Nancy Wheeler was twelve years old when she started dating Jonathan Byers.
She isn’t sure. (Not about Jonathan Byers, she’s sure about him; she’d always found him endlessly intriguing, even in elementary school, when he sat at the picnic tables with Barb while Nancy played horses at recess, surrounded by girls who had names like hers—Stacy, Ally. Long e sounds. Names that rhymed.)
What she isn’t sure about is if they ever really started dating.
And if they did, they certainly never stopped.
If it did happen, it is, technically, the longest relationship she’s ever been in. If she’s counting.
She doesn’t know what that says about her.
She was twelve years old, sitting on a bench inside Hawkins Middle, reading A Tree Grows In Brooklyn for English, waiting for her mother to pick her up and bring her to ballet. (Nancy never considered it, in her youth, how much of her mother’s life revolved around ferrying her and her siblings across Hawkins, from one activity to another. She must have been so grateful when Mike declared his independence from the automobile and insisted on riding his bike everywhere.)
She’d glanced up to see the Wheeler family station wagon coasting to a stop just outside the front doors, just as Jonathan Byers coasted to a stop in front of her.
“Nancy,” he’d said, breathless.
And that’s when it got complicated.
In the rush of juggling her school bag, her dance bag, and the blare of her mother’s horn, she didn’t quite catch the words that followed her name.
Her eyes had flicked to the car outside, then back to him. She’d thought about asking him to repeat himself, but his face had been open, expectant, nervous. Hopeful.
She couldn’t deny that face.
“Oh, um. Yes,” she’d said, in response to what she’d been pretty sure was a question.
He’d grinned at her. Held up his hand.
She’d high fived him, and rushed out to her waiting mother.
It was only as the car door slammed shut that she processed the question he’d asked her.
“Do you want to be my girlfriend?”
It’s only later—years later—that Nancy realizes that she’d have said yes even if she had heard him clearly.
As it was, she only got to enjoy their relationship—if it was a relationship (if seventh grade high fives could even be called a relationship)—for one day. Less than a day, even.
She’d glanced over at him shyly all through class, counting the minutes until lunch, when she would confirm if she’d heard him right. He’d returned her glances with equally shy smiles, putting her anxious mind slightly at ease.
And then the loudspeaker buzzed, Jonathan Byers was called to the office—and he was gone.
His whole family was.
Mike had pouted for weeks, his best friend vanished in an instant. “It’s not fair,” he’d moaned at dinner. “Why do they have to move just because of his stupid dad.”
The moaning continued over the phone, short long-distance calls that Nancy only ever worked up the nerve to intrude on once, picking up the receiver to mutter a quick “Tell-Jonathan-I-said-hi,” before hanging up with a clatter.
But the frequency of the phone calls trickled away as the school year went on, and by the time summer arrived, Mike had stopped insisting on being allowed to visit Will, and Nancy lost her only chance to confirm her relationship status.
She knows she could have called him herself. But that was, for her twelve year old self, too much to bear.
And plus, he’d never called her.
She misheard him, she told herself.
He’d asked her another question, not girlfriend-related at all.
She’d told all her rhyming friends, giggles down the phone line later that night, and they’d waited alongside her with heavy anticipation for one of them to finally have a boyfriend, only to have their hopes dashed when it ended up being over before it really began. In the end she just felt foolish, for making such a thing over a boy.
“You know, you two never actually broke up,” Barb pointed out one day, once Nancy was able to think about it without wanting to bury her face in her hands, a matter of years later. As time goes on, it became almost a joke to her friends, a Schrödinger’s relationship that Nancy is both in and not in at the same time.
“Oh you can’t,” they said to James C, who asked her to prom as Nancy sat, blushing furiously, at her lunch table freshman year. “She’s dating Jonathan Byers.” (He’d been a senior, convinced she couldn’t turn him down, staggering away at Nancy’s faux-regretful confirmation of her relationship status.)
“So what’s this about you and some long distance guy?” Steve had asked, the first night she’d allowed herself to be inveigled into his back seat.
“Oh,” Nancy had said, already pulling her shirt over her head. “That’s . . . nothing. Middle school stuff.”
“Good,” Steve said, and Nancy forgot all about Jonathan Byers for the moment.
But she never truly forgets, not really.
Nancy moves to the city in one fell swoop.
She loads the U-Haul herself, only takes three wrong turns, and crams her entire life into the tiny studio that somehow costs more than the two-bedroom apartment she’d left Steve standing in, bereft.
She locates the nearest bodega, maps out her work commute on the subway, and prepares to begin her life anew.
It doesn’t quite work out like she plans.
She does manage to navigate the subway with relative ease, and she stops by the bodega almost every day, grabbing yet another item she’s realized she doesn’t own and cannot seem to live without.
The life anew part, however, eludes her.
She has a life, of course—drinks with college friends, lunches out with work colleagues. She tries new things, meets new people, goes on an endless parade of first dates. She even makes it to second and third dates for a few. But in the end, her days start to end up feeling enough like the inevitability she’d tried to escape that she wonders if it might make sense to head back to Indiana, see if Steve is still standing right where she left him.
It’s then that her thoughts turn to Jonathan.
Not in any kind of concrete sort of way—when she thinks of him it always feels hazy, somehow—but more idealistic; she imagines him living the life she wishes she could lead. He’d escaped Hawkins, in a way she somehow cannot, like the town is clinging to her, holding onto her fast even across state lines.
As a coping mechanism, it’s pretty fucked up, as Steve used to say, having the ghosts of her past haunt her present, but she’s working on it. She took the first step, at least.
“I wish you’d just come back,” her mother pleads, on the nights Nancy finds herself longing for the comforts of home, fingers grasped tight around the phone. What her mother doesn’t know is that she doesn’t call to be convinced to return.
She calls because it’s the one thing that strengthens her resolve to stay.
She only knows one person at the party.
Alice waves to her from across the apartment as Nancy navigates through the crowd, holding a six-pack in front of her like a peace offering, losing four along the way as she edges through and around clumps of people.
Nancy offers up the spare, taking the last beer for herself, and proceeds to endure the interminable agony that is entering a story halfway through and not knowing the teller well enough for them to recount the beginning. She likes Alice, she does, finding her Midwest sensibilities comfortingly refreshing after her months in the city, but theirs is a friendship of convenience, nothing deeper. Nancy wonders what Barb would say, if she were here.
Stop thinking about your dead friend and make some new ones, probably.
Nancy laughs to herself at the thought, and then starts at the unfortunate realization that someone is saying her name, and has been, for some time now.
“Sorry.” Her eyebrows raise, her eyes open wide, trying to make it seem like she was mostly listening this whole time. “I didn’t catch that.”
Alice gives her a look, but she’s smiling. “Sam was asking if you know the host.”
Sam ends up being a girl with black hair and even blacker eyeliner, who seems to be nursing Nancy’s other beer.
She shakes her head, shrugging slightly. “Just Alice—”
“The only person that matters,” Alice interjects.
Nancy rolls her eyes a little. “I just moved here from Indiana,” she continues. “Alice is taking pity on me because I know no one in the city.”
Sam makes an ah yes face of benign interest, but then her eyebrows crinkle together. “Actually, my boyfriend grew up in Indiana, I think.” She turns her head, calls into the kitchen, but the actual name gets lost in the buzz of the crowd.
Sam goes off in search of Sean (or was it John?) and Nancy takes a swig of beer as the conversation turns to the subway, as it is wont to do among people with only tenuous connections to each other but all with a singular hatred for their shared means of transportation.
Nancy’s just happy she has her own story—getting caught underground for half an hour, the windows steaming up as people shed clothes around her—and manages to coast on that contribution for the next twenty minutes, sipping the dregs of her bottle as the group grows and shrinks, and the stories go on and on.
She’s about to go in search of another drink (or if she’s being honest, maybe an Irish goodbye) when Alice begins recounting the story of her last date, a story Nancy knows from lunch last week, and realizes that she has one more story to contribute.
“—and when I told him I had to be up early the next morning, he rolls over, gives me a high five, says nothing else and strolls out the door. Haven’t seen him since.”
“I’ve got that beat,” says Nancy, and knocks back the rest of her beer. She takes a deep breath. “So I’m in seventh grade, and I’m waiting for my mom to pick me up after school. When—”
And then she sees him.
Coasting up to her just like he had eleven years ago.
“Oh my god,” she breathes.
She sees his hand reaching toward her, and for one absurd, heart-stopping moment, Nancy thinks he’s going to give her a high five. But the hand keeps going up, pulling her into a hug, and she actually cannot believe this is happening.
“Nancy Wheeler,” Jonathan Byers says, and she can feel her name vibrating through her, he’s holding her so tight. She wonders if that’s why she can’t catch her breath, but even after he releases her, she’s still got that feeling—like she’s missed a step, like the universe has been thrown out of alignment.
“Oh my god,” she says again, because that’s all she can do.
“I’m guessing you two know each other,” Alice remarks dryly.
He’s grinning, and his hair is shorter than it used to be (of course it would be, he’s not in seventh grade anymore), but he’s unmistakably Jonathan Byers, eleven years older. He spins to the side, wrapping his arm around Nancy, and she wonders if she’s dreaming, because this cannot actually be happening.
“Um, yeah,” she begins, but Jonathan cuts her off.
“Oh, we go way back,” he declares, and smiles fondly down at her. “Nancy’s my girlfriend.”
Nancy chokes on nothing, and changes her mind. She isn’t dreaming.
She has actually died.
It’s the only explanation. One last gasp of reality, chiding her for spending so much time thinking about a boy that she was never supposed to see again.
Death is cruel, though, because instead of the sweet bliss of nothingness, instead she has Jonathan Byers grinning at her, Alice looking at her, dumbstruck, and from behind her, a vaguely familiar voice saying, “I thought I was your girlfriend.”
Nancy turns to find Sam staring at her, a look of amused concern on her face.
“Um,” Nancy says.