Monday, January 19, 2015

Real World (John Mayer)

Junior High should be nicknamed Junior Hell. I still remember the mean girls. There was one in particular that delighted in making my day a living nightmare. Encountering her was like Superman encountering Lex Luther, except Lex Luther was somewhat likeable. Yes, her name was Valerie Ransom.

I still see Valerie as she was then. She had an expensive school wardrobe, only one that a credit card and a kid on her own could buy. Her hair was bright blonde, and she had a perky little body. Sure, her breasts were big for a middle schooler, but the dudes didn’t care. Valerie always wore cherry or strawberry lip gloss. Smacking it on her kisser, she was the Queen Bee and was surrounded by her drones. Pre-pubescent boys literally bowed to their makeshift Aphrodite as she passed in the hallway. They would do anything to be seen with her. Valerie was everything they dreamed about in a woman. She was the closest thing they had to that pretty model on the front of Seventeen Magazine.

Valerie delighted into ripping into me. I was an easy target, too. Looking back, this doesn’t just make her  a bitch on wheels and a bully, but also a lazy asshole as well. Yes, I had a weight problem. Of course I suffered from cystic acne. To fight this, I was on a facial medication that made my skin peel and gave me cold sores like a hooker with herpes. Then my mom picked out my clothes, and she still does. Add in braces with rubber bands that always had food in them. Oh, and my parents wouldn’t let me date.

You see, Valerie and I had actually been friendly before junior high, and she was even in my dance studio. Occasionally, we were even in the same gymnastics class. Valerie was also smart at one point, even tested gifted. Like me, she was in the advanced reading group. However, once junior high hit she was done being smart and now on to her true calling, being popular.

“April has no friends! April has no friends!” Valerie Ransom declared one day in homeroom. It wasn’t true. I had friends. They just didn’t wear preppy clothing and hang with her crew.

“Fuck you!” I replied.

“Sorry, don’t do ugly girls.” Valerie sneered. Then she began to sing "April's got no friends" and got the whole homeroom to join in. Our teacher got her to stop, but Valerie let me know this wasn’t the end.

The next day Valerie ripped on my outfit. Yeah, it was one my mother did pick out. I told Valerie her outfit was ugly. It was. She was starting to pick up a few pounds. Puberty does that sometimes. Later that day, a few of her drones surrounded me in the hall. How dare I call Valerie Ransom’s outfit ugly? They were just words, but like any bully Valerie couldn’t take it. Looking back, it was also evidence of how hung up and insecure she was.

To say Valerie hurt me was an understatement. I used to lock my door to my room and cry when I got home from school every day. However, when the flames of hell lick your heals you can stay put and be a victim or keep moving. I decided to keep moving. I was fortune to have a mother who reminded me junior high was not forever. In order not to kill Valerie Ransom and have her drones jump me, I decided the best course of action was to get a goal.

That Christmas, I got my first ventriloquist figure, a Groucho Marx puppet. I also began publishing a monthly column in the youth section of the local paper. After that, I became heavily involved in storytelling competitions. People told me I should pursue a career onstage, that my imagination was good. I told my mom this one day on our walks. To my mom’s credit she never told me no. She looked at me and said, “Baby, if you want to do that, you need to go to New York.”

I still remember the rain coming down, and knowing Valerie Ransom couldn’t get me if I didn’t let her. So I began working and producing content at the local public access station. I also spent time performing my ventriloquist act around town. My summers and weekends were spent building my resume. New York was the goal. As this became apparent, Valerie Ransom became an afterthought. When she saw she couldn’t take me down, Valerie moved her focus to someone else. The sad part was, Valerie’s new target let the Queen Bee destroy her, and for a time this young woman had to transfer schools. Whenever things got tough, I remembered I couldn’t let Valerie win, and that’s what kept me going.

As things improved for me, life was getting ready to serve Valerie Ransom a helping of humble pie. While on the outside she was the stereotypical cheerleader mean girl that everyone hated, within she was a frightened child who had more issues than anyone knew. The caboose kid in a family where her siblings were much older, Valerie had been an accident in a marriage already on the rocks. Her parents divorced when she was a baby. As a result, Valerie had a mother who spoiled her rotten, rarely disciplining let alone grounding her. Valerie’s father was a successful doctor, but resented his daughter’s existence. While his practice was minutes away from our school, he rarely picked his daughter up. Sure, Dr. Ransom paid child support and then some, but he was busy with his new girlfriend who was barely legal herself. Valerie just got in the way. As a result, Valerie had as many daddy issues as a dancer at The Pink Pony.

Valerie’s grades slipped, and not because she wasn’t capable. It was because she was getting an “A” in chasing male attention. Valerie was shameless about pursuing this high, too. She sat with the boys in homeroom, and as the school year edged on had less and less female friends. It was all the attention her dad wasn’t giving her. What was worse was Valerie was hanging out with high school boys, some of my brother Wendell’s friends to be exact. Wendell was always reticent about Valerie, and was never a part of that crowd himself. However, he warned several of his friends to be careful and reminded them that this eager beaver was the same age I was. That kept his conscience clear and his friends out of trouble.

So what happened next was no surprise to anyone looking back. Valerie was curvy and busty, but not fat. Sure, a little chubby, but in a cute kind of way. However, she was in love with one boy, Seth Mallard. A star basketball player who was a year older, Valerie was hot on him and Seth was eager to lead her on because Valerie made herself all too available. Women desperate for affection with low self-worth always do, FYI. Also, Valerie was becoming notoriously clingy, another downside of the negative self-image thing. To get rid of her, Seth told her she was fat and ugly.

Valerie didn’t cry. She didn’t even fight back. Instead, she dropped 40 pounds almost overnight. Her once healthy figure was replaced by a stick girl. One bubbly, outgoing, and someone who was a personality, Valerie now barely spoke above a whisper. She was tired all the time. Before, Valerie was a star cheerleader who was a decent tumbler. Now she had the energy of a cancer patient on the field and struggled through the routine. Right away, students began to gossip like a British tabloid.

Valerie Ransom’s name was followed by the noun anorexia. Yes, the Lifetime Movie subject, or the illness that killed Karen Carpenter. Valerie was every inch the poster child. She was popular, a cheerleader, and all the guys liked her. Everyone was aghast and abuzz as this bag of bones made it’s way down the hall. “It’s terrible Seth said that to her, now she’s going to die!” Kaley Barnes, an overdramatic semi-popular girl stated. “How could he!?”

Danielle Barrens, a friend of mine from church and CCD was also a cheerleader. Despite the fact we were so different, we had been friends since we were kids. Like myself, Danielle was not a big Valerie fan. “I know I should feel bad but this is so ironic because she was just so mean to a lot of people.” Danielle said to me one day.

I nodded. This was true. Danielle continued. “Everyone is acting like this is the story of the century because she is popular. The truth is, it’s not about what Seth said. Her parents are fucked up and crazy. They think feeding her a cookie is going to solve all this.” My friend wasn’t a psychologist but she was right. Eating disorders are more about what’s going on in the inside than the outside, and Valerie Ransom was screaming for help.

When the cheerleading coach told Valerie if she gained weight she would add her back to the roster, this motivated Valerie. Slowly, she ate again and her color returned. It also seemed her overall state was improving, probably through the help of therapy. No one loses that much weight without being mandated to a shrink, FYI. Even though Valerie had been mean to me and there was a part of me that delighted in her downfall, I was glad to see her on the upswing.

However, Valerie began to eat like a starving child that had never seen food, and in a plot line akin to Tina Fey’s Mean Girls the weight began to pile on. Soon Valerie Ransom was two and a half times her original size. Sure, some of it was that her body was nutrient deprived, but also now she was probably bingeing to deal with her issues. While it is sad now but was funny then, she didn’t just take a slice of humble pie but the whole damn bakery.

Instead of getting back on track, Valerie continued to slip further and further into the hole. She abandoned her cheerleader aspirations because it required achievement, something she had become allergic to.  While she still retained her place in the popular crowd she was no longer Queen Bee but was forced to take her a subservient position as a drone. The new Queen Bee types tolerated her, but made fun of her expanding waistline and desperate attempts to gain male attention when she wasn’t present. Of course Valerie became easier than ever, and her nickname amongst the popular guys was “Street Meat.” In order to make herself cooler, Valerie began to party hard and really hit home running with the drugs.

Previously, Valerie was an average student, and now she just plain sucked. She was lucky she could breathe in her nose and out of her mouth. Much of this was because she had wanted to impress boys so much that studying had become an afterthought and then nonexistent. Then of course, there was the waking and baking she now did before school that made her an extra high space cadet with moon boots and all.

One day I was in a history class when our teacher was asking us about the Civil War, and which black leaders were instrumental. The subject was the Underground Railroad, and we were talking about Fredrick Douglas.

Mr. Reardon called on Valerie because it seemed she was sleeping yet again. “I know the answer. It was Martin Luther King who went to Abraham Lincoln to free the slaves. He marched on Washington and everything!” She exclaimed with extra stupid confidence that only a complete moron could possess. We all exchanged glances. Was this bitch for real?

“You are like Kelly Bundy.” Mr. Reardon said. This Gulf War vet rolled his eyes back and the rest of us waited for this walking joke to write itself like it always did.

“Is it because I am pretty?” Valerie asked, vacant eyed. Yes, this bitch was for real.

 “No, because you are that dumb.” He replied. The rest of the class burst out laughing. Was this mean, kind of. But if you knew her and you were there, she was indeed asking for it. Then he made some crack about Valerie coming to class sober and said that in itself for be a scholastic victory.

Valerie had the ego reduction of having to settle for mere drone, and this woman had been Queen Bee since elementary school. There was no way she was going to let this happen without a fight. Every morning, the popular jocks stood in a circle in the hall before homeroom. Many girls fought to get into the interior of the circle, and in order to achieve this one had to date a football player or be a cheerleader. I never bothered with the circle razzmatazz, I had things to do. However, I was friends with the folks in it. Much of it had to do with the fact many of them were second or third generation football players, and their older siblings had played with my brother Wendell. Or their sisters had been friends with him, too. As a result, I had known their families and so it would have been classless for us not to say hello. Plus I was popular for being talented and achieving goals, and athletes respected that. Despite the media stereotype, I found all kids in extracurriculars that got involved kind of bonded.

As a matter of fact, Valerie had lost points with the football captains two weeks previous when she called the water boy, Benji, who had Down Syndrome, a “drooling retard.” Not only did these gentle jocks stick up for their special needs compatriot, but they let Valerie know that she was closer to her choice slur than Benji would ever be.

Valerie had been working for months to infiltrate the circle. Like many an eager young woman, she started on the outer layer and was now working her way back in. Every weekend, she would desperately serve as McDonalds to these popular guys, who had a bite only to throw her away like the cheap food she was. Sure, it was jerk of them, but she kept going back for more punishment. Of course, this also meant battling underclassmen admirers who weren’t nearly as needy let alone easy because they didn’t have to be.

Brian Garfield, a popular wide receiver saw me. His mother had run into my mother and found out I got a lead in The Wizard of Oz. Of course Brian’s sister was a freshmen and slated to be dance captain. He waved and in typical Garfield fashion yelled, “Brucker, WHAT THE FUCK!!! GET IN HERE AND GIMME A FUCKING HIGH FIVE! AWESOME FUCKING WORK ON THE WITCH!”

 I parted the inner circle for my high five that came with a brah hug of sorts. Most of the girls sighed apathetically, they knew I was friends with the guys but wasn’t circle competition so it didn’t phase them. However, Valerie was livid. All those weekends of degrading herself were not paying off the way she thought they would. For years, I had been an inferior being. Now here I was gaining access to the inner-circle with no work whatsoever. If looks could have killed, her eyes would have been a samurai sword waiting to behead me. At the time, I thought this was lame, because how could a person with a life not? However, when someone’s existence is that small and limited, an unintentional action like mine could be the ultimate act of cruelty.

Senior year Valerie and I had a Come to Jesus moment. It wasn’t planned on either one of our parts, either. The jocks had enough of Valerie, and between her trashiness, stupidity, clinginess, and other mess she brought they began to distance themselves from her. Plus she was hitting it harder than ever with the partying, so Valerie began to become a sort of darling of the stoner crowd. One dude in particular that Valerie was in love with was Bobby Parker.

Despite us being opposites, Bobby and I were friends. He was one of my original fans, and always thought the ventriloquism was neat. While Bobby had a girlfriend a district over, he always was eager to rescue me when I was in need. Word on the street was his girlfriend wasn’t keen on me and wanted to beat my ass. I knew he wasn’t mine, so I didn’t make a move. Valerie, who was always desperate for male love and affection, had other ideas. Bobby, who was actually quite bright, was the stoner king. While in several honors classes, his double life was steadily eating him up.

Valerie had hooked up with Bobby several weekends earlier, and she believed it was true love. Bobby was trying to lose her like an old pair of socks with several holes in them. That day, Valerie had scored a ride with Bobby, but he offered me one too in an attempt to buffer the ever desperate Valerie. It was no big deal to me, I always enjoyed Bobby Parker’s company because he cracked me up. To me, Valerie was just another passenger. Valerie, on the other hand, made no secret of the fact she utterly detested my presence. She made this clear by rolling her eyes every time I spoke as we made our journey to Bobby’s Cadillac.

“I call shotgun!” Valerie said when we got to the car. She glared at me letting me know I best not challenge her. Maybe Bobby was my friend, but she had slept with him and I hadn’t.

 “That’s fine.” I replied climbing into the back.

“April, you are my number 1. Don’t give up your seat to anyone.” Bobby said commanding Valerie into the back. She glowered at me.

“She called it, she can have it.” It was only a seat. Valerie glared at me, knowing that while I conceded she had still lost. To me it was just a seat, but to her this was everything. Her gut was hanging over her jeans, and the probability she would graduate was slim and none. Valerie was otherwise failing at life, if she wanted the front she could have it.

It worked out though. Valerie, like Bobby, smoked cigarettes and they could talk freely about their drug usage. This made Valerie happy, and maybe in her mind I wasn’t competition after all. Meanwhile, I was never even battling her to begin with which made the whole thing only completely insane and asinine.

Bobby pulled into the driveway of my house, and greeting me was a banner in the front yard. Purple, sparkling, and with big letters it said, “Congratulations April! You got into NYU!” I nearly fell out of Bobby’s car. Yes, I applied early decision and got in.

When I told my mother what I wanted to do, she told me I needed to go to New York. It was after Valerie had tormented me so badly that I needed to escape, and this made me find not only a niche, but a plan in life.

“Go girl! You’re gonna be famous!” Bobby said high fiving me. Then he gave me a hug. Note, he never hugged Valerie in public.

 “Congratulations, April.” Valerie said in a flat, monotone whisper. The look in her eyes was one I still cannot describe. She wasn’t jealous or angry, but certainly wasn’t happy for me either. Sure, all of her pettiness was never able to break me. However, the more painful truth was that being popular and having the fleeting sensation of male attention had been so important that she neglected to plan for life after high school. It was the realization that the future was not that far away, and time was not the friend she thought it was. 

She did graduate, by the skin of her teeth. After that I lost track of her, because why keep track of people you don’t like? The last I heard she was working as a waitress in a seedy motel, and had a boyfriend who never saw a crack pipe he didn’t like.

For years I harbored a lot of resentment towards Valerie for being the mean spirit she was, but now I see someone who was troubled, pathetic, and lost. Yet Valerie’s value in my life is not lost on me. They say when you meet someone you don’t like, it’s a lesson in how you don’t want to act. Now that I am getting the things I always worked for in my career, the temptation to be a Valerie Ransom is very real and it is there. Then I remember how it felt to be on the losing end of that, and perhaps this is why I am so quick not only to confront a bully, but also to give them their medicine.

On the other hand, Valerie Ransom has served as a partial inspiration for May Wilson, perhaps the most famous of my puppet children. Like Valerie once did, now May sings, “April has no friends.” May and I did this several years ago for a video, and a DJ even mastered a remix. The song has become a regular part of my act, and now the audience joins in. HA! More than anything, if it weren’t for Valerie Ransom, I would have never found what my passion was, and I would have never had the courage let alone drive to come to New York.

To Valerie Ransom, wherever she is, I want to say thank you. Without your efforts, I would have never found a direction let alone dream. However, I harbor no hate toward you, and I am not glad your life turned out the way it did. Instead, I hope and pray you find happiness and peace, as well as life outside of your place in the circle, a guys back seat, or your place at the bathroom mirror.

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