Paradise by the Dashboard Light
Amy was the first girl I met at college, in late August of 1993. She was a senior leading a campus tour and I was in the group of freshman boys shuffling obediently behind her. We attended at a tiny liberal arts school in Nowheresville, Kansas, that didn't have college town luxuries like pizza parlors, coffee shops or traffic lights. Students drank beer in the Conoco parking lot and the nearest movie theater was an hour away. It was a windswept desolate place, surrounded by miles of prairie grassland, and I felt like I had just enrolled in the last college at the end of the earth.
Over the next few months, I kept a wandering eye on Amy. She had tousled blonde hair, a raspy voice from years of high school cheerleading, and a crinkly smile that gave her a vague Meg Ryan quality. She was popular, but different from the terrifying, stuck-up, big-haired, blondes she hung out with. She was sweet, down-to-earth and unlike them, she didn't wear sweatpants with her name across the butt or wear make-up to the cafeteria for breakfast. Amy's usual outfit was a ratty, knee-length sweater worn over tights and she always looked like she had just rolled out of bed. Her boyfriend, Anders, was the school's one authentic badass. He was a rail-thin, bearded slacker who dealt weed and acid. Several of the campus buildings were named after his grandfather, which is probably all that kept him from getting expelled. He and Amy were notorious. They partied hard and fought often. They threw things from open dormitory windows and screamed at each other from moving cars. They were our Bobby and Whitney, our Kevin and Britney, and I found them exotic and fascinating.
Second semester, Amy and I ended up in a Shakespeare class together. The course culminated in a performance of Twelfth Night. She was the lead, Lady Olivia, and I was Sebastian, who Olivia accidentally marries believing him to be Cesario, his cross-dressing identical twin sister. Like many of Shakespeare's comedies it's a play of mistaken identity and so too became my relationship with Amy. As Sebastian I was a passionate, swashbuckling man of mystery but as Arthur I was a shy, non-swashbuckling, bundle of nerves. I felt so awkward around Amy I could barely speak. As a result I ignored her, was rude to her and often disappearing after rehearsals without saying goodbye. Despite all of this, Amy found my aloofness intriguing, she mistook my shyness for confidence, and we developed an unlikely spark on and off stage.
Twelfth Night opened the last week of school and Anders was strangely absent from the performances. Amy seemed happy and carefree. The night the show closed she flirtatiously tackled me backstage. At the cast party she danced with a beer in each hand band from Kansas City played a train wreck of covers – "Closer to Fine" by the Indigo Girls, "We Built This City" by Starship, and "Beds Are Burning" by Midnight Oil. When it was time to go home she insisted that I walk her back to her dorm.
"Shit, I lost my sandals," she said staring down at her feet, just then realizing we'd walked across campus barefoot.
"No you didn't," I replied, producing them from my backpack.
She squealed as though I'd performed the most amazing magic trick she'd ever seen. Then, to my shock, she leaned in and gave me a big sloppy kiss.
The next night Amy and I made out under a blanket while her roommate watched TV. At one point the phone rang and the machine picked up. It was Anders.
"Amy, where the fuck are you?"
Amy threw off the blanket and ran across the room, hitting the top of the answering machine with her fist as his voice grew angrier. "We were supposed to" – CLICK. She smiled at me and then hopped back under the covers. I was officially the other man. It felt amazing.
A few days later, Amy picked me up in her Cutlass Ciera and drove us out to a secluded field. The sun was setting and the horizon was so flat and unencumbered that the car felt like an island on an endless grassy sea. We were undressing in the front seat when Amy handed me something from her purse.
"I made this for you."
It was a cassette labeled "PJ 4 AJ," in loopy handwriting. I figured it was a mix tape but had no idea what "PJ 4 AJ" meant. I was "AJ," obviously, but what was "PJ"? Party Jams perhaps? Pretentious Jazz? Prune Juice? The possibilities were endless.
"Let's listen to it!" Amy said as she snatched it back and shoved it into the stereo.
My heart sank as the music kicked in. It was "Once," the first song on Pearl Jam's grunge-era-defining album Ten.
"Oh, I get it!" I yelled, feigning a smile. "Pearl Jam for Arthur Jones!"
Amy cranked up the volume and shrieked, "I love this song!"
She pushed me hard against the passenger seat and climbed on top of me. After that things got a little crazy. It was as if Eddie Vedder had sabotaged our quiet, romantic moment by putting a drop of Spanish Fly under her tongue. The cassette wasn't a mix tape. It was a dub of Ten, a record full of grunty, monosyllabic, songs about murder, depression, and teen suicide, making it, perhaps the worst sex album ever. For instance, it's really hard to get a blowjob while listening to that song Alive, and it's even harder to go down on someone during Jeremy, especially at the end of the song when Vedder sings the words "Jeremy spoke in" over and over again like a bleating goat. But that's what happened and that's what I did.
History is full of lonely freshmen who never got the opportunity to nail a smoking-hot ex-cheerleader. I recognized the magnitude of my situation and wasn't about to let a guy who sang like Foghorn Leghorn ruin my moment of destiny. So, I maintained my composure, focused and made love with the spastic enthusiasm of someone who had won the sexual lottery. I blew on Amy's neck and massaged her forehead. I kissed her ankles and rubbed her shoulders and while we were doing it, I mentally referenced at least three porno movies and one episode of the Red Shoe Diaries.
When we were finished, Amy put her head on my chest and sang along quietly as the tape played out. It was dark and a full moon hung low in the sky. We rolled down the windows and a cool breeze drifted in. It was one of the few singularly perfect moments in my life, so naturally, I fucked it up by saying something stupid.
"I just want you to know . . . " I said, pausing to lift her chin and look her in the eyes. "I've never done that before."
She jerked up. "Done what before?"
"You know, go all the way."
The phrase hung awkwardly in the air and I could tell Amy wasn't thrilled by the news.
Whatever illicit thrill we had just shared was over and now she was stuck in a car with a freshly deflowered 19-year-old boy.
We sat in silence as I hunted for my socks and she buttoned up her shirt. I briefly considered flinging open the car door and running away but decided not to, thinking it might make things more awkward if Amy had to chase a half-naked man across an empty wheat field in her car. Eventually she sighed and smiled a wide, crinkly smile.
"Well, I didn't notice."
Amy and I had sex a few more times but eventually she went back to Anders. She joined the Air Force after graduation and I transferred schools. After a handful of letters we fell out of touch. Pearl Jam continues to make not-very-good records and I'm sure people continue to lose their virginity to those not-very-good records – that's the way things work.
|Side A||Side B|
Pearl Jam: Once
Pearl Jam: Even Flow
Pearl Jam: Alive
Pearl Jam: Why Go
Pearl Jam: Black
Pearl Jam: Jeremy
Pearl Jam: Oceans
Pearl Jam: Porch
Pearl Jam: Garden
Pearl Jam: Deep
Pearl Jam: Release
Excerpted from Cassette from My Ex: Stories and Soundtracks of Lost Loves, edited by Jason Bitner. Copyright 2009 by the author and reprinted courtesy of St. Martin's Press.
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