weird, adj. 1. Involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny: a weird sound; weird lights. 2. fantastic; bizarre: a weird getup. 3. archaic. concerned with or controlling fate or destiny.
It all started the summer before seventh grade. Back then, in the early days of the internet, I had a computer that booted from a floppy disk and had a primitive dialup connection: I would click on “connect,” and then the modem dialed the number, which was followed by a series of clicks and screams before the ever-familiar whoosh: I was online. I became an addict, overcome by the realization that there was a whole world outside of the medium-sized midwestern city where I lived. My romanticized images of mysterious strangers in my pre-adolescent mind kept me in front of the screen for hours.
I communicated with my pseudo-friends on bulletin boards, which are now called “forums.” On these boards, I corresponded with older people about music, fashion, politics, and personal ideals. In retrospect, many of them had to be pedophiles and perverts: why else would a 30-year-old man ask me for my fifth grade class picture? Bill, as I will call him now, was one of these friends. A staunch Republican, he challenged everything I knew about politics, which was really quite simple for me back then: Democrats were good and Republicans were bad. Bill often tried to convert me to the dark side, but I resisted with such force and vigor that our exchanges did nothing but reinforce my beliefs. One of his favorite arguments was that women belonged at home raising babies, a sharp contrast to my own working mother and burgeoning ideas of womanhood and <gasp> feminism. When I raised this issue, he replied with Bible quotes; he was one of those literalists. In retrospect, I imagine him as the kind of man who quotes Leviticus as the primary reason why anyone who isn’t heterosexual and cisgendered will burn in hell. If I met him now, I would inquire about my slaves from neighboring nations. After all, what good citizen doesn’t want a Canadian slave? (I obviously mean no offense to Canada–please believe me.)
I learned vocabulary words from Bill; he was the first person to call me “insatiable.” Of course, being twelve years old, I had to look “insatiable” up in the dictionary, and quickly changed my internet handle to “The Unsinkable KB.” Another word he used was “precocious,” but I was offended by its definition; he hand’t been the first to use that one. I wasn’t a child—at least I didn’t think so. I felt like a grownup and wrote like a grownup, and was irritated by the fact that I had no rights because I wasn’t one. I wanted to skip the whole terrible transition and go immediately from childhood to adulthood.
I received hate mail from a neo-Nazi once. I admit it: I frequently railed against the evils of the American government on a bulletin board dedicated to alternative music, but was caught off guard by, “I’ll sink you, you fucking bitch. Suck on this, you stupid whore!” The email was signed “Zeig Heil,” which I had to look up in the encyclopedia. This set off a whole chain of emotions and stomach aches. I was afraid of this faceless Nazi—would he find where I lived and hurt me? Would he hurt my mom because she worked or my dad because he was a Democrat? I felt a deep sense of shame, not for being critical of the government or for expressing what I saw, at the time, as capital-T Truth, but for partaking in what I knew was a grownup endeavor. Little kids had no place on the boards and I knew this, but I was finding myself—or at least some incarnation of the adult I wanted to be—on those anonymous pages.
I didn’t tell my parents about the hate mail. I was deliberately secretive about my online time: it was mine, and those people (maybe minus the Nazi) were my friends. I did tell Bill, who responded by scolding me for posting such opinions in the first place. He suggested that I visit him in Louisiana, but told me not to tell my parents. I felt oddly creepy at this prospect, but promptly asked my parents for a plane ticket. They were understandably horrified. I remember lying on their bed, with my dad in the rocking chair and my mom perched next to me on the mattress, listening to them explain that Bill might be a Bad Man. I was apoplectic. Dammit, I knew I never should have let them into my secret world. I knew in my heart that Bill was not a Bad Man—my naïveté betrayed my status as a child. My stomachache betrayed my inner conflict about him. I didn’t know, then, to trust my gut.
To our credit, all of this was in the early nineties, before anyone knew about internet creeps. My parents began to monitor my online endeavors more carefully and encouraged me to associate with my existing group of live friends, who bored me to no end. Why couldn’t they be more interesting? All they cared about was pop music and the cute boys in our grade and reading Seventeen. Why couldn’t they see what was really happening in the world? The Persian Gulf War was in full swing, and they didn’t care. They had no knowledge of Nazis, didn’t know whether they were Democrats or Republicans, and exhibited no interest in psychology or philosophy or things like the nascent LGBTQ rights movement. What good were those friends, other than for bike rides and board games?
I began to read the encyclopedia. Not straight through, as I had no desire to know everything, but bit by bit. I began with horses, which I loved, and quickly progressed to England, Wordsworth, Plato, American politics, and music. When it came to music, the encyclopedia was disappointing, as it only covered the classical genre, which I already knew a little bit about thanks to my musical mom. My interests were far broader; after all, I had just discovered New Wave. Bill, with whom my communications had dwindled, began sending me mix tapes in an attempt to convince me that he wasn’t a pervert. I didn’t care about him anymore, but the tapes invigorated me. As I tore into the padded envelope that arrived each week, a small squirt of adrenaline would hit me as I inserted the cassette into my boom box. As each song played, I would memorize the melody and mentally tie it to the song title. Talk, talk. The year of the cat. Sweet dreams are made of this. I do not want what I haven’t got. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Voices carry.
My parents were tolerant. My face-to-face friends began to think I was weird. Why didn’t I care about Top 40 radio anymore? Why didn’t I want to play Barbies? What was the matter with me? What kind of dork reads the encyclopedia and sits by herself in her room listening to strange music, anyway? When their lines of questioning became too painful, I retreated all the way into my room, where my stereo understood me, and became a true introvert (alternately, “a teenager with an attitude”; you decide). I got myself a guitar, pair of Doc Martens, an asymmetrical haircut, lots of black T-shirts, some eyeliner, and a Walkman. A new nonconformist, I took back the adjective “weird” and made it my identity. The more black I wore and the more people didn’t understand me, the less likely they were to ask me annoying questions about myself. This contented me and became my way of life until those dreadful middle school years were replaced by smoking pot and playing guitar in a rock and roll band.
But high school is another story.
Now, I have sense of humor about all of it—what teenager doesn’t feel alienated, dejected, angry? It’s a universal plight, albeit one with the power to draw us together in our feelings of separation. Somewhere in the time continuum, most of us discover who we are. We follow rites of passage, and we grow up. If we remember what it’s like to be a struggling teenager, we might be less likely to say asinine things like, “I’d do it all over,” or, “I’d love to be fourteen again.”
I wouldn’t. Once was enough for me.