Space was one of my earliest fascinations. I got a small astronomy book for Christmas in the 2nd grade. I would read it before bed, and most of it went over my head. But not all of it. The planets were the characters, just like other books had, each with their own story. Saturn was quickly my favorite, but I always had a soft spot for Neptune. Jupiter was a jerk. Venus was a friend.
This fascination got me a little sidetracked. I read dozens of books about aliens, and I watched every bogus History Channel show about how ancient civilizations were helped by extraterrestrials. Along with an early love of magicians, I think this lead to me becoming jaded a little too soon. Before I was in high school I figured out that these things weren’t real. Not really. I felt duped, and while I continued to appreciate astronomy, my fascination had waned.
I never stopped loving the stars, though. My family had a cabin on a lake in the middle of the woods, and I spent many nights sitting alone by the fire and looking at the stars. I would lay on the end of the doc and stare up, the entire sky laid before me. So clear and open. I didn’t care about what was happening in my day-to-day life at that moment. I just looked up.
My family sold the cabin when I was a sophomore in high school, and we moved to a new town. The move was good for me. I made friends and spent less time alone. Instead of weekends with a fire pit, I hung out with people, eating pizza and playing video games. For a little while, I forgot about the stars.
During my first week as the new kid, this girl convinced me to ask her out, then dumped me a few days later. I think she didn’t like that I played Magic during lunch, but it’s not like we had a real relationship anyway. We went on one date, bowling, and split the bill. I had no idea what I was doing, and wasn’t very surprised when she told me a few days later that she “just has to focus on her schoolwork right now.”
A year later, for reasons I still don’t understand, another girl set her sights on me. She got me to go to a movie with her and a friend, then back to her friend’s place to watch movies. We made out for most of the night. It was my first kiss, and she had to guide me at every step of the way, even pulling my own arm around her to start it all. Back in school on Monday, it was clear that it was just a one-time thing, that we hadn’t started a relationship. I wasn’t surprised. We stayed friendly, but I didn’t really know her in the first place.
Those two experiences represented the entirety of my experience with relationships by my Junior year of high school. It became a running joke with my friends that I would never have a girlfriend. Jon? A girlfriend? Yeah right. I played along, mostly because I thought they were right. I had no confidence, and my humor was very self-deprecating.
That said, I was always good at being friends with girls. They told me it was because I listened. I was just a friend, but I usually didn’t mind. I liked being a friend, and tended to dislike the typical guys, as I saw them.
In my junior year, I joined the speech and debate team. This was the first time I had participated in any major school activity, and it served as a catalyst for many things to come. It gave me the confidence and drive to work on the school newspaper, act in a play, and join the tennis team. This world, the one where I participated in things, was incomprehensible to me before speech and debate. And most importantly, it’s where I became friends with Erika.
She was part of a tight group of friends, these four girls. They all took a liking to me, and we started hanging out together. I joined them for lunch, then movie nights, then snowball fights. I started hosting speech and debate team parties at my house, and these girls were often the first to arrive, and the last to leave. They really liked to laugh.
I connected with each of them in our own way, none of which were romantic. Our friendships were never a threat to my guy friends, who made passes at these girls from time to time. I remember one of my friends asking another for permission to pursue Erika. He was told sure, go for it. Then they both looked at me, wondering for a moment if they needed my permission, and we laughed. Jon, dating? Hilarious. In the end, nothing came of his advances.
This is the mindset I was in as Junior prom came around, that a relationship wasn’t something I did, that it wasn’t an option. But I was also coming out of my shell, making more friends, gaining confidence. Dances weren’t a terrifying non-option anymore, not since I had gone to spree (also known as Sadie Hawkins) with another friend of mine earlier that year. Somehow, seemingly out of nowhere and despite myself, I had a realization: I should ask Erika to prom.
Despite the unfamiliarity of the idea, I immediately knew I was right. And I knew, with full certainty, that she would say yes. It wasn’t because of any flirting or awkward advances or who-likes-who rumors. It was because of a connection we had, as friends. Mostly, I remember a moment on the bus, on a way back from a speech and debate meet, just talking. I remember that we were both by the window, talking to each other over the back of my seat, lit by passing cars and city lights. In that moment, I wasn’t talking to a girl I had a crush on. I was talking to a friend, and it was really nice. Somehow, because of moments like that one, I knew she would say yes.
The day after I had this idea, I pulled Erika aside. We had all just gotten to a friend’s house after school, our usual hangout, but I had to leave for work. I looked down at her, she looked up at me, and I awkwardly spit out the words. “So, umm, I was wondering, do you want to go to prom with me?” She said yes, enthusiastically. We shared an awkward-but-welcomed hug, and then I left. I was happy.
The few weeks leading up to Prom were fairly normal, and prom itself was pretty awkward. That whole day was. There’s a lot of pressure and expectations in a very unfamiliar setting, and nobody really knew how to handle it. We all had fun, but it was definitely awkward and not ideal.
It would have been easy for things with Erika to stop right there, to fade back into a nice friendship, nothing more. But I wanted more, and now I finally had the confidence to try. I asked Erika to hang out, and I obliviously trudged through her deflections at every turn. Eventually we watched a movie at my house after school. It seemed clear that something was there, but neither of us really knew what to do. I was very nervous, and she could tell. I think she appreciated it. For our next date, and neither of us would have called it that, she suggested something perfect.
She said we should look at the stars.
It was summer, and the nights were warm and clear. One weekend night we went to the the high school football field and rolled out a blanket. We laid on our backs, side-by-side, and looked up at the stars. The sky was open all around us, just like it used to be for me. It felt so good to share that with somebody else. It felt perfect.
It was under the stars that we fell in love.
It didn’t happen immediately, but over many summer nights. We kept going to the same spot on the football field, with the same blanket, and we continued to look at the stars. We would talk until the sun came up, fighting to stay awake. We were so desperate to just spend time together. As the nights got colder, we got closer.
A year and a half later, I was weeks away from leaving for college, and Erika was about to start her senior year of high school. We had agreed to break up when the time came, and it did. We were both fiercely career driven – neither of us wanted to hold back for anybody, not while we were still so young. In theory.
On one of our last weekends, we got in the car and drove to the next town over. We drank lemonade, we listened to Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and we went hiking into the mountains. It was quiet and secluded, and we found a stream. There, we carved our initials into a tree, enjoying the embrace of a cliche.
We talked about returning one day, to the same spot, as friends. Many years in the future, our lives properly split and propelled forward, we imagined a respectful reunion on the same path. I pictured us sharing the intimate details of our lives, made comfortable by our history, and made important by the knowledge of where we each came from. I still hope for this moment, but I do not expect it.
A couple weeks after the hike, I dropped her off at home for the last time. We cried, and hugged, and said goodbye. I remember a look in her eyes the moment I let go, standing in her driveway under the stars, as she realized that was it. As we both did. That’s the moment that sticks with me the most to this day. It was by far the most vulnerable I had ever seen Erika, which was probably true for her as well. We had agreed to jump off a cliff together, and that was the moment we both realized we were suddenly in the air.
Extraordinarily, this was not the final end of our relationship – that moment came six-and-a-half years later, in a different story.
The stars mean something different to me now than they once did. Whenever I look up at a clear night sky, I remember those summer nights, and what it felt like to truly be known for the first time. The clearer the sky, the stronger the memory. It’s still hard for me to visit Montana for that reason. Thankfully, the rainy embrace of this bright city keeps me sheltered from the stars.