By: Austin J. Dalton
This won’t be the last time. As is probably common, their romance begins as a friendship. The relationship is born in November and it will die in the coming September. Heretofore, J is acquainted with K – although he’s in the ninth grade, she’s in the eleventh, respectively – but they officially become friends at a house party on the chilly fourth of November.
The party is one of those weird social occasions, the kind that’s not intended for ribaldry – though the house, rented out by some college students from Rend Lake, has an unmistakable odor of Pabst and hash to it. J only shows up because K told him about it in free period this morning. Most of the people here are college age, although a few teenagers – those dorks like K who commit the cardinal young person’s sin of unironically caring about things – are present.
J, unsure of what to do with himself in this shindig, installs himself in a corner with his hands in his pockets. K is the only person in attendance who he’s acquainted with, and right now she’s too busy talking with someone else.
Soon, everyone is gathered around the living room with their eyes fixed on the television. It’s beginning to look like a landslide: a local statesman, beloved by at least half of Jefferson County, is headed for the Oval Office.
There’s a poster pinned up with thumbtacks on the inside of the front door. There’s no escaping this image lately. For the last few months, it has manifested on bumper stickers, t-shirts, buttons on people’s coats. By now, it’s transcended being a mere campaign logo and has become the stuff of hagiography. Imagine if the medieval Russian painters, known for their portraits of saints and redeemers, turned their attention toward a twenty-first century Chicagoan politician, and in the process ditched icons in favor of mixed-media stencil art. The image veers all over the emotional map, juxtaposing arresting red with a serene blue and most importantly the look of resolve upon the face that it portrays. Then, there’s the tactful simplicity of the word imposed on the bottom quarter of the image: HOPE.
Soon after, the news networks call it: 365 to 173.
It’s twenty minutes later and fireworks crackle off somewhere nearby. The house becomes an orgiastic powder keg of exuberant hooting, high fives, dancing, one participant blasting “We are the Champions” on his iPod-connected radio while someone else nearby blasts “Celebration” on theirs in rowdy disharmony.
Once the party is in full swing, J finds an opportunity to talk to K, and they process their own reactions. He is cautiously optimistic about what the new President-elect will do. He’s not keen on politics and barely paid attention to the news during the primaries, but Senator O seems like an alright guy who honestly believes what he says. J sticks to the philosophy of ambivalence. Will the new President reveal himself to be the Antichrist incarnate, as the shock-jock preachers of the Internet have suggested? Will he set a new standard for American leadership? Will his presidency be a one-term non-event?
“Three words for you, man,” he tells K as they lean on the counter in the kitchen, the only place where the party commotion isn’t drowning out the possibility of conversation. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out, right?”
She concedes the point, but tells him not to dampen the fun. She does so with a playful poke to his shoulder. She maintains her cool, but is nevertheless one with all this jubilee. She now has greater expectations for her country’s future than ever before. The finer details of this conversation are largely forgotten only hours later, but it’s a pleasant one. The two trade phone numbers before the party is over.
It gets late and J walks home to his uncle’s house, always crossing the street here and there to avoid eye contact with oncoming strangers. He walks into the living room to find his uncle sitting on the couch, switching every few minutes between CNN and MSNBC, one of which is analyzing the results of the election and one of which is replaying snippets from the President-elect’s victory speech. J sees a tear roll down his uncle’s cheek.
Before J can disappear into his bedroom, his uncle points at the television screen and asks him, a little tremor in his voice, “You see this? It’s all true, everything they ever told you about this country. You really can be all that you want to be.”
“What began twenty-one months ago in the depths of winter must not end on this autumn night,” the man on the television says to those multitudes looking up to him, both in the Grant Park audience and watching at home. “This victory alone is not the change we seek.”
It’s New Year’s Eve, and there’s another party which takes place at a different house but which once again features J and K. This time, it was him that told her about the occasion. Around half past eight, the two of them become bored with the festivities and decide to take a little walk on the town’s main boulevard.
In search of caffeine, they visit the Huck’s Convenient Food Store on the corner of 34th and Broadway at an inopportune moment. They can hear an inarticulate yelling emanating from inside the store all the way from the parking lot, nasally and indignant. When they walk inside, they see that a scrawny and dentally-challenged little bald man is standing at the counter shouting at the Puerto Rican clerk.
The poker-faced clerk seems more vaguely irritated than frightened as he announces for what must be umpteenth time that he’s going to call the cops. More than likely, he just wants the skinhead to conclude his one-man shouting match so other customers can approach the register. The skinhead accuses the clerk of raising the prices on two-liter bottles of Coke as part of a greater plot to marginalize the white race. He harangues to other white bystanders in the store, warning them that the “libtard” President-elect will soon open the flood gates and allow refugees like this clerk to wreak havoc upon the already deeply shaken American economy.
K tugs on J’s sleeve and suggests coming back to the store later. J focuses his gaze on the skinhead and says something to the effect of “Hey, you”, effectively catching the man’s attention. The creep is wearing unflattering saggy sweatpants and a wife-beater undershirt, which would be just the thing for concealing some firearm or sharp object. J stands his ground and says to the man, “If you don’t like this store, then just go somewhere else, you inbred pussy.”
The guy by the slushie machine laughs, as does the clerk. The skinhead’s bottom lip trembles and his scabby face scrunches up, looking ready to leap and claw J’s eyes out with his fingernails. In this moment of uncertainty, J glances back at K and wonders what she would think of him if he successfully fought back against the impending attack. Or even unsuccessfully, for that matter.
K steps up to J’s side and keeps her eyes fixed on the skinhead. She adds an addendum, “Yeah, go bother someone else, you bitch.” This type of noise doesn’t sound any more natural coming out of her mouth than it does his, but that’s okay.
Looking frustrated to the verge of tears, the skinhead tries to save the last remnants of his cool. He points a menacing finger in J’s face, and mutters “You better watch your back, motherfucker,” under his breath. The skinhead takes one last scornful look around at the spectators, then he stomps out through the sliding door while spewing an unintelligible verbal maelstrom of slurry profanity. Ding-dong goes the door sensor, and he’s gone.
J and K laugh about the incident all the way back to the house. Nobody they talk to about the incident believes their story, but that’s okay. When the time comes for the television and the partygoers to count away the last remaining seconds of 2008 central standard time, the two of them do not hold hands or anything else equally orthodox. Instead, the two sit very close together on the sofa and glance at each other for only the most fleeting of moments, each wondering how the other would react if they were to quickly and spontaneously plant a kiss on the other’s cheek. Neither acts on any such impulse.
2009 settles in, and expectations are high. New year, new crush, new President. Valentine’s Day arrives quickly, that cynical excuse for a holiday that J has openly despised since he was twelve years old. With a Boost Mobile phone that’s out of minutes and a temporary lack of wi-fi in his uncle’s house, he hikes through seven inches of snow to the Rend Lake College Golf Outlet, where there are free computers set up in the cafe area for the taking. He gets on MySpace and sends her a lengthy message telling her that he appreciates her and couldn’t be more grateful that she had wandered into his life, and she responds in kind only a few minutes later. It’s unusual for him to indulge in this type of maudlin bullshit for any reason, but then again so is falling in love. One falsehood of character begets another.
It’s March and they meet for pretzels in the food court of the Times Square Mall. He sometimes goes over to visit her at her house while her parents are away, and thus he is an entity totally unknown to them. He doesn’t want her to see the place where he lives, not because his uncle is an unpleasant host but because he’s preemptively ashamed of what the appearance of his bedroom might cause her to think. There’s nothing in there but a single twin mattress sitting squarely against the far wall, most of his possessions still packed in tall cardboard boxes labeled EGGS on the side of them. He’s lived there a year already, hasn’t he? What’s taking him so long to get comfortable? His is the only room that looks like that of some spartan transient. Every other chamber in his uncle’s two-story American Craftsman house is thoroughly decorated with mementos, furniture, other normal earthly possessions becoming of a home proper.
The evening warmth of a southern Illinois springtime slips through slightly cracked windows and carries what he thinks is her spicy scent straight to him. It’s all in his head, but that’s okay. It’s late, and he can’t sleep. He dons a jacket and leaves the house at some time past one in the morning so he can sit on the front patio with his thoughts. He’ll see her again in school soon, but that’s not soon enough.
He goes back in the kitchen and brews two cups of coffee just so he can flop back on his bed and think of her all night long. What really charms him is not necessarily her as an empirical organism, not her personality, it isn’t even her name or the way that it emerges out of his mouth. He loves her like a new hobby, like a brand-new mission in an open-world game, the most addictive soda ever, the special Blu-Ray edition of the summer’s best movie.
In the middle of June, K invites him to come take a walk with her to the estuary, by way of a path next to the long-defunct train tracks. They talk about Coldplay, they talk about whatever her last project was on the debate team, they try not to let their conversation be drowned out by the unusually fierce song of the cicadas that seems to emanate from all around them. At times, they simply permit prolonged silences that would be inherently uncomfortable in different company.
They divert from the path by the tracks through a narrow opening in some woods that, she assures him, will deposit them at the estuary. He watches the Arylide-blond of her hair turn briefly luminescent-white every time the sunlight hits it in a certain way. She voices concern about the daylight getting away from them. Indeed, the sun is on its way out by the time they reach the water, but it’s still only a very gradual fade. Time is temporarily on their side.
There’s a tulip tree not far from the water’s edge, which has sat undisturbed for decades until he takes his pocket knife and carves their all-important initials into the bark so that the whole planet can be their witness: J.D. + K.F.
As they sit on the log of a collapsed elm only inches away from the water, they discover how much they have in common. This will all be over in three months and these things will consequently appear as the hollow coincidences that they are, but in the warm sanctuary of the present they seem revelatory. The similar number of cats they’ve had or have, the fact that they are both asthmatics, or that they are both “only-” children. They trade trivial observations; isn’t it funny the way this small-ish city in southern Illinois loves to invoke New York with street names like Broadway and a mall called Times Square? Why do they call this region Little Egypt, anyway? Why do their parents pay so much money for such slow Internet service?
Unwisely, she confides in him. Finally, someone other than the Word Document journal on her Windows Vista gets to hear about the hidden discomforts of growing up as “that girl” who was allowed to skip a grade and was thereafter never able to maintain a consistent circle of friends, the National Honor Society girl whose parents expected great things of her without giving her any idea what exactly those things were.
It’s his turn, and he tells her the tale of L even though there is no L, not really. “L” is just a composite of different people, a specter that he’s conjured up for this conversation, derived from experiences that he probably did have but which probably did not unfold as he describes them.
L, the unabashedly good-natured Mormon girl who loved The Elder Scrolls and loved basketball and dubiously claimed to love him. L, the girl who he allegedly flirted and became very close with, albeit never to the point of intimacy. L, the girl who disappeared on him with nary an explanation besides a one-paragraph e-mail about going to California. It’s inconceivable to K that anyone could be so unfeeling as to completely discard a gentle and loving soul like J with no warning. It will make sense later, for different reasons.
K is not a stupid young woman, but her empathy blinds her from the contrived nature of his tale. Nightfall concludes storytime. They walk back into town side by side and find that, through ostensibly no agency of their own, some mysterious magnetism has caused their fingers to breeze against each other. From here, the next step is that their fingers interlock just slightly and soon their hands are palm-to-palm in embrace.
The two wander the sidewalks of the downtown area wordlessly and aimlessly past the taverns full of local musicians covering Robert Earl Keen, early signs advertising the church’s Halloween hayride festivities and graffiti-encrusted red-bricked buildings. They walk by the angry and disheveled street preacher standing on the sidewalk in front of the town courthouse, reading aloud a monologue from his thick hardback copy of Atlas Shrugged. On a nearby sidewalk, a ragedrunk middle-aged couple shout their last set of scorned obscenities at each other, then part ways forever.
It begins to lightly drizzle, so they sneak over the fence and into the Baseball Park off S 20th and go into the dugout, where they sit with their hands still clasped. They observe what’s visible of the stars, which have gone fuzzy like a smudged windshield. She asks if he’s worried about the curfew. He asks her about her parents; “How long have they been together?”
“I don’t know, twenty-something years.”
One moment, he remains silent and considers asking her, not out of some sudden bitter jealousy but mere curiosity, what it’s like to grow up in a relatively stable family unit with the same consistent set of parents. The next moment, his lips meet hers. It’s not so easy to recall what transpired between these two key points, or even much of what happened immediately afterward.
They spend the fourth of July with their respective families, and meet up the next morning at Steak n’ Shake to split a clubhouse sandwich. She tells him about her unremarkable holiday experience, accompanying her family to the Veteran’s Memorial Park to watch fireworks and listen to her parents bicker about how to arrange the new IKEA shelves in their house’s library. Her father, apparently, repeatedly asked her whether she ever planned to bring a boy to dinner one of these nights.
K asks J if he’s ever been to Albuquerque, and he tells her no. She details the affinity she’s always had with the city despite only passing through there once on a family vacation. She asks him what he would think about living there someday. She promises him that the sun and oceanic skies of Albuquerque would be like a whole different planet compared to all this surrounding flatness, these hard winters and microbursts. New Mexican heat is so much better than Illinoisan heat, she argues. Then, she eschews subtext and asks what he’d think about living out there with her someday.
What if they were just a few years older? They could do it, as could anybody. She will come of age one year before he does, but that’s okay. They expect that they only need to worry about saving the necessary funds, making the necessary arrangements and all that other adult stuff that can wait until later.
J notices that they are catching sidelong glances from middle-aged patrons in other booths who have perhaps heard fractions of this conversation. The older married couples sneer at the novice young lovers, knowing that their dopamine habit is much more meaningful than any young person’s.
Over many summer nights, J uses the snipping tool device on his desktop and sends her street-view images of the Albuquerque landscape from randomly chosen spots that he explores in Google Earth. She sends the same things to him along with links to various tourist attractions in the Albuquerque area.
Mid-July marks the beginning of the postcard phase. They pen postcards to one another, even though they live in the same county and are obviously at no great inconvenience if they want to see each other in the flesh. He starts this trend, sometimes buying the cards for ninety-nine cents at the Borowiak’s IGA or constructing them himself out of old construction paper. But that’s okay, because in this sort of exchange, the regular rules determining what is or is not gratuitous do not apply. Maybe if such scrutiny was possible, then it would not be love.
One evening, J’s uncle finds his nephew sitting at the kitchen table writing one of these postcards and happens to catch a glance at the content of this correspondence. Always a nagging harbinger in the costume of a family member, J’s uncle simply chuckles and warns his nephew that he is far too young to truly understand love at any level beyond the merely frivolous and immature, and that he ought to beware the fleeting temptations and unrealistic expectations of puppy love. Why write so melodramatically about something that doesn’t matter? J’s uncle finishes this little lecture and then sits down at the kitchen table to write some alimony checks while ignoring the cloying text messages from his current girlfriend.
There’s a pedestrian overpass over the main boulevard through town. It’s by Zadok Casey Middle School, right before you get to the historic downtown area of the city. J sneaks out a few hours past curfew and finds K sitting in the center of the structure facing the downtown area. It’s lukewarm outside but he brings his coat anyway just because he looks forward to the chivalrous feeling of gently placing it over her tank-topped shoulders when she starts to get chilly. He kneels next to her and they try to weave stories about the city lights of the downtown area, imagining that every lit bulb – in the buildings of the business district, in the small shops, every passing head- and taillight – must necessarily signify the presence of a person. Who is still there in that top office of the U.S Bank building, and what crisis has them stuck there at this time of night?
Five minutes later, he knows that their huddling isn’t enough to keep her warm, so he wraps his coat around her. They speak in love nearly as much as they think they’ve fallen in love, exchanging and normalizing a number of pet names like sweetboy, sweetheart, babe, mi amor, moonlight of my life, pumpkin, et cetera.
August brings the temperatures down. On the evening of the thirteenth, they go out to eat at the Fazoli’s near the mall. Her attention is directed toward her phone most of the time. He walks her home later, they share a brief ritualistic hug on the sidewalk, and then she disappears toward her front door without a word. It is late in the month and he hasn’t spoken to her – not in his dreams and not by text and certainly not in the flesh – for what is going on several days.
He has been spending a lot of time at the mall alone lately, browsing the music and the posters at F.Y.E, the entertainment store that will be closed down before 2009 is through. He is once again hooked on the fleeting pleasures of sleeping in, playing Dead Space until the morning light and absorbing trash television. He rents a lot of movies from the local Family Video, even though he lives in the age of instant streaming and Limewire. Family Video gives him an excuse to leave the house and walk a bit, even as it gets chilly out.
These days, it’s mostly out of obligation that he even contacts her. He needs to, because he knows he isn’t much of a romantic suitor if he doesn’t. He is unaware of her similar reticence, evidenced — if he would bother to pay any damn attention – by the fact that she hasn’t sent him any letters lately, nor any text messages, nor anything whatsoever on MySpace.
It’s a clear September morning and J rolls off his blanketed mattress, the one he refuses to properly make because he will inevitably kick the sheets off in his fidgety sleep anyway. This afternoon will mark the last time he ever speaks to K.
He wants to know who “D” is. He’s heard this name pop up in other people’s gossipy bullshit, more specifically in relation to her. D, who as of late has been a few flirtatious texts from officially romancing her. D, some mysterious guy who can make her laugh like J used to be able to. D, who doesn’t suffer from any bipolar disorder. D, this fellow whose face J has never seen but, knowing his luck, is probably better to look at than his own.
Of course, the suspicions are a two-way street. K is equally curious about just who the hell “M” is. M, that self-styled bad girl whose family recently moved here, a Texan gal now coming of age in southern Illinois. M, who J met at the movies earlier that summer. M, who J’s recently been chatting with more and more on Facebook. M, the party that never ends, a ribald human being of endless dirty jokes, artistic capability and a weird extroversion unbecoming of someone so brainy.
It’s this afternoon that J decides that he will confront K at her house. He texts her first, makes sure the coast is clear for him to come over. She informs him that neither of her parents are home. When he arrives, she greets him as enthusiastically as she might a pestering Jehovah’s Witness and seems to only invite him into the living room as a kind of formality.
They sit down and begin talking immediately. He asks if there’s anything wrong, and she responds with a silent glare that should give him all the information that he needs, and it indeed it does, but he’s too obtuse to heed the warning.
K gets up and walks into the kitchen, and he follows. He tells her that he just wants to know who D is, and then decides to ask why she’s being such a cold-blooded witch. She approaches the counter, while watching him over her shoulder. It’s three seconds later and she has equipped the thickest steak knife from her mother’s cutlery set. He doesn’t like what the hell is going on here, but he approaches her anyway. She moves toward him with the knife pointed outward at him. When she gets within swinging distance of him, she lowers the blade and rests it on her sleeveless arm and asks, “Is this what you want? Why don’t I just cut you right out of my life? I don’t need this shit!”
There are four inches between his body and where the knife is positioned in space. She swings the knife horizontally and only misses his abdomen by an inch and a half, though so half-hearted is the swing that he would need to be blind to unsuccessfully dodge it.
In this moment of uncertainty, J briefly thinks of M, and wonders what she would think of him if he told her the story of successfully fighting back against this impending attack.
From this point on, the cutting is all verbal. The exchange of angry words begins with guttural semi-lucid intensity but eventually sounds chronically bored. After he tells her that she’s acting insane, she tells him that he is a disappointment and she’s sick of his perpetual negativity. He tells her that she’s a phony. She says that he is less than human, far from a friend and barely emotionally capable of calling himself human at all. She is a completely neurotic joke who will likely never have any business calling herself an adult. He’s a coward, she’s a bitch. He has “all the warmth of a meat freezer at midnight, on the winter solstice”. Holy shit, how long has she been rehearsing that one?
Here and there, she punctuates the conversation by telling him what she’d like to do with the knife. He welcomes the threat. She tells him that he is an over-medicated drama queen. He tells her that she is every bit as unstable as she accuses him of being. The knife now looks closer than ever to either reaching out to meet him, or coming down on her wrist or perhaps some skillful maneuver involving both.
Nobody capitulates to anybody else. When they run out of words, he turns around and leaves. She watches with the knife dangling from her hand, until he’s left the kitchen and is out the front door. She puts the knife back in the cutlery set and sits down in the living room to think things over.
He walks aimlessly into the dusk, past the McDonald’s where multitudes with high hopes are flocking every day to play the annual Monopoly sweepstakes. Past the Jefferson County Court Clerk building, through the Borowiak’s IGA parking lot, past the strip mall where the post office and the dollar store are situated next to one another, past the twenty-four-hour laundromat. The laundromat evokes a late-January memory of sitting in the lobby next to the Pepsi vending machine waiting for his uncle to collect his quilts, exchanging his first genuinely flirtatious set of text messages with K. Messages that are still saved, which will need to be deleted along with all the pictures he ever took with her. Shitty poetry he wrote for her in a composition book will soon become soot in his uncle’s fireplace. She and her family will soon leave this town altogether for Chicago, but not before she takes those postcards and tears them into unrecognizable pieces and tosses them into the wind from the Broadway St. bridge over I-64.
After all the walking, J arrives at the Burger King/Circle K hybrid out there on the corner of S 10th and the Veteran’s Memorial Highway. He sits down on a patch of grass and waits for the bus that will take him back to his neighborhood, using his cell phone to inspect his own countenance and make sure there is no sign of duress. He would rather his uncle not find out about all of this, for the last thing he wants to hear right now is some patronizing what-did-you-expect speech.
As minutes become hours which become days, J’s memory begins to paint him as the sole victim of the whole affair. His brain censors and adjusts the information to accommodate the newly forming narrative. This is mutual. He is the victim in his own story just as she is in hers. From here until the end of time: she’s the one who threatened his life; he’s the one who came into her house and made her ward him off with a knife. Neither of them, in their future recollections of the tale, will give the other a name; besides “that crazy ex”, “this guy I was seeing”, what else does anyone really need to know? Names don’t matter.
Throughout the ten-month lifespan of their relationship, neither party was genuinely unfaithful to the other. All considerations of personal fault aside, falling out of love may be no more bizarre a phenomenon than falling in love.
What remains of J and K’s romance does not entirely disappear but instead reconstitutes and speciates into separate and unfamiliar shapes. J is finally free to realize, and nearly actualize, his own feelings for M, which have been building up piece by piece ever since they first met in the theater arcade and debated the merits of Terminator: Salvation.
M proves to be an easier romantic experience, probably because only very generously can the relationship “J.D. + M.R.” be said to take place at all. M is elusive, not really the relationship type, but also not the type to remain “just friends” if the feelings are there. She’s a fun woman replete with adventure, which of course means that somewhere down the road the other boot will drop in the form of too much fun, too much to handle, too many erratic phone calls at unholy hours in the morning. His lack of nerve helps to ensure that their romance, while hypothetically there, never actually ignites. She will need a man of action who is willing to go out to IHOP at five in the morning because she’s feeling lonely, willing to do a hell of a lot of socializing. For now, J will pretend to be that man and M will be mildly infatuated with who she thinks he is.
Eventually, each love-struck youth will find that their beloved falls short of their expectations, that ultimately every crush is a thinly-camouflaged storm of slammed doors, infidelity and bitter one-way conversations over dinner. This won’t stop them from moving on to other flings while always anticipating a different outcome, any more than it will stop the adults around them from critiquing these teenage love stories while overlooking the ridiculousness of their own expectations, their own unwavering assumption that another person can ever be all that they hope and their even more absurd conflation of impermanence with worthlessness. This creed is at the core of not only every silly teenage infatuation, but every romance whose story is not yet written. This won’t be the last time.
Austin James Dalton