There was a time when all of us wanted to be like Jack and Diane. It didn’t matter that we didn’t really like them. It didn’t even matter that we sometimes made fun of their names, same as the Top 40 song that was so popular all those years. They were clichés just like that song—popular, good-looking, initials in a heart carved on the side of a tree. And we worshipped them.
Jack (his full name was Jackson, but really no one ever called him that except maybe his dad when he was pissed at him) was a varsity football player, and though Diane was no cheerleader, she did have a lot of leads in the high school chorus. The freshmen and sophomore girls aimed for perfect imitation—how to get their hair to stay in such luscious curls all day long, cuff their pants at just the right length, choose just enough jewelry to stand out but not look like you were trying too hard. Jack and Diane were the standards to live up to, the topic of conversation worth having.
And then in later years, of course, there were the fights. Big, spectacular cinematic displays that got retold in a kind of Telephone Game, over and over again in the halls. Diane spilling beer on Jack’s head at a house party. Jack speeding off, tires squealing and smoking, from Diane’s house, his right tires rolling over the curb in his hurry, fury, to get away from her. Slammed phones, love notes shoved in lockers, rumors of a pregnancy, and then always, when the smoke cleared, the picturesque image of the two of them walking side by side through the lunch room, their hands in the back pockets of each others Levis Five-Oh-Ones.
Everyone in school knew it was clichéd. We all should’ve known, anyway. But there was something about Jack and Diane that made you believe. Even when they won Homecoming King and Queen—because, yes, that too happened—and someone switched their first dance song from “Open Arms” to “Jack and Diane” as a joke, even then it all seemed somehow fitting. And they took it in stride, awkwardly twirling to the fast beat, the hand claps, while John Cougar told them it wasn’t going to be like this forever, that they needed to make it all last as long as they could.
So they did. They swallowed the story as much as anyone else. Long after everyone graduated, tossed caps in the air and opened their 40s in their parents’ basements, long after they got jobs, got married, started paying for flood insurance and forgot all about Jack and Diane, those two were still swaying back and forth in that gym. They played that song until the record broke, ’til the tape ran out, and later they bought the CD as an upgrade. They played it until it wasn’t very fun anymore. And even after that, they kept going.
Let’s catch up with them now, heading down Central Street. It’s mid-summer, 2007. Next year will be our 10th high school reunion, and everyone will be talking about how there’s still no ring on Diane’s finger. (Only a few people will think it’s a true sin—the rest of us just need something to gossip about.) Jack is fiddling with the radio buttons, trying to find an AM station that actually carries the Penn State football game. He doesn’t want to miss any of it in the 10 minutes it takes to drive to his cousin Jen and her husband Bobby’s house, where they will have dinner tonight. Diane has even made a cake for the occasion.
Diane is fiddling with her dress, absentmindedly rubbing the soft silk of the skirt between her fingers. She’s not happy with her outfit—she was trying something different, something softer than she normally goes for and now she feels a little ridiculous, a little too old for the bright yellow flower print. She had even tossed a light, white scarf around her neck that Jen had given her as a birthday present several years ago. Diane never wears scarves, she doesn’t like the way they made her neck feel, and now, as we watch, she pulls it off and shoves it into her tiny purse where later it will mask the sound of her phone ringing.
“We’re going to be late again, and I just know that Jen’s going to say something about it,” Diane says, mostly to herself.
“Shh, shh, they’re going to pass it here.” This is Jack, of course, and if his voice seems deeper, gruffer, than you remember it, it’s probably from the years of working at Jiffy Lube and breathing in all that gasoline and oil.
Penn State is losing 14-17 against Michigan in the fourth quarter with seven minutes left to the game. Over the radio, a monotone voice crackles through the static. “Jensen’s on the fly, he’s back, he’s got an opening on the left and it’s a wide one out to Patson, complete pass, down to the 5-yard line.”
“Yes!” Jack claps his hands together once, pumps a fist in the air. He is thinking of that feeling, his team in the red zone. He’s thinking about lining up, slamming hard into whatever body happened to be in front of him, protecting his quarterback, hearing the thunder in his ears. Truly, predictably, nothing like it, folks.
Jack pulls up to Jen and Bobby’s house and cuts the engine. He is waiting, leaning forward, staring at the radio. Diane looks up at the house, a pretty two-story on the corner, and wonders if they’ve got a buyer yet.
Jack reaches over and fluffs Diane’s hair until she squeals and pulls away from him. He laughs. “Come on, babe, chill out. We’re going to dinner, not to the firing squad.”
“I know, I know. It’s just…” she stops, trying to decide what to say. “Well, you know.”
He does. That’s the beauty of being together for so long. You can read each other’s minds, finish each other’s sentences.
“They’ve got it in the bag now,” Jack says, which makes Diane roll her eyes and start chewing her fingernails out of nerves. He might’ve been the football player in high school, might’ve started the entire four years and might’ve been one of the guys responsible for the team’s run to states his junior year, but she knows a lot about football. Enough to know that if Penn State scores now, with three minutes left, there was still a whole lot of stuff that could happen.
“Quarterback sneak,” Jack mumbles. He presses his fingers together as if in prayer. The announcer calls the play—a swift pass to the center, and just as the receiver catches it, and the announcer and Jack in unison scream, “Touchdown!” Jen opens the front door of the house, pot holder in her right hand, and begins waving to them.
The deal is, Diane doesn’t really like Jen. And Jack doesn’t really like Jen’s husband Bobby. But Jen and Jack are family. And Jen just happened to mess around with, and then marry, one of the only guys on their high school football team that Jack hates.
And yet, pretenses are pretenses, and so when Jen greets Diane with a big hug and genuine seeming “hello,” Diane smiles warmly and clasps Jen’s hands. Bobby gives Jack a hearty slap-five handshake and asks him what beer will wet his whistle.
“Boss,” Bobby calls Jack by his nickname still, “glad you all could make it. Wish we’d done this more often, now that we’re leaving.” The 100 percent cashmere Ralph Lauren summer sweater vest that Bobby has deliberately worn for this evening is completely lost on Jack, who thinks a designer shirt is one that doesn’t have a beer logo on the front.
“Is it me or is it already starting to get darker earlier?” Jen asks Diane, navigating her to the kitchen, and Diane cannot help but wonder if this is some kind of dig on them being late. But before she can answer, Jen is on another topic. “So, we were going to grill out,” Jen continues, her eyes batting up and down, thick mascara clumping at the ends of her lashes. “But the grill died on Bobby yesterday, just up and kicked it. Which we thought, whatever, it’s less we have to move now, right?”
“Congratulations,” Diane says. “I’m so happy for you guys.”
“Thanks, love,” Jen says. She’s eternally been the girl who wants to lose 10 pounds. Even in high school, Jen never lost that baby fat, and as the years go on that 10 has stretched to 20, 30 pounds. Jen has a pretty face, spends tons of money on highlights and layers, and in the summer she can get away with spaghetti strap tank tops because her shoulders are thin and tan. And yet her body follows nearly perfectly the curves of the Bartlett pear sitting in the fruit bowl in the counter. When she bends down to retrieve two cans of Miller Lite from the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, it makes Diane a little sick.
“I brought a cake,” Diane says, setting the box on the counter.
“Oh, you made it?” Jen says distractedly. “Mom’s always saying how good your cakes are.”
“Aunt Rita says you like chocolate raspberry,” Diane says, waiting, but Jen doesn’t even bother to glance over at the cake. It had taken Diane the entire afternoon to make that cake, so we know she’s a little pissed about this, same way she used to get pissed at the drama girls who never said thank you when Diane would drive them all home after practice.
Jen passes the beers to Diane. “Would you mind?”
Diane sets her purse down on the kitchen chair and takes the beers into the living room for the boys. She makes a mental note to remember to check her phone. Her friend Jill’s idea, this phone “interview” with Mr. Todd Lucas, owner of some fancy bakery in New York City that Jill’s firm insured. He is heading to France for two weeks, but supposedly had agreed to call Diane from the airport before his flight to chat about the opening he has. Diane has her doubts.
The guys immediately crack the cans open and stand in front of the TV to watch the end of the game. “I’ve got that Sunday ticket deal for the NFL,” Bobby tells Jack, spouting off all the perks and, of course, the price. Jack just nods, concentrating on the TV where Michigan, Diane sees with a cringe, has ran the ball back up the field and is threatening to score once again. Penn State had gotten a penalty, which advanced Michigan half the distance to the goal line with a first down. Four opportunities to score.
“So the douchebag that wanted my job is giving me shit now,” Bobby is telling Jack. “He’s filing a complaint with Human Resources that they didn’t consider Affirmative Action during the interview process.”
“Is he black?”
“Nah, Hispanic,” Bobby says, moving his fingers in air quotes.
“That covers them?”
Bobby shrugs. “I guess so. Any kind of minority.”
“The rate stuff’s going, we’ll soon be the minority.”
“Hills to bills, I’ve had three more years’ experience and just closed out a 1.5 million deal. And he’s telling me he’s more qualified because of his taco-making skills? Pfft.”
This is it, Jack sees. The fuckers have run down the clock enough to win now. A slew of Penn State fans are filing out of the stands, heads down. Time clock management. It gets them every time. You think they’d learn.
Bobby is still on his long story about his job, and Jack interrupts him. “So what’s your new title again?”
“Regional account manager,” Bobby says proudly, setting it off with a burp. Jack has no idea what that means or what Bobby does at the bank, and he doesn’t much care. He just knows this new promotion is taking them both to Philadelphia, a big-shot deal that no one will shut up about. Bobby always had this bullshit pompous attitude about everything. He always does it better than anyone else.
“Ah fuck,” Bobby says. “They’re going to lose.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jack says.
“Stupid assholes can’t play defense worth a damn.”
“It was the offense. They scored too soon.”
“Well, scoring ain’t a bad thing, Boss.” Bobby laughs. “But if your defense can’t hold ‘em back, well, that’s where the problem lies, eh?”
Jack smiles, itching to punch him. It’s always been like this. Mr. Wide Receiver back in high school. He remembers Bobby getting in his face. “I won this game for you assholes and you pay me back by leaving a wide fucking hole down the middle?” And then later, once Bobby had gone on to college, even when he’d sat on the bench for Penn State an entire year, never once getting field time, he managed to blame it on someone else. The coach, the schedule. And then when he did play, and a cornerback slammed into his legs, busting out his knee, it ruined his career in about 5 seconds.
“Whatever you say, dude,” Jack says, and holds up his can. “Can I have another?”
As they sit down to dinner, outside on the patio where they use generic bug spray to try to keep the mosquitoes away, swear to God, out of Jen’s tiny iPod speakers Diane can hear that John Cougar song on low. “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone.” It almost has to be a joke set up by Jen on purpose, but when Diane studies her, she can’t find any trace of smugness. Jen is dishing out heaps of potato salad on everyone’s plate and chattering on about health insurance. They’re all a little drunk, and Diane realizes she’s the only one paying attention to the music. She hates that stupid song.
Jen’s using the defunct grill as a wobbly side table to put the beans and napkins on. They are sitting on tiny lawn chairs, fine enough size for the women, but Jack’s knees come up to his chest and he keeps having to adjust so he doesn’t topple the whole table over.
“So the house we got in Philly is in a really good school district,” Jen is telling Diane. “It’s ranked like fifth in the state or something.”
Diane nods, and takes a large swig of her beer. “That’s probably good for the property values then.” She’s once again studying Jen’s face for any signs of spite, but Jen seems truly in her own world. Lucky, lucky her.
Jen shrugs, glances shyly at Bobby, who’s in the middle of a story, and then she leans in towards Diane. “We’ll probably start trying this fall.”
Diane feels a little sick to her stomach. She wants to change the subject but she is at a loss as to how. There’s only one thing that makes her feel better here and that is imagining all the weight this woman will gain when she’s pregnant, ingesting everything within arm’s reach. Don’t judge Diane, she feels guilty enough.
“Eff that game,” Jack says loudly, interrupting Diane’s thoughts and the awkward conversation, and Diane turns with relief to him.
“They’re shitty this year,” Bobby is saying. “Sometimes it happens. You can’t always have a winning year.”
“So Michigan scored on the penalty?” Diane asks, though she already knows.
“Who cares,” Jen mutters.
“What do you think?” Jack says.
Diane shrugs. “Sorry.” She pauses, then says, “You know, I really hate that penalty.”
“Which?” Bobby asks, since Jack is preoccupied with trying to fit his entire chicken leg into his mouth.
“The half the distance to the goal line. It’s weird. You could keep going and going and going and yet you’ll never reach it.”
Bobby whistles, grinning. “Whoa, that’s deep Diane.” He leans over and knocks his knuckles lightly against her head. “Watch out or your ears will start smoking there.”
He’s always tried to flirt with Diane, ever since high school, and he’s always failed pretty miserably at it. Still, there was a time, a brief time before Bobby started dating Jen, where Bobby and Diane were really close friends, and it is that time that allows Diane to forgive him for his obnoxiousness. Bobby laughs loudly, too loudly, and then when he finally catches himself he grabs his beer and holds it up.
“Time for a toast! To Philly,” Bobby toasts himself, and they all chime in, clinking bottles together like one big happy family. The wind starts to gust up and Diane is thinking of possibilities. She has her purse with her, draped against the back of her chair, and she checks her watch again.
“To the future,” Jen adds, winking at Diane. “You never know what it might hold.”
Diane feels her chest getting hot, wondering how Jen knows about the phone interview, but then she realizes Jen is just on her old crusade. Jack knows it too, and it irritates him. His cousin is much too nosy for her own good, and part of him hopes they’re miserable in their new place. But just a tiny part of him, really. He’s always been a pretty generous person underneath all the guy-ness, which is why we think Diane has tolerated him for so long.
“Cuz, you should really worry about your own situation,” he says.
“What do you mean?” Jen asks, picking a gnat out of her untouched water glass and flicking it on the deck.
He shakes his head in a way that he imagines to be more scornful than it actually is. “Your hints. About everything.”
“Well, sometimes you need a push, that’s all.”
“Well, sometimes not everyone is in the same situation you are.” And they shouldn’t be, Jack is thinking. In this town, people don’t leave. We stay, vote for the wrong people, bitch about the potholes, get married, drink pink champagne and worry about the future. Then we have babies that grow up and get married and stay here and bitch. Circle of Central PA Life, my friends, and it really gets under Jack’s collar that Bobby and Jen are breaking the rules.
“Oh God, Jack, honestly. How many years has it been?” Jen is asking, trying to be casual, but her shaking hands are giving her away. Diane remembers a moment at Jen and Bobby’s wedding, several years ago when, passing her in the hallway, Jen had stopped Diane, clutched her cheek in her hand and spoke softly, “Oh, honey, don’t worry that you didn’t catch my flowers. I’m sure you’ll be next.”
“Yeah, buddy, you ever think about going back to school?” Bobby’s saying now to Jack, dishing out the advice like Jen dished out her cheeseburger casserole, heaps and heaps of gooey smugness. He tips his beer their way and winks. Yep, he winks. “There are all kinds of new programs now, night classes and shit. You could get a degree in a year or two.”
Diane rolls her eyes. “I think Jack’s doing fine, Bobby.”
Bobby shrugs. “Hey baby, I’m not trying to get up in your boy’s grid. I’m just sayin’.”
Diane feels her face get hot. “Saying what? Do you know that Jack got promoted recently, too?”
“Diane—” Jack starts to say, but Diane just gets louder.
“No, he didn’t tell you because he doesn’t like to brag, doesn’t like to go off about all his accomplishments, but he’s the manager there now.” She smiles at Jack, but he looks past her, his face pinched.
“Jesus, Jack, that’s great,” Jen says. “But that wasn’t even what I was talking about. I meant you two. Ever thought about settling down, you know, for real?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, Jen,” Jack erupts.
Diane stands suddenly, interrupting both of them. “Excuse me, I need to use the bathroom.”
“Oh Diane, don’t run. God.” Jen looks up at her. “Don’t you ever want a ring on your finger?”
Jack snorts. “A ring? Please.” He nods at Bobby. “I see what happened to him when he married you. We aren’t going that road.”
Jen sits up straighter, her eyebrows pinched, and Diane just thinks, serves you right. She gets up from the table and takes one long look at the beans on her way inside. She has the urge to smear them all over Jen’s tiny perky face.
“Oh come on,” Bobby is saying. “It’s not that bad.”
“Oh, thank you very much,” Jen says, her voice leaking into the hallway as Diane opens the bathroom door, presses her head against the cool bathroom mirror and breathes. She can’t hear them anymore.
Shit. She forgot her purse, her phone. Mr. Lucas is probably calling her now, or will be soon. Mr. Lucas. What kind of name is that, anyway? It sounds stupid to her, sounds like some guy in a stupid movie set in a place far away. She thinks it’s so ridiculous she laughs out loud at herself. “Yeah, right, Diane Lynn Shushinski. Just who the hell do you think you are?”
Diane collects herself, splashes some water on her face. When she comes out, Bobby is in the hall, leaning against the wall waiting for her. “They’re still bickering out there, like little hens,” he says, and his voice is slightly slurred. Everything seems slow motion.
“God, I wish they would just drop it,” Diane says, fluffing her hair nervously.
Bobby smiles, pushes himself off the wall towards her. “Diane, you’ve still got the most beautiful set of eyes I’ve ever seen on any woman.”
She flushes, presses her thumbs together. “Thanks, Bobby,” she barely says, and pushes by him quickly, up the stairs and into the kitchen, where she can hear Jen’s high-pitched voice rushing hurriedly in her own defense.
Jack has always liked the song “I Am a Rock.” He thinks of the words now as he settles in to his too-small chair, tipping back his sixth can of beer. It’s late summer, and honestly, what can be better than that, sitting outside with a nice buzz and the night air settling in around you, confident in your own view of the world, a rock, an island. He looks at Jen and Bobby and he pities them and their little views of the way things should be. He always has. He remembers going over to his aunt and uncle’s house when he was a kid, and how Jen used to want to play house with him. She cooked dinner and he pretended to come home from work. She really enjoyed setting the table and asking him how his day was.
As if she’s messing with him, Jen claps her hands. “We’ve got dessert!” she says. “Diane’s cake! Who wants some?”
“I think I want to play some football,” Jack says suddenly, feeling it wash over him in cold certainty.
Bobby laughs. “You’re nuts.”
“No, come on,” Jack says again, his eyes darkening. “Just one pass. For old times sake.”
Jen laughs nervously, her eyes focused on Bobby in a way that Diane can’t read. “You boys and your games,” she says, trailing off at the end. Diane refuses to look at her. She wants her to hang dry on this one. And Diane knows, with a vicious smug satisfaction, that her Jack will prevail. We all know it, too, though we can’t help feeling a little sorry for Bobby, who’s surely regretting the sweater vest right about now.
“Alright, just one,” Bobby says, setting down his bottle next to the grill. Jack grins. He knows Bobby can’t bear to look like a pussy in front of him. All those times at practice, in the locker room, the challenges Bobby never backed down from, the fights Bobby went for even when he knew he’d lose. Jack tosses him the football, and Bobby tosses it back.
“Go out,” Jack says, and Bobby starts running. He looks funny to Diane, a banker running in his pressed khakis. She realizes they are getting too old for this. She has a bad feeling, the way we used to all feel way back when hauling six-packs up to the old coal mine, but she thinks if she doesn’t pay much attention, if she just goes along with it, everything will be all right.
“He’s such an asshole,” Jen mutters next to her. Diane doesn’t know who she’s referring to.
“Farther, farther,” Jack shouts, until Bobby gets almost to the back fence. “Now!” he says and lets off a perfect spiral throw right into Bobby’s open arms. And his daddy always said he should’ve been a quarterback.
Bobby catches it and starts running back. If his knee is bothering him, he doesn’t show it. He has his hands up in the air, holding the football like he is about to spike it, like the world is about to leap to their feet in wonder, when Jack lunges at him.
Let’s freeze this for a moment, the two guys in motion, about to collide. There is something about this moment that seems inevitable, sure, we felt that from the moment Jack and Diane stepped into the house. Too much history there, for sure. We know some of it. We know enough to know that even though this is happening, it’s not really going to change much. You can’t change all those years, all the little hurts, the vicious rumors, the day-to-day decisions that people make that pile up, one on top of the other like a very elaborate, sickeningly sweet cake. You just have to take a small slice and eat it.
Here’s what we know: that Jack, at this moment, has had three-too-many beers. And he’s dying to wipe that smug smile off Bobby’s face. He wants to knock him down, show him they aren’t on the same team anymore. That they were never on the same team. He’s thinking about high school—we all do when we get together in groups—and he’s thinking about Diane.
We don’t really know all of the story. Like we said in the beginning, there were lots of rumors, and after awhile around here rumors become fact. We know that some of Diane’s friends said she was in trouble, of the nine-month variety. We know she and Jack broke up for awhile around that time, for longer than their other break-ups, for long enough that we worried that that might really be it. We know that she and Bobby were good friends then, that she would trust him to help her. But we can only imagine, along with Jack, what really happened the day she might’ve gone to do it. Bobby’s hand on Diane’s back, rubbing her as he walks her up to the clinic. Diane signing papers, meeting the doctor, hands sweating, thin hospital gown fraying at the edges and curling up around her calves—we imagine it as surreal, we imagine she may have pulled away as though she was watching a movie, watching all this happening to someone else.
Then Bobby waiting, pacing the waiting room while it happens, collecting her when it’s over, driving her home, maybe even kissing her cheek, wishing somehow it was different. Wishing maybe he was the one. We don’t know what happened when Diane finally found herself alone, curled up on the bed with her giant stuffed panda, staring at the walls covered in Bryan Adams and Christian Slater posters that only a few of us privileged folks had ever seen. We’re not sure who she told, or even who we ever heard it from in the first place. We don’t know how she feels now.
That’s the stuff we don’t really talk about when we all get together. That’s the stuff we only speculate at home, in bed in the dark with our wives, kids sleeping in the next room, water leaking in the bathtub. That’s when we say it aloud, justifying our own decisions maybe—the real reason we think Jack won’t marry Diane.
We do know, however, that when Jack throws himself into Bobby’s middle out there in the backyard, he wants to hurt him. He wants to break bone.
The two of them crash loudly into the grill and fall to the ground. Jack feels the crush of a beer bottle pressing into his skin and it feels good.
Jen screams. It takes Diane longer to react and by the time she stands up, the guys have rolled away from each other. Jack is groaning, and Diane can see blood on the back of his shirt. Bobby is holding his knee with one hand and with the other he’s still clutching the stupid football.
“What the fuck?” Jen shouts, her face so red it is almost purple. “What is wrong with you guys? What is wrong?”
“I’m fine,” Bobby says, but he isn’t and they can all see it.
“Jesus Christ, you guys will never grow the fuck up,” Jen screams now, and in her pinched face Diane can see her clearly, her bumpy cheeks and thin lips, that small chin that makes her look defensive all the time, all that make-up she uses and always has used, even in high school, how jealous she (and everyone else) always was of Diane’s perfect skin. The way she always mocked her with, maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybeline as though by making fun of Diane it would bring them on an even plane, make Bobby stop looking at her like that when he thought Jen wasn’t watching.
Diane pulls the broken bits of glass from Jack’s back. He groans, burps. He feels heavy, large, a massive sack of a burden. Her burden. If he was really hurt, she wonders how the heck she would ever lift him into the car to drive him to the hospital. It overwhelms her in a way she hasn’t felt in a very long time—the idea of being responsible for someone else—and Diane feels like leaping off the side of the deck and running until her legs fall off.
Jen is still yelling, now through blubbery tears. She has a cordless phone in her hand and is waving it around talking about calling an ambulance.
“Will you just shut up?” Diane says, even though we know what she really wants to say is: do you realize how much better you have it, you dumb bitch?
“No one ever gets by me,” Jack is saying. He sits up, smacks his thigh. Somewhere in the distance, they all hear a loud rumble from some young punk gunning his motorcycle’s engine. “No one. You might think you have, but I know it.”
Diane rolls her eyes and sits back on her heels. Somewhere, underneath all the shouting and confusion, she thinks she might hear the chipper beeping of her phone, the electronic tinny version of a rock song popular many years ago, but she’s not really sure, and anyway, it’s too far away for her to get it.