Stephen Chbosky is Haunting Me...Sort Of

Monday, January 4, 2016

I stood on the corner of Fifth and Meyran Avenue, sipping contentedly from my surprisingly delicious cup of Chai Tea from Bruegger's Bagels and waiting for the light to change when I looked up.  I shouldn't have done that.

Looming ahead of me, but slightly to the left, was the building he used to work in.  I looked all the way up the massive tower and immediately his name flashed before my eyes.  I tugged on my off-white knit cap, fixing it to cover my ears but really wanting to pull it over my eyes.  I'd done such a good job since that second week when I discovered he'd studied here to distract myself from the thought of him.  I've walked up and down this street so many times, but this was the first time I stood on this corner and looked at his building from this angle.

Maybe, he walked down this street and sat in Bruegger's and drank tea while studying.  His form crossed the street in front of me in a million different patterns.  Talking with fellow students, discussing theories with faculty, or just hurrying from one building to the next.  He wasn't here anymore, I told myself.  I'm always chasing his ghost.

It's entirely Stephen Chbosky's fault.  He wrote that stupid novel I plucked from my suitemate's bookcase that first week of junior year.  I just had to sit down and read it, almost in one sitting, and then on that warm August night in front of St. Augustine Hall write that stupid letter because Charlie wrote letters and it made him strong.  I couldn't stop myself from dropping that stupid letter in the mailbox the next day.  Clearly still thinking about him, I went to the US Open that evening when BAM! I realized how utterly, ridiculously stupid that letter was.  I could taste every word as it turned metallic in my mouth and the bravery flowing from my pen the night before vanished leaving an icy cold trail of fear.

So what is a reasonably insane 19 year old girl supposed to do?  Does she let the soul-baring embarrassingly worded letter go its way into this world or does she text the boy she sent the letter to and beg and plead he doesn't read the letter he doesn't know exists?  Yup.

Of course, my infatuation with this boy starts before my reading of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Stephen Chbosky can't be blamed for that, but did he have to be from Pittsburgh too?  Couldn't he be from Philadelphia or somewhere irrelevant?  It was shared territory, an understanding.

He promised not to read the stupid letter, would read this mysterious book influencing me in such a way that would cause immediate regrettable behavior, and would return it over Winter Break.  We continued to write letters over the fall semester. Never did he reveal anything to give me a glimpse into who he was.  Not purposely, of course.  He sent me songs I should listen to, which had nothing to do with me but much more to do with a different girl.  One such song was "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" by Stars.  None of them spoke to me the way this one did.  I still write to this song furiously.  (Who are we kidding? I'm writing to it right now.)

Still slightly emboldened by Charlie's anonymous letters, I tried to appear wiser and more sophisticated than I was in real life.  One letter I horrifyingly recall professing my strong will by going without French Fries for the next month, just to test myself.  One long groan. I don't know why he wrote me back.  That's the piece of him I can't seem to fit into the image of him I've created over the years.  Why did he keep responding?

Winter Break arrived and all that remains are two vague memories.  One is building a snowman in his front yard, wearing ripped jeans (why am I such an utter loser, God?) and the other is sitting on his couch discussing a particular television show he did not like because his ex-girlfriend watched it.  As an expert creeper, I knew most of their story which is why the memory stands out.  It's the only time he ever gave me anything that felt directly personal.

Oh, and of course, I kept forgetting to take the letter from him each time I saw him.

The next semester, now done with school and working at a pizza parlor, he travelled frequently to Seattle.  I think, I don't really remember or know because I think we may have exchanged two letters each.

And, like that, for the most part, he faded away.  Until Thanksgiving Eve, when I ran into him and briefly spoke with him.  Late in the night, after leaving the bar, he texted me asking if we could talk at some point.  Of course, yes, are you kidding me?  And then, I never heard from him again.  Instead, he haunted me.  The person I never could get to, the one boy who just wouldn't spill his guts, the one person I just couldn't explain to myself how I felt about was a shadow long gone.

But Chbosky wasn't finished with me quite yet.  I avoided watching his movie.  I knew I couldn't and shouldn't.  But on a flight to Hawai`i with the same roomie who'd been forced to listen to my sad pinings for him that fall semester, I watched the theatrical version of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  It was amazing, of course.  My favorite song "Come on Eileen" featured prominently in at the dance and the views of Pittsburgh following my recent decision to leave the Steel City turned my stomach slightly.  But I shook my head and said "No! Chbosky!  I will ignore you."  So, try I did, for a while at least.

Still, the boy I only knew for two weeks before penning a gutwrenchingly honest letter to danced around the peripheral of my thoughts.  Almost since the last night I spent with him in August 2008, I've been writing story after story with him as some character or another.  They are always aloof, unreachable, and teeming with knowledge frustrated other characters could never access.

In the spring of 2015, I finally decided to give in and go full force with my writing.  I recalled the tunnel song and thought how perfect it was when Charlie and Sam and Patrick drove through the Fort Pitt Tunnel with Charlie's hands in the air.  This book started it all.  The film should supply the soundtrack to our [short] story.

Determined to create a playlist to write to, I started searching for the tunnel song and found this interview from Stephen Chbosky in 2012.  Where he talks about the song he wrote the tunnel scene to.  My song.  His song.  The "Your Ex-Lover is Dead" song.  I sat back in my chair, stunned, doing my best to hide I clearly wasn't working from my managers.  I didn't know anyone else who knew this song.  This song was mine, his.  It was hidden, but there was Chbosky showing me up once again, years in advance so I couldn't even cry and stomp my feet and demand he stop because this all had been planned and written long before I met him.

In an unsuccessful protest, I downloaded the movie's tunnel song ("Heroes" - David Bowie) and listened.  Repeatedly. Chbosky had his good laugh, there were no new stones to turn over.  In homage to the man who continued to influence so much of my life, when adopting my wonderful life-saving kitten friend, I named her Charlie after the boy who dared me to bare all.

Which, lulled by a false sense of finality, brings us to three months ago, whereupon I have returned to Pittsburgh and am settling into my new job.  Meeting up with my best friend since returning home, she hands me a pink gift bag as an early birthday/welcome home gift.  Inside?  A copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  I hug her and I tell her that this is my favorite book and she has no idea how much it means (she really doesn't) because I don't have a copy of my own.  It's the same cover as the one I read originally and while thumbing through the pages the next morning I think about the letter I sent and wonder what he's doing.  Then, a lightbulb went off.  I remembered his field of study and that he attended grad school where I work.  Long ago, he removed his social media.  There was no trace of him anywhere, no matter how much I combed his friend's profiles in search for a clue of his whereabouts.  For whatever reason, I never thought to search his graduate school profile and this time I decided to try it.

With this recovered piece of information, I searched his name and the school's name. There he was, his face smiling back at me.  I clicked the link.  A dozen similar smiling faces with names and information announced the class year and the department housing these graduate students.  A quick Internet search informed me this department belongs in the same school I now work in, in fact on the very same street.

I quickly closed the browser and deleted my history, effectively shutting off any thoughts that could inquire more.

Until, high on my reading of Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar, (I really should stop reading, it gets me into far more trouble than it's worth) I decided to explore Oakland on my lunch break, leading me to this moment on the corner of Fifth and Meyran clutching my Chai Tea and staring up into a bright window-filled tower, struck dumb by the realization that we are/were in the same place just not the same time.  I frequent, not only Stephen Chbosky land, but the same street, the same elevators, the same halls just years apart. The light changed.  I crossed with the ghost of him following quickly behind me.

Huffing and puffing up the hill, I imagined him walking in the opposite direction on the opposite sidewalk and I thought of his song.  If he looked up, would he recognize me?

What I really wanted to know as I passed his building, Stephen Chbosky, is how long he held onto the letter before throwing it away.  Because he doesn't have it, does he?  I don't know which is worse, but what is eating at me is knowing you might have more out there for me.  Unless you don't.  That might just kill me.

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