I was cuddled up like a little cat next to my handsome boyfriend one night, watching the classic movie Rebel Without A Cause, starring the greatest bad boy of all-time, James Dean and the doe-like Natalie Wood. If you haven’t seen the movie, please get in your car (after you finish reading of course) and drive to any video store that still physically exists. You know those stores where you can rent movies from an actual human like in the old days? Trust me, it makes the whole experience even more enjoyable. The cover of the movie is the absolute best. Below the title, in smaller lettering it reads, “…and they came from good families!” How dare a teenager full of angst ever come from a good family?! Gasp! The movie is a classic tale of teenagers navigating all those raging internal hormones, the retched parentals, social hierarchies of high school and the all-consuming young love.
As we’re watching the movie at home on a Saturday night (How thirties of me!), we both can’t help but laugh and add witty commentary about these extremely well-dressed teenagers (an art that I wish would come back) that seem so ungrateful for their seemingly great lives as portrayed in the movie. They complain of their parents’ character flaws, bad marriages and how they don’t understand them. At one point, James Dean’s character is walking alongside Natalie Wood’s character and asks her something to the effect of, “How’s life going?” She answers full of angst and weariness, “Who actually lives…?” We both bust out laughing, doing our own takes on the line as our commentary climbs to new heights.
Inside my head, I was thinking about my teen years and how much unrest there was. Everyone was going through their own phases, searching to find their identity. Mine was very much shaped by what music I was listening to and by my friends, who I considered my main source of stability. Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Weezer, Brian McKnight, 1950s, Paul Oakenfold, Garbage, etc. My music was my escape from what was going on around me. It transported me to this place where I felt safe, complete and understood. It gave me hope that I was going to get out of the craziness and gave me daydreams of what that fantastic new life would be like. To this day, I have a song for almost every moment in my life. A song will come on, new or old, and it will bring back a flood of memories.
My fourth grade to twelfth grade years, before I went off to college, were navigationally challenged. I was constantly searching for my sense of self, security, stability and love as a form of affirmation and acceptance. I remember all the different phases I went through, the different music I listened to and books I read that, at the time, I felt completely understood me like no one else did. There was definitely a hilarious amount of angst in me in those years: the chola with crunchy hair and lip liner, the grunge era chick with flannel and Birkenstocks, little Ms. Fashionable where I never wore the same outfit twice for one year, the popular jockette, the drum n’ bass raver, Ms. M.I.A. when I slipped in and out of school undetected once I tired of all the pretenses, and more.
I was by most definitions “popular” but equally hated at the same time. I never felt like I fit in with anyone because I felt like a fraud. I never really shared with anyone close to me what my home life was like, for fear of rejection I imagine. I’d go to my friends’ homes and see simple things like furniture or parents laughing together and think, “Wow, my life is nothing like this. There must be something wrong with me and my family.” I remember the first time I saw the parents of a friend of mine drink alcohol in front of me and nothing bad happening. I was so shocked by the thought of a parent drinking and it not turning into a dramatic and crazy scene that I started crying. I was so ashamed that I was even crying that I had to explain what was going on with me to everyone. I hated the pity looks and attention it would cause, so I learned early on to deflect and keep people at bay with the pretenses I created. I’d be the bubbly popular girl with her many looks but never really showing who I truly was. Just slivers of me that I felt comfortable sharing. The only people I really let close were my boyfriends.
In the movie, Natalie Wood’s original greaser boyfriend dies, she proclaims her love for James Dean and the two are forever tied to each other in a span of two hours. They were professing their undying love for one another with statements like, “We’ll never have to be lonely again.” They walk off together as the movie ends at the LA Griffith Observatory.
From an early age, I found the understanding, affirmation and love I needed in boyfriends that I wasn’t getting at home. That’s exactly what their characters were getting. They understood each other’s angst and gave it the space to exist with patience and love. That’s the young kind of love that isn’t replicated once grown up because it would spontaneously combust from the sheer intensity of it. A reckless abandon for rules, parents and time; when hours seem to stop counting and the world seems to fall away to just you two. The kind of love James Dean and Natalie Wood expressed for each other in a matter of two hours because when you’re young you can fall in love in two hours and honestly think that this will be the one person that you stay with for the rest of your life and in the same moment it ends and you think your whole world is over. These are the emotions of the young and naive that seem to encapsulate a very small window of time in life but can be some of the most beautiful moments when experienced or viewed firsthand.
I see those phases and relationships as lilly pads in a pond. They acted as my stability and home for periods of time to help me grow strong enough to hop to the next spot. With each lilly pad and hop, I learned more about who I was, what kind of relationship I wanted and ultimately, what kind of life I wanted outside of that pond.
I’m sure that I have more hopping to do in this life, as I am always a work in progress, but I believe that I’ve grown enough to realize now when I’ve found my frog turned prince charming. Instead of hopping to an existing lilly pad, I’ve built one for myself, much to my liking that I think I’ll stick with for awhile.
Who knows, maybe my froggy and I will pretend we’re young teenagers in love and throw alarms, workouts, diets and obligations to the wind and just be with each other in a moment of spontaneously combustable love.