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My Rayannes

January 24, 2011 | by

I was Angela Chase, more so than everyone else who was sure that they were Angela Chase.

All teenage girls are at least half-lesbian, always admiring their friends’ still-shifting bodies, their superior wardrobes, their make-up application expertise, their better luck with the opposite sex. Teenage girls curl up together like newborn puppies, painting one another’s toes as if they were licking one another’s ears. If you sit long enough in any Starbucks, or loiter outside any high school, you will see girls climbing onto one another’s laps, kissing on the lips. They aren’t hitting on each other, not precisely, though they are in a constant state of arousal that borders on the insane. No other love is like the love of a teenage girl, all passion and fire and endless devotion—at least for a week.

There are many painful, moving stories about female friendship out there—Amy Hempel’s In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried, Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty, Thelma and Louise—but even the most beautiful stories about teenage girls fail to capture the obsessive, all-encompassing infatuations I remember. That is, all except one: My So-Called Life. It began on the air in August 1994, the summer before my freshman year of high school, and it was as if someone had placed a mirror inside my bedroom and broadcast it on television. I was Angela Chase, more so than everyone else who was sure that they were Angela Chase. I was a freshman in high school and deeply in love with every doe-eyed boy at my school. I parted my hair in the middle and wore a choker made of string. I got pimples, cried for no reason, and (once Angela introduced them to me, I will admit) danced around my room to the Violent Femmes. And like Angela, I had my Rayannes. Because, of course, Jordan Catalano was not the most intoxicating character to roam the halls of Liberty High, no matter how prettily formed his mouth and eyebrows. That distinct honor belonged squarely to Rayanne Graff, Angela’s new best friend and erstwhile corrupter.

The show told the story of Angela Chase, a normal-looking girl from a middle-class family. She had an annoying younger sister who craved attention and parents who cared if she was out too late. Rayanne, her new friend, took drugs and had a bad (and likely well-earned) reputation. The show tried to focus elsewhere—on Angela’s gay friend, Ricky; her dorky neighbor, Brian Krakow; and, most often, on the obscene beauty of Jared Leto as Jordan Catalano—but the camera always came back to the tempestuous, obsessive friendship between Angela and Rayanne. I was riveted.

Just as every person is the central figure in their own tale, I’m sure that all my Rayannes had Rayannes of their own—earlier versions of the bad girls they would become, all of us mirror images of one another in our dark lipstick and waffle tees. I made my first bad-girl friend in the second grade, a girl who was always talking back and starting fights. At the very same time, my other friends were terrified of spending the night at my house because my parents let us watch Stand By Me, dead body and all. My first high-school Rayanne, from whom I learned to inhale, wasn’t a virgin, and when she was drunk, her Southern accent got stronger. When she was bleaching my hair in her bathtub, we laughed so hard and so loud that her younger sister told us we needed hysterectomies. I had never been happier, more fully in love with the very moment that I was living, even with a head that smelled like ammonia.

Unlike My So-Called Life, my high-school career wasn’t prematurely cut off after nineteen episodes, with me swinging my purse in the middle of the road, suddenly faced with a sensible romance. Instead, the years ticked past, and I found it hard to keep myself bound to a single best friend, just as I found it hard to keep myself bound to a single version of myself. I had uptown friends and downtown friends, cool friends and preppy friends, stoner friends and straight-edge friends, always my own one-girl reenactment of The Breakfast Club. Looking back at my fifteen-year-old self, it surprises me that I didn’t actually split into several pieces of teenage mercury, all rolling off in different directions, or try to live a double life of some sort, where at one school I was a prize-winning bassoonist, and at another, a patchouli-wearing hippie. I was not particularly bad or good but hovered somewhere in the middle, always a plain-faced Angela Chase, too earthly for the truly beautiful boys and too vain for the pimply ones. My parents were married; I did well in the classes that I liked and well enough in the others. Even at the apex of hormonal lunacy, I always possessed a stability that was too boring to be believed.

I have lots of girlfriends now, more than I’ve had since high school, all of them women with style for days. When I get dressed to meet them, my husband rolls his eyes, as if to say, It’s taking you that long to figure out what to wear to eat lunch? Even though I’m now thirty, formed and solid and always in bed before midnight, there is a part of me that wants to stay out until dawn, wet hair sloshed against the side of a friend’s bathtub, cackling with love and endless possibility. It’s been a few years since I watched My So-Called Life, and I’m almost afraid to turn back to it, worried that I might find it trite or silly or less brutally authentic than I remember. Don’t even get me started about having to watch Claire Danes age into a sinewy ballerina of a woman, her even skin and taut limbs offering no proof that she was ever a teenager at all. It’s like watching a dear friend—your sister, a twin—wear a diamond ring the size of a lighthouse, move to the suburbs, and vanish forever. I say this knowing that Claire Danes (the actress) is not the same as Angela Chase (the character), but memories are no more rational than dreams. Sometimes I’ll see A. J. Langer, the actress who played Rayanne, on another television show, looking older and more put-together, and my breath will catch the same as it would if I saw one of my old friends walking down the street. Part of me wants to touch her arm, to pull her close to me and smell her shampoo and perfume and smoky breath, but the larger part of me is content to notice, to smile, and to keep walking, knowing that I’ll think of her for the rest of the day.

Emma Straub will read from her upcoming story collection Other People We Married on January 27 at BookCourt, 163 Court Street, Brooklyn, New York, at 7 PM. Click here for more tour dates.

30 COMMENTS

18 Comments

  1. woolgathering & miscellany | January 24, 2011 at 3:47 pm

    I was a Rayanne/Angela hybrid. Angela to teachers & parents, Rayanne to my friends & boys.

    This was beautiful. I had the same fear of re-watching MSCL, but it definitely withstands the test of time.

    ps. Can we please touch on the Jared Leto metamorFLOP?
    http://woolgatheringandmiscellany.blogspot.com/2010/03/open-letter-to-jared-leto.html

  2. lauren | January 24, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Oh so true it almost hurts. Thanks for getting something out there that is so true for women our age. I still watch MSCL re-runs and it’s still just as good. I teach teens and young adults and in every class I see the kind of girl-relationships we all had: better than a lover when it’s good, more painful and disturbing when it’s bad. I still think, no matter how much more put together I am now, the me that dyed my hair in the school bathroom and wore moody lipstick was so much more interesting sometimes. I’d like to take her to lunch these days:) Thanks again, Emma.

  3. Amy | January 24, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    No fears — the show still holds true, though it can sometimes be painful to watch because it puts you Right There in Those Moments (see: the scene where Sharon confronts Angela in the bathroom about Angela’s new friendship with Rayanne.)

  4. Caryn | January 24, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    This is so Me it’s scary! Thank you for your beautiful, honest writing and for uplifting our collective consciousness beyond the typical tale of white, male adolescence.

  5. Jill | January 25, 2011 at 1:19 am

    This was so awesome I wrote about YOUR blog in MY blog. So much nerdy My So Called Life love to go around!

    In all seriousness, though, this was beautifully written. I loved it.

    http://thingsjilllikes.blogspot.com/2011/01/my-rayannes-emma-straub.html

  6. Mellissa | January 25, 2011 at 1:45 am

    Oh this was so amazing to read. I remember those days and often so miss them in a different sort of way now. That girl I used to be was complicated and extreme and to this day intrigues me. My Rayannes are still in my life and I love them to pieces even though they aren’t actually the bad girls they used to be. We do often still make time for the loud-laughing moments and sillyness, just minus the purple hair dye and sleep overs. I’m going to watch the MSCL episodes again for the first time in 15 years. Thank you!

  7. Susan | January 25, 2011 at 7:37 am

    So much fun to read! As someone who is all lesbian I have to tell you, though, there is nothing “half lesbian” about the experience you describe – it’s %100 pure straight girl – and recognizable from a distance of several football fields by any lesbian who’s ever been “hit on” by one.

  8. Katie | January 25, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    I just rewatched this show a few weeks ago, and not only does it hold up, it offers a lot of insight about the way having a teenager in the house sends shockwaves throughout a whole family. Even though I’m not yet 30 or a parent, I could suddenly sympathize with the Chases and how difficult it must have been to feel alienated from their daughter. For the first time, I actually really felt for my own mother during my teenage years. Perhaps that’s obvious, but it was something of a revelation to me.

    Wonderful piece, Emma

  9. kirsten hubbard | January 25, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    emma,
    my agent sent me a link to this piece (which is gorgeous!) because my debut young adult novel, LIKE MANDARIN, is about this exact topic — a teenage girl’s near-obsession and explosive friendship with her small town’s wild girl, Mandarin.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the ultra-intense dynamics of teen female friendships, which you so beautifully described. I also loved MSCL — at fifteen, I even dyed my hair red to look like Angela’s — and after reading this, I realize it probably inspired some my story on some level.

  10. M.E. | January 26, 2011 at 8:30 am

    … You know that A.J. “Rayanne” Langer married the heir to an English title a few years ago, right? She’s Lady Courtenay and will one day be the Countess of Devon. Even further from Rayanne than Claire Danes is from Angela, now.

  11. Clementine | January 26, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    Oh man, I teared up this is so true that it hurts. Beautifully written! :)

  12. Reba | January 28, 2011 at 3:07 pm

    Wonderful piece! Thanks for writing! And @ M.E. Rayanne as Countess of Devon completely blows my mind!

  13. Jessi | January 28, 2011 at 7:26 pm

    I found a link to this post on YA Highway and had to check it out because I just ordered the entire season of MSCL last week! Such a well-written post about such an iconic show for many of us. I was scared to watch it too, especially since I’d told my husband it was my life in TV form, but it was even better this time around. Brought me right back to that intensity of being that age and the crazy mix of feelings it encompasses.

  14. Virginia Postrel | February 1, 2011 at 12:37 am

    This doesn’t describe me as a teenager at all–which is why I don’t write memoirs that start with the word “All.”

  15. Liana | February 1, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    loved this. I was too young to appreciate so called life when it was on the air but I’m doing a rewatch now… love it. it’s still authentic, I think.

  16. SuperDestroyer | February 3, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Beautifully written post with an awesome message! I didn’t see the series when originally aired but after reading this I have to see it..!

  17. Bloggablegirl | May 11, 2011 at 2:37 am

    Sigh…what memories! Loved your piece Emma! I still watch MSCL once in a while. It’s my guilty pleasure… the scripts were so well-written! Back in those times I used to watch it with a group of girlfriends. We were so heartbroken when it was over.Especially because we never got to know if Angela continued with Catalano, if she forgave Rayanne after all…so many things were left hanging in the air…

  18. Christian | January 23, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Way to fetishise teenage girls. Normally it’s guys who are tediously convinced that being a girl is a 24hr soft-porn movie … I’m not sure how a woman could generalise so creepily. Remember, *your* experience doesn’t equal *all* experience!

12 Pingbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by emmastraub, A. N. Devers, Thessaly La Force, Jessica Roy, Joe Coscarelli and others. Joe Coscarelli said: RT @DAP99 This is really, really great. RT @emmastraub I was Angela Chase, a true story on the @parisreview. http://bit.ly/i7aIBs […]

  2. […] you, too? A brief essay I wrote about My So-Called Life went up on the Paris Review Daily today. Luckily for me, the fine editors trimmed out most of the […]

  3. […] until reading “My Rayannes” by Emma Straub — http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/01/24/my-rayannes/ — it hadn’t occur to me how little I’ve written about those very tumultuous, passionate, […]

  4. […] Straub remembers Her Rayannes: There are many painful, moving stories about female friendship out there – Amy Hempel's In […]

  5. […] envy aside, I bought the book because I really liked her recent essay about female friendships on The Paris Review blog and I hadn’t treated myself to a new book in too long. I also […]

  6. […] Emma Straub’s teenage dream “All teenage girls are at least half-lesbian, always admiring their friends’ still-shifting bodies, their superior wardrobes, their make-up application expertise, their better luck with the opposite sex. Teenage girls curl up together like newborn puppies, painting one another’s toes as if they were licking one another’s ears. If you sit long enough in any Starbucks, or loiter outside any high school, you will see girls climbing onto one another’s laps, kissing on the lips. They aren’t hitting on each other, not precisely, though they are in a constant state of arousal that borders on the insane. No other love is like the love of a teenage girl, all passion and fire and endless devotion – at least for a week.” Nicholas Shakespeare meets his muse “‘For how much longer will you be able to dance?’ ‘Until my body allows me. I have problems with my joints.’ ‘What about theatre?’ ‘Until I die.’ ‘Are you a good actress?’ She looks at me and we both know what the answer is. In the pool of her eyes, a tail has tucked back behind a rock. ‘No. But I can learn.’” Bill Morris riffs on the art of the steal “He begins with his epiphany, the day he heard a kid named Slate rhyming couplet after couplet before a rapt, clapping audience at the Marcy projects in Brooklyn. Jay-Z writes that he ‘felt like a planet pulled into orbit by a star.’ That day he started writing rhymes feverishly in a spiral notebook and poring over the dictionary to expand his vocabulary. (This brings to mind Lewis Hyde’s contention: ‘Most artists are converted to art by art itself.’) Decoded illustrates its author’s creative process by laying out song lyrics on one page, then on the facing page letting Jay-Z deconstruct (decode) the sources and meanings of the lyrics through elaborate footnotes. It’s a revelation.”   […]

  7. […] a too-cool-for-school essay about MY SO CALLED LIFE and how all teenagers are half-lesbians HERE . Emily and Emma are both so Brooklyn Lit World Princess- amazing, if I could be a composite of […]

  8. […] you can argue that Angela’s obsession with her new best friend had semi-romantic […]

  9. […] All I can say for this film is wow. It’s a complete work of art. Based on the true story of two teenage girls friendship through a period of time using real diary excerpts from Pauline. Whilst watching it all I could mostly think about was how explosive relationships between children and adults can be and how it is a surprise more children don’t murder their parents. Which is a horrible thought to have but I won’t explain my thinking more fully because I could write for hours on children as an oppressed group and the failures of modern (and possible even historical ways of) parenting. The representation of the two girls friendship was fascinating and it reminded me of an article I read online a long time ago, found here. […]

  10. […] us high school advice, a thing I wrote about Rayanne after the first time I watched the series, and a wonderful piece that Emma S. wrote about Rayanne that convinced me she needed to write for this site.) […]

  11. […] Emma Straub’s “My Rayannes,” for The Paris Review (thanks for the link, Casey!) […]

  12. […] I have to say about this was said better than I ever could by Emma Straub in her essay “My Rayannes,” in which she says:  […]

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