Bad News Brenda

by Anne Helen Petersen

The first in a two-week series on the pull of bad influences in our lives and in the culture.

Brenda looked great in a bikini. She looked great in everyone’s bikini. She looked like an adult in a bikini, which is to say that she looked like one of those models we call beautiful because they have the face of an adult and the body of a 15 year old.

Brenda was equally great on four-wheelers and horses, and when she got her license, just months after turning 15 (Idaho doesn’t care about your national traffic safety), she’d already mastered the stubborn clutch on one of her dad’s vintage Land Cruisers that littered the pasture behind her house. She had a slight Southern accent from her formative years down south, and that sort of natural, incandescent blonde hair that people pay thousands of dollars to recreate. She had four stair-step sisters and a mom who looked young enough to be her sister, and one time they all went to a mall, somewhere down in Utah, and got glamour shots. Full blow-outs, draped-satin, air-brushed glamour shots. Brenda gave me one after I had become inculcated into the family and I put it in a fake gold frame I had bought from Shopko, which is like Wal-Mart’s skanky cousin. Her legal name wasn’t actually Brenda. It was BrendaJo. One word. That should tell you some of what you need to know.

Brenda was also an expert at sneaking out, lying, and doing drugs of unknown provenance. And for a period of twelve months, she was my sun and stars. My mom, unknown to me, called her Bad News Brenda. Moms know things that 15 year olds do not.

But Brenda wasn’t always bad. She grew up Mormon in Texas, and when her father finished his degree, she and her five siblings came to Northern Idaho, where they moved into a massive, rambling Mormon ranch house. The previous owners had even more kids than Brenda’s family, and the basement of the house was a labyrinth of children’s rooms, each with a slender window egress. At the far end of each hallway, there were two full bathrooms, back to back — mirror images of each other. Eight bathrooms in total. It boggled my mind. Under the stairs, a staggering cellar was filled with enough food to last a year. It’s a requirement, I learned, of all practicing Mormons — you need enough stored to survive the End Days. We regularly raided it for Ramen.

There was a poster on the wall of a man walking through three arches: red, blue, green. And then a planet. I didn’t realize until later that the poster represented the Mormon understanding of the path towards heaven. Despite my Presbyterian upbringing, I’d go with Brenda to church on Sundays. When I put on my frumpy church skirt her mom made me wear one of Brenda’s that went to my ankles. Plus pantyhose. For communion they took water instead of grape juice. It was odd, but ignorable.

Then Brenda’s dad left and was excommunicated by the church, but somehow her family situation did not look like disaster. We’d go out with the sisters and buck bales for the horses. We’d drive to nowhere in the Landcruiser, listening to Tupac, and just not say anything whenever the swears came along. Off-brand Slurpees were 79 cents. I loved how big her family was, how we’d all cuddle together and watch PG-13 movies, how the sisters shared a communal closet. I loved when we’d pile in her mom’s suburban and sing to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me” and a ridiculous ’70s compilation with “Hooked on a Feeling.” As always seems to be the case in situations like this, I didn’t fall for Brenda so much as I fell for her family.

The ranch house had a pool and Brenda had a cool, hot mom and after the Friday night football games there were hundreds of kids flirting and pushing each other into the water. Believe me when I tell you there was not a beer, cigarette, a joint on the land. Knowing what I know now, this seems incredible. At the time, it was just my psuedo-Mormon life. I slept over on weeknights because why not. We’d drive early to school, she’d go to Mormon pre-school school, and I’d fork over two quarters for Egg McMuffins in the school cafeteria with the kids who got them for free. It wasn’t a bad life.

But Brenda was too beautiful. She was that ripening-too-early beautiful, like the subject of a Faulkner novel. Sometimes she’d sneak out of that slim bedroom window when I was sleeping in her bed, knowing her mom wouldn’t worry because I was there. I was, in essence, her insurance. Brenda understood this agreement better than I did, although I don’t think she ever maliciously exploited it. She wasn’t that kind of mean girl. She wasn’t a mean girl at all. Which, I hope you can see, is why I wanted so desperately to protect her.

As for her exploits, I never said a word — if I did, I knew our endless playdate would end. A playdate filled with her beautiful sisters, of course, but also with an automatic place at the high-school table. For the first time since becoming a teenager, I knew who I was: I was Brenda’s best friend.

Before becoming Brenda’s best friend, I had been busy effacing my personality as effectively as possible. Adoration for “Star Trek: The Next Generation”? Gone. Mathlete skills? My real loves were Tori Amos, complex algebraic equations, playing Chopin on the piano, and books, always books. In smalltown Idaho, those things were anti-cool. Friend repellents. And I learned early on that I had two options: tuck them away or suffer. I tucked them away and still suffered, but Brenda gave meaning and structure to that suffering. Or, at the very least, identity.

The night Brenda told me she’d lost her virginity — to a red-faced, forceful guy who dipped Copenhagen — she also told me he hadn’t used a condom. We cried in the school bathroom during her volleyball banquet. We cried again, two weeks later, when she told me that she’d gotten her period. With all my emotional energy vested in her, her worry and relief were my own. My own, non-Brenda life dwindled to nothing. She wore all of my clothes.

The guys got sketchier. One had a pager and belonged in The Outsiders. The one time I went with her to sneak out, we went in the hot tub of some super-senior, and I woke up the next morning with welts all along my swimsuit line — evidence of a bacteria commonly referred to as “hot tub disease.” I was mortified. Sin literally visited upon the flesh. Her mom knew nothing and everything.

In the end, there was never any epiphany. There was no overdose, even as some small and sad part of me began to realize that she was doing things I didn’t know about and not telling me. She knew I was her mirror — the one thing that reflected herself back to her.

Another best friend came along, equally charismatic, but without the sheen of manipulation that typifies teenage girls. She didn’t have a pool but she also didn’t need me as wordlessly and desperately as Brenda did.

By the end of the year, Brenda and I were ghosts to one another. She still wore several articles of my clothing. I had silently ceded them to her. Her family moved away and another Mormon family took over the ranch, excising its Land Cruiser skeletons. The words “Bad News Brenda” became shorthand for a certain period in my history.

I saw her, once, on a trip back from college, at some horrible hometown bar. She told me I looked amazing. The truth was that she did too. She had had a kid but it was clear that her body was still that of a 15-year-old girl: her eye make-up was too dark but the smile was the same. I wanted to take her out of there, get our bikinis, and go drink slurpies by the pool.

Every girl needs a toxic friend at some point in her life. Most people end up hating theirs, but I never felt hate towards Brenda. More like sand slipping through my fingers. I just hope she can still drive the stick shift the way I remember.

Anne Helen Petersen writes Scandals of Classic Hollywood when she’s not thinking about Idaho. Photo by janfredrikf.