The 750 Project: Julio at Large (Revisited)
September 21, 2017 § 4 Comments
(As part of Brevity’s 20th Anniversary celebration, Guest Editor Shane Borrowman asked past Brevity authors to return to their piece and take on the task of either shortening or expanding it. William Bradley cut his 2010 essay, “Julio at Large” nearly in half. The result is below, followed by William’s reflections on the process.)
By William Bradley
One summer day my dad came home with the newspaper in his hand. “Do you know this girl?” We had been in the same homeroom when we were middle school students and had taken ninth grade history together the previous year. “She’s missing,” he said. “Her parents think she was kidnapped.”
Of course, she hadn’t been. I imagine deep down, we all knew. So when we learned two weeks later that she and her companion—a boy who hadn’t been reported missing—had been charged with indecent exposure, having sex on a beach in Florida, I think many in the town sneered, called her a slut, thought she was damn lucky to not be prosecuted for her sinful behavior.
This was rural West Virginia in the early 90s. Conservative Baptist country. Most everybody knew—just knew—that girls like her were trouble.
I didn’t really “know” this though. I wasn’t a Baptist myself; nor was I a conservative. I was just me—weird, anxious me. I didn’t want to judge her, but I was kind of scared of her. Sex as a concept terrified me; sex on a beach seemed unthinkable.
I didn’t see much of her after she returned. We started our sophomore year in the high school, where the homerooms were not arranged by alphabet and she was no longer taking the same classes those of us who were college-bound were taking. And I moved away that November anyway. Decades later, I would try to look her up online—Facebook, Google, Twitter—but she was gone. Vanished again.
We were never really friends. Now, 25 years later, I just remember us as kids who sat near each other in sixth grade homeroom, kids who giggled sometimes. That, and the last time I recall seeing her, sophomore year when I usually didn’t see her at all. I was walking through the school parking lot one morning, and I saw her standing beside a car, smoking a cigarette, a behavior that was only recently banned. We made eye contact, and I almost said hi to her. But she frowned, narrowed her eyes. Ready, I think, for a fight over whatever I said to her. I just looked down and kept walking.
William Bradley’s Thoughts:
It occurs to me only now, over seven years later, that when I wrote “Julio at Large,” I was really attracted to the idea of youthful rebellion, of refusing to follow the rules, of sneering and proclaiming one’s own status as both anti-Christ and anarchist, as Johnny Rotten shrieked (before he became a fan of conservative control once again called Lydon—and honestly, before a lot of parents of “kids these days” were even conceived). I was in my mid-30s and working at a private college that seemed to become more regressive and disdainful of its students on a weekly basis. I think on some level I had begun to romanticize the idea of fighting the power, raging against the machine, or in some other way telling clucking adults with sticks up their asses to mind their own damn business. I knew by then that I was a sell-out and a square, but I was still young enough to have a silent respect for kids who refused to do as they’re told. And in most ways, I still do.
But thinking about Julio all these years later, I wonder if I actually wrote the thing correctly. I mean, it did what I wanted it to do at the time, but when I think about that story as a middle aged man now, I’m struck not by Julio’s coolness, but the cruelty she must have endured. Why did she decide to run away from home? It might have been for fun or passion or something else we’d romanticize. It might also have been something darker—an abusive parent, maybe, or a manipulative older boyfriend who could drive when she couldn’t and must have had an interest in public sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.
Of course, the goal was never to write her story. I lack the knowledge and the right to claim that I can. My hope was to write the story of my response to what I thought I knew. So in that sense, I know it succeeds. At least partially. Because the truth is, these days I don’t really think of Julio’s coolness—I think of the sadness I imagine she might have lived with. Again, I know very little about her, really. But the memory that comes to my mind now is that final scene in the parking lot. Her obvious anger when she saw me. Although we had never had a hostile exchange, it seemed like she had come to expect cruel confrontation after her return to our town. So rather than think about how cool I thought she was when I was a frightened 14 year old boy, I find myself reflecting more on how sad I think she was—or at least, might have been—now that I’m a 41-year-old man.
William Bradley is the author of Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. William passed away in August 2017 and he is greatly missed.