Nothing Gold Can Stay
When I was 11 years old, in the 6th grade, every girl I knew was reading S.E. Hinton books. Tex, That Was Then This Was Now, Rumble Fish all went through the girl’s hands like messages from the underground. Some people had already seen the movie version of The Outsiders, and were in love with C. “Tommy” Howell or Ralph Macchio or better, Rob Lowe. My classmates pasted their torn pictures from Teen Beat magazine on their bedroom walls. I hadn’t seen the movie yet, but like sticker books in the 3rd grade, and Elfquest in the 5th, I wanted in on this frenzy too. So on a weekend staying with some relatives, I bought all copies of S.E. Hinton’s books at Printer’s Inc. on California Avenue and started reading The Outsiders.
As soon as I read the first line I was in: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman ad a ride home. I STILL get prickly feeling when I read that opening line. I sunk immediately into the late afternoon the narrator Pony Boy Curtis stepped out into, scanning the horizon for both danger and his direction home. I read it every chance I could get: at lunch time and on the weekend. I already had an active fantasy life about the 50’s and 60’s, the time which the Outsiders takes place, from watching The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver reruns every day after school, but this was a different world. It was a world full of cool cars and slicked hair, but it was also a book of orphans, a book of young people figuring out how to deal with very large and scary questions. Pony Boy’s journey was an emotional journey and a world all itself, that I could latch on to, feel things for, and live out with the characters as if I personally knew them. It was the first time I had ever felt that for myself without anyone else.
Everybody has a book story and how it changed their life, but that book REALLY DID change my life. It ushered me into my first taste of a private life, my first taste of independent experience. It wasn’t like the many afternoons I spent alone waiting for someone to come home. This was something somehow entirely MINE–something I could experience alone and chose whether to share it or not. In one fell swoop it made me both a reader and a writer.
I remember hearing that S.E. Hinton was 16 when she wrote The Outsiders, which made her not a kid like me, but a non adult just the same. (I would find out later, that her age had been stretched for PR reasons, and she was in fact 14 when she wrote it–eegads!) Not wanting to leave her world, which seemed so alive until that last page, I decided to to try to create that world for myself. So I began my first attempt at a “novel,” which turned out to be TEN whole typed pages. It took place in the 50’s, in an exotic land called NEW JERSEY. To this Californian, anything East of Colorado was obviously a land of richness and mystery. The main character’s name was Mary Jane, a name which, to this child of hippies, seemed sane and pretty, like milk coming in bottles. She was a wistful narrator, who bore the friendship of the class bully, Ellen Jane (I know, I couldn’t get away from the JANES) with a sort of good cheer, marked with slight exasperation. EJ is dark haired and pushy, always daring MJ to do things she doesn’t like, like going in a boat in the middle of a lake. MJ finally puts her saddle shoe down and heads home, only to discover later that EJ went out on the lake without her and drowned. The rest of the story deals with MJ’s reaction–which, as you might understand, is very sad and confused, but by then I was getting TIRED of writing and wanted the whole thing to end, so I could have a NOVEL ALREADY. Just as she was about to deal with the cold, questioning eyes of her classmates, I gave MJ a quick exit with a sudden move to Louisiana. Then everything is fine and everyone will miss her. On her last night in her bedroom, looking at the stars, she realizes that she couldn’t go on blaming herself. The message of the stars was that “she needed to get on with her own life.”
At 11, I was a chubby girl with a heap of hair, always unkempt. I resembled Captain Cave Man, if he had no special powers, and was in fact slow and unlikable. I was troubled, prone to crying, and acting out in ways I couldn’t really explain why at the time. School was the safe place, while home wasn’t. I think I had more in common with EJ than I did with my own narrator, MJ. I had friends, but they seemed to withstand me, like Stella withstands Blanche de Beauvoir. For some reason–lucky me–they just did. It took me years to realize that often the safest characters are not the most interesting ones. Mary Jane was the clean version of the life I wanted–average student, parents at home who care, food in the refrigerator. Pony Boy was clean too, but he never bailed on the tricky, ugly, and complicated parts and that is where the real story begins.
I saw the movie with my class a year later. At the end I looked around to see some of my classmates were crying. We all loved that book, but the movie didn’t move me. I couldn’t love something that was merely a VERSION of something I found real, profound, and mine.