The Boy That Broke Our Hearts
His name was Jeff. He had a narrow nose, puffy purple bags beneath his eyes, full lips, and strong cheekbones which made him appear English. Although he wasn’t handsome in a conventional sense, his sharp wit had everyone laughing so hard our abdomens ached for days, and that made him irresistible. My crush on Jeff began when the Sears Gang met after work to go out on the town, and our friend invited him. We normally didn’t include “outsiders.” We were an elite group, almost of celebrity status in our small retail world. Others tried to be included, but couldn’t understand our sense of humor, our cleverness, our need to wring every drop of excitement out of every odd situation in which we found ourselves. But Jeff managed to fit in with his wry humor. Plus, he was Brian’s best friend and neighbor, and we considered Brian the “ringleader” of our group. A title he neither relished nor wanted, but for some reason it fit him like a pair of Levi’s. So when Brian brought Jeff along with us, we accepted him like an old friend. Brian had known him since they were kids. That was good enough for us. Somewhere along the way, I began to feel the stirrings of interest for Jeff. It pressed against me like the hard seat at a movie theater…that’s where I was when I realized I wanted to spend a lot more time with him. I sat beside him, my thigh brushing his. He whispered silly jokes in my ear, which is the secret to drawing in anyone of the opposite sex. I laughed and my heart cried, “This is the guy you should be with. See how good he makes you feel inside?” He drove a yellow 1976 Chevrolet Nova. No seatbelts. A McDonald’s cherry scented air freshener in the glove compartment so that every time I slid into the bucket seat, its scent wafted around me in a swarm of synthetic fruit scent. He played Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” over and over again until he and the song were intertwined in one tight memory that I’d hold forever. And he drove fast. Real fast. The kind of fast that made me dizzy with adrenaline as we whizzed past trucks and wove through clustered traffic, barely missing bumpers and leaving me breathless with excitement. One day, trying to race Brian to Friendly’s, he flew down Ridge Road going 70-miles-an-hour down a 35-miles-an-hour stretch of blacktop. He came to a red light, but unable to stop us in time, ran through it. The nearby police car did not turn on its siren, nor seem to notice us at all. Somehow Jeff always got away with things. Like the night he took his uninsured motorcycle out for a spin with me. Like idiots, we wore no helmets as we sped around corners late at night. I put my trust in him, thinking, “He’s probably done this a million times before. I won’t be killed.” It wasn’t until we snuck the motorcycle back into his garage and we lay talking on his parent’s couch that he admitted, “You know, that’s only the second time I’ve ridden the motorcycle on the road. I didn’t want to say anything, in case it might scare you.” “What?” I asked, alarmed. “I’ve put forty miles on it driving around the backyard, though. It may not seem like much but you know, it’s a lot of driving.” That was Jeff. A bit of a daredevil. I was eighteen. He was twenty. I didn’t have my driver’s license, so he had to pick me up at my house if we wanted to go out. A red Chevette sat waiting for me in my driveway while I took driving lessons at the high school I’d graduated from the year prior. I’d saved up for that little car, and couldn’t wait for my driver’s test that would provide me with a freedom I had yet to experience. A freedom Jeff had enjoyed for years while he worked on cars as a hobby and drove too fast, music pounding and screaming from self-installed speakers. “Do you always go this fast?” I asked one evening as he rushed me to the high school for my driver’s education class. The irony of the situation didn’t escape me. “Yeah. I like the way it feels,” he said. “Aren’t you worried about getting into a crash?” He smirked and sent me a sidelong glance, his foot stomping on the gas pedal as we rocketed down the highway. “I expect to die in my car someday.” “You do?” To me he seemed invincible. He swerved around cars with an expertise that both impressed and frightened me. “Why do you say that?” He laughed. “I drive like this all the time. Eventually something’s going to happen.” “You don’t care?” “I’m not going to worry about it.” As usual, we managed to get me to my lesson on time, thanks to a laser detector and a car that could go 100 mph. One night we went to a party at his friend’s house. I told my mom I was staying over my best friend’s house…she was at the party as well, and told her mom she was staying at my house. A trick perfected by months of practice so we could attend parties such as this, where there would be plenty of alcohol flowing and weed passed around like it was Pixie Sticks. Jeff and I slept in the spare bedroom. Posters with pictures of horses surrounded us. A radio in the corner played “Nights in White Satin.” We made out and talked until sleep carried us away, and I wondered if I might be in love. I had brought an extra pair of shoes with me…black flats that accidentally were left behind. He kept promising to get them for me, but of course, he never did remember. Sometimes we went for long drives. In Canada, we had our first fight. I thought I was being funny, making faces at the drivers we whizzed by. “Stop that,” he said. “That’s stupid.” My face flushed with shame. I felt like a little kid. Things felt different between us after that. Something in our relationship had shifted, although I didn’t quite know what it was. We tried to be intimate one evening, when we were in his car. It would have been our first time. But he couldn’t manage to make it happen. “Oh God, I can’t believe this,” he said. “This has never happened before. I don’t know what’s wrong. Maybe because I took off my own pants. Maybe I need to be drunk.” “It’s okay,” I said. And it was. But I just knew we were fading, everything was fading. I didn’t know how to bring back the color. “Let’s go on a picnic,” I said a week later, hoping to make things good again. He knew the perfect spot. He brought silverware and napkins from home. We stopped at a local deli and bought macaroni salad, some rolls, sandwich meat. He drove us (going much too fast) to a place where a bridge spread across the sky. It looked like a spot where angels might perch. We spread out a blanket, the bubbling and gurgling of the river a backdrop to our conversation. Then he took my hand and led me beneath the bridge to show me its graffiti. “Look,” he said. High above us, written across the arch, were names with dates. “People who died?” I asked. “Some of them, sure. I don’t know who they are, but sometimes I come here and wonder about them, how they died.” I nodded. “They died young.” “Yeah. I know. One of these days I plan to write my name here.” I scanned the area. Names were everywhere. The living and the dead intermingled. “Right there is a good spot.” He gestured toward a place with little writing. “Except I don’t know how I’d get a ladder and paint out here by myself. There’s not a really good place to do that.” “Yeah, you could fall off the ladder and become one of the names with dates.” He snickered. The evening had cooled and it was time to go home. We packed up our picnic. I had no idea that he was still fading from me. It seemed we were okay again. The Sears Gang was a part of a softball team. Every week, joined by Jeff, we played against other stores, like Woolworth. I insisted on being second base, and Jeff and I would warm the bench together before we had to go up to bat. But this day was different. He seemed distant. I asked what was up. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said, unable to look me in the eye. “But I’m not really interested in a relationship. I think my last girlfriend messed me up too much or something. I don’t know. But…” “But you want to break up,” I said. In my heart, I knew this was going to happen eventually. My throat clenched and I choked back tears. “Yeah.” He looked at me then. “I still want to be friends.” “Of course,” I said, trying to smile without trembling. “Yeah. We’ll be friends.” He seemed relieved. It was tough seeing him at the softball games the next four weeks after that, knowing we were “just friends.” My heart clenched each time I saw him. We chatted, the spark between us gone, the color completely faded. My heart ached to have him back, but his actions proved he did not return the same feelings I had for him. I put on a brave front. The morning after one of our games, about a month after the break up, I was woken from tapping against my window at seven a.m. I looked out to see my ex-boyfriend, Kirk, the guy I dated throughout high school who had helped me get the job at Sears, and who I was still friends with even after our break up. He stared at me with the grimmest look on his face. “I have to talk to you,” he called through the window. I met him outside. “What’s wrong?” “I thought you were dead,” he said, shaking his head. “I was freaking out.” “Dead? Why would you think that?” He looked at me. “Did you see the paper?” “Paper? No, I was sleeping.” He took in a deep breath. “Jeff is dead.” “Shut up.” My ex always had been jealous of Jeff. It was even more obvious now that he was making stuff like this up to freak me out. “It was in the paper.” He rubbed his face. “Go read it if you don’t believe me. Jeff was killed last night while driving home. I thought maybe you might have been with him.” At that moment, between Kirk’s glazed eyes and wan pallor, I knew he was telling the truth. “What happened?” My legs couldn’t hold me any longer. I had to sit on the step, my entire body trembling like an earthquake was shaking it. “He was trying to beat a train. He passed a bunch of cars waiting, but…” I started to cry. Kirk held me as I soaked his shirt with my sobs. And then I left him to get the newspaper and read the article for myself. Other cars had stopped while the bars were coming down, red lights flashing to alert drivers to the impending train. But Jeff drove fast, too fast usually. But this time, not fast enough. He was flying across the tracks, but miscalculated. The train hit his yellow Nova, killing him instantly, although Brian told me they found him with his eyes wide open in horror, as if he had realized only too late of his mistake. He knew he would die someday in his car. He just didn’t know it would be so soon. My best friend Kim and I went back to the scene of the accident a few days later. I found the silverware from our picnic strewn across the grass. The bumper of his car, his license plate. I brought them home with me. Placed them under my bed where my mom would later find them and toss them without a thought or care to what they meant to me. And I cried. I cried for the loss, I cried for him, I cried for his best friend, Brian, who loved him like a brother. But crying did not bring him back. A few weeks later, I prepared to leave for Potsdam College. But Brian wanted us all to go out the beach that night for one last night together before I set off to live too many miles away on a campus. So we met and walked to the end of the pier, being silly, laughing, trying to cheer up despite all the changes that hovered in the air along with unspoken thoughts. “Let’s play this game,” someone suggested. Perhaps it was me. “It’s a game that’s supposed to make you laugh. Everyone lies down and puts their heads on one another’s stomachs.” So we did. We lay at the end of the pier, heads on stomachs, probably looking very much like a knit cap from high above. And we laughed at first, but then we became very quiet. Only our breath could be heard. I know we were all thinking about Jeff. Wondering if he could see us now. Wondering why he had to race the train. If he was sorry he’d tried. If he had any regrets. I’m not sure how long we lay there, but at some point we were ready to go home. So in silence we stood, brushing sand from our behinds. We headed back down the pier, trying to make conversation, trying to joke, but unable to laugh. I always wanted to go back to the bridge where Jeff and I had our picnic and paint his name beneath its arch. Always wanted to write the dates of his birth and death, but I never could find that place again. I looked and looked, but never found it. Like the shoes I left behind at the party, it was something I was never going to see again. But today I can bring back his memory, if only for a brief moment in time so that others can know that he will never be forgotten. That his existence on earth mattered to me. To Brian. To so many others who loved him. Even though his time here was brief. To the boy who drove too fast and stole my heart along the way, I give you this…my memory and my sorrow for a life that ended too soon.