“I think about that a lot. How if you are a bird, your nest is home. Absolutely everything else is the world. You stick out a wing, and there you are in the world.”
What I remember most about being in high school is the vivid yearning for the next part of my life to begin. Like a cartoon reel set to fast-forward, I would imagine the future flashing before my mind’s eye in rapid, erratic technicolor. While I could never discern the specific shapes and movements of this future, I clung to the belief that it was going be great- just because it would be different from what I currently had going on. For me, Mairead Case’s See You in the Morning awoke the same ache I felt as a teenager- one wing out of the nest, testing the unsteady air, and hoping that the best was yet to come.
See You in the Morning begins with the novel’s young narrator on her way to a “coming-up ceremony” for rising seniors in high school. This ceremony, as she tells us, has all the pomp of a graduation, but minus the actual “graduating” part that lends the ritual its significance:
If it was a fairy tale we’d be the babies in the woods without any clothes. They call the ceremony the Chrysalis. The seniors give us colored glass rings and say good luck, suckers. Parents go too, and all the cheerleaders wear their uniforms, which look like fast food restaurants or those felt pads so heavy furniture doesn’t scratch the floor.
Cocooned from head to toe in a jailbird orange robe (her school’s color), the narrator daydreams her way through the Chrysalis and tunes in and out of the keynote address delivered by Cindy, the school valedictorian who “already wears the uniform for her job five years from now.” Meanwhile, her friend John manages to stay alert by “sneezing himself awake” while her friend Rosie spends the entire ceremony eating candy alone in the girl’s bathroom. The droll satire of this opening scene carries through the rest of the novel; the Chrysalis is a launching point for a spectrum of rite-of-passage-moments that toe the line between humorous and heartbreaking.
After the Chrysalis, the narrator finds herself wading about in the murky summer that preludes the slow squash of senior year. This is a time colored by the ambiguities of a life on the verge of transition. Where will she go after high school? What will she do? Of the people she loves, the activities that occupy her, the ideas and passions that fill the gaps in her days- how many of them will carry over to this next phase and how many of them will fall by the wayside? The narrator navigates these questions by vacillating between intense anxiety and idle distractions. The summer’s trajectory mirrors these emotional highs and lows. Stretches of time that the narrator spends working her humdrum job at the bookstore, frequenting the local diner with her best friend/love interest John, or learning how to drive with her reclusive neighbor Mr. Green are broken up by dynamic moments of experimentation and exploration- raucous punk house shows, purple hair dye, and a snap decision that could have serious consequences. Regardless of the situation, the narrator always manages to provide an intriguing, if sometimes discombobulating, account of each experience. Surreal descriptions of the commonplace give us the chance to view a small suburb’s comings and goings as extraordinary instances, an alternate reality revealing itself:
Our neighbors’ yard has two crosses and an American flag, and fake pastel children hiding their faces in shame, and in the trees, little yellow ribbons. In the springtime, the husband does this Graveyard of the Unborn. He sticks plywood crosses in the grass, popping them up like Whac-a-Mole all the way to the mailbox. I don’t know why so I asked, and he said it was for all the dead babies. Each cross, he said, trees budding fists behind him, represents three babies, and our yard is one day in this country. He scared me because okay, nobody believes everything the same all the time, but a yard full of crosses is like a burning house. You can’t argue with it. There isn’t time for questions either.
The narrator’s hyper-consciousness to her surroundings and her tendency to slip into bizarre reverie present a way of perceiving and interacting with the world that is incredibly unique while also typical of a teenager. The immediacy of emotion and imagination in her narration both distorts and upholds the truth of what she divulges to us; she is unreliable and impulsive on one hand, unflinchingly honest on the other. Like moths to light, we are drawn into the bright, frenetic energy of this young person’s inner life.
Perhaps the central crisis in this novel is the narrator’s simultaneous affection for and alienation from the people around her. She certainly shows regard for them, but also fiercely does not want to follow the same path:
Mr. Green has this calendar with buffalo on it. They look soft and stubborn. Rocks wrapped in brown carpet. If you stay, he told me, you will look like buffalo. If I stay, my brain will be full of people I don’t want to be like. Sometimes it already feels like a clown car in there. It’s getting so full of customers, shows, and rules I’m worried it will tip over and I’ll fade. When I see people here sitting on their porches in white tank tops holding a beer, looking out without speaking, I think of cars on their sides.
The narrator’s urgent need to distance and distinguish herself from her hometown crowd is hardly a singular experience. Most of us can reflect back on our adolescence and recall the aversion toward our dull suburb, the pity for its cast of characters, the desire to escape this mundane fate ourselves. This adolescent itch to differentiate is so well-known and universal, it’s almost a cliché. Case does not shy away from adolescent clichés in this novel; rather, she allows her narrator to delve into them with an unabashed intensity and raw relatability that suspends our judgment or critique. We’re instead left feeling a deep empathy with this young person and nostalgia for a version of ourselves that has passed.
Despite the narrator’s occasional aloofness, her ties to the familiar figures in her life are profound. See You in the Morning is full of poignant reflection and revelation, alongside the angst. Throughout the novel, Case highlights the small miracles of everyday kindness and unexpected beauty that can often be overlooked:
I like sitting in the back pews with sun across my face. It’s magic when it comes through the stained glass because those colors are so saturated. They don’t reflect anything. It’s a love that’s just there. It’s like sitting with John at the diner. He never ever says I love you, but sometimes he puts cream in my coffee and takes the first sip to make sure it tastes okay.
In the end, See You in the Morning offers not only a sublime coming-of-age story, but an opportunity to acknowledge the many forms that love can take: in small gestures of good-will, in unspoken and unbreakable pacts, in simply sharing space and time with one another.
Mairead Case’s See You in the Morning is published by Featherproof Books. Buy it here for $14.