by: T.E. Cowell1
“All I could think about was Julie. Julie, Julie, Julie. I had a one-track mind suddenly. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore. Not my classes, not my health, nothing but getting Julie back.”
I was dropped off in front of my uncle’s surf shop. Through the windshield, as the cabbie swiped my credit card, I saw a familiar sight: a nine-foot tall soft-top surfboard in the corner leaning against the wall, advertising surfboard rentals via a cardboard sign. Rentals, I could see through the windshield, were still ten dollars an hour and twenty-five for the day. The surfboard and sign could very well have been the same surfboard and sign that’d been there three years ago, when I’d left Venice Beach to return to Seattle and try my luck at college.
My cabdriver handed me back my credit card. I signed with my finger on his iPhone screen, left a tip I hoped he wouldn’t take as an insult, then got out of the cab and started, somewhat uncertainly, across the wide sun-drenched sidewalk towards my uncle’s shop. Stepping inside, I noted the same green tiles I remembered, and then I turned and there was my uncle standing behind the counter. I stopped and looked at him, and he stopped what he was doing and looked at me. We looked at each other until it could be considered staring, but neither of us spoke a word for a few more seconds. On top of the counter I noticed a new shipment of hats. The price gun was beside the hats, and beside the price gun were price tags, dozens and dozens of them, scattered about the glass countertop. This, like the surfboard outside, was another familiar sight.
Neither of us ever having been in the habit of hugging each other – both of us too stoic for such an intimate gesture – my uncle presented his hand across the counter for what I guessed correctly would be a firm handshake. I met his hand with mine and, looking him in the eyes, tried to return his tight, borderline painful grip in equal measure, but I found this hard, not because I was weak, necessarily, but because I couldn’t bring myself to inflict pain, however minimally, on another person, least of all on my uncle, who though I didn’t necessarily like, was, after all, family.
Finally he released my hand and said, “Welcome back,” and I nodded, said, “Thanks.”
I could hear Steely Dan playing from the speakers. One time while I’d been working at the shop with my uncle during a particularly busy weekend, sick of listening to a Steely Dan CD looping over and over again, I had asked if he wouldn’t mind changing the music. He’d shaken his head at the suggestion and had let Steely Dan continue to play. “Do you really like his music that much?” I’d asked, and my uncle had looked at me like I’d asked him something idiotic. “No,” he’d said. “But it brings good business.” That’s when I think it hit me that I didn’t want to end up like my uncle, that I wanted to put pleasure before business, if such a thing were possible.
“You look older,” my uncle said to me. “How old are you now?”
“Twenty-six,” I said. He whistled.
Not quite knowing how to respond to this, I looked away from my uncle’s prying eyes and swept a glance around the shop. I quickly saw that everything looked the same as I remembered it. The same surfing posters hung from the same walls showing big-wave surfers whose names surely resonated with people such as my uncle, who’d been surfing regularly since he was a kid, but to me, a non-surfer, meant absolutely nothing. The same clothing racks were still crowded with t-shirts, button-downs, sweatshirts, and shorts for the surfer and fashionable beachgoer alike. There were wetsuits too, big straw sunhats, and row upon row of sunglasses in their respective Oakley, Smith, and Spy cases. Everything about the shop looked the same to me except for one thing, it seemed smaller than I remembered it. It had always been on the small side, comprising only a front retail space and a back storeroom, but now it seemed even smaller. I wondered if this had to do with me being away for so long and a few years older.
Whatever the reason, though, a sense of anxiety passed through me as I realized that this small space would be my life once again, that I’d spend five days a week here, eight hours a day, for an indeterminate number of years, perhaps for forever. Was I really doing this? I asked myself. Was I really returning to this job that I’d never much liked in the first place? But then I thought of Julie, my ex, and if it meant we’d get back together again then yes, I felt I could do this job again, that I would do it again and gladly at that. Julie was the reason for my returning to California, plain and simple. I wanted her back. Whether she wanted me back, though, was another thing entirely, something I somehow hadn’t given considerable thought to prior to my arrival.
I looked back at my uncle. He was watching me. “Take off your backpack,” he said. “You can start by putting some of these hats up.”
After I’d left California for Seattle, Julie and I had begun a long-distance relationship. For the first two-and-a-half years, things went smoothly. We were dedicated to each other, and we talked pretty much every day on the phone, usually after dinner. We also sent each other a host of text messages, some including pictures that were meant exclusively for the other. Then, every three months or so, one of us would take a week off from our responsibilities to visit the other.
It was after the two-and-a-half year mark that Julie called me one night to tell me that she just couldn’t do it any longer. She wanted to be with me all the time, she said, not simply for a week every three months. She felt lonely, she said. I tried to reassure her that everything was going to be okay, to hang tight and stay strong. Yes it was hard, I said, but I was past the midway point of graduating and that after I received my college degree I’d move right back down to California to be with her. To my chagrin, she didn’t seem too convinced.
Julie didn’t like Seattle. She thought it was too cold and gray and wet. So settling in Seattle, though I wouldn’t have minded it, was out of the question for us. A California girl through and through, Julie liked the warmth of a cloudless sky and the sprawling, sandy beaches of her native state. In answer to what I’d said about returning to California promptly after graduating, she said she didn’t know if she could wait that long for me. I panicked when I heard this. I realized then that this was serious, that she might be about to break up with me. We’d been together almost four years and now this might be the end, the dismal breakup call. I told her I’d drop out of college tomorrow and come right back down to California if it would save our relationship. I told her that there was nothing more important to me than her and I believed I meant it. She said, “You left your life in California to go to college and start a better life. I don’t want you throwing away your future for me. I’d feel too guilty.” “I don’t want a future without you in it,” I’d said, spur-of-the-moment. “I didn’t know that when I left California, but I do now. Believe me.” I was shaking as I said all this.
But alas, it was no use. When a woman makes up her mind she makes up her mind. Our relationship was over.
After hanging up the phone it was like a switch went off in my brain. I was no longer the calm and collected individual I had been prior. Instead I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t relax. All I could think about was Julie. Julie, Julie, Julie. I had a one-track mind suddenly. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore. Not my classes, not my health, nothing but getting Julie back. I emailed my uncle asking for my job back, and when he said okay, to my parent’s disappointment, I dropped out of college.
I slept in the surf shop my first night back in California, in the backroom, as I had done before returning to Seattle for college. I had grown up in Seattle but, after high school, had moved to Venice Beach to work for my uncle, and all the time I had worked for him, I had slept in the backroom of his surf shop. The setup had never seemed that bad to me, perhaps because I’d been so young then that nothing much could bother me. I’d always figured that by sleeping in the surf shop I was saving money that otherwise I’d be blowing on rent. But in a certain sense, I think I’d enjoyed sleeping in the surf shop. It’d been an experience. How many people can say they’ve slept in a surf shop? I would wake up in the morning and be at work. No commute was needed. But then when I met Julie I started spending my nights at her apartment, which she shared with three roommates. The apartment was a fifteen-minute walk from my uncle’s shop, but even if it’d been three times as far, I still would’ve slept gratefully beside her.
The futon I’d originally slept on before I started dating Julie was still in the surf shop’s backroom, in the loft, an area that was still overcrowded with stack after stack of soft-top surfboards and boogie boards still in their clear plastic wrapping. I grabbed the futon and carried it from the loft down to floor level, then spread it out on the worn-out carpet. I sunk my knees into the futon and brushed at it with both my hands, smoothing out its dusty folds. Then I lay down on my back and stared at the ceiling for a brief moment. I looked from right to left and saw how little wriggle room the futon permitted me. It was meant for one, of course, but I couldn’t remember it having been quite so narrow before. Like the shop itself, it seemed smaller as well.
There was a blanket that had been enfolded in the futon, a ratty, thin-looking thing with visible holes in it. I rose from the futon and picked up the blanket, raising it over my head and holding it by its corners, letting its length fall so that I could study it more thoroughly. Had this thing been my blanket before I’d left? I wondered. I couldn’t seem to remember. It looked pathetic. Insubstantial. I spread it over the futon all the same, dubious though that it would do me much good in the middle of the night.
I turned out the light and all went black. I found my way to the futon and lay there in the dark, trying to convince myself that I’d done the right thing by returning to this life I’d once thought I’d left behind for good. I crawled under the blanket, closed my eyes, let out my breath, and thought of Julie.
She didn’t know I was back in Los Angeles yet. I hadn’t told her I’d dropped out of college and bought a one-way ticket back to her. I’d wanted to surprise her. For some reason, I thought it’d be more romantic that way.
I hadn’t talked to Julie in almost a year. We’d stopped talking because, after she’d broken up with me, I’d told her that I just couldn’t do it anymore, that I couldn’t just talk to her like she was a normal person instead of someone I had a history with. When I told her this, she said she understood and that she wouldn’t call me anymore. After that, we sent each other text messages but nothing more. Even the text messages stung, the severe normality of what they said, the lack of exclamation marks, which when we’d been together, had littered our back-and-forth so regularly. But text messages were my last means of communication with Julie, so I wasn’t about to give them up for anything.
The next morning, my back somewhat achy from the discomfort of the futon, I folded up the futon and shoved it back in its place up in the loft. I walked across the street to the coffee shop, my favorite coffee shop from before I’d moved away. It was still there, and by the looks of the line that was well out the door, still very much thriving. I had gone to this coffee shop pretty much every morning with Julie before we’d started our workdays and be forced to go our separate ways. I had a strong feeling that here is where we’d reunite.
I stood in line and waited to place my order. I saw both familiar and unfamiliar faces all around me. When it was my turn to order, I decided on just a coffee, holding off on the delicious bagel omelet that I used to eat for breakfast. I wasn’t hungry. I was in fact too jittery at the thought of seeing Julie again to even think about swallowing a single bite of food.
I took my coffee outside to a corner table and, in between small sips, waited anxiously for my eyes to land on her. I had imagined multiple times, too many times, probably, what I would say to her when I saw her again, but now I couldn’t recall any of it, not a word. Too many what-if scenarios suddenly plagued me. What if, for example, she didn’t want to get back together with me? What then? Would I be able to live with myself if this were the case? Would I be able to stomach the massive disappointment that being rejected by her would surely cause me? If not, would I fall into a seemingly bottomless pit of despair? Also, what if she was dating someone? Her Facebook page still said she was single, but who knew if it was accurate or not? Just thinking about Julie rejecting me or dating someone other than me made me tremble outwardly. I didn’t feel strong at all like I’d hoped, prior to this moment, I would. On the contrary I felt entirely vulnerable.
Like a hawk, I watched all the people that passed by on the sidewalk or entered the coffee shop. And then I saw her. She was walking along the sidewalk, alone, something I was immensely thankful for, as to my mind it told me she wasn’t dating someone else, like I’d feared. A second later she saw me, sitting at my corner table. She saw me and froze, mid-step. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. She turned around and started running away from me. Julie was a runner. When we were dating she’d go out for a run nearly every morning. She’d been in serious shape then and, from what I could tell now, still was. I watched her run off. I thought about getting up and chasing after her, but I didn’t. I knew I couldn’t catch her. I knew now that I never would.
- Header art by Banksy. [↩]