Let me tell you a story about a boy I once knew, named Stan, who was blind -- metaphorically speaking, that is. Stan attended Wildwood Academy, a Seventh-day Adventist boarding school nestled in the green hills of North Georgia, a place where boys and girls could not touch; where the only meat served in the dingy, but well-lighted cafeteria was made from soybeans; where caffeine, if consumed, was consumed surreptitiously; a place where one was herded, with like sex, into a pale brick dormitory at 7:00 pm, whose doors were then locked until 5:00 a.m.; a place one couldn't leave unless a parent or a responsible adult over twenty-five, after signing a form, served as escort.
1991. Stan White, a Junior. A guy I knew very well. Maybe too well. Anyway, a nice guy, this Stan, with his acoustic guitar and peg-legged Bugle Boys, though not without hang-ups. Though Stan was sixteen, he'd never kissed a girl. Stan's problem? He worried. He worried about seizing the moment, worried about being caught by a faculty member, who would record the infraction, then report it to an administrative council, who would place the couple on "social", which meant the teens would not be allowed to communicate for four weeks. For Stan, presumably, it was better to forego kissing than to risk a month's separation from the one he adored.
But finally, when the chaperones weren't looking, Stan did kiss someone. It happened, as most kisses did for Wildwood students, on a bus -- during the junior class' annual History trip to New England. The girl -- Heidi Vanderhorn, a short, if not voluptuous, gymnast, whose grandfather was a well-regarded Adventist TV evangelist -- surprised him: she had, inexplicably, a prickly upper lip. At first, Stan assumed that his own lip, which he'd not shaved, was somehow turning back on itself. Then he tried to figure out why this girl would shave, but not wax, her lip, and why, if she had shaved, she hadn't shaved more closely.
But it didn't matter. The kissing being so new, prickly lips were overlooked.
- - -
The thing was, there was this other girl -- a senior named Mary Jane Butterworth. The year before, Mary Jane, a junior, had been in love with a senior: Bobby McClure. In their Ralph Lauren polos, Guess Jeans and Nikes, you might've mistaken them for a couple of snobs -- until they released the power of their unabashedly sweet smiles. They were the couple everyone wanted to know, the couple everyone hoped would stay together forever -- and the fact that others, noting their similarities, assumed they were siblings, only magnified their sense of destiny: people wanted, intuitively, to put them together.
But then Bobby graduated and, suddenly, Mary Jane was history.
Despite this setback, Mary Jane didn't stop smiling. After all, faculty and students assumed her to be the sweetest girl on campus, and she had a reputation to uphold. A sweet, smiling, tiny girl with a pretty face but no -- absolutely none -- boobs. No behind, either. No shape at all. Just a thin blade of a girl. But, as it turned out, this pretty-thin blade-girl didn't need boobs or a behind. There was something about her people adored. Maybe it was the way she laughed, in high-pitched hiccups. Maybe it was the way she hugged so tight and called you sweetie. Or maybe it was the legendary smile -- eyes squinching, nose wrinkling -- creating the illusion that you'd lit up her day. She was, no doubt, charming. Everybody liked her, except those who thought she was fake, and even they, on some level, had to admire the fakeness -- or at least acknowledge its power.
Mary Jane, despite her broken heart, had plenty to smile about. As a tiny, sick baby, she'd been given up by a terribly unfit mother and had, luckily, been adopted by a prominent family who lived on the outskirts of the academy, a family who lavished money and clothes upon their adopted baby, which, naturally, made her feel very special and very loved. These parents, they gave her a gold Fiero. They gave her gold necklaces and silver credit cards and Liz Claibourne pantsuits. Her father, as the town's only obstetrician, could afford it. His wife, a pouty-lipped blond who looked much younger than her husband, once visited Wildwood to teach a class on sex education, and held the attention of every boy, as well as a few of the girls. The Butterworths had three other daughters, all of whom were stunning, all very shapely, all well built and tall. Despite the apparent difference in size, short, skinny little Mary Jane -- wearing pink lipstick and curling her bouncy bleach-blond hair -- managed to look just like a Butterworth.
Mary Jane was a reader for the Spanish teacher, which meant she graded the occasional workbook exercise but mostly slurped Diet Coke, which she smuggled on campus using giant, blank Styrofoam cups, and talked to Stan, who dropped by between classes and made her laugh with impersonations and his general, uninhibited dorkiness.
After a while, Mary Jane pronounced Stan -- so adorable in that younger brother way -- her best friend, though everyone knew Mary Jane's real best friend was a short, thin black girl named Tan Cooper, who was often called upon to lead The Blood during vespers, because it was a song that required soul. And everyone knew Tan had soul.
Mary Jane and Tan talked shit about people, mostly about Bobby, who, now attending an S.D.A. college in Chattanooga, had fallen for a sullen-faced freshman with the curves of a twenty five year old. "A total ditz," Mary Jane had declared.
Stan had wanted, quite badly, to take Bobby's place. But as Mary Jane -- writing in bubbly pink ink, in the blank left field of a Hallmark card, explained -- she wasn't ready. Stan was her best friend, though, and the minute she was ready, he'd know.
So, in the meantime, Stan had taken up with Heidi Vanderhorn, a girl Mary Jane had nicknamed "The Plump Little Slut".
- - -
During the New England trip, Stan called Mary Jane from a Super 8 motel outside of Monticello, just as she'd had asked him to: she'd wanted to know her very best friend in the whole world was safe. When he made the call, Mary Jane surprised him by saying, in a tiny, almost embarrassed, baby-voice, "I am in love with you Stan White."
Stan thought about this for the rest of the trip: NYC, Concord, Salem, Boston. He thought about it when kissing Heidi's prickly lip. He thought about it as he lay in his sleeping bag on the floors of other Seventh-day Adventist boarding school gyms. He thought about it when talking to the blacksmith at Plymouth Plantation, when climbing the creaky secret stairway at the House of the Seven Gables.
When the busload of Juniors returned to the academy, Stan sat Heidi down on a concrete bench at the basketball courts, and let her go, as delicately as he knew how.
"You're a... a... fucking bastard!" Heidi exclaimed, then ran away.
Fifteen minutes later, Stan had called Mary Jane, who wanted him to come over to her house. In fact, she said, he should come immediately.
The boy's dean, a pudgy man with wispy hair and thick glasses and a sense of humor based on the fact that he was only pretending to be mean, gave Stan the okay. "Just don't make it a habit," he growled. Then he bit his lip and slugged Stan in the arm.
A delighted Mrs. Butterworth picked up Stan in her Lincoln. "What took you so long?" she asked, meaning, why haven't you made a move on my daughter before now?
A bashful Stan shrugged, grinning, the leather seat squeaking beneath him.
At the Butterworth home, in the kitchen, a party: Mary Jane's sparkly sisters, with their significant others, were drinking punch, eating popcorn and laughing.
Stan did not join this party. Instead, he was led, by the soft, cool, ringed hand of Mrs. Butterworth, into the parlor, where Mary Jane, wearing a lemon cardigan and tiny pearl earrings, waited on a pink couch. "Be good," Mrs. Butterworth instructed, smiling knowingly and sliding the wooden doors shut behind her.
Every weekend would be like this, Stan thought, politely caressing Mary Jane's hands as his tongue touched hers. Mrs. Butterworth would deliver him to the house and feed him vegetarian casseroles and then he and Mary Jane would make out in this parlor-like room or on Mary Jane's bed and he would inhale her Calvin Klein perfume and someday she would remove her shirt and though she didn't have much Stan would touch what she had and be very aroused, because she was the sweet, pretty-thin blade-girl who'd jabbed a hole into his heart and filled it with some kind of unimaginably warm and slightly painful goo.
- - -
It wasn't long after the initial kiss, however, that complications arrived.
The complication in this story involved Baylor Springs: a muscular, baby-faced black guy with long eyelashes. Baylor and Stan weren't friends, exactly, but they'd played basketball together -- and, incidentally, they'd played extremely well: Stan feeding Baylor great passes, Baylor flipping the ball back to Stan during a give and go. After the great plays, they high fived, low fived, and spanked each other on the behind.
Baylor and Mary Jane -- who'd been friends since their freshman year -- talked a lot. Stan knew how much they talked because he was the nighttime desk monitor at the boy's dorm, which meant that he spent most of his time sitting behind a glass window which looked out onto the impoverished lobby (a faded painting of two wild ducks, blue carpet with a maroon trim swallowing benches that had been built into the wall), listening to guys who'd signed up for phone time talk to their girlfriends or parents. Every night, during study hall, Baylor came down to the lobby with a quarter and called Mary Jane in the booth adjacent to Stan's desk, and every night, Stan, who was only pretending to study geometry, tried to eavesdrop, but Baylor's voice was too low, except, of course, when he was laughing, and then Baylor's gleefully unselfconscious hee-hee! resounded through the lobby. Sometimes, you could even hear it upstairs.
After an hour, Baylor would finally say goodbye to Mary Jane. Afterwards, he'd wave at Stan, form a gun shape with his hand above his head, point it at Stan, and say, "Mary Jane says hi," then jog to his room, his great wide feet slapping the floor.
"Thanks," Stan would mumble, wondering if, on his way back to his room, Baylor rubbed his hands together, or pumped his fist triumphantly.
- - -
One Saturday afternoon, after church, Mrs. Butterworth took thirty-six snapshots of Mary Jane and Stan in the Butterworth lawn. The couple leaned against pine trees, held hands, stared into each other's eyes, offered each other flowers, etc. "Oh, these are gonna be so good," Mrs. Butterworth said, a look of pained joy wrinkling her face. Mrs. Butterworth, as it turned out, was quite fond of Stan. Who wouldn't be? A good- looking, polite, white boy like Stan: what was not to like and admire?
Mrs. Butterworth, however, was not fond of black people, as it seemed to her that they had not been taught how to behave. "Those blacks," she'd said once, after witnessing a lively song service, "Do they always have to be so rowdy?"
"Would you say that about Baylor?" Mary Jane retorted, her hands on her hips, smiling mischievously. "What if I was dating him?"
"But you wouldn't date Baylor!" Mrs. Butterworth exclaimed. It was true. Mary Jane would never, ever date Baylor. She would do other things with him in her Fiero when no one was looking, but she would not, under any circumstances, date him.
Stan visited the Butterworth home twice. After that, things kept coming up. Senior trip. Shopping. Then, Mary Jane's sister had a baby in Chattanooga and on the weekends Mary Jane, who loved the baby very much, visited.
At least that's what she said she did.
People tried to tell Stan he was being used, played, whatever. That he was just a decoy. Stan denied it, as did Mary Jane. "Are you going to believe me or them?" she'd ask. "Do they know us? Do they know what we have?"
"I'm sorry," he'd say, staring at her patent leather shoes. "Can I come over?"
"Next weekend," she'd reply. Then she'd speed away, in her Fiero, towards "Chattanooga".
Stan and Mary Jane didn't last very long -- four, five months, tops -- but they remained close enough so that Mary Jane could pretend to be jealous if she saw Stan with another girl -- close enough so that when she called, Stan would come running.
- - -
It wasn't until after Mary Jane graduated that Stan, a senior, discovered the truth -- or, at least, part of it. He was in the dean's office, talking to Mary Jane on the phone about college, about the hunk who'd asked to escort her to Friday Night Vespers.
Just then, Joey, a tall, hunched, slovenly boy, walked into the office.
"Who you talking to?" he asked. Mary Jane, Stan whispered.
Joey snorted. "You still talk to that ho?" Stan frowned, covered the mouthpiece with his hand, and lifted his head. Joey, who'd been Baylor's neighbor the previous year, proceeded to tell Stan about the letters Baylor had let him read, letters written by Mary Jane Butterworth herself, that described the joy of sucking Baylor's schlong in her Fiero. "They used to fucking laugh at you, dude," Joey said. "I thought you knew." Stan hung up the phone -- and never spoke to Mary Jane again.
- - -
Stan never knew everything that Mary Jane and Baylor had done to each other. He said he didn't care, but we knew better. He wanted to know how it had worked. He wanted to know how they'd scheduled it. He wanted to know every lie. Not because he cared for Mary Jane Butterworth, but because he believed knowing would stop him from feeling so stupid. Unfortunately, he would never know. Nobody had the heart to tell him -- and each time he tried to call Mary Jane, he hung up before she answered.
Eventually, he stopped trying. Then, I expect -- I hope -- he forgot her.
- - -
Ten years passed. Baylor returned to Huntsville, Alabama, and started his own record label. He caught an STD a few years after graduation, and green oozed from the tip of his penis, but he's fine now; he has a great dope connection -- some of the finest weed in the Southeast.
Mary Jane, as you might have guessed, married a physician, works as a receptionist in his office, and lives a neighborhood titled "Stonehenge". She won't have kids -- actually, she can't have kids -- but they plan to adopt. Who knows, maybe the tiny baby they'll bring home will, once she grows up, look just like her mother.
And Stan? Nobody knows. I'd like to tell you how he turned out, but I can't. One can only hope that Stan moved on, that he stopped thinking about Mary Jane or Baylor or Wildwood Academy.
I mean, all that stuff happened when we were all just kids.
Am I right Stan? Did what happen when you were sixteen make any difference? If not, then why do I still want you to tell me you weren't really that blind? That you knew all along what you'd claimed you never known? That if the world still shits on you, at least you don't say you can't feel it?
Stan? Are you there? Can you hear me? Are you listening? Talk to me, old friend. Tell me all this is behind you. Tell me that you can't remember a thing. Tell me, even if it isn't true, that all these names don't even ring a fucking bell.
About the author:
Matthew Vollmer lives in Lafayette, Indiana with his wife Kelly and son Elijah. His work has appeared in New Letters, Paris Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, PRISM International, Tin House, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He is currently revising a novel.