She told him after history.
“If this is about yesterday, I’m sorry…” he said quietly.
Nancy nodded. “You’re going to make a girl really happy someday, I think you are better as friends.” She tried to be as kind as possible, but wondered if she had said the right thing. She hugged him, and he only barely hugged her back. Then, he disappeared down the hallway without another word.
Maybe he had accepted it. History class was uncomfortable, but she spent her time doing what she could to make the period go faster. He seemed to ignore her existence and maybe, Nancy thought, he’d move on.
Except he hadn’t.
A few weeks later, she found a single red rose stuck in her locker, alongside a note. She opened it, recognizing Jay’s handwriting.
“One day when I'm old, I want some lovely young girl to say to me, "Tell me, where in your long life, Mr. Whitman, were you most happy?" And I shall say, 'Well, my dear, I never knew the exact place. It was somewhere in Idaho. I was with Nancy Austin." "What?" she will say. "Do you mean the famous singer?" I will nod. "Yes, my dear, I do. Then she was quite young, comparatively unspoiled. We were, I remember, very much in love."
Nancy pursed her lips and put the rose and the paper in her bag. She recognized the quote from The Red Shoes, retrofitted to be about them rather than the characters in the movie. Nancy couldn’t bring herself to throw either away, but she simply ignored it. She remembered how lovely the movie had been, how much she wanted to love Jay in the way he seemed to want and need. When she got home that day, she put the rose in a vase and stuck the note at the bottom of one of her drawers.
There was a part of her that worried for him, about his stepfather, but he still showed up to school every day, maybe he was okay. The notes at her locker kept coming. Before long, it had made her uncomfortable and she had to catch him in the hall and tell him to stop.
“I’ll never love anyone the way I love you,” Jay said. “Please give me another chance.”
“We were steady for a few weeks,” Nancy replied. While she liked Jay a lot, love? She was fifteen years old. She wasn’t sure she knew what love was, not yet.
He took her hand, and she let him. “I don’t know what I did to make you not want me.”
Nancy sighed. “It’s nothing you did,” she said. That may have been a lie, at least partially, but she didn’t want to hurt Jay’s feelings even more than she already had. “My family, we could move again. And that’s not fair to you.”
“Then I’ll come with,” Jay said. “Wherever you go, I’ll follow.”“That’s very sweet…” Nancy trailed off. She looked into Jay’s eyes, thinking he seemed almost like a sad puppy. But her heart wasn’t in the relationship anymore.
“I know you’re going to be the best one in the talent show,” he remarked. Then, he let go of her hand and walked away.
She didn’t really see him again after that. The next day, he and another student had switched seats in history class, meaning he now sat in the opposite end of the room. Sometimes, she caught him staring in her direction, but it never went further than that.
Nancy wondered in those weeks, if she’d been too harsh, or if she’d made the right choice in breaking up with him. But she knew she had to live her life and he had to live his. The talent show was bittersweet, since he was the one who encouraged her to audition in the first place. She was terrified he might show up, but he didn’t.In spite of everything that had happened with Jay, Nancy felt she was starting to fit in Boise. She was making friends, and in the spring, she started dating another student named Bobby. He was a year above them and played the trumpet in the school’s band.
So Nancy was thrilled when, at the end of sophomore year, her parents announced they’d stay in Boise for at least another year.
The next year, she sometimes saw Jay, but didn’t pay him much mind. She saw him sometimes, smoking cigarettes with a group of boys who wore leather jackets and she was pretty sure they weren't in high school. The relationship with Mark fizzled out, and sometime that year, Jay stopped showing up to class. She heard he’d been caught robbing a convenience store and would spend the next two years in juvenile hall.
It was disturbing, to think the man she’d spent so many hours with, who had said he loved her, was a criminal. But he’d made his choices in life, and she had to forget about him.
And for a long time, she did. They spent her senior year in Portland. It was there she’d end up staying, marrying shortly after high school and having a family of her own.
Nancy occasionally thought of Jay, hoping things had turned out alright for him, that spending time in juvenile hall would steer him on the right course. How wrong she was. Like everyone else, she’d heard it on the news in that summer of 1971.
He’d had a wife, and a son, and that had ended. And then he’d gone crazy. Or maybe had always had been.
His ex-wife seemed eager to talk to the press, and said that none of it surprised her.
It took a few months before the reporters started calling Nancy too. Wanting to know what he was like, and why, as his first girlfriend, she’d broken his heart and set him on a horrid course. Maybe she could have done more to help, but how could she have known what he was capable of? In the beginning he was sweet and sensitive and kind and trusted her enough to bear his heart. The intensity had scared her. Maybe she could have handled things in a different way, but it didn’t seem fair to imply that she was complicit in his actions twenty years later. It seemed like, looking back, Jay had wanted Nancy to rescue him. And there was no way she could have done that, and especially not as a fifteen year old.
Nancy thought often of the girls, and how they’d fallen under his spell, and how she’d been swept up by his attention too, all those years ago.
She was sad that this was the path he’d chosen in life when he could have gone down a different one. But now, he had to face what he did.