Because I'm procrastinating from finishing my term projects, I looked through my old writings and found this little piece ("gem" really seems an overstatement). Though it is written as a short story, and the boys' names have been changed, it is in fact completely true. It was once the great romantic regret of my life. Now it's just funny. Now that I am a well-behaved Ancient Person, I hope it can reassure, guide, or entertain today's teenagers.
P.S. I cringe at some of the sappiness now. But you should've seen my actual teenage writings. Sugar overdose; diabetics beware!
A Christmas Infidelity
I no longer know whether I like snow because of my relationship with Jake, or whether I liked Jake because he coincided with the snow. I am only sure that I associate the one with the other. Falling nighttime snow is wrapped around my memory of him, from the blossoming of our liaison at the high school Winter Formal, to its undignified demise sometime before Valentine's Day. It couldn't have snowed more than four days in all that time, but for me, age fifteen and barely out of childhood, snow was still the most tangible manifestation of magic in existence. And if you went outside at night to dance in it, you ran a good chance of encountering the boy who lived a block and a half away.
Jake was not my boyfriend. My boyfriend was Aaron, who was nearly three years older than me. Aaron was from Nebraska and was therefore cynical in regards to snow. He had no interest in slogging his parents' car through the slushy streets to join me when it started snowing one December night (our town had only one snowplow), so I put on a black wool cap and my snow-stomping moon boots and slipped out alone.
Under the streetlight by Jake's house was a steep hill which would make for good sledding the next day if the flakes stuck. Jake was not outside, but the windows in his house were bright with lamplight. I kept glancing at them, tracing my name into the thin layer of snow on the street so that he would know I had been there. The snow kept falling and filling up my lettering. I tried "Hi Jake"--we had spoken amiably and often enough on the school bus to justify leaving friendly messages for each other--but that got filled up too. I left the hill and walked home.
School was cancelled the next day, and Aaron still declined to come over. "It's just snow," he said, over the phone. "See this for four months and you'd get sick of it, too."
"But we might only have one day," I said.
My sister Peg, who was twelve, tumbled outside with me in a bundle of scarves and silly knit hats. We went to the hill by Jake's house, where people had started sledding. Jake, wearing a heavy red ski coat, turned and smiled at us. His eyes were very blue against the snow and winter sun. Peg giggled in appreciation. He joined us in a walk around the neighborhood, and gallantly climbed a massive oak tree to snip us some mistletoe. As we returned to the corner where we would separate for the day, Jake and I slowed to say goodbye. Peg danced on ahead. I caught his arm, thanked him for the mistletoe, and planted a kiss on his cheek. I scurried off to join Peg before he could move.
"But I wasn't even standing under it!" he called after me.
Peg spun to stare. I shrugged.
Jake grinned. "I'll call you later," he said.
It had already been established that we were going to the Winter Formal with other people--I of course had Aaron, and Jake was taking a flighty blonde girl from one of his classes--but Jake called to make sure we could meet up at the dance. I thought that could be arranged.
It was cold the night of the Formal, but the snow had melted. My dress looked like the green foil that poinsettias come wrapped in. A matching metallic bow was perched on my head, and my cheekbones sparkled with overdone blush. It was impractical, having bare shoulders on a December night, and I shivered under a thin dark coat as Aaron ushered me into the high school cafeteria.
The music bounced loudly off the concrete walls. Balloons, paper snowflakes, and shiny stars helped to hide the ceiling. I let Aaron steer us to a group of his senior friends, most of them Winter Formal court nominees, and stood next to him as they talked and laughed in their elegant tuxedos and gowns. They all seemed to be a foot taller than me. Aaron was gallantly teasing the lovely eighteen-year-old girls who were his classmates, they who I had always envied for their grown-up grace, their full bosoms, their skillful hairstyles and corsages, their advanced-placement English courses. I resented my scrawny bare shoulders and shiny cheekbones and amateur green foil accoutrements. Why had he chosen me?
I looked over my shoulder, and caught sight of Jake and his date strolling toward us. Jake, who held the giggly blonde's hand in his, was smiling in my direction. He seemed blessedly close to my height, and sweetly young. He stopped next to me and we struck up an animated conversation.
Aaron turned to see what I was up to. Jake had dropped his date's hand, so Aaron invited her to dance. She was a freshman, and Aaron enjoyed being dashingly wicked on occasion by flirting with the high school's youngest set.
Unconcerned, Jake, in turn, asked me to dance.
Maybe too much importance is placed on a four-minute stretch of sentimental music, played in a crowded cafeteria, while you sway in the careful arms of a classmate. Maybe we shouldn't think back on such a contrived, conventional, glittery moment and sigh with any genuineness. But the hellfire-preachers were on to something when they decried close dancing as a sin because it awakes the temptations of the flesh and the passions of the mind. I was not yet old enough, nor accustomed enough to the idea of sex, to feel lust as I hovered close against Jake, my sparkly cheek bent to his mercifully accessible shoulder, but how could I not feel a flare of attachment? How could I not wish to stay longer, comfortable and warm, in the arms of the young gentleman who would not only snip down mistletoe for me from dangerous heights, but would be nice to my little sister?
By the next weekend Jake had informed me that he wanted to take me to a movie. Since I was affecting that we were only friends, I told this to Aaron with as much innocence as I could muster. Aaron was unconvinced. Finally one night he insisted upon going to Jake's house, right that minute, and really getting to know the lad. I reasoned and pleaded against it until Aaron nearly had to drag me across the frosty pavement to make me get in the car.
We knocked on Jake's door unannounced, and were let in by his mother. Jake was at work, she said, but he would be home soon. He bagged groceries at Safeway. She sat us down on the couch and made small talk until Jake arrived, with his father, who had picked him up from the store. Looking weary from work, in his shirt and tie, but hopeful and anxious at the sight of Aaron and me, Jake politely sat down and greeted us. What brought us here?, he wanted to know.
"I just thought I should meet the guy who's asking out my girlfriend," Aaron answered.
Arms folded, I lifted my eyes with cold resignation to the high windows of Jake's living room, to let him know I had nothing to do with this.
Jake was appropriately surprised and patient, and, with amazing skill for a fifteen-year-old, smoothly led my senior boyfriend into believing that he had no designs on me, and that nothing could be more normal and pleasant than to have us drop in on him this evening. Aaron, apparently feeling a twinge of conscience after a while, relented and took me home. He did not, however, fail to notice the hot tub on the back porch of Jake's house, and he made me promise that I would never go into that hot tub.
Jake was thus allowed to take me to a movie. The film was rather magical, and featured a recurring theme of swirling snow. The love story touched me, and the fact that Jake agreed he liked it, had paid my way, and didn't talk unnecessarily during it, made him seem the perfect date.
He asked me out again, when winter break had set in and classes were over. He allowed me to decide what we should do this time. Remembering my promise about the hot tub, I said, "Let's go swimming."
At the indoor public pool, I emerged from the echoing showers in a white one-piece suit, dimly aware that I was developing a nice figure, but not sure yet how to do anything with it, or what its effect was on my date. So untrained was I that, although I know Jake must have been bare-chested and glistening with warm water, I do not remember a single detail of his torso. His eyes I remember, and his laugh, and the way he walked, and his fingers (for I often watched him play guitar), but thanks to my young memory the rest of his body is enshrouded in holy mystery.
Treading water a few feet apart near the edge of the pool, we talked for a while. Then he lifted his eyes to the observation deck and a funny look crossed his face. "There's Aaron," he said.
I looked up, and indeed, there was Aaron and one of his senior football-playing friends, leaning on the railing and watching us, smirking.
I pulled myself out of the pool and walked around the concrete perimeter to stand below him, arms crossed, shivering and wet. I asked politely what he was doing here. He had heard where we were from my hapless parents, who no longer knew when to give out information regarding my whereabouts and when not to. I was confusing them with "this Jake thing." Aaron and his friend were very polite, reading the guilt on my face and considering it ample satisfaction. After chatting with me for a while, they left, and I returned to Jake's side in the water.
The point, of course, had been that I shouldn't allow Jake to see me in a swimsuit, much less a wet one--not that I stay out of the hot tub specifically. I knew it perfectly well, but I had played with semantics to get my way. Why?
I tried to break up with Aaron. He wouldn't let me. He was deeply upset and told me I would regain my senses eventually and that until I did, he wouldn't let me go. "Is this because of anyone else?" he said. "Is this because of him?"
"Aaron," I said, impatiently. "No."
Back home, I walked through the living room, where my sister Peg and her friends were having a slumber party. They had been discussing my situation. Their official opinion was that I dump Aaron and go for Jake. (There had never been any love lost between Aaron and Peg.) Knowing that they were mostly unaware of the complications, I asked why they thought I should do something like this.
"Jake's cuter," volunteered one.
"I like the name 'Jake,'" suggested another, who had a crush on a boy named Jake.
"Yeah, but," said another, sensibly weighing the pros and cons, "Aaron has a car."
I thanked them for their input and went to my room.
I came down with a cold that blossomed into a fantastic fever. My mother petted my head as I lay simmering on the couch, and told me I looked beautiful, all pink and glowing like that. I daydreamed that this was true. I felt like an imperiled heroine.
Jake called to see how I was. I told him my temperature with pride, like a ten-year-old boasting about scabs. He was appreciative. He hoped we could get together when I felt better? Certainly. I would give him a call. I hung up the phone and rewrapped myself in the blanket. Curled in the armchair by the window, partway in a dream and partway in a panic, I watched the edges of the new snow melt on the deck.
I was too ill to go to Christmas Eve Mass with my family, so Dad stayed behind with me while Mom and Peg went to church. Then Jake called to wish me Merry Christmas. I ended up talking to him for hours; it was how I spent Christmas Eve. Dad spent it reading a book.
When I recovered, just in time for school to start in January, I revived the break-up conversation with Aaron. It was a Monday night. We were on the phone.
"I won't let you," he said. "Not until I know he'll take you."
"Aaron..." I wheedled.
"Call him," he said. "Right now. Call him and ask, or I won't even listen to this."
I was shaking. I hung up and called Jake.
"Hey," he said. I could tell he was smiling. "What's up?"
"Well...this will sound strange. But I was talking to Aaron, and it doesn't look good, and, so, I was wondering. If anything happened...would you be interested?" I squeezed my eyes shut. It sounded so cheap, so ineloquent.
"In you?" I could hear the surprise in his voice.
I croaked out a sound to indicate Yes.
Now was when I would hear "Well, as a friend," or "Gee, I never really thought about it" or "Sorry, no." I winced in anticipation.
But he answered, tender and relieved: "Definitely."
I opened my eyes. "What?"
"Definitely. You didn't know?"
"Well, I...I had my suspicions."
"What about you?"
"Me? Oh. I'm interested. Yes."
We exchanged similar phrases in undertones for a few minutes, intoxicated by the possibilities, then I said I had to call Aaron back.
"All right," Jake said. Deeper, and quieter, he added, "See you tomorrow."
I beamed and hung up. I was realizing that there was something more magical out there than snow.
But Aaron was not ready to face the magic. He begged for a reprieve. This was annoying, but truly I was terrified at the prospect of being without him. (It seemed like I would be throwing off my snug fur coat in the dead of winter, in favor of a new one that I wasn't sure would fit me.) I granted the reprieve. We would wait and see.
But Jake and I grew sullen and impatient. Not with each other--never with each other. Just with The World: The World that conspired to keep us apart, The World that made our intended union so difficult. We didn't like to admit that it was our own weaknesses that had gotten us where we were. Covert lovers, yet Aaron knew about it. Hadn't even kissed, but Aaron insisted, "He only wants one thing from you." (This from the lad who had endeavored to undress me at every opportunity.) It seemed we were accused of everything without getting to do anything.
"Meet me before school tomorrow," I said, at the end of the week.
6:55 a.m. Mid-January; still dark; frosty and foggy. Nobody was awake. I darted through the backyard in my white coat and thin Keds, backpack over one shoulder, and halted before Jake, who awaited me on the concrete bridge over the creek. We put our packs down and wrapped our arms around each other. My chin rested near his neck. My right hand was pressed up near my nose, against his shoulder. The smell of my mother's hand lotion, which I had borrowed that morning, made me feel weak for months afterward, whenever I flipped open the bottle. His hand moved up and down my back. I pulled back to kiss him. His tongue flicked along my lips.
I walked with him to the school bus. Neither of us said much.
Aaron wouldn't let go, and Jake and I wouldn't stop stealing moments. Every hour that Jake and I were obliged to be with other people was another reason to hate The World. He had to drive down to California with his father one extended weekend and we thought we would shrivel of separation anxiety. When he returned, we arranged another meeting.
It was a crisp, sunny Sunday. At his house, he poured me a glass of Pepsi and we talked amiably. Peg telephoned.
"Aaron called for you," she said. "I said you were taking a bath."
I laughed. It was the middle of the afternoon. "A bath? What did you say that for?"
"I didn't know what to tell him. What should I say if he comes over?"
"Tell him I'm with Jake," I said, coldly. Across the room, Jake's eyes met mine.
"But what if he gets mad? What if I-" Behind her, I heard the front door open, and our dog started barking. Peg's voice fell to a panicked whisper. "He's here!"
"Look," I said. "Tell him I'm out somewhere. We're leaving."
"Okay..." Then, in a comically fake tone of cheeriness, she said, "Bye, Tiff!" (My name is not Tiff.)
What followed in my house, I learned later, was this:
Aaron: (towering over Peg) Where is she?
Peg: (shrinking) She told me to lie.
Jake and I left his house and walked to the park with our arms around each other's waists. As we perched on top of the jungle gym, Jake spotted his mother's car pulling up to the curb. He hopped down into the sawdust, went to talk to her, and came back chuckling.
"Aaron called. She wanted to warn me. 'Be careful,' she said. She thinks Aaron's some kind of psycho." Shaking his head, Jake climbed back up.
Then, a bit later, Aaron pulled up to the curb. He got out and began walking rapidly toward us. Jake and I exchanged glances, then climbed down. Standing firm on the sawdust, we took a few symbolic, pointless steps forward, as if this was the O.K. Corral. Aaron paid Jake no heed. He barreled into me with both hands extended, shoving me back against the metal of the jungle gym. "Did you tell Peg to lie?" he asked.
I reverted to the pitiful girlfriend. "No," I mumbled. He asked other questions; I answered in the same spineless manner, adding sympathy-evoking whimpers of pain as he pressed my shoulder blades into the jungle gym. Meanwhile, I stole swift looks at Jake, who stood silently aside, eyes narrowed at Aaron. The winter wind carried curls of his young, clean fragrance to my nose. I wanted nothing more than to grab his hand and run away with him.
Finally the senseless inquisition was over, and Aaron released me. "All right," he said. "But we're going back to your place." He looked at both of us grudgingly. "You guys want a ride, or you want to walk?"
"It's a nice day. We'll walk," I said.
Aaron nodded and got in his car. Jake and I stood where we were, watching him drive down the street, turn, proceed all the way around the little park, and come back to his starting point. He got out again. "The deal was, you guys walk," he explained. "Never mind. Get in the car."
Back at my house, Jake and I said very little. I made an attempt to scold Peg for lying, but it was lukewarm, as was her apology. There was no quarrel between my sister and me. I knew she was only trying to help me in my deception. Aaron sensed this, and was resentful that Peg and Jake and everyone else seemed to share an understanding with me. He sat with his limbs wrapped around me on the couch, hoarding me, while Jake sat on my other side, icily watching Peg play Nintendo. Within half an hour, he called it a day and went home.
Monday on the bus after school, we held each other's hands across the aisle, in the farthest-back seats. His thumbs ran slowly over mine. "If he ever hurts you again, I want you to let me know," he said.
Aaron faced the music. Out of reluctant habit, I wandered up to him at lunch one afternoon toward the end of the month, and he said, looking down at his locker dial, "Go to him. It's what you want, isn't it?"
Now he was being noble and reasonable. Now he wasn't scaring me. Now I wasn't sure I wanted to leave him. But I walked away, confused, and joined Jake with his friends in the cafeteria.
I had gotten what I wanted; I had freed myself. The fur coat was gone. But I was shivering like I would collapse. If anyone had told me that it was natural to miss Aaron for a few days, I might have understood and waited it out. If I had been older I would have known that already. If Jake had been older he might have been able to tell me. But, ever the gentleman, he had resolved to respect my decision even if my decision was to chicken out and abandon him.
As our school bus pulled out to take us home, I looked past Jake's shoulder out the windows, where Aaron was talking to the blonde freshman who had been Jake's Winter Formal date. Tears of panic stung my eyes. I was free and I couldn't take it.
The infidelity was over. I knew I would beg Aaron to take me back, and I knew he would accept. I despised myself, but that was how it was going to be. I was too frightened to envision life any other way. Jake followed my gaze and then looked at me with slowly spiraling spirits.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled.
His thumbs ran over mine. He sounded hurt, but said the gentlemanly thing: "No. Don't be sorry."