What I remember: We were fourteen and raising ourselves. Curtis’s sister had just been diagnosed with schizophrenia, so his parents practically lived at the psychiatric hospital that year. My dad was off in the suburbs, actually enjoying fatherhood with his second set of kids, and my mom was dealing with my stepfather’s recently unveiled homosexuality the only way she knew how, with boxes of white zinfandel. Our AP English teacher must have paired people together for assignments by degree of loneliness.
Curtis and I never ended up reading that Joyce Carol Oates book. We discovered within the other a twin soul with a similar approach to academics, lazy, but resourceful, equally adept at hiding plagiarism in heaps of purple prose. Together, we crafted six pages of utter baloney, putting our faith in the rumor that Ms. Dingis never read more than the first sentence of each paragraph. (Ms. Dingis. Was that really her name or just what we called her?) The report was basically foreplay, a platform to push our hormonally-inspired arrogance to the limit just to make the other laugh. In our conclusion, we deemed JCO’s book a “steaming pile of gopher stool”.
A week later, Curtis and I celebrated our B with gin from his parents’ liquor cabinet, passed back and forth in a water bottle. We walked aimlessly around the university and climbed a tree at the far end of the quad, where we made out, ravenously, hidden by golden leaves.
We visited the tree on our one year anniversary, March 8th, hoping to make a tradition of kissing in the canopy. But the following year it rained. And the year after that we didn’t feel like climbing trees anymore.
I imagine the branches shook, raining acorns.
Maybe they did. Maybe they didn’t.
Twelve years had passed since I’d last seen him. In the shopping basket, resting in the crook of Curtis’s arm, was a bag of baby carrots and a tub of hummus. It was a noticeable departure from his old diet of ramen noodles and Easy Cheese.
“Wow. It’s you,” he said, giving me a dry peck on the cheek.
“Your eyes do not deceive.” I hated the way I said that.
My daughter was too old to be sitting up front in the shopping cart. Her long legs dangled out of the metal frame.
“I’m Sunny,” she said.
Her real name was Sonia, but it didn’t matter.
Curtis put his basket down, crossed his arms, and asked how I’d been. I handed Sunny a banana to keep her quiet.
I told him I’d moved home when my mom got sick and later married the doctor managing her care. I still lived in the house I’d grown up in, but he’d never recognize it with all the work we’d done. I rejoined the rat race after Sunny started school and was currently working as a neonatal nurse. I hated how I’d said “rat race”.
When I turned the spotlight on Curtis, I fully expected him to say he was still bartending at night and sleeping until noon.
“I’ve been in Ann Arbor mostly, where I got a Master’s degree I don’t intend on using. Right now I’m on tour with my band, Blue Skies.”
“Wow. I think I’ve actually heard of them—I mean you.”
“Yeah, one of our songs was on Grey’s Anatomy. Since then we’ve kind of blown up. We’re playing Stubb’s in Austin next month.”
“I shit you not.”
“Language,” said Sunny. I’d forgotten she was even there. I sifted through the shopping cart and opened the Fruit Roll-ups.
At one point Curtis said, “Hey, I finally got around to reading that book we were assigned in AP English.”
“Was it a steaming pile of gopher stool?”
He laughed. “It was creepy, but good. The show is good too, if you haven’t seen it yet.”
I just looked at him.
“With that actress…” he said, reading my confusion. “The one from Mad Men.”
“You’re talking about Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. We were assigned a book by Joyce Carol Oates.”
“I’d check my facts if I were you.”
I shrugged coolly and told him I’d better get home before my ice cream sandwiches melted. We hugged and went our separate ways. I found an open checkout aisle and began laying items on the conveyor belt. The cashier gave Sunny her choice of stickers.
Curtis had seemed so optimistic. And successful. And chatty. There was nothing solid between us anymore. Just air.
“Look, a bear riding a skateboard!” said Sunny, displaying her sticker.
I feigned excitement. “What?! A bear riding a skateboard? Now I’ve seen everything.”
She stuck it to my forehead. “Leave it there forever, Mommy.”
Every so often I take the long way home from work, through the university, across the quad. A few years ago, I started to notice our tree was getting old. It looked like a middle-aged man sporting a comb-over. I wondered how Curtis and I had ever been concealed by the leaves to make out so wantonly. It didn’t seem possible, especially in early March. Maybe the leaves were just in my head.
Last spring, I happened to walk by our tree right when a man was spray-painting a giant “X” on it. Its branches were stark, like bones.
“Who told you to do that?” I asked.
“I told myself. I’m the city arborist,” he responded.
“You’re taking it down?”
“Yup. It’s dead.”
The idea of our tree’s impending stump, its life-lines exposed for the world to see, elicited unexpected emotion. I went home and ran on my treadmill for over an hour, just to kill the feeling.
Things that make me think of Curtis: white Ford Escorts, Starburst Jelly Beans, Old Country Buffet, Joop cologne, The Legend of Zelda. I spent most of my fifteenth summer watching him play that video game, for no other reason than to be pressed against his side. Sometimes I retreat inward and find that teenage self still inside of me, as if I’m nothing more than a collection of Russian dolls, layers of wood. When I crack them open, the responsibilities of adulthood fall away, and I’m back in Curtis’s basement on his old grey couch. All that matters is skin-on-skin and getting to the next level so Link can save the princess.
Nouns: Coed Naked T-shirts, cargo pants, and Timberland boots. The Jerky Boys, Beavis and Butthead, South Park. Hot Pockets, Surge, Orange Julius. Mix tapes with Sublime, Nirvana, Nas, and A Tribe Called Quest. Field parties with Natural Ice.
Verbs: Skinny-dip, streak, gleek, juggle—not like a jester, but keeping a soccer ball off the ground. Our record: one hundred touches between the two of us.
Adjectives: Energetic, innocent, limber.
Upstairs, in the corner of my attic is a shoebox containing photo booklets, the kind you got back from the drug store after dropping your film off. Half the photos would now just be deleted, but the mistakes are great—his eye, his unmade bed, a crooked shot of the wall and that ridiculous poster of the woman in the thong bikini which I eventually tore down and ripped up, tired of pretending I didn’t care. Among the bloopers are the successful, calculated pictures, our heads pressed together, our young smiling faces:
- Spaghetti Warehouse for pre-prom dinner, the sauce stain on my dress.
- Edward Forty-hands: bottles of malt liquor fastened with duct tape to our palms.
- Cypress Hill behind us on stage at Smoke and Grooves Festival.
- From the top of the Ferris wheel at Valley Field Days.
- Our first anniversary: That March 8th, after making out in the tree, I tried to cook basil pesto using Curtis’s mom’s recipe. It called for three garlic cloves, but not being clear on culinary terminology, I used three bulbs. We ended up ordering pizza. Just as candles were lit and lights were dimmed, my mom stumbled into the house drunk and made a bee-line for our dinner. She pulled a slice out of the box and lost most of the cheese to gravity.
“Mom,” I said.
“What?” She wobbled.
“This is our anniversary dinner.”
She looked around the dining room, taking in the ambiance.
“You’re using my good candles and I can’t have a fucking piece-a pizza?”
“Fine. But could you eat it someplace else?”
“Forget it.” She threw the slice back into the box and started upstairs. Near the top, we heard her slip and fall, three ugly thuds. She lay there, halfway up, crying.
“Do you think she needs help?” Curtis whispered.
I shook my head and we finished our dinner in silence.
The picture was taken with the camera held at arm’s length, just after my mom began snoring on the stairs. Curtis’s eyes are big, his mouth ajar pretending shock. My chin is tipped back as I laugh. Funny how the funniest things aren’t funny at all.
Curtis and I went to different colleges, an hour away from each other. He was on the soccer team, so he had a huge crew. At my school, I was a loner, angst-ridden, drawn to philosophy and art classes. Everyone around me seemed like a sheltered, cookie-cutter suburbanite, experiencing sex and alcohol for the first time. Curtis was my only consolation. Fridays, after my last class, I’d set off in my old Tercel down the county road separating our schools, going eighty. Come Sunday afternoon, I’d head back, barely breaking the speed limit.
One Friday in late October I arrived to find his friends gathered around the television, but Curtis wasn’t among them. His roommate, Brian, told me Curtis was upstairs, in bed, sick.
“I think he just needs some sexual healing,” said Brian. “But make it fast. He’s supposed to be my partner in the beer pong championship at Curly’s and it starts in an hour.”
Curtis’s room was dark, the air thick and sweet with weed smoke. He was listening to Today by Smashing Pumpkins, fetal on the bed, facing the wall. It was his sister’s favorite song, played on repeat whenever she was discharged from the psychiatric hospital.
“She OD’d,” he whispered. He buried his face in his pillow. I crawled in behind him, two half-moons.
For some reason, we decided to go to the beer pong tournament, pre-gaming with tequila. Curtis wore a Mexican poncho and drew a moustache under his nose with ash from his weed pipe. When we got to the bar he yelled, “Ándale! Ándale! Arriba! Arriba!” like Speedy Gonzalez. This was ass-hat behavior. Not Curtis-cool.
“Whatever you did to cheer him up—nicely done,” said Brian, giving me a lascivious double-raise of the eyebrows. For the first time I felt like an interloper, not part of Curtis’s crew, just his skank girlfriend.
When Curtis lost the tournament in the third round, he swept his side of the table with an arm, knocking all the cups to the floor and was promptly bounced out. On the walk back to his apartment we encountered a tidy lawn with several bags of leaves at the curb.
“Why can’t people just let nature do its fucking thing?!” yelled Curtis. He ripped the bags apart, made a giant leaf pile, and dove in. Then the home owner came out and threatened to call the cops.
“Leave the leaves!” Curtis protested, as I dragged him away. “Leave the leaves!”
He didn’t say a word at the wake and funeral. I thought he just needed time, but years later—years—he remained quiet, withdrawn, broody. With friends he was the same cool Curtis he’d always been, but with family and with me, he shut down. I tried to convince myself it was the kind of comfortable silence couples worked a lifetime for, but I knew it was just as likely there was nothing to say.
Things I miss: bed-rattling bass like that of the Wu-Tang variety, funny T-shirts saying things like Too Blessed to be Stressed, terms of endearment like booger snake, armpit dung, and ferret breath, staying in bed all morning.
I guess that’s when it began—the end, when sleeping in started to feel irresponsible. I remember giving Curtis a hard time about it, reciting a list of my accomplishments, all before noon. A run, a trip to the library and the Farmer’s Market. To this he replied, “You weren’t really doing anything. Just moving around.”
At twenty-four, Curtis was still comfortable being liquid, but I was trying to find a container to give me shape. I started wanting things like a house, a dog, kids, health insurance, and a retirement account, but couldn’t visualize attaining any of these goals with my liberal arts degree and subsequent restaurant job. So, I did the most practical thing I could think of and went back to school to become a nurse. I was accepted to a rigorous accelerated-track program at a university an hour south.
Hindsight is blind. We never really understand why we do what we do. I don’t think Curtis and I ever had a conversation about breaking up. It just kind of happened, the ampersand between our names blotted with white-out, layer upon layer, until it was caked on like bird shit, illegible, as good as gone.
Why’d we stay together so long? Fear of loneliness. (And I fucking loved that dude.)
Why’d we break up? We wanted different things. (I loved myself more.)
Over the course of a month I packed my stuff into boxes, knowing clearly what was mine and what was his. Occasionally, Curtis would appear in a doorway and ask, “Are you sure this is really what you want?” He was so heartbreakingly passive about the whole thing. When I drove away in a small moving van I caught a glimpse of him in the rearview mirror with a hand up, wiggling his fingers, saying goodbye to me, to our ten years together, like, “Ta-ta”.
I was sitting at my dining room table listening to Blue Skies, the title track, March 8th. I let out a groan, put my head in my hands, and let the chorus smack me again.
I love what she do to me,
Up in that tree, up in that tree.
But ain’t nothin’ profound,
Down on the ground, down on the ground.
Maybe it wasn’t personal. Maybe Curtis was just waxing poetic about the difference between ideal love and the real world. Maybe it wasn’t about me at all. Maybe he made out with all his girlfriends up in trees—despite the track’s title, our anniversary. I viewed our relationship as something formative and beautiful that had simply run its course, but he made it sound regrettable, like a ten year mistake. Is every song really just an assault on an old lover?
Curtis howled and the band began to jam. Lots of tambourines. Blue Skies was famous for handing them out to all the beautiful women in the audience and inviting them up on stage.
I jumped in my seat and pulled out my earbuds.
“What’s up?” My husband, Drew, traced a plump vein on my hand with his index finger.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just trying to figure out what to make for dinner.”
Curtis’s ant-like voice emanated from the earbuds on the table:
Ándale! Ándale! Arriba! Arriba!
Beer pong and bags of leaves.
I walked home from work, through the university, across the quad, and found the place where our tree once stood. There wasn’t even a stump, just a smattering of wood chips. Which made me think: Maybe there was never a tree at all.
But I would have taken an oath on my life it was Joyce Carol Oates.
Laura Carnes Williams has been a surgical nurse on an open heart team, a school nurse, a professional tutor, and now works in administration at a community college. Publications include Scribble, Mud Season Review, and Literary Mama. She lives in Syracuse, NY with her husband, two wild boys, and geriatric pitbull terrier, Lucky. Please visit www.LauraCarnesWilliams.com to learn more.
Artwork by Kita Das