed though. he’d been really fucked up, someone told me, since his mom died. he liked girls who were innocent, it was his thing. girls who were innocent, and telling girls who were in love with him about the girl he was interested in. and of course she was one of those girls, not hiding it because she had nothing to lose, and this was just one more thing to be jealous of.
he was a senior and i was fifteen and so innocent, in some ways — “so innocent she doesn’t know she’s innocent,” in the words of rayanne graff. or else so young. creepy, dangerous, fucked up. his mom had been dead two years, and three years later he would be, too.
wasn’t i fifteen, and when he asked me out didn’t i feel the words like a full-body fever and then try to talk my mom out of giving me permission. i didn’t need a reason to give him so much as i needed some way to explain it to myself, something less embarrassing, less young, than that i was too scared. even after that, when i went to the senior project showcase, he’d saved me a seat, motioning for me to sit next to him as soon as i walked into the theater. i still loved the heat of that terrifying spotlight, maybe more easily now that i didn’t have to worry about what he might ask and when. halfway through the performance he took my hand — that’s all, just took my hand, not even my leg, nothing near to a kiss — took my hand, gently but with intent, caressing it slowly, softly, his fingers toying with mine like they were something to marvel at. i realized i could lose my virginity to this boy, could do it that week if i wanted, could do whatever i wanted with him, that he’d do anything i asked or agreed to. just my hand, and it was too much: not the touch but the possibility, the dizzying view from a precipice i wasn’t ready to descend. when the lights went up i ran out of the theater, sick with vertigo, to the stairwell i’d spend much of the next year making out in, up half a flight of stairs so no one would find me with my head between my knees, crying.
at sixteen i’d be making out, at seventeen i’d be having sex: adolescence moves in fits and starts. there are no universals about it, no single timeline or standard order of milestones. i remember trying to figure out where i should be — was i supposed to say yes, was i supposed to want to say yes, was i supposed to want to kiss him — by trying to guess where everyone else was, but when you’re fifteen, almost anything could be true of you, and false the next day. you can be still young in some ways and too old in others, feeling like you’re flying and crying in the stairwell before the hour’s done.
nothing is an absolute — that’s part of what i’m saying. you don’t owe anyone forgiveness, there’s no wrong you’re obligated to erase. but you grow up, you examine (exhume, exhale) what you’ve accumulated, what you’ve been given and what you’ve grown to protect yourself from that, what you can call yours and what you don’t need anymore. the things that have shaped you, and the things that are hiding parts of you maybe you’d like to bring back into daylight. you look at how much of it there is, how long these decisions will take and how much work to make them final, and in the process — and this, i think, is important, is maybe necessary sometimes — you start to recognize that the people you caught pieces of crossing your line of sight might have been carrying all of this too, this and more. you begin to wonder if maybe, when someone says they were aching, you ought to believe them. and in that awareness compassion grows like a balm.
there was no disbelieving her; she was too raw for that, the walking wounded, with a learned affect of buoying her bitterness atop manic laughter with adolescent panache. i don’t think about her much these days, haven’t spoken to her since she graduated. except once — it was at the school, i don’t remember why she was there. she’d been out of the city a year, at her second-choice university, a few hundred miles away. answering my dull questions — do you like it, what are you majoring in, is winter really cold — she glanced around half-warily, a tension in her shoulders now familiar to me from my own post-graduation visits. even so there was something softer in her eyes, some edge dissipated, like maybe she was almost happy, like maybe she had glimpsed peace.