09/17/2021

Richard Leise ~ Jennifer

Jennifer did not go by Jen, and she cer­tain­ly did not answer to Jenny.  Her name was like her face, a sen­si­ble orga­ni­za­tion of set, or fixed, shapes.  Her name was not a hair­cut, a style, some part of her­self that, for wed­ding or whim, could be cut, fash­ioned, washed, or rinsed, sim­ply to, when­ev­er she cared, grow back out, rework, restore, if not quite res­ur­rect, to attain some sem­blance of its for­mer self.  There were no nick­names.  There was no unique spelling.  Her name was non-nego­tiable.  Jennifer.  Two Ns.  That was it.

Some peo­ple, maybe even most, did not get this.  Jennifer did not mind.  There are cer­tain things, per­haps the most impor­tant things, that mat­ter.  And if no one else under­stands?  Well, Jennifer could not care less.  She thought about this often, care­ful­ly, and delib­er­ate­ly, nev­er con­flat­ing con­vic­tion with desire, or fan­cy, or with what her moth­er called “whim.”  In this way, life passed by.  And then Jennifer met Jennifer.

She was sit­ting in front of Hannah Mills, right there on the side­walk, draw­ing.  Jennifer had made for the build­ing because she had noth­ing bet­ter to do.  About four blocks from cam­pus, the struc­ture was list­ed on the National Register of Historical Places.  Jennifer didn’t know why the build­ing had been giv­en the des­ig­na­tion.  A cou­ple of min­utes online revealed noth­ing, oth­er than some gen­er­al plat­i­tudes.  The few Hannah Mills links were redun­dant, absent sub­stance, like emails from her mom, emo­tion­al spam.  With a Cntl + alt + delete Jennifer grabbed her phone, wal­let, and sun­glass­es, chewed what remained of her lol­lipop, slid its white plas­tic han­dle inside a Snickers wrap­per, and locked her office.  She tossed her trash in a can by the elevator.

Shadows masked rooftops.  Modified sunlight—Jennifer wore Oliver Peoples—made par­tic­u­lar­ly black the thorns detail­ing the trunks of the hon­ey locust plant­ed between, and around, the university’s tall, brick, build­ings.  Made iri­des­cent red and blood orange were those legumes shriv­el­ing between the tree’s pret­ty yel­low leaves, leaves in pat­tern alter­nate and spi­ral, a cal­liope of color.

The lol­lipop was legit.  Morphine was a won­der­ful drug.  Jennifer loved the high.  How it got her to feel­ing total­ly unnec­es­sary.  She reg­is­tered the desert heat as some­thing inter­est­ing.  She noticed that she was smil­ing.  But to oth­er thoughts Jennifer claimed a sort of ani­mal­is­tic pur­chase.  Chiefly, she sum­moned those judg­ments con­cern­ing com­mand, know­ing, with­out think­ing, that encap­su­lat­ed with­in these sentiments—like pow­der with­in pills—were pre­cise degrees of clar­i­ty.  When elect­ing to forego direct insight (if she had popped and was run­ning Apache, or if she had smoked some Dust) Jennifer oper­at­ed from a care­ful­ly cul­ti­vat­ed cer­tain­ty.  What she did was right because it was right.  She did not suf­fer from doubt.

There were many peo­ple around.  Her eyes were hid­den.  Concealed.  Her black hair, even when pulled into a pony­tail with a green rub­ber band, was pret­ty.  She looked wealthy, sexy, not gay, and cer­tain­ly not queer.  Like the Founding Fathers, she held cer­tain truths to be self-evident.

Jennifer loved fash­ion, and she knew that she looked way more Portia de Rossi than Ellen DeGeneres.  (Not that there was any­thing wrong with this.)  Her beau­ty was a source of amuse­ment and frus­tra­tion.  Envy elud­ed her, as did spite.  Jennifer knew she should feel less human, but because she didn’t expe­ri­ence guilt, this aspect of her con­di­tion was a bit con­fus­ing.  Which was to say that none of this came as a relief.  These facets of her char­ac­ter prob­a­bly added, rather than sub­tract­ed, from her per­son­al­i­ty.  Either way, it didn’t mat­ter.  When her mom emailed and asked if she was dat­ing, or if she had a boyfriend, she replied, “You’re kidding?”

Regarding influ­ence, wide, giv­en that she under­stood life to be one hun­dred per­cent per­for­mance, was Jennifer’s par­tic­u­lar sphere.  The thing was, though, she wasn’t act­ing.  She was the Other.  They—whomever they were—didn’t under­stand her.  You’d have thought this was why Jennifer became a geneti­cist.  You’d have been wrong.  Erasing this ambi­gu­i­ty was not par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing.  Creating a uni­ver­sal sort of under­stand­ing wasn’t even appealing.

It had been Jennifer’s expe­ri­ence that big­ots weren’t, gen­er­al­ly speak­ing, ter­ri­ble peo­ple.  They were just igno­rant.  Raised dumb.  Jennifer liked vis­it­ing the near­by pond.  She felt for the ducks with the bro­ken legs, and ful­ly real­ized empa­thy for those geese that, because of some whacked-winged defect, were never—ever—going to get that tossed piece of bread.  You had no con­trol over how you were born, and, in a way, you had less con­trol as to how you were raised.  If sci­ence could tell her ‘how’ she was gay, who cared?  What did it mat­ter?  Jennifer didn’t believe that any­one want­ed a cure for homo­sex­u­al­i­ty.  Not real­ly.  Gay peo­ple were hap­py.  And peo­ple for whom homo­sex­u­al­i­ty was a sin?  Well, they would have one less cause for which to pray.  And peo­ple who prayed, at least Jennifer’s mom, and her pious cir­cle of friends, would be both­ered by this dis­rup­tion.  These women weren’t exact­ly Plato, but they did think in uni­ver­sals.  And what else was there to pray for, real­ly, aside from peace (this encom­passed the oppressed) and the sick (that cov­ered your dead and starv­ing) and the homo­sex­u­als (which took care of deprav­i­ty)?  Bigots (who, real­ly, weren’t much dif­fer­ent than those bro­ken ducks), were going to mar­ry idi­ot­ic women and raise idi­ot­ic chil­dren.  Within their homes these unnec­es­sary fam­i­lies, sit­ting upon fur­ry sofas itchy with dog dan­der, alter­nat­ing between bore­dom and the plea­sure of watch­ing TV—like bro­ken Buddhas, enlight­en­ment arriv­ing when acci­den­tal­ly enter­ing the heady tor­por of pleas­ant boredom—would, with­out effort, com­plete God’s, or Whoever’s, plan.  But this, of course, had only been Jennifer’s experience.

When she was four­teen, a few boys in their church had been molest­ed by Father Simon.  Jennifer’s moth­er had explained that while most men pre­fer women as their sex­u­al part­ners, some oth­ers, even good men, like Father Simon, pre­fer men.  She said that there was even a word for it, that these men are called homo­sex­u­als.  Had she heard that word, her moth­er want­ed to know?  Homo.  Sexual?

Had Jennifer been twelve, instead of four­teen, her moth­er would have been cry­ing.  But Jennifer’s moth­er had quick­ly accept­ed Jennifer’s rad­i­cal daugh­ter-cum-teenag­er ascen­sion.  She learned that to cry was to under­mine her cred­i­bil­i­ty as author­i­ty, and that, like a wild ani­mal, her daugh­ter detect­ed weak­ness.  And so she deliv­ered the facts of life as if at church, read­ing Ezekiel from the lectern.  What Jennifer want­ed to learn was what made Father Simon homo­sex­u­al.  Because the con­sen­sus, even if only posed as ques­tions by her mother’s friends, was that some­thing must have hap­pened.  Why else would such an oth­er­wise nice and intel­li­gent man be that way?

What Jennifer’s moth­er refused to reveal, Jennifer dis­cov­ered online.  Here, she unlearned all that her moth­er had told her, and gen­er­at­ed her own world­view.  Predicated upon this point-and-click milieu, Jennifer’s per­spec­tive evolved wild­ly.  In time, the sound of fin­gers upon key­boards struck her as sym­phon­ic, com­po­si­tion­al in nature, as music arriv­ing from some oth­er place.  Jennifer didn’t believe in aliens.  Were there, Jennifer’s opin­ion was that they were far more like­ly to have invent­ed the Internet than to have giv­en us the Pyramids.

Here is some­thing Jennifer read, and retained.  It had been debat­ed for a long time whether a person’s sex­u­al pref­er­ence is innate, learned, or due to a com­bi­na­tion of both caus­es.  One article—it is still avail­able, just go to your favorite search engine and type “Klar”—claimed that the human right-ver­sus-left-hand use pref­er­ence and the direc­tion of scalp hair-whorl rota­tion devel­op from a com­mon genet­ic mech­a­nism.  Such a mech­a­nism, the sci­en­tist argued, con­trols func­tion­al spe­cial­iza­tion of brain hemi­spheres.  Whether the same mech­a­nism spec­i­fy­ing men­tal make­up influ­ences sex­u­al pref­er­ence was deter­mined by com­par­ing hair-whorl rota­tion in con­trol groups sup­ple­ment­ed with homo­sex­u­al men with that in males at large.  Without get­ting too spe­cif­ic, there were exper­i­ments.  Results sug­gest­ed that sex­u­al pref­er­ence may be influ­enced in a sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of homo­sex­u­al men by a bio­log­i­cal / genet­ic fac­tor that also con­trols the direc­tion of hair-whorl rota­tion.  Jennifer’s take­away:  According to Klar, if you take a close look at the back of the head of the guy giv­ing you head, there is a thir­ty per­cent chance that he’s gay.

But still.  Cynicism aside.  Say this was true.  Jennifer couldn’t see how know­ing this would help any­one oth­er than—maybe—some­one uncom­fort­able with her sex­u­al­i­ty.  Just because you could explain gay didn’t mean a big­ot would care any less.  Didn’t peo­ple who hat­ed Jews know what made them Jewish?  And if they didn’t.  Did it mat­ter?  And if white peo­ple didn’t get how they were dif­fer­ent from Black peo­ple?  Well, and Jennifer slowed, she stopped walk­ing, those poor suck­ers were even dumb­er than she gave them cred­it for.  Jennifer knew that she could no more heal a big­ot than her mom could name more than one con­ti­nent.  And Jennifer was okay with that.

At the north end of cam­pus, a group of build­ings rose to great heights.  Parking garages with gap­ing aper­tures and edu­ca­tion build­ings with mir­rored win­dows dis­tend­ed like huge chunks of coral amber and umber, cre­at­ing a sort of urban reef, strange forms ris­ing from this pet­ri­fied ocean floor.  Recent addi­tions, they served to make Jennifer feel both tall and small, a piece of cake in one hand, a mush­room in the oth­er.  She moved on.

Jennifer wait­ed to cross Virginia Ave.  She wasn’t in a hur­ry.  Her legs tin­gled.  Relaxed, her shoul­ders lift­ed, a light, mus­cu­lar release.  The light reg­u­lat­ing the inter­sec­tion yel­lowed.  Or maybe it was green.  Jennifer could nev­er remem­ber when she was per­mit­ted, legal­ly, to cross the street.  Cars passed slow­ly by.

Hannah Mills, a block away, was large enough to see.  Built pri­mar­i­ly in the Greek Revival Style, and this upon a sacred Acoma bur­ial site, its façade, com­prised of four huge, carved columns ris­ing from mar­ble bases, sup­port­ed the stoa.  Seventy feet high, stone walls sev­er­al feet thick housed a cou­ple hun­dred rooms, bath­rooms, offices, and wide hall­ways.  The mid-inte­ri­or, made vis­i­ble through two huge street lev­el glass doors, fea­tured impres­sive arched stairs.  Shadows made the build­ing seem blue.

Sitting in front of the build­ing, right there on the side­walk, a pret­ty girl drew a pic­ture.  Jennifer appraised her.  Flats off to the side, her feet, toe­nails paint­ed indi­go, were flush with the con­crete.  Her raised knees cre­at­ed an easel.  Jennifer under­stood that she should be star­tled (she had not noticed the girl until just now) and processed the real­iza­tion.  The girl was not draw­ing the build­ing, but what looked like a woman.  The woman appeared to be kneel­ing upon the bot­tom of the ocean, a wet, snuff-col­ored desert behind, and off to either side of her.  Her eyes were huge, her pupils were expanded—and this so dra­mat­i­cal­ly to have done away with iris, with sclera—just a bit of opaque­ness, ren­dered, through incred­i­ble tech­nique, vis­cous.  One-third of her face was hid­den, eat­en, con­sumed by the out­er dark­ness.  Clearly vis­i­ble was the out­line of a skull, a neon sort of band red rolling to fuse with her neck and which fell, unmis­tak­ably, into a shoul­der.  And this—now orange—rolling to define her back, which, lumi­nous, round­ed to inform her rear end.  From the curve of her shoul­der two bril­liant yel­low lines descend­ed at a bit of an angle, per­fect­ly ver­ti­cal­ly.  This was an arm, ter­mi­nat­ing in noth­ing.  This meant that the woman didn’t have hands.  Or, maybe, and Jennifer angled her head, that the woman’s hands were dug into the sand.

So ….  What do you think?” the girl said.  She sang the question.

Jennifer, slow to give her opin­ion, even to peo­ple she knew, said, “It’s won­der­ful.  I mean—”  And Jennifer raised her sunglasses.

In look­ing down upon the pic­ture it was as though the woman flick­ered.  Not like a bro­ken bulb.  No, it was more as though she, the woman, was the faulty sock­et.  Jennifer made out that the figure’s arm was in front of a knee.  Clear, the deep-green out­line of her thigh.  Her ham­string.  And her knee, which round­ed at its cap ….  Here began, or was so con­cen­trat­ed, a thick, dull, blue, which inten­si­fied to mark her abdomen.  Clearly tone, this rose to swell, a sort of vio­let out­lin­ing the heft of a con­sid­er­able breast.  This—her chest—was, of course, incred­i­bly buoy­ant.  Jennifer low­ered her shades.  She said, “It’s amazing.”

What, are you some sort of activist or some­thing?”  The girl looked up and shield­ed her eyes.  She low­ered her hand when real­iz­ing there wasn’t a glare.  She resem­bled Pulp Fiction Uma Thurman.  Her chest pressed against her thin cot­ton t‑shirt.

Are you an artist?”

If you mean, ‘Am I queer?’ the answer to that,” and the girl placed her pad and pas­tels to the side, wiped her hands on her jeans, slipped on her flats, and stood, dust­ing her rear end, “is yes.  Want to know what I think?  Nice shades, by the way.”

Jennifer didn’t know what to say.

It’s pret­ty.  Symmetric, but not osten­ta­tious.  Sober, and even­ly bal­anced.  Like a bal­le­ri­na.  Assuming,” and she smiled, “that build­ings can be anthro­po­mor­phized.  Other than that,” and she frowned, she crossed her arms, “I think it’s fucked.”

Fucked?”

Yeah.  They put it on top of some Indian bur­ial ground, which is fine, I guess, if you didn’t know it.  I mean all of this,” and she moved a hand above her head.  “All this is built upon some­thing sacred.  To some­one.  Just cause it’s the United States doesn’t mean it’s not a con­ti­nent.  People lose sight of this.  All of this.  So we’re like, just by doing any­thing, going to sul­ly every­thing.  But once you find out that shit—  Hey, wait,” and the girl turned.  “Don’t make me an idiot.  Am I telling you stuff you already know?”

Jennifer shook her head.  She couldn’t speak.  Cotton mouth.  Sure.  But there was more to that than this.  Weren’t they talk­ing about the drawing?

Then why are you here?”

Jennifer explained.

Oh.  Right.  Yeah.  That.  Why didn’t you just look online?  But that’s dumb, though.  You’re right.  Nothing there.  You look like a pro­fes­sor, but not history?”

Jennifer said that she was, and that she wasn’t.

Satisfied, the girl con­tin­ued.  “Thought so.  There’s a his­tor­i­cal mark­er over there,” and she point­ed to a side of the build­ing.  “But it’s noth­ing.  Before all the dead Indian con­tro­ver­sy, the place is just old, for the U.S. any­ways, and it’s been, what­ev­er, brick-by-brick trans­plant­ed here from some­where in New York—not New England, don’t believe what you read—and sup­pos­ed­ly Mark Twain wrote some sto­ry about a frog in it.  Or maybe it was a cat­fish?  Although I could be wrong about that.  The frog part.”  She stooped to gath­er her mate­ri­als and slid them into a port­fo­lio.  “Or the cat­fish, I guess.  Pretty sure the bit about Mark Twain is true.  Anyways, rich peo­ple, Hannah Mills, who­ev­er the frog that is, or her fam­i­ly, moved it here for some rea­son or oth­er.  Something some­thing Hudson River Boston.  Dunno.  The fucked part is that there was a water break in the base­ment?  And once the water, like, dis­si­pat­ed?  They found all these human remains.  And appar­ent­ly some sort of shield.  Really rare, real­ly cool stuff.  Our ver­sion of antiq­ui­ty, right?  Here, check this out.”

She leaned into Jennifer.  So close that their fore­heads touched, that their hair inter­twined.  The smell was like fresh air.  Jennifer’s stom­ach swirled.  Immediately horny, she was also high, and so she sim­ply shuddered.

Can you see?”

What am I look­ing at?” Jennifer said.  She moved clos­er, rest­ed so that her fore­arm brushed the girl’s chest.

Right?” the girl said.  She set her art sup­plies on the side­walk, between her feet, and cupped the phone like a chal­ice.  “That’s called a ewer.  No one real­ly knows, or those who know aren’t say­ing, more like­ly,” and she rest­ed a tem­ple against Jennifer’s.  “But the word is that it’s at least a thou­sand years old, and that it’s not Indian.  Like, U.S. Indian.  It could be from India, for all I know.  But it’s not Native American, is what I’m saying.”

Jennifer stud­ied the pic­ture.  The ewer—which looked like a jar, the sort genies came from—was beau­ti­ful.  Clearly dirty, the glass was still bright, glow­ing a sort of—

It’s like it’s glow­ing,” Jennifer said.

Right?”

And not orange, but more,” she turned her head, felt her face brush the girl’s—

Tangerine.”

Yeah,” Jennifer smiled.  “Exactly.  Tangerine.  It’s so cool.  Wait,” and she leaned towards the image.

Is there some­thing inside there?” she added.

Sure does seem like it, doesn’t it,” the girl said, pock­et­ing her phone.  “But we’ll nev­er know.  Instead of doing the right thing, like, say, lis­ten­ing to the Indians?  The site, though no one admits this, is cur­rent­ly under exca­va­tion.  And you know what else?”

Jennifer didn’t.

You know that show Ghost Stories?”

The girl had raised an arm to shoul­der her sup­plies, expos­ing a mus­cu­lar stom­ach that angled into the lace edge lin­ing her panties.

That a no?  Well, it’s pret­ty dumb, but it’s fun.  It’s on Fridays, at least the new ones, any­ways.  Anyways, per­mits and pro­duc­tion are in place to film from the site, direct­ly.  Next week, I think.  I saw the host on cam­pus the oth­er day.  Dresses like a man­nequin from Hot Topic?  Almost like he’s try­ing for sil­ly, but, since he’s not, it’s embar­rass­ing?  He was try­ing to get some­thing for free?  Like a bagel, or some­thing?  Such bull­shit.  Not the bagel thing.”

The girl start­ed walk­ing, and Jennifer stepped beside her.  Their shad­ows, flung before them, angled, they merged to become one.

Although that’s pret­ty gay, too.  But after they film their show, tenured arche­ol­o­gists from EU, and a select, hand-picked core of ‘world-renowned’ peers are pool­ing resources under the pre­tense of an ‘Unwavering ded­i­ca­tion to the nat­ur­al world and those who inhab­it it,’ and they’re going to dig up and dust off body parts and bur­ial goods.  The beards, depend­ing upon per­ceived val­ue, are then going to “re” every­thing.  Repatriate, rebury, rebuke, reproach, in some fuck­ing man­ner relo­cate every sherd and castel­la­tion, every skull and cast, all the while devel­op­ing “pro­to­cols” to guide those who wish to con­duct addi­tion­al arche­o­log­i­cal research, both in Endwell and else­where, ensur­ing that human remains and cul­tur­al arti­facts sim­i­lar­ly relat­ed from this area don’t end up like the Hebron, or some such tribe.  Can’t remem­ber which one.  Read about it, sure.  But that doesn’t mean I get what any of it means.”

Hot and uncom­fort­able, Uma read­just­ed her sup­plies.  Jennifer had no inter­est in car­ry­ing any­thing, and didn’t offer to help.  It wasn’t that she didn’t care about peo­ple, it was that she liked sweat­ing, less.  Plus, the math worked.  At least one of them would not be hot and uncomfortable.

And then, “The point the pro­fes­sors and all them are try­ing to make is that all of the arti­facts are being treat­ed with the care and the respect they deserve, that they’re not sub­ject to abuse by pot-hunters, or that they end up in Endwell Antiques.  You know the mayor?”

Jennifer did not.

That a yes?  Well, accord­ing to Mr. Mayor, the plan is to cul­ti­vate some sort of field school that’s going to empha­size respect and spir­i­tu­al con­scious­ness.  This, appar­ent­ly, in addi­tion to sci­en­tif­ic tech­nique.  He even used the word ‘woke.’  But incor­rect­ly.”  Uma laughed.  “Such a tool.”

Jennifer did not know how to use woke, either.  She asso­ci­at­ed the word with the NBA.  She loved the NBA, par­tic­u­lar­ly post-game press con­fer­ences, where her favorite play­ers, dressed for the cat­walk, field­ed ques­tions from reporters.  She want­ed to be a reporter.  How much fun it would be to craft such point­less ques­tions, and to pose them with such solem­ni­ty, and this while already know­ing the com­ing answer.  She said, “How do you know all this?”

A friend edits The Endwell Standard.”

The Endwell Standard?”

Uma laughed.  “Oh man, this place real­ly is pathet­ic.  You.  A tenured, I pre­sume, pro­fes­sor.  You’ve nev­er heard of The Standard?”

Jennifer shrugged.

The sun was set­ting.  It was not night, but it was get­ting there.  There was a warm breeze.  Soon, the cam­pus would be erased, reduced to a series of stark, sim­ple shapes, black against the aus­tere rise of the black­er hill­sides, miles away.  Atop one of these four broad­cast masts.  And the masts descend­ed in height, like a set of Russian Dolls.  There were four air­craft warn­ing lights posi­tioned even­ly upon each mast.  And these lights were red.  And these red lights blinked idly.  These red lights blinked slow­ly.  And then an inter­rupt­ed dark­ness.  Above the side­walks and above the side­lines of ath­let­ic fields iri­des­cent rape lights sparkled bug-zap­per blue.  Light posts illu­mi­nat­ed emp­ty roads, and light from square bulbs framed emp­ty park­ing lots, an iri­des­cence, each, pok­ing and prod­ding at nature.  From her office Jennifer would watch them glit­ter­ing fan­tas­ti­cal­ly, some of them like col­laps­ing stars blink­ing on and then off, on and then off again, a pat­terned per­ma­nen­cy erased only by the risen sun.

Presently, though, Endwell began to gloam.  Not quite bright with twi­light, and not yet dis­rupt­ed by dark, the air was thick with asphalt and exhaust, the Cimmerian sky impos­si­ble, the sky, like good thoughts dis­solv­ing into oth­er good thoughts, vacat­ed by its own noth­ing­ness.  The sun was in the west.  It was hot.  Around Uma a sort of approx­i­mat­ed sun­light.  Atop the asphalt the appear­ance of waves.  Look a bit fur­ther in the dis­tance, let loose your eyes, and these waves assume greater clar­i­ty.  Because Jennifer knew the waves for what they were, she did not see them as chimera, or mirage, but a form of heat, some­thing abstract made con­crete.  A jet sound­less­ly traced a seam in the sky, its con­trail dis­si­pat­ing in bands like splat­ter paint.

I don’t live far,” Uma said.  “Wanna go lis­ten to some records?  Maybe brush up on some Standard?  Do the whole for­mal intro­duc­tions?  I’m Jennifer, by the way.”

The sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion of a fruit fly can be genet­i­cal­ly pro­grammed.  This is a sci­en­tif­ic fact.  Neurobiologists have dis­cov­ered that homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, in fruit flies, can be turned on or off.  If you give a fruit fly a cer­tain drug—Jennifer can­not remem­ber which—it changes the way the insect’s sen­so­ry cir­cuits react to pheromones.

Jennifer prayed that Uma was not bi.

Literally, as they walked a cou­ple blocks fur­ther from cam­pus, clos­er to the pubs and bars, Jennifer thought through four Hail Mary’s, and she was most of the way through the Act of Contrition when Uma, after tak­ing Jennifer’s hand, led her across the street.  She unlocked the door lead­ing to her apartment.

~

Of course the obvi­ous was acknowl­edged, and the Jennifers smiled.  How fun­ny.  This was ear­ly, sex and sweat, togeth­er, always togeth­er, naked in bed.  Jennifer’s con­do was on the fifth floor, about five miles from cam­pus, and through her bed­room win­dow a bar­ren wilder­ness, but not always.  There were no trees, but every spring this waste­land blos­som­ing, every April from the ground a rain­bow of col­or ris­ing, the desert’s wide array of suc­cu­lents and cac­ti, of wild­flow­ers and grass­es, and all of it glossed—the yel­low flow­ers atop the Barrel Cactus, the bluish-greens of the Juniper’s seedlings, the plump, glob­u­lar reds of the Desert Christmas Cactus, the gray sheen of the of the ris­ing Century Plant’s basal rosette—all of it was altered by a sort of sun-soaked, fever­ish ocher, the white-washed glow of some mad impressionist’s dream.  But briefly.  Then the sun came even clos­er and melt­ed every yel­low petal and ruined every blue berry and fried the red flow­ers and made leather those evergreens.

Were there trees, the trees would make out­side the win­dow a fore­ground where oth­er­wise there is noth­ing, where oth­er­wise there is just that unnamed dis­tance, the flesh of the sur­round­ing desert, the wind-blown dunes, the rise and fall of the low-lying hill­sides, and these hill­sides dipped in shad­ow, the desert from which they rise rich with dark­ness and undu­lat­ing def­i­n­i­tion and not with­out beau­ty but this beau­ty of a qui­et sort, capa­ble, as if a paint­ing, of evok­ing some­thing bucol­ic, some sense of the rolling pas­ture touched with the dusty drab of dusk.  Later, much lat­er, after the sun has com­plet­ed its arc, after the sun has set below the hill­side, col­or spreads across the hori­zon.  Like a flame alight­ing a bed of coals, these low-lying hill­sides in out­line.  Electric blue.  Deep pur­ple and pink.  And this col­or fad­ing, the sky assum­ing, like grains of sand in some mys­tic man­dala, shades orange and yel­low and turquoise green before yield­ing to evening’s celes­tial blue, dis­tant stars pok­ing through this fed­er­al fir­ma­ment bright as stars.

Oh, how we take so much for grant­ed!  And this whether it is some­thing that we grab, or be it some­thing we have been giv­en.  Jennifer—who is about to become Fern—will not feel bet­tered.  Fern will not feel beat­en.  The con­test that Fern—then Jennifer—accidentally entered?  Ineffable.  (And so No.  I will not com­plain.  I will not protest.  I will not claim I was cheat­ed.  I lost, Fern thinks.)

Still, though, and Fern brought a hand to her mouth.  What is about to hap­pen is noth­ing you shake off.  Some days (and today is one of them) Fern will open her eyes and the world will seem a lit­tle too bright.  Acute, the feel­ing that that she will one day die, off­set by the cer­tain­ty that she is healthy, that she is going to lead a long life.  This is melan­choly.  Home alone (because Jennifer is out there some­where, being Jennifer) Fern will leave for work, and the drugs won’t work, and of course she will feel the heat, and she will asso­ciate this heat with the sun­shine, but, if you were to ask, Fern would only raise a hand and point to the heavy, stol­id weight of the pow­er lines.  This is not melo­dra­ma.  Fern will not want to get hit by a drunk dri­ver, but she would not report one, either.  On the dri­ve home she will not lis­ten to Beach House.  In the show­er she will not think of Franziska Michor.  God’s hon­est truth, she will email her mother.

For the first month the Jennifers inter­act­ed only with each oth­er, so the fact that they shared a name meant noth­ing.  What Jennifer (now Fern) did not know, had no way to know, was that Jennifer, the first per­son to tru­ly get her, a woman not only sexy and beau­ti­ful but smart, fun­ny, and legitimately—and this as in immensely—talented, would no more for­go her name than she would sew closed her vagi­na.  Comparatively, Jennifer (now Fern) only liked her name, and this only because it was hers, because it was a giv­en.  Relative to Jennifer’s obses­sion, Fern (then Jennifer) could only be said to pos­sess a strong pref­er­ence.  An artist, Jennifer did not think of her name in metaphor.  She cer­tain­ly did not think of her name in abstract.  (Or, even lamer, Fern flushed at the thought, she did not draw some par­al­lel with her moth­er.)  Her Jennifer was a noun, con­crete.  Jennifer was Jennifer, and sav­age­ly.  By the time Fern (then Jennifer) came to this real­iza­tion, it was too late.  She was in love.

Early in what prove to be seri­ous, life-long rela­tion­ships, one large row, as opposed to a string of pet­ty, juve­nile argu­ments, an event per­haps pre­dictable if not exact­ly fore­cast­ed,  posi­tions rather than pure emo­tions like two fronts col­lid­ing and cre­at­ing not so much the storm, but the light­ning strike which starts the wild­fire, and to the degree that there is destruc­tion this sort of fight—which, aris­ing from a dif­fer­ent sort of nature, devel­ops naturally—lays waste to the for­est, mak­ing it not so much pos­si­ble to see through the trees as evis­cer­at­ing them, cre­at­ing the nec­es­sary ground upon which the seeds of some­thing fresh are free to shoot, the roots in such soil spread­ing and tak­ing hold, clutch­ing some­thing new, and pre­sum­ably stronger, this rela­tion­ship, before unde­fined, now giv­en the space to grow, that room nec­es­sary to go about the busi­ness of estab­lish­ing those bound­aries demar­cat­ing an exclu­sive rela­tion­ship.  While not nec­es­sar­i­ly the sort of con­flict that cement­ed such a relationship—enough had already tran­spired between the Jennifers to con­vince the cou­ple that they were going to be togeth­er, and forever—this fight, con­tin­gent upon the com­bat­ant, could eas­i­ly have been the sort to end it.

As far as causal­i­ty was con­cerned, their fight, inso­much as root cause was con­cerned, was per­fect.  Serious enough to mat­ter, and deeply, to both.  And so sig­nif­i­cant that both Jennifers were able to under­stand, and empathize with, the other’s posi­tion.  What made the con­cern par­tic­u­lar­ly potent—up there with, say, plac­ing one’s career over another’s, or agree­ing to move away from family—was that, once resolved, some­one was going to end up doing noth­ing but receiv­ing.  While the oth­er would be left with noth­ing at all.

Neither want­ed to admit how much her name mat­tered.  To do so was to con­fess.  To do so was to low­er her defense, and, in a way, seek abso­lu­tion.  There is dual­i­ty.  Only Aquinas had it wrong.  The soul is cor­rupt­ible.  The Jennifers believed in Foucault.  The soul impris­ons the body.  To expose not just a part of your­self, but the very essence of your­self?  It is their spir­its, it has been their souls which have been cre­at­ed to be for­ti­fied, to be strength­ened by a resolve to pro­tect this self, this body cor­po­re­al, from those ele­ments both inter­nal and exter­nal, forces both with­in and with­out, those Others intent upon shap­ing them into some less­er being.  Into some Other.

At their cores were shared posi­tions with regard to top­ics as incen­di­ary as abor­tion (the Jennifers were pro-life), and as polar­iz­ing as polygamy (when so much of the coun­try was quick to mar­ry, only to divorce, who said the West had it right?), the Jennifers, in being queer, did not believe that being fem­i­nist was a require­ment.  Jennifer was a sci­en­tist.  Her sex­u­al­i­ty afford­ed her a unique insight into the pre­vail­ing literature—interestingly, she ripped online head­lines, heav­i­ly couched them with ideas har­vest­ed from Puritan ser­mons (she par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed the skewed syntax)—and pub­lished wide­ly.  Her class­es, while nev­er full, were nev­er emp­ty.  Admired more than she was liked, Jennifer (before she became Fern) attract­ed grad stu­dents who, bright, but, intel­lec­tu­al­ly, ter­rif­i­cal­ly aver­age, loved liv­ing vic­ar­i­ous­ly the life of an aca­d­e­m­ic.  They emu­lat­ed Jennifer, and, doing their best to dress fash­ion­ably, paced the hall­ways out­side her office, lap­tops open, pin­ing, when not in one of her class­es, for prox­im­i­ty.  She had them TA.  She let them grade papers.  Only their cof­fees gave them away.  Jennifer (still Jennifer) did not do caf­feine.  Pretty much any­thing but caf­feine.  When asked if she would get them to sit for a paint­ing, Jennifer (still Jennifer) said, “Ha.”

A painter, Jennifer’s work sold in Paris and New York City.  Jennifer is a MFA can­di­date only because she likes bod­ies.  And where on earth to find a bet­ter col­lec­tion of bod­ies than upon a pri­vate lib­er­al arts col­lege in the United States?  Already wealthy, Jennifer was going to be rich.  Really rich.  She tried not to think about this.  Had Jennifer been Fern (before Jennifer agreed to become Fern), she would have Googled her.  Jennifer nev­er played the part of the pau­per.  But it was fun—exciting, even—to let Jennifer assume, what with her cloth­ing and her posi­tion and her con­do, that she (the sort of woman who would will­ing­ly abdi­cate her name!) was in con­trol.  That she had the power.

Jennifer did not know why she cre­at­ed what she cre­at­ed.  There was a part of her—a small fea­ture of her that she did not under­stand, and that which, she knew, pro­duced those paint­ings oth­ers found valuable—that knew she was a fraud.  An impos­tor.  This aspect of liv­ing was ter­ri­ble.  She imag­ined that great artists oper­at­ed from some­thing far greater than desire, or inspi­ra­tion.  Jennifer sim­ply want­ed to paint that which she found pret­ty.  But pret­ty did not sell.  So she pre­tend­ed.  She act­ed.  When paint­ing to sell, Jennifer first fash­ioned some­thing amaz­ing.  And then, after a peri­od of time, she van­dal­ized her work, installing, visu­al­ly, that which she knew the voyeurs and the vul­tures would find irre­sistible.  You might not be able to account for taste, but, Jennifer learned, taste was easy to manip­u­late.  She had vowed to nev­er ful­ly embrace fame.  Unfettered, she would, one day, pro­duce.  Finding Jennifer (that woman who, like a woman to a man, would give her name) made this eas­i­er.  But celebri­ty is dif­fi­cult to deny.  For now, it was easy to have it both ways.  She refused to inter­view.  When her agent insist­ed that she com­ment, Jennifer said, “Call me pri­vate.  Better yet?  Call me a pix­el.  Constantly erased and reshaped.  I don’t retain.  I create.”

Did Fern (still Jennifer) intend more?  Had Jennifer (almost Fern) been look­ing to enter into an argu­ment?  Probably not.  She had long sus­pect­ed that Jennifer had a wide, far-rang­ing capac­i­ty to drink—as in drink­ing delib­er­ate­ly, just to get drunk—but this truth, made vis­i­ble, became no less dis­turb­ing because of the verac­i­ty of her assump­tion. Jennifer was not a mean drunk, but she was not a sleepy, or docile drunk, either.  Her ego blos­somed.  Her rhetoric, while sur­pris­ing­ly pret­ty, was loose.  Wispy.  Like the beta’s tail fan­ning the water.  Her thoughts—which, when sober, arose as quick­ly as they were varied—accelerated in a direct cor­re­la­tion with her abil­i­ty to speak less pro­fi­cient­ly.  And so her words, like mucus, dripped from her lips.  Strangely, Jennifer’s log­ic became less cir­cu­lar, and more sharply geo­met­ric, as if her side of the con­ver­sa­tion had assumed anoth­er dimen­sion.  And Jennifer (still Jennifer) had grown tired of it.

Jennifer had friends.  Fern (still Jennifer) did not, but she under­stood that part of being in a rela­tion­ship involved, at some point, going out.  It was impor­tant for the women to learn aspects of one anoth­er oth­er than the col­ors of their bras and the con­tours of their birth marks.  They dressed up and went to instal­la­tions, or to art hous­es, and from there to house par­ties, and from those to bars, Jennifer (not quite yet Fern) high on what­ev­er, and Jennifer drink­ing what­ev­er, when­ev­er, and she was fun, and sexy, and charm­ing, until she wasn’t.

They were at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge.  It had been a qui­et evening, quite fun, actu­al­ly, one of those warm nights with noth­ing to do, and Jennifer (hours, now, from becom­ing Fern) had a mar­ti­ni, and was sip­ping a glass of mer­lot.  She reached into her pock­et and freed a few pills, swal­low­ing a cou­ple, and posi­tion­ing a few between her gum line.  One tast­ed bit­ter, and the oth­er like mint.  The world was warm.  There was a glow.  So far, the con­ver­sa­tion had been won­der­ful.  Drunk, and drink­ing, Jennifer had opened up, reveal­ing facets of her past before this evening impos­si­ble to con­struct.  To imagine.

By now the Jennifers had been togeth­er long enough to have been irri­tat­ed, both one with the oth­er, sev­er­al times over.  Only nei­ther had giv­en voice to reg­is­ter com­plaint, to open­ly find fault with the oth­er.  Looking back, Fern could not remem­ber what, express­ly, had prompt­ed her to speak, to, for the first time, acknowledge—after find­ing, and considering—a crit­i­cism.  She could not remem­ber why she had been so both­ered.  She sup­posed her reac­tion had been nat­ur­al.  Drugs were fun.  Drunks were a bore.  At the time, though, she was sur­prised.  There arose with­in her a sharp, point­ed anx­i­ety.  The mus­cles in her back tensed.  Jennifer under­stood, but could not believe, that she was ner­vous.  She was con­scious of her heart beat­ing.  That her eyes—lunar, cres­cent moons of thought—were not win­dows.  She lis­tened to her­self speak­ing.  Observed her fin­ger point­ing.  She said, “That’s quite a col­lec­tion of straws you’ve got there.”

Waiting, Jennifer con­sid­ered Jennifer.  The bar was dark.  Her face moon­lit.  Blue.  A shad­ow, absent fea­ture, Jennifer recent­ly had her hair done.  The result?  Less Uma Thurman and more Natalie Portman.  Jennifer (it won’t be long now) knew she would be unable to describe her­self to a foren­sic artist.  She did not have con­trol over the dic­tion need­ed to describe her nose.  Her chin.  She would use words like clas­si­cal, prob­a­bly.  Not once did she ever think the com­pos­ite resem­bled the crim­i­nal.  It was only when the draw­ing was post­ed along­side the appre­hend­ed suspect’s tak­en pho­to­graph that she could make out the sim­i­lar­i­ties.  And she was nev­er blown away.  The sketch­es were prob­a­bly effec­tive, but, ulti­mate­ly, weren’t they more a waste of time than ben­e­fi­cial?  A means to sati­ate whomev­er?  Before pick­ing this fight, they had been talk­ing about police sketch­es, yes?  And Jennifer had still man­aged to soft­ly insult her?  Jennifer (still Jennifer) con­sid­ered the effi­ca­cy of prayer.  If it was prayer that cre­at­ed the God who had deliv­ered unto her this Jennifer.  If it was this self-same God who answered anyone’s prayers.  Jennifer (almost Fern!) watched Jennifer fin­ish her Long Island Iced Tea.  She watched Jennifer grab her purse, slide from her chair, stum­ble, straight­en, pause, and, with a hand, toss back her head.

If this deci­sion had been made so that the cou­ple could argue in earnest, or with­out draw­ing unwant­ed atten­tion, Fern—still Jennifer—would have been sur­prised.  Jennifer, even when sober, was not the sort to care.  Their leav­ing, though.  This cer­tain­ly played, for what­ev­er the rea­son, no small part in what hap­pened.  The sud­den intro­duc­tion of fresh air func­tioned like an accel­er­ant, and it was less than a block before the Jennifers hit their flash­point.  Jennifer (the one who remains Jennifer) bob­bing and weav­ing and shout­ing and yelling, a stream of non-sequiturs which, once parsed, made a cer­tain sort of sense.  And Jennifer (when did she become Fern?) calm and in con­trol, bold, hap­py that Jennifer was drunk and at such a decid­ed dis­ad­van­tage, both in terms of con­trol­ling her thoughts and emo­tions, not to men­tion her gross—forget fine—motor skills, was inter­est­ed more than angry.  She tried not to smile.

What Fern (no longer Jennifer) remem­bers, she will nev­er for­get.  And this, even now—and per­haps more than anything—is just how heavy Jennifer becomes when drunk.  Like wrestling a weight­ed sort of water, Fern (is this what life was going to be like as a Fern?) worked to con­trol, to con­tain Jennifer as she spilled her way through the streets, up the steps, down the hall­way, and into Jennifer’s apart­ment.  Like damming a frac­tured force of ener­gy, parts of Jennifer flop­ping and lolling over Fern who, small­er, and much slighter, was forced to antic­i­pate the unpre­dictable and do her best to sup­port her.  Fern went with the crash.  She did not work against it.

This did force Fern, how­ev­er, to con­sid­er Jennifer in a less flat­ter­ing light.  How it was that she could feel her girth.  (She had nev­er before even assumed that Jennifer had girth.)  How her apartment—they nev­er spent time there—was kind of coarse.  It was that she could feel the com­mon hope­less­ness of Jennifer as human being, and how it was she reeked the spongy sick­ly-sweet stink of processed alco­hol which arose as par­tic­u­lar­ly gross.  Fern had seen Jennifer drunk, ham­mered even, but she had nev­er seen Jennifer lack­ing com­po­sure.  Absent grace.

Fern had no idea what just hap­pened.  They had only been togeth­er for a cou­ple of months, but it was this night that Fern gave her­self, and com­plete­ly, over to Jennifer.  Worse, Jennifer was obliv­i­ous, immune to what she, Jennifer—now Fern (it was tough, ear­ly on, to draw the distinction)—was feel­ing, the idea that she had for­feit­ed her­self some time much longer ago.

She wrig­gled out of her jeans and kicked off her socks.  But she did not ful­ly undress.  There was some­thing like secu­ri­ty, or com­fort (at least this evening), in leav­ing on her bra, panties, and t‑shirt, with Jennifer lying naked there beside her, vom­it in her hair.  But, Fern sup­posed, look­ing at the ceil­ing, her eyes adjust­ing to the dark­ness, you need­ed nights like these.  At least occa­sion­al­ly.  The sort which pro­duced a per­son­al sort of mad­ness.  The kind of crazi­ness that invites the real you out into the open.  Fern under­stood that she knew Jennifer well enough so as to be able to for­give her behav­ior, to dis­re­gard the drunk and cull from the evening a pleas­ant amount of exposed, or revealed—Fern was not sure there was a difference—innocence and youth to bet­ter shape and inform her under­stand­ing of the woman to whom, at some point dur­ing their argu­ment, she had giv­en her name.  Fern cared about Jennifer enough so as to want to cast all asper­sions aside.  Such was the nature of love before time had its way with what could—but can nev­er be—such a love­ly sentiment.

Warm, Fern turned Jennifer’s hand and set it to rest, palm up, beside her.  She placed her own hand upon it, align­ing wrist against wrist.  Fern could feel Jennifer’s pulse.  Her hand was much small­er, her fin­gers more slen­der.  This was not to say that Jennifer had big hands.  Fern want­ed to find beau­ty, not fault, as Jennifer’s great truth.  And not because she had to.  Not because she want­ed to, as means to jus­ti­fy hav­ing made a ter­ri­ble mis­take.  No.  It was eas­i­er than all that.  And Fern closed her eyes.  When you love some­one.  And Fern con­sid­ered the con­tours of Jennifer’s bed.  When you real­ly, real­ly, love some­one.  And she reg­is­tered the smell of Jennifer’s laun­dry deter­gent.  Why, these are the just those things you some­times do.

It was late.  It was ear­ly in the morn­ing.  Fern closed her eyes.  Later on today she would open them.  The room—the world—would seem too bright.  Until then, Fern pre­pared for sleep.  She pulled the com­forter up to her neck.  Breathing slow­ly, Fern crossed her hands and waited.

~

Richard Leise recent­ly accept­ed The Perry Morgan Fellowship in Creative Writing and the David Scott Sutelan Memorial Scholarship from Old Dominion University. While com­plet­ing a MFA, he has a nov­el out on sub­mis­sion, and is fin­ish­ing a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries. His work may be found in numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions, and was recent­ly award­ed Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fictions nominations.