Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Nightmare on Maple Street

The sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street was released on November 1, 1985, and I looked forward to it with all the excitement that most kids looked forward to getting their braces off. The original Nightmare on Elm Street had been my favorite movie for some time, and I had recorded it off HBO onto a Beta tape so I could watch it whenever I wanted to.

Our little town had a one-screen movie theater that was getting the film, so I arranged to have my friends all come to my house on a Friday after school to watch the original movie, and then we would have pizza and walk to the Bonham Theater for the big event.

I had only been in 7th grade a couple months. The start of middle school was a big deal, as we went from having the same classmates we’d had for the last seven years of our life to having five schools combined into one bubbling pubescent stew. I was still trying to make new friends, which was not easy when I wore glasses so big and thick they probably would have qualified as bullet-proof.

Something you don’t realize at that age is that everyone else is trying just as hard to fit in. So all the girls accepted my invitation and the six of us hoisted our backpacks onto our shoulders and started the walk from the middle school on Maple Street to my house, which was about a 100-yard dash from door to door.

We showed up at my house and immediately started watching the movie, shrieking and laughing at every scary part. Some of them knew it as well as I did, and so we sang along with the creepy song: “One, two, Freddie’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door,” and so on. It was a real bonding moment and for a while I thought maybe I had found my tribe. Until the worst big sister in the world ruined it: mine.

My sister was four years older and a junior in high school. She had her own insecurities that apparently could be eased by having a bunch of 12-year-old girls hang on her every word. My mom served pizza for dinner, and my friends, sister, and I all crowded around the table to eat.

My friends were starry-eyed over having this older girl in their presence and my sister played to her audience by entertaining them with caustic remarks. Whatever my friends thought up to talk about, my sister could turn it around as an insult to me. It was A Nightmare on Maple Street.

As my girlfriends at the dinner table chatted, somehow discussion turned to bras, as is not terribly uncommon for a group of girls just entering middle school. As soon as I took my turn to make a comment, my sister immediately piped up that I didn’t even need to wear a bra. “Look at her!” my sister encouraged, and so of course they did. One of my sister’s favorite pastimes was to insult my looks, and the insult that gave her the most pleasure-for-my-pain ratio was calling me flat-chested. Of course I was, but then again I was a 78-pound 12 year old who could become airborne in a stiff breeze. My friends laughed, not just politely, but heartily. People find comfort in discovering that the butt of jokes for the evening is going to be someone other than themselves, and their response encouraged her to keep going. After another piece of pizza and some further attacks on my hair and glasses, I excused myself to go use the bathroom.

I knew my sister was still searching for any opportunity to make fun of me and bolster her new reputation as the cool older sister, so I made sure I washed my hands before I left the bathroom.

Sure enough, when I came back to the table one of my friends asked, “Did you pee on yourself?” When I left they table they had started to talk about the group sports physicals they had to take at the beginning of the school year, so, momentarily confused, I answered, “I wasn’t even there.” They all laughed and then my sister explained, “We decided you must have peed on yourself that you had to wash your hands. I never wash my hands after I pee,” she added, as if it was the most ridiculous thing a person could do. “Do you?” she asked, looking around the group, challenging them to admit they were as nerdy as I was. They all agreed with her. “No, we never wash our hands either!”

I knew, of course, that my sister had been listening intently for a reason to shoot another arrow at me. If I hadn’t washed my hands she would have said how disgusting I was and then had everyone else in the group agree with her, and washing your hands after using the bathroom would have been an activity they participated in religously. She was a relentless bully who was impossible to avoid except by putting actual physical distance between us (and not just a wall that separated the bathroom from the dining room). I was relieved when it was time to escape to the movie theater and watch other people be tortured for a while.

My sister was mean and violent toward me from about the time I was old enough to recognize it until she moved out of the house. But it’s normal for siblings to fight, and ironically she peppered my life with so many unpleasant exchanges that the few times she actually was kind to me are the ones that stick out most in my memory. Her moments of kindness were so extraordinarily rare that they are more easily recalled than the daily hostility. Yet neither have I forgotten the time she chased me around the house and out into the yard while wielding a knife.

Were my friends awful to me? Yes. But then most 12-year-old girls are fairly awful in general. The middle school and high school years are an age of insecurity when it felt safer to go along with the loudest voice and to solidify yourself as “part of the crowd” by singling out those who were not. Nearly everyone participated in the type of behavior seen around my dining room table. Nearly everyone….

I remember being put in the same situation at my friend’s house. My friend was arguing with her older sister about something I’ve long forgotten. We took refuge in her bedroom while my friend continued to complain about her sister. I just listened and nodded, because I could relate to her situation.

After it seemed safe to come out, we decided to make Rice Krispie treats so we went into the kitchen where we encountered her sister again. She picked up the disagreement they had been having before, and when my friend reached to get something in the cupboard, the sister looked at me and made a face behind my friend’s back, looking for a reaction or smile that indicated I agreed with her. I kept my face as cool as stone. The older sister, not getting the validation and feedback she was hoping for, made one more comment and then left us alone.

I felt bad for acting what I considered to be unfriendly toward the older sister, but my loyalty was with my friend. A friend who would, as it turned out, seek the approval of my older sister by joining in the laughter at the dinner table before our movie.

It’s a hard lesson to teach your kids, to show your friends loyalty and kindness even if you aren’t assured of theirs in return. You don’t want to raise a bully, or even someone who is a silent bystander, but neither do you want a doormat. When I was young I thought that if I gave someone my loyalty, I would get it in return. If I trusted someone and told them my secrets, I thought they would be honest and confide in me as well. I thought that if I gave love I would get love back in equal measures. But the world almost never works that way. Even as adults, we still must risk getting hurt in order to make a connection with people. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we find ourselves the only kid at the table without pee on our hands.

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