“A train leaves San Diego at 3:30 pm. Another train leaves Philadelphia at the same time. All of the passengers on both trains realize that this question will never be applicable to real life, ever, so they overtake the engine room and smash the trains into each other.” The class laughed at Ben’s special brand of humor. Everyone other than their substitute teacher, anyway. “If twelve cops show up on the scene, how many fractions of the conductor will each need to carry away in garbage bags before the track is clean?”
“That’s enough, Mr. Houser. You can take a seat now.”
“Great, did I win anything?”
The teacher blushed as she realized she was grinning, and after signaling for Ben to take his seat, she continued on with her math class. After a few minutes had gone by, Ben had another joke racing through his mind, so he leaned over toward Kyle to whisper it in his direction. “Hey, do you think she’s one of those teachers you see on the news?”
“What do you mean?” Kyle asked.
“You know, the teachers that mess around with their students? What’s the easiest way to get into detention?”
Kyle realized Ben was only half-kidding as he glanced up to see the teacher again, and in the context Ben was framing, he found himself wondering if maybe she was like that. She was wearing a pretty short skirt, and her blouse was a bit more revealing than most teachers would ever wear. But in catching himself wandering off in thought, he firmed up his wits and replied to Ben, also in a whisper. “Dude, pay attention.”
“What? Man, this crap is useless.”
“If our grades slip it’ll mess with the band, just pay attention man.”
“Mister Houser,” the teacher unexpectedly announced, taking a few steps toward her two young students. “Care to give us the answer?”
“No. Care to guess again, Mr. Houser?”
“Is it `B’ then?” Again, the class broke out in a muttered giggle, though the substitute teacher seemed less amused.
“If you’d been paying attention, you’d know I didn’t actually ask a question, Benjamin.”
“Ooh, tricky,” Ben said, before muttering “my kinda girl” under his breath, to which the sub indicated physically that she was expecting him to say that last line over again, not that he did.
At that point, Kyle buried himself in his notebook. He honestly wasn’t paying attention to class either, though he felt secure in his abilities to work out this sort of math. While it may have seemed like he was taking notes, he was actually pounding out lyrics to a new song. On his first day of his senior year of high school, three days earlier, he’d heard news that he interpreted as tragic: Tara Janowitz, the absolute love of his life, was moving to California. Her mom had landed a job in Los Angeles at one of the biggest commercial property firms in the United States, and that upcoming Friday, the next day in fact, would be Tara’s last day as a student of Binghamton High School. What made matters worse for him was that Tara had been giving him the cold shoulder all week. Not the seemingly-accidental version she’d done for so many years before that, but that special brand of intentional cold shoulder that makes food challenging to swallow. He’d written her a note, leaving it tucked into her locker, but she never responded to him, and seemed to go so far as to turn around and walk the other way every time he approached her. The ordeal was difficult for him to cope with, but he turned to his most tried and true method of espousing his teenage angst and frustrations… he wrote a song about it.
He’d put the new song to a guitar riff he’d been playing around with for several years at that point, at least when he was humming it while making sure the lyrics fit the rhythm appropriately. Having started the song the day before, he was surprised at how long it was taking him to complete it. Most of the other songs he’d ever written were hammered out in an hour, while a select few took two or three. But he’d already poured a solid nine collective hours of work into the lyrics of this song, and he was still on the last verse. And then of course there was the problem of Cynthia singing it. Either he’d need to rework the lyrics to make them unisex, or Cynthia would run the risk of attracting lesbians, as far as Kyle’s teenage mind figured, anyway. And he still didn’t know what to call it, either. “Tara’s Song,” the working title he was using, was a terrible idea, in his opinion anyway. There were so many songs named after females… Sara, Sara Smile, Allison, Barbara Ann, Amanda, Michelle, Angie, Julia, Delilah, Donna… just the songs he could think of off the top of his head made for a staggering list. For all he knew, there were a dozen songs named after people named Tara already. But until he came up with a third verse, the name didn’t really matter much.
The past week was busy for the band, too; they’d finally found something they couldn’t agree on, in the form of the band’s name. They all had their own ideas for what made a cool band name, and no one seemed to like anyone else’s ideas. Kyle, who’d come up with the name of his last band, Local Empire, had come up with a few names in that same vein of thought, his favorite of which was “King’s Democracy.” Ben, forever the comedian, had presented the names “Tartar Mafia,” “The Cat Ladies,” and his personal favorite, “Gimp Hotel,” which he brought up every waking hour, on the hour. Cynthia’s band names would be great if they were an all-female band with an onslaught of love songs, Kyle’s most recent song being the only one they had; “Heartbreak Quartet” was the name she most strongly advocated. Mark, on the other hand, had only presented a single band name, “The Dogs.” It wasn’t very inspired, nor was it good for any band consisting of musicians above the age of seven, but he was self-admittedly the least creative person when it came to naming things. Everyone in the band felt confident that they were ready to start booking gigs and establishing a fan base, but until they came up with a name, their ambitions would be left brewing on the back-burner. And while Kyle was fully prepared to send the band on stage under the monicker “TBA,” he dared not suggest it, for fear that his band-mates might think less of whatever other ideas he’d come up with moving forward.
After school, Kyle drove home, Ben sitting in the passenger seat and blathering on about how their substitute math teacher was “the kind of woman that makes a man settle down.” Kyle tried explaining that Ben hadn’t even finished high school yet, and that there were plenty of other fish in the sea, but this did nothing more than cause Ben to lay in with his typical dirty jokes and curse-laden anecdotes. When they got to Kyle’s house, they learned that Cynthia wasn’t able to make it to practice that day, being drafted into gardening service by her parents, and that Mark had stayed home sick from school, and couldn’t make it to rehearsal. This was the first day in the band’s strict rehearsal schedule that Kyle and Ben had found themselves with nothing to do, and so they decided to hit up the Oakdale Mall, calling their trip a “band meeting” when Kyle’s dad asked what they were up to.
“Dude, why are you so hung up on her?” Ben asked, responding to a solid fifteen-minute drive, followed by another ten minutes or so in the mall, of listening to Kyle rant about how frustrated and “lost” he felt after learning that Tara was moving away. “She isn’t your type anyway.”
“What’s my type? Do I even have a type?”
“Everyone has a type,” Ben explained, slapping on a fatherly tone that wasn’t quite as mocking to Kyle as a casual observer might presume. “I mean, for reals, what do you even like about her?”
“I don’t know… she’s gorgeous.”
“Her body is perfect.”
“She has a really great smile.”
“And, um…” Kyle paused for a moment. The grim reality of it was that he didn’t really know Tara that well. He couldn’t lie and claim she was funny, or witty, or kind. He had no idea if any of that was true, or if the exact opposite of all that was true. And based on the morning following his one night with her, he was starting to think that “kind” didn’t really belong in that sentence.
“Dude, you’re hung up on her looks, but for all you know, she has the personality of a pet rock.”
“What’s a pet rock?”
“I dunno, some stupid thing from the seventies or the eighties I saw on History Channel.”
“You were watching the History Channel?“
“Dude, that’s all I watch when I’m baked.”
“Oh, so that’s all you watch then?”
“Hilarious,” Ben replied, changing his tone to represent his sarcastic anger. “But seriously bro, you think she’s hot, and that’s fine, but you’re two steps short of saying you love her.”
“Well, actually,” Kyle began, changing his comment as soon as he realized how Ben would react if he learned that Kyle did, in fact, say that to Tara, “you’re right, I guess.”
“Dude, I’m always right. I’m like the messiah.”
And just like that, Kyle found his entire world flipped over. He wasn’t in love with Tara… he was in love with the idea of Tara, and not the modern, trampy version of her, but the adorable, shy, polite version of her from their earlier youth. The truth slapped into him like a tsunami, each wave getting bigger and hitting harder. “Seriously! I’m not in love with Tara! Not even remotely! She’s not even worth it, dude… she doesn’t deserve me!”
“Yeah!” Ben cheered, helping guide his friend through his afternoon revelation.
“Dude, I would’ve given her everything, and she wouldn’t have done jack for me!”
“Screw that, screw her, I can do better. Screw Tara!”
“Dude, I’m gonna find a real girl! A girl who hasn’t… what was it Becky said that one time?”
“Been around the block more times than the mail man before she slept with him.”
“Ahem,” a sarcastically-toned grunt echoed out from behind the two of them. And it was female. Kyle turned around, realizing that Ben was already giggling at who it was, which told Kyle that it was Tara before he’d even laid eyes on her. Sure enough, he was right. “I can’t believe you!”
“Come on Kyle, tell her what you think,” Ben said, simultaneously pushing toward a dramatic afternoon at the mall, while also encouraging Kyle to turn away from the embarrassment that he was obviously suddenly overwhelmed with.
“Tara…” Kyle paused, caught off-guard by her suddenly appearing to care. “I thought you hated me?”
“Moron!” She said it loud enough that everyone in that wing of the mall could probably hear it. A shocked, elderly couple with their young granddaughter, a solid fifty yards away, reacted by covering her ears and turning around to head in the opposite direction in fear of whatever curse words would start flying moments later. “How could you say that?”
” You’ve been avoiding me for months Tara!” Kyle was exhibiting his opinions in ways he never had before, his heartache quickly taking the form of hostility. “Every time I try to talk to you, you walk the other way!”
” I told you how I felt in the note I left for you!”
“What note?! What are you on about…”
“The note in your bag! Small pocket? Didn’t you read it?”
With this, Kyle’s expressions transformed from anger, to surprise, to shock, and then to misery. He had no idea what Tara was saying. How did he never find her note? Did she even leave one? What did this mysterious note say? “Tara, I…”
“I’m leaving this weekend Kyle. Maybe it’s best if you just ignore what the note said.”
“But Tara, I don’t… I didn’t…”
Tara’s eyes swelled up, her voice becoming shrill and pitched upward. “Goodbye Kyle… thanks…” With this, she stormed off, her hands held to her face. After a few steps of quickly-paced walking, she increased her tempo to a jog, and before Kyle could process everything that was happening, she was running. He turned toward Ben, who was obviously fighting tooth and nail to prevent himself from bursting out laughing, a battle he lost within seconds, as he keeled over bellowing, his eyes nearly as watery as Tara’s were, at the sheer stupidity of the entire ordeal he’d just witnessed.
“Dude,” Ben squealed between chuckles. “That was… one of the funniest things… I’ve seen all year!”
“How was that funny?!”
“How… how didn’t you know that she left you a note?”
Good question , Kyle thought to himself. “I need to go home.”
With this, Kyle and Ben returned to Kyle’s car, Ben quickly finding it hard to keep up with his best friend. All that Kyle cared about at that moment was getting home, going through his backpack, and finding out what Tara had attempted to communicate to him. Did she have a change of heart? Was she looking at him in a completely different way than she had before? And what about the revelation Kyle was processing only moments before Tara showed up? How could he go from absolutely confident that he was in love with her appearance, to terrified that he’d scared off his soul mate, all in the course of a few minutes? As Kyle drove Ben home, Ben made a few efforts to try and illustrate the fact that Kyle had convinced himself, at Ben’s urging, that he wasn’t actually in love with her, but his attempts largely fell on deaf ears. By the time Kyle stopped at Ben’s house, his doubt regarding how he felt about her had completely subsided, launching him head-first into love with her all over again.
A few minutes later, Kyle returned home, blowing off his mom and his brother, both of whom tried to engage him in hellos, to race up to his room, where he slammed the door shut behind him, grabbed his bag, and sat on the edge of his bed, frantically pouring through everything in the small pocket. Sure enough, within a few seconds, he found a folded piece of paper tucked away between his scientific calculator and a new box of pens that hadn’t been opened yet. The note smelled like her, and Tara had cutely drawn Kyle’s name on the front of the paper, surrounded by a sort of surreal cloud of some sort, all done in three different colors of pens. Each time he peeled back a fold of the letter, more of Tara’s scent struck his nose, until soon, he had a full page and a half, front and back, of Tara’s handwriting in front of him.
The more Kyle read of the letter, the more confused he became. Tara opened by explaining that after she finished reading the note that Kyle had left her, she tried to call him, but his mom answered, and told her that Kyle was seeing someone else… a girl named Cynthia. When Kyle pieced together what had happened, he realized that Tara must’ve called just before a band rehearsal, and that he was probably driving over to Cynthia’s house to pick her up. Could all of this have stemmed from a simple communication problem? He continued reading, learning that Tara had broken up with her boyfriend only a few days before she and Kyle had hooked up, and that as the summer went on, she came to regret having not gotten Kyle’s phone number, in light of the fact that Kyle was “the nicest guy” that she’d “ever been involved with.” At first, she thought Kyle was too nice for her. That morphed into her convincing herself that Kyle was too good for her, and eventually, she was telling herself that she wanted to give him a try. She said that she once drove by his home, planning to stop by and chat with him, only to see Kyle sitting outside, apparently “playing guitar for another girl,” whom Tara pieced together in the letter to be Cynthia, without realizing how innocent the event actually was, keeping her at bay as the new school year started. She then explained how confused she was in regards to “this Cynthia girl,” and the love letter that Kyle had left for her, and how she wanted to talk with Kyle to see what was happening. She closed by reconfirming that Kyle was the nicest guy she’d ever been with, and how she wanted to spend more time with him before she left, signing the letter with “Love, Tara” and a small, somewhat-misshapen heart, her phone number written out in a postscript.
Kyle immediately tried calling her, the phone going straight to voice mail. He left her a rambling message, eventually running out of space and needing to call a second time to finish it, completely lost in his emotions and words, saying everything he felt, and everything that had happened from his perspective, as fast as his brain and mouth could work together to produce mutters. A few moments later, he realized he had more to say, but stopped himself just short of leaving a third message. All he could do at this point was wait for his phone to ring.
For whatever reason, Kyle found himself at that moment reminiscing about the first relationship he had… one that never even actually happened. He knew there were parallels somewhere, but he couldn’t place them. From the eighth grade to the middle of the ninth grade, there were rumors circulating that Kyle and a girl named Amy were madly in love, and in epic youthful fashion, their story got more and more outrageous as time carried on, with claims that they tried to run away together, that they were engaged, that Amy had gotten pregnant… but what really happened was far less romantic. Amy had asked Kyle to go rollerskating with her, and while they were out on their date, Amy ended up flirting with another guy for most of the night, leaving poor Kyle alone on a bench, eating hotdogs and waiting rather impatiently for his parents to pick him up. Near the end of the night, Amy tried to make the other guy jealous, and so she skated over to Kyle, wrapped her arms around him, and planted the biggest, longest, wettest French kiss on his mouth that the world would ever know. What could make the situation worse? A photographer for the local newspaper happened to be at the rink that day, taking pictures of the crowd, and with timing so ironic it almost seemed planned, he happened to land a photograph of Kyle and Amy’s kiss, which ended up on the front page of the City’s newspaper the very next day. Kyle was so embarrassed by the ordeal that he refused to talk to anyone about it, and so the other kids invented facts in the absence of real ones. That entire summer, everyone thought Kyle and Amy were in love, and Kyle’s reluctance to talk about it when they entered the ninth grade at Binghamton High School indicated to everyone else that the stories had to be true. And with Amy off attending a different school, no one could confirm it. The rumors eventually subsided, but Kyle begrudgingly knew that the memory of the event would be with him forever. And now, here he was, faced with yet another embarrassing, regrettable situation that was out of his hands.
Minute after minute, hour after hour, Kyle waited around for Tara to call back, but alas, she never did. Shortly after dinner, Kyle went back to his room, lifted his unplugged electric guitar to his lap, and started strumming “Tara’s Song” in the pseudo-conscious hopes that some ancient mystical power would magically draw her toward checking her voicemail and replying to him. Before he knew it, an hour had gone by, an hour filled with thinking about Tara, her letter, his letter to her, the ugly event that transpired earlier that day at the mall, their magical night of romance, her coldness the next day, and… wait a minute… Kyle’s eyes shot open as if he’d just witnessed a murder in a 1950’s thriller movie. He scattered to grab his notebook and a pen from his desk, flipping rapidly to the page where “Tara’s Song” had been scattered out, and after re-reading it for a brief moment, he decided to flip to an entirely new page. His hand and brain seemed to be working on this new, monumental task entirely of their own volition, void of Kyle’s free will, not that Kyle could have processed exactly what he was doing at the moment. The importance of the action outweighed the need to understand it.
Kyle had completely re-written the first verse of the song within a few seconds, mostly working from what was running through his mind moments earlier. He skipped working on the first chorus entirely, flipping back to the second verse he’d written earlier, which he still thought was quite good, and copying it over to the new page. And without pausing a moment or skipping a beat, he crashed into the third verse with reckless abandon, pounding past his earlier writer’s block and blasting each sentence onto the paper in ways he never thought a person could write something. And almost as if he were possessed in that instance, the repeating chorus made its way onto the page as well, written in two sentences between the verses. He had no idea how long it had taken him, as time and space had stopped existing. He couldn’t fathom where the burst of words had come from, as his mind had switched over to a strange “overdrive” mode, or maybe a “sleep” mode, or some combination of both that would require a degree in philosophy and another in quantum mechanics to comprehend. And just as he prepared to read what he’d just written down, he found himself paused again, a smile creeping over his face that would force you, had you seen it, to imagine an old alchemist discovering the Rosetta Stone. He pushed his pen to the paper once more, scratching out the song’s new title. Just like that, Kyle’s new creation was finished. Loveless Summer was written.
The next day, Kyle strolled into his first-period English class with a skip in his step. He felt accomplished, confident that Loveless Summer was the greatest song he’d ever written, and maybe even the best song he’d ever write. But that’s when he found out about Tara. One of her friends, a classmate of Kyle’s, explained to him that she wasn’t coming into school on her last day in Binghamton. Instead, she found a way to convince her mom to have her stay home that day, claiming she needed to get more packing done. He also learned, from the quite-rude tone of Tara’s friend, that she had erased Kyle’s phone messages without even listening to them, and that she sounded happy about never speaking with him again. He didn’t know how to process this information at first, but as the school day moved along, he felt oddly at ease about the whole thing. Maybe it was easier for him to not have to say goodbye. Maybe it was best that things were left like this, that he didn’t have to confront what happened the day before, or that the radical shifts in the polarity of how he felt about her, his uncertainty of whether he really liked her for her, or if he liked the idea of her, wouldn’t need to ever come up. Or perhaps he was just telling himself all of these things to make it all easier on himself. Maybe he was just suppressing how he really felt, and those feelings would erupt in the future? As he eventually cleared his backpack for the weekend and headed home at the end of the day, he intentionally walked past Tara’s locker one final time. This was the closest he’d ever come to seeing her again, and so he cherished whatever he could from the experience, letting out a deep sigh before continuing his trip home, to where he’d introduce his new song to the band for the very first time. And in realizing that, he started to acknowledge that if nothing else, the song in his bag wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for her. I gave you my heart, and you gave me this song… maybe he should work that into the last verse somehow.
That night, however, his mood started to shift. He felt like he was somehow ripped off. Mugged. He wanted to tell Tara how he felt, and explain himself to her, and hear her voice again. He even had the fleeting image of running off to California pass through his mind at one point. He would give anything to let Tara hear the song Loveless Summer, but unless their band got huge, how would that ever happen? Would this whole ordeal end up haunting him for the rest of his life? Would he ever get over her?