Jane’s horse soared as Lance’s descended: she was perched atop a decorous gray with a blue saddle and a spray of pink roses cupping the horn, while he sat astride a fading black with a faintly ferocious expression. Her hair was loose and bounced against her narrow shoulder blades as the horse raced through the circling sunset. He almost changed his mind.
He hadn’t meant to sound like that – a puckish Errol Flynn alighting on Olivia de Havilland’s windowsill – but there it was, hovering in the air between them.
She flashed a smile. “Do you remember the first time we came here?”
Lance fumbled for the obligatory yes. State Fair, seven years ago, when Jane was still in braces and he had just gotten his license. But their merry-go-round spun on.
“I remember,” she said. She hummed the first few bars of “In the Air Tonight” – she was a little flat – but that Phil Collins moment was one for the ages:
The swirling fair lights –
The back of his neck sweating –
The Agnes in David-Copperfield-serenity in her eyes.
His gamboling-puppy clumsiness: “Do you want to…um…go steady?” Even at the time, the expression was twenty-five years out of date; a fragment of his teenaged ego had fizzled, hissed, dissolved. “I mean, do you want to – make it official?” Worse. Finally: “Will you be my girlfriend?”
Jane, channeling her namesake Miss Austen, had said, archly, “I’d be honored.”
Lance had been skinny and sardonic – but redeemed himself with a runner’s physique and a lyrical tenor, and a passion for the English language that bordered on the obscene. He had gotten several invitations to successive Sadie Hawkins dances and had played spin-the-bottle at a number of cast parties, without feeling any particularized desire. He auditioned for the fall musical his senior year (despite its being the new theatre director’s ill-conceived musicalization of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), single and happily so. Then the choreographer’s pragmatism introduced him to Jane: she, a diminutive sophomore, light enough for him to lift.
The carousel slowed, and Lance dissimulated. Maybe…no, he’d visualized their discussion ad nauseam, and whatever the details, it ended only one way.
Jane turned to him. “Maybe we can get something to eat? I’m sure there’s something deep-fried on a stick –”
“Ah…no.” Robin Hood had gone, replaced by an unsettling combination of Willy Loman and Holden Caulfield. “Let’s take a walk.”
Jane’s face altered.
He had seen the same expression the moment they had met – while auditioning for A Midsummer Night’s Swing.
“This show going to be a travesty,” Jane had said.
“I’m glad someone else said that out loud,” Lance had answered.
She brightened slightly. “I’m Jane.”
“Lance. From what I hear, Mr. Templeton wrote it himself. I’m not clear how he thought he could make it work.”
“It’s a toothpaste-and-orange-juice scenario,” Jane sighed. “Honestly, what can we expect? Did he change the words to make it a Midsummer’s Night and Day?”
“Maybe they’ll have the rustics dancing to “In the Mood” right before the wedding,” countered Lance.
Jane’s mouth puckered. “Or maybe Mr. Templeton already lowered himself to writing Boogie Woogie Bottom Boy?”
Lance snorted before he could catch himself. “So why are you here?”
“Mom said I needed to find something non-academic to round out my future college applications.” She looked up at him. “How about you?”
“I live for the applause.”
“Oh!” she said, partly surprised, partly acerbic. “You like this.”
“Well, not this,” he said, gesturing to the ambient pandemonium. “But singing, followed by clapping – yeah.”
She shrugged. “To each his own, I guess.” She glanced toward Mrs. Lehmann, the choreographer, suddenly looming over them like Banquo’s ghost. “ I apologize in advance for what I’m about to do to your shoulder.”
They passed the temporary radio station – Live at the Lakefront! Broadcasting from State Fair, the banner read – and heard a trio of mezzo sopranos croon the station identification: “Double-You Mid-west Faaaaaaaaalls…” Nearby, Salem’s mayor, William “Wild Bill” Vitus, stood with his wife Roxanne, shaking hands with a group of impeccably groomed Young Republicans. They walked by booths selling fried cheese curds and souvenirs and sunglasses. Jane still had his copy of Welcome to the Monkey House, he remembered suddenly. And he had her copy of Pride and Prejudice. He didn’t begrudge her a master’s program abroad; he understood the time- and cost-savings, the desire for adventure…but…
She stopped in front of the Midwest Express booth, and planted her feet. This was their third attempt, after all; they had played this scene before. “I love you,” she snapped.
“Yes –” Wrong, entirely wrong. “Jane, I love you too. And that’s why –”
“We’ve done distance before.”
“We’ve never been separated by four thousand miles of ocean before.” If only Richard Marx were here, he mused. But he wasn’t sure he would be right here waiting for her. “I’m not equipped to…do this.”
She tensed like an enraged lily – then forced herself to relax. “OK,” she said, with the righteous self-command of a wounded Regency heroine. Her eyes were the color of faded denim, but the midway lights transformed them into blazing aquamarine. “The course of true love never did run smooth,” she said; it was true, and a reproach.
He had no answer.
“So it goes,” she said. “I hope you…find some happiness, Lance,” she concluded and walked away.
Lance remembered when he had asked Jane to Homecoming. His mother Elaine, failing to curb her enthusiasm, had said, “So…is Jane in the play with you?”
He had assented.
“What’s she like?”
“Though she be but little, she is fierce,” he had answered.
Lance was fine.
He hadn’t tried to call Jane; he hadn’t gone to see her off at the airport; he hadn’t locked himself in his room or refused food. And he still felt no particular need to curse God, or fate, or British Airways, for taking her away from him. He slept normally, and, as ever, attended church sporadically. He auditioned for a community theatre production of The Pirates of Penzance. He went to orientation and discovered that he had probably made a huge and life-shattering mistake in applying to a Ph.D. program, but that was neither here nor there. Admittedly, he immediately imagined calling Jane, and only later remembered that she was in England.
Had his Aunt Vivian been in town, he might have called her; she was the only relative he had no qualms about meeting in a bar. But she was in Vietnam, cruising through Ha Long Bay—her sixtieth birthday present to herself. A year earlier he might have called Greg, but his lovely wife Felicia had cured him of impromptu binge drinking, smoking, and seeing friends he had known before meeting her. So he lit a cigarette and sighed gracelessly. He’d spent bad evenings at Bar None before, and the scarlet sign said Disco Night. But there were also five-dollar cocktails for the next hour.
Five Negronis later, he was in Funky Town, misappropriating steps from a long-ago production of West Side Story…dancing with a dazzling raven-haired blur who might have been named Jessica. She was pressed up against him in a way that was definitely anachronistic, but he didn’t have the heart, or sobriety, to tell her so.
“Do you want to go somewhere we can talk?” she shouted, over The Hustle.
“Lance,” he said, responding to the question he’d thought she’d ask. “Sorry. Yes.”
He oozed onto a barstool next to her. Her voice filled the musical gaps like a patchy FM station –
“…senior at UMWF…”
“…majoring in marketing, but I really want to model…”
He forced himself to focus on her red mouth.
He might have produced a sentence about his doctoral program; it was hard to say.
“Do you want to get coffee sometime?”
He was starting to feel funny, unsure if it was the noise or incipient nausea or something else. “I, ah, just got out of a relationship.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take it easy on you.” She smiled. “At first.”
She wrote down her number on a napkin, and pressed it into his hand.
He pedaled furiously through the orange leaves, past miles of Salem’s neat little rectangles. He barely glanced at the imperial entrance to the Salem Heights (a neighborhood so posh it merited a definite article) and finally reached the theatre. The Salem Playhouse was a 19th-century structure erected by a rags-to-riches brewer seeking the validation of his new caste, now lovingly maintained through elite fundraisers.
“You’re late,” said Kent, as an opener. He sat in the front row, exhorting the cast to show him some emotion, and wearing a beret. He looked like a directorial parody.
“Sorry,” said Lance. He wasn’t. He had been attached to Jessica’s lips. And even reaching them had taken an undue amount of time. Lance marveled at how easy she was to talk to. She had been amusingly recounting her ambivalent congratulations to her friend/epic rival Blair, who had gotten an audition for a soap opera. Then she had finally touched her lips to his. Then he had decided to stop at home and pick up a windbreaker, at which point he found a letter from Jane in his mail slot, a pale blue envelope with unusually-sized stamps.
Kent gave a sigh for the ages and reminded Lance that Gary (the next constable in the line) was very capable of singing Lance’s part.
“It won’t happen again,” said Lance.
Kent put an elegant, dubious hand to his temple.
Lance tore into his letter at the break.
At the risk of sounding sappy, thanks for your last letter. I didn’t like the way we left things and I’m glad that…anyway, I’ve decided I prefer to be in touch.
Jessica sounds lovely.
Near-disaster on my first assignment; the professor marked my translations of ‘sécher un cours’ wrong because I put ‘playing hooky’ instead of ‘skiving off’. There’s something to that old line about being two peoples divided by a common language. I made my case. I gained one point.
I’ve made a friendly acquaintance (saying ‘friend’ is a bridge too far); her name is Anne, and she’s Canadian; she’s here doing a history degree. She is perfectly polite and has no discernible interests; she also called the Brontës “melodramatic”. To which: Yes, that’s the point. It beats dinner alone. Narrowly.
But off to London this weekend! I’m staying in a hostel and I’m going to try to get cheap tickets to whichever earnest musical is on. (Probably Cats. I don’t care.)
He decided his course reading could wait. The earnest grade-grubbers and narcissistic poets that filled his courses would eviscerate Thornton Wilder’s semi-divine Peruvians with postmodern analyses – but their pretensions would also keep the professor from calling on him.
He knew how his next letter would start:
The last scrap of joy left in the Western canon was obliterated after centuries of celebrated life. It was murdered in cold blood last week, when Trevor sighed that while ‘the intellectually stupefied’ would take The Great Gatsby’s implied capitalist critique at face value, an objectivist read would indicate…
[Then he quoted Ayn Rand, pretending to be some fountainhead of knowledge, and I fantasized about chucking copies of Atlas Shrugged at his Roman nose]…
“Lance,” Kent sniffed, and Lance rose, unready to bare his steel.
Her next letter mentioned a Chris about to conclude a Ph.D. in history.
“You were awesome!” cried Jessica, flinging her arms around Lance. “You are so, so talented!”
“Yeah. Awesome,” smirked Aunt Vivian. “Get a room.”
“Lance! Beautiful!” His mother’s friend Minnie Bauer swooped in out of nowhere like a nosy bat, kissed his cheek, and blew out the door.
Lance reddened, then straightened, like the police constable he had been portraying. Over Jessica’s shoulder, he spotted a familiar face amidst the theatergoers. “Hey, Zita.”
“Lance,” she replied, behind her sharp bob, and walked on.
“Don’t I know that girl?” asked Aunt Vivian.
“Yes…she’s Jane’s best fr–”
Jessica announced, “I’m starving. We’re going to Alice’s, right?”
“You two go on,” said Aunt Vivian, bussing Lance’s cheek and handing him a twenty. “I’ll buy the first round. Have a good night.”
Lance followed Jessica to her Saturn. The restaurant half was full, so they went to the bar. “I’m not drinking, actually,” said Jessica, beaming. “I’ve got an interview tomorrow.”
“Jennifer’s Talent…They provide models for Kohl’s.”
“Hey, congratulations,” Lance said. He ordered Sprecher’s and Jessica ordered a glass of water; they toasted. “To Jessica Lazenby, future hawker of reasonably-priced fashions.”
He saw it. “Seriously, that’s great.” He sipped the beer. “I’m just jealous that you’re out there chasing your dreams when I don’t even have the wherewithal to figure out what mine are.”
“I thought you were going to be a professor.”
“Yeah, so did I.”
“OK, getting a little dark there,” she smiled.
“Right. Sorry,” he said, and he was rewarded with her kiss. Then her purse rang; Lance experienced surprise, every time, that she had a mobile phone. “Hello? Oh, hi, Blair. What? Really?” Her luscious mouth inverted itself. “Wow. Well, congratulations.” Lance could hear the joy and schadenfreude emanating from the other end of the line. “That’s – really great, for you. Listen, gotta go – I’m on a date.” She hung up.
“She got the part, huh?”
Jessica’s dark brows swooped downward, hawks in pursuit of feckless prey. “Yep.” The word dripped from her lips.
“Hey,” Lance said, relieved.
Aunt Vivian pulled him into a bear hug. “You smell sober,” she said, suspiciously.
“Drinking and driving is still illegal, even in the upper Midwest.” His parents’ annual Christmas party was equal parts delight and agony. He hoped Greg would turn up. He and Felicia had sent a Christmas card; Greg had included a hand-written message: Let’s get together soon.
“You should have been here an hour ago, drunk and suspicious like the rest of us. Minnie just walked in on cousin Kendra with Bill Vitus.”
“Exactly,” said Aunt Vivian. “It should have been you.”
“You know why.”
Minnie Bauer was Twitter before there was Twitter.
Lance finally remembered to ask, “Does Roxanne know?”
“She was the first to hear.” Lance groaned again. “Your mother’s with her now; they’re in the kitchen, and Bill’s out by the fire pit with your father. I sent Kendra home. What are you drinking?”
“Are you that pretentious, or do you actually like them?”
“Can do.” As she tipped in the kahlúa, she said, “There’s your girl.”
He was about to say, Jessica will be late, but he turned, and it was Jane – Jane in a surprisingly stylish Burgundy crushed-velvet dress, a choker…lipstick? But those were still Jane’s eyes. Do we hug or not hug?
They didn’t. “Hi, Lance.”
“Hey, welcome back. I didn’t know you were –”
There had been too many letters to need to catch up, and not enough for small talk.
“I haven’t had a chance to say hi to your folks yet.”
“Yeah, Mom’s…” He gestured, temporarily grateful to Kendra.
They looked away. “I – this is for you,” said Jane, proffering a package. “Don’t open it now. It’s nothing much.”
“Thanks,” he said. “I…sent your gift to England.”
“Of course,” she smiled.
There was another lull, then the front door slammed, then Whitesnake came on and it was as though they’d been bitten. “Do you…want to dance?” came out of his mouth, inexplicably.
“There you are!” cried Jessica, melting snow bedewing her hair. Her lips collided with Lance’s cheek, then she turned, pointedly.
“Jessica, this is Jane.”
“What a lovely dress,” said Jane, as Jessica removed her parka to reveal a silvery satin slip-dress.
“Thanks,” she said, handing her coat to Lance’s father. “Oooh, this is a good one,” she said, tugging Lance’s hand, pulling him out onto the dance floor for “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”.
Lance saw Jane when he turned back; she gave him a quick nod and fell into conversation with his father.
Lance and Jane exchanged a few cursory words when she came to say goodbye. She said, “You look happy,” and he said, “I’m glad we got a chance to catch up,” and he realized that it was a stupid thing to have said and her face looked shadowed, somehow.
The party broke up after two. Jessica stayed until the end and helped Lance’s parents collect red Solo cups while Vivian piled plates with one hand and poured a drink with the other. His parents nodded approvingly. Lance put her in a cab, then joined Vivian in a nightcap.
“What’s with you?”
“Nothing. It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” said Lance.
He opened Jane’s gift, laughed, shook his head, and set it on his bedside table. He spent Christmas Eve night tucked into flannel sheets in his childhood bedroom.
He awoke to baby Jacob caterwauling his Merry Christmases. Vivian appeared at his door in a bathrobe, with two steaming mugs.
“God bless you.”
They opened entertaining gifts for the baby and practical gifts for everyone else, when Elaine, beaming, went into the kitchen and produced one last box, which lurched in her hands. She gave it to Lance, who handled it according to standard unexploded ordnance protocols.
“Mom, I –”
“They were going to put him down.”
“His name is Hamlet.”
Lance pulled the cat onto his lap. Hamlet promptly snagged a claw in his corduroys, spun in several circles, settled on Lance’s lap, and began to purr.
“You see,” said Elaine.
Aunt Vivian topped off his coffee. “Didn’t Jane get you something?”
“Oh, yeah. Fates Worse Than Death.”
“What?” cried Elaine, scandalized.
“Mom, it’s Vonnegut.”
Aunt Vivian smirked.
After the holidays it was supposed to be back to school. And he just…couldn’t. He spoke to his advisor about ‘taking a break’ and formally withdrew from his courses during the refund period. Then he returned to his apartment and dangled strings in front of his atavistic cat. He went out with Jessica as her schedule allowed, but between school and her modeling jobs, time was hard to come by. He auditioned for The Importance of Being Earnest but failed to get a part.
Three weeks of ennui later, his mother called.
“I didn’t see you at church.”
“Hi, Mom. It’s good to talk to you too.”
“How are you paying your rent?”
“I can cover February.”
Her frustration with him seemed almost animate. “Do you remember Mr. Janus?”
“Vividly.” Mr. Janus had been best known for stepping outside at 4:20 p.m., often in mixed company (provided everyone was over eighteen and paid cash).
“Well, exactly. He resigned.”
“What finally got him?
“All Minnie would say was that he was encouraged to leave after a karaoke incident.”
Maybe not all of the company was eighteen. He decided he didn’t want to know. “Great.”
His mother’s Arthurian foibles had saddled him with one of the most freighted names in the entire English canon, although most days he was just glad that she hadn’t called him Ishmael. “Mom…”
“You’ve got to do something.”
Thoughts of Jessica. He was confident that was not what his mother meant. “OK, OK, I’ll apply.”
“Great. You’ve got an interview at eleven tomorrow.”
“Mom.” His mother was on the school board. It was times like these when he wondered how a suburb of fifty thousand people could feel so small.
“You’ve still got to show up, answer their questions, and pretend to care.” Then she piped, “Good luck!” and hung up.
It would just be a few months, he thought. And Salem North couldn’t be that desperate.
At 12:07 p.m. the following day, Principal St. Clair called and asked, “So, when can you start?”
Aunt Vivian called later that evening. “Welcome back, Kotter.”
Lance took Jessica to Wild Lotus for Valentine’s Day – he paid, anyway; she drove. She wore a red dress the size of a candy wrapper and he refused to credit his eyes. She complimented the food and the wine. Lance was gratified because each of their entrées was the equivalent of one day of substitute teaching. Afterward, they went back to his apartment, snuggling in front of When Harry Met Sally. Jessica’s manicured fingers undid his shirt buttons. He pulled her into a kiss, and they were suddenly down to their underwear; Sally declared that Harry was the angel of death, and Lance hesitated.
“Everything…OK?” she said, eyeing his suddenly immodest boxers, with a smile.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not a v–”
“No.” His first engagements with his college girlfriend had been more enthusiastic than masterful; she had trained him, then dropped him for a slick-talking senior. “I just…we haven’t talked about this.”
“You do an awful lot of talking,” she said, pressing her mouth to his and pulling down his boxers. Her bra came off…and then her panties…and…
Afterward, she said, “We’ll have lots more opportunities,” and kissed him playfully on the nose. She couldn’t stay; she had an early class; Lance walked her to her car, and gave her a proper kiss goodnight.
He was considering whether to finish the movie when the phone rang.
“Lance, it’s Jane.”
“Oh—hi. Wait—what time is it there?”
“It’s – I don’t know. Three? It doesn’t matter.”
“Wait – is everything OK?”
“Yeah, I—. Yes. Everything’s fine.” He heard a deep breath. “I…still care about you.”
Lance sat down.
“Are you there?”
“Yeah, I’m – sorry…what’s brought this on?”
“Well, that gives me my answer,” she said, wryly.
“Jane, please, you know we…”
“I know. Chris…he’s…we’re getting a bit serious, but –”
“Oh my God, you slept with him.”
“No! I—it came up. But no.”
“No,” she said, but slowly.
“Lance—I’d rather –”
In a telescoping moment he saw their future, bright and clear: complementary sarcasm, a little bungalow in Salem, Hamlet curled up on Jane’s lap, and the vision seesawed before him…
“He sounds like a great guy,” said Lance.
“He is,” said Jane, and her tone oddly wistful. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you. I – thanks – bye.”
“The Great Gatsby,” began Lance. “Greatest American novel, or seriously overrated?”
“It’s the best,” said Jodie.
“Who gives a crap?” said Shawn.
“Is there a third option?” asked Megan.
Lance took a deep breath.
He retreated to the teachers’ lounge for a cup of coffee. He contemplated whether the sludge would be better or worse after the microwave when Mr. Kowalski slammed a copy of ‘Wuthering Heights down on the table.
“I didn’t think it was that bad,” said Lance. “Also, you could just stop reading it.”
“It’s not mine,” he growled. “I confiscated it.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lance, with the utmost politeness, “but are you saying you took it away from someone?”
“Melanie Martin. She was reading it under her desk.”
“Considering the norm around here, shouldn’t we be celebrating?”
Mr. Kowalski glared at him and stalked out.
Lance pocketed the book and went to the main office. He asked Mrs. O’Brien, Principal St. Clair’s secretary, for the location of Melanie’s locker, and a sticky note. He left the book, and a message:
Jane Eyre is still better, but I hope you enjoy it. A friend.
Principal St. Clair approached him toward the end of the month. “I hear things are going well.”
“I started that rumor,” said Lance.
The principal smiled indulgently. “So well, that I’d like to keep you on.”
“I’m not certified –” began Lance.
“I’ve spoken with the superintendent. He said that if you start taking classes, he’ll…overlook it.”
Lance, who regarded his employment as an entertaining but poorly paying accident, said, “I’ll think about it.”
“Do. Let me know in the next week or so.” He smiled again. “We need help for summer school, too.”
“Thanks,” said Lance.
After school, he pedaled to the Salem Playhouse and had what he considered a “competent” audition for You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, then went home in search of something to eat. The phone was ringing as he unlocked the door.
“Lance!” cried Jessica.
Dr. Porter confirmed what they already knew, what they had spent several days not discussing. Jessica’s scarlet lips were white. She only nodded at Dr. Porter, who looked at Lance askance, then exited. When he had gone, Jessica lit into Lance.
“Stupid!” she exclaimed, burst into tears, and buried her face in his shoulder.
Lance was too stupefied to feel much beyond relief that she couldn’t see his face. But he held her tight and patted her back. And some long-dormant strain in him awoke. “I’ll marry you,” he said.
She lifted her exquisite, tear-streaked face. “Are you crazy? You don’t even have a job!”
He chose kindness. “Principal St. Clair offered me a permanent position.”
“You didn’t even say!”
“I – right. Sorry.”
“And what kind of proposal is that? Some cheap offer at the doctor’s office? You didn’t even say you loved me!”
There was a knock, and the nurse poked her head in. “I’m so sorry, but we really do need the room.”
They walked out to the car; Jessica said, “I don’t want to talk about any of that right now.”
They went to MacArthur Park, where the shy buds were just appearing, and sat on a damp bench. Jessica said, “I can’t model if I’m going to get fat.”
“Does that mean you don’t want to keep it?” Lance asked quietly.
“No! I’m just – ugh!” Jessica cried. “How can you say a thing like that?”
“Well, that wouldn’t be my preference, but it’s not my body, either,” said Lance.
“You are so insensitive.”
That stung. “I’m trying to help. I want to know what you want.”
“I want this all to be a bad dream,” she said, her lower lip sticking out.
“OK,” he said and put an arm around her. She nestled against him, and they watched a sparrow hopping across the ground.
The next morning, Lance accepted the position and enrolled in a teaching certification course.
On Sunday, he went to St. Jude’s. He didn’t sit in the pew that he and Jane used to use.
“Lance!” exclaimed Father Lawrence, at the coffee-and-doughnuts fellowship after mass. “What a pleasure!”
“Is that a nice way of saying ‘What a surprise?’” asked Lance. The priest was one of the few people Lance admitted to his private club of sensitive souls. After converting to Catholicism, Father Lawrence had shed his previous identity and had chosen the name of the saint who (legend said) had died laughing.
“I make it a point to not chide people when they’ve come back,” said Father Lawrence. “Just enjoying the service, or is something on your mind?”
“Do you have a few minutes?” Lance mumbled. “I don’t want to bother you if you’re busy.”
“Let’s step into my office,” Father Lawrence said.
Lance told him everything.
Father Lawrence, to Lance’s relief, did not roll his eyes, sigh, or shake his head. But –
“You’re disappointed in me,” said Lance.
“I think you’re disappointed in you.”
“Well, that doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve made my bed, and I’m going to…make the best of it.” He attempted a smile. “For the little one’s sake.”
Father Lawrence offered his hand, and Lance took it.
On Monday, Kent called. “Congratulations, Linus!”
Jessica’s commencement took place on a fine clear Saturday; her father presented her with a brand-new Nokia cell phone (“Just released last month, princess”) and her mother gave her a pair of diamond earrings. Lance gave her a soft wrap cardigan that tied around the waist. She thanked him, but her eyes were hard.
“Let’s just get through graduation and then we’ll deal with our parents,” she said.
Lance went to lunch with Jessica’s parents (WASP-y but nice, he thought) and they discussed her upcoming temp job in marketing in downtown Midwest Falls, and Lance’s plan to teach remedial freshman English. Then they dropped him off at rehearsal. He knew this would be his last production for some time. He wondered if any of the mall stores were hiring and if he’d even be able to find something, considering that every teen in Salem would also be looking for a summer job.
He sang along with Gary (playing Charlie Brown) and Jennifer (a very convincing Lucy) and the rest, but he wished he could bury his face in his – Linus’s – blanket.
“Lance!” cried Kent. “Again, the song is called ‘Happiness’, not ‘Misery’. Are we clear?”
“I’m sorry,” said Lance.
“Are you?” replied Kent, acidly.
He and Jessica didn’t go out to dinner – “We’ve got to start saving,” Lance explained, when Jessica frowned – but he had gotten pirogies from the Polish market downtown. Jessica looked revolted. “The smell,” she said. “I can’t keep anything down right now.”
“Sorry,” said Lance, and quickly stowed them in the fridge.
They were watching Seinfeld season six finale and saw Elaine wandering around in the rain. Lance was wondering whether the writers had ever read Cat’s Cradle when Jessica turned to him and said, “I don’t feel right.”
Lance hadn’t driven in years, but he did well enough as he sped them toward the hospital. They sat in the waiting room, speaking little. There had been an unsuccessful kegger at Waldorf College, resulting in a dozen cases of severe alcohol poisoning; Lance heard distinctly, “Code Blue”. After what seemed like hours they were finally admitted. Jessica looked small in the bed, and Lance clasped her hand in his.
The doctor came in and examined her – and, very correctly, expressed his condolences.
Jessica turned toward the wall.
Lance said a prayer.
Lance felt tears curling in his eyes during the final song of the last Sunday matinée: a profound meditation on the nature of joy, masquerading as a dialogue among six-year-olds. He clutched his blanket and sang out.
Afterward, he crept into Kent’s office and dialed Jessica. “Hey, do you want to come over? Or do you want me to come over?”
“Sure,” she said, her voice steadier than it had been.
“I’ll come to you,” he said.
He biked to the grocery store and bought a bouquet before going to Jessica’s apartment. She accepted the flowers, and they curled up on the sofa. Lance didn’t really want to watch Ghost, but it was her turn to pick. He helped himself to a Coke from her fridge as she rewound the tape.
“Mom’s invited us around for a family dinner next Saturday,” he said. “Well, you know, Dad too. But really Mom.”
“Yeah, that sounds nice,” she said.
“So…did you have a good day?”
“Yeah,” she said, sitting up; Lance saw a healthy rose creeping into her cheeks. “Jennifer’s Talent called again – they’ve got another job for me.”
“And they’re killing off Blair’s character on Days.”
Lance led Jessica through the house and into the backyard; it was unseasonably warm. Elaine greeted the young people with kiwi-strawberry margaritas. Minnie pulled them both into a too-close hug, nearly spilling both the drinks. “So glad to see you both. You keep me young!”
Lance spotted his father over Minnie’s shoulder. “Hey, Dad.”
“Hey, Lance.” Joseph Rhodes extracted his son from Minnie’s grasp and handed him a lighter.
“I’m trying to quit again,” said Lance. “But I appreciate the thought.”
“Welcome back to our Crazy for the Eighties summer countdown,” said a strangely familiar voice on the radio. “After a quick break, we’ll be back with Taco’s ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’.” Then, as always, the old standby: Double-You Mid-west Faaaaaaaaalls…
“Mom,” said Lance, oddly melancholy, “that’s wasn’t Greg…was it?”
“It sure sounded like him,” said Elaine. “When was the last time you saw him?” The doorbell rang. “That’ll be – Vivian!” she called. “Just come on through the – that’s it,” she resumed, in a normal tone.
Vivian, after fending off Elaine and Minnie, approached Lance, gave him a meaningful look, and silently touched her glass to his.
Arthur pulled gorgeous kebabs off the grill. They sat down at a groaning folding table set up especially for the occasion. “Souvlaki,” announced Elaine proudly. “The Vituses just got back from a trip to Greece for their twenty-fifth. Roxanne was telling me –”
“No pita bread for me,” Minnie put in. “I’m trying out this great thing – have you heard of The Zone Diet? I bought the book in hardcover – so worth it. It’s –”
Vivian leaned over to Lance. “Having a good time?”
“This is exactly how I wanted to spend my life,” said Lance, overhearing Jessica and Minnie exchanging views on carbs. “But family first, right?”
“Any more margaritas?” asked Vivian.
“Oh darn! We’re out,” said Elaine. “But I’ve got a bottle of wine chilling. Lance, could you please go grab it and bring back some glasses? Oh, and the bottle opener. I probably set it down on the desk when I was on the phone with Roxanne.”
He did as his mother asked, not undelighted to temporarily escape the loving embrace of family and friends. He reached for the bottle opener, which lay atop a pale blue envelope, and his stomach turned over before he could think why. And then he realized the writing was Jane’s. The envelope was open. He deposited the sweating bottle and the clanking glasses on the desk and pulled out the card.
Together with their parents
Mary Jane Klein
and Christopher John Samson
Request the pleasure of your company at the celebration of their union, Saturday, August 26, 1995, at ten o’clock in the morning, MacArthur Park, northwest corner
He stuffed it back into the envelope
“Lance, honey, is everything OK? Did you find the opener?”
“I found it, Mom.”
He found his own envelope when he returned to his apartment and belatedly checked his mailbox.
The phone rang.
“Yeah, hi. I’ve been meaning to call you since I got back, it’s just been – how are you?”
They exchanged a few polite volleys, then Lance said, “I got the invitation.”
“That’s great. I hope you’ll be able to make it.”
“I plan to,” he said.
“That’s great. Hey, I was wondering if you wanted to get together. I was planning to go see Clueless and Chris said he wasn’t interested…and I thought you might be.”
“Yeah…I am, actually. I had some tentative plans with Jessica, so let me call her first, and I’ll give you a call back.”
Jessica picked up on the fourth ring.
After he had explained, she said, “I told you that Blair and I were going out tonight.”
“So do you mind if I go see Clueless with Jane?”
“You’re not still hung up on her, are you?”
“No—we’re old friends. And it’s a running joke—I introduced her to Vonnegut, and then she introduced me to –”
“Don’t care,” Jessica said.
“Right. Have a good time with Blair.”
Lance biked and Jane caught the bus from her parents’ house; they met up in front of the mall’s new sixteen-screen multiplex. He spotted her from a distance, standing in front of the theatre, looking just as she ever had. No, that wasn’t right: she looked…more like Agnes.
Why did I think that? It doesn’t even make any sense.
“Lance!” she cried, having spotted him; she hugged him with the friendly enthusiasm that an engagement permitted. He had not been prepared for it.
They stood in line for tickets. “So,” Jane began, “how does one inculcate a love for The Catcher in the Rye in hormonal kids who would rather be outside?”
“Most people just ask how work’s going,” said Lance. “But the real answer is that I’m hoping this summer is taking years off my time in purgatory.”
“I imagine you must take some comfort in the irony of teaching an angsty American coming-of-age novel to indifferent teenagers.”
He turned to her rather quickly.
“I’m…not offended,” said Lance. He wasn’t. Happily, he was spared the trouble of saying anything further, because they had reached the front of the ticket line.
Afterward, they stood outside the theatre, comparing the amusingly modernized Emma with the horrible Shakespearean update Mr. Templeton had created all those years ago. Then Lance glanced down at his shoes, and Jane looked away.
“Well,” said Jane, “it’s been great to see you again.”
“You too,” said Lance. A pause. “Do you want –”
“I, ah, should get going,” she said. “Chris and I are supposed to meet up with Zita and Blaise for drinks.”
“Oh. OK,” said Lance.
He called Jessica when he got home. She and Blair had apparently gotten into a spectacular fight and Jessica had left her at the restaurant.
“Weren’t you driving?”
“Yes. But she also said she’d rather claw her eyes out than go anywhere with me, so it’s probably OK.” She sighed. “How was the movie?”
“It was a really good adaptation. And funny,” he said. “Have you read Emma?”
Lance put on a grey suit and a blue shirt and tie and combed his hair. It was cloudy but bright, warm but not hot; uncertain weather for a late August afternoon. He had gotten Jane and Chris a toaster because it wouldn’t be difficult to wrap. He set it in the backseat of the new-to-him, but very used, Honda Accord, and drove to Jessica’s house. She wasn’t ready when he arrived; he waited. She made her regal descent in a bright orange dress and frowned when she saw him. “We clash.”
“I can stop home and change.”
“There isn’t time.”
He glanced at his watch. That was true enough. They got into the car; her lips were arranged in a prize pout. He set the invitation on the dashboard, and switched on the radio. WMWF was conducting its annual summer ritual of giving fresh life to eighties power ballads. They held out for a hero, couldn’t fight that feeling anymore, and learned that every rose had its thorn – Jessica leaned over and snapped, “How can you listen to this schmaltz?” Then the familiar sound of Phil Collins’ piano jingled through the speakers and she huffed against her seat. “Case in point.”
Lance was familiar with the song —he’d rented ‘Against All Odds’ from Blockbuster because he had seen all the Dashiell Hammett-inspired titles and had heard the film described as ‘neo-noir’. But he’d never caught the words before. He turned them over, knowing they were overwrought, sensibility without the sense – but suddenly he understood that Jane coming back to him was….
The back of his neck was sweating, and as he scrambled to collect the broken pieces and reassemble them, he miscalculated and touched the bumper of a parked Ford Taurus.
“What is wrong with you?” cried Jessica.
“That’s exactly the question,” said Lance.
“OK, I wasn’t looking for some pseudo-intellectual bullshit answer.”
“I apologize for interrupting, but I’ve realized that we’re not right for each other.”
Jessica’s face contorted with fury. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I’m a slow learner.”
“You ?” The chorus swelled, and she stopped, assembled the disparate pieces of the scene to find the one answer that created a complete picture. Then she laughed. “Of course.”
“I’d better leave a note,” said Lance, hurrying out of the car. He penned a brief apology and explanation for the owner of the car, including his address and phone number and insurance information, and tucked it beneath the windshield wiper – then felt the car surging toward him. He leaped onto the grass – and saw Jessica’s face behind the wheel of his car, reversing, then lurching inevitably forward.
“What the hell?” he screamed, as his car rammed the Taurus a third time, crumpling the left rear wheel well. She had locked the doors. He could only watch as she extracted her mobile phone from her purse. “Hello? Is this the police?” she smiled. “I’m calling to report –”
He wondered briefly if fleeing the scene of an accident was a misdemeanor or a felony and decided it didn’t matter. The park wasn’t much more than a mile and a half away. And he would turn himself in afterward.
He turned away and started running.
He stripped off his jacket by the end of the block; his dress shoes were lacerating his feet by the second stop sign, and he suddenly remembered that he hadn’t run since college – but on he went.
MacArthur Park had—deliberately, obstreperously— quadrupled in size since his last visit. And of course, the gazebo was in the far corner. His dress shirt clung to him in odd patches. He felt a blister burst—his lungs burned—and there, there she was…
…recessing down the brief aisle between the rented folding chairs, hand-in-hand with her exuberant new husband.
“Lance?” she inquired; he was doubled over, despairing of his ability to stand. “Are you – all right?”
“I…” Wrong, entirely wrong. He straightened, painfully. “Congratulations, Jane.”
Those Agnes eyes again. “I want to hear the full story sometime,” she said and pressed his hand. Then the twittering cloud enveloped her, ‘Oh Jane, best wishes, you make such a beautiful bride, I’m so happy for you.’
When he was out of sight, he eased off his now-fragrant shoes and hobbled back to his car, suddenly aware of the rest of his life yawning ahead. His car, its fender a drooping mustache, was on the Tonka-yellow tow truck. Jessica was talking with the officer but broke off mid-sentence when she spotted him.
The officer turned to Lance. “You’d better have a good story.”
Lance waived his right to remain silent.
“Tough break. But I’m going to have to take you in any way,” the officer said, pulling out a pair of handcuffs.
“I know. I’m ready.” •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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