He had dropped out of the University of Chicago, after a year and one week of classes.
“I couldn’t take it,” he explained. “All last summer I couldn’t stand to think about going back.”
It was a Sunday afternoon in November. We sat by the wall-length windows at the Creek Café. Outside, the first snowflakes of the season fell. On the nearby corner of Belmont and Broadway, a short, fat man in a belted overcoat sold tiny American flags, methodically greeting the passersby in nasal tones: “Hi; Hello; Hi; Hi.”
“I don’t even know if I can explain it. There’s all this moronic pressure to be a certain type of person, a certain type of guy, you know? I felt like I hadn’t gotten anywhere, like I was still stuck with all the same kinds of jerks I knew in high school. I just couldn’t find a way out without leaving.”
He sat sideways in a curved wooden chair, his long legs extended, arms moving as he spoke. His plaid flannel shirt was missing a single pearly button on the cuff. The fabric flopped loosely whenever he gestured, exposing a wrist sculpted with veins and a dusting of dark, soft hair.
“I don’t remember you suffering in high school,” I said.
“Yeah. You saw the outside. You have no idea how many stupid rules there were. There were people I couldn’t even talk to without my friends giving me shit.”
Had I been one? I looked down at my coffee.
“So how did your family take it?” I asked.
Jack’s house was one of the largest in Fox Hollow, a brick behemoth swollen with turrets and glass. Low cannon-like spotlights hid among the carved, molded bushes, casting a strategic brightness. Bev knew his mother, Rita. His senior year, Jack occasionally drove Rita’s Jaguar to school, parking it casually beside the teacher’s big Bonnevilles.
He gathered himself in before answering. “Well, that was the thing. I got lucky, in a way.”
“Tell me.” We smiled.
“I doubt you know her, but my older sister Rhea’s kind of wild. I mean, she’s not a criminal or anything, but she just had a hard time settling down. Okay, so about two years ago she gets married to this big deal guy in Florida, he gives her a Porsche as a wedding present, my parents think he’ll take care of her, everything looks great, right? So just about the time I’m going nuts in Hyde Park, my mother calls. Rhea just called to say she’s left Buddy for a friend of his. And she’s pregnant. She and this new guy are going to New Mexico to wait for the baby. Rhea doesn’t want her born around all the bad karma Buddy’s generating in Boca Raton.
“So I’m listening to this, feeling like the world is going to crash if I let them down too, and all of a sudden, I just blurt it out: ‘Mom, I’ve got to get out of here, I’ve got to change my life, I’m dying.’ So she freaks some more, and we hang up, and then my dad calls from the hospital, where all these years I’ve never been able to call him, and starts in ‘You’re killing us, we were so proud of you,’ blah, blah, blah. So I’m really going nuts now, pacing around my stinking little dorm room. I start yelling about how I’ve tried to do everything right and I’m still not happy and it’s my life and if they don’t like it I’ll hitchhike down to Taos and hang out with Rhea. I’m like, shouting and crying all this shit. So he’s trying to calm me down, saying, ‘Okay, All Right, Come Home, We’ll Talk’. So I go, and it sucks, but I get free, you know? I came back and got an apartment on Clark Street.”
“So what are you going to do now?”
He looked happy. “I have no idea. I just want to walk around for a while, you know? Just look at all the buildings. Maybe travel. Read without having to hear the opinions of a bunch of other morons.”
This was the gulf between us. His freedom was internal, the axis around which his decisions revolved. It wasn’t just the money behind him, though I envied that too. Nothing stood between his parents and him, no chasm yawned between what he wanted and what he feared. Experimentally, I considered the thought of leaving my job and living on my already healthy savings; all I could picture was the murky haze of aimless days. My formerly loose goals of going to college, and finding a fun, undemanding career before getting married seemed now to be not only ridiculous but actively dangerous. Every dollar I saved, every hour I worked, every night I returned to the apartment whose every cent in rent I gleefully paid, distanced me from the rootless, defenseless girl I’d been those last weeks in Fox Hollow.
Jack shifted in the silence.
“Hey, whatever happened to Hannah Myers?”
“She goes to Berkeley. She and her mom still write to me.”
“You guys were pretty close, right?”
“Yes.” It feels like another lifetime, I thought.
“Wild child. Like Rhea.”
I cleared my throat. “Does Rhea look like you?”
I pictured her as tall and black-haired, the balls of her shoulders smooth and tanned. Rita Mapes played a lot of tennis; maybe Rhea did, too.
“Actually, no. She’s kind of thin, like you. Maybe our eyes are alike?”
His were shiny and dark, curved upward at the corners where his lashes met and curled. Again we fell silent. He leaned forward.
“So how did you become a trader?” he asked.
“My cousin’s husband got me into it, but I’m not a trader. I’m not even working on the floor anymore. I’m the office manager now.”
“But you like it, right?”
“I like the profession, yes.”
He sat back again.
“Did you go to school at all, or get right into it? It must be nice to know what you want.” He twirled the milky remnants of his coffee.
“C’mon, Jack. Everyone knows what happened.”
He rubbed his nose and sniffed. “All I know is that something happened with your family, and most of that I got from you, remember?”
“Oh, like Bev didn’t go yapping around your mother.”
He shrugged. “Maybe she did, but so what? Who cares what people think?”
“It’s not what they think; it’s how I wound up feeling.”
In my mind’s eye, I saw again those narcotized spring days between my father’s departure and my own graduation. Like the living dead.
“I didn’t mean it like that. You think I can’t understand? People everywhere have big problems.”
“Not in Fox Hollow, they don’t,” I said. “We graduated, everyone else went to college, I came here. What else was there?”
“So you feel cheated. Being happy with where you are isn’t enough.”
I hesitated. “I’m glad I’m doing well. I think I’ll always be able to take care of myself. I just feel like these years are different for me, like I went straight from adolescence to adulthood with a few weeks of total anxiety in between.”
“You could still go to school, you know.”
“I’ve thought of that. Isn’t it a one-shot deal, though? Either you go when it’s time, or you don’t. Now it would feel like going backwards, I think.”
“It hasn’t been that long,” he said.
I sighed. “Some days it feels like forever, others like it’s all right behind me.”
Outside the sky was darkening and snow was finally beginning to stick to the pavement. My second Chicago winter was about to commence.
Two weeks later we were riding the train after a midnight showing of “Stop Making Sense”.
“I think I’ll get a big white suit,” Jack said. He wiggled his eyebrows and worked his shoulders up and down.
“Where would you wear it?”
“At the Funny Farm? The Academy of Laughter?”
“You know, for someone who hasn’t gone to college, you sure know a lot of weird expressions.”
I knocked my knee against his leg. “You know, for someone who hated college, you sure talk about it a lot.”
We were squeezed together, the sleeves of our jackets rubbing. All through the movie, I’d been conscious of the spread of his fingers on his narrow flanks, his hard shoulders beneath the thin layer of his plaid shirt, his pulse faintly throbbing in the smooth shallow scoop at the base of his throat. Suddenly, as if reading my mind, he kissed my hair, and when I turned in surprise, he went for my lips. I felt the blood rush to my cheeks.
“That’s okay, right?” he asked.
I nodded slowly, watching his lips form and release the words. The lights in the car went dark and we hurtled forward in blackness, the murmurs of other riders swirling around us. When our stop was called, he reached for my hand and pulled me up.
“Let me come home with you,” he whispered. We hurried through the doors before they closed on us like guillotines.
“Do you think we’ll regret it?” I asked, stepping from the concrete platform onto the slow and narrow escalator, with its wide, slippery hand belt, faintly greasy from countless gripping fingers. My heart thumped in my chest.
“I know I won’t,” he answered, as we rose toward the sweet, cold air of release that awaited us.