I was thinking about my high-school trip to Italy the other day. I cashed in the savings from three years of babysitting, bussing tables, and working cash at the local fruit market and spend it all on a week of visiting Verona, Pisa, and Padua, with overnight stays in Venice, Florence, and Rome. I wrote a travel diary about the trip which became my Magnum Opus for my Writer’s Craft class that year. It was full of colour-words like salmon and terra-cotta, full of reflections on Roman Catholicism and gelato and randy Italian men. What I left out of that journal, though, is what I remember best: it was the first time I could really relax in a group of my peers.
High school is a time of constant vigilance: one must be continually on the look-out for insidious snubs, subtle clues to the shifting tribal allegiances that govern a pack of teenage girls. No one enjoys high school, of course, but I was among those unfortunate enough to be in Ontario during the years of grade 13. It’s bad enough having to suffer through three or four years in that Darwinian environment, but a fifth year is just insulting. It’s taking things too far.
For all that, I can’t regret that fifth year of high school, because it was the year I beat the system, or at least witnessed its breakdown. The Berlin Wall was coming down, communism was crumbling into oblivion, and at my high school it was as if the world outside began to infiltrate the cafeteria, busting up the tables, redistributing all of us into new groups, new friendships. Reality began to sink in: we all realized, simultaneously, that the rigid social dynamics of high-school popularity were oh-so-close to becoming totally obsolete. In a few short months, no one would care whether you sat at the coveted lunch table beside the window or skulked in a corner by the kitchen.
In September of that year, I managed to infiltrate a group of friends I had admired from afar since grade 9. Some of these girls were charitable, others were mean – but by the end of October I was no longer there on sufferance, the pathetic brainiac who had no one to eat lunch with. I was genuinely liked by somebody other than my mother and my best friend, and it was a giddy experience.
My trip to Italy occurred over the March break. We were a mixed bag, mostly senior students, a few from the highest echelons of popularity. And while our feet were on European soil, nobody saw any point in maintaining the codes of high-school social behaviour. We hung out in herds, tramped around Florence bargaining for leather coats and tapestry bags; we flirted with Venetian gondoliers and snapped pictures of each other on the Spanish steps in Rome.
One afternoon in Florence a group of us girls were lounging around our hotel room, resting our aching feet. The room contained five single beds and opened out onto the dining room where we would sip lattes in the mornings, nibbling sections of sweet blood oranges. Its windows were the old-fashioned kind: you could throw them open and look down into the streets lined with tented stalls peddling paper and pottery and everything in between. As we lay sprawled on our beds, my best friend told a story about a confusing incident that had occurred before we left home. She had been chatting in class about a car repair, and when she said, "I need to get my tires rotated," a boy sitting beside her had snickered meaningfully.
What did it mean? Was "getting your tires rotated" a well-known euphemism for some kind of unspeakably embarrassing sex act? Was this one of the many things that everybody knew accept us? Nobody knew the answer, so when Deanna – popular, in-the-know Deanna – got back from her shopping spree we put the question to her: did she know what it meant to get your tires rotated?
Her face lit up. "I know what that means!" she exclaimed. We leaned forward, anticipating something deliciously salacious. "It’s when they move the rear tires up to the front of the car so that the treads wear down evenly."
I wish that, today, there were anything at all that could make me laugh like I did that day, until my sides hurt, until tears poured down my face and I was gasping for breath. And I wish, to this day, that I knew what it meant. Does anybody know the euphemistic significance of getting one’s tires rotated?