Girls Guide to Mending the Unmendable

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by Susan Burton the summer I GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL, I had a boyfriend who now, years later, I think of as a creep. Since he had my husband's name, I won't call him that. Instead I'll call him what I called him later, which is Shane.

Shane was my friend Lisa's older brother. I was seventeen and he was twenty-three. Shane was the only person I'd ever been friends with who'd been alive in the 1960s. Of course, he'd only been a toddler, but that wasn't the way I thought about it. Shane was so old that he'd been alive in history.

He was also the first person I knew who'd been engaged. The girl he'd been engaged to was named Kathy. They'd lived together during college, but then she'd run off with the manager of Wild Oats, a local health-food store. I worked at a health-food store, too. But my health-food store was called Alfalfa's and it was the type of place where there was less hummus and more pâté. There were a lot of Colorado moms in Volvos. I would watch them as they wrote checks. They had big diamond engagement rings that they now had to figure out how to coordinate with the turquoise jewelry they'd discovered when they moved to the West later in life.

One morning that summer I looked up and Shane was in my line. It was the first time we'd been together, by ourselves, without his sister. As usual, he looked pale—he was more of a reader than a river-rafter, and was always recommending books. Today he was holding a single can of all-natural dog food. "I ran out of food for the dogs," he said. Instead of putting the can on the counter, like most people did, he put it right into my hand.

And then it started. Shane was the best boyfriend I'd ever had. I felt so grown up, walking across his lawn wearing lipstick and cowboy boots. Other nights I'd ride my bike home from Alfalfa's and he'd be there, waiting for me outside my house. I'd get in the car and we'd start driving and he'd look over at me in the passenger seat and tell me the thing I was doing with my thumbs was a known sign of genius. He thought I would be the one in my class to become famous first.

Soon it was time for me to go to college, and for Shane to go back to his job teaching at a junior high. Before I left, Shane wrote me a poem and gave me a silver barrette from one of the Native American jewelry stores. Flying across the plains in August, fingering the barrette in my hair, I decided I would miss Shane, but not in a terminal, serious, sad-girl way. It had been a perfect summer.

Then I was at school in Connecticut. It was humid, even in the middle of the night, when we'd all be crammed into a booth somewhere, singing loudly to the Eagles. Classes were slow to start and everything was still fun. It was 1991, the last year before e-mail really took off, and everyone still wrote letters. I got good letters. Once, Shane wrote, "As soon as I sealed this, I felt like writing more." And another time he wrote, "I love you very much." I thought about this a lot. We'd never said it to each other in person. But now, I wondered.

We hadn't planned on staying together, but instead of thinking of Shane less, I was thinking of him more. Unfortunately, his letters decreased in direct proportion to my thoughts.

Worse, in recent notes, he had begun to mention a first-grade teacher named Tina.

One night in March, I brought the cordless phone up to my top bunk and I called him. He said, "Well, I have some good news. I'm getting married. To Tina, the first-grade teacher."

And that was when I knew: I loved Shane.

I wrote reams of five-page papers, took finals, and returned to Mountain Time. Back home in Boulder for the summer, I couldn't get Shane out of my head. Wearing a skirt, I would ride my muddy mountain bike fast up Arapahoe Road, which I knew he had to drive on a lot, hoping he would see me. I thought the skirt plus the mud made me look wild and pretty at the same time. At night, I'd tilt my halogen bike light upward so that it would cast a mysterious glow upon my face. I'd lean forward, pedaling furiously. Drive by, Shane, I'd think. Drive by and see me.

Sometimes in this fantasy, it was Tina who would notice. "Look at that girl on her bike:" she'd say. "Look at how fast she's going. And she's so pretty." And Shane would glance away from the road, and it would be me. There would be a silence as he turned back to the wheel, him deciding. They'd slow down at the light. He'd get in the left lane, turn on his blinker. "That's Susan," he'd finally say. "That's Susan?" Tina would say, whipping around just in time to catch me flying over a hill, my hair the lightest thing in the dark night. And then they would drive back to his parents' house, Shane filled with regret, Tina feeling inadequate, and the next day, while Tina was out, he'd be overcome; he would come to buy a can of dog food at Alfalfa's.

Of course that's all it was: a fantasy. One day I resolved to get over Shane before the wedding. It seemed important not to think about him once he was married. Pathetic, but wrong, too. The problem was that I had no idea how to go about it.

The one bright spot in my summer was my fiction-writing workshop. I'd signed up for a class that met two evenings a week at the University of Colorado.

One evening I rode home thinking about the story I'd written for that night's class, a story I called "Sunday Morning." "Sunday Morning" was told in the voice of a twelve-year-old girl whose parents were on the verge of divorce. Like every story I'd ever written, it was based on a real-life experience.

In one part of the story, I said that the house was always cold because the father didn't like to waste money on the heating bill. In another part I mentioned a photograph of girls in matching dresses at the country club. My classmates thought the country club symbolized an earlier, golden era, and the cold house meant that now the money was gone and soon the family would be, too. Now, swooping down the bike path, I considered whether, in addition to not getting along, my parents had been losing money. It wasn't a point I had intended to make, but it was right there in the details for the class to discover. They could see things about my own life that I couldn't.

And that's when I got the idea. I would write the exact story of my relationship with Shane. I would introduce the class to me, the static protagonist, and they would tell me how to act. They would not only tell me how to get over Shane, they would tell me why it had all happened and what it all meant.

The next morning, during my shift at Alfalfa's, I sipped from a giant glass of hot tea with soy milk and planned out the story. The action would take place on the day of the wedding. It would be a race-against-the-clock scenario: The protagonist would have twenty-four hours to get over her ex-boyfriend. This struck me as an elegant conceit, and also a useful one. If I woke up on the day of the wedding and wasn't yet over Shane, I wouldn't have to sweat. Thanks to the class, I'd have a twenty-four-hour cure.

That evening, I sat at the computer. "On the day of the wedding," I wrote, "I worked a double shift. In fourteen hours, I made thirty-nine goat-cheese-and-basil sandwiches, wrapped 106 lunch boats in tight Saran Wrap, and sliced through sixteen different ten-inch cakes in the course of waiting on at least 357 customers. I was counting to keep my mind off of some other things." I sat back. There, I thought, satisfied. As long as I switch myself from cashier to deli worker, nobody will know this is me.

I called the story "Waiting" and my character "Katy." Like Katy behind the deli counter, I would be stationed in the classroom, waiting to be delivered a satisfying end.

When the evening came I pedaled to class at race-day speed, full of anticipation.

The class was a mix of undergrads and people a few years out of school—like a guy who rode the free trolley from coffeehouse to coffeehouse all day, and an aerobics instructor with tan, very shiny legs. Then there was our teacher, George.

"Let's start with 'Waiting,"' George said as we settled in.

This was it. I readied myself for the wise and luminous insights of my classmates.

"Okay, just starting with the first paragraph?" said the aerobics instructor. "I highly doubt someone would count everything like that. And I don't think it's very realistic that somebody could remember all that in their head."

"Maybe she was writing it down as she went along:" somebody suggested. There were nods. I returned the nod. I leaned over the paper and made my first note.

"Counting:" I wrote, followed by a question mark. SSmall potatoes, I thought. Bring it on! What else?

"I was wondering where she went off to college:" someone said. "I mean, it's back East, but where?" Murmurs of agreement.

This was not going according to plan. Come on: How should she get over him?!

"Wait, wait, wait:" said the aerobics instructor. "About the bride. Or, actually, the wife. I thought it was weird how Katy never even thought about the wife. You know? She never even wondered what she was like."

I had to hand it to the aerobics instructor. Sometimes she would come out with something really sharp. "Why didn't she think about the wife?" I wrote, with a big, filled-in arrow next to the note. Why didn't I ever think about Tina? I wondered.

"I guess, also, I didn't really have a sense of Shane:" someone added. "I mean, it says he's a teacher, and stuff like that, but I mean more about why he got married so quick."

"Why Shane got married so quick:" I noted. I was starting to see that there might be a problem. The class had some of the same questions about the characters that I did.

"Let's talk about Katy's feelings for Shane," the teacher said. Okay, right idea, I thought.

"There was this one part that I thought was pretty telling," said one of the older students. "Where she says on page three, midway down the page"— there was the sound of people flipping— "I don't think I loved Shane until he told me he was getting married."

"Exactly," George nodded. "But I think it's getting buried in there. You might want to make it bigger," he said, addressing me directly. "Or earlier."

He tipped back in his chair. "What are Katy's true feelings? Is this a story about social status? Or is this a story about true love?"

I didn't like the way the question was framed.

"Social," the aerobics instructor said. "Definitely social. I mean, if they'd been in love, it would have clicked when they were still together."

No! This was not it. As everyone bobbed their heads in agreement that Shane and I hadn't been in love, I looked very intently at my paper. "Why didn't anything click," I wrote. Then I couldn't write the rest of it so I just made a long dash.

"We don't know much about Katy," said George. "She went off to college, she enjoys mountain biking. But aside from that: Who is she?"

The class was silent. Then George turned his entire body and looked me straight in the eye. Oh, God, I thought. They know. "Susan, you might need to do a little prewriting about Katy. Get a sense of who she is, figure her out a little more." Yes. I nodded vigorously.

"Okay, well, we should really move on to the next one," said George. "Susan, I guess my final comment would be that this story needs an end. But it develops well. Nice job."

I sat there blankly. Story needs an end? I thought. No duh it needs an end! The story needing an end is the whole reason we are here!

And then we just started talking about some other person's work. I sat very still and looked around the bright room, all of us at the desks in a big circle. Nothing had happened. I was still the same. It made me feel lonely, the way they'd talked about my life.

But as the days went by, I felt better. The class had acted like my story wasn't so unusual. Just some old thing with an ex-boyfriend. It made the whole thing feel smaller, like less of an emergency. Dozens of girls now riding their mountain bikes through these very foothills had dated boys and been hurt. It happened all the time. It was a known thing and it made people sad.

Now I rode my bike along Arapahoe Road at the speed of a regular girl, wearing regular clothes, like shorts, and pointing my bike light in the regular direction, straight ahead.

For a while I still thought about Shane, and then, suddenly, I didn't think about him at all, except on every birthday, when I would think, I'm still not as old as he was. And then I was twenty-three, and that was it: I didn't think about him anymore.

Susan Burton is a contributing editor of the radio program This American Life and the coauthor of Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story (Bloomsbury, 2005). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their son, who is by far the most ingenious member of the family.

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