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End of the Line

Allison was going to get married in Ronkonkoma, so I was waiting for the train. Summer heat shimmered over the Jamaica Station tracks. There had been a run on air conditioners; newly-installed models tilted at perilous angles out of New York’s windows. My traveling outfit—a gray tee and homemade cut-offs that dangled sloppy fringe—was drenched with sweat that had already outmatched my deodorant.

This was back when I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, when I brushed my teeth and spit blood.

I had just discovered that my ticket stub was for St. James, not Ronkonkoma. It was too late to run up the stairs and attempt an exchange. The train was pulling in. When the doors opened, the wave of A/C overwhelmed me with the thing I’d most craved. Still, I boarded. I’d only ever taken the Hamptons line before, most recently to go to Montauk with my girlfriend. Things were good between us during that Montauk trip, because Allison had started dating Karl and I was trying to move on. Flush with this burst of life’s ease, my girlfriend and I went out to see the stub of a lighthouse, decided that the fourteen-dollar admission wasn’t worth a slightly higher angled view of the ocean, and headed home.

Five years before that, I took the same Hamptons train to visit my college roommate at his Fire Island gaycation. Five years before that, I headed out to Hampton Bays after my dead uncle’s house burned down to help sift through the ashes. And five years before that, I had gone to my still-alive uncle’s house and cried out in fear during the climax of The Great Mouse Detective. What I remember of these rides is homogeneity: pine’s jagged blur, tanned women and their men with spiked hair, townships that had the sort of municipal funding that allowed for runs of pine along the tracks.

I’d prepared screenshots of Yelp reviews detailing the improper touch panel calibration that had done me in, but the conductor just clicked her clicker and glazed on by. The sudden absence of anxiety allowed the facts to return. Pain. I quickly pantomimed shooting myself in the ear, checked to see if anyone had noticed, then looked out the window. We were pulling into Hicksville. It was sparse and industrialized, but in that post-peak way, with shadowy graffiti on walls too obscure to merit a re-tag and factory windows broken by time. Then, I saw a kid rolling inert on a skateboard against the direction of the slowing train. The kid didn’t even glance over, but his laconic affect was such that I knew he was aware of the possibility of girls—or perhaps, boys—seeing him from the train. This meant that he had to seem cool, which manifested as paralysis.

And that brought it back: the first time I saw Allison. It was a few days before she became fully aware of me, but it was such a comprehensive experience that I understood that the thirteen years that had come before had immediately been segmented off into an era sanctified as simple, a time without jags of stomach pain and erections that were somehow both liquid and steel.

It happened in the dining hall at what was known even internally as “nerd camp,” a haven for seventh graders who had scored above a 900 on the SATs. (My 620 verbal score was middle of the pack; my 470 math was something shameful, something to be concealed.) The talk of our table was an unsolved crime—a pair of shit-filled boxers had been left in a running shower in the middle of the night. I was silent for two reasons: 1) I was the second fattest there and suspicion would fall on me when the interlocutors tired of the already-teary Bryan Manguno 2) I had, in fact, moderately shit myself the night before and had hidden the underwear with my name on the waistband at the very bottom of my laundry bag. While it was unlikely that my roommate, a Dave Matthews die-hard, had rooted through my things and transferred the incriminating evidence to the shower, I hadn’t quite worked my way up to ruling it out. I was completely unaware of Allison until I heard a tantalizing “ew” from on high.

I stared. We all did. Intrigue lit her face. One thing about Allison is that she has always looked pretty much the same. She got more dramatic, sure, braceless teeth, longer torso, fewer pastels, but even then: the dark hair waving down her back; the round sunburned shoulders; the way her eyes were rotated slightly inward, which with her thick eyebrows—currently raised—gave her a continued air of surprise. Doom knocked.

And then Maxim, who insisted that we call him “The Men’s Magazine,” made her laugh with time-blotted dialogue. She sat down next to me; next to me. My plate of bread, Alfredo-topped pasta, chicken parm, and garlic knot was an immediate font of shame. Allison joined us from that night onward, and I would always go stoic. The effect was, I admit, something less than Darcyian. I would simply wolf down fried finger food at the serving stations, then plate a salad that I never touched. But: I dramatically increased my shower frequency and experienced personal discovery while my roommate jammed on “Ants Marching” on his acoustic guitar in the lounge.

I didn’t say much to her until camp was nearly over, when I let loose with my big play: “Are you going to the dance?” Never mind that the dance was mandatory. Because she said, “yes, Philip,” and I hadn’t known that she knew my name. The future seemed wonderfully fixed.

Then, I watched her make out with The Men’s Magazine.

They started on the dance floor at the beginning of “American Pie” and didn’t stop until they were against the wall’s faux wood-grain at the end. To this day, each new verse is a jagged esophageal stone.

Allison. I was getting closer. Hicksville was long gone. We were pulling into Bethpage, full of women with the sort of damp, blonde-streaked hair that one could, but shouldn’t, call “beachy.” It was a major commuter stop, so there was a pause, then the train trudged past Susan’s Pub, proudly advertised as the home of the 75 cent beer, a price so low that it was dubious, like a two-dollar burger or a Greenwich Village apartment for 600 dollars a month. My first drink was with Allison. Or, more precisely, with Allison and The Men’s Magazine. It was the winter of my youthful discontent, when the estrangement I felt from my parents was at its apex. The seed was planted when my eternally well-meaning father emerged from his bedroom wearing giant green cargo shorts that he had belted up around his ribcage. Here is the root of all teenage revolution—that one crack, the infinitesimal offense, the realization that what has always seemed like truth is really just embarrassing.

Allison had invited me to join her and The Men’s Magazine for a movie. Just the three of us: what could be more natural? Even better, when Allison’s mom, who had the same permanent look of surprise as her daughter, dropped her off, she gravely shook my hand and said, “have fun, you two.” No mention of Maxim. That logically meant that Allison was more excited to see me. My frantic AIMing—that screeching modem, my mom demanding I sign off so she could use the phone—had won the day.

Soon enough, we were in a Tower Records and I was generating the impetus to compliment the way her plaid skirt flared from beneath her puffy overcoat. I had instead just pointed out that The Beatles were actually underrated if you thought about it when The Men’s Magazine sauntered up. He was wearing a leather jacket and hadn’t really gotten taller, and he and Allison hugged for a long time. Then, he took a long drag from his plastic water bottle, passed it to Allison, and then, finally, a touch grudgingly in his defeat, offered it to me.

I was aware enough to know that it wasn’t water, but I honestly believed (and I still don’t understand why, I was not usually this dumb), that Maxim had used some alchemy to infuse pot into it. When I took my first ever chug of vodka, I thought that the pitched burn was the drug at work, that my head’s reel represented a new truth: I was a stoner.

High off of this marijuana water, which I claimed to have done several times before, we went to see Cabin Fever. Allison sat in the middle, close enough that her cheekbones reflected the action’s light. If I moved my leg an inch, it would have touched hers, but I was too focused on not jumping when scary things happened. Especially because she was fidgeting some but not making any noise. I was at least calmer than The Men’s Magazine, who even moaned piteously at one stressful interval.

Afterward, the street wobbled while I cribbed my pre-read Ebert review to ramble on about the disappointment of the ending. The Men’s Magazine seemed dazed. Allison was quiet. It was snowing the kind of snow that’s melting slush while still in sky, nothing picturesque at all. We stood on that strange island in the middle of 72nd street where you can get trains to anywhere and watched real adults nearly slip down the stairs. Suddenly, I wanted Maxim to stay. There was a precipitous terror in my now-comfortable desire becoming actual. But then he left—they hugged again, that’s it—and Allison and I found a cab. She pressed up against the window. A sweet sort of pity. The moment was one beat from resolving. And then she apologized for giving Maxim a hand-job in the movie.

America is symmetry. You drive through Montana and see identical hills on both sides of the road, like a piece of wood cut in half to make a mirrored veneer. Towns are cloned, lawns have the same sod and dimensions, North Dakota is sparse, the conservative middle of Pennsylvania is lush, highway exits swoop and dance in tandem. Most homes show their faces: lusterless white-skin siding, window eyes, that mouthy door. More interesting, though, are the ones that give us a salacious peek at their rears—the yards stuffed with aged-out toys and dirty grills. The Ronkonkoma ride was full of them.

At first, there had only been snatches of leap and backflip, dozens of houses in a row with trampolines out back. It starts with a simple kid-friendly street, one of those near utopias of tricycles and pseudo-sport. But then the Roberts family gets a trampoline. Jealousy seethes every time a little blonde Roberts head peeks over the fence. Soon, everyone has one of their own. It must be in the blood, this coveting of thy neighbor’s everything, the despair over their new cars, the longing glance at your neighbor’s wife’s cleavage while your own wife’s actually superior cleavage travels alongside. It’s very Updike.

Chichi Mecas, though, had the whiff of affluence, and with it came above ground-pools—deluxe models with nice stained wood and vibrant floaty chairs. This July 4th weekend (that Karl found it patriotically relevant to get married on the holiday was a further indictment—no, no, it’s not his fault) was so hot that every pool was in use. Some were splashingly occupied by bored kids, but most were filled by men whose gleaming bellies were exposed to all comers.

My first co-ed hot tub situation came three years after the Cabin Fever incident. The experience, hypothetically thrilling, consisted entirely of wedging my fingers underneath the tub’s fringe for leverage because my fat desperately wanted to float. What should have been a natural advantage (I would have been in that special percentile of Titanic survivors if I had managed to make it top-deck) was likely a failing in the eyes of Sabine and Heather, who were just sitting like they would on land, save for their breasts, which crested the surface like New Yorker cartoon desert islands. Not that it especially mattered. My natural ease with women was a product of not caring. Even there in the tub, with all segues feasible, I was only thinking about Allison.

Though we’d exclusively interacted online for years (graduating to LiveJournal, the individualized Soviet Propaganda of the early aughts), I’d asked Allison to be my prom date. It was my first expression of interest in her, a planned self-immolation before the college reboot. But she said yes! Pre-wrapped bodega croissants were replaced by pushups. I got my braces off early. People remarked. I rented the tux as late as possible, and it fit me close and good, but two nights before the prom, Allison called. She had to say twice that her mom wouldn’t let her go because the PSATs were the next day.

Closer still to Ronkonkoma, where I would finally make my stand. The train was proceeding reverently through Pinelawn Memorial Park. At first, I only saw etched out spots waiting for the product of joint future narrative. Then came the bodies. It’s weird, our fetish for companionship even in death, our permanent association with strangers who have only ever shared a desired landing spot with us. I couldn’t stop thinking about how many teeth were underground.

It was possibly the cemetery where Allison’s granddad was buried. His sudden respiratory crisis had revived our friendship. He died in that disconnected summer-after-college fog. I had been dumped by my girlfriend (a cover version of Allison who had grown up in California and really liked the banjo) and was spending my time wandering New York’s streets in a purple Devo shirt. One day, Allison texted me. I had sent her a message of condolence after her Facebook post about her granddad’s death and she invited me to her family’s house in Long Island.

I had thirty minutes to get to her car and don’t remember the transition. I could have cabbed or sprinted or plain old manifested. For years, I’d only seen her in two dimensions, her careful curation making her look oddly similar to everyone else. In reality, she wore dark baggy jeans and her make up couldn’t hide the breakout on her chin.

Allison smoked in her car as we crossed the Queensboro Bridge. She stopped at a gas station to get a Coke, and I went into the bathroom and scrubbed under my armpits with the provided soap, which, though liquid, had a dry texture. It smelled like Pepto-Bismol. I wished that I had worn anything other than the fucking Devo shirt, which had developed a small hole directly over my left nipple. But all Allison said when I got back to the car was that I had nice calves. Mine were simply the legs of someone whose weight fluctuated, but she didn’t need to know that.

We stopped at a bar in her hometown and there was that special rush of sitting on a stool next to someone you really like—the excuse to lean in as she slowly fidgeted nearer, shoulders rounded. After a beer, she drove me to her house. It was late, so we went right to her room and sat on her bed. There were surprises: a homemade horoscope calendar; a cat memorial for a cat who had not yet died; scattered John Irvings. Stranger, though, was that everyone in the house slept with their doors open. We could hear her parents talking about her granddad, could hear her brother playing what I pretended not to know was Smash Brothers.

Then she reached up, turned off her light, and whispered, “why don’t you just do what you want.” And she was gorgeous in the reflected light from her parents’ room. But then she started crying, so I hugged her instead. I slept on the floor.

Closer, closer. Wyandanch was rickety and sparse. Next came Deer Park, the richest town yet, with the kind of really A-plus mini-golf course that has pink-flecked artificial rocks. A girl with sandwich-clipped headphones recognized a friend on the train and waved. I worried that someone from Karl’s retinue would board. With what I had planned, I needed to stave off the remotest possibility of empathy. Not that there was a strong chance of empathy with Karl, always with his hands in his tiny jacket’s pockets. Also, he’s the Pope’s grandnephew. The first time she spent the night at his place, Allison texted to say that he had a picture of the Pope in every single room of his house. Official store-bought ones, yes, but also a fair sprinkling of candids. I’m not talking about the decent Pope. This is the other one. You know who I mean. We were just one stop away.

The train ride to Ronkonkoma only takes fifty minutes. Ronkonkoma, where I would apologize for the absence of my girlfriend, who I’d told there were no plus-ones. Where I would keep my phone turned off. Where Allison could have been around any corner, so I wouldn’t brood, wouldn’t keep my jaw-line looking less than optimal. Where I would go on jogs. Where, as my still-excellent legs began to feel runner’s float, I would hear the voice of my dead father talking about the weather. Where my body would steam in the midday heat and the tops of my cheeks would acquire too much sun. Where I would round a corner in the motel we were all housed in and see The Men’s Magazine, who would edge a disturbing nod of fellowship at me. Where I would realize that I didn’t know Allison’s other friends. Where I would see Allison walking, Allison hugging, Allison doing cocaine, Allison saying the same things to everyone, Allison brushing by me in a stairwell on her way to hugging her aunt, Allison texting even though everyone she cared about should have been there, Allison running across a field for no reason, Allison jumping on Karl’s back as his face flickered annoyance, Allison eating a sandwich. Where I would go to the young person’s bonfire to watch Allison look uncertain while Karl began to tell stories that had an implied financial superstructure. Where I would wake up on the morning of the wedding and put on my new suit and enjoy how soft it felt. Where even the artificial flowers on women’s hats looked wilted. Where I would slowly walk up the hill to Ronkonkama’s phallic Catholic Church and feel like I was experiencing Zeno’s paradox. Where I would sit on the bride’s side and turn and gasp and mean it. Where I would stay in my seat watching the long line of people taking the Eucharist. Ronkonkoma, where they would ask if anyone had an objection, where Allison wouldn’t glance my way, where I would tense as most laughed. Where it would happen: the thing. The most important thing I would never do.

Adam Dalva is a professor at Rutgers University and Marymount Manhattan College. His graphic novel, Olivia Twist, was published by Dark Horse in 2019. You can find his writing at adamdalva.com.