In the darkness two or three of them are hunkered over the glow of their phones, like flames cupped in their palms. It appears they are wearing hoods. They are visible in outline form only, waiting while the leader confers with someone who has happened upon them and is trying the assess the situation. What are they doing out here on the landing, separated from the rest of their people? They could be Bedouin tribespeople holding candles, not American domestic teenagers at a sleepover, on the way to the kitchen for salty snacks.
The younger daughter is having a sleepover party. After dinner, before cake, the girls, had arranged themselves in pairs and threes and peered into each others’ hands. There is the tinny buzz of music. No one uses headphones. That would be antisocial. Even the younger daughter, alone in her room, eschews headphones/speakers. There is no desire for a stereo or better speakers, larger sound. What would you put in a stereo anyway? What’s a stereo? Do we even need a house phone or cable? It’s all on your device. It’s like we are walking around holding our brains in jars of phosphorescent fluid.
There is a hum of industry as they view and tap. I want to say “freeze” and have each of them declare her task: I am listening to this music video. I am texting a boy. I am showing her videos of herself from the bus trip two weeks ago (because when you are middle school one falls so easily to reminiscences; remember how we were last month?) but worse than writing about it now would have been to have asked them about it then. Mostly, I am told, they are on Instagram.
And while the girls are networking, I am texting with one of the mothers. I, too, am caught in this web of communicative white noise. Right after college, friends of ours had an apartment by a loud highway and there was talk of a sublet or a vacancy in the building. A white noise machine in the bedroom made it possible to sleep or do your art. To be in the apartment with the constant stream of sound and have it not drive you mad required generating your own noise-canceling noise.
We are in the Piggly-Wiggly and my husband says that tabloids like the National Enquirer are suffering. Guess why?
The internet? Because as soon as it happens it’s on Twitter?
It’s the internet, but not for the reasons you’d think it is. When people are at checkout, they are on their phones.
The covers of the tabloids fill me with despair. It’s a death I can handle. Better we should be scrolling the headlines of our friends’ lives than to be learning which celebrity is too fat or too thin or dumped. I can only hope that the IGing teens are affirming each other as funny or liked more than they are tearing each other apart. The scrutiny of teenage girls, scrutinizing and documenting, and passing it on. We wrote on each others’ notebooks, signing our names in a distinctive hand. I was here. We are friends. You are with me. We are together. We like this band, this code word for that thing that happened, but now everyone can know everything in real-time, realer time. As you are saying it, she hits share. That was so funny.
At a sleepover party in 8th or 9th grade, I remember going out with one of the other girls for french fries in the middle of the night. The party was in a residential, single-home neighborhood in Brooklyn. It was fall, mild weather. Earlier in the evening there had been boys and music and pizza. Had everyone else gone to sleep? Was one of us feeling the need “to talk.” That was the thing about being in a large group, within that group there was always the pairing off, the smaller conversations within the larger, the awareness of those conversations taking place. Suddenly the others would fall silent and listen in. Then it was a big conversation again.
We just need to talk. You’d go off into the corner, another room. That might be a pivotal moment in your friendship. A new insight into the contradiction of character, the way girls got a glimpse behind the social front they maintained even to each other. She seems like she doesn’t care what people think, but she really does. You saw how people were constantly being misunderstood or misrepresented. And sometimes, as maybe had happened at the party, you wanted to have a different experience from the group and so, sitting outside with an order of fries wrapped in tin foil, we had achieved independence.
Back at the party, anything could be happening. Did they know we had gone out? Would they all be asleep? Was it about them or us? We must have told someone or left a note. If this happened now you would stay in touch, it would be the two of us together but still with the others, unless we made a point of silencing our devices, cancelling out the white noise.
They can’t turn it off now. It is always with them. It is like the inside of their heads are in constant broadcast mode. In some ways being a teen is just being a teen. There are constants, but the way they are together and apart and with people they’re not with, is very different. It is like one’s own teenage sense of simultaneous omnipotence and inconsequentiality come true. It’s real feedback on who you are but as you are trying to become whoever it is you will be.
They are in the pantry eating sour cream and onion poppadoms. They could be telling the people upstairs about it as they finish the bag and tiptoe back up the stairs. You guys? You guys?