I met Julie on the first day of fifth grade. We were nine, this being an era when children routinely started kindergarten at four years old. My birthday was in late September, hers late November, she having barely made the age cutoff of December 1. That first morning, I was the last student to slink into the music room at the far end of our long, tiled middle school hallway. One tiny chair remained, the smallest and closest to the floor. After I sat down, Julie turned and peered at me through her huge glasses. I too wore a pair of ugly eyeglasses, and I was also the new girl, my unmarried parents having moved us south over the summer to a northern suburb of Chicago from a small two-bedroom house in Green Bay where we’d lived for four years as the morally dubious quasi-hippie family on the block. My father paid $22,000 for that house on Colonial Avenue, which was a mile from Lambeau Field, and on Sundays during the fall and early winter, we could hear the Packer games, the sounds of cheering fans and the announcers’ voices, alternately urgent and lilting, reaching us when the wind blew out of the south. Julie was less shy than I was. Despite the unflattering glasses, which she would replace with a more delicate pair before the end of the year, she was naturally friendly and universally liked. In high school she became a redhead, but before then we’d had the same hair color— dark brown, not mousy, but not glamorous either. I admired her immensely. It was my first real love affair, although entirely platonic, both of us infatuated with a series of hulking, sometimes nerdy boys who for the most part ignored us, although we kissed some of them at spin-the-bottle parties, and Julie would win the heart of one, who was later stolen from her by her older sister. * She married young and a year and a half later filed for divorce. Her husband was from a farm town in North Dakota. He was angry, incurious, and seemingly proud of his ignorance of women and books and the world beyond our American borders. She was taller than he, and he resented this, teasing her roughly for being long-legged. I was relieved she didn’t begin to slouch on his bullying account. His older brother wore sunglasses to their wedding and refused to take them off. She married him, I think, because for a brief time he rescued her from the boredom and disorientation of our mid-twenties when college was far enough in the past to seem almost dream-like, and adulthood with its disappointments and exigencies and routines had begun to make too many strident, stultifying demands of us. I was relieved when she left him, but she cried more than I’d ever previously known her to. She still felt responsible for him, for his happiness, his bills, his purported inferiority complex and loneliness. I was harsh and judgmental in our conversations, congratulating her for getting rid of him, tone-deaf to her misery over hurting someone who despite his unworthiness of her, she had nonetheless loved for a little while. Before long we found ourselves in our late twenties, these years easier, somehow more festive and freewheeling, than our early twenties were—we were still so young, and on some weekends we went dancing in country bars in far-flung suburbs where horses grazed in rich people’s expansive yards, and I didn’t know if I’d ever marry and she said she didn’t want to, not again. The men we danced with at these country bars were courtly and very good at the two-step, the swing, the sweetheart schottische. These nights had the spark of suspense and an absence of consequence. We weren’t there to pick anyone up, only to dance. We went out with other men instead, ones who lived closer to us, some of whom weren’t available for emotional or other reasons, Julie able to keep everything light, whereas I eventually fell for a man twenty years my senior—he was, in fact, a year older than my mother. He was divorced, his one child only six or seven years younger than I was. He had moved to the U.S. from Turkey 25 years earlier, and he had another girlfriend whom he assured me he wasn’t serious about—they saw other people, it was fine, fine!, but this was soon revealed to be a lie, one of several. Very early on, it all swiftly went off the rails, and this runaway train kept crashing along disastrously for many more months. * Now I call this vivid, awful stretch of time the year of self-knowledge, although in the moment I could only see events through a fog of lust and hope and paralyzing despair. I had never in my life suffered so acutely. I wrote love poems and sent them to him. He was in love with me too. Maybe. It was impossible to tell. Julie, without planning to, met the man who would become her second husband. I didn’t envy her. I wanted what I wanted and she wanted something else. That year was filled to the brim with self-recrimination and suffering. Along with the year of self-knowledge, I might have called it the year of humility. Any previous judgments I’d made about other people embroiled in affairs or relationships they should have exited long ago—those exclamations of “Why would he do that?” “What is wrong with her?” “What an idiot.” “What an asshole!” made in the full heat of self-righteousness and an absence of empathy—well, I’d had my comeuppance. Rare is the thing that is what it appears to be.
I broke it off with him, for good, finally, although I was certain his girlfriend didn’t know it was I who ended it. When I called him that night in early October to say it was unequivocally over, he didn’t try to change my mind. Julie thought he would call again, begging to see me at least one more time, but he never did. I knew he was a coward and a liar, the two faults so often paired. I wasn’t sentimental in my distress. I was deeply sad and angry and heartbroken. It felt as if I would never get over him. Afterward, I’d run into him from time to time in the town where we both lived, and he would look at me and smile and sometimes he’d try to talk to me if no one who knew us was around to observe and report our conversation to his girlfriend. More than once this angry, wronged woman had called me at work, impatient for a fight. She left messages on my answering machine at home, too. She assailed me on the street, calling me names, hotly venting her fury over having been cheated on, as if I deserved all of the blame, but to her mind, of course, I did. After all, she had stayed with him, despite knowing he was a cheat, and she needed to justify this decision.
Julie watched the effects of this melodrama on me from a safe distance; she was a newly remarried woman, ostensibly endowed with more common sense and resources than I. She was also pregnant, expecting her first child. But she wanted to know every single detail, and I could not resist—I went over everything again and again: the window-rattling sex, how it felt to be with him, as if a tidal wave of male heat and fur and muscle had raised me up until I came plummeting down again, shuddering and gasping from the pleasure and mind-obliterating thrill of it. In a doomed relationship like ours, I recognized, you must learn to live in the short term only, stringing one meager hour to the next, to the next time you can see him, to the next time you will be permitted to take him away from all the other people and distractions that his life is filled with when you are not together, which is most of the time. You learn the accounting and economy of want and deprivation. The balance sheets are imposing, the deficits enormous, payment always due. Julie wanted to hear more. She never judged. In truth, she encouraged. She wanted romance, and I was having one, or had had one that remained blindingly bright in my mind’s eye. She told me she wanted lovers of her own after the baby was born. I told her I never wanted to live through anything like it again. To this she said, “You say that now.” I told her I meant it. She said, “Of course you do.” She once met the man who for a time I was so destroyed by. She didn’t see what all the uproar was about. But I suppose I hadn’t expected her to. It was a good thing, I realized. To her, he was merely an ordinary man. Of all the boys we’d met at school and elsewhere, there were only three we’d both had crushes on at the same time. One of them she got; another we both got, a few years apart. In the third and most poignant case (our crush on this boy, Ben, extending well into our twenties), neither of us ever got him.
She stayed married to the second husband and had another child. I met someone and moved away with him. Five years passed, then another five, and he and I were still together. One night when I was home in Illinois for a summer visit, Julie and I met for dinner at a restaurant her husband Don refused to go to—the bar only sold microbrews and the servers didn’t get his jokes—she gave me a canny look and said, “What would you do if Ben called you right now and wanted to take you out?” “I’d have to say no,” I said firmly. “What if he called you?” Without a second’s hesitation, she said, “I’d say yes. You’d hate me for it too.” “No, I wouldn’t.” She laughed, her teeth so white they looked almost blue. “Oh yes, you would.” I studied her pretty, animated face. “Possibly. I doubt we’ll ever find out.” “I still want to fuck him,” she said. “Don’t you?” “I don’t think so, but I do wish we were friends.” It was how I felt about the older man now too. “I’d rather just fuck him,” she said.
She’d had a few short affairs over the years. She’d remained skilled at staying detached, which she said kept Don from suspecting anything. It was innate confidence, she’d told me, and her steadfast belief there would always be someone else. “You’re the one I really love anyway,” she said. “My lodestar.” She said this without irony. “We’ll be together until we die.” “Why don’t you call Ben?” I asked. “See if he wants to get together the next time he’s back here?” He lived in Colorado where he was a pulmonologist. We’d seen him and his wife—an older woman, to our slightly bewildered, prurient glee—at our twenty-year high school reunion several years earlier. “No, no. He’d have to be the one to call. You know I don’t go looking for it.” She was smiling again. “You just let it happen,” I said. She nodded. “Yes. I’m simply in the right place at the right time.”
A few days later, after I was home again, I woke up in the middle of the night next to my not-quite husband wondering why Julie had chosen me out of all the other girls she might have befriended that first year of middle school. I had needed her far more than she needed me. Even then, she must have sensed this. I don’t go out looking for it.
I knew the older man would have been happy to hear from me if, out of nowhere, out of sadness or stupidity or boredom, I called him. That feverish, witless time was so long ago, but he was still there, in the same place as before, and some part of him, I sensed, was waiting. Julie and he were more alike than she and I. Her insistence on wading together over dinner into the murk of late adolescence meant that soon I would dream about Ben. This was the only way I saw him now, once or twice a year. For a little while I’d wondered if he’d liked me too, but nothing ever happened. We’d exchanged a few letters in college, a few emails after that. Eventually he’d gone to medical school, gotten married, become a father, his one child now in high school. I lay in bed next to the man I’d been returning home to for over ten years, turned my face to the pillow, and told myself to go back to sleep. To the north the freeway traffic passed in a ceaseless stream. Coyotes prowled the neighbors’ yards, digging their way under fences. I wondered when they slept. They always looked so hungry.
-- Christine Sneedis the author of four books, most recently the short story collection The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, New England Review, Glimmer Train, The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and a number of other publications. She teaches for Northwestern University and for Regis University's low-residency MFA program and lives in Pasadena, CA.