The last time I saw Jarrod, I didn’t see his face. I saw the back of his body. Long legs in blue jeans and black shoes. A black button-down he wore too often. Unusually long hair. He retreated to a blue Yamaha motorcycle that I would have condemned had we still been going out. I watched from behind a flowery curtain in my childhood bedroom that faced the street, having just told my mother to dismiss him like a Jehovah’s Witness or a child selling chocolate bars. I watched him and thought two things. One: Why are you bothering me after a year of not talking? Two: I hate motorcycles.
A month later, Jarrod and his blue Yamaha motorcycle collided with an oncoming car in Topanga Canyon. His 23-year-old body died the same day.
Jarrod in 2003 is part mystery, part obvious. At 23 years old, he lived in the same suburban neighborhood as me, 21 in 2003. We’d lived in that neighborhood almost our whole lives. His house was on Carob Street, shared with a grandma who took anxiety meds, a grandpa who liked to curse, a momma with peculiarly long acrylic nails, and a little sister who considered him the greatest man in the world.
I’ve no idea what his job was. No idea who his girlfriend was. No idea what had urged him to buy a motorcycle, grow his hair long, or come see me just before he died. We had not spoken in a year and even then our interactions were brief and awkward. He’d ask genuine questions in the boldness that was his character—why had we failed? Why had I stopped loving him? Who was the new guy? And I’d dismiss him, saying my new boyfriend didn’t like me talking to ex-boyfriends, saying I was afraid of being tied down to someone I knew my whole life, saying my parents didn’t want him coming around anymore, saying I wanted to be friends in a most unfriendly way.
I knew his mother had ordered the clam chowder soup. Her voice was highly recognizable. She had called my parents numerous times throughout the years as an old family friend, and she picked up the phone often when I called to speak to Jarrod. She ordered clam chowder soup, one of the many uncharacteristic items on the International House of Pancakes menu, and I knew it was her voice and I knew it was his favorite soup and knew it was his plan.
He showed up no less than 20 minutes later, but the soup was already tepid in its styrofoam container. I’d conveniently set it up in its paper bag with crackers and napkins and utensils in clean plastic sleeves so our interaction would be short. But just the sight of his body standing there in his favorite black button down, his blue jeans, his black shoes, made me feel nothing but guilt.
“It might be cold by now,” I said to him.
He smiled halfway. “It’s ok,” he said, handing me a ten-dollar bill in such a way that I wouldn’t miss the tattoo on his right wrist. A tattoo he may have thought I’d stupidly forgotten.
“How are you?” I asked, pulling a 5 and change out of my register, which he motioned away for my tip.
But he responded with another question, “How was Italy?”
“Hi, can I speak to Jarrod?” I said to his grandmother in a fake English accent.
My best friend Gia sat beside me on my bed, giggling feverishly. A small pipe sat in her shaky hands and our room was thick with marijuana smoke. Laughs turned to coughs. Coughs turned to more laughs. And we’d decided of all the things to do in Florence that night—walk the Ponte Vecchio, eat gelato, do our Italian homework, make out with handsome foreign men—prank calls were the most fun.
“Hello?” he answered, his voice weary.
I put my hand over my mouth in excitement, the sound of his voice a misplaced but comforting surprise. Gia put her head down in the bed, probably laughing so intensely because she had forgotten what was so funny. Bits of cannabis ash fell to the bedspread.
“Hello?” he said again, this time impatiently.
“Hello,” I said in my normal voice and hung up the phone.
“Please, let’s just go with them. I beg you!” Gia in begging mode was a pathetic sight. Her eyes looked teary, her rambling was full of desperate promises to make it all up to me, and her 4’11” frame shook in hopeful fervor.
Jarrod had just called to say he wanted to see me before I left for Italy and if I didn’t want to be alone with him, he would bring along his friend, Mike. Gia had had a crush on Mike for years, long before Jarrod and I officially dated and she saw this outing as her big chance.
“I’ll get wine and we’ll go for a drive. It won’t be weird, I promise,” he’d said.
So I agreed.
Jarrod and his friend Mike picked us up from my parents’ house and we rode in the car as if it were a double date. Jarrod and I up front; Mike and Gia in the back. I smoked cigarettes the entire time and drank from the bottle while we blasted music and Jarrod drove as he always had—fast and foolishly.
We wound up at a place near Pasadena that I only know by its nickname—the Enchanted Forest. Most of the ride, and even as we got out of the car and walked into the darkness of enchantment, I talked mostly to Gia who talked mostly to Mike. Jarrod trailed on behind us with a blanket, a bottle of wine, a bottle of vodka, and chocolate covered strawberries he said he’d dipped himself. I tried to pay no attention to him.
Sometime into the midst of high-alcohol-content and chocolate bliss, Gia and Mike disappeared into the woods and Jarrod and I decided to make out on the blanket to cure the awkward silence between us. We had never had an official ending or break-up conversation. Things had simply sputtered off into missed phone calls, unreturned messages and frequent unintentional encounters we both treated with panic. To make out with him was familiar and comforting and because of this truth, our kisses quickly turned frantic and messy. We’d begun to let our hands trail and our breathing get quite heavy until I decided it was not a good idea and pushed him off me.
“I’m not getting into this again,” I said, bolting up and heading back towards the car.
“It’s just kissing!” he said, coming up behind me and taking my arms.
I shook him off and told him I wanted to go home, but he insisted he needed to show me something first. I followed him out to the car, where from the trunk he pulled out a large charcoal drawing of me lounging naked on his bed. “When did you do this?” I asked, figuring he must have done the drawing when I was there. The likeness was too perfect to be done out of memory. And I’d certainly not allowed him to photograph me naked.
He hesitated. “I don’t know. A while ago.”
I stared wonderingly at the drawing, trying to place the day this drawing must have been done, growing increasingly nervous as I wondered.
Then suddenly it came back to me. I knew exactly the day and I could see it in my charcoal eyes. I immediately told him to get Gia and Mike so we could leave.
On my 19th birthday, I served Rooty Tooty Fresh N’ Fruities, carafes of OJ, and endless coffee to IHOP customers who didn’t leave good tips. Gia had plans to take me out in the evening to a bar whose bouncer didn’t care about our dates of birth when we planted kisses on his cheek. My parents had given me extra spending money for my upcoming trip to Italy. But I was lonely.
I took numerous trips to the bathroom during my shift, accompanied by a cumbersome sadness that I couldn’t articulate.
One of these times, Jarrod showed up just as I was retreating, wiping my snot with toilet paper. We’d been broken up for months and I didn’t even know why, but there he was anyway, a loyal friend. He handed me a small box and told me to look after he left.
Inside were the first diamond earrings a boy ever gave me. The first diamonds period. I put them in place, a stark contrast with my syrup-stained IHOP uniform and cried some more.
My cousin decided to have his 21st birthday party at my parents’ house because we had a swimming pool and backyard area that could accompany all of his friends—one being Jarrod.
Jarrod showed up bearing a bottle of SKYY Vodka and the moment my mother saw him, she pulled me aside and told me that he was not allowed at the party and to ask him to leave.
“I understand,” he said, his eyes stuck to his feet. I’d asked him to come out to the front yard with me so we could talk.
“They just need to cool down about everything,” I tried to explain, already tipsy from screwdrivers. “I hope this doesn’t hurt your feelings.” And then I reached out to him and gave him a quick hug before thanking him for the vodka and running back to the party. He sped away in his silver car and I let my mom know the coast was clear.
It could have been boredom. Most likely that’s exactly what it was, but at the time it felt like mania. It felt like skin-crawling paranoia. Like panic that might never cease. Like the most unbearable amount of awareness that life would always be this meaningless. Like being 18 years old was a gift I could not appreciate and never would. Like life was a gift I didn’t want.
I called him up and told him I was sorry. So sorry. I knew we were broken up, I told him, but I needed his help. I was freaking out and didn’t know why. The pills he had given me were only making me feel more fearful, more paranoid. And I’d taken too many. I was driving in circles around the neighborhood, afraid to go home, afraid to crash my car. Afraid I’d do something I couldn’t undo.
He told me in his calmest voice to come to his house and he’d make it ok. So I did. I found my way to his house, collapsed in his room, told him I was sorry about leaving him. Told him I was sorry about being so angry all the time.
“But it’s your anger I love most,” he said, kissing my forehead while my eyes poured out onto his pillowcase and my fists beat against his messy sheets.
“What? My anger? How can you love that?”
“Because when you’re angry, you mean it. You mean what you say. You’re really alive then.” And he continued kissing.
I guess that was a compliment or some roundabout way to give a compliment, but I wasn’t having it. I jumped off the bed, grabbed the bottle of anxiety medication from my purse, pills he’d stolen from his grandma for me, and I gobbled them down in three or four hungry, senseless gulps before he could even figure out what I was doing and snatch them away. I’d taken about 8 or 9 of them. I stumbled back over to the bed, hoping this accident would run its course and not be undone.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he screamed, starting to cry in panic. I slowly drifted off.
I remember five flashbacks from that particular night. 1) Rolling off his bed and throwing up in a big white bucket he held out in front of me. 2) Telling him to put music on really loud so his family wouldn’t hear me. 3) Explaining that my heart was slowing down and he needed to speed it up with sex. 4) Lounging naked on the bed while he made sketches on the other side of the room. 5) Having him drop me home.
I woke up the next morning in violent sweats and threw up more before calling my mom up at work and telling her what I’d done. She rushed home and sat with me in tears while I tried to explain that I’d only had a bad day and that I shouldn’t have told her. She told me from then on, Jarrod was no longer welcome in her house.
First there was Valentine’s Day. Then there was the breakup. This is how I planned it. I knew in that first chilly February week that it wasn’t going to work, but I didn’t want to spend Valentine’s Day alone so I waited. I’d had it with his elaborate stories, with his relentless phone calls, with his romanticism that had begun to border on obsession. He wanted an everyday, all-day love affair and I wanted space. His stories about skateboarding, his pot-smoking, even his lovemaking had grown predictable. I always knew what he was doing because he always told me. He always knew what I was doing because he always asked.
On Valentine’s Day, he showed up at my parents’ house with 2 giant white buckets that he could barely carry, overflowing with long-stemmed roses. There must have been about four dozen. I didn’t have enough vases for them so that’s the way they graced my room. In two giant white buckets. We had a sushi dinner, went rollerskating and made love in a cheap Travelodge motel room.
Sometime between check-in and check-out, we got into a heated argument about something I can’t remember, and I locked myself in the bathroom. He said he was leaving but that I had to wait for him. He would be back in a few hours.
I came out of the bathroom, went to the bed and fell asleep.
When he returned, he said he was sorry and that he had a gift for me. That’s when he pulled up his sleeve, lifted a flap of gauze taped to his wrist, and showed me the tattoo. A blue Aquarian sign interlaced with a red Leo sign. Our astrological fates forever ingrained in his flesh. We made love again.
A few weeks later after a drive to Santa Barbara that would lead to more arguments I can’t remember, I would let him take me to a fancy restaurant in Malibu where I would break up with him over a dinner of steak and scallops. That same night we would have sex and I would tell him that despite what he might think, we weren’t making love. We were fucking. I was ruthlessly angry at him for reasons I could not understand.
Late January 2001
On his 21st birthday, we drove to Belmont Shores in Long Beach and I told him I had a gift for him. I told him I loved him.
Early January 2001
He loved to drive fast. And that’s how we were driving, down this dark empty street late at night, curving sharp around turns, just missing curbs, flying through yellow lights. And I was looking down at my hands at one point, somewhat nervous about looking but too afraid to say so. Then he yelled, “Look!” And when I looked up, I screamed because we were just about to hit a concrete wall until he swerved left and finally slowed down.
“Oh my god!” I yelled, putting my hand against my thumping chest. “Why would you do that?” I started laughing.
But he wasn’t laughing. He was as complacent as ever, his black, untelling eyes fixated on the dark road ahead. “That’s the feeling I get every time I see you.”
I hadn’t seen him in years. We bumped into each other at a town hall meeting where my parents were playing active citizens and he was requesting funding for a new skateboarding park in the city. He was taller than I’d ever seen him, serious and handsome in a black button down, blue jeans, and black shoes. We instantly recognized each other.
After the town hall meeting, we went out for drinks, but neither of us was yet 21, so we drank cokes. I was attracted to him in a way I’d never considered. I talked incessantly about what I remembered of him as a kid, I talked about what I was doing now, about what sorts of things I liked, what I didn’t like, and so on. He did the same. We talked for hours until we were the last two in the restaurant and when we parted that night we knew things were somehow changed for good. What had been changed, we did not know. But for months after this night, we couldn’t stop talking about those hours. As if we hoped we could find something significant in them but could not.