Elizabeth Arnold is a graduate of the MFA program at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her work has previously appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Whitefish Review, The Boiler Journal, and the anthology Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. Her essays have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and been listed as notable in The Best American Essays. She lives on a working farm in Central Pennsylvania with her husband, horses, chickens and dogs.
1. The first time he calls you stupid you’ll pretend you didn’t hear it. You will be driving down the main street in your hometown headed toward the river and a party. He’ll be in the passenger seat (happy to let you drive your car and spend your gas) messing with the stereo controls, turning the music up, when the red light ahead changes to green and you don’t touch the gas fast enough. He’ll shout at you over the music, the force of his voice will make you start and freeze, hands at ten and two, sitting there at the green light with him yelling at you to move because the light is fucking green. You, with your tan legs and white bathing suit and blonde hair that hangs past those perfect nineteen-year-old breasts are stupid for not pressing the gas hard enough, for lingering at the red light, not reacting as he would have –who the hell knows?
Naïve young thing, you’ll brush it off and keep driving and say yes when he asks if you bought ice for his cooler. After all he, with his dark hair and football playing body and trash-talking mouth that kisses so tender after a few beers, is exactly what you think you want in a boyfriend.
2. 7 a.m. and you’re pounding away at treadmill number four, getting a run-in before the summer job that’s keeping you occupied until sophomore year. Sweat drips down your neck and red-hot face. He walks over from across the room and you press the pace up two notches. This is the guy that’s been watching you run for days now. He’s in here every morning lifting with three other guys, jocks from the college you think. He props his arm on the side of the treadmill and you press the pace down, jogging into a walk. He asks something obvious, like so you work out here every morning and you shrug a yes. He says you must be in pretty good shape. He smiles then and you smile back and assume that he must be a nice guy because his smile is so sweet and his hair is dark with sweat and those biceps look big enough to promise you something.
3. The first time he takes you out he will drive to your house to pick you up and bring you flowers. Flowers on a first date. Flowers that will sit on your parent’s kitchen table for three days before they die, and then you will tie them up so carefully and hang them upside down from your bedroom ceiling.
4. On that first date he will let you pick the restaurant and the appetizer and he will pull out your chair and look at you when you are talking. He will tell you he’s never dated a girl as smart as you and you will only hear the word date and think finally someone has noticed me; finally I am not just the smart girl or the girl who’ll edit your papers for free or the girl with the beautiful hair. Finally, this will be someone to make you feel wanted in all the ways and places you’ve only imagined.
When he tells you about his childhood in a rough neighborhood and how he and his Father never got along, you will think, he needs a girl like me. He will tell you he came to your hometown to play football on a scholarship and that he’s working hard to make something of his life. You will tell him you admire this. He will pay for dinner and open your car door in the parking lot. He will ask if you’d like to rent a movie and go back to his place. He doesn’t normally do this on first dates, but you’re such a nice girl, he wants to get to know you better. He will sit beside you on the couch that smells like chips and stale beer. He’ll brush your arm with his, then slide his hand to yours and trace tiny circles in your open palm until the back of your neck tingles and the hairs stand on end.
5. When you walk down the grassy bank to a river party, you won’t think about his arm slung over your shoulders, pulling at your neck and your hair. You’ll pretend to like the way he pulls you uncomfortably close to him, forcing you to lean into him until your flip-flop catches on a stone and you almost fall. But there he is to catch you.
6. Your Mom in her straw hat, carrying a spade, walks into the kitchen one warm afternoon just as you’re about to leave. She asks if you have time to help her stake up the tomato plants in her garden. No, you say I’m late for lunch. It will only take a minute she says. And reminds you, we always used to do the tomatoes together. He’ll be so mad if I’m late you reply, hiking your purse on your shoulder. She’ll pick up the string and not ask again.
7. Fourth of July—an occasion for beer and fireworks at the University stadium. Together, you’re driving to the next town over and three of your best girl friends are along. He sits in the passenger seat (of course) cooler in his lap and he’s a six-pack in by the time you get there. While crushing a can he tells you where to park and you realize by the cars that all of his friends are there too. He gets out carrying nothing but the cooler, leaving chairs and blankets and the stereo for the four of you. It’s getting dark and the walk to the field is long. Once you catch up to him and his buddies he tells you where and how to arrange the chairs. You thought he would charm your friends the way he did you. Your friend who’s been studying in Wales is pissed and calls him a knob. It’s clear he has no idea what that means.
8. Never mind that as you leave for the river one afternoon your Dad calls you by your full name and says he thinks you could do better—you’re smarter than a guy like that. You just adjust the straps of your suit and walk right out the door.
9. His dog barks too much late at night and he walks out to her crate in the kitchen, grabs her by the throat and shakes her, tells her to shut up and slams the black wire door closed as she whimpers and wags her stub of a tail. But you don’t think too much of it.
10. A barbecue and keg party is happening at some frat brother’s house and you’re about to leave the house, to meet up with “him,” as your mom says, while she stands in the kitchen and slices tomatoes. In the white bikini top again, barely covered by the white gauzy cover up with little wooden buttons down to your navel, all undone, and a short denim skirt. You never used to dress like this your dad points out when he sets down the paper and pulls his glasses down on his nose, looks out over them. It will take a long time to forget the looks on their faces when you say I’m nineteen and I can make my own choices, thank you very much.
11. You will ride your horse, but not enough. Not every day like you used to. When you go to see him after he will point out how dirty you are with hints of sawdust lingering over your lip and brow—the sweat on your arms caked with black screenings dust, dust from the fields freshly plowed. So many kinds of dust, some horse hair too. And then there’s the piece of hay in your hair. You also smell like a barn, which is how he puts it.
12. On a warm night tucked in the woods by the river, just the two of you. Curls of your hair fold into the curves of the ground as the water—low in the heat of summer—moves by in unbroken sheets. Your whole body pressed between the soft earth and the cool grass and him with his lips brushing your collar bone, and then moving up to whisper, I love your body. The distinction floats off with the breeze that carries his voice and your breaths toward the river. One flexed arm holds his body taut, hovering, while the other traces the firm line of your hip to the place that grows warm—just below the belly-button, just above the button of your jeans. The moon swells overhead and shatters of light refract off the water, the quivering leaves of trees. Eyes close, his outline remains, silvery—pressed upon your lids.
13. The second time he calls you stupid you are playing darts with him and his friends in a sketchy-as-hell bar at the end of Shamrock street where no one is ever carded and the sallow-faced bartender sells weed from the walk-in. They will have just won a game in their summer baseball league and you gave up your afternoon to sit in the bleachers alone and watch, picking at your cuticles, thighs hot against the metal bleachers as their metal bats pinged foul balls over the fence.
Playing darts three beers in probably isn’t the best idea; your hand-eye coordination has never been a strongpoint. You tell him this, but he ignores you. When the dart inevitably misses the board he comes undone. You just lost him the fucking game. How could you miss that shot? How could you be so stupid?
You won’t know how to react. You won’t cry or yell back. You’ll just shrug your shoulders, tell him you’re sorry and crouch to pick up the dart.
14. When your sister who’s only thirteen asks what it’s like to have a boyfriend you’ll tell her it’s nice to have someone who’s always there for you.
15. The night you tell him you’re thinking about spending a semester in Oxford, in fact you’ve already been accepted, he’ll tell you that’s a terrible idea. He can’t spend three months without you. How would you possibly spend that much time away from him?
Never mind that one morning, after you’ve stayed out all night (while he’s still sleeping next to you) your Dad calls at eight-o-clock and asks why you didn’t come home, asks if you are okay and doesn’t sound angry, just tells you that he was worried. You won’t realize that parents don’t always have the right words or even know what to say. You won’t realize that sometimes parents don’t say any of the things you might later wish they did because they’re too afraid that saying the wrong thing will only push you farther away.
17. The night he notices you talking to his roommate in the kitchen will be a bad one. You’ve walked in for a drink of water a little past midnight. The roommate is nuking pizza. He’ll come in and find you leaning against the counter piled with weeks-old take-out cartons. He’ll ask you how long it takes to get a fucking glass of water and you’ll retreat back to his room with the Ali poster float like a butterfly, sting like a bee hung on the wall and the bed that’s really just a mattress on the floor with sheets he never changes. Your eyes will drop when the yelling starts. When he punches the wall, inches from your head, and cracks the drywall you won’t be able to help the tears that gather in the corners of your eyes and you’ll be too afraid to raise your fingers to stop them. He will notice and pull you into a hug and tell you he’s so, so sorry. Your body will shake but you won’t cry. He didn’t mean to scare you. It’s just that you’re always doing stupid things that set him off.
18. You won’t get the courage to break it off until you’ve moved back to school two-hundred miles away and driven home on four separate weekends to sit alone in the stands and watch his team lose. What was I thinking you will say to your friends? They will shake their heads and pour more wine in your mug. At least you were strong enough to walk away they will say. A lot of girls end up marrying jerks like him. Yes, you will nod, at least I walked away.
19. A few years later, when you’re back in your hometown, don’t be surprised when you stop at that green light. Don’t be surprised when it takes you a second or two to realize and then press the gas. Don’t be surprised when you drive on as if it never happened.