At Sixteen

May 18th, 2008

Me, Sixteen

This is me at sixteen years old, writing, and appearing content with the world.

Ah, but if you could browse those pages I was writing, you wouldn’t see contentment at all. You would know about my anger, fear, dreams, and heartache, and you would know that I was planning my escape. To the beaches of Santa Cruz, where I would sell seashell necklaces and write poetry on the boardwalk. I would sit by a bonfire every night and teach myself to play the guitar. I would learn to sing in tune, and play folk music in coffee shops. I would save my quarters and crumpled dollars, and buy myself a Volkswagon van.

I never did make it to Santa Cruz, but instead landed in Sunnyvale, California just a few months after this picture was taken. I exchanged babysitting for a room in a crowded house, and went to work — during my first year of freedom — as a waitress, an ice cream server, an airplane parts greaser, and a stock clerk. Eventually, I got a furnished studio apartment with green shag carpeting and a hideously flowered daybed. I bought my first car for $250 at three o’clock in the morning after working the night shift, from a Mexican boy I worked with who spoke no English. It was a 1965 Plymouth Rambler, with wooden blocks for pedals and no rear window. Worse, what appeared to be beige in the dark was actually pale pink in the light of day.

I kept thinking it would get better, this thing called reality, but improvements came in the smallest of degrees. A .10 an hour raise at Racal-Vadic. A hanging wicker chair given to me by a neighbor who was moving. Knee-high moccasin boots and my first pair of brand new Levi 501’s.

I’m pretty sure it was the jeans-tucked-into-moccasin-boots look that brought me affection, or some facsimile of, with someone who appealed to my sense of exotic adventure. On-off-on-off, it was the kind of affection that worked best in the dark.

Three years later, I had Elisabeth, who really was my first agape and forever love. She was followed by MacKenzie shortly after, and Mr. On-Off-On-Off took off for parts unknown and no longer cared about. (I imagine, though, that he’s probably still at his best in the dark, when he’s not speaking and doesn’t have to think about much).

At sixteen, I couldn’t have imagined the life that lay ahead. I couldn’t have imagined, for instance, working in a penile implant factory, where my job was to inject saline, pump the penises up, check for leaks, and then deflate them before putting them in a box. I couldn’t have imagined being a cocktail waitress at a Reno casino, which is the last time in my adult life I ever wore a dress. I still have the scar given to me by the lit end of a poker player’s cigar, when in a fit of pique he threw his hands back to where my thighs happened to be. My nylons burned, but he didn’t apologize. He threw a $5 bill at me and asked for another beer.

I would have never guessed that I would end up writing about 6000 pieces of ad and promotional copy over the course of a decade, or helping to create one of the first mylar billboards to appear on a West coast highway. I would have never planned a career in radio, newspaper, and marketing, and I never thought I’d live in the suburbs, but either on a remote beach or in the heart of a city.

I wanted to be a braver version of Sylvia Plath. A more prolific Dorothy Allison. A feminist counterpart to the ever-reclusive JD Salinger. At sixteen, I dreamed the life of a writer. Days spent at a mahogany desk, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, throwing page after frustrating page in the trash before the inspiration hit and threw me into a feverish whirlwind of perfect writing. At 46, I’ve just about got the coffee and cigarette part down to an art. The rest, including the perfect writing, has yet to come to me.

What were you doing at sixteen? Did you live the life you dreamed, or did you let the fates and circumstances decide? Do you still have any deferred dreams you’d like to live out? Curious minds want to know.

23 Responses to “At Sixteen”

  • At 16, I too, planned my escape.
    No more dreaded Sunday nights on the heels of his weekend drinking from sun-up to pass-out.
    No more “lard-ass”, “…think you’re too good”, “as long as you live in my God-damned house.”
    No more food thrown across the red formica table, or the thwack-thwack-thwacking of the brown leather belt slapping through each loop of the 501s before it flew up, and then crashed down.
    No more.
    I planned my escape.
    Brainy and adaptable, I learned the nuances of success by closely observing those who seemed to attain it. I studied hard despite being told I wasn’t good enough, could never go to college.
    I was.
    I did.
    Full ride academic scholarship.
    Time to heal and learn.
    Told you so.

    Redemption is always beautiful. Congratulations to you, Kate, not just for escaping, but for making your life and your family a tribute to love through the best and worst of experiences. - Jane

  • Glad you asked- now I don’t feel guilty for focusing on my experience.
    At 16, I had run away from home- only to have my pregnant mother & “Freddie Krueger” boyfriend come after me. Had quit high school already- so was expected to be the babysitter for my little brother. Got in car accident- which required back surgery. The “Freddie” boyfriend worked at the Rendering Works- skinning dead animals. He brought home his knife & told me he was going to skin me too. I hid the knife. I wanted to kill my mother- so I prayed away my rage- joined a church & tried to read the dictionary.
    The only dreams I fulfilled were 2- having kids & going to school. I still want to keep on the move- to escape- always.

  • P.S.
    Nothing in my life has turned out as I wished- planned- tried. I am not weak, lazy or intellectually challenged. But everything is wrong. The only thing I am good at is- losing. My life is a failure on every level. I do not say this for reassurance- because no one here knows me. There are many reasons- but the final analysis is- loser!

  • Beautiful, Jane! Beautiful picture and funny article. You really worked some odd jobs. The kind you can laugh at when you no longer have to work at them!

    You inspire me, as always, to think about things I haven’t thought about in years. When I was 16, I wanted to be a firefighter. This was right about the time women were just starting to become accepted in non-traditional fields. I didn’t fulfill that dream until I volunteered at 27, and I was so glad I didn’t choose it as a career! I love what I do now, working with youthful offenders, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else!

    p.s. to Jan, you’re awfully harsh on yourself. Jane once said something like “judge yourself by your own standards, and not the standards of the world. If you’ve acted with integrity, that’s the most important thing.”

    I hope I got that right, Jane! It has always stayed with me, so it must have really hit home!

  • i think i would be dreadfully bored if i DIDN’T have some dreams yet fulfilled…..but i’m not greedy and age has lent me patience (or perhaps parenting has).

    all roads lead to now and i cannot imagine leaving out one chapter of my life, even the dark ones. (there is a quote about pain carving a deeper vessel to carry joy but i can’t quite do it justice at this hour)

    oh, and these stories, Jane….penile implant factory!? fantastic! Reno…god, i can smell that smoky casino and the stench of burnt nylon.

    we all have these stories ya know. at least the lucky ones of us do. i can’t help that, that is how i see it. they are stories of strength and humor and crazy blood-n-guts living. a catalog of stories that sound like the Cohen Brothers wrote it, only they didn’t because they happened to me.

    my stories. my history. and i’ve grown rather fond of them. they have carved the person i am.

  • Hmmm 16 seems like many lifetimes ago… Simply 16 was a fork in the road… I could continue on my self descructive path and get and skip classes OR I could make myself go to school, stop hanging around with my druggy friends and know I had to do something if I wanted out of this miserable town.

    The fork in the road had all to do with being honest with my self and sexuality… I didn’t know what it meant but just walked forward into a life of secrets, shame and true love from my heart… Within the relationship I always felt safe in the arms of my lover…. it was the outside world where I walked with fear and shame.
    Saddly even after all these years that still comes up.

  • I’m probably on the same path that I was on when I was sixteen, as confused as I was then. My dream was vague, so I can’t say I’ve been either disappointed or that I attained it. I’m still working at it.

  • At 16?

    I moved out of my mother’s house because she had efficiently turned our “home” into a warzone.

    One night I woke up to what sounded like a cat screaming in the night. After working up the courage to leave the safety of my bedroom, I found my mother’s boyfriend straddling her prone form with his hands around her neck. That sound was coming from her. I pulled him off her, and he got in my face in his rage. He had vomit around his mouth, clinging to his mustache. She pushed me out of the room, and closed the door behind her. No words. I went to bed that night with a pool que. It was nice and heavy and helped me feel safe.

    She married him three weeks later.

    Shortly thereafter, they announced they were going to refurbish a school bus and hit the road, with the three of us children in tow. That’s when I decided to leave. It was the weekend of my junior prom. It was also the first and last time her husband was physically violent with me. I wouldn’t find out until much later that he beat her regularly when they were gone. What I remember the most of that weekend, was the way her eyes glazed over when he went into his rage.

    At 16, I had few plans. Rather, I was in survival mode and was managing the stress I had accumulated living in my mother’s house. At 16, I was seeking refuge in children’s theater, and trying to unwind. I was clinging desperately to the friends I had. I wasn’t able to think into the future because I was busy managing the moment.


  • At sixteen, my life’s dreams consisted of falling desperately in love, having a picture-perfect wedding, bearing three perfect children and being a journalist. Little did I know, but at sixteen I met the man who would become the love of my life. We were best friends for two years before our relationship changed and I knew my life was at a crossroads. I was filled with angst and, of course, chose the wrong path to follow. Things didn’t go as I planned and in the end my heart was broken.

    Sure enough, I went to on to have the picture-perfect wedding and major in journalism, but that’s where the dream ended. The wedding lead to a miserable marriage. I dropped out of school, had two colicky babies (decided that baby #3 was not going to happen with whom I chose to marry) and after 15-long years, finally divorced.

    And that’s when I discovered my new-found freedom and became the person I was meant to be.

  • At 16, I was recovering from a broken right hip and, unbeknownst to me, getting ready to break the same damn hip again on Easter Sunday morning. I was diagnosed with polio at 4 months, yes, that’s not a typo, 4 months and one of the many side effects of the virus is you might get one weak bone which in my case is my right femur.

    I graduated HS but missed the ceremony as I was in the hospital 100 miles away having the 1st of 2 surgeries that summer to “re-build” my hip. Didn’t work.

    The only dream I ever really had as a child was to be a wife and mother - I wanted a dozen children and to can produce and sew clothes and just be a mom.

    Back in the late 60’s/early 70’s no male person was interested in marrying a crippled female on crutches (and I was not Twiggy thin) so I was single for a loooonnnngggg time. I had a variety of jobs after I flunked out of college and ended up working at the local 100 bed hospital as a switchboard operator and admissions clerk. I took evening classes and gradually built up both my grade point and the number of classes I needed to graduate. I finally had to quit work so I could go to school during the day for the upper level classes I needed. I graduated in 1983 at 32. Took me 13 years but I did it!

    Then I married a widower at age 36 and raised his 2 children. Not quite what I had dreamed of but close enough.

    I’ve learned that CONTENTMENT is what most people crave, not happiness which is fleeting at best. And I am contented in my life not always happy. That’s ok.

    I have my husband who takes care of “the crip” as I like to call myself (I’m not a golf game nor a carburator to be handicapped or disabled), 4 cats who seem to like to be around me, friends who enjoy the same things I do, quilting and needlework, and an adopted daughter who tries very hard to love me but can’t quite make it.

    All in all, I have more than I ever dreamed I would have. Even with moments of hurt as last weeks Mother’s Day, I am contented. Yes, I do realize how very lucky/fortunate I am.

  • In the pic- you look serene- in complete control.
    Can I ask about your newspaper career- or is it in an earlier writing?

  • I love this picture! You’re beautiful in it, and I swear I had a chair like that, in a paneled room like that, back in the seventies!

    At 16, I really wasn’t envisioning the future too much. I was very wrapped up in school, boys, activities and family. I knew I’d get married and have kids, it’s what I wanted, but I was in no rush to start.

  • At 16 I was certain that I was going to move out of the US and live in Jerusalem with the girl of my dreams.

    Well, I have been back to Jerusalem a bunch of times, but never did manage to live there.

    Life is more than a bit different than I thought it would be, but it is not too bad.

  • At 16, I had my first kiss, the most wonderful first kiss I could wish for anyone.

  • I am totally loving these responses!

    Kris, you’re so right. We have to leave something to aspire to.

    Dee, if I’m lucky, next week’s post will deal with the fork in the road. More on that later. ;-)

    Neil, I love watching you work on it, and I love your openness!

    Paige, doesn’t it sometimes seem that we have to go through what we don’t want to find what we do?

    Marcie, I agree absolutely. It’s one thing to be content, and another to be happy. Contentment can come from accepting those things we have no control over, even if they don’t necessarily make us happy.

    Jan, I was looking to get in control, but I wasn’t quite there yet.

    Jack, I would love to visit Israel. I haven’t been yet, but have plans to go next year.

    Heidi, what a sweet memory! My first kiss happened in 4th grade and tasted like peanut butter and sour milk! LOL.

  • When I was 16 , my sister and I lived in Venice Beach and spent our days alternating between the tanning salon and the beach in between classes and work. We ate pop tarts for dinner and birthday cake for lunch because we were FREE. We dyed our hair purple, we pierced our ears more than once, and we wore all black with a lot of silver buckles. We dreamed of being an artist and a writer and look what happened! Holy Crap!
    Now we’re wrinkled and fat. Well, she’s not fat.

  • I’ve spent near 40 years now, trying to forget.

  • At 16 I didn’t have sense enough to envision a future so I found myself in early marriage and eventually with two little children and an abusive husband. That’s when I found out who I was. I left and with no help worked and took careof the three of us. In those days there was no public assistance. Many things have come my way. A new husband, another baby, a series of jobs from nurses aid to resturant cook, factories, schools and offices, then widowhood at 46. I am now 65 and realize that no matter what came my way I dealt with it and kept on going. I know I have laughed more than I have ever cried and the kids all turned out great. Looking back I see a strong woman and I like her. By the way Jane, my Aunt used to say if you hang your Jeans in the closet too long they shrink, and if they stay there long enough they dissappear so it’s a good thing you got yours out!

  • The deeper that sorrow carves into your being the more joy you can contain.
    Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the
    potter’s oven? -Kahlil Gibran, mystic, poet, and artist (1883-1931)

    UGH. there! i wasn’t going to be still until i found this dang quote!

    i feel much better now. thanks.

  • At 16, I was a Junior in high school. I was so excited as I couldn’t wait to finally get the opportunity to take a “journalism”class. Since I wrote in silence for many years before, now I was finally in the class. It all came to an end when I came home from school to find my mother laying on her bed with a bottle of gin and my “Valium” on the night stand. (WOW, I just remembered I was on Valium way back then!)

    My mother tried to commit suicide and was taken to the psychiatric ward at Bergen Pines. There I was totally alone as my brother was already in a juvenile detention center ordered by the court for all his wrongdoings.

    This is when survivor mode took over my life. I had to go to work in order to keep a roof over my head, as well as for my mother when and if she returned.

    I remember the day I went back to school and had to quit school in order to survive. The hardest part of it all was having to tell my journalism teacher. He told me not to do this, but with tears flowing I told him I had no choice, how would I live.

    My life took another direction at 16, a direction of survival, protection and a fear of abandonment.

    I never realized that I am who I am because of what happened to me at 16. Although I blamed a lot on my dysfunctional family with two parents who drank, my father who disowned us when I was 13, but it really was at 16 that carved the balance of my life.

    I closed the door to age 16 many years ago, but it was Jane’s story that opened it and I am so thankful for that as I struggled for a long time wondering why I am who I am in life.

    My road also turned at 16, Patty. We are who we are because of those years, I’m convinced. - Jane

  • It’s almost Sunday!!!

  • At sixteen I always wanted to get married and either have a bunch of kids or run an orphanage for unwanted kids. I wound up getting married 12 years later and opting to replace the orphanage with a home that would welcome stray dogs and cats, to whatever extent room and finances allowed. Animals will always be the objects of my deepest devotion for their simplicity and pureness of heart, so I have no regrets there. Fortunately my husband and I have always allowed each other the time and space to follow our respective passions (his is playing guitar and bands) so neither one feels as though their happiness, or contentment as Marcie aptly distinguishes, came at the expense of the other’s. It’s also the only way a social loner like myself and a gregarious people-person like my husband could adapt to marriage and not feel consumed by it.
    Jane, I have to comment on that beautiful picture of you. It is so soothing to look and has such an ethereal quality to it. You just look serene, it’s hard to imagine that your life was filled with such pain and conflict. Still waters do run deep.

  • At sixteen I thought of the glamourous life outside of Des Moines IA. I thought for sure, I would be a great writer too, but unlike feminist, I wanted to go to Vegas and be a Playboy Bunny (the cocktail waitress). Well, as fate and luck would have it, they built a Playboy Club in Des Moines just as I turned 19. Lucky me, I got to audition and was one of the 100 girls picked to be a bunny! Still dream of writing the great novel, have one tucked in my desk finished and fabulous, but too scared to do anything. So maybe when the milestone birthday of 50 nears, I’ll submit and write off another dream come true!

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