This Song Will Save Your Life

Leila Sales

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1
 
 
You think it’s so easy to change yourself.
You think it’s so easy, but it’s not.
What do you think it takes to reinvent yourself as an all-new person, a person who makes sense, who belongs? Do you change your clothes, your hair, your face? Go on, then. Do it. Pierce your ears, trim your bangs, buy a new purse. They will still see past that, see you, the girl who is still too scared, still too smart for her own good, still a beat behind, still, always, wrong. Change all you want; you can’t change that.
I know because I tried.
I was born to be unpopular. There was no other way it could have gone. If there were just one place where it first fell apart, I could dream of going back in time and finding myself and saying, “Listen, ten-year-old Elise, just don’t wear that oversize bright red sweater with the tufts of yarn sticking out of it like pom-poms. I know it is your favorite, because it looks so special, but don’t do it. Don’t be special.”
That’s what I would say to my younger self if I could pinpoint the moment when I went astray. But there was no one moment. I was always astray.
I’ve gone to school with the same kids since kindergarten. And they knew what I was long before I did. I was uncool by fourth grade. How is it even possible to be an uncool fourth grader? Didn’t we all just string together friendship bracelets and daydream about horses and pretend to solve mysteries back then?
But somehow, even in fourth grade, they knew. A new girl moved to our town that year, from Michigan. She and I used to sit outside together during recess while the other girls played don’t-touch-the-ground tag, and we’d talk about the witches’ coven I wanted to form, because I’d read a chapter book about a witches’ coven and my dad had given me some incense that I thought we could use. And then one day on the playground, Lizzie Reardon came over and casually said to my new friend, “Don’t spend too much time with Elise. She might rub off on you.” I was sitting right there. It wasn’t a secret. I was a social liability.
This was fourth grade.
We went to a middle school twice the size of our elementary school, and then we went to a high school twice the size of our middle school. But somehow all those new kids, every one of them, immediately found out about me. Somehow it was that obvious.
When I was little my mom used to schedule my playdates with different girls: Kelly, Raquel, Bernadette. Then in fifth grade, Kelly moved to Delaware, Raquel invited every girl except me to her roller-skating birthday party, and Bernadette sent me a note to let me know that she only hung out with me because her parents said she had to.
I used to hang out with the neighborhood boys, too, when I was a kid. We would build forts in the summer and snowmen in the winter. But around the time we went to middle school, everyone started thinking about dating, which meant that no boy would be caught dead playing in the snow with me anymore lest someone see us and think he had a crush on me. Because obviously, having a crush on Elise Dembowski would be just about the lamest thing an eleven-year-old boy could do.
So by the end of seventh grade, I had no one. Okay, I still had kids who I splashed around with at my mom’s summer lake house. I had my parents’ friends’ children, none of them quite my age, who would sometimes come over for family dinners. But I had no one who was really mine.
Last summer, after freshman year, I decided I couldn’t go on like this anymore. I just could not. It’s not like I wanted to be Lizzie Reardon, captain of the soccer team; or Emily Wallace, part-time teen model; or Brooke Feldstein, who could (and did) hook up with every guy in school. I didn’t need to be the most exciting, beautiful, beloved girl in the world. I just needed not to be me anymore.
You think it’s so easy to change yourself. It would be just like a movie makeover montage, pop music scoring the ugly girl’s transformation from bespectacled duckling to cheerleader swan. You think it’s so easy, but it was a whole summer’s worth of work. It was watching TV constantly, like I was doing homework, taking notes on who all these characters were, making charts of who came from which shows. It was reading gossip magazines and women’s magazines every week, testing myself when I was in the drugstore checkout line: “Who is that woman pictured on the cover of Marie Claire? Which reality TV show was she in?” It was hours of sunshine every day thrown away in favor of hunching over a computer, reading fashion blogs and celebrity blogs and perfume blogs. Did you even know that perfume Web sites exist? What is the point?
The one thing I couldn’t bring myself to do was listen to the music. I tried, for nearly an hour. Then I gave up. It was bad. Not even interesting-bad, like the movies I went to see alone, taking note of which lines in a romantic comedy made the audience laugh. The popular music wasn’t interesting-bad, it was bad-bad. Auto-Tuned vocalists who couldn’t really sing; offensively simplistic instrumentation; grating melodies. Like they thought we were stupid.
I would have given almost anything to change myself, but I wouldn’t give in to that. I hated that music more than I hated having to be myself every day. So I just read about popular musicians online and made flash cards about them until I felt prepared to talk about them. But not to listen to them.
All summer I spent on this. Ten weeks, uninterrupted, except for the time I spent record shopping, and the weekend I spent trying to repair my dad’s computer, and a week that I had to spend at the lake house, where there is no TV or Internet. So, okay, I guess there were some interruptions, but still, you have to believe me when I tell you that the rest of the time I was working really hard on becoming cool.
This should have been a red flag, I realize in retrospect. Working really hard on anything is, by definition, not cool.
The week before school began, I went shopping. Not only did I go shopping, I went to the mall. I was ready. I knew what I was supposed to wear—I had read so many issues of Seventeen by that point, I could rattle off the five best mascara brands without even thinking about it.
So I knew what I was supposed to do, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I wasn’t going to spend $150 on a pair of jeans. I wasn’t going to drop $300 on a purse. Come on, Kate Spade, you can’t fool me—it’s a bag. The Sierra Club regularly mails me bags for free. Or, okay, for a $25 donation, but really, that pays for saving forests, not for manufacturing tote bags, which I can’t imagine costs more than a dollar or two.
Both my parents gave me some money for back-to-school clothes, and I had some money saved up, but I resented spending it all on clothes that I didn’t really want. I mean, yes, I wanted to look like a cool person, but I didn’t want to become impoverished in the process.
It’s probably different for girls who have always been cool. Probably when they go shopping, they just have to fill in with a new pair of sneakers here or a new belt there. But I was inventing myself from scratch.
I went through every item in my closet. Which of these could I bring with me into my new life? Not the sweatpants, not the sweatshirts. These jeans, maybe, though the cuffs are wrong. This sweater, maybe, if it had a different neckline.
I thought all my clothes were fine. I liked them, even. They made a statement. The Indian sari that I had tailored into a summer dress. The Ramones shirt I got at a thrift store on Thayer Street, so threadbare that it just had to be an authentic relic of the seventies. The white boots with unicorns printed on them because, even though I’m fifteen, I still think the unicorn would be the world’s greatest animal.
But that is the problem with me. That, right there. Not just that I owned these clothes but that I liked them. That after ten weeks of learning what real people did, I still liked my wrong, wrong clothes.
So I threw my wrong, wrong clothes into garbage bags and tied them shut as tight as I could, as if my unicorn boots might try to stage an escape. I hid the bags in the attic of my mom’s house. Then I went on a shopping spree at Target for every knockoff Seventeen-style garment that I could find. Even then, the total wound up being way more than I had ever spent on clothes in any one of my thrift-store trips. It made me sick to look at the receipt.
But can you put a price on happiness? Really, if that’s what it costs to make you glad to be yourself, then isn’t it worth it?
*   *   *
On the first day of sophomore year, a Thursday, I sprang out of bed at six a.m. It takes time to make yourself look like a cool person. You can’t just roll out of bed looking cool, or at least I can’t.
So I got up. I washed and conditioned my hair. I shaved my legs, which is something I didn’t know you were supposed to do until an ill-fated all-class pool party at the end of eighth grade. I put on my first-day-of-school outfit, which I had tried on a zillion times already: loafers, fitted jeans, a T-shirt without any writing or patterns on it, a headband. Headbands are back, you know. I read it in a magazine.
“I’m going to school,” I announced to Dad.
He blinked at me over his newspaper. “No breakfast?”
“No breakfast.” My stomach felt tight and jittery; breakfast was the last thing I wanted.
Dad’s gaze drifted to the table, which was piled high with bread rolls, jam, bananas, milk, a pitcher of orange juice, and boxes of cereal that he had obviously set out for me. “You want breakfast like a monkey?”
“Dad, please.” I never have to go through this routine at my mom’s house.
He picked up a banana. “What do monkeys say?”
When I was a kid, I was really into bananas. I still like them, but when I was in elementary school I basically subsisted on them. My dad thought it was hilarious to make me ask for them by scratching at my armpits, jumping up and down, and saying, “Ooh ooh ahh ahh.” You know. Like a monkey. So I thought it was hilarious as well. Anything that was proven to make my dad laugh made me laugh, too.
Sometime during middle school, it occurred to me that the monkey act might be stupid. But my dad never got over it.
“Ooh ooh ahh ahh?” He tossed the banana from hand to hand.
“I have to go, Dad.” I opened the door.
“All right, kiddo. Knock ’em dead.” He put down the banana and stood up to give me a hug. “You look great.”
And I guess that should have been a warning sign, too, because dads do not have the same taste as teenagers in what looks great.
I walked to the corner to wait for the school bus. Usually I’m running to catch the bus just before it pulls away because I’m cherishing every last moment in my house, where it’s safe, before I have to go face the next eight hours.
But that morning, I made it to the bus stop with minutes to spare. I’m never early to anything, so I didn’t know what to do with myself. I watched cars driving past and people coming out of their duplexes in business suits, off to work. I fought the pounding urge to put on my headphones. All I wanted was to listen to music, but wearing headphones makes you look cut off from the rest of the world, antisocial. I wasn’t going to be antisocial this year. I was decidedly pro-social.
A few other kids showed up at the bus stop, too, but none of them spoke to me. It was so early, though. Who wants to have a conversation so early in the morning?
The school bus finally pulled up, and we all got on. I did not sit in the front. The front is where the losers sit, and I was not a loser anymore. Instead I sat in the middle of the bus, which is a relatively cool place to sit, even though I didn’t feel cool about it. I felt panicked and nauseated about it, but I did it anyway. The bus drove off, while I sat on the peeling olive-green upholstery, taking deep breaths and trying not to think about what happened the other time I sat in the middle of the school bus.
It was last April, and for whatever reason I wasn’t sitting in the very first row, like usual. Chuck Boening and Jordan DiCecca suddenly sat down next to me, and I had been so excited, even though I had to press my body against the window to make room for them both.
It’s not like I was so excited because they are so hot, even though they are. It was just because they were talking to me, looking at me, like I was a real person. They were asking me what I was listening to on my iPod. They seemed genuinely interested. And I lost my head.
“I always see you with your headphones on,” Jordan said, leaning in close, and that was flattering, that anyone cared about me enough to recognize that I always did something.
“Yes,” I said, and did not elaborate that I always had my headphones on so I wouldn’t always have to hear the world around me.
“What are you listening to?” Chuck asked.
“The Cure,” I said.
Jordan nodded. “Oh, cool. I like them.”
And that was exciting, too, that this suntanned soccer champ and I liked the same eighties goth band. I believe that a person’s taste in music tells you a lot about them. In some cases, it tells you everything you need to know. I thought, in that moment, that if Jordan liked the Cure, then he wasn’t the cookie-cutter preppy boy I’d always assumed. And I imagined that he thought, in that moment, that if I liked the Cure, then I wasn’t the tragic loser he had always assumed. We were both more than our labels, and maybe we could be friends and go to concerts together.
So when Jordan went on to say, “Let me see,” I handed him my iPod.
Why? Why did I believe he had to see my iPod to know what I was listening to? I told you, it’s the Cure! You want to know more, I’ll tell you the title of the song! You want to know more, I’ll tell you how many minutes and seconds into it I am! But shouldn’t I have wondered why he needed to actually hold my iPod?
I handed it to him, and he grabbed it and ran off to the back of the bus with it, and with Chuck, and with everyone else on the bus cheering them on.
Was it really everyone else on the bus? Or was that just how I recalled it now, five months later? Some people on that bus must have had something else going on in their lives. Some girl must have recently broken up with her boyfriend. Someone must have been worrying about his bio test. Really, could every single person on that bus have just been caught up in the thrill of seeing my iPod stolen? Really?
It seemed like it, yes.
So what do you think I did? Did I go charging down the aisle of that bus, eyes ablaze, and demand that Jordan and Chuck return my iPod, because it did not belong to them, because they did not deserve to listen to the Cure under any circumstances, let alone under these? Did I use my righteous indignation to reclaim my iPod, and did I emerge from this struggle triumphant, with everyone else on the bus now cheering for me?
No. Instead, I let them run to the back of the bus with my iPod. I let them go. And then I leaned my head against the window and I cried.
Does this seem weak to you? Could you have done better? Fine, by all means, do better. But you don’t understand this: sometimes when you are worn down, day after day, relentlessly, with no reprieve for years piled on years, sometimes you lose everything but the ability to cry.
I got my iPod back eventually. I told my homeroom teacher, and she told the vice principal, Mr. Witt, and he made the boys return my iPod and write letters of apology. Mr. Witt also told the bus driver, who somehow didn’t know—or acted like he didn’t know—what had happened on his bus, captured in his rearview mirror. The bus driver was annoyed with me, because it was my fault he got in trouble, and he barked at me, “From now on, sit up front, where I can keep an eye on you.” Which I did for the last month and a half of freshman year.
So now, on the first day of sophomore year, when I sat near the middle of the bus—to the front of the middle, but still—I felt my whole body trembling, because I knew how big a risk I was taking. The knot in my stomach had tightened, and as the school bus rounded a corner, I seriously worried that I might throw up. Fortunately, I swallowed it down, which is good because vomiting on the first day of school is not cool. Also not cool is rocking back and forth as you sit in a school bus, breathing loudly, and wiping your sweaty palms on your new knockoff designer jeans. But even that is cooler than vomit.
Because my stop is one of the first on the bus’s route, nearly all the seats were empty. They filled up fast, though. New kids got on at every stop, shrieking with excitement over new haircuts, new book bags, new manicures. Chuck and Jordan and their crew were nowhere to be seen, thank God, which implied to me that either they had all been expelled or their families had been relocated to prison camps. Or they just knew someone who had gotten a license and a car.
You might think that the absence of the iPod thieves would have made this a delightful bus ride, but it wasn’t enough. My goal this year was not “see if I can get through a single hour without being tortured.” It was “be normal. Have a few friends. Be happy.”
I wanted someone to sit with me. I could even picture what she would be like. She would be cool, but casually cool. Artistic, with an embroidered shoulder bag and long, messy hair. Maybe she would wear glasses. She would see right through this horrible charade of high school.
But this imaginary girl did not sit down next to me. No one sat down next to me. The bus filled up, stop by stop, until eventually all the seats were taken and three girls were crowded together across the aisle from me, while I was still alone. We’re not allowed to sit three to a seat, and I hoped the bus driver would yell at one of them to move to the empty space next to me. Sometimes he yells about stuff like that. But he didn’t yell, and no one moved, and I sat alone the entire ride to school.
But that’s okay, right? It was early in the morning, remember. It was practically the middle of the night. Who wants to have long, involved conversations with new friends at that hour? No one.
The bus pulled up in front of Glendale High School, and everyone immediately began jostling to get off. You know, because school is just so amazing for them. They can’t wait to get off the bus so they can start passing notes and planning parties and making out with one another.
I got off the bus alone, and I went to homeroom alone, and I got my schedule for the year and didn’t compare it with anyone. The bell rang and I went to Spanish alone, and when the bell rang again I went to Geometry alone. And, again, “alone” is preferable to “molested,” but I wanted more this year. I had spent all summer gearing up for this, and I wanted more.
In American Lit, Amelia Kindl asked to borrow my pen. She used my name, too. She leaned over from the desk next to mine and whispered, “Hey, Elise, could I borrow a pen?”
I said, “Sure,” and smiled at her, because I read in a psychology study that people like you more when you smile.
She said, “Thanks,” and smiled back. Then we both turned our attention to the teacher, so it’s not like that was the beginning of a lengthy and fulfilling conversation, but it was something. It was an acknowledgment that I existed. If I didn’t exist, why would I have pens?
I liked Amelia. I always had, ever since I first met her, in middle school. She was smart but not nerdy, artistic but not weird, and friendly to everyone. Amelia wasn’t popular in the Lizzie Reardon sense of the word, but she had a core group of girl friends, and I imagined them having slumber parties every weekend, making popcorn and doing craft projects and watching movies. I would like to be someone like Amelia.
After American Lit, I made the mistake of passing Lizzie Reardon in the hallway. Last year I knew Lizzie’s entire schedule and would follow incredibly byzantine routes, or hide in the bathroom until I was late to class, just to avoid her. This was a new year, with new schedules, so there was no accounting for Lizzie yet. She could be anywhere. Like in the hallway between American Lit and Chem.
I stared straight in front of me, using the ostrich approach: If you can’t see her, she can’t see you. But Lizzie is more wily than an ostrich.
“Elise!” She got directly in front of my face. I tried to ignore her, to keep walking. “Elise!” she called out again, in a singsongy way. “Don’t be rude. I’m talking to you.”
I stopped walking and stood very still. That’s the rabbit approach: If you don’t move, she can’t see you.
Lizzie looked me up and down and then up again, to stare directly into my eyes as she said, “Wow, you look like a ghost. Did you go outside once this entire summer?”
This was not, by any stretch of imagination, the worst thing Lizzie had ever said to me. By some stretches of the imagination, this was the kindest thing she had ever said to me.
But it cut me, the same way Lizzie always knew how to cut me. I realized now that for every moment I had spent inside, watching popular movies and reading celebrity gossip blogs, I should have been outside, tanning. For everything I had done, there was something just as important that I had never thought to do.
Aloud I said nothing, and in a fit of mercy or boredom, Lizzie left me to go on to class.
Soon it was lunchtime. Still no one had directly addressed me, other than Lizzie, and Amelia, that time she asked for a pen. Maybe my clothes were wrong. Maybe my haircut was wrong. Maybe my headband was wrong.
Or maybe, I reasoned, everyone was still getting caught up from their summers apart. Maybe no one was thinking about making new friends yet.
I went to the cafeteria, which is easily the worst place in the entire world. Like the rest of Glendale High, the cafeteria is dirty, loud, and low-ceilinged. It has almost no windows. Presumably this is because they don’t want you to be able to look outside and remember that there is a real world that isn’t always like this.
I walked into that cafeteria clutching my brown-bag lunch so tightly that my knuckles turned white. I faced a room filled with people who either hated me or didn’t know who I was. Those are the only two options. If you know me, then you hate me.
But I was not going to be intimidated. I was not going to give up. This was a new year, I was a new girl, and I was going to use the next thirty-five minutes to make new friends.
I saw Amelia sitting at the same table as last year. She was one of ten shiny-haired girls, all in sweaters and no makeup. One of them took photos for the Glendale High Herald. A couple of them were in the school a cappella group. Another one of them always got to sit out gym class because she had a note saying that she did yoga three evenings each week. I felt like if anyone in this room could be my group of friends, it would be them.
So I put one foot in front of the other and, step by step, approached Amelia’s table. I stood there for a moment, towering over the seated girls. I forced myself to speak, for one of the first times since leaving home that morning. My voice came out squeaky, like a wheel in need of grease. “Would it be okay if I sat here?” is what I said.
All the girls at the table stopped what they were doing—stopped talking, stopped chewing, stopped wiping up spilled Diet Coke. No one said anything for a long moment.
“Sure,” Amelia said finally. Had she waited an instant longer, I would have dropped my lunch and fled. Instead, she and four of her friends scooched down, and I sat on the end of the bench next to them.
So it’s that easy, then? I thought, staring around the table. It’s that easy to make friends?
Of course it’s not that easy, you idiot. Nothing is that easy for you.
The girls immediately returned to their conversation, ignoring me. “Lisa swore she’d never been there before,” one of them said.
“Well, she was lying,” said another. “She’d been there with me.”
“Then why would she say she hadn’t?” countered the first girl.
“Because she’s Lisa,” explained a third girl.
“Remember that time she told us she’d hooked up with her stepbrother at that party?” said one of the girls. “At, um…”
“At Casey’s graduation party,” supplied another.
“Wait, you mean she didn’t?” the first girl asked.
“No,” they all groaned.
And I hung on their every word, and I laughed a beat after they laughed, and I rolled my eyes just as soon as they rolled their eyes—but I realized that somehow I hadn’t prepared for this situation. In all my studies of celebrities and fashion and pop stars, it had never occurred to me that my potential friends might just be talking about people I didn’t know and things I hadn’t done. And I couldn’t research that. That was just their lives.
The weight of this truth settled onto me until I felt like I was suffocating from it. How do you suddenly make friends with people? It’s ridiculous. They have years and years of shared memories and experiences. You can’t drop into that midway through and expect to know what’s going on. They wouldn’t have been able to explain it all to me if they had tried. And they weren’t trying.
The girl sitting across from me picked a bean sprout out of her front teeth and said something that sounded like, “We sent rappers to the gallows on Friday.”
I giggled, then stopped when she pursed her lips and raised her eyebrows at me.
“Sorry,” I said. “You just said … I mean, what are the gallows?”
People also like you more when you ask questions about them, by the way. They like it when you smile, and when you ask them to talk about themselves.
“The Gallos Prize for the best student-made documentary film,” the girl explained.
“Oh, I see. Cool. And what’s rappers?”
“Wrappers,” she said. “It’s my film about people who go to mummy conventions.”
The sheer amount of things I didn’t know about these girls, that they were never going to tell me, was overwhelming. It was like the time my mom and I went to Spain on vacation and I’d thought I knew how to communicate in Spanish because I’d studied it in school for three years, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know at all.
But you can see, can’t you, how these are the sorts of girls I would want to be friends with? If that were at all possible? They did things like film documentaries about mummy conventions! I wanted to do that, too!
Well, not that, per se. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking, and the idea of mummy conventions was honestly a little creepy to me. But I wanted to do stuff like that.
I was so caught up in trying to follow the conversation, in trying to look like I belonged, that I didn’t even notice that the lunch period was nearly over until everyone at the table touched her finger to her nose.
“You,” said a girl in a bright flowered scarf, pointing at me.
“Yes?” I said, smiling at her. Remember, smiling makes people like you more.
She looked directly into my eyes, and I felt that same excitement as when Jordan and Chuck had asked me what music I was listening to. Like, Hey, she’s looking at me! She sees me!
When will I learn that this feeling of excitement is not ever a good sign? That no one ever sees me?
“You,” she said again. “Clean up.”
Then the first bell rang, and everyone at the table stood up, together, and walked away, together, leaving all their soda cans and plastic bags and gobs of egg salad littering the table.
I stayed seated as the cafeteria emptied around me. Amelia hovered for one moment, letting her friends get a head start. “We always do that,” she said to me, her eyebrows pulled together with a little bit of worry. “You know, the last one to put her finger on her nose has to clean up. That’s our rule. So, today that was you.”
Amelia smiled at me apologetically, and I guess that study was right, because her smile did make me like her more. I could have said, That’s a messed-up rule. Or I could have said, But I didn’t know. Or I could have said, Do you honestly always do that? Or did you just do that to me? Or I could have said, Why don’t you stay and help me?
I could have said anything, but instead I said, “Okay.”
And Amelia walked away, and I started throwing eleven girls’ trash into the garbage can.
As I scooped up potato chip crumbs, I realized this, this most important truth: there are thousands, millions, countless rules like the one Amelia just told me. You have to touch your finger to your nose at the end of lunch. You have to wear shoes with this sort of heel. You have to do your homework on this sort of paper. You have to listen to this band. You have to sit in this certain way. There are so many rules that you don’t know, and no matter how much you study, you can’t learn them all. Your ignorance will betray you again and again.
Picking up soggy paper napkins, thick with milk, I realized, too: this year wasn’t going to be any different. I had worked so hard, wished so hard, for things to get better. But it hadn’t happened, and it wasn’t going to happen. I could buy new jeans, I could put on or take off a headband, but this was who I was. You think it’s so easy to change yourself, but it’s impossible.
So I decided on the next logical step: to kill myself.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Leila Sales