The Pain of Returning by Lisabeth Posthuma
A few weeks ago, the last video store in my zip code closed for good. On one of its final days in operation, I visited for a last look around. There wasn’t much left—some candy, a few posters, DVDs of titles all easily accessible on streaming services. The merchandise that remained was shoved into one half of the store while some demolition work had begun on the emptied side.
They couldn’t even wait until the body was cold.
I wandered around for a while, hoping to discover a piece of video store memorabilia I might purchase for a souvenir, but I came up empty. So instead, it felt appropriate to take some pictures and post them in an Instagram story set to the song “This Used to Be My Playground” by Madonna as a commemoration to the end of the video renting era.
I understand this might sound weird. I know that few will mourn the passing of the last video stores. As a veteran clerk of the defunct movie-renting industry, though, I was personally very grateful for the chance to say a last good-bye.
Like a lot of grown-ups say about the carefree afterschool jobs of their youth, working at a video rental store was the best gig ever. Though like a significantly smaller percentage of those grown-ups will do, I wrote a YA book to prove it.
Alright, Baby & Solo (Candlewick, 5/11/21) isn’t entirely about the joys of video rental clerking in the heyday of Blockbuster nights (but I promise that’s part of it!). Still, the larger story—the journey of seventeen-year-old Joel Teague on his quest to be Normal—is also one motivated by nostalgia. Specifically, nostalgia by its original definition.
The modern meaning of “nostalgia” connotes a wistful fondness for the past. Etymologically, however, the Greek roots of the word suggest the definition is more akin to “the pain of returning.” I love this translation. Not only does it sound très poetic, it very accurately describes what it was like to immerse myself in the decade in which Baby & Solo is set—the less enlightened 1990s.
Such significant strides have been made in the last generation—specifically in regards to themes in this story: homophobia, misogyny, and mental illness—that revisiting the way young Gen-Xers (and the Baby Boomers who raised them) fumbled sensitive issues can feel at best cringey and at worst devastating. While the characters in Baby & Solo are all fictional, the prejudices they experience and inflict on one another are not, and neither are the consequences of those actions. For me, the deepest “pain of returning” to the 1990s came from acknowledging the way young people of the day treated one another and then attempting to authentically translate that into fictional relationships. I don’t know how it is for other writers, but I found it tempting to immunize my characters to all the negative influences they would have been approximate to coming of age in the 90s. Likely I felt this way because I wish that I, too, was immune to those very influences. That would be rewriting history, though, because what was problematic about the 1990s is personally familiar to me, for I too was a product, a victim, and a perpetuator of the culture of these times.
That’s not to say that writing Baby & Solo was completely void of wistful fondness. I honestly had a blast saturating the pages of this book with the pop culture of the decade. And, of course, it was nice to spend time at a video store again. Though what I loved most about revisiting the age of seventeen was reminiscing about the friendships that punctuate that time of life. There’s something uniquely special about the friends who cross the line of demarcation with you, the one that separates childhood from everything after it. Those bonds are intense and can run as deep as a siblinghood. It’s that kind of relationship I wanted to emphasize in Baby & Solo, what I imagined for Joel and Nicole (she prefers you call her Baby) when happenstance brought them together at ROYO Video.
In the weeks since my neighborhood video store closed, a for sale sign has gone up in its front window. I have no idea what will move in next, but if it were up to me, I’d want it to be this generation’s equivalent to the place I worked at in high school. Like the malt shoppes, record stores, and video rental joints of the past, my wish is for there to be a cool place for Gen Z kids to work after school. One that pulsates with the culture of their day, where kids of all walks of life hang out together. I think every kid deserves somewhere like that. We all deserve a place we can be nostalgic about when we’re older.
Lisabeth Posthuma is a former high school English teacher whose life was changed for the better because she attended nErDcampMI. She is a devotee of obscure documentaries about drive-ins, a lover of rotary telephones, and a trophy-winning champion of TV trivia. She lives in Michigan with her two parakeets, Tiki Bon Jovi and Alaska Riggins. You can find her at @lisabethposthuma_writes on Instagram and at www.lisabethposthuma.com.