This piece was previously published in the Sarah Lawrence College Review.
My first boyfriend’s name was Joseph. He was twenty-three and I was eighteen. I liked him because he bought me alcohol, and sometimes on Saturday mornings when we had stayed out all night and knew my parents would be mad; he’d hold my hand really tight and walk me home. I thought that was love.
He always wanted to move one place or another. One time he picked up and drove to Indianapolis without telling me. He said he wasn’t coming back when I called. That afternoon I bought a bus ticket on Bri’s credit card so the charge wouldn’t show up on my bank statement. He was back two days later though, and when I told him about the ticket; he just laughed and said we should burn it. I knew Bri wouldn’t give me my money back. That night he snuck in through my bedroom window and we lit it together, watching it burn fat and orange like a defective firecracker.
Everyone thinks I’m the prettiest girl in town, but Joseph eventually got tired of me anyway. He kept talking about moving to Chicago, and knew I couldn’t follow because I would be starting college soon. Then one night we had a fight outside his friend’s bar and he called me a bitch. I deleted his phone number.
He texted me two months ago. Three words: “What’s up kid?” I asked who it was and he said “Ellie its Seph. You delete my number?” I hoped it hurt a little.
I haven’t heard from him since.
One thing I don’t get is zombie movies. Why do the most hackneyed, idiotic people always seem to be the survivors? Why are the zombies always so hard to take down when all you have to do is bash their head in? Why in God’s name does the fact that they walk so slowly make them even scarier? I just don’t get it.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t get into college. The type of junk I worry about is obviously not conducive to any formulated academic setting. I keep waiting for the perks of being a nineteen year old guy with nothing but time to kill, but they haven’t turned up yet. Sure, I’ve got Bri, Stamp, and Ellie to suffer along with me. They’re good kids, my friends. They entertain my three AM calls to go wander the old tracks, or see how many panes of glass we can take out of the McKinley warehouse windows. When summer ends and they all ship off to college, though? I’m screwed. Portage, Michigan is not a town you wanna shove roots in. It’s nice enough, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve always pictured myself settled in a place with snowless winters, like Charleston or Tampa. I think that would really be something: Me, Isaac, somewhere that’s always warm.
Isaac is perpetually high. I first realized this in eighth grade. We were walking along the bridge behind the old water tower when he held his arm out in front of me to stop.
“Bri, look at that!” He whispered hoarsely.
“Look at what?”
“The freaking tree! It’s a great tree just look at it!”
I looked. It seemed like a regular tree.
“Nah Bri you’re not looking at it right. You have to look at it by looking around it. The tree is in the negative space. You see it now?” He said, excitedly knocking his fists together like he was having some sort of revelation.
“You’re fucking high, aren’t you?” I said.
Isaac shook his head, pulsating his fingers in front of his face as though unraveling a microscopic net with which to capture the tree.
“You have no idea girl”
That’s just the way my friendship with Isaac goes, we’re always one step ahead or behind one another. There was a time I thought I loved him. Once when we went to a party at Maggie Dylan’s together. She was a senior and we were sophomores. Ellie and Stamp stayed home “on principle”.
That night Isaac kissed me, sitting close around a bonfire, grabbing one of my cheeks. We were so drunk. When he pulled back he gave me a very odd look.
“What?” I said.
“I-forget about it.”
“Isaac, what?” I insisted.
“It’s just…kissing you was very natural.” He said with a sincerity that broke my heart a little. Then he passed out. I could picture us together. I’d let him go wherever his stupid floppy converse take him while I’m at State, and then someday, sometime when he’s really high so it will really blow his mind, I’ll send him a note that will read something like: “You’ve tasted other girls, now come back” (You should be here.)”
My father’s the one who fought the bear. I didn’t know what was happening, and I just watched. We had driven to the Upper Peninsula the night before to go on one of his famous “education expeditions”. My father valued above all else the ability to understand, and attempt to control, nature. An avid hunter, he would leave myself and my mother for weeks on end to go travel into whatever wilderness happened to call to him, slowly tracking and claiming it’s inhabitants.
This time around, at the ripe age of twelve, he had decided to take me with him. He gave me a crash course in shooting with a M1A Socom, cold and heavy in my hands. He set up some targets at the wood’s edge, directing my shots with distanced palms, obviously weary of my novice aim. After an hour or so he declared me ready to “try for a big fish”. I nodded, though I had no clue what he meant, and was secretly scared to death.
My father transformed in the woods. He stepped with a lithe precision that seemed almost to mock his hulkish frame, as he led me through the underbrush. The sun looped and dipped in the sky, and as the light receded his silhouette morphed into that of a wild animal. These were the thoughts that ran through my head as a crash came from behind, and the day became that of the bear.
It stood tall and dark on the path we had just walked, sniffing the air and swaying under its sheer girth. The only other black bear I had ever seen was the one that padded the floor of my parent’s bedroom. I was vaguely aware of the usefulness of the rifle in my hands, but had lost the ability to move. My father pushed me aside, mumbling something like “Watch this, Stamp”. Something went wrong as he aimed, though, and the bear sprang forward with a speed that betrayed his immense size. My father had mere seconds to swing the gun around in an attempt to shield himself, and he failed.
My father tried to say something as one massive paw took him down. I think that’s what bothers me most, the fact that I don’t remember my father’s last words, because in that moment the world of sound was drowned out by a single, loud thought: “Who’s going to drive me home?”
Summers in Portage drag like a kite over shallow mud. Freed of the school days they once bemoaned, the youth have little to do but drive around in the sun, or gather near Austin Lake’s public access dock. The seniors of Portage Northern High School become particularly restless, as they wake from the graduation party binges and envelopes of congratulatory fifty dollar bills from relatives, and realize that college looms a little too near on the horizon for comfort. Those among the rejected take on a moody, indignant composition, ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to inquire as to their plans for the coming year. It is a small community, and speculation is as inevitable as it is inexorable.
This year’s topic of conversation amongst the mothers of Portage pivots on the four “punks” of the graduating class: Ellie Ending, Brianna Monico, Isaac Morrison and Jonah “Stamp” Alastair. They have watched them, watched them through the situations that bore their collective, fiercely loyal rebellion. They know that Ellie is a beautiful girl, prone to all the wrong decisions. They heard Brianna’s stepfather bailed her out after her alleged shoplifting spree on Main Street. They assume Isaac has nowhere to go but down, and steer they’re children away from him at the Seven Eleven. They believe Stamp never had a chance. They watch, they resent, they assume.
Most days I mind my own business, light a j in the morning and watch the clock hands jump and skitter around. Youth is wasted on the young, and if I take a hit really fast and tilt my head back, little stars form around my eyes.
Our junior year English teacher Ms. Rumson told me I had to ”find Jesus”. I told her I didn’t see how that would help, since I had already found him, and he didn’t seem like much. I was walking around in the woods one day and I looked up in a tree, and there he was, just perched there like a friggin bird. I said “Jesus, what are you doing up there?”
Ms. Rumson told me to go see the nurse.
The girl that really gets me best, besides Bri, is Ellie. She hates waiting around for change as much as I do, even with her acceptance into the collegiate club. We became friends early on, fifth grade I think. She was pretty even then, but in middle school that isn’t always a good thing. The boys gave her shit, pulling at her hair and poking her in the head with the blunt ends of pencils. She was also very prone to nosebleeds, but despite this knowledge, never developed the presence of mind to carry tissues. She was forever wiping at the blood with the back of her palm, smearing red from knuckle to wrist. Nicknames like “Bloody Mary” and the ever clever “nosebleed girl” haunted her well into our freshman year of high school.
That must be why we got along so famously, we were the “weirdos” even before hooking up with Stamp and Bri. I guess I feel most at home with that type.
Being pretty doesn’t mean you don’t have to earn your friends, and being easy doesn’t mean boys will call back after the first time. I learned that the hard way. My greatest fear remains getting old, losing my youth. I avoid funerals whenever possible, but people just keep dying.
My parents had to drag me to the churchyard when Grandpa kicked it. I stood between them in pumps that pinched my feet, feeling the grass snap under the weight of my impatiently tapping heels. I was mesmerized as they lowered him into the ground. The priest’s deliberate; chant-like prayers squished together and came out sounding like those long wooden instruments you see Australians playing on Discovery Channel. Rain began to fall on the already moist ground and I imagined I could feel myself sinking into it. I excused myself and hid in a bathroom stall for the rest of the service.
They call me Stamp because of the way I walk. My father used to tease that you could hear me coming from a county away. It’s nothing I do on purpose, but I know what people say. Ever since the day of the bear they’ve looked at me with this terrible pity, and seem to believe this pity warrants their conjecture. They believe I’m crazy, angry, and ready to snap like brittle drywall at any given moment.
I literally fell into my group of friends. One day during freshman year, after some kid tied the laces of my boots together, I took a step out of biology class and tripped right into Ellie and Bri. They were just as weary of me as everyone else was at the time, but warmed up once they realized I too was weird and restive. I’m not as worried about college as they all seem to be. It’s just another step in the direction we’re all going: south. None of us know when we’ll hit the bottom. I’m sure my father didn’t think the path we took in the woods that day was heading towards anything other than a potential trophy of fur and meat.
What’s four years in the span of a lifetime? Tucked away on some university campus, feeling our way through dates and concepts and statistics we’ll probably never use again? It’s just another step. Portage is not a home, it is not a life, and honestly, I never much liked my father anyway. So college? I can swing that.
It’s incredibly strange to look at a place when you know it’s never technically going to be your home again. When I look around my room, it hums with this new desensitized energy.
My friends are coming to get me. We’ve gone through four years of shit together and though it all seemed so epically important at the time, a few months from now it will be lumped into one sterile fact: I went to high school, and I’ve got a piece of paper in a cheap frame to prove it.
Isaac told me a story once that I haven’t been able to get out of my head lately. Sitting on my back porch, staring out into the tall beach grass that comes right up to the back steps, he tapped my shoulder with the blunt he was rolling, a sign to listen. He told me about this one time, when his sister Aiden was really little, and a horsefly found its way into the house. Aiden knew in that insightful way little kids have that if the horsefly remained trapped inside, it would die. So the kid tracks it into the bathroom, locks herself inside, opens the window, and waits two friggin hours for this stupid ass fly to find its way out. Then, the second the fly’s out, she slams the window closed, comes out of the bathroom, and announces to the Morrison clan “the fly has been saved”.
About a month after this incident, Ms. Morrison goes to clean that bathroom window, and as she pulls it open, out falls our horsefly, squished and dry. In Aiden’s hurry to close the window for her little friend, she actually snagged him square in between the windowpanes. Isaac thought this story was hilarious, but I didn’t share the sentiment. You see, to me, the moral of the story is: You never get out, at least not cleanly.
The end of a Portage summer comes lazily. The housewives emerge from screened in porches to cover and roll away the pontoon boats for the season. Husbands come home early from work to milk the declining weather, throwing barbecues and hosting sunset fishing expeditions. The college-bound load their boxes and bed frames into the backs of trucks, gently protesting when their parents attempt to help. The mothers who were inclined to gossip find excuses to hover in their neighborhoods, mourning the loss of their weekly back-fence talk.
When the trucks pull out of the driveways and the unused storage containers sit at the curb, a communal sigh hovers over the lakeside town. They wonder after the disappearing puffs of exhaust that mark the end of an era, and resign themselves to the fact that they are another summer older.
Paige Champion Fraker is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College. Having spent the first decade of her life in NYC, and the second in North Carolina, she thinks of herself a bit of a mutt. She considers herself a writer above most things, but is also deeply devoted to art, theatre, human rights, and social justice advocacy. She has attended an artist residency in Italy, and spent five months with the International Human Rights Exchange in South Africa. She currently works as a substitute teacher in New York City.
Image: Flickr / Seniju