My Back Pages

Cayla Christopher

2021

       Neumann: It wasn’t grooming. You were over 18 when you started seeing this guy, right? That’s just called making dumb-assed decisions.

       The text burns through me. I’m not sure what I expected. His sympathy? I feel stupid, embarrassed. Grooming. I shouldn’t have used that word with him. I want to take it back. I’m sorry. You’re right. Forget it. My fingers ache with the words I can’t make myself say—he isn’t you. I don’t type it. I don’t have to, thinking it is enough. I see him in my head, upturned corner of his mouth at my brazenness. He would accept it, bask in it, give me nothing but a smile as he balances on the edge of plausible deniability.

       Dumb-assed decisions. I can feel pressure building in my temples. He’s right. I chose this. Again. Didn’t I want this? Didn’t I ask for it? Haven’t I always? Across the table, Rae raises an eyebrow. I turn my phone over on the table, face down. She sees it anyway. She shakes her head as she sets down her drink. The glass leaves a ring on the wooden table. She wipes it with her sleeve and grabs a coaster. 

       “You’re talking to him again?” she asks.

       I shrug. “I was telling him more about Shane, since he’s coming back to town.”

       “Are you gonna see him?”

       “He wants to see me.”

       “It’s Shane. He wants to see certain parts of you and that’s it. What did Neumann have to say?”

       She grabs my phone and types my passcode, one hand still holding her drink as she scrolls through our conversation.  She frowns. “I hate him,” she says. I’m not sure which man she means.

       “Why? I mean, it’s like he said, it was my own dumb-assed decision.”

       “Right,” Rae says. “Marie, I know Neumann didn’t do anything wrong, not technically, but that doesn’t mean...I hate that last text he sent. It’s hilarious that he doesn’t see the irony in that.”

       “That’s not irony,” I say.

       “See! He wasn’t even a good teacher!” she says. She shakes her head. She knows that’s not true. The awards lining his shelf prove that. The glowing essays of students. The gushing recommendations of his program to the underclassmen. The crowds of young girls hanging on his every word after the bell. 

       “Why’d you reach out again?” 

       I wait a moment, give her the answer she expects. “Because he cares about me.”

       She raises her eyebrows. It’s quick, that moment of condescension. She doesn’t want me to see it, I do. There’s something else in her features. Pity? I don’t need that. Not from her, not from anybody. Pity in this situation makes me into something I’m not. It makes him into something he’s not. I let the conversation drop, but I can’t stop it from continuing in my head. Why did I text him? For the attention? To show him I still need him? To make him prove he still cares? To show him what he did to me? Look at this mess you’ve made. This started with you. The thought surprises me. My face burns like he can see it in my head. All he did was help me. We had a connection. We were close. I try to cover the offending thought with those familiar sentiments, but it won’t leave me alone. I want it gone. I want to pluck it from my head and throw it to the ground. I want to bury it, cover it with dirt until the screaming accusation becomes a quiet hum. That, I think I can live with. 

 

2020

       I sit in the library, my legs criss-crossed in a chair at my usual place by the window. I watch students walk across a campus. The questionnaire sits on the desk in front of me, still blank. Another new semester, another set of questions. Let’s get to know each other! What’s your name? Where are you from? Who are you? I don’t know. Whatever I think you want. I look at the first question—favorite book? I don’t have to think about it. I click my pen and scribble The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde onto the line. I think of it on my shelf at home. Neumann’s copy. The raggedy old book holding on for dear life by its ripped lining. I don’t want to fix it. It’s fine the way it is. 

       I take my phone from my pocket, search for his name. I look through the messages. Boring, boring, ah—there it is. The text makes my skin crawl, or is it excitement? I’m not sure I can tell the difference. I’m not sure I believe in a difference.

       Neumann: What happened to that guy you were seeing?

       Me:  shane? or who

       Neumann: Yes, the one that I wanted to meet while you were in town, but missed due to being busy—or are there several now, you sly temptress?

       I toss my phone onto the desk. My face feels hot,  like he knows I was looking at it. Why did he say that? Why did he say that? Is that how he sees me? Is that how he’s always seen me? Isn’t that how I wanted him to see me? I rest my forehead on the cool wood surface. He was joking. It’s his sense of humor, a little dark, same as mine. We’re still the same, always have been, from the time we met. I don’t know how he first saw it in me, how he saw himself. But he did. He knew. I’m glad he did. Why do I feel so sick?

~~~

       I gather my clothes from the floor. My old homecoming T-shirt falls from my arms, and I bend to pick it up again. I hide my chest behind it, suddenly self-conscious as Shane looks at me. I thought the feeling would go away after a while, but it hasn’t. It lingers there, just under my skin, like it did the first time. The first time he told me to show him just how much I liked him and looked at me like something he had won. He still looks at me like that. He puts his glasses back on and relaxes against the bedframe. “Why do guys always feel guilty after?” he asks.

       I hate him. I step into my underwear, my socks, my shorts. I hate myself.  “I don’t know,” I say.

       He looks annoyed.

       I try again. “Well, doesn’t everybody? At least a little bit? Or maybe we both have Catholic guilt, minus the Catholic.”

       He laughs a little at that. He crosses his hands behind his head. The gesture reminds me so much of Neumann. I feel a tightness in my chest. I turn away from him, but he doesn’t seem to care. He grabs his phone and starts scrolling. He’s done with me for the day. It could be another week before I hear from him again. He’ll text, he’ll seem to care, he’ll tell me everything I want to hear. I’ll forget that I hate him. I was so in love with him once. Wasn’t I? I don’t know. I never know.  I don’t know anything anymore. I go into the bathroom. I don’t look at myself in the mirror. I open the little closet, digging through the shelves and pushing aside my brother’s hair gel, my mother’s lotion. I find what I’m looking for. I grab the small orange bottle and try to open it. Stupid kid-safe lids. I don’t have the patience for this, but I’m not asking for Shane’s help. I push hard against the lid and twist it. It opens. I shake a couple pills out into my palm and grab my phone from the counter. I open my camera, holding the pills next to me and plastering a smile onto my face. I send it off to Rae. 

       Me: do you take anti-nausea meds after sex, or are you normal?

       Rae: i shouldn’t laugh…

       I smile, the first one in a while. I toss the pills in my mouth. I bend over the sink and drink from the faucet. The water drips down my chin, and I bury my face into a towel to dry it. I can hear Shane getting dressed in my room. I start to cry. I bring the towel tighter around my face to muffle the sound. Why do guys always feel guilty after? Because they’re thirty-four and you’re twenty. Because you’re desperately in love with them and they know it. Because they watched you grow up, they tossed a football to you and your brother and patted your little blonde head at their graduation party. You were four. You wore a yellow dress. They like you wearing nothing now. 

       “I’ve gotta run,” Shane calls out from the hall. I dry my eyes. I hear his footsteps on the stairs. I have to go and say goodbye. Maybe he’ll kiss me, I would really like that.

       Why do guys always feel guilty after? They don’t. They shouldn’t. Should they? I wouldn’t know, this is all I’ve known. I wanted this. I want this. I didn’t want to do that.

       

2019

       My brother is too tall for his graduation robes. His growth spurt was unexpected, and very inconvenient. He struts down the school hallway, lifting it further to flash his legs in a ridiculous pose. The ceremony doesn’t take but half an hour, tops. I can’t see the point in eighth-grade graduations, though it’s nice to be back for a night. I walk through the old school, my hand tracing the familiar brick. I stare at my reflection in the trophy case. My face has thinned, but not as much as I’d like it to. I’m in a dress, not khakis and those God-awful polos. A wooden cross hangs above the water fountain. Shouldn’t use that phrase here. They were gosh-awful polos. My brother exits the gym, laughing as he talks to an old teacher. I remember her face, but her name escapes me. He waves me over.

       “Oh, is this your girlfriend?” she asks, gesturing to me. A look of faux-scandal.

       “Uh, no,” he says, a blush creeping up the side of his neck. “That’s my sister.”

       “Marie? No way! Weren’t you a blonde? And I remember you being about a foot shorter. Look at you!” She grabs my face in her hands as she talks, studying me for proof of my identity, proof of the little girl that wrote bad poetry in the back of her class. Good luck.

       I sit on the bench outside the school, waiting for my family to say their goodbyes. The church bell rings. The sound of my childhood. I close my eyes, melting into the sound. When it ends, silence rings in my ears. It’s gotten dark, and the wind brings chills to my bare skin. My hands shake as I type the message. 

        Me: hey

       Neumann: Hey, kid— 

       I think of my elementary school teacher. I wonder if I’ll change that way for Neumann, how long it will take for my face to blur in his memory. I wonder if he’ll forget me someday, how long that will take. I couldn’t forget him if I tried. Gosh, I’ve tried. I tell him about my night, about the teacher. It’s a funny story. He likes it. I’m funny. He likes me. I’m still special. I tell him that she held my face in her hands, looking at me in disbelief.  His response flashes across my screen. My teeth are chattering. A chill runs down my spine. It’s the wind. I look at the text again. I invited him to say it. I wanted him to. Haven’t I always? I look to the church, to the steeple, to the cross. I don’t pray anymore, but just one couldn’t hurt. Dear Father, please help me. Amen. I don’t have time for more. My family pushes through the front doors, my brother calling to race me to the car.  The phone in my coat pocket weighs me down like an anchor. His text waits at the ocean floor, dragging me into the depths and the darkness.

       Neumann: Ah, inappropriate touching. I’m sure you loved that.

〜〜〜

           The lights go off in my friend’s apartment. Everyone is ready for bed. My eyes adjust to the darkness, and I step over their tired bodies to get to the couch. I move a half empty beer can onto the table, making room next to my phone and the ashtray. The screen lights up, and Shane’s name appears. I grab it, unable to keep the smile from my face as I sink back into the cushions. I grab the beer from the table and finish it. My friends are already asleep. A car honks outside, stories below and a world away. Nothing feels real, nothing but this. So, fuck it.

           Shane: You alive?

           Me: yes thank you. can i ask you something? 

           Shane: Shoot

           Me: you know that my interest in you isn’t entirely platonic… right?

           I throw my phone to the end of the couch and bury my face in my hands. My heart is either going to stop or beat through my chest. This is it. We’ve both been toeing the line of plausible deniability for months. At least, I think we have. I have. Now, I’ve jumped right over it. I think of Neumann. I think of sending him the same message, wonder what his response would be. My stomach tightens. I really don’t know. I hear my phone buzz. I dive across the cushions for it, my eyes scanning the message as fast as I can. 

           Shane: I’ve seen hints of it, yes. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever come to your mind in the last year or so. Before that, you never thought of me, but I’ve been around you off and on your whole life. You’ve all been good friends to me over the years, your whole family. It’s a hard thing to overshadow. 

           Well, now I feel sober. I feel stupid. I feel like I could die. I don’t know why I thought he could like me. Neumann didn’t. Neumann doesn’t. Not in the way I need him to, anyway. Does he? I don’t know why I thought this would be different when they’re so much the same. They have the same magnetism, the same interest in books and music, the biting sarcasm and subtle wit, the look in their eye when they look at me. They make me special. Now, I’ve ruined it all. I put my head between my knees. My phone buzzes again. My arm feels like lead as I reach for it. 

           Shane: That being said though, I’m pretty unflappable. That means I’m pretty easy-going. So, that information is intriguing…

           Me: oh yeah?

           Shane: Yeah. I’m going to bed soon, but there’s something I usually do first... If I can think of ways for you to help me with things like that in the future, I’ll be sure to let you know

           Me: the things i do for you

           Shane: Haven’t done them yet

           Shane: But now you have me thinking about it.

           I roll back onto the throw pillow. It’s very hot in here. I start to take my sweatshirt off, then stop. I think of Shane, what he might want from me. I’ve never done that.  But I want to. I want that with him. Don’t I? It’s too late to back out now. I’m in this. I stare at the ceiling. The light goes off in the apartment across the alley. It’s pitch black now. My stomach starts to hurt. I don’t feel well. I think I must have had too much to drink.

 

2018

       I hate college. I’m laying in a hammock, the warm sun making my skin glow pink. This is hell. Okay, fine. This part isn’t so bad. But I still hate college. It’s too crowded here. The classes are too big, and the days are too long. I’m not used to eating in a cafeteria. I miss his room. I dial Neumann’s number. It rings twice. 

       “Hello?” he says.

       “Hi,” I say.

       “Hey.”

       I smile for the first time all morning. “Hola.”

       “You don’t want to start this with me,” he says. “I know more words than you.”

       We laugh. I miss his voice. He sounds far away. I want him closer. He apologizes. He’s wearing shitty headphones, doing laundry. The knowledge makes me feel uncomfortable. I’ve never imagined him doing that. Of course he does, he’s an adult. I just did my first ever load a few weeks ago,  beaming with an embarrassing amount of pride as I slid the quarter into the machine. I wonder if he’s washing the shirt I like. I remember his smile when I first told him that. He’s probably got a lot more laundry than I usually do. I wonder if this is his chore, or if he splits the duty with his wife. Is he washing his daughter’s clothes? There’s a sinking feeling in my stomach. I feel weird.  But why? It’s not like he’s done anything wrong. Not really. We’re friends. Just friends. I wish he wouldn’t have said it.

       “I’ve got class later,” I say. “We’re reading a poem that we did in your class sophomore year.”

       “Oh yeah?”

       “Yeah! It’s an ekphrastic one, but I didn’t remember what that word meant.”

       The door of his washing machine creaks shut. I hear him shift the phone. Disappointment creeps into his voice. “I taught you that term. It bothers me that you forgot.”

       A hollowness opens in my chest. I apologize, scrambling to recover. I remember the poetry, I just didn’t know the word. The class looked at paintings that day, his hand tracing along the brushstrokes as he lectured.  He played music that day, too, the good stuff. Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Nirvana. He was irritated that no one seemed to care. He played those same songs for me later during his free hour, leaning back into his chair as he watched me, waiting for my review. He made the room feel full, even if we were alone. He was always like that, larger than life. Important. Special. He saw that in me, too. He always said it.

〜〜〜 

           Shane and I have already been to two record stores. The third is in my hometown. It’s small, I tell him, they probably won’t have it. They do. He holds the album up, slips it from the sleeve. He shows me the hidden design on the vinyl. It looks plain most of the time. It takes the right light, the right angle, a careful eye, a person with good enough taste to pick it up in the first place. Most people would never notice. It takes a special person to figure it out. He is that, and now I am too. He takes it to the counter. I start to fumble with my wallet, but he waves me off, and pulls out his credit card. The worker looks between us and smiles. I wonder if he thinks we’re together. The thought makes my heart race, I hope Shane doesn’t see the smile playing on my lips. He makes small talk, the worker laughs with him. Everybody loves him. I love him, too. This is the first time I’ve felt this. The first time since Neumann. I can’t figure out if that counts. 

           We walk back to his car. I hold the album to my chest. He’s much taller than me, I have to look up at him while he talks. “I see what you mean about that place,” he says. “I want my record stores to look and smell like all the workers get stoned in the back room. That guy kind of seemed like an accountant that gets into Facebook arguments about Lou Reed.”

           He unlocks his car and slides into the driver’s seat. I wait for a break in traffic and open the other door. I sink into the seat, still holding the record. “Thanks for this,” I say.

           “Yeah, of course. Listen to it and tell me what you think,” he says.

           “I definitely will. I’ll have to tell my friends about the hidden design thing, it’s really cool. Although, maybe I shouldn’t. I need to stay just a little bit cooler than them, you know?”

           “You don’t need to worry about that,” he says. He looks over at me, his eyes flicking around my features for a moment. I drop his gaze. He laughs at the blush on my face. “You’re so cute. And cool, really. You’re miles ahead of most girls your age.”

           He turns on his blinker and pulls into the road. The sun shines in through the windshield, brightening his dark hair. He flips down the sun visor and reaches over to do the same to mine. I can smell his cologne. I trace patterns with my finger onto the album cover. I want to keep it forever. “Well,” he says, “I’ve had fun today. I’m glad you’re in college now, we can start hanging out more without it being weird.”

       “Me too! I wish I would’ve realized you were cool way earlier, though.”

       “We’ll just have to make up for lost time,” he says. “Hey, is your mom home? I’ll come in and say hi when I drop you off, it’s been forever since I’ve seen her.”

           “Yeah,” I say. “She’d love that.”

           “She doesn’t mind us hanging out does she?”

           “No, she trusts you. And I mean…you’re not even my oldest friend,” I say. 

       He raises his eyebrows at me. I laugh. “Of course I’m not. Like I said, way ahead of most girls your age. Why don’t you put in that CD you bought today? I’m glad to hear that kids still listen to Bob Dylan.” 

       

2017

       “Here,” Neumann says, turning a book over in his hands.  I flick my attention away from the wedding ring on his finger. The book is already worn at the edges. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is written in thin white letters that seem to glow against their dark background. “Read this. Tell me what you think.”

       Neumann thumbs through the pages, standing so close now that the smell of the old paper wafts into the air.  He slaps the book against his hand. It makes me jump, which makes him laugh. He gives it to me and moves behind his desk. It feels big in my hands. It looked small in his. I dance my finger across the cover, tracing patterns around where his palm had been moments before. Desire nips like fire at my fingertips.

       “I definitely will,” I say. He nods, smiling as he lifts his feet to the desk and crosses them at the ankles. He rests his hands behind his head.

       “I think you’ll like it,” he says.

       “I think I’d like anything you’d give me.”

       “Good,” he says. I can feel a blush on the side of my neck. His eyes flick to it. A smile tugs at his lips, just for a second.  I didn’t know that it ever happened until he pointed it out. He was the first person to notice that. He was the first person to notice a lot of things about me. “I don’t know why you won’t talk to me like this in class. I get you in here any other time and I can’t get you to shut up.”

       “It’s not like this in class.”

       “Like what?” 

       “I don’t know,” I say, gesturing between us. “Like this.”

       Neumann hums, shakes his head back and forth like he’s rolling the thought around in his mind. My heart pounds against my chest. He lets the statement hang in the air. I suck in a breath and hold it there. The soft ticking of the clock fills the silence. I can hear the hum of the fluorescent lights above my head. Finally, he speaks again. His words breathe the air back into my lungs. 

       “I see a lot of myself in you,” he says.

       “Is that a compliment, or an insult?” I ask. It makes him laugh. I make note of the way the words fell from my lips, the wrinkles that deepened by his eyes, the tightening of his stomach under his shirt as his laughter filled the empty classroom. I play it all again in my head, locking the memory there to be revisited later. I’ll live within it until he gives me another. 

       “I’m not sure. But we’re the same, I think. We see things the same way,” he says. He grabs his lanyard from his desk, spins it around until the fabric wraps tightly around his fist. “Are you gonna sit?”

       “Don’t you have work to do?”

       “Eh, you’re more important,” he says.

       I sink into the chair he’s placed next to him. He grabs a stack of essays and thumbs through them until he finds mine. One point off a perfect score. I roll my eyes. He goes over his comments, smiling as he translates his indecipherable handwriting. My chair is too close to him. I can hear his breathing. I can see the dark hair on his knuckles and the hair that sticks out from the collar of his white undershirt. He has a smear of chalk on the shoulder of his polo. Occupational hazard. There’s grey in his beard that I’ve never noticed. I watch him write. He could fit my whole hand in his palm. When he’s standing, I barely reach his shoulder. I wish I was taller, maybe then I wouldn’t seem like such a kid. He leans back in his chair, places his pen between his teeth as he says that I’m his best writer. I beam at him. He smiles. The pen falls from his mouth and hits the floor. The felt tip leaves a red mark on the floor. I hope the janitors never wipe it away.

       

2021

       I stumble into the bar bathroom. My phone buzzes with a new message from Shane. I run the faucet, splashing water onto my face. I rub it into my cheeks and the sides of my neck. I look at my phone.

       Shane: It’s never been a good idea. I’m too old for you, and I’ve known you for way too long for people to understand it. This is putting me in kind of a weird position. You can do better than my old whoring ass.

       Me: i don’t want to do better, i just want you

       Shane: That’s a lot to put on me…

       My stomach drops. I start typing my apology. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you want to do this. It’s not your fault. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. Another new text comes through before I get the words out right.

       Shane: You like me, and I don’t think I can be what you want me to be. I’m sorry if I make you feel bad, that’s not what I mean to do. I guess we’re both prone to dumb-assed decisions. 

       His last words stick in my head and still my thumbs on the keypad. The same words that sit in another conversation. I hear the phrase in both of their voices. I run the faucet to drown them out. I look in the mirror, trying to find a trace of the girl they both must’ve seen. The girl with the starry-eyed adoration that lifted Neumann into importance, into greatness. The girl basking in Shane’s light like he was the sun, smiling in his passenger seat as Bob Dylan blasted from his car radio. I need them. They make me happy. They make me excited. They make me miserable, too, but it’s worth it. Hasn’t it been worth it? I turn off the faucet, slamming my hand against the metal. It isn’t worth it. It isn’t. They aren’t worth it. I’m not worth anything to them. I think I only looked up to them because they were looking down on me. My mind starts to race. Something shifts in me, and I feel angry. They don’t know me. They don’t see me. They’re looking at their reflection in my eyes, the one that lends them a glow they can’t see in themselves. 

       I walk back through the bar, excitement rushing through my veins. I sit down at the table, a smile on my face. Rae looks confused. I turn my phone off and slide it across the table to her. She takes it, relief coloring her features as she slides it into her pocket. She gets up to buy another round, a celebratory one. Small victories. She walks over to me first, pats me down and tells me she has to check my pockets, looking for a burner. I laugh. That’s fair. I can’t be trusted yet, but I think this might be a start. I really do. I can’t be who I was before them. I don’t remember it. I don’t know who I am now, not without them. Maybe that’s okay. I’ve got the rest of my life to figure it out.      

Contributor's Note

Cayla Christopher is a senior studying English and Creative Writing. She would like to thank her parents and grandparents, who were her first and most loyal readers. After graduation, she plans to spend more time pampering her dog, Harry, reading more books, and is considering getting a job.

Christopher.jpeg