Every morning, I would start the day with the Smashing Pumpkins—haunting “Disarm,” anthemic “Today.” Over and over, in a bedroom still mired in childhood, where a mound of carelessly tossed stuffed animals crept up my white wood dresser, I relentlessly played Siamese Dream. This, I thought, is how one becomes a teenager.
When the sun was at its hottest, late in the afternoon, I would stand at my front door, forehead pressed against the mesh screen, waiting for some friend’s mother to pull up in a beige Nissan and carry us to the mall. Here, I would spend hours in too-short shorts in too-cold air conditioning deliberating between pungent Plumeria or Freesia lotions at Bath & Body Works, scarfing down greasy slices of food-court pizza, and buying a hideous glittery cropped tee my mother would take one look at and matter-of-factly proclaim I would never wear. Until I was called for dinner, I’d read Seventeen, wondering if, once my dreaded braces came off, I’d be as beautiful as the young girls staring back at me with their wisps of charcoal eyeliner rimming their almond-shaped eyes, the ones who looked like they hadn’t cried since they fell off pretty pink bicycles with white baskets and streamers flowing from the handlebars. After that night’s iteration of chicken and rice, the phone would ring. For the next hour and a half, I would talk about nothing with the person I had had nothing to say to at the mall just a few hours before.
It was the summer of 1993, and I was bored.
Several months ago, an exhibition opened in New York at the New Museum—that bastion of global contemporary art on the Bowery—called NYC 1993: Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star. It is named after an album by Sonic Youth, a band I had never heard of back then because the Top 40 station I favored instead encouraged listeners to spend their nights gyrating at a New Jersey club called Hunka Bunka. Spanning five floors, the exhibition reveals an epochal year of social and political transformation through artwork that was made amidst cultural upheaval: horrifying video portraits of AIDS diagnoses, a wall of mixed-media curios from Kids director Larry Clark. As an almost-fourteen-year-old ensconced in the suburbs with little to distinguish 1992 from 1991, I might not have understood the magnitude of 1993 on a global scale, but even for me a glimmer of change was palpable. I could feel it that summer, when I started slicking my eyelashes with mascara and reading Anaïs Nin. I was changing, I remember thinking, and quite possibly the world was, too.
The first half of 1993 was of course spent in middle school, a notoriously cruel, manipulative playground that left me, every afternoon, contemplating the half-empty bottle of Tylenol tablets, wondering what would happen if I plunged a fistful down my gullet, soap opera-style. I was always buoyed by the sight of our new, sax-playing president on television. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow became my mantra, too. Like Chelsea Clinton, with her frizzy hair and mouth full of metal, I knew I was meant for greater things than gym-class volleyball failures. If we had been in the same school, perhaps Chelsea and I would have eaten lunch together, and I wouldn’t have had to sit in the bathroom until the cacophony of puberty-stricken voices in the cafeteria faded to silence.
But turning on the TV also meant cult, Waco, siege. Just two days before David Koresh became a household name, the World Trade Center was bombed for the first time. The images of twisted shards of burning metal and clouds of human dust that followed eight years later would almost obliterate this inaugural attack from public memory, but it was the first time I realized it was possible to wake up, drink a cup of Maxwell House coffee, head to work with the comfort of knowing meatloaf will be waiting on the table when you come home, and then die while doing something as trivial as stapling a document. To a middle-schooler, a revelation.
A sixteen-year-old boy was found killed on the baseball field of a local park a few days before school started. I did not know who he was, and how he wound up pierced with a bullet remained a mystery. All I could think of was how his mother probably intended to drag him to Macy’s to buy a first-day-of-school outfit, and now she was planning his funeral. I was confident, eager for a fresh start and a chance to show off my new C-cup-bra status as I moved from classroom to classroom with spiral notebooks filled with mostly unsullied pieces of paper. My global studies teacher looked like JFK. My gym teacher believed me when I handed over the first forged note saying I was too sick to run the track. And: I had a crush. In math class, a boy a year older than me, his second time around tackling truth tables, who always showed up cloaked in cigarette smoke and sadness. I had never yearned for rebels before.
As the weeks carried on, my notebooks became littered with Bic-made doodles. The gym teacher rolled her eyes when I said I forgot my shorts yet again, and I continued to sneak glances at my intriguing older crush, who by now had impressed our ruddy-faced teacher as much as me with his command of rudimentary logic. When I started high school, I fantasized it would be the year of laughing, flirting, and loitering at my locker until after the bell rang, like the girls who enjoyed walking into an already-shuttered classroom so the boys could look at their freshly chiseled curves as they made their way to their seats. But it wasn’t. Once again I found television far more stimulating than my peers. Risqué NYPD Blue had just debuted, and my English teacher told us to watch it and write our impressions. I loved the cursing, the gritty set, the flashes of nudity. It was smart and fast paced, how I imagined adulthood. In French class, my tall Lithuanian teacher, who wore delicious perfume and high heels and was rumored to have walked down a runway in her past life, encouraged me to submit a piece to a poetry contest. Yet I certainly wouldn’t find inspiration in the bleak hallways of high school, nor in shopping for English muffins with my mother in King Kullen. Then I turned on the TV. This time, rubble in Sarajevo filled the screen. That picturesque Yugoslavian city was where the Olympics took place in 1984. If I closed my eyes I was almost five again, glued to the screen watching British ice dancers Torvill & Dean flawlessly dip and spin to Ravel’s Boléro. That city, now coated in despair, no longer existed. This is what I would write about.
Happiness is flimsy in high school. You wear a flannel shirt one day with the intent it proves you listen to Nirvana and smoke a senior’s joint after school, not cry into your pillow, but it doesn’t. Instead, you look like you are about to chop wood in a Vermont backyard. That is the day, when you already hate yourself, that there is a tap on your shoulder and the lanky girl, whose popularity you could never fathom, hands over a piece of paper torn off the bottom of a worksheet delineating atmospheric pressure, with loopy handwriting that asks, that mocks with its voluptuous question mark, “Is it true you had sex with him?” alluding to a person you do not think of, a person who can barely muster a hello to you in the hallway, yet alone deigns to think of deflowering you in a moldy basement. Underneath, it says, “Because that’s what people are saying.” People. The ones who granted her the confidence to think she was pretty and not awkward. That is the day you think the sixteen-year-old who was gunned down in the park, the one who thought he was going to the beach the next day, might just be the lucky one. That is the day the mantra morphs to Don’t stop thinking about four years from now. When you never have to see these people again.
Clutching my bathroom pass, I lingered in a stairwell, wiping the tears rolling down my cheeks with a flanneled arm. The Smashing Pumpkins would not make me a teenager; suffocating emotion would. Then I heard footsteps. They belonged to the rebel. As on any other day, a cigarette was tucked behind his ear and his pants fell below his hips. I expected him to stare ahead, pretend to not see my streaked, puffy face. But he didn’t. He didn’t ask if I was okay either. He simply said, “What’s up?” and walked down the stairs. One misfit subtly acknowledging another, one misfit leaving his comrade to wallow in her own public privacy. I knew I would be okay. Like those truth tables we deciphered in math class—if P, then Q.
Six years later, when my mother phoned me at college—when high school was lodged deep in my memory, but never forgotten—to tell me that the murder of that poor boy in the park from way back when when had been solved, by someone a year older I might not know by name, I remembered the stairwell and the aroma of stale smoke. It was the fall of 1993, and if only for a day, I was resilient.
When she’s not interviewing architects and designers as managing editor of Hospitality Design magazine, Alia Akkam eats her way through her favorite borough as editor of Edible Queens and pens stories on restaurant and cocktail culture for outlets such as Paper and Liquor.com.