By Jason Ludlow
I fell in love for the first time in tenth grade. Everyday at 1 pm I trekked up two flights of stairs to my marine science class, and everyday I died a little bit more. I would walk into the room with its whale posters and dried seahorses and anatomical oyster models, quietly take my assigned seat, and wait. The bell would ring as she walked through the door with an insouciant expression on her face. Jessica Beck didn’t so much as enter as slide into the classroom, and I, paralyzed, watched every day for an entire semester. I couldn’t help myself. I was sick.
The details of the exact moment when the infatuation took hold are lost. There were, however, certain moments in which I could tell I was shifting emotional grades. Take for example, a class discussion of The Matrix, a film which had recently come out. As one might expect, the praise was entirely lopsided in favor of the film. I recall such pithy comments as “It totally owned” being thrown around the classroom with the total abandon of group hysteria. Our chairs were all gathered towards the center of the room and I was close enough to hear what came next. With a bored expression on her face, Jessica said, “I thought it was terrible. How could anyone wear that much black?” This was followed by a brief silence in which time the rest of the class digested, dismissed the criticism and returned to spewing out lofty panegyrics. Not that it mattered to Jessica; she simply rested her head in her hands and stared at a downward angle with that bored expression still on her face. I thought her words had been iconoclastic; I thought they had been lovely. As the lights turned off and the video on plankton reproductive habits came on, I was still lost in her words which had seemed so important at the time.
So many things: she was different, she was an artist, she appreciated dark humor. She listened to abstruse industrial music. I heard that she smoked marijuana. She was so different from me that nothing could have been more perfect.
Jessica also wore the most amazing clothes imaginable. I remember an inspiringly low, blue halter-top. I remember her wearing a loose, collared shirt with corduroy pants, and, on more than one occasion, a slim, yellow dress that could have been an antique. I remember that once she wore these polyester pants which had bright flames running down either side of the white fabric. It was my conjecture then that those pants must have been sewn onto her body since no force on earth could reasonably have squeezed her into them, in spite of the fact that she had an elfish build. Those pants were a gift from God. The depth of her wardrobe was dizzying. Some days she could’ve walked off a slide from the summer of 1969, while others she seemed to be a character in a play who was suffering from amnesia: an impenetrable expression on her face, someone else’s
clothes on her body.
In contrast to her eccentric style of dress, she rarely adorned her own skin. I don’t remember her wearing rings on her thin, rose-stem fingers and she never wore makeup. Her blonde hair hung straight down to the middle of her back. She had a mole on the right side of her face which occupied that undefined space where the upper-lip ends and the cheek begins.
These aspects, these descriptions, the sum parts that make up the memory of a person whether fresh or, as in this case, five years old are still essentially meaningless in conveying how hard I fell for Jessica or why. I loved the loose straps that looped over her tanned shoulders and how thin her wrists were and the pensive expression that she had while writing. I loved the way that she would remove her shoes and sit on her chair cross-legged as though it were the most natural thing on earth to do, her cutoff jean shorts riding up and always drawing my attention away from Ms. Stockdale, our teacher, as she tried to teach us about the migratory patterns of salmon.
Then there was me.
It would be an understatement to say I did well in high school: 4.0 GPA, soccer player, extracurricular activities, AP classes. I aced the SATs. Not that any of this was particularly fulfilling, or that I especially enjoyed being a model student; rather, it was expected of me, and so I took my orders and delivered the goods. I was Going Places. Doing well in high school came as naturally as a quarterback delivering that perfect, effortless spiral. The difference, of course, is that a quarterback finds himself with the admiration of his peers and a cheerleader girlfriend. For my academic efforts, I, of course, was relegated to walk the halls of Geek Hell, pathetically misunderstood. They say that those teen years are bad for everyone, but they’re worse for some. Here I was, bright, nice, shy. I could tell you who Sisyphus was, I had read a fair share of Hemingway and Steinbeck, and there wasn’t a single essay or test that remotely challenged me. In short, I knew everything there was about life except how to enjoy it. So I began walking between classes with my eyes cast down, filled with so much foolish angst mentally and a brew of hormonal chemicals physically that I was an utter wreck of a person. How, I reasoned, could things have come to this? How, I wondered, could such a well-read person as me be utterly useless at interacting with other people? It was around this time that I fell in love with Jessica Beck.
This didn’t mean that the questions stopped, if anything my relentless introspection and analysis of this confusing world around me increased in their intensity. Now I was asking, “‘What can I do to make her like me? To let her know I like her?” My favorite was, “How can she help me?” As if it was that easy. I was too stupid to realize that I should’ve helped myself, too naïve to realize it was hopeless from the start.
As the owner of an overactive imagination I can say with great certainty that the amplified ability to make stuff up is a mixed blessing. The more love you are capable of feeling, the more pain you are capable of feeling. It’s like a homeostasis thing, you know, that sense of balance which pervades everything.
At times I wished that I was too ignorant to feel bad. The more I learned, the more disillusioned I became. There is, I would reflect, unimaginable suffering occurring all over the planet at this moment and I’m powerless against it. That someone was being raped or murdered at that moment was not actual knowledge, it was imagined, but that didn’t make it any less valid in my mind. I was drowning in apathy and false monstrosities. There was nothing sincere and beautiful left in the world.
Eventually, everyone I knew and everything I cared about would be dead. None of these thoughts were particularly unique, but they did have the effect of keeping my mind in a state of permanent burnout.
I couldn’t make up any happy endings for myself, so I didn’t have any. This applied even to my feelings towards Jessica. Some might be content with the simple pleasures of sexual fantasies, but not me. There was no pathos involved and thus no interest for me personally.
Hint: the most vivid time to create realities for yourself is in the moments where you’re lying in bed with the lights off just staring at the ceiling and waiting to fall asleep. There are no noises to distract you, no images. This is a fecund environment for the mind that is only too happy to provide false sensory input, provided that you’re willing to fill in the details. A typical story arc would go something like this: the unthinkable occurs and I actually tell Jessica how I feel about her, and the even more unthinkable occurs when she reciprocates these feelings. In my mind this was not imagined as a simple situation. Homeostasis: the less likely the event I imagined, the greater the required contrivance. I’ve saved her from her abusive boyfriend. I pushed her out of the way of a runaway semi. Sometimes she received a marring injury to her face (nothing too grotesque) and I still accepted her because I saw into her heart, because I was a savior, because I couldn’t imagine myself doing otherwise in the situation. We marry in spite of the reservations of my parents and show them up by living happily, secure in the bonds of love, freed from financial constraints. We have a child perhaps.
This is when things go awry. My mental outlook on life refused to accept such a happy ending, real or not. So she died. Sometimes she got in a car accident. Sometimes she was murdered in a robbery that went wrong. The child, if there was one, always died with her. I would come home from work and the police would already be there, a young officer nervously toying with his hat would tell me the news about my wife and child. I would drive to the morgue to identify the body and the coroner would ask me if I had known she was pregnant to which I would numbly shake my head from left to right once, twice maybe. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding Jessica’s demise, I would invariably collapse, devastated beyond saving. I would shun the efforts of my family and friends to heal. I would refuse to move on because ours was a love they couldn’t understand, because they had disapproved of the union in the first place, because I couldn’t imagine myself doing otherwise in the situation. Lost in a spiral of nihilism I would either kill myself immediately (i.e., fatal gunshot wound) or gradually (i.e., drug addiction). My death was always tragic, always elegiac. Thousands would mourn my passing.
When I reflect on my younger self and his thoughts now, it is always with a mixture of antipathy and compassion. He was in love with self-destruction and didn’t know it. He was sick, sad. He was lonely. I wish that my younger self would have understood that no-strings-attached, happy endings may not exist, but that’s no reason to give up. I wish that Someone, anyone would have given him hope. Of course, no one helped him and, more importantly, he refused to help himself. Instead, he did something melodramatic. He wrote a letter.
I’ve always had a reasonable, if not damaging, understanding of my limitations. I can’t bench press my own weight; I can’t grow any taller; I can’t dance; I have a tendency to be aloof; I am, on occasion, quite condescending; I’ll never be more than moderately attractive. In light of these setbacks, reversible or otherwise, God did grant me one great mercy: I can write, I’ve always been able to. I understood this back in tenth grade and decided that Jessica should too. Secretly, I was hoping to impress her to the point where she might abandon logic and go out with me. Cute, huh?
So I wrote a letter—a billet-doux, if you must. There was, of course, the risk of intense rejection and embarrassment. Therefore, I wrote the ultimate neurotic love letter. For those of you who have never written one, letters of this nature quite often end up becoming Zen koans of a sort. They go round and round in all directions and maybe there’s a meaning in there somewhere, but it’s never explicated explicitly. Stating exactly what you mean is inelegant, it’s doggerel, not to mention risky. A good neurotic love letter should be dense and impenetrable, use more recondite symbolism than a T.S. Eliot poem, and hedge its bets to the point where if rejection seems imminent you can always say, “‘We11, I didn’t mean it quite that way,” with the inherent suggestion being that the problem lies with the other person’s perspective. They might point at the letter, “‘We11 what about this line, ‘Your breasts, like fresh fruit . . . ‘” Whoa! I just was trying to say that I think you’re pretty cool. That’s all.
Armed with the literary faculties that I possessed at the time this task was just slightly past the point of Absolute Impossibility. The end result would have been laughable if it weren’t made with such sincerity. Ladies and gentlemen I present to you the romantic cipher: pointless, brainless, replete with popular clichés that begin with words like, “From the first time,” and unwieldy metaphors, “Your presence, like a sun-dappled whatever reminds of something.” Oh, oh, the tragedy of it all. Amazingly, at the time I thought this was brilliant, step one in my sweep-her-off-her-feet strategy. The two page paean fit into my wallet after some nifty folding and I swore that the first chance I got I would hand it to Jessica and then run away very fast.
The letter never got to her. It’s not that I was a coward, well; okay it was because I was a coward. In class I would rehearse various approaches and outcomes in my mind. None of them turned out right. At best she would reject me; at worst I would lose consciousness, slip over the railing and plummet two stories to my utterly, utterly tragic and utterly, utterly banal death. I’d probably land on an orphan or a kitten to complete the scene. So I waited and watched with a leaden tongue as she rose and left the classroom, another missed opportunity, another wasted chance. Someone had to take the blame for this and since God was (a) available and (b) probably not going to do anything about it, He became the focus of my frustration. I began to antagonize God, shredding him for not grating me a fortuitous situation to resolve my feelings of affection. Let me prove myself I would plead, one serendipitous meeting, a sign of interest from her, anything, and I would take the initiative from there. Apparently, as strange as this might sound, He listened.
And that, as they say, is when things went from bad to worse. To be fair, though, they were better for a few seconds, much better. Then I screwed up everything.
That day I had been in a mood. I don’t know if it was school, trouble at home, or whatever. The bottom line was this: I was torqued. For the first time in forever, Jessica wasn’t at the forefront of my mind during class, which is probably why things happened the way they did. If you read Siddhartha there are all sorts of allusions to the philosophy of pacifism, water is stronger than rock and blahblahblah. It’s funny because it’s true, the closest I came to having a chance with Jessica came on the one day when I wasn’t thinking about her at all.
I stormed out of the classroom and was so preoccupied with my torqued-off thoughts that I didn’t realize I was walking right next to her. Our paces were evenly matched. I seized up internally; I began to feel the exterior of my skin grow warm and embarrassed. She was wearing a pair of faded, torn-up jeans and Doc Martens, an irresistible combination. I remember the lower half of her body quite distinctly since my eyes were virtually plastered to the floor. I had to say something. This is the point where I draw up those hidden reservoirs of courage, those lost vestiges of will that supersede shyness, right? This is where Clark Kent becomes Superman, right? Then, to my wondering ears, she spoke first. “Jason Ludlow,” she said in an amused manner as though she was privy to a joke that I couldn’t hear. My brain, in light of this unprecedented event, went haywire: my name, she’d said my name, she’d said my name and initiated the conversation process, oh man, oh man, oh man. I struggled stupidly for the part that was supposed to come next. Say something back you idiot. Oh, right. “Yeah,” I said in reply. At least, I think it was “yeah.” It was “yeah” or some equally meaningless affirmative and I didn’t so much say it as mumble it.
We completed the walk down the stairs and headed in opposite directions. I went left and she went right, swaying her voluptuous hips from side to side. I turned to watch her move away. There was so much lateral movement it was like she was standing in the same spot while her figure receded, it was like some sort of optical illusion. I stayed there even after she had disappeared from sight and did what I did best I thought, I dissected the situation coldly, critically. This is the actor who forgets his line. This is the baseball player striking out in the bottom of the ninth. This is the doctor who severs the vein he was supposed to reassemble. When I got home, I threw the note away and committed myself to erasing her memory.
I couldn’t have chosen a more otiose task. Granted, the memories of Jessica eventually lost their color and the infatuation dried up, but what ever was left persisted. Eleventh grade, twelfth grade, whenever I saw her it was electric heat as all of the emotions attempted to return. She never lost her charm. Even on the night of graduation, the last time I saw her, there was still something flowing from me to her although now it seemed as though all I wanted was an acknowledgment, I wanted her to validate my vain pursuit. We didn’t even make eye contact; she breezed by in that easy manner and I haven’t seen her since. How abnormal is this? Why do I feel so drawn towards the memory of my disappointments? Like a scab I continue to pick at it, this person, this ideal. Her figure occupies a shadowy and largely dormant portion of my mind that continues to flare up on rare occasions, although now the memory is tainted by the bitter, certain knowledge that since that day when everything came crashing down with a weak monosyllable from my lips, I haven’t been in her mind at all.