Battle Creek

Issue 44 by Brad Neaton

They were raised in the same town but could not have been more different. He was born into money and had comfort imposed upon him the second he came out of the womb; she was immediately given up for adoption by her mother, an intravenous drug user who’d be dead before her first birthday. He was twenty-two years old; she was twenty-three. They were born in the same hospital and spent their childhoods in Battle Creek, never more than a couple cigarettes drive from each other. And yet proximity notwithstanding, this would be a miracle of chance.

The youngest of three boys, Jace lived in Battle Creek’s only gated neighborhood with his mom, the Vice President of a publishing company, and his dad, the CEO of Yoast Consumer Brands. Jace learned early on that success was good, because success made Mom and Dad happy—that, and it reminded them that he existed. He took a scholarship down to Clemson University after graduating fourth in his high school class (which his dad felt obligated to point out was three spots after first), spending all four years trying to best his older brothers, depriving himself of any semblance of a normal college experience chasing after recognition in the hope of finally appeasing his dad. He developed a terrible eating disorder, and by graduation he was struggling with anxiety, though you wouldn’t have known it by looking at him, so adept was he at pantomiming normalcy.

But this time he was valedictorian, and that’s all that mattered. His parents bought him a new truck and proceeded to infuse his checking account with more money than he knew what to do with. His mom said well done. His dad nodded in acknowledgement. And then they drove the thirteen-hour trip back home mostly in silence.

And her? Kristina’s life evolved very differently, so much so that she was all but inured to life’s brutal compromises and forfeitures by the time her peers were only just getting their first tastes. Indeed, she grew up enduring hardship after hardship, the details of which would make you embarrassed to admit you’d ever had the hubris to fancy you’d been through tough times before. Kristina’s adoptive parents lived in a trailer park off the freeway, where they subjected her to a life of degradation. Her mother was a mean drunk and physically abusive, her dad incestuous. When Kristina ran away on her fourteenth birthday, neither cared enough to bother going after her. She made it through high school living in ad hoc places around town—an abandoned railroad car during a stretch when she stole pastries and milk from predawn deliveries left outside shops to keep from going hungry; the basement of the church on Wark Street; and with friends who had particularly kind parents with an extra room to spare—until she came across a job posting that promised to pay one thousand for a week’s work.

Entrapped by a pair of pimps, Kristina was coerced into a prostitution ring. She tried running away but was caught. They put a spiked dog collar around her neck, chained her to a set of one hundred fifty-pound dumbbells in an empty room, and then they beat her, carefully, with phone books so that her body wouldn’t be blemished. No hits to the face. The next afternoon they brought her a burger and a shake, feigning remorse for what they’d done. They took no pleasure in hurting her, they said, but it was something that had to be done for “things to work like they’re supposed to.” Their names were Curt and Fernando, and both were vicious sadists. Curt explained the rules: This was a “stable,” and it consisted of her and four other girls each assigned a daily quota of six hundred dollars. Anyone who didn’t meet that number risked being beaten; if they did what they were told, however, they’d be well taken care of. It was modern slavery in the form of forced prostitution, and Kristina was ideal because nobody would ever come looking for her. After two months, she managed to trick a client into buying her out, promising him that with her in his life, he’d never find himself wanting for anything ever again. Kristina ran away the first night. Desperate for somewhere to stay, she got in touch with a distant cousin named DeeDee, who promptly began pimping Kristina out with her boyfriend in exchange for “room and board” in their tiny apartment.

★★★

They met in February, the heart of another brutal Michigan winter, the time of year when the impotently wan sun can never seem to break through the clouds so that every afternoon feels like evening and every evening feels like forever, and it’s almost like you’re going in slow motion while life is on fast forward, a feeling of inertia that leaves you existentially agitated and depressed. There were four cars in the hotel parking lot, including Jace's truck.

Jace spent an hour biting his nails before making the call, nervous energy thrumming through his body like a dull bass note.

“I just got home after being away for a long time,” he said in the voice of someone on the precipice of a kind of emotional death, his tone empty and flat. “And most of my friends have moved away. And I’ve been feeling a little down lately, figured I’d do something fun.”

“You don’t have to tell me all that,” the girl on the other end of the line said tersely. “Where you stayin’ at?”

“The Holiday Inn.”

“Across from Home Depot?”

Jace got up and peered out the window. “Yeah.”

“It’s one hundred an hour.”

“That’s fine.”

OK, I’ll be there ‘round seven. I’ll text you when I’m close, you text me the room number.”

“Alright. I’ll see–”

But she’d already hung up the phone.

★★★

“Hi.”

Jace wasn’t sure if this was the right person. In fact, were it not for her facial features, he’d have thought it was a guy in a sundress pulling a prank. Whoever this was, she looked nothing like the girl in the pictures online. She didn’t even have the same hair color—instead of dirty blonde, it was blue. Nor was the style remotely similar, this likely being the shortest hair he’d ever seen on a girl before, at least in person.

Androgynous, he suddenly thought. She’s androgynous.

Jace didn’t know what to say, but the perfidy of the situation upset him. He felt tricked. And stuck. They stood there like that, him with the door half open and his head sticking out, her looking furtively down the hallway with her left hand grasped tightly around her right elbow, her purse dangling in front of her knees, neither sure of what to say to the other.

“You don’t look like who you’re supposed to look like,” Jace finally said.

“I know that.” It was barely more than a whisper.

“...”

“...”

OK.”

Jace pulled the door open. She walked in without looking at him, the faint smell of cigarette smoke and sandalwood coming in with her. He slowly shut the door until it clicked, and then plopped into a chair.

“You can sit down, if you want.” He nodded toward the bed. She sat down tentatively and looked around. The muffled sound of a sitcom could be heard coming from the room next door.

“Do you want a beer?”

She shrugged. “Sure. Yeah.”

He opened the mini fridge and pulled out two cans. “I can get ice, too, if you want—just outside there in the hallway.”

“No, I’m good. Thanks.”

There was the pksssh of a can’s tab getting popped. She sipped tepidly from her beer.

Jace studied her curiously. She had tattoos scattered on her arms: A small faded rainbow flag, a sea turtle, a quote of some kind. A subtle belly was visible beneath her shirt, as were love handles—endomorphic features on an ectomorphic frame. He wasn’t certain, but something told him this wasn’t the same person he’d spoken to over the phone. It was more of a gut intuition than a feeling, really.

“What’s your name?”

“Kristina...what’s yers?”

“Jace.”

She nodded. He could already hear the all too familiar Michigan accent fading in and out of her voice.

“Is Kristina really your name or—”

“It’s my real name.”

Jace got up and extended a hand, and though he could feel his face turning cherry he pushed through it. He sensed that she was uncomfortable, and her being uncomfortable made him feel uncomfortable as well, so despite having always considered it awkwardly formal to shake a girl’s hand, he did so anyway.

But Kristina was surprised by his gentleness, not the handshake. Jace was a rarity in her eyes. That he was young—probably the same age as her, maybe twenty-five or so—was both a pleasant and unpleasant surprise, as was the fact that he was cute in an unpretentious out-of-towner way. He was fairly tan and of average height, and his hair was short and clean-cut, a style that contrasted starkly with every other guy's hair in Battle Creek. She wanted to pry, wanted to find out why a guy like him called a chippie like her on a Friday night in a town like this.

“Are you from here?”

“Kind of,” he said. “I grew up here. Then I left for college at Clemson. Didn’t feel like coming back right away and decided to stay for my master’s degree. So I’ve been gone a decent while.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“Sort of feels like I’m not even from here anymore.”

She studied him, and he studied her. Their eyes met, and they both looked away, neither prepared for the intimacy of the direct gaze. Kristina smiled. She had a reluctant smile, initiated by the eyes and followed by a kind of circumoral constriction before the rest of the face participated.

“What?”

“Nothin’,” she shrugged, tapping the pull tab of her beer. “You just talk kina funny.”

“So do you,” Jace said, a little too defensively.

“Didn’t say I didn’t.”

He smiled. “What about you? Are you from around here?”

“Yeah.”

“The whole time?”

“The whole time.”

Jace waited for her to elaborate, but Kristina declined and nodded silently. He decided she wasn’t all that bad looking. She had nice eyes. They were a color he’d never seen before, a robin-egg’s blue that reminded him of summer chrysanthemums. There was a heaviness to her eyes, though, a kind of hardness that seemed to sit just below the surface as if she was trying to convey something inadmissible in language. Other than the small pot belly, she was well-proportioned. She sat with her legs folded to the side, legs he could see in the mirror from where he was sitting.

“So, what now?”

Jace whipped his eyes from the mirror. She was looking at him expectantly.

“Well...I don’t really know. I’ve never done this before. I guess we just, like, get undressed, or?”

Kristina laughed. She had a nice, contagious laugh. Soft on the ears.

“What?”

“I meant, like, what now for you— like, whataryu gonna do now yer back home?”

“Oh, yeah—duh,” he said, blushing. “Um. I’m planning on moving to Silicon Valley in six months or so, probably slot into some job working for someone my dad knows. Either way, I plan on leaving.”

“Already? What about yer family?”

He shrugged. “I can’t really relate to them anymore. I mean, I can but I don’t want to. They’re just...intolerant, I guess is the word. Always pushing me in the direction they want me to go. And I feel like we’ve grown apart. I love them, but if I do anything they don’t approve of it’s like an unforgivable offense.”

“Well, believe you me, intolerance is sorta the norm ‘round here. There’s not alotta room for being different in Battle Creek. And I say that from experience...”

She adjusted her sitting position. Jace's eyes flashed back to the mirror.

“Yeah...I bet if my parents knew I was with someone like you right now they’d both have aneurysms or something.”

“Yeah...guess they prolly would.”

“...”

“...”

“Sorry. For saying that.”

Kristina shrugged.

“I didn’t mean it that way. That was really dumb of me.”

“It’s alright. Happens.”

“I like you fine the way you are.”

She smiled. “I’ve grown apart from some folks, too. I get all the town’s stares. Not alotta people wanna be associated with someone like me.”

“What do you mean?”

“The hair, the tattoos, the asexuality...”

“Oh.”

“And I know that feelin' a not belonging somewhere, too. Not that Imunna go anywhere else.”

“Yeah. It’s like there’s not much here for me anymore. Every day just echoes the previous. And then it’s like I’m stuck here waiting for the present to become the past again—” Jace stopped abruptly.

“...”

“There I go, rambling away.”

“You’re fine. I kina like it.”

“Like what?”

“I don’ know...just havin’ a real conversation with someone. This is prolly the longest I’ve gone not checking my phone in, like, forever.”

“That’s actually a good point.”

★★★

They didn’t have sex that first night. It just didn’t seem right to Jace. Not anymore. So, after hopping in his truck and making a quick trip to the Liquor & Lotto for some snacks and more beer, they instead spent the evening immersed in deep conversation while sitting cross-legged across from one another atop the bed, the only thing separating them the new twelve-pack until Kristina's hips started hurting and they switched to leaning against the pillows, their shoulders not quite touching as they took turns swapping a big bag of Skittles (Kristina’s favorite), each asking the other questions and talking Battle Creek and the goings-on around town, high school stories and snafus, Jace’s parents' myopia and how much pressure they put on him, Kristina’s life growing up and how she was forced to go through things that nobody should ever have to go through, his anxiety issues and her financial woes, their shared fear of a future as bleak as the past, and so on and so forth.

When Kristina’s phone buzzed a little after ten and she said she had to go, they tried making things seem as normal as possible, and Jace casually handed her three hundred dollars after she was done tying her shoes. Kristina took it without saying anything and shoved it into her purse.

“Don’t you want to count it?”

“No, that’s alright.”

He nodded. “Can I walk you to the elevator?”

“Sure.”

Jace found the courage to ask just as the elevator doors pinged open:

“So, do you maybe want to come by again tomorrow?”

OK.”

“Same time, same place alright, or—?”

Kristina nodded. “But don’t call or text this time.”

The elevator doors shut.

★★★

Kristina couldn’t remember the last time she’d experienced such an intense endorphin high. Normally, after a meetup was finished, she’d be pining to get drunk by the time DeeDee picked her up. But now she didn’t feel like drinking at all; the only thing she wanted to do was replay the night and reflect. She'd really liked the way it’d felt talking to a kind, cute stranger who wasn’t just looking to fuck her, someone who knew nothing about her but was willing to patiently peel back all her layers. Jace had made her feel special, like maybe she really was someone worth getting to know.

Jace, meanwhile, had to begrudgingly admit that he found Kristina attractive. She wasn’t a girl he could take home to his parents—he didn’t even want to think about what they’d say—and he knew that he’d feel uncomfortable being seen in public with her, but he liked Kristina. Talking with her had been different, but in a good way. Their conversation had felt unscripted, and intimate, and he’d found that certain thoughts and sentiments were easier to articulate. In retrospect, there was something about two strangers voluntarily spending that much time together in a hotel room that made dialogue more poignant, perhaps because circumstances required they both reveal things to one another that they normally would not have.

★★★

Kristina came by the next night shortly before seven, this time in a battered pair of blue jeans and a Pink Floyd T-shirt, an outfit which seemed to suit her much better than the sundress she’d worn the day before.

Jace welcomed her and shut the door quietly. She paused by the TV, where three different bags of Skittles sat.

“I wasn’t sure what your favorite was,” Jace said, clearing his throat.

“...”

“I figured I’d just grab one of each...not that we have to eat Skittles again or anything.” He took a seat on the edge of the bed. Underneath the overhead lighting, Kristina noticed the faint salt and pepper sprinkled around his head for the first time. “We could order pizza or something. Whatever’s fine. I didn’t, like, have anything planned or anything.”

She sat down beside him, and Jace caught the faint whiff of sandalwood-tinged cigarette smoke again.

“Pizza’s fine. I’m not picky.”

OK—what’s good around here?”

“Well. We only got a couple a pizza places that haven’t run out a business yet: Mario’s and Little Caesars. Most people like Mario’s better.” She nodded toward the desk where there was a small placard with an ad and a phone number.

They ate pizza while sitting on the bed, the TV on but not too loud so they could talk. Kristina couldn’t remember the last time she’d had Mario’s; it was so good she could’ve cried. If Jace hadn’t been sitting across from her, she would’ve probably eaten half a pizza, but she forced herself to have just two slices. She spent a lot of time dabbing at her mouth with napkins, worried about staining her lipstick with pizza sauce, or—even worse—spending the rest of the evening with a fossilized food stain on her face.

“Please eat more,” Jace said suddenly, as if he knew exactly what she’d been thinking. “I know how there’s this stigma about girls and eating or whatever, how people frown upon the ones who eat a lot. But I seriously think that’s so stupid. If you want to eat an entire pizza, please do. I’m not going to judge you, especially when I’m probably going to eat ‘til I’m in a food coma.”

“Oh, no,” Kristina demurred. “It’s cool, I’m good. Really.”

They were both quiet for a while.

“I know what it’s like to feel self-conscious eating around other people. I picked up an eating disorder when I was in college, and it’s lingered ever since. And it sucks. But, like, since we’ll be hanging out a lot—” Jace stumbled, realizing the implications of what he’d just said. “I mean—I just want you to be comfortable.” He was embarrassed, and his words seemed to hang in the air.

“...”

“...”

“I’ll have another couple a slices. Please.” Kristina handed him her plate.

He smiled. “OK. Good. Thank you.”

She laughed.

“So...do you have to be back at a certain time, or?”

“Nope.”

“Where do you live, by the way—you didn’t have to pay to get here, did you?”

Kristina was in the middle of a mouth full of pizza. She shook her head and set her plate down on the bed, wiped her hands with some napkins, and then paused for what seemed a long time.

“When you called yesterday, it wasn’t me on the phone.”

“I kind of had a feeling. Didn’t really sound like you.”

“Yeah. I live with my cousin an’ her boyfriend. They stay in the complexes off Henderson, the ones next to Dairy Queen.”

Jace knew which area she was talking about. Kristina was referring to the huge and brooding Henderson Project high-rises, where trails of industrial exhaust blew due west, and dirty sodium lights nictitated schizophrenically in the dark.

“They pimp me out in exchange for living there. And sometimes using their car, but it’s a rusted Taurus piece a shit. Donut tires and the window won’t close all the way.”

“Wait...they make you prostitute yourself? In recompense?”

“I don’t know what that means—recompense?”

“Like, rent—it’s in exchange for rent?”

“Basically,” said Kristina, rubbing the corner of her mouth with a napkin again. “Sometimes I stay at the church. The pastor there’s always been real nice to me.”

“...”

She saw that Jace’s mouth was slightly ajar.

“I mean, I get a percentage from them. Like usually half or so. And most times it’s not so bad doing it, a lot a old guys just wanna talk sometimes. But, yeah. I know it’s sketchy. It’s not like I like it or anything. Last year a girl in Kalamazoo got killed doin’ it.”

“I guess I just kind of thought you were doing this on your own.”

“I should wash my hands,” Kristina said abruptly, crumbling up the napkin and putting her plate aside.

While she was in the bathroom, Jace tried to make sense of everything. After hearing an admission like that, the things that had always bothered him didn’t seem so bothersome anymore, and he was suddenly keenly aware of how privileged he was. So much so that it filled him with self-disgust. If he had his way, Jace knew what he’d do. The bathroom door opened and Kristina returned, head bowed and thumbs dancing away on her phone, her acrylic nails tap-tapping on the screen.

“I want you to live with me,” Jace blurted out. It almost sounded more like an order than a request.

She looked up and frowned, narrowing her eyes and regarding him with a crinkled squint of skepticism. “What?”

“I want you to live with me.”

“...”

“Not here. I have my own place—I mean, technically it’s my cousin’s place but he’s subletting it to me until I leave.”

“...”

“...”

“Why’ve you been stayin’ here, then?”

“I don’t really know, to be honest...I guess I just wanted to get off the grid for a while.”

“Why?”

Jace shrugged. “It’s hard to explain. Haven’t you ever wanted to be by your—”

“No, I mean like why do you want me to.”

“I just feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

“...”

“And something tells me you’d do the same for me. Look, there’s two bedrooms, and I don’t make a mess in the kitchen or anything, and the bathroom’s fine. And seriously—”

“I can’t afford rent somewhere like—”

“No, no rent. For free. And you’d be fine to come and go as you want.”

“...”

“And I’m not trying to make this into anything it’s not, I don’t have some plan to get you interested in me or to take advantag—”

OK.”

OK what?”

OK, like OK. OK’s not exactly open to ‘terpretation last time I checked,” said Kristina.

“So, OK as in yes?”

“Yeah. That sounds alright to me, I guess.”

“Oh—well, good then.”

★★★

The snow finally began to melt around late March, and by then there’d been a kind of tacit agreement between them that they were in a relationship, though the parameters were unclear and the future uncomfortably opaque. But it happened organically—there was no transactional nature in what they did together, and everything that transpired between them was consensual. Their long talks evolved into deep postcoital conversations in the same bed, the air in the room infused with the smell of Kristina’s perfume and the sweet, burnt-conifer fragrance of weed and that subtle scent of sandalwood. Both found themselves able to tell one another things that they had long kept hidden from the rest of the world, tucked away inside the pockets of their flawed souls, not for want of a teller or audience, but for want of an understanding ear. The previous tenant had left star shaped glow-in-the-dark cutouts on the ceiling, and they enjoyed retiring earlier than necessary so they could converse softly while the time passed, their eyes wandering from star to star until one of them or both drifted off to sleep. And when they weren’t talking, they existed in a kind of companionable silence, each happy to have so serendipitously met the other, to have stumbled into a friendship when they needed it most and expected it least.

Neither of them mentioned Jace’s impending plans, though both gave the matter much more thought than they let on. But Kristina had never been happier. She’d never lived in a nice place before; compared to the sordid motel-style extended stay she’d been living at with her cousin, the house might as well have been a palace. It was new and clean and modern, bricked a beautiful auburn red with sidewalks hugged by grass and woodchipped landscaping. It was even located next to a park with paved paths and cedar picnic tables. It was the kind of community within a community where people said hello to one another in passing, or at least exchanged smiles. But it was also the sort of place where someone like Kristina stood out.

“That lady livin’ down the road keeps looking at me whenever she passes.”

They were outside on the porch, sitting in a pair of mesh lawn chairs.

“What lady?”

“The one who’s always walking by with her kid in a stroller. We saw her a few days ago when we were out here smoking.”

“Oh. Well, then she’s rude. Don’t even worry about her, she’s nobody.”

“I draw a lot a bad attention. Don’t I?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, people aren’t friendly with me unless they know me; everyone looks at me like I’m some freak ‘cause of my hair and tattoos and everything.”

“What’s wrong with your hair and tattoos? A lot of people have different colored hair and tattoos.”

Kristina shrugged.

Jace stood up suddenly. “Want a pop?”

“Sure.”

When he returned, Kristina fixed him with a look he’d never seen before.

“Nobody else is androgynous, though.”

Jace didn’t know what to say. A brief awkward silence ensued. But when the same woman coincidentally came walking down the street not too long after, and she did in fact give Kristina a look that even under the most charitable interpretation of the word was anything but kind, Jace wrapped his fingers through Kristina’s and raised their hands. Then he gave an exaggerated wave. The woman looked the other way and Kristina laughed.

March gave way to April and April to May, and before they knew it, it was already June. Michigan summers were always a pleasant surprise after the dark and dreary winter months, and they took advantage of the nice weather by going out more. They were both keenly aware of how incongruous they looked together. Neither ever brought it up, but during certain brief moments it was obvious that they drew a lot of attention—standing in line at the movie theatre, walking around town, eating at restaurants. Each always feigned ignorance, pretending to be unaware of the looks they often drew, but Jace knew she felt self-conscious, and Kristina knew he felt uncomfortable.

★★★

Jace met his dad at Vitale’s Cafe a little before 8:00 P.M. on a Tuesday in early July. It was the first time they’d seen each other in months. On the phone, when his dad had asked to talk to him privately, he had a feeling as to why, though he hoped he was wrong. But Jace specifically chose the when and where: A public place on a weeknight and not long before the café closed to ensure that if they did have an audience, it’d be minimal.

Jace watched as his dad’s green Range Rover came into view and pulled up along the street, watched as his dad declined to feed the parking meter and walked into the cafe with the familiar presence of someone who knows what he wants and had grown used to getting it, someone whose wealth and status depended on his human capital, his Cambridge suit looking as crisp as ever and the tips of his shoes reflecting orbs of sheen. Mr. Jones was a tall, slender man whose deliberate manner of speaking, silvery-black hair, and handsome face belied a brusque and inflexible nature. Jace could tell just by looking at that face that the entire drive had been spent rehearsing what he intended to say—not to memorize it, but to ensure it was sharp and efficient, and maximally effective. His dad was known for the kind of concision that cuts; he was a master manipulator, never hesitating to remind people of his willingness to subvert empathy with blunt indifference, and to say the sort of things that scarred people. Mr. Jones hated when someone didn’t listen to him almost as much as he hated losing.

Jace nodded in acknowledgement as his dad sat down.

“I didn’t know if you wanted anything to drink so—”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”

He took in his dad’s familiar face. His facial hair was sprinkled with flecks of white, more so than the last time he’d seen him. His eyebrows, too.

“How’re you?” his dad finally said, though it came out more syntactic than tonal.

“Alright. You?”

“Never better.”

Jace wasn’t so sure. His hair needed a cut, and there was a canker sore near his top lip. For a man who put such a premium on his appearance, any kind of visible flaw was telling.

“Your mother tells me you have someone living with you.”

“Hmm,” Jace tried, not wanting to confirm or deny this.

“What are you doing, Jace?” It was a rhetorical question.

“...”

“As in what the hell are you doing with your life?”

“What do you—”

“Don’t bullshit me.”

Jace shook his head in exasperation. “Just trying to be successful as usual dad, and everything else tha—”

“Which is why you’ve got some dyke holed up in that house? A house that doesn’t even belong to you?”

Jace felt like he’d just had the wind knocked out of him. “I think you’ve got me mistaken for someone else,” he said in a tone underwritten with a suppressed fury not in his interest to indulge.

“I don’t.”

“She’s not a dyke.”

“Neither here nor there. You’re better than this. You’re too smart for it.”

“For what?”

“To be messing around with someone with no future!”

“...”

“Yeah, it’s fine to do nice things for people, but not when it completely derails you from what you’re supposed to be doing.”

“I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing. Nothing’s changed. Still have the same intentions.”

“I talked to Mr. Jaskowski last week,” his dad said, leaning back and crossing his arms so that his suit jacket strained. “And you know what he says to me? First time we’d seen each other in a year and the first thing he says is, ‘Boy, that Jace of yours sure likes ‘em wild, eh? We seen him at the steakhouse the other day with someone and Kate and I spent a good twenty minutes trying to decide whether it was a man or not!’”

“Mr. Jaskowski is an asshole.”

“Mr. Jaskowski knows more about business and what it takes to get ahead in this world than you’ve forgotten. Watch your mouth.”

Jace shook his head in disbelief.

“Where’d you find her?”

“...”

“It is a her, right? From what I’ve been told it ain’t exactly been verified yet. Sounds like one of those females who wants to be a dude.”

Jace had never hated his dad more than he did at that moment. For a second, he thought he might actually hit him.

“What’re your plans?” He furrowed his brow at Jace.

“What’s it matter? My plans are my own.”

“No. They are not. They involve this family. And if you’re going to be a member of this family, then you’re going to do things a certain way. You want to half-ass your way through the rest of your life? Go for it. But don’t you come crying back to me and your mother when you figure out how big of a mistake you’ve made.”

“...”

“And you should’ve figured this out on your own by now: Yeah, you’re entitled to chase after waterfalls. But you sure as hell won’t be connected to your parents’ bank account anymore.”

“I know that.”

“Are you still planning to move out there or not?”

“Yeah. I am.”

“With who?”

“With myself.”

“Exactly,” Mr. Jones said, and Jace could actually hear the relief in his voice, could even see the tension in his shoulders evaporating. “Now I’ll be able to sleep tonight.”

Jace looked out the window for something to distract himself with.

“Now, I’ve got more contractor buddies out there than I can count with both hands. You’re a shoo-in in for a company-level position if you want it, and why you wouldn’t is a mystery to me—you’ll be making more money than God in one of the most exciting cities in the world. Shoot, I could probably even get you into Google or Amazon if you want to go that route. The sky’s the limit. I would’ve killed for the opportunities you get to pick from.”

“I know that.”

They were quiet for a long time. A shy barista came by and wiped down the tables. His dad looked at his watch.

“I realize I’m not easy on you. I get it. I know I’m not the world’s greatest dad and that I’ve done and said some things in the past that never should’ve been done or said. But you know your mom and I love you. And believe me when I say she’s been just as concerned. We just want to see you fulfill your potential. That’s it. That’s all we’re trying to do. Alright?”

“Yup.”

His dad stood up. And, knowing that a handshake was coming and that his dad hated it when he shook someone’s hand while sitting down, Jace grudgingly stood up as well. They shook firmly, eye to eye. His dad gave him a fist bump on the shoulder.

“Do the right thing, Jace. Don’t go sacrificing the future for the present.”

★★★

“I have to leave soon.”

They were sitting on the porch, sharing a while watching four-year-old kids in brightly colored uniforms play competitive soccer in the park. It was twilight, the last glow of day leaching from the sky as the sun descended to the northeast. Crepuscular shadows were beginning to stretch into the parking lot. Jace inhaled deeply, tilting his head backward and exhaling smoke. He passed the spliff to Kristina, who took it without looking at him.

“Did yer dad say anything?”

“What do you mean?”

Kristina shrugged, her eyes focused on the horizon.

“I was just curious if he said anything about it. About you leaving and everything. I know you said you don’t get along much.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

“...”

“...”

“Sorry,” she exhaled, a small cloud of smoke hovering above her before disappearing. “I didn’t mean to overstep.” She passed the spliff back.

“No. You’re fine. I guess it went about the way I expected. He’s pretty much demanding I go because of all the opportunities—his connections out there. I don’t have much of a choice.”

Kristina turned to look at him, and she didn’t let up until Jace met her eyes.

“Seriously? Yer a grown man, Jace. Shit, I’d figured you for one to say the hell with anything you yerself weren’t alright doing.”

“It’s way more complicated than you think, OK? My parents have always done a lot for me, and I can’t just—it doesn’t make sense to stay here.”

He offered the weed back, but she shook her head.

“Yeah. Not like you’ve got much worth stayin’ for here in Battle Creek...”

Jace snorted. “Yeah.”

Kristina took out a marker and pulled her foot toward her. She’d recently taken to writing little quotes where she could fit them on the white parts of her sneakers.

“So. You get a flight yet?”

“Yeah. Actually, I almost forgot,” Jace lied. “It’s this Friday.” Today was Wednesday. He’d said it short and quick; he wanted it to be like ripping off a Band-Aid.

“Oh...wow.”

“Yeah.”

“Cool,” Kristina said. She capped the marker and pulled out a cigarette.

He flicked the spliff off the porch.

“I don’t want to go, Kristina.”

“Then don’t. Just stay here...everything’ll work out. Things’ll be alright.”

“I can’t.”

They watched as the sinking sun began to dye the horizon a phosphorescent pink and orange hue. From where they sat, you could see the woods across from the river, the verdant tree canopies mixing with the cotton candy clouds to create a sherbet effect. In the distance, the playful chime of an ice cream truck could be heard in between lulls of the youth league soccer.

“It was real nice havin’ someone around all the time,” Kristina finally said. “Being with you. And us finding each other so randomly.”

“Yeah. That was the last thing I expected that night. It seems so weird now. Like, surreal. But in a good way.”

Kristina laughed. “I remember thinking you were gonna slam the door in my face.”

“I damn near did!”

“Ha! Always knew yer a prick.”

Their laughter echoed into the street out front.

“This does kind of suck,” said Jace. He brought his legs to his chest and wrapped his arms around his knees.

“What?”

“I mean this. I’m going to miss you...I really like you.”

“Oh,” Kristina said softly. “Well. Ditto.”

“Do you know what you’re going to do?”

“No. But I’ll figure it out.”

“Are you going to go back and live with your cousin again?”

“Don’t worry about me. I always figure it out. All’s I can do is just gotta keep on keepin’ on.”

★★★

Jace left, and time went on. He did what he could to assimilate to the new world he found himself in, but it was difficult. He started working at a tech firm, where he was immediately given a management position because his dad and the CEO were good friends. This embarrassed him, and he was glad that nobody else knew about it; the last thing he needed was to be resented by his coworkers. The work was dull, the hours long. But within a few months he’d managed to make more money than most people made in an entire year. Getting paid that much was a rush. It made him feel good about himself, made him feel self-reliant for once. Unfortunately, that high didn’t last very long.

When he’d been back in Michigan, Jace felt like his world had been narrowing. It’d made him anxious and eager to get going again—to somewhere, anywhere. But now that he was out in California, it seemed obvious the anxiety had nothing to do with actually wanting to be on the go and chasing after moving targets, and everything to do with protecting himself from the existential angst he sensed was always lying in wait around the corner. It was a realization that filled him with regret.

At night, he’d listen to the sound of cars rushing past his street, each one like a wave breaking on a shoreline, and he’d shuffle through heavy thoughts. Like how possibilities faded with age, and how he seemed to be torn between two different places, and how much it sucked not seeing Kristina every day anymore. He often thought about her and how she was doing. What she was doing. But if she missed him, she didn’t let on about it. And Jace didn’t want to come off as needy, nor did he want to be overinvested in something that wasn’t reciprocated. They texted often enough and spoke on the phone once or twice a week, but the conversations were nothing like the ones they’d had at night, and both knew this. The letters held them together, though—the letters they wrote one another, as if it was the early twentieth century and that was the best means of communication available to them. There was something about putting pen on paper that made it easier to make the sort of admissions you wouldn’t otherwise. It had been Jace’s idea, a sort of joke at first, but he sent one off on the day he arrived in California, and sure enough, she sent one right back. Their letters were always long and handwritten, his on blank printing paper, hers on loose leaf. He tended to do most of his writing in one sitting, while she did it piecemeal.

Kristina was determined to remain stoic. Not that she had much choice. With Jace gone, she was back to treading water and trying to keep her head above the surface. And with barely any money left, she was all but forced to resume living with DeeDee, who promptly put her to work again the next day. Kristina was grateful that the spare, spartan bedroom past the kitchen hadn’t been trashed while she was gone, and that the mattress was still there, and the fan still worked. But it seemed like it was every other night that she was slumped down against the bedroom wall as close to tears as she’d ever been, sadness threatening to erupt from the tight place below her throat. Refusing to cry gave her a headache, as did refusing to tell Jace that she’d been forced to perform fellatio in recompense, and that she could feel every single one of the 2,103 miles between them.

In middle October, Jace reached out to let her know he’d be coming back home for a short while. He stopped short of asking Kristina if she maybe wanted to get together but was thrilled when she suggested it herself. They planned to meet the night he returned, and in a hotel room for lack of a better place. It seemed fitting.

★★★

It had been months since the last time they’d seen each other, but after the initial jitters passed, they picked up right where they’d left off back in July.

“Man, I missed you,” Jace said.

“I missed you, too. So much.”

They were shoulder to shoulder, propped up on pillows. There was a new momentum in their involvement with one another, and both could sense it.

“Jace. I need to say somethin’. Otherwise I’ll just keep putting it off ‘til it’s too late.”

OK. What’s up?”

“I don’t mean to drop this in yer lap out of the blue, but I’ve never been one to be scared about this kina stuff so I’m just gonna say it: ...I’m pretty sure I’m in love with you.”

“...”

“Or something. I don’t know. But I think I am.”

“Oh. OK.”

“And I’m real sorry if that’s weird for you to hear or if it makes you uncomfortable. And I get it if me sayin’ it changes things for us and we have to go our separate ways or just, like, be strictly platonic or whatever about everything and whatever else. But I needed to tell you that.”

“No. I understand. I appreciate it.”

“Yeah...”

Neither said anything for a while. Kristina could tell he was deep in thought because he was absently fidgeting with his fingernails, a nervous tic she’d picked up on a long time ago.

“Well,” she finally said. “You’re kina leaving me out to dry here, Jace. I mean, I know you’ve got more than tonight here at home and everything and you’re allowed to think about it or sleep on it or do whatever you wanna do. I guess something about it’s giving me a sense of urgency. But if you wanna say something, please say it. Even if it isn’t the same as what I said. I’d rather you just be straight with me.”

“I’m just thinking.”

“What about?”

“Just what you said and everything. How that affects things now...what it means.”

“...”

“...”

“Well...are you in love with me too?”

“I don’t know.”

Kristina exhaled.

“I mean, what’s there to know and not know about it?”

“Look—”

“No Jace, you look—I haven’t exactly been havin' a good time since you left, OK? It’s been rough. Actually, it’s been pretty fuckin’ terrible. So, just do me the favor of not hemmin’ and hawin’ and blowin’ smoke, just either say what yer thinking or tell me you’ve got nothin’ to say at all and be done with it.”

“I am,” he said. “I’m in love with you.”

Kristina turned to look at him.

“...But hear me out. There’s a lot of moving pieces to this; it’s not the same for me as it is for you.”

“Are you worried about the future?”

Jace nodded.

“Yeah. I figured you’d be.”

“Don’t patronize me, Kristina. You don’t know half of what’s going through my head right now. And you don’t know half of it all to start.”

“I’m not! I’m sayin’ I understand is all. If it were me I’d prolly feel the same I guess.”

“How long have you known?”

“Known what?”

“You know, like when do you think you fell in love with me?”

Kristina put her head back gently and looked up at the ceiling. “I think it was the night you mentioned you leaving. When you said yer flight was on that Friday and that meant it was only a couple a days away.”

“Really?”

“Yeah...it felt like someone punched me in the gut; I could barely breathe. I even remember thinking it maybe prolly woulda been better never meeting you at all—that’s how bad it hurt.”

“...”

“What? Don’t tell me that’s, like, a shock.”

“No, I remember the moment you’re talking about. It’s just that I don’t remember getting that impression—that you felt anything like that. You were so calm about it.”

“Yeah, well. It felt like something inside of me up and died.”

“I felt pretty much the same way.”

“Then same for me as for you! I wouldn’t have thought that. You looked totally unfazed.”

“I know,” Jace said quietly. “It probably helped that we were high.”

“True. But still.”

“What do you think it would look like? I mean us. Together. If we were to do this, then what? We have different lives right now, me out in California, you here. I mean, I can’t just pick up and leave everything in Silicon Valley and come back here.”

“Nobody’s sayin’ you have to.”

“So, it would be long distance?”

Kristina shrugged. “I can if you can.”

“I don’t see what other choice we have.”

“I could come back with you.”

And there it was: The hope that Kristina had been clinging to, that had kept her going. The remote possibility of the best thing possible happening—just this once, just one time.

“I don’t think I could do that,” said Jace, shaking his head.

“Why not?”

“Because, Kristina. I’m worried about what that’ll mean.”

“...”

Jace’s eyes were darting to and fro as if searching the ceiling for a sign.

“I’m scared, OK? Alright? I’m scared of screwing things up.”

“You mean yer dad. And what everyone’ll think.”

“All I’m saying is that I think we should just sit on this and not do anything big right away. And that we just do a long-distance type thing—temporarily.”

“Jace...I think maybe I should move out there with you.”

“I know. But I need to figure out how to best go about this. If my dad finds out...”

OK...I understand.”

★★★

Jace spent all four and a half hours of his return flight to California thinking about what to do. If he could choose and there’d be no repercussions of any kind—meaning his dad would be alright with it and people wouldn’t judge him and think he was crazy for being with someone like Kristina—well, then he’d take her with him wherever he went and that would be that. Because he truly was in love with her. It had slowly dawned on Jace that he’d been in love with Kristina before he even knew he loved her, because she had revealed things to him that he never even knew he wanted. Indeed, late at night in the shadowy hours after midnight, he’d find himself wondering how amazing it was that he’d lived so much of his life without even knowing she existed. But he couldn’t—he could not simply announce his love for Kristina and have her live with him. The implications, both personal and social, constricted him. They narrowed his options.

What Jace wanted more than anything was a real wish so that he could wish things were different. He missed being with Kristina. And he missed Michigan. Although his time in Battle Creek had been brief, its blue-collar culture had grown on him, and the transition to California wasn’t as easy as he’d anticipated. Of course, whenever anyone asked him how things were going, Jace would say that everything was hunky-dory, and he was happy to be there; but the truth was that he found the change a bit overwhelming. Life in Silicon Valley seemed shallow and vapid. It was like everyone was dangerously focused on themselves and people were enslaved to comfort. There’d even been one occasion when he and a co-worker were late to a conference because she’d spent ten minutes searching for a better parking space instead of them just walking the extra one hundred meters or so to the building entrance.

Jace started having trouble falling asleep as well, in large part because of a peculiar thought that kept running through his mind while lying in bed. In this “vision” of sorts, he’d imagine a bullet moving through the air and corkscrewing toward a distant target, which would then push him to contemplate how even the most infinitesimal change in a shooter’s positioning and form and breathing cadence could cause that bullet to stray when fired, ultimately resulting in the shooter missing the target by a wide margin. It was a metaphorical representation of what he knew in his heart but wasn’t ready to admit: How a person’s trajectory in life could be forever altered by even the most seemingly arbitrary of circumstances. And he wasn’t ready to consider the notion because it meant confronting what weighed most heavily on him—the truth that letting himself love Kristina would give her a new life, a life in which she’d never have to be alone ever again or suffer anything like she’d already been forced to endure on her own.

Jace knew that bringing Kristina to California would help ease his homesickness, if not rid him of it entirely. As each day passed he found himself thinking about it more and more, only to dismiss the idea by reminding himself of the circumstances, and how it wasn’t something he could afford to do for the time being. What exactly Jace was waiting for he had no idea, but he believed that, eventually, a lower-belly intuition of some kind would give the green light vis-à-vis moving forward with “things,” though he reckoned it would still take some time before he was comfortable enough to tell his parents—to go “public” with Kristina. That he lacked the confidence to face the world and cared so much about what others thought bothered him to the core. It always had.

They now tried to speak on the phone at least once every other day. Kristina never mentioned what they’d talked about that night in the hotel room, and neither did Jace, but it was always in the background, always overshadowing their relationship, a tension that seemed to be growing imperceptibly. Eventually communication between the two became more seldom, and by the beginning of November Kristina had stopped responding. Though swamped at work, Jace still tried reaching out every day, figuring that the forced silence was her way of sending a message, of letting him know she didn’t like how things were going, or perhaps to make him realize the depth of his affection for her. He needed her to talk to him, though; he needed her to respond and say enough back that he could see and read her heart and know what to do. But Kristina continued ignoring him, and after a few weeks it really started to hurt. It seemed like such a petty thing to do, almost like she was engaging in willful sullenness. Jace wrote a long letter to try bridging the gap between them, pouring his heart out and letting her know that he understood why she wasn’t talking, and that he really did love her, and much more than he’d let on before. And yet, even still, Kristina didn’t reply. She never sent him a letter back.

Jace booked a flight home for that weekend. If she wasn’t going to respond, then he’d go to her.

★★★

He found out by accident. He’d stopped at a Walgreens to pick up toothpaste and was in line waiting to check out, browsing through apps on his phone while a woman argued with the cashier about coupons. It was in the Battle Creek Enquirer. The initial effect was a feeling of standing outside himself, as if he had become a character in a story. This was followed by a crushing realization that nearly brought him to his knees, a shock that seemed to sit in his lungs and make it impossible to breathe.

“Police believe woman found stabbed to death in Springfield apartment met her killer online.”

And below that was Kristina’s picture. The headline was nearly a week old.

Jace walked out of the store in a dream state, his eyes out of focus. He sat down on a bench and began to choke with tears. It felt like he was being smothered with helplessness, and he began to hyperventilate, but he forced himself to look again, wanting to be wrong, to have looked at the picture wrong. But it was her. It was Kristina, what looked like an old yearbook photo, and below it, her name: Kristina Golson, 23, of Battle Creek, MI.

And then, a profound hollowness inside. A sorrow so deep it exceeds the vernacular. Dry heaving. The sensation of time collapsing in on itself and everything fading into schemata, everything in the world meaning absolutely nothing anymore and all of it tainted by heartache that surpasses understanding. And later and forever after, the retrospective lens of regret. The drive back to his hotel room and falling to the floor as soon as the door was shut. Questions that plagued him but which he couldn’t answer because he was powerless to effect. And then self-loathing, with an immediacy that pushed the pain inwards.

★★★

Eyes pale blue like summer chrysanthemums. Sunshine in the rain. Streetlights burning royal in the dark and the deafening roar of neon in the same. Coffee stains. Cigarette burns. Finger ink. Dewy green pastures with an infinity of trees stretching beyond. And vertiginous stars above the frosted ground below. Dusty shades of gloaming pink. Harvest time’s blush of trees, with the smell of leaves burning in a barrel. Apologies whispered into wind as cold as ice, and tears dried too soon. A shock of amethyst. A bottomless nostalgia at the setting of the sun, crystal visions of what was and could have been but now was not and would never be.

A forearm tattoo: Keep on keepin’ on.

★★★

“Do you still believe it was your fault?”

“...”

“Jace?”

He gave a subtle smirk. “I don’t know that I ever did.”

“But you’re not entirely sure.”

“No.” He ran his fingertips along the armchair’s creased black leather. Moved a pillow from behind his back.

“Most people eventually return to a certain emotional baseline after highs and lows, be they circumstantial or experiential or what have you. And it’s been almost three years now—the relationship, you said, wasn’t yet a year long, is that correct?”

“The depth of a relationship isn’t necessarily commensurate with its length.”

“What do you think is making it so difficult to find equilibrium again?”

“...”

“Jace?”

“Probably not being able to forgive myself.”

“Well, doesn’t that imply you’ve done something wrong, then?”

“Not necessarily, no. Maybe I failed to do something right. Maybe I failed to do the right thing.”

“Was there such a thing? Or is it something you feel you should have done.”

“Things might have been complicated. I don’t think that’s anything worth exploring. But the truth is that it was always binary: There was a right choice, and there was a wrong choice. I don’t think I necessarily made the wrong choice. But I do believe that I failed to make the right one.”

Scribbling.

“Well, this premise of choice implies the need for action...do you think you failed to act, or did not act, when you should have?”

“Yes.”

“How so?”

“By bowing to conformity. By letting social norms take precedent over what my heart wanted, what it was telling me to do. And letting someone else control which path I took.”

More scribbling.

“What did your heart want?”

“To be with Kristina. For her to be with me. To have been with me.”

“And can you explain what you mean by choosing the wrong path?”

“Not choosing the wrong path. Letting someone else decide—pressuring me into which one I took. Letting my dad steer me away from a path that maybe didn’t promise individual reward and advancement.”

“Ah.”

More scribbling.

“Do you want to forgive yourself?”

“...”

“Jace?”

“Yeah. I do. Because then maybe I might be able to look ahead without always looking back all the time.”

“Then what’s preventing you from doing so?”

Jace met her eyes for the first time.

“...”

“...”

“The years go by, and possibilities fade. New people are met, new memories made. But always, always my heart goes back to her.”

She nodded. “Time is often most difficult when we’re so conscious of its inexorable passage.”

“...”

“It’s important to remember that, even under the best of circumstances, things don’t necessarily work out the way we’d like them to. You may very well have done what you think you should have, only to have things meet an unforeseen obstacle, or perhaps diverge down a new trajectory. Even with this in mind, do you imagine the two of you would have ended up together regardless?”

Jace nodded. “It’s one of my favorite things to imagine. One of my favorite places to visit.”

About the Author

Brad Neaton

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My name's Brad, and in addition to being the author of the novel Because of Jenny, I'm a 28-year-old sparkling conversationalist and well-mannered eater with a peculiar affection for cat shirts. I graduated from West Point in 2014 and served in the Army, and in 2017 I moved to Los Angeles to attend grad school at the University of Southern California, where I recently received my master’s degree from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Alas, I don't have any writing awards or accolades to mention, and so I hope my writing will speak for itself. I'm currently working on my second novel, On Finite Lane, which focuses on today's cultural polarization and the power of forgiveness. I'm originally from New Baltimore, Michigan, but currently reside in downtown Los Angeles where I maintain an undying desire to domesticate a raccoon, and I serve as the proud foster-father of the 2 stray cats living behind my apartment, Pizza Roll and Kevin. About the submission: I'm a big believer in the power of stories, and this is a fiction piece I wrote with the hope of making a difference in the way people who identify as LGBTQIA+ are perceived and treated. Nothing so effortlessly opens a person’s eyes quite like stories. The world as we see it often grows dull in our perceptions, but seen from another’s vantage, it can still take our breath away. When I write, I do so with the ultimate goal of helping my readers more easily empathize with people whose experiences they’ve never shared, giving them the opportunity to immerse themselves in the psyches of the marginalized.