The Aqua Net Diaries: Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town by Jennifer Niven

  Collecting signs was a popular activity. My friend Hillary always carried a tool kit in her purse along with her lipstick and her tampons, just in case she saw a sign she liked. She had a particular love for license plates—not stealing them, but switching them from car to car. She could spend a happy hour in a parking lot, usually one at a church.

  On one rare night when there weren’t any parties, Joey and I found ourselves, as usual, driving up and down the streets of Reeveston. We even drove way out in the country to where Ian Barnes lived in a multilevel wooden house by a pond. There was a diving board that hung over the water that someone always jumped off of around midnight when there was a party. But on this particular night the pond was dark and the house was quiet.

  “Should we go out to Ruger’s?” I said hopefully.

  “No,” Joey said. “He’s out of town this weekend.”

  “What about Jeff’s?”

  “He’s probably holed up somewhere with Angie.” Jeff Shirazi and Angie Oler had been dating off and on for almost a year.

  We drove aimlessly. I didn’t have to be home for two hours.

  “We could call Jennie and Hill and see if they want to meet us somewhere,” I said.

  “No. Hillary’s a pill and I don’t want to see Jennie right now.” Joey and Jennie had been going out for a few weeks. She was always trying to climb on him and get him to do things to her that he didn’t want to do. “We could steal signs,” Joey said.

  I thought about this. I never wanted to get caught stealing signs, but there was nothing else to do. “I guess.”

  We cruised around for half an hour or so on dark, dusty roads, in the thick of farm country. These were where the best signs could be found—funny, colorful signs stuck in cornfields or vegetable patches, or tacked to the outside of barns.

  We drove slowly down Backmeyer Road, going fast over the hills so that the car bounced, and then slowing down in the flat parts. We listened to Billy Idol’s “White Wedding,” which seemed appropriate for committing acts of delinquency.

  We headed out to Mr. Kaiser’s farm, south of Boston, which was far, far away from anything. To me, who didn’t drive, who thought all farms and cornfields looked the same, it seemed hundreds of miles from Richmond, though it was probably more like seven. Joey had spent each summer working for the Kaisers, bailing hay and painting the barn and doing other farm-type chores. We drove out onto the property, which seemed enormous and had a grand name like Marlando.

  At the front of the grounds there was a little trailer with a light on inside, which Joey said was just a decoy to discourage trespassers. Mr. Kaiser and his wife wanted people to think they had a groundskeeper. There was something very lonely about it. We drove past the decoy trailer all the way to the back of the property, which was thick with high, dark trees and a swing. We got out of the car and stood there, listening to the stillness. Far off in the distance you could see the burning orange glow of Richmond.

  I sat down in the swing and Joey started pushing me. We stared out at the view of the town.

  “From here it looks almost pretty,” Joey said.

  “One day we’ll be far, far away from it,” I said. “I wonder where.”

  “New York. Moscow. Dublin.”

  “Paris. London. Los Angeles.”

  We named all the cities of the world that weren’t in the Midwest, Joey pushing me higher and higher, and then we climbed back into the car and drove even farther out into the country. The moon was out and the stars were white-bright and we turned the headlights off because we didn’t need any lights other than what was in the sky.

  Then, coming around a corner, we saw the sign. It was enormous and white and glowed in the moonlight. It stood near the side of the road by the edge of a cornfield, and the farmhouse sat several yards away, blank and quiet. I thought of the farmer and his family who were no doubt asleep inside, early to bed, early to rise. I felt a little pang.

  We drifted toward the sign. AgriGold, it said in black letters. And above it, a lively cartoon drawing of an ear of corn, bright yellow with green husks. I caught my breath. Close up, the sign was even bigger than it first looked. It was taller than I was and taller than Joey. It was as tall as Ross. It was maybe even taller than that.

  I had been terrified of corn ever since we watched Children of the Corn at Joey’s house, required viewing for any Indiana teenager. We loved to scare ourselves by driving out into the country in the dead of night and then turning off the headlights and driving directly into the corn. Joey and I did this night after night, but it always ended the same way—with one of us seeing a face in the rearview mirror or there to the left, to the right, over there in the corn.

  Joey pulled past the farmhouse, past the AgriGold sign (AgriGold, it said on one side; AgriGold it said on the other), and parked near the edge of the cornfield. We rolled down the windows and sat listening to the night.

  “Okay,” Joey said. “Let’s go.”

  I was nervous. “Why don’t I just wait here?” I said. “I’ll keep watch.”

  “Are you scared of getting caught?”


  He rolled his eyes at me. Then he bundled up the tools in his shirt and climbed out of the car. As the door opened, the inside of the car immediately lit up.

  “Don’t slam the door!” I hissed. “Just close it enough so that the light goes off.”

  I watched him in the rearview mirror as he walked around back. I slunk down low in my seat and watched him in the side mirror. He bent over, setting the tools on the ground, no doubt trying to figure out what was what. My eyes moved back and forth between the farmhouse and Joey, the farmhouse and Joey.

  I stuck my head out the window. “What are you doing?” I whispered, as loud as I could.

  “Trying to figure out how to get the sign down.”

  I got out of the car, careful not to slam the door. “Let me see.” I examined the bolts that anchored the sign to its posts. I examined our tools. “This one, I think.” I handed him a wrench. “And this one.” I handed him a screwdriver. We bumped each other and dropped some things and there were crickets hopping in the grass, which caused us both to jump and scream. The corn rustled and we stood very still, waiting.

  I tiptoed back to the car. I slunk back down against the seat and watched him. Hurry, I thought. Hurryhurryhurry-hurry.

  Twenty minutes later, Joey had undone the bolts at the bottom of the sign, and was climbing up the side to reach the top. I sat there shivering, even though it was still hot and sticky out, offering up little prayers that we would get home safely. I thought of Demi Moore in St. Elmo’s Fire and how fearless she was. I thought of Zelda Fitzgerald diving into fountains and dancing on tables. I was trying very hard to be fearless, too.

  At some point, there was a crash, as Joey and not one but two AgriGold signs hit the earth. They had been hitched together, back to back, one showing one way, one showing the other. I popped the trunk and jumped out of the car.

  “Get your sign!” he shouted.

  We each grabbed hold of one and dragged them toward the car, running smack into each other, our heads knocking, the signs making a metal boi-oi-oing sound.

  “Put them in!” I shrieked.

  It took both of us to lift each one, but somehow we got them into the trunk. The trunk wouldn’t close, but we threw Joey’s sweatshirt on top of the signs, so that they would be at least partially disguised. Joey drove me home with the trunk door bobbing up and down. He drove under the speed limit and was extra cautious.

  The next morning, Joey’s dad went into the garage and found the AgriGold signs propped against a wall.

  Joey was still asleep, but his dad rapped on his door and then walked right in. “Hey, Buddy?” he said. “Where did those giant corn signs come from?”

  From his bed, Joey didn’t say anything, just pulled the covers up over his head and tried to go on sleeping.

  “You and Jennifer didn’t steal them did you?”

  From un
der his pillow, Joey said, “Mitchell.” Mitchell was Joey’s brother who was a year younger than we were. “Mitchell and his delinquent friends probably took them.”

  Of course Mr. Kraemer knew this was a lie. Mitchell, for the most part, was much better behaved than we were. “You know they have cameras out there, keeping an eye on those signs. Those farmers are always getting things stolen from them and that’s their way of making sure they’re protected. Whoever took those signs will be on videotape. They could be turning those tapes over to the police even as you’re lying there in your bed. I guess I should go downstairs now and wait for the phone to ring. What do you want me to tell them?”

  Joey lifted the pillow off his face. “What do you mean they have cameras? You’re just making that up.”

  Mr. Kraemer said, “Am I?” He let Joey think about this. “I’m surprised you didn’t see the cameras actually. But then again, the farmers hide them in the corn.” He walked out the door then and left the room. By this time Joey was wide awake. He reached for the phone and dialed my number.

  Alex Delaney

  First Heartbreak

  If we cannot find the road to

  happiness, let’s make one!

  —Alex Delaney

  Alex Delaney came into my life the fall of my junior year. He was a popular senior with a tangled mane of curly gold hair and bright blue eyes. He was California cute, right in the middle of landlocked Richmond, Indiana. We had Humanities class together and began to cast longing, electrically charged glances across the room at each other until I couldn’t stand it anymore. If he had been Tommy Wissel or Tom Mangas, I would have just written him a coy little note (Me: Tommy, I think marriage would be wonderful, but being your mistress sounds like fun. I wouldn’t want Suzanne to find out and I wouldn’t want to disrupt a marriage—but don’t I have a nice chest? Tommy: Yes, what I can see of it. I can’t tell real well though. But maybe if I had a chance to see it better I would know. Me: You’re pretty sly, aren’t you? Now let me think. When would you get a chance? I could move over a seat so you could have a better view, but that probably wouldn’t be much better. Any suggestions?)

  But Alex was different. Alex seemed worlds older than anyone I had dated before. He moved in an orbit far beyond the one I knew. He was best friends with John Dehner, Tom Dehner’s older brother. Alex was a senior. He was experienced. The whole idea of him was vaguely unnerving. Visions of Freddie Prinze, my first true love, with his tight jeans and wicked smile, came to mind.

  I wrote my friend Holly Ogren a note in AP History class.

  Jennifer: Tell me about Alex!

  Holly: I don’t know him very well, but from what I know of him he’s really sweet. Diane Weigle went with him for a long time. That’s about the extent of my knowledge.

  I knew all about Alex’s previous relationship with Diane, a pretty redheaded senior. She was smart and nice and well-liked. She wasn’t an ex-girlfriend you could hate like Carrie Hockersmith. She and Alex had been together for a Very Long Time, but had recently broken up. I was just single myself. Curt Atkisson and I had split up not long after Homecoming.

  Finally, after two weeks of meaningful glances in Humanities, one of Alex’s friends got sick of our silent pining and decided to get us together. Alex asked me out, staring at the ground the entire time, and I said yes, staring at my feet.

  On our first date, Alex picked me up in his little red Toyota and took me out on the town for dinner and a movie. He was shy and I was shy and I thought how weird this was since I liked flirting with boys almost as much as I liked writing stories or singing into my hairbrush and pretending I was a rock star or driving fast with Joey to the Dayton Mall. I thought, Heaven help us. We will never get through this night.

  In the movie his arm inched closer to mine, brushing against it on the armrest. I had been through this dance many times before and knew what to do. If I didn’t want him to hold my hand, all I had to do was put my hands in my lap. If I wanted him to hold it, all I needed to do was leave it there on the armrest and let him take over. I left it there. He moved his closer. This went on for most of the movie until finally our fingers touched and then he took my hand.

  After that, our shyness went away. On the way home, we laughed a lot. He was funny. We talked over each other. By the end of the evening, we were kissing in his car. Kissing was what we were best at.

  There was another date. And another after that. He always called me when he said he would. We talked for hours on the phone every night until my mother told me to hang up, that it was time for bed. It wasn’t long before we were going together. He walked me to classes and wrote me notes. I wrote him notes back. I wrote him a poem. He wrote me one. He called me “Gorgeous.” He told me he loved me. I told him I loved him.

  I wondered if this was what grown-up love felt like. I had loved Eric Lundquist, but that seemed young and innocent compared to this. Love with Eric was sweet and heady and giddy. It left me light-headed and breathless. Love with Alex made me want to put my head between my knees and throw up into the trash can. It felt painful and exhilarating at once, like being on an upside-down roller coaster or slamming your finger in the car door. I always felt slightly unhinged, like I wasn’t in control, something I hated.

  I met his brothers (all blond, too many to keep track of) and he talked to me about his parents, who didn’t get along and were always fighting. I felt bad for him because my own parents were happy. They never argued and always got along and the three of us liked to do things as a family, like go out to eat or to the movies, or on trips to Cincinnati or Chicago, when my dad wasn’t too busy working at the college.

  Alex and I did our homework together and tried hard to study without falling into and onto and on top of each other. Inevitably, we always wound up engaging in fierce make-out sessions in his basement or in my basement, which left both of us angry and excited and wound up for days.

  We talked about sex all the time. He knew I wanted to wait to do it till some unforeseen time in the future. I wasn’t sure when this would be exactly, but I was sure the time would make itself known to me, that there would be a magic moment when all the stars aligned and I would just … know.

  My dad, as if he sensed what was going on, never said much to Alex. At least he let him inside the house, which was an improvement. When Alex said, “I don’t think your dad likes me,” I cheerfully pointed out that he hadn’t been made to wait outside on the front step. A week or so into our relationship we were even allowed downstairs in the family room with the door closed, which was amazing. One night we heard the door open and my dad started down the stairs. Alex and I broke apart and sat chastely beside each other on the couch, our hearts pounding. My dad stomped down the stairs without stomping—a gift he had perfected. He didn’t say a word. He walked by us to his stereo, fussed about with his albums, and then, again without saying a word or retrieving a single item, walked by us and went back upstairs.

  “Your dad is good,” Alex said. “It’s like he came down here and peed on you and he didn’t even have to say anything.”

  We watched TV the rest of the night without touching.

  We went to basketball games together. It was the most exciting time in history for RHS basketball, because after years of being mediocre, of never ever winning a state championship in a state that worships basketball, the Red Devils won sectionals. Then we won regionals. Then we advanced to our first state finals in thirty-two years. Even I was excited.

  Although we did things with Alex’s friends (which was thrilling, especially when John Dehner was around because, like his younger brother, he was so effortlessly cool), most of the time Alex agreed to do things with my friends because that was what I wanted. He would invite Joey over to sit with us in his basement and listen to music or watch movies, or he would come along on shopping trips to the Dayton Mall with Jennie, Hether, Hill, Laura, Joey, and me.

  It was on one of those shopping trips that I saw the bear. The bear was enormous and white wit
h a blue satin bow around its neck. It cost eighty-five dollars. I saw it and immediately loved it, and that was all it took. Alex picked it up. He said, “You want it, Gorgeous, it’s yours.”

  I said, “Oh no, it’s too expensive. It’s too much.” But I did want it. I was already thinking how upset I’d be if I didn’t get it.

  He said, “Nothing’s too much for you.”

  I said, “You shouldn’t.” But I was thinking, Please get it for me. What could be more romantic?

  He kissed me and carried the bear up to the cashier. Hether, Laura, Joey, Hill, Jennie, and I watched as he pulled out his wallet and paid for the bear in cash.

  Hether said, “Jesus. Someone must be getting some.”

  Jennie said, “Or if he’s not getting some, he’d better be getting some later.”

  I said, “No one’s getting some. He just loves me.”

  Joey said, “Poor frustrated bastard.”

  I sat in Jennie’s station wagon with that bear on my lap all the way home to Richmond, Alex beside me, Laura on the other side of him, Hether and Joey in back, Hill up front next to Jennie. They were all blathering on about something, talking over one another. Alex was holding my hand, and I was holding on to the bear. Every now and then Alex would lean over and kiss me. As I sat there, the strangest feeling started coming over me, like I was in the car, but not in the car. The air felt close and hot. I rolled down my window.

  My hair was blowing, but I didn’t care. I was having trouble breathing. Little by little I was suffocating underneath the bear—the bear that I had wanted so desperately less than twenty minutes earlier. The noise from all the talking was making my head hurt, and my hand was sweating where Alex was holding it, and my nose was itching from the bear’s fur, and the weight of the bear was crushing the breath out of me. All I could think was, I have got to get out of here. This bear must weigh five hundred pounds. I am going to die underneath this bear. Why can’t I breathe?

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