T from Florida lends me the complete Freaks and Geeks DVDs just before the start of spring break my Freshman year of college. He’s staying in the dorms over break because he can’t miss work. I’m staying because my mom sent me a text message that said just I don’t think you need to come home for spring break. I believe it’s because she’s just broken up with her boyfriend and doesn’t want me around. Never you mind whether or not I might want to come home, whether or not I might want to see my sister. But at least this way I can put off going near my ex. Since our November breakup in front of the shrine, he keeps bugging me, asking about seeing me again, which was the opposite of what I’d hoped to achieve with the breakup.
It’ll be fine. I have work to do, paintings to catch up on, and short stories to write. I can tell I’m getting on my roommate’s nerves. Since I last saw my ex, I’ve lost the ability to clean up after myself. It’s like all I want to do is surround myself with trash, to pull garbage over myself like a blanket. I need to take the time to tidy my side of the dorm room, to do better.
When my ex completely ignores the breakup and contacts me again, I wait a few days to respond. I open the text and run my thumbs over the rubbery buttons on the phone, but something keeps me from responding. So, he threatens me again, blackmails me again. It has already been too many times to count. I have an airtight excuse though. I tell him my mom told me not to come back, so it won’t be possible to see him. It has been five months since I’d broken up with him. Let it go.
I could have taken my family finding out about the drugs, but the thought of them being sent videos of me, naked, for that, I needed something stronger to endure, someone to lean on. I didn’t have that person. But he had the videos.
Text message after text message from my ex buzzes through my phone where it rests on the sheets of my dorm bed.
Fellow Bisexual Art Friend is one of the only other bisexuals in our Honors College friend group, and therefore someone I feel a kind of instant kinship with, and I think, she with me. We sit on cold three-legged stools and paint at night in the basement studio space for our class, fluorescent lights flickering above to remind us that our school thought it best to stuff all the arts classrooms into spaces with no natural light. She puts on an audio book of Brave New World for us to listen to while we paint, popping the tape into the classroom’s stereo.
After a while, she breaks our quiet. “I think [redacted] is the most toxic thing in your life.”
She stops her work and turns to face me, to drive the point home in her way that is confrontational and through that confrontation, loving.
“You think so?”
She already introduced me to music and ways of being I had never imagined before knowing her. Some of these introductions consist of her yelling at me, exasperated, to eat a salad. (Not in that way. I didn’t really eat vegetables or fruits. I think she was deeply concerned I’d get scurvy.)
One day, she dragged me toward the salad bar in the dining hall. I poked the tongs at something that looked like sliced cranberry sauce. It didn’t jiggle. “What’s this?”
“A beet! It’s a beet, Nicole! Haven’t you ever had a beet?” Her eyes were wide. She didn’t know if I was pulling her leg.
I put exactly one slice of beet on my plate and tried it when we sat down. I neither liked nor disliked the slice of beet. It was something strange and new.
Here is another thing for me to turn over in the hands of my brain, to inspect like a time traveler murmuring over some piece of technology from the future. Can a person be toxic? I have only ever thought about toxicity in terms of bad food, poisonous plants, waste buried underground. At sleepovers, my Best Friend Since Kindergarten and I exchanged whispers about Love Canal. We were drawn into morbid fascination by these people who were very near us, who staked their lives on the promise of a heavenly place to live. Instead, that place reached its dead fingers up through the dirt and dragged them down into it, poisoning them, rotting their bodies. Fifty-six percent of children there were born with birth defects, including a third ear and a double row of teeth.
Places could be toxic, but, people?
Bisexual Art Friend, all exaggerated gestures, her eyes wide, long black hair tied up without much thought, urges me on, “Don’t you think so?”
“I guess so.”
This is a lie. I can’t pin down what I think. My pocketed phone bleeds heat into my leg. I don’t tell her that in this moment, there are text messages, voicemails in there from my ex, threatening to tell them “sick” things about me, to spin a picture of me that is like me, but that is not me, not all of me, not me as I would tell it. It would feel like being dissected in front of an audience while still alive and conscious.
What will they think of you then?
Skin cold, eyes watering, I listen to the audio book through the blood pressure in my ears, listen to stories about people sorted and born to stay where they are.
I push the splintering hairs of the paintbrush into the white criss-cross of the canvas fibers, work on my assignment, wish I understood abstract painting. It is not a good painting. My friend has had a vision that turned out looking like an illustration out of Nylon Magazine. I want to see something to paint, but the only thing buzzing in my brain are the vibrations my phone sets off when I receive a new message, fewer and fewer from my Best Friend Since Kindergarten, more and more from my ex. I smash the colors together. They do nothing pretty.
T from Florida keeps asking me if I’ve started watching Freaks and Geeks, yet. He sits at one of the metal tables on the smoking balcony, parked on grass growing out of dirt they’d put on the rooftop, and strums his fingers across unfamiliar guitar chords. “It’s so good, Nicole. I promise.”
The disks for Freaks and Geeks came in one of those old DVD boxes with a bunch of little books in it. At the start of spring break, I open the first one and place the disc into the clunky black laptop my mom’d gotten me with her union discount.
At the beginning of the show, I feel like you can boil Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Kim’s (Busy Phillips) dialogue down to a series of misunderstandings that come from not being familiar with each others’ tacit forms of communication. They don’t get how each says things without saying them, the history behind their words, their looks, their gestures. The class distinctions in this show come up immediately between the two girls. How can you tell, from watching someone move through a high school setting on a television show that their family is working class? How can you just tell that Lindsay’s middle class? Does it radiate off of you? If you don’t fit in, does this radiation tell other kids that whatever trouble you’ve gotten into, it’s your fault? Is this what radiates off me, and why do the other kids in the Honors Dorm seem to have Geiger counters? My phone buzzes.
My ex: I’m coming to visit you.
I throw my phone down on my dorm bed.
The litany of threats come. Sick, again.
A friend had told her boyfriend, who was his friend, about a girl I’d hooked up with recently. I’d told her when we were catching up. I’d kind of fallen for her, but the girl wound up going back to her long-term girlfriend. I couldn’t stand up to the girlfriend’s classy, ballerina elegance. I knew it, Lindsay Weir would know it, and the other folks in my Honors Dorm knew it, too. I watch on and think of the girls in my Honors Dorm.
One time, we were planning a gathering, so I suggested we get chips and dip.
The Tall Heterosexual Cellist: “…what’s…dip?”
Me: “You know. Dip?”
The Tall Heterosexual Cellist gives me a blank look.
Me (struggling to explain): “Like French onion dip. You eat it with chips.”
Lesbian in Charge of the Friend Group: “It’s like hummus for poor people.”
The Tall Heterosexual Cellist: “Oh, I get it.”
The threats come well before revenge porn legislation. I’m sure it broke some blackmailing laws, but whether or not something’s illegal doesn’t really register for me as anything helpful. I’ve never called the police, grew up in the country and been told to shush when adults do things that are against the law.
After days of holding the phone, typing and un-typing text messages, receiving threats, I relent. He starts adding conditions.
“When I visit, can we just pretend we’re dating? For just 3 days? If you don’t want to date me after that, I’ll leave you alone. I promise.”
“You promise that if I don’t want to date you after three days, that’s it and you’ll leave me alone?”
I agree to it. He tries to schedule three nights. I tell him, no, two nights. Three days is two nights.
When it’s done, I’m done, too. I’m done with thinking, ready to sink into the show. Even if I’m giving up my spring break, at least after this, it’ll be over with him.
Within the first few minutes of the pilot, I pray that Lindsay Weir, in her olive drab Army jacket will come out as bisexual. She seems bisexual. As an out and often lonely bisexual myself, I wonder if she will be the character I follow. The show had queer awakening all over it, whether the creators of the show would ever write it into the actual script or not.
I watch until I see the concerned way the guidance counselor pulls Lindsay into his office when she quits Mathletes. I roll my eyes and pack up my things to go out to the balcony for a smoke.
I distinctly remember wrestling with my guidance counselors to get them to even send out my transcript to colleges. They frowned at me over stinky tupperware salads. Another one? At one point, they reviewed my PSAT scores.
“You should have taken it in Junior year, too. You could have gotten scholarships.”
How was I supposed to know that? How? If no one tells you what a beet looks like in real life, how the fuck would you ever know what a fucking beet is?
It had been devastating to hear I had missed a chance to get more help when it came to getting out. When I’d started applying to colleges, my dad had told me that I’d have to pay for it on my own, which I knew, of course, because that’s how it is. He kept telling me, over and over, “I don’t care if you’re waiting tables the rest of your life after, just get your bachelors” because it was one step up the educational ladder farther than he’d gotten, and all that mattered was that I get that far. Our plan relied on the fact that my grades and SAT scores were probably enough to get a big scholarship somewhere that it would be do-able, to maybe even go somewhere for free.
I knew there were writers and artists, and I wanted to be one, and I knew I couldn’t expect to be able to pay off student loans if I took that path, but I also had no idea how breaking into that world worked. I’d never heard of an internship, just like I’d never heard of a “toxic” person, just like I’d never heard of a beet. When I got a full tuition scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, my dad’s response was “That’s where you’re going, right?”
Still, maybe if I hadn’t quit all my extracurriculars, maybe if I had taken the PSAT, maybe if I had just stayed focused, maybe if I had followed the rules, maybe if I had been the way everyone wanted Lindsay Weir to be, it could have all been different.
I sit wide-eyed at the table on the smoker’s balcony where the Lesbian In Charge is holding court and talking about how, every few months, she searches for her own name on Google and Yahoo, sometimes asking Jeeves, alongside various terms for porn.
“If I ever make an album or write a book, I’ll call it Porn of Myself. It’s out there. She has the videos. They could show up online.”
“Have they?” I ask.
“Thank fucking God, no!”
We all laugh. Maybe I laugh too much, my hand on my temple.
When I pick up my ex from the Greyhound station and we ride back to my dorm on a city bus, all I can think about is how much I want to get back to those discs. The episodes are colorful and emotional and feel so much more true than the beiges and whites and limited choices of the walls closing in around my life.
I’d tidied up my dorm room, tucked the last half of the gallon of white rum someone had bought me deep under the bed, away from random RA raids. Some of my clothes are still crumpled in weird little piles I can’t manage to put away at the bottom of my open closet. I greet them with a shrug when we get to my dorm room.
“You brought a sleeping bag?”
“You can’t sleep in my roommate’s bed. Her stuff’s off limits.”
The implication, also, is that he won’t be sleeping in my bed. He puts his bag down and reaches out for my arm. I flinch, tighten my jaw, make my ears ring. Luckily, I have an out, a way to delay being alone with him. We’re supposed to go to the art museum with T from Florida who has sensed something about this visit, who’s agreed to hang out with us as much as possible.
“Can we start now? Just act like we’re together. You’ve been away from me. You just have to feel what it’s like to be together again.”
“When we go to the art museum. I have to get ready.”
After the museum, we part ways from T from Florida. My ex shuts the door to my room behind us.
“Have you seen Freaks and Geeks?” I’m already opening up the laptop.
I tell him I want to watch it, and he says he wants to talk “about us.”
“Oh my God. Do you want to act like we’re dating or not? Let’s watch TV like we’re dating.”
All I’ve wanted all day is to watch this damn show.
I manage to forget he’s there. He watches me. He puts his arm on me. He puts his arm in different positions on me, each one too hot, too heavy, too human, flesh and bone and veins pulsing. The skin contact feels like he’s taking my flesh off with a pomace. I huddle off to one edge of the bed, both of us staring at the Freaks, the Geeks.
That fake beer party tugs at something in me. I think of my mom yelling at me when I’m hungover after parties to “stop sleeping during the day.” I pull out the rum and offer some to my ex. He takes none.
On the screen, Kim Kelly knows the older men who show up for the party. They call her princess, and I love this little detail so much.
A friend of my Best High School Friend was a Traveling Heroin Salesman. He came into town for a week or two my junior or senior year of high school. I don’t remember what time of year it was, but I do remember a dark night at some house where we were all gathered. At one point, he and I wound up alone in the kitchen. I was outwardly cocky and inwardly cautious. He laughed at how I tied my weed bag and asked me if I was a coke head. I told him no, and he told me that I did in fact tie my bag like one before crushing up something and leaving a line of white on the table for me to snort. I sat down in my low jeans and a tee shirt I probably stole from the mall and snorted the white powder off the blue formica table. I knew what he thought might be coming next, so I stood up, looked him in the eye and thanked him, walked out of the kitchen, proving, I thought at the time, that I was beyond his control, beyond the control of the men and boys around me.
Did Kim ever test those men, did she feel safe around them, did she not think her safety was a thing that could be valued? Did she ever wonder what all these older men were doing, hanging around, what they thought they might get away with?
When Lindsay escapes school, I watch, jealous. My high school was one of the ones designed not unlike a prison. The worst part was that the bathrooms were windowless and situated in the center of each of the four floors. The second worst part was that various corporations and the US military buried toxic waste from chemical manufacturing and the Manhattan project near the school and across the region. Parents protested when the garbage company wanted to add more, afraid that the place would mark us as its own forever.
Lindsay, though, manages to walk right out.
There’s a scene in the Halloween episode where Kim completely chews Lindsay out, and I’m sitting there, wondering why I don’t feel anything for Lindsay. Did anything like that ever happen to me? It dawns on me with regret and that fiery guilt in your gut, churning like heartburn when you realize you did something wrong, and it’s far too late to fix it. The reason? I’m Kim in this scenario, rusting and sharp and contagious with neglect. I remember who I was, all bleached hair, riding around in cars, yelling out my hurt, destroying property and stealing from big box stores. I needed to get out. Halloween of my senior year, I crossed the Canadian border with a car-full of boys to go to a rave, but at the same time, I was haunted by the liberation I’d felt, costumed as a man the Halloween before. Was it a fair trade?
When Bill (Martin Starr) dresses as a woman [Bionic], I think of dressing as David Bowie for Halloween the year before the rave, recall the magic of one of my first forays into drag, into whatever lies beyond. (Dressing as Bowie is entry-level drag. This is a fact.) Watching this with my ex, I’m sure he says something homophobic, something transphobic. My exhaustion is a drain in the floor pulling my soul through it.
Lindsay grew up in this town, but her transition to a new friend group mimics the act of being a new kid. She doesn’t know anything about these people, their families, their problems. She’s ready to dismiss Kim. I was new to the school I went to my junior year. With only two years there, I would be an eternal outsider. There was history and easy laughter and familiarity there I could never begin to touch. It was expansive, without end, this experience of being the new kid among deeply rooted people with an old growth forest of existing relationships such that I could not ever hope to fully understand the complexity of their terroir.
We move on to “Tests and Breasts” which, wow, what an episode name. My ex looks away from the screen, looks at me, looks around, sighs deeply, tries to plead with me for physical affection. I ignore him.
The first time I took acid, it was with my ex. I pulled a Kim and said I was sleeping at my friend’s house. I had untreated strep throat, and when I took my temperature later, it was at 101. This might have influenced what happened.
The looping of hallucination pulled me under then spit me back out into some level of cognizance — then cycled through again. In a moment of lucidity, I looked at my hands. The skin sizzled out of existence, red muscle and vein underneath. That flesh melted off my hand, revealing the chalk white of my finger bones. I stared at my skeleton hand, a lone anomaly in the ordinary room, colored as it was by pot smoke and the shift of daylight through the curtains. I tried to tell my ex and his friend that I was melting without sounding like the Witch of the West. I wasn’t mad about it, the melting, just surprised.
I laid back and looked up at the drywall ceiling. It broke open to reveal inky sky, filled with stars. With a grating slowness, I started to ascend. Then, I flew higher. All the rest of me stripped away from my body with the force of my flight. Skin left, muscles left. Bones and organs dropped, gone. Stars streaked past.
Then, that fell away, too. Then, I was not me. I was not anything. I looked out at the stars. I could see in every direction at once. I understood something, then.
Later, I came-to enough to go home. It was 7 or 8 in the morning. I had a shift at the grocery store later. I made excuses to my mom and crawled into bed. I lay on my back, too exhausted to move. Something asked me, “Would you like to be the man part of you?”
I consented. My energy shifted, became the taste and smell and grit and mouthfeel of orange and red and brown as opposed to blue and green and purple. I grew facial hair. I deepened my voice. I settled into my body, a man. I hung there, for a good while, comfortable, comforted.
“So that’s it.”
I’m still thinking about Daniel (James Franco) rummaging through his teacher’s desk. That’s a dangerous business. When some kids in my 9th grade math class searched our teacher’s drawer they said they found a snapshot of a particularly busty girl in our grade that was taken from the neck down. I kept getting questions marked wrong in his honors math class. At one point, I compared my work that he’d marked with a “see me after class” to my friend’s. I couldn’t discern the difference between my work and hers, my answer and hers. Her question was marked right, mine, wrong, same answer, same process. I kept skipping out on “seeing him after class” to make out with my girlfriend in the back stairwells, though, which was probably for the better. You don’t want to wind up in a drawer like that.
The day after that acid trip, my ex told me about his parallel experiences.
“I was playing with your breasts the whole time. It was amazing.”
“You were…what? I don’t remember that.”
“You were just lying there. It was amazing,” he said again, emphasizing what a great time he’d had.
I sit next to my ex on the tiny dorm bed and watch Sam (John Francis Daley) and Bill grow increasingly uncomfortable watching the porn film with an ache in my stomach.
I pause the show and tell my ex to get on the floor. I stay in my bed. We’re going to sleep. Sometimes, as Kim says, you have to be a bitch.
I wake up to him stalking around the room. He hasn’t slept all night.
Busy Phillips wrote in her memoir about James Franco assaulting her on set, pushing her to the ground during a scene.
It’s starting to feel like a body can’t do anything around here, can’t work on a show, can’t take acid without being touched, can’t sleep in peace.
In the morning, we hang out in the room for a while and watch some Freaks and Geeks. When Nick’s (Jason Segel) drumming and looking for attention and playing with his dry ice and lights and longing for that audience, I try to communicate to my ex that just sitting around and watching boys do stuff sucks.
I cannot wait to tell him that we are done by the end of this trip. I can also tell he has sympathy for this Nick character.
“He loves her,” he says, missing the point in its entirety.
It’s hard to empathize with Nick when he’s being so annoying, but it’s clear that Nick wants the experience of being out, of being gone, of being somebody else as much as anyone else. These kids are either dreaming so hard about being elsewhere that they’re hardly present or they’re despairing because they think they’re never going to get the chance to leave. Their lives don’t stretch out before them anymore than the brick walls of a high school can stretch. Nick wants to fast forward to the moment he’s on stage, to the moment he’s an adult. No, he doesn’t understand how to put in the work. But who among us, when we were sixteen, didn’t want to turn up the speed on the tape of our lives?
We go get food. I eat Taco Bell while he cries. I’m putting food in my mouth in that mindless way you do when you’re exhausted from your ex stomping around the room all night, so I just watch him twist up his mouth, and I do not stop eating my Crunchwrap Supreme.
He forces the issue, and so I am honest. I tell him it’s not going to work, that he has to leave tomorrow. I tell him I just want to go watch TV and that he can do whatever. I’ve held up my end of the bargain as best I can, and he pressed for an answer early, and this is what he gets. Tears roll down his cheeks. The Crunchwrap Supreme hits every spot with its sour cream and guacamole, savory secret tucked amongst its flakey folds. I add more hot sauce and tell him I tried. He has to go home tomorrow.
Do I need to tell you that I can pull pieces of this Crunchwrap Supreme apart and put them in my mouth in front of him and watch him cry huge, globbing tears because I’m not actually sure about how many times he assaulted me? I can’t tell you how many times, not because I’m not sure whether or not they were assault or rape, but because I don’t remember how many times he did it. Do I need to say that I don’t like being a bitch? I can only be blunt if you only give me bluntness. He tells me that I agreed to pretend, and I tell him that he shouldn’t have asked if he wanted me to keep pretending.
We return to the dorm room. An episode erupts into its cold open with Nick’s hand trailing down to Lindsay’s back pocket. Another boy sees and says something like get it. There’s a sense of ownership Nick starts taking over Lindsay, over her body, over protecting her, that she never asked for.
I’m surprised the show gets this. If no one else is here to witness me, at least this show is here, telling my ex what he needs to know. On his visit, my ex tells me men are looking at my ass at the bus stop, like he’s protecting me from something. If he wanted to protect me, he could have seen himself out of my life. I cannot wait for Nick and Lindsay to break up. I love it when people break up at this point, I want it, need it.
I can tell things are heading south when Lindsay wants to go out and actually do something, like go see a nice David Lynch film, Nick just wants to stay in. I tell you, ever since watching Twin Peaks with my dad when I was a kid (he’d never seen anything like it, none of us had) and renting Eraserhead from Blockbuster when I was fifteen, I always want to go see a nice David Lynch film, and I would so take Lindsay. When my ex and I were dating, I complained I didn’t get to go to parties anymore, that all he wanted to do was hang out in his room. A few months into our dating, I looked up and realized he’d sabotaged near every chance I’d had to hang out with my friends. They want to keep you contained once they have you.
When Lindsay goes to hang out at Nick’s house, instead of going to see The Elephant Man, she stumbles into a basement lit by candlelight.
When I stood on my ex’s doorstep, about to break up with him, I wanted to turn around. His room was always dim, but this time, candles punctuated the dark, all around. Notes I’d left him, doodles, my photos, photographs of me sat pinned against a dark burgundy fabric, yellow flames burning. He’d made a shrine. Nick made a shrine. Did my ex think this was normal behavior, when he sat on the bed, watching this with me? Did he see boys and men like Nick do this kind of thing on TV, in movies, and think it was anything but stifling, anything but a hand to the neck?
He’d said, “See how much you love me? You still love me.” To him, that shrine was proof that I was static, that my feelings would always be what I’d said they were, that I was more a recording he should be able to replay the greatest hits from than a person.
After Taco Bell, I tell my ex I’m not going to hang out with him anymore. He can catch the Greyhound home the next day, fine, but I’m done. He opts to stay in my room and pass the time. I feel like I can’t tell him no.
In “We’ve Got Spirit,” Nick is all over Lindsay, all the time. He’s smothering her beneath his obsession. She can’t stand it, and she’s ready to free herself…except everyone, in this super creepy almost horror movie kind of “don’t go down that road” way warns her about breaking up with him! Lindsay finds Nick’s ex, Heidi, at school, where she asks her about him:
Heidi: You better ditch him. He’s crazy.
Lindsay: What do you mean?
Heidi: Breaking up with him was like a nightmare. He started stalking me. He broke into my house. He got into this insane fight with my dad. [She sees Nick.] Oh, God. [Heidi flees.]
Everything is too real, too plotted along to my actual life. That is until Lindsay’s mom comes in. I cannot get over 1) what a breathy, sexy performance Becky Ann Baker is giving as Mrs. Weir and 2) how the mom is so supportive and right! “You don’t keep going steady with a boy just to be nice.”
She is correct, and it’s so hot! What if someone told me that?
When Nick gives this long-winded poetry excuse, I can see he’s lying. I cannot decide if the actor thinks his character is lying or if the actor knows his character is lying, but his character has told himself a story so often that he believes it’s true. I can’t help but wonder if this episode gave my ex ideas. Even though this depiction on the screen is nothing but damning, even though I’m certain Nick is lying about Heidi showing everyone his poems — isn’t that what they all say? Don’t they always call your morals, your ethics into question? Isn’t that their go-to, to be ready to ruin your reputation? Sick.
I get up to have a cigarette, and my ex blocks the door.
“You’re not leaving until you understand that we’re meant to be together.”
I try to push past him, and his hands are on my wrists on my arms. I try to hit him.
“OW!!” he cries and feigns pain, looks at me, eyes wide and teary.
“Let me out.”
I reach for the door handle again. He pushes me back. I try again. He pushes me back, again. I retreat, fast and to the bed, grab for my cell phone. T from Florida is just a moment away, down the hall. He can help. I have the phone, my fingers punching a text message. Hunched over it, fending off my ex’s grasping hands, only able to press down on one button at a time. My ex pries the phone from my hands.
“Who are you texting?”
“I’m texting my friend to come fucking get me.”
He takes out the battery. We’re both panting. “I have to go to the bathroom,” I say. He follows me into the shared half bath between my dorm room and the one next to us. He shakes the handle of the door that leads to the dorm room on the other side. They’ve locked it from the other side. I had hoped they hadn’t, that my ex would miss this, wouldn’t test it.
“See? I can’t get out. Can I get some privacy?”
I stay in the bathroom and think for as long as I can before he tells me he’ll open the door and get me if he has to. He’s worried about me, he says.
This is when I come out of the bathroom. I try to leave again but don’t speak to him. He blocks me. I go to the bed and pull the bottle of rum out from underneath, take a huge swig and hit play for the next episode. I don’t have a plan. Kim Kelly would say, you have to be a bitch. I roll my eyes like I am so ready, Kim, you don’t even know, and keep watching Freaks and Geeks.
“Aren’t you going to talk to me?”
“Are you going to let me out?”
I shrug and watch Nick gaslight Lindsay, tell her she’s depressed because of their breakup. Sam gets a Parisian Nightsuit and we have one of the shows rare acknowledgments that homosexuality exists when the teacher shouts “We should all be proud to be homos.”
Kim and Lindsay’s friendship is the real love story of this series. I want them to end up as friends like everyone wants the leads to end up together in a romantic comedy. I shake with it. My High School Best Friend would stab my ex if I were in this situation. I see my razor blade, the plastic retractable one I smuggled from the art room on my desk.
When Kim cheers Lindsay on at her Mathletes competition, I’m reminded that my friends who were girls never tried to hold me back. There was a moment, when the grades and the class rankings were released senior year, that I was clearly going to be Valedictorian. My High School Best Friend was animated with excitement. I remember the way her arms moved in the school hallway when she saw the rankings posted on the wall. She told her mom. Her mom wrapped me in a tight hug.
Then, as quick as it happened, it was like it never happened at all. I can’t remember if they paged me over the loudspeaker or sent a note to my class, but I had to report to the Guidance Counselor’s office. When I got in there, the tall blonde guidance counselor, the one of the smelly salads, brought me my transcript and pointed to the grades from my old school.
“We’re not going to recognize the weighting for this grade.” She points at my 9th grade honors math class. “We don’t have this class at our school. So, we’re going to unweight it, which means you aren’t Valedictorian.”
There might be a few reasons I wasn’t made Valedictorian — drug use and being an out bisexual among them. All I know is that someone must have printed off the class rankings and posted them in the school hallway without thought because data is data and my grades for the past two years were consistently at the top. My SAT scores were the best they’d had in two years. Then, someone wanted to know if there was any way I could not be valedictorian, or maybe a way that this girl who’d grown up there could be? And to be fair, having someone move to your school and snatch your title away must have felt pretty unfair. They must have pored over my transcripts from my old school, looking for anything they could use. Then they saw the honors math class. This was the teacher who used to play with my hair. In Bill’s words [and voice]: “you butt-patter!”
In “Chokin’ and Tokin’,” Millie tells Lindsay that people who smoke pot all the time are sad.
Yeah, I was sad.
I’m surprised more kids weren’t high all the time. In the third grade, when I had to sit in class, I started pulling out all of my eyelashes during lessons because what the fuck else was there to do?
“I’m worried they won’t grow back, Nicole.” My teacher looked down at my itchy eyes.
She let me test out of lessons and read in the hallway all year. I read book after book and made her little book reports on them. Why didn’t I skip a grade? I know the answer to this, too. My dad wanted me to be with kids my age. By the time I was in fourth grade and my favorite book was Dune, I would rest my forehead on my desk and bite back a scream while I listened to other students struggle to sound out four-letter words. The long sustained wail screeched in my brain for years until making out in stairwells and smoking pot after class made school tolerable, manageable for the last few years until I could get out.
But I’m clearly not getting out. My ex is between me and the door. We pass the rest of the day this way.
It feels like a dream, but, as Millie says to a too-high Lindsay, “We don’t live in that dog’s dream. We live in God’s world!”
It’s dark. I tell him I’m going to sleep.
“No, you’re not.”
He climbs onto the bed on top of me.
“Make love to me!”
“Make love to me, Nicole!” his fist connects with the wall above my head. He punches the wall above my head over and over again. Every time he yells I yell back “No!”
I cross my arms, and he tires himself out, and we sit up like that, for the night, in a stalemate. I have practiced waiting, waiting to be let out. Neither of us speak, neither of us sleep. He wanders the room, packing his bag, crying over each and everything he passes — the world’s worst and slowest acting. I try to watch Freaks and Geeks for a dose of convincing acting, but he won’t let me.
The sun rises. I excuse myself to go to the bathroom. When I come out, I tell him he needs to leave, go to the Greyhound station.
“I’m not leaving.”
I say his name, go in like I’m giving him a hug. “Don’t cry.”
I snake my hand down to grab my cell phone out of his pocket. He’s stronger, though. He pushes me down his legs and kicks me in the jaw hard enough to knock me back on my ass, head to floor. I scramble up and back to the bed, my hand on my jaw. He’s next to me, in a rush, fawning over me, cooing.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
I spot it then, again, on my desk. Only I know it’s there. It’s barely visible, under some papers. It’s the retractable razor blade. I jump up for it, and he doesn’t get there in time to stop me before I have my fist closed around the hard plastic. He wraps his arms around me and drags me in a bear hug toward the door. I can only squeeze and watch while he takes my fingers and pries them, one by one, off the razor encased in plastic. He throws it across the room. I run back to my desk, grab the long scissors, the very ones I used to cut myself when I didn’t have a razor handy, point them at him.
He takes those, too, flips them open so the blade is visible.
“See what you do to me?”
He looks down at the scissors, backs toward the closet, feet among the clothes I couldn’t manage to put away. Why can’t I pick up after myself? He pulls up the sleeve of his shirt, revealing unmarked skin and opens the scissors, holding the edge flat to his arm.
I sway on my feet, jaw throbbing, watch him put the sharp part of the scissor blade on his flesh.
“I’ll kill myself if you won’t be my girlfriend. I’ll do it.”
I am so tired. I look from his arm to the floor where my clothes are still in little piles in front of the closet. I’ve never been able to forget. When I looked at the scissors and the ground and my jaw hurt and I hadn’t slept all night, my first thought was he’s going to get blood all over my clothes.
But at least it will be over.
He screws up his face and runs the blade over his skin. I’m able to eyeball the pressure he puts on it, the pucker of the skin against the blade, and the speed at which he moves it. I can tell it’s going to be a shallow cut. It’s not even on a vein.
He looks at me. He’s determined but his eyes twinkle with fear. He knows I saw it. I saw that he couldn’t make the cut. There isn’t even a single drop of blood.
He squeezes this fucking paper cut and says, “See, it’s bleeding?” A tiny thread of red rests inside the part in his skin.
He knows he’s lost his power.
I run for the door, jerk it open, get myself wedged between it, barefoot, in boxer shorts, a hoodie and a tank top. He grabs me and lifts me off the ground. He has his bag over his shoulder, and behind us, the door shuts with a click, automatically locked with my key card inside. It’s just us and the hallway now.
“We’re going for a walk.” He says. It’s one of his phrases. He said it once before when he threatened suicide, when he pretended, implied he was going to go throw himself into the Niagara River. “We’re going off the building together.”
First of all, that’s a drop from the second floor, so it’s going to hurt me, badly, but probably not kill me. Second, I know we are not alone on the floor. I wrestle the scissors away from him, wave them in his face even as he grabs at me. He has my hoodie in his hand, trying to pull me back to him, and I pull myself out of it leaving him holding the limp zip-up hoodie in his hands, dig the balls of my bare feet into the rough dormitory carpet and sprint to the RA’s door. I pound on the metal.
She answers with really fucking wide eyes.
“Let me in!” I push past her and shut the door behind us, hear my ex on the other side. I put the scissors down on a table she has by the door. I explain in very few sentences. She talks to him through the door, and she calls the building security to confirm that he leaves. When she asks if I want to call the police, I decline.
She calls campus security, and they unlock my door with their computer system. The first thing I do is pull the rum back out from under the bed and take a long drink. The second thing I do is text T from Florida.
The show rewards characters when they come to a deeper understanding of each other. The best moments in the show, the moments where characters demonstrate true happiness, are, each and every one of them, when they choose to do the work of seeing each other.
You can’t lock someone in a room if you see them.
Did wearing her dad’s army jacket make Lindsay feel safe from death, like an amulet, charged with his survival in the war? Will I be safe if I sleep next to my bed, on the floor, on top of garbage? I try to answer this question without knowing why I do it. I pile my bed with books, with homework, with artwork and my bag until there is no room for me. I sleep on the dormitory floor for almost the entirety of the rest of the spring semester. I don’t know why I do it. My back hurts. Nick sleeps on the floor. His neck hurts. This flusters my roommate.
I’ve been to one of the toxic waste storage sites, down one of those roads, so deep into undisturbed forest that the smell of leaves fills your mouth like you’re already dead in the woods, left there by someone you couldn’t make your ex. The road is really just two tracks for a military jeep to ride down. Long rows of pentagonal buildings line the road. Each is maybe twenty feet wide, less than a full story tall. They’re shaped like children’s drawings of houses. Each of them have a door, a metal one, that’s welded shut all the way around. I want to trace the welding with my fingers, its melted and cooled bumpiness. There is no handle. They’re marked only with numbers. I think the numbers were three digits, which implies that there are hundreds of these. They line the road, twisting back and back and back, an arched spine, each house of waste a vertebrae, leaning deep into the woods. We drove down this road, and we never reached the end of them. We only turned and went back after a while, after it got repetitive, after even the most dangerous thing turned boring.
My mom’s friend used to throw what they called “magic rocks.” They sparkled when they threw them through the air at night. They were toxic chunks of radioactive material that washed up off the river. He has Parkinson’s now.
You can’t un-play with radium. You can’t un-touch something toxic. It’s going to live in your blood forever until it manifests as something — and even if you die not noticing any effects, those slow mutations are still there, still marking you. Did they mark me, scare other people away from me? Did they make me seem less worthy of help, of care, of forgiveness for my long, sustained breakdown?
It was that same semester that I emailed the best friend I’d had since kindergarten, and though her replies had been thin before, she did not reply at all to this last email. I don’t have access to that email address anymore, so I cannot look at what I wrote and I don’t remember. Maybe it was unhinged. She didn’t reply to my next email, or to any of my letters. I used to know her home address by heart, I’d sent so many letters there over the course of our 13-year friendship.
She’d taught me to read, you know. It was kindergarten free time. Our wobbly little five-year-old selves could go to a station to pretend at domestic labor in a little pentagonal playhouse, or go to a station to make crafts and eat paste, or you could go to a station to read books, which is where she went immediately, her long blonde pigtails bobbing behind her. I followed. She opened a book and began to read, her finger moving along the pages. We, that is, all the kindergarteners, knew she could read. Her mom had taught her. A book caught my eye, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. I knew the story from Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theater and could recognize it from the pictures. With childish hope that knowing my letters and some basic words at this point — along with the way the story was supposed to go — would mean I would be able to read this book, I sat down. The longer words slithered out, unruly snakes across the page. I looked at Kindergarten Best Friend. As polite as I knew how, I clasped the book in front of me and may have even said, “Excuse me,” when I interrupted her reading, so mannered was this five-year-old determined to be. “Please, will you read this to me?”
She agreed. I sat next to her, me in my 80s hand-me-down leggings and sweater and her in her home-sewn dress. She crossed her legs and opened the book on her lap. I leaned over her and watched her little finger move under the words while she read. The letters started to make sense, to order themselves. She got to a long word and coasted right through. I stopped her.
“How do you read that?”
She returned to the word, her tiny nail under each syllable, and walked me through the way the letters made the sounds that made the word. It clicked. It just did. It was the last book she’d ever read to me because she didn’t need to after that. I could read and I kept reading and figured it out from there. Naturally, as kids will do, we became immediate friends after this. Books were a shared language between us. I’ll never forget that she taught me how to read, that she, not a teacher and not a school, was the one to do it.
There is an unforgivable component to what he’s done, the assault. The part I get, though, is the pain of being shed, of being lumped in with the toxic past — part of someone’s old life. It is painful to be something that is cleansed from someone else. Even my best friend who I’d known since I was five broke up with me. I broke up with someone who saw me experiencing the wider world and who, I think, didn’t know how to do that for himself. When he came to Pittsburgh, he said it was like “something out of a movie.” In truth, Kindergarten Best Friend and I grew apart after she left to study abroad in Europe in tenth grade. After that, what I had to talk about wasn’t exciting, you know?
I suspect, deeply, that I reminded her of a place she wanted to escape from for her whole life.
In “Noshing and Moshing,” Barry stands in the yard outside his house where his dentist father once bought him a new car for his birthday and tells Lindsay:
“When you get to college it’s funny, it’s like, all that high school stuff disappears. Really. It’s a do-over. I mean, when you get there, it’s like no one knows that you were a Mathlete or a burn-out. It’s like a fresh start. You can be whatever you wanna be.”
The Lesbian in Charge promises me a ride in her car up to this house her dad had bought her (he was going to “sell” it to her), where I was renting a room, at a discount for the summer because her dad would be working on the house.
After paying him the deposit, I don’t have a penny, and I don’t have any other way I was planning to move. There’s no good way to do this with the buses, and no money for food, let alone a cab, not until I get a paycheck.
She tells me day-of that she can’t give me the ride and goes off somewhere with her friends, our friends. I shove my things into giant contractor garbage bags I’d gotten out of the dorm janitorial supplies room. It takes three round trips, walking, from my dorm and across two neighborhoods to the house, walking up a giant hill, sweating in the late April sun. By the time I pack for the final walk, my legs shake. Cuts and bruises travel up and down my body. I take down the artwork that had covered the impressions left by my ex’s knuckles in the wall above the bed. I put the black plastic bags on my back, and walk with my precious garbage up to the house.
There’s no pretending your way into generational wealth, Barry. The L.I.C. eventually dismisses me. Everyone else, except the Bisexual Art Friend does, too. Was I not grateful enough? Not cerebral enough? Was I toxic?
Before that, toward the end of the spring semester, I drank too much on an empty stomach at a party and lay down on a couch, the spins taking me over. The Lesbian In Charge found me, and she and the Tall Heterosexual Cellist sat with me until everyone was ready to leave and they could walk me home with the group. I couldn’t see, but I could hear a guy’s baritone voice approach, “Hey baby, what’s up?” I listened to them scream at him, their throats raw and furious.
“Get the fuck away!!”
These things are true of that final semester.
While I subsist off of frat party beer at that semester’s end because I’ve more or less run out of food and money, I hit the back of my head on a pipe in a basement while at a party. Like Stigmata, the injury finds its way to the same place where Daniel gets kicked while he’s posing in the punk club. When I speak, my friends exchange looks. My speech falls over itself. I have my own Cockney English going on, saying things that rhyme with what I mean to say. They keep hearing me say over and over that we need to go to the “rock and bound” when I mean the “lost and found.”
In the final episode, Daniel’s punished with A.V. Club. Mr. Rosso makes up his mind about him. According to the guidance counselor, Daniel’s behavior is only about insulting the school, the teachers…BUT THEN DANIEL GETS INVITED TO D&D!
Daniel tells Sam and co. not to be mad if he’s not good at D&D. They’re flabbergasted by his self-doubt. But that’s all Daniel has — self-doubt on self-doubt on self-doubt. By the time they’re nearing the end of his first campaign, he (and the other kids) look the happiest we’ve seen them for the entire season.
When I think of Freaks and Geeks, this scene comes up for me, again and again. We can hope for big things, but we can also hope for small moments of forgetting and fantasy and friendship — and that’s what’s here for Daniel, for Sam and all those kids — so much hope.
My friends take my rhyming person back to the dorm and sit up with me for a while, until everyone, T from Florida included, goes off to go to sleep. I know I can’t sleep, so I get up from my room, wander the halls with a water bottle half full of rum and find a group of three boys, still looking less than grown-up, playing video games in one of the dorm lounges. I explain that I have to stay up all night because I hit my head and would they mind if I hung out with them if they were going to be up playing for a while? Because, staying up all night for no reason, is, in fact, boring. They let me sit with them.
Eventually, one of them hands me a controller. It’s everything to be let in, even a little, sometimes.
When I go back to visit my friends from high school, one of them calls me only “Pittsburgh.” Leaving is an insult if you can’t take them with you. When Lindsay complains about the Academic Conference she’s selected to attend over the summer, Kim yells, “At least you get to leave!” Kim’s aching that it’s not her. She’s afraid that she’s going to lose Lindsay. She’s not wrong. Those kinds of experiences, the ones where you go out and see the world, they can change you and when you’re young, they make everyone else seem boring. They break childhood friendships apart.
My phone keeps buzzing with texts and voicemails from my ex. He tells me he didn’t mean to hurt me, then that he would never hurt me, then he brings up the videos again, then he pleads for another chance, all in short succession.
Each time he reaches out, that shallow cut flashes across my eyes. I tell him not to contact me again. I stop picking up. I mark his number as ZStalkerDoNotAnswer.
His empty threat grows a bitter pit in me. That’s the worst of it. To go through with cutting him out of my life, I have to bank on the fact that he doesn’t have the balls to actually go to my family with what he has, and I have to live with the fact that I let him blackmail me when he didn’t have it in him to follow through.
He never does.
When Lindsay gets on the bus, she gives her mom a tearful goodbye, and I’m fooled. I think she’s decided to attend the Academic thing. Time passes, she rides the bus for a few hours, maybe before disembarking. To my utter delight, Kim’s waiting, frowning, by her car and the Dead Head Kids’ little van. Kim lights up when she sees Lindsay; her defenses melt away. They hug — and compared to every time I’d been touched over the past several days, it’s everything. I can practically feel the way a hug like that would tingle with warmth, the way the love lingers on your skin.
Like many of the kids in my dorm, I applied for the Honors College Summer Research stipend, but I hadn’t understood the application well and was rejected. Instead, I go to my job at the Chipotle where the cishet men who manage it somehow managed to hire a staff that is like 50% queer and trans folks. We joke they must be attracted to lesbians because every single woman they hire is queer and we can’t figure it out. I go drinking with one of my coworkers and her friend, get into a lesbian bar with my fake ID, wind up getting photographed for the City Paper’s Pride spread.
The Lesbian in Charge, who I live with because I’m renting the room from her father, sits around and day drinks and works on her [stipended] Summer Research Project. From what I can remember, it was on working class queerness in literature. She tells me about Stone Butch Blues. She’s aghast I’ve never heard of it.
When Lindsay and Kim get on that bus, it’s filled with so much possibility it makes my hands and arms sting to watch it. They’re better for knowing each other, not worse. Kim helps Lindsay to be freer and less judgmental. Lindsay helps Kim to want more for herself, to dream bigger. Their friendship is what this show has been leading toward this whole time. In fiction, they bridge the gap between classes that I couldn’t at that time in my life. They do something really beautiful. They center their friendship.
Eventually, the edge wears off my accent. I never insist on dip again. I let the Tall Heterosexual Cellist take me shopping for different clothes. We sip warm vodka from her flask in the summer sun on the sidewalks of a wealthy neighborhood, and she urges me to buy a dupe of the black American Apparel dress everyone is wearing that summer. She takes me into thrift stores, and then into a Sephora for the first time, and I watch her demonstrate using a whole brush just for loose powder. The puff of it flies into the air above the tester, a little magical cloud of beige.
“You waste so much product with these,” she says and brushes the tester foundation directly onto her face.
I look at the prices and clasp my hands together but eventually buy a small tube of mascara from a brand I’d never heard of, but she says it’s good, better than what I wear. I apply it and accumulate thrifted but fashionable clothes, the black dress making an appearance over and over. I run that same pair of scissors my ex had grabbed out of my hands along the line of my forehead where they rest, cool and sharp, while I cut my bangs like the ones that are in style. That spring, and that fall and beyond, I study my classmates as much as I study for classes. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s also not an ending.
The show is, I think, more perfect for having been canceled, for leaving us only with this final, bright note.