My life changed in a weekend and I’m sprinting to catch up, trying to leave behind the guy who couldn’t handle two minutes in the state tournament game, because seriously, who gives a flying flip about that now? Guinevere and I are getting married. High school no longer makes sense or fits my place in life. But I’ve got no plan for college, either, even less than the no-plan I had before, because now it’s a no-plan for two. She hasn’t contacted Stanford. I applied (borrowing money from Jeff and Nill, God bless ’em), and haven’t heard anything yet. We’re talking about whether we could go to one of the local schools. The Catch-22 is that the more affordable they are—which mostly correlates inversely with academic standing—the more I feel like I’m proving the Kintons right that our getting married will undercut Guin’s opportunities. She can afford to go to Stanford or any other school she wants…as long as she’s not attached to me. I can’t afford to go anywhere, with or without her. But if we both got accepted at a school that only cost three or four thousand in tuition, maybe with some financial aid and my job (the one I’m hunting for), we could both enroll and get a cheap place together.
None of the guys know what to do with me. If someone is getting laid, you give them crap. Three classmates have gotten pregnant and kept the babies, and that’s a whole different level: everyone encourages those girls and tells them how brave and amazing they are and how good they look, and everyone pats the guys on the shoulder and tells them tough break, could have happened to anyone (though they don’t believe that’s true) and it’s not the end of the world (ditto). But Guin and I, we’re in this nether region. Most of the guys either avoid talking to me or ask bizarre questions, like “Are her parents forcing you to get married?” Of course, people assume she’s pregnant. That’s more disturbing, because they’ve heard we haven’t had sex. She just tells them “no” and that they can wait and see. I hope she’s less emphatic with her explanation than she was with her parents, but why should that matter? Caring what my classmates think of me is another part of my past tense life. I wish I’d been able to grasp this before; at least now I can live up to what Jeff thinks of me.
Even Nill doesn’t get it.
“So why can’t you finish college first and then marry her?”
“Nill, we haven’t even started college yet.”
“Sure, four years, but why not wait?”
“Because she wants to marry me now.”
“If she loves you, won’t she still want to marry you four years from now?”
“Probably, but why risk it?”
“Because of college.”
“We’re going to do college together.”
“Sure, I get that. But why get married first?”
“Nill, do you not think I should marry her?”
“Why not just go through college together and then get married?
“Because what if one of you doesn’t finish?”
I think Nill’s view must be how people our age felt when marriage first stopped being an official requirement for sex. If you can have sex anyway, why get married? But we’re on a different road. At some point, Guin took to heart that I wasn’t after sex, and now that is a non-category. We kiss a lot and sit entangled (which is about five-eighths of the way to driving me insane, by my best estimate), but nothing else. If we’re engaged and committed to each other, I can’t really make sense of how waiting helps. I might have to ask someone. But Guin feels loved by our not having sex, so here we are. I can live with it, because we’re going to have sex with each other for the rest of our lives.
We’re going to have sex! With each other! For the rest of our lives!
I have these moments of clarity, when figuring out college and finishing high school and searching for a job and navigating my parents and her parents all fade to nothing and I get it: Guinevere will be married to me. To me! Because she wants to! I rock back and forth and grin, sometimes hug myself, often chuckle and say words that don’t make sense together, like “Groceries. Walls. Shower.” What sounds like autism is really my associating how all parts of my life will incorporate her. Funny thing is, sex isn’t even the biggest thing (and still scares me. A bit). Like “shower” means I’ll walk into the bathroom and Guinevere Kinton—no, “Kingsley”—will be taking a shower. So okay, maybe it’s all related to sex, but it’s more than that: it will be allowed, it will be normal. We’ll be married.
If I thought grinding through classes had felt meaningless before, I just lacked a point of reference. Senioritis makes sense to me: colleges have already accepted grades, popularity and jockeying for position have lost whatever appeal they had, the school and the town feel small. And done. That’s if, say, you’re going off to college, like I imagined doing.
But I’m looking around in calculus, and none of this has ever made less sense than it does right now. I’m not even particularly following the lesson. Before, that would have driven me to listen harder, ask stupid questions, make certain I got the concept so it couldn’t trip me up. (Some days my schoolwork felt like snares to trap me into still living with my parents.) Plus, I enjoy getting it. Today, numbers and letters blur on the page and slip through my head faster than crappy TV. Every time I look around, I catch someone staring at me. More the girls, though some of the guys do it, too. I’m telling myself that Lori Van Mueller watching the back of my head doesn’t matter to me. I’m telling myself that because it bugs me.
I turn around. She doesn’t look away. She smiles a little, like you might if someone in a wheelchair caught you staring at them and you didn’t want to come off as a complete jerk. I give her my best what-the-heck-are-you-smiling-at fake smile, vacant eyes. She nods and smiles more. What?
Now a bunch of people are watching me mug at her. I don’t care I don’t care Idon’tcare.
I really don’t. Lori is catching Kaitlyn Redmon’s eye. But I’m not paying any attention.
That part’s true, anyway. I’m not paying a bit of attention. To calculus.
The bell rings. Oh, thank God. I’m up and pushing for the door, trying to get my books sorted out in my arms.
Lori and Kaitlyn are angling to intersect me before I reach the door. I’m not going to run from them. I stop and the guy behind me runs into my back.
“Sorry,” I say over my shoulder without seeing who got the apology. The others adjust their path to get around us.
“Paxton,” Lori says, “could you have lunch with us?” I’ve never had lunch with either of these girls in our four years of high school together. Nor in junior high, that I can remember.
“I’m having lunch with Guinevere,” I say. They giggle. Was that their goal?
“Oh, that’s what we thought. We want to talk to her, too. Can we join you guys?”
“Um,” I don’t really want to have lunch with them, and I don’t want to tell them that Guin and I have too much to talk about, which is none of their business. If I say, we want to be alone, they might asphyxiate. And in all of this, while they stare at me through their curled eyelashes, I’m remembering that I don’t care. “What do you want to talk about?”
“We want to throw you guys a shower,” Kaitlyn says, grabbing my hand.
“Aren’t showers for the bride?”
“They can be, but we want to do a couples’ shower,” Lori says.
“Yeah, like all the couples would come and get you guys gifts together and we can play couples’ games. It’ll be really fun,” Kaitlyn explains.
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon. I don’t want to be a curmudgeon. People are happy for us—never mind that these people aren’t exactly my close friends—and they want to do something nice for us. Maybe. Maybe they want to get their boyfriends to propose, or maybe they just want to play grown-ups and get close enough to us that they can imagine it for themselves. I don’t know them well enough to pinpoint their motives. It’s a nice offer, anyway. The thing is, Guin and I are supposed to talk about whether we want to go to a local school this next year. We’ve made lists and started to narrow them down, just in case. It’s not that we’re going to decide today, and we have been talking about the same subject every day for the last two weeks. But our plan for next year feels a bit more pressing than this shower. So does my dental care.
“Maybe you guys should talk to Guin about planning it, though.”
They glance at each other. Everyone else has gone. We’re alone in the math room, so I start sidling toward the door.
“We were hoping to discuss it with both of you,” Lori says. Of course you were. You want to figure out who I am so you can figure out why Guin is marrying me. Before this, my vita was “Brainy, basketball scrub, psycho family.” Now I’m a mystery.
“I think you’d better ask Guin,” I say, starting up the hall toward chemistry. We’re all in chemistry.
“Oh, that’s so cute!” Kaitlyn squeals. “My dad always does that! ‘You should ask Pam!’ I love it! It’s like you’re already married!”
I hope not.
“Okay, see you later,” I say, striding away from them even though we’re going to the same room.
“Bye, Paxton,” they call after me.
After school, Guin and I walk home. She doesn’t have rehearsal until after dinner, and she suggested we talk while walking.
“Did Kaitlyn and Lori ambush you today?” she asks. We’d escaped them at lunch.
“Yeah, they did.”
“What do you think about the shower idea?”
I think I hate being an object of their curiosity.
“I guess it sounds fine. What’d you tell them?”
“I didn’t know what to tell them. I get the feeling they want to play house with us.”
“What?” Guin stops walking and inclines her head.
“That’s exactly what I was thinking! Are you close to them?”
“See, they’ve always igno—well, let’s just say I haven’t been in their social circle.”
“I know, right? They’re acting like we go way back, but I think they invited me to one of their parties when we were in eighth grade—and I didn’t go. I said we’d talk about it.” She puts her arm around my waist. I love when she does that. “We’d probably get some nice gifts. And I think we’d offend them if we said ‘no.’ For whatever that’s worth.”
“Wait, was that a pro for going and a con for not or one pro for each side?”
“You decide. I don’t care what they think. If you want to indulge them, we’ll do it.” She drops her hand down and pinches me, making me jump. Is that legal for me now, too?
She grins at me like she’s reading my mind again. Then she pulls her arm out and lowers her eyebrows at me.
“All right, Mr. Kingsley, we’ve got decisions to make. Could you be happy going to St. Paul’s?”
“Sure, um, ‘Ms. Kinton?’ He’s the one who says that women have to submit, right?”
“Keep that up and the ‘Mizz’ stays!”
“I’d be happier at Grinnell or Carleton.”
“I know, so would I, but they’re too selective to be letting us in late. If we decide we’re staying around the Midwest, we could see about transferring to one of them next year.”
“Staying around? Were we thinking about doing that?” That came out just like I feel: hell, no!
“I’m just telling you that if you want us to go to one of those schools, that’s the only way it would happen. So if you’re not talking about next year, then put those back on the shelf.”
I just nod.
“Hey, don’t get pissy on me, Mister. I know you want to go somewhere more prestigious. I get it. We’re talking about one year here, to make this work. We’ll get where we want to go.”
“Where you want to go is Stanford. You should be going there.” I’m trying to be brave. Or something.
“Would you shut up about that? I know you want me to get what I want. Pay attention: I’m getting what I want. I’m not settling for conjugal visits when I come home on breaks. You’re going to have to work harder than that. I know you think I’m just in this for the sex, but I actually want to live with you and be together. If I just wanted sex, I wouldn’t have said ‘yes’ when you proposed.”
She talks about sex a lot these days. Don’t get me wrong, I like it. I’m not complaining. It’s just that I think it might kill me. Other than that, no problem.
“No, I guess there would have been more efficient ways to go about it.”
“You might say so. St. Paul’s?”
“There’s still a money problem.”
“I know that. Dad’s looking into all the legal stuff with their still supporting me. It’s like eight thousand a year. I think we can swing that.”
“That would take like six months to save, and that’s with living at home.”
“I know, Love. But I have a little over five thousand saved up. And now that you’re working again…”
Phil has gotten me a job helping him with night custodial at the school. I was surprised the position existed and I’m more than a little suspicious that he’s coming up with part of the pay out of his own pocket. It’s $10/hour, way more hourly than I’ve ever made before, including my summer jobs for the school. About three times more, in fact. But he admitted nothing and it’s not like I can strong-arm him to tell me.
“Guin, I’m not going to spend all your money when you’re parents are paying for you. I’d–”
“Hey, estupido, do you even qualify for college? I think you have to pass frosh English. For possessive plurals, we use ‘our.’ Paxton,” she points at me, “Guinevere,” she points at herself, “Our money,” she points back and forth at both of us. “You do get how this marriage stuff works, don’t you?”
Not a clue.
“Okay, in that case, I think we should do Lombard or Vitriola. They’re way cheaper, and–”
“We are not going to a junior college! We’d have less chance of transferring where we wanted, the classes wouldn’t be as good, and I’m pretty sure you’d rather die.” She closes her mouth and waits for me to argue so she can rebut me.
Instead, I lean over and bite her on the ear.
“Ooh, ouch! Now we’re talking. That’s as good a way to say I’m right as any. So, St. Paul’s?”
We’ve set a date. August Twenty-fifth in this Year of our Lord.
April eighth sees Guinevere’s first floppy hat of the season. That’s early. Jeff and I are driving and we pass Guin and Paige walking through downtown. He honks and I wave. Guin waves back. Paige watches us.
“Dude, what’s Paige’s story?” Jeff asks.
“You know, I really have no idea. I’ve never actually talked with her.”
“She’s hot,” he observes, just matter-of-fact.
“She’s been Guin’s best friend for about ten years. I have no idea what she thinks about me, whether she’s supportive of our getting married. I don’t even know if she wanted Guin to date me.”
Blue Oyster Cult comes on, and Jeff turns it up, too loud to talk.
“Burn out the day, and burn out the night. I’m not the one to tell you what’s wrong or what’s right…”
Then he turns it back down, which he virtually never does during a song. He almost killed me once for changing the station at the end of “Knights in White Satin,” after the music was over but before the guy recited the poem. And Jeff is not a poetry guy. He just doesn’t like songs interrupted until they’re over; you can turn them up, but don’t turn them down.
Yet he just did.
“I’ll bet Paige is into it.”
“Because, Jag Off, if she were against it they wouldn’t still be hanging out all the time. After what Guinevere did when her parents raised a fuss?”
I nod. He turns the song back up.
“I’ve got a problem,” I tell Guinevere. We’re indulging in a rare splurge, going to a movie, because we both like Harrison Ford. I think for her it’s a little Freudian or whatever the female version of Oedipal is, but she denies any resemblance between Indiana Solo and her dad. We’re walking there.
We walk a lot these days. I don’t feel comfortable—no, that’s the wrong word. I never felt “comfortable” at her house. But now I don’t know where I stand. It’s different than my house, of course, but it has a weirdly familiar instability, like the walls could close in at any moment, and latex paint and rare art would crush me as quickly as old wallpaper and mildew. Guin’s tried to explain about how mothers change when their daughters are growing up. After how angry she was, I’m surprised she defends Gretchen, but she can see it as love. I can, too. But this love is protecting her daughter against me, so even if I understand it, I don’t know how to do anything but avoid it. I would have said, with absolute certainty, that Gretchen Kinton would understand and support us, and Noel Kinton would question and oppose us. I would have been wrong with absolute certainty.
Not for the first time, mind you.
“And what’s this problem?”
“I don’t know what to do about Trinket. Amethyst.”
We walk three more blocks, holding hands. Tiny leaves have started appearing and the grass is straightening up, stretching out after being flattened by snow all winter.
“’Do about’ her?”
“She plans to find me when I go to college. I don’t know how, exactly, I just know she will. But she didn’t plan on a wedding. She’s not going to show up with my parents there, she won’t know to show up in the first place, and it’s not like I know where to send her invitation. But how can I get married without her? She’s more my family than anyone else except you. And Jeff.”
“You’d call it about a tie between us?”
I won’t dignify this with a reply. I’m learning.
“Is it a deal-breaker?” she asks.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, can you not get married without her?”
“How can you–”
“No, I mean it.” She rubs her free hand up and down my arm. She’s not starting a fight.
I’m a slow learner.
We walk again.
“No, I don’t think it’s a deal-breaker not having her, because it might be impossible. But we have to try.”
“Okay. What do we do?”
“I don’t have the first idea. I’m pretty sure I’m the only one here who knows she’s alive—besides you. I think if she told someone else, they would have approached me by now. I mean, I’m past the point where I can’t keep a secret.”
“Guess I’m not good evidence of that, but I take your point. Did she give any hints in the letter where she was going? Do you still have it?”
“She didn’t, and no, I burned it. She told me to, in the letter. Those were her parting words.”
“Okay. Well, what was she like? What did she enjoy? Where do you picture she lives?”
“Great. Based on?”
“That’s where I want to live. I figure we’re the same, or maybe she talked about it and that’s where I got the idea in the first place.”
“Dad would call it thin evidence, but that’s as good a place to start as any. How do we start searching California?”
“I don’t know. I can’t imagine she’d have her phone number listed, in case my parents kept looking.” I lower my voice as we cross the street before the theater. People are standing in front of us and I’m trying to figure out why when it finally clicks: this is the line.
“Wow. Have you ever had to wait to get in here?” I ask.
“Not since Star Wars. So…California?” she reminds me. I was set to reminisce about Jedis.
“We need a lead. I’ve always thought about…being found,” I nod, checking that we aren’t standing next to anyone we know too well. It’s hard in a town where you know everyone. “ I haven’t thought about it from the other direction.”
“Okay. Well, then we need to find a… Oh, Tammy! Hey, Brad.” she smiles at the captain of the color guard and her boyfriend, then glances at me and lets one eye cross for a tenth of a second. “You guys are going to see this, too?”
I’m adjusting to my new schedule. I work thirty-two hours a week, from four to six nights, and I can pick which nights and change it week to week. I usually show up about seven or eight, when most of the kids are gone and the extracurriculars have wound down. If I work eight hours Saturday and Sunday I can get off work by midnight every school night. That would work well if 1)I didn’t have homework, and 2)I didn’t have a fiancé. Having both, I’m a bit stretched.
Phil works me hard. He doesn’t believe in letting employees “act like they’re working for the government.” We talk if the task allows but we don’t stand around chatting. When our discussion-friendly task ends, the discussion stops. I guess he figures he’ll see me again soon enough and we can pick it up then.
The days he comes in at two pm, Phil leaves at ten. When he starts at six am, he leaves between three and four in the afternoon and leaves me a list. He works six days a week. For how many hours do they pay him? If I make ten, what does he make? I can’t ask. I just know he gives them more than their money’s worth. He plows through like he’s being paid for each repaired locker, unclogged toilet, mopped hallway and emptied trash can. You’d picture a big man moving slowly at a job no one else sees. You wouldn’t be picturing Phil.
“You know, a lot of people would put their feet up once they got an assistant,” I tell him as we scrub a sooty layer off the burners, sink, countertop and ceiling of the chem lab.
“What ‘assistant?’ Toss me that rag. You think you’re ‘assisting’ me tonight after I leave at ten to go watch MASH and you clean the girls’ locker room? That’s your own perversion; it’s got nothing to do with me.” He gives me the thick scowl of a juvey officer. Only from working with Phil over several years do I know he’s joking.
“Hey, I didn’t want to take that away from you.”
“Oh, that’s right. You being a married man and all, I guess you aren’t interested in other girls anymore.”
“Phil—dang, that reeks! What did they burn?—when have I been interested in other girls?”
“Well, that one summer, Cindy Lou Who got your attention.”
“Is that how you remember it?”
Cynthia Beckert decided she liked me our sophomore year. All summer, she’d wait for me to get off work and walk home with me. I didn’t think I led her on since I never initiated anything, never encouraged her, flagrantly refused to invite her into my house (dual reasons for that, but still), and mentioned Guin, on average, every six minutes. But Phil saw it differently.
“You’re missing that part—no, now you’re spreading it around. I can find someone to increase this mess for less than they’re paying you. I throw you, mentioning Cindy Lou? Sorry. Have you and the Kinton girl discussed your checkered past?”
I have to choke on that one.
“Hey, try not to open your mouth while you’re chipping toxins off the ceiling. I ain’t got time for an ER trip and get my work done. Whatever happened to that girl, anyhow? I expected to see you holding hands when you came back that fall.”
“We’ve had this conversation. Cynthia moved to Kansas two years ago. Her dad got a job out there. She and I never dated, I never broke her heart, and she didn’t leave because of some tragic, failed love affair. She just…hung around for a while. We were friends.”
Phil climbs down from his stepladder, snaps it shut, and flips it up on his shoulder like it’s a toy.
“Funny, seems like you were ‘just friends’ with the Kinton girl. But that didn’t stop you.”
I look down at him. He thinks he’s made a point.
“Phil, I’m lost. Is there something you don’t like about Guinevere?”
“Hey! Attend to your work! I’m not playing psychoshrink while you get paid for it, so don’t act like you’re lying on my couch. You think this is about her? She’s a class act. You’ve got every reason to be taken with her.”
“If I push any harder, I’ll gouge out the ceiling tiles. Is this good enough?” Screwed that up. “I mean, is the job finished?” To Phil, “good enough” means “unfinished, careless and lazy, but who gives a rip?”
“You tell me, Paxton.”
I study the ceiling, trying to remember the shade of dung black it was when we started tonight. “Well, I think we’ve done what we can to get rid of the stain. It still smells like chemical death. Do you have the odor stuff with you?”
“No, that’s back in my office. You can come back and give it a good spray after I go tonight. Let’s move on.”
We walk down the hall. Crazy how quiet and solemn the place becomes when the maddening crowd has gone. I can hear our footsteps, the radio playing in Phil’s office on the other side of the school, and the wind starting to build momentum, knocking against the windows, using tree branches for hands. What will we matter to this school when we’ve gone, even though it’s been our daily life for four years? What do the kids who graduated two years ago matter here now? The emptiness somehow makes all our frenzied effort seem like trying to mark the sky.
Phil’s watching me. I’ve got to ask.
“Okay, I do want to know, if you’re gonna tell me. You think I’m making a mistake somehow?”
Phil stops. We’re about ten feet from his office and we don’t have any supplies to do the next job, whatever that might be. When he’s stopped working to talk to me before, it hasn’t been discussion. No one makes the same mistake twice when supervised by Phil. Not that he yells, he just has a way of getting his point across, like every pound and muscle backs up his words. Phil would never hurt me, but there’s still an intimidation factor.
This is different, though.
“Paxton, I don’t give my opinion where no one’s seeking it. When we talk about our village idiots or your lady friend that’s to help make the time go by, you aren’t really coming to your sage janitor friend for advice. But I’ve known you a long time. You’re a reflective guy for your age. You’re more aware of what’s going on around and inside you than folks twenty or thirty years older. I know you spend too much time rattling around in your head, so you’ve probably thought this to death. Here’s what I see. You got this beautiful girl who comes to decide she wants to marry you. I don’t know how that happens and I’m not asking. You’ve been on about this girl a long time, and that’s why Cynthia had no chance, even though for most of it all you had was hope and stubbornness. I’ve been around schools and most girls like Guinevere don’t give any thought to guys like you—no offense but I think you know what I’m saying—especially when they’ve built up some kind of friendship. Then you somehow started dating her, and I was happy for you, and God knows you needed something else to focus on besides basketball. So you probably figured if I was happy for you to date her, why wouldn’t I be ten times more for you to marry her?” He stops. This is about the longest I’ve ever heard him speak continuously and he’s still on his intro. And he wants an answer.
“Yeah, I guess I was thinking you’d be excited for us.”
“Of course. You have the right to expect that. I’m wanting good for you, Paxton.”
“I know it.” I’m tempted to ask right now how he got this job for me, but I’m guessing he would take that as disrespectful, like maybe I’m just wanting to change the subject. I am.
“Thing is, I’m afraid you’re taking a short-cut. You have this great road out in front of you, I know so far it probably feels like driving in a third-world country: everybody ignoring the rules of the road, potholes bigger than the cars, and your authorities not exactly looking to protect and serve. But you got more going for you than you realize. I have no need to convince you of that, though I expect you can’t see it yet and I’m sure you’d have arguments to prove me wrong. But jumping the line to get married straight out of high school means you’re going to have to figure out some things about yourself and your wife—because she wouldn’t just be the girl you’re in love with anymore, she’d be your wife, and believe me, just being in love is easier than having someone you’re responsible to every single day. Even being the most adult kid in high school won’t cut it, because you’ll have all kinds of expectations on you from minute one. However easy going she might seem now, you’ll run into unspoken assumptions. She’ll expect you to be the same kind of husband as her dad. That’s how it works. You probably think you don’t have those kind of expectations yourself, since you just want to get as far from your parents’ marriage as you can, sorry to have to say that. But you’ve still got them, and some of them aren’t the best. When kids go out and graduate college and work and pay their bills and get an apartment and all, they get a bigger view of the world. At least they can. The assumptions get tempered and toned down some, partly because they get a clearer view of themselves. That’s the part I’m afraid you’ll be shortcutting. I don’t blame you for wanting to marry Guinevere Kinton, and I got all kinds of respect that she wants to marry you, God help her. But those short-cuts can cost you later, and when a marriage starts off on a wrong track, it’s tougher than you could guess to put it right again. Least that’s my experience. Might seem to you that if only you get married to Guinevere, everything else would be easier. Most folks find it the other way around. Turns out getting there was the easy step; being there and getting along together and figuring out a life partnership, that’s the real work. No one’s doubting you can work, Paxton. But you might be setting up yourself—and her—for one tough damn time. Or even a load of misery.”
“Do you mind if I answer?”
“Don’t even ask that. I just told you what I thought about your life. Of course you should tell me I’m wrong if you think I am.” We’re still standing in the dark hallway.
“I’m not stupid.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid at all, Paxton.”
“No, wait. I wouldn’t need to tell you I’m not unless I felt stupid, or was doing something so obviously stupid that I felt a need to justify it. It’s probably both. I know she and I don’t really know each other very well, not in the way that married people know each other. How well do people know each other when they’re getting married? That’s one of the twelve million things I don’t know. But I know Guinevere’s moods and attitudes and a lot of her beliefs. She claims to know me more than I think she would. I dunno. I feel stupid that I’m going to marry Guin when I might not know her well enough to, but I can’t risk delaying marriage for us to get to know each other better. I know that sounds stupid.”
Phil doesn’t take the opportunity to agree with me. He’s listening so intently, I’m watching for him to blink.
“But you just said how unlikely it was that Guinevere Kinton would be marrying me. If I knew she’d be happier without me…well, then I’d be having some hard conversations with myself. Or someone. But to me it looks like if I step back and ‘give it time,’ I won’t ensure that she’s happier, only that she’s not with me. I believe she loves me,” I have to look away when I say this, but I say it. “I don’t imagine that I’m the only one she could ever love. I’m not that stupid. If I put this off, which almost certainly means we’re not living in the same place next year—she doesn’t want to do ‘let’s keep dating and see how this goes’—really I would be stepping aside for the next guy, the guy who sits by her in Stanford Calc 101 or plays sax in the Stanford jazz band. I don’t think that’s calling her fickle. She wants to get married. If I don’t, what does that tell her? I don’t know why she wants to do this All Or Nothing right now, but I’m realistic. I’m not such a prize that distance and good-looking smart guys couldn’t change things, pardon the double negative. And they’d be rich and speak her language. So should I wait ‘for my own good,’ see how things go in college, keep in touch but play the field? I don’t know if I know myself well enough to get married, but here’s how it looks to me: I have to decide whether to gamble my future—our future—on whether we know each other well enough for our marriage to work. But either way it’s a gamble, because if I say ‘no,’ I might be—seriously, I’m almost certainly—throwing away the chance to spend the rest of my life with her. Why? For what? So that when I know myself better I’ll meet someone I love this much who will want to marry me! That’s the part that sounds stupid to me!”
I take a deep breath to keep going and an echo catches me. I look down the hallway for the noise, then get it: I’m shouting at Phil Tugano. Maybe I’m as crazy as everyone thinks. Or as I think.
It takes me a minute to look up and meet his eye again. No anger. He’s leaning toward me, taking in every word. Waiting for more, if there is more.
“Paxton, I’m going to tell you one other thing, then if you want any more of my advice, you can ask for it. Whatever you decide, you’ll be the one who reaps the consequences. I can tell you what I think about knowing yourself, but I’m not going to be living your life. I won’t be part of your marriage, good or bad. I know this is a dangerous thing to say to an eighteen-year-old, but I think you’re smart enough to get what it really means, not just hear it as permission to do whatever you think you want without having to listen to anyone. I’m saying your parents have made their choices and they’re living with them. I’ve made mine. You can see how other people’s decisions affect you, but nothing like they affect them. I don’t know if ‘gamble’ is the right word, but the outcome will be yours to live with, good or bad. Make that good and bad. You’ll come home to your life; everybody else just visits and has an opinion.”
“Phil, you believe in God?”
“I don’t think you want to ask me that.”
I hadn’t thought about my question, it just shot through my mind. Something he said made me wonder if we really make all this happen on our own.
He walks into his office and sits down in his chair, which has conformed to his shape. It creaks a little, but clearly it’s designed to hold a man his size. Where did he order it? Or maybe he made some special modifications. I’ve pondered this a bunch of times, but can never bring myself to ask him. Yet I just asked that.
“I’m keeping my promise: no more advice unless you ask. I didn’t say I’d give you the advice if you do ask, just that I would stop volunteering it. But sometimes being technically right is still being wrong. You asked about God.” I want to tell him never mind, I wasn’t being serious, but he’s glaring at the doorway above me and my mouth won’t open.
“I didn’t kill anybody or spend time in jail. Yeah, course I know what the kids say. I don’t care what they think about me, but I’d appreciate you not tell them this. My wife died. She was twenty-eight. She believed in God and she prayed…and then later we prayed, every night. But one morning she didn’t wake up. She had a congenital heart defect. I don’t think she knew, but I’ll never be sure. We got married when we were both young and we had just started to get on that right track after I made some bad decisions—you want to talk about stupid? We’d been separated, but we finally decided to do whatever it took to keep our marriage. Things were better and we were talking about having children. Then she died. I spent most of my marriage tearing it up, and once I turned around… I haven’t really talked to God since. I was a contractor, had my own business, thought I wanted to live the big life. Then I realized I just wanted her, and I was so grateful I’d figured it out in time. But I didn’t get that either. All the ‘friends’ who told me what I should do? They send Christmas cards.”