The current season show Ano Natsu de Matteru (I’ll be Waiting That Summer), with its emotionally believable depiction of teenage awkwardness and first love, reminded me of one adolescent summer of writing, filmmaking, and hopeless crushes. This is the first time I’ve told most of these stories to anyone except my closest friends. Why? I blame the wonderful OP and ED of the show, especially the latter and its wistful lyrics. (The part titles are taken from them.)
Dialogue in this memoir is approximate and based on a memory that grows increasingly hazy. I’m setting this down before I forget further.
Spring, 1995: My feelings are burning into film
I made a silent 8mm film once. It was the last project of my final year in middle school. We were to storyboard, direct, develop, edit (using literal film splicers and tape—will we get to see Kai and company do that?), and transfer onto VHS so that our films could be shown on the last day of school.
Unlike Ano Natsu de Matteru, there were no girls on my production team: it was just me on camera, my cousin, and a new friend I’d met only a year prior. That friend played the protagonist. I vaguely remember drawing stick figures in the storyboards, because I couldn’t draw anything else, and I remember agonizing over the plot. It had something to do with a magic marble that granted the wishes of its possessor, but he soon lives to regret it when he sees its consequences, and throws it away.
We filmed in downtown Washington DC, outside the Air and Space Museum and on the National Mall. The sculpture outside Air and Space was the establishing shot. We also filmed on the small patch of lawn in front of my family’s townhouse. Our neighbor came out once while we were filming. “Spielberg had better watch out!” he said, chuckling at our efforts. We laughed too.
We filmed a hilarious fight scene between my friend and my cousin. My cousin came out with arms and fists swinging wildly, and we had to do a few takes before we got the requisite seriousness—where my friend, with the marble’s power, injures him more than he intended and realizes he has to give it up.
In the end, there wasn’t time to show my film on the last day. I’m glad. It was an overly complex, overexposed, and clumsy mess. However, a VHS tape of it still exists in my parents’ basement somewhere, a recording of the film projected onto a screen. It is grainy and washed out, but there is sound: my voice and my teacher’s voice, our last conversation together. She wanted me to preserve the film on tape even though it wouldn’t be shown, before I left for good.
How strange, that my last memories of middle school would be captured on a tape showing an 8mm film, just before the summer began.
Summer, 1995: the lingering summer scent still reminds me of you
Less than two months after the film was completed, my mother and I went to an independent Christian retreat for five days. Though it wasn’t an official event, many people from my church were there, including a big chunk of the youth group. I had never felt comfortable in the youth group, being nerdy, awkward, and sensitive, the sorts of traits that get you teased and bullied at that age. (This is true even if one of the sorts of nerdiness you have is being a Bible nerd, which I was, big time.) In reponse, I was already beginning to develop the affectations of the alienated writer: I had my spiral-bound notebook in hand and plans to go off and write in the corner or under a tree, by myself.
Which is why I was caught off-guard when the cute girl who I barely knew—the girl with the straight, short hair with dark brown highlights and the rosy face—called me over. She was sitting on a bench with some of her other friends, waving her arm. I thought that she must have been talking to someone else, but she was definitely calling my name.
I steeled myself. Past experience told me that this was usually a prelude to a put-down or pre-emptive rejection: this is long before nerd chic ever became a thing. But I went over to her anyway, fueled by equal parts curiosity and the dim, slim hope that maybe this was going to be—
“Michael,” she said—starting a whole trend of girls calling me by my full name—”I just wanted to tell you you’re so adorable and sweet and—” I don’t remember anything else she said, because by that time I was confused. I barely knew her; she barely knew me. As far as I could remember,we never talked at length. Her friends giggled.
“Um,” I said. “Thanks.”
And that was all. I left, my writing notebook in hand, her compliments—perhaps prompted by a dare (“go flirt with the nerdiest boy you know!”) or perhaps genuine and sincere—ringing in my ears. To be honest, I didn’t believe them. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. No one had ever called me that before.
Later, I discovered how much that girl who had complimented me had been ostracized by the group for some reason. I didn’t know why, and I never found out. All I remember is that when she had to get up from her seat in the middle of the row, all the guys and girls in her way stood up and glared at her as she went down the row to the aisle. Maybe we weren’t so different after all, though she seemed so cute and bubbly at the time: how could someone like that be unpopular? Wasn’t enough to be pretty and to at least pretend to be nice? The world opened up a little more for me that moment, that there might be something underneath the masks people wear.
The kinds of things people called me was mostly smart followed by polite and maybe nice. And those were the people who liked me.
Indeed, that was the sort of thing my Sunday School teacher at the time, a pretty college student, told me. I remember after class once, she asked me to stay behind for a few minutes: the sort of request that for most kids meant that they were in trouble. But instead of berating me, she complimented me on how knowledgeable I was about the Bible (I had a leg up: I’d gone to a Christian elementary school in my early years), and that she was so happy to have me in the class. The ‘teacher’s pet’ charge was one that had tended to follow me for most of life up to that point, and I’d just become another one.
But I didn’t care. I liked it. I liked being complimented by beautiful women. Who doesn’t, at that age? Or any age?
She was at this retreat, too, and seemed to go out of her way to not only say hi but to sit down and talk with me for a few minutes. I didn’t have too much to say that I could remember, except about my ambitious writing plans: I had wanted to plan out my first novel that summer. I’d made a few stabs at it in middle school, but they never went very far—but that summer, I swore, I was going to do it for real. My teacher was impressed. “You have to tell me about it later,” she said. “I’d like to read it.”
For an aspiring nerd fantasy boy writer at 14, these are the words muses are made of. I never said that out loud, of course, or to her—I was much too shy for that. But in between the sermons, and the forced games and the singing, there was hours of free time in the sunlit afternoons. I found quiet corners where, smearing the side of my right palm with ink, I wrote a chapter-by-chapter outline of a novel I called Sanctuary. It was a fantasy novel about a gifted young magic student, who feels like a failure and ends up going on a long journey to try to find his skills and himself. It contained some depressing parts where he realizes he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and his mistakes have irreversible consequences. It had a bittersweet ending.
Two days before the retreat ended, I finished the outline. In a grandiose gesture, I wrote at the end: “If I get this far, I am a genius!” It was written as a joke, because I didn’t really believe deep down that I was going to finish it. None of my attempts in the past had succeeded.
I gave my Sunday School teacher the outline. As she promised she read it, while I sat in a comfy chair, nervously waiting for her reaction. “Oh, but this is so sad!” she exclaimed at one point. “Why is this so sad?”
“Life isn’t always so happy.”
But when she finished, she smiled and handed the paper back to me. “Well, I want to read the manuscript one day,” she said. “You’re really talented, you know.” And she mussed my hair and then left for dinner. I sat there for a little while longer.
Epilogue: when I realized it, our threads of fate were already tangled.
I did actually finish that novel, Sanctuary, in my junior year of high school. I remember trying to show it to that Sunday School teacher not long after I bound the manuscript at home. But she was married by then and had a lot less time, and it was several years later. She never read it.
I’m currently reformualting and rewriting the ideas in that first novel into a new work, A Pattern of Light. It features most of the same characters and setting, but a fundamentally different plot and with some winking anime/manga style references. It is now 2/3 complete and I hope to get some light-novel style illustrations for it too.
The girl who called me adorable at that retreat ended up going to my high school too, so I kept running into her a lot. We were in Christian club together. She was always kind and friendly to me, though we weren’t really close. Once, I told her about my writing, and she asked, “but what does that have to do with Jesus?” Later, during a youth group outing, I thought about asking her out to the prom. I didn’t. I was too scared. I believe she is married now, too.
The friend who was the star of my 8mm film is now himself a director, digital animator, and actor in New York. We still keep in touch often and I count him as one of my oldest friends. Check out his work on his Youtube channel.