I met Lori in Morro Bay in the summer of 1994. She flew back to Illinois. I lived in California. After she flew back, she wrote me a letter about her feelings for me. It surprised me, so I wrote back about my feelings for her. Lori and I would write each week. I wasn’t that attracted to her physically. She had severe acne, and her black hair was like a spider’s web. But I’d finally met a girl who believed in me. I felt something new that I wanted to last forever.
I pictured the wedding. I pictured the kissing at the altar. I pictured the reception, the toast. I pictured the picnics, the family holidays, and the children. And it was only my senior year. I didn’t care about the girls who ignored me at my high school. They could’ve burned in hell.
I was anxious to see Lori again, the first love of my life. People still sent letters to each other back then. Her letters aroused me. She would write me with a different colored pen. She would spray those letters with her perfume. I would press it to my nose with my eyes shut. Her handwriting was bubbly on pink paper. In one letter, she described how she would kiss me all over. After that one, I knew we would be together forever.
But in the eleventh month, she wrote me a letter with a different tone. It was written in black ink. The paper was white. Her usual cursive writing was rigid between the lines. Instead of sexy or handsome or my love, she addressed me with Dear Chris. I knew there was a problem. Her letters usually carried on for more than three pages. This one lasted less than a page. She called me a sweet and caring person. I deserved the woman of my dreams. In other words, I’d become her friend. She’d met another guy. He lived close to her. The letter ended with Sincerely, Lori, not Love, Lori. I never foresaw that happening.
I was hurt, confused, and angry. A week ago, I’d received her most intimate letter. I hid it in my drawer. If my mom had happened to raid my bedroom one day, she would never find those pages. But the last letter haunted me worse than any nightmare. I dreamt that my body was bitten by an evil beetle. I was paralyzed. Other beetles would eat me alive. They inflicted pain all over me like staples on my skin. Her letter did the same thing. It feasted on me at night. I couldn’t sleep. I’d read it once and never again. And I could remember every word. I could’ve shredded it to pieces or set it on fire. It may have cursed me if I tore it up or cremated it. The letter also said I didn’t have to fly to see her that summer. But I chose to see her, after saving all that money for a plane ticket. I thought her feelings may have changed.
I was shaking when I exited the tunnel. I wanted to turn around and fly back to California. She waited at the terminal for me at O’hare. She wasn’t alone. She was with her girlfriends and her new boyfriend, Tommy. He held her from behind. He wore an Indianapolis Colts jersey with the number twenty-eight, the same as his age. His hair was blond and curly. His cheeks were rosy.
“So you’re Chris,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”
He held his hand out for a handshake. But I went to hug Lori. She kept her arms down. When I went to kiss her, she turned her face away. Everyone saw it happen. I’d saved hundreds of dollars on a round-trip ticket for two weeks in Illinois. Her Italian family had come to pick me up: her parents, her little sister, and her friends. It was clever on her part not to be alone with me.
What did all those months of love letters amount to when I couldn’t get near her, no matter how hard I tried? When I approached her in her room alone, she left. Her room was pink all over, the same shade of pink as the paper she’d written on.
It was uncomfortable in the Florentine household. I preferred to do things by myself. So I snuck out of the house one night and took a lonely walk through the woods near a lake. I wanted to disappear for good. Animals hunted for meat under the moon in Lansing, Illinois. I didn’t want to die. I wanted a wild animal to wound me. I wanted Lori to feel guilty for pushing me away. Something crossed me in the woods with thick legs and big ears. All I saw was its silhouette. It panted hard like it had traveled far to eat. I lay in the dirt and closed my eyes, waiting for the attack. The creature pressed its smelly nose against my arm. It licked my salty sweat. I was fearful. What a foolish mistake. Why get maimed over that girl? Whatever that animal was, it sensed my hopelessness. I must’ve tasted like a rotten pear. It traveled on for something better to eat. I had nowhere else to go but back to Lori’s house.
Other than that, I enjoyed Chicago. It was a wonderful city. I rode a train downtown to see the Sears Tower. I gazed at an ant farm of people in business suits and dresses many stories below. They bustled to their destinations. I had to squint my eyes at them from the sunlight. How many of them were jilted like me?
Her family was hospitable. I returned to see her mom begin to do my laundry and fold my clothes. I appreciated her for that.
One night, they insulted each other at the dinner table. It entertained me, even with Lori in the same room. Her father used to fight as a middleweight boxer. Lucky Florentine wore a wife-beater tank top every day. His hair was white and wavy. His nose looked like it had been busted several times. Her mom cooked us meatballs and roasted potatoes. The chandelier hung brightly above us at the dinner table.
Lucky held the conversation, as the father in the Florentine household was supposed to do.
“I hate Tommy,” he said.
I liked him already.
“Why are you telling me who I should or shouldn’t date?” Lori asked.
Lori wore her volleyball sweats at the table. The table was wooden and oval. Mrs. Florentine had set it with utensils and trays of food.
“Because you’re only seventeen,” he said, “and he’s almost thirty. I don’t want you hanging around that punk. He’s a rapist.”
Lucky was a good man.
“Dad, how could you say that?” Lori said.
Because of his excellent eye for detail, that was how.
Lucky turned to me. “But I like you,” he said. He chewed with his mouth wide open. “Are you gay, son?”
Now hold up, I thought. Don’t take me the wrong way. What kind of vibes was I sending?
“Dad, stop,” Lori said. She defended me for what reason? Or maybe she was trying to defend herself from shame.
“That was out of line,” Mrs. Florentine said. She turned to me. “I’m sorry about that, dear.”
What was said was said. Those words were permanent.
Lucky eyed me. He raised a glass of wine to his lips. “Ain’t got a problem if you are,” he told me. “Just askin’.”
He must not have known I’d flown to see his daughter. For the first time during the trip, I began to laugh out of shame.
Lori threw her napkin to the table and stormed to her room. The whole trip was an exercise in embarrassment.
“Get back here,” Lucky said. “Supper ain’t over. You didn’t finish your pop.”
It was hard to feel awkward after he’d said pop instead of soda and supper instead of dinner.
Her younger sister, Isabel, began to feed potatoes to their dog, a St. Bernard. Isabel wasn’t even in high school yet. She wore a silver lace tied in her blond hair. She had no interest in getting to know me, not that it mattered.
“Stop being an asshole,” Mrs. Florentine said to her husband. It was in her Chicagoan accent. Ass-ho. If my mother had ever said that to my father, an argument would’ve flared up. But Mr. Florentine stuffed another meatball in his mouth. He stayed quiet once Lori was gone.
More of the same habits occurred for the first week. I agreed to attend their church on Sunday morning, but I was never a religious person. The Florentines were Catholic. My family, the Pasquetellis, was, too. But we never attended service. The church hall had an arched ceiling with biblical paintings. It had many rows of wooden benches. I sat through the ceremony next to her cousin Jenna. She’d turned eighteen that summer, a month shy of me. She followed the priest’s commands to repeat the scriptures. I didn’t repeat them. I looked at Jenna, especially her legs in her short green dress. She pressed them together.
After the congregation, Jenna and I stood outside the church. She convinced me to go camping with Lori and her friends. “I know what she did to you,” she said. “She can be a real flake, and I hate what she does to boys. She leads them on like that.” Jenna and the family all sided with me. I loved to be the good guy. It made the trip feel redeeming.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Her eyes were big and green. Her hair was long and strawberry. Her skin was pale. She wore rouge, lipstick, and mascara: things Lori wouldn’t wear. And Jenna was smaller and tighter. No doubt, I was aroused by her physically. But Jenna hadn’t written those letters all year. She was beautiful on the surface but didn’t go as deep as Lori.
“If you don’t go, I won’t go,” she told me.
So I felt forced to go. Otherwise, I would’ve stayed at the Florentines. Or I would’ve ridden the train back to downtown Chicago.
They’d set the tents up by the lake. Two of them. Tommy went as well. He brought them weed, mushrooms, and whiskey. The water was murky, and it sat still. No one dared to swim in it. Behind were the woods where the creatures could’ve attacked us. The grass was tall and itchy.
Everyone wanted to play charades. I would’ve rather slept in a tent alone. Only four people could fit in each one. I shared mine with Jenna, another cousin whose name I kept forgetting, and an autistic man from the church.
Jenna wore a bikini top over her jean shorts. Her tits were perky underneath. She lifted her top up to keep it from pulling down. She kept her eyes on me. “We’re going to the other tent to get high,” she told me. But at eighteen, I’d never touched a thing. My father would’ve been disappointed if he found out.
The cousin pulled out a fifth of Jack Daniels and took a rip. He passed it to Jenna. She did the same thing. Even the autistic man drank from it. He held it out for me.
“No thanks,” I said. It was like my father was watching. The tent had four sleeping bags in total. Jenna left her small, compact mirror on hers, next to her makeup kit. I loved girly girls over tomboys. Lori was the ultimate tomboy. Jenna was the opposite, as you could tell.
After the three got buzzed, they left for the other tent.
Jenna stopped before she was about to leave and looked back at me. “You’re coming, right?”
But my intent for the rest of the trip was to avoid Lori. “I’m a little tired. I think I’ll sleep for a while. But go ahead.”
Jenna looked disappointed in me. The sun shined across her pretty face. I thought she was interested in me. I didn’t want to let her down.
“OK, well, if you change your mind…”
Jenna could’ve always stayed with me, but she didn’t. It would’ve been nice to cuddle with her in my sleeping bag. My mind began to race when I wrapped myself inside it. I had to face my anger towards Lori and my shyness towards Jenna. I closed my eyes and imagined her wrapped up with me.
Lori entered the tent with Tommy. Those heartless souls were about to have sex right next to me. I shut my eyes and pretended to sleep. They slipped into one of the sleeping bags. The evening had fallen. The sun slipped behind the trees. I tried to listen to the birds, frogs, and crickets—anything to distract me from those two. Lori and Tommy began kissing and rubbing and squeezing. I wanted to leave but didn’t want them to know I was awake. But I also wondered what sex outside the movies sounded like, how it flowed, and the rhythm of two people doing it. Tommy grunted as if he were lifting weights, but I couldn’t hear Lori. She might’ve felt uneasy after her treatment of me. We weren’t friends. We were pretending to be. Tommy began to pump away and push his breath out. They were far from where her friends and cousins played charades. At one point, it sounded like rape. Lucky could’ve been right. I had to stop that guy. It felt wrong to protect the girl who’d broken my heart.
“Tommy, don’t do that,” she said.
He could’ve been doing a million things to her. What could it have been?
“I’m just trying to feel good,” he said. “Hold still.”
The moment felt more uncomfortable than her breakup letter or the nightmare with the electric beetles. So I got out of my sleeping bag.
“Get off of her,” I said.
Tommy’s head poked out of the sleeping bag.
“What?” he asked.
I didn’t want to fight him. But if he won, Lucky would’ve wrung his neck in my defense.
“Don’t,” she said to him.
Again, Lori defended me. I thought I embarrassed her.
“You’ve been listening to us?” Tommy asked.
It was impossible not to.
“I said get off of her. She doesn’t want it,” I said.
He began to get out of the sleeping bag. “You better fuck off, kid.”
And I did, leaving that tent. Tommy was officially her problem. Whatever happened wasn’t my business.
Jenna handed me a joint and a fifth of whiskey in the other tent. They’d already eaten the mushrooms. It seemed to be the right time to try both. But I wasn’t in the mood to play the game. The moon was out. They used a flashlight over one of the blankets. It felt sweet to be high and drunk for once. I understood why people did it. My worries over Lori and Tommy went away. I didn’t care about anything except Jenna. I was horny.
She turned to me. “Aren’t you going to play the game with us? It’s your turn.”
But I fell asleep in one of their sleeping bags.
When morning came, someone rested in my arms. The person was hairless, with a small back and legs entwined with mine. Her hair pressed against my nose and smelled like shampoo. She was Lori’s lesbian friend Charlie. She was blond and petite in her panties. She was still asleep. The others sat in a circle as if they’d never gone to bed. The tent was open. The morning light was blue. It had to be before seven o’clock at least. Last night was a blur after I smoked.
Charlie’s girlfriend, Desiree, entered with a pink box of donuts. She found her girl sleeping in the bag with me. Hawk Feather was the name of Desiree’s rock band. She sang lead. Her black hair reached past her little tits. She wore beads and wristbands with tattoos across both arms. I worried Desiree might’ve attacked me. But instead, she offered me a donut. I willfully took it to keep the peace within the tent. Desiree didn’t mind me anyway, like Lucky didn’t mind me. Maybe she thought I was gay, too. The only physical attention I got was from a lesbian. I had to be the saddest man in Illinois. I was angry and tended to do stupid things when I got angry. I had to leave soon before anything would happen.
Lori and her eight friends went to watch a movie. I tagged along and sat with Jenna in the middle of the row. We were dead center in a classic theater in Chicago. There was one of those balconies over us. The movie was about a mentally challenged man whose struggle I could relate to. I hated how they portrayed him. People had to feel sorry for the guy. After running across the country, after playing ping pong in the Olympics, and after meeting the president, he still couldn’t get the girl he’d fallen in love with. No matter what, she didn’t want him. The love of my life had chosen to sit in the aisle seat, the farthest away, as she’d planned. I couldn’t believe we’d exchanged love notes for a year.
Jenna wore a red dress. She looked how Lori could only wish to look. But Jenna wasn’t Lori. No one compared to those letters she’d written to me. I’d fallen in love with Lori’s letters, not her. Whatever Jenna would’ve sent me would’ve been less special. It wasn’t worth the pain to fall in love with anyone. But I wasn’t helpless. The plan was revenge on Lori, if she would care. I wanted to prove that I was over her.
The blue light from the movie screen shined on Jenna’s face. Her eyes began to water up at the drama. I’d tuned out from the film long ago for her legs. I ran my hand up her thigh and began to kiss her neck. Jenna swatted me away as if I was a dumb fly. “Stop touching me,” she said. It was loud enough for the crowd to switch its attention from the poor guy on the screen to the fool in his seat. She got up and moved closer to where Lori sat. Lori covered her face with her hands. Tommy started laughing. I’d suffered many humiliating situations, but that one was in a world of its own. So I began to usher myself from the theater. My ass was in their faces. I started tripping on their feet across the row. What a disgrace I was. Why did I ever fly out there?
I still had a few nights left in Illinois before flying back to California. I could’ve taken an earlier flight, but that would’ve cost a bundle. The rest of the movie continued without me. I stood below the marquee. If I had to guess, the girl would’ve never accepted the poor guy’s love, not from a man as mentally challenged as him. A handsome man who was less extraordinary would’ve swept her off her feet. The poor guy would be left alone. That could’ve been my fate: the decent guy who never got the girl. It would’ve been pitiful waiting for that group to meet me outside, so I left. The rain in July began to pour. Illinois wasn’t like California. The water was thick. It attacked me as I started walking back to the Florentines. I didn’t know their address or phone number, but I recognized street names and buildings to point me in the right direction.
My clothes were soaked once I came through the front door. Mrs. Florentine sat on the couch in front of the TV with a crossword puzzle in her hands.
“Where’s everybody else?” she asked.
I had to dry off. “Still at the movie,” I said.
After putting on other clothes, I watched the rain fall with the lights out in the kitchen. I dwelled over what an idiot I was. Lightning flashed. Thunder started rumbling. Lucky entered the room, wearing the same wife-beater. His white shoulder hairs stuck out in the moonlight. It was like he’d never taken it off since his years in the circuit decades ago. He’d been a cop, too, until he retired from the force. I could see him being one. Now he was an Italian lump. He lounged in his house all day. I didn’t want anyone’s company, not even the air. Unconsciousness sounded like paradise. He joined me at the table and left the lights off. I didn’t say anything to him. He didn’t say anything to me.
He slid me a shot of limoncello without me asking.
“I don’t drink,” I said.
Except for the other night.
“Shut the fuck up and drink it,” he said.
OK, so I guessed I had to drink it. After what had happened at the theater, I wasn’t in the mood to bond with him. The liqueur tasted like a Lemonhead candy mixed with a splash of peroxide. I caught a buzz a few minutes later.
Lucky lit a cigarette. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Why aren’t you with them other fucks?”
I stared at his cigarette pack on the table. Funny enough, they were Lucky Strikes.
“I’m not feeling good,” I said.
I wasn’t looking at him but I could feel him watching me.
“Something happen at the movie?”
His bullshit detector was on.
“Maybe,” I said.
He inhaled the smoke deeply but exhaled quickly. “You’re homesick, ain’t you?”
He was right about that. I didn’t have to answer.
“So that was it? A fight?”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what had happened. I couldn’t share my jilted feelings about his daughter, not with him. What wouldn’t upset him if I said mean things about her? He was tough, or at least he showcased his toughness. But men are vulnerable no matter how stained their wife-beaters are.
“It’s your daughter,” I said.
He rolled his eyes. “Yeah? What she do this time?” he asked.
I almost said it.
“Come on. Just tell me. I ain’t going to knock you out.”
I couldn’t think of the right word before looking him in the face. For once, we made eye contact without me feeling threatened. His eyes stared right back at me unflinchingly. After he poured another shot for me, I drank it, and the word came, so I slammed the glass to the table and said, “She’s a scumbag.”
He looked away from me at the rain. What had come out of my mouth wasn’t news to him. “Some of them can be,” he said.
The discussion ended there.
On my last day, I planned on packing my stuff before anyone got up. I called a taxi to escape to O’hare. My flight was early in the morning anyway. But Mrs. Florentine had already woken up before the sun came out. She would wake up that early. She started making coffee in the kitchen. She wore her pink robe, which said Best Mom on the back. Everyone else was asleep.
“What time are you leaving, dear?” she asked.
I lied about the flight. I said the departure was at six in the morning, not at nine.
“I can drive you there,” she said.
“No, it’s OK. I have a cab coming. But thank you for everything. You were very generous.”
“Thank you for coming. You’re really a sweet boy. But let me drive you. We can cancel the taxi ride. I’ll save you money.”
I feared that would happen.
“Seriously, it’s on the way,” I said. “It’s too late.”
“Well,” she said, “OK.”
Everything was packed. I waited for the cab outside. Jenna showed up at the house. I tried to find somewhere to hide, but that would’ve looked pathetic. She pulled into the driveway in her silver Audi. Her parents were wealthy. Dad had bought her that car for her sweet sixteenth birthday. Her parents were richer than the Florentines, without a doubt.
I stared at the ground and froze stiff. I thought this was what it would be. We pretended we didn’t know each other.
She got out of the car and kept her eyes on the front door as I stood beside it. She walked in without paying me any attention and closed the door.
Lucky’s words sat beside me on the plane ride to California. “Some of them can be.” I crossed the border and looked out the window at the lonely brown mountains below. It was good to come back home. Mom and Dad would pick me up and ask about the trip. I would tell them it went alright. Chicago is a beautiful city.
A week went by. Lori wrote me an apology letter that went beyond one page. She said she was sorry for the way she’d treated me. She should’ve never avoided me and instead treated me as a friend. But she didn’t know how to act around me after dumping me. I understood her but tore it up and threw it in the trash. I wasn’t worried about any curses. I would never write her back.