“I just feel sad.”
“Oh come on man, it can't be that bad. She's just a girl.”
“What do you know? Since when have you ever loved anybody but yourself?”
“Who said I love myself? Anyway, what are you moping around for? It's not like she's anything special. She probably doesn't even love you. Just because she let you kiss her doesn't mean anything. Girls will do anything to get under a guy's skin. Now if she would have put out then we might have something to talk about.”
“That's not what it's all about. I mean I could talk to her. There weren't any games. You know what I mean?”
“Oh man...” Ralph said with a shake of his head.
They pedaled slowly along the leaf splattered street. Autumn was in full glory and in spite of himself Johnny couldn't help but feel good about it. He didn't want to say anything to Ralph, who rode along side him on his black english bike, because Ralph would probably laugh and say what a girl he was.
Ralph sometimes found it hard to understand Johnny. Like his room. Where Ralph's was normal, with model cars, and hot rod magazines, and posters of hot bods in skimpy swimsuits, and the usual collection of rock posters, Johnny's, on the other hand was...well... kinda wimpy.I mean really Ralph thought more than once, what kind of a guy has pictures of Paul Klee and what's his name, Giacommetti, and if that's not bad enough, poets. I mean
really, who the hell ever heard of Rimbaud or Charles Bukowski?
Ralph and Johnny were on their way back to school after riding to McDonalds for lunch. Art class was next and that was just another example of how different they were. Ralph took art because it was easy. Johnny, on the other hand, was obsessed with it, and spent all his free time in the art room. Sometimes even when they should have been out looking for women, or trying to score beer, all he wanted to do was stay home, and work on art.
Next thing you know he'll be writing poems. Poems for God sake. That' all I'd need. A pal who wrote poems. Ralph thought as he glanced over at Johnny, pedaling along on his red three speed.
Johnny, on the other hand, was thinking about Janice. Ever since they started talking in study hall, and she passed him that note, that's all he could think about. What Ralph said didn't matter. It didn't matter that his mom said “you're too young to be in love.” He knew it wasn't true. He even asked her to go steady with him.
“Janice, will you wear my ring.”
“Do you really mean it?”
“Yeah, I guess so. I mean I think I love you. I want you to be my girl.”
Janice smiled. “Oh Johnny, you're so romantic. But don't you think we're too young to be in love?”
I don't think you're ever too young to be in love. It's just like the Beatles said, 'love is all there is.' I believe that, and I love you. I know that. I know it Janice.”
“But what about me Johnny? I mean, I don't really know what love is. I mean there are all those songs about love, and everybody talks about love and yeah, love is all there is, but is it? I mean there's a lot more going on than love, Johnny.
“You mean like pain, and suffering kind of “more”? I don't want to think about pain, and suffering. That's not what I want. What I want is to love you, and to have you love me.”
“Well you can't live on love.”
“Yeah but you can live for love.”
“What do you mean?”
“It's like a commitment, like going steady, or getting married is, a commitment. It's something to strive for. It's not easy. I know that. I mean look at Ralph if you want to see someone who can't make a commitment. You have to get outside of yourself, give of yourself, to love somebody.”
And so they went on about love. Dissecting it, and thrashing it, bashing it over the head, and hugging it close. Janice wasn't sure she understood a lot of what Johnny was talking about, but she did have feelings for him, even though she wasn't quite sure what they were.
On the way home from school Ralph asked, “So how's your great love going?”
“I don't know. She hasn't said she'd go steady with me. I can't even get her to say I love you. I don't know what's wrong with her.”
“I told you. She's a girl. They don't think like we do. I don't see why you're so set on going steady. All it does is limit the field. There are plenty of girls that will put out without having to make a big deal about it.”
“Yeah, maybe so, but I love Janice. You wouldn't understand.”
“You wouldn't understand,” Ralph said with a sneer. “What's to understand? You think I stay up at night mooning over anybody? Not me pal. I'm realistic.”
Johnny felt depressed. Nothing was going right. Janice wouldn't commit herself, and he was feeling crazier by the minute. He began to think that life wasn't worth living. The thought scared him.
Johnny found it harder and harder to stay positive. All he thought about was Janice. Janice, on the other hand, didn't seem very concerned. She still went out with him; to the movies, and the dances at the Elk's Club, but more and more she found his clinging, cloying insistence on love, and going steady, tiresome. Even her girlfriends, who normally were all wrapped up in a soap opera idea of love, began to laugh when she mentioned Johnny. Janice wished she felt differently because she thought that, at heart, Johnny was a nice boy. He certainly was devoted to her, but unfortunately his devotion was beginning to make her feel trapped.
“I mean really Janice, I can't imagine having some guy mooning over me all the time. That's not a guy thing, that's a girl thing. Who wants a girly guy?” Charlene said. “Besides he doesn't even go out for sports. All he does is that art stuff. I mean really, what's that all about?”
“He's creative Charlene, and sensitive. He can't help it if he goes a little overboard with his feelings. That's what artists are supposed to do. Artists aren't like other people;” she replied, in a feeble attempt to defend him. After all, if her friends started putting Johnny down it would be just a matter of time until they started putting her down.
“Yeah, well, I'd rather have a guy that was normal, like everybody else.” Charlene said.
“Who are you talking about?” Asked Linda Farley, the head of the cheerleading squad, and the most popular girl in the class.
“Johnny.” Charlene said.
“Uggg. You mean Mooney?”
“Mooney?” Charlene said.
“Yeah, that's what Betti called him. Said he moons around Janice like she's his goddess. I mean really Janice how can you stand it. There's so many guys a lot cuter than Mooney that would love to go out with you. Why settle for a wimp?”
“He's not a wimp.” Janice said, but her voice lacked conviction.
“Yeah? Well, maybe you two are a lot alike. What do you do, sit around sighing, 'Oh Johnny, oh Janice'? Do you want to end up like Belinda Lampky?”
“Oh Johnny, oh Janice,” Charlene repeated with a breathless sigh.
“Come on girl, get with the program before you get left out.” Linda warned.
The two girls walked away giggling, leaving Janice red faced, and on the verge of tears.
“I've got to stop this.” She said to herself. “Otherwise I won't have any friends left. I want people to like me.”
In his room Johnny felt sad.
“I feel like my life is a curse,” he said.
“What did you say Johnny?” His mother stood in the doorway.
“Nothing mom. What are you doing in here?”
“I'm wondering what's wrong with you. It's not Janice is it?”
“Oh, it's everything. Why?”
“I'm concerned. You hardly ate any dinner last night. The way you've been
moping around the house, and staying in your room, makes me worry. You can't let yourself go like that Johnny. Janice is a nice girl, and I know how you feel, but really, life goes on. In a couple of years you'll look back on this with an entirely different perspective.”
“Mom, you don't know how I feel. I'm going out for a bike ride. I'll be back later.”
“Make sure you're back for supper.”
As he wheeled down the street Johnny felt tired; tired of people telling him they knew how he felt, tired of feeling depressed, tired of life. There wasn't a bright spot anywhere. He didn't even feel comfortable calling Janice, because he was afraid she might not talk to him. He felt stuck, and had no idea what to do.
He rode over to Ralph's house. There on the lawn, Ralph was shooting at birds with his BB gun.
“Hay pal, what's the haps?”
“Not much.” Johnny said.
“Why the long face?”
“Oh man, not again. Listen, if you came over to get sympathy from me you might as well leave, because I don't have any. My only advice is to hook up with somebody, and get laid. That's the best medicine I can think of to cure what ails you.”
Johnny regretted having expected Ralph to understand how he felt. He had nobody that could help him out of the mood of despair that threatened to engulf him.
“I don't want to get laid.”
“Well what do you want.”
"I want to kill myself.”
It slipped out inadvertently but with such ease that he was startled. It was the first time he had put into words what had become the answer that made the most sense.
“Oh man, don't be dramatic, OK.”
“I'm not being dramatic. That's the way I feel.”
“Because of Janice?”
“Yeah, because of Janice, and just everything. Nothing is right, and I can't see it getting any better.”
“Do you realize how pathetic that sounds. Oh cruel world, I'm so in love that I'm going to kill myself. Geez, get a life will you.”
Johnny realized there was nothing he could say in response. Ralph was right. He was pathetic.
“I've got to go.”
“Why? Too close to home?”
“No, I told my mother I'd be home early.”
“Well, you better get going then. You want me to swing by in the morning?”
“Yeah, OK. I'll see you.”
Ralph cocked his BB gun. Johnny rode off wishing he wouldn't have talked to
Ralph. Why should he have expected Ralph to understand how he felt. No one could possibly understand. That's what made it so bad. He felt entirely alone.
How cruel is that? Entirely alone, and I can't stand my own skin.
He rode down Janice's street. He was stopped by something he saw in front of her house. It was Janice, getting into a 55 Chevy convertible. The top was down. In the front seat Charlene, and Teddy Connel were laughing. As Janice got in back he saw that there was somebody already there. It was a boy. He couldn't quite make out who it was. He quickly pulled his bike off the street, behind a hedge. The car was came toward him. Janice turned to the boy, and said something. Johnny couldn't see his face. Just as they passed Janice sat back. It was Mike Fink. Tears came to Johnny's eyes. Mike Fink, the worst possible person to be with her. Mike was a varsity guy and captain of the basketball team. Johnny had, on many occasions, overheard him bragging to his buddies about some girl that he had hooked up with. It was always a different girl.
And now it's Janice.
Johnny got back on his bike, and pedaled slowly down the street. He proceeded into the intersection without looking, and was nearly sideswiped by a passing pick up truck filled with garden tools. The driver honked, and shook his fist in the air.
Johnny was too numb to care. He kept riding until he came to his house.
In his room he looked at himself in the mirror. His tear streaked face was red and puffy. He felt horrible.There's nothing left to live for, he thought. His life seemed so insignificant that it was as if it would barely matter whether he was dead or alive. The cruel irony of seeing her with Mike Fink, just at the moment when he felt his worst, made even the idea of hope wither in him. He felt like a dead leaf hanging by a fragile stem; one of many that were about to fall. The thought made his life seem even less significant. He laid down on the bed and closed his eyes.
“Johnny, it's time for dinner!” His mother called from the bottom of the stairs. He ignored her. She called again, and again he ignored her. Then she was at his door.
“Johnny, didn't you hear me? Come to dinner.”
“I don't feel well.”
“Why? What's the matter?” She came over to the bed, and laid her hand on his forehead. “Do you have a fever?”
“No, I just feel sick to my stomach. Maybe I'll eat later.”
“Well, get some rest. I'll leave a plate for you. Call me if you need anything.”
“Yeah, I will.”
Alone again he laid there thinking about his life. He had always had such big dreams about what it was going to be like. As a result he felt sad, and disappointed when real life didn't measure up. His latest dream, to be a great artist seemed somehow hollow and insignificant. Even his love for Janice wasn't real, but only another of his dreams that seemed pale and insubstantial in the cold light of the reality that she didn't love him. That she had abandoned him for someone as normal and predictable as Mike Fink, who probably had never had a creative thought in his life, was the cruelest blow of all. He thought about Ralph, who was supposed to be his friend, but who had ridiculed something that meant more to him than life itself.He realized that there was nowhere to turn. No one to confide in, no hope anywhere that could dispel the overwhelming sense of grief, and loss, and failure that he felt so deeply that it didn't seem as if anything good could ever happen again. He wished that he was dead. But a new element was added to the mix of conflicting emotions that threatened to overwhelm him. He wished them dead as well. Janice, and Ralph, and Mike F ink, and Charlene. He wanted to do some real damage. To scream his pain to the world loud enough for everyone to take notice. To show everyone that although he was hurt he was able to do something creative with the pain. He just wasn't sure how.
Johnny had read about other kids who had gone on killing rampages. Most used guns. He had no idea where to get a gun. He thought about poison. There were a number of household chemicals that could kill a person. The idea that he could convince one of the others on his list to take them seemed unlikely. Beating them to death, for a while, seemed an option. He might beat Janice and Charlene to death, but he had his doubts about Ralph. Mike Fink was much too dangerous to consider. He wondered if he could run over them in a car, but that too seemed unlikely. In the end, even the idea of murder/ suicide seemed halted in it's tracks. If he was only killing himself it might be different, but it seemed only fair that the others should share his fate.
What to do?
In the mean time he began skipping classes. The only class he still attended on a regular basis was art class. The rest, by using forged notes, he had managed to avoid. He expected that it would only be a matter of time before Mr. Lowell began to wonder how he managed to spend most of the day in the art room.
More and more rapidly his life was narrowing down around him
The next day he was in art class. He stared at an unfinished portrait of Janice. She hadn't spoken to him in nearly three days.Her friends probably got to her. He thought.
Mr. Lowell spoke from over his shoulder. “How's the portrait coming Johnny? I
haven't seen you working on it.”
“No, I haven't. I can't seem to get it right. Now I suppose it doesn't matter.”
“Oh really, why?”
“Janice and I broke up. That is, I guess we broke up. She hasn't spoken to me in a while.”
“I'm sorry to hear that. It isn't uncommon for one of two things to happen to an artist who's inspired by a woman.”
“Yes. One is that they become unable to work, and two it spurs them to even greater commitment to their work.”
“Well, I think it's because they gain perspective. They realize what's lasting, and what's ephemeral. The value of art is that it gives a deeper understanding of the true nature of life.”
“What's do you mean?”
“That creativity is at the heart of all things.”
“Wow. I never thought of it like that.”
“Well it's the way I see it. I know that for me being a creative person has gotten me through some pretty serious personal crises. Maybe it can do the same for you.”
“Yeah but I'm not really an artist. I mean I'm just a student.”
“No, you're more than that. You're someone who seems drawn to the creative life. Everything you've done here has shown me that you have potential. You just need to learn to trust it to get you through the rough spots. There are always going to be rough spots.Every artist deals with them. Even if it's just that the work isn't going well. You've heard the saying, 'creativity is one per cent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration,' haven't you?”
“Well, that's what it means. You just keep on keeping on, inspired or not. Eventually you'll get through to the next level.”
Johnny appreciated that his teacher had treated him as an equal, and not talked down to him, or fatuously attempted to proclaim that he knew how he felt. It gave him an entirely new perspective on his problems. One that showed him that things weren't as dark and hopeless as he thought.
On his way home from school he took a side road, into the park. Autumn bloomed around him. The ground was carpeted with color. Leaves crunched underfoot whose smell brought back memories of other Autumns. He walked along the bubbling stream that wound through the park. He watched leaf boats whirl their way through the miniature rapids, or come aground on mud-banks among the cattails.He laid under a tree next to the stream, and closed his eyes. As he drifted, spots of color moved across his vision. He imagined they were windblown seeds planting themselves in his subconscious, waiting to be born.