When I was eighteen years old, I lived in a teeny tiny town in the middle of nowhere. I had my heart broken, wrote terrible short stories, and ate entirely too much chicken pot pie.
I used to smoke cigarettes. Not a lot, but for two years in college I smelled like an ashtray. I know now that smoking is terrible because I’ve taken the Real Age quiz about a dozen times and it took years to make my two-year smoking jaunt not impact my score. I knew smoking was terrible then too, but I didn’t have this handy quiz and I was very interested in looking cool. I usually didn’t.
I used to write poems. A lot, for most of my life. Poetry landed me at my first college. My love, and later abandonment, of poetry had a minimal impact on my Real Age score. Poems never made me very cool and I loved them terribly.
When I first started writing this post, I didn’t think poem-writing and cigarette-smoking would make an appearance. But there they were, two long ago abandoned activities that were huge parts of my identity at age eighteen.
My message to eighteen year olds? Don’t smoke. Maybe write poems.
“I Need Your Love So Bad,” by Little Willie John
It was late Fall, and my first college relationship was due to unravel. Every missed call was a tragedy. Every reunion was a ready-made poem, delivered raccoon-eyed and exhausted at Monday’s workshop. Every time he visited my dorm, a rarity, the song flipped and Little Willie John crooned, all due to the eery magic of my ever-shuffling iTunes.
“iTunes: It’s the soundtrack of your life,” I joked to my friend Elise. Wiser than I, and less inclined to cover all sins with unclever quips, she replied “How much longer are you going to do this?” I’m sure I said it was over. And it was, over and over and over, until it was over for good. Contrary to what I’d believed for that first semester, I didn’t need his love so bad. I just needed the trifecta of Freshman year breakup remedies: best friends, Boones Farm wine, and a box of red hair dye.
“Ms. Fat Booty,” by Mos Def
We went to parties at a big house off campus. The music was current and loud, lousy with bass. Everyone showed up too drunk and left more so. I couldn’t go there without running into someone I didn’t want to see, or a host of someones I didn’t want to see. This wasn’t unique—it was a place to see people you didn’t like, and acquire more of them. (It’s a pleasure to be an adult, sometimes. An off night at a bar now can render it obsolete. When you’re underage, you get stuck in the same social loop, unable to break free until you find a new town or convincing fake ID.)
Everyone you wanted to know was playing this Mos Def album that fall. Every dorm room, every party, you could hear the same few Aretha Franklin laced bars. I devoured this song, I let it push the Allman Brothers and the Garden State soundtrack into musical purgatory. I danced to it at that big house once, a few months before we were released back to our hometowns for the summer, where I would decide not to return to campus. It was the last blowout night I can remember, one that was purely fun and silly, full of friends and good music.
“New Slang,” by The Shins
I was hopped up on black coffee, which I’d suddenly started drinking by the gallon, when I landed on the front steps of my poetry professor’s office. He was a crusty cartoon of a man who liked to tell us “There are two things worth living for: Poetry and fast women.” We were meeting about my chapbook, the final project for the Senior Poetry workshop I was taking as a freshman. My poems had done well in workshops, and the professor kept sending me to classes to audit and lectures to attend on the side. This all felt like a giant vote of confidence, one that I was in desperate need of after a rough year. The coffee and confidence made me prolific to the point of literary mania. I showed up to the meeting caffeinated and hopeful with a head full of poems, their rough shapes hovering behind my eyebrows.
I got to his office and took a seat. He flipped through the pages of my chapbook, gesturing at passages, praising and editing different bits out loud. I thought it was going well. He closed the book.
“What do you want to do with your life, Ms. Moshenberg?”
“This,” I said, gesturing towards my chapbook. “I want to be a poet.”
“This isn’t for everyone. And dear, it isn’t for you.” He patted my knee.
Is it possible that when I left it started raining, as I tried to get rid of my shaky hands, my watery eyes? Could it have rained that whole year? Memories are funny. I went home and listened to The Shins. I stopped writing poetry long ago.
“Ruthless,” by Something Corporate
Before I escaped that teeny tiny town and teeny tiny school for good, I escaped for a few stolen hours with a few escape-loving friends. We ditched campus to take a chilly, mid-March walk on the deserted Ocean City boardwalk. We drank icy beers and played pool with locals at a dive bar where we convinced the bartender we were a couple of harebrained PhD candidates who’d left our IDs at home. We crisscrossed the Bay Bridge so many times it’s impossible to count. And when we did we played this song because it made us feel young and hopeful. It shouldn’t be hard at 18 to feel young and hopeful, but our heads were full of unearned bitterness and aged wisdom. It made us sigh and complain, it made our necks crack and joints creak. I was much older at 18 than I am now.
“You Don’t Know How It Feels,” by Tom Petty
At a diner over winter break, my dad mentioned my much too frequent use of this chorus as an away message and said something along the lines of “We get it. You’re trying to rebel. Noted.”
I was trying, and Tom Petty was helping as much as he could. I played this song so I could talk about listening to this song, so I could type the lyrics into my away message like a nod at some clandestine adventure, so I could slip the lyrics into my reference laden short stories, where apropos of nothing, characters quoted everyone from Tom Petty to e.e. cummings. (Rahnia, my friend and sometimes editor, once wrote in the margin of one such story “No one on earth has ever said the moon looks like an angry, rattling piece of candy. No one.”)
Was I a misunderstood rebel poet? Absolutely not. I was a homesick kid, not even that far from home, who smoked menthol cigarettes because she didn’t know what else to buy and preferred the quiet front steps camaraderie of being a smoker over the terrifying prospect of talking to strangers at parties. I thought I was on a big adventure, when really I was just eighteen.