You cannot fall in love with a girl who loves Elvis Costello, Jacob says. She’ll always be too smart for you, you’ll never be able to keep her satisfied. She’ll leave you for something better, someone smarter, maybe a college professor. And the worst part is you won’t even be mad when she does. Better to spare yourself the heartbreak now.
I’m not even sure where we are or how we got here, some backwoods road only he knows how to drive to. A left past the Sloane’s barn. Up the hogsback, right at the light, the length of “Pump it Up” puts us into the woods, hidden from the rest of the world. His older brother has moved back home and lives in the basement; this is the only place we have to listen to music in solitude. He only plays this tape when we’re together, a secret we both share.
He lights a cigarette lifted from his brother’s pack. He passes it to me and I take a drag just to taste his mouth. The cuffs of his flannel shirt don’t quite cover his skinny wrists. He is all legs and angles and teenage melancholy. You get it, he says, taking the cigarette back.
There’s a girl in his history class, Chelsea, she’s got high dark hair and doll eyes and lips that don’t need Revlon to be rose-red. Yeah, I know Chelsea. Everybody does. She’s the star of the volleyball team even though she looks like she’d snap in half if she bounced a balloon. She’s the class VP. She’s nice to everybody, impossible to hate. But Chelsea’s not the kind of girl you take to a back road and play Elvis Costello for.
In the basement his brother plays the same Cure album over and over and over. He doesn’t emerge for days; Jacob brings him dinner and cigarettes and beers from the fridge. He does his laundry and listens to him lament. Don’t bother with girls, he tells him between drags and warm swigs. All they do is fuck you up.
Jacob plays me the mixtape he made for Chelsea. It’s unrecognizable, records he borrowed from friends. It’s cheesy. She’ll love it.
You have to deliver it to her, he says. You have to soften the blow.
Jacob knows I’d do anything for him. But I know you can’t fall in love with a girl who doesn’t love Elvis Costello. She will toss your heart aside like a Scrunchie with a stretched elastic, a broken Swatch band. You will have to keep up a charade for far too long, play too dumb until the day you become what you have pretended to be.
I swap the tapes. Instead of Crowded House and Billy Joel and Duran Duran, I give her the Smiths and the Replacements and This Year’s Model. I take the risk that she might love it, that she might foolishly claim “This Year’s Girl” as her own.
She hands it back to me in gym class. I make the swap one more time and hand him back the tape. I’m sorry, I tell him in a stage whisper. I almost believe it myself.
He throws the tape in the garbage by the flagpole. He gets in his car and leaves without speaking. He’s absent for two days. I collect his homework, take notes, tell anyone who asks that he’s home sick. He will thank me when his heart heals, I tell myself. Better now than at prom, or at graduation, or the first week of college.
On day three, I walk past the bus stop and over to his house on Elm Street. There are cars in the driveway, parked in the street. And when his mother answers the door, they have all been crying. Jeff is gone, she manages to get out before the tears come again. He was playing “You Belong To Me” when Jacob found him hanging from the rafters.
A few kids from school come to the funeral. I catch Jacob scanning the crowd for Chelsea, but she’s already forgotten about him. If she ever knew him at all.
I hold his hand when he lets me. Halfway through the reception I lose him. I search every room in the house until I spot him out the bathroom window, smoking a cigarette out by the old swing set. I approach him cautiously, like a wild animal. A boy in mourning should never be startled.
He invites me to sit. I obey. His tie is undone and he’s a little bit drunk. I let him lean into me. I guess it’s good Chelsea didn’t like the tape, he says with ash on his breath. Spared me the heartbreak down the line.
He glances at me out of the corner of his eye like he’s waiting for a confession that will never come. I say nothing. It’s a secret that will hurt for the rest of my life, a scar upon my soul that I can’t tattoo over. Years from now he will marry a wide-eyed beatnik he meets in college, they will have twin boys, we will call each other on our birthdays and catch up until it becomes merely a matter of performance. I will end up divorced from a man I loved too goddamn much; on late nights I will lie awake and ask myself if I did the right thing back in gym class a thousand years ago or if this is just karma catching up with me. My ex-husband adored Elvis Costello. He left me for a cute bartender because he said I was too smart for him. Jacob must have told him the secret to life.
Jacob comes back to school the next week. He sees Chelsea in the halls and avoids her eyes. He throws out Jeff’s tapes. I retrieve them from the curb and keep them, just in case he ever needs them again. In the box I find the mix he made for the car. We never take another late-night drive again.