January 24, 2011 | by Emma Straub
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.