John and I first met in an aisle of a snack shop run by a blind man named Ray. By the time we got to the register, we were deep in conversation. Ray handed me my change and said, “That guy is smitten with you.” Embarrassed, John and I went our separate ways. The next morning I returned to the snack shop. “Thank God,” Ray muttered when I walked in. “Your new man has been standing by the juice for ten minutes. It don’t take that long to pick out juice.”
I was a twenty-three-year-old transplant who didn’t know anyone in Atlanta, having just moved there for a position in a federal agency. John was a year younger and still lived in his hometown forty miles outside the city, commuting to his job as an intern in the federal courts. We were young and naive, but our chemistry was immediate, powerful, and evident to everyone who knew us.
For more than a year we got together Monday through Friday for breakfast, lunch, and sometimes dinner or drinks after work. We went for walks and visited parks. He often put a note on my car, reminding me not to drive away without seeing him. Once, at a bar, John asked the bartender for a marker and drew a large J on my hand. “You’re mine now,” he said.
The first time I visited John’s office, I noticed the humorous nameplate he’d fashioned for himself: Minister of Propaganda. I laughed and addressed him often by that title. We worked in the same federal complex, and, through the interoffice mail, he sent me lines of poetry and quips that mocked our co-workers. (This was before the Internet, e-mail, and cellphones.) One of his notes read: “I once fell asleep on the beach and awoke to a sky filled with frigate birds. That’s what it is to see you.”
The day before Valentine’s Day he handed me a cassette and said, “I hate commercial holidays, but I love you.” It wasn’t a mixtape, like I’d received from other men I’d dated. It was a recording of John playing his guitar and singing cover songs and original music. In bed he was reverent, as if he’d discovered in me a new and magical creature. After sex he would read to me until I fell asleep on his chest. Sometimes I would come into my office on a Monday to find that over the weekend he’d recorded passages from books I loved on my voice mail. He left his own poetry and short stories, which had been published in his college journal, on my desk. He sometimes waited for me by my car after work, lingering long after night had fallen. He’d touch me lightly, tracing the inside of my palm with one finger or grazing my neck with his hand. Finally we’d part and drive home.
“Tell me a secret about you,” I said one day, lying on a park bench, my head in John’s lap, my eyes closed.
“I’m afraid of spiders,” he said. “I love to camp, but spiders freak me out.”
I said, “I’m not afraid of spiders. I will kill all your spiders.” He leaned down and kissed me, then whispered, “I will give you all my secrets.”
Six months into the relationship, I began to question why we spent the weekends apart. John worked a paying job on the weekends, but it seemed to me that, over the course of six months, he should have had at least one Saturday or Sunday off to spend with me. Knowing he was a broke intern, I offered to give him a weekend’s worth of pay if he’d take a couple of sick days and come stay with me in the city. John was prideful and refused.
“I can’t take your money, sweetheart,” he said. “I’ll work something out.”
The truth was that he had something you can’t work out. He had a girlfriend.
Now he began to tell me about her. He had known her since the third grade but hadn’t really noticed her until high school, when she’d come to a party after a football game wearing a cheerleading skirt. I wondered if she was more attractive than I was. He told me they had been “on and off” since the ninth grade, and he did not know how to explain to his family that he’d chosen a college-educated city girl over his Southern country girlfriend.
John’s childhood had been easy and sweet. Mine had not. He was still learning how to make grown-up decisions. I had practically been an adult ever since my father had left when I was fourteen. I had no patience for duplicity, nor time to wait for John to mature into a good partner.
Staring at his feet, he told me he loved me and wanted to be with me. “But whenever I break up with her,” he said, “she chooses bad guys who treat her terribly.” He didn’t want her to get hurt, and he would always find himself trying to help.
I cried. Then I seethed. “Are you seeing her now?” I asked. “Does she know about me?”
He did not speak, just put his hand over mine. I waited for him to answer, but as he remained silent, my anger grew. I told him it was too bad our relationship was so difficult to explain to the people in his life. Then I said, “If that’s how you feel, then fuck you. I’m out.”
Saying we were over was one thing, but keeping away from him was entirely more challenging. Right or wrong, I stayed with John for another six months. One day at lunch he was eating a sandwich, looking down at his food, and jabbering away: “So I’m in the car, and Andy is telling me that he’s going to remarry Deanna. I say to him, ‘Didn’t you just divorce that woman? Why remarry her?’ And he says, ‘Because she’d do anything for me.’ ” John looked up from his sandwich and pointed a finger at an imaginary Andy. “I said, ‘Dude, don’t you think it would be better if you married a person you would do anything for?’ ”
John started in on another story, but I did not hear a word of it. At that moment I understood with utter clarity that he’d found the person he would do anything for, and that person was not me.
After lunch I lied and told John I had to work late and that he should go straight home without waiting for me. I promised to see him the next day for breakfast. Later I sat in my cubicle, going over what he had said. When I felt sure he was gone, I went to the parking lot, which was deserted except for my car — and John. I raised a hand in greeting. He tipped his head back to say, Come here. I did, and he wrapped his arms around me. I tried to savor the sensation of being held by him, how he smelled. I kept my composure enough to say good night. Then I got into my car to go home, and when I turned the key in the ignition, the radio played the Dolly Parton song “Jolene.” I put my head on the steering wheel and sobbed while Dolly sang:
Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man. Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Please don’t take him just because you can.
If John’s on-and-off girlfriend’s happiness depended on him, then that was that. I would not try to lure a man away from a woman who loved and needed him. I would not be anyone’s Jolene. The next morning I handed John a note and an ultimatum: he could have either her or me, but not both. He met me at my car at the end of the day and told me he needed more time. I pushed past him and drove away. For good.
I avoided John at the huge federal complex after that. His internship ended, and there was no easy way for us to contact each other. I didn’t know his home phone number and had never been to his home. He’d been to my apartment, but I had since moved. I wallowed in booze and cigarettes and hoped I’d get over him.
Less than a year later I met another man, and we planned to get married. One day I ran into John in a grocery-store parking lot. He hugged me, and for a moment I felt the old chemistry, even though I was in love with someone else.
“I’m moving back home,” I blurted out. “And I’m getting married.”
John did not look shocked, just defeated. “Me, too,” he said. A sick feeling came over me when he took my hand and moved his fingers along my palm. I pulled away, told him it was good to see him, and wished him well.
Years later, in my hometown — far from where I’d met John — I was flipping through my mail with a baby on my hip when I spotted an envelope addressed with John’s handwriting. I nearly dropped my child. Standing by my mailbox, I opened the letter immediately. It contained a photograph of his children and a note that read:
If I were an old house, you’d be my ghost. You’d be in a loose, ethereal dress, and if I wasn’t too old or tired, I’d send out drafts all through the house to find you. They’d be full of all my secrets, and when they got to you, they would take yours. And even when there were no secrets left, you would never be safe from them.
Teary, I went inside and put the baby down for a nap, then told my husband I was going out to run errands. I drove to a remote pond where my cousins and I used to fish. I sat on a plastic grocery bag on the bank, reread the note, and thought about the day I’d said goodbye to John. I realized what my ego had prevented me from seeing back then: I was never Jolene. She was.
I folded the note and placed it on the pond. I intended the act to be ceremonial, but the paper sat there on the surface, then tipped and got caught in duckweed and became just a soggy piece of garbage. I pulled it out and laid it on the mud next to me. The words were smeared, but the paper dried quickly, and I put it back in my pocket. Later, at home, I tucked it away in a small box. In the decades since, I’ve come across that box occasionally. I do not open it anymore, but I also do not throw the note away.