The Space Under the Window

By Andrew Looney

Jessica stands in the hallway outside the ballroom, watching people stroll in and out on their ways to and from the restrooms. These people are wearing those name tag stickers that say "HELLO MY NAME IS...", but in addition to the names, which had been printed in block letters with one of those thick black magic markers, many also sport photographs. Or rather, photocopies of photographs. The photographs depict young, innocent, pimple-speckled versions of the people wearing the badges. About two thirds of the people have badges with photographs. The people who's name tags lack a photograph inherently wear a different, invisible badge -- one that says "spouse".

Jessica turns to Fletcher, a man who's badge lacks a photograph, and smiles. She enjoys having her spouse here with her during the reunion. So often, when she comes to an event like this, she leaves feeling sort of depressed, reminded more than she'd like to be about the aging process, seeing it so dramatically revealed. Her memory of someone she hasn't seen in 15 years is of a youthful and unravaged face... to so suddenly see those fresh, new faces 15 years later, with more than a few who seemed sort of pit-marked and worn down by the passage of those years, is to be resoundingly reminded of the steady, stomping, steel-heeled boot of Father Time. But to have her spouse on hand, to remind her of the good things that have happened during the passage of this time, is a good thing. This is the good thing that makes Jessica smile.

Jessica sends her spouse off to get some punch, and lets her mind wander back to those high school days. Many of the faces that pass by her now seem completely unfamiliar... others she remembers, but not well enough to make much of a fuss about. There were, however, four or five people from high school with whom she'd once been really good friends, and she was hoping to see one or more of them here, to see what had become of them.

"College alienates people from those who don't go to college," she thinks to herself. She thinks back to those days in high school when she used to get together regularly with a little group of friends to just hang out and talk. They talked about their futures, wondered what would happen to them during their lives. Who would go to college? What kind of jobs would people get? Who would get married first? Who would have kids first? Would any of them become famous? And so on.

As it had turned out, Jessica had been the only one of her close circle of high school friends who had gone to college. One went to trade school, and one joined the army. The others? Who knew where they were, or what they were doing now. Because once in college, it became harder and harder for Jessica to socialize with her high school friends. Their worlds diverged. And once divided, their paths just didn't cross anymore.

Jessica wonders where they are now: Cindy, Reggie, Abby, Heather... especially Heather.

Jessica accepts from her spouse the cup of punch he offers, and thinks about a conversation she'd had with him about a month ago, about how they needed to make new friends. Most of their friends from college had started raising families, and even though a few of them were very good about getting baby-sitters and having conversations other than about how great (or about how much of a pain) their kids were, nevertheless, their decision to not become parents had left them increasingly isolated from her old college friends... just as going to college had cut her off from her not-going-to-college high school friends. And now they were feeling kind of lonely, and felt the need to reach out here and there and start new friendships. And so, here they were, at her 15 year high school reunion, wondering if she'd run into any of those cool people she used to hang out with in high school, to see what they were up to these days, to see if maybe she could pick up where she left off with some of those friendships.

Jessica and Fletcher stroll back into the ballroom. Fletcher is bored. "I'm a trophy," he thinks to himself. "I'm just here to be shown off." He looks around the room at the other trophies. "Most of us are just here to be seen on the arm of the real guests at this event."

In a way, he's right. The majority of the people here are familiar with large numbers of other guests, and in some cases are even very good friends with other guests. The sad minority, however, only really know one other person at the party.

"There are two distinct groups here," thinks Fletcher, "and the people in the other group are having much more fun than the people in my group." Fletcher drinks some punch and looks around at the crowd. "I wonder if there's any way to switch groups."

Jessica looks down at the "HELLO MY NAME IS..." badges on the table at the entrance to the ballroom. The one with the label "Heather Billson," which had been there when Jessica and Fletcher had first arrived, is now gone. Jessica gazes around the room, eyes suddenly searching, instead of merely browsing.

Just then, a voice: "Jesse!" Arms fly out, two women embrace. "Wow!" Jessica is now saying "You didn't come to the five, or the ten, so I figured you wouldn't be here, either! But you are!"

Heather is embarrassed. "Well, my ex-husband never wanted to come, and I never felt like coming alone, but now..." Heather shrugs, her voice trails off.

Heather and Jessica talked excitedly, go off to find a table for the dinner that is to be served very shortly. They sit together at the table, talking about old times, all through the rolls, and the salad, and the grilled chicken with pasta and steamed vegetables.

Fletcher sits next to Jessica, listening quietly. Sometimes he allows himself to be drawn into conversation with the trophy on his other side, but they have nothing really to talk about. Fletcher is thinking, "The worst thing about being a trophy is that you're stuck in the world of the trophies, with no one to talk to but other trophies."

The minute hand finishes its little trip around the clock, and gets lined up for its next run. The former president of the student council gets up and stands at a podium and says a few words. Then some other ex-students do the same thing. Eventually, a woman named Pamela, who had been quite the looker in high school but has, since then, nearly doubled in weight, goes to the podium. While she yammers about some fond memory she has of a certain science teacher, waiters scurry around the room clearing up dinner plates and handing out glass goblets filled with chocolate mousse.

Jessica takes her spoon and scoops up the blob of whipped cream that tops her dessert, bringing with it only a small amount of the mousse it garnishes. She holds it under Heather's nose, and reminds her of the night in her parent's basement, when Heather's parents had gone out, and they'd smoked some pot that Reggie had gotten somewhere, probably from Jeff Marlin, and Reggie and Cindy had left the house, and walked down to the 7-11, and bought 3 cans of Redi-Whip and a bunch of chocolate pudding, and when they got back, they ate pudding and passed the can around, ejecting whipped cream directly into their mouths.

Jessica is holding her bite of whipped cream and mousse in front of Heather. "Remember that night," she says, "with the three cans of whipped cream?" Heather smiles, and puts a bite of her own chocolate mousse into her mouth. "That was a good night," she says, nodding, looking down.

By now, Fletcher has already eaten his entire serving of chocolate mousse. It was really good. Now he's looking around the table, at the other goblets of mousse. Some are being emptied on a schedule only slightly slower than Fletcher's... but others are still nearly full. Except for one pale-looking woman across the table, everyone has eaten at least part of their serving of chocolate mousse.... but the pale woman's mousse is completely untouched. Fletcher looks at it and thinks about how tasty it would be. Then he looks at his wife's mousse. She's only eaten about half of it. She notices him noticing her mousse, and gestures for him to help himself. Fletcher does. Soon Jessica's mousse is almost gone. She grabs one more bite, just in time.

Jessica looks at Heather. She's not wearing any make-up. Didn't she, though, back in high school? Her hair is long now, much longer than it was in the old days. It's also darker, almost brown. It had been blond 15 years ago.

Fletcher sits watching other people eat up their desserts. By now, most of them are gone. The pale-woman's is still uneaten. She gazes into the middle distance, bored.

Fletcher is bored too. His wife is talking to an old friend, he's very disconnected. He gets up and wanders around. Soon he's standing in front of the table of "HELLO MY NAME IS..." badges. Most of them are gone, now, and the ones that remain are twisted every which way, quite different from the orderly rows in which they were previously arranged.

Fletcher's eye's roll back in his head as he thinks. "Maybe I could switch groups." He paces around by the registration table as he thinks. "You can tell who's a guest and who's a trophy by the photographs on the badges. What I need is a photograph!" He sits down at the registration table, scrounges around among the disorganized pile of office supplies until he finds a pen, peels off his badge and sticks it onto his leg, just above his knee, and uses the pen to create, as best he can, he photograph of himself as he looked in high school.

Many of the guests are getting up and milling about at this point. A disc jockey has started playing the top musical hits of the year in which Jessica and Heather had graduated from high school. A few people are dancing. Fletcher mingles with the developing crowd, hoping somehow to now fit in with the reunion crowd instead of just the trophy crowd. His drawing, however, doesn't look enough like a photograph to dupe anyone who hasn't had fewer than 5 drinks. And even if the photograph does make someone look at him long enough to see if they know who he is, they quickly lose interest when they read his name and realize they don't know him. It doesn't take Fletcher long to realize this plan isn't working.

Fletcher wanders back over to the registration table. "It's not the photographs," he says to himself, "it's the names." He peels his badge off again, folds it so that the sticky part is all stuck to other parts of the sticker, and puts it in his pocket. Then he picks up an unclaimed badge, with the name Henry Anvirs, peels it, and sticks it on his lapel.

Just a few steps from the registration table, he runs into a heavyset fellow with slicked back hair, far thinner than it had undoubtedly been 15 years ago. He looks at Fletcher's badge and says "Henry!" Then he looks at Fletcher's face and says "Henry?"

Fletcher smiles and says with a laugh, "I'm probably not the same Henry you're thinking of..." The man gives Fletcher an odd look, then moves off. Henry circulates for a little while but quickly realizes, from the way people look at him, that he cannot pass for Henry Anvirs, whoever he is. He peels off this badge and sticks it to the one in his pocket.

Fletcher goes back to the dinner table, tells his wife of his activities. She and Heather listen, bemused. Then Fletcher notices that the pale woman has gone off somewhere, and that waiters at other tables are clearing away dessert goblets. He stands up again, wanders to the other side of the table. He looks around furtively. No one is paying any attention to him. He slips his hand around the goblet's base and moves off with the pale woman's uneaten dessert. Fletcher quickly devours it, places the empty goblet on a waiter's tray when one wanders by.

Jessica is looking into Heather's eyes. They talk vaguely about old times. "Remember the time..." and so on. Jessica thinks about those days. There had always been a special sort of bond between her and Heather... a definite attraction that they had never talked about, never quite acknowledged... but which sometimes caused them to get into each other's personal space just a little too much. Bumping into each other in a doorway just a little too intensely, brushing each other's hair just a little too intimately. Jessica knows she isn't gay, she definitely likes men and always has... but she has to admit, she has always been attracted to women as well.

Fletcher sits down next to Jessica. "Anyway," he says, picking up where he left off, "I need to know the name of someone who isn't here tonight, but who was in your class, who looked enough like me that at first glance that, if you didn't know better, you could believe was me after all these years."

Jessica looks at Heather and Heather looks at Jessica. "Hmm," one of them says. Then Heather looks at Fletcher and says "Jeff Marlin."

Jessica whirls around and looks at her husband. "Oh, you're right!" she squeals. "He does look sorta like Jeff!" But just as quickly she becomes deflated. "Why isn't he here?"

"OK," says Fletcher, "Jeff Marlin. Cool. Thanks." Fletcher goes over to the badge table and swipes a blank badge. A few squeaks of magic marker later and he's wearing a badge that says "Jeff Marlin".

"Now, I can really be part of the other half of the room," he thinks. He mills around. Little groups of people stand in various corners of the ballroom, in little circles. Fletcher fills in a gap in a nearby circle. The others in the circle look at him without recognition, then, almost as an afterthought, someone reads his badge. "Jeff Marlin!" he says. "How are you, man!"

Fletcher smiles. "This is more like it!" he thinks to himself.

The man grabs Fletcher's hand and shakes it. "Cool! So, like, what are you doing these days! I'd heard you'd moved to San Francisco!"

Suddenly Fletcher realizes there's a flaw in his plan. He gets an uneasy feeling in his gut. "I don't know the first thing about this guy!" he thinks to himself. "What do I say?"

"Yeah, that's right," Fletcher finds himself saying. "Hey, excuse me for one moment, I'll be right back."

Fletcher rushes back to the table where his wife is sitting. "OK, I'm back," he announces. "I need some information on this Jeff guy. What did he do with his life? People are asking me questions and I gotta know what to tell them."

Jessica and Heather tell Fletcher about Jeff Marlin. It turns out he was sort of the class hippie... the one who did all sorts of drugs and didn't care who knew it. The one who had a guitar and played it all the time and sang songs he wrote outside during recess and talked about how he was forming a band and would be famous some day. He'd gone away to California right after graduation and no one had ever seen or heard from him again.

Fletcher is walking off now, armed with new information.

Jessica is telling Heather about her work as a nurse and is thinking about that night when they'd eaten 3 cans of whipped cream. And she's thinking about what happened before they ate the whipped cream, before Reggie and Cindy had gotten back from the 7-11.

They'd been lying on the floor in the carpeted, finished part of the basement. This part of the basement had actual dry wall and wasn't as deep in the ground as it was elsewhere. On one wall was a window, which looked right out onto the backyard. Heather and Jessica were lying on the floor under the window, side by side, both heads on one pillow. It was spring, almost summer, a few weeks before the last day of the last year of high school. They had the window open, and were listening to the sounds of insects buzzing in the night, a cool pleasant breeze blowing across them.

Jessica and Heather were talking about what life would be like for them in 5 years, in 10 years, in 25 years. Heather didn't know what she was going to do with her life. Would she go to college? She didn't know. It depended on her test scores and her grades. If she got a scholarship, she would go. If she didn't, she probably couldn't. Many scholarships had already been awarded... and she hadn't gotten anything yet.

At some point, they'd fallen silent. Jessica got out a pencil and leaned over to the wall. "The Space Under the Window" she said, as she wrote the words on the wall. Heather sat halfway up, leaned on her elbow, and looked at the graffiti. She cocked her head. "The Space Under the Window?" she asked.

Jessica had nodded, and repeated it. "The Space Under the Window. That's where we are."

They sat there looking at each other, faces close together. Then, almost without knowing it was happening, they'd started to kiss.

But then they'd heard a noise upstairs, as Reggie and Cindy returned with the goodies, and by the time they'd gotten downstairs, Heather and Jessica were far away from each other, neither of them in the space under the window.

Fletcher meanwhile is convincing people everywhere that he is Jeff Marlin. He's making up pretty good answers, based on the facts he learned about Jeff's personality and probable whereabouts, combined with some not-too-outlandish-sounding stories he made up as he went along. When someone asks him something about the good old days in high school, if he's unsure of the correct answer, he says "Gee, I'm not sure I remember that. I did an awful lot of drugs back then, you know." And the people believe him! Well, for a while, anyway. Most of the conversations don't get too far along before someone begins to doubt Fletcher's identity. "You look so different," they say, sometimes confused, other times suspicious. In some cases, one person will be completely taken in, only to be tipped off by someone else in the crowd. Whenever and however it happens, Fletcher is always quick to confesses his true identity when his bluff is called. As a way of explaining himself, he begins telling people this: "My wife was disappointed that Jeff wasn't here, so I figured I could stand in for him."

But not everyone catches onto the hoax. One woman is so overjoyed to see Jeff Marlin again that she gives Fletcher a big, somewhat overly-long hug. Fletcher decides not to reveal his true identity to her. Why burst her bubble?

Usually, when he does admit to the hoax, people are amused. It sort of makes sense to them, somehow. If there was anyone in their class whom someone would want to impersonate, it was Jeff Marlin. A few, however, seem miffed, even offended. One guy in particular gets pissed off. "This guy's trying to screw with our heads," he says to his buddies. He's a tough guy, and he'd been drinking, and he looks like he might try to punch Fletcher. At this point, Fletcher decides the game has gotten too dangerous and he retreats to his wife's side at the dinner table.

His wife and her high school friend are having a very involved conversation. "I've always wished we had finished what we started that night," Fletcher overhears his wife saying.

And now, people are leaving. "We told the sitter we'd be home by eleven," people are saying.

Jessica and Fletcher gather up their things. Heather digs around in her handbag and pulls out a little brass case. She opens the case and takes out a business card, hands it to Jessica. Heather's card just says "Heather", with her phone number printed at the bottom. "We should get together sometime," she says.

Jessica smiles softly at Heather, puts the card into her pocket. Then they hug. "I'll call you," Jessica says quietly. "Please do," Heather replies.

Fletcher looks around the room, wondering how many people he actually conned into believing he was Jeff Marlin. A couple of dozen had fallen for it... a handful perhaps had gone away from the conversation without seeming to sense that he was a fraud. Of course, he'll never know for sure.

Fletcher drives as they return home. He tries to find things to talk about, but Jessica is lost in thought.

"There's something I have to do before bed," Jessica says as they enter the darkened house. She takes a pencil out of the cup filled with writing instruments that sits in the middle of the kitchen table, and goes into the living room. Fletcher follows and watches with puzzlement as she leans down to write the words "The Space Under the Window" on the wall under the large bay window that looks out onto the backyard.

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