The Great Wall
When you're young and in love, it's difficult to be apart. Jessica and Mike do some last-minute primping before a recent dinner date.
[Times photo: Douglas R. Clifford]
The list of perfect things in the relationship includes Mike's tucked-in shirt.
It is Monday afternoon and Mike and Jessica are in his bedroom getting ready for a date. The time they will spend here provides a clear picture of the relationship, right down to the banter about Mike's shirt.
Mike, a snazzy dresser who sometimes changes his clothes three times in a day, twists and turns in front of the bathroom mirror, looking from all angles at the plaid button-down shirt he just put on. He pulls it out of his jeans a little in front, tucks it in a little more in back, checks the mirror again.
Mike is seeking what he calls The Perfect Tuck.
"It takes him, like, an hour to do," Jessica sighs. While she waits, she obsesses over a few details of her own appearance. She flattens her red shirt against her small waist, glosses her lips and brushes her long, middle-parted, blond-streaked hair.
Finally, Mike puts the finishing touches on the tuck of the century.
"Jessica, do I have it?" Mike asks, holding his arms up like a gymnast after a dismount.
"Nope," she says, then fixes one part of the shirt that was uneven. "There."
In some ways, Jessica and Mike are like an old married couple; they know each other's bad habits and quirks. It drives her crazy when he twitches his knee. He jabs her in the side when she says "like," which is often. And she knows that even if she tells him to wait for her call, he will grow impatient and call her first.
"And have you seen his wall of hair?" Jessica says, poking her finger into his heavily-gelled 'do.
They gained this knowledge by spending a lot of time together. They meet in the hallway after fifth period when she's leaving math and he's coming out of language. They study together after school. They attend school basketball games together -- Mike as a point guard, Jessica as a cheerleader. Go, Warriors.
At night they talk on the phone for hours at a time, but none of the conversations goes too deep. They usually end these marathons with a debate: "I love you more," she'll say. "No, I love you more," and so on.
They're like an old married couple, yes, but without the lingering resentments, the deep affection, the cycles of pain and forgiveness. Their love is true but it's also lite.
And they know it. When they are out with friends, as they will be today, Jessica will playfully drape her arm around another boy's shoulders and Mike will hug other girls.
"We'll both flirt with other people," Jessica says. "I mean, we're going out. We're not dead."
Me, you -- and Pooh
It is Jessica's 14th birthday, and 60 -- that is not a typo -- of her closest friends are jammed into her living room for a party. These are the children of the mid-'80s, Generation Y. They wear hair scrunchies on their wrists and platform sneakers and low-slung Tommy Hilfiger jeans. Their names are Meghan and Tyson and Justin and Kalyn.
They're a peculiar subspecies, 14-year-olds; somehow, they're both children and adults, yet neither children nor adults. Theirs is a world of love notes passed in the hallways at school and i's dotted with hearts. It is also a world of skimpy tank tops, provocative songs, sexual exploration and sultry dancing.
You can see some that right here, in Jessica's living room. Everywhere you look, kids are grinding their skinny hips to techno music. On a makeshift stage in the corner, other kids sing along to the music of a rented karaoke machine, appearing free of all inhibitions as they perform.
"Oooh! Me so horny," they sing.
At the same time, Winnie the Pooh and Rugrats balloons drift side to side, as if they, too, are trying to keep the beat.
One girl goes into the kitchen, her arms folded across her chest, and asks Jessica's mom to turn off the black light. One of the boys has announced that he can see her bra through her black sweater.
It's unlikely that any couple here has been dating more than a year, and chances are none will be together a year from now. And yet the songs they sing are all about grown-up romance, with all its passion and peril. On the karaoke stage, Jessica and eight other girls line up for one of the big numbers of the night.
"At first I was afraid, I was petrified," they sing.
The song is I Will Survive, the anthem of women's heartache and resilience. The girls belt out these words with dramatic flair, squinting to demonstrate pain, shouting loudly to portray passion.
Jessica's mom, Beverly, smiles as she watches. She's 42 and surprisingly calm amid all these boisterous teenagers. Five years ago she and Jessica's father were divorced -- for the second time. She doesn't want to discuss it.
On stage, Jessica and and girls are still shouting out their song. "I'm trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart," they sing. One girl places her right hand over her heart, which is doubtless as pink and tender as filet mignon.
"They have no idea," Beverly says.
Save the last dance for me
One of the kids keeps turning the light on and off, on and off, until finally someone tells him to stop it and the room goes dark.
"Ladies' choice!" one of the girls shouts. Most of the ladies choose to giggle and look at their shoes, too coy or bashful to ask a boy to dance. One girl pulls a girlfriend into the corner and, in a whisper, asks whether she should approach the boy she likes.
It doesn't get much better than this, dancing close with the one you adore at your birthday party. Jessica's Safety Harbor house was the place to sway to the music on Jan. 16.
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
But Jessica is not shy or uncertain, and just a few notes into the Aaliyah song One in a Million she makes her move. She walks over to Mike and playfully butts her head into his chest. He grins, folds his arms around her waist and whispers something only she can hear.
Your love is a one in a million It goes on and on and on
Several couples join them on the carpeted dance floor. Many of the girls tower over their partners, their arms slanting downward to rest on the boys' shoulders.
But this is not the case for Jessica and Mike. She is three inches shorter than he is, the perfect height for dancing in the way long favored by teenagers: Her arms clasped behind his neck, his behind her waist, leaving no airspace between them. They shuffle side to side, hugging more than dancing, careful not to step on each other's bare feet.
Won't let no one come and take your place
Cuz the love you give can't be replaced.