The Stars

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.

A Story about “Sarah”

I went to high school with a savage pathological liar. We were friends for a long time before I noticed. She said some crazy shit, so let’s call her “Sarah.”

We became friends my junior year of high school in Polson Montana. It was the only high school in a small lakeside town of about 5000 people. I really came out of my shell that year. I made awesome friends and joined activities that I really liked. Sarah and I had a lot of the same interests. While we weren’t the type of friends that hung out alone, I felt like we really bonded.

We were in Speech and Debate (and Drama!) together. We started in the same event – extemporaneous speaking. In the event, each competitor is given a random prompt on a current political topic. They have ten minutes to prepare an 5-8 minute speech, then deliver that speech to a judge. Repeat this for a few rounds, then crown a winner. Our school’s best competitor in that event had just graduated – the dreamy Kai. He was the smart blonde smooth-talking hunk that you’re imagining.

With Kai gone, Sarah was easily next in line as our school’s best in the event, even as a sophomore. She was incredible. She had the smarts and the drive to compete. What put her over the top was her ability to convince anybody that she knew what she was talking about. Sometimes in that event you would get a bad prompt, but she could talk her way out of any jam. Looking back, it all makes sense. She’s a fantastic liar. This set her apart from the competition, and she won most of the meets we went to. Once Seamus graduated, Sarah was the clear queen of the team.

A quick story about Seamus. Seamus had the same smooth-talking skills as Sarah, but was also the team’s loveable goof. He was the older brother whose respect you craved despite his goofball attitude. For the debate event, competitors would spend weeks before the meet researching a given topic to prepare statements and arguments. It was a ton of work, and Seamus often won. One day we show up to a meet and learn that our entire debate team had been preparing with the wrong prompt. All the time spent, all their materials prepared – wasted. My friend Jayce, also a Debater, looked absolutely terrified. Seamus just shrugged, plowed forward, and won the whole thing. He literally won. I couldn’t believe it. From that day forward, he was a god.

Back in extemporaneous speaking with Sarah, I was a complete failure. I didn’t know anything about politics, and I certainly couldn’t convince the judges that I did. I usually had no idea what my prompt was talking about, and I rarely made it to the minimum 5 minutes. I could always sense pity in the judge’s feedback. It crushed me to be so bad at something, but I enjoyed being on the team with my new friends too much to quit.

The way these events were structured, you usually saw the speeches of other competitors each round. I would see Sarah’s speeches, and I knew I could never get to that level. She was smooth, funny, smart, witty, well dressed – everything you needed to be. I looked up to her. While you spend a lot of time traveling with the team and staying in hotels, you really bond with the people in your event. You practice together, you kill time together pacing the halls, you watch them compete, and you clap for them during the awards ceremony knowing exactly what they did to get there. The entire team clapped hardest for Sarah. She was our champion, and we were proud.

(Don’t worry – eventually I left extemporaneous speaking and found my event, humorous duo, but that’s another story.)

Sarah and I were also on the newspaper team together. She was one of our best writers, and one of the more active members. Much like Speech and Debate, Sarah usually tackled the hard topics, while I would occasionally write light-hearted editorials. (I wrote this awesome piece about the time I got detention for being tardy too many times, and how much of a sham it all was. I really stuck it to the man. I should really replicate on the internet someday.)

The newspaper team was another great place to bond. We worked after school, often late into the night. We were serious about deadlines. You got to know who on the team cared and was willing to put in the hours. We spent a lot of school nights there past 10pm. I fondly remember ordering pizza and taking a break to talk and laugh as a team. One night a girl told a story about hitting a cat, and another girl’s face lit up in realization as she said “that’s my cat! He went missing!” We stared at her, the room silent, until she bust out laughing. We all laughed at the absurdity of the situation and joked about “that’s my cat!” for days. Because we cared.

Sarah and I were also in a lot of classes together. She usually took classes a year ahead of her level. (Well, except for math, she always struggled with math. I’ll be honest, it was nice to know she had a weakness.) There was a solid core group of us that often worked together in government, AP history, physics, chemistry, stuff like that. Sarah was an essential part of that group.

What I’m trying to say is that I felt like Sarah and I shared a bond. Not a completely unique bond, but a bond nonetheless. I liked her. I think this friendship made me soft. It let her lure me in. At least, that’s what I tell myself. There’s no way I’m this gullible otherwise…right?

Her lies started small. Usually it was just some small quip or story that related to the conversation. Discussing racism in government class? She has a story about a black man in the south crossing the street to avoid her. Gossipping about speech and debate team members? She had a story about a teammate’s gross unwashed pants that they slept in. Gossipping about other teams? Turns out she saw a rival debater eat his own boogers. Teacher gossip? She had a story about Mr. Danley accidentally over-sharing about his personal life and blushing like a fool.

Again, she was always the most interesting person in the conversation. You came to expect it, so you were never surprised when she had something to share, even if it was a bit unbelievable.

She created a running story about her uncle Jamie, her mother’s cross-dressing brother. She would share James’s fun antics and we would all laugh together at her quirky-yet-lovable uncle. Sometimes James was visiting, but we never seemed to be able to meet him.

One day we drove to Wal Mart together to pick up supplies for a school project, and she told me all about her eccentric millionaire aunt that has a personal zoo of illegal exotic animals. All I thought was, “wow, she’s so interesting.”

I almost caught her once when she gossiped about a time I made out with her friend, a cheerleader. I mean, I did totally make out with her friend, on the couch, while Sarah was nearby on a recliner. That’s not a lie. It was one of the few times I got in trouble for coming home too late. (I showed up after 5am. My mom was furious. Worth it.) Then I heard things from friends that Sarah had said about the incident, about how she kept coughing to try to get us to stop, or that she got up and left, stuff like that. Stuff that wasn’t true. Unfortunately, I was too caught up in the emotional drama of my first kiss (and I totally touched a boob) that I didn’t really notice or care.

Once we were all lured in, once she knew we would believe anything, her lies started to get dark. They started to become harmful. They became reputation damaging, but you wouldn’t even realize it at the time.

For example, she had a long-running story about a relationship with the local newspaper editor. As our high school newspaper superstar, we knew she often worked with the local newspaper. She also presented herself as fairly mature and old-fashioned, so we didn’t really question an older man being attracted to her. Somehow I never considered that this was an inappropriate relationship. Sarah seemed too confident, sure of herself, and light-hearted. It was presented as the truth and as a joke at the same time, so it was easy to laugh about it and not over think it. What’s wrong with some harmless flirting?

She once confided in me about a near-rape incident. She drew me in with compassion. She talked about a time over the summer where she was working in a lab on the east coast as an intern. She was working late with her lab partner, when he came on to her. She turned him down, but he backed her into the corner and kept pressing. She said she asserted herself, took off her shoe, and beat him with it. It sounds so serious when I type it, but she presented it so cheerily! I can still picture her face and hear her laugh as she pretended to hold up her shoe and chase the man out of the lab. She seemed so strong, so assertive, so independent, so powerful. She could do anything.

As a top student involved in a lot of activities, she often traveled with the teachers to events. She had a long running story about a crush on Mr. Danley, everybody’s favorite teacher. Of course she had a crush! He was nice, funny, entirely lovable. He knew exactly how to joke with students while still teaching and maintaining power. He really was by far my favorite teacher. Sarah would tell light-hearted stories about putting her hand on his knee during a trip to Missoula, or sharing an intimate conversation. All harmless stuff if you didn’t think about it too much.

One day, she took things too far, but we were all too deep to realize it. We were sitting in my car, her in the passenger seat, and our friends Marly and Anjuli in the back seat. She looked around secretively, then began to confide in us. Again, she played on our compassion. She told us about one of our teachers seriously approaching her for sex. I’m definitely not using the teacher’s name due to the gravity of these claims.

She said this teacher had started coming onto her in small ways. Flirting harmlessly, and she flirted back. One day during class, while people were working on projects, she went into a back room to get supplies. There, she ran into this teacher. He pressed her up against the wall and kissed her. She said he was a horrible kisser. She pushed him away, then returned to class flushed. Despite this, she went on a hike with him one weekend. She said she was lagging behind, that he got ahead of her. When she rounded the corner at the top of the trail, he was laid out on a rock, completely naked. She said she acted shy and asked him to put his clothes on, which he did. Again, this all reads very serious, bet she told the story quite lightheartedly, joking about “his little penis in the sun” while laughing.

I was enraged. I used to like this teacher, and now I thought he was a total scumbag. The next day at school I was completely cold to him. For reasons that I still don’t understand, I never thought to DO anything about it. I still really regret this. I blame Sarah for lulling us into her world, but even then, how did I not do something if I believed it was true? I feel terrible about it.

Luckily, her tower of lies were about to topple, all because of one small slip-up.

I had to create a presentation for my government class. I put it off until the last minute, as usual, then realized that I didn’t have PowerPoint on my home computer. I was going to stay late and create the presentation on a school computer that night, but Sarah generously lent me her laptop to use for the night. Despite her lies, she was still a friend, and this was a genuine act of kindness.

I created my presentation and emailed the PowerPoint to myself. The next day the presentation went fine. Unfortunately, I forgot her laptop at home. I apologized and told her that I’d get it back to her right after school. Once school got out I drove home, grabbed the laptop, then drove to her house. I knocked on the door…knocked again…no answer. Weird, she knew I was coming over. It was winter, so it was almost dark and there was snow outside. I didn’t want to leave the laptop outside, so tried the door. It opened, so I stepped inside. “Hello?” I thought I heard something downstairs, but nobody responded. I set the laptop bag down inside the door, then left.

The next day I walked into government and came up behind Sarah as she was telling her friend (the cheerleader that I totally made out with) something like “…and he just set it outside on the deck! My mom and I got home and couldn’t believe he just left it there.” I walked up to her, confused.

“Are you talking about the laptop? I set it inside. I remember setting it inside. What are you talking about?” She laughed, reassured her friend that I had set it on the deck, and smoothly changed the subject.

I walked away, stunned. What had just happened? Why did she lie about that? Class started, but my mind was distracted. I kept chewing on this as the teacher talked, and I started to think back. It was like the plot twist at the end of the movie. I kept realizing the lies, one after the other. The gossip about friends, eccentric relatives, the relationships with older men. The teacher that approached her…oh my god. I was sick with rage.

That day I confessed this realization to my girlfriend at the time, Erika. (Note: not the cheerleader. That’s another story.) She said that she had recently been coming to the same conclusion. She said she started to get suspicious when Sarah called her “friend,” the local newspaper editor, on the way back from a trip. She said Sarah dialed a number, then started saying “Hello? Hello? Are you there?” as if the connection was bad. Then she carried on a conversation, flirted, and hung up. Erika said she was sure that Sarah had called her own phone, yelled over her own voice mail, then carried on a fake conversation with herself. Genius. We shared our mind-blowing realizations and rage.

I stewed for a while, but never approached Sarah. I knew some of her closer friends were becoming suspicious, and they intended to talk to her about it. (I heard that when that conversation finally happened, Sarah acted embarrassed, joked about it, and brushed it off.) Looking back, I wish I had talked to somebody about her serious allegations, especially involving the teacher. I think I was scared that he would get in trouble even if there was no truth to it. All she had to do was convince the right person, and this guy’s life would be ruined. She was too good. She was THE star student. Still, I wish I had done something different.

There was one moment where I spoke up. After I graduated my senior year, I went on a trip to Spain and Italy with about 13 other kids from our school and a few teachers and parents. It was awesome. Sarah had to leave a few days earlier than the rest of the group to get to DC for some kind of summer program, so one morning in Spain we all said goodbye over breakfast as she got in a cab and left for the airport by herself.

That night we were back at the hotel, hanging out in the lobby waiting for dinner, and in comes Sarah! She was flustered. She told us all, including the adults, about her harrowing journey at the airport. They boarded the plane, but something was wrong. The plane was broken, and they couldn’t take off yet. They sat on the tarmac for 7 hours while the airline tried to fix the plane. They wouldn’t let anybody get off the plane or use the bathroom. There was no air conditioning, and it was hot and sweaty. It was torture. Eventually they couldn’t fix the plane, so they let everybody off.

Sarah said she went to a payphone to call her mom and return to us. As she was getting ready to call, a man ran by and grabbed her purse. Sarah fought back, but he was too strong. She said he even groped her while they were struggling. He ran away, but security caught him. Unfortunately, this meant that Sarah had to sit with Spanish police to reclaim her belongings. They questioned her and kept her even longer. Eventually she was allowed to leave, and she returned to us.

I looked at the faces around me, and they all bought it. Even all the adults, they were all consoling her. What a horrible experience. You poor thing. Let us help you. You’re so strong. My jaw was on the floor. I couldn’t believe nobody questioned this absurd scenario. I didn’t know exactly what went down, I assumed she just missed her plane or her flight was cancelled and she hung out at the airport all day, but I didn’t believe a word of her story.

As people started to leave, I stopped Sarah’s mom. Her mom was fairly active in the community, and we knew each other. I liked her. I told her, look, some of us have been suspicious lately of Sarah. We’ve started to think that she likes to lie, that she lies a lot, and that sometimes those lies hurt people. I told her that her story today seemed very suspicious.

Her mom told me that she understood what I was saying, but that she was sure Sarah was telling the truth this time. I didn’t want to argue with her about whether or not her daughter was lying about being accosted at the airport, it wasn’t the time or place. I just said, even then, because of Sarah’s previous behavior, it makes it really hard for some of us to believe her when something serious like this happens. That I wanted to let you know because we think Sarah needs help.

Her mom thanked me for speaking up, but ultimately I didn’t feel like I helped much. Either her mom knew and had given up, or she knew and was trying to manage it, or she was just as trapped by the lies as the rest of us.

The trip ended, summer ended, college started, and I never saw Sarah again. We’re Facebook friends (awkward), but not the kind that talk. Despite everything, I still liked Sarah. She was a friend, and she was incredibly smart. You had to be incredibly smart to pull off what she did. I had no doubts that she would go places in life, but I worried that it would be on the back of lies and deception rather than her innate talent and drive. She lost my respect in a lot of ways, but not in all ways.

I understood how she did it, with her intelligence and way with words, but I still wondered why she did it. I assume she did it for attention. She liked being the most interesting person in the room – who wouldn’t? Maybe she liked feeling power and control over the people around her by successfully deceiving them, even in small things. She was a heavy girl, and even though her outward attitude was pure confidence, I wonder if she struggled internally. I wonder if she created these relationships with older untouchable men, relationships that we couldn’t fact check and could never compete with, in order to feel…confident? She also lost her father at a young age, and I wonder if this was one of the ways she coped. In the end, I felt bad for her, and I really hope she’s grown out of it.

No matter how absurd the situations seem, I still find doubt creeping in. What if she actually was almost raped, or actually raped? What if she did receive inappropriate attention from older men? What if these lighthearted over-the-top quirky versions of the stories were her way of coping with a reality that was too hard for her to deal with? What if this was her way of sharing with friends? I’m terrified of the darker possible realities lurking beneath the surface. I prefer to think that I had a quirky friend in high school that was a pathological liar, and nothing else.

And that’s the truth. Honest.