Dear 17 year-old me,
Being 16 was tough, but it’s the year your life changed. You lived in a comfortable suburb with your parents and brother and sister, but you were mad at the world. You didn’t get along with your family and you didn’t get along with your teachers. As a last resort, your parents sent you to live with their friends in England for the year. You wanted to go to a hippie school you’d seen a documentary about called Summerhill, but you ended up at North London Collegiate School for girls, where you had to wear a brown uniform and brown tie shoes and had to go to prayers every morning.
You were as angry at the family you stayed with as your family at home, and the way you rebelled was to eat as much as possible, every day buying four candy bars, or chocolate bars as they called them, and stuffing yourself on the train, which they called “the tube.” Every night at dinner you ate until you thought you’d burst and you cried yourself to sleep.
You were so tense and angry that you didn’t get your period the whole year. You had been so embarrassed about having your period and having to go into a drugstore in a foreign country, that you’d brought an enormous blue box of Kotex in your suitcase all the way from America. The day before you left London you wandered around the heath, which is what they called the park, and threw away the unused sanitary napkins in garbage cans.
When you got back to the United States you were still angry, and your parents once again found somewhere for you to go. Through an organization called Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity you could live with a Native American family.
At the time you never thanked your parents for having the wisdom to get you away from home once again.
You arrived in Oklahoma on the night of a 100-degree July day, and there was a pow-wow going on for a teenage boy, going off to Vietnam. You had never known anybody going to war. The boys you knew went to school and had summer jobs and lazed around swimming pools. People you knew were “against” the war, but kids you knew didn’t really know what that meant.
You talked to the boy that night. He was handsome and dark-haired and he was holding a crumpled bag. He was wearing pants that were too short and a button down shirt with frayed sleeves so you could see his thin wrists. His shoes had holes in them. He didn’t look like the boys back home, who had all the shirts they needed in their closets but preferred to wear ripped jeans and t-shirts. Some of them had ripped their jeans on purpose.
The boy talked to you, bending down in the shadows as people danced around an open fire. He said he was eighteen and his name was Jesse. He had dropped out of high school just before he graduated.
When you asked him why, he shrugged and said, “I can’t ask anybody out. I can’t even pay for a drive-in movie.”
At that point Jesse bent down and took an orange out of his bag and offered you an orange.
You said, “No thank you. I’m not hungry.”
You regretted saying that instantly and you always will. You knew, as he turned and walked away, that you had offended him horribly.
The next day he left Oklahoma, and later that fall, when you were back in your comfortable suburban kitchen, filling out college applications, you got the phone-call telling you that Jesse had been killed in action. There will be many times that you will forget what you learned in college. There will be some times when you will forget why you were so angry. But there will never be a time when you will forget Jesse. You will always wish that you had taken that orange.
Patty Dann is the author of three novels, STARFISH, MERMAIDS and SWEET & CRAZY. She has also published two memoirs, THE GOLDFISH WENT ON VACATION and THE BABY BOAT. Her work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. MERMAIDS was made into a movie, starring Cher, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci.
She has served as a judge for the Scholastic Young Writers Awards. She has an MFA in Writing from Columbia University and a B.A. from the University of Oregon.
Find her at her website.