I have spent what I can only consider to be an undue amount of time considering the Grateful Dead song “Sugar Magnolia.” [lyrics, YouTube] It is—in case by chance you are not familiar with it—a very pretty and deeply problematic song about what my friend once called a fantasy hippie chick (what we might now call a manic pixie dream girl) who “takes the wheel when I’m seeing double / pays my ticket when I speed” and “waits backstage while I sing to you.” (I’ve also always taken the line “head’s all empty and I don’t care” to refer to the chick, although my friend claims it refers to the dude, which is perhaps a more accurate reading.)
I first started listening to the Dead in high school. I had a dubbed cassette tape, Workingman’s Dead on one side and American Beauty on the other, and a couple of other tracks to fill out the remaining minutes. I am the sort of fan who never went to a show or owned a bootleg, but those songs got to me early, and it seems when I think about it as though there was some eternal April month in high school in which we all quoted from those songs, as if they were a natural extension of our vocabularies, as we all felt we lived in a typical high school involved in a typical daydream. To be seventeen and contemplating the attics of one’s life is ridiculous, of course, but I did it, and surely I cannot have been the only one.
I dwell, for better or for worse, largely in the past, and in the shifting land of memory. The summer after that eternal April I read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway for the first time, and I was blown away, not by the stream of consciousness or the suicide of Septimus or whatever the hell else it is that blows people away about Woolf (though I was later blown away by all those things, too). But at seventeen what blew my mind was that Mrs. Dalloway, at fifty, spent so much of her day thinking about the summer she was eighteen.
Most of the grownups I knew held teenagers in such disdain that I assumed they had promptly forgotten everything about that time and what had happened to them, or that they chalked it all up to youth and stupidity and never thought about it except perhaps under great duress. But here was a woman — older than my mother! — thinking — obsessing, really — about being eighteen, and having a crush on a guy and also on a girl, and being so absorbed in these memories that they supplanted at times her own busy life in London, so many years later. I was astounded. The following spring I sat down in the classroom where I’d taken AP English until I dropped it (the instructor and I did not get along) to take the AP English exam. The essay question that year asked you to discuss a character who appeared seldom or never in a narrative but exerted great influence over it. Everyone I talked to that day and later, when I went to college, wrote about either the ghost in Hamlet or Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. I’d read both of those, Hamlet several times, but they never crossed my mind. I thought immediately of Mrs. Dalloway, and of the guy she’d had a crush on the summer she was eighteen.
I think a great deal about being fifteen and sixteen and seventeen and eighteen, and on the whole, despite the April of the Grateful Dead, and the day I walked home with a boy discussing Doonesbury and the Gulf War, and the day I got the highest score in the class on a geometry test, and the many, many days when my AP Government teacher let me off the hook for being late, and the day my friend brought a giant cookie for my seventeeth birthday, and the day another friend set two quarters in front of that same boy I’d once discussed Doonesbury with on his eighteenth birthday and we all laughed and laughed until he finally realized why (the Adult Pleasure Palace had a sign outside that read “50 CENT BROWSING FEE”) and turned beet red, on the whole, despite all those days, high school was a miserable rotten time for me.
Last summer, because my curiosity always wins, I went to my twentieth high school reunion, where any number of people whom I assumed had been having a fine time in high school while I had been feeling largely fat and miserable and unpopular told me that in fact they, too, had had a miserable time of it. I was stunned.
When I think of those days now, as I often do, I think then not only of the good bits and the misery but I think of the ways those superimpose themselves upon my life now, and I think how the only thing more stunning that the misery of the times then is how kind we all are to each other, for the most part, today—much kinder than we ever were before.
To think of the attics of your life at thirty-nine is still silly, though perhaps not quite as silly as it was at seventeen. But perhaps I knew at seventeen that I was forming the memories that would be stored in those attics, and that one day, feeling sick and miserable in the heat, despairing of how I ever got to this place, again, I would listen to those songs again and live once again in that eternal April, the last time I truly thought that something to come might be better, and that living in that moment again, it would, if only for a moment, give me hope.