Jason Lee was the most handsome person I had ever seen. Tall and lean with a tendency to stoop, when he walked he veered to the left as if he was listening for his name to be called far off in the distance. His eyes were bright and clear and the deepest blue this side of a dark evening. The first day I saw him I was walking to school with my brother James, and in those days I was a Jesus freak, so none of the neighborhood girls asked me to walk with them for fear I might try to convert them all to being Christians, and then they couldn’t smoke or drink or play hooky, so James and I passed the time talking about what teachers we had, what time we would meet after school. We lived less than a mile away from our middle school, and we walked rain or shine. We wished we had family to drive us, but since momma went to work about 7 am, there wasn’t anybody. In fact, if we hadn’t lived with grandma, I’m not sure we would have gone to school at all, but she made sure we were up and out and well-fed to boot and she wasn’t fooling around about that.
None of us kids met Jason before the start of the school year, though he’d come in July, so when I saw him walking ahead of us, I wanted to say hello, but his sister made me nervous. Her clothes were strange. She wore long white socks under a pair of knickers - which wasn’t how we wore knickers at all - and wooden clogs that thumped like bass drums on the sidewalk. Her sweater, too bulky for the sweltering fall weather, had bright green, yellow and purple stripes, and she had rolled the sleeves to her bony elbows, making donuts above her forearms. Her red spiral notebook was stuffed with multicolored paper and pages hanging out.
Jason and his sister followed the boisterous parade toward the middle school as kids joined other packs of kids, everyone talking and shouting. Eventually my brother moved off to walk with his friends down the spooky path, and knew I’d better walk a little faster if I wanted to walk with someone, too. James and his sister were right in front of me as we entered the deep shade of the cut-through and they step-clomped over the wooden bridge. Everyone threw a penny over the bridge on the first day of school, which he didn’t know about, and as they walked over the bridge without stopping, I felt I had to do something.
"Hey!" I said, a smidge too loudly. "You can’t go over the bridge without throwing in a penny. It’s really bad luck. You’ll get bad grades all year." Jason Lee stared at me, and I was sure my new bright red pimple, exquisitely limp brown hair and so-thick-as-to-be-opaque glasses would scare him half to death. It seemed he thought I was crazy; I could see it in his eyes. His sister simply turned on her heels and kept going, but Jason half-smiled and tossed in a dime.
"But it’s got to be a penny," I insisted and handed him the penny I had saved for my brother. "If you don’t, I swear you’ll have a stretch of F’s a mile long all year."
Jason Lee regarded me in that way he had, leaning to the left and smiling, his mouth partially open, his eyes narrowed. He took the penny and tossed it over the side of the bridge, then leaned over and watched it float gamely to the bottom of the creek, where it was lost in the mud among dozens of other pennies we had thrown in over the years.
"So now I get A’s?" He turned and winked, then walked up the short hill leading to the high school. I wasn’t sure if I ought to follow him or just pretend like I was just being a Good Samaritan and leave it alone. Of course, I couldn’t let him walk to school alone, since his sister had left him, so I jogged a little to catch up.
"I’m Eustace and I live a little ways up the street from you. Are you new?" I said. Jason Lee grunted in that way boys have when they don’t want to answer a question and here it is being asked anyway. He turned and stared at me from at least four inches up and I could smell new leather and roses and lavender, which must have been his soap mingled with the flowers in the gardens up at school.
"I’m not much for friends, okay?" I could feel the heat start from the tips of my toes and rise, like I had just drunk hot tea on a sweltering, humid day, reaching up, up, up through my shoulders and into my neck, bursting like fireworks on my cheeks. So I just walked past him; what could I say? But I had fallen in love with him just then, and I couldn’t say why. Maybe it was the way he said the word, ‘much’ or the slight tilt in his head when he muttered ‘okay’ or it was the way he put his wide, square hands in the pockets of his brand new jeans; to this day, I couldn’t say what it was. All I know was that I wanted to know him in the worst way, and not in a sexual way either, although in hindsight I have to say there was an awakening someplace in that physical area I wasn’t aware of until much later. And, like every girl, I had some experience with wanting. I had drooled over Rob Lowe in Teen Beat and written letters to William Katt from Greatest American Hero. Just because I was a devout Christian didn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in boys or sex, I just knew they had their place.
This was an altogether different feeling anyway, and it consumed me from the moment I had it. I imagine it is a lot like stepping on a live wire, or seeing someone you love get hit by a car, or maybe it’s like losing your breath after staying underwater for too long and then coming back up only to realize the air is so thick that it doesn’t satisfy.
Later, after days of questioning the sisters of friends and friends of friends and following him home almost every day, except the days when I had detention, I learned that he was seventeen, lived in the old cottage in back of the apple fields - mostly because there used to be lots of ancient crab apple trees in the yard - and that he was living alone with his younger sister. Misty Franklin’s mother was a teacher in the middle school where Minerva went, and Jason Lee had written himself in as her guardian. Apparently their parents had died in a tragic car wreck and as far as anyone could tell, he wasn’t able to drive, didn’t work and had no means to support them, though he took the bus every Saturday and Sunday morning and arrived home with two bags of groceries on Saturdays and a bag of bagels and the newspaper on Sundays. The rest of the days he walked to and from school with Minerva, spoke to no one and did whatever was asked of him by the teachers in school.
As it so happened, my brother and Minerva became good friends, although it was something I couldn’t understand from the beginning.
"How did you meet her?" I asked on Sunday, when he and I were fighting it out over a good game of Galaga on Atari. I had a bowl of chips to my right, and was lying on my stomach, where I had better command of the joystick. James was sitting on the couch, his power position.
"She likes art. We sit next to each other in art class."
"Does she really like art? She seems retarded." One of my ships is sucked up by the mother ship and held in its beam. Then they become two fighters, which seems like a good thing, but the second fighter gets destroyed so easily.
"She’s not retarded, she’s different. Her parents are dead. Her brother is a nut case." My last fighter is blown up, and James whoops. My grandmother calls down from the kitchen. "Your grandfather is sleeping. Shut up." Granny makes us crack up when she tells us to shut up, pipe down, close your pie hole, that sort of thing. It’s like spontaneous poetry.
I sit up, turn to look at him. "Nut case? He seems awesome. So cute, but don’t tell her I said that. God, I’d die. Oh, sorry God. I mean gosh."
"You’re a nut case, too, religious fanatic – you’re perfect for each other." James’ last fighter dies and he throws the joystick down. "It’s not any of your business, even if you are in love."
"What makes you think that?"
"He knows, I know, Minerva knows you’ve been asking about them. She thinks you’re demented. He can’t be bothered. Like I said, you’re a nut case."
"But what makes him a nut case?"
"What makes anyone a nut case? He’s not social, he doesn’t work, doesn’t talk to anyone. He won’t learn how to drive, won’t eat eggs or cheese, doesn’t like chemicals, and won’t take showers in hot water. He won’t even ride a bicycle. He’s taken some kind of vow."
"What kind of vow?"
"Minerva doesn’t know. It’s like it changes every day. It gets worse and worse; now he won’t drink water except at night, he won’t turn the lights on when she’s not home. She wants to call their aunt in California, but I think she’s too old to come out."
"Maybe we ought to help him. Tell someone in Guidance." My brother just shook his head and trooped upstairs.
I thought about James Lee for weeks on end, watched him and wondered if he was getting skinnier by the day, but I couldn’t tell. He favored clothes that hung off his shoulders, single color pastel polo shirts and washed out jeans. He had one pair of hiking boots, torn at the toe and worn down at the heel, and one day I saw he had a cut on the side of his hand covered with a large gauze pad. I started to wonder if maybe he was cutting himself out of some unearned guilt, perhaps over their parent’s death, and thought I might help him. I had nothing to lose by talking about Jesus.
I followed him to school earlier than usual, mostly because he had started to notice me and leave earlier, too. I thought I might be a nuisance to him, but in that fevered, unknowing passion I had - so that I was dreaming of our wedding on a secluded island in Fiji or a deserted church in the middle of a Maine wood - made me reckless. Minerva walked with James now, so I had nothing to worry about there and only had to run just a little to catch up to him. The gardens were just beginning to wilt and die, the golden trees drooping with heavy seeds and the deep loamy scent of molding wet leaves seeped from the ground; I wanted to share it with him, the glory of the season, the excitement I felt for the coming holidays, how much I loved Halloween, and more, that soon I would be fifteen and I believed as no other teenager did that my ugly duckling stage would be behind me. I had hoped and prayed for my fifteenth birthday for as long as I could remember, hoping on that day I would lose 30 pounds, my skin would clear and my eyes would sparkle and simmer with long, black lashes and emerald green flecks.
I caught up to him just as he went onto the narrow path, and I was forced to walk behind him, so that I felt like a mouse chasing a cat.
"Hey Jason Lee," I called, mostly out of breath. I tripped over an unearthed root and nearly landed on my face in the green brambles beside the path. He turned slightly to acknowledge me.
"So, what happened to your hand?" He looked at it and sighed, then stood to face me on the path, regarding me.
"Why am I so important to you?" Jason Lee dropped his book bag on the ground. "I don’t get it."
"Well, I guess I am in love with you, and that’s about all there is to it. I wish I wasn’t because then I could go on with my life and stop thinking about you all the time, but I can’t. I never met anyone like you before and I think I won’t ever again, so before I lose this chance to tell you how I feel, I wanted to make sure you knew and I hope you won’t think I’m an idiot because that would break my heart and I am too young to have my heart broken, besides I know I am not that pretty, but when I hit my thirteenth birthday I am going to change."
Jason Lee whistled low and blushed bright red, like apples in the sun on a cool fall day, and he smiled so that it reached through his eyes and into mine. "That was some speech. You’re only fourteen?"
"Yeah…" What else could I say after that? I wanted to sink into the ground like a puddle of water, get lost in the creek.
Jason picked up his book bag and sighed, slinging it over his shoulder and tightening the bandage with his teeth. "What do you think happened to my hand?"
"Want to know the truth? I was thinking last night that maybe you cut yourself like those priests in the middle ages as a kind of purification ritual for your parents death, that somehow you thought it was your fault and then you –"
He turned on me then. "Who told you my parents are dead?"
I blanched. "Well, I asked around."
"They’re not dead. They’re drunks. My mother is in prison. She killed my brother in a DUI. My father is in a long term rehab. He had a stroke last year from too much booze and now he’s got a brain like a rotten vegetable. Screw them." Jason kicked a rock and sent it skidding into the creek. "Shit."
"It could be worse, right? They could be dead and you’d never see them again."
"That’s the whole point. I don’t want to see them. Everything I do is so that I can make it on my own and take care of Minnie."
"Minnie? Really? That’s what you call her?"
"She just doesn’t look like a Minnie to me."
"She’s only Minnie to one person. Me."
"Right." We were at the steps of the school now, our classmates and friends pushing past while he and I stood aloof and locked in a strange sort of goodbye that held everything and nothing all at once. "I’m sorry about your parents, really. And I feel stupid about everything I said, even though it’s true. I wish I had written it in a letter or something. I’m a freak, but at least I know it."
"That’s okay. I get it." Jason turned and walked up the stairs to his homeroom, and as I headed downstairs to mine, I knew that was the beginning of my learning all about Jason Lee Mansfield.
We walked home together every afternoon. He met me at the school steps and we took the path slowly. He didn’t talk much at first and we walked silently to my house, where I would see James and Minerva eating crackers and cheese they’d scrounged from grandma’s refrigerator. I’d have to wait downstairs until they were done eating before we could eat our milk and cookies, mostly because there were only two chairs in the upstairs kitchen, and too because Minerva made me nervous.
I’d write in my journal or read, and wait for Jason Lee to call and invite me over, which he started to do once he saw I wasn’t going to blab to the whole world about his family. At first we sat outside in the warm fall sunshine, and then, when it got too cold, he would light a fire in their small stone fireplace and we’d sit in front of it. I couldn’t tell you what we discussed, books, friends, teachers, classes. He told me stories about his parents, where they’d lived; it seemed like hundreds of places, how little they’d had to eat growing up, how he’d had to steal and forage when they were homeless or living in their mother’s car. But still, through it all, they’d gone to school clean. It was the main reason he felt contempt for them. If only they had been dirty and ragged, the school would have taken them away, but his parents were smarter than that, and made sure no one knew. He and Minerva were threatened not to talk, and they didn’t despite being hungry and tired and cold all the time.
They had come last from a trailer park in Virginia, but he couldn’t tell me how long they had been there or why they had left. He guessed his mother had run out of unemployment money and his father wouldn’t look for work. It was all the same to him, the failure of his parents. He expected it, planned for it. He had yet to visit his mother in jail, although she wrote to him constantly. He figured it was just for money and never opened the envelopes.
Their cottage was a one room caretaker’s shack, part of an estate that had been parceled off and made into a development. It was set back from the road and hidden by a hill so you couldn’t see it from the road. The white paint was peeling, the windows were all cracked and split, and the roof needed repairs. The concrete step leading to the crooked front door was crumbling and the doorbell was falling out of the doorframe. When you stepped inside, the smell of burnt wood and old coal hung in the air like a wet blanket and the furniture, which came with the place, leeched it out. The floor was made of painted pine and gapped in spots large enough to put Jason’s foot into, the dirt underneath cold and black, like tar in spots. Just opposite the door was the brick fireplace, their only source of light and heat. Jason was afraid to keep a fire burning while they were in school, so when he got home there was ice on the inside windows and their pipes were frozen. It got so that they wouldn’t turn the water on in the winter and took warm birdbaths on mornings when Minerva heated the water. The cottage was paid for by his uncle in Connecticut, and he sent them a little extra from time to time, so at least they had money for emergencies.
They ate mostly what they could buy with food stamps, since Jason knew how to work the system to some degree and he could make due with whatever anyone gave him. He was a vegan and ate only what was easiest to buy, rice and beans, canned vegetables whatever was on sale. There was not much else for him to do, being on the limited budget, and he swore he would, when he graduated high school, get into community college and somehow find a way to earn a living so Minerva could finish high school and get her diploma, too. That seemed to be his driving obsession.
As I began to spend more time with Jason, I could see the merits of his lifestyle. Rice and beans were fine for me, as was vegetables and tofu and polenta; who didn’t like pasta? But there was more to it; he lived in a world of deprivation even I couldn’t go to, despite living in near poverty at my grandmother’s. James and I knew what it meant to be broke and we watched our mother work three jobs to support us so that I had ballet lessons and we both got new clothes and birthday parties. We ate what our grandmother served us and we had heat and hot water; Jason had none of those luxuries and it seemed as if he didn’t miss them the way James and I would have. He didn’t expect the normal luxuries of life and that was what made him much different from me. I wondered if he would ever expect something better from his life, he was so resigned to the dinginess of it all.
In a strange way I was proud of him, too, that instead of letting the state take him and Minerva away to a group home or foster care, he was taking on the whole burden himself, which takes a lot of courage, and he was sacrificing a lot to do it. He could work or leave school altogether, he could have been a mechanic or a clerk, or worked his way up in some state job, but he didn’t. He had dreams and they meant something to him, which was one of the reasons I liked him so much.
That winter I didn’t see much of Jason, though it was a lot harder now not to see him, since we had grown so close. Whenever I stopped by the cottage, trudging through some of the deepest snowfalls we’d had in years, I was turned away at the door by Minerva with some excuse, no heat, no water, Jason was sleeping, and on and on. Jason always smiled on our walks to school, said he was feeling tired, overwhelmed, but I didn’t believe that either. There was more to the story and I was determined to find out. One afternoon I left school early, pretending to be sick and getting a note from the nurse. I walked to the cottage, just to have a look around. I knocked, hoping the door would swing open, but instead it was locked. I turned to walk away, but then the door opened.
The man at the door was about 60 years old, stooped and blonde, with streaks of grey throughout his hair. His eyes were wrinkled and tired, a little out of focus, as if he hadn’t had to look at something specific for a long time. His hands trembled on the edge of the doorsill and he gripped it tight to hold himself up. He wore a long terry cloth robe, red slippers and his legs were bare. I smiled and looked away, not sure what to ask or say.
"Is Jason Lee here?" I scratched behind my ear; the striped wool hat my grandmother had given me for Christmas itching, making my ears sweat.
"No, he isn’t." The man coughed and brought up phlegm and spit it onto the woodpile next to the door. I thought how completely disgusting spitting was and why people felt they had to do it, and my mind wandered to people who spit tobacco and on the sidewalk, and who spit gobs of green mucus on the sidewalk and we had to look at it as we walked to school.
"Are you his dad?"
"Who wants to know?"
"I’m a friend of his and if you are his dad, he’s told me a lot about you, and I am glad you are here and maybe you’re getting better after your stroke and all, and I hope things aren’t too crowded in there, but maybe now you can move into a better place –"
"No, I’m not staying; I just came for a quick visit. I have to go back to the hospital. They won’t let me stay out long. At least not where I am." He cackled and I saw all of his teeth were missing in the front and it made him look brittle and weak. I wondered if he had false teeth, or if he hadn’t bothered replacing them. I wondered why on earth people would let their teeth go rotten in their mouths in the first place, and how painful it must be to feel them get holes and go black and then fall out, or have someone pull them out for you because you can’t to eat anymore with those rotting bones in your mouth. My mother had always made us go to the dentist twice a year, no matter how broke we were, because she couldn’t stand the thought of us having crooked, rotting teeth all our lives. Thank God she did, because crooked teeth is one sign of poverty, and she didn’t want us looking broke.
Suddenly his father looked up from the frozen ground and saw Jason behind me, and I froze, not thinking or wanting to think about what he would think about me snooping around his house. But instead of getting upset about it, he pushed past me and said, "You might as well come in."
His father laid down on Jason’s old grey Army cot and threw the one blanket Jason had over his bony, grey legs and closed his eyes. Within minutes he was snoring. "That’s pop." Jason leaned against wall. His eyes searched mine, and I smiled. "He seems nice."
"He’s sleeping it off."
"How did he get here?"
"Took a cab, I guess. He’s been here a while; three sheets to the wind when he got here. "
Within a second Jason kissed me; he had been staring at the counter one minute then quick across the kitchen the next; his lips were soft and smooth; he was the perfect kisser. I was spellbound.
"I love you. I’m sorry I didn’t say it sooner."
"I love you. You’re a great friend, and I just wanted you to know that."
"Thanks. I love you, too." I said. My mind was spinning. Then, I didn’t know that was the last time I would ever see him. If I had known that, I would have clung to his shirt like a cat scared out of a tree and never let go, but he wasn’t one to talk about what his plans were, or to tell a soul where he was going. Even Minerva kept a tight lip with James before they left. I spent a lot of time pining over him, wishing he had given me a chance to say good – bye, and for the longest time I wouldn’t date anyone else, until my mother got to calling me the soul of stubbornness, and wouldn’t I ever get over this Jason boy. I thought I never would. Even in college, where everyone thought I was strange because I wasn’t boy crazy, and I never had a date. Somehow I had this strange feeling he was coming back, that in the end he would find me and we would run away together, like I had seen in so many day dreams.
Over time, I became a teacher, met a man who was willing to wait, and eventually we got married and had kids, but I never stopped thinking about Jason Lee, the way lovers do, and no one ever kissed me like he did.
Aimee Henkel has lived many lives, and although she wasted the first few on bad living, the rest have been mainly productive. She studied fiction and poetry at NYU, Manhattanville and the Sleepy Hollow Writer’s Project and has been publishing in literary journals since 2010. She lives two lives at the same time now as a writer and a mother to two small children.