Illustration by Andres Garzon
On the cusp of teenagehood, I was increasingly preoccupied with a search for the elusive Cool, and suspected that this exciting, slightly nauseating sensation in the pit of my stomach was it. I brought home Live Through This, a seminal grunge album of the 90s. When I heard Courtney Love alternate between singing and screaming—her voice, throaty and off-tune—my whole body tingled and my heart sped up. I had no idea what she was screaming about, but I understood.
“You’ll love her. My favourite song is ‘Teenage Whore.’ It’s so honest,” Jen said when she introduced me to Courtney Love. She was trying on her sister’s plaid skirt in front of a full-length mirror, rolling it up at the waist until the hemline cut across her upper thighs.
“Does this look slutty?”
Jen had invited me to her house that afternoon and soon after announced that we were best friends. By association, I was deemed equally close with her other friend, Carly. Jen was tall and thin with thick brown curls. She had a sophisticated way about her; she drank coffee and encouraged us to do the same. Carly was petite and blonde, a creative type who wrote haikus and tore holes in her jeans. They were the prettiest girls in our sixth-grade class, and I was in awe of them. I was chubby, still being dressed by my mother, and soon to be starring in a children’s production of Charlotte’s Web.
“Acting must be intense,” Carly said once when I told her I had rehearsal. I had no idea what they saw in me.
Both Carly and Jen had older siblings, and they mined their stuff to feed our cultural education. When Carly shared her brother’s Stone Temple Pilots album, we listened to one song on repeat for hours. The spoken word track was called “Wet My Bed,” a focal point of the lyrics being a search for cigarettes. The singer’s voice was hoarse—his heavy breathing, scary and sensual at the same time. We decided the song was a drug-induced improvisation, proud for being able to spot such a thing.
“My brother gave me a puff of his smoke,” Carly confided in us as we lay on our backs on her attic floor, listening to Scott Weiland slur his words. My heart ached with envy.
While my friends kept introducing us to new cultural artifacts, perhaps in quiet competition to outdo each other, I had nothing to offer. I cursed my parents for making me their first-born and giving me a sheltered upbringing. I became irritable in their presence. My growing frustration with my life deepened my feelings of kinship with Kurt Cobain.
I scoured boxes of old books and records in our basement, hoping that my mom and dad had once entertained interests of some redeemable quality that I could use to impress my friends. Sifting through a pile of dusty VHS tapes, I found a film with the handwritten label, Rocky Horror.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show soundtrack spun on the rickety family record player throughout my growing up. My sister and I choreographed dances to most of the songs in our living room. My sister insisted on wearing her pink tutu for every one of those dancing sessions. She was five years old and tiny for her age, quiet, with dark eyes and a button nose. I was four years older, and I threw her little body around the room, barking orders and correcting her movements. We knew most of the lyrics by heart but had never seen the film.
Years later, my family drove by a repertory theatre screening the movie. I was stunned to see the number of people waiting in line outside. My parents explained that these screenings had a cult following, and people would dress up in silly costumes and sing along, even throw popcorn at the screen. I watched with wonder as a young woman in line wearing a purple wig and fishnet stockings licked the cheek of the man next to her.
I detected traces of sex and drugs and decided that the VHS tape would establish my proximity to both. A story about a mad alien scientist was my best shot at proving my maturity and good taste to my friends. I invited Jen and Carly over for a special showing on an afternoon I knew my parents would be out.
When the girls arrived at the door with three male friends in tow, I felt a tightening in my chest. In the last year or two, male schoolmates had shape-shifted from nuisances to mystical sources of validation.
“Hear this is gonna be the bomb,” one of the boys said as he passed me into the house.
My cheeks went hot. Illicit spin-the-bottle games had become a staple at unsupervised social gatherings, and I wasn’t sure if their attendance signified a change in agenda.
We went down to the basement. My five guests crammed together onto the large couch, the boys digging their hands into the bowls of snacks I had laid out. I turned off the light and pressed play on the VCR, pulled out a foldout chair beside them and cracked open a Coke.
The smallest of the boys flicked jellybeans across the couch as a campy wedding scene played out before us. The first musical number prompted giggles, and the restless boy, emboldened by the tittering of the group, slid up onto the armrest.
“Stop!” Jen squealed, her prepubescent chest now the target of a candy attack. The impish grin smeared across his face made her brutal assailant look more like an elf.
“Oh, you don’t like it?” he quipped, the multicoloured ammunition whipping through the air. His face flushed as he triggered high-pitched shrieks from his mark.
The soda began to bubble in my gut. The film wasn’t grabbing my audience’s attention as I had hoped. I shoved a handful of Cheetos into my mouth to quell my nerves.
The room did go quiet for “The Time Warp.” There was no way for us to tell that the scene was iconic, that the song would be played at every high school dance and wedding and Halloween party we would go on to attend. We watched, dumbfounded, as old people in neon bow ties and cummerbunds, cheap party hats and sunglasses, jumped to the left and stepped to the right.
“This is weird,” Alisa snorted, throwing her legs across a guy’s lap. I kept my eyes glued to the screen and guzzled down my pop.
Soon Dr. Frank-N-Furter made his dramatic entrance, wearing heavy purple eye shadow, dark red lipstick and high platform heels. As soon as he belted out “I’m just a sweet transvestite!” the boys erupted into a performance of distaste, snickering and cursing and slapping the sofa. When the “sweet transvestite” threw off his cape to reveal a bustier, garter belt and thigh-high stockings, one boy yowled, “Shiiiiiiiiit,” stretching the word out as far as it could go. I cringed.
“Shut up!” Jen commanded. She lurched forward and narrowed her eyes. “I love this,” she said with a sincerity I had only heard her use when describing her favourite icons like Kim Gordon and Sabrina the Teenage Witch.
Her admirer turned towards the television, still jabbing his friends’ shoulders but the impact softened. The boys’ mockery subdued, quieting to a chorus of clicking tongues. Sensing this was a moment I needed to exploit, I started mouthing the lyrics, hoping Jen would notice I knew all the words.
But watching the actor strut and thrust his hips started to make me feel light-headed. I thought of my sister in her tutu, looking like a cartoon pixie, spinning and jumping in our living room.
My mother sang “Hot Patootie Bless My Soul” to my sister and I at bath time. I discovered that in the movie, this song ends with Dr. Frank-N-Furter hacking Meatloaf to death with an ice pick.
“Awesome!” Alisa cackled. I plastered a smile across my face, kneading the ends of my sweater sleeves.
My head started throbbing during Susan Sarandon’s “Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” where she begs for someone to make her feel “dirty.” I had heard these lyrics countless times but had somehow never bothered to reflect on their meaning. I thought of my parents’ faces, watching our afternoon dance recitals, exchanging glances as they smiled and clapped.
I mumbled an excuse to my friends, ran to the upstairs bathroom and promptly vomited. I returned to the basement and sat through the rest of the movie.
At first sign of the credit roll, I lied and said my parents were on their way home. My guests got up to leave.
I watched from the doorway as they filed down our front steps. Jen pivoted when she got to the end of the driveway. “Let’s watch Carrie next time!” she called back at me. I smiled and nodded. When she turned away, I noticed the logo on the back of her t-shirt for the first time. It read “Tragically Hip,” and had an illustration of a woman holding her hands up to her face, crying.
I was puking for the next two days. My parents fussed over me, told me there was a bug going around at school. I didn’t mention Rocky Horror.
“Do you want to watch a movie together?” my mom asked, stroking my cheek as I lay in bed.
I swatted her hand away. “No, Mom, I’m fine,” I said. “Can you close the door on your way out?”
I felt sick and yearned for my mother to comfort me, but I knew I had to face this alone. I wasn’t a kid anymore, and I needed us all to be on the same page about that.
AMANDA FEDER is an emerging writer from Montreal. By day, she works in television broadcasting. She was grateful to be selected for the 2018 Quebec Writers’ Federation Mentorship Program, during which this story was completed.
Copyright © 2019 by Amanda Feder. All rights reserved.