We Scintillate, We're Impervious, We Are 13

The year I was 13 I kept a diary, as I had done every year of my life since I was eight.

Back at eight, I wrote fibs, mainly-doozies, too. "Got a horse!" June 16th's entry boldly claims that year. "My horse is expecting," June 17th's expands.

For a few years there, I recorded big events only, it seems, even if I had to make most of them up. The more mundane I must have felt not worth recording. So that month after month would go by without my having made a single entry in the book; then I would go back and write on three months' worth of Tuesdays, "Had gym today," "Had gym," "Had Gym..."

As time went on, the entries I made in these diaries grew more detailed ("Miss R. looks like a gray piece of underwear"). And by 13, they contained a world.

By the time you're 13, a few things have occurred to you: That you'll never be 12 again. That all the new knowledge you're picking up at school is writing over the simpler, more folkloric wisdom of childhood. The flowers you called Indian Paintbrush, for example, have a Latin name, really; and the snake spit you see on some stems doesn't really come from snakes at all.

I think of all this today because my 14-year-old has just finished Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood, a fictional remembrance about a young girl and her best friend Cordelia. "Listen to this passage at the beginning," my daughter had said excitedly. "It's exactly right: 'Cordelia sits with nonchalance...staring blankly at the other people with her gray-green eyes, opaque and glinting as metal. She can out stare anyone, and I am almost as good. We're impervious. We scintillate. We are thirteen.'"

When she stopped, I went to the bookcase and got down my own copy of Cat's Eye. I had marked the very same passage and written the name of my daughter and her best friend next to it. Imperviousness was a thing I know I prized highly at 13. I affected a certain toughness and nonchalance. I was also capable of great condescension, regarding not only poor Miss R.'s gray face, but any newborn baby, (whom I called "the kid"), and the recently deceased. ("Aunt Ann died today. I cut my bangs," I wrote the day a wispy distant relative passed on.)

The boys I knew at 13 prized toughness too; snickered and threw spitballs in class, until at last they were hauled up to the front of the room and beaten with wooden paddles that they themselves had been asked to fashion in Shop Class. They didn't cry though, heavy as the blows fell. They pressed their lips together and feigned mirth, even as hot tears welled in their eyes.

Being girls, my best friend and I affected subtler forms of defiance. We had a private sign language, which we exercised so discreetly it looked like we were brushing our hands free of crumbs merely, whereas in fact, the palms swept together was "H"; a circle made of right thumb and forefinger held over the left index was "I." "H-I" we spelled out to each other, "W-H-A-T A D-U-M-B C-L-A-S-S" all the while keeping our faces utterly blank and neutral, and in the speller's case at least, studiously fixed on the teacher.

We were wiseguys. We slouched. We made fun. You couldn't have told, watching us, that a soft thought ever entered our minds. And yet: here in this diary are long passages on the beauty of the moon, the to-me-profound notion that it is there even when you can't see it. And yet: men I know now say from the bleak truthful plain of middle age how they loved this or that girl at 13 with a painful intensity they have never known again.

I was riding in the car with this daughter lately, and out of nowhere she said, "I don't want all this to be over. The strong emotions. The impact music has on me. Feeling immortal..." She glanced over quickly at me, having uttered this last.

The very young don't know the word "immortal" any more than a rose knows the word "June." They both just live them. 13 is behind us both, I guess.

In Cat's Eye, the narrator says she sees now that time is not a line; that you don't look back along it, but rather down through it, like water. I read my old diary and see the waters of my own life, and the life that like a second, young, river has flowed from it in a direction all its own. And I am glad for words written on paper by anyone at all who looked down at his or her life and tried, recording, to understand it.

©Copyright 2002-2011 Terry Marotta, All Rights Reserved.