Guinevere got accepted to Stanford. Awesome. I’m really happy that I took three-and-a-half years to grow the cojones to ask Guin out so that we could date five months before she moves away. Of course, I should be happy for her that she got in, because she should go and she’ll do great there, etcetera, etcetera. The crazy thing is, I do feel that way. I want her to get out of here almost as badly as I want to. But we didn’t apply to any of the same colleges (it wasn’t exactly an issue then).
Here’s the truth: I thought about applying only where she did. But even I have my limits to how ridiculous I act, and since I was paying for my own application fees, I decided to go for schools that offered big scholarships that I might have had at least a snowball’s chance in Hades of getting. I’m not going to play basketball at Stanford, but Princeton had a scholarship for writing the best essay, period. It wouldn’t matter who my parents were, what they make, or where they went to school; if I could write a better literary analysis than any other high school senior, the “Promising Scholars” grant would have covered tuition my first year. Northwestern offered three full rides for in-state residents who “showed the most promise in the literary arts.” UCLA gave me that summer program scholarship, so I thought I might have had my foot in the door there…plus, I’ve always dreamed of going off to school in California. That just feels like the right way to leave it all behind and start a new life. There’s something absolute about leaving the Midwest for California, like a modern version of the ’49ers—with better odds of success.
So Guin gets to do it. Stanford’s an elite school. The more I researched, the less it sounded like I’d have any chance of getting in, much less being able to afford $38,000 a year. (That’s eleven thousand, three hundred forty-three hours or so of detassling, per year.) I still would have applied if I thought there was any real possibility that my life would go like this; then at least I’d have had some way to try to get where she’s going. But I’m pretty sure applying late to Stanford with a note saying, “Hey, my girlfriend got in. Can I come, too?” while providing the admissions department with a good chuckle, would not do the trick.
None of my scholarships have come through. Princeton and Northwestern notified me that I had been considered and, while not receiving the scholarship in question, I would have a good chance to receive financial aid once my parents filled out my FAFSA. That’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid, in case you didn’t know. So I’m going to hand Dad a pile of forms that will tell him I’m trying to move away, and he needs to fill them all out so that they’ll give him the opportunity to borrow forty thousand dollars to help me go. Or maybe I could have Mom do them and watch the fun when he finds out I went to her. Let the good times roll.
I’m still clinging to a splinter of hope that UCLA will give me something. I’m from out of state and they’re a state school, so the splinter is not big enough to see with your naked eye, but when that’s all you’ve got to hold on to, it’s amazing how you can grip.
At some point, I’m either a)going to have to ask Dad to help me apply for financial aid, or b)move somewhere, get a job, work for a year while I establish residency and “independent” status, then try to pay my own way. I’ve looked into deferring my acceptance, and all three schools will let me do that; I’m just not sure it will help. Did I mention that it sucks that I got not-fired? Working for Grocery Warehouse wasn’t exactly going to cover $24,000 for out-of-state tuition plus room and board at UCLA (my “cheapest” option), but at least I could save up for a possible move. Plus, I could pay for dates.
Now you might be asking, “Paxton, you didn’t apply to a back-up school?” I meant to. I scraped up the money for three applications (that’s almost eight hundred dollars, just so you know), plus I had to get myself out to Los Angeles and back because that summer program scholarship just covered being there, it didn’t give me travel. So I had to decide whether to 1)apply to my schools and try to save more money for a back-up, or 2)apply to the back-up and miss the deadline for one of my top three. As mentioned, my limits for how ridiculous I behave are pretty high. But it’s not like our guidance counselor was helping me figure it out—he suggested I join the Army—and who else was I going to ask whether I had a chance of writing the best high school paper in the country? It wasn’t really that, anyway, since it’s not like everyone applies to Princeton. I did talk with Nill about it a little. He said I should apply to Western. I didn’t.
Truthfully, there’s still time. I’m not valedictorian, but I’m a four point student. Some schools have rolling admission, meaning I could apply and see if they haven’t filled up yet. I’m not leaning that way. I know this sounds elitist and snobbish and a host of other adjectives I have no right to be, but going to a back-up school feels like dating someone other than Guin. Jeff mentioned once or twice (or 9,856 times) how I might want to consider pursuing someone “within my own species.” He made strong arguments about sex and dates for dances and reasons to be out of my house and sex and not appearing inclined toward males (which was the rumor I cared least about, but Jeff felt otherwise) and sex. He even thought it might help me with Guin, so I had to explain how real life works differently than sitcoms. Why would I date “someone” when I’m in love with Guinevere? Maybe the college thing shouldn’t work the same way, but hanging out with her hasn’t exactly dampened my idealism. I don’t want to go somewhere just because they’ll take me: I want to go to one of my schools that I’ve been working toward for six years now. Is that bad? Besides, it’s not as if even state schools are free; I’d still have to work full-time to pay for it, and I don’t know if I can pull off working a full-time job to be a full-time student simultaneously…especially somewhere I’m not motivated to be.
None of this addresses that I want to be where she is. And now I can’t.
Guin and I are going out and I’m a little late to pick her up. She doesn’t like late. She’s standing outside under her porchlight, though it’s thirty-eight degrees.
“Hi, Paxton. Nice of you to make time to come by.” She tilts her head, and I think she feels obligated to give me a hard time. She doesn’t look angry. Just regal.
“I’m sorry, my liege. The serfs were staging an uprising and I had to work my way through their barricades. Wow, you’re hands are icy.”
“They were warm ten minutes ago. Where are we going?”
I have five dollars, and I have Jeff’s car that sucks gas like a spider sucks bugs. Jeff says I don’t have to put gas in, but that means he’s paying for me to take Guin out. Feels wrong.
“Let’s see…we can afford the library. The grocery store, if you want gum. Or the bowling alley, as long as you don’t want to bowl.”
“I’m not really a bowler. Want to go to the Aviary?”
I choke silently. The Aviary is a place outside town with huge trees where rare breeds are (jokingly) rumored to nest. Kids don’t go there to bird watch.
“Um…okay.” Because what am I going to say? But I don’t know if I can afford to keep Jeff’s car running the whole time. I’ll just put all five in the tank and hope. How long will we be there?
We pull into the gas station (our town has exactly one), and Petro, the young guy who owns the station with his parents’ money, comes out. If we drive to the next town, it’s self-serve and about twelve cents cheaper, but then we’ve driven eighteen miles to save that. The figures don’t square, especially in Jeff’s car.
“Whatcha need?” Petro asks around the toothpick in his mouth. I like him. We usually talk about how pathetic the Cubs are. We’re yet to lack conversation.
“Fill it up, regular,” Guin says, leaning over my shoulder.
“Ho-kay. You guys taking a trip? How’s Jeff?” Implications fill both these simple-sounding questions.
“He’s good,” I say. “Nah, just, you know, thanking him for using the car.”
“Cool,” Petro nods. I roll the window back up.
“Oh, is that what we’re doing?” Guin asks, raising both blonde eyebrows.
“You wanted me to tell him where we’re going?”
“I don’t care,” she says. Jurors, please note the witness’s facial expression. Guinevere Kinton suggests we go to the Aviary, then implies I can announce it. If you guessed that I’m excited right now, you’re a little off. I’m terrified.
“I only have five bucks,” I say.
“Oh. Well, that’s a smaller favor we’re doing Jeff, isn’t it?” She smirks and hands me a ten.
“Guin, are you…?”
“Probably shut up,” she says. “Just a suggestion.”
As we’re pulling out, Guin turns on the radio. Jeff has it on our hard rock and metal station, of course. She immediately changes it.
Screaming females, then a pop piano intro. “I want somebody to share, share the rest of my life, share my innermost thoughts, know my intimate details,” sings the guy with the hair from Depeche Mode.
“Yeah?” she asks.
I sweat cold for a split-second. No, she’s asking if I like the song.
Get a grip.
I glance over at her. “I hate Depeche Mode.”
“Why? Never mind. Can we listen to it?”
“Since when do you ask?” I say. Why did it come out like that? Maybe because I’m scared enough to lose control of my bodily functions. Bummer.
But she’s not even pretending to be offended. “Tsk, tsk. Since tonight.”
So we listen.
When it’s over, and the females are screaming again, I say, “Okay, this is my least hated of their songs.”
“I don’t want to be tied to anyone’s strings, I’m carefully trying to steer clear of those things,” she sings to me and starts giggling.
Then what are we doing?
I take her suggestion and don’t ask.
We follow the curvy gravel road, cross the bridge, and pull off under a huge maple. I’ve never been here at night. Why would I? I’m guessing Guin’s attendance record is a bit different than mine, but I’m not asking.
“So, I got into Stanford,” she says.
“Yeah, that’s amazing! Congratulations again,” I say, with as much heart as I can muster under these preposterous circumstances.
“I want to talk about college.”
“Oh,” I say.
“I figured no one would overhear or interrupt us. This work for you?”
“Uh, sure. Yeah, good idea.”
She’s holding back laughing at me. I might as well say every stupid thought aloud; it would come out to the same thing, I’m so obvious to her.
“If you want to come up here for some other reason, you’ll have to suggest it,” she says. She won’t take her eyes off my face and I’m damned sure I’m blushing. I hate blushing. I’m staring at the maple tree. I’ve spent hours in this tree, imagining that I was sitting here in a car with her—and yes, that’s a bit pathetic, but no one else comes here during the daytime. Now I am with her and I can’t look at her. She wants to talk about leaving. Oh, my stupid life. I finally force myself to turn my head and let her laugh in my face.
“But I’d still split gas,” she says, and she’s laughing but it’s completely different. Well, mostly.
“So, how about you? Does UCLA look possible? I’ve always gotten the feeling that was your first choice. I know Los Angeles and the Bay Area are a ways apart, but I’ll bet road trips would happen. That’s what college students do, right?”
“Guin, I don’t think I’m going to school in the fall.”
“You really want to know?”
I explain the whole situation except that I considered applying to her schools.
“Huh,” she says, and leaves it there. I don’t know where to go from here.
Now we’re sitting in Jeff’s Love Machine, in the most likely location for teenagers to make out, and we’re not kissing or talking.
Finally, she says, “Maybe Stanford will still take you. I mean, you definitely qualify.”
“My SAT’s aren’t as high as yours. Even if I did match up, you know that’s not going to happen. Maybe we should just get married first,” I try to sound like I’m matching her stupid suggestion with my own.
“I said, ‘Okay.’ You asked me to marry you and I said, ‘Okay.’ As in, “Yes.’”
I laugh, kind of a sickly wheeze, but it’s the best I can do. She’s making fun of me in a way I’m not prepared to defend against. I’m a little scared she can be this mean.
“You’re not going to say anything?” she asks.
“I said, ‘Ha, ha.’”
“I wasn’t kidding.”
I’m having an out of body experience.
I’m dreaming and it’s all funky and mixed up.
I’m wide awake, and what the hell is happening here?
“I don’t understand.”
“Which part? The part where you asked a simple question, or the part where I said, ‘Yes?’ I guess technically it was a suggestion. I accept your suggestion.”
I’ve got to make her stop this, even if it kills me, because if I let her go on it will kill me. With pain.
“Guinevere, you’re mocking me. Did I offend you about still getting into Stanford? They accept like twelve percent of applicants and I couldn’t pay for–”
“Paxton Kingsley, Paxton Alexander Kingsley, I will marry you. If you want to marry me. Am I making that clear enough?”
“But…but we’ve only been going out two months. You only just decided you wanted to go out with me. I’m…I can’t support you. I don’t have a job!”
“Whoa! Did we stumble back into the Fifties? ‘Support’ me? We’re going to college together.”
“I can’t afford college. Anywhere.”
“We’ll get an apartment, I’ll start at Stanford, you’ll work, you’ll start the next year. I think if we’re married, I’ll be willing to wait for you that year after I graduate. I mean, if you’re any good in bed.”
Am I? How the bleep would I know? And I was scared about coming up here to have sex!
“Guin, my family is insane. I’m going to get away from them, but…to be a part of that…”
“I know you’re family is a bit off. This information has nothing to do with getting married sooner or later. Unless you expect their mental health to improve in a few years.”
“Guinevere, you’re being frivolous with your future.”
“No, I’m not. Wow, ‘frivolous,’ huh? Mom would like that. No, I’m really not. Paxton, who’s going to love me more than you do? Can you answer me that?”
“All your objections are for my sake. Which proves my point. Do you not want to marry me?”
“I don’t—I mean, of course, but we can’t decide right now.”
“Yes, we can. I can. I didn’t just think of this. Paxton, I’m done with the whole ‘don’t date the kind of guy you’d marry or marry the kind of guy you’d date.’ To be honest, I’m done with dating guys who aren’t in love with me. And if you meant your question-slash-suggestion, then it looks like I’m done with dating. Period.”
See, I am starting to doubt this is a dream, because in my dreams I want this to happen, but now I’m nauseous and ready to jump out of the car to make it stop. Or throw up.
“Paxton?” She’s using her determined voice. There’s no way she’s joking.
“Remember you told me you wanted to marry me but not have sex with me?” She takes a moment to watch me cringe. She is a little sadistic, around the edges. “I laughed you off for saying that. And it was an absurd thing to say on our third week of dating, or whatever that was—I mean, in addition to being the most ridiculous thing a seventeen-year-old male has ever said. But I started thinking about it…and realized it wasn’t even the first time I had. I didn’t really let myself admit I was thinking about it before then. I just used to wonder, when we’d talk about life, what kind of girl you’d marry. I always hoped she’d be really great and appreciate you, because you—well, you deserve that. You’re life has basically been shitty, what you’ve told me, what I’ve heard from Jeff and everyone else, but you’re not bitter or self-pitying. You’re kind and you look out for people lower on the food chain—I mean, until that tournament game, when there were still people lower than you. Sorry, I’m digressing. And even though I went out with losers—yeah, you were always right, they were—you just waited. For me. You forget that I’ve known you for four years, too, and like I said, I wasn’t really admitting it to myself until the last month or so, but I’ve noticed. Sometime in this last month I realized that the girl I’ve hoped would marry you is me.”
“You want to marry me?”
Come on, you thought I’d be more eloquent? You would be?
“Hey, I think you’re getting it! I had hoped we’d go to the same school and see how that worked. But if I’m going to try to explain to my parents that I want you to come to Stanford with me so we can live together…I don’t think I’m that kind of girl. I mean, I’m not religious like you are. I don’t believe in a God who turns people to salt for looking around at the wrong time. I think there’s Something, though, and I think we have a pretty good, intuitive idea of what’s right. But…okay, I’m running out of words. I didn’t think I’d have to convince you so much. But you’re going to tell my parents, not me, so I guess that will be the real test if you want to do this or not.”
“We can’t elope?”
“Absolutely not. If we’re doing this, it’s full on: invite the town, I wear a dress that allows for no speculation about how I’m hiding my pregnant belly, and we ride away in the car with the cans dragging behind.”
I’m way past deer-in-the-headlights. I’m more like those turtles that sink into the mud and hibernate until their body temps restart them again. Guin is noticing.
“If you don’t know, then I guess I’ve misunderstood. If you have to think about it, then it’s probably not such a good idea.”
“Wait, you’re saying you’ll marry me if I can decide right now?”
“Well, you did ask me.”
“I know, but…”
“No, I take that back; I don’t want to pressure you into it. How long do you need? How about the weekend. Seventy-two hours. You decide in the next seventy-two hours whether you want that offer to stand, and you know my answer. After that, you’re off the hook.”
She turns away from me and stares out the windshield like our conversation is done.
“Yes, Paxton. I’m ready to go, whenever you are.”
“Yes, Paxton. I’m close enough to hear you. You have my attention.” She’s not turning, though.
“What’s going on here?”
She looks at me now, and I feel exactly like I did when she first lined up behind me, “Kingsley” then “Kinton.”
“I’m glad you asked. I love you. That’s what’s going on here.”
And the fear evaporates. We’re talking about doing the craziest thing in the world, and I can’t even figure out how I got here, but I’m glad I didn’t kill myself after that game.
“I love you, too, Guinevere. Most girls say that, at least once, before they agree to marry a guy.”
“And you would know that how?”
“You think you could get out of the car for a sec?”
“You may not understand how these things work. Guys don’t try to get girls to come up here to lure them out of the car.”
“I’ll come around to your side.”
She’s out of the car by the time I get there, standing in the slush. We’re breathing fog.
I sink my right knee into the mud and leaves. My pants sponge up the snowmelt, which travels to my sock. I’m grinning like a…
Well, like myself.
“Guinevere Anne Kinton, will you marry me?”
She’s not answering, and I know she’s put me on.
But no, she’s crying. She can’t speak. She takes gulping, shallow breaths and shakes her head at me, smiling through her contorted, puckered up, nose-wrinkled grimace. This isn’t her most glamorous look. It might be how she’ll look when she gives birth.
Oh, my God, I’m going to see that!
“Yes, Paxton. I…” She breathes. Swallows. Breathes. “I will marry you.”
I’m up off the ground and picking her up and carrying her back to the car and somehow wrestling the door open and dumping her in—not graceful—and falling in on top of her, and we’re kissing, but we’re not having sex. We’re talking and laughing about all the things we just decided and how we think everything will go and how everyone will respond and we’re probably wrong about just about all of them, but that doesn’t matter right now.
After hours of this, we kiss some more. Then I climb over the stick shift and start the car. I automatically turned it off when I got out, and hadn’t noticed how cold it had gotten until now.
“Wait a sec—you weren’t serious about making me tell your parents, were you?” I ask as I pull around. Guin turns on the heater.
“No, you don’t have to tell them. You have to ask them.”
“But what if they say ‘no?’”
“Well, I guess you’ll have to explain that I’ve already said ‘yes,’ so now we’re just waiting on them. But they love you, Paxton. And they got married young. Plus…whoa. We’re really doing this, aren’t we? I’ll back you up if you need me; I really don’t think you will.”
When I rode the bus home after that disastrous game, it was like I’d left as one person and come back another. But only my own picture had changed; my imaginary self burst, leaving damp balloon fragments.
Now, though, I’m coming back from my first trip to the Aviary engaged to Guinevere. We just decided a huge part of the rest of my life, even though I don’t know yet how it will work. I literally left home as one guy and am coming back as someone else. I am the guy who will marry Guinevere Kinton. Which means I better figure it out.
Oh God oh God oh God oh God OH MY GOD! I’m marrying Guinevere! Guinevere is marrying me!
Plus, I get to tell Jeff.
We hold hands in silence driving back down. We’re talked out.
I know what you’re thinking. No, I know what I’m thinking and would guess you have similar thoughts: what about Guinevere’s parents? Why would they want their brilliant and willful daughter to stake her success on me? Even if you don’t allow for cross-town superiority (which I’ve never seen the first sign of from them, but I was just a friend, wasn’t I?), there are still real objections:
Does anyone here worry that whatever my dad suffers from might be genetic? I am raising my hand.
Am I less likely to have a successful marriage because my parents’ marriage is a war zone? My hand’s still up.
Oh, and do we have legit concerns that I can 1)work my way through college and 2)somehow end up in a career for which I’m aiming, while 3)learning to be a husband, and yet 4)not drag Guin down or steal college life from her? Both hands waving.
All these were clamoring in my brain while Guinevere reminded me that I’d made the “simple suggestion.”
Other random thoughts driving me berzerk: would we be “engaged” or whatever we’re calling this (not sure if it counts until we get permission—or whatever we’re calling that) if I hadn’t made a stupid comment which of course I meant seriously—I did—but “knew” she wouldn’t? I threw my line in the water. Did she go up to The Aviary planning to…accept? If I had my college of choice nailed down, and that whole conversation went differently, where would we be? Planning for a long-distance relationship? Being “wise and mature enough” to part as friends? What if I had applied to a safety school? Or, God forbid, gotten a scholarship?
I’m going to have to ask Guinevere most of these, but chose not to push it any further at that moment because I’d have sounded like I was looking for excuses. She wants to marry me (!) (I can’t even think that with a straight face) and I won’t give her any more doubts that I want to marry her. We’ll have plenty of time for those talks.
It’s about quarter to twelve when I drop Guin off. Her folks don’t wait up for us, nor are they night owls, so only the porch light is on, as it was eons ago when I picked her up and she was irked. Or was she waiting outside because she was excited? I’m guessing about so many things.
“Sweetie,” Guin says, and she means me, “I think you’d better be here about nine. They usually take their Saturdays easy, but they’ll probably be out doing something before noon. Better to give them some time to respond.”
“Okay.” She’s watching my face. I nod a couple times.
“Paxton, we’re doing this, right?”
“We are. Yes, we are. I’ll be here tomorrow morning.”
She leans in and gives me a kiss. Then she opens the door.
“Get good sleep.” She winks at me.
The door closes.
When I get to his house, Jeff has fallen asleep. I’m a bit surprised he got in near midnight, since he said he and Darla and their pack had plans to go out. That usually means drinking and a late night somewhere. But he also said he had to work at the garage in the morning. Our standard procedure is: I drive by, if his bedroom light is on I tap on the window, and then he drives me home; if he’s out, I just park his car at home, leave the keys in a knot of the rotting elm by our driveway (no one’s looking for it there), and he swings by on the way home…or he calls in the morning, if he needs to sober up first. But his light’s on and I can see his legs and going out boots, hanging off the edge of the bed.
Nothing. I try the heel of my hand.
Thonk! Thonk! Thonk!
Something creaks at the opposite end of the house. Great. I’ve already banged on this window loud enough to wake his parents. I can’t strand him when he’s got to work, and he might not have allowed for driving back and forth when he set the alarm—if he even remembered to set it. So that means I’m walking home. Fine. I need some time to think, anyway. Understatement. Better we talk to the Kintons before I start telling people. I mean, that’s better than having to go back if they say…
I don’t feel like thinking. I run home.
I’m gasping and spitting by the time I hit our side door. It opens the quietest. I don’t know what kind of time I made on those two miles, since I had already messed around at Jeff’s window before I started, but it felt fast. Someone watching would have guessed interval training, since every time an unwelcome idea crossed my mind, I sprinted. It’s true you can’t run away from your problems, but you can get in good shape trying.
I’ll just take a quick shower, and–
“Hi, Son. How was your night?”
He surprised me but I’ve learned not to jump; it pisses him off. He looks calm and normal.
“Oh, hi, Dad. It was fine.”
I’ve fallen for this before. I walk in, he asks me casual questions, I feel guilty that I’m not much of a son and never tell him anything, and we start to talk. But at some point, he grabs some detail, maybe something I didn’t mean to say or he just infers, and we’re off. One time he took a comment about Phil’s attitude toward some of the teachers and turned it into a three-hour Jeremiad (love that word! History rocks) about school hierarchies, injustice and racism in education and, of course, his own persecution by the school board. I had said, Phil doesn’t put up with anything from them.
“That’s good. Did you go out with Guinevere tonight?”
“Uh-huh, I did.”
“Where’d you two go?”
“Actually, we just sat and talked somewhere.”
“Oooh,” he smiles and throws his head back. “’Talking.’ We called it something else, but obviously you can’t call it what it is.”
If you were standing behind me, or were an insect on the wall, you would see this glimpse of who my dad could have been. He’s not a raving lunatic every second. Mom married him because she was pregnant with Trinket, but I’m betting she got pregnant because he was more like this all the time. At least with her. He could have been someone I talk to.
Herein lies the danger.
“No, we weren’t doing that. We really were talking.”
“Oh, I see. Where were you?”
“We just found a quiet spot.”
“I’m glad. I asked where.” He’s still smiling. His arms are crossed. You would have heard no hint of threat, just a polite clarification.
But I’m probably two syllables from a landslide. Nowhere? Downtown? Or just tell him the truth, let him think I’m lying about what we did, and see what lecture I get?
No. I’m engaged—or whatever—and my life has to change. Now.
“Dad, I think I’m going to marry Guin.”
He doesn’t blink. Same head roll, same smile. Actually, I think the smile got bigger.
Then he laughs. “Oh, I know. Sex will do that to you. Were you safe?”
“It doesn’t work that way, but fine. You looking for a new job tomorrow?”
“Yeah, definitely. In the afternoon.”
“Let me guess: you’re going back to her house in the morning.”
“I am. We need to talk with her parents.”
He takes a step toward me. The fun is never knowing what will happen next.
“You ‘need to talk with her parents.’ Won’t that be nice? Paxton,” he takes a deep breath, and here we go, “you’re going to talk with them about marrying her? That’s what you’re doing tomorrow?”
I nod. The sweat from my run has chilled. I feel my back muscles locking up and both legs are twitching. I look like I’ve had a workout. That’s what he’s seeing.
Dad reaches his hand out toward me. Man, his veins stick out. They’re huge. It takes me a second to get what he’s doing.
I shake his hand, a good, firm grip. Just like he taught me.
“Good luck, Son. They’re going to roast you alive. ”