The Back of the Box
by Rachel Ann Brickner
I almost became a pop star from the back of a cereal box. It was 1998. I was twelve. Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” was at the top of the charts and her bare belly covered the United States. Every boy wanted her. Every girl wanted to be her. It was a difficult time for us all.
Britney was only one star in the constellation of stars I obsessed over, spending hours covering my bedroom walls with their faces torn from magazines—*NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, Christina Aguilera, 98 Degrees, and Britney. Mom hated what I’d done to my room when she finally noticed. Usually she was too busy smoking and arguing with bill collectors on the phone after work to notice much at all. And usually, my door was closed because I was singing into a mic I’d salvaged from a broken karaoke machine, giving a private performance for my Tickle Me Elmo, the Pound Puppy who had seen better days before Mom had to wash her because I threw up on her in the middle of the night, and the photos of my stars on the wall. “Baby One More Time” was only one of the songs in my repertoire. I usually sang it when I was feeling cute. I sang Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” when I was angry and “Always Be My Baby” by Mariah Carey when I was lovesick over someone at school.
I probably saw the advertisement on the back of a Frosted Flakes box, Mom’s favorite cereal, or Lucky Charms, my favorite. The deal was this: you could win a free trip to a camp where Britney would teach you to sing and dance. You only had to write a letter stating why you were the best girl for the gig. I wrote my letter sitting on my bedroom floor, staring at the stars on my wall for inspiration, dreaming of being in their orbit, of no longer performing alone in my bedroom for only their images. I fell asleep that night like I did most nights, listening to the sound of my parents watching TV outside my door and arguing in a muffled tone about money, while I stared at the neon green glow of plastic stars stuck on my ceiling, whispering please.
Once, I asked Mom what she’d wanted to be when she grew up, and she did something strange. She looked at me and paused for what felt like the length of my entire life. I’d wanted her to say something big like she wanted to be an astronaut, a doctor, a musician, but she didn’t say any of these things. She only said that she’d never really thought about it. I didn’t completely believe her, but I did begin to understand that there wasn’t time for such thinking for girls like us.
I don’t remember what I wrote in the letter, only how important it felt to me not to sound like I was begging. I must have asked Mom for an envelope and a stamp when I was done. I know what happened next because I used to love riding with her to the post office, holding all the stamped envelopes on my lap that would pay our bills. We’d drive up to the big blue mailbox. She’d roll the driver’s seat window down. Then, she’d drop all the envelopes into the slide of the box’s dark mouth.
I never heard from Britney, and when I didn’t, I wondered if the camp was even real or only a lie on the back of a box. A few years later, I would tear down all the pop stars on my wall. Then, the glow of the neon stars above my bed would also be gone. I’d still fall asleep to the sound of the TV outside my bedroom door and my parents arguing about money, except now they were louder and I could hear them more clearly. I would no longer sing in my room for my Pound Puppy or only myself. By high school, I would quit chorus so I could spend more time with the older boy I had a crush on who looked like a young Paul McCartney, the boy who would drive me all over town with the music turned all the way up.
Rachel Ann Brickner is a writer and multimedia artist from Pittsburgh. She still hopes to meet Britney Spears, preferably at summer camp.