By Nicholas Sauer
“I prefer to be able to sleep at night,” he says. “I don’t want to destroy my soul getting what I want, you know?” He shifts the weight of his book bag from one shoulder to the other. His hands fly in the air as he lectures the manicured lawns and the cavernous potholes the township is busy not repairing. “No piles of skulls scattered around my life.”
“So having a little ambition makes me Pol Pot or something,” I say. My glasses are broken. The pads have both fallen off and the metal digs into the bridge of my nose like bamboo shoots. I sense a theme here: the conflict in Southeast Asia. History exam tomorrow. Damn.
“I’m sorry, Liv. That’s not what I meant.”
“Of course, it’s what you meant. It shows in your eyes,” I say. “They get all huge and pleading. You’ve blown your cover of niceness. The charge: having an opinion. It carries a sentence of at least twenty years.” I cross my arms as if I’m waiting for the court stenographer to catch up. “But I can tolerate your self-righteousness. And your name, too, which sounds suspiciously like an alias. Either that, or a Tom Cruise character.”
“Jack Tolbert.” He investigates his name’s three syllables. “Maybe I’m in the Witness Protection Program,” he says raising his eyebrow. “And it all depends on the character you have in mind as far as Tom Cruise goes. If I get to fly an F-14, I’d be okay with that. As for names, I don’t know if you have much room in that category, Miss Olivia P. Kronstadt.”
“Well-played. Look, I’m not upset. I respect your honesty. If only you would.”
“Respect my own honesty? How so?”
“Um . . .” My tongue has been tied into a noose.
As my mind reels, we pass Ms. Leibniz. She is digging up her dead annuals in the front yard. The flowers are shriveled as if they’ve been hit by that nefarious ray-gun of time. Maybe Jack and I need to lay off so many Saturday night B-movies.
“Should I ask Patient Zero if you can borrow her shovel?” Jack asks, shunting me back into conversation.
“Her shovel?” I whisper, studying the neighbor woman, her skin pale and brittle. “For my own grave?”
“Look, I’ll be straight. It’s just that you never reveal your views in public. For instance, to the career counselor today.”
“I give them what they want,” Jack says bluntly. “Respectable answers. I want to get into a four-year college, something in the humanities, bring a cot to the library so I can save on room and board. And then the counselors and teachers give me what I want: they leave me alone. I’m one student closer to their filling a quota.”
“So you’re more cynical than I am.”
“I wouldn’t call it cynicism, Liv. Just a buffer. If I’m nice and acceptable, then I can move about unsupervised,” Jack explains.
“You make compliance sound so subversive.”
“Why, thank you.”
“Seriously, though . . . even if you’ve got ideals, what good are they if you’re presenting a front to the rest of the world?”
“I haven’t figured that out yet. I’ve been thinking a lot about it though.”
“In front of the computer.”
“And while staring at the ceiling. I swear I’ve seen the rings of Neptune in the paint swirls.”
“So you’re the change you want to see in the world. Only you can’t envision what the change is exactly.”
“Yep. A rootless cosmopolitan . . .who’s never gone anywhere.”
“You just need a Stalin to light a fire under your ass.”
“I’ve never considered dictators as motivational speakers, Liv.”
“They’re the best kind.”
Jack studies my eyes, large and blinking, behind my glasses. He’s silent for a moment, for what seems like half an hour. His light brown hair dangles around his thin face. So meticulously sloppy, like he took supreme effort to give the impression he doesn’t care. He probably spent twenty minutes trying to decide whether to wear the wrinkled Mario Brothers T-shirt or the wrinkled D&D T-shirt today (he chose the former).
I wonder if he knows what I’m aiming at, that I want to see if he’ll crack, if that aristocratic slacker boy role he plays will finally shatter all over the blacktop like a Coke bottle. He must want something more from life than the pleasure of his anonymity. But maybe not, maybe he’s content off in his corner doing reconnaissance. Maybe his ambition is to be left alone. Maybe he even wants to be “left alone” by me. Let’s face it . . . I have no idea. All I can do is smirk. The smirk. One of my surefire tools—nothing can mask utter insecurity as robust self-confidence better.
By this point, we’ve reached Jack’s house. Two-stories. Brick and white siding. Covered-wagon mailbox. A real Frank Lloyd Wright incognito. “I love you,” Jack tells me. The words are quiet and pert as if he has just made them up himself and is cautiously testing the sound they make. The phrase comes out the same way every time he says it. He takes my hands as if he’d like to swing me once around and fall into the grass together. But he doesn’t; the earth remains firmly beneath my feet. Smiling playfully, he climbs the steps and disappears into the ravenously polite maw of his parents’ abode.
I guess we are dating. I’m not exactly sure. He’s never really asked me “out.” But I guess I’d be foolish to wait for heralds with trumpets and whatnot. Although we did go to the Renaissance fair last summer and he complimented my elf cloak. If I weren’t doing seven extra-curricular activities, from Chess to Stage Tech, I’d have some time to research the correlation between adolescent courtship rituals and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
I put on my headphones. The robins are too real. I’ve taken a break from the Baroque. If I don’t become a bio-chemist my parents want me to be a violin prodigy. Trouble is, it’s my junior year already—but I guess I could go for being the world’s oldest wunderkind. Anyway, I’d rather just listen to REM. Here’s a truck stop instead of Saint Peter’s, Michael Stipe wails. Just replace “truck stop” with CVS. That’s my view of eternity. I feel like I’ll work there forever. But what’s the difference between a Comically Vacant Servant and Coercive Vindictive Statesman in the long-run? I keep a list of all the things CVS might be an acronym for. Also, when Stipe gargles, Here’s a little ghost for the offering, I always hear alpha wing instead. Hmm . . . sounds like a good name for an action-adventure with a ruggedly handsome protagonist named Jack Tolbert or something.
At CVS. My sentence . . . er, shift—5:00 to 9:00—has just begun. In my blue, slightly snug work shirt I feel like I’m in an episode of SeaQuest. From one of the earlier seasons.
“Sorry, sir,” I tell the man who approaches my register. His comb-over is of da Vinci-like artistry. “The film machine is down.”
“Why?” he asks impatiently. “I have to get a passport photo.”
“Fleeing the country? Tax evasion or running drugs?”
“What? Just take the picture already!”
“The machine is down. It’s been leaking flesh-eating acid lately.”
“Isn’t there a manager anywhere?”
“Sure. Outside, smoking. He’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown. If you push him over the edge, you win a twenty-five dollar gift card.”
Watching other people implode is psychological comfort food. I’m not proud of my diet.
The customer seems to sense this perversion. “How about one for fifty?” he coaxes. A kindred spirit. How heart-warming.
Next in line is star wide-receiver and class president Todd Berman. Face, classically chiseled but not missing a nose or ear like in a museum. Spiky blond hair. The sun with loads of gel in it. Just my luck, today he is buying condoms.
“You know, Todd,” I begin as the scanner beeps.
Score, you got the first two letters right! I think to myself. “It’s Liv.”
“Sorry,” Todd grumbles.
“I’ve always wondered. They make Magnum condoms. Why not an ICBM brand? They could be a conversation-starter about national defense.”
“Whatever, Kronsteen,” Todd huffs as he books out of the store. I think I have confused him.
“It’s Kronstadt!” I call after him. “And also the product’s non-refundable if faulty. Read the back . . .”
I probably shouldn’t have said that. But, again, my internal censors are easily bribed. They have to live too.
School lunch always reminds me of A Christmas Carol. All the lost souls flying outside Scrooge’s window, rattling their chains. Or in this case, plastic trays. Tomato soup oozing like medieval bile. Meatloaf coagulating. I didn’t know meatloaf was supposed to coagulate.
Jack and I sit by ourselves in the corner of the cafeteria, near the exit where the librarian and the long-term math sub stand guard over the restless natives with their hormones and impaired logic and un-fine motor skills. Mashed potatoes splatter on the wall inches away from my head. Teachers’ eyes are always darting back and forth, addled by caffeine—the drug of choice—and by the somber realization that they’ve never managed to escape high school.
“How did the Caravan of Vivacious Somnambulists go last night?” Jack prods.
“What? . . . Oh, yeah, CVS. It was a forfeiture of life like usual,” I say without lifting my eyes from my biography of Foucault.
“I can’t believe your parents make you work there.”
“They’re trying to impress upon me the possible consequences of my not getting into an A-list school.”
“I see. Staring into the void and all that.”
“Thankfully, it’s only two nights a week.”
I peek over the tome in my hands. The girls are all in line for tutoring with the math sub. Tall, dark, and handsome. Well, maybe not so tall. Or handsome. There’s a rumor he’s a nark for the FBI. But since he teaches math that probably stands for Federal Bureau of Integers. The middle-aged librarian is wearing clingy stockings and a jeans skirt today. Her perm is electrifying. It is as if the Bride of Frankenstein wandered onto the set of Flashdance.
Jack pulls the book from my face gently as if handling a leech. “I’m finding it hard to compete with the printed word,” he says.
“Well, if you wrote an autobiography,” I say, “it would be called My Sedentary Life.”
“Fair enough,” he murmurs. “And what’s so great about Foucault?”
“I think it’s the setting. The lunchroom has always reminded me of the panopticon.”
“I think there’s some kind of mind-control serum cooked into the tater tots, Liv.”
“Well, do you see me eating them?”
“I can’t resist,” Jack sighs. “I’d gladly give up my free will for imitation spuds.” He finishes chewing the processed goodness. “As for My Sedentary Life . . . I got accepted to State’s Summer Writing Seminar.”
“Oh . . .”
“Well?” he asks, as if anticipating my fawning praise.
“Congrats.” I look down and wipe my glasses on my skirt. Thank you etiquette school. “You didn’t tell me.”
“I just told you now,” he retorts in puzzlement.
“So, you were flying under the radar then?”
Of course, he was. I finally know. He’s dirtied his hands with worldly ambition after all.
“It’s what I do best.” Jack shrugs. “I’m like one of those planes that swoop in, drops a torpedo and—BAM!—there goes your aircraft carrier.”
And me too.
“It’s in the city, so I won’t be that far away,” he reassures me. My expression must have given me away.
“Why do you think I care where it is?” I ask tersely.
“Because while one of your life-goals seems to be centered on making your ‘happy’ and ‘extremely pissed off’ faces indistinguishable from each other you still need a little more practice.”
“So, I should be thanking you. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Oh, stop it,” he says touching my hand softly. “We’ll still be able to have Mystery Science Theater 3000 marathons on the weekends. We’ll still be together a lot. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure we have enough time to wander around the neighborhood giving our running commentary on the world.”
“Or will you be too busy writing the great American novel?”
“Come on, Liv. It’s not like I’m becoming an ex-pat. I’m not taking the next flight to Paris.”
“Are you sure, Mr. Hemingway? How can I trust you?”
“You’ll have to,” he says, nonchalantly shoveling the last tater tot into his mouth.
Next day. Lunch again, except I got a pass to the library. They’ll name this place The Olivia P. Kronstadt Wing considering the late fees I’ve paid. It is the first time in years Jack and I haven’t sat together. In middle school it was a scandal: our table had guys and girls. We were one step away from becoming a veritable free-love nudist colony / algebra study-group.
One . . . Two . . .
“I knew I’d find you here.”
It was only a matter of time before Jack realized he was sitting alone in the cafeteria.
“You’re missing salad bar,” he says. “They have phlegm dressing and synthetic bacon shards.”
Jack will be a food writer for The New York Times one day. At least he’ll be happy.
“Don’t you spend enough time here already?” Jack asks. “Are you okay?”
My eyes are puffy. They may or may not have been secreting some kind of foreign substance.
Suddenly, Jack looks as though he’s deep in thought. This happens often. “You know . . .” He hesitates and cranes his neck. It doesn’t take too much effort. He’s part bird. When future archeologists dig up his petrified skeleton they’ll realize they’ve found the missing link. Man came from the air. “These carrels . . .”
“. . . from above resemble swastikas.”
“Mmm. I have the ADL on speed dial.”
“Seriously, Liv. What’s wrong?”
“See, you assume something’s wrong,” I say, “just because I’m hiding in the library, crying, and reading . . .” What am I reading? “‘The Metamorphosis.’ Kafka, not Ovid.”
“Right, Miss Samsa,” Jack mutters. “Yeah, I assumed. With my highly-attuned male sensitivity.”
“The same sensitivity that led you to put on two socks this morning that don’t match?”
“I’m red-green colorblind. Nobody’s perfect.”
“Shhhhh!” Tara Lin, mathlete extraordinaire, is perturbed by our earnest discussion of feelings one carrel over. I can just make out the slogan on the T-shirt she’s wearing, spoils of her her latest college visit, You’re not doing enough! Standish-Proctor University. You can hear the deafening slap of her note cards flipping one by one.
“Come on.” Jack takes my hand. “Bring Franz with you.”
We walk out of the library, the sensors beeping wildly from the book I just filched. “Underachievers,” I can barely hear Tara mumble. I’m tempted to let her have it right there. But I’ll wait until the tenth year anniversary when I can introduce myself as an eminent . . . um . . . an eminent something I’m sure. Let her call me an underachiever then.
“Please tell me,” Jack says on the other side of the door.
“Fine,” I almost spit. The thing is Jack is pretty sensitive. Some kind of genetic mutation. He’s this kind of wind turbine that runs on other people’s emotions. “You’re actually doing something you want to do, Jack.”
“That’s it? That’s what’s bugging you?”
I nod my head.
“But you’re always pushing me to do something. I probably wouldn’t have applied if it weren’t for you.”
“Right.” I roll my eyes.
“No, really, Liv.”
“You know,” Jack begins, “I just read that the reason ‘shit’ and ‘piss’ are vulgar words is because after the Norman Conquest of 1066 . . .”
“Stop it, Jack. This is my problem: I don’t want to do stage tech or violin or pretty much any of the stuff my parents make me do.”
“Interesting.” Jack poses theatrically. “Spaz hands, never jazz hands,” he says with mock regret. “I never wanted to sing or dance or perform,” he throbs, lampooning my voice. “I only . . . only . . . wanted to memorize Roman law!”
“Bingo. I chalk that up to your intuition.”
“So why are you avoiding me?” he asks. “What did I do?”
“You’re a chameleon. I never know what you’re after,” I stammer. “You humor me just like you humor all those teachers and counselors. And you’ll be gone the whole summer! I wasn’t prepared for that.” I clench my fists at my side. “I’ll be completely alone!” Whoa, Liv, I tell myself, watch the histrionics. It’s just a boy. Sheesh! Easier said than done.
“You’re not being sent into exile. You just said you don’t like doing any of the things your parents make you do. Why don’t you find something you care about over the summer? And when we’re together you can share it with me, and I’ll share my writing with you. Okay?”
I say nothing.
“Liv, I’m trying to be mature here. And on top of that, I’m trying something new,” Jack protests. “I’m gonna be with other writers. I’ll be in the Temple of Inquiry on State’s main campus soaking up the brain rays. Maybe I’ll even sneak into a hookah bar.”
“Think of the no air-conditioning, the pretentious grad students, everyone wanting to be the next Hunter S. Thompson,” I say. “Anyway, just last week you were trying to sink into the walls, giving everyone answers they wanted to hear.”
Jack looks me in the eye. “Liv, maybe I don’t always know what I want. But I want this. I know that.”
“When you said you were staring at the paint swirls,” I counter, “you were really just stalling until you knew you got accepted?”
“Sure. I mean…I don’t want to advertise all my secrets.”
“So writing’s a secret?”
“Well. Maybe it is. I’d rather have a secret than be an achievement-bot.” Jack slips into a robot voice: “Must. Accomplish. Pre-programmed. Objective.” The obligatory laser sound-effects follow.
“Who’s an achievement-bot?” I blurt.
This, of course, is a rhetorical question as we stand in the middle of the hallway between periods, herds of teenagers moving about the educational Serengeti. I look at my hands and they’re like the Tin Man’s. I’m Maria from Metropolis without the dimensions. I’m all sprockets and electrodes. You could feed scantrons right through me. I’m a frickin’ player-piano. God, I’m not even human. Just download the SAT onto my brain.
A reptile and his wind-up toy sort-of girlfriend.
“So class, I want to begin today with a quote,” Mr. Erikson the English teacher announces in his reedy clarinet of a voice. “By Chaim Potok. You should have read The Chosen last year.” It is one of those statements that’s more of a question. Mr. Erikson clears his throat. It’s his most well-defined tic. A motor in his voice box that won’t quite start. ” ‘If a person has a contribution to make, he must make it in public. If learning is not made public, it is a waste.’ Who can tell me what that means?”
Me. Me. Me. My explanation comes out of my mouth almost before I can raise my hand.
“Go ahead, Olivia,” Mr. Erikson says like a dog trainer at the Westminster Kennel Club.
“It means we’re morally obligated to share the discoveries we make if we want them to do any good in the world.” I’m imagining Jack where the teacher stands fidgeting with his chalk. We’re in the circus. I’m a knife-thrower, an expert. But I guess you can’t be a mediocre knife-thrower. Jack is tied to a huge wheel. Each of my words is a dagger. “If you keep your findings secret, they are useless. They might as well not exist.” Oops. I just miss Jack’s wrist, his pant leg, his groin. “Learning is only learning if it’s shared. None of us are mind-readers, Jack!”
“Very, um, enthusiastic, Miss Kronstadt,” Mr. Erikson manages to say. “Who’s Jack?”
I stand betrayed. Led to the pillory in my faded gym uniform before the whole school. It’s an assembly, a pep rally. The local sportscaster is there whipping the student body into one collective convulsion. “Andrew Stout from Panic News Channel 8 here! Coming up, we’ve got Liv Kronstadt. Public humiliation! Live! Kids you really deserve this spectacle in reward for all that money you raised last month for orphans with disabilities. Give yourself a hand! Get ready to throw some rotting fruit, guys! You see, Miss Kronstadt doesn’t know what to do with her life!”
A resounding sigh rises from my peers in unison. Feigned commiseration. In totalitarian states they should have a sympathy track accompany televised executions.
“Remember kids, aim for the face!” Stout demonstrates the proper form with his swan-like throwing motion. A swan on steroids. “Can you tell I was quarterback when I was your age?” he asks. “And let’s not forget: Liv’s so-called boyfriend never actually asked her out. And we all know that we’re defined as human beings by our relationship status! Right?”
More cheering from the crowd. I think I even hear a “Hear ye, hear ye!” from someone escaped from my colonial fantasy. I’m wondering when Joan of Arc will appear before me. I hope Marie Curie will show up instead.
Andrew Stout from Channel 8 isn’t done. “Liv’s in what we in broadcast news like to call ‘limbo’, folks!”
“L-I-M-B-O!!!” the cheerleaders shout at the top of their voices. “Limbo! Yaaaaay!”
Dante would call it Purgatorio.
I wake up in a cold sweat. I stare at the ceiling of my bedroom until dawn. Well, almost until dawn. At 3:30 AM I call Jack’s cell phone.
You’ve reached the voice-mail of Jack Tolbert . . . if that really is my name. Please leave a brief message after the tone.
Why doesn’t he answer his phone? Honestly. “Call me before you wake up. Okay? It’s Liv.” I end the call. “You realize that made no sense whatsoever,” I tell myself.
The phone begins to vibrate. I recognize the number. It’s Jack already. “Hello?”
“Hey, Liv. It’s Jack.”
“Yep. My phone said so.”
“Oh, yeah. You’re right,” Jack muses quietly. “My phone, unlike yours, doesn’t belong to MENSA.”
“So. What are you doing?”
“Cramming for a test.”
“But you never study.”
“I make an exception for physics, although I’d rather just savor the mystery. I have that sterling C average in science to maintain.” It sounds like he’s slurping something, most likely a can of Combusto! Power Drink.
“Do you love me?” I ask blearily.
“Yes, I love you. If I didn’t, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation right now.” Straight forward. I like that.
“True,” I say slowly. “But how do I know you won’t change when you’re off doing your thing this summer? How do I know you won’t write yourself a new identity?”
“Like I said, you’ll have to trust me. And if I do come back changed, who’s to say that would have to be a bad thing?”
“Oh, that’s reassuring,” I mumble.
“Liv, give me a chance. I just want my choice to break out in the world to feel as right as my choice to be shoe-gazer.”
“You know what?” I parry, fumbling for a way to contradict him.
“It’s just that . . .”
“ ‘Just that’ what?”
“Well . . .”
Air as dead as a corpse.
“Fine.” He’s got me this time; I might as well throw down my foil. “Fine. I know what you mean. Who am I kidding? In fact . . .”—I stop and emit a soft dammit. “I need to invent an Impatient Person’s Prayer: ‘Dear God, my life needs to start, like, right now. Amen.’” The supplication comes out more sincerely—desperately—than I anticipated.
“Ever consider theology?” I hear Jack chuckle through the phone. “Anyway, are you willing to guarantee that you won’t change over the summer?” He pauses. I can hear his breathing. “Because I hope you don’t. I’d hate to come back and realize you were some kind of cardboard cutout, or magic-eight-ball of sarcasm, or . . .”
“Okay, okay. I get the picture.”
“Because I kinda like the not knowing part of being around you.” Jack’s demure, almost apologetic. “You’re beautiful and force me out of my head.”
What?! I can barely contain a squeal of delight. If I were a scientist observing him, I’d scribble a few notes on my clipboard and cry to my colleagues, The subject—he’s emoting. By god, he’s emoting!
“Well, since you put it that way, I can’t guarantee you anything,” I say, a small smile curling across my face. “I can’t guarantee anyone anything.” I fall silent and the smile crumbles slightly. “I have all these ambitions . . . that aren’t even my own.”
“And until this point, I’ve had something that I was good at that I didn’t really want to put out there.” Jack’s voice goes up as if he’s asking a question.
“If you showed what you could do in front of everyone, you were scared . . .”
“Scared. Sure,” Jack admits. He sounds like he’s confessed to a felony.
“Scared that you’d lose yourself?”
“Don’t worry.” I laugh aloud and stretch out on the bed, my feet dangling loosely over the edge. “I’ll let you know if you ever develop a cult of personality.”
“The only problem with that, Liv, is if I have really lost myself, I’ll have you executed.”
“I guess that’s a chance I’ll have to take.” I could kiss him through the phone. “But . . .” I stumble again. I’ve avoided the main reason I called for long enough. Hesitating, I choose my words as one might choose the wires to snip to defuse a bomb. “I just wanted to say that I’m happy you got into that writing program,” I say serenely. It is more like exhaustion than serenity though. “I’m sorry I freaked out.”
“Nah, it’s okay,” Jack says. “I can see how my announcement could have rattled you a bit. Maybe it was cruel of me, since it came out of nowhere and all.”
“Yeah, it rattled me like hell,” I retort. “But, at least, I know where we stand. If we both change over the summer the world won’t end.”
“Unless our actions are directly related to some ancient doomsday prophecy.”
“In that case, our change might be a chemical one. As we vaporize with the impact of the killer asteroid.”
“You have a point.”
“I usually do.”
“I’ll see you in a couple of hours, Liv. Everything’s alright. Yeah?”
“And try not to think too much, okay?” Jack beseeches.
“I’ll make a noble effort,” I say sleepily. “Night.”
After we hang up, I lay back down and study the paint swirls, the whirlpool that an hour ago was dragging me under. The noble effort I promised Jack is quickly dispatched like a knight in a fairy-tale geared to dragons. If only I could turn off this brain of mine. Last week I scribbled into my journal one declarative sentence by Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing; I love having written.” That’s me. If only I were a finished product already. If only I could take the tangled sentences of my life and give them to an editor. A whole award-winning team of editors. They’d make me presentable with just the right amount of edginess. I’d give off that vibe that says “I’m smart and interesting. You want to get to know me, don’t you?” Don’t you? I’d never be taken by surprise, I’d have a comeback for every barb, an answer for everyone’s questions. I’d never disappoint anyone. I’d be all things to all people . . . except myself.
But Jack’s success isn’t my failure. And I’m tired of living my life in theory, flaking on a chalkboard brimming with someone else’s equations. I hide my head under the pillow. I will get my first unexcused absence today. A choice of my own volition. At least, it’s a start. I’m done inhabiting other people’s dreams. It’s time to find some of my own.
Nicholas Sauer is a teacher of history and English from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in places like Weave Magazine, Corium, Sleet, and Poetica Magazine: Contemporary Jewish Writing and Art. He is a former editor of Nuances, the online literary magazine of La Roche College.