She sits in front of me in middle school and I remember the back of her head as well as I recognize the front. Brown hair cropped in the back with slightly curly wings in the front. Smooth round face, classical peaches and cream complexion of the Midwest, I have to guess the eyes (blue?) since she wore glasses. The rims seemed to be squarish, colored a dark ruby.
They say that people who are at the scene of the crime have extremely poor recall of the events. If we do not know we are supposed to pay attention, most of us do not. We see tall for short, yellow for green, even fast for slow.
I believe the class we shared was Mr. Wagner’s English class. He was slightly feminine in the way that a Midwestern man can be—wearing bright crisp button down shirts and his hair like newscaster, as polished as his diction. It was rumored that Mr. Wagner had a deep affection for the singer Joan Jett, so we all assumed he was deeply invested in some sort of dark art.
Joan Jett wore a lot of black and sang rock n’ roll, it meant something immoral was probably happening in his cellar, or attic, those extra spaces people go to hide their affections.
Oliver Sacks writes about time perception and memory in the New Yorker, “Through such instrumentalities, we can enhance our perception, speed or slow them, in effect, to a degree infinitely beyond what any living process could match. In this way, stuck as we are in our own speed and time, we can, in imagination, enter all speeds, all time.”
I can’t remember if we went to any of the same parties. The school was huge and poorly managed. The idea of putting two thousand junior high students together seemed crazy and we were the second class to enter into the new system. I had a few friends: Heather, Nikki, and Caroline. We ate gooey chocolate chip cookies for lunch. We hadn’t got our periods yet.
Mr. Wagner called me up to his desk after class about a poem I wrote. He asked me where I stole it from. I told him I actually wrote it myself, but he didn’t believe me. I had a way with words I didn’t understand, that maybe even Mr. Wagner didn’t understand. I was smart enough to know to be oddly flattered.
They say that there are warning signs. You give your possessions away. You lose your appetite. Maybe you write morose poetry. You behave recklessly. You appear depressed or withdrawn. You may have suffered a major loss or life change.
Jenna committed suicide and no one told us why at school. What I heard later was that on her birthday she had her friends over for a party. She said she had to go and get some soda down in the basement and when her friends went to look for her, she was there, hanging from the rafters by a rope.
And then a secondary story came out, the reason why, that her father had been rumored to be involved in gambling and owed people money. After disappearing for a while, he was found in the back of an abandoned car in upstate Wisconsin, locked in the trunk. I heard she loved her father so much all she wanted was to join him. I cannot imagine that at fifteen Jenna had any idea what suicide is except an act that it reunites you with the ones you love or can’t bear to live without.
Mr. Wagner wondered from what text I stole those spectacular words. I don’t know what those words were, but they were probably too long and used only to create rhyme. No one was expecting anything extraordinary at Elm Middle School. If I could slow down these moments to be able to go back and really look, I would find out which words were so spectacular, what color Jenna’s eyes were, what Mr. Wagner did in his house while listening to Joan Jett records. There are other things that I might have curiosity about, but that I wouldn’t choose to see: the look on Jenna’s face, bloated and scary but happy to be rejoined with her father. Her friends watching her swing from the rafters. The day we closed up the desks in English class so there wouldn’t be an empty desk to remind us of Jenna.
“It’s well known that even if you imagine something now that may not have happened in the past, it can create a feeling of familiarity if it does happen later on…You don’t need objective outside information to create these situations; you can do so internally, on your own.”—New York Times article about déjà vu.
I listen to Joan Jett on my stereo in the car. I never listened to her in junior high, and I love her now like I never could have before. She is fierce, with a snarl in her voice and seductive lines backed up with rock n’ roll guitar. Eighties style has become very popular in San Francisco, and I see girls ten years my junior sporting the striped shirts, plastic earrings, asymmetrical haircuts and I am jealous. Their version looks better on them than it ever did on me. In my junior high album I have thick metal braces on my teeth, like railroad tracks. My hair is permed into a frisée of tight dishwater blonde curls. I look gaudy in my neon pink shirt and matching dangling earrings, more clown than cool. The only thing that saves the whole image is the sweetness of my youth—unlike the girls who sport eighties style now, I wasn’t dressing for irony.
So I look for Jenna on the Internet and she is not there. She was too young to be a part of the Google generation and didn’t live to be old enough to have plenty of detritus statistics: swim scores, resumes, postings about how to get cats to not claw up your furniture.
It’s all about Jenna Jameson, the porn star, or the president’s daughter Jenna Bush. Some sort of horror chain mail, “Could this dead girl kill you? I am seven years old with blonde hair and scary eyes. I have no nose or ears.” Submissive foot worshippers. Plastic fantasy adult superstar statues. Heartbreaker resin statues. Jenna from “Survivor” the television show. Everything from now and nothing that informs me about then.
Somehow I thought that there would be a Web site, or an academic article from some obscure source explaining it all. I am used to too much information and not the black holes of adolescence and 1987. I imagined that there was no way this could be the complete story, and that there is a third, a fourth, a fifth. That one of Jenna’s friends who saw the swinging body would be calling out, looking for others who remember through eighteen years something they still cannot quite comprehend.
Then is gone like so much growth to a young girl’s body. Once you’ve worn makeup every day for eighteen years you forget what it was like to leave the house clean-faced. Once you’ve had sex you couldn’t imagine relating to people with pure innocence, once you’ve taken care of yourself you can’t imagine going home to your parent’s house to live in your childhood room with its pale yellow flowers and white lacquer furniture.