My cool friend was reading it, she read it a bunch of times. She was cool because she had a nose piercing and sometimes made out with an even cooler guy on the bus ride home. I think I picked it up once in the library and felt too alienated by the eggplant cover; no, I must have thought, this book is not for the likes for me. By the next time it surfaced I was too old and this is how you know: they made a movie, and I saw it, and it made me weep into my Twizzlers at the Sunshine Cinema for reasons that bear scrutiny.
It’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It was first published in 1999. I still haven’t read the book but will go on and assume that its author, Steven Chbosky, had his own vision’s best interests at heart when he wrote the screenplay and produced and directed the film that came out a few months ago, now in bonny 2012. Tuesdays are my Me Days so I went and saw Perks in 4pm sleet, after an overpriced pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. It will be important later: in 2012, I have “Me Days,” and the treats inside them are things like a lager and a sandwich at a glorified deli, strawberry lemonade I buy at a concession stand with my credit card because soda has too many calories, the credit card bill I’ve got to pay once I return home to my apartment, look at me I am an adult moving alone around a rainy metropolis running errands and reaping small rewards. It is of course very silly to be twentysomething and nostalgic for high school – it’s not that far away, for one. Also nostalgia is not the right term quite. It’s less elegant than wist, more of a dull shock. Just to sit in the shoes of an overly-earnest 16 year old soul for a few hours and remember what it feels like, felt like, or remember what you think you ought to remember about what it feels like, felt like, realize in the exercise you have forgotten vast swathes of the feeling as you lived it, suddenly know in bones six years closer to inherited rheumatoid arthritis that you are older than you were because a part of your life is over.
Oh she’s being DRAMATIC. Keep up.
What Steven Chbosky has done with his movie version of Perks may very well be special: when the credits rolled, I tried to compare this experience to all the high school movies and shows I’ve ever adored. I looked for their common denominators. There were the excellent and short-lived Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, which, like Perks, are winning homages to high school life because they’re so gosh-darned honest. Freaks and Geeks pokes a lot fun at teenagedom because its creators were those who found their stride and dignity long after graduation; My So-Called Life is always well-intentioned but sometimes the after-school special element was too much to stomach amirite (direct quote from Sharon, episode 5 [The Zit] – “Why do girls have to tear each other down?” BLECH). Then I think of Clueless and Mean Girls, but those are really just comedies for adults, by adults. Stacey Dash was 28 when she played Dion, just like Alan Ruck was 30 when he was Cameron in Ferris Bueller. And for all his synthy montages and uncomplicated archetypes, we can all agree that the late and great John Hughes made movies about how he wished high school had been, not how it really was. Ditto James Cameron, you life-ruiner you – no man will ever measure up to Lloyd Dobler. Ditto to the 100th power anything MTV has ever put its hands on.
So the perks of Perks: the kids look like they are actually in high school. There is a scene in this movie where the Crazy Beautiful Girl (names are not important, for my purposes) does a Crazy thing while a Great Song is playing. The Lonely Weird Boy gazes up at her and there’s the rush of speeding through a tunnel and it’s David Bowie’s Heroes and the kid actually says the words “I feel infinite.” Only instead of throwing up, I feel like I’m right there in the car with them. Why? And more importantly, was I there? Was I ever there?
And did I ever have a mentor like Paul Rudd in the movie? An empathic English teacher who pulled me aside at important moments during the growth spurt to tell me I was special, and I was going places? Did I have a person that made me fall the way I begin to see only the maniacal ego of the under eighteen can fall? A crush that transcended, made mockery of the term? Such nonsense doesn’t exist in the daylight these days, where there are bills and internet dating and dermatologist appointments. It was all I could think about during Perks somehow; the mapping of all these bona fide tropes onto my own yearbook. And the weird thing was that a lot of them found perfect matches. Lonely Boy has adventures that are not adventures, not really, but the moments of them are about as wide and unimpeachable as…anything. Remember when you were that age? How it meant everything because there was nothing yet to compare it to?
Like the music. Lonely Boy discovers The Smiths in the movie. I “discovered” The Beatles and David Bowie and Led Zeppelin and I also received an eight hour mix-tape once that was narrated by a boy I loved. My friends and I went to concerts and traded whole musical libraries through burned CDs, and once the first of us had a Learner’s Permit we were cramming six or seven people into cars and driving carefully around downtown with the stereo blasting. I also remember speeding on a highway listening to Arcade Fire, and I swear it was infinite, that. And the question starts to become, why are these memories so special? because let us also not forget the helplessness and cruelty of high school. I don’t miss that. In the movie, Lonely Boy struggles with a mental illness aggravated by a repressed history of sexual abuse. Suffice it to say that I remember when people, friends, were dealing with the astronomic feelings and errors of their forming minds, new ways to understand personal histories, sex, I remember that. How alone they felt, how ill-equipped we were to help them. How the peril of people closest to us could cast doubt on our mental states, our own definition of happiness. That kind of thing is still true and still happens – friends know bleak times, I know bleak times – but something about being young and so ruthlessly contained everywhere we went must have made it worse. In any case, the friends I’m talking about tend to be the ones who shook the dust of primary education off their shoes lickety-split and went on to get zany haircuts and new nicknames before they took gap years or went to colleges across the country. Now a lot of these people don’t come home for holidays.
And then the dice fell, the mirror shattered, whatever it is people say…just like in the movie when all of Lonely Boy’s best friends go off to college, or earlier in the movie when Lonely Boy first realizes he’s capable of hurting people’s feelings, there were the dramatic shifts that in retrospect seem like such clear life markers. Defining things happen in high school. There was an incident once, in my clustered clique of eight or nine girls and the few circling boys who we never really figured out how to talk to. I used to think about it a lot and try to figure out who was wrong and where the mistake was made. Yet it gets remarkably plain once you’re twentysomething and having a Me Day: everyone. Everyone was wrong, almost always.
Like the teacher who took me aside to tell me I could be whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, who wrote me a college recommendation that in no small way explains how I got to this city, he ended up ruining something in a big way. To the extent that I can no longer think of that man as a hero, like I did when I was sixteen. We learned that people were actually and always people. By college, it was either funny or it was on our level: yeah, sure, Zane (instead of Mr. Zane) is a total jack-off. I hate his assignment because I don’t respect his opinions on Gatsby. (Okay, that last exchange never happened.)
In the movie, Crazy Beautiful Girl tells Lonely Boy: “Write about us.” This might be the only part of Perks that rang slightly false to me, this arch hand of God aspect where the hero’s whole life thereafter is preordained and vindicated. For I was a teenage writer too, and people have always told me to write – but no one’s so free with their life rights. It’s without their blessing that I now think of what and how and why I’d write about The Shed behind so-and-so’s house where all the cool kids smoked weed and had the most bangin’ of house parties, or the streets of Takoma Park where we would walk around in the dark before we could drive (once, topless! Just cause we could!). The movie during which I had my first and slobbery kiss, and then the Subaru where I said ‘I Love You!’ in a way so speedy and compelled that I definitely spat on his face, the lead drummer in the drum line and my subsequent infatuation, the RV we decorated with Christmas lights and rode to prom in, the running prank of putting orange cones on our friends and enemies’ lawns…
Who would it be for, anyways. Probably just me, right? Why do these movies and shows still sell out theaters (indie theaters) and move and shake the older and cooler, the people who hated it while it was happening? What’s the sugar in a high school movie? And if I ever made such a movie, or really wrote about it, would it even be true, could it even be true? I’d want it to be so so honest but it already feels like I’m grabbing at straws trying to hold on to the integrity of certain moments. Like once upon a time in high school we tried to re-enact a certain scene at the end of the movie Dazed and Confused. It was too cold. I didn’t make it all the way to the fifty yard line, ever.
But no no no no no NO, Steven Chbosky, to clarify: I do not miss high school. You couldn’t pay me to go back. I don’t miss the clothes or the misguided self-eyebrow care, I don’t miss fretting my way through math classes, I don’t miss the catty girls or the neo-hippie girls or any of the girls at all but my friends, I don’t miss the boys, either, those lumbering greasepots, I don’t miss trying and always failing to sneak out of my attic bedroom. I do wish I could remember it better sometimes. In memory, long hallways are contracting — soon Montgomery Blair High will all have taken place along one fuzzy aisle with three motivational posters repeated every few paces, like a cartoon backdrop.
But mostly I don’t miss high school because it is way, way too late. I like who I am. I like what I do. I like finding my own way home in the dark, and fracking up with panache and gravity. I like my independence, I love my independence, the things around me now are evidence of choices I have made. If I ever don’t like what I see so long out of high-school, the ball will be in my court. And that is just so fabulous, right.
It all happened, it must have. If I paint it sepia in the rearview mirror, well…there’s no going back. It happened and it did have perks. Now I’m going to go vacuum my living room and plan a menu for a dinner party because that’s something I can do, as I’m free.