I’ve been re-watching My So-Called Life, a pivotal part of my coming-of-age experience, like so many others of my generation & the generation before. In one episode, the class writes various pieces and puts together a literary magazine. I started thinking about a story I had written when I was seventeen that I had titled Jon after the boy who inspired it. I had written it for a writing class I was in, doodling out the words and thoughts and feelings during long biology lectures (I finished the semester with a D in biology and an A in writing), and then stringing all of that together into a coherent story. It was eventually published in my university’s annual literary magazine, alongside an Egyptian mythology inspired poem I had written on the back of a Nickelodeon Universe receipt.
I spent most of my early college career writing little love stories for all these people who I was so in love with. I was in love with the world and wanted nothing to last – only to be constantly fascinated by everyone who I stumbled across, or who stumbled across me, only to have them vanish so that I could feel a rush of emotion & then fall in love all over again. Until today, I hadn’t read the story since 2011. And I wanted to share it with the world again, because even though I’m changed, a piece of that 17 year old girl in love with the world & wanting none of it to last, forever lives on in me today.
“I want to take a photo of the Mississippi from this bridge every day, for a year,” he mused, his cigarette-smoke voice humming along with the breeze as it rippled through his blonde, wiry hair. My eyes traced his delicate face, then his stringy, veined arms all the way down to his dirty fingernails clutching the side of the bridge we sat on.
He turned and smiled at me, his crystal eyes piercing the sun. I smiled softly. This was Jon. I found him in the arcade fixing Ms. Pac-Man, who would break every day, and writing poetry on the back of unwanted receipts. He was one of those extraordinary people whom no one could wrap their mind around. At one time – at this time – I thought I could.
He took my hand, holding it lightly as he sifted through all the charms on my bracelet.
“This one is my favorite,” he said, separating the sad-eyed donkey from the rest. I smiled at him, a sad smile.
“I wrote a story about a girl who kept a charm bracelet, with a charm for every place she’d been in life,” he smiled. “A souvenir, for every person she met, every museum she walked through, every hand she held and every hand that held hers.”
I’d be crazy not to smile at that. Jon was talking about me. Souvenirs: you can carry those with you forever. The sad-eyed donkey was from a road trip to South Dakota when I was ten. The donkeys came right up to the car with their round, black eyes pleading, so I rolled down the window to pet their scruffy manes and to feed them trail mix. I looked at my friend sitting next to me now and wondered what souvenir I would have for him. With Jon, I’d never want to forget his pretty-boy mullet, or the way his eyes played like the night sky or light moving through fragile icicles clinging to eaves. But I didn’t need to worry about that because he was here and my charm bracelet was designated for memories. I need to keep all my memories strung around my wrist, because the things that you really want to hold on to will always escape you, and those things that you want to forget, those will stick with you forever.
We decided to walk to the little drugstore a few blocks away to get drinks and escape the July sun. Jon and I sat there, me with my lime phosphate and him with his Coke….Jon was always drinking Coca-Cola out of that slender bottle with the label choking up to the neck. It’s hard to picture Jon without a bottle of Coke in his pale skeleton hand. We sat on red vinyl stools at the drugstore counter and Jon told me about how he went rock climbing that weekend. He told me about his three dogs and growing up in the South. He told me about road trips to New Mexico and North Carolina and wherever else his truck could take him. I just listened and asked questions, feeling so lucky to know this boy who was so genuine and so full of heart.
When I was ten, I used to go to the arcade and play video games almost every day. A few months ago, I had walked by that same arcade, looked in, and saw that they still had Dig Dug, Galaxian, and even Ms. Pac-Man. I went inside and played them again, using all my spare change. It brought me back to the days when I had blunt bangs and my sister watched me after school, letting me eat popcorn and watch Scooby-Doo.
I started going to the arcade every day after that. And every day, there was Jon, drinking his Coke and wearing sunglasses, a cigarette resting between his slim fingers. Jon had come up here on a whim, liking the sound of the Great North. He was still a kid, like me. A drop out who had spent his life working odd jobs and living with friends or family where he could, or whomever else he found along the way. When I stopped by after class or work, we’d talk about getting tan in the sun, or the state fair in August, or wearing long underwear in winter. Jon was one of those people who could talk about anything and sound like he’d given it a great deal of thought.
One day, I asked to try on his sunglasses, so he took them off and handed them to me with his warm sugar smile. But hiding beneath those shades was a bruise, big and blue, circling his eye, cratering his slender nose and sharp cheek bone. I didn’t mention anything, but every time I’d go by the arcade after that, I’d notice some new mark on him. Every week something new, but I never asked about it. Who could ever hurt such a lovely person?
And then one day, Jon was gone. I asked a different employee at the arcade about him and was told, “He’s not here anymore.” When I asked where he went, how I could contact him, they just told me that I couldn’t – he was gone.
I went home and put on a Janis Joplin record, letting her cigar-smoke, summer-heat croon saturate the thick, humid air. I sat on the sticky July kitchen floor and thought about all my souvenirs. Put them in your pockets until no more can fit and they’re spilling out wherever you walk. Chain them around your wrist so they’ll never be free, just jangling by little hooks. But eventually, you can’t enchain anymore around your limbs and you can’t shove anymore into the pockets of your jeans. You have to let some go. Unhook each little token, kiss them goodbye and bury them in the dirt. Maybe I will have to forget Jon’s silly mullet and skinny arms, or his rhinestone eyes and the smoke slipping from his lips as he spoke. But I don’t want to forget anything about him.
I changed my route so I don’t have to walk by that dingy arcade anymore, with the quarter-eating machines and the suicidal Ms. Pac-Man. I don’t need another reminder that people rarely hang around, that people are always slipping in and out. That the world can be cruel to people who are so lovely and so soft.
Today as I walked across the bridge, I looked at the dark, muddy Mississippi. I sat down on the edge of the bridge again, and started examining my bracelet and each little souvenir one more time, remembering the South Dakota burros; the dry mud pueblos of New Mexico; the sticky seats of the Small World ride in Disney World; crying at the Vietnam War Memorial; my short-lived foray into ballet dancing; baking cupcakes with my grandmother in her stuffy little apartment smelling of baby powder and cigarettes; my big sister, who was always there for me, six feet under; the little almond mouse named Henry whom I had for a year. I closed my eyes and held onto all of these things, trying to forget. I opened them and saw the hungry river below. I slipped the bracelet off my wrist and let it fall into the river. She swallowed it whole and roared for more, but that was all I had left to give.