7 Women in a House by the Sea
There were 7 of us in the old white house on a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean last week. We’d gathered because this is the year we all turn forty. We’d traveled from California, all over New England, a small town in Georgia and New York City to be together. We're single, married and soon-to-be single again. Some of us have kids and some don't. One of us is extremely pregnant. Some of us have high-octane careers. Others of us work at home with our high-octane families, a few of us do both. The majority of us have been friends since our elementary school days. Three of us carpooled to nursery school squished into the backseats of our mothers’station wagons. But we found each other as a group in the throes of junior high school angst and have held on to each other for dear life ever since.
We weren't the popular girls. We weren't the really cool girls. In junior high when other girls our age were out with boys, coming to school on Monday morning with stories about sneaking their parents’ beer over the weekend, we were still doing sleepovers, singing along to the Grease soundtrack and not understanding all the words. (Pussy wagon?) All the way through high school our activities included ice skating parties, constructing gingerbread houses at Christmas, playing charades at birthdays and miniature golfing outings. We were young for our age that way. And we weren't in a real hurry to grow up. The few of the 7 of us who did start going out with boys and experimenting with drinking…we counted on the safety of game night and Grease sing-a-longs to come back to.
Sure, there were other friendships for each of us growing up, some very close. But the 7 of us stayed connected to our group as life got more complicated even if, at times, it was only through one person in it. We donned the requisite bridesmaid sateen to be in each other's weddings. We flew and road-tripped to see each other in far-away states. We went on adventures in foreign countries together. We visited each other in hospitals through scary times. We’ve cheered each other on: degrees earned, Emmys won, children adopted, traumas survived. We’ve soothed each other's hurts: men who've disappointed, dreams that haven't yet come true, a marriage that seemed to crumble overnight, a longed-for child lost. And, this past week, listening to 7 voices talking about work, weight, love, family, money, hopes and worries it's clear that our friendship still is a safe place for us to rest from the world.
Still, I don’t think any of us were prepared for what happened after we’d cooked dinner one night in the house by the sea and were relaxing in the big, open living room. Lucy, who has always acted as the unofficial group historian, unearthed from her suitcase a videocassette tape of a Halloween costume party she’d hosted 25 years earlier in her parents’ basement. In school, the 7 of us had worked feverishly on drama club plays and we'd already laughed our way through the painfully funny results at earlier get-togethers over the years. This was brand-new material. Where had Lucy been hiding this one?! This wasn’t some of us in costumes reciting scripted lines while the rest of us toiled unseen backstage. It was all 7 of us in our awkward, unscripted, pubescent glory… We had to press play.
The giant flat screen television in the corner of the beach house living room filled with fuzzy images of all 7 of us and about a dozen other costumed high school sophomores in Lucy’s finished basement. One by one, our fifteen-year-old selves circa 1985 come down the stairs dressed as a scarecrow, a nun, a princess, a masquerade-ball-attendee, a vampire, a flapper and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. Seven 40-year olds howl and clutch at each other on the couches in the living room.
"Look at you!"
"How cute are you?"
"Oh my god. Look at my hair! What was going on there?"
"What was I wearing?!!"
"How could you guys let me walk around like that?!"
We watch teenaged versions of ourselves prance around the basement, never alighting anywhere. Laughing. Mostly moving en masse. There we are dancing to Julie Brown songs. “Will I Make It Through The Eighties?” was a favorite. It was a very good question. There were many days it felt completely unsure. We sing at each other in a grainy videotaped circle, dancing and bopping around with surprisingly little self-consciousness. The camera pans the room and takes in most of the rest of the kids slumped at the basement bar staring at us…..annoyed? We don't notice. We are too caught up in each other. There are cringe-worthy moments to be sure. Could our voices get any squeakier? But there’s also something amazing about seeing adolescent girls uninhibited together….each of us was shy in public at almost any other time. As the camera begins to fade to black, all 7 are mugging for the camera not wanting it to stop filming. Pay attention to us! we are saying as we hop up and down.
And the forty-year-old versions of those girls don't want it to end either. We don’t want these girls to go away. But they do. In the beach house the screen goes dark and we sit there, stunned. We turn to each other. Who were those girls? Where did they get that energy? Where did those bodies go? All arms and legs flailing around. We had never stopped moving. Eyes on each other the whole time. We look at each other, wide-eyed across the damp living room, the warm, dark ocean night wind blowing into the open windows. Conversation slowly begins again.
"Did we really just see that?”
“We were babies!”
“I wonder what that guy’s doing now…”
“He’s on FaceBook…”
“I still have that costume.”
“I remember wishing….”
And then we jump. The blast from the past isn’t through with us yet. The giant flat screen lights up one final time. It shows Lucy’s basement almost empty. Except for the 7 of us. We are in our pajamas in a clutch of sleeping bags huddled in a corner of the finished basement. The lights are dimmed. Glass sliders leading to Lucy's family pool are the only thing between us and the dark October 1985 night and the woods beyond. Lucy tells us to pretend we are sleeping. We obediently flop our heads down onto our pillows. Someone pretends to snore.
"See? We've been listening to you for 25 years," somebody in the beach house living room cracks.
“I remember those pjs…” another forty-year old says.
Then the fifteen-year old me in the video stands up. I have a pale blue nightshirt on with a red heart over my heart. I wear pink long underwear under it. I start talking in a baby-voice. Somebody interrupts me and laughs.
"C'mon, Jane!" someone says.
"No!" I say and pout in a put-on little girl voice. "I'm not gonna say it. You laughed at me." I twist my nightgown and stamp around a little on the tape.
Oh my god. I can barely stand to watch. It makes me squirm in my seat. I am trying to have empathy for this girl. But why can't she just stand still, talk normal and spit it out?!
"Okay! Okay, you guys!" Fifteen-year-old me says and I flip my hair and twist my fingers together. Oh god. Not the hair flip. Did I really used to do that?! "Like, you know how Lucy said we're gonna have a reunion in the year 2000? Why don't, we, like, all say where we're going to be in, like, the year 2000? And Lucy can, like, bring the tape and we can see whether we became the things we thought we were gonna be?" My voice disappears into the upper register at the end and I do a little hop and plop down on my Raggedy Ann sleeping bag.
7 forty-year olds in the house on the rock turn and gape at each other in disbelief. None of us have any memory of this part of the night. We turn and look back to the screen.
"We'll all be dead!" a fifteen-year old yells off-camera in complete seriousness.
"Noooo! We'll be THIRTY!" someone else yells from inside a sleeping bag with even more horror.
"I'm gonna be rrrrich!" Lucy says with confidence and a beautiful smile straight to the camera, arms spread wide.
Another voice calls, "I'm gonna be married to what's-his-name." The fifteen-year olds all laugh.
And then it begins. One by one, around the circle, the camera focusing on each rounded face. Our voices rise into a babyish cadence, maybe the only voices we feel we can use trying on such grown-up plans. One of us will have a restaurant. Another will be on her second best-seller by then. Somebody else has multiple options to choose from: psychologist, physical therapist or maybe even radio and television. Some of us are going to live together in New York City. Others want to travel through Europe. Somebody even wants to be President. We laugh. We applaud. We hit each other with pillows.
The forty-year-olds sit there with our mouths open. How did we even know to ask each other those things back then? And even stranger...so many of the expectations we had as girls seem connected with what actually came to be. Those of us who mentioned marriage ended up married. Those who said they'd travel to Europe, did. The scarecrow who said she'd write has written professionally. The one who said she might become a psychologist, became one. The good witch who wanted to open a restaurant is a stellar cook. The flapper who talked about politics became an activist. The nun who said she wanted a "big house" just moved into one. Dorothy, who declared emphatically, for some reason none of us can remember, she wouldn't become a veterinarian, didn't. She became a doctor instead. The connections go on.
Staring at these younger, hopeful and confident versions of ourselves, we are flabbergasted. So thankful to those girls for finding each other. For having the wisdom to stick together and to support each other's dreams. I think we all just wanted to reach past the screen and through the years and hug those young girls…. tell them that, despite the dramas of adolescence, the ups and downs of our twenties and the hard work of our thirties, everything is going to turn out all right. Like, really. Someday they'll all end up as grown women sitting in a house by the ocean together, still friends, still rooting for each other and stronger than ever.
But, no. In the end, maybe it’s really the opposite that happened. Those 15 year olds are the ones who reached across the years to us. They are the ones who have something important to say. In fact, they have so much to say they can barely stand still. They can barely get it out. And maybe the 40 year olds are the ones who just really need to listen. In those little girl voices from inside their sleeping bags, those girls find a way to say it loud and clear: Dream big. Ask yourself the important questions. Say what you really want. Play. Sing along. You’re braver when you’re surrounded by good friends. Don't be too hard on yourself. Hang onto your friends for life. And always watch the movie til the very end.
Thanks, girls.....for everything.