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Anything But Heartbreak

June 6, 2013

It was freshman year of high school. I was deep in the throes of teenage metamorphosis. Hormones ruled my every thought magnifying the mundane to epic proportions. My grandparents, who raised me, were very patient with me, wisely knowing that today’s tantrum would be forgotten by tomorrow. But, as I say, it was my freshman year and while some things may flash and fade with the fury of a bomb, other things boiled steadily and I attended them with the unshakable faith of innocence. I listened to Avril Lavigne’s album “Let Go” on a nearly continuous loop. Nowadays, I don’t think I could sit through one whole song. Maybe during a drunk reminisce. Anyway, another thing I obsessed over that year was Justin Wilkins. As far as I knew, he had no idea I existed.

We were in the same English class with Mrs. Dennison. I sat in the next row over from him, one seat behind. I spent most of the time admiring the part of his profile I could see. I would secretly write his name over and over again in my notebook. I would write it next to mine and admire how good they looked next to each other. I never dared cross the threshold of writing “Salomé Wilkins”. I didn’t want to ruin that sacred moment in the future when I would write it for the first time for real.

I don’t know why I liked him so much. I didn’t know anything about him really. I knew he was friends with Cody Blackburn and Russell Beckner. They inhabited the layer of social strata right in the middle, the forgotten middle class. Not noticeable enough to be popular or decidedly unpopular. They were not cool, but, more importantly, not uncool. I was a few layers below them in the class of outsiders that has no group, not a goth, not a punk, not a stoner, not a band kid, not religious, just not anybody.

Sometimes at lunch I would strategically place myself at a table where I could watch Justin eat. I would pretend I was reading a book but would really be watching him laugh with his friends. His laugh made my heart tremble.

In the absence of any real information about him, I filled in the blanks. Using his body and face as a template, I imagined a personality for him, one that matched my own. We would talk about Harry Potter and he would hold my hand and I would lay my head on his shoulder and he would tell jokes that only I would understand and he would understand me even though I sometimes couldn’t understand myself. I would pretend to be interested in whatever boy stuff he liked because I loved him. We would get married and have babies and we would rent movies together and snuggle on our couch together and we would not have to worry about anything because He would be a famous skateboarder and I would be a famous author. He would teach me how to ski and I would bake him apple pies from my family’s secret recipe. We would grow old together but never be old because we were together. Though he didn’t know it yet, I believed with a fervent zeal that Justin Wilkins and I were meant to be together.

 …

In my sophomore year, Justin Wilkins and I didn’t have any classes together and his lunch was at a different time than mine. The heat had cooled over the summer. I finally allowed myself to consider the possibility that it might not ever happen and I could be wrong. That was also the year I met Matt and Hattie, who have been two of my closest friends ever since. It’s amazing the difference a friend makes. They bring a certain amount of balance and a good friend will voice the caution you’ve been ignoring.

Gradually, as the year wore on I forgot about Justin Wilkins. I would still see him occasionally leaving or arriving at the school. When you’re a teenager every year is worth a thousand real years and he was a fond memory from a thousand years ago. Besides, Justin seemed like a child compared to Hattie’s brother Mike who was a senior and a football player. Mike said my name in the cutest way, like he was trying to impress a language teacher, carefully. He was in love with (and now married to) Elaine, who despite my overwhelming desire for her to be an evil harpy, was so unpretentiously beautiful and one of the nicest people I have ever met. I loved Mike like I love Superman; he was an unattainable ideal to measure the world against. Nevertheless, he helped me forget about Justin Wilkins.

 …

Senior year.

All my energies and desires this year were directed at leaving and going to college, leaving behind the crummy arrogance of small town America and finding myself in the sea of possibilities that exist in a major metropolis. I worked part-time in the town’s only bookstore and saved like a miserly squirrel. I studied like a mad scientist. In the absence of any interest, my self-worth had moved from approval from boys to approval from the state-funded education system. Love was the last thing on my mind.

It was March.

Justin Wilkins was across the register from me at a fast food restaurant. He was in the unhappy daze of the service industry, waiting for the end of his shift. A wave of recognition seemed to sweep across his face.

“I know you,” he said.

“I—I—,” I stammered.

“We had Mrs. Dennison’s class together.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s crazy. Did you know she was the reason Russell had to repeat the ninth grade? He should’ve graduated last year. I remember you. You used to get in trouble for reading books.”

“Yeah. That’s me.”

“That’s so crazy. How do you get in trouble for reading books in an English class?”

I laughed.

“I don’t know.”

“What was your name again?”

“I’m Salomé. And you’re Jason?” Deceit seems to come natural to me, part of my human ancestry.

“Justin.”

He held his hand out and we shook hands. My heart fluttered. I awkwardly ordered my food. I was embarrassed to be reading a book when he brought my food to the table.

“Can I call you sometime?” he asked.

He was so casual I didn’t realize what had happened till he was gone back to the register. Justin Wilkins was going to call me! I had been right all along! Our destinies were linked. It seemed like it was too good to be true. I expected to wake up and find it had been a dream or to return home to find he had posted my phone number on the Internet with a note saying, “For a good time call…”

He called the next day. It was an awkward phone call but I smiled the whole time. My cheeks hurt when it was over. I don’t even know what we talked about. I was too excited to care. I liked him so much. Or at least I liked the him I had constructed in my mind, the one who liked books and was strong and sensitive.

We started a relationship. Justin Wilkins was my first official boyfriend. We held hands in the hallways. He took me to see some scary movies. I dutifully and happily snuggled close to him when prompted by the filmmakers. He introduced me to his friends. I felt like a high school Cinderella discovering a whole new world and a whole new me, Salomé the girlfriend.

Hattie was not shy about expressing her disapproval. She said he was an asshole and that we were not right for each other. I told her that she didn’t know him and couldn’t make such judgment calls. After we both agreed that she wasn’t my mother, we decided to take a break from our friendship. Matt complained to me daily about having to divide his allegiances between Hattie and me. He suggested she might be right.

“But you don’t learn without making mistakes,” he added.

“Thanks, granddad,” I said.

It was prom night when I finally realized that my friends could be telling the truth. We took a limo to the dance and he wouldn’t stop pawing at me. His hands were sweaty and I suddenly took a keen interest in his ragged fingernails that he had obviously been chewing on. He hocked a loogie out the window at a stoplight. He refused to dance and we spent most of the night standing near a wall while he and his friends shared “punch”. Around the third time he called one of his friends a “faggot” as a joke, I began to wonder if I had made a mistake and perhaps Justin Wilkins wasn’t the man I had imagined him to be.

He offered me a drink of “punch”.

I didn’t want any.

“You should have some,” he said, slurring a little. “It’s your prom night. It should be special.”

“That’s true,” I said.

Without warning, I burst into tears. He looked at me with a mixture of fear and disgust. I went outside to the payphone and called my grandpa. As I waited for him to pick me up, Matt joined me sitting on the curb.

“This party sucks, right?” he said.

“I feel so embarrassed,” I croaked.

“I know. Who throws a party without any board games?”

I smiled and leaned on his shoulder.

“You deserve better, Sal.”

“I thought he was better. I’d built up this whole thing in my mind, this fake Justin that blocked out the real one. I feel like an idiot.”

“You feel embarrassed for hoping for the best? That’s nothing to feel embarrassed about.”

“I know.”

“I should be so lucky. I’m always hoping for the worst so my fears will be proved right and I’ll get some sort of twisted satisfaction out of that.”

“You know in freshman year, I used to think Justin and I would get married. I’d already decided we would have three dogs and two kids, Justin Junior and Katie.”

Matt put his arm around me.

“My Salomé, always prepared for anything.”

“Anything but heartbreak.”

“No one’s prepared for that.”

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