Joyland

The South |

Ghosts You Loved More

by Michelle Lyn King

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

In late April of my junior year, a boy with intentions that at the time were still unknown to me (as opposed to unclear, which is what they are now) invited me to his childhood home for his parents’ anniversary party. By that point, this boy, John, and I had been somewhat together since October, and an increasingly large part of me feared we would be trapped in relationship purgatory forever, stuck floating between just fucking and something with more emotional ballast. There were times I would find myself walking around campus, thinking about the way John’s hair felt between my fingertips, but then there were times I’d be talking to some guy at a party and think, Maybe I only think I care about John so much because I want to care about someone. Maybe I only like how his hair feels. Or there’d be times I’d read a book I thought he’d like and it made me happy to be able to pinpoint that sort of thing. But then he’d go and say something like, “Wow. I hope the Heat win tonight,and I think, What? You like basketball? What? Basically, we knew all these really intimate things about one another, but we didn’t actually know each other. I knew that his mom was sick (cancer) and he knew my brother was in rehab (cocaine), but anytime we were in public, with the real world weighing down heavy on our shoulders, like a lead X-Ray blanket, it’d be as if we’d just met. One night, after we’d already been sleeping together for nearly six months, he turned to me and said, “Wait. What’s your major?”

I first noticed John at the end of sophomore year, a few weeks after breaking up with Evan, who I’d been with since freshman orientation. Evan didn’t really care about my brother being in rehab. Also, he insisted on brushing his teeth after going down on me.

After the breakup, I found myself doing things like going to the gym without actually working out, and spending two hours shaving the dead skin off the bottoms of my feet, and going to clubs by myself, where I would stand in the middle of the dance floor and flail my arms about. None of it made me feel satisfied. None of it made me feel much of anything. My roommate, Emma, was the only person I identified as a friend, and the only reason Emma identified me as one is because she hadn’t gotten into any sororities. I never even tried to join one, and now I regretted it. I wanted friends and mandated activities. I wanted someone I called a Big and someone I called a Little. I wanted a large group of people who loved me, even if the love was out of obligation. But I also knew that none of that would actually make me happy, so I didn’t really know what I wanted. Until I saw John. The moment I saw John, I wanted John and I didn’t want anything or anyone else.

It was at a seventies themed party in May, a few days before everyone went home for the summer. I’d spent an hour doing my hair, running Emma’s flatiron over it again and again, until it was pin-straight. Twenty minutes into the party and I could already feel my natural curls coming through.

I noticed John because he was standing alone. He was dressed as Hunter S. Thompson, in aviators and a Hawaiian print shirt and had a cigarette dangling from his mouth that he kept taking unnaturally long drags from. Everything he touched seemed lucky to be near him. What would it be like, to be that cigarette?

It wasn’t even about how he looked. He was tall and seemed uncomfortable with his height, always a bit hunched over. His jaw was scattered with rosy acne. He was only almost handsome. But there was something about him that seemed more sensitive than all the other guys I knew. I saw him cough after taking a drag, then look embarrassed for coughing. This is what it must be like for animals in the wild, I thought dumbly. This sort of feral attraction. Then I remembered I am an animal.

“Do you know who that guy is?” I asked Emma.

“Yeah. I know him.” She scrunched her nose and adjusted a strapless floral sundress that had absolutely nothing to do with the 1970s. “That’s John Scholiari. He was in my speech class this year. Junior. Film.”

I couldn’t stop looking at him. The top few buttons of his shirt were undone and I could see the hairs that grew on his chest, the existence of which thrilled me. I’d never been with a guy with chest hair. “What’s his deal?”

Emma shook her head. “Not even worth it. He’s dating Lauren Haleman, and they’ve been together since, like, before college. I’m pretty sure they grew up together.”

I nodded, and, sure enough, Lauren Haleman came flying in from seemingly nowhere, wrapping herself around John’s waist. I knew Lauren Haleman because she was also a theater major, though she was the year ahead of me. We’d taken the same Intro to Improv class. Lauren Haleman wasn’t beautiful, but she was sweet and friendly, the kind of girl boys fell in love with simply because she was so kind—always saying hello, and bless you, and bringing leftover home-baked cookies to class.

I watched John Scholiari try to hand Lauren Haleman his cigarette. She shook her head no, said something I couldn’t quite hear. He laughed. Slowly, I began to recall a faceless male meeting Lauren Haleman outside of class. The fact that I could’ve already walked by him countless times without noticing seemed unbelievable—simply not possible.

“Do you want to borrow a hair-tie?” Emma asked, suddenly. She touched the ends of my hair, which were now more curly than straight and more frizzy than curly. “You should’ve just done 70s big hair. Like Penny Lane.” Before I could answer her question, she handed me a black hair-tie.

As I pulled my hair tight into a bun, I looked back at Lauren Haleman and John Scholiari. Even in the Florida humidity, Lauren Haleman’s hair was smooth and shiny.

***

Lauren Haleman died in July. A drunk driver going the wrong way down I-95. I was living back home in Tampa for the summer, working at the beach resort or sleeping in until two, depending on the day. I went to bed one night and, when I woke up the next afternoon, my newsfeed was filled with “R.I.P. Lauren” statuses. Emma made her status, Today I think only of Lauren. R.I.P. sweet girl. We’ll all miss you. When I asked her how she knew Lauren Haleman, she said that she didn’t really. While seemingly every other person at our school grieved, John remained silent. It was as if he didn’t even know her.

I understood that Lauren’s death was bigger than me in the way I understood time went on after I died. It was hard to fully wrap my head around, and, even if I could, it wasn’t the place my mind wanted to go. I spent the rest of my summer imagining what John Scholiari’s life was like now that Lauren Haleman was dead. I imagined him crying in the shower. I imagined his parents making him see a therapist and how the therapist would not really be able to understand what John was going through. I imagined him sorting through Lauren Haleman’s closet and keeping one of her childhood stuffed animals for himself. All of these imagined moments made me feel as if I really knew him.

Rumors circulated that he wouldn’t be back for his senior year. But then I saw him at a party the first weekend of fall semester, drinking a beer and laughing and I thought, Well, maybe he never even loved her that much. I thought, Maybe he doesn’t miss her at all.

That night, I stared at him until he could feel my eyes burning into his body. I wanted there to be no doubt in his mind that it was him I was looking at. When he finally noticed, I raised one eyebrow and bit my lip before turning away. I could see him continuing to look at me out of the corner of my eye. He looked slightly confused. Maybe he was wondering if we’d met before. Maybe he was wondering if he was being rude by not saying hi.

***

Watching him occupied me like a full-time job. Throughout September, I plotted ways in which we could meet, imagined walking up to him at parties or in the library and boldly declaring, “Hi. I’m Aliza. We should have sex.” Whenever I saw him, I stared. He dressed as if it were perpetually laundry day, in basketball shorts and too-small shirts featuring logos for high school Homecoming games that happened six years ago. I’d see him reading alone in the dining hall, gnawing his cuticles and looking engrossed in whatever book he was reading, and I’d think, Who are you? Where did you come from?

The first time we spoke was October 25th. I’d gone to the bookstore, and there he was in the fiction section, flipping through a copy of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, his tailbone resting against the bookcase behind him.

“It’s really good,” I said. He looked up. “That book, I mean.”

“Yeah?” His voice was low and smoky, like underwater vibrations. I think it might’ve made the room shake. “Should I get it?”

I felt my neck get hot. “Yeah. I mean. Yeah.” I would have never worn just a sweatshirt and workout shorts had I know I was going to see him. I would have put in contacts. I would have straightened my hair.

“I’ve seen you before.” He smiled, or the left side of his mouth did. “You go here, right?”

“I do.” Knots winded in my stomach.

“But I don’t know you.”

“But you don’t know me.” I couldn’t tell me if we were flirting. I couldn’t tell what was happening. We were speaking. There would only ever be one first time we spoke, and this was it.

“Well, would you like to introduce yourself to me?” He cocked his head to the side. He was less shy than I’d imagined him to be. I thought his voice would be quieter, that his eyes would shift around more. Instead, he held very intense eye contact.

“My name is Aliza. Rubin.”

“Oh, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Aliza Rubin.” He put out his right hand for me to shake. He seemed to be mocking the very act of introducing yourself to someone. I touched his hand. “I’m John Scholiari.”

We stood there in silence for a while, until I finally spoke. “You know, I have a copy of that book back in my dorm. If you want to borrow it.”

He tossed the book from his left hand to his right hand and then back again to his left, as if weighing his options. It occurred to me that he might’ve never had sex with someone who wasn’t Lauren Haleman.

“Alright,” he said, setting the book down on the shelf, but not placing it back where he had found it. “I’ll borrow your book, Aliza Rubin.”

He moaned a lot during sex and closed his eyes the entire time.

***

For that first month, we only had sex once, maybe twice, a week. Eventually, we did start spending more time together, but it was still compartmentalized. It's not as if we went to the movies together, or ate meals together, or ran errands together. We had sex and told each other stories that felt intimate, but that was it. Sometimes we lent each other books, but we didn't buy each other books. One night, he made me a PB&J with the last of his strawberry jam after I showed up late to his apartment drunk and hungry, but he never made me coffee in the morning.

There are no words for how much I loved those nights in his apartment. It became my favorite place to be. He lived in a rundown two-story house with a bunch of other film school boys. It smelled of damp weed and lavender Febreze. On his bedroom dresser, he had a framed photograph of his grandmother when she was our age. “She was, like, my favorite person in the world,” he told me one night. “You would’ve loved her. Everyone loved her.” One night he cried in bed over the very mention of global warming. He seemed so hopeful about the world. I loved that. I loved being under his covers. I loved putting on his plaid shirt and walking to his kitchen to fill a glass of water—one glass, for us to share. I loved scratching his head, soft and slow, until he fell asleep. And then there were these nights where I'd do things like stay home to write poetry about my feelings for him, and then send nudes to my ex-boyfriend to convince myself that, no, I definitely do not love John Scholiari, and then I'd delete the document that held those lame, dripping poems, and I'd say out loud, It’s just sex.

***

From September to January, he never once mentioned Lauren Haleman and I never brought her up. I began to think my theory about him never really loving her might be true until one night in late January when his phone rang while we were naked in bed, about to have sex. He left the room with what seemed like panic. I sat naked on his bed, feeling like a dog that someone had tied outside of a cafe. When he came back in an hour later, I asked if everything was okay.

“Yeah. Everything’s fine.” He sat on the edge of his bed. He had put on sweatpants and a hoodie to answer the call. I was still naked. I rubbed his shoulders in a way I hoped was soothing.

“Who was that?”

He stayed silent for a long time, resting his head on his hands. When he finally put his hands down, he bit at his cuticles before saying, “That was Jacob Haleman. Lauren’s little brother. He had some questions about applying to college.”

My arms began to shake with the mention of her name. I steadied them against his mattress, but John didn’t seem to notice. Up until that point, Lauren Haleman had not seemed very real. The moment her name was said out loud, she materialized, transforming from John’s faceless, dead girlfriend into a real person, who’d had a little brother and a complete life.

“Oh,” I said. “You still keep in touch with her family?” I was trying to make my voice sound casual, but the tone was too high. My body was betraying me.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, that’s cool.” That voice again. I didn’t recognize it. “I didn’t know that.”

“How would you possibly know that?”

He was right. I didn’t know much about what he did when he wasn’t with me. I had a vague understanding—class, parties, smoking with friends, some film school stuff—but there would be no way for me to know anything about how he still spoke to Jacob Haleman or what he still felt for Lauren Haleman. I’d been wrong. He did miss her. He had loved her. I understood this now, but I did not know what to do with my new understanding. If he didn’t love me, there must have been some value I served in his life. Company or a distraction, maybe. I would never be loved by him the way in which Lauren Haleman was loved by him, but I could be useful to him. I could serve a purpose. That could be enough to sustain me.

We did wind up having sex that night, but he didn't finish and he only kissed me on my breasts, my hips, my neck, my thighs—never my mouth.

“Do you like when I fuck you,” he asked, the headboard banging against the wall. “Do you?” He growled into my right ear.

When we were done, I couldn’t sleep, which means I was awake to hear him leave the bed at 5 a.m., and awake to hear him cry in the bathroom for half an hour, and awake to hear him come back into bed, and awake to feel him drape his lean, boney body over my lean, boney body.

***

“What was she like?” I asked Emma one night. I knew Emma had been on the same freshman floor as Lauren Haleman and that they were at least friendly enough for her to attend the funeral. We were drinking cupcake-flavored vodka on the field of dead grass behind the science building. I’d turned 21 the week before and received the vodka as a gift from my parents. Their card read Grown-up cupcakes for our grown-up cupcake. I hadn’t heard from John on my birthday. I waited all day for his text or a call or—even though I knew this was the most unlikely option—for him to show up at my dorm. His silence gnawed at me, until I realized he probably didn’t even know when my birthday was.

“What was who like?” Emma brushed some grass off her knee and picked at the grass-shaped indent it had left behind.

“Lauren Haleman.” I took a sip of my shot. After the call from Jacob, I found myself wanting to know what she was like–not just in relation to John, but by herself. She was a singer. In high school, she was cast as Cinderella in Into the Woods. She studied abroad in Valencia her sophomore year and kept a blog about it, mostly saccharine sweet poetry about what the water in Spain looks like. Despite not finding any of these facts particularly fascinating, I was fascinated by her. This was who he loved. This was who he had chosen. I wondered if, in another life, we could be friends.

Emma shrugged. “She was super sweet. Always organizing movie nights for our freshman floor or whatever.”

“Do you know what they were like?”

“Sort of? I don’t know. They’d been together since tenth grade, I think—”

“No,” I said, interrupting her. “It was ninth grade.” I’d seen a Facebook post from her celebrating their anniversary and did the math.

“Fine. Ninth grade. Whatever. They used to sneak into the communal bathrooms and take showers together. It was so gross.”

I finished my shot. “But what was she like?”

Emma sighed. “I don’t know. She was like anyone, I guess. Honestly, Aliza, I never really knew her that well.”

I poured myself another chemical cupcake. “At least she got to date him,” I said. I was more drunk than I realized. “Like, if I died, I don’t even know if he’d go to my funeral. Isn’t that fucked up?”

Daniel shook his head many times, very quickly. “No. And you’re fucked for saying that.” She didn’t say it like ‘you’re-so-fun-and-fucked-up-and-crazy.’ She said it like ‘you’re ruined.’

When I left the football field, I thought over and over again, I am so fucked up. I am so fucked up. I am so fucked up. I felt powerful and lame.

I spent the rest of the evening clicking through Lauren Haleman's Facebook. It was still active, used mostly for her sorority sisters to write memories. I read through a bunch of them before getting to one from Ashley Scholiari. I met Lauren when she was fifteen. She immediately felt like a little sister to me. In the five years my brother spent with her I watched her help my little brother grow into a man. I will miss Lauren so much. I am lucky to have known her. After reading that, I stopped looking at comments and flipped through Lauren Haleman’s profile pictures until I found one of her at a gift store in Magic Kingdom, holding up a Tinker Bell keychain with her name on it. I have never—not once—been to a gift store that carries a Aliza keychain.

I shut my computer, finished the rest of the cupcake vodka and texted John, I don’t want to be an abstraction to you. I am a real person. He did not respond, and the next time I saw him was in the campus bookstore two days later, where we came up behind me, pinched my arm and said, “Sorry. Just double-checking you’re a real person.” He laughed like an elementary school bully, winked, and walked away.

***

It was in late April that I got a text from John reading, hey hey hey i hope this isn't weird but my parents anniversary party is next weekend and my mom wants me to bring a human (ideally female). want to go? free alcohol and fooooood.

I understood that I shouldn’t go. The school year was winding down and it was becoming increasingly clear that, after John graduated in a few weeks, we weren’t going to keep in touch. When I asked Emma what she thought I should do, she rolled her eyes and said, “He only asked you because he knows you don’t know how to say no to him.” I didn’t want that to be true. I wanted to say “no.” I wanted to be the kind of girl who would turn down the invitation while using phrases like “what I deserve” and “can’t treat me like this.” But, more than that, I very much wanted him to love me.

Two weeks later, he picked me up from my door room. He drove and I controlled the radio. The entire thing felt more intimate than any time we’d had sex. When we stopped for gas, he went into the convenience store and bought me a pack of Tropical Starburst. I remember you said you like these, he said and tossed them into my lap. I thought, Well, maybe he does love me. Maybe he could.

***

At the party, an intimate dinner in the backyard of John’s childhood home, I sat next to John. His mother remained mostly silent, while his father told me stories about John from when he was a kid. There was one elaborate story about a time when John ran away from home and his parents found him at the animal shelter playing with a cat. He said he would only come home if he could keep the cat, so they let him. “I’m sure John’s told you all about Mosey,” his dad said, but I had no idea who Mosey was. I suddenly felt more uncomfortable than I had in years. I excused myself to use the bathroom and walked dumbly around his house. On the wall were photos of him throughout his childhood. There was a photo of him on a camel in Israel, looking as if he owned the thing. There was a cheesy professional shot of him and his sister in black t-shirts and blue jeans, back-to-back with both their arms crossed. I stopped when I saw a photo of his family and Lauren Haleman, all of them on vacation in the Grand Canyon. Why was John’s childhood home a place I thought I could make myself belong?

Later that night, once John's parents had gone to sleep, I snuck out of the guest bedroom and into John's room. He was sitting shirtless on his twin size bed, looking at his high school yearbook. I thought of all the times Lauren had been in this room. Was this where they’d lost their virginity to one another?

“Hey,” I said, still standing in the doorway. “Is it okay if I come in?”

His eyes looked red. I told myself he was just tired. We’d woken up really early for the drive. “Aliza.” He sounded surprised, like he was confused as to how I’d found my way into his childhood home. “Yeah. Yeah. Of course. Come on in.” He laid down, outstretching his right arm for me to fit under, still holding his yearbook with his left.

“Can I see what you looked like in high school?”

It took a long time for him to answer. “Yeah. Sure. Yeah. Let's see what I looked like in high school.” He showed me his senior year portrait and when I asked if he was in any clubs, or won any superlatives or anything, he paused for a long time again.

“My girlfriend and I did. We won Best Couple.”

“You mean Lauren Haleman.” I said her name too fast. It wasn’t natural.

He paused again. "Yeah. I mean her.”

He flipped to a page with a photo of them and the words "Best Couple" written underneath in bold red letters. They were sitting on a picnic bench, both of them in white t-shirts. He looked younger. His face fuller, his hair longer. He was looking at Lauren Haleman and you could tell they loved each other. She was laughing and he had this look that just said, Wow. I would give things up for this girl. I would sacrifice things for her. It pained me to see. I could not invoke that in him. I felt a stab of jealousy toward Lauren Haleman, followed immediately by a deep sense of guilt. He’d always love her more, but I would grow up. I would grow old.

“You know,” he said, breaking my concentration. “We ended things a week before she died.” I didn't say anything, afraid that if I spoke, he'd close up again. He was stroking my arm and a part of me felt closer to him than I ever had. “No one knows that. Some of her friends, maybe. But probably not. She was private, you know?”

“No. I don’t know. I didn’t know her, remember?”

He didn’t respond to what I said. It was like I hadn’t spoken. I was a pillow. This was an empty room.

"I cheated on her. It was incredibly stupid. It was impulsive. It was so fucking dumb. We had just...been together forever. I wanted to be with someone else. Like, I knew I wanted to marry Lauren, but I wanted to at least, like...touch someone else. Fuck.”

I put my head on his chest, thinking I'd feel his heart beating rapidly. I didn't feel anything. His shirt. His ribcage. Nothing.

“So, you broke up with her?” I asked. “After you cheated?”

“No,” he said immediately. “She broke up with me. Lauren wasn’t going to put up with that shit. She wasn’t like that.”

She wasn’t like that. She knew she deserved more. She had standards. Lauren Haleman wasn’t the kind of girl to put up with a cheating boyfriend. She was stronger than that. Was I stronger than that? I had come here, to his childhood home, desperate for any scrap of affection he was willing to dole out to me. I was not stronger than that.

John spoke again. "I'm really happy you came."

It was a nice thing for him to say and I was glad he had said it, but it also made me sad. I turned my face up towards him, hoping he was looking down at me with even a fraction of the affection he had in that four-year-old photo. But his head was leaning back against the wall, his Adam's apple even more pronounced than usual, and his eyes were closed. I wondered if he was imagining some parallel universe in which he hadn't cheated on Lauren Haleman, and a drunk driver hadn't smashed into Lauren Haleman's car, and Lauren Haleman was tucked under his arm instead of me. I knew that in such a parallel universe, we would still be strangers. He wouldn’t have been at the bookstore on October 25th, and, even if he had been, he would’ve been holding Lauren Haleman’s hand and kissing her knuckles one by one, and I wouldn’t have spoken to him. And, yet, knowing that didn’t stop me from wanting his silence to mean something more, something about me. So, I remained silent, too, imagining my own parallel universe.

Illustration by Carolyn Tripp