John is a short story writer who studies at Hugo House in Seattle. He holds a BA in English from Lewis and Clark College and a Technical Writing certificate from the University of Washington. He works for The Boeing Company. His short story The Dream of Bigger Things was recently published by Jam Tarts Magazine. He is honored to receive this recognition from Desi Writers' Lounge.
The Opposite of Lovesick
My father’s identity was an unsolvable mystery. He might have been Joe, a long-haul truck driver from Waco, Texas, or Tex from George, Utah, or Carl, from Detroit. My mother didn’t know. When I turned sixteen and fell in love for the first time, she told me the truth.
The object of my desire, Stacy Miller, liked the name Tex.
“Have you told your father about me yet?” I asked her one evening on the phone.
“No,” she said.
“Tell him my name is Tex,” I said.
“That’s a very bad idea,” she said.
I tried to discuss love with my mother. I needed information. By her own admission, she didn’t know much about love. She was a nurse, so we talked about contraception and responsibility and love sickness instead. Before she was a nurse, she was a bartender.
“Who do I look like?” I asked.
“Me,” she said.
“You know what I mean,” I said.
“Hmmm. You may have Carl’s mouth. He had a nice Cupid’s Bow like yours,” she said.
“Why don’t you know?” I asked.
“I wish I knew,” she said. “It must seem selfish of me to you.”
“Were you irresponsible?”
“Birth control can fail.”
“Why are you telling me now?”
“Because I want you to know what’s at stake,” she said.
“Why is it a sickness, love?” I asked.
“What would you call it?” she asked and twirled her index finger to indicate cuckoo.
I had met Stacy at a high school speech tournament at the University of Portland in 1986. We both did oral interp. I read Marriage by Gregory Corso; She read Desdemona. We practiced together in the cafeteria. Her voice was low, intense, and emotional. She won the girl’s competition and I was third in the boy’s. We were attracted by our success.
After the awards ceremony we walked around outside. It was April. She knew about architecture and flowers.
“I see Corinthian columns, lilies, terrazzo, and tulips,” she said.
“What do you spy with your little eye?” I asked.
“A boy. A sad, lovely boy,” she said.
She asked if I had a girlfriend and I said no. I kissed her next to a fountain, my second kiss ever, and then we kissed more intensely until I felt goosebumps on her arms and knew she was getting cold.
The next morning, she got on a bus and went home to Newport, Oregon. I went home and stared into the refrigerator.
“Have you told him?” I asked Stacy a few nights later. “Your father, my name?”
“I told him you were named Leon,” she said.
“What did he say?” I asked. Her father’s name was Dave. He was a logger and wore plaid shirts. I was afraid of him. Later I found out he wore white shirts and a pocket protector.
“What if Leon isn’t my real name?”
“Then you’re a liar,” she said.
A few nights later I told Stacy I might be in love with her.
“Don’t say that,” she said.
“When can I visit?” I asked.
“I need to tell my dad about you first,” she said.
“You said you had.”
“I lied,” she said.
Stacy sent me greeting cards, friendship cards with pictures of the ocean, shells, and Doonesbury characters. Her hand writing was strong, not at all girlish, with firm, confident down strokes. She liked my brown hair and said I was too skinny. She asked if I had an inny or outy. It thrilled and scared me that a girl was curious about my body. Her family drove through Portland on the way to Idaho. Afterward she sent me a card with a picture of a little boy playing in a swimming pool. It was an artistic photograph with intensely blue water. Inside she wrote: All I could think of was you. I love your name. My girlfriends would love you.
I still have that card.
“Were they nice?” I asked my mother.
“My fathers,” I said.
“They were nice to me,” she said.
“Why were there three?” I asked.
“I think you know how it works,” she said.
“You’ve never been lovesick, have you?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “but I’ve been sick.”
There was another speech tournament. Stacy couldn’t make it at the last minute. I couldn’t concentrate and didn’t perform well and my coach was disappointed. I decided to ditch Corso for Diary of a Madman. The Madman’s words didn’t sound right coming out of my mouth. I went back to Corso.
When she introduces me to her parents
“You’ve got to go see her,” my mother said. “This is ridiculous.”
“What’s ridiculous?” I asked.
“You, this, everything,” she said. “She’s just a body, a person, not a divine being.”
“I know she isn’t divine,” I said. “Don’t be stupid.”
“I hate to tell you,” she said, “but people are flawed. Utterly flawed.”
“Your love advice sucks,” I said.
“Eat your hotdog,” she said. I took a large bite and mustard plopped onto my shift. I licked it off and it left a stain, which made me sad, which was nothing new.
“We could go looking,” she said.
“Looking for what?” I asked.
“For your father.”
“Now that’s ridiculous,” I said.
My grandfather got sick and my mother flew to Minneapolis to help him. She left me home alone. I had just learned to drive. Before she left, she told me to drive her car to Newport and visit Stacy.
“Make it a day trip,” she said. She seemed just a little too anxious for me to go.
I called Stacy and said, “I’m coming out. Can I stay over at your house?” One day didn’t seem long enough.
“Dave would freak,” she said. “Maybe you can camp? I’ll show you around. We’ll have fun.”
“Have you told him my name yet?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
We made plans to meet. I bought Stacy a copy of Othello and a polished wood ring from the Saturday Market. I had always wanted a reason to buy a ring. It made me happy.
I washed all of my clothes and shaved my peach fuzz mustache. I had been to the coast before, but not by myself and not so far south as Newport and not driving alone.
Before she left, my mother had helped me plan my route from Portland through the Tualatin Valley into the Coast Forest range south of the Tillamook Burn and down highway 101 to Newport and its clapboard houses, lighthouses, and sand dunes.
“It’s a nice place to be in love,” said my mother.
“Where is?” I asked.
“The beach,” she said.
“You mean the ocean.”
“Wherever,” she said. “Are you going to have sex?”
“I hardly know her,” I said.
“Sometimes that’s easier,” she said. “Drive safely.”
I left for Newport on a sunny Saturday. I’ve since driven the same route hundreds of times and whenever I begin to see the ocean, just a sliver of it in the distance peeking through the trees, I begin to shiver. It’s big out there.
As I drove, I thought about my mother’s questions. I imagined I was the Madman reading Corso. Since meeting Stacy I felt like I finally understood why I was a man, why I had a body and a heart and a penis, and I tried to imagine how Stacy felt about me and her together, which I hoped was something similar. I was furious with my mother and her revelations and intrusions and I wanted to meet Dave and show him I was legitimate, real, credible. I imagined shaking his hand, well, a stiff, manly grasp, and saying, “Hello, I’m Leon,” with enough enthusiasm that I wouldn’t need to repeat myself or look away.
Between Union Junction and Highway 101 a state trooper fell in behind me. I slowed down to 40 and he pulled me over and told me I was impeding traffic and that he should give me ticket but wouldn’t since I was a new driver. He was a dumb country bumpkin and I almost lost it. When he pulled away the words surrounding his license plate read “Pacific Wonderland.”
I arrived mid-day and went to find Stacy at the ice cream parlor where she worked. It was near the docks in Newport’s tourist area. She wasn’t off shift yet, so I sat inside at a marble table and watched her scoop perfectly symmetrical balls of shiny ice cream and nestle them into cones. We couldn’t keep our eyes off of each other and kept smiling and looking away. She was wearing a checked cap that made her face look rounder than I remembered. She snuck me some tastes of ice cream, Rocky Road, Blackberry Cheesecake, and Lemon Lover. When she got off shift, we shared a licorice cone and our tongues turned black.
We sat on a bench and talked. I rubbed my eyes and said I couldn’t believe we were actually together. We closed our eyes and pretended we were on the phone and verified we were the same people as before.
“It’s beautiful to feel,” I told her.
“That’s Corso, isn’t it,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
We decided to buy a kite and found an orange one with flumes. We walked along the docks holding hands. Hers was sticky and cool. Boats rocked in their slips like old folks. She explained how heavy rakes scrape fish from the ocean floor, drag them into nets, and crush them. Incredibly cruel. To this day I still hate the intense smell of fish and fishing boats.
We walked to the beach. A cool breeze was blowing. I held the kite string and Stacy sprinted. After a few tries, the flumes bulged and the kite soared into the sky. Stacy let the string go and the orange shape rose and wobbled, a homing beacon for lost souls. I wrapped my arms around her waist. Her neck smelled like soap. I was euphoric. It was the first perfect moment of my life. I held her that way for a while. She leaned back into me.
“What are we going to do?” I asked.
“About what?” She asked.
“About us,” I said.
“There’s nothing to be done,” she said. “We just are.”
“I want to kiss you,” I said.
“Kiss my ear,” she said.
I put my lips to her ear and closed my eyes. Her ear felt soft and rigid and new.
“Does that feel good?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
We stared at the kite and listened to the waves and handed the string back and forth. I felt unsure of everything in my life, unsure if any of it connected, except the moment I was in with Stacy.
“Do you have to go home today?” She asked.
“I can camp,” I said. “I can stay over. I want to meet your father.”
“Where are you camping?” She asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
She hesitated and quietly asked: “Could you get a room?”
Her exact words might have been different. Room. Even now, whenever such ideas come up, they kill me. Room.
“Sure,” I croaked. “No problem.” But it was a problem.
We slowly reeled in the kite, contemplating our commitment. We stuffed the kite into its rip-stop nylon pouch. Stacy kissed me lightly, our first kiss of the day, and then she kissed me more seriously like before. I liked it and wished we could stay at that level.
We walked back to town and she headed home with plans to meet me later.
I drove around. I considered calling my mother for advice, but decided that was a terrible idea. I picked a small roadside motel and waited outside a nearby tavern for someone approachable to exit. A couple of people turned me away. Finally, a man offered to help. I gave him some cash. He went away and came back with a motel room key. He understood my predicament.
The room’s rusty door lock was hard to open. The space smelled like crackers and spit. A painting of a fishing boat hung over the bed. I felt sad. It wasn’t how I had imagined my first time. I flashed on the idea that Stacy knew exactly what she was doing and had done it before, which upset me. I wasn’t sure I liked where we were headed. I tried to imagine what Dave might be thinking and hoped he wasn’t thinking anything since he didn’t even know about me.
I drove to the grocery store and bought pepperoni sticks, Pepsi, and bananas. At the last second I added some condoms. I felt irresponsible for not discussing contraception with Stacy earlier. Then I felt irresponsible for assuming we would have sex. You just have to agree. My mother’s instructions were clear. I thought about putting back the condoms, so I would have an excuse, but then I remembered Carl, Joe, and Tex and decided to keep them.
I returned to the room and placed the kite pouch in the window, so Stacy could find me later. I turned on the TV and promptly fell asleep.
I woke to a hard rap on the door. I peeked through the curtains. It was dusky outside and the parking lot was full of cars. Stacy waved. Another girl was standing behind her. I let them in.
Stacy introduced the other girl, Nora, as her best friend. Nora was thin and plain. She went into the bathroom. I was both worried and comforted by the presence of another person.
“She’s not staying is she?” I asked.
“Just for a bit,” said Stacy. “She’s nice. She’s lonely. You’ll like her.”
“I thought WE were going to be alone,” I said.
“Don’t worry,” said Stacy touching my shoulder. “We have all night.”
Nora exited the bathroom wearing a shoulder-less white blouse, daintily embroidered around the edges and cinched with elastic above her breasts. Long, brown curly hair floated over her pale collarbones. Her eyes were dark and she smelled like gardenias.
Nora sat cross legged on the bed and stared intently at me, gauging my reaction. Her pelvis formed a perfect isosceles triangle. I thought she might be a dancer. I was confused. I didn’t know which girl required my attention.
Stacy handed out plastic cups filled with a clear liquid. “Wine?” she asked. “Of course,” I said. I sipped and Nora gulped. It was sweet white wine of the cheapest type.
We talked. The girls had known each other since kindergarten. They were planning to go to college together. Nora’s father was older, a fisherman, and owned his own boat. He and Dave were friends.
Nora walked me to the window and pointed out her car, a cherry 1980 Honda Civic with mags. It was cool. The smell of wine and gardenias made me dizzy.
“Let’s walk to the beach,” I suggested. “It’s stuffy in here.” The girls giggled and ignored me. My body felt very alive but the room looked uglier and less hospitable than ever. The bathroom door was slightly ajar and I could see Nora’s bag. Huge brass rivets held its bulging seams together. It looked like she had packed for a trip.
“Leon likes poetry,” said Stacy. “Do some for Nora, Leon. Go on.”
“No,” I said.
“Come on,” said Stacy. “Do the part about ‘Should I be good?’”
“I don’t remember it,” I said.
“You lie,” said Stacy. “Isn’t Nora cute?” she asked. “I love that dimple on her chin. Show him Nora.”
Nora’s neck was soft, white, and sprinkled with moles. The dimple looked like the kind of dent a bee-bee makes.
“Watch this,” said Nora. She knelt on the floor and popped herself up into a full handstand. Her blouse fell over her head, revealing a modest white bra. She was strong and held her position for what seemed like forever. She landed on her feet and stood up, triumphant. I quietly exhaled.
“Leon. Now you,” said Stacy. “Do some push-ups. Nora did hers. You do it. Go on.”
Up, down, you, Nora, drink, look. Stacy’s commands were pissing me off. All I could think about was Nora’s bra and what it contained. Then I remembered I was supposed to be with Stacy. She was the reason I was in Newport. She was the one I loved.
I knelt and exercised. I pumped up and down with all my strength as grit from the carpet dug into my sweaty palms. I did exactly thirty-three push-ups. I now remember this as the moment when I could have kicked out the girls and suffered my disappointment and driven back up Highway 101 and stopped at the Union Junction Dairy Queen for a Blizzard and then gone home. I would have been in my own bed by 1:00 AM.
But I didn’t. Instead, when I stood up, I was wet from perspiration and Stacy told me to remove my shirt, which I did as the room’s air conditioner blew a cold breeze over my entire body. Stacy was pouring more wine when, wham, wham, wham, someone pounded on the door. Stacy and Nora exchanged an annoyed glance. I was sure it was Dave. I opened the door and a large boy with a crew cut and terrible moustache filled the threshold. Stacy gently pushed me aside. She put her hands on the boy’s shoulders and got close to his face. I heard her whisper, “I want to stay,” and the boy reply, “Fuck, okay.”
Stacy introduced the boy to me. “Leon, Jason. Jason, Leon. Jason is a friend. He’ll be leaving soon. He’s just saying hi.” I didn’t believe Stacy. Jason frowned. “Where’s your shirt dude?” he asked. “Your titties look cold.” He reached out to pinch one but I moved away. He was bigger than me, more country, more weary.
I was utterly unhinged. My thoughts had devolved from confused into a gate-crashing, dirt-eating, froth-funneling, fucked-up cacophony of anger. I wanted to put my head through a window and explore the explosive possibilities of every capillary in my face.
“Nice place,” said Jason. He turned on the TV and sat back on the bed. His moustache resembled a Fu Manchu, the world’s most despicable look. Stacy crawled onto the bed next to him and snuggled. Crocodile Hunter was on. Jason chuckled.
Nora motioned for me to sit on the floor next to her. I sat down. She looked into my eyes with deep intensity and held up a Gideon bible. “Do you believe in God?” she asked in the softest, sincerest voice ever. I stared blearily. “I dunno,” I said. “I believe in something.” I felt a force well up inside that I didn’t recognize. It squeezed me. I wanted to cry. Nora leaned over and kissed me, hard. Her mouth was cold and sour. I kissed her back with equal force. She latched onto my tongue and sucked. It hurt and I tried to pull away. I remembered Stacy’s words: My girlfriends would love you. I shoved Nora aside and covered my face. She was hurt. “Are you okay?” she whispered. “I like you.” I tried to form words but couldn’t. I had just lived a year in an hour and understood, without equivocation, that Nora was for me and that Stacy was for Jason and, for a split second, I felt everything Nora could feel, the finest movement of her heart, the shape of her pain. It was a lovely and strange sensation and suddenly everything made sense, Stacy’s manipulation, Nora’s wantonness, and my conception. I staggered to my feet. An empty wine bottle was on the dresser. Its smooth shape and green color intrigued me. I grabbed it by the neck. Images spewed through my mind: Corso’s words, trees, flumes, tongues, breasts, erections, nets, licorice, grit, mags, orange, Dave, forest green, the blackness of the night sky, triangles, and the ghastly pretension of Jason’s facial hair. I lifted the bottle to strike, but hesitated because I heard a terrifying sound outside, a forlorn child’s wail, and then urgent pounding on the door again. I put down the bottle and opened the door. A very old tired man scowled back at me. A small child’s hand was in his hand, a child of two, a boy, in tears, tears of pain and suffering. The boy saw Nora and frantically ran to her. She picked him up and comforted him, cooed to him sweetly, until the crying stopped.
“You should all be ashamed,” said the man, as he surveyed the scene. “And this room is for shit,” he added.
“Fuck off,” retorted Jason from the darkness. Everyone in the room knew each other but me.
Nora quickly gathered her belongings and said, “Thanks, Leon, I had a great time.” Then she kissed me for the last time and left. My mouth felt like a meat grinder.
I went to the bathroom, shut the door, and sat on the toilet lid for a while. Then I got down on my hands and knees and threw up. Then I put on my shirt. Then I rinsed my mouth and went back into the room.
I sat on the bed next to Stacy. My thigh was touching hers. Jason didn’t say anything. I fished Stacy’s gifts out of my backpack.
“Is it okay if I give these to her?” I asked Jason.
“Lemmee see,” he said. He riffled through Othello and put the wood ring on his pinky.
“Mind if I keep this?” he asked.
“Not at all,” I said. “Please, it’s yours.”
I handed the Othello to Stacy and she placed it on the night stand. I now wonder if she ever read the inscription. All three of us stared at the TV. The hunters were about ready to capture the crocodile instead of just talk about it.
“I think Nora likes you,” said Stacy. “Sorry she had to leave so early. Her father is a prick.”
“Yeah,” said Jason. “Too bad. She was really into you.”
On the drive home the next day, I stopped at every view point and monument up the coast and read the fine print. Most of them were about naming rights or the perils of exploration or the sacred practices of the indigenous tribes or geological formations. One was about a tsunami that was supposed to have decimated the coast but didn’t. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t until I was eating a Blizzard at the Dairy Queen. A little girl told me everything would be okay.
Back home, my mother returned a couple days later and, based on the car’s mileage, knew I had made the trip.
“Well?” she asked.
“I’m not lovesick anymore,” I said.
“I’m sorry honey,” she said, and gave me a hug.
“I’m the opposite of lovesick,” I said.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
“It means I understand why you can’t identify my father and that it’s okay.”
My mother started to cry. She hugged me again. “What happened out there?” she asked.
“You don’t want to know,” I said.
“Do you just want to pick one?” she asked. “A name for your father?”
“No, I’m okay alone,” I said.
John Maki’s story The Opposite of Lovesick is a winner of the 2016 DWL Short Story Contest. To read more winning entries from the DWL short story contests, please click here to visit our past winners page.