Are You Sure? – Leigh Alexander & Tom Humberstone

WORDS Leigh Alexander   |   PICTURES Tom Humberstone


I’m going to tell you about the worst thing I ever did.

“Doesn’t it make your eyes all nougaty,” said Kaye. It was 1995, and we were walking around the Natick Mall. It was late. Maybe even Christmastime, peak consumer fever, and all of the decorative lights and the walls of stores and deals had begun to melt warmly together.

I felt a little weird, mostly tired, but my eyes did not feel nougat-y. Still, I said yes, because I wanted it to be true.

Fifteen minutes earlier we had been on the roof of the multi-story parking garage, in the dark. Kaye had driven a lattice of tiny holes into the crushed belly of a candy apple-red Coke can and sprinkled weed on top. There was only a little, but she lit it on fire and taught me to suck the smoke from the mouth of the can. I couldn’t tell if I got anything.

I mean, I probably didn’t.

“You don’t feel anything your first time,” Kaye told me confidently.

Kaye and I became friends in sophomore year of high school. The year before, this girl called Laura had beat me up in a graveyard, and then I had to go and get depression treatment or something, and when I got out I was a pariah to everyone but the weirdos.

I guess Kaye was a weirdo. I mean, she kind of seemed like one. Wore tight red and black plaid trousers. I didn’t understand her thing about the English flag or about willfully getting her shirts at the Salvation Army even though she wasn’t, like, in need or anything. She took shirts out of the free clothes box that they put out front. Sometimes I stuffed fake hostage letters in her locker from fictional homeless men who were angry to be left naked.

Sometimes the letters were from Prince, who was “the artist formerly known as” at the time, and whose appearance nude in the center of a flower on the cover of Lovesexy was nothing but embarrassing and hilarious to us. We made fun of Prince.

I remember her occasionally whispering: “TV Party Tonight. TV Party Tonight,” lyrically and insistently. Some punk song I didn’t know. Or “why can’t I get just one –” vulgar-type thing or another. I was pretty sheltered, so I nodded along.

Everyone was pretty sheltered where I grew up. Tiny town, tiny school. Soccer team, cows. There were well-off people, arrogant parents with custom Acuras, and they were real-estate agents. That’s the kind of town it was. My dad was black and I had thick thighs and I went to go get depression treatment, and I had a hard time making friends. Until Kaye. We just were friends.

After school we used to go to her house and and watch Oprah. Like, ironically? In the 1990s? I think I’d describe our posture as one of horrified fascination.

areyousure1We were matter-of-fact about the sort of bleak constraints we lived in, I think. After school we used to go to her house and and watch Oprah. Like, ironically? In the 1990s? I think I’d describe our posture as one of horrified fascination. One time when Prince was on Oprah — our two most alienating figureheads in one bizarre, sentimental, smarmy 1990s soft-focus conversation — we lost it. We videotaped it. “What do I call you,” Oprah asked The Artist gently. “Friend, I hope,” replied Prince, softly. Hysterics. Oh my god.

We would raid her parents’ freezer to see if there was any grocery-store frozen pizza, the brick-like rectangular kind that screamed American Supermarket and said “pizza for one” on the box like a doom knell.

“Pizza for ooooooone,” Kaye and I would slur, choking on laughter, sitting down to Oprah after school in her empty house. “Prinnnccccee likes pizza for oooooooone.”

Sometimes we’d read the school yearbook and supply our own sharpie captions for every other kid in our class. Girls with puffy 1980s-hangover bangs and vacant looks were deemed “technical school”. There was this younger girl who used to follow us into the wooded trenches out back of school where we’d sneak cigarettes, and she’d always ask us for cigarettes with the same prim, anxious request: “do you have one?”

areyousure3DO YOU HAVE ONE, we wrote on her face.

I don’t remember anything about her parents or even seeing much of them, except that she would sometimes get her dad, whom she treated with grim disdain, to drive us places while he talked to himself.

Once we went to Wal-Mart with no intention to purchase anything. In suburbia this is radical in and of itself: Just drop us off at Wal-Mart. We pried children’s bikes off the racks and rode around the toy department in circles, shouting into Yak Bak voice recorders that Kaye had dared to pry from their blister packs. Riding in aimless circles through these wax-colored, incandescent, meaningless displays, making fun of other kids. Laughing.

In between scribbling on the yearbooks and terrorizing the mall, we dreamed of getting to cross the state line so we could shop at this massive warehouse of 1970s clothes and find the biggest, pointiest collars ever.

Once we found a polyester 70s shirt, a men’s shirt with a pointy collar, somewhere nearby. It had paisleys on it, Prince’s favorite. It was just hilarious. And we also thought it was kind of awesome and that I should wear it to school, where people mostly wore Jansport backpacks and North Face jackets and whatever soccer shorts for school sports. I was anxious about the polyester shirt, but Kaye encouraged me.

I had these awful giant tits that had defiantly erupted just a couple years before, this half-ethnic, awkwardly-pubescent body I didn’t know how to operate. I had cut off all my curly hair to try to look like Halle Berry and it didn’t suit me. The polyester shirt was tight across my breasts and pinched my soft arms, and my hair was looking ridiculously boyish that day, and everyone stared at me. Kaye said she liked the polyester shirt, but I changed halfway through the day. I didn’t make it. I gave the shirt to her and she wore it.

The status quo was everywhere, looming and whispering through the endless corridors of bruise-blue lockers. We fought it with shoplifting and trendy sodas.

We didn’t care about boys. All the boys in our school were short and had mushroom haircuts and liked Guns N Roses. Skinny little figures of hilarity, jogging around the soccer field in circles. Kaye gave me cassette tapes of punk music and we’d change the words to be about all these boys we didn’t like.

But this one boy — a tall, ruddy but pleasant-faced, nice, handsome, smart boy — he liked Kaye. I think his name was Chris, something utterly forgettable like that. He was offensively normal, effortlessly conforming. Kaye seemed truly mortified by his attention. I had never really seen her uncomfortable like that, frowning, hands dug in the pockets of her weird, tight, studded punk pants. Reciprocating, or even “giving him a chance”, seemed like a profoundly upsetting idea for her. If she saw Chris approaching, she would hide.

No one really crushed on me like that at the time. Kaye was quietly weird and interesting, and I was loudly weird and alienating, and I privately didn’t understand why you wouldn’t want some like, regular normal boy to really, really like you, and to want to go to the Ring Dance with you.

Like, why wouldn’t you go to the Ring Dance, if you could? You get your class ring made up, from one of those awful BALFOUR catalogs, and when you get your rings, you ask someone and you go to a dance. Unless you’re a weirdo and no one asks you, but — like, this nice, normal boy was asking her, and she didn’t want to go.

Why would you choose to be a weirdo, if you could help it?

I wanted to go.

At first, my going with Chris was some kind of a joke. Kaye might have even been the one to suggest it, like it might get him out of her dyed green and black hair, or something. Are you sure, I asked her. Are you sure-sure. You could go with him. He wants to go with you. I mean, I will ask him, if you’re sure-sure-sure.

I asked Chris to the Ring Dance, and he said he would go with me. His sister’s friends, who were all in my class and hated me, whispered incessantly about it, but I didn’t care. I was going to go to the mall and buy a floor-length gown, and crystal jewelry. A rhinestone barrette for my hair that cost way more than a barrette ought. I was going to get a corsage and have my picture taken.

Every weird girl who watches Ghost World thinks she is the Enid Coleslaw, but a lot of times, she’s just the Becky.

Every weird girl who watches Ghost World thinks she is the Enid Coleslaw, but a lot of times, she’s just the Becky.areyousure2

Suddenly some kind of raging crush on this normal boy erupted under my skin like a sore.

Here is when Kaye starts saying, every so often, “maybe I’ll go to the dance, too,” and I just go, “yeah, if you want. Lots of people go by themselves.”

I mean. Not lots. Just weirdos.

“I guess I won’t,” Kaye starts saying. “I don’t have anything to wear. I don’t like dresses. I don’t have a skirt.” And I just go, “yeah, I guess you have to have a dress or a skirt.”

I remember her asking me “can you help me pick a skirt” and me, what, not answering? She brought a long, ragged-hemmed jersey skirt to school, scavenged from her older sister’s abandoned closet, and she was so uncomfortable as she held it up against herself and said to me, “maybe this one will be okay,” hoping for my approval.

“I don’t think it’s fancy enough,” I told her. She said yeah, and she didn’t want to go to the dance anyway. I knew she didn’t want to go, and I couldn’t understand why she kept asking about skirts all month.

Two days before the dance I had everything laid out in my room, my long black glittery dress and my jewelry still pinned to its cardstock, and she called me. Maybe she could go together with me and Chris. It would be the three of us. Would that be okay, and could I ask him.

I told her I’d think about asking him, and I hung up the phone and cried, bodily sobs.

My mom told me she thought it’d be fair of me to tell Kaye that I’d spent a long time preparing for the dance, and that it was a dance for couples and that I didn’t want to be part of a trio. I mean, I was the one that went to the mall and picked out everything and prepared everything and Kaye just kind of had that one skirt. I mean, she didn’t like that guy. She didn’t like wearing dresses. She didn’t like being normal.

I told her no.

Whenever you want to talk about being an outsider, about being a rebel, about girls in front, ask yourself are you sure. Are you sure-sure-sure.

I could have gotten anything I wanted engraved on my class ring, but I selected the school sports mascot and the school color.

My parents took a picture of me and Chris in front of the fireplace in our living room. Rhinestone barrette in my finger waves. Cluster of flowers pinned to my wrist. He had brought the corsage for me, in a little box. Picked it out for me (his mom had helped him pick it).

I don’t remember anything about the Ring Dance, except that Chris hung out with his friends and we didn’t talk.

After that, Kaye avoided me. She wouldn’t say she was mad, she wouldn’t say how she felt, but she wouldn’t speak to me again. She began spending all her time with this girl with limp hair who only ever wore Nine Inch Nails shirts.

I did the wrong thing. I did the worst thing. You don’t feel anything, your first time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t in you.

Whenever you want to talk about being an outsider, about being a rebel, about girls in front, ask yourself are you sure. Are you sure-sure-sure.

I find little pieces of her online even today and they make my heart hurt, because she is still her (“Favorite music: Dokken; favorite book: Dworkin”). But what would I say? This was more than half of our lives ago.

Be sure, with each other. There are things you can’t take back.


Originally published in Double Dare Ya! Edited by Julia Scheele and Sarah Broadhurst.