He had left Jenny the typical signs of an impending breakup the way roommates leave clothes on the floor under the assumption that they will pick them up later, maybe after work, maybe on Sunday after a morning of extended sleep. But when it came time for Eric to pick up the soiled shreds of their relationship, to wash and fold the blanched, discolored articles of companionship (too warm to wear today), intimacy (might stand out at the office) and childish exuberance (he had to stay late on Fridays) there was only Jenny, poor wretched Jenny, standing by the microwave with a recipe torn from a magazine in her right hand, the print too blurry to read through her tear-sodden eyes.
He didn't remember that yesterday was their anniversary and she didn't remind him. She bought him a blank notebook from the Barnes & Noble on Union Square—an expensive one with European languages printed in script across a stylistically faded cover—because he had mentioned that he wanted to start a journal. The "Eric and Jenny" files, he had jokingly labeled it. She saw the story from beginning to end, an epic that would unfold across outdoor tables at bohemian coffee shops, delicately wrapped silverware at expensive Zagat-rated restaurants and leisurely strolls by the doggie den at the park (her favorite since dogs were not allowed in their Lower East Side apartment complex).
Now she stared at the notebook and momentarily wondered what it would be like, what the reaction on his characteristically placid face would be, if she scribbled, "You forgot our anniversary again—second year in a row" on every single page. Would he get the message then? Stupid thoughts, she told herself, slamming the glossy stub of paper against the counter.
When he came home, she was watching television and smoking a cigarette on the futon. Inside the apartment. The window half open.
"What the hell?"
She said nothing, didn't look at him, stared instead at the television where a woman with a beautifully sculpted face, hair like curtains in God's heavenly palace and breasts that were shiny like the bodies of amazons soaking in the sun at a beach in their own private jungle, announced the latest in tonight's Top Ten Tastefully Tan Torsos.
Eric dropped his leather briefcase next to their individual pairs of worn, cracked jogging shoes, reminders of days when they had both had similar health and fitness goals, and clumsily stripped off his suit jacket.
"How'd it go today? Did you get any writing done?"
"Some," she said, plugging her mouth with her cigarette before the urge to justify her lack of creative output threatened to turn her into what she perceived herself in those days to be: a whiny, downer of a girlfriend. Maybe that was why he was leaving the signs.
"Cigarette, huh? My God, that's sexy."
Sign number one, she told herself. Casual, unpredictable horniness. Zero intimacy afterwards.
But the sex had never been better, she admitted. Of course, much of that had to do with his success at work. He and his team at the ad agency had just come up with a goldmine of a campaign that had turned into a self-perpetuating miniseries of sorts that offered endless opportunities for hilarity, all of which revolved around one man: Dandruff Dude.
Dandruff Dude had been Jenny's doing. She had given birth to him in much the same bungled way that couples in their late twenties often conceive (or misconceive) a child.
During sex on the dinner table.
She had noticed the dandruff in the little white section of dried flesh where Eric's hair parted to the right. "Dandruff man," she had called her boyfriend, giggling. "For a second I thought the plaster in our ceiling was crumbling and falling on your head."
Cut to Eric's promotion. Dandruff man became Dandruff Dude, who then became Eric's saving grace in a time of lay-offs that had resembled an episode of Survivor. What had kept Eric on the island of neatly arranged cubicles and offices with no windows was the clever episodic script he had drafted at his computer in a fit of inspiration that had followed on the heels of his moment of passion on the dinner table. It hit him like a bag of bricks and he scampered into the bedroom, dropping his seed all over the carpet like a half-crazed naked monkey. She lay there for a while, her bare back against the table, her legs still up in the air like a dead insect and the hand woven dinner mat making her butt itch, before it struck her. He was going to leave her.
"How's Dandruff man?" she said, heroically uninterested and unashamed to show it.
"Dandruff Dude? He's out there, running around and being all crazy. Today we came up with a storyboard that put him in a real classy restaurant. He's got the saltshaker over his dish and all the while he's shaking it all this salt is coming out. His date looks at him and says 'that salt shaker is empty.' Turns out the whole time that he's been shaking his arm, the dandruff is falling on his—"
"I get it! That's disgusting." She crinkled her nose.
"Well, it's not as good as the first one, but it's all we got for now. If you have a better idea, let me know. Maybe we could have a little input meeting on the dinner table?"
She groaned. He settled next to her on the couch, his lower body closer to her than his upper body. It was as if his face, brain and heart were leaning away from the very thing his hips wanted to plant themselves in.
The first idea for Dandruff Dude had been close to brilliant. Even she could admit that. He had come up with it, though Jenny reassured herself that the combination of his orgasm, the steady beat of her grinding hips and the words "Dandruff man" in his ear had all come together in an ecstasy of libidinal inspiration to produce the original script, in which Dandruff Dude goes to meet his girlfriend's parents for the first time over dinner.
It goes like this. The parents let D.D. into the house. They shake dandruff off his shoulder and ask him if there was a lot of snow on the road (It's the middle of summer, or something close to it). They sit down for dinner. His girlfriend shakes dandruff off his shoulder and asks her parents if they fixed the crumbling ceiling. D.D. and the father enjoy cigars and the father tells him he got ash on his shoulder. But then! All he has to do is use Locks and Loaded Extra-Strength Dandruff Shampoo (for extra-sensitive dry and itchy scalps) and POOF! The dandruff is gone. Cut to their wedding. Smiles all around. People throw rice. The girl with the not-so-clever parents wipes rice off his tux to reveal a clean, black surface underneath. Phew! She says. Good thing you're Locks and Loaded.
She put the cigarette out in a half-empty glass of water.
"What's up with you? Smoking, watching television all day . . . "
"All day? You just got here. How do you know I've been watching it all day?"
He sighed. "Sorry I'm late. Did you cook?"
"In the fridge."
Sign number two. He hadn't kissed her or touched her once since coming in. Either he was going to leave her or he was delusional and thought they were already married.
She took a walk that night up Avenue A, making sure to bring the pack of cigarettes (she had just purchased them that day, the first in years, what a feeling of independence!) and the free book of matches the Indian man with the roving eyes had slid over the counter, smiling at her through his ragged mustache. She lit up and walked and thought about how quickly Eric had fallen asleep that night. He was getting into the habit of bringing her trembling loins to the point of exhausted satisfaction and then falling asleep immediately afterwards, leaving his own tank full as if he were keeping himself in reserve for a longer haul in a future that didn't involve her (sign number three, definitely). When she had gotten up that night to go for a walk, he simply said, "be safe, babe," and then rolled over to the middle of the bed and went to sleep.
It was a warm night. She walked slowly and steadily like writers were supposed to walk. She thought about her novel. It seemed ridiculous to her now. A novel? Who the hell did she think she was? Women like her didn't write novels. She was no Virginia Woolf or Silvia Plath. She was white too, which left Toni Morrison and Amy Tan out of the question. She wasn't even Jewish. In fact, she was a non-practicing Catholic. It didn't get much more boring than that.
She was just some girl from the Midwest who came to the city in pursuit of dreams that had kept her in a state of drugged delirium all throughout her childhood. She lived in a shitty apartment in an overpriced part of the Lower East Side, her boyfriend had an average sized penis and wrote copy for an ad agency whose biggest client made toilet paper, she was 29 and her birthday was in three months and thirteen days (thirteen! Bad luck!) and what was worse, whenever her boyfriend went down on her, she pretended he was her friend Cheryl of the well-muscled thighs and the Angelina Jolie lips. It wasn't like she was a lesbian or anything like that, but life was too boring not to fantasize about getting lady licked every once in a while.
She laughed and lit a new cigarette from the dying ember of the old one.
And what was her novel even about, anyway? It was a small story about small people living in small apartments. That was it. Who cared about that kind of stuff anyway? The age of the young, disillusioned, urban realist is gone, she told herself. People don't want that melodramatic coffee-shop crap anymore. They want to be uplifted, not bored to tears by men and women with monosyllabic names who fuck and forget each other for a hundred pages until the predictable ending that doesn't even compare in intensity to what she watched every other night on the Lifetime channel. She needed something to freshen up the plot, maybe an explosion or a breakout of some exotic venereal disease or terrorist attack. That was where the good writing was nowadays. Terrorist tales. Everyone's afraid of the brown bogeyman with the towel wrapped on his head, is that it? Maybe she should throw a Muhammed into Act 2 and see what happens; maybe she could get a few good lines in there and call it a night.
She didn't know what part of town she had walked herself into and for the first time, she was glad for the grid system. She was close to Union Square and decided to make the long walk West to the F train, which she would then catch to Delancey Street, right around the corner from the box she called home and the five-and-a-half-inch tube of flesh that she hoped and prayed would turn her into a mother shades deeper than the one she left in Nebraska all those years ago.
But there were too many signs to ignore. She had to know what was going on before she allowed anything too drastic to happen. What if he was cheating on her? Could she really risk bringing a child into this world without knowing for sure that the father wasn't out diddling a secretary or an intern? New York is the city of interns, she reminded herself. They'll do anything for a recommendation letter. She pictured one of those small blonde heads bobbing back and forth between Eric's thighs. Thank you so much, Mr. Woodman, the little bitch says, watching with large, round eyes as Eric rolls up the letter, uses his trembling skin-candle to create his own pale seal out of generations of future children the way medieval kings would melt those red sticks of wax, drip-drip drip, and stamps it using the skull-and-crossbones ring she, Jenny, had half-jokingly purchased for him when they had first started dating.
A subway car rumbled under the grates, sending gusts of air up her extra large NSU t-shirt. She walked down the greasy steps, past the homeless man who was always there, sprawled on the steps with a torn McDonald's coffee cup in one hand (they serve real coffee now?) and slid her unlimited 30-day Metrocard into the slot with the fury of a man looking to get off tonight.
She waited for the subway train, looking like all New Yorkers do down the black tunnels as if she could will the damned thing to come faster. She sighed. When you gaze into the abyss, she began reciting in her head. She noticed she was standing too close. She looked down at the beams of metal that ran endlessly around the city, one always polished and shiny. That was the electrified one, she figured. That's why it always looked so pure against the rat-infested depths. Maybe that was what she needed in her life: a jolt that would pass through her soul and bring it to a steely luster. She was standing in the yellow section now, the part that small children only ever get to stand on for a second or two before the ever-watching, omnipotent hands of their mothers managed to yank them back into safety.
She took a step forward so that the toes of her Reeboks were nearly touching the edge. What if? The words floated in her mind, detached abstractions that lurked in the shadows of her intuition, of the area of her brain that generated all sort of possibilities, some light, too many dark. She remembered hearing about the guy (it was always an escaped mental patient) who went around pushing people into the tracks. The thought terrified her, and yet she felt sympathetic in a way. Maybe he thought he was doing them a favor?
The wind rushed out of the tunnel like an ancient, tired sigh escaping the city's giant underbelly. She lifted her arms and allowed the cool gusts to course over her body like wind off the field behind her parents' house in the Midwest. What happened to that girl who used to run across the fields collecting dandelions and dreaming about skyscrapers? Where did Jellybean Jenny, as her mother used to call her, run off to now? Where has she hid this time? To New York City, her imaginary mother gasps, that's no place for little girls!
The air carried with it the sound of a large metal beast chewing and grinding and gnashing its way out of a dark cave. She felt like she was floating and rising until she was on its back. Now she was riding it, bare as the day she was born, the metal hot against her taut, glistening thighs, her hair whipping behind her as if she were brandishing it: Jenny, Warrior Princess, Queen of this massive steel and glass jungle.
That was when she felt the hands against her back, big, strong hands with fingernails that bit into her soft skin, into the love handles she had been trying so hard—for years!—to trim off. She felt as if she were leaping forward into an ocean of light and sound and sharp, rushing wind. She pulled back, the terror coming to fruition in the wells of her stomach, the horror blossoming like a black rose in the terrible void that existed somewhere between her heart and the rest of her.
She fell back against the platform and then skittered like a crab to get as far from the rushing metal beast as she could. She looked around in shock. Where was he? Where did he go? The subway car screamed as it burst off furiously once again into the depths. Had it stopped? She didn't remember if it had even stopped. Everything was swirling, her hair was in her face and she had peed ever so slightly in her cotton panties.
She was alone, sitting in a pool of trampled filth and silence. She thought about Eric, of his bad habit of fixing her hair and her clothes whenever they looked out of place. That was what she wanted now, that neatness and structure that his personality was founded on, that balanced out her own unpredictable and scattered nature. She picked herself up and brushed the dirt and grime off her sweatpants. She stood there for a moment, regarding the edge of the subway platform like a traveler looking back at a land that she will never miss or come back to again. Maybe it had been a sign? She waved away her superstitions and composed herself as if nothing had happened. In a single burst of energy she ran up the stairs and breathed in the fresh air of a morning still black but on the verge of happening. She would wait until it burst into the sky like an explosion of cosmic fire.
Then she would go home.