He saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind back when things like two-dollar movie theaters still existed. He drove up to the movie theater in his beat-up clunker and went to see it two weeks after Rachel broke up with him.
He was going to Boston for school on a scholarship. He wanted her to wait for him in South Florida. Wait till he was set up and reading Chaucer and the first chapter of his novel was finished, the one he had been working on since sophomore year of high school.
As he watched the movie, not really funny, even though it had Jim Carrey in it, he thought about how dissimilar they were. Her with her spider tattoos and her dark lip gloss. Her smoking habit. The way she tried to intimidate others with her callous stares.
In the end, though, she was just a girl. In the most diminutive way you can mean “she’s just a girl,” she was just a girl.
She worked two jobs and competed with her two older brother for her parents’ love. In the end, it was her friend who had confessed to him that she “liked” him, as if they were still in middle school.
Other girls in their school were pregnant or had kids. He spent most of his time at the community college. He barely even took high school classes. Most of his friends were grown up or growing up, but Rachel seemed like she was still a girl.
Right then in the movie Jim Carrey is with Kate Winslet’s character in the bookstore, and she says to Jim Carrey’s character, “Remember me. Try your best. I know you can.” The scene is a touching one because we know that the effort will be fleeting.
James had never particularly been shy, but Rachel put off scary vibes. The kind of scary vibes that would almost negate her hotness. Almost.
So when he had approached her for the first time in the lunchroom, he’d been a little surprised when he noticed how nervous she was. Yes, she was a girl trying to pass herself off as something she wasn’t. For the first two weeks they dated, he had trouble even comprehending why she had bothered with the tattoos or the cigarettes. She could have been some straight-laced preppy school girl or a future librarian.
They’d hardly said complete sentences to each other for a week. So finally he said, “I don’t get it. Why the punk rock, the lip ring, and the tattoos?”
“Why not?” she tried to sound cool, but it wasn’t working. “I have to express who I am.”
“And who are you?”
He watches Jim Carrey on the beach. His memory of Kate Winslet is almost completely erased. He truly looks like a man who’s about to lose everything.
It’s the same look Rachel had when he told her he was going away for school. He didn’t understand why she looked that way or why she believed that she wasn’t the type of person who could one day meet him there.
She told him many things. About work and money. About the unfairness of the world. And it occurred to him that she was a girl trying to cover herself up.
She yells at him aggressively. Talks a lot about what a shit he is and how the school will eventually change him.
He actually hopes this is true. That’s the point, right? Why else would he go?
He wants to say one more thing, but he doesn’t know how to say it.
The movie ends exactly the way it should. I won’t spoil the ending.
When James leaves the theater he calls Rachel up. She must be at work because she doesn’t answer.
He leaves a message on her answering machine.
He says, “I’ll never understand why exactly you decided to date me. But I’ll say this, you’re not the Rachel you show to others. Your true self is a person only I’ve ever seen. It comes from a place more real than your tattoos or nose rings. When you grow up and find the person I fell in love with, come find me in Boston. I might not be someplace you’ve ever heard of. When you feel panicked like you can’t go forward, think about what drew you to me in the first place. Think about that. Don’t hide from that feeling. Just go, get on a bus or a plane, and find me. I’ll always be closer than you think.”
***If you like this story, you can read Daniel’s short story collection “The Lexical Funk” for free right here: http://issuu.com/danielclausen/docs/lexical_funk_2014_-_issuu ***