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Never Aim to Please November 10, 2009

Posted by monty in books.


Here’s the conclusion to the story I’ve been posting for the last two days.  This is really all the farther I got in National Novel Writing Month.  There are a few half-hearted pages of a third story, but that’s where my defeatism trumped my ambition.  If you’re just joining the story, you can find the previous two installments here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).


Back in his bedroom, Garrett sat at his desk with the AAA guidebook to Ohio and his mom’s Cavalcade entertainment book.  If he was going to show Rachel that no two-bit Indiana rube was worthy of her love, he didn’t have time for half-measures.  The clock was ticking on their relationship, and he needed to use every shred of ingenuity he could muster.

He’d been saving as much money as he could from his country club job, in between buying tapes, topping off the gas tank, and going Dutch with Rachel on most of their dates.  That was his first resolution: There’d be no going Dutch from here on in.  If she still wanted to see him – and he hadn’t called her yet, so he knew that might be a big if – he’d pay for everything.  Movies, dinners … and that’s where the other two books came in.  Up to this point their dates had consisted almost exclusively of movies and dinners.  The paucity of Garrett’s imagination – combined with the relative lack of entertainment options in Edgewood – meant that their previous dates had been especially anemic.  They hung out a lot at each other’ houses, and occasionally headed into the park to wander aimlessly up and down the gravel paths and make out under the oaks when no one was looking.  Six months of that had been fun, but Garrett conceded that Rachel might be ready for a change.

And now he sat at his desk, feverishly circling any potential attractions he found in the AAA book – yes to Great Serpent Mound, no to the Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop – and scouting out new restaurants for which he now had coupons courtesy of the Cavalcade entertainment book.  He wouldn’t be boring.  He wouldn’t be normal.  He’d show Rachel that he knew how to have a good time.  He’d plot out a series of dates the like of which she’d never seen – certainly not with Garrett – and which she wouldn’t be likely to see with some muscle-bound frat boy.  If there were a museum for memorable dates, these dates would be so spectacular they’d get their own special exhibit.  He knew it wasn’t a good sign that the voices running through his head at the moment belonged to Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin – “We’re two wild and crazy guys!” – but he hoped he’d have at least a day to purge them.  Assuming, that is, that Rachel would go out with him.

And that led him to the next big step, of course, which was mustering up enough courage to call her.  He was reminded once again of Steph, and of that first painful phone call when he felt as though he were behind the wheel of a race car that was about to go flipping head first into the crowd.  This was an odd sort of nervousness for Garrett.  Because he and Rachel had bonded first as friends, over movies and books and music, the rest of the relationship had come without any nervousness or awkward preamble.  By the time they shared their first kiss, he’d been calling her for weeks, so the first post-kiss call was, for all intents and purposes, business as usual.

Now, however, he stared at his phone like it was an exploding rattlesnake.  He knew Rachel had called, and courtesy dictated that he should call her back, preferably sooner rather than later.  But at the same time, he didn’t know if he could handle rejection over the phone.  Garrett wasn’t a conversationalist under the best circumstances, so he had very little faith in his phone etiquette to begin with.  As much as he liked talking to Rachel, after a few minutes their phone calls usually devolved into the two of them hmmmmming and errrrring until one of them made the brave suggestion to hang up and go make out in the park.

He tried to imagine how this conversation with Rachel would go.  Should he apologize for last night?  Throw himself on the mercy of the court?  Maybe he could just pretend it had never happened.  What was it he had learned in Civics class?  The Twinkie defense?  He could ignore their conversation last night, and if it came up, Garrett could claim his judgment – and now his memory – had been clouded by his abnormal intake of pasta and buttery garlic bread.  Blinded by carbohydrates, he simply hadn’t been in his right mind.

Ridiculous.  Of course it was. In some ways it would be worse if her mom answered and it turned out that Rachel wasn’t home.  Garrett’s imagination would run riot with that, wondering where she was, whom she was with, why she hadn’t called to let him know.  He knew jealousy was a dangerous and unbecoming trait – thank you, Fatal Attraction! – but his worry wasn’t really about jealousy.  Instead, it was a deep-seated anxiety that told him anything good that happened to him would surely one day go sour.  If Rachel were already out with another guy, it would in many ways not be surprising, simply because that scenario had already been playing to sold-out audiences in the theater of Garrett’s head for weeks.

And then he knew what he had to do.  He and Rachel were always a better team in person than on the phone.  If he were going to take this commitment to no half-measures seriously, then it was clear that he had to go to her.  Physically, and not as a disembodied voice over the stupid telephone, where he couldn’t see Rachel, couldn’t read her feelings from the different smile she assigned to each mood, or the way she ducked her head when she was embarrassed, letting her bangs shroud her eyes.

He had to go to her.

Rachel lived with her parents and older brother in an old red-brick Georgian house in the center of town.  It was one of the older homes in Edgewood, an architectural marvel whose distinctiveness had been muted by the peculiar landscaping choices of the neighbors.  It was nestled in between a two-story monstrosity that, for inexplicable reasons known only to the lunatics inside, had been fronted with a faux-marble veneer, making it look like an ill-conceived Greek temple, and a home whose owners were apparently fond of the American Southwest.  The house itself was a nondescript, wood-frame two-story, but the front yard was littered with silhouettes of cowboys leaning against trees, plywood Saguaro cacti peeking out from the shrubbery, and a large wagon wheel tilted on end with a sign that read, “Welcome to the Harris’ Hoe-Down.”  The Nelsons’ home, in contrast, looked like it had been plucked from a residential block in Dublin, Ireland, and made to sacrifice its dignity in Edgewood, Ohio.

This time of day the curbside was nearly empty, and Garrett successfully parallel-parked his parents’ Bonneville on the fourth try, finally maneuvering himself into position so the front wheel on the passenger side was no longer bumped up on the curb.  His parents had relinquished the car with little fuss, presumably due to the frenzied air Garrett had tried hard – but failed – to jettison.  They seemed to know there was a greater purpose at work here, and this time they might do well to spare him the inquisition.

Garrett sat behind the wheel for another moment.  Morrissey’s “Everyday Is Like Sunday” played quietly through the speakers, and Garrett idly drummed his fingers on the steering wheel while mouthing the words.  Looking out the window, the house seemed empty.  The Nelsons had a separate garage behind the house, so Garrett couldn’t tell if anyone was actually home.  He strained his eyes at each window, hoping to see some telltale sign of movement, but all, at least from the outside, was still.

As the song trailed away, Garrett shut off the ignition and closed his eyes, focusing on his racing heart.  He knew his nervousness was completely out of proportion to the task at hand, but for some reason he couldn’t get his nerves under control.  Now, parked outside Rachel’s house, he saw this situation ending in a dozen different ways – the best resulting in his being kicked out of the house, the worst involving a hostage situation and Garrett being taken out by a police sniper.  He suddenly wished he’d just gone ahead and made the phone call.

“Fuck it.”  He got out of the car, looked both ways – safety first, even in times of emotional duress – and crossed the street.  He moved slowly up to the Nelsons’ front door, taking the two steps up to the door with all the delicacy of an octogenarian suffering from a recent double-hip replacement.  The inclination to pause, breathe deeply, and wrestle control of his anxiety was strong, but not nearly as strong as the fear of being seen standing outside the Nelsons’ front door with his eyes closed, talking to himself.

Before he had a chance to change his mind, he knocked.

And knocked again.

He counted to five Mississippi and knocked a third time.  Still no answer.

He backed away from the door and tried to unobtrusively peek through the window just to the left of the entrance.  Nothing doing there, either.

Now he didn’t know what to do.  He’d ruled out the phone call, mustered up the courage to drive in here, and now no one was home.  He figured the logical next step was either to go home and try calling later, or else drive around town for a bit, make a return visit, and if she still wasn’t home, wave the figurative white flag and live to fight again another day.

Both of those courses of action were safe, clean, and logical.  Both of them would get him in touch with Rachel eventually, and he’d have the chance to plead his case when he did so.  Either choice was a good one.

So, naturally, Garrett sat down on Rachel’s front steps to wait.

After 90 minutes, Garrett thought about leaving.  The summer sun had already peaked over the rooftops on the other side of the street, and it was now mostly obscured by both the second-storey eaves of the houses and the interlacing branches of the oaks that lined both sides of the street.  Flecks of light shimmered between the leaves, but it was swiftly turning into the deeper, burnished light of early evening.  This was not good.

Garrett ran the timeline – what little of it there was – in his head.  Rachel had called at 9:20 this morning.  At 4:30, she wasn’t home.  Now, at a little past 6:00, she still wasn’t home.  As far as detective work went, this didn’t give him much to go by.  He supposed he could still leave, drive around for a bit, and come back.  He didn’t want to go home, not if he wanted to have any chance of returning.  If Garrett went home, he knew there was every chance Steve and Kathy would say he was home for the evening.  That would leave him with the unappetizing prospect of dialing Rachel’s phone every fifteen minutes until someone picked up.

If he didn’t go home, he could swing by the Dairy Queen or drive through the park, see if maybe she was there independent of her parents.  That was something he hadn’t considered: maybe she wasn’t with her mom and dad.  Maybe she had called this morning to drive the final nail in Garrett’s coffin, and now she was with someone else.  She’d been over to Bloomington last week for freshman orientation and to schedule her classes; is it possible she met someone while she was there?  She could have called him last night, and he could have agreed to make the drive and pick her up this morning.  It was possible to get from Bloomington to Edgewood by 10 A.M.

And who said this prick had to live in Bloomington?  IU is a big school – this guy could be from Cincinnati or Dayton or Muncie or Columbus or any number of cities closer than Bloomington.  He probably picked her up this morning, and then her parents took off for the day themselves, and now Rachel’s out there with this other guy, all because Garrett just had to push for a firm commitment last night.

Why did he do that?  Why couldn’t he just leave well enough alone?  He and Rachel were happy together the way things had been, and they probably would have continued to be happy the rest of the summer.  August would have been a good time to broach the subject, when she was faced with the prospect of missing him, and she’d have been more likely to say she’d never leave him for someone else, not ever.

But what was so wrong with him, anyway?  Even if it was June, why didn’t Rachel want to be with him?  Why did she hold back?  They had fun together, sitting in their rooms, talking, laughing, making out, driving around town, going to the park.  Why wasn’t any of that good enough for her?  Maybe she was just using him, he thought.  She wanted to be with someone in high school – what girl wants to go to college without ever having had a boyfriend? – and Garrett had fit the bill just long enough to seem like a substantial relationship, but not so long that it became nauseating.  That was it, for sure.  She had used him, but the worst part of it was that she had made him feel good, like he wasn’t alone, like he meant something to someone.  He had just started to believe in himself, and now it was gone.  All of it.  Gone.

Garrett started to cry, softly.  Not huge, melodramatic, wailing sobs, but his nose clogged, his eyes welled up, and the first tears seeped from his eyes.  Soon his shoulders were convulsing, and he struggled mightily to get himself under control.  He felt his pockets for a tissue, and of course there wasn’t one.  He remembered seeing yesterday’s mail still sticking out of the metal box next to the front door, and he stood to see if there was junk mail, a circular, some ads, something he could use to blow his nose and blot his eyes.  He turned to check the mailbox.

And there was Rachel, standing in the open front door.


He didn’t need a photograph to know how he looked.  He’d seen himself in the mirror post-cry before – eyes swollen to twice their normal size, nose red and running, cheeks flushed from the exertion of sobbing – and it was quite a sight.

“Um … hi, um, Rachel,” he muttered, and tried, in one motion, to wipe the tears from his cheeks, dry his eyes, and run his hands through his hair, while simultaneously attempting to unplug his nose with a healthy snort.  It looked just as appealing as it sounded.

“What are you doing here?” she asked hesitantly.  She had stepped halfway out the door, but seemed unsure whether she wanted to commit entirely.  Her hand had stopped halfway to Garrett’s shoulder and floated there, like it had been filled with helium and wanted nothing more than to float away.

“Where were you?” he asked, trying and failing to keep the pitiful, beseeching tone out of his voice.  Suddenly he was five years old, and his mother had become separated from him at the supermarket.

“We went to Antioch.  To have lunch with my sister,” she said.


“I called you this morning to see if you wanted to go.  Didn’t your dad tell you I called?”

“He told me.” Garrett felt himself shrinking.  It took everything he had not to immediately turn on his heel, jump behind the wheel of the car, drive off in a screech of rubber and a cloud of foul-smelling smoke, and never return.

“Why didn’t you call me back?” Rachel asked.  “I wanted you to go.  We were going to have lunch with Katie and then I thought you and I could hit that record store you like, Toxic Beauty, the one we went to last time?  That was the plan, at least.”

“But … last night,” Garrett ventured lamely.  His voice came to his ears from a long way away, like he was speaking through the wrong end of a megaphone.

“What about it?”  And now, with the threat of raised voices drawing ever closer, Rachel stepped all the way outside and closed the door behind her.

“You said … you didn’t know if … “ The mismatch of what he thought and what he was saying with what Rachel seemed to be telling him was swiftly becoming too much to bear.  It didn’t help matters that she looked more beautiful than ever that afternoon, her dark hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and her growing anger bringing a flush to her cheeks.  She looked strong, ferocious, adult. Garrett, on the other hand, seemed to be growing younger by the second.  He tried to regroup, eliminate the last hint of tears from his voice, and start over.  “You told me –“

“Jesus Christ, Garrett.  It’s not the end of the world.  What?  Everything comes screeching to a halt because I can’t read the future?  Is that it?”

“Well … no …”

You,” and here she stabbed a finger at his chest, “tell me. Do you know what you’re going to be doing six months from now?  The people you’re going to meet?  The girls in your dorm?  In your classes?  Do you really feel totally confident that you’re not going to meet someone else, with me hours away?  Can you promise that?”

She had backed him into a corner, and now all he could do was meekly feign ignorance. “I don’t know.”

“Exactly.  You don’t.  Neither do I.  That’s all I was saying last night.”  Rachel’s voice softened.  She went to brush his cheek with her fingertips and Garrett, still smarting from the poke in the chest, flinched.  Rachel smiled.  “Garrett.  I like you.  A lot.  And I have no intention of dumping you.  But I don’t know if I love you.  And I don’t have a clue what’s waiting for me in Bloomington.  It wouldn’t be fair of me to make a promise I’m not sure I can keep.”

Garrett didn’t know what to do or say next. It seemed to make sense to beat a hasty retreat while she had calmed down and was less likely to throw things at his back. “Well, okay.  I guess I’ll be going.”  He took a few steps backward.

Rachel closed the distance between them again. “You don’t have to go.  We can watch a movie or something.”

The offer was tempting, but even though Rachel’s words were reassuring, Garrett knew he needed time to process and recover.  “I should probably get home.  My parents didn’t know I’d be gone this long.  They’ll wonder where the Dudemobile” – Garrett’s nickname for the Bonneville – “has wandered off to.”

“Okay.  Well.  Call me later tonight?”


Garrett turned and crossed the street to the car.  When he got to it, he turned.  Rachel was still standing by the door, watching him. She raised one hand in a wave.  Garrett thought she looked indescribably beautiful and profoundly sad in that moment.  His earlier sensation of growing younger while she grew older hadn’t been a mistake, or a symptom of his anxiety.  He could see her maturity in the set of her shoulders, the small smile that played at the corners of her lips.  There was suddenly a gulf separating them, one across which he had set sail the previous night.  He had completed the journey tonight, and now he desperately wished he hadn’t made the voyage, or could at least make a speedy return trip to the other side.

He waved at her in return and watched as she turned her back, walked into her house, and closed the door.  Garrett wasn’t normally prone to bouts of prescience, but he was suddenly aware of two truths, absolute and unequivocal:

He loved her.

And he wouldn’t see her again.

The gulf was just too wide.


Current listening:

Bob mould workbook

Bob Mould – Workbook (1989)



1. thoreauly77 - November 10, 2009

never aim to please indeed. wise words!

no, its a bummer to be a confused young person. alas, this love business only gets more complicated as my neuroses become more defined.

i could picture myself as garrett quite easily in this installment; the confusion, desire, questions… all palpable.

i remember scenes similar to this is in my highschool experience.

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