It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized what it was that was so screamingly American about Jenna. In all the years I’d known her, I’d never been able to put my finger on it. But now, watching her descend full throttle on the desk clerk of a discount airline, I saw it.
It was her desperate desire to go hurtling into the rampant abyss of wilderness, cognac on her lips and the endless potential for poetry. It was a potential she would never reach, of course, but she wanted us to believe in her, like Ginsberg did of Kerouac, like four wives did of Hemingway. If she was a man, I knew she’d have grown a moustache.
It was easier to live off your potential, I guess. And her potential drifted through the air as sound waves: sound waves that had taken on the guise of missiles. “Here’s my American Express, here’s my passport. What’s the fucking problem?” She said fucking like it had four syllables, an academic study of a curse word.
“Ma’am, I will not accept that language.” The desk clerk had that rigid waywardness that comes with being paid to be so diligently problematic.
“I’m sorry.” Jenna spread her lips into a saccharine smile. “I apologize. My frustration got the better of me. We’ve—” She gestured backwards to me, as if I was somehow complicit in this rudeness. “—we’ve had a bad day.”
The desk clerk’s vacant-yet-offended stare drifted behind us to the next person in line: a middle-aged bleached blonde displaying her tanned collarbone. I imagined her a new divorcée looking to reclaim the lost best years of her life in Europe.
As she shuffled forward with the clacking of heels that seemed inappropriately high for a transatlantic flight, I tried telling myself that was what I had accomplished with this horrible turn of events: I had reclaimed the best years of my life before I ever wasted them. Joanne had given me a gift. I tried telling myself this.
The desk clerk tried again: “Ma’am—”
“No!” Jenna snapped. “He was left at the altar! Do you know how embarrassing that is?!”
“That doesn’t change the rules.”
“It’s not like his ex-fiancée is suddenly going to come back and want her seat on the plane. She’s not going with him. She’s already left the country!”
“Fine, look.” The desk clerk turned his bored stare back to Jenna. “If you wait around until the end of check-in, if this Nowicky, Joanne, Ms. still hasn’t checked in, you can take her seat. Come back in an hour.”
Jenna slapped her hand on the laminate in victory. “Thank you, sir! We will be back.”
As she turned from the counter with glee, I watched the divorcée over her shoulder. Her heels clacked gently as she tiptoed towards the counter. When she got there, she laid her passport down delicately, open to the correct page, turned to face the desk clerk; she passed over her flight confirmation, printed out on an 8 x 11; she cleared her throat quietly and then spoke in barely a whisper. Her new life will take practice, I thought.
II. An airplane
The airline made us pay extra for Jenna’s backpack. Her giant purse, it seemed, counted as the one allowable carry on. She didn’t yell, mostly because she didn’t want to push her luck, but as we settled into our seats, she hissed in my ear: “This is blatant misogyny. I’m writing a letter. Those bastards can’t do that.”
I didn’t say anything, but nodded in agreement. The sleepless night wore away at me. I should be opening wedding presents. As I thumbed through a Jack Reacher paperback (folding that cover back and around in a way that always made me retch but now felt so satisfying in its destruction), Jenna stared out the window. I read of action-fuelled hijinks while she watched northern Canada miles below. It felt a strange reverse polarity of sorts.
At the proverbial dawn of our friendship, Jenna had been locked into a serious relationship with a boy named Corey. At the time, we were eighteen and he was twenty-two. To us, in that meager childish state, he was a Man. Twenty-two was an age in which people could marry, have children, get mortgages, pay into RRSPs; twenty-two was not so much an age but a mission statement. They had been dating for a year when I met her, and continued to date for an additional three.
They broke up in that way that feels like a helium balloon with a slow leak. Nearer the end, it was as if she barely remembered there was a man in her life. She’d taken to open comments about the quality of single men in her classes, how many cups of coffee they’d need to share together before she’d have to admit she had a boyfriend or whether she should even bother at all. So flippant she seemed then, and so rarely did I see Corey, even if I spent nearly every day with Jenna.
We’d smoke outside Starbucks and imagine ourselves characters in an unwritten Richard Linklater movie. We’d proofread each other’s term papers. We’d complain one day about how old we knew we were getting, about how far away childhood was beginning to feel; and the next we’d be laughing about how pathetic we’d seemed, and how much like a sitcom our lives were—as if that were something to aspire to, as if that were a marker of true success.
When Corey finally broke up with her, Jenna went on a week-long bender disguised as a celebration. She blamed her tears on hangovers. From there on, her relationships seemed to grow shorter and shorter. As time went on and I saw her less and less, it felt like a revolving door of men. A couple of months could pass, but when it seemed like I’d just seen her, she’d be with a different guy. She’d be wearing a new jacket, too, sometimes leather, sometimes corduroy. She changed her boyfriends with her outerwear, as if with the weather.
Enough time has passed now for me to see how she was really trying these people on to see if they fit but nothing would. Someone like Jenna will never find anyone to fit her; she’s was always complete on her own. Anyone in her life was always an accessory. Most of the men she dated knew it and it caused them an endless source of unidentifiable angst, like a well of self-doubt they never can quite place. Perhaps far too many people put their self-worth in the category of ‘being needed’; Jenna would never need you, unless you were a prop in some aspirational plot.
Amsterdam was not the fun house I expected. American movies warned of surprises at every turn: giant condoms, walking beer cans, intercourse on every street corner. At best it was rain-soaked cobblestones bleeding with a faint red light. At one point, walking down Warmoesstraat, Jenna did lean in close and feign a whisper in my ear: “Don’t look now, but walking behind us is a fat man with no shirt, holding hands with—I shit you not—an Oompa-Loompa.”
How she expected me to heed her don’t look now, I have no fucking clue, but I looked. Of course I looked. An Oompa-Loompa. Whether empowered or exploited, I have no way of passing judgment, but there he was, orange face, green wig, white overalls. An Oompa-Loompa. It was the only Sigh, Amsterdam moment I can really say I experienced in that city. Drugs never interested me, never in any way past a fleeting thought of I wish I were cooler.
Jenna, on the other hand.
She dabbled. She went through phases of control and sobriety and phases of shambles and wantonness. Every time she cycled around, the gyre grew wider and wider. After the incident at the airport, I suspected she was cycling around again. We had carried on down those cobblestones towards a darkened locale of her choosing.
She now held a glass of Heineken by the rim, her hand looming delicately, wrist bent with the flair of sophistication. She had the ear of a guy in a Pixies shirt overlain by plaid: a backpacker. Did she even know his name yet? He probably didn’t even have one. In plaid and the Pixies, he could not be anything more than a nameless vestigial limb of the nineteen-nineties. He had probably been bumming around Europe since the death of Kurt Cobain had driven him out of whatever middle class hovel he called home. He probably entered Europe like a kid entering Disneyland, taking the cobbled streets and stone houses as signs he had entered a fantasy realm, driven here by divine destiny to save the kingdom from evil, rescue the princess, and come-of-age in the process.
Only I doubted he had actually grown up. He must have been in his thirties; though he looked closer to twenty-five, he had clearly defined crowsfeet if you squinted hard enough in his general direction. Of course he was Jenna’s type. Although, it would be hard to argue what exact type she had or what specifically it was about the backpacker that made him fit this categorical imperative.
“So what was left for me? I could not exist as a female character unless I was perfect.” I knew this one already. She always brought it out at hipster dinner parties and pseudo-intellectual gatherings: the story of the would-be boyfriend who tried to make her his muse. “If I had a single flaw, I was anti-feminist. To be perfect is not to be real. To live as some sort of transcribed ideal was what I’d been fighting. What difference was it if it was Barbie telling me to be perfect or the Ivory Tower? So I decided ‘fuck it,’ and poured myself a drink.” The backpacker laughed. Jenna added, sipping from her beer for emphasis: “And I haven’t regretted my decision for a second!”
When I had first met Joanne I said to Jenna that where all other women were witches, she was sorceress. I reveled in the romance of such a statement until Jenna stared at me plainly: “You realize how fucking insulting that is, right?”
Somewhere between there and here, I finally understood why.
Jenna had changed too. She used to be a tidy drunk. Now she had taken on the appearance of that layer of heat above a city skyline on an unusually humid day. She had this look as her half-empty stein waved back and forth like a pendulum before her face.
“People think the greatest tragedy of growing up is trying to achieve your dreams and failing. Then settling into some prescribed middle class, white collar, Office Space existence, getting a mortgage, popping out children, and all that shit. They think that there is nothing more tragic than dreaming of being an architect or a ballerina, trying forever to do that without success, before finally giving up and declaring failure. But it’s not true.”
I nodded slowly, to show that I was listening. Something masochistic in me made me order a Molson Canadian, mostly my surprise they even had it lying around. It arrived flat and I’d barely touched it. She had not let this go unnoticed.
“That’s not the greatest tragedy, Adam, not by a long shot. Do you know what is?”
I shrugged. “Not having a dream to begin with?”
“No,” she laughed, “I wish I didn’t have any fucking dreams. That would make life a lot easier, don’t you think? Low standards and all.”
“Then what? Being one of those pathetic people who keeps trying at their dream well into middle age, long after it’s apparent that they are never going to be successful, only to die of heart failure alone in a musty basement suite?”
“No, Adam, the greatest tragedy is outgrowing your dreams! That, and ordering a fucking Canadian. In Bavaria.” She took a chug of her stein for emphasis. “Anyway, it’s growing up, finally realizing the true nature of this fucking world, and then realizing just how absurd your dreams seem in comparison. It’s wanting to be an actor, then realizing that, in reality, what it is you actually enjoy about acting is about 2% of the actual job. That it’s not all standing on stage reciting Hamlet. It’s costume fittings, and endless auditions, and hobnobbing with assholes. What do you do then, Adam, when you realize that everything you thought would make you happy actually would not? How do you keep living? What do you live for?”
I picked up the fucking Canadian and downed it. As painful as it was to do this, I needed to prove a point. I don’t know what the point was, but since I kept the flat beer down, I guess I proved it.
But Jenna kept looking at me pointedly. “You do realize what I’m saying, right, Adam?”
“That you’ve finally given up this film making thing?”
“Yes, actually, but that’s beside the point. The point was—”
“Wait, what? You have? When?”
It was her turn to down her beer. She licked her lips and shrugged. “I don’t know. When can you say you’ve given up? I haven’t really worked on a film in over a year, but it wasn’t until the last couple of months that I realized I didn’t really care too. I dunno. I’m over it, I guess.”
“Huh.” As I folded my hands together on the bar top, she flagged down the bartender with that subtle same again nod. As another flat Canadian arrived before me, I couldn’t see it as anything other than a punishment.
“My point, Adam, was that Joanne was your dream. Not Joanne per se, but the idea of her. And I’m here to tell you that you’ve outgrown her. You’ve outgrown the idea that you need her, that she’s what you live for. This is a paradigm shift, Adam. I realize that this is a fucking shitty situation to be in, but you’ve got to embrace your new zeitgeist! Find out what it is that you want live for now.”
I pushed the Canadian away. Fuck it, fuck it all.
“I haven’t outgrown her, Jenna! I love her. I want to marry her.”
“All these verbs, Adam.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Put some fucking weight behind them. Show me something concrete.”
As the bull died, I was not appalled by its death, only by the torturous manipulations of the matador. Each barb was a betrayal. Such a pitiable way to live, let alone die. But the death finally came with some relief.
“That’s horrifying!” squeaked Jenna. But as she looked me over, a small smile entertained her lips. Her words came not as reflection, but as a promise.
I couldn’t help but think Hemingway would laugh at us. As I watched that bull die—there were many, actually, one bull dying after another—I thought he would laugh at me for wrinkling my nose as if someone farted in church. The rawness of the bullfight, the pure masculine unease was something that escaped me. I saw gilded matadors prancing like dancers with swords. I saw cruelty at its finest. I could never weigh their talents as if tasting wine. I could never comb this countryside on my belly, thinking of a way to blow up a bridge. The only thing about our Spanish days that resembled Hemingway was the colour palette. In each corner of this dusty city I saw the same faded orange as the cover of The Sun Also Rises. The graphic designer must have been to Spain too, I thought. Or at least seen photos.
Later, we took the Metro from the bullfighting arena and ended up at the Prado. Hemingway would have walked, I imagined. As long a walk as that might have been.
“The art galleries of Europe make America look like shit,” Jenna whispered as we passed a Dali. “Except in New York. They have the fucking Met.”
When I first walked, I entertained the idea that I could wander a place like this all day. I could live here, even. Camp out beneath a Velazquez and let the beauty work by osmosis into my intellect. Nothing is finer than an art gallery. This was a place Joanne would love, I thought. When we were first dating, we once took a stroll along the sea wall and she said, “The clouds look like an oil painting today. Yesterday they were water colours.”
Looking over at Jenna, as her eyes wrinkled towards the walls, I told her this. “God in hell,” she murmured, “an oil painting? You dodged a bullet. Where are the Picassos?” She strolled out ahead, her little shoes tip-toeing softly across the marble. Arms folded over her chest, she stopped before a Rubens. She stared for a moment then looked back to me as I caught her up. “We should go to Paris.”
I blanched. Joanne was in Paris. The tear-stained, hand-written, torn-from-her-journal, I’m leaving you note said as much.
“Man up, Adam. It’s a big city. We’ll just see the Eiffel Tower then hit up Disneyland.”
“No, Jenna. Seriously, do you have to bother me with this?”
“Yes. Paris. I just decided I want more culture.”
“And that’s Disneyland, is it?”
She shrugged. “You know what?” She pointed to the Rubens, to the three naked women and two half-naked men. “When I was in the bath in the hotel room in Vancouver, I sat there while the water drained around me. I sat there, naked, until the tub was completely empty, totally still. And I thought, afterwards, as I got dressed, that it was a performance art piece. If only people paid to watch me do it.”
“Put it on Craigslist. Someone would definitely pay you.”
“Shut up! I meant it! It was art! It was art without anyone needing to see it!”
I laughed. “That is not art! When did you say this was?”
“I didn’t. And it was the morning of what was supposed to be your wedding.”
“You stayed at a hotel? Not with family? Or friends?”
She rolled her eyes. “Ugh. That’s just the worst! I hate being a houseguest. It’s so fucking awkward.”
“Fuck, you could’ve stayed with me!”
“Oh, sure. That wouldn’t have been weird.” As Jenna strolled away, I glanced back at the Rubens and suddenly felt very sick of old art. Something about white walls interspersed with portraits of the rich and dead began to feel a bit samey. This revealed it to be a museum of history, not necessarily art.
It wasn’t until I wandered by accident into the room of Black Paintings that I felt for one of the first and only times in my life what sort of strange power art could actually have. I sat on the small bench in a room of haunting images Goya painted on the walls of his own home, intended for his eyes alone. I finally understood what Jenna had meant.
In films, when someone is down and rejected, they sit on the curb, as if to say, ‘It doesn’t matter anymore, does it? I no longer care for societal norms, for in my moment of heartbreak, I am outside such concerns. I am beyond such conventions, because my emotions have broken through the barrier of generally acceptable behavior.’
Right after Joanne kicked me in the stomach emotionally for the second time, I held off from such conventions and stomped politely around the streets until I found a bench. Then I buried my face in my hands and wished it all away. I tried pretending I was still sitting on the plane, somewhere over the Atlantic, with all of this horrible rejection yet to happen for a second time.
I missed what it felt like to have hope.
I was angry at Jenna in that moment. She came here with me and she didn’t try to stop me. She didn’t say what she should have, which was: “Adam, stop this. She left you the morning of your wedding. She flew to Paris with another man. Clearly, this is not a simple mistake. This is not losing your house keys. This is not leaving the stove on when you go out for the afternoon. This was premeditated. This was a big fucking deal.”
But she never said that. She never said anything like that. She just said: “Adam, I’m going with you.”
As I cried into my hands on that park bench in Paris, I wanted to yell at Jenna. I wanted to scream at her, like this was all her fault. Her and our weird, confusing history were to blame. Her role in my life was something Joanne could never understand, I wanted to believe; a Jenna-shaped wedge would always go misunderstood.
And I would have blamed her. I really would have, but just as I was about to look up, I felt the bench shift with her weight. She sat beside me, her leg pressed against mine. Her arm stretched up and over my shoulder. She said calmly: “Years from now, this will just be another funny story. It will take a while to get there, but you will. You don’t see it now, but one day you will. You will realize that as long as you think you need another person to be happy, you will always be miserable. You don’t need Joanne, Adam, you don’t need anyone when you have a good friend who loves you—” she squeezed my shoulder—”and a city full of depraved strangers, a hell of a lot of wine, and a Disneyland. Now let’s go ride Space fucking Mountain.”
VII. A train
As the train shuffled onwards, our heads bobbing back and forth like pigeons, I wondered what it was that made us so immune to the faults of some people. There were past roommates of mine, perfectly tolerable, respectable, pleasant people whom I’d grown to despise for just the simple fact of how wet they’d left the bathroom counter; there were past co-workers whose inane attempts to talk about the weather left me cold and full of loathing. All of these people were ones whom some objective force would classify as “good,” yet I’d simply not liked them for whatever pet peeve or mild annoyance had irked my imagination.
Yet there were others who deserved neither my tolerance nor time through their countless displays of disrespect or idiocy or lack of cleanliness, but who I not only tolerated but revered. There was something in their charm or company or blood relation that surpassed all noticeable flaws. These people I could only surmise to have loved: that was the reasoning of it. There was some base element of pure love I felt for these faulty friends and that was why I was never bothered by their empty socks left tucked into the couch; their continued forgetfulness of my food allergies; the drunken ways they knew how to prey in jest upon my deepest insecurities, like the way Jenna’s eyes would suddenly narrow in scrutiny and she’d say something to the effect of: “My God, Adam, you have small ears.”
The hold these people had on me contained the capacity to disappear, I sincerely hoped, just as I remembered the quirks of old girlfriends slowly growing into irritations before—with the gradual loss of love—becoming full-blown cruelties. I held now the belief that this would happen with Joanne. In time, her past cruelties would disappear, and then, with more time, they would numb into scar tissue until they were nothing more than half-remembered incidents, and in yet more time, she—and everything I thought came with her—will be nothing more to me than the fog of an archaic day dream.
Original version published in The Steel Chisel, January 2014
Copyright 2014 Ashleigh Rajala