I am in the losing-your-virginity-room, spread out on my bed, translating an interview with Lana Del Rey that has only been printed in French. My eyes skip ahead to the word nostalgie and I hurriedly type the rest of the sentence into Google translate. I am nostalgic for an era I never knew. I write this down on a pale pink piece of paper and blu-tack it up on my bedroom wall, between Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Brigitte Bardot is just underneath, along with a page ripped out of Romeo and Juliet. How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy is underlined in red ink.
60 years earlier, on a Sunday afternoon, a group of girls meet a group of boys at Elbe’s milkbar. They say they are there for the ice cream, but they are there for something else entirely. None of them are entirely sure what that something else is. Each booth becomes a bubble of boy and girl. Nothing comes between them, except a sundae or a banana split. They make secret plans to meet on the banks of the Hutt River that night and kiss goodbye on the pavement. The boys get on their motorbikes and drive home to their mothers. The girls pull their tops down past their shoulders and sing “Bye Bye Baby” until the boys are out of sight.
It’s first period on a Tuesday. Jasmine and Katy propel their wheely chairs back and forth across the computer room; stopping only when our French teacher comes to check that we’re doing research for our assignment. As soon she leaves, I exit out of google.fr and return to google.co.nz; typing “juvenile delinquency 1950s” into the search bar. After scrolling through the New Zealand History site for a while, I find an article on the “Mazengarb Report”.
Jasmine and Katy pull their wheely chairs up next to mine. I read out a series of headlines:
“Groups of Lower Hutt teenagers meeting at local milkbar to have sex: parents wonder what society is coming to."
“Youths charged with carnal knowledge of underage females: 61 boys and young men arrested.”
“New Zealand Government issues a ‘Report on Moral Delinquency in Children and Adolescents’ to more than 300,000 homes across the-”
“Wait,” Jasmine says. “My Mum totally co-directed a play about this when we lived in Wanaka.”
“Yup, it was definitely this.”
“Filles!” Our French teacher glares at us from the doorway. “Qu'est-ce que vous faites?”
That night, I put on an Elvis record and write in my diary I’m in love with the idea of love. Thanks to Romeo and Juliet, I’m also in love with the idea of fate. Just before I go to bed, a girl from Year 13 posts a link to the audition dates for the play that will be put on by the boy’s college this year. It’s based on a “Lower Hutt sex scandal” in 1954 that lead to extreme moral panic and a government inquiry. This will be the second time the play has been performed.
I go to message Jasmine, but she is already typing.
I don’t fall in love with you at the audition. If Hollywood has taught me one thing, it’s not to trust boys with blonde hair and blue eyes, and you have both. Your friend has brown hair and brown eyes. I consider falling in love with him.
As soon as we leave the drama room, Rita says to me “Can you believe how beautiful that boy was?” I admit, you did look a lot like 1996 Leonardo Dicaprio.
I don’t fall in love with you the second time I see you either. Rita whispers “Angel face” into my ear as you laugh with your friends in the lobby of the St James theatre. The group of girls we’re standing in take turns looking at you, so it won’t be obvious.
You have a cold at the call back. Maddy whispers “He does have a really sexy voice” while the director gets us all to sit down so can she tell us about the characters in more detail. You’re sitting behind me. My feet are tucked around so they’re just in front of you. The director describes the lead roles and the Year 13 girls listen carefully. You tap on my saddle shoe and murmur something to your friends. I’m too nervous to turn around. The director smiles: “And then there’s Henry and June.” June is the girl that everyone wants to be. She isn’t the main character, but she’s beautiful and Henry is her boyfriend. Henry is beautiful too. He is two years older than her. They have sex. They are in love.
Towards the end of the call back, the director asks you and me to read as Henry and June. We sit on plastic chairs and read lines to each other off our bits of paper. I realise your eyes aren’t blue, they’re green.
A few days later, I am asked to play Juliet Capulet alongside two of my close friends at Rongotai College. The director cast all three of us because she was worried about only having one girl at rehearsals. The show will be performed three times, so we get one night each. None of us have ever kissed anyone, and we think it’s hilarious that we’re all going to kiss the same boy on the same day. I think it’s hilarious that for a whole year being Juliet was my dream, and now I just want to be June.
I wake up to an email telling me I got the role. The director says we had a “wonderful dynamic”. You will be playing Henry.
Jasmine gets her email during French class, and we spin our wheely chairs around in excitement. In the school corridors, I see other girls who got in and we grab each other while both saying “Congratulations!” When we finish hugging, the other girls say “I can’t believe you get to kiss Robbie”. I laugh and shrug my shoulders.
That night, I don’t sleep at all.
The girls open their bedroom windows as soon as their parents start to snore. The air smells like something beautiful is burning. It smells like falling in love. They straddle the windowsill and drop into the night. The moon is never quite full; it is always just waxing or just waning. The girls meet under the apricot trees to borrow each other’s make up and check their reflections in a tiny mirror. The static-y sound of cicadas gives them the feeling that something important is about to happen.
Every Friday, I wait impatiently for the 3:30 bell to ring, then hurry to the bathroom and change out of my uniform. Jasmine, Rita and I meet at the gates and walk down to the boys college, where we slip into another bathroom and fix our hair. I put on lip balm and Jasmine asks if she can borrow it.
“Sure,” I say. “But it’s kind of shit. I just liked the name.”
Jasmine reads the bottom of the tube and grins. “Robbie’s going to get your Cherry Kiss.”
The first time we read through the play, we all sit on chairs in a huge circle. You and I smirk at each other across the hall whenever Henry and June kiss. The Year 11 girls giggle. In the Parade scene, June has a red, heart shaped shoulder bag, and I decide that one day, I need a bag just like it. The play is very sweet and very sad. There are two rape scenes, but the director tells us it’s extremely important to her that families come along to see this show. When Laura Ford- the female lead- is questioned in court about what she was wearing the night she was raped, all the girls go very quiet. The Roastbusters case is still fresh in everyone’s minds. At the end of the play, Henry is ordered by the court never to see June again. I can’t help but draw parallels with Romeo and Juliet. The fact that our initials are R and J does not go unnoticed.
After rehearsal, all the girls walk into town together. Sofia quizzes me about you, then blurts out “You just seem so chill about it!” I laugh and tell her I’m glad. Jasmine, Rita and I meet the rest of our friends at the night market, and someone’s playing Elvis off a big speaker. We dance and people stop to watch and take pictures. When one of us is home alone, we all come over. We drink our parents’ alcohol and smoke our parents’ weed and jump on the couch to “Break on Through (To the Other Side)”. Eventually, we turn off the lights and I put on “Green Gloves” by The National. “Not this depressing stuff again,” Jasmine whines. She goes to hunt for snacks in the kitchen. At least half of us end up crying.
Lines from the play quickly work their way into our essential vocabulary. A particular favourite is when Darrell the policeman describes the sexual proclivities of local teenagers as “a web”; more specifically, “the web of depravity”. I make a playlist called “The Web”, made up entirely of songs that remind me of you. Most of them are by Lana Del Rey. After every rehearsal, I play “I Don’t Wanna Go” on repeat.
In an interview, Lana lists seven songs she listened to everyday while recording her new album. I look them all up and The Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” instantly becomes part of The Web. Soon I too am listening to this song everyday. I play it to all my friends, but none of them seem to hear it the same day I do. One evening, we’re at Slow Boat Records going through the two dollars bins and I find it on vinyl. The sleeve has a picture of a pair of saddle shoes on it that look exactly like the ones I’m wearing. Even my friends agree it must be fate.
I download Lana’s singles during maths class and listen to them while I’m bussing home from school. As the opening bars of “Shades of Cool” begin to play, I think about how perfect it would be if you walked past right now. I realise you’re walking towards me. My baby lives in shades of blue, blue eyes and jazz and attitude. Your cap was blue. So was my school uniform. We make eye contact through the bus window and you raise your arm in the air; too cool to wave.
The boys bring tiny paper envelopes. The girls know what’s inside, but it feels like they’re receiving a love letter. They pinch the rubber between their nails and ask the boys where they got them. From the pharmacy on Lambton Quay, the boys say. They lie down to look at the moon, then turn to look at each other. The moon watches. Their bodies leave shapes in the wet grass. Afterwards, they sit and watch the river run by; eating small, fluffy apricots stolen from the orchard. The boys offer them their leather jackets. The girls try them on, but after a few minutes they feel silly and give them back. The oldest boy has a car. The girls squeeze into the backseat and squeal as he speeds down empty streets. Something crunches under the wheel. They pray it wasn’t an animal.
I’m sitting under stage lights with your arm around my shoulder. Everything is too bright to be real. We make jokes about neither of us knowing how to have a fake conversation while we drink imaginary milkshakes out of big metal cups. When The Cowboys and The Sheilas saunter in, you turn to me and say “I only have eyes for you, baby”. I’m too surprised to do anything but stare. Your eyelashes are sandy and spidery and longer than mine.
I find myself flirting with almost all of the boys in the play, except you. With you, I’m careful not to appear too interested. Whenever I say something sarcastic you laugh like you’ve never heard a joke before and I feel slightly confused. No one has ever found me so funny.
On Sunday, you’re tired from staying up till 2am watching movies and I’m tired from staying up till 6am talking to Rita. You can’t believe I’m here. I tell you we talk that late most weekends, and you say “If that was me, by 3am I’d be suffocating you with a pillow.”
Halfway through rehearsal, you and your friends go outside and come back smelling like smoke. I raise my eyebrow and you smile back; only a little sheepish. “Sorry.”
I laugh. “It’s fine.” Really, I’m ecstatic. All of the boys Lana Del Rey sings about are smokers. When I find out that you have a skateboard, I wonder if this whole thing is a dream.
You miss at least half of the Friday rehearsals. One of these times, my friend Milly- whom I deeply trust because she’s a Year 13- tells me that another Year 13 girl told her you are “really stupid and a total dick”.
I tell Milly “Yeah, she’s probably right.” I don’t tell her “That’s part of your appeal.”
I buy Lana’s new record the day it comes out, and listen to it religiously in the months that follow. Side A always gets stuck just after she sings “You’re my cult leader”; repeating “I’ll love you forever” over and over, like a chant.
On the way to our first kissing rehearsal, I chew three pieces of watermelon gum; hoping that when we kiss you will be shocked by how sweet my mouth is. The rehearsal lasts more than an hour. At some point you smile and say “So you’re the one who always smells like vanilla.” We start breathing in sync. Our acting coach asks us “Have either of you ever been in love?” You quietly shake your head.
Afterwards, we walk to the bus stop together and talk like nothing happened, because nothing did happen. I’m wearing my Audrey Horne outfit (saddle shoes, blue plaid skirt, tiny red jumper) but I don’t think you’ve even heard of Twin Peaks. We catch our buses from opposite sides of the road. Big, grey clouds loom silently above us. The road has never felt so wide. I don’t wanna go home tonight.
While their fathers are outside gathering kindling, the girls steal the newspaper out of the fireplace. They cut out the articles on the Parker Hulme case and bring them to class the next day, folded up and hidden in the pocket of their school blouse. At lunch time they huddle in a circle and read the articles aloud. One of them is headlined “BRICK AND STOCKING MURDER”. They try to imagine a situation in which they would want to kill their own mothers, but they cannot. There’s a policeman outside the playground. The boys are nowhere to be found. The girls rush home to call their cousins in Christchurch. Curfews lower all over the country.
When Jasmine and I have nothing to do during rehearsal, we each take one of my headphones and huddle over my Ipod. She asks me what that song was that I played at Katy’s on Friday night when we danced with all the lights turned off. I immediately put on “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”. We stare at each other as we listen.
“This would be like… the perfect song to have sex to.”
It takes me a moment to believe what I just heard. “Jasmine, that is exactly what I have thinking for the past three weeks.”
“You and Robbie should have sex to this.”
“Lets go dance.”
We run out of the hall and find a tiny room with four glass walls. We have no idea what anyone would use this room for other than dancing, though even with just the two of us there is barely enough space. We close our eyes and play the same song three times in a row; only remembering where we are when our arms brush against each other.
There’s a scene in the play where Henry is talking to his best friend William; who is only fourteen and very shy. It’s nighttime and Henry is carrying punnets of cherries and strawberries. When William asks him if he was with June, Henry says “Yeah. We picked the fruit”. I like this scene because since the first time I went to a cherry orchard, I have thought that fruit picking is the most romantic thing in the world. I don’t even like cherries.
The boys sit down in the grass. William says “I saw you. And her. And I thought yeah that’s what love must be like. What’s it like?”
“It’s cherries and strawberries.”
All week, I wait for Friday. All Saturday, I wait for Sunday. On Sunday evening, I put on Boxer by The National and lie on my bed feeling sorry for myself because I know I won’t see you for another five days. In my diary, I write He has a smell and I know it. In my diary, I write I saw that play and it was good, but I would rather look at the back of your head. In my diary, I write Am I acting onstage, or offstage?
The first time we do a kissing scene in front of the rest of the cast, all the girls come gushing at me. “You guys are really good at acting in love with each other,” / “That was so genuine!” / “You’re going to get together in real life, right?” The director congratulates us, before adding, “The kiss was so natural!” Even a few boys come over and say to me “You guys are perfect for each other”. I sit next to Rita and she nods: “I believed it.”
The director can never get both of our names right. We are always “Joy and Henry” or “Robbie and June”. Sometimes I don’t know who we are either. Like in the milk bar scene, when you touch my thigh under the table. Or when we have to hold hands for an entire rehearsal and we start rubbing our thumbs over each others fingers and knuckles and palms. Or in the moments after we kiss, when I have opened my eyes but yours are still closed.
The girls are pulled out of English and taken to the office. A policeman interviews them one by one. Some of the girls roll their eyes, but even they are scared. He asks them what they do with the boys they meet at the milkbar. Eat ice cream, pick fruit, kiss, the girls answer. He asks them how many boys they have done this with. The girls answer “one”. Another girl fiddles with her skirt before answering “twenty?” The policeman asks her if she knows where babies come from. She shakes her head.
The performances pass by in a rush. Before we go onstage, all the girls in the dressing room sing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” at the top of our lungs; dancing and putting on lipstick. I am the only person who doesn’t have to wear a costume, because my clothes look like they’re from the fifties anyway. Jasmine names my blue plaid skirt and white tie top “The Britney Spears outfit”.
I get home around eleven every night, stay up an extra couple of hours to write in my diary and try on clothes, then get up at seven to go to school. Rita and I curl up under our English teacher’s desk during class and she makes no attempt to wake us. By the third show my eye has started to twitch from exhaustion, and I am sure the entire audience must notice. I ask Jasmine if it’s obvious, but even up close she can barely see it.
On the ticket desk in the foyer there’s a box of Crunchie bars marked “$2 each”. As soon as one of the boys decides to steal one, all of the boys steal one. You snap yours in two, and pass me half.
Everything that happens onstage is played live on a box TV in the corner of the greenroom. We spend a lot of time in there. There aren’t many chairs, so all the girls sit on each other's laps and the boys stand leaning against the wall. A few of The Cowboys are given electronic cigarettes to smoke in the party scene, and they never put them back on the props table. It’s like pass the parcel: all the boys taking turns on the tiny machine. Someone slips it into your hand and the room goes still. You blow Os and we all O back at you. “How do you do that?” someone asks.
“You have to use the tongue.”
On the TV, Laura Ford is lying on a mattress while a boy in a leather jacket presses down on top of her, but we watch the smoke rings dissolve instead.
A few times, you and I nearly miss our cue and have to sprint backstage; slowing down just in time to grab hands and step into the lights. Your skin glitters from spending so much time close to my make up. Our scenes are always perfect; we even make the “hard audience” laugh. The moment we’re offstage we do a victory dance.
I can’t make eye contact with you, Rita or Jasmine when we’re singing “Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?” at the end of the first act, or one of us will snort with laughter and we’ll all break into hysterics. I count down the scenes we have left together. We practice “Apple on a Stick” in the wings, and as “Tutti Frutti” starts to play we rush back onstage for the last time. When the show ends, you pull my head into your chest and hug me so tight I can’t see the lights anymore.
That night, the girls sneak out to meet the boys in their secret spots. They promise they will get married and none of this will matter and cling to each other like baby animals. The boys use a pocket knife to carve their initials into one of the apricot trees, but the bark is too soft and keeps falling off. They drive the girls home on the back of their motorbike. The girls sing “I’ll See You In My Dreams” under their breath.
You tell me the final performance is on the night of your birthday, and I pretend to be surprised even though I worked this out from Facebook weeks ago. You tell me you’re probably going to miss the after party and I pretend this has no effect on me.
In the dressing room, I take off my sheer, white top and replace it with a tight velvet singlet. The velvet is such a dark blue it almost looks black. All my friends want to touch it. Our mothers buy us bottles of scrumpy without checking the alcohol content and we promise we’ll stay at Katy’s afterwards. Jasmine’s Mum drives us to a house in Kelburn and soon we’re in a crowded living room singing lower than our voices can reach: I’ve dreamt about you nearly every night this week. I’ve dreamt about you nearly every night for months. When the parents kick everyone out, a string of people start wandering up the road to someone else’s house. Rita and I go with them, holding hands as we walk. The boy with brown hair and brown eyes from that first audition is leading the way, and soon we’re at his house. We get stoned and nibble on crushed up chips and the boy with brown hair gives me a back massage. I feel tiny in his hands. Rita and I sit in the hallway with our legs in each other’s laps and continue to reassure people we’re ok, we’re not too drunk, we’re having a good time. The boy with brown hair tells us to let him know if there’s anything we need. We secretly name him Gatsby.
We take turns pushing each other around the living room on a wheely chair so fast we nearly fall off. When we get tired, we go downstairs and lie in Gatsby’s bed. Rita falls asleep, but I lie awake; waiting. I recognise your laugh as soon as I hear it. I shake Rita awake without telling her why and put on the very last of my Cherry Kiss lip balm. When we get upstairs, I take the communal bottle of gin and juice out of your hands and drink more than you, or I, expected. You are surprised to see me here.
Rita and I sit on the kitchen bench writing in a stranger’s journal while you roll up the twenty dollars notes your parents gave you for your birthday to do lines off the kitchen table. We play “Florida Kilos” off someone else’s iPod and dance on the linoleum, singing along to all the cocaine references.
Around 4am, Gatsby puts on Shrek. I write a poem about plastic tulips and draw a picture of everyone in the room. I draw you and Rita twice. At some point during the movie we all fall asleep, and when we wake up Gatsby’s telling everyone to pick a bed. Rita and I take his sister’s room. We lie under her duvet, laughing and shivering. Rita says she saw my drawings and that the ones of you were freakily accurate.
Rita’s mum yells at her on the phone when we wake up. Gatsby comes to check that we’re feeling alright. You walk past the open door and turn to look at us for a moment.
When Rita and I come upstairs, the kitchen is full of sunlight and the boys are reading what I wrote the night before.
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were writing poetry!” you say to me. I’ve never seen you look so impressed.
Rita goes home to her angry mother and I go to help clean up the hall at the boys’ college. Seeing it so empty nearly makes me cry. Jasmine’s sad too. We go sit by a field where boys are playing soccer and talk about what we’re going to do with our lives. We walk to my house and lie in bed watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jasmine cries into my arm. When her mum comes to pick her up, she’s just as angry as Rita’s mum. My mum is only a little bit angry, but she bans me from staying at boys’ houses after parties anyway.
The boys go to court. The girls still meet at the milkbar on Sundays, but they are too sad to eat. Their fingers trace the cracks in the red vinyl seats until someone kicks them out. The radios stop playing “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and the girls can’t understand why. They sing the lyrics out their bedroom window and hope that someone hears. Their fathers cut up their little white blouses and the shorts they sewed in home economics. Their mothers say an extra prayer at dinner time. One of the girls is put into care. There are no more apricots that year.
You drop-out of high school as soon as the play’s over. I don’t watch Romeo + Juliet for weeks, because Leonardo Dicaprio reminds me too much of you. I take a lot of baths and talk to Rita on the phone almost every night. She tells me she still finds it amazing how little I ever talk about you. I eat six apple muffins in one day and decide I should stop eating altogether. Rita and I realise we’ve accidentally fallen in love. I spend two parties talking to a boy with brown hair and brown eyes and realise I’ve fallen in love with him too. I realise you were his childhood best friend. At that same party, Gatsby tells Rita and Jasmine that when you and I met, you were sad that everyone thought you treat girls like shit, and decided you would try to treat me well. “How boring,” I say. A few years later, I realise the lines you snorted off that table were only Panadol. My friend and I listen to your songs on Soundcloud while we lie on her bed in Auckland; seizing up with laughter as you rap in an American accent. I buy a red, heart shaped shoulder bag. My boyfriend’s parents invite us out for Yum Cha with you, your parents and your girlfriend. I don’t want to go. I go to Australia and see Lana Del Rey perform twice in three days. When she sings You’re screwed up and brilliant, you look like a million dollar man, so why is my heart broke? she looks like she might cry. You grow your hair out and sing shirtless in a club full of people. I wake up from a dream about you and spend all morning trying to go back to sleep.