When I was a junior in high school I fell in love with a retarded girl. People say they fall in love all the time in high school, but what they're talking about is lust fueled by high octane hormones. A 16-year-old boy could fall in love with a hole in the dirt if it was the right size and a 16-year-old girl could have two-sided conversations with a photograph in a magazine. Teenagers aren't mature or emotionally grounded enough to gauge when they're in love. How do I know I fell in love with that retarded girl? More than a decade later I still think about her almost every day.
I never learned her name, so I am going to refer to her as Julienne. The day I saw her for the first time she was dipping julienne fries into ketchup on her lunch tray. She didn't even look down at the ketchup. Julienne dragged the fries back and forth, taking her time as if she were dunking a cookie into milk. Then she lifted a trio of lardy fries to her lips. They parted, but not nearly enough to prevent the ketchup from smearing across her lower lip. Then they disappeared into her mouth and her tongue darted out to lick away their debris. A lesser man might have bit his knuckle or the palm of his hand to stifle a cry.
Julienne was not beautiful, she was exquisite. No, she was still more beautiful than that. She possessed that sort of terrifying beauty that Edmund Burke might have described as "sublime". Her large gray eyes nestled in a garden of curving lashes and seemed outlined in black. Her upper lip was thin, but feminine, and her lower lip was so full as to make her seem slightly petulant. From the upturned tip of her nose to her fashionably unkempt black hair, she was gorgeous.
She was sitting down when I entered the cafeteria and she wore a puffy pink winter coat despite being indoors. I could not assemble a clear picture of her physique from that first encounter, although I was certain that she was not grotesquely overweight. I would later learn that her breasts were a match for the finest to be found among the cheerleaders at my school and her outdated acid-washed jeans cradled a crescent fertile enough to shame the Tigris and Euphrates combined.
To even offer a description of Julienne is to demean her. With my crude words I can detail the gentle curve at the back of her neck or the way she would suddenly smile at nothing at all, but what good is that? Perhaps you can understand why I would have fallen instantly in love with her, but you cannot empathize. The experience of seeing her that first time was probably analogous to the ecstasy certain Christians experience when they encounter the Virgin Mary in a grease stain or a coffee ring. This was not even so base as a message from the heavens, Julienne was divinity personified.
That first day began my surveillance of Julienne. To be honest, I never was certain that she was retarded. She certainly bore none of the physical characteristics of many of the chromosomal disorders associated with mental retardation. Nor was she relegated to the lowest of the low special education classes. That class was a corral for bestial creatures with withered arms, motorized wheelchairs and a reputation for grasping wantonly at the bodies of passing girls. Those degenerate hobgoblins masturbated openly without repercussion and shat themselves as if they were being paid for each garment they soiled.
These were the beasts we let into our schools to prove that we hate Hitler. We Americans can fight back the instinct to chase them into the woods with rakes and torches or tie stones around their legs and push them off bridges. Thrusting Julienne into that environment would have been akin to dipping an infant in chum and throwing it into the ocean.
No, Julienne was several orders of magnitude more intelligent than those miserable horrors, but she was still quite obviously askew. She rarely blinked and her eyes moved with a pronounced lethargy. When she spoke - and it was a rare occasion - she spoke in a husky whisper that made her words seem dramatic, but intangible, like smoke curling from the barrel of a gun. She was a girl caught between two worlds: our ugly realm of cold grays and molded plastics and some other place, far away, where impossibly amazing things are happening.
Julienne's two friends were obnoxiously loud and unpleasantly stupid. They talked about tampons between bites of fruit pies and picked at scabs on their faces. They were the sort Donald Rumsfeld might refer to as "dead-enders" were he to view trailer parks through the same cynical eyes he is known to cast on the Middle East. Their bodies were bloated in every possible place. I can't remember their faces, but they barked like hippos and spit when they talked. They existed on the periphery of my vision and were little more than heaps of garbage. Their proximity to Julienne created a background that served to further enhance her beauty. She was a winning lottery ticket floating in their unflushed toilet.
When I saw Julienne in the halls I fought down the urge to fall at her feet and prostrate myself before her. I watched as she disappeared into remedial English, fundamentals of math, or the sort of science classroom where an entire unit is spent explaining that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo's bold wisdom reaches even the simple among us in this future age.
Days would pass and I would not see her, then she would reappear with crêpe paper tied in her hair or a crude heart drawn on her forearm with marker. Each childlike affectation was endearing rather than amusing. Make no mistake, while the love I felt for her would probably best be described as romantic, it was never specifically sexual. While I had some strange urge to physically love her, I also felt that to do such a thing would be to defile her. No, the sexual interaction I desired was the chaste intercourse of television, wherein I could perhaps see her in low light, partially clothed, and then she would come to me and then it would be dark. The horrid reality of sex was not to be inflicted upon Julienne, even in my private fantasies.
One of the most enduring memories of Julienne is the one time I sat near her at the lunch table. She had taken to wearing a jean jacket all day long and I admired the pink vinyl tassels that hung at her sleeves. On a lesser woman they would have been ridiculous. She held her tray of beef twofers, fruit cup and milk, searching for her friends. I always kept at least a table between myself and her, but on that fateful day she picked out a seat next to me. It was not the one directly next to me, but it was close.
My friends glanced at Julienne with apathy. They couldn't see what I saw and there was no point telling them. Perhaps they couldn't even see her at all. I have friends from high school that I would tell anything, yet I have never discussed her with them.
Julienne's proximity offered a unique opportunity, unsettling as the reality was, to experience a facet of her I had not yet enjoyed: her smell. Believe me when I say that I have never made a habit of going around and smelling girls. Julienne...projected her smell. I am loathe to say odor, because that conjures scent-memories of rancid sweat or even more unsavory filth. Aroma. Julienne had an aroma. It was simultaneously natural and artificial. The scent was sweet, strange, disconcerting, but not entirely unpleasant. It was the smell of sun-warmed skin and talcum powder, and, something else. It was the smell of something terrible and beautiful at the same time; poppies at Prypiat or kalia lilies in the Katyn Forest.
I was still trying to describe that scent to myself when she looked at me for the first and only time. She turned to me, her expression slack. Her eyes roamed slowly to my face, her gaze seemingly focused on some point far away. With no idea of what to do or how to react, I smiled. She did not react for a moment and then, as though her face was being manipulated by invisible strings and cables, she smiled very suddenly.
Her teeth were white. They parted slightly. Something red moved inside her mouth. Her tongue speared out from between her lips, a fleshy eel emerging from its burrow. Julienne wagged her tongue at me like a child. I was stunned. My own smile wavered. Her expression went slack again. She turned back to her tray of food and began to slather her beef twofers with cheap government ketchup made from crabapples.
I saw her a few more times before summer came. Had I known that she would not be returning my senior year in high school I might have treasured those fleeting final glimpses of her more carefully. As it is, she has ingrained herself forever on my psyche.
A few years later, perhaps during my failed foray into higher education, I took to offsetting my self-centered misery by visualizing things vastly greater than myself. It was a coping mechanism for uncomfortable situations or unpleasant tasks. When faced with something I dread I contemplate my staggering insignificance amidst the backdrop of creation. At first it was simply mountains, valleys, or ancient ruins I had glimpsed in a textbook. These visions became increasingly grandiose. I became obsessed with reducing myself to less than an ant, so that my struggles were meaningless and not to be feared.
I imagined the creaking of ice plains on Europa, tortured and twisted by the gravity of Jupiter filling up the sky. I visualized the desolate winds of Mars, sweeping away ten thousand years of trackless dust in a storm front large enough to envelop an entire state. The years went by and my mind wandered further and craved even more grandiose and florid imagery. The atmosphere of unknown planets boiled away in the grip of a red giant. Moons quit their orbits and brought staggering calamity to sheets of methane ice. Solar systems collapsed in on the singularity point of a hungry black hole. Worlds smashed against each other, gamma radiation spewing out from quasars and scouring every trace of life from the planets it touched.
It should be no surprise that eventually she slipped into these fanciful cosmic odysseys. Julienne is scarcely a hair's breadth from me in the scale of my visions, living out a sad simple life in the small town where I spent my formative years, trapped like a butterfly beneath a bell jar. She is probably in a trailer, a hundred pounds heavier, with mewling children and a husband that drinks and beats her. Maybe she lives alone, that same half-smile on her face as she stares at the wall of her kitchen, an old clock ticking softly, a cat arching its back as it rubs against her leg. I could find her, I think, but if I make myself understand her then she is destroyed.
The Victorians thought the sublime was something to be conquered, something man could overcome. Maybe they were right and maybe we are greater and more significant than I presume. Maybe some day we will look out from Brunel's great steam ships and Stephenson's rail cars of the 500th century and casually glimpse the beautiful terrors of the cosmos. If they are right then I hope she is there, drifting through the boundless void, above crumbling vistas far away.
Thanks for reading the update. Thanks to Shmorky for once again transforming one of my updates into much more than it might have been. If you guys enjoyed my writing, you might be interested in my book. I think there might be a few copies left at Amazon.
Sorry about the blurry photo. I was lunging at my phone, yelling at it to take a clear picture. It's the only image of me that exists. I'd take another picture for you, but I'm in the middle of a rigorous trampoline session.
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