After the After
Beyond the Barry Manilow world of Jane Buchanan’s headphones, a white Chevy Suburban ignored a red light and hit a woman cyclist. Downtown workers on their mid-afternoon breaks stopped remarking on the unseasonably sunny weather and rushed to the fallen woman, her bent bike on top of her. The contents of her basket were strewn like confetti on the street, gutters, and sidewalk. Pens, textbooks, a pair of sneakers tied together at the laces, a marbled composition notebook—all lay scattered on the ground, forgotten in the concerned huddle around the cyclist. The Suburban driver stood back, one hand cupping his mouth, the other still clutching the phone, until a woman in a red suit screamed at him to call an ambulance. The cyclist wasn’t conscious.
Jane rounded the corner from Stark Street onto Tenth Avenue, kicking the same piece of gravel she’d found a block ago with the inside of her thrift store penny loafers. She had heard the screech and the horrible thud of impact over Manilow’s song about the fate of Lola the showgirl in “Copa Cabana.” Jane saw the huddle and almost turned back to avoid the accident scene, but the notebook caught her eye like a shiny nickel in a fountain. She pulled her headphones down around her neck and walked toward the notebook, its pages fluttering in the breeze. After a quick sweep of the crowd, she bent down, grabbed the notebook, and stuffed it beneath her faded black sweatshirt. A few yards away, the cyclist’s half-opened hand appeared to reach out toward Jane through a small break in the crowd surrounding the scene. Jane looked away, glad she wasn’t able to see much more of the woman on the ground. She imagined enough images to scar a million dreams. She pulled the headphones back over her ears; Barry reassured her like he always did.
The church bells rang four o’clock. Shit, Jane thought. She’d promised Corina she’d be at the Barracuda, their favorite divey hangout, by three thirty. Corina got out of class early on Fridays and liked to slide into the weekend loaded on Cosmopolitans and the little pink pills she got from a pharmacist she’d slept with a few months ago. Corina had told Jane all about the pharmacist—his callused hands, how he liked to tie her up with pantyhose—but she refused to tell her the name of the pills or what they did. In some ways, Jane knew Corina so well she could describe her bones, but in others, she was as much a mystery as the women Barry Manilow tried to figure out in his songs. Then again, Jane hadn’t revealed that Barry was the music always playing in her Walkman—she let Corina assume it was something cool and current.
Jane had met Corina during her fall quarter at Portland City College in a yearlong fiction-writing workshop—the theory being that as the students became intimately familiar with each other’s work, they would become more adept at offering feedback. The class critiqued Corina’s story first. Jane thought it brilliant, but the claustrophobic circle of aspiring writers disagreed. The woman Corina later named “the Hawk” ripped it apart with accusations of one-dimensional characters and a ridiculous plot. “I mean, what’s up with all the ducks? This girl can’t see ducks everywhere; it’s ludicrous.”
The rest of the class nodded in agreement, adding their own variations on the Hawk’s merciless critique. The professor, whose face was the shade of coconut cream pie and whose gangly fingers rifled through the photocopied pages in search of offending passages, excused the class early that day in some sort of “time out” gesture so everybody could cool down.
As Corina stuffed the pile of critiqued copies into her leather shoulder bag, Jane walked over with her own copy full of stars and “wonderfuls.” She liked the ducks. They symbolized innocence mangled by the machinery of the world. When she read it the night before, the story had brought her to tears.
“Your story was amazing,” Jane said, holding out the stapled pages.
“Thanks,” Corina said. She trained her pale green eyes on Jane. “Why the fuck didn’t you say anything when they were shoving it up my ass?”
The story hovered between them, firm in Jane’s grip. “I don’t know. Do you need their approval?”
Corina grabbed the story and crammed it into her bag. “Good point.” She cocked her head to the side. “Want to get a drink?”
“Only if it’s alcoholic,” Jane said.
“Oh, a comedian.” Corina heaved her full bag over her shoulder.
“That’s the least of my talents.”
But this Jane—the snappy-comeback Jane—was a new Jane, the Corina-Jane. Without Corina, Jane haunted the corners of her small world, plugged into her Walkman and scribbling in her journal. She kept the door to her small studio apartment locked as she listened to the world honking, pissing, and farting its way through the day outside her window.
Before Corina, Jane’s focus had been her body: her once fat, now thin body. For the entire first year of her life in Portland, Jane followed the Susie Greg diet plan, which, as promised, caused her to “shed the weight and feel the great.” After she lost eighty pounds, Susie herself had asked Jane if she wanted to be the Susie Greg “before and after girl.” Jane agreed, and now her “before and after” pictures were plastered on buses and billboards, and on Wednesdays, they greeted her from the back page of the local arts paper.
She soon learned that local fame wasn’t worth the small stipend Susie Greg, Inc. paid for the use of her image. The last time Jane had tried to take the bus from her apartment to school, a drunken man with raw, red eyes and knotted hair had spotted her picture on an idling bus and started shrieking at her.
“What happens after the after, goddamnit? After the after, after the after….”
He brought his face close to hers. He reeked of beer and piss. Jane gagged and stepped away.
A well-dressed woman passed by and pulled her cell phone from her ear. “Want me to call the police?” she asked in a blasé tone Jane instantly admired. The man hopped around on his right foot, then his left foot, wailing, eyes fixed on Jane.
Jane shook her head. “I’ll walk.” She hadn’t taken the bus since.
She had grown tired of her minor fame. Her classmates, her teachers, the guy who made her lattes—all recognized her from the bus pictures, and all felt compelled to offer congratulations on her miraculous transformation. She was no longer a member of the fat loser club of her “before” photo—a poorly lit shot of her slumped on the couch, frowning, in stained sweatpants and a yellow t-shirt with a Christmas gift on her lap, her long chestnut hair stringy and tangled. Now, Jane was the “after” girl of the second photo. She wore a slinky black dress and heavy makeup, both provided by Susie Greg’s cadre of stylists, and both completely false representations of Jane—the Susie-Jane. The Susie-Jane had sloping cheekbones and sassy, short, intentionally rumpled hair with blonde highlights. The outer halo of her fat became another bad Christmas memory.
Instead of feeling pride for enduring the caloric deprivation and the exercise regimen that got her to the “after,” whenever Jane saw the pictures, she felt a weird betrayal of the “before” girl. The frown in the “before” pictures had nothing to do with being overweight. The photo was taken on Christmas morning two years ago when her mother had been so hungover she couldn’t get out of bed. Her mother—whose main activity in life was telling everyone in the small town of Shenandoah, where Jane had grown up, how important the Buchanans were to Virginia history—blamed the hangover on Jane’s planned move to Portland. It was breaking her heart. She was inconsolable. Jane’s father had snapped the picture after informing Jane of his plans to spend the remainder of the day in his study, likely burrowing into his Civil War history books as he always did when he wished to block out her mother’s shrill voice.
This past Christmas, Jane had escaped with only a week-long visit to her parents. Over the phone, her mother tried to convince her to stay longer, but Jane lied.
“We only get a week off.”
“My Lord, that’s downright un-Christian,” her mother exclaimed.
“This isn’t Virginia. They don’t care so much.”
“What a horrible place.”
Jane agreed. “You’d hate it here.”
Portland was hers. Jane’s newly slimmed body might belong to Susie Greg and her ratty couch and slouching bed to the rental agency, but the streets she walked and the worlds that frothed up in her mind as she walked them were all hers. This time, her mother couldn’t have any of it.
The Barracuda was a long, dim hall lined with a sparsely occupied bar punctuated by three small tables in the far back. On most days, Corina and Jane were the only women in the place, but the regulars—most of them veterans of wars and hard living—didn’t bother them. At the other bars they’d tried out, men wouldn’t leave them alone. Corina’s delicate bone structure, shiny penny-red hair, sheer black dresses, and wicked laugh lured them like a siren song.
The afternoon light cut through the bar’s gloom when Jane opened the door. She spotted Corina in the back, hunched over her journal, scribbling furiously. They hadn’t seen each other since Jane’s trip home for the holidays. Even in the darkness of the bar, Corina shone. Jane ordered a vodka-cranberry. As she reached inside her bag for her wallet, the notebook she had taken from the accident scene slipped out from underneath her sweatshirt. She quickly stuffed it in her backpack and walked with her drink to Corina’s table. Two empty glasses and one half-empty glass of wine lined the edge of Corina’s notebook. She was doodling a cartoon duck with huge breasts and a bold-faced penis.
“Quack, quack,” Jane said, setting the drink on the table.
“My girl is back.” Corina leaped up and wrapped her skinny arms around Jane’s tall frame in a tight embrace.
The spicy scent of Corina’s perfume—something expensive bought by one of her many suitors—whipped up around them. Jane dropped her bag onto the chair and sank into Corina’s bony embrace. Home, she thought, thank god I’m home.
That night, Jane staggered into her apartment a few minutes before eleven o’clock. Her hair was a dripping helmet, and her sweatshirt, t-shirt, and jeans were soaked. Water pooled in the arches of her ill-fitting penny loafers. The clouds and rain had returned to downtown Portland around the time that Corina and Jane ran out of cigarettes and were too wobbly to order more drinks from the Barracuda’s surly bartender. Jane probably should have called a cab like Corina, but the walk was too seductive. The thought of the music echoing through her head as she passed by drunks huddling below pawnshop awnings and prostitutes strutting by in twos propelled Jane onto the rain slick streets. As two Burnside Street regulars teetered by on improbably high heels, Jane thought, it’s like Noah’s ark out here: whores and beggars, Jane and Corina. The ark would take them all. She started to spin it into a story, her drunkenness providing the coat of gloss that made her nugget of an idea pure gold. And then her mother’s mortified face popped into her head, sucking the idea into a black hole of aborted aspirations. Every story she tried to write suffered a similar fate.
In her apartment, Jane peeled off her waterlogged clothes and pulled on a pair of sweatpants. For company, she flipped on the TV. The local news theme crackled through its crappy speakers. She opened her backpack and removed a soggy folder of her classmates’ work to critique leftover from fall term, a book of advice for young writers, and the composition notebook from the accident scene. In all her and Corina’s talk about their uniquely miserable holidays at home, Jane had forgotten about the stolen notebook.
A coiffed newswoman’s face filled the TV screen. “A young biologist’s life was cut short today by the careless actions of a distracted driver…”
The pages of the notebook curled at the ends from the moisture. Jane wiped it over her sweatpants and opened it to the middle.
“…a promising student, a caring friend, and a dedicated cyclist are words that are being used to describe Maria but according to her friends and family, she was much more.” The newswoman paused.
Jane opened the notebook, looked back at the TV, and realized she was holding an artifact of this Maria, the dead woman whose picture flashed on the screen. As the camera jumped from weeping person to weeping person, Jane skimmed the pages in front of her. The first page was unremarkable: a lunch menu, a to-do list, a few admonitions to study for her Organic Chemistry exam. She turned the page.
Today I am a new person, a girl, a flower, because I found him and he loves me. He calls me his rosebud. He licks me everywhere as soon as I shut the door to his office. We make love on his desk, his chair, the floor, among the papers he should be grading. Tomorrow he is reserving the lab for us. It is risky, I know, but somehow I don’t care. I’ve never breathed like this before. Today I realize that I have been riddled with illness all my life and never known it. Walter is the cure.
Jane looked back to the television. The camera shot a close-up of a man with a mass of curly hair and huge brown eyes. He choked back tears as he spoke.
“I loved Maria more than anything,” he said. “The man who did this should pay, but nothing will ever bring her back—I know that.” His face crumpled into tears.
Jane turned to the next page.
I should feel guilty about Jason, but I don’t. Why should I feel guilty for finally living, for breathing? It’s not Jason’s fault. He just doesn’t get me like Walter. He doesn’t know that I am vicious and evil, that I have darkness and fantasies. Walter knows and still he wants more. How can I love a man whose biggest fault is his lackluster lovemaking? Jason, I’m sorry, but I won’t stop. I can’t. I am addicted to Walter Bronson.
A business card was stapled to the page. Walter Bronson, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Portland City College. Maria had drawn hearts around his name and changed the periods to little flowers. Jane put the journal down beside her and turned back to the TV. The newscaster spoke about how the cycling community was especially affected by such a preventable, tragic death.
Jane thought of calling Corina, who would probably be crawling into bed with a massive glass of water and her man du jour, a visiting poetry professor named Sheldon Jaynes, but decided against it. Corina would be pissed. Jane poured a small glass of vodka and eyed the journal. She clicked off the television. Slow news day, she thought.
Jane’s heartbeat raced. Her writing professor rifled through the stories to be critiqued, stealing occasional glances at the clock. The rest of the class listened raptly to the Hawk’s gossip about the visiting poet, Sheldon Jaynes, and the rumor that he was having an affair with a student. The Hawk pulled out a tube of pink lip gloss and put a fresh coat on her wide mouth. She smacked her lips to distribute the gloss and then continued with her story, her sharp chin working up and down at a dizzying pace. She feigned outrage over the relationship but relished every detail. Jane was the only person Corina had told about the affair with Sheldon, at least that’s what Corina said.
Across the room from Jane, Corina punched the buttons of her cell phone so that it wouldn’t interrupt the critique of the day’s story, Jane’s first story to be discussed. Jane tried to catch her eye, but Corina was avoiding her, staring at the words on her desk. Jane’s words, sort of.
The professor cleared his throat. “Okay now, enough soiling of this man’s good name for one day. Let’s get to work. I believe Ms. Buchanan is first on our list.”
Jane looked down at the copy of her story. What had seemed a brilliant idea—to replace her hundred unsuccessful story attempts with a slightly enhanced version of Maria’s journal—had melted into a marsh of squiggles and dashes. Glop. In this moment, Jane questioned her impulse to return to school, to enroll in the writing class, to defy her mother’s wishes by moving across the country. School had been her only choice if she wanted money from her grandmother’s trust fund, the trust fund that had its own built-in shield against her mother’s money-hungry hands.
On her twenty-first birthday, Jane had learned of the million dollar trust fund that was all hers, but which could only be used for school-related or medical expenses, should she ever get a debilitating illness. One day later, she announced she would move to Portland after the holidays to live among trees that never grew brown and dead like the oaks in her parents’ yard. Jane was determined not to wilt along with the rest of the Buchanans. She would not be trapped by tradition and work some crappy secretarial job in her father’s faltering real estate business. When Jane had stepped from the train that brought her to Portland, the discomfort that she had carried all her small-town life fell away. Her mother’s final pleas for Jane to remain in the house faded. For the first time, Jane felt like her own person instead of the repository for her mother’s projections of what a Buchanan should be.
In the tight circle of students at the fiction workshop, the professor scanned Jane’s story and asked the class for comments. Jane caught Corina’s eye. Corina mouthed “fuck you” while the rest of the class searched Jane’s words for mistakes, pimples, and any splashes of brilliance.
The Hawk, as always, spoke first. “This character thinks she’s like the first person to ever have an affair. I mean the language is so overwrought, like on page 5: ‘I am a new person, a girl, a flower…’ That is so cliché. I had a hard time getting past it, especially when she feels absolutely no sympathy for Jason. Then again, who is Jason? We barely get much of a description other than the fact that he’s shitty in bed.” The Hawk paused her rapid-fire speech. “Anybody else get that?”
Jane had taken the dead woman’s journal and made some additions, a few subtractions, and changed some details like the name of the professor, Walter Bronson, who, in the week since she took the journal, Jane had stalked through daily passes by his office. He was in his office only one of those times. His slim frame was bent over a large stack of papers bathed in the yellow light of his desk lamp, his wire-rimmed glasses pushed up on his forehead. The wiry muscles in his arm flexed and relaxed as he marked the pages in front of him. Sensing Jane’s stare, he looked up and through his open office door to where Jane stood in the corner by the door to the stairway. Their eyes met for a moment before she bolted out the door, wrapping the journal in her arms closer to her chest.
In class, the other students piped their agreement with the Hawk’s assessment of Jane’s story: no plot, poor characterization, a vague setting. More than once it was said that the narrator had read too many sappy romances. Jane pretended to scribble notes based on their comments, a willing sponge for their wisdom.
“Now, shall we hear what the author has to say for herself?” The professor turned to Jane.
“I got something to say.” Corina let the pages flop to her desk.
Jane looked up from her pretend note-taking.
“This character is a cocksucking whore who can’t keep her mouth shut. This whole professor thing is a diversion for her real vice, which is gossip. This is a masterful character study of a bloody, stinking whore.”
Jane hadn’t told a soul about Corina and the poet. She hadn’t even written it down in her own journal. The story she handed in had nothing to do with Corina and Sheldon, no similarities but the situation. She had assured Corina of that fact when she gave out the story—this may sound kind of familiar, she had said, but I promise it’s fiction—and Corina had smiled and nodded and tucked the story into her leather bag. But the Hawk’s gossip turned the similarity into evidence against Jane.
As the professor tried to stutter out a workshop justification for Corina’s outburst, Jane put her head in her hands. Giggles frothed from her belly. She put her hand over her mouth to keep them from coming, but she couldn’t help it. Her laughter was quick and forceful. She sounded like a distressed duck. The class stared at her, their faces a mixture of puzzlement and horror, except for Corina who had started laughing too. Jane and Corina had tuned in to a frequency of absurdity that nobody else could hear. Jane excused herself and took her bags into the empty hallway. Corina followed.
In the empty hallway, Jane turned to Corina.
“I didn’t tell,” Jane said, serious now, the laughter just a temporary malady like a sneezing fit. “My story wasn’t about you.”
Corina held out her skinny arms. “I know, Jane. You wouldn’t do that.” They hugged. She whispered in Jane’s ear, “I guess I got kinda bored in there. Those fucks needed some shaking up.”
The professor poked his head out of the classroom and quickly withdrew it. Jane thought of the dead woman, Maria, and wondered if she could hear the class critique her writing, her affair, her character. Was Maria the force pushing Jane to watch Walter Bronson? Was she making Jane carry the journal around with her everywhere, reading it at every spare moment?
The waistband to Jane’s pants gaped open. The button had popped off during her laughing fit in class. Since returning from Christmas in Virginia, Jane’s clothes had become uncomfortably tight. During her visit her mother insisted that Jane try every kind of cookie made, and for Christmas dinner her mother made both a turkey and a ham. As it had been her whole life, her mother offered fattening goodies with one hand and slapped Jane away from them with the other, all the while muttering about “eating to live and not living to eat.” It hadn’t helped that Jane’s time in the gym had been replaced with time at the bar with Corina.
“Wanna get the hell outta here and get some drinks?” Corina asked.
“Only if you have a safety pin and some money.” Jane pointed at her pants. She tried to suck in her gut to pull them closed.
“Oh shit.” Corina searched her bag for a safety pin. She pulled out a wad of cash instead. “Woo hoo, I forgot about this little windfall.”
“From the guy?” Jane asked, aware that Sheldon’s name was off limits in such close vicinity to the Hawk.
Corina nodded. “Not THE guy, but a guy. Let’s go.”
It didn’t occur to Jane that she hadn’t responded to her classmates’ comments on her story until she and Corina reached the Prickly Pear, a new bar Corina frequented when the Barracuda was too depressing. Her classmates’ questions dangled in the greenish light of the classroom while she and Corina drank away their first almost-fight in the comfort of wooden booths and shiny brass railings.
Corina bought the first round of martinis and told stories about Sheldon and his strange habits. Some mornings she awoke with Sheldon’s face a few inches from hers with a feeling that he had been sucking her breath from her lips as she slept, though he said he was merely memorizing the curves of her face. He was hideous and brilliant and strange in bed, but Corina loved the challenge of him.
Jane added her own stories—lies every one of them—about her supposed one time fiancé, Ricky. It was easier to fabricate her own doomed romance than to admit that she’d never had what Corina called her own “set of chains”—a relationship based on love, lust, sex, coffee, or whatever reasons people clung to each other until they couldn’t stand the sight of each other’s faces.
Although Jane had made up the relationship with Ricky, the quiet black boy from Jane’s tenth-grade geometry class was real. He existed in the world somewhere, maybe still in Shenandoah raising a family and successfully forgetting he ever knew Jane Buchanan. Jane didn’t know. Her mother forbade her from ever talking to Ricky again after the principal had caught Jane and Ricky making out behind the industrial wing dumpster when they were supposed to be in the cafeteria eating lunch. She could still remember the smell of oil from the rag pile in the dumpster mixed with Ricky’s sour smell, the feel of his fingers as they raked over her back and flirted with unlatching the hook on her bra, and the look of terror in Ricky’s eyes when the principal pulled them apart.
The next day when she called to Ricky from across the hallway, a loud and desperate yell that caused the murmur of conversation around them to halt, he refused to even look at her. In classes they shared, he requested a different seat, the one furthest from Jane. People whispered behind her back. She caught various fragments: I heard he can’t get into college now…her mom made the principal promise…he got detention ‘til the end of the year…for HER? Ricky had been the only person at school to even talk to her. They were both outcasts, but now he was the respected outcast, and she had finally earned her title as another one of those crazy Buchanans.
Across the table from Jane, Corina tossed her hair over her shoulder. Perfectly on cue, a man in a sleek blue suit at the bar started toward their table.
“We need to find you a man,” Corina said, chewing on a straw.
“You mean a ‘set of chains’?” Jane tossed back the rest of her martini and shivered at the burn in her gut. Even though men noticed the Susie Greg-Jane, she didn’t care much for their attention. It had something to do with Ricky. Jane wanted only the things she couldn’t have. The rest was so easy it wasn’t worth the trouble.
“This is about Ricky, right? You need to get over him. He’s gone. He isn’t flying out to Portland to beg for your forgiveness.”
The man from the bar stood beside their table. “May I join you ladies?”
Jane stood up. “I have homework.”
The man looked pleased to have Corina to himself. They always did until Corina grew bored with their company and free drinks. Jane knew Corina would phone Sheldon in the midst of what the man probably thought to be a promising conversation and start talking dirty to Sheldon with the man squirming in his seat beside her. Then the man would excuse himself and walk away, muttering something about “bitches,” while Corina laughed into the phone.
The dead woman, Maria, was on TV again. The newscaster talked about the weekly rallies being planned in her honor while the same picture of Maria playing a guitar flashed on the screen. A chunk of Maria’s curly brown hair fell over her right eye in the picture. For the past week, since Jane had used Maria’s journal as fodder for her fiction-writing workshop, she had been dreaming about the picture, dreaming that she tucked that chunk of brown hair behind Maria’s ear so that she could keep playing the guitar. When the picture flashed on the TV, Jane was almost surprised to see the hair still covering the woman’s eye.
She couldn’t wait until a new flavor-of-the-month news story caught the local media’s attention so she could stop seeing that picture, but for now they were stuck on Maria. After the photo of Maria, a picture of the driver who killed her flashed on the screen. The picture had been taken for the society pages of The Portlander, and in it the fat driver, whose forehead was illuminated with the camera’s flash, toasted his companion, whose face was blurred so as not to reveal her identity. The way they showed the photos, it almost seemed like the man was toasting the woman he had run down two weeks ago. Next they showed the boyfriend, Jason. He’d lost weight since the first interview, and his eyes looked hollow. Jane had to turn the channel whenever he came on. Just hearing his shaky voice describe how his life was forever changed by Maria’s death and how he would campaign against cell phone use while driving by holding weekly vigils, made Jane nauseous.
She leaned over to turn the channel and yet another button popped off her black pants. It was the third this week. Not to mention that her leather miniskirt barely fit over her hips, and the black dress she wore for the Susie Greg “after” photo no longer zipped up past her waist. Whenever she was in her apartment, she slipped on a pair of sweatpants and swore to go to the gym the next day. She had missed her last three Susie Greg appointments because Corina convinced her that she could do it on her own. “Just don’t eat,” she said.
In Corina’s world things were that simple. When she was with Corina, the tangle of the world somehow untangled. Corina was a dart sailing through the universe, clear in her purpose and not troubled by the questions that tore at most people’s insides. When things got messed up in her life, she fixed them. No hedging about right and wrong, just action. But Jane always seemed to get lost in the tangle. Voices echoed through her mind but none of them were hers. Jane liked being around decisiveness. It was better than men or martinis.
Jane leaned over and pulled a box of clothes, evidence of her old life locked away like prisoners, out from under the bed. She held up the pair of jeans she had displayed at a Susie Greg meeting as proof of her weight loss. Everybody had applauded her then. They had chanted, “We won’t go back” like protesters at some rally. Susie herself had looked Jane in the eye and told her how proud she was of her commitment and then asked her to be the new Susie Greg girl.
The phone rang. Jane let the machine pick it up. Corina. Her voice had a weird catch in it. “Are you there, Jane? Fuck, it’s me. Sheldon fucking dumped me this morning over goddamn coffee. Fucking shithead, little-dicked motherfucker. I think he’s fucking the Hawk now. Can you believe that shit? That cunt.” Corina paused for a moment to take in another shaky breath. “Call me as soon as you get this, Jane. I’m at the Barracuda. I’m buying.”
Walter has taken to calling me his Turkish Delight, his favorite candy when he was a doctoral candidate living in some slum in Seattle. He takes my fingers into his mouth and sucks them like they are filled with caramel. I feel like a criminal watching him, the way his lips slip over my knuckle and pause at the tip. These dry lips that give homework and explain why we need to stop seeing each other. Walter cried today. He saw Jason in the cafeteria and wanted to confess everything to him. I am an ugly person. I felt exhilarated by his tears, powerful. He can’t stop seeing me. He won’t unless I say so. I wonder when that day will come, when I will stop yearning to wear fishnet pantyhose so that he can rip them off when we get to his office. Or maybe I’m fooling myself. The end won’t be so peaceful. I won’t be the one in control. Jason will find out and leave me, and I will be the one begging Walter to take me in. Girlfriend instead of mistress.
Jane swore the journal spoke to her from its place tucked in the pocket of her backpack. It was the tell-tale heart. It whispered, “Walter, Walter,” while Jane walked the familiar stretch of street between her apartment and the Barracuda. After drinks with Corina the voice said, “Ricky, Ricky.” Jane turned up the volume on her headphones, but the voice filled the edges of sound like smoke, persisting in every small silence, clawing “Ricky, Ricky.” Still, Jane hadn’t told anybody about the journal. Corina was so focused on her own problems, the matter of Sheldon and the Hawk, that she didn’t ask Jane why she was so quiet or why she had started skipping the fiction workshop. Instead of attending class, Jane walked the streets of Portland tempting the voice to tell her more.
When Jane reached her apartment after an afternoon drinking session with Corina, a letter from Susie Greg, Inc. poked out of her mailbox. She went inside, poured herself a small glass of wine, and opened the letter. The campaign using Jane’s “before and after” pictures was over. She would no longer be faced with herself smiling uncomfortably from the sides of buses and billboards. In the letter, Susie thanked her for her time and wished her well in her “new and improved future,” mentioning in smaller type that the Susie Greg services would no longer be free to Jane. The final check for use of her image was enclosed, $235.35 for her trouble. Jane picked up the phone and dialed the number on the Susie Greg, Inc. letterhead.
“Susie Greg, your thin tomorrow begins today,” chirped the receptionist.
“Is Susie there?” Jane tapped a cigarette from its pack.
“What is this regarding?”
“This is regarding how I’m getting fucking fat again,” Jane said, patting her bag for a book of matches. “I wanna talk to Susie.”
“Susie’s gone home for the day, but I can transfer you to one of our counselors. They can set you back on the road to your thin tomorrow.”
“No, I want to talk to Susie.”
“I’m sorry; she’s gone for the day. Would you like to leave a message?”
Jane set the phone down while she lit the cigarette. The receptionist’s voice repeated “hello?” several times before the click of disconnection.
Jane smoked. The off-the-hook signal bleated from the telephone. As a child, Jane would find the phone off the hook and that sound filled her with a particular panic. She had imagined her house a blinking dot on the telephone map of the city, a disconnected household, a rogue colony. When she replaced the phone, something inside her would ease into place, despite the certainty of her mother’s scolding. Her mother kept the phone off the hook to avoid the bill collectors who called daily. Her mother refused to surrender the valuables that collected dust in their crumbling mansion in order to pay a measly water bill. She always flew into a rage when Jane’s father suggested it.
Jane took a drag from the cigarette and held the phone to her ear, its haywire beeping loud. She set it down and reached for the journal.
A week later, Jane returned to her apartment at four thirty, just after Burnside became crammed with cars trying to escape downtown Portland for the lush lawns of suburban bliss. The red light on her answering machine was insistent. Four messages: two from her mom and two from Corina. Both accused Jane of avoiding them. Whereas Corina sounded pissed and impatient, her mother’s voice warbled with sadness. She sounded like a dejected lover pleading for recognition. Jane pressed erase and went to the kitchen to pour a drink. She considered tossing the message machine in the garbage and relieving herself of these telephone obligations.
She had skipped her writing seminar again, despite the promise of an amusing excoriation by Corina of the Hawk’s poorly plotted, barely veiled tale of her budding relationship with Sheldon. Jane’s grades were going down the tubes with every missed week of class. She pushed from her mind the idea that the lawyers who controlled her trust fund could deny her money if she failed.
Before returning home she walked by Bronson’s office, and, when she found it vacant, she stuffed one of the pages from the dead woman’s journal under his door. She imagined him picking it up and collapsing into tears, wondering as Jane did if Maria was still watching him.
The phone rang. Jane picked it up, sensing that Susie Greg was returning one of the many messages she had left since receiving the letter a week ago. Her most recent message was laced with accusations about the Susie Greg conspiracy: the weight loss only lasted long enough for the “after” photos. “What happens after the after?” she demanded, just as Susie’s voicemail informed her that it would stop recording in five seconds.
“Susie?” Jane said into the phone.
“Jane?” Corina asked.
Jane considered dropping the phone and sprinting out the door, the dead woman’s journal clutched to her chest, but it was too much trouble. “Hey Corina,” she said, trying to sound casual.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Corina sounded breathless. “Have you been avoiding me?”
“No, no—” Jane scrambled for an excuse.
“Then what’s going on? I’ve left you a million messages.”
“My machine’s been acting weird. I think the tape’s warped or something.”
“Why haven’t you called me? Why haven’t you been in class? The Hawk was totally ragging on you. She said you were too afraid to come back after they destroyed your story.” There were voices in the background.
The sound of Corina’s voice was strangely comforting, like the haywire off-the-hook beeping of the phone. Both were barely contained craziness, constant and alarming. Jane felt stupid for avoiding her. Corina was all she had.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been feeling fucked up lately. I gained almost twenty pounds and I feel like shit.”
“Oh Jane, I don’t care if you’re a fatso. I love you.”
Fatso. Nobody had ever said it to her face.
“I know, I’m sorry, really,” Jane said.
“To make it up to me, you will meet me at the Barracuda in twenty minutes where you will help me plan my revenge on Mr. Sheldon Jaynes and his newest slut.”
Jane agreed. She grabbed the journal and stuffed it in her bag. She rummaged through her closet and pulled out the only dress she had brought with her to Portland, a long black silk shirt dress that strategically hid the bulge at her hips. Her mother’s advice to never throw anything away was finally coming in handy.
Corina insisted on tequila shots. They’d each had three when Jane reached into her bag and pulled out the journal. Corina ran a hand laden with silver rings through her hair. She looked tired. In the week since Jane had last seen her, Corina had lost some of her glitter. Corina’s eyes fell on the water-wrinkled notebook on the table.
“And what may I ask is this?”
“My discovery,” Jane said. She told Corina the whole story: the accident, the secret romance, her stalking of Walter Bronson.
“Holy fuck.” Corina flipped through the pages, pausing on juicy passages and reading them aloud. “‘He calls me his Turkish delight?’ Jesus, ‘I am a flower?’” Corina cackled. “So this is where all that cheesy shit in your story came from. I knew you were better than that. I just didn’t want to say anything.”
“Yeah.” Jane shrugged.
And then the voice started again. It had never spoken when she was with people, talking, but now it was strong and clear. “Ricky, Ricky,” it said. Jane looked around the dark bar to see if anybody was by chance calling out for their friend, but she only found the bartender and an old drunk at the far end of the bar.
While Corina scanned the pages, laughing at the dead woman’s overwrought metaphors and cliché descriptions, Jane thought of Ricky and that afternoon behind the dumpster when she was fifteen.
After the incident with Ricky and the principal, Jane had arrived home from school where her mother was waiting, a gin and tonic in her manicured hand.
“Sit,” her mother said, pointing at the couch.
Jane had sunk into the plush pillows of the velvety green couch and dropped her backpack onto the floor beside her. Inside the bag, tucked behind her geometry homework, was the note from Ricky. “Meet me at the dumpster. Lunch. We’ll be safe there,” it said. And across town in Ricky’s pocket sat Jane’s note: “Can we be alone? I want to kiss you, Ricky.”
Jane’s mother paced the length of the room, the ice from her drink clinking against the glass.
“You may have destroyed everything I’ve tried to build, we’ve tried to build.” She paused at the edge of the tattered heirloom rug. “This may mark the Buchanan downfall, you realize that? Thank god your father is at work, it would break his proud heart to hear of his daughter cavorting with a …black.” Her lip curled over “black.”
After being raised on a steady diet of her family’s supposed importance, Jane thought this moment of ruin would fill her with shame and regret. It didn’t. Ever since Ricky’s lips had pressed against hers and his arms had pulled her close to him, Jane felt like she had been dipped in glitter. Blood whirred through her veins. Her skin was alive to every shift in wind, every movement. Ricky tasted like stale Juicy Fruit. She wished to never forget that sour-sweet taste.
“What do you have to say for yourself, Jane?”
Silence. Jane shrugged. She pulled her legs in tighter.
“I need an answer. Your principal demands an answer. He’s keeping that boy after school until he gets my call.” Jane’s mother sipped from her glass.
Jane stared at the floor. The wonderful rush in her belly subsided. She looked back to her mother.
“I want to know whose idea this was,” her mother said. “I’ll understand if he made you. Those boys can be scary, I know.” And then her tone grew soft and slithery like a water moccasin. “I know how hard it can be to find suitable boys, Jane. You don’t have to tell me that most of them can’t see past their own privates. You’re such a smart girl, a proud girl.”
In her mind, Jane added, “a girl that nobody wants.” She looked away again, holding back the tears that gathered behind her eyes.
“My own mother let me learn the hard way about men.” Her mother looked past the sofa where Jane sat. “She was a firm believer in letting me make my own foolish mistakes, letting me find out what those pricks really want.” She sucked down the last drops of her drink.
“Cut the crap, Jane. I need to know now. Did he make you do this? I know my little girl isn’t capable of such thoughts. It was this Ricky boy, he made you do it, he did.” Her mother pointed her empty glass in Jane’s direction. “They are tricky, Jane, they’ll fool with your mind. Did he make you do this?”
Something collapsed inside of Jane. She nodded.
“Yes?” her mother asked.
“Um hm,” Jane mumbled.
Her mother swooped in for a hug. Jane was caught in the whirlwind of her mother’s arms, the smell of alcohol, and the sickly sweet floral scent of her perfume. Her mother had released her quickly, talking excitedly about her call to the principal wherein the Buchanans would be vindicated once again. Jane had sat on the sofa, letting the afternoon sparkle die.
In the bar, Corina slammed the journal onto the table. “Let’s go see him, now.”
“Walter Bronson, biology professor and sex slave,” Corina said.
Around Jane, the bar spun. When she closed her eyes, the lights from the beer signs made ragged imprints behind her eyelids. The journal had been hers, all hers. Corina punched her on the shoulder.
“Hey Jane, come on, let’s go.” Corina pushed herself up from the chair.
“Why? I thought we were going to talk about Sheldon. This Walter Bronson guy didn’t do anything to us.” She held her hand out to take the journal from Corina.
Corina ignored her. “I’m going. Do whatever you want.”
“Give me the fucking journal,” she said, her voice controlled.
Corina tossed it onto the table. It slid to a rest by their row of shot glasses. “Take it,” she said and started toward the door.
“Wait up!” Jane folded the journal under her arm and tried to keep her balance as she followed Corina out the door and into the early evening with its lid of dark clouds.
They walked in silence to Walter Bronson’s office. Outside of the double doors that opened onto the hallway of biology professors’ offices, Jane stopped.
“I don’t know what we’re doing here,” Jane said. “Let’s go back.” She felt like she was in middle school again being coerced to throw eggs at the ramshackle huts on the edge of town at the insistence of the three girls who had pretended to be her friends for a week.
Corina rubbed Jane’s back in circles. “Don’t worry, sweetie, I got it all under control. We’re just going to give Professor Loverboy the journal, c’est tout.”
They walked through the doors. Walter Bronson’s light was on, but his door was shut. Jane turned back, but Corina grabbed her sleeve and pulled her along. She knocked on the door.
“Yes?” His voice was low and gravelly.
“Dr. Bronson? Dr. Walter Bronson?” she asked through the door.
“Yes, come in,” he said.
Jane hung back, not sure if he had seen her during her almost daily passes by his office. Corina flopped into the chair by his desk like she belonged there. Jane remembered Maria’s descriptions of their lovemaking among the papers; she saw the desk where they had squirmed in such ecstasy. It was like visiting a minor historical landmark.
“What can I do for you ladies?” he asked. “Are you in Bio 102?”
Corina shook her head. “No, nothing so dull as that. We have a present for you.”
Bronson’s face changed—his smile fossilized. “Okay.”
Corina looked over her shoulder. “Give the gentleman his present.”
Jane made no move to find the journal. She stared at Walter Bronson and traced the layer of thinning hair on his head and the wrinkles fanning from his eyes as his smile faded. She shook her head slowly.
“Jane, goddamnit, give the man his gift from Ma-ri-a.” Corina sung the dead woman’s name.
Bronson’s smile disappeared. “What do you want, ladies?” He looked back and forth between the two of them.
“A little goddamn respect,” Corina said.
Bronson and Jane shared a moment of puzzlement. Corina’s eyes filled with tears. Her lip started to tremble. “Goddamn you and your fucking ivory tower bullshit. You think you can just use us to feel better about your horrible failed lives, you think we are so in awe of your stupid research and your publications and blah, blah, blah. It’s all such bullshit. You’re all a bunch of frustrated old men who can’t find anybody your own age to impress so you mine this litter of kittens.” Corina shook her head. “Goddamnit.” She quickly sniffed away the tears and looked Bronson straight in the eye.
“You need to leave,” he said. “Now.”
Jane backed away from the office door, slowly, until she was leaning against the double doors. She pushed through the doors and started running down the stairs, the sound of her footsteps a thunderous echo in the stairwell. She heard Corina’s voice call after her—a confused “Jane”—moments before she punched through the ground floor doors and raced down the street.
Fog clogged the post-rush hour streets. Micro-raindrops coated Jane’s burning lungs with cold. Her dress caught between her legs and pulled at the seams, threatening to rip, but she ran without looking behind her, without checking for Corina, without worrying about the foolish figure she cut in the early Portland evening. The voice was gone now, no tug of “Ricky,” or “Walter,” only the gush of blood sounding in her ears as her heartbeat raced higher and higher, a moment of pure Jane. If only she could keep running.
Ahead of her, in the intersection where she had taken the journal two weeks ago stood a crowd of thirty people holding candles and humming. Jason, the dead Maria’s boyfriend, was in the middle standing on a riser. He seemed to read from the same script as he did in the news stories. Maria was a good person; he was changed forever. Jane stopped when she reached the crowd. She hugged the journal to her chest. To give the journal to Jason might be a public service: he could move on and stop fixating on his dead girlfriend. Jane could stop this myth of Maria, this lie taking root and festering like a cancer in Jason’s life. She edged her way through the crowd until she stood a few feet from him, words of truth perched on her tongue.
A bus lumbered to the curb beside the group. A blonde woman beamed from her “after” photo on the side of the bus. Susie Greg’s “Welcome to your thin tomorrow” curved around her feathered hair. Jane traced her steps back through the crowd until she reached the bus, her arm poised to pound the woman’s face, but the bus pulled away before she could strike.
“Motherfuckers,” Jane screamed. “Goddamnit!”
Jason’s speech froze in mid-sentence. From beneath the hoods of their coats, members of the crowd stole peeks at Jane, but nobody said anything. The fog turned to drizzle. Jason continued. He thanked the diminishing crowd for their support.
The journal was soggy. Jane flipped the cover open, exposing the ink of the dead woman’s words to the steady fall of rain. She raised her face to the dark sky and closed her eyes against the rain. She imagined a conversation between Susie, Corina, and her mother at the Buchanan family dinner table. The three women were impeccably dressed, their hair in ringlets and their hands glistening with jewels as they sipped wine from crystal goblets. Each woman shared a story that exemplified Jane’s cowardice and foolish dreams. They laughed and clinked glasses. Cheers. Her mother cackled and told the story of Ricky, the test of whether Jane could really love without fear. Susie licked her lips as she shared Jane’s failure to stay slim and further, the failure of Jane’s “before and after” pictures to connect with the younger demographic. Corina regaled the other two women with her constant but failed attempts to set Jane up with a man. “So goddamned afraid,” Corina said, shaking her head. Maria was there too, a silent partner in their dissection of Jane. Beside them, plastered on the wall, a picture of Jane watched over the proceedings like a caged gorilla. Jane couldn’t add anything, couldn’t explain. This was how it would be when she died—Jane was sure. There would be no candlelight vigil, no boyfriend extolling her virtues, no one to care about the words that filled her journal.
More people joined the crowd to hear Jason speak about the dangers of cell phone use while driving. They cheered when he announced his intention to campaign this cause into law. The journal had grown waterlogged in Jane’s grasp, the words on the page a blur. Jane felt a tap on her shoulder. She opened her eyes. Corina.
“I’m a freak,” Corina said.
Jane turned. A heaviness descended on her limbs, erasing the momentary sense of lightness that coursed through her when she fled Walter Bronson’s office. The chill seeped through her dripping clothes. She returned to her flooded house of a body, the interior rearranged almost beyond recognition and coated in grit, but still standing all the same. She opened her mouth to speak but found no words.
Corina locked her arm through Jane’s. “Let’s go to your house and smoke cigarettes,” she said in a soothing voice, as if she were a mother offering hot cocoa.
Jane nodded. Corina had come after her. She almost hadn’t expected that she would. Her voice returned, scratchy and quiet. “Sounds good.”
“Poor guy.” Corina tilted her head in the direction of Jason. She lifted the journal from Jane’s hands. “Do you really want this thing?”
Jane grabbed it back from her. A clump of pages tore off in Corina’s hand. Jane unhooked her arm from Corina’s and walked to the trashcan on the corner. She curled the journal into a tight “O” and shoved it through the small metal opening at the center. She was glad not to see it slumming among the soda cans, newspapers, and paper coffee cups, or she might have been tempted to rescue it.
“Don’t you ever abandon me like that again,” Corina said, wrapping her hand around Jane’s arm and pulling her close again.
Jane wanted to rake her fingers through the sopping strands of Corina’s hair, to wipe away the beads of rain clinging to her long eyelashes, to primp and pose Corina like she was a doll. She looked so beautiful in the rain. Her beauty took a new shape, one that felt like it was for Jane alone.
Corina’s grip strengthened. Her fingers dug into Jane’s thick biceps. “Jane.” Her voice was insistent.
“I could never leave you,” Jane cooed, hating the soft slither of her mother’s voice in her own.