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MY L1FE 1S BASED ON A TRUE STORY
On the morning of my kidnapping, my mom’s makeup was perfect. After years of training in television and film, she had mastered how to apply exactly the right amount so that she would appear flawless to the camera, while not looking garish in person. Smoky gray eye shadow framed her lids, and the lightest application of mascara—waterproof for the somber occasion—darkened her lashes. She’d lined her lips in what I knew was her go-to lip liner and filled it in with the palest nude lipstick. To the untrained eye, she looked as if she could have woken up like this, at once tragic and gorgeous.
What surprised me more was her outfit, which had taken some serious thought. Our house is painted French blue, with a darkly stained brown door, surrounded by hot pink bougainvillea that creeps down the walls like ivy. She stood perfectly framed in the doorway in a turquoise T-shirt with the thinnest stripe of the same exact hot pink. Her white linen pants looked crisp against the backdrop and picked up the trim around the door. Perfect. I’m sure I’m the only one who noticed this, as everyone else probably focused on the brigade of television cameras that surrounded her. And the fact that she was sobbing.
One guy from CBS yelled out above the others, "Mrs. Higgins, when did you notice she was gone?" She looked down and whispered, "Gone," and started sobbing again. The hungry reporters realized that, besides the dramatic clip for the evening news promo, they were getting nowhere with her. They turned to my dad, who looked a little disheveled in his normal college professor way, no different at eight a.m. than at eight p.m. Always direct, he spoke right into the camera. "We found the ransom note by the front door at 6:47 this morning. We immediately checked our daughter’s room and found her missing. We called the police at 6:55."
A chipper young woman from Fox asked, "Does your daughter have a habit of disappearing? Has she ever been in trouble before? Are any of her friends involved?"
My dad squared his shoulders at the camera. "We have a missing seventeen-year-old girl and a ransom note. The police and her mother and I are treating this like what it is—a kidnapping. My daughter has never been in any danger before this."
NBC local news asked, "Didn’t the ransom note say not to call the police? Aren’t you worried the kidnappers will see this on TV and harm your daughter?" Dad looked like a deer in headlights. Apparently he hadn’t thought this all the way through. The past twenty-four hours had been a blur of constantly changing lies, all strung loosely together. "We have nothing more to say." He and Mom walked back into the house.
I watched this whole scene from a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles on a six-inch TV with an actual antenna. Big-budget kidnapping. Not. I sat on one of two mismatched upholstered armchairs in a windowless room where I couldn’t even tell night from day. The only reason I knew it was five o’clock just then, besides the replay of my kidnapping story on the five o’clock news, was that my captor came in with dinner.
He caught the tail end of the segment and watched with me as my mom opened the front door for a second time to offer a despondent wave to the cameras. He plopped down in the other chair and smiled. "What do you want to do now?"
HONK 1F YOU LOVE BUMPER ST1CKERS!!!
Okay, so maybe I’m not really kidnapped. And, okay, maybe this is a little bit fun. And, yeah, maybe my captor, FBI rookie John Bennett, is a little cute in a way-too-old and probably-too-serious kind of way.
I’m not the sort of person who would willingly put herself in the center of the five o’clock news. In fact, I’m not sure that I willingly participated in any of this. The whole thing started with a little math game, and since then I have been along for the ride, running from forces I don’t even totally understand. I’m Farrah Higgins. As much as I wish I were kidding, that really is my name. My mom is an actress and devoted the entirety of the 1970s to worshiping and emulating the Charlie’s Angels in every way possible. I could have been named for Kate Jackson or even Jaclyn Smith. But, no, Farrah Fawcett was the most famous angel, and when I was born my father made the mistake of saying, "She’s a little angel." And Farrah it was. Trust me, I remember to thank them all the time.
We live in L.A., and I know what people say about us: "L.A. is an intellectual black hole, a cultural void. Their creativity is measured by the number of sequels they’ve produced . . ." And, yes, it bothers me that they think so. My dad’s an intellectual, and my mom is, well, less so. But the environment here is teeming with inspiration and genius. Los Angelenos have been known to create things that the rest of the world finds ridiculous, and others that the world can’t live without. Either way, people are creating something out of nothing, pulling ideas out of the sky. I love it here.
And, no, I don’t even mind the traffic. First of all, the only place I ever drive to is school, so I’m never in such a big hurry to get anywhere. And second, I do some of my best reading in gridlock. I have a secret fascination slash obsession with bumper stickers. I’ve been known to get off the freeway on the wrong exit just for a chance to finish reading the back of someone’s car. I’m baffled by the fact that people are just so out there with their thoughts and their identity that they can post their political and religious views on the back of their car for any tailgater to see. And then there’s something about the concise nature of the bumper sticker itself, somehow telling you so much about its owner in ten words or less.
I started collecting bumper stickers when I was ten and had my entire bedroom door covered with them by eleven. I’m picky about the ones I put up and use tape for a few weeks before I actually commit to the peel and stick. My four bedroom walls are now completely covered, each sticker carefully X-Actoed around the window frames and electrical outlets. At the time of my kidnapping, I had covered about one-third of my ceiling, but I’ll never really be finished. I am constantly covering old stickers with new ones, placing more positive messages over ones that spoke to my preteen angst. It was a good day when ASK ME IF I CARE! gave way to WAG MORE, BARK LESS. For years I’ve gone to bed gazing up at the eternal question: WHAT IF THE HOKEY POKEY IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT?
I know, I’m a little off topic. But don’t dis L.A.—we’re on the cutting edge of self-expression. Personally, I drive my dad’s old Volvo wagon, and I have nothing on the back. As hard as I try, I haven’t come out of the bedroom with my hobby. I’m still looking for the peel-and-stick representation of my Inner Self. Hey, I’m only seventeen.
It’s my senior year at Santa Monica High School. I have a sixteen-year-old brother named Danny and married parents. My mom’s a not-quite-famous actress—she always has a job, but she doesn’t exactly get mobbed or even recognized at Whole Foods. My dad is head of the math department at UCLA. Yes, that is where all the pocket protectors go to meet other pocket protectors. He’s pretty cool, though, and gives me a lot of space to be un-nerdy and to act like a regular teenage girl. He says my gift can wait, but that I only get one chance to be a kid.
Oh, right, so my gift. If you can call it that. There’s a fine line between a gift and a disability—"special" can mean very different things, depending on whom you’re talking about. You could say I’m good at math, but that’s not really it. It’s like my mind never stops calculating things. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been able to find patterns in things that other people can’t see. I can take thousands of pieces of data and arrange them in a logical pattern, or I can take seemingly random data and identify the pattern within it. Like when I was eleven months old I could put together a 300-piece puzzle, 1,000 pieces by the time I was two. By the time I was nine, I was able to see order in a group of 2,000 numbers. My dad would give me temperature statistics, and I would be able to compare them to humidity predictions and tell him whether it was going to rain. This has very little value really, because you can put numbers like this into a computer and it’ll spit out the correlation. The only point is that my mind does this automatically. It was pretty cool until it made me a freak.
In sixth grade I started middle school in a building where the classrooms had the kind of 1960s ceilings that had those big acoustic square tiles with tons of tiny holes in them. If they’d been uniform, I would have been fine. But the rows were uneven, and I was desperate to find order. The first row had 16 holes, then 15, then 16, then 15, then—oh!—17. Anyway, it was obvious that I was wacked, and it was broadcast to everyone in my class when my teacher suggested that I wear a visor to keep me from looking up during class. I tried it and my grades skyrocketed, my social status . . . not so much.
My gift quickly earned me the nickname Digit, which caught on and stuck. In fact, I don’t think anyone even remembered that my name was Farrah by the time I finished eighth grade. By the middle of sixth grade, my elementary school friends were suddenly busy on the weekends, already sitting at a full table at lunch, and generally distant. Where Farrah had been popular in fifth grade for breezing through math assignments with extra time to help out her friends, Digit was a show-off with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I managed to make a few friends in my accelerated classes, but not the sort of friends who got invited to parties or even had the confidence to show up at school dances.
The summer before I started high school, we moved to Santa Monica from the Valley to be closer to my dad’s work. I was going to start high school with a totally clean slate. The school district was excited to get me for the effect it would have on the state testing scores and, hence, the holy grail: real estate prices. If I could keep the schools looking smart, people would keep paying crazy prices for houses in Santa Monica. Yeah, no pressure. So a few weeks before the start of my freshman year, the administration was clamoring to meet me. My parents headed the whole thing off at the pass by meeting with the principal and various division heads to ask them to be low-key about my abilities. She will outperform on your state tests, they said, but tell no one and try to treat her like a regular kid in class. All of the faculty agreed to the lie: I was never to have a test handed back to me in public, and my performance on school and state exams would never be highlighted or celebrated. No one would ever have to know.
I also started seeing a hypnotherapist who helped me learn to manage my mind. Through (literally) mind-numbing mental exercises, he taught me how to turn my processing center off when I didn’t want to use it. The trick was to look away before my mind kicked in and to quickly replace what I’d seen with something easy to process, like a perfect circle or a tree. For some reason, asymmetries and irregularities in nature don’t bother me at all. A tree with a missing branch or a tulip with a few missing petals still seems to be in perfect balance. Usually, if a tree is lopsided to the right, the tree on its left will make up the symmetry. It’s easy to see the order if you just keep backing up. By the end of the summer, I got pretty good at controlling myself, but I have to admit it was a lot of work. I managed to learn to deal with uneven acoustic tiles, but I could occasionally become completely unhinged if someone sat down in front of me in a randomly patterned paisley shirt.
In the spirit of new beginnings, my mom gave me the extreme makeover she’d always wanted to. She insisted I spend the summer growing out my hair and then took me to her salon before Labor Day for a few highlights. Cheryl, who had been putting these exact same highlights in my mom’s hair for years, seemed thrilled to see me. "Honey, I never thought a girl like you would set foot in this place. You sit down right here and let Cheryl change your life." I’ll admit that the new ’do beat the mousy bob I’d worn since I was six, but I knew better than to hope it was going to change my life.
The wardrobe portion of the makeover didn’t go quite as well. Mom spent three days scouring the mall for better jeans, cooler tops, and higher heels. What she didn’t understand is that not only is my taste pretty simple, but that I actually can’t wear a stripe or a check or, God forbid, a plaid. The fabrics are never precisely even—made in China, not by NASA—and it’s too much to ignore for an entire day. The shoes killed my feet, so I always went back to the cowboy boots our housekeeper had left me before eloping to Costa Rica. Her name was Milagros, "miracles" in Spanish, and she had always seemed a bit magical to me. I loved to watch her stomp around our house, vacuuming and dusting in her huge denim dress and cowboy boots. And on her last day of work, she gave the boots to me with a secret smile. I tried them on once a week for three years until they finally fit. I’ve been wearing them ever since. But I have to say I adapted to the new jeans, because, let’s face it, better jeans really are better.
I settled into a comfortable rotation of four pairs of jeans and the exact same T-shirt in six colors, and my mom eventually gave up. "If you want to look like you’re in a uniform every day, it’s fine with me. I just want you to learn to express yourself." Maybe we’re not all meant to express ourselves, I wanted to say to her. Maybe some of us are better off blending in.
Mom always makes me think of the poster in my middle school guidance counselor’s office with the cat dressed in a joker’s hat. The caption read: BE YOURSELF. (It was right next to the one with a cat desperately clinging to a tree branch: HANG IN THERE!). Great message, almost bumper sticker worthy, but the truth is that it’s a lot easier to be yourself in high school if you are five feet seven, 120 pounds, naturally athletic, quick with the funny comments, and good (but not too good) at everything, and if you know where to direct your eyes during a conversation. My mom is that person, and I imagine she was in high school too. She’s always herself, but why wouldn’t she be?
My goal for ninth grade was to ditch Digit and find a new identity. I wasn’t cut out to be Funny Girl, because I’m not funny at all. Sporty Girl was a genetic impossibility, and Slutty Girl? I found out later I don’t exactly have the stomach for it. I resolved to blend in, to be a blank slate reflecting the personalities around me without projecting any defining characteristics of my own. It’s easier than it sounds. Here’s the recipe: I never say anything that would be classified as too smart or too stupid. I never initiate a conversation but respond in a group with "Cool" or "Me too." My favorite song is whatever everyone else seems to be into, and I’m dying to go see whatever movie you suggest. Honestly, it’s a pretty easy way to live. All you have to do is shut yourself down and become a mirror for whomever you’re talking to. (Also try not to use "whomever," even if it is correct to use it as a pronoun modifying the object of the verb. It qualifies as Digit-speak.) I’d mastered the habit of responding to an assertion with the single interrogative word "Right?" by winter break of my freshman year. And I found myself well liked for the first time since elementary school. Not exactly happy, but well liked still.
That’s when I met the Fab Four, the It girls of Samohi. They are, in order of supreme coolness: Veronica (varsity tennis, daughter of Hollywood studio owner, legs that go up to my chin), Kat (varsity tennis, famous for shameless drinking and dancing), Olive (varsity tennis, signed up for the Biology Club in tenth grade by accident because she thought it was sex ed), Tish (varsity tennis, owns exactly twenty-six pairs of black Manolos). They seemed so happy in a deep way, like no one could get to them or take away the confidence that they got from one another. They were surprised to learn that their favorite band was also my favorite band and that I, too, dreamed of someday living on the beach in Santa Barbara. And they liked my boots. Seriously. They thought my boots were epic and that I had this earthy sense of style. I was in.
We’ve been friends for almost four years now, and it’s an odd dynamic between us. The four of them have everything in common: their clothes, the tennis team, an obsession with football stud Drew Bailey. I stick to my uniform, wouldn’t be caught dead in a tennis skirt, and can barely keep a straight face when Drew Bailey is speaking. But they like that I join in without making waves, and I like being part of a group. It’s almost as if I have a safe place to hide among them, where I blend in and no one sees me at all. It’s not perfect, but compared to all the other ways a girl like me can get through high school, it works. Well, it worked until I went and got myself kidnapped.