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