My parents decorated our attic with hanging strands of glow-in-the-dark beads. I used them to separate my bed from the rest of the room, shoving the box frame and mattress against the window with my head at the pane. Two sloping walls encased my bed, and beyond the bead curtain was a makeshift closet, a rolling pole for my clothes. My size 14 jeans and extra-large shirts hung there exposed, constantly reminding me how much weight I wanted to lose. I shared the space with boxes of Christmas decorations that resided in the corners of the room and on both sides of the staircase that folded away when I wasn’t up there. Most of our decorations hadn’t made it all the way to New Jersey. They’d been left behind at our other house after the bankruptcy.
It didn’t occur to me then how poor we actually were. It was just who we were. At age 12, I was mostly concerned about what other kids thought of me. And how fat I thought I was.
The girls at my school wore a lot of Abercrombie and Fitch and a lot of this place called Hollister I’d never heard of, along with other names like Michael Kors, Armani, and Gucci. Their nails were polished, their hair was straight, and their purses were made of leather and not plastic like mine. I wanted these things even though I didn’t particularly like them. My clear plastic backpack, the one I got at the Stroud Mall that Saturday with my mom after seeing a movie, was just fine. And I loved my Supergirl shirt. Slowly, though, I became embarrassed of each thing I owned, humiliated to even show up at school looking like I did, with jeans from JCPenney, a worn-out shirt from three years ago, and baby fat I held onto because our family didn’t have much, but we did have food.
Wanting things that I didn’t like went beyond objects that year, too. One treat my parents did provide was teen magazines. They’d pick one up for me nearly every time we went grocery shopping, especially Dad, who didn’t seem to realize that the ones with pullout posters cost a lot more. They were glossy, bright, and offered me everything I needed to have. They were filled with boys, fruit-flavored lip balm, fuzzy pink furniture, and unattainable bodies. More importantly, they also had Justin Timberlake.
I knew the girls in my school found him super hot. And I knew the whole world was in love with him. But I was not.
One magazine included an 11-by-17-inch poster of a brightly smiling, frosty-haired Justin Timberlake. It was only a blown-up shot of his face and neck, nothing else. His very blonde hair was curly and his blue eyes looked directly at me. They said to me, “This is what every teen girl wants.”
I knew he was objectively attractive. I knew the girls in my school found him super hot. And I knew the whole world was in love with him. But I was not. I still liked Kevin from the Backstreet Boys, the tall, dark, handsome guy that didn’t talk much but sang low and asked me if I would break his heart. Justin was talented, funny, and cute but just not my kind of guy. Since when did that matter at age 12?
The slick, glossy paper made it hard to use tape, so I thumbtacked it to one of the sloping walls, right next to my bed. Justin was the last thing I saw when I went to sleep and the first thing I saw when I woke up, as if I were training myself to love him, with his smile so wide and sincere. Training myself to like what they all liked. His eyes crinkled at the sides: so cute. Training myself to be someone I was not.
As part of my training every night, I would kiss Justin’s flat, glossy face. And I didn’t just press my lips to his but French kissed a piece of magazine paper, trying to emulate what I’d seen on Dawson’s Creek or Buffy. Of course I ended up with a wet mouth and a soggy poster, but that didn’t matter to me. I had to like this pop star. It was a part of the training process. Soon I would see what all the other girls saw; I would discover what it was like to look at his picture and feel butterflies in my stomach. I would go to school and drool over pictures of him from other girls’ magazines and become part of the conversation. Justin Timberlake was my ticket in.
I refused to hang pictures of any other boys in my room. I can’t even remember what else covered my slanted walls. A calendar maybe? Some photos of friends from Pennsylvania? It was a pre-Pinterest world, so the only decorating example I had was from the quarterly Alloy catalog and those same teen magazines. Unfortunately, my blow-up chair was left in my last room.
My parents didn’t know about Justin. They never disturbed my room. I’m pretty sure they didn’t want to climb the stairs to get up there. That was fine with me. I didn’t want them to see my new project. They didn’t need to know about my kissing, my flirtation, my difficult love affair with things that didn’t interest me.
At school, I kept my head down, listening to all the conversations around me: lip gloss, a boy’s new haircut, a teacher’s fly left open, math homework. Every once in awhile, Justin Timberlake would pop up somewhere after group exercise and the bell ringing. When this happened, my ears perked up and I became a cat, zoning in on their every word. They spoke as if they knew him, why he wrote certain songs, and how he and Britney Spears had worked together as kids. But I’m the one who really knew him. I’m the one who knew how his kisses tasted: paper and hope, ink and tenacity.
By the time No Strings Attached came out and every girl at school had a copy, I too had one of my own that traveled around in my backpack, ready to show off should the right moment arise. My parents took me to the Rockaway Mall the day of its release where I bought proof of my hard-earned work.
I woke up one day not long after making this purchase and opened my eyes. I saw the poster on my wall, its edges curling toward the center, and felt the smallest of flutters. My eyes, Justin’s face, my plan. Finally, it had worked. I’d learned to love Justin while denying my own voice at the same time.