Jade Mitchell loves her phone more than me. We sit across from each other in a booth at Kleiman’s café. She texts while I watch. Jade has many “guy friends.” Today, she’s texting Brian because she finds him more interesting. I don’t blame her. I suspect Brian is silly and immature. He’s perfect for her. I’m Jade’s slightly older, foolish boyfriend, who’s holding onto her — for some inexplicable reason. I watch her face light up and flush dark pink as she receives a new message.
I don’t mind quiet moments with Jade. Actually, I prefer them. If it wasn’t for Brian, Jade would blurt out something superficial and jump to wild conclusions. In fact, my generation doesn’t need conversation. We’re much too busy for that. It’s a zoomer thing. Boomers wouldn’t understand. We’ve developed a new way to communicate. Social media allows us to share everything while saying nothing. There’s only one problem. Lately, I’ve noticed what a ghostly world this is when I talk, and no one listens.
“Jade!” I call out from another dimension.
No reply. Jade’s in a texting wormhole. Fine. I’m currently enjoying Kleiman’s slightly burnt, highly acidic, non-fair-trade coffee. Swinging the foam cup aggressively up to my mouth, I take a big gulp of the brown liquid. It’s scalding hot. I burn my tongue and feel a painful fire travel down the back of my throat. How apropos. I splutter awkwardly. Jade doesn’t notice and continues texting, as though it’s her sole purpose in life.
I thought she was cute when I first met her at Jake’s house party. She was hitting Jell-O shots, casually grinding against me on the dance floor — like a skinny boy up to the chest, short-shorts showing off her sixteen-year-old body with the hip sway, a round, pale, childish face, and bright green eyes. Four Corona’s deep, and she’s exciting me like I’m thirteen hitting puberty. Jade had to leave early, but we exchanged numbers. Then I was up till 1 am, wide awake, sexually frustrated, realizing I could probably have her if I needed that — and I needed that — so I texted her the next day. She’s no Ava, but then again, no one could compare to her.
Kleiman’s coffee isn’t bad — once you get used to it. Jade’s like that too. Once you’ve been burned by Jade, you lose the capacity for rational judgment. Oh well. Kleiman’s café is technically the only game in town. In fact, it’s the only option on Grand River State University campus. This wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for the nauseating aromas wafting over from the food vendors.
Unfortunately, in Kleiman Hall, there’s one food court for both café and cafeteria needs: the results are chaotic. The coffee grinder roars; shrill voices place orders for food; employees yell inscrutable things back and forth; the AC hums continually; top-40, blasé, pop-of-the-moment tracks play lifelessly from tinny speakers attached to oppressive grey walls. It’s a nightmarish echo-chamber. It’s not a safe space. If Ava were here, she would agree with me.
Kleiman Hall is the perfect place for a casual date. That is, if you don’t mind practically shouting at one another from across the table and having your senses assaulted by an ungodly amount of food sensations that shouldn’t be mixed together so thoughtlessly and distastefully buffet style.
Oddly enough, students still frequent Kleiman’s café. Some students arrive in so-called “study groups” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one). I’ve listened in on a few of these alleged study sessions. They chat superficially and check their phones. How predictable.
Some students bring dates here. Big mistake. They flirt with each other uncomfortably and judging by their halting, frequently stalled conversations — poorly. I’m embarrassed for them. Some hoodie-wearing loner students sit at empty tables and drown their sorrows in scalding coffee and high-fat, high-sugar muffins. I’ve never been one of them. Ava and I don’t associate with those people.
This morning, I had a premonition. I cut myself shaving; blood dripped slowly down my chin. When I squinted at just the right angle, it looked like the letter “J.” My life’s like an open wound. Jade’s too weak to hurt me, so she nicks me instead. I once saw more in Jade: a big smile showing off her silver braces and pink rubber bands, the private-inside-jokey-bantery-type laughter we shared, her overly caffeinated knee-shaking energy, her absurdly naïve optimism that made me smile, once.
Liberal studies opened my mind. I’ve only been here a few weeks, and I’m already questioning everything. My sexuality is in doubt. My white maleness is an egregious problem. My belief in heteronormativity is comic relief among progressives. Even worse, my relationship is founded on heterosexism. The only solution might be hormone therapy. I’m sure Ava would understand. Jade doesn’t understand anything.
Jade’s a senior at Northern Hills, but she’s a baby. I’m in my first year at GRSU, but I’m an adult. This afternoon I decided to call Jade, — not because I wanted to see her, — but due to purely adult obligations. Everyone knows that serious adult relationships are founded on duty — not love. Besides, if I didn’t call Jade, she’d see other guys and blithely forget about me. Maybe that would be better.
“Jade!” I cry loudly.
“Jade,” I try again, “Who are you texting?”
“What?!” she cries, utterly shocked at being questioned by her boyfriend. Her eyes do not move off her phone.
“Who are you texting?”
“Alex? Oh…wait…sorry…okay…almost done…there….” She sets her phone down on the table. “What were you saying?” She smiles cloyingly.
“Who was that?”
“Oh…my mom….” Jade fidgets in the booth, unable to meet my eyes.
“What does she want?” I stare at her guilt-stricken face.
“What does Brian have to say?” I hope Jade will slip up.
“What?” Her eyes drift back to her phone.
Jade shrugs. “I wasn’t texting Brian.”
I know she’s lying. It’s what a silly little kid would do. “Give me your phone.” My eyes are cold steel.
“No.” Jade grabs her phone and holds it to her chest.
“Jade, give me your phone.”
“No.” She clutches her phone like a child clutches a stuffed animal.
“Jade, give me your phone before I break it!” I slam my fist on the table.
“Why do you hate me?” She fakes hurt in her voice.
“I…don’t hate you.”
“I was texting my mom.” Jade shoves her phone in my face. “Why don’t you believe me?”
I scan her recent texts. It appears that Jade was in fact texting her mom. Part of me still doesn’t believe her. Despite appearances, she’s clever. I know she’s playing me.
“I have to use the bathroom.”
“Whatever,” says Jade.
She starts texting again while I head to the bathroom. I push through crowds of noisy students on my way to the far end of the dining hall. Thankfully the men’s bathroom is deserted. I stare into the mirror smeared with fingerprints and flecks of food and grime. I’m an eerily pale boy. I’m far too skinny. I look weak. My hair is dry and curly. My eyes are dark grey and almost feral. The left side of my chin is streaked with acne. It’s not a good look. Some people think that acne is easily remedied. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. I spent most of my adolescence trying method after method. No luck so far. People don’t understand anything — except Ava.
I find an empty bathroom stall and sit on the toilet lid. Shredded toilet paper covers the floor like confetti. I take out my phone and open Facebook. I find Ava’s profile and scroll through her pictures. I stare at her body and tremble violently. This is the only good thing in my life. I unzip my pants, breathing shallowly and shuddering. Then a cruel memory wedges itself between myself and the object of desire.
Black gowns, bodies pressed tight, shuffling down the aisle, spotlights beaming, the quiet pictures — I wince spastically. His arms around her, the body blow, the quickening pulse, the thumping heart, the bated breath — I’m losing track of all things. In a packed atrium filled with proud parents, faces glowing, vibrant eyes, bright smiles, white teeth, and self-conscious laughter — I don’t remember how to feel. Watching her sing the Beatle’s “Blackbird” while my vain eyes stare at her greedily. Blue eyes, dry mouth, choking on words, cracked lips, paralyzed — I want to die. Thoughts violated, I compose a speech but leave without saying a word. Her long black hair departing, fading from memory, punishing me — I regret everything.
The climax is disappointing. It’s grown progressively worse. Ava’s become hollow. She’s an empty vessel, little more than a conduit for pent-up thirst and fantasy. She’s desirable as a means to an end — nothing more. I immediately lose interest in her pictures. This is always the way of things.
If I had another chance, I’d approach Ava. If I could talk to her, I’d make her understand how I feel. But she’s gone. I’ve thought of taking a bus to her college. But that doesn’t feel like a viable option. It feels like an oppressive burden. It would never work, and I know it. How would I find her? Part of me doesn’t want to see her. Part of me hates her more than life itself. I never spoke to her in high school. Why start now?
The reality is painfully straightforward. I’m a walking car-crash: shattered and totaled. I’m the freak downpour in the heart of winter, black ice on a twisting road, the slush, mud, and brown water flooding sidewalks, the bitter wind assaulting pedestrians, the springtime hail, the scorching heat, the suffocating humidity. She’s gone. Life is over. When I think about my future, this dread finds me, — this sickening dread that my life will be spent alone, surviving and continually suffering — drifting angrily from boring nine to five job to mindless dead-end job — paying bills and buying groceries — living hand to mouth and spending my money to keep a roof over my head — failing at love. When I think about my future, I want to hang myself. Does Ava think about me? Does she care about me? Of course not.
I exit the stall, wash my hands, and rejoin Jade at our booth. She’s texting and barely registers my return.
“Still texting?” I ask bitterly.
“I hate you,” Jade informs me without looking up.
“You’re mean to me.” She sips her coffee and eyes me, waiting for my reaction.
I can’t meet her eyes. My eyes are glazed with secrets.
Jade takes her purse and begins sliding out of the booth. “I’m going home.”
The thought of Jade leaving is intolerable. I’m on the verge of tears. Something’s wrong with me. I wish I hadn’t looked at Ava’s pictures. I wish I could stop looking. I’ve lost the strength to fight it. “Please don’t go,” I plead. “I’m sorry. We can talk about something else…please stay.”
Jade thinks about this proposition by looking at her phone. Jade likes making me jealous. It gives her a sense of power over me. She doesn’t leave the booth.
“How’s school?” I ask, forcing a cheerful tone.
“Do you have a job yet?”
Jade yawns. “I don’t know.”
Silence follows her last insightful comment. I feel a headache coming on. Jade looks at the table and stares off into space for a while, and after a few uncomfortable moments, comes back to earth.
“Oh,” she says suddenly, “yesterday me and my friend went to McDonald’s, and I ordered an Iced Coffee, and I drank the whole thing, and it was so good…”
A lengthy pause follows while I wait for the conclusion of her story. Jade sips her coffee. My life is like a horror film. Jade provides the jump scares.
“…Ok…” I manage, “Anything else? Who were you with?”
“Alex…why do you hate me?” Jade asks innocently.
I take a moment to mull over the question. “I…don’t.”
“You always yell at me.”
“I don’t always yell at you. It’s only when I’m upset,” I say, raising my voice.
“You hate me,” she insists.
“I don’t hate you,” I say in a louder voice than I intend.
Jade’s pink face twists with confusion. I try a different approach. “What’s Brian’s texting you?” I beg.
Jade smiles mischievously.
“My mom says she loves me.” Her green eyes sparkle with delight.
“Do you love her?” I ask, smirking.
“Is that why you let him text you?”
“Maybe.” Jade gives me a wide smile.
“You are texting Brian!” I clench my fist in triumph.
“You always try to make me feel stupid!” Jade’s face recites the usual sit-com ritual of distraught wide eyes complete with an overwrought, gaping mouth. All we’re missing is a laugh-track like it’s Friends.
“I’m just asking questions.” I run a sweaty palm through my tangled dry hair.
“I don’t know, okay.” She turns away from me. Her phone vibrates. She brings it up to her face and immediately begins writing a response.
“Jade, are you texting him right now?”
“Are you texting Brian?”
“None of your business!” she cries.
A few students look over at us and cast wry smiles in our direction.
“Give me your phone!” I cry, lunging at it from across the table.
“I hate you!” she screams, holding her phone away from me.
“JADE, STOP BEING A CHILD!”
“YOU’RE THE CHILD!” She frantically tries to splash her coffee in my face. She misses and spills most of it on the table. Hot coffee drips on my white t-shirt and soaks the front of my khaki pants. A humiliating wet stain streaks down my pant legs. Jade slides out of the booth and races for the door.
I watch her go, my chest heaving. A few students briefly look up from their phones and urge me to go straight to Hell. But even our sickening nonsense can’t hold an audience, and they quickly lose interest and turn their full attention back to their absorbing problems. For some strange reason, I chase after Jade. If Ava were here, I wonder what she’d think.
The late afternoon sun beats down on the teeming mass of students crawling around the campus like ants. Towering prison-cells aka dormitories rise up across the road from Kleiman Hall. The early fall wind cuts through me. I see Jade speed-walking on the path towards visitor parking. I follow her.
“Jade!” I call.
Jade whirls around, hands on her hips like a barbie doll. “Stop following me.”
I half the distance between us. “I need you,” I say pathetically.
“Go AWAY.” Her face flushes scarlet.
As I approach her, she seems irresistibly attractive. Jade’s special charm is in promising a world of perpetual joy. The fact that she never delivers on this promise is almost incidental to the affect. She radiates youthful lightness and spontaneous fun. Ava wasn’t like that. I never felt comfortable approaching Ava. There was always the sense that she approved of certain people but not others. Jade, of course, would talk to anyone.
Jade turns and continues walking. “You’re like a little boy,” she shouts.
Other students watch with curious interest and gossip amongst themselves while I come up alongside her.
“Go away,” she mutters.
“But — ”
Jade eyes the wet stain on my pants like it’s the mark of some hidden shame.
“Your coffee…” I explain.
Jade crosses her arms. “What were you doing in the bathroom?”
“I said, what were you doing?”
“You were in there a long time.”
“What were you doing?”
We near her baby blue Honda Civic. Jade’s parents bought her the car. Her parents are bourgeoisie; they support the criminal social and political structures ruining this country.
“Jade, listen. I’m sorry. I don’t care if you’re texting Brian. Can we talk?”
Jade rolls her eyes and opens the car door.
“Can I join you?”
I circle her car and enter the passenger side. Tissues, school papers, assorted candy wrappers, chip bags, and a small bottle of hand sanitizer litter the floor. It’s hard to move my feet without crunching sounds. I try not to judge.
“I need you to listen,” I stare at the side of her face.
Jade stares ahead vacantly.
“I feel like I’ve been born again.”
“What have you been smoking?” asks Jade, attempting to undercut my growth as a human being.
I ignore her comment and begin my lecture: “We know that social media destroys lives.” I adopt a foreign, authoritative tone. “Society is in crisis.” I point at myself. “I am in crisis.” I point at Jade. “You are in crisis. Communication has broken down. We are more alienated and more vulnerable than ever before.” I start gesticulating with my hands and waving them around like my liberal studies professor. It doesn’t seem to be working in this context.
“We can’t follow the cultural agenda,” I assert smugly. “Look at this campus.” I gesture out the car window towards the row of dorms. “It’s like a playground of oppression. Everywhere you look there is racism, sexism, classism, ableism, ageism, and most importantly, homophobia.” Jade looks at me. “Except when you look at me and other progressives,” I explain. “Implicit bias is a powerful thing until you become aware of it. Fortunately for you, I am well aware of the ravages of bias and prejudice.” Jade breathes a sigh of relief. I think she’s mocking me.
“We must resist the urge to capitulate to the trends and forces of history,” I announce. “We need affirmative action. We need to become allies to marginalized folks. We need diversity. We need pro-choice. We need inclusivity, equity, safe spaces, and more immigrants. We must not allow free speech from alt-right extremists and other hated groups like the police and conservatives. We cannot forget the heroism of queer folk who fought and died for their queer communities. We must have trans rights. We must have gender-neutral bathrooms. We need more people of colour. Black lives do matter. We need women. Yes, we need women like yourself.” I give her a sidelong glance. Jade appears to be texting.
I continue unabated: “I hate the patriarchy. I hate it with a burning passion. We have oppressed your sex and discriminated against you at every single opportunity. White privilege is real, and I am a perpetrator of it. For this, I am deeply ashamed.” I turn to get Jade’s reaction, but she’s busy talking on her phone.
I clasp my hands together, as if in prayer. “Relationships, I’ve learned, work like checks and balances similar to proper forms of governance. But in order for structural oppression to be eliminated, radical changes must be enacted. You cannot compromise during political campaigns. You have to present a vision of a world free from oppression and tyranny. We have to fight for freedom. You want to be free, don’t you?” Jade, still on her phone, either doesn’t hear me or doesn’t care.
“In order for us to be free, we must give up our rights to privacy. Yes, privacy divides us. It builds walls between us. You don’t want to be like Donald Trump, do you?” I shake my head. “We need real, genuine relationships based on honesty and transparency. We need open relationships, open in every sense of the word. We cannot compromise at this stage in our relationship, Jade. There’s too much at stake.”
Jade finishes her phone call. “What?”
“I would like you to go first. Were you texting Brian?”
Jade shuffles her feet and drums the steering wheel. “Yes.”
“Are you seeing him?”
“We share the same classes,” she says sullenly.
“Do you like him?”
“Are you sleeping with him?”
“Good. Thanks for sharing…I…also would like to share something.” A wave of nausea passes through me. Tears well in my eyes. Something is very wrong.
“You wanted to know…what I was doing…in the bathroom,” I continue hesitantly. “I’ll tell you. There should be no…secrets between us. Do you remember Ava?” My face turns red. It feels like I’m entering a confessional.
“Ava Verheek?” Jade gives me an odd look.
“Do you remember singing “Blackbird” with her…at graduation? You were both…in the choir.”
Jade shrugs. “I guess.”
“I had a strong, emotional thing…for her.”
“…That’s what you wanted to tell me?” she blurts out.
“No…in the bathroom…I was masturbating to pictures of — “
“GET OUT!” Oh my gosh! GET OUT! GET OUT YOU CREEP!”
She begins to violently push my body, as if she could squeeze me through the door by sheer force of will. I wrench at the car door and bail out while she starts the car. She slams the passenger door, and it nearly collides with my head. I roll out of the way as she peels out of the parking lot. I watch her drive away.
Jade hates me and I deserve it. I don’t deserve her. It doesn’t matter anyways. Jade’s gone. Ava’s gone. It’s probably for the best. Someday, I’ll look back on this experience and laugh. In fact, I’m already laughing inside. The real one was drinking coffee with me. The fake one was circling the back of my mind. I confused the two. Why couldn’t I see it before? I’m brain-dead. If I could go back, I’d choose Jade every time. I don’t think she’ll take me back, though — not anymore. I don’t blame her. Let her date Brian; he’s probably better than me.
I begin my solitary walk back to my dorm. The sun is fading, the air is crisp, the campus is hushed. As I pass by one of the dorms, the inner glow from a window illuminates a few anonymous individuals. I avert my eyes. Some things are better left private. I’d rather be near a broken person than spend my life as a spectator, always looking but never reaching the heart. The girl I desired was a husk of a human being. I never knew Ava. I knew Jade. She was right here; I overlooked her. Kleiman Hall looms before me. I could really use a coffee. I miss her already.