What We Talk About When We Talk About Thirteen

IMG_0725Three days into my new life living in Manhattan, I rode the 6 train to midtown then walked to Central Park to see Ingrid Michaelson’s SummerStage concert. It was the perfect kind of summer in the city night: young, beautiful people in sundresses and Wayfarers spread out across the park, eating tofu dogs and pizza slices and drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. It was warm and it didn’t get dark until after nine. The whole thing didn’t feel real—that this was my life now, living in New York after two years in Spokane and several in Boston before that. That I could be a short subway ride away from such a magical pocket of the city, a secret oasis shimmering beneath the blinking lights of skyscrapers.

In line for pizza—Pizza Moto, for anyone looking for a primo slice in Brooklyn—I noticed the two young girls in line before me. People watching is one of the best things New York offers, and while I’m usually on the lookout for something a bit more odd, these two girls caught my eye. They were young—I could still see their baby faces beneath their thick strokes of eyeliner, and their tight tank tops betrayed the straps of their training bras, working overtime to produce the illusion of any kind of breasts, let alone cleavage. Thirteen-year-old girls in the wild are fascinating—one girl, with a thick, beautiful auburn ponytail, couldn’t stop fidgeting with her bra, the ragged hem of her cutoff jean shorts, her hair. Her friend seemed more comfortable, with her backwards hat and perfectly applied bronzer. This other girl typed away on her phone, while the redhead watched everyone else, presumably wondering what they were thinking about her.

Thirteen is that special age where everything goes to hell. That’s a scientific fact, as anyone who’s been a thirteen-year-old girl will tell you. You’re in the seventh or eighth grade, on the cusp of high school trying to figure out what it means to be cool. You’re trying to identify your sexuality while also contending with the strange landscape of your ever-changing new body. You’re sneaking spaghetti strap tank tops under your tee shirt so you’ll fit in at the dance (sorry, Mom). You’re trying to learn how to evenly apply eyeliner (just a heads up: you’ll still be mastering this skill fourteen years later). A thirteen-year-old girl is a live wire, an exposed nerve, an open wound.

For me, though, thirteen was actually the calm before the storm. I have in my childhood bedroom a framed photo of myself at age thirteen that’s one of my favorite pictures. I’m on the field hockey field during a break from the action, and I’m smiling. I look comfortable in my body—proud of its strength, sure of its capability. My “Captain” leg band is visible, and it looks like I’m talking to someone, probably one of my teammates, and laughing. I don’t know that I’ve looked so carefree since. It wasn’t right after that moment that my life became complicated—when I entered high school, fell into a deep and dangerous crush on my freshman English teacher, developed a full-blown anxiety disorder and small-scale depression, lost a friend to mental disease, fell in love with a best friend’s brother and lost that friend too—but when I try to draw a line between Before and After, that picture comes to mind. That’s Childhood Casey, the girl I was before. Adult Casey fell far away from her and eventually climbed her way back, but in that photo is an untouched joy and confidence I know I’ll never fully regain.

I wanted to know everything about these girls, waiting in line for pizza and for Ingrid Michaelson to take the stage. Did they live in the city? Were they here for the concert alone, or were their mothers waiting for them on a blanket spread out on the lawn? Would they always be best friends? I wanted to tell them they were okay; that they were so much more beautiful or vibrant than they knew, even in the midst of their insecurity, and that awful things would happen, but good things too, things they couldn’t even dream, and that one day they might see a picture of themselves, singing along to Ingrid Michaelson in the heart of Manhattan, and remember how alive they once felt at thirteen.

When I think about the thirteen-year-old version of me, I wonder what impressions she’d have about the twenty-seven year old me right now, living in New York as a writer and professor. She might not have guessed I’d be living with my boyfriend of five years, or that I’d get groceries delivered right to my door because no one should have to navigate the cruel maze of the 86th Street Fairway on a Thursday after work. But I think she’d recognize the tiny apartment filled with books, and if you asked her if she was surprised, I think she’d say no. She always believed in us, in the dream of New York and of being a writer, and I think she’d be proud.

After the girls drifted away, and long after I’d finished my pizza, I swayed in the crowd mouthing the words to Ingrid Michaelson’s songs. So far past thirteen, I can still easily and unexpectedly slip into that mindset: when I pull into my parent’s driveway, when I see a picture on Instagram of the same group of cliquey girls who continue to exclude me, when I hear a Something Corporate song, soundtrack for my teenage despair. And even though I wouldn’t relive that age for any amount of money, for this moment—in the middle of New York, with my eyes closed and the music loud—it felt good to remember what it felt like to be a buzzing, bumbling, happily miserable thirteen.

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