Fiction · 01/15/2020

Places in My Neighborhood I Take John Cheever to That Also Happen to Have Food at Them

China Taste

I DM John Cheever on Twitter when I see that his most recent tweet says, looking for a good time. In my message, I say, aren’t we all? And he says, We must look for light where we can find it. Classic John Cheever.

We end up talking and talking turns into going on a double-date with my worst-best friend LeeAnn and her boyfriend Jimmy. Jimmy plays basketball for the state college. I tell John Cheever, Jimmy plays basketball for the state college. John Cheever says something indeterminate because he’s slurping up noodles in that way where you’re really just suctioning them from your plate to your mouth and the chopsticks kind of hover in between. Jimmy says, you want to see my highlight reel? And LeeAnn says, God, Jimmy, not the dumb fucking highlights. Jimmy shows us anyway. Then, he and LeeAnn make out right there in the China Taste. We let John Cheever finish the noodles, and he orders us another round, and he tells us a story about a woman he saw on the train earlier, and it is sad, so sad, and true, so true, and when the next batch of noodles arrives we are wetting them with our tears as we pass the bowl around the table.

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The Quik-Mart at the Exxon on East Lake Parkway

John Cheever and I decide to just be friends because he is John Cheever and I am a nineteen-year-old who still goes to Lakebridge Preparatory School. He is better at stories than me, but I tell him mine anyway while we are trying to pick out chips. He likes sour cream & onion but I don’t, and we only have enough for one bag so we have to compromise. I ask him how he feels about BBQ and he says, a bag of good chips remains invincible. Classic John Cheever.

I tell him about getting sick and missing the entire eighth grade while we feel the sticks of beef jerky at checkout because they’re firm and it’s satisfying. What kind of illness? he asks, so I tell him that, too. His eyes are so round and sad and caring that I say, Don’t worry, John Cheever, I’m okay now. I tell him how I had to make up eighth grade and start high school late, and how my old best friends had new high school friends already, so I had to become friends with LeeAnn, who was the only new kid that year at our tiny snobby school. Friendship is a blessing amidst chaos, John Cheever says, and I say, Yes, John Cheever, but if I’m being honest, I don’t even really like LeeAnn that much because she’s kind of mean, and I liked my old friends better.

We eat the chips while we’re parked at the gas station because we both get carsick if we eat and drive. I ask my new friend John Cheever where he wants to go. He says, I’m homesick for countries I’ve never been to. No, really, I say, and he says, Mall’s fine.

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Safeway

John Cheever and I don’t talk for a while after that, not for a real reason but because we’re both very busy adults with important things to do like exams and prom and getting out of gym class. Well, that’s just me. John Cheever has his own things going on. After the accident, though, I call John Cheever and I can’t figure out what to say so I just stand there gaping like a toad into my phone, and John Cheever says, I think I understand what has befallen you, and he meets me at Safeway and we pick up a package of Twizzlers (the red kind) and eat them on the curb outside. I tell John Cheever, I wish I could cry right now. John Cheever says, Sometimes things we think will be easy are very difficult. Then, we say nothing for a while, maybe five minutes, maybe thirty.

It’s funny how we’re always eating when we hang out, I tell John Cheever a little later. John Cheever says, It’s good to have a friend like that. He sits next to me for a while more and doesn’t make me talk about any of what’s just happened, and I appreciate him for that, maybe more than anyone. Classic John Cheever.

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Chipotle

John Cheever doesn’t take beans on his burrito and neither do I. He says they make the weight of the burrito unbalanced. I say they make my stomach go funky. I order food but I can’t bring myself to eat. It has been one week now, since the accident, and I am ready to talk, and the only person I really want to talk to is John Cheever.

I tell him: when I was fifteen, LeeAnn, who was fourteen, and I used to dip things in chocolate that probably shouldn’t be dipped in chocolate, just because sometimes combinations that make no sense end up being very good. Here is a list of foods we dipped: Carrots. Water crackers. Jalapenos. Tillamook cheese. An entire rose. That last one was a mistake — it still had thorns on it. The inside of my cheek bled for days. We had been friends for one week, both aware of how we were forced together by circumstance — but I guess we made choices too.

John Cheever says, We are all here because we choose to be. Classic John Cheever.

Then, I tell him about when I was seventeen, and LeeAnn gave me a makeover. She said, You need one, and that hurt, but when she finished, she told me I was prettier than Sherry Walsh, who was homecoming queen that year. That was nice. Later that day we bought crop tops at the mall and said we’d wear them to school to stick it to the man, but we never did. I think mine is somewhere in my closet — it was supposed to be blue cheetah print but looked more like the cover of a composition notebook.

John Cheever says nothing, but he nods like he knows things I could never imagine.

Then, I tell him about last year, when LeeAnn slept with my boyfriend, Tim Jeffries. She admitted it to me because she felt bad, and I thought, at least that’s something. Tim was moving to Indiana for college so I guess he thought it wouldn’t matter, and maybe it didn’t, because things went on as normal after that, even LeeAnn and me, because we were so settled in our habits of being each other’s only friend and to stray from that in any way, even with everything that happened, felt much too hard.

Life often is, says John Cheever.

I throw my burrito away untouched and then feel bad because there are starving kids out there and also maybe I’d want the leftovers later. I look sheepishly at John Cheever to explain that I don’t usually throw away uneaten food, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed. He is gazing out the glass door at a row of crows weighing down a powerline. I wonder what it would be like to pull the line back like a slingshot, fire the crows into the air. I don’t tell John Cheever this, though. I just think it to myself.

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LeeAnn’s Parents’ House

John Cheever comes with me to the wake because he’s a good friend like that. He tells LeeAnn’s parents that he is so, unbelievably, earth-shatteringly sorry for their tragic loss, and LeeAnn’s father pulls him into a tight, tight hug. I do not know what to say when LeeAnn’s mother says, Oh honey, and hugs me, too. It all feels like a blur or a dream or like being in a swimming pool for too long and forgetting what the air feels like, how it is lighter than water but then you are more heavy when you get out.

The wake has snacks like cocktail meatballs and scotch eggs, and I wonder what it is like to have to cater a funeral. I can think of a few things LeeAnn would say about that if she were here, probably kind of mean because that’s LeeAnn, but I don’t tell them to John Cheever. Some things don’t need to be shared. John Cheever puts a few things on a plate and makes sure to compliment the chef. Food, he says, is a triumph. Classic John Cheever. Jimmy is curled up on a loveseat in LeeAnn’s parents’ den, and he is quaking and shaped like an O, and I think about going over to him, but I don’t because I’m here with John Cheever and the last time we were all together was at China Taste, and I don’t want to make Jimmy any more aware than he already is of who, among the four of us, is gone.

Instead, John Cheever and I leave the wake, and I know somehow that when I get home the sadness that I have waited for is finally going to come. John Cheever gives me a firm handshake and says, You will persist through the dark. I say, Thanks John Cheever. Then, I drop him off at the train station, and we go our separate ways, and I don’t know if I’ll see him tomorrow to eat junk food at a drugstore or in ten years when we run into each other by accident on the street, but either way, John Cheever will tip his chin at me just the same and say, It is a day we can choose what to do with, and I will say, It is indeed, and in my head I will think, classic John Cheever.

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Kyra Kondis is an MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is also the assistant Editor-in-Chief of So to Speak Journal. Some more of her work can be found in Wigleaf, Matchbook, Pithead Chapel, and on her website at kyrakondis.com.