Friday, September 30, 2005

Sweet Cytherea

I have spent all sixteen years of my life in Hannibal, Missouri and I don’t plan on ever leaving. It’s not the greatest city in the world, but it’s a sufficient place to live and I like it. I’m just your average high school kid with plenty of friends, who likes to go out on weekends and watch a lot of TV. There’s nothing abnormal about my upbringing or family life, and I’m not harboring a secret passion for anything strange like worshipping dogs. But a couple of things happened last summer that are worth sharing.
Summer, at last, was here. It arrived as uneventfully as it had left nine months earlier. I remember in my younger days (it was so long ago) we would run and shout out of the building on the last day of school. Now, all I had ahead of me was late nights and early mornings at my burger-flipping job. My parents decided that it was time I learned some adult responsibilities and started taking care of myself. I don’t have to tell you that I didn’t particularly like this arrangement, but at least this way I would be making a lot more than ten bucks a week. Though when I would find the time to spend all of my newly found income failed to present itself to me.
What a promising summer! Enough grease to choke a couple of arteries—junk food galore and a neat little visor to match my neat little polo shirt. Such excitement awaited me. Flipping burgers wasn’t my ideal job, but it did the trick. Actually I started out sweeping floors, wiping tables and cleaning the rest rooms, but I was sure that I would eventually get promoted to handling the food before it was prepared rather than after it was digested.
Working nearly everyday wore me out. I didn’t get enough sleep and I barely had time to eat. Yeah, sure I got an employee discount at Burgers-R-Us, but knowing what I know now about what it is that they actually put in the food, I wouldn’t eat it if it was the last edible substance on earth.
There were a few up-sides to working other than the money it brought in. I met a few new people who were potential friend material and I gained some valuable work experience. I am now an expert at filling paper towel dispensers. Work was even fun—especially when Jesse worked. He was a very strange person. Though strange isn’t the right word to describe him. Eccentric is a bit more suitable. He was very quiet, but not exactly shy. He had this look about him that said, “touch me and I’ll kill you.” I can’t really say that I didn’t’ like him because I didn’t know him well enough to pick apart his personality and put a tag on it. Very few people actually talked to him, but nearly everyone talked about him. Various rumors spread that he was s drug dealer, a biker, and even a devil worshiper. None of which were disproved or confirmed. There was a new one every day. It was rather enjoyable to speculate about him, particularly when we knew he could hear us and never said anything to save his good name—if it was ever good. In fact, I think he liked it when people made up things about him.
We definitely gave him a reputation. According to our sources, he was a convicted criminal of such charges as armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. He was definitely a pimp and a druggie, though the police have never been able to prove any of it. He had at least six children, all with different mothers, and he owned a bazooka. Pretty far fetched, wouldn’t you say? I think he was probably laughing at all of us behind our backs for being so childish.
I had only been working two weeks and my first day off I spend alone. Most of my friends were with their families on vacation and my own parents were work-aholics. I had already flipped through all sixty channels of modern cable television and there was absolutely nothing on. What was left of my life? How did teenagers ever survive before the invention of the television? Well, I was about to find out. I located the remote and turned off the set. It was a nice day and still early, so I thought perhaps I might try experiencing a little nature. A walk in the park might be just the thing. Quite a switch from television, but, I decided, much more educational and intellectually stimulating. I felt smarter with just the thought.
The park wasn’t far from my house, and I was there in a matter of minutes. It was actually quite pleasant strolling amid the trees and bushes. Various creatures of the woods such as squirrels, rabbits, birds and the over-abundant insect accompanied me. But there was also another creature, sitting high in a tree with a book in his face. Complete with sunglasses and combat boots, Jesse was perched high in an oak branch.
As I walked closer, I could hardly control my laughter. Jesse? Reading? I didn’t think he actually could.
I stood there, beneath the tree for a few minutes. He finally noticed me. I expected an arrogant statement such as “Whata you lookin’ at?” But he looked more embarrassed and rather than speak, he tried to hide the book.
“Uh, hi,” was all he managed to get out.
I let out a faint giggle that was impossible to hold back. It was rather amusing, seeing him sitting there, trying to hide what he was doing. When I laughed at him, he was even more embarrassed, tried further to hide himself, and consequently, dropped his book. As I stooped to retrieve it, Jesse scrambled from his sanctuary in the tree. Feeling a surge of bravery and mischief, I took the book to a nearby park bench and began to flip through the pages. Naturally, he followed.
As I glanced through the pages, I noticed something odd about the book. It was full of plays and written in something other than your average teenage lingo. I looked at the cover and was amazed by the title. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare read across the front in gold letters. Shocked is hardly the word to describe my feelings. He took the book from my hands. I was too astonished to say anything. First, Jesse was reading. That was enough to cause a massive heart attack. But Shakespeare? No. It just couldn’t be.
As he took the book from me, I asked, “Are you really reading that?” He looked almost insulted.
“Yeah. Don’t you ever read?”
“Sure I do. I just didn’t think you did. Well, I mean, at least not Shakespeare.”
“Why not?”
“I dunno. You just don’t seem the type.” He grinned.
“What’s the type? You?” I didn’t answer him. “Have you ever read Shakespeare?” I shook my head. “Hear, read this.” He sat next to me and opened up the book to a poem titled, The Passionate Pilgrim.
“Sweet Cytherea, sitting by a brook
with young Adonis, lovely, fresh, and green,
Did court the lad with many a lovely look,
Such looks as none could look but beauty’s queen.
She told him stories to delight his ear;
Se show’d him favours to allure his eye;
To win his heart, she touch’d him here and there:
Touches so soft still conquer chastity.
But whether unripe years did what conceit,
Or he refus’d to take her fugur’d proffer,
The tender nibbler would not touch the bait,
But smile and jest at every gentle offer:
Then fell she on her back, fair queen, and toward;
He rose and ran away; ah, fool too froward!”
I read the passage, but I understood none of it. “What does it mean?” I asked, hoping that I didn’t sound too stupid. Apparently he didn’t think it a stupid question and went on to explain the passage in more familiar language. A girl was sitting on a brook. There was a guy there who liked her, and they sorta flirted with each other. But after a while, she practically threw herself at him, and he didn’t want her any more.
“How’d you know that?” I asked in amazement.
“You just gotta know hot to read it.” He said simply. For another hour or so, I read and Jesse explained. I ever really liked stuff like that, but hearing him explain it to me made it seem like so much more than anything I had ever read. I don’t think I had ever been so interested in anything that required this amount of thinking.
I went to work the next day expecting more than what I got. Jesse had put up his tough-guy façade again and was carrying on as if nothing had happened. He hadn’t said a word to me but I didn’t exactly go to extremes to strike up a conversation either.
I’m not sure you could say I was upset by it; I was more confused. Though even that is too harsh a word. But hey, it wasn’t as if we had made some eternal promise to each other, but it felt rather strange, almost like we were avoiding each other. I suppose I wasn’t doing anything less than I usually did, but it just didn’t feel right.
I went on break somewhere around one o’clock, and decided to spend it outside. After all, I didn’t have much of a chance to work on my nonexistent tan, so maybe if nothing else, I’d be lucky enough to enhance my watch line. After a few minutes, I watched Jesse come out of the building and walk towards me.
“Thanks for not saying anything,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“About yesterday. I mean, it might…well…”
“Ruin your image?”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “I kinda like the way people think of me.”
“As a criminal?”
“No. Just that they pretty much leave me alone. I’m not exactly the social type. I like to be by myself.”
I felt insulted by that. Did he mean he wanted me to stay away from him? Well there was only one way to find out. I gathered up my courage and said:
“Well, I guess I’ll join my fellow Jesse haters. I wouldn’t want to interrupted you and yourself.” I started to walk away, but was abruptly halted by a powerful grip around my forearm.
“Hey, I didn’t mean you.”
“What’s so different about me?”
He smiled and said, “I like the way you read.”
I smiled back at him, not knowing what else to say. At that moment, I saw something in Jesse that I’d never recognized before. I don’t know what it was, maybe I never will. But it was then that I knew he and I would be very close in the days to come.
Each day that following week I met him at the park. I read Shakespeare while he explained it. I found that I not only liked what I was reading, but I was also growing quite attached to Jesse. I liked hearing his voice: soft and deep—his words chosen carefully. I could tell that each word I read affected him in a similar way. I’d often look at him between sentences and notice that his eyes were closed as if he were somehow lost in my voice.
At work, we were strangers. I didn’t participate in the daily gossip, but I pretended to be interested in it. It was near torture to see him for an entire grueling shift everyday and not so much as say “hello” to him. I knew I was starting to have strong feelings for him and it was tearing me apart inside.
Three weeks we spent like this. Meeting secretly every evening, ignoring each other during the day. But on one early July evening, things began to change.
We had stopped reading about an hour ago, and just sat talking. We didn’t say things that were incredibly important, maybe a few things here and there, but for the most part it was just casual chatting. One thing I realized was that Jesse was not one to reveal things about himself. Any and all emotion was bottled up inside of him. You could tell by the way he talked. He wasn’t exactly stiff, but every once in a while some piece of anger or happiness would creep out of him, and as soon as he recognized it, it would hide itself again in the protection of his body.
It was interesting to watch him talk. He rarely looked directly at me, but usually it was straight ahead. If I were the one talking, then he would look at me, but otherwise, no. I didn’t know if it was planned that way or not. But it seemed like he was trying to avoid my gaze.
When the sun had finally gone down, I figured I should probably be getting home. But when I stood up, a strange thing happened. He kissed me. I didn’t expect it, but I think in a way I had been hoping for it for a long time.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.” I watched him walk away and then left myself. It was the first real emotion I had ever seen in him.
Things were quite different after that day. We still didn’t speak at work and did much less reading when we were together. One night, things went too far.
I’ll never say that I regretted it because I didn’t. But I did get pregnant. That, I regret. My parents were not exactly thrilled with me at that point. I suffered through a lot of lectures and made a lot of apologies, but I was glad to have them with me. The whole thing was pretty scary. Jesse was very supportive. He came with me to all of my doctor visits and even seemed happy sometimes—like he was excited about the baby. We even talked about naming him Benvolio or Mercutio from Romeo and Juliet.
When school started back up, I got a lot of funny looks. No one could believe that I was pregnant. I started to get a reputation like Jesse’s—everyone was speculating as to whom the father was. It’s strange how no one ever asked me. I wonder what I would have said.
Jesse and I developed a relationship at school similar to the one we’d had at work. It got to be kinda fun. We’d listen to the various rumors going on about us separately and try not to laugh. It was like we knew something no one else did.
Jesse stayed with me through everything. I was afraid that he wouldn’t. There were days when I thought, “what if everything people say about him is true? What if he just walks away?” He never did. He took care of me and loved me.
In December we had a few ice storms. I was walking up the stairs to my house one day and slipped. I started bleeding very badly. I remember sitting on the frozen steps screaming at the top of my lungs—more out of fear than pain. Someone called an ambulance and I was taken to the hospital. The first one there was Jesse. He was crying and holding my hand and praying that I’d be ok.
I was fine. I lost the baby, but I was fine. Jesse stayed with me in the hospital despite everyone’s urges that he should get some rest. He didn’t listen to any of them. He said he just wanted to stay with me and make sure I was ok.
That was the most frightening thing I’ve ever been through. Of course several more rumors began when I went back to school. Everything from abortion to alien abduction floated around the hallways. Then there was that annoying fear again that Jesse would leave me. Why should he stay? He didn’t have any obligations to me anymore. But he stayed. We started reading Shakespeare again. I had missed it. It reminded me of those summer days we spent sprawled in the grass analyzing literature. It made me forget the baby I’d lost and the fear that surfaced every now and then.
Things like this make life worth living. What if I had never gotten my summer job? What if I had never taken a walk in the park that day? What if… The unanswerable questions go on and on. There is no “what if?” Things happened. This is my life—wherever it takes me, it’s the only one I’ve got. I’m going to make the most of it.

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