tagRomanceAcross The Way

Across The Way


She was beautiful and clean and soulful and the first time he saw her he knew he must have her.

("Did you really know that, at the time?" Meredith asked him.

("Yes," he said, with the utter conviction of a man in love.

("You're using your insane voice again," she said.)

Her name was Amy. She had long well-kept blonde hair and she pushed against America's cultural obsession with slimness. Her face was wide and unblemished and clearly made for smiling. She was an alto in the Performance Singers, where he was a tenor, and they sat near each other. Her voice was the color of glass, sweet and clear and ringing. Sometimes it was all he could do not to stop and listen.

It took him until February to work up the courage to ask her out, and then she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, Jacob, but... I'm seeing someone."

He knew that. Her dorm room was across the courtyard from his, and because she left her blinds open most of the time, he could see quite clearly when he wanted to.

"Oh, well," he said. "That's fine." A struggle to sound casual, unaffected, bored in that manly way. "I mean, if you're seeing someone..."

"I am," said Amy. She beamed. "His name's Nick Johnson. Have you met him?"

Nick Johnson was tall and broad of chest, sullen, muscled, reeking of testosterone. In a white T-shirt and close-cropped hair, he was like the patron god of the U.S. Army. "No, I haven't," Jake said.

"You'd love him," Amy said. Her faced glowed in that brilliant, heart-warming smile. "He's nice and sweet and fun and..."

Jake didn't see what was so great about him. On the rare occasions when they were in her room and not having sex, Nick prowled like a caged animal. Jake, a hundred yards away, could never hear what he was saying, but their body language told it all.

"Yes, but..." said Meredith. "Jake, it may look like they're not getting along, but you have to admit that you aren't seeing the whole picture. A lot of times, no one quite understands how two people's relationship works, except for the two people themselves."

"Hey," said Zachary, coming in the front door. "He's here again? Meredith, you should charge him by the hour."

Meredith laughed. "Nonsense. We do this for people we like."

Meredith Levine was another girl he could have loved--Meredith Chambers, now. But she, too, was seeing someone; and Brandon was a good friend, Jake's group leader during Orientation two years ago. Evidently they'd been going out for five years, and their first wedding anniversary was fast approaching. This particular could-have-been was nipped in the bud before it even began. And it was not in Jacob's nature to dwell on things he couldn't have.

Even more than that, though, the Chamberses were both in the Performance Singers. They knew Amy, and they knew Jake. He could talk to them about it. Zach and his girlfriend Christa too, though he didn't know them as well.

"We've been going out since we were freshmen," Amy told him. "I didn't know a soul here--you know how it is." Jake, who had once had no friends at all save a distracted sophomore named Brandon Chambers, nodded. He forked a bite of pasta into his mouth. "So, here I was, rattling around like so much loose change, and then... There was Nick. He's on a football scholarship--did I tell you that?--so he knew people already, and, you know..." A sigh. "He was so dreamy."

And then, "I guess you wouldn't know about that."

"No," said Jake to his dream. "I know about that."

She smiled--that brilliant, heart-warming smile. She had dimples and gray-green eyes. "I'm glad I met you, Jacob. You're such a nice guy."

There were times when he sat alone in his tiny dorm room, a pocket of space designed by a Japanese barely twelve feet on its longest dimension, and felt the cold silence of the room around him and the emptiness and the sounds of talk and laughter from next door, from upstairs, from outside the courtyard, and felt that he had been buried alive, and that this was his coffin, and that it was his doom to be here, silent, alone, isolated, forever. There were times in which he wanted to walk down the street and reach out to every smiling face. There were times when he wanted to punch them instead.

He'd dash across the courtyard and up the stairs to Amy's room. "He's wrong for you," he'd say. "I'm not." And Nick would come charging in yelling and she would see, and together they'd shove him out the door, working together, in unison, their bodies dancing to a song they had both heard forever. And they'd get him out into the hall, but he'd manage to shove a foot or an arm or something through, and they'd have to hold the door against his brute strength as he tried to break in. And they'd find themselves face to face, pressed against the door, expletives and outrage burning around it, and smile at each other, and kiss.

That was what should happen.

"Uh-uh," Zach said when he heard that, "no, no way."

"No way what?" Meredith asked.

"No Nice Guy. Never Nice Guy. Nice Guy is the perfect way to get screwed over for life."

"That's not true," Meredith protested, "Christa, is that true?"

"Is what true," said Christa, handing her the baby. "Oh, hi, Jake."

"Nice Guys finish last," Zach said.

"Spot on," Christa said. "Absolutely true. Truer words were ne'er spoken."

"Well, great," said Jake.

"What do you mean?" Meredith said. "Zach's a nice guy. Brandon, you're a nice guy. You aren't finishing last."

"Yeah, we're nice guys," Brandon said. "But we're more than nice guys."

"Look at Jake's situation right now," Zach said. "He's a nice guy--yeah. He's a choirboy, for heaven's sake. Jake, you get good grades, right? And you come from a nice family--not necessarily like wildly affluent, but some money. There's nothing wrong with that. But look at Nick.

"Nick is not A Nice Guy. Now, Meredith, I know you're all into that humanist thing of assuming the best about everyone, but I've played with Nick in intramural games and I can tell you, he is definitely not a nice guy. He doesn't get good grades. He doesn't come from a good family. He's here on an athletics scholarship and every year his coaches have to push him that extra mile so that he keeps it. Sure, he's got those hot muscles, but he's not going anywhere. We're gonna find him face down drunk-to-death in some trailer park in ten years.

"But he gets the girls. Whereas you, Jake, do not. And do you know why?"

"Because women are stupid," Jake grumped.

"Because you're boring," Zach said quietly.

Jake said nothing.

"You're a Nice Guy, Jake. You're reliable. You make a good friend. You're safe, in other words. And yeah, when everyone's thinking of getting married in ten or fifteen years, you'll probably be hot property. But the kind of man a girl wants to marry, is not necessarily the kind of man she wants to date."

"And what kind of man does she want to date," Meredith asked.

"The unsafe kind," Zach said. "The dangerous kind. The kind unpredictable kind. People like Nick."

"Zach, you're disproving your own point by existing," Meredith said. "By your logic, you should've never gotten together with Christa, and I should've never found Brandon."

"He's right," Brandon said. "We're flukes, all of us. Jake's the rule, we're the exceptions that prove it. When we got together, we were dangerous."

"When I caught Christa's attention," Zach said, "it was because I was an asshole. No, don't deny it, you know it's true. I was an asshole. And Christa liked that about me. She liked that about Mark Spencer too, only he turned out to be asshole all the way though, whereas I had a chewy-nougat Nice Guy center to me. But if I'd been Nice Guy all the way through, or asshole all the way through, Christa would be off in Springfield somewhere, happily dating some guy who's smarter than me, and I'd be third wheel to you and Brandon right now.

"And Brandon caught your eye by being screwed up. He was partners with the freak girl, and he'd tried that whole suicide thing. Everyone knew he was fucked up. That attracted you, Meredith, not only because you've been fucked up too, but because that made him different, it made him stand out, it suggested there was more to him than meets the eye. Let's face it, on the surface Brandon is white-bread boring. But then we look at what he's doing, we look past the cover, and, hey--he's interesting! If Brandon hadn't gone in The Program, you two would've never gotten together. You would've never noticed him, and even if Brandon by some miracle had asked you out, you probably would've said no. Which is exactly what just happened to Jake."

"But what about Lisa," Christa said. "Jane said Dustin was a family friend for a long time, and he was a certifiable Nice Guy. Then, junior year, wham, they just started dating."

"Proves the rule," Zach said. "He did that thing for her, remember?--What was it--went out on his bike fifteen miles just to get her that thing. She never expected him to do that. And now suddenly she's looking at him because he's different and unpredictable, and he's interesting to her. You gotta understand, to women, nice guys are like furniture: they rarely ever notice em. They just expect em to be there and then don't give em a second thought."

"Not furniture," Brandon chortled, "they notice furniture. Something even less. Grass maybe.

"So you're saying I'm boring," Jake said.

"No," Zach said, "absolutely not. Jake, you know you're not boring. I know it, and Meredith knows it, and Christa and Brandon and probably even little Laurelyn here. But Amy doesn't. To her, you look boring. And until you figure out how to <I>not</I> look boring to her, it's going to continue this way."

"So, basically, to attract attention, I've gotta be an asshole," Jake said.

"No," Christa said, "absolutely not. But you gotta be not-safe. You gotta be interesting. You can't be ho-hum-same-old Jacob. You need to be volatile."

"God, this makes us sound insane," Meredith said.

"You aren't?" Brandon asked.

Meredith gave him a look. "I know someone who's gonna be sleeping on the couch tonight."

"Oh really," Brandon said agreeably. "What's his name?"

"Volatile," Jake said. "I don't know if I can do that."

"Be romantic," said Christa. "Be spontaneous. Be outrageous. Be everything you ever wanted to be."

"Right," Jake said. "Right."

He sat alone in his room. It was dark outside, and there was no laughter from the windows now. The lights were on, bathing the walls and floor in acerbic neon. In his bathroom you could sit on the toilet and take a shower at the same time--there was no stall, just fixtures in the wall and a drain on the floor and a curtain to protect the toilet and sink from too much splashing. When he'd moved in here he'd wondered if you could fit two in a room like this, wondered at the adjustments, at the slow accommodation of space, at the closeness of living with someone in a walk-in closet.

Now he wondered what it'd be like to shut the doors and close the windows and sit in here forever. Eventually the silence would start to ring in his ears, the way silence did on a perfectly still night, with no movement anywhere. It would grow and grow and like a live thing and eventually he would not be able to hear real noises, for the screaming noiselessness in his head. Would he starve to death, first? Before the silence drove him mad?

That night was a rare spectacle of doggy-style sex. Amy faced the uncovered window while Nick rammed her from behind. More often all he would see was bodies, naked, ascending from her bed to strap on clothes, and sometimes her head and shoulders bobbing as she rode him; but today was the full show. Her breasts dangled and swayed with each stroke, and her hair fell in curtains around her face. The distance was a little far, but he thought he could see large pink nipples, and even her pubic thatch--which was blonde, of course; he was sure of it. Her face was an open-mouthed expression that could easily be mistaken for pain. She faced straight forward, never looking back. Behind her, Nick grasped her hips, his muscles flexing with each thrust.

She seemed dissatisfied when it ended, and they talked for a few moments, a discussion that seemed less than copacetic to his distant eyes. He wondered why she never seemed to remember to close the window.

"I really love him," Amy said. Jake took a bite of hamburger and nodded. "He's... I mean, there's so much to him that people never realize. Did you know he wants to go to England for a year, after he graduates from school?"

"No," said Jake. "I didn't."

"He does," Amy said. "He says he wants to go look at all the castles."

"Oh," said Jake. "Cool."

Amy looked at him with careful green eyes. "You don't agree."

He paused with a french fry halfway to his mouth. "What?"

"I can hear it in your voice. I can't-- I don't know what you think, but, you aren't saying it."

He ate the french fry. "No."

She looked at him for a moment, then sighed.

"The truth is... Sometimes I'm not sure I believe him either." She put down her fork with a grimace. Her face had always been expressive; on it he saw hurt, pain, fear, remorse, guilt. A full spectrum. "He always gets drunk no matter how many times I ask him not to. It's always, you know, 'Oh, stop worrying, I won't this time, I'll be as clean as a whistle,' but every Friday he..." She sighed. "And then half the time he doesn't even call me, he'll go out with his football buddies and I don't even get to tell him to hold back... And then of course he comes back and it's, 'Get on the bed with your clothes off, Aims, it's time for a ride'..." She gave a regretful smile. "One thing about the booze, though, I know it's supposed to speed you up, but he seems to slow down." She giggled. "He can really go sometimes."

"And, you don't like that?" Jake asked.

"What?" she said. "Oh. Oh. Well... No, it's not that. He doesn't do anything to me I don't let him. It's just that..." She sighed. "I wish he'd pay attention to me. You know?" She raised her gray-green eyes to his. "I wish it was me he was making love to, not just a body with my face on it."

He was watching the first time Nick hit her. It was a fact he could never confess to anyone. The next day it was nothing, an accident on a doorframe. It was nothing to worry about, she assured them; nothing at all.

"Really?" he said. "That's three of them in as many weeks."

Her look of astonishment melted slowly into a bittersweet smile. "Yes, Jacob, it's nothing. But it's sweet of you to worry." She patted his hand.

There were times when he wanted nothing more than to reach out to that crescent face, to the discolored bruises like plums, and stroke them softly away; to trace the delicate lines of her face, her cheeks and eyebrows and little button nose, and riffle through her coarse blonde hair, and sweep all tears away and rain down on them kisses; and she would see that he loved her in a way no one else did, and love him too.

There were times when it was more than he could bear.

"Shouldn't I do something?" he asked his friends. "I mean... We report cases of domestic abuse, don't we? Shouldn't I do something?"

"Should you?" said Meredith. "Do you think it will score any points with her?"

"Of course it would," he said, secure in his confidence. "Of course. No one wants to live like that. Nobody wants to be--to be stuck in that situation."

"Do they?" said Zach. "Jake, what would you do if she came up to you and said, 'Jake, he hurts me, he hits me, help me get out?' "

The answer to that was obvious, of course. No one would do any less.

"And has she asked you?" said Zach.

"...But she doesn't know I know," Jake said. "But I do know, and I... How can I sit still, knowing..."

"Jake, it's tricky business trying to get between two people," Christa said. "Generally, when someone tries to horn in on a couple's business, that couple gets resentful. Wouldn't you feel that way if someone tried to break you up with your girlfriend?"

"Yes, but, Jake has a point," Meredith said. "We know for a fact that it would be better for Amy to not be with her boyfriend. I mean, we can say that objectively."

"That's true," said Christa. "Does she know that? If she doesn't, then she'll resent Jake for trying to make her realize it--because, right now, it's in her best interest to ignore it, so as to remain faithful to her man."

"And, if she does realize it, then... Well, whether Jake says anything or not, they'll break up," Brandon said. "Relationships only work when both people are clinging together."

"Which is why it's tricky business trying to get between them," Zach said.

"And, even if they do split up," Brandon said, "there's no guarantee she'll turn to you, Jake. Especially if you're the one who sets it in motion."

"So what do I do?" Jake said. "What other choices do I have?" It was a little more anguished than he intended.

The four of them regarded him with still eyes. The baby gurgled a little.

"Well... You can keep on," Brandon said quietly. "Pine away, with all the consequences thereof: grades, attendance, health..." He shrugged. "Worse."

"Or?" said Jake out of a dry mouth.

"Or you can quit," said Brandon.

He knew they were right, no matter how grim it was to admit it. Trying to drive a wedge between her and Nick... Amy was loyal, that was part of why he loved her. She was bright and friendly and always smiling, and she wouldn't give up on her boyfriend unless she had to. And she didn't have to, yet. (If she did, he wouldn't be having this problem.) And even if it worked, she would resent him; her heart was too uncomplicated to forgive a wound dealt of love and compassion. She might try to forgive him--she would try--but resentment would win.

And yet to give her up...

But he was already losing it. He knew that. He wasn't shaving as often, wasn't putting as much effort into his homework. He would catch himself staring at the wall, at the computer monitor, at nothing, his thoughts a million miles away. Nothing good lay down this path.

And yet to give her up... She was so beautiful. Uncomplicated--that was the right word for it. Not innocence, with all the idiocy that implied, but a childlike simplicity of heart and mind, so rare in this world of post-terrorist cynicism. She was not stupid; she knew that there was pain in the world. But she remained open to the possibility of hope. How could he give up such a precious jewel?

He could see it all so clearly: life, the universe, everything. With him there would be no fear, no worries; she could live her life secure in the knowledge that he loved her, would never hurt her, would do anything for her. She could pursue her degree, have a career, raise children in peace. She would know--from the first, from the beginning--that this was right for her. That he was right for her, and she for him.

They would twine, naked, in the light of the moon, with no open windows to betray them. He would kiss her, tasting those lips he had dreamed about day after day, and feel her breasts warm upon his skin. Her hands would trace his body, feeling muscles bought with long hours in the gym, hours spent in advance, in anticipation of this day. They would trail over his back, his hips, his shoulders, and draw him down to her lips.

Her breasts would be warm and full, capped with large areolas and wide nipples like pennies. He would feel their weight, their texture, the lightness and softness and, beneath, the beat of her heart. Her nipples would harden at his touch, growing against his palm, warm and ready for the challenge he placed.

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