As Soon as You Leave This Town

Empty classroom with chalkboard
Photo by Barry Zhou on Unsplash

It’s become fall in Chicago, and I’m sitting in my sunroom, a pretty room with three exposures, typical of three-flat buildings in Chicago. The breeze is cool, the leaves are yellow and brown. They’re falling. It’s a pleasant scene. I’ve taken a break from grading high school English papers to read through my old papers from Mr. Jones’s twelfth-grade English class. The folder has been on a dusty bookshelf for decades, faded red—almost a light pink now—with doodles on the front, my schedule for that year scribbled in the upper right-hand corner in cursive. It was the only folder I kept from high school.

I’ve been looking at it today because I just heard that Mr. Jones died, one year after he retired. He had a heart attack in his sleep at 62. After hearing the news, I dug out the folder. I haven’t been able to put down the journals from his class to grade my students’ papers. I’ve looked at a few. Most of my students think it is Romeo and Juliet’s parents’ fault that they died rather than the Nurse or the Friar because they pressured her to marry Paris. It’s starting to get dark outside. I should go for a walk, but it’s become cold, and besides, reading these old journals has been causing me to think about Mr. Jones, and Kyle, the boy I had a crush on senior year, and the first few months of college.

“Everything changes,” Mr. Jones told me in senior English, before I left town for college. “Things will look different when you return, but nothing really will have changed at all,” he added, contradicting himself in ways I couldn’t comprehend at the time.

I’m not sure if Mr. Jones was the excellent teacher I recall, or if he simply said things I needed to hear when I was an awkward teenager. He was a 28-year-old first-year teacher when I had him for senior English. He was sarcastic, funny, and smart. One time, Will, a student in our class, fell asleep when Mr. Jones was talking about Act I scene iii in Macbeth, when the witches tell Macbeth he will become King. Will began snoring. We all watched Mr. Jones as he tiptoed silently in slow motion as he approached Will’s desk. When he was a couple inches away from Will’s ear, he began to speak.

“I’m so sorry, Will,” Mr. Jones yelled, his voice gaining more volume, “were you trying to sleep?!” Will made a loud gurgling noise as he woke up startled from his nap, and we all laughed with Mr. Jones, for he had won us over. I felt comfortable with him. And besides, I was far too nerdy to fall asleep in English class when we were studying Shakespeare.

Mr. Jones also made us write for the first five minutes of each class—something I do with my students now, semi-successfully. We had to keep writing, even if we didn’t know what to say.

“Just keep your pencil moving,” he’d snap, banging his fist on someone’s desk—a strategic move that would no doubt today cause a teacher to get fired—moving around the room when students groaned. When we complained that we had nothing to write, he told us to write about having nothing to write about. He returned the papers the next day, and we knew he had read them, for he had written comments—albeit formulaic and banal—such as, “Be proud!” or, “Hang in there!” or, “Things will get better!”

I was shy in high school, and I hung onto Mr. Jones’s words like a schoolgirl crush. After class I’d walk out holding my books in both arms, my brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, my glasses falling down my nose, believing that things like the awkwardness of high school would indeed get better if I just hung in there and was proud.

Mr. Jones’s class was also where I met Kyle, the boy I did have a schoolgirl crush on. We weren’t friends, but we sat near each other and talked in class. I laughed at his jokes and stared at him. He had blue eyes and thick wavy brown hair. He was nice to me.

I wish I had told Mr. Jones what I’m about to share, but I didn’t. I gave Kyle three anonymous notes that senior year. As I’ve been reading through these journals from Mr. Jones’s senior English class, I can see my embarrassment about it hidden between the lines. I communicated my feelings to Mr. Jones in other ways, talking around what I had done. I’d write ambiguous things in my journal like that I was feeling down, or that I was an idiot, and Mr. Jones simply responded to what was on the page.

I slid the first note into Kyle’s backpack when I was walking behind him in a crowded hallway. In the message, I wrote that I had a crush on him, I thought he was very cute, and I was convinced he’d never like me. “So there’s no point in telling you who I am,” I wrote.

One time I saw him outside during gym. It was hot and he took off his shirt. His chest was sweaty and hard, and I swooned inwardly. “No one will ever like me,” I wrote in that day’s journal. The next day, Mr. Jones responded. “That’s not true!” he wrote. “You’re fine the way you are.”

Another day in Mr. Jones’s class, I wrote that I was feeling depressed. I had written Kyle the second note. I had tossed it on his desk just before the bell rang at the end of class. Students were gathered in groups, standing and talking, waiting for the bell to ring. “I actually think we’d have a lot of fun together but I’m just too nervous to tell you who I am,” I wrote, and then felt stupid.

That day, I wrote to Mr. Jones that I was humiliated about something. “I think that’s the worst,” I wrote. “It’s like I’m sick of me, you know?” He returned the paper the next day. “Plan something exciting,” he wrote in blue ink, “something that will make you feel on top of the world.” At the top of the journal, he wrote, “You’ll be ok.”

Looking back now, I realize I knew nothing about Mr. Jones’s life outside of school. Teachers were one-dimensional to me, as they are to most teenagers. I’m sure I am to my students. But as I sit here in my sunroom reading through all these old journals—it has begun to rain, the sky is darkening—it turns out that I did notice some of his moods when I was in his class.

Three journal entries in a row begin with me asking if he was OK, that he looked upset. If I’m remembering correctly, he was moody and snappish in class those few days. “I’m worried about you, Mr. Jones,” I wrote in one of them, next to a smiley face and question mark I doodled on the top of the page. Mr. Jones responded the third time I asked. “Liz, we all have bad days,” he wrote at the bottom of my paper with an orange marker. “Today, unfortunately, was one of mine.”

The next day, Mr. Jones was in a better mood than me. I had just slipped the third note into one of the vent slats in Kyle’s locker minutes before Mr. Jones’s class. I still hadn’t told anyone. “I feel like an idiot today,” I wrote. “Hang in there,” Mr. Jones replied on my journal, “Tomorrow’s another day!” It occurred to me later that Mr. Jones and I knew nothing about each other’s secrets, yet responded to each other’s moods, communicating both nothing and something almost every day of the school year.

It’s a few weeks until Thanksgiving now. The leaves are falling fast, brought down quickly today from the rain. As I’ve been reading through more journals from Mr. Jones’s class, I remember more deeply my feelings for Kyle.

I ran into him shortly after high school.

When I arrived home for Thanksgiving break for the first time since starting college, I ended up drunk at Burger King at 3am, eating onion rings and fries. I was 18, hanging out with my high school friends Meghan and Lisa. We had been drinking beer with fake IDs until the 2am closing time at the local bar. The town looked different to us, we agreed. Even the trees and the sidewalks and the buildings weren’t how we remembered. The town wasn’t different, we knew, as the old saying goes—and as Mr. Jones had rightly warned—but we were. I wouldn’t realize until much later that Mr. Jones had been right about so many things changing and not changing.

Meghan noticed some other people from high school home for the break.

“Hey, there’s Kyle,” she said, pointing.

Kyle was sitting with two friends a couple booths away. I had heard he was attending college in California. I got a nervous stomach when I saw him, but I didn’t tell Meghan or Lisa. Besides, we scoffed at seeing other folks from high school. We were college students now and reflected on our immature high school years—they seemed so distant from us now—with bravado.

But I realize now that deep down, I wanted to believe that running into Kyle had the potential of carrying with it some meaning—that in seeing him, a moment from the past had returned to me in the present. We had both come back to our old town, and I knew I had to say hi. And anyway, I was in college now, my high school years five months behind me.

Summoning what little courage I had, mostly from the two tequila shots I drank earlier, I walked towards the bathroom with a light and breezy step, and stopped at Kyle’s booth. He looked the same—self-assured and cute, his hair to his ears and curly.

“Oh, hey, Kyle,” I said at the Burger King booth, pretending I had just noticed him.

“Liz!” he said and got up to hug me. He had been drinking too.

“What bar did you close?” I joked. We knew enough about our old town that anyone our age who ends up at Burger King at 3am has come from somewhere else.

“Where are you off to next?” Kyle asked. I scratched the back of my neck and looked around. A few more people had walked into Burger King. Someone ordered a chocolate milkshake and an apple pie loudly enough so everyone could hear. Kyle told me about a party he and his friends were going to.

“You should come,” he said.

For just a moment, I forgot that I was someone who had written Kyle three anonymous notes in high school. I had become quirky and confident in my first semester of college, finding myself in my literature courses. I was still writing notes, but in more productive ways, signing my name at the end. I had recently written one of my professors a letter telling him how much I loved his Critical Thinking and Expression class. “I am so glad my class reached you,” he wrote in a letter back to me. “Notes like this make a professor’s day.”

In my Pre-1800 Literature class junior year, I first read Michael Drayton’s poem, “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part.” Like Mr. Jones had done in high school, my professor also had us write journals. Weekly, she chose one or two of ours to read to the class. The week we read Drayton’s poem, she chose mine. My face felt hot and red when she read aloud, “It’s like the speaker is so angry and is sure that it’s over,” from my journal. “But maybe it’s not over. Maybe just when you think something’s over, or just when you move past something, it comes back to you.”

I also wrote a note to my Shakespeare professor in college, telling him how much his class had changed my life (the seeds had been planted, of course, when I first read Macbeth with Mr. Jones). His response to my letter arrived a few days after Shakespeare’s birthday. “I write to you on Shakespeare’s birthday, to give you his thanks, mine too,” my professor wrote, “for widening the circle of those of us who can’t imagine how we’d get along without those plays.” “You have preceded me by decades,” he concluded, “and will have to weep longer.”

Echoes of Drayton and Shakespeare found me years later, as a graduate student, when I first read Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I Can Write the Saddest Lines”:

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but how I loved her.

My voice tried to find the wind to touch her hearing.

Another’s. She will be another’s. As she was before my kisses.

Her voice, her bright body. Her infinite eyes.

I no longer love her, that’s certain, but maybe I love her.

Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

I no longer liked Kyle, I told myself once I was in college. That was certain. High school was behind me. I had moved past the nonsense of anonymous notes and swooning in gym class.

But, as Neruda wrote, maybe I still liked him.

Back at our booth, I told Meghan and Lisa about Kyle’s invitation. We were up for it. We left in Meghan’s mom’s silver Nissan station wagon and followed Kyle’s red car (Toyota? Volkswagen? Mazda? I can’t recall) to the party. The fall leaves crunched under our feet as we walked up to the front door. The party was at a friend’s house, someone Kyle had been with at Burger King. Kyle brought me a drink and asked if I wanted to hang out in another room. Ditching Meghan and Lisa, I followed him. I feigned nonchalance. The music in the living room got softer as we drifted away from the party. We sat on a bed. Kyle said I seemed different than when we were in high school.

“I don’t know what it is,” he said, adding that maybe he just didn’t know me that well in high school. He was attending UCLA, he told me, and wanted to major in business.

I don’t remember how it happened, but soon Kyle and I were kissing, and then lying down on the bed. I no longer love him, that’s certain, but maybe I love him, I’d think years later when looking back on this scene, for it was only a scene in a life made up of many scenes. Kyle moved his hands through my hair. After we made out for a while, we turned on our backs and looked up at the ceiling. Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

“High school feels so far away,” Kyle said. I agreed.

For some reason, perhaps none other than knowing that soon this scene, too, would be over, or perhaps because Kyle, the intended recipient of the letters, would be the only person I’d ever tell, I decided I needed to let him know during a pause in our making out.

“Do you remember getting anonymous notes from someone in high school?” I asked.

In a matter of seconds, Kyle moved from looking confused, then remembering, then realizing it was me. He lay on his back, his hand on his forehead. Outside the bedroom, the music had gotten loud again. The weather that Thanksgiving weekend was predicted to be cold. Kyle told me that he thought it was cool, he was flattered, that I should have told him in high school.

“It’s not like we can return to high school,” he said. “We’re both going back to college on Sunday.”

“I know,” I said. I know. I no longer love him, that’s certain, but maybe I love him. I wish I had told Mr. Jones about the letters to Kyle when I was his student. I wonder what he would have told me. “Be proud!” was what he likely would have said, but I imagined in that moment on the bed with Kyle that Mr. Jones would have encouraged me to tell Kyle that year, to take a chance on love.

I told Kyle I understood, that I just wanted him to know. Kyle kissed me again. His hand didn’t move from my waist. Later, I wondered if the inactivity of his hand was some odd nod to chivalry. Perhaps the moment was sacred, not to be tainted, and Kyle was a gentleman. Or maybe I had it all wrong, and he was turned off, for things had become heavy. After all, the speaker in Neruda’s poem feels somber, too, convinced that the love between them is over, yet wondering if perhaps it’s not over.

The wind whistled through the bedroom window. I thought I heard the sound of leaves crunching outside. The music in the next room pounded and thumped. Of course, Kyle and I were both too young to understand the impermanence of scenes—that this moment, ultimately, when we looked back on it later, would become meaningless and transient, born of folly in a random bedroom in a city we had both outgrown. We knew we’d never see each other again but we didn’t say so. Things change and don’t change all the time, Mr. Jones had told me before I understood. For the next few minutes that Kyle and I made out, I tried to pretend we were still in senior English class, that Mr. Jones would tell me to hang in there, that tomorrow is another day, to be proud, that he wouldn’t die, that I’d see Kyle at school on Monday, that I would never write anonymous notes, that love wouldn’t be so short, the forgetting so long.

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