“May I speak to Jen?”
“Hold on a second, I’ll get her.”
I’m in my bedroom, waiting for Jennifer Cornwell to answer the phone at work.
“Hi, this is Jen.”
“Hi, Jen. It’s Justin.”
There’s an awkward pause.
That’s not good.
“Oh . . . hey, Justin.”
“So, I was wondering what time you wanted me to pick you up after work. The movie starts at nine-fifteen, and we should leave early to get out there in time.”
I’m taking Jennifer Cornwell to a movie. We have to drive fifteen miles to Gardnerville because the film is a limited release that never made it to Carson City.
There’s another awkward pause.
That’s really not good.
“Um, Justin . . . the thing is that . . .” Cornwell fumbles.
She’s killing me here, so I urge her along.
“I don’t think I should go to the movie with you,” she finishes.
“May I ask why?”
She pauses again. My stomach twists into knots.
This is a predicament.
“Justin, you shouldn’t have been at my house last night.”
“What?” I demand.
This is not happening.
“I saw you last night, Justin. I saw you drive by my house, and I’m worried.”
I’m too stunned to reply.
She’s right. I did drive by her house. But that’s it. Anything else here is simply bad timing and paranoia.
The truth is that Ben and I attended a midnight showing of a second-run indie movie in Reno last night. When I dropped him off at home afterwards, I was feeling quite restless despite the late hour, so I decided to cruise around my old neighborhood. I would roll by the house on Baker Street to see if the place looked any different eight months after our eviction. Then I figured I would kill even more time exploring the still-familiar residential grid and all its intersecting side streets surrounding Seeliger Elementary. It was freezing outside – so cold that my fingers ached from clutching the wheel – but I knew I could keep myself warm by singing along to the oldies on the local AM station.
“I can’t believe this,” I sigh into the phone.
Yes, Jennifer lived in that neighborhood. I turned onto her street and drove by her house. But I didn’t stop. I didn’t slow down. I certainly didn’t honk the horn. I had better stuff to do than ruin my chances with Jennifer Cornwell, so I fiddled with the heater, turned up the radio and kept on moving.
I did notice, however, that her truck wasn’t parked in the driveway.
“Justin, I think you’re a really nice guy,” Cornwell blurts out.
She’s trying to defuse what she perceives to be a volatile situation. She’s wasting her breath. I’m too unsettled to be hostile. To be honest, I had a nagging feeling that things would play out this way.
Because as my rotten luck would have it, we passed each other on the street two blocks away from her house. If I could easily recognize her black Dodge at three in the morning, she would no doubt notice my yellow Toyota. It also came to mind that this random encounter could potentially bite me in the ass. I did my best to shrug it off and not obsess over it, but after spending all of today counting down the hours until our date, it became increasingly difficult to push it to the back of my mind.
It seems my worries were legit after all.
“You’re a really nice guy,” she says louder, more rushed. “I like you, and you’re a really nice guy, but –”
“Jen!” I interrupt.
I don’t want her flipping out at work.
Cornwell immediately stops talking. No joke, she’s terrified of me.
This is a dilemma.
“Jen, you have to calm down,” I tell her.
I speak softly so she has to focus to listen. She’s no longer panicky.
“Jen, can I explain myself?”
I’m careful not to get defensive. If I do, she’s really going to freak.
“Uh . . . yeah . . .” she replies.
“Okay, I saw a movie with my friend Ben last night. After I dropped him off, I felt like driving because it gives me time to think. I was near my old neighborhood, so I decided to drive around there. You live in that neighborhood, Jen. I turned on your street because I was wandering, that’s it.”
“Yeah, but, Justin, I’m really uncomfortable that you drove by my house that late.”
“Jen, I was just driving around! In fact, I was heading home at that time. It’s ridiculous to believe that I was doing anything wrong.”
“Well, Justin, I have my feelings, and I don’t think I’m ridiculous.”
“No, Jen, you’re not ridiculous! I didn’t say that you were. What I’m saying is that you’re jumping to conclusions. You’re not even giving me a chance to tell my side of the story.”
“Honestly, Justin, I don’t think it will help.”
Her words cut into me fast and smooth and catch me totally off guard. I’m afraid to even breathe let alone speak. I hear her on the other end. It sounds like she’s going to cry. I picture her standing behind the register at her work, a worried look on her face making her appear even more vapid, maybe a hand over her eyes for dramatic effect. I think part of her believes that she’s sealing her fate here, that this particular conversation will lead to her violent demise at the hands of a psycho suitor.
We’re both waiting for the other to speak. Finally, I interject, “All right, Jen, listen, I don’t want to have this conversation while you’re at work. I don’t want to get you in trouble over something we can discuss later. Would it be okay if I called you at home in thirty minutes?”
There’s another pause.
This is a goddamn crisis!
“Jen, I don’t want to have this discussion when you’re at work,” I repeat firmly. “Can I call you at home in thirty minutes?”
I hear her sigh.
“Okay, Justin. Call me later.”
I hang up the phone and sit at my desk in the glow of the computer screen. I don’t know what I’m trying to salvage here.
I’ve lost Jennifer Cornwell.
I’ve known her for years, but I only recently caught her attention when we started chatting during lunch. A tall blonde with milky-white skin, vibrant crystal blue eyes and an endearing smile (even with the braces), I’m attracted to her simply because she’s cute, kind and doesn’t expect too much from me. She’s a devout Mormon, so I’m not eligible for a long-term relationship. But because I am a nice guy, we can at least enjoy ourselves without getting too serious.
I think of her as someone who can help ease me into the dating game. I’m seventeen years old with twenty extra pounds, a dark sense of humor, a heart on my sleeve and no romantic prospects. I need help here! Finally, after much trial and error, I find a nice girl who thinks I’m charming, and I have to go and fuck that up by driving by her house.
I call her when she gets home. I know that all is lost, but I try to end this on friendly terms with the hope that the gossip at school won’t be too harsh.
“Are you feeling better now?” I ask.
“Yeah, I talked to my mother.”
There’s another awkward pause.
This is a fucking nightmare.
“Look, Justin, I don’t know what there is to say.”
Neither do I.
What can I say to comfort someone who thinks I’m stalking them?
“All right then.”
“I’m sorry, Justin.”
“Yeah, Jen, I’m sure you are. Have a good night.”
I hang up the phone. My hand hovers over the receiver. I want to pick it back up, dial her again and beg her to give me a second chance. However, the thought of doing so makes me want to retch. But standing here with the last hour repeating over and over in my head makes me want to scream, too.
My hand drops away from the phone. I don’t want to think about this, but I’m stuck with myself for the night. No movies, no company, no lively conversation, no flirting, no hand-holding, no longing gazes, no kiss goodnight. Nothing here but a goddamn fool who wasted the entire day watching the clock in anticipation for a date that he ruined long before he could pick the girl up for it.
It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday night, but I’m no longer in the mood to go out. I’m not in the mood for anything. I have thirty-six hours until I have to go to school and truly face the consequences of this weekend. Jennifer Cornwell will avoid me, the gossip will spread and I’ll be further ostracized from my peers.
I let out a sigh and put my head down on my desk. My gaze settles on the alarm clock across the room. I keep my eyes fixed on the LED display, but time refuses to speed up. It looks like I’m going to have to wait this one out, only this time I’ll have dread to keep me company in lieu of anticipation. Right now I'm not sure what's worse.
Needless to say, this isn’t my life.
This is a complete and total disaster.