24. In Love With Spring: My Novel Online
Jules tried to participate in the conversation about Karen Carpenter’s recent death; she shook her head when PJ asked, How could someone be so skinny and think they’re fat? and listened as Allie described her bout with anorexia, including bulimia, and when PJ said, Oh my God, you are so thin, though! and Allie said, I realized why I stopped eating, and that it had nothing to do with my weight, Jules commented, It was so amazing how you figured that out without having to go to a doctor! but she was hopelessly preoccupied. Snatches of last night’s confession came back to her, along with PJ’s unexpectedly excited response: Oh goodie! I thought you liked him, but I wasn’t sure! Jules reminded her anxiously, But you said you like him too, and PJ had said, Silly! He’s way too smart, he’d never even look twice at me.
A knock on the door startled her. “Come in!” she called, darting to the mirror to check her appearance. With both hands she smoothed down her hair, then immediately tried to puff it up.
“Hi, ladies,” Michael greeted them all, but his eyes were on Jules as she went over to her bed and pretended to reposition her pillow. “Are we still on for today?”
“Sure.” Jules hoped her voice sounded casual as she turned to face him. “Let’s go.”
“Have fun,” PJ said.
Michael nodded, then pulled a clutch of keys out of his pocket. “Jules, look.”
“You have keys to a car?”
“Yup. Mason said we can use it.”
“Psyched!” Turning to Allie, Jules explained, “When you’re in college you can go for months without being in a car… you get used to walking everywhere. I haven’t driven since the summer. I’m not even sure I remember how!”
“Our daddies didn’t give us cars for our sixteenth birthday,” Michael added wryly.
PJ, whose father had given her a car for her sixteenth birthday, said sweetly, “Have fun,” and left.
“Anyway, so we can go wherever we want.” Michael reached over to help Jules on with her coat.
“Thanks.” His hand on her arm lingered; warm, familiar, intimate. Desire shot through her. Nervous, she pulled away. “Let’s hit the road.”
They went straight to Dunkin’ Donuts for bagels and coffee, then drove around town. Then the diner for lunch, and more driving, this time with Jules at the wheel; but only after a brief, affectionate interlude, during which Michael dangled the keys in front of her, and when she reached for them, he pulled them away, behind his back, and said, You want ’em, come and get ’em! They came up with reasons to go to CVS (candy bars, toothpaste, and shoe laces) and Stop & Shop (Ramen noodles, pasta and sauce), and when Allie asked how they expected to cook noodles and pasta, they explained that fifth burners were forbidden in dorm rooms, but that just about every kid had one.
“I need to get back for rehearsal,” Michael said, looking at his watch. “You coming?”
Jules nodded without consulting Allie. “A little bit of the dialogue seemed kind of inauthentic to me last time. I mean, not so much the actual dialogue, but the way Lillith said it… didn’t sound quite right…”
Allie listened to their voices, not hearing the words, but alert to the inflections and degree of intimacy with which they traded opinions. Michael was watching Jules as she spoke, and he wore an interested, attentive smile. At one point he leaned back a little, stretched his arm across the seat, and when she teased him about being too hard on the actors, he tugged on her hair. And all the while Allie was planning what she would say to Jules.
“He’s cute. He’s smart. He’s just your type.”
Allie hesitated. “Not really but… but, well, he’s hard to read. He seems to really really like you… ”
“But does he like like me?”
“He should. I mean, you guys are so much alike. You agree on everything. You even ate the same thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner, did you notice? He just seemed like he wanted whatever you ordered.”
“So does that mean… ?”
“I think,” Allie said carefully, “that it could go either way. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be more, like, definitive about it. It’s just… like I said, he’s wicked hard to read. I know he likes you. A lot. But there’s also like a… ”
“Distance,” Jules said.
“Yes. That’s it.” For a moment Allie thought about the way Kevin gazed at Lisbeth, the way Tim’s eyes lit up at the sight of Mandy, and even the way Zeke broke into a sweet smile whenever Allie met him at the playground… and Michael was not like. He watched Jules a lot; he almost never looked away while they were together. But the vibe was… weird. “I think you’ll just have to play it by ear. But just keep being yourself. I think he’s responding to that. He respects you, that’s for sure. And that counts for a lot.”
Jules nodded and had to be satisfied.
Nothing more was said about him; not while Allie packed her suitcase, nor during their walk to the train station.
Jules was quiet, painfully nostalgic for her family and her bedroom. “Give everyone a kiss, tell them I miss them. I’ll come home next weekend with Simon,” she promised, struggling with a lump in her throat big as a speed bump.
“I will.” Allie’s voice was muffled, pressed against Jules’ shoulder.
As the train pulled away and out of sight, Jules stood staring at the tracks. In that moment she envied Allie so much it hurt. In about an hour Mom would pick Allie up at the station. She and Mandy and Lisbeth would demand all the details of her visit. Allie would say she loved PJ, and then she would make fun of Jules’ obnoxious friends. Later, when it was time for bed, the last words she would hear would be Lisbeth’s: I’m glad you had fun, but I’m glad you’re home. I missed you.
One afternoon while Mandy and Tim were having lunch at Russel-Berries, she saw a help wanted sign. Impulsively she spoke to the managers, Russel Desmond and Barry Greene about the job. She admitted she had no waitressing experience, but they liked her smile, told her she had "the look” they wanted, and hired her.
Russel-Berries was a step above fast food or family style joints; the kind of place where the waitress asked how you liked your meat cooked, and didn’t have to write down the order. They catered to a new phenomenon called “the Yuppie.” Yuppies had good jobs, spent freely, wore button down shirts, and narrow knit ties, jeans, and expensive shoes with no socks.
Mandy was assigned to Pauline, who trained her to be efficient, quick, and careful. “Plus it wouldn’t hurt you to unbutton the top couple of buttons on your uniform.”
Mandy’s hand rose to her throat. “Do I have to?”
“Nah. But you get better tips.” Pauline’s uniform barely concealed her large, not-quite-middle aged breasts. “You can make more in tips than in regular salary.”
“Okay.” Mandy undid the top two, then the third. “Not as much cleavage as you,” she said apologetically.
“You got something better—thin waist and tight ass. Boobs don’t seem to count for as much anymore. Guys want you to be thin as a bone now.”
And when Tim saw her that night in her Russel-Berries uniform he gave an appreciative whistle. “Skirt’s a little short though, isn’t it?”
He grinned and reached for her. “I’m ready to place my order.”
When Lisbeth heard that Miss Spaulding, the science teacher, had been asked to leave after having an affair with one of her students, it felt like an opportunity to pose the question she’d never had the guts to ask.
It was Thursday, and he always called on Thursday. She eased into it, chatting about school and laying the foundation; but to her dismay, he told her he wasn’t coming home for the weekend. “Big exam to study for. I haven’t even cracked a book.”
“I could help you study, if you want.”
“No, that’s okay, Lissie. Plus there’s this party… ”
“Yeah, Simon is going and he asked me to go. We probably won’t stay late, since I have to study.”
Was she imagining it, or did he sound like he was lying about needing to study? It seemed to her that the only reason he was staying was so he could go to this party, and, being a teenaged girl, she promptly felt suspicious, anxious, and insecure. “Miss Spaulding got fired today.”
“She did? How come?”
“She was having an affair with a student.” In the silence that followed this announcement, Lisbeth waited with a pounding heart, hoping she’d be able to tell from his response whether or not the rumors were true.
“I had her for science,” he said.
“I know you did.”
“Did you ever have her?”
“That’s too bad. I liked her.”
“What’s too bad?”
“What’s too bad—that she got fired or that she was having an affair with a student?”
He should have been alerted by her sharp tone, but, being a teenaged boy, he wasn’t. “That she got fired. She was a good teacher.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Lisbeth said.
“What do you mean?”
“Just that I heard something about you and her.”
“Uh… what… ?”
“So it’s true?”
“That you… and Miss Spaulding… ”
“We were friends,” he said carefully.
“Oh my God!”
“You had an affair with a teacher! That is so gross!”
“It was a long time ago.”
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me, Kevin!” She felt sick, sick.
“Why are you so upset? It was before I met you!”
“Because… because she’s so sexy and… and I’m just so… ”
“Lissie! You’re sexy! Much sexier than her!”
“Yeah, right.” Lisbeth remembered the day that Miss Spaulding wore a tight sweater and a bra so flimsy that her nipples showed through. She even heard some boys talking it. Lisbeth’s breasts seemed so determined never to show up; not that any of the April girls had big ones, but still… even Allie’s were bigger.
“Lisbeth,” Kevin said, “you knew I’d been with… I mean, you knew you weren’t my first… I mean, you knew that.”
She sighed. “I know.”
“None of them meant anything to me. It would be like… if you and I broke up and you were with someone else, it wouldn’t bother him that you had been with me.”
“What do you mean if we break up?”
“Not if we break up… if we broke up. Which we’re not going to do. Come on, Lissie!”
“And now you’re not even coming home this weekend, you’re going to some party… ”
“I have to go.”
“This is stupid. What happened was a long time ago, and it was only a couple of times, and it was before I met you.” When she didn’t answer, he added, “You’re overreacting.”
“I am not.” She was, she knew she was. But she couldn’t stop—she was just so hurt. She didn’t even know why she was hurt; like he said, all the others were before her. It wasn’t as if he had cheated on her. “I have to go,” she said again. She waited, praying he would say, You know what, Lissie? Screw the party, I’m coming home this weekend after all! And then she would feel so much better… she’d even be able to say, No, Kevin, that’s okay, I’m fine, honest. Go to the party and have fun! and mean it. But when he didn’t, she was even more hurt and mad. “Call me whenever.”
Now he was annoyed too. “Okay, fine.”
“Fine.” Slamming the phone down, she sat at the kitchen table, so upset that she was shaking. Their first fight. Going into her bedroom, she shut the door and cried quietly so that no one in the house would hear her.
“And then she just says I have to go, call me whenever, and she hangs up,” Kevin told Simon the next day. They weren’t going to the party for another hour or so, but Simon had beer and they were hanging out in his room listening to Gaucho by Steely Dan. “She was really pissed.”
“I have no idea.”
Simon tried to picture Lisbeth being mad, and couldn’t. “I guess she’s jealous.”
“But it was before I met her! What happened with that teacher had nothing to do with Lisbeth.” Kevin took a long swig. “I don’t need that shit, do I, Simon?” His voice was loud; defiant. “What does she, get to be pissed about everything that happened before we met? What about that time I shoplifted a pack of cigarettes?”
Simon was torn between loyalty toward Lisbeth, who he loved like a sister, and solidarity with Kevin, who, next to Jules was his best friend. “Girls are crazy,” he said.
“How would you know?” Kevin teased.
“Fuck you,” Simon responded mildly. He raised his beer. “For your information, I scored with Jessica.”
“That chick in your English lit class?”
“Congratulations, man! Proud of you!”
“How was it?”
“Great.” Not great, with him so shy and uncertain. She’d obviously been around a lot, and her instructions, while helpful, had been incredibly humiliating. But at least he’d done it once, and from now on it would be easier. And, he hoped, the next time would actually be with Jules, not just him pretending it was.
The party was at a frat house, and by the time they arrived at around 9:00, every single person there was drunk. Simon’s mind shot back to the party he’d attended with Jules a few years back, how he’d stayed close to her, watching everything in amazement like some dumb kid. Fortified with the three beers he’d had at the dorm, he took a hit from someone’s proffered joint, and began to circulate. The thing about college was, no one there knew him when he was that outsider; here he was just one of the music students.
About an hour later he noticed Kevin talking to some girl who was laughing at everything he said; leaning close, touching him and swishing her long brown hair. She was so drunk that her eyes were only half open, and she looked like she was going to fall over. The opposite of Lisbeth! Kevin looked drunk, too, swaying a little as he grinned at her. Simon went over to interrupt, but to his shock, this girl suddenly pulled Kevin close and locked lips with him. Kevin didn’t resist, and when they pulled apart, she began to dance, her slinky body an invitation.
“Hey, Kevin,” Simon grabbed his arm. “Let’s get out of here.”
“What? No! Please don’t take my Kevvie away!” the girl said. “We’re just getting to know each other.”
“We just got here,” Kevin protested weakly.
“How come you’re so wasted? We only had a few beers in my room.”
“I was half in the bag when I came over,” Kevin admitted, “and I’ve had a bunch to drink here.”
The drunk girl clung; kissed him again. “No, Kevvie, stay. Please!”
In his whole life Simon had never once even considered raising his hand to someone, especially a girl, but in that moment he would have liked nothing more than to grab her and shove her away. “Come on.”
She pouted. “You’re mean.”
Simon didn’t respond as he dragged Kevin out the door and down the stairs. They got to the shrubs in front of the building before Kevin muttered that he didn’t feel so good, and dropped to his knees and puked.
“What the fuck?” Without mercy, Simon berated him. “You have the best girl in the world, what are you doing, man?”
Kevin, stomach churning, just shook his head.
Simon was furious; his own buzz gone. “Not cool, Kevin!”
“I used to be able to drink more,” Kevin said finally, getting unsteadily to his feet. “You going to tell Lizbeth?”
“Thanks, I owe you.”
“I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for her. This would kill her. God, what a shit you are.”
Kevin nodded, slurred, “Yup. I’m a first-class shit… asshole… douche bag… ”
Simon was grim as he escorted Kevin back to his room. “That gross girl, too. God. What the fuck?”
“I don’t know,” Kevin said. He sat on his bed. “I’m gonna be sick again.”
Simon dumped out the contents of a wastebasket and handed it to him. Without another word, he headed out the door. “I’m going back to my dorm.” He heard Kevin call after him, “I didn’t mean to kiss her!” but didn’t answer. All he could think was, now he had a secret he couldn’t tell Jules.
Kevin woke the next morning to a pain that pierced his skull from back to front. And the stench, Jesus, what was that from? The wastebasket. The smell made him gag, and as much as he didn’t want to, he held the wastebasket up to his face and puked some more. Then he lay back, miserable, throat burning, stomach throbbing. There was only one thing in the world he wanted, and that was to call Lisbeth, apologize for having slept with Miss Spaulding, and be forgiven. For that, at least.
He waited out another hour until the agonizing nausea faded, and then stumbled into the hallway.
She picked up on the first ring, and blurted out, “I’m so sorry, Kevin! I acted like such a jerk! Of course you had a life before me! Like you said, you didn’t even know me. I had no right to be mad!”
Her apology derailed his plan, and he heard himself say, “It’s okay, Lissie.”
“So I’m still your girlfriend?” In her voice, desperation. It had been a horrible night, feeling sick with anxiety that she was going to lose him.
“Of course,” he said. Simon is right; if I told her, it would kill her.