The Daily Weirdness


Long Distance to Illinois

April 23, 2017 ·

I couldn’t wait to see the first love of my life again, back in 1995, when people still sent letters to each other. Lori and I wrote weekly since I met her in Morro Bay last summer. I wasn’t that attracted to her physically. She had severe acne, and her black hair was matted like a spider’s web that could swallow a comb. But I’d finally met a girl who believed in me and felt something new that I wanted to last forever.

I pictured the wedding, the kissing at the altar, the reception, the toast, the picnics, the family holidays, and the children. And it was only my senior year in high school. I no longer cared about the other girls at my school who ignored me. Those girls could’ve rotted in hell.

She would write me with a different colored pen each time, which aroused me, and she sprayed those letters with her perfume. I would press the paper to my nose with my eyes closed. Her bubbly handwriting and the pink paper she wrote it on aroused me. 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, in black ink. 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. Most of her letters carried on for three or more pages, but this one lasted less than a page. She called me a sweet and caring person who deserved the woman of my dreams. In other words, I’d become her friend. She’d met another guy who lived close to her. She lived in Illinois. I lived in California. The letter ended with Sincerely, Lori, not Love, Lori. I never predicted this would happen.

She’d hurt me as much as confused me. I was angry. I hated her. Only a week before, I’d received her most intimate letter, which I hid in my drawer, so if my mom happened to raid my bedroom one day, she would never find the pages. But the last letter haunted me worse than a nightmare I had in which my body was bitten by an evil beetle. I was paralyzed. Other beetles ate me alive, inflicting pain all over my body like staples on my skin. Her letter did the same thing. It feasted on me at night, and I couldn’t sleep. I read it once and never again. I could’ve shredded it to pieces or set it on fire. But if I tore it up or cremated it, it might’ve cursed me. 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 wanted to see her, thinking her feelings could’ve changed. 

I was nervous when I exited the tunnel and wanted to turn back. She waited at the terminal for me, not alone but with her girlfriends and her new boyfriend, Tommy, who held her from behind. He wore an Indianapolis Colts jersey with the number twenty-eight, the same as his age, and Lori was a junior in high school. His hair was blond and curly, his cheeks 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 spent all that money on a round-trip ticket for two weeks in Illinois to stay with her Italian family. They’d come to pick me up: her parents and her little sister, along with her friends. It was clever on her part not to be alone with me.

What did all those months of love letters amount to? I couldn’t get near her, no matter how hard I tried. When I approached her in her room alone, she left. I’d never felt so abandoned in my life. Her room was pink all over, the same shade of pink as the paper she wrote on. It had a stuffed white teddy bear on a blue dresser with a mirror staring back at me.

It was uncomfortable in the Florentine household, to say the least. While there, I preferred to do things independently. So I snuck out of the house one night and took a lonely stroll through the woods near a lake in the dark, wanting to disappear for good. Hungry animals hunted for meat under the moon in Darian, Illinois. I didn’t want to die, but for a wild animal to wound me, to make Lori feel guilty for pushing me away. Something crossed me in the woods with thick legs and big ears. All I could see was its silhouette. It panted hard as if it had traveled several miles to eat. I lay in the dirt, closed my eyes, and awaited the attack. The creature pressed its smelly nose against my arm and licked the salt. I was drenched in fear. 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. That’s not to say Chicago wasn’t enjoyable. It was a wonderful city. I rode a train downtown to see buildings like the Sears Tower, where I gazed down at an ant farm of people in suits and business dresses below. They crawled along to their destinations. The sunlight glared off the glass, so I had to squint my eyes at them. How many of them were jilted?

Her family was hospitable. I returned to see her mom, Mrs. Florentine, who’d begun to do my laundry and fold my clothes. My clothes smelled fresh as daisies. I appreciated her for that.

One night, they insulted each other at the dinner table, which entertained me, even with Lori in the same room. Her father, Lucky Florentine, who used to fight as a middleweight boxer, wore a wife beater tank top daily. His hair was white and wavy, and his nose looked like it had been broken several times. Her mom cooked us tender meatballs and roasted potatoes. The chandelier hung brightly above us at the dinner table.

Lucky held the conversation, which 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 should not date?” Lori asked.

Lori wore her volleyball sweats at the table. The table was wooden and oval. Mrs. Florentine had set it with utensils, trays of food, and pink cloth dinner mats under the plates.

“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.

Then Lucky turned to me. “But I like you,” he said.  He chewed with his mouth almost 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, defending me for what reason.

“Yeah, that was out of line,” Mrs. Florentine said. And then she turned to me. “I’m sorry about that, dear.”

What was said was said. Those words were permanent.

Lucky eyed me while he held a glass of red wine between his lips. “Ain’t got a problem if you are,” he told me. “Just askin’.”

He must not have known I’d flown out of California 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 about myself 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, but she was past puberty, with a silver tie in her blond hair. She had no interest in getting to know me, not that it mattered.

“Stop being an asshole,” Mrs. Florentine told her husband in her Chicagoan accent.

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 and stayed quiet once Lori was gone.

More of the same happened for the rest of the first week. I agreed to attend their church on Sunday morning, never a religious person. The Florentines were Catholic. The church hall had an arched ceiling with biblical paintings and many rows of wooden benches. I sat through the ceremony next to her cousin Jenna. She’d turned eighteen that summer, almost a month shy of me. She wore a green dress and followed the priest’s commands to repeat the scriptures. I didn’t repeat them, but I glanced over at Jenna, especially at her legs, which she held tight together.

After the congregation, Jenna talked me into camping with Lori and her friends.  We stood outside the church. “I know what she did to you,” Jenna said. “She can be a real flake, and I hate what she does to boys, leading them on like that.” Jenna and the family all sided with me. I loved to feel like the good guy. It gave me a sense of redemption on the trip.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Her eyes were big and green, her hair long and strawberry, her skin fair. 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. Her seduction was only on the surface. It didn’t go as deep as Lori’s did.

“If you don’t go, I won’t go,” she told me.

So then I felt forced to go. Otherwise, I would’ve stayed at the Florentines or ridden the train back to downtown Chicago. I was always an independent soul, always wanting to do stuff alone.

They’d set the tents up by the lake, two of them. Tommy went too. He brought them weed, mushrooms, and whiskey. The water was murky, black, 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 so tall it scratched my legs.

Everyone wanted to play charades, while I would’ve rather slept in a tent alone. A snake could’ve crawled in from the woods. Who knew what sort of creatures lurked out there? Only four people could fit in each tent. I shared mine with Jenna, another cousin whose name I kept forgetting, and an autistic man from the church.

Jenna wore a pink bikini top over her jean shorts. Her breasts were perky underneath. She lifted it up to keep it from pulling down. She kept her eye on me. “We’re going to the next tent to get high and drink,” 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, who did the same thing. Even the autistic man drank from it. He held it out for me.

“No thanks,” I said as if my father were in the same tent with us. The tent was brown, with four sleeping bags in total. Jenna left her small, compact makeup mirror on hers, next to her makeup kit. I loved girly girls over tomboys, and Lori was the ultimate tomboy, while Jenna, as you could tell, was the complete opposite.

Once 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 as she was avoiding me. “I’m a little tired, so I think I’ll sleep for a while. But go ahead.”

Jenna looked disappointed in me. The Illinois sunlight shined across her pretty face. She was interested in me, and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

“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 in my sleeping bag with her. My mind began to race when I wrapped myself inside. I had to face my anger towards Lori and my shyness towards Jenna. I closed my eyes and imagined her wrapped up with me.

Then Lori entered my 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 hid behind the trees. I tried to listen to the crickets, birds, and frogs outside, 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 about sex outside of what those actors did in the movies: the sound, the flow, and the rhythm of two people doing it. Tommy grunted as if he were lifting weights at the gym. But I couldn’t hear Lori, who might’ve felt uneasy after what she’d done to me. We weren’t really friends. We were pretending to be. Tommy began to pump away and push his breath out, 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, even if 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.”

That moment felt worse 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 pulled out of the sleeping bag and scowled at me.

“What?” Tommy 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.

In the other tent, Jenna handed me a joint to smoke and a fifth of whiskey to drink from. It seemed to be the right time to introduce myself to both. But I didn’t play the game, wasn’t in the mood to. Night had taken over. They used a flashlight on the ground over one of the blankets to give them light. It felt sweet to be high and drunk for once. I understood why people did it so much. My concerns over Lori and Tommy dissipated. I didn’t care about anything except Jenna. I was horny.

She turned to me. “Aren’t you going to play with us? It’s your turn.”

But I fell fast asleep in one of their sleeping bags.

When morning came, and I woke up, someone rested in my arms, 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, blond and petite in her panties. Last night was a blur after I smoked. She was still asleep. The rest sat in a circle as if they’d never gone to bed. Their tent was open. The morning sun was gray. It had to be before seven o’clock at least.

Her girlfriend, Desiree, entered with a pink box of donuts and found her girl in the sleeping bag with me. Hawk Feather was the name of Desiree’s rock band. She sang lead. Her black hair reached past her little breasts. 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, too, thought I was gay. I had to be the saddest man in Illinois. Those situations would anger me, and I tended to do stupid things when angry. I had to leave soon before anything would happen.

Lori and her eight friends went to see 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, with 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 were supposed to feel sorry for the guy. After he ran across the country, played ping pong in the Olympics, and met 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, who’d written notes to me for an entire year, had chosen to sit in the aisle seat, far away. She’d planned it that way. But Jenna wore a red dress and looked how Lori could only wish to look, yet Jenna wasn’t Lori. None compared to those letters she’d written to me. I’d fallen for Lori’s letters, not her. Whatever Jenna would’ve sent me wouldn’t have been as special. It wasn’t worth the pain to fall in love with anyone. But I wasn’t helpless. The plan was malicious revenge on Lori, if she would care at all. I wanted to prove that I was over her.

The blue light from the movie screen shined on Jenna’s face. The movie fully absorbed her. Her eyes began to water up at the drama while I’d tuned out long ago for Jenna’s 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. It provoked me more, so I tried again. But that time, Jenna said, “Stop touching me.” It was loud enough for the crowd to switch its gaze 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 shades of humiliating situations, but that one was a color 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 shame to subject myself to that. Why did I ever fly out there?

I still had a few nights left in Illinois before the plane would rescue me 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 never accept the poor guy’s love, not from a man as mentally challenged as him. A handsome man who was less extraordinary would sweep her off her feet, leaving the poor guy alone. What if that was my fate? The decent guy who never got the girl. The rain in July began to pour. Darian wasn’t like California. The water was hot, thick, and syrupy and attacked me as I started walking back to the Florentines.

It would’ve been pitiful waiting for the group to meet me outside. I didn’t know their address or phone number but could recognize 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 get out of those wet clothes. “Still at the movie,” I said.

After switching to dry clothes, I watched the rain fall with the lights out in the kitchen, thinking about what an idiot I was. Lightning flashed. Thunder started rumbling. Lucky entered in the same wife beater he’d worn throughout the visit. It was as if he’d never taken it off since his years in the circuit, and that was decades ago. He was once a cop too. I could imagine him being one. He’d retired from the force and now was an Italian lump who lounged in his house all day. I didn’t want anyone’s company, not even the air. Unconsciousness sounded like candlelight. He joined me at the kitchen table and left the lights off. I didn’t say anything to him, and 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 occurred at the movie theater, I wasn’t in the mood to bond with the man. The liqueur tasted like a Lemonhead candy mixed with a splash of peroxide. I caught a buzz a few minutes later.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he asked. “Why aren’t you with them other fucks?”

Lucky lit a cigarette. I stared at his cigarette pack on the table. Funny enough, they were Lucky Strikes.

“I’m not feeling good,” I said.

Although I wasn’t looking at him, I could feel him watching me.

“What? 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 what was it? A fight?”

I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what had happened, and 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 to tell Lucky before looking him in the face. For once, we made eye contact without me feeling threatened. His eyes stared right back 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 as if what had come out of my mouth wasn’t news to him. “Some of them are,” he said.

The discussion ended there.

On my last day, I planned on packing my stuff before anyone got up, calling a taxi, and escaping to O’hare. My flight was early in the morning anyway. But my plan would fail. Mrs. Florentine had already woken up before the sun came out. She always woke up that early. She started making coffee in the kitchen, wearing her pink robe, which said Best Mom Ever on its back. Everyone else was asleep.

“What time are you leaving, dear?” she asked me.

I lied about the flight, saying 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 cab ride. It’ll save you money.”

I feared that would happen.

“Seriously, it’s on the way,” I said. “It’s too late.”

“Well, OK,” she said.

Once everything was packed, and I waited for the cab outside, Jenna arrived at the house. I couldn’t hide anywhere. She pulled into the driveway in her silver Audi. Her parents were wealthy. Dad had bought that car for her sweet sixteenth birthday. They were undoubtedly more wealthy than the Florentines.

I stared at the ground and froze stiff, thinking this was what it would be, us pretending we didn’t know each other, just how it was with Lori.

“What’re you waiting for?” Jenna asked.

So maybe I was wrong, dead wrong.

“The taxi.” I checked my watch. “My plane leaves in two hours.”

Jenna wore a blue Notre Dame sweatshirt and blue jeans. I’d never seen her dress so conservatively.

“I’ll drive you,” she said.

To say I was stunned is an understatement. “What did you just say?”

She began to walk towards me. When she stopped before me, she picked up one of my suitcases with my clothes in it. “I said I’ll drive you. You don’t have to take a cab. Come on.”

I left the Florentines without saying goodbye to Lori.

On the drive there, we got to know more about each other. She would attend Notre Dame in the fall, and I would attend a junior college. Something in me couldn’t bring myself to apologize for my behavior at the movie theater. It was a silent oath between us not to bring it up.

She kissed my cheek at the terminal, and we hugged. “Take my number and address,” she said. “And you better stay in touch.”

I hesitated. I didn’t want another year of that. But what a great outcome to an otherwise awful trip. Jenna was not only more beautiful, but she was supportive. She waited until I entered the tunnel towards the airplane. I looked back and gave her one final wave.

Lucky’s words sat beside me on the ride to California. I crossed the border and gazed out the window at the lonely brown mountains below, jutting from the earth. It was good to come back home. Mom and Dad would pick me up and ask how the trip went. I would tell them it went very well.

A week later, Lori wrote me an apology letter that went beyond one page. She said she was sorry for the way she’d behaved around me. She should’ve never avoided me and treated me as a friend instead, but she didn’t know how to act around me after dumping me. I understood but tore it up and threw it in the trash, not worried about any curses. I would never write her back, but I waited for Jenna’s first letter.

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