The girl in the picture was beautiful.
The first thing I noticed was the Disney eyes, impossibly wide and filled with a storm of withering contempt and starving longing. The arches of her brow were graceful enough to drive an architect to suicide: he could never reproduce something as perfect. Her nose was that of a Caesar, or more appropriately a Czar. And her mouth, small and unused to smiling. It was a face uniquely fascinating, lovely for the depth of its quirks: exquisite and alone. Genetics had somehow found the unlikely intersection between Fairy Princess and Bond Girl.
I fell in love immediately.
I saw her this last Saturday, while standing in the science room at Walla Walla Valley Academy, paging through the 1996 yearbook. She was a senior then, seventeen years old, with a list of activities that spoke to wanting to be somewhere, anywhere, else. I was filled with the desire to help her. I wanted to show her the world. I wanted to hold her and whisper things into her ear. I wanted to make her laugh.
It’s probably a good thing I married her.
I was at my wife’s high school reunion this weekend. This is an odd thing to say about someone I have known for fifteen years, but the experience placed her in a deeper context. I was at once intensely jealous that these people knew her before I did, and at the same time grateful that her friends would accept me instantly, sharing what they knew of the tiny enigma that I love. The rest of the weekend, I was filled with unshakeable déjà vu, but instead of my memories, it was the sense that I should have other memories, a link to someone fifteen years gone and yet right beside me. It was one of the most profound connections I have ever experienced with another human being. I was walking the same streets she had, seeing the same sights and smelling the same smells. Incidentally, those last two are basically sweet onions and prison.
In the pictures, she had hair past her shoulders, which served to make her already delicate face all the more vulnerable. By the time I met her, she had already chopped it into one of the various pixie cuts she has sported this last decade and a half. The hair created something of a barrier between now and then, the concrete moment of transition between smalltown girl (living in a lonely woooorld) to independent college woman that hijacks smitten upperclassmen into carrying boxes stuffed with bricks. Our lives are filled with these transformative moments that we often commemorate with a change in appearance. A symbolic severing of the past.
Of course, not all transformations are positive or willing. Divorce is a big one, especially for the children that literally have no power over that sort of thing and inevitably internalize at least some of the turmoil. Even I did, no matter how many times my mother assured me that none of it was my fault. She did everything right yet there was still some part of me that at least wondered if I wasn’t slightly at fault. After possibly the longest digression that isn’t even tangentially related to the episode at hand, I can come to this week’s episode, “What Are Friends For?” which is about a girl’s life in the wake of possibly the least acrimonious divorce on record.
Dad has stayed in New York, with his new wife and her three children (and since this is 1980, presumably a live-in maid and Cousin Oliver), while Mom has taken daughter Amy to Santa Monica to start a new life. Amy refuses to talk with her father, while Mom speaks quite reasonably with the man over the phone, encouraging him not to stop trying to repair the relationship with his estranged daughter. I remember my parents directly before and after the divorce and let’s just say there were no comforting conversations between the two of them. The Greater Los Angeles area should be happy that neither one had access to biological weapons.
Amy is adrift: the pressures of divorce compounded by being stranded in a new city without friends. Naturally, she latches onto the first friendly face she encounters, that of Michelle Mudd, who took several scenes to convince me that she did not have Down Syndrome. Michelle at first appears to be a lively free spirit and is also the child of divorce. She has internalized the divorce to such a degree that she refers to herself as being divorced, a habit that Amy adopts and abandons by the end of the episode. Michelle is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in search of a Zach Braff.
The episode takes a turn shortly thereafter, but it is not one that surprised me overmuch, considering the way it opened. My initial notes (literally, the first thing I wrote after pressing play on the DVD player) read: “WHAT THE LIVING FUCK IS GOING ON?” This is because the opening shots are of a collection of terrifying antique dolls. You know, the kinds that look like they’re made from the polished bones and ghostly laughter of orphans. Amy collects these abominations, and has them set up around her room so they watch her while she sleeps, whispering: “We’ll play with you. Play with you foreeever.”
So the fact that Michelle’s hobby is witchcraft is not terribly stunning. She performs a hex on her father’s new girlfriend and a friendship ceremony with Amy (neither which have appreciable supernatural effect). A good deal of the episode is Amy’s slow burn realization that Michelle is fucking crazy. And boy howdy, is she! Imagine a G-rated version of Single White Female. That’s this episode, only with extensive meditations on the nature of friendship and loyalty in place of blowjobs and high-heel facilitated murder. Michelle believes that loyalty is about latching onto one person to the exclusion of all others, and this person should immediately abandon any sort of moral code of which the parasitic partner does not approve. Which is absurd, but a young girl in the midst of emotional upheaval would buy it. After all, her father was disloyal to the family, so such things would speak to her.
What is the nature of loyalty then? There’s no easy answer, and certainly not one to be found in 44 minutes of special. The episode makes it clear that Michelle’s notion of friendship is wrong, but does not really provide something in its place. The sad thing is that I don’t really know either. I know that, because I have the tendency to reduce everything to simplest terms, I regard friendship as an equation. Everyone has positive and negative qualities, and friendship is the result of the former outweighing the latter. Certain qualities are dealbreakers, and these are matters of personal preference. Michelle displays her dealbreaker when she involves Amy in some shoplifting without Amy’s knowledge or consent. The episode ends with Michelle and Amy’s friendship ended, prompting Amy to make a tearful phone call to her father, thereby salvaging that relationship. It was not the most satisfying of endings, but the sight of Michelle in her full on witchcraft face paint should haunt me for a little while. I’m fairly certain she kept a killer Zuni doll hidden away.
Amy is played by a young Melora Hardin, who most viewers will recognize as the cougarian Jan Levenson from The Office. It was disconcerting seeing Hardin at coltish thirteen. She does fine work, and at no point does she sexually humiliate any male character. Which is probably for the best. Still haven’t gotten to that episode yet.
Amy doesn’t undergo a hair-cutting moment of metamorphosis, but she does symbolically end her friendship with Michelle by returning the (probably stolen) earrings bestowed during the creepy friendship rite. This lets Amy move forward with her life, letting her see the divorce as something that affects without defining her. But that’s the tricky thing: we define ourselves in different ways throughout our lives, which overlap willy nilly. We latch onto concrete examples: Amy’s earrings, my bride’s hair, and in changing these things, we hope to change ourselves. It’s never as clean as we want it but this continued process of reinvention is a central part of being human. And of providing pictures of us with embarrassing mid-‘90s hair.
Next up: “Schoolboy Father” starring motherfucking Rob Lowe. I cannot express how excited I am.