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Underwear archaeology

The sleepover rites of middle-school girls

Microscopic shards of ice whizz by my face as my friends Sally and Michelle work to extract a pair of underwear from the freezer in my house. It’s 4 a.m., and we’ve crept into the basement once all our other friends fell asleep. We planned this prank for weeks—freezing someone’s underwear was a classic move out of the Middle School Sleepover Playbook, and we couldn’t wait to try it. Simply throwing damp underwear into the freezer wasn’t dramatic enough for Sally, so she came up with another idea: what would happen if we put the underwear in a plastic bag full of water?  

What happens is you end up with the kind of entombment not seen since the days of digging up King Tut. Once we got to the basement and opened the utility freezer, we saw that ice formed in the bag around the underwear, sure, but it also froze solid to the layer of ice that coated the bottom of the freezer. It was now underwear permafrost. The three of us ran around the basement in a frantic search for tools. Using my dad’s flathead screwdriver as an improvised chisel, we gently tapped the ice around the bag with a small hammer. We were steady and focused, like budding archaeologists. We carved out the block, careful to avoid the other precious artifacts in the freezer. Michelle and Sally were worried about our friend’s reaction once she saw her underwear; I was far more afraid of having to tell my mom we accidentally nicked one of her frozen pot pies.  

My middle school sleepovers were legendary. Every year on my birthday, I hand-printed the invitations and delivered them to my inner circle of friends. We’d plan for weeks what kind of games to play, which movies to watch, what snacks we wanted. The day would come, and six parents would drop their excited daughters off at my house; all six parents would look at my mom with terror in their eyes. “Seven girls. Overnight. You are very brave.” But my parents’ bravery isn’t what made my sleepovers so epic; it was actually their laissez faire approach to my gatherings. As long as we were safe, they didn’t interfere. Once we ate our pizza and had our cake, we were on our own. We’d put on the radio and dance in my bedroom, swoon over posters of the latest heartthrob, or watch movies. My parents never said we ate too much sugar or stayed up too late. In fact, I barely saw them during the party. Even the time we zippered Michelle into a sleeping bag and threw her out on the snow-covered back deck, my mom heard the commotion and came down to give us a quick talking to but then went right back to bed, satisfied that nothing was on fire. My parents were not uptight. They trusted all my friends and gave us space to do what we wanted.  

Apparently, what we wanted was to stand in my dark, damp basement, running on nothing but sugar and sleep deprivation, chipping away at an accidental iceberg. It was well past 4 a.m. when we finally freed the block and were left to figure out how to mention to our friend what we’d done with her unmentionables. Nothing very clever, as it turns out. We were all in my bedroom gathering up fresh clothes for the day when Sally marched in and unceremoniously chucked the brick of ice onto our friend’s sleeping bag. “Here’s your underwear!” We all just stared at them, trying to compute how an innocuous little prank had escalated so severely. But look, we fancied ourselves as the architects of the modern sleepover, and those mummified underwear were our Egyptian pyramids.  

After everyone was dressed, my dad called us into the kitchen for breakfast. He didn’t cook much, but applesauce pancakes were his specialty, and every time I had friends over, he made them. We sat around and recapped the party. We had made it through the whole night without sleeping once, and we were so proud. My dad stood at the stove taking requests for seconds, and we ate and giggled all the way through breakfast. Breakfast was when we let my siblings join us, so my sister and brother ate with us, too. My sister knew all my friends and fit in naturally. My brother got mad that he never had sleepovers and asked my parents if there was a reason for this. Without waiting for them to respond, I summoned all my middle school audacity and answered him: “Because all your friends can’t fit in Mom and Dad’s bed with you.” 

Once we were done, parents would show up, one by one, to pick up their daughters. Shortly after arriving home, the adrenaline wore off and my friends turned cranky; they fought with siblings and snapped at their parents. Parents who now realized that when dealing with a preteen who hasn’t slept, the day AFTER the sleepover is when it’s their turn to be brave.  

A few weeks ago, Sally, Michelle, and I met up and were talking about the glory of our middle school days. My dad was there and had trouble remembering who they were. I scoured my brain for something that would spark his memory. It only took me seconds. “C’mon Dad! Applesauce pancakes!” Michelle and Sally burst out laughing. “We were JUST talking about your sleepovers, how your dad would make everybody his famous applesauce pancakes.” It is so telling that after all these years, we all hold the same core memories from our time spent as young classmates and best friends. Initially meant to mark my birthday, the sleepovers— with all their pranks, laughs, and mishaps—were actually big celebrations of girlhood: those strong enough to live it and those brave enough to let us find our way through it. And celebrations of girlhood were an important part of the architecture that built us into successful women.

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