Jennifer Howze

Jennifer Howze is a social media consultant and former Times journalist. Her work focuses on life writing and short stories. A native Texan, she moved to London from New York. Her essays and articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers in the UK and the U.S. and she writes about family travel with flair on her blog

She is working on her memoir about moving from Texas to New York then to London. This piece is an excerpt from that work.

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The first party

I was 16 when I discovered that the screen on my bedroom was held on not by screws but by eight toggles that moved by twiddling them a quarter turn. Just a few twists, and the screen could be removed in seconds. Strangely, you couldn’t do this from inside the house where it might be a practical feature for, say, cleaning the inside of the glass or getting out in case of fire. But tonight the toggles are good news for me and my best friend Susan.

I plant one Doc Marten in the middle of the pink and yellow flowers of the polyester bedspread my mother bought at JCPenney’s. I ease the other over the window sill. My black knit miniskirt stretches tight, with one foot out and one foot in, so I hitch it further up my thighs, then lift my other leg up and over. With a soft grunt I sit in the window.

‘Shhh,’ Susan whispers from behind me, standing between my bed and dresser.

‘I am being quiet!’ I whisper back, holding onto the edges, and shimmying my body across the metal edge and jutting casement, my toes wiggling for the ground. When I land, the leaves crackle loudly and my foot hits the window screen leaning against the house. It lets out a metallic shiver.

We freeze, listening for sounds from my parents’ bedroom. I’m not entirely sure what the consequences would be if we are caught like this; the prospect is almost too unpleasant to be contemplated. I look over my shoulder, back through the window, and Susan’s eyes meet mine. Hers are wide and white, rimmed thickly with black liner. If my mum and dad wake up now, there will be no excuse for why we are fully dressed, mascara’ed to the nines, half in-half out the window past midnight, except the obvious: we are sneaking out. My parents are politically liberal but they have strict ideas of how young people should behave. Above all my mother, the enforcer in our home, is to be obeyed. But we have been invited to a party sure to be attended by the coolest kids at school, the ones known for generating fun and excitement and occasional mini-scandals that merely burnish their social credentials. Rex Morrison told Susan in drama class that somebody was throwing a party on 68th and Quaker and she should ‘bring some friends’. It is the first gathering that promises something other than rented videos in the den while parents offer us pizza and sodas. It will not be populated by straight-A virgins like us. It is a moment to be seized, no matter the risk.

That afternoon we had told my parents we were going out to the back garden to ‘kick a ball around’. The idea that my parents would buy such a corny story amazed me. We gamely shunted around an underinflated ball we’d found in the garage until the coast was clear. While Susan knocked the ball against the fence, keeping up chatter with a made-up story about school, I waded through the overgrown bush at the side of the house and removed the lightweight screen frame. It was one of the rare moments that I appreciated our modest low-slung mid-century ranch house. Its windows crank open sideways with a skinny metal handle, swinging open like little doors to freedom. The timing of the screen’s removal had been strategic – soon enough after dinner that two 16-year-olds who never ‘played outside’ would consider a little footie in the barren strip down the side of the house in the fading light. Yet not so early that my mother might come out to tend to her irises or dad might move the sprinkler. If they spotted the exposed window, they would investigate, worrying about flies.

Now, in the dark, we wait. The silence drifts back in like fog. After a couple minutes, Susan executes the same manouevre, and we tiptoe out the side gate like bank robbers in a Buster Keaton film. As we run-hop to the car, we smother our giggles.

Out in the driveway, Susan and I now have to start the car without making noise.

‘Let’s just push it out of the driveway,’ I say.

‘I can’t push a car!’ she whispers, outraged.

‘It’s a Bug. It’s light,’ I whisper. ‘But I’ll have to get in to steer.’

Her head cocks to one side, her shoulders drop and she gives me a look as if I’m trying to get out of the work necessary to make this whole thing a success. I open the door slowly, slip the car out of gear. When I take off the parking brake, I release the button on the end slowly so it doesn’t loudly pop out. Susan positions her hands against the slender metal fender, and starts pushing my sister’s old yellow VW down the driveway. The car shifts back, then gathers speed as she pedals her legs – I can see her curly, teased hair bobbing up and down over the bonnet as she works. When the car gets to the end of the driveway and drifts down the incline, I turn the wheel, then gently press the brake to ease it to a stop. Then we are on either side, outside the open doors, pushing the car away from the house. I hope no one is looking out any of the blank grey bedroom windows lining the street. Once we are past the Kellys’ house, where I used to play on the swing set, we hop in and I start the engine. Its childlike throat-clearing sounds loud on the silent street but there’s no turning back now.

Two years earlier, at age 14, I became an only child. My sister had gone off to university, following my brother who had decamped two years before that. Without them, the house became quieter and smaller, with only my parents and me to fill it. The room in which I’d spent my entire childhood started to close in. I would sit on the mottled cream-and-beige shag carpet and pore over two magazine subscriptions, bought using money from my job at Baskin-Robbins. I wore a brown and pink striped top and scooped ice cream after school and on weekends, coming home with smears of chocolate up to my elbow. These two magazines were less news sources, more crystal balls, revealing lives I might eventually inhabit away from the wind-scoured plains of West Texas. Their pages described disparate but intoxicating versions of life available out there, if only I could figure out how to access them.

In Town and Country gorgeous horse-owning socialites lived lives of entitled ease. I gaped at their vast dining rooms with tables set for 20, their immaculate stables where handsome thoroughbreds ate apples from their hands. The girls attended cotillions, squired by square-jawed beaus. I didn’t know exactly what a cotillion was but I wanted one. Every moment was marinated in family money. As I pored over the glossy pictures, my toes curled into the shag pile as if it were the lush grass on a horse farm. I could practically feel it, so sink-down and thick it would be damp. I couldn’t go barefoot in our backyard. The grass was spiky and it hid goats head stickers – hard, pointy things shaped like animal skulls that stuck in deep and drew blood. In winter, our entire lawn turned yellow and crispy.

The other magazine I collected in a tall stack next to my bed was Andy Warhol’s Interview. Printed on rough, uncoated paper, as large as a broadsheet, it was the exact opposite of Town & Country. Transvestites wearing gawdy makeup and false lashes posed with dishevelled artists, party girls screamed with laughter, showing the wet inside of their mouths and dark fillings. The ‘celebrities interviewing celebrities’ feature was important and edgy in a way that I couldn’t entirely fathom. Every page referenced cool downtown Manhattan life, populated with people and places as mysterious as they were exciting. I pinned up pictures of club kids and Stephen Sprouse. For Halloween I sprayed my hair green, painted my face pink and went as Andy Warhol’s Marilyn.

Sandwiched between my quilted bedspread and the wooden hope chest where we kept old family photographs, I was gripped by a longing so intense it was painful. I wanted to be plucked from where I sat and deposited somewhere exotic and faraway. Getting to the worlds inhabited by the glossy debutantes or the downtown doyennes seemed as impossible as eventually arriving at one of the shimmering ‘lakes’ on the surface of the highway in summer. I knew these were an optical illusion, but even so, from my perch in the backseat, I would stare hard at each mini-oasis, marking its position – this one in line with a fence post, that one by the speed limit sign. As the car wheels devoured the miles, the mirrored surfaces would flash on the distant asphalt, then evaporate as we approached, always replaced by another just a little further ahead.

Sometimes on clear day when I stood in our back garden and the pale blue sky was free of clouds, it seemed to me like a sheet –– a blue no-iron blend acquired by my mother at JCPenney’s ­–– stretched tight overhead, tucked in at the edges. It sealed me and everyone else in town beneath its featureless canopy. I imagined that every straight road out of town just kept stretching out for miles, never actually reaching anywhere.

* * *

Once we turn onto the main road, Susan and I fill the cramped interior of the car with buzzy chatter, wondering who will be there, what will happen. Our cheeks are flushed. I don’t say so, but I am hoping for gathering of almost impossible sophistication, glamour and excitement. Ten minutes later, when we walk into the house, ablaze with light, the party has a lazy feeling like it’s winding down. There’s no music playing. Half a dozen guys whom I recognise but don’t know are flopped on a wraparound brown leather sofa in the sitting room, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer from cans. Their eyes move to us and they chuck their chins but then turn back to each other without stopping their conversation. We head to the kitchen and see three people we know: Tiffany, Brad and Nick. Tiffany is one of the artsy girls with long straight dark hair and piercings that go up her ears; I know her from homeroom. Brad used to come to my birthday parties in elementary school; we still say hi in the hallways. And Nick…everybody knows Nick. Seeing him sends a frisson of excitement through me. He’s holding a Pabst Blue Ribbon and his short brown hair is mussed, like he’s been running his fingers through it. When he turns to look at us, the corners of his mouth turn up slightly. Around them on the cream countertop crumbs spill out of empty crisp bags and dropped cigarette ash has created little smears of grey.

‘Hey!’ says Brad in surprise at seeing us. He’s also holding a can of beer, his other hand in his jeans pocket.

‘Hey. Is Rex here?’ Susan asks, eager to establish our invitation. ‘He said he was coming.’

‘Nah,’ Brad says. ‘He and Ronnie and a bunch of guys left to go pick up more beer earlier but they haven’t been back.’ He hands us each a can from the remains of the six-pack next to the sink. I pop the top and take a sip. It’s warm and sour and I swallow quickly, trying to keep my mouth in a normal shape.

Tiffany starts talking to Susan about an assignment in their maths class. Brad and Nick resume their discussion about somebody’s band. I stand and watch, taking small sips from my can. Suddenly Nick produces a joint and lights it. The smell draws in a couple of guys from the other room and a girl I hadn’t seen there. The joint starts counterclockwise and I’m relieved that Susan gets it first so I can watch how she holds it, how long she keeps the smoke in, whether she says something like, ‘It’s good,’ like some of the other kids. She doesn’t, so when it’s my turn, I hold it as nonchalantly as possible, take a medium-sized drag, and pass it wordlessly on. It tastes like dirty shrubbery. I hold in the smoke until I feel a cough start to rise, then blow out carefully.

The second time round Raphael, a tall skinny senior with soft eyes and golden feathered hair, starts telling a story. His eyelids are half-drawn window shades. The story is boring and hard to follow, but I can’t tell if anybody else thinks so too. When the joint comes to him, he stands pinching it between his thumb and forefinger, and talks without take a hit. After a few minutes everyone in the circle starts to shift their weight and offer encouraging, ‘Wow’s” and “Yeah, man’s” in an effort to get him to finish, which he finally does before taking a long deep drag that he doesn’t seem to need. It goes round a third time, the remaining end looking grubby from the smoke and everyone’s fingers. All the girls including me say, ‘No thanks’ when it moves past. When it reaches Brad he says, ‘That’s toast,’, runs it under the tap and tosses it in the bin. People from the sitting room start to drift away. Nick takes a few steps to stand next to me and leans a hip against the counter. His casual V-neck shirt and jeans make me aware of my tight top, tight skirt, dangly earrings.

‘I didn’t know you get stoned,’ he says, smiling.

‘I didn’t know you did,’ I say to tease him and to avoid a real answer.

He laughs, and I feel relieved. Nick’s reputation for partying is well-known at all the schools in town, yet without the taint of being a Stoner. He’s cast as the lead in the school plays and is friends with the student council kids. My friend Shelley is close with Diana who has dated Nick for more than a year. Diana doesn’t drink or smoke or go to parties with Nick – a situation which allows him to retain a bad-boy image and allows her to remain one of the school’s leading good girls. He is available for flirting, it is understood, but nothing else if a girl wants to keep her reputation.

‘Do you not have curfew?’ he asks, lifting the can to his lips. My lips feel dry from the joint or from how tan his throat looks.

‘We do. We snuck out,’ I say.

‘Wow.’ He nods and looks impressed. ‘Aren’t you, like, an honours student or something?’

‘Well, I’m in honours English and science and maths,’ I say. ‘But history and French are just regular.’ I’m pleased to be able to brag a little about my classes and grateful not to have to pretend to drink my beer. I watch myself carefully to ensure I don’t make mistakes. I am certain if I look at him straight in the face he will see what I’m thinking. I let my eyes drift to the others talking nearby.

‘French, huh? I think I’m taking the same Spanish class for the third year in a row,’ he jokes.

‘Dude, you are!’ pipes in Brad. ‘I know because I’m in the same class!’

We all laugh. I’m starting to feel tired and am aware of how long we’ve been gone. I catch Susan’s eye then say, ‘We better go. I don’t want my parents to wake up and we’re not there.’

‘Dude, they snuck out to be here,’ Nick tells Brad.

‘No way,’ Brad says, swinging to look at us. ‘Well, you should get back. You don’t want to get caught! You’ll be grounded for, like, ever.’ He smiles.

* * *

Back at the top of my street, I cut the engine. The car rolls down the road and up into the driveway soundlessly. We gingerly close our doors, wriggle back in through the window and I carefully crank it shut. In bed, wearing our pyjamas and having wiped off some of our makeup, we talk in quiet voices.

‘I can’t believe we did that!’ I whisper.

‘We pushed the car up the street!’ she says. ‘I pushed the car by myself! It was so light.’

‘You were amazing,’ I say.

‘What did Nick say to you?’

‘He just said he didn’t know I get stoned.’

‘Is that the first time you’ve done it?’

‘Yes. What about you?’

‘I’ve done it a few times.’

I don’t say anything to that. Then I whisper, ‘We have to do that again.’


After Susan goes home the next day, I wait until my parents go out before replacing the screen. It takes less than a minute and is the same as it ever was. I on the other hand I have gone to a real party. I have smoked a joint and my lips have touched the same paper as Nick’s. Over the next week I carry the evening around in me like a secret, although of course it isn’t. Rex tells Susan he’s sorry he missed us. Tiffany stops by my desk a couple of times to chat. I see Nick in the hallways. He occasionally smiles at me, but usually he’s talking to other people when I pass by. Brad teases me for being ‘a partyer’ and says, ‘You should come out more often’ as if I haven’t been at class or football games or hanging out at the Taco Bell after school. I know he’s not trying to be insulting but I feel like I have been hidden away. I’ve felt wrapped up in the quiet of my parents’ house, sitting among the stuffed animals and ballet dancer figurines of my childhood, the things selected and collected by my mother. Now that’s changing. I have found a temporary way out of my room. It’s not via the door during the day under the big blue sky. It’s secretly, out the window at night.


– END –