There’s a girl in a broad-striped shirt with her hands in the back pockets of her Daisy Dukes, legs crossed, one tan knee over the other. She’s standing in front of a fence in front of an apartment complex whose name you do not yet know. Her right knee, creaseless, is the one you can see. The fence is chain-linked, the apartments brick, the sky dark and glossed with stars. Somebody somewhere inside’s got speaker troubles, but this doesn’t stop them from turning up Pearl Jam’s “Yellow Ledbetter” as loud as it can go. Her knee shines beneath the streetlights on either side of the fence, makes you think of lunar mornings not so long ago: a pale disk aglow in the purple-blue wash of spreading dawn just outside your parents’ house.
She simply stands there and your heart hurts. She simply is. And you no longer know where you were born.
Your brain has probably stolen this image from an episode of Seinfeld, which, in turn, stole it from the movie JFK, which, in turn, stole it from the collective memory, however warped, of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
In your memory of this moment, you are partially obscured from her line of sight by a crop of bushes. Your brain has probably stolen this image from an episode of Seinfeld, which, in turn, stole it from the movie JFK, which, in turn, stole it from the collective memory, however warped, of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. If anyone’s being assassinated here, it’s you, by her. Because she flips her hair and your spine goes wishy-washy. Because she uncrosses one knee from the other and your bones turn to powder.
Her friends join her. A few guys walk up. They are upperclassmen—as it worked in high school, so too in college. Experience is everything. The guys are saying things and the girls are smiling and laughing, and you wonder how something that has so much power over you can also be yours to control. These girls—this girl—whose “like” has reduced you to idiotic blubber in the past, is now blubber herself. She and her friends will go with these guys even though they know the guys are after only one thing. They’ll go with these guys and drink whatever they’re given, and some of them—all of them, maybe only one—will do whatever the guys require in order to be reimbursed for the first-class treatment. Maybe some serious making out, perhaps something potentially more dangerous.
Then the guys turn, and the girls turn, and she turns, and you’re looking at the back of them, at the back of her, at the back of her Daisy Dukes and the back of her legs, and those legs are moving. They’re moving away from you, taking her with them, through the opening in the fence, toward the apartment complex whose name you do not yet know, toward “Yellow Ledbetter” and the brighter side of the moon. And before you are even aware of having moved, you’re moving like the oceans: pulled. You open your mouth; you yawp; you’re a bloody drunk barbarian screaming into the void of existence; you’re Whitman; this is your Leaves of Grass; you’re writing it on your first night of college—in college, you’re in college, goddamnit; you’re proving it now; you’re writing it with teeth and bones and blood; this is your masterpiece, your moment; you’re making it; you; you; you; you yell her name:
“Are you fucking insane?” your buddy asks, grabbing you by the arm, yanking the drunk version of you back from where you were heading, bringing you back to earth.
“Rebecca!” you cry again.
You call out her name one last time, third time’s a charm, and give it the ol’ college try, and this time not only does she look back but her friends and the guys who are leading them away look too.
She glances over her shoulder, sees you, you’re sure of it, but she can’t seem to connect you with the person who has twice called out her name. Or she does make the connection but doesn’t care—there is always that. You call out her name one last time, third time’s a charm, and give it the ol’ college try, and this time not only does she look back but her friends and the guys who are leading them away look too. These guys are obviously football players or bodybuilders, something that requires one to be big and hard and tough. They can take you out in a heartbeat; they can erase you, more so than you already are, from the collegiate landscape of which you are so trying to be a part. The guys look from you to the girls to each other then back at you. It’s clear they’re not sure what to do. They’ve got pussy on the brain, but they wouldn’t mind pulverizing you, especially if said show of masculine bravado could help put said pussy somewhere closer to their dicks.
“They’ll fucking kill you,” your buddy says. He’s gone from pulling you by the arms to pushing you against your chest. Holding up an open hand in their direction, he’s giving them the universal sign that he doesn’t want any trouble, that if they leave it to him, there won’t be any trouble.
It is enough. The football players turn away and Rebecca’s friends turn away and Rebecca turns away, and for a long time you’ll have yourself convinced that she hesitated before she turned away, that she held you for a moment in her gaze and tried to see you for what she was too, what you really were together at this moment, no different, just a couple of kids packed up and shoved off by their parents and forced into this brave new world, that she looked at you and tried to remember you, tried to make a memory of the boy who wouldn’t stop calling her name on her first night of college, first semester freshmen year.
Flanked by her friends and following the guys, she walks away.
You stand there with your buddy and watch her withdraw. Your buddy is still holding on to you but he’s no longer holding you back; he has a hand on your shoulder and one on your hip. He is holding you up.
Strangely, you’ll never be sure if you ever actually see her again after this night. You’ll see girls you think are Rebecca, follow girls who look like her, talk about girls you’ve seen or followed as if she was Rebecca, but always you’ll doubt that this was so. Her features, down to the kneecap, so prominent this night in your mind, fade as the days go by. The idea of her, however, does not weaken. In fact, as one month follows the next, one year another, it seems to grow stronger; the more she becomes lost to you, the more you wish it wasn’t so, the more this night with Rebecca in the moonlight—perhaps the only night or day of your life with her—means.
Grasping at straws leaves you holding on to substance.
And just like that, she’s yours. Forever, she’s yours.