As I was turning 14, I made the decision to leave behind my schoolmates and the few friends I'd managed to make, opting to go to the smaller, alternative magnet high school. I'd always been an outsider—the strange, poor girl who transferred into the upper-middle-class school where she could be guaranteed the gifted education her test scores demanded.
In elementary school, I never had classmates who came to sleep over at my house. My parents and I lived in a trailer two doors from my paternal grandparents, seven miles from the edges of the other school's district. Occasionally I would be invited to a birthday party or sleepover at a classmate's house, but it always felt strange, like I was included because someone's mother made it that way.
Junior high was better but only just a little. I had a few close friends, and my happiest memories of that time almost all involve being at someone else's house. My friend, Kelly, and her parents never failed to include me in their life, week after week of Saturday sleepovers and Sunday church and family dinners. Kelly's home was warm and inviting, especially as I was surviving my own parents' divorce.
I was abandoning the young girl persona of Cissie, but who was I becoming? Adolescence is a terribly unsettling time, the shift from child to adult. Confusion and disorientation are rampant, and I was especially susceptible to that. The gifted high school, RLC, seemed like an opportunity to break entirely from Cissie and the painful memories of growing up different. The school had its own unique history of being a safe haven for outcasts, a defiant eye-sore of a building in a suburban slum, and the students and teachers were unlike anything I'd experienced growing up in the White Flight safety of mid-80s Bluff Park, Alabama.
RLC was the place that I became not just Stephanie, but Stephanie Quinn.
For a while in the 1980s, monogramed sweaters were all the rage. I can remember desperately wanting a crewneck one in turquoise, my SKQ initials elaborately adorning the wool blend.
"They don't do a Q," my mother explained.
I scanned the Sears catalog, looking at the choices of color and style, wistful for the tightly-woven threads that sheened the flourishing embellishment of "Diane Elizabeth Jones" or "Roger Adam Smith". Q and X and Z just weren't options, so I never had a monogrammed anything.
By the time I graduated high school in 1990, I had been the only Q-named student ever to attend RLC.
I was not like other girls.
Looking back, I realize that my habit and joy of finding jellicle names started in my own childhood but certainly continued in my teens. Budgie and Tomato Butt know who they are, and Tomato Butt began to call me "The Mighty Quinn".
Who was Quinn? She was different, even by the strange standards of the socially awkward, creative group she lived and thrived in. She was tall and big and loud and awkward. She was a slacker who found it easier to not do something that was hard, because dropping from the lower branches meant a faster, softer landing than crashing from the top of the tree.
Where Cissie had tried her best to be a good girl, Quinn plainly said, "Fuck that!" and began to demand that life be on her terms. If anyone expected anything of her, she would go out of her way to do the opposite. She was openly defiant and disagreeable and rebellious. She was sneaky and manipulative and mostly learned how not to get caught.
Because Cissie hadn't gotten the attention and care that she so craved even when she was a good girl, Quinn learned that a gut-wrenching, lung-wailing tantrum could bring about attention. Bad attention was better than no attention, so she worked with what came easy to her.
Early in my freshman year, I met a guy at school. He was a senior. He never had a jellicle name, though I'll call him Jack for ease of use. Jack and I were friends immediately. We spent long hours on the telephone almost every night, talking about everything and nothing. He would play his guitar in the background while we talked or watched TV or while I did my homework. When I would argue with my mom, he would talk me down. When DH and I broke up in that stupid high school way, Jack spent weeks and months letting me talk through it all. Sometimes I would hear about the girl he'd gone out with over the weekend.
We hung out some at school, though far less than seems likely given the nature of our relationship. We kind of made out once, on the third floor hall during our shared free period. There was no kiss, but my French teacher stopped to talk to us while we snuggled against the painted cinderblock wall near the stairs. She had no idea that my baggy sweatshirt was hiding his hands on my boobs.
And Jack and I never failed to tell each other that we loved each other. I can remember the first time we did, on the telephone while he was at his house and I was at Karolina's. It was just sort of said after a strange, rough night at the mall, and we continued that tradition for the length of our relationship.
Jack was also the first person I ever told about my molestation. He was the first safe place I'd ever known, and then he graduated and went to college. I have the strange memory of Jack calling me from college moments after my molester tried to grope me for the last time. I cried, hysterical and broken, explaining that I'd just told the man never to touch me again or I would kill him. Jack listened patiently and soothed me through it.
When he first left, I missed him but was okay. We would keep in touch through letters and then the occasional phone call. (Long distance was expensive in those days.) Eventually—and some of this is totally skewed by hindsight—I didn't fully understand that I missed him and why I missed him. I became petulant and argumentative. There was a nasty exchange of harsh, sometimes vitriolic letters, and then our friendship was dead.
Eventually I started dating Damien. The two of them had actually known each other in high school but hadn't had contact in several years. Damien was loud and gregarious and pushy and funny and strangely charming. He would call me, while he was dating another friend of mine, and talk for hours, about everything and nothing. He would play his guitar in the background while we talked and watched TV or while I did my homework.
Jack warned me not to get involved with Damien, months after our own relationship had passed the point of disintegration. I specifically chose to date Damien because Jack had told me not to.
Damien goes on to be a tempestuous, on-again/off-again four years of utter Hell. He was verbally and emotionally and physically abusive. He was the catalyst for a couple of half-hearted suicide attempts. He was the intentional, malicious cause of some serious self-harm.
DH returns to my life. Twenty years later, I'm cycling through a series of bad relationships with unavailable men. I'm intently examining my history, unearthing any clue as the what and how and why things went wrong, so that I can at least have the potential to move forward in a healthy, fulfilling relationship.
This morning, it hit me: I am continually recreating this relationship with Jack.
Quinn smacked me upside the skull with a derisive, "Duh!"
Hell, Damien and Bounder were even physically built like Jack, and Absolem's hands always reminded me of Jack's. Interestingly, DH and Jack knew each other, as well, and there was never any love lost between the two of them.
Time and again, I am drawn to creative, smart, funny, unordinary, passionate men. Men who love music (including a couple of musicians). Men who can talk to me for hours and meet my need of quality conversation. Men who don't always have a lot to do with me away from that venue. Men who hide me and sometimes deny me and the impact I have on their hearts.
I have never once had an initial exchange of I-love-yous face to face. I've never had the experience of seeing the look on a man's face when he tells me that for the first time, of being able to look him in the eye when I say it as well. It has always come over the phone. Once, it was even in a text.
For months, I have been angry as hell that, to the best of my knowledge, Bounder never told another living soul that he loved me. Absolem certainly didn't. Neither did Katniss.
And so even Quinn became a secret. She learned to trade men's secrets and deepest, darkest truths for their affection. For their love. For sex. As long as it was quiet.
The Mighty Quinn, who has the power to make the crazy better, to return the frazzled to restful normal. Who knows better how to deal with cold and dark than Quinn the Eskimo?
During the final bench trial for my divorce, the judge asked if I wanted to keep my married name or go back to my maiden. I knew from experience that it's much easier with schools and friends and the like, when a mother's last name matches her young children's. I'd also fully established my writing persona as Stephanie Quinn Jackson.
But I have gravitated over the last few months toward images of Qs. Initially I saw them as magnifying glasses, as a tool for closer examination. Then I began to associate them with questions, with my own inner searching. Lately they've felt more like a reclamation of who I was before DH.
Today, I see all of that as valid. I also see her, the 17-year-old girl who wants to make sure I hear what she has to say, who wants to make sure her valiance wasn't in vain. She wants to make sure I know Jack.
So, Quinn, you crazy nut, I hear you. I love you, and I thank you for poking me hard enough to make me finally notice the puzzle piece that's been upside-down and sideways for 25 years. Now take your self-satisfied smirk and go take a nap. You deserve it.