My name is Irene Perkins and I am the victim of a summer love.
This is the thought that danced around my mind for the entirety of my senior year of high school. As a young girl, a summer romance is something to be envied more than the coveted crown of prom queen. To say that you have had a real encounter with such a thing at the ripe old age of 17 is legendary in a teenager's eyes.
Where did you guys meet? Was he from another state? Another country? Was he older than you? Did he speak another language? Please tell me he has a brother...
The details of a personal summer love were the hottest ticket in town. I remember receiving all but a printed out survey from my fellow girl classmates on the first lunch period of twelfth grade. I had hoped to eat my tasteless chicken and fries in silence that day. Instead, I had an audience of at least 14 puppy dog eyes directed straight at me and my chicken. These eyes also looked like they had just heard *NSYNC was planning a reunion tour and I had the inside scoop. They were hanging on my every nugget.
After shooting down their hopes of some much needed beginning of the year dirt, I knew exactly who to talk to next. My dear friend Chloe Nolan. The only thing bigger than Chloe's heart was her mouth. This is not something she hides from you when you first meet the doe-eyed blonde, therefore you could rarely hold it against her. Even though I'd really like to sometimes.
Hi I'm Chloe. You're new and you're pretty. You can sit with me at lunch if you haven't made any annoying friends already.
This was Chloe's first proclamation of friendship that she so loving sent my way. My dad had recently lost his job that supported my mother's dream ranch home on the upper class side of town and that wasn't the only adjustment being faced. Not only did we move into an apartment the size of our former game room but also a change in schools was in order for me.
I never had much luck fitting in with the poor little rich girl's at Clear View Prep. On several occasions the girls there did tell me that I was pretty, but it was more of a statement than an invitation. My hair waves down to my waist in a light brown and my eyes shoot out equal rays of yellow and green. I've never been fat or skinny nor short or tall. Just in the middle. I never felt ugly. Just misplaced. And I didn't expect my luck to change with the middle class ladies of South Ridge High School either. So when Chloe offered up the proposition of a budding friendship, I pounced.
"CHLOE. The sophomore girls? Seriously?" This was all the fury I could muster up to shoot my best friend's way.
"Oh come onnnn Irene! You know I assist Coach Briggs at JV tryouts and I can't help it if they over hear the details of my summer. You know how nosy they are."
"Exactly. YOUR summer. Not mine." I tossed back.
"Hey, I am the one who introduced you to Nate which means I get partial credit and bragging rights. It's just how girlworld works. Get used to it. I love you and you're welcome."
She had a point. If it weren't for her then I wouldn't have met Nate. And I never thanked her for the introduction. At the time, I wasn't sure if thanking her or blaming her would have been more appropriate.
It was only a couple weeks into our junior summer that I found myself headed for one of my daily visits to the Nolan residence. Although Chloe's home would have been considered to lean on the smaller scale in my old neighborhood, around here it was the Taj Mahal. From the beginning I felt a sense of comfort in Chloe's house. It wasn't the size that made me feel at home. It was the backyard. Specifically, the stables.
Chloe's mother and I shared a passion for horses. I had her permission to stop by and groom or ride whenever I'd like. She knew how much it meant to me and was kind enough to open the invitation. I had to sell my beloved palomino mare, Laycie, when my father first lost his job. He tried his best to make arrangements but they fell through. She was the last to go and still the hardest loss.
When I let myself in the back gate of the Nolan home, the last thing I was expecting was to see someone else in their modest barn. But there he was, trimming the hooves of my new favorite mare. I stood back and observed for a moment. He was maybe just a little older than me and his hair was nicely cropped but just long enough to see a natural wave in the sandy brown that hung over and hid his eyes. When he finally looked up they revealed to be the most honest color of brown.
"Hi. You lookin' for someone?" He asked.
Speak Irene. Say something. ANYTHING.
"Chloe!" I for some reason shouted at him. I immediately lowered my voice. "Chloe. She's my friend. I'm looking for her." Me Jane, you Tarzan, describes my response more closely.
"Haven't seen her today. Check the house yet?" He offered.
"Oh yeah. Of course. I checked but you know Chloe..." What was I even saying?!
"Uh, yeah I guess. Never in the house, that Chloe." He wasn't even trying to hide his sarcasm.
Blood invaded my cheeks. "Yeah, that's her." I chimed. "So what are you doing?" Another question from yours truly, Albert Einstein.
"Just trimmin'. The Nolan's hired me for the summer. Is that OK by you?" He looked up.
"Pssh. Yeah. I mean.. I'm not even a Nolan so yeah it's up to them." I stammered. Oh my God he must think I am part of a socially disabled program they support through charity on the weekends. "I'm just Chloe's friend."
"Yeah you mentioned that. Got a name or is Chloe's friend what you normally go by?"
What a smug bastard. A really cute smug bastard. "Irene."
"All right, nice to meet you Irene. I'm Nate. Mind tossing me that shoe over there?" He asked.
I returned back to earth and grabbed the horseshoe and handed it to him. "Do you need some help?" Great. Now he thinks that I think that he doesn't know how to do HIS job. And I wonder why I didn't get the 'Biggest Flirt' yearbook nomination.
He laughed a little. "I think I'm good."
Before I could spin on my heel to start my inevitable walk of shame, he added, "Wouldn't mind the company though."
And so it began. We worked and talked and talked and worked. He was nineteen and spending the summer with his Grandparents while he figured out his next move in the game of life. He wasn't in college and wanted to find a job working with livestock but didn't have the cash to front his own place. He planned on doing odd jobs until something stuck. He grew up all around the country. His father was a traveling businessman and his Gramps had offered him a place to stay while he was away this time. His mom wasn't really around, lived in the South with a husband he wasn't keen on and a baby brother he had yet to meet.
He was soft spoken, easy to talk to (once I found my voice), sarcastic yet humble and the horses loved him. It was as if he had been ripped from the pages of my diary and personified before my eyes. As lame as it sounded, I really wanted to pinch myself. And hard. So that it left a nasty bruise that could be seen when I woke up in the morning to remind myself it happened. That a guy like him really existed.
After that day, we were sewn to each other's sides. I'd help him work during the week and we'd spend the weekends with Chloe and her latest boy. The days were hot and the nights sweltering but you would think it was the middle of December and we needed the body heat by the way we clung to each other.
"I've never seen you like this." Chloe said over lunch one day late into summer.
"Like what?" I asked nonchalantly. I knew exactly what she was referring to but I hadn't seen me like this either and needed some time to respond.
"Oh please. You and Nate.. All in el-oh-vee-ee!" she teased.
"I'm not in love with him." I said too quickly. She gave me the you're-not-fooling-anyone-especially-your-best-friend look. Still, I insisted, "I'm not."
"Call it whatever you want Irene, but you, my friend, are neck deep in it." She continued, "So what are you gonna do after summer? School's only a few weeks away..."
This thought had already been depriving me from the little sleep I could find lately. Now I had someone expecting an answer I didn't have for myself. "We don't really talk about it." I shrugged.
"Good! I mean, it's just that I'm glad you're just going with it for once. Enjoy it! Try not to over think it like you always do. It's nice to see you smile.. It's nice to see someone make you smile."
She was right on two things: I was smiling. But I also didn't know where it would go when the seasons changed. I had always had walls up to guys. In fact, I'm pretty sure that my last 'boyfriend' was in 6th grade when I circled 'yes' on a note left in my desk. And when he bought me a candybar the next day at lunch, I promptly broke up with him after recess. My longest relationship was a 24 hour stint with a prepubescent Snickers bar lover and Shakespeare wannabe. My romantic record wasn't looking so hot.
I took Chloe's words to heart that night. I needed to stop over thinking it and just go with it for once. And go with it I did.
I told Chloe I was going to stay home that night. I also told my parents I was going to be staying over at Chloe's that evening. It's the most unoriginal teenage master plan out there but sometimes it works.
Nate picked me up down the street from my place and the night was ours. Just us. We went to the back of his Grandparent's alfalfa field and parked his truck. We sat on the tailgate and quietly stared over the dimly lit green.
"You know I could find something around here." Nate broke the silence.
I stared up at him. I took him in. His eyes were hopeful, his tanned forearms gripping the old tailgate nervously and his Sunday best polo did not have a chance of matching his worn out jeans. I did love him. Whatever that meant, in that moment, I did. I pulled him close and kissed him deeply, hoping that some response could translate through this action. I shut my thoughts off and breathed him in. He smelled of leather and summer, tasted like the sweetest salt and felt like home. I took down my walls, brick by brick, and let him in. No one had ever been allowed this close before and I placed my shaky hand of trust in his. For the first time that summer, the sun was not the source of the heat.
I woke up wrapped in his jacket in the coolest part of the morning... Wait! Morning? Damn I needed to get home. Chloe and I did our routine morning runs on the weekends and she and her hot pink Nikes was due on my front step any minute now. My mom just might have some questions.
"Nate.. Nate.. wake up I've gotta go. Now." I lightly shook him to life.
His eyes opened and he smiled, "Good morning."
"Good morning. Can we go now?"
I may have come across a little harsh but I really didn't have time to play footsies. To be honest, for whatever reason, I actually wanted to be home. Even if no one was expecting me. I needed to process what happened last night. What did I feel? Do I still feel it? School starts next week. What am I going to do? Summer was so close to being behind us and I had no idea what I wanted from myself in the future-- much less what I wanted from someone else. I urged him into the truck and we pulled away.
"Are you okay?" He asked slightly confused.
"Just take me home please." I half whispered.
"Anything for you." He sighed.
Anything? How about the answers. The answers I need for myself but mostly the ones you'll need for the questions you are bound to ask.
It had been three days since that night and I still hadn't seen Nate. Not for his lack of trying but for my fear of facing him. I couldn't find the strength to make my feet hit the floor, food looked grey and unappealing and I was showering until the water felt like ice pounding on my shoulders. I had been in a place like this once before when my father sold Laycie. But this time was not only dark, it was heavy. So heavy that even thinking about lifting my body out of bed was tiring enough to keep me in it.
"ReRe?" My door creaked open and Chloe let herself and unwanted light into my room.
I rolled to my other side, leaving her my back and hoping that was enough to get her to leave me alone. Instead, in typical Chloe fashion, she took it as an invitation and curled into the space I had made. And I'm so glad she did. She wrapped her arms around me while I sobbed hot tears that could have rivaled any monsoon. It was the first time I had been able to cry and I was thankful to no longer feel numb for a moment. Even if it was replaced by pain, I was just grateful to feel again.
When I finally calmed down I filled her in. I told her how I felt like I loved him and how it was so new to me. I told her how perfect the night was and how good he made me feel about myself and how I initiated it..
"It?" she interrupted, "You gave him your V-card??"
I couldn't help but laugh a little as I nodded. Leave it to Chloe to make light of the dark.
"OK." she started, "Now I get why you are acting like daylight is a terminal illness that must be avoided at all costs. Losing it is a big deal. What I don't get is why you're so damn sad. You said you felt like you loved him, he offered to stay in this shit hole town for you, you initiated it and it was almost exactly the way you thought it'd be, right? I lost my virginity in the boys locker room to a guy with Bacne and still managed to get up and eat my pancakes just fine the next morning. This is a good thing you have. It should feel good. Why are you trying to make it hurt?"
I finally got Chloe to leave by promising I would talk to Nate that night. I was tired of hearing how great her points were and how I was just feeling sorry for myself. What she didn't understand is that I wasn't crying because it was horrible or because I no longer felt what I did that night. I was crying because I still felt it. I was crying because I knew that for something that was so perfect, the timing couldn't have been any more wrong.
The afternoon before we met up that night, I had seen Mrs. Nolan on my way out to the stables. She knew about us and naturally had her motherly reservations. So are you so happy for Nate? That job is exactly what he needs. My blank expression must have revealed that this was news to me. A job? Why wouldn't he tell me? Oh my gosh! He hasn't told you yet? I am so sorry sweetheart, I shouldn't have ruined the surprise. After that, I was only half present for the rest of the conversation. Something about it being a great opportunity and his Grandparents knowing someone who knows someone and it's far but so worth it... It was far. Far from here and even further from me.
We met in the same place. Only this time we drove separately. When I drove up the dirt road, I saw him waiting for me on the tailgate with his head down. He seemed to be searching for answers in the dirt beneath his feet. I hoped they were there.
I wasted no time once I got out of the car. I wasn't ready for anything serious. It was great, he was great. It's me and it's school. I had a lot to focus on this year. Tough decisions needed to be made and I didn't need the distraction... These were just a few excuses I halfheartedly offered Nate. And though he denied or tried to fix every one of them, it wasn't until I was scraping at the bottom of my barrel of excuses that I caught his attention.
"It was just sex, Nate. That's it! That's what it was for me." I could hardly recognize myself with these words forming on my tongue. He didn't say anything for quite awhile. He paced and retraced his own steps a few times and finally looked at me.
"That's all, huh? That's what it was?" He walked towards me sternly and got so close to my face that a sheet of paper would have had trouble finding a place between us. "Tell me." He breathed, "Say it again."
There are moments in your life when you reach the fork in the road that you've been dancing around for awhile. But this time there is a sign that says dancing is no longer allowed and it instructs you to make a decision. To place your first step on your next path in life. And to do it immediately.
"It was just sex." The words couldn't have been served more cold. I took the first step and I chose a path. I got in my car and left him with what was left of us. Only memories. I gave him no other option and there was no turning back now. I made my bed and it was time to take a long, deep sleep in it.
"Can I get the hot pastrami on rye with extra mustard?"
Gotta love mall food. It has been close to five years since I could call this place my local hangout. I make it back home maybe twice a year now if my parents get there way. So here I am, in the middle of one of those two visits doing some last minute shopping and scoring a hot sub. I am currently in my last year at an out of state college and loving it. But holidays call for family and I'm close to all my parents have got.
"Irene?" Before I turn around, I check for the nearest escape routes from what is sure to be an awkward 'weren't you in my calculus class' conversation.
I couldn't have been more wrong. The man who called my name was never in any of my classes, however, he did teach me some important lessons.
"Nate?" I couldn't believe it. There he was. The owner of my V-card as Chloe would put it. He looked so much like I remembered. His hair was a little longer and his smile lines ran deeper. He looked good. Who was I kidding? He looked great. Why in the hell did I throw this catch back again?
Before I could even begin to contemplate my past bad judgement, I saw it. Or should I say her. She was walking directly for my Nate. And not alone either. She also had the sharpest arrow you can aim at a single girl's heart: a stroller.
We shook hands. She was nice and she was pretty. Her name was Jane. Pretty, sweet and plain Jane. His son's name was Wyatt and he looked a lot like his daddy. Lucky boy.
"Yeah I'm just visiting my parents for the holidays," was my attempt conversation.
"Yeah, we're visiting--"
"Your grandparents." I interrupted without realizing. Now sweet Jane's nice-to-meet-you face looked more like a who-is-this-bitch expression. "Sorry." I stammered.
Nate laughed, "No worries."
Number 147 ready for pick up! Hot pastrami on rye!
Oh sweet Lord that's me. Not only am I without a child or husband, now I get the pleasure of claiming ownership of a hot pastrami in front of a woman who has both. Oh joy.
"Well, that's my cue!" I said followed by a laugh that didn't belong to any joke.
He smiled, "Yeah, well, don't wanna keep ya. We've got shopping to do so, maybe I'll see you around."
When I got home I sprawled out on my old bed smelling like a deli counter and feeling like the cow I just devoured. Did he mean 'I hope to see you around' when he said that? Does he want to see me? Did he give me that look? He did. Wait, no he didn't. Maybe he did. I would make a great stepmom...
I got up and went to my closet. I pulled down an old box covered in band stickers and blew the dust off the top. It was right where I left it. The only photo I had of that summer...of us. I was so lost in him that I hardly noticed when Chloe snapped the pic. She didn't show me the picture until the following Spring, when she was sure I was 'so over' him. Holding it then ripped my heart in two, holding it now just lit up the scar.
I could have tried to talk to Nate after that. I could have tried to find a way to get him alone. I could have explained to him that it wasn't his fault and apologize for never mentioning I knew about the job. I could have told him that I just wanted the best for his life, that I never wanted to stand in his way and that I was so young and so, so scared. I could have finally told him what took me months of sleepless nights to realize: It was easier for me to hurt than to heal.
But I didn't do any of that. I knew of too many girls who desperately tried to breathe life back into an old grave of love. It hardly ever worked and even when it did it hurt many innocent along the way. Most girls just ended up out of breath, blue in the face and on their closet floor holding a similar picture of 'what was' in their ringless hand.
I can only hope that Jane knows what she has and wish that Nate still looked fondly on the past from time to time. And hopefully one day someone can walk by the place we started and put out our love's fire. I pray that it burned so hot that they can still feel what was once a great hope for a greater love.
When they were strolling away from me as a happy family that day, I wondered if she asked who I was. One part of me wanted her to know that I wasn't just 'some girl' and that we really had something. I wanted her to know that I was his everything for a whole season and that I very well could have been pushing her stroller.
The other part of me wanted Nate to keep it to himself. To keep our memories tucked away in a place that could possibly be relived in another life. I wanted him to let Jane believe she was the only one who could make him happy. And maybe she is. I like to think that he simply looked at his wife and said:
"Just a girl I used to know. . Chloe's friend."