April 25th, 2020

Words by Emmeline Armitage · Illustration by Lucy Comer

I picture myself in "The Virgin Suicides" when I watch the sisters float around their bedroom and dream of far away places


Dear Whoever,


We’ve been awarded a pretty thick spring here in the UK, the sort of spring where you wake up without bed sheets because you’ve flipped them away in the middle of the night, where walking around the garden with your headphones on is a trip of colour and sound. I’ve been waking up naturally by the suggestion of light, and listening to soft music that whispers in your ear. Sometimes it’s sunny enough that I almost forget the government regulations separating my childhood home from the rest of the world and the sense that uncertainty is lurking in this spring air. 

The haze and sepia tone that permeate my days in quarantine seem just as present in the enforced isolation of the Lisbon girls in "The Virgin Suicides". Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 novel, immortalised in cult film history by director Sofia Coppola, tells the story of four teenage sisters whose watchful mother keeps them indoors, away from the potent dangers of 24-hour news, prescription drugs, and the oh-so alluring Trip Fontaine. Spearheaded by a bleached blond and diaphanous Kirsten Dunst, the Lisbon girls exist wholly in the mythical location of the teenage bedroom, observed by the film’s voyeuristic narrator and his friends: “All we could see were the girls’ incarcerated shadows, which ran riot in our imaginations,” he says. 


In Coppola’s pastel reworking, the girls’ bedroom is filled with rosaries, vials of candy-coloured perfume and cheap tiaras with sharp metal side grips - the collection of trinkets is metonymic for growing up. Covering the carpet are records that the girls use to communicate with the boys across the street. Lyrics like ‘So far away, doesn’t anybody stay in one place, anymore’ and ‘I truly am alone again, naturally’ play out hauntingly over telephone wires. I picture myself in that scene, now more than ever, when I watch the sisters float around their bedroom and dream of far away places.


Returning home from a semester at university often feels like a strange physicalization of nostalgia, the past once again tangible, inhabitable. So when I hurriedly packed my bags at the end of another eight weeks at Oxford, the feeling that my limbs were too long for my teenage bedroom was not particularly unusual. What was unusual was the speed at which I’d had to return home, and the lingering unknown of when college life would kick back in again. I’ve gradually started to accept that what I thought was a temporary residency in my childhood bedroom will extend beyond its usual timeframe. As the weeks have passed, the feeling of belonging has started to exist beyond the initial comfort of home – in the emotional memory foam of the room that knows me by its walls, its secret history. And so, despite the fact that I had come home to shelter from a contagious virus, I found that I was sleeping well for the first time in a long while. My former bedroom came into itself as that built-up place of protection and balanced out the uncertainty. 


Granted, I was having those strange ‘pandemic dreams’ that many of us seem to be having (including a disturbing one about a house party in which 500 school children break out onto the lawn), but the ultimate feeling was one of security, and it didn’t take long for me to settle into the rhythms of the room, its charming irregularity and nostalgia-rich features. This was a place, if you can excuse the clichés, where some of my defining moments occurred. This was a room in which I had spent hours watching 90s and early 2000s high school dramas, until my own graduation from high school meant that I left behind Rory Gilmore, Summer and Seth, Brooke and Peyton. I had spent long nights here fabricating dialogue between myself and various high school crushes, sticking my head out of the window and looking up at the sky. It was the space where I first read Never Let Me Go, where I started to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, which doesn’t sound as romantic), and where I began to understand that Joni Mitchell, Sylvia Plath and Maggie Nelson don’t just mean the colour when they use the word blue; they use it as a metaphor for darker emotion. In its less glossy moments, the room also triggers visions of my former self curling up over exam stress, and trying to stay afloat while navigating the fraught social politics of adolescent friendships. When I think of Lux Lisbon waking up under the bleachers after homecoming, abandoned by Trip Fontaine, her retreat to the teenage bedroom and yet simultaneous desire to graduate from it makes perfect sense. This bedroom was where my protective bubble was constructed, but also where my desire to venture further than its pale pink walls was born.  


There’s a scene in "The Virgin Suicides" when the boys spying on the Lisbon girls seem to reach an epiphany. After watching them for hours on end and experiencing a parallel sort of monotony and cabin fever as viewers, the boys ‘felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy and how you ended up knowing what colours went together. We knew that the girls were really women in disguise, that they understood love, and even death, and that our job was merely to create the noise that seemed to fascinate them.’ The boys perfectly capture the restless desire to disengage from reality. My thoughts too are dreamy and active because through the lens of my teenage bedroom, isolation is only broken by the idle wanderings of my mind. 


Perhaps I have been sleeping better because to be dropped back into the amniotic fluid of a childhood bedroom is to remember a time when naivety prevented thoughts as big and scary as our current global crisis from existing. As a teenager, my world revolved around the theatrics of growing up. The pointed end of friendships felt like grief in its mightiest form, the hormones equally as cataclysmic. Each heartbreak was a testimony to adolescent resilience, and it’s that strength I am trying to draw on now. 


The narrator in "The Virgin Suicides" says the mother hoped that if her girls stayed at home then somehow ‘they’d heal better’. I think I am beginning to understand what that means. The sanctity of the teenage bedroom is a comfort that I am allowing myself to revel in. Those days spent playing records, writing songs, calling friends, and looking up to the sky - that’s how I’m currently spending my time, as I linger on the precipice of adulthood. There’s a strange feeling of finality, of using this room for the last time in the way it was intended, as my bedroom. When I go back to university I may well slip back into the complacency of viewing my home as a place for fleeting visits, but for now, while the rest of the world is brimming with uncertainty, I’m sinking into the feeling that my teenage bedroom might just be exactly what I need: a constant, an old friend, a space to heal. 

Emmeline Armitage is a 20-year-old writer, rapper and performer from West Yorkshire. She is currently in her second year of studying English at Oxford University. You can find her on Spotify, Instagram @emmelinearr, and Twitter @emmelinearmitag

Lucy Comer is an illustrator based in Minneapolis. Her work focuses on stories of longing, intimacy, and heartache. She loves creating portraits, sequential illustrations, and zines. More work can be found on Instagram @loosey.comber