Last week, I took a break from the workday cascade of emails and tweets to sit down and listen to a colleague, an investigative reporter, describe how she tracks down hard-to-find people online. Showing us one database, she encouraged us to type our own names in. I did and one result from Amazon caught my eye. It led me to a "Wishlist" I have no memory of making. Immediately I could tell it was mine.
It consists of nine items and was created on May 8, 2000. I would have been ending seventh grade, which had been the worst year of my life, thus far. I would have been on my mom's PC upstairs in the hallway when I wrote the list. The tawny chaparral hills would have been shrouded in fog. Or if I wrote it at night, the world outside the window would have been thickly dark, our home being rural, and there would have been big garden spiders in each pane.
Social media wasn't really a thing yet and I never had LiveJournal or MySpace. It'd be four years before I got a cell phone. Most of my time online so far had been passive, a few red-cheeked proto-erotic Yahoo checkers chats excepted. This was in part because my mom, who distrusts technology still, had chided me against putting information about myself on the internet and I was an obedient kid. Creating this Amazon Wishlist, then, was a sort of rebellion. A first skirmish in a war of independence that would in years following be fought.
May 8 was about a month before my birthday in June. The irony: If the list were ostensibly intended for my mother, who would be the one to buy me things, she was the only person I would not tell about it. Though I'm sure I never told anyone about it. This was an era of diaries, not friends. The internet then felt so intimate, small, like a secret I privately — and slowly, dial-up warbling and moaning — learned.
This list was a statement about my identity I made to no one.
It breaks into essentially three categories. First, Sharon Creech novels. Second, Weird Al CDs. A duo of cookbooks — both Pillsbury. And last a novel called Beauty, a 1978 Beauty and the Beast adaptation.
Next to each desired item I have written exclamation-mark-laden reviews:
Sharon Creech was the first author I remember identifying as my favorite author. Her books had felt, at the time, adult, complex in a way that was novel. The worlds in her books were not simple. People hurt each other. People did things that didn't make sense.
I love both the fact that I was interested in owning the hard cover of Absolutely Normal Chaos — which implies I already owned the paperback — as if I were investing in it. As if I would keep the book on my shelf for forever, and show it off when guests came by. "Oh, what's that? Just my hardcover edition of Absolutely Normal Chaos."
The paperback, I presume, today sits 3,000 miles away in my parents' house, on a shelf in a room that's now for guests. Not that there are ever guests.
There was one other girl my age in my hometown, which was isolated from the suburb where we went to school by a frightening, winding highway that most parents refused to drive. On weekends she and I would meet up and hike the muddy hills along the ocean. My family's cattle dog Gus dashed in and out of the fox bushes.
We talked about what shows we liked. We talked about our families. I probably talked about boys. We would return to her house after and we would bake. We had a dream that we would win the Pillsbury Bake-Off. We heard you'd win a million dollars. I sometimes considered this — how enormously this would change things.
Our experiments were often disasters. I recall a sheet of cookies made with lime and salt and not enough flour that oozed off the side of the pan in the oven's heat, a molten green sludge that splattered and smoked.
We made comedy videos, too, ones I am glad do not exist online. I feel bad for kids these days, whose online detritus is nothing they will encounter with a curiosity or joy.
Only in a forum such as an Amazon Wishlist — one no one would ever read — could I so boldly declare my love of Weird Al. Not that I had social capital to lose per se; I was already about as unpopular as could be imagined. I was nonetheless ruled by fear and shame. My home life was not good; nights reverberated with screams. I came to school with my homework perfectly done, my loathed clarinet, and my hair wet. I wore braces, jeans, Converse sneakers, sweatshirts that my underarms sometimes sopped through.
I met Al twice that year, if I recall correctly. Once at an amusement park, once at the civic center, both after shows, with my equally unpopular friends. Both times we waited, after, to meet him, to get his signature, and the band's. I remember seeing them up close and realizing they were grown men.
Earlier that school year my small friend group had imploded in the way that only a small group of seventh-grade girls can. For some weeks I had no friends at all and meandered the schoolyard at lunch feeling sorry for myself, dodging wasps. Sometime that spring I had begun to make feeble attempts at integrating myself into a sprawling group of mostly quiet people who sat beneath a few scraggly plums on a brick patio. I didn't know how much in common we had. Around them I felt loud. I would find different friends in high school. And I would find different friends in college. And I'd find different friends after college, and as an adult. Twelve-year-old me, sitting on her backpack eating lunch could not have imagined such relief.
If I loved this book but did not own it, I must have read a public library copy. That was a magical library, tucked beneath redwood trees above a creek. The librarians all knew me and recommended things and I read through what felt like the entire young adult section. I lived the fantasy of Matilda and Belle and countless other young women who were smart and wanted desperately, and with reason, to flee the circumstances they were in.
The thing is I don't remember this book, this book that was "the most amazing," this book that made me cry. I don't know how I feel about this. Some sadness that I can't actually know who I was then, before adolescence, moving away, sex, money, a sometime adulthood, many more struggles, and loves. I also feel some gladness in realizing my sense of my own childhood isn't entirely accurate. There are holes.
On the other hand I experience a joy that there is a continuity between the girl who wrote this list and whoever I am now. Weird Al is in the news — the first No. 1 album of his career. In the New York City office where I work, my colleagues and I have been putting on headphones and giggling at his videos. I read big books on the train unabashed. I spend hours cooking unnecessarily complex things even as I text to figure out who will eat them. A million dollars would still change a lot.
Spending whole days on Twitter, refreshing Facebook, watching a website like BuzzFeed turn over with the new, with the new, I often forget that most of the internet isn't being looked at by anyone. The internet is not just the white water of the breaking wave. It's all the crap, some of it lovely and meaningful to only you, that sits at the ocean's bottom.
Sandra Allen is a freelance writer and formerly BuzzFeed's Deputy Features Editor. Her first book "A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise" is forthcoming from Scribner.
Contact Sandra Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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