Be Thankful

by ceeangi

I had been in Indiana just two weeks, and had only met two classmates–one nice, the other a spitting image of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Titanic” character, at an age where that was all you needed to be popular, and, simultaneously, have a license to be a real jackass to all of the girls that did not look Kate Winslet.

If you wanted to meet anyone on a Friday night, they were at the football field. Since entertainment was hard to find on the outskirts of Indianapolis and the weather was nice, each Friday night was like a carnival with a football game situated right in the middle.

The nice one’s mom loaded the three of us in the back of her Lexus SUV, and we sat in traffic near the four-way stop by the high school. Tired of the standstill and intrigued by the aura of mystery that would attend our showing up at the game seemingly without supervision, we piled out of the car and walked through the cornfield that surrounded the school’s campus. I stared at my shoes and listened to the dark mud that squished and sloshed around the edges of my Chuck Taylors, missing the red clay of Georgia more with every step.

As soon as we got through the gate for the Homecoming game, both the naughty and nice guys walked in opposite directions, leaving me alone. I wandered for the first quarter, pacing back and forth underneath the bleachers. Classmates I did not yet know stood in their cliques and watched me, but never took an active interest beyond snickers, leers, and whispers. The band played Gary Glitter for the tenth time and the cheerleaders stomped their sneakers and shook their pom-poms.

I could not find the exit, so I climbed over a short fence and went to the playground at the elementary school to wait until it was time for DiCaprio’s dad to come pick us up. I pulled out my headphones, pressed play on my Walkman, and listened to a Pearl Jam album as I sat atop the monkey bars, the brightly painted twisted metal glowed under a street lamp, rows of corn dancing in the distance.

I wanted a cigarette. As soon as the thought arrived in my head, a lanky girl with a pixie cut dressed like she just stepped off of a Fleetwood Mac album cover climbed up the slide.

“You smoke?” she asked as she put two Parliament Lights in her mouth and lit them simultaneously. Not waiting for an answer, she stood on her tiptoes and handed one up to me.

“Thanks. I’m Cee.”

“Logan. You new here?” In a town this small, she already knew the answer. I nodded while winding the cord around my Walkman and putting it back in my pocket.

I did not learn much about her that night, other than we were in the same grade. I hadn’t met her yet because she was a “B” and I was a “C,” and the school kept students segregated based on an arbitrary caste that determined when you’d lunch, where you sat before the first bell, and who got to board the buses first. Later, I asked around about her. Plenty of people knew her. Logan had been well liked in elementary school, I was told, praised for her creativity and art. She was gorgeous and that helped her trajectory towards the top of the popularity ranks in middle school, but she fell out of favor because her family was poor and she could not afford Abercrombie & Fitch without stealing it.

Logan was smarter than most Advanced Placement kids, but they did not want anything to do with her because she was a rebel and emulating her behavior might derail one from the fast track to the Ivy League. She wore dashiki, listened to the Grateful Dead, and drove a vintage Volkswagen Microbus that belonged to her father. It was hand-painted with daisies, suns, and slogans like “Honk if you love Jesus.” She conned her father into believing she wanted to drive the van to spread the message of God, a calculated irony given she mostly used the God-mobile to pick up drugs and give blowjobs to willing recipients, spending as much time knee-deep in the shag carpet in the back as with her foot on the gas.

We became high-functioning deviants together. We were subversive, but smart about it, skipping only the classes that would not get us in trouble, smoking pot, but still making it home in time for curfew so that we would be free to do it again the next night. We saved our lunch money to buy vinyl records and would spread them all over the floor of my bedroom, reading the liner notes instead of our Biology books. She let me borrow her Vonnegut novels, and I let her play my guitar. She turned everything into a canvas, and routinely moved my bookshelf away from the wall so she could paint things my parents would not find. When we moved later that year, I had to explain  why a portion of the wall was psychadelic. “Logan,” I shrugged and they understood.

Most of the things I had heard about her were misunderstandings or half-truths. Her parents were neither neglectful nor alcoholics; her father worked a full-time job and volunteered nightly at the church — he just did not earn much. Her mother had worked at one time, but she had developed a phobia that prevented her from driving, making it impossible for her to keep a job. The rumor at school was that Logan was anorexic because she was tall and slender to the point that her hipbones protruded when her midriff was exposed, but that was not the case. She did not eat because she gave her lunch money to her two younger sisters so they could have a hot meal every day.

I always thought of my family as wealthy when I was a child. That was sort of true, but not completely. I did, however, always feel safe and well cared for. My parents, like everyone, had their share of setbacks–layoffs, cancer, medical bills–but they shielded my sister and me to the point that we were not able to sense it. My parents were resilient though, and when something bad would happen they would recalibrate and fight back, often ending up in a better place than they began. Even when things were not ideal, we still had a refrigerator full of food, took a yearly trip to the beach, and we had a BMW parked in the driveway of our house on a golf course. Now it’s obvious to me that our position was just as tenuous as  anyone else’s, we just had a different height from which to fall.

 Logan triggered some feeling of recognition in my family, because meeting her changed them.

She frequently slept over, and when my mother caught her stealing shampoo from my shower and putting it into her overnight bag, instead of making a scene she took me aside and asked me what I knew of Logan’s family. I told her that I did not think they had much money, but that money only seemed to come up when we were at the mall and Logan needed to borrow a few bucks to buy a soda or a movie ticket. (This was also Logan’s defense for shoplifting makeup and clothing, but I did not tell my mom that part).

 From then on, my mother insisted Logan stay at the house more often. She ate dinner with us most nights and joined us on our vacations. When it was time for back-to-school shopping, my mother took us to the mall and bought more clothes for Logan than for me and my sister combined. When school resumed, I got an extra $15 per week for lunch money to make sure Logan could have all of the Salisbury steak and yeast rolls she wanted.

My family moved to a different state for the next school year, but Logan and I kept in touch with emails and late-night phone calls. Every week my mother would give us both a calling card so we could catch up on everything we had missed in each other’s lives. I would tell her about the college boy at the coffee shop who let me borrow all of his Who albums, and she would tell me how hypocritical the youth pastors at her church were at lock-ins. Then came the  summer before senior year, when she met Tom.

Of all the boys who had the pleasure of winning Logan’s affections, and there were many, Tom was my least favorite. Tom was three years older than we were, the token mustachioed high-school kid who caused everyone who did not know him to whisper, “How old is he?” He had shaggy hair and mangled teeth, and worked at the gas station while making his third attempt to finish high school. He stayed not because he cared, but because he had an arrangement with his ultra-wealthy parents that if he remained in school they would keep paying for his apartment and would not send him to rehab for his drinking problem and drug use.

I became resentful of their relationship because we spoke less and I worried more. Logan was always wild, but when we were together we stuck to petty things that would get us in trouble with our parents, not the law. Once at a party, someone offered her cocaine and she replied, “I draw the line at making bad decisions that could impact the rest of my life.”

I came home from midterms my Senior year to four missed calls from Logan, each voicemail sounding a little more urgent than the last. “Remember the stomach flu from a couple weeks ago? Well, it was not that…” she mumbled, trailing off on the final message.

Since she missed her exams and did not want to be fodder for the rich kids’ put-downs, Logan quit school. She wanted to get her GED and keep the baby, so she moved in with Tom in a rundown trailer in a neighboring town that I had been to once when she asked for a ride. I rarely heard from her because their phone was either disconnected or pawned and I tracked the final months of her pregnancy by keeping in touch with her mother. On Logan’s due date, I drove to Indiana and met her family at the hospital. I took her sisters for pizza to keep them full and out of the way. The baby was healthy and given a pretentious name that Tom had chosen to prove that he had read a lot of books over the years. I slept on the floor in the trailer for three nights as Logan adjusted to being a mom.  Tom was nowhere to be found.

We stayed up late talking about how different life would be now, and Logan kept saying, “I cannot believe you are moving into your dorm next week while I am stuck here changing diapers.” The pregnancy was hard, but the realization that everyone she knew would be leaving for college while she stayed put visibly shook her. I tried not to talk about school while I was there, because the subject now seemed awkward. My best friend was now an unrelatable stranger, not because she had a kid, but because she was not sure how (or if) to wear the skin of motherhood proudly given how radically her future had been altered. She no longer understood who she was in the context of any of her relationships. She often referred to herself as the “failed teen mom” in emails when she wrote to me at school. Then she stopped writing altogether.

After I finished my undergraduate degrees, I ran into some Indiana high school classmates at a bar. We exchanged more pleasantries than I’d expected, nostalgia and age suppressing the wounds of callous high school years. Since they had stayed in the area, I asked if anyone had heard from Logan; by then we had not been in touch in over five years.

They had not seen her recently, they said, but reported that she had, “bounced around like a pinball” between men, was on her second or third marriage, and had at least five kids. I wasn’t sure what to make of this news. It wasn’t exactly unusual for the town that we lived in, but I spent some time feeling guilty that I left her, that I never looked back, and that she had felt the pain of failed relationships and rearing children, at least partially, alone. I didn’t know where she lived, and when I tried to call her parents to get in touch with her, their number had been changed. I could have pursued it more–it’s really not hard to find anyone these days– but the the fear of not knowing what to say to her now that our lives seemed so different won out.

 Logan found me on Facebook recently. Her last name was different than when I knew her, and her avatar was a smiling blonde toddler I had never seen before. I accepted her request, but we never caught up. I still did not know what to say and figured that we might prefer to silently delight in voyeuristically peeking in on each other’s lives than actually being friends.The only question I wanted to ask was, “are you alright?” and every variation of that seemed condescending and presumptuous and I wanted to avoid that. I sometimes think of my adult milestones in relation to her children. I finished my undergraduate degrees before her first kid turned four and moved to Chicago for graduate school the week her second child was born. Judging by the pictures online, I was at a bachelorette party in New York City while she was giving birth to her youngest, just a few weeks before my 28th birthday.

My path has been quite different than Logan’s. I remember skipping classes with her, struggling to deal with depression and issues that all teens face, but somehow rallying, discovering my ambitions by finding the right combination of interests. And yet, one of those motivating interests, is also my worst quality. I measure ambition, merit, and even my own self-worth with a dollar sign. It is visceral and loathsome, making me feel like another petulant millennial begging for a punch in the teeth. Now that I am successful, I have embraced a “Treat Yo’Self” mentality that rationalizes everything from brunch to big purchases as the spoils for working 60 hours a week. And yet, I am sometimes shocked to find that I just engaged in long text message exchanges belaboring things like which Tom Ford handbag I will buy with my next bonus and where I will go for my annual birthday trip, as if such luxuries were a mandated right.

 I do not see myself as greedy or materialistic–though there are, undoubtedly, flashes of it–but perhaps I have lost sight of the fact that the rewards of my hard work need not be lavished on myself or my family. In the slow metamorphosis from floundering ugly duckling to Prada-gilded faux-sophisticate, I desensitized the basic parts that make a person good–kindness, humility, and empathy.

In preparing to host my first Thanksgiving this year, I went on a shopping spree to ensure that the experience would be perfect for my passive-aggressive guests. (Also because I can turn any event into a reason to shop.) I attempted to purchase a new Kitchenaid mixer, dishes, bottles of wine, and 1000-count linens for the guest bed so that my relatives could sleep in luxury. When I got to the register, my credit card and debit card were both flagged for fraud — erroneously — and declined. Embarrassed, I had the cashier suspended the transaction. I found an ATM and was able to get the cash I needed, then walked back to the register to complete the sale. The cashier, who seemed surprised to see me, said, “I’m surprised that you’re back. Usually when that happens, people don’t return because they don’t really have the money.”

After I finished washing the new bedding, baking cookies, and organizing a pantry that was overflowing for the holidays, I checked Facebook. Logan had posted that something fantastic had happened–a stranger arrived at her door to deliver a full Thanksgiving meal to her and her family. “The food will go to good use!” she said, adding she was, “grateful that her family would get to spend the holiday at home instead of going to a shelter for the meal,” and that she was, “so appreciative of anyone who can go out of their way to make the holidays better for those in need.”

I stared at the update for minutes, replaying what this must have been like. Stranger pulls up in a car. Stranger leaves his car (in my imagination it is a him) and he is carrying two big boxes stuffed with food, overflowing with vegetables and ingredients for pumpkin pie. Stranger knocks on the storm door and it makes a rattling noise as its hollow core vibrates. Logan answers the door for the Stranger, surrounded by her four older children with the youngest resting on her hip, all of them curious about the commotion. They all grin toothily at the Stranger, take the boxes from him, and rush them into the kitchen to see if there is anything packed with sugar they can eat now instead of waiting. I go back and forth as to whether or not Logan would hug the Stranger; I think that she would. The Stranger gets back in his car and drives away, and Logan runs to Facebook to tell the world of her good fortune, of how she has just hit the turkey motherload.

 I began scrolling through the photos on her page and thumb through her most recent posts, feeling guilt over how destitute they must be. Logan is 32 now, and she has five children all under the age of 12. She is on her third marriage, and her husband recently lost his job. They are hopeful, she posts, that he can earn some extra money through their eBay business selling vaporizers. I realize she is living in the same trailer park that she lived in with Tom. Her current husband posted on his Facebook that he is trying to support a family of six on $300 a month in income and is looking for a butcher who can supply them with meat at cheaper prices than Meijer, with the caveat being they need to accept food stamps.

But Logan’s life, as observed through my narrow window, is rich. She does not have a job, but she’s painting regularly and showcasing her work at local fairs. When her kids have a birthday, they get to pick whatever theme they’d like for their cake, and Logan and her mother create brilliantly elaborate landscapes for race cars and princess castles out of Duncan Hines and sugar sprinkles. Her kids play and run and she makes videos of them laughing and singing songs. They are usually happy, it seems.

Sometimes her posts take on a more serious tone. She posted recently she is concerned about the holidays because the kids are getting older and their list of demands longer, but she hopes they’ll recognize that it’s not what you have, but who you have and they have each other.

I check her posts every day now, but we still have not talked. I feel guilty about just watching instead of participating, but I am better served listening and taking snippets of inspiration from the lessons she’s teaching her children and, in turn, me. This week, I started collecting addresses for my holiday cards via a Google Form that asks for addresses and special requests. In the request form she said, “Can you make the card out to all of the kids? They love getting mail.”

I stared at it for minutes, just as I did the update about the Stranger. Now that I have her address though, I hope that she is prepared for another knock on the door from someone who is anxious to make the holiday better for those in need, someone who wants to say thank you for helping me remember what’s really important.