Abstinence and Adderall
It’s mid-September. But in Los Angeles, autumn waits. Autumn sits back and lets summer overstay her welcome while we settle in our desks and listen to the rhythm of an old air conditioner chugging through a dense heat. It never gets cool enough. The archdiocese regulates room temperature from Wilshire Boulevard, but they never account for the special kind of heat that lives in the Valley—specifically, Woodland Hills. The sauna suburb. It’s often a good ten degrees hotter than anywhere else. Right on the edge of severe drought, the city has just recently turned to regulation gravel yards and potted cacti. Chapped soil crunches under our uniform sneakers. At home, neighbors are encouraged to alert the city about any houses watering their plants more than once a week. We grow suspicious. Sprinklers turn on only in the loneliest hours of the morning. Some nights I lie awake, tuned in to the gentle chirping of irrigation systems activating in secret. Where is El Niño, we wonder? Does he watch us while we brush our teeth? Each time I open the faucet for a drink of water, I feel a pang of guilt, imagining the Valley a year into the future: a concrete, postapocalyptic wasteland, strangers divining the LA River for one last drop of septic muddle.
Woodland Hills is the purgatory of the San Fernando Valley. It’s the middle child, nestled between Calabasas and Tarzana, the quiet, declining byproduct of a wilting porn industry. There is at least one Porn House in every neighborhood. Block parties and cul-de-sac kickball games are soundtracked by the coital groans of invisible porn stars, as predictably suburban as the drone of a lawnmower or clack of an ice machine. We accept it into our humdrums. Every middle school parent knows that no matter how high you crank the volume on Owl City’s “Fireflies” at the sixth-grade pool party, it just can’t seem to drown out next door’s in-production Avatar porn parody. Grape Capri Sun will forever have a synesthetic association with the fleshy smack of Na’vi braid-mating.
Zombified and heavy-footed, Woodland Hills trudges into early fall. The air stays sweltering and stagnant. No humidity. Just plain heat. Sometimes, in the morning, the temperature lifts, and we’ll be shivering in a surprising seventy degrees. But the San Fernando Valley is tricky; come one o’clock and you’ll be shedding layers of clothing like onion skin. By the end of the morning, the heat presses through our classroom’s plaster walls, and we resort to prehistoric cooling mechanisms like fanning study guide packets and three-ring binders.
Morning prayer is at 8:05. The Pledge of Allegiance is sandwiched between an Our Father and a Hail Mary. On one side of the room, there is a flag, and on the other side, a cross. We flip back and forth until a message from the principal releases us to our chairs. We start the day.
A teacher calls roll. There are usually thirty-one of us. But today, there are two absences. One is Owen Mason (who has head lice) and the other is Bridget Penderman, who usually sits right in front of me.
Her empty desk leaves a window between Marcus Brown and me. He’s got dark hair and green eyes and we’re all in love with him. During social studies he turns around and asks: “Where’s Bridget?”
I shrug and he turns back to the front.
Wait, shoot, I think to myself. I reach forward and tap him on the shoulder. “She’s probably sick or something,” I say. I’m grasping for straws here.
He nods. “Probably.”
But a week passes, and Bridget is still gone, apparently in the throes of the swine flu. Each day I talk a little more to Marcus—short conversations about art class, or recess kickball. Bridget even misses Sex Ed Day. Our teacher passes out virginity contracts and puts the extra on top of her absent-work pile.
They separate us. Boys in one room, girls in the other. We watch an ultrasound of a fetus at six weeks while an old lady from the church barks about vacuums and murder and mortal sins. Gracie Knibbs, three desks over, is so scared that she whimpers big, shaky tears. We pass around pamphlets with “chlamydia” and “syphilis” printed in the Goosebumps font. The woman then warns us about the dangers of SEX and TEENAGE BOYS.
“Many only want one thing,” she says. “They might not even care about you. They might lie. They might say whatever it takes to get what they want. They could tell you they love you just to get you in bed. TEENAGE BOYS are not like us.” She scans the room until she spots Emma Hawthorne falling asleep in the back of the class. “You, there. What did I just say?”
“Boys just want sex.”
“Alright,” the lady says. She stares us down. “Good.”
We still have our virginity contracts on our desks. In a pretty cursive scrawl, the words leer up at me: I make a commitment to God, myself, my family, my friends, my future mate, and my future children to a lifetime of purity including sexual abstinence from this day until the day I enter a Biblical marriage relationship.
I flash on a deeply disturbing montage of myself padding around the desert with some old bearded dude, eating mustard seeds and whining over lost sons.
“These are a promise to God to save yourselves for holy matrimony,” the teacher says. “Raise your hand once you have signed yours.”
Slowly the whole room has their arms raised, all except for Ruby Smith. Her hands stay folded. When the teacher asks, she says she doesn’t feel like making any promises to God. From now on, Ruby is the official whore of the eighth-grade class.
The boys come back. It’s awkward. Our minds reel with words like sin and pubic crabs. The presentation is over, but we haven’t forgotten the lady’s warnings. Sex must be the most awful thing in the world. I decide that I will definitely never have it.
Marcus sits down. I look at him, curious. I wonder if our little chats have some ulterior motive. I lean forward, the first to break the silence that the church lady has dropped on us. “What did they say to you guys?” I whisper.
“All girls just want sex,” he says. “Basically.”
School lets out. I hold my contract close to me because I’m scared of seeming like Ruby.
I see her throw away her contract and get into her mom’s minivan. Her dog is sitting in the front seat. It’s cute. A floppy yellow Labrador. She laughs and scratches its ears and her mom leans over to kiss her on the forehead. They’re playing the new One Direction album.
Annie Kostov shoulders her backpack and calls Ruby a slut—just loud enough for us to hear.
* * *
Three times a year, my class goes to church to receive the sacrament of reconciliation. We line up in our formal uniform. The monsignor hands out orange cards printed with the Ten Commandments and we’re supposed to reflect on what we’ve done wrong, what sins we’ve committed, and how we’ve disrespected God. Most confessionals last five, maybe ten minutes, because nobody tells real sins, just generic easy ones. Sip of wine at Thanksgiving. Wandering eyes during a spelling test.
If we were honest, reconciliation would take hours. Twelve-year-olds are sinners by nature. “I stole my dad’s credit card to pay for extra lives in Clash of Clans.” “I drew dicks all over the class test folders.” “I tried to get high off the auditorium’s fog machine, and I also had sex with a vacuum cleaner and every object with a hole in it that I could find in my house.” Confession doesn’t mean much to us, besides the fact that it is a substitute for religion class. I would rather lie to a priest than spend an hour memorizing a list of good and merciful popes who most definitely were not guilty of rape and murder.
Bridget Penderman comes back to school just in time for fall confession. But something’s different. She seems like she’s operating on autopilot. At lunch, she just sits there and picks the crust off her peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. When we walk to the parish as a class, Bridget doesn’t break eye contact with her iCarly folder, not even for a second.
Once inside, we all rush to Father Mancini’s confessional—he’s known to give the most lenient penances of all the priests. But I’m too late. Instead, I’m sent to Monsignor Fernsby, our parish’s number one source of tradwife propaganda. Once, when I confessed I’d fought with my mother, he embarked on a fifteen-minute lecture about how two adult females cannot coexist in a home without experiencing domestic struggle. “You’re both battling for your father’s approval,” he said. “It’s normal for your age.”
I kneel in the pew, waiting for my turn to receive the sacrament. I press my forehead to my prayer hands and focus on shifting my weight from one knee to the other. A roaming nun nods in approval. I look ahead ten or so rows to watch Bridget. She flips a Commandment card over and over in her hands. “She didn’t have swine flu,” Della McHenrie whispers in my ear.
“Huh?” I say, and Della tells me what really happened, that Bridget raided her parents’ medicine cabinet and stuffed pills into her mouth like they were Skittles. Her mother had found her on the floor, scraping at the bathroom tile. After that, they kept her in the hospital, and that’s where she was for the whole two weeks. I ask Della if she’s sure about this and she says yeah, pretty much.
Back in class, after lunch, the teacher asks for a volunteer to take some photocopies to the main office. The kiss-ups wave their arms like the wind balloons in front of a car dealership. But she calls on Bridget.
As soon as the door shuts behind her, the principal pops in from the opposite entrance, clears her throat, and embarks on what could possibly be the vaguest speech of all time:
“I know that there is a thing that has happened. If you know what I’m talking about, that’s great, keep it to yourself. If you do not know what I am talking about, I would ask that you do not ask anyone about what I’m talking about. Please do not hesitate to ever come to me if you have anything to tell me.”
* * *
In the spring, the mathlete kids poll eighth graders to find out which high school is the most popular with the graduating class. They organize the data into a pie chart, and the chart’s then put on the cover of the monthly parent newsletter. The pie is split mostly between the two single-gender schools, Crespi Carmelite Men’s High School (blue slice) and Louisville School for Girls (pink slice). And then there’s a medium-size purple slice, which represents the six kids going to the co-ed Christian school. And finally, there’s a yellow slice, so narrow it could be a printing error: OTHER. The word can’t even fit on the slice. They had to type OTHER out all separate and then draw a little line to that stupid flash of yellow. OTHER (2). That’s me and Samuel. Samuel is moving to Texas. I’m going to Calabasas High School.
My only connection to Calabasas, prior to my enrollment, is Connor Nesbitt, the class dickhead. On the last day of school, Connor tells me I’m ugly and weird and that I read too much. I laugh it off, because that is what you are supposed to do, according to grown-ups. “Stop laughing,” he says. “I’m making fun of you. It’s funny to me, not to you.” And with that, he slams his locker. “This is why nobody invites you to parties.”
Connor Nesbitt is the son of a television reporter. He lives in a gated community in Calabasas, and his neighbors are A-list celebrities. He is the first to smoke weed, the first to drink beer, but only the third to cut holes in his shorts pockets so he can jack off during class showings of The Prince of Egypt.
He turns to the pick-up line, where his brother awaits behind the wheel of a Range Rover. Wiz Khalifa’s “Black and Yellow” is on full blast through the speakers. Connor tosses his JanSport in the back seat and kicks off his sneakers. I watch them peel off, join the stream of other cars headed into Calabasas and away from Catholic school hell. Contrary to Woodland Hills’s majority of single-family houses, Calabasas’ streets are lined with McMansions—sky-high concrete boxes with marble fountains strewn across Astroturf like discarded toys. The kids who live in them don’t have parent chaperones at their birthday parties. They wear brand names and swim at the fanciest country club in the Valley. Calabasas kids don’t maneuver drug deals through late-night texts and parking lot meetups—instead, their parents buy them bourgeois, medical-grade kush from celebrity suppliers. But Calabasas High School has one of the best music and theater programs in the Los Angeles area. I’ve been participating in plays for as long as I’ve been able (yes, I apprehensively report that I am a theater kid) and the other high schools in the area don’t offer theater classes of the same caliber. And as someone who’s grown tired of the same old plaids and navy blues and bleeding Jesus statues, that’s enough to outweigh the negatives. I will take the possibility of many more Connor Nesbitts if it means music classes and a Confirmation workshop exit strategy.
“I have a connection with the counselors over at Louisville, if you need to get her in last minute,” a PTA mom tells my mother after the big church send-off. “I’ve heard there’s a lot of troubled kids where you’re going.”
“There are troubled kids everywhere,” my mom says. My mother had sent me to St. Mel when she was still new to Los Angeles; she’d fallen in love with the flowerbeds, the blue-tiled drinking fountains, the first-grade artwork pasted on the walls. She’d gone to Catholic school as a little girl, too. But my family’s relationship with religion has always come in waves. We’d flirt with piety, though our bouts of regular church attendance always seemed to coincide with external factors. The year 2008, for example, was big for the Bleidner family Eucharist. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed my parents growing more and more exasperated by the Catholic school milieu. The church wants to raise a quarter of a million dollars for new halogen lights. A PTA mother calls CPS to unjustly accuse a set of second-grade siblings of incest. A priest is sent to another district far away for suspicious reasons. After posting an old-school meme of Bob from The Suite Life of Zack & Cody on Facebook, I’m sent to the principal’s office for discriminating against gingers. So. Change is good.
After my eighth-grade graduation, I make my mother drive me to my new school. It looms in the hills, a splotch of boxy modern gray cement playing neighbor to a Gelson’s Market (grocery store that sells bottles of minty water for six dollars) and an M.Fredric (owned by Adam Levine’s family, sells fifty-dollar leggings for babies). All the kids seem so much older than me. I try to imagine myself interacting with them, laughing at their jokes, wearing American Apparel tennis skirts. They look like stock-photo models.
On Urban Dictionary, someone had nicknamed Calabasas High “the MILF warehouse.”
I kick at a little orange canister rolling around the school parking lot. “I don’t know if this’ll work out.”
“I don’t know why,” I say. And that’s the truth—I don’t. There’s just a feeling, but how is a fourteen-year-old girl supposed to explain feelings to a mother? (Blame it on our domestic struggle, I guess.) I catch the rolling canister under my shoe and push it around a little. “Someone on Urban Dictionary said this place is a total MILF warehouse,” I say offhandedly. (I’m in the worst kind of adolescent limbo: testing the boundaries of grown-up talk with my parents. Today: Urban Dictionary. Tomorrow: the word shit. Someday: Harold and Maude without pretending I received an urgent text during the sex parts.)
“You know what a MILF is?”
I pick the canister up from the ground. It’s someone’s empty Adderall prescription bottle. Valley ornaments. My own face peers back at me in the plastic reflection. I am a sum of different parts, none of which I feel comfortable in. Freckles, braces, the beginnings of a unibrow. Pimples and unkempt brown hair. In the bottle, I look orange and sickly and small. “That’s why I’m freaked out, kind of,” I say. “I don’t.”
* * *
Family dinner, one week before the first day of school. “I’m changing my name,” I say, staring down a glass of water.
“To what?” my dad says.
“From Olivia to Via, I think.” I say this casually, as if I haven’t spent nights chopping up my name and rearranging it, mouthing the syllables to my reflection.
“Via,” he says. “Well. Okay.”
On the first day of school, I write it out on the tops of my registration papers. Four lifts of a pencil. I stare my new identity in the face. This Via has never held a Commandment card. This Via could get drunk on the idea of Being Known. This Via will scour eBay for knockoff designer bags and will make wonderfully average grades. This Via will breathe the same air as Kylie Jenner and love it.
“Drug dogs come regularly but you won’t know when,” a counselor tells us. I’m in a classroom with thirty other freshmen, although it seems like everybody here already knows each other from the district middle school, A. C. Stelle. And even though I’ve left Catholic school behind, it’s evident that there’s still an unspoken dress code—almost every girl in the room is wearing the same sunflower print from Brandy Melville. “And if you’re caught with illegal substances you’ll be punished accordingly.”
Someone’s phone goes off in the back row. The ringtone’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” because of course it is.
“You are responsible for ten hours of community service per year. If you forget to turn in your forms, you’ll be prohibited from having lunch off campus.”
“What about theater? I want to hear about theater,” someone near the front says. The voice sounds familiar. I scoot out of my seat to try and catch a glimpse of the speaker, but I can only make out a head of curly blond hair and a giant bedazzled flower barrette.
“There will be an informational meeting, I’m sure, but you have to check the website calendar. I’m not an oracle,” the teacher says.
“Theeeeater,” someone mimics from the back. The girl whips around, furious. And here’s the kicker: I know her. Her name is Zoe Melton and we did community theater together in the sixth grade. We were friends. Both of us, theater dorks who were way too into Glee covers and the Camp Rock soundtrack. I sink into my seat.
“Shut up,” she says to her heckler. And then she sees me. “Olivia?” she says. Far too loud. “Oh my God. Do you remember me? From theater?”
I look her up and down. She’s wearing a blue fur vest and a pink tutu and neon yellow knee-high socks. She looks like she just waltzed out of the Justice catalogue. I have to make a split-second decision. For survival purposes.
“Actually no, sorry,” I say. “I’m Via.”
Copyright © 2021 by Via Bleidner