Tuesday, May 11, 2010

“Amberly,” an excerpt from the novel "The Life of Brian Garry" by Scott Deckman

Going to See One Girl and Thinking About Another One …

So I’m sitting on the train around noon on Friday, rambling up some graded hill on the way to see Dari Horoweitz-Marcella, a woman who, at turns, I’ve treated both good and bad, just like Gordon Gano crooned unnervingly on “Mother of a Girl” on that curious, underappreciated Violent Femmes 3 record. You look like you could be, the mother of a girl … oh mother, how we treated each other. Suddenly my heart stings as I see a doppelganger that takes me back to what I’m forever running away from, something brought back to consciousness by that run-in with the FBI yesterday: Amberly, or more pointedly, a girl from Amberly, her name was Jennifer. I try not to think about Jennifer for reasons you’ll agree, a little later, are sound.

Here goes …

Right after the trial I get sent straight to Amberly, don’t even get to go home. We were prepared for this and were able to bring me a little care package of underwear and a toothbrush and magazines and crap, half of which they pitch, saying that we were to “Humanly Detox,” i.e., divorce ourselves from our old, flawed reality and graduate into a pristine new one. So I get there, get all my magazines tossed, my walkman and CDs confiscated, and even a couple pairs of boxer shorts with drawstrings taken away from me, hence any of this downright criminal fleecing would make me more suicidal than I already was. In truth I wasn’t suicidal, but depressed and sad. Yeah, I was sad, but what I really felt was diminished, like I was in here with these crazies for doing something I still felt I had a right to do, thereby proving I was a little crazy. But Reed man, Reed had it coming. I mean, was I really gonna toss the old geezer or just scare him? You know, I’m not sure and still can’t honestly answer that question. I believe it started out all rage, then migrated to just scaring him, but the more he fought the meaner I got, and hey, I guess I did want him out the window. Yeah, you can argue I was in a psychotic stage or whatever they call it. But that’s a cop-out. No underlying mental defect I can think of caused The Window Incident (and certainly not the nebulous intermittent explosive disorder or equally embarrassing paranoid personality disorder – shut up – explanations the jury bought from our psychiatrist at trial), just Reed and his contemptuously blaring mouth, insisting I cheated on my paper. And yes, Dari helped me, a little, but it was me who researched and wrote the thing. And Jennifer Gants, God, I don’t know if I wanna delve this deep, but the memory sparked by that chick three rows up on the left, I’m looking at her sad little cheek and ear, once in awhile a profile, even more rarely a full face shot, all pretty melancholy and only happy when it rains, that’s Jennifer alright, little Jen Gants.

Sometimes it’s better not to remember.

Jennifer Gants, or Jen if you’d like, had this delicately wispy Morrissey worshiping-countenance about her – I mean, you didn’t even have to ask, you just knew; she was tiny in that Fiona Apple way, kinda exploited like in that video she did, you know the one, the one, for that song “Criminal” I think it was, where she was half-naked and looking alternately like jailbait, heroin chic and a sad little underfed puppy abandoned in what looked like ’70s punk Bowery, cause, like a lot of things, that place doesn’t exist anymore. Elegantly wasted is what she was. I met her the second day I was there, in group, me having to introduce myself to this wide circle of about 20 people. Aside from the handsome closeted gay ex-sitcom semi-notable, the pornstar/call girl, the senator’s son, banking scion and prominent “international businessman” I talked about before in the beginning of this screed, she was the only one you’d care to talk to. One guy in the circle was rumored to be a child killer, not molester, but killer; one guy was biting his hands so hard and virulent they bled, to get bandaged over and over, only to heal, where the bandages would be taken off and the whole fiasco would repeat itself; one guy, later on, would get up and pee right in the middle of our “situational role playing,” dude wore this beat-up old blue cap with a white front. He would mutter to himself, “I didn’t do it, or I didn’t mean to do it” for minutes, sometimes hours at a time. One chick would eat the skin off her fingers to the point where she bled as well, and one old woman named Hennessey O’Brien would suddenly shower us with sunny epithets at the most unlikely times, during personal tragedies too sad to name, ditties like “Grow up you old fart!” or “Who died and made you king!” or my personal favorite non sequitur, “If I woulda known that I woulda voted for Carter!”

Not surprisingly, Jennifer was the only one of that crew I really got to know. At the beginning of group I take a seat beside her cause, okay, I was thinking with the other head a little, a big no-no, particularly here, and also cause I need a place to sit and the pickings were slim. She turns toward me with a cynical, withering look, like she knew this was a bunch of crap and nothing could save her. That was what she looked like, a warm melancholy. I smile at her and she mouths “hello” and looks down, blue eyes not risking prolonged exposure into what could be a set of crazies.

I sit and stare at her profile and wonder what in the world she did to get in here, if she’s truly nuts or only happy when it rains. So here I am, fish outta water and knowing I’m gonna have my A.A. moment here any minute when I admit to the world I’m an attempted murderer. When it comes, when it’s announced that there’s a new psycho among the fold, she smiles at me, languidly, and here I go on my feet to address the throng of admirers.

“Come on, we ain’t got all day!” growls Hennessey.

“Now Hennessey, we know that’s not how we do things here,” says Jewish Earth Mother Counselor Dr. Edith Kratz, 40-something, brown-haired, earth-toned and luvin it, in chic brown glasses that look expensive and toothy smile not seen since the aforementioned Carter in his heyday. “Brian, you go ahead, dear.”

That smile wasn’t helping quell the nerves, and neither was this Hennessey woman. Startled – and a bit miffed, I start anyway.

“Hi guys … and girls, I’m Brian and I’m here to get to know myself? Yes, to get to know myself better and find the reasons for why I’m … here.”

“Very good Brian, great start! Grooouuup?”

“Hi Brian,” they all say in unison, and Jennifer looks up and gives me a snicker.

Later in the lunchroom I get to talk to her. She sees me sitting alone, eating some weird potato and broccoli vegetarian concoction. And I’m hungry. They encouraged liberal water intake so I had a huge bottle of water to top it off with. I’m reading the house protocols they give us in lieu of anything else since they tossed all my “stimulant-ridden” magazines. These protocols aren’t just prohibitions, but are filled with ridiculous self-helpenalia, which I find at turns both humorous and insulting. Later I’d learn about ways to earn outside reading privileges, but we don’t have time to discuss each and every little Amberly peculiarity.

“Hey, want some company?” she sneaks up from behind with her tray of likewise gunk, except hers has a more yellowish tint, and the portion is much smaller. She looks precocious in her white pajamas, cute, but otherworldly as well, like an apparition.

“I guess I could use some,” I smile, still feeling out this crazy place, lucky I’m not sitting in some jail cell trying earnestly not to become somebody’s bitch. “This place, the food, the décor.”

“Yeah, this place,” she repeats, not smiling.

“So, what are ya in for?” I joke.

She chews and smiles.

“You don’t wanna know. I don’t wanna know. Actually, I don’t know.”

“Oh come on, we all know. But I don’t care, this place seems a lot better than jail.”

“You been there?” she looks up expectantly, hopeful.

“No, no, just, you know, it was either here or there.”

“Oh, gotcha.”

We don’t say anything for awhile.

“You know, we’re not all criminally insane in here,” she says.

“Thanks,” I reply.

“No, I don’t mean you,” she reaches out and grabs my hand with the coldest I’ve ever felt.

I put mine on hers. “I know, I know, we’re not all crazy here.”

She smiles slightly. “I’m Jennifer, Jennifer Gants.”

“I’m Brian, Brian Garry.”

We shake those same hands and dislodge, continue eating, not saying much else, nothing important anyway, but a friend is made.

Over the weeks ahead I start to get to know bits and pieces of her life, not all at once, like that was all she could stand, as if she would melt like a delicate ice cream cone if she told me everything in one shot. Technically we weren’t supposed to be hanging out in the traditional sense, but, incredibly, some of the guards let us do just that when the mood struck or when favorable circumstances presented themselves; one cause he thought it’d be good for us, another, who saw’m come and go, cause she didn’t think it made any difference; and a third, cause he liked bribes – he was cheap too, which was funny cause a few people here looked to be moneyed. Well, anyway, we knew some superficial stuff about each other and I was fighting the urge to kiss her, but, admittedly, I knew this wouldn’t be a good thing to try given our straits, and that it might be damaging to both of us. Last thing we needed to deal with in this funhouse. We were sitting in her room talking, her bunched up in the corner picking at her fingernails – a habit that was popular here – and me trying, who knows what I’m trying, trying to do my time so I can get the hell outta here. And it turns out she’s the only thing in this place that would mark me indelibly.

“You ever thought about it, the big one?”

“Hah?” I say, trying to think of something interesting to say when she throws me that. “The Whopper, Big Mac?” I stare at her, seeing my try for cute fall flat.

She shakes her head slowly, gives me an only happy when it rains look, and goes on with her nails.

“Nah … kidding.” At least I didn’t mention genitalia. “The big one, you mean, the big question? Why we’re here?”

“Yeah, well, sort of. But the other big one, death. What happens when we cease to exist?”

I scoot closer to her.

“Well, I guess we … die.”

“Duuh,” she looks at me sadly with these saucer-like blue eyes that seem to take up most of the top part of her face. She shakes her only happy when it rains head and begins looking at her nails again. I can tell I disappoint her.

“Well, what do you think?”

“That’s why I asked you,” she says, smiling.

“Well, I think,” I bumrush and tickle her rapidly.

“Hey! Ahahah,” she laughs before fending me off, “stop it, they’ll hear!”

But I was unprepared for what I would feel. I felt bones, literally skin and bones. Poor thing probably weighed like 90 pounds. And this wasn’t Kate Moss sexy skin’n’bones … this was sickly 90 pounds, past heroin chic and on to something darker. Sure, with clothes, especially these rather thick PJs, she could hide it somewhat, but now the secret, or the extent of it, was out. She senses what I’m thinking and the air gets acrid.

She looks up at me with huge sad eyes. She doesn’t have to say anything.

“I’m … are you okay?”

“I think you better go.”


I do.

So I’m in the middle of “situational role playing” with that horny nymph chick, the pornstar, Lacy Smith. You can’t tell with these people cause most of us here, most of them, are prone to lie. The situation is that I’m the boss of a paint company and I’m supposed to fire her. She’s supposed to act dignified, but what she’s doing is acting like she wants to fuck me. For my part I’m supposed to be fair but firm, to borrow a phrase from referee Joe Cortez, explaining to her that while I value her services and think the world of her as a person – and greatly admire her fake fun bags and collagen lips, I think she is not the right fit for the job.

“Lacy, I think the world of you, I really do, and your work here at Johnson’s Paints has been greatly appreciated.” (And stop it already about the name, that’s what we called it.)

“So, why ya firing me then?” she leers, with this come-hither look that I find both intoxicating and annoying, her boobs looking like balloons of my deliverance. And that mouth. She better stop this.

“Well, I think maybe … ”

“Go with it, go with it,” says Dr. Kratz. “You’re doing great Brian.”

“I think that maybe you’d be better off at a job where you could utilize your other skills … better. We’re all good at something.”

“What do you think I’m good at?” she moves closer, cloying look in her eyes, mouth opened a bit, with just a hint of tongue visible in between.

Instinctively I move my front away from her, which draws criticism from Dr. Kratz.

“Face her, face her. We don’t hide from uncomfortable situations in here, Brian.”

I’m trying to prevent an uncomfortable situation alright. Good thing I got a pair of too-small boxers on or she’d see the meaning of uncomfortable here in a minute.

“Lacy,” I make the mistake of touching her shoulder gently, “I think you’d be a great receptionist or a great … something to do with marketing, with your pleasing personality. But the world of paint is not quite ready for your charms at this point.”

Now, four things are going on at once. Kratz looks about to scold me for touching. While gentle positive touch is encouraged, ole Kratz is a sharp bird, having done time in the decadent Southern California ’80s where sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were not only vices, but a way of life, and I’m sure the bird dog can tell my hand may be wandering perilously close to what she calls sensual touch, which is absolutely forbidden. In truth what I’m doing is something in between. The second thing that’s happening is Lacy’s blue eyes burning embers into my crotch, but to be honest, she may not even mean it, cause that’s how she looks at most of us men at Amberly, her reason for being. The third thing that’s going on is that I am, regrettably, getting hard down there, and am using the time-honored maneuver of young and old horndogs alike of pushing my butt back and belly and chest out, looking like a white, uncoordinated rooster with bad posture, all to hide it. The fourth thing that’s happening is that moribund Jennifer is smiling, or smirking, and I can feel her pools of blue on me and I’m happy cause we haven’t talked much since I felt her shame.

Lacy takes a step closer to me, prompting some preempting from Kratz.

“Lacy, what did we agree on at our session yesterday about maintaining proper personal space when addressing others?”

The smile Lacy is giving me tells me she paid no heed to Dr. Kratz concerning proper personal space, or anything else for that matter. I’m about to lose it as I step back, my time-honored maneuver still in full effect.

“But Brian, I thought I was doing a great job.”

She’s so smoldering at this point that Dr. Kratz has seen enough.

“Okay, that will be all today! Brian, you did a good job. Lacy, we still have some things to work on,” the Colgate smile still beaming in spite of the pitiful showing.

As I take my seat I lock eyes with only happy when it rains and she’s smiling, finding the whole thing wildly entertaining. She mouths “Brian” and I’m happy. Mostly I’m glad to be sitting, and glad that most of the loons in here aren’t perceptive enough to notice my crotch or, more likely, are too wrapped up in their own demons to care. I can breathe deep again and do.

Later, and I’m back in her little room in the girl’s dorm, having given Bud the guard $10 bucks. I’m laying there next to Jen, and things are still awkward between us. We’re not saying much, and she’s mostly looking at her nails, then biting them, and I’m mostly humming and looking at her, then away.

“So, what did you think of my performance today?”

“Performance, yeah, I was thinking, where’s the cast and crew? Where’s the deli cart? Except there was no money shot.”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t the easiest thing to go through, either,” I say.

“She’s got all you guys rowed up; it’s funny for a girl to watch, though.”

“Her? Lacy? Pahhh,” I lie, “She’s hardly my type.”

“You’re a boy Brian, anybody that’ll give you a blowjob is your type.”

“I take great offense to that, I really do.”

She smiles. “And she’s got tits like watermelons and a nice round ass and big cock-slurping lips. All in all, a nice-looking skank.”

“Well, how come I never seen you do the situational role-play yet?”

“Maybe she knows I think this place is a joke.”

“We all do, that doesn’t make any difference. How long you been here again?”

“Couple months.”

“Well, we never really did discuss why you were in here,” I venture.

She’s studying her nails, then chewing them.

“Well, we haven’t,” I say again.

She shoots me a defeated look. “That’s why I like you.”

“Yeah … you know it’s not that bad, being in here. Three hots and a cot.”

“Boy you do make it sound like jail.”

“Well,” I stop, running out of things to say. “Well, you never have anything much good to say,” I spit. “Would it kill you to try?”

“You wanna know why I’m in here?” she says evenly, with a bit of weight. “You really wanna know?”

Actually, at this point I don’t, I can imagine it’s quite painful.

“Not if you don’t feel like telling me.”

“I’m opening up,” she stares at me bare, her voice sounding slightly manic.

“Okay, why are you in here?”

“It started when I was 10. It was nothing but, ‘Come sit on my lap, come sit on Uncle Gerald’s lap my pretty girl.’ So I did. Uncle Gerald lived with us for awhile. He was this gregarious alcoholic, ex-jock type, ladies’ man, everyone loved him, the kinda guy who peaked at 18 winning some state championship in some sport, wrestling, baseball, I can’t remember, sports … I’m a girl,” she shrugs, huge eyes wide but unfocussed, staring down, a little off to the left of me.

I wish I wasn’t, but I’m riveted. “Okay …”

“Well, it all started with him calling me his ‘favorite girl,’ his ‘lovely little bunny,’ real cute and innocent, you know? I’m 10 and don’t know any better, you know, I’m his ‘little bunny,’ you know?”

I nod.

“Well, at first it was just feeling his strong hands on my back, and I’m a little girl, small for my age, always was,” she feels important to point out, “and … well, anyway. So that’s how it starts, innocently.”

“You don’t have to tell me.”

“You wanna know.”

“I just want you to be happy.”

“Plahh. Come on, that’s impossible.”

“No it’s not.”

“So, you know, I’m a little kid, what do I know? I don’t know anything it turns out. The feeling up the back gradually turns into touching me in the front, again, somewhat innocent, you know, just my belly, you know?”

“Yeah, I understand.”

“Anyway, God I hate when I do this,” she shows me her nails, one of which is bleeding. “I’m usually more careful, you know?” her blues burning holes in me, but I’m not in control of this, the ball’s in her court, all I can do is listen, even if I don’t want to.

“Well, you know, I’m little, littler than I am now,” her eyes get expressive, “I mean, I’m small! Like, little!” she’s becoming animated. “Small, you know?”

I nod, frozen.

“So he starts to rub me on my chest, and you know, me and some other kids have done that, other little kids, boys and girls about my age, no harm in that, right? I felt a little weird or dirty but told myself if Uncle Gerald did it, it was alright, right? And even today I can’t drink beer because that’s what I smelled, putrid Budweiser on his stinking breath.”

The room is igniting, and I’m not sure what to do next, but maybe I’m a coward, wanting her to stop for me and not her.

“You don’t … I understand, I …” we lock eyes.

“No, you wanna know, so now you’re gonna know.”

“Jen – ”

“Shut up!”

I do.

“So, you know, he starts to feel me down below and it felt good, I mean it did! It felt good, and then it felt bad. And then good again. And at this point … you know, I’m little,” the first misting over her blue eyes, she pauses again, shivering a little, keeping it together, still messing with those fingernails, “so, you know. I’m just a little girl. And that’s how it goes for a couple years. At dinner he’d sit across from me and we’d play footsies, with my parents asking me how school was, the whole time I’m getting more confused, you know? And,” she looks down, a tear finally cascading down her white face, eyes literally like goblets of blue Kool-Aid, “you know, I finally tell my mom. And you know what she said?”

I shake my head slow.

“She said I was probably leading him on.”

“Oh … I’m sorry, I’m sorry about that,” is all I can think of.

“Yeah …” she smiles, face full of tears. “And I compensated, compensated for getting raped by my uncle a couple times a week since I was 10, I compensate by not eating, or throwing up what I do eat. In that house, this is the only thing I could control, me, the size of me. I mean they did kick him out, but I’m not sure if they thought I was making most of the stuff up. I think they think he ‘played with me,’ they said, but didn’t actually fuck me. But he did fuck me! Like it was the alcohol, I think is the excuse they made and he accepted. Yeah, he accepted it all right. Never got in trouble for it in any manner. Swept under the rug. Went to an alcohol treatment center, some fucking place like this. Still see him at Christmas, like it never happened. What’s dead stays dead. But I tell you,” she looks into my eyes, hard and big, “it’s not dead.”

“I’m so sorry about this,” I go to grab her.

“Don’t touch me,” she pushes me away. She’s shivering again, and she breaks down. Not in one piece, but in sections. Seems like with everything else, she can’t commit to any one thing fully, but holds it in until it pushes itself out.

I’m stuck, and she’s sobbing.

“Do you?”

She’s hunched over shaking, making hiccupping noises but God lovin she doesn’t want me to touch her. I don’t know what to do. The air is nitroglycerine and I’m a flea in this tempest. I shake my head slightly, look at the floor, and prepare to go. I get to my feet and she reaches out for my PJs, and I go to Jen, holding her for what seems like hours, as long as I’m allowed to get away with it in this worthless compound.

So yeah, Jen belongs here, more than me. But she also needs hugs and support and a childhood back that was stolen from her, and while I can’t give her the latter, what I can is the former, a shoulder to lean on. So we become closer, or as close as she can let anybody get to her. I gently encourage her to eat, sometimes making a silly game of it. We go over The Window Incident – she thinks it’s a hoot, that we should all get to act so brave. In fact, she thinks most of my anecdotes are praiseworthy, from The Roll at the Heights and getting my heart smashed later by Amelia Earhart Bettings, to some of the more randy shenanigans with drunken girls, not to mention my own drunken escapades, kinda like she was either an empty vessel devoid of historical content, or that her teary admission that day on the bed would suffice, like it was too much already. She was, above everything else, a private person. She liked goth music, I got that from her. She was originally from a suburb of Seattle and had moved out here for school at UMBC where she majored in English when she wasn’t hospitalized, I got that too. She liked red wine over white, found solace in Anne Sexton, Amy Tan, Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, Sex and the City and Margaret Atwood, but also liked Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, Poppy Z. Brite and I think American Psycho, which she said was funny. I didn’t realize how telling that was until a year later when I read Glamorama and found out that American Psycho was even more fucked up. And yes, she liked rain and storm clouds and candles and incense and cats and large dogs and dressing in black, liked her makeup to accentuate her pale skin, black dresses – all black dresses, all types of comedy, from Bill Hicks and David Cross to Chris Farley, Adam Sandler and Margaret Cho, and she liked New York better than L.A., but San Francisco best of all. In fact she once dated a bassist in a semi-notable underground rock band who I won’t mention who lived in the City by the Bay. She loved movies and could talk about Pulp Fiction and how it belonged in the pantheon of great American movies, right up there with Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, GoodFellas and anything Hitchcock ever did, about how foreign films were overrated because of the subtitles and supposed European sophistication, and of course, she could go on and on about horror movies, from slasher masterpieces like Halloween, Friday the 13th, A Nightmare On Elm Street and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, to slicker ironometers like Scream and the camp of The Evil Dead series, not to mention some truly twisted Japanese films I can’t remember the names of.

But she didn’t like telling me hardly anything else, nothing more about her molestation or her horrid eating disorder, other than she’d been hospitalized for it twice before, and fishing for info wasn’t the easiest so most of the time we talked gibberish, about the idiots locked in this monkey house with us, about the closeted queer who she admitted was very attractive, and one of whose B-movies she liked. She told me he had confided in her that, at his worst, he had a three-grand-a-week cocaine habit. And we regularly bandied around ideas about what would be the best way to kill some of the more obnoxious patients stuck in here with us. Oh the things we would come up with, such elaborate schemes, the more amoral the better. One of the more pedestrian but fulfilling was the exploding toilet seat for Hennessey O’Brien, one of the more sinister comeuppances a hydrochloric acid-soaked dildo for Lacy Smith, and undoubtedly the messiest was that wood chipper they used in Fargo for whoever was pissing us off the most, chief among them Duke, who I’ll describe below, and even ole Dr. Kratz herself when she got out of line. Sure, it was stupid, but wasn’t that the point? Escapism, euphemistic release, isn’t that what horror’s all about? Beats the real stuff, what she couldn’t escape.

But things were again to take another turn for the worse. One day I see Jen walking really fast past the large common room after an evening session with Dr. Kratz, eyes red, looking scared.

I call her name.

“Not right now Brian.”

“Come on. What’s wrong?”

I get up and follow her to the female dorm but I’m stopped dead in my tracks by the aforementioned Duke, one of the guards who wasn’t in on the whole hanging out scheme, not at all.

“Where you goin?”

“Come on Duke, let me in there. She needs me.”

“This ain’t no soap opera. You get back to where you’re supposed to be, now go on. We don’t wanna break the rules here.”

Duke seems like the high school football star who wasn’t quite good enough to get a scholarship to play college ball. Hell, maybe he was too dumb to even play football in high school, never making the grade in the first place, or, in his case, he “didn’t need no book-learning, books’r for pussies, and I ain’t no pussy.” He was about 6”, weighed about 250 or so and could probably bench press a truck. He had these dull blue-gray eyes and his head, prematurely balding in the first place, had just a conciliatory stubble. Duke actually reminded me of my old pal Skoal. To be honest with you, I could picture the two hanging out. A scary thought, and if anything, this proves I have made some life progress over the years. So, again, there’s no way to force my way past him, plus that might put me in lockdown, the hole, “contemplative isolation” they called it here. But I’d probably only get that if I physically assaulted the brute in some way. I fancied myself a little cleverer than that. Plus, I didn’t want my neck broken, as Duke was fond of reciting the Amberly party line whenever a patient got a little nasty: “I can use as much force as necessary to subdue any of you: As Much Force As Necessary.” And he meant it. Maybe that’s why the authorities there seemed to like the Cro-Mag.

“Come on!”

Duke steps closer, close enough that I can smell him, a bawdy mix of Brut and sweat.

“You’re not going anywhere but back to your dorm, now!”

I walk away pissed, but calculating my next modus operandi. I didn’t like the way Jen looked and I sure as hell don’t want her to be alone, just from some of the offhand comments she’s made about harming herself; a couple scars I’ve spied on her arms were probably the emanation of this line of thinking. I walk back to my corridor, see the Brad Pitt-looking dude, Anthony Myers, chatting up the senator’s son a little too intimately for my tastes, and let my imagination take hold. But really, doesn’t take too much imagination with the fire alarm hanging on the wall all red, loud and inviting. I go for it, pull the lever, and off the thing sounds.

Our dorm counselor, Lou Brightman, rounds us all up and believe me, this takes some doing as some of the more unstable shipmates are severely damaged goods. The dude with the hat is in the corner looking like he’s about to pee himself and Lou corrals him, just to make sure he doesn’t. He also has to help out one fellow who walks with a pronounced limp. Lou’s not a bad guy, a tree-hugging touchy-feeler who’s even emotionally available to the rumored child killer, who, while he’s never said anything remotely perverted to me, is said to talk about little kids with zest and zeal to the others here, particularly the more touched individuals. He never said anything to me; if he did it woulda been a short conversation. So when we finally get out the door I spot Jen standing there in the hot misty air and go to her.


“Brian,” she frowns.

Duke sees me and hustles me away.

“You, get back over there!”

I move outta there as Duke gets closer, hustling over to my side, pissed that after all I went through I’m given the shrug-off by Jen. But soon, standing in the wet evening air, I’m thinking about her trying to kill herself and before long I’m sneaking back over there.

“Listen … ”

“Brian, go away.”

“Jen … ”

But she turns around, holds her arms and stares at the ground.

“Wait, I pull the alarm to get to you and this is the thanks I get? I’m worried here!”

Now guess who was approaching to get me, and what he overheard?


“Lou, it’s not what you think.”

“You pulled the alarm?”

Defeated, I look at him, nodding ruefully. He grabs me by my arm, waving his other hand around in a circle in the misty evening.

“False alarm people! False alarm! Let’s go back inside! But great job evacuating and lining up everyone, great job!”

I hear Duke yelling at another poor soul. They put Duke on the girl’s side cause from past experience it’s usually the testosterone-laden males who try and get in the girl’s dorm, not the other way around. Though I coulda sworn I heard Lacy and somebody getting it on one night in ours.

“I can explain,” I offer Lou, trying to wriggle away from him.

“I’m sure you can.”

We get back inside and Lou takes me inside his office.

“Brian, you know I have to report this.”

“No you don’t, or maybe you do. Listen, I only did this cause I needed to see Jen.”

“How many times do we have to tell you that we don’t want you fraternizing with the women, that their side is off-limits to you guys?”


“Yes you. You’re one of the worst offenders.”

“Who have I gone over there and seen besides Jen?”

“What about that time with Lacy?”

I had forgotten about that time with Lacy cause, a. it was a while ago, and b. technically it shouldn’t have counted because I was actually over there to see Jen, but Lacy caught me in the hall and … when Lacy grabs you there’s not much you can do. Besides, we just rubbed each other a little and had a kiss or two before some busybody in the dorm saw us and screamed, thereby alerting Duke, who caught us. Looking back, I’m sure Duke had to use every bit of his reptilian-brained self-control not to smite me down, club Lacy over the head and take her away to an empty room.

“Oh come on … listen, Jen’s not in a good place right now.”

“None of you are Brian, that’s the point. But we just can’t go breaking the rules anytime we want to without any consequences.”

“Will you listen to yourself? I need to see her, come on.”

“No, not tonight. You’re in some trouble. I’m gonna get Dru, she’ll handle it.”

He goes to pick up the phone and I put my hand on his to stop him from dialing.

“Brian, you want even more trouble?”

“That’s exactly what she doesn’t need. Especially from Dr. Kratz.”

“Is that what this is about, some problem with Dr. Kratz?”

“No, for Christ’s sake, aren’t you supposed to be the touchy-feely bearded one?”

“I take offense to that.”

“Listen, I just wanna talk to her. After her appointment with Kratz she looked bad, like some kinda zombie, psychotic thing was going on with her.”

“And that’s why I’m calling Dru; Dru is the counselor on duty for the females this evening and, unlike you,” he waves his finger at me, “Dru’s trained to deal with these things.”

I’m about ready to punch Lou, but I know that would be the death of me, and if anything, it would be an invitation for Duke to sodomize me with a nightstick. Plus, I don’t wanna hurt the limp-wrist.

“Let me go over there with you.”

“No! Brian,” he pauses for a bit, frowning. “I tell you what though, and I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m gonna handle this, you pulling the fire alarm, internally, not through the discipline measures of Dr. Steinberg.”

“God Lou, I know you’re sweet but I didn’t think you were that way.”

He frowns, expecting more gratitude. “You’re lucky I am, that way, the way of someone who cares about you in here.”

I almost break into a smile, this guy.

“Let me think of a suitable workstance for you to do, which I will in the near future, I assure you,” he says, indiscernible-colored eyes behind the wire-framed glasses big. He shakes his head, a bit exasperated at my insubordination. “But I do think you pulled that alarm with good intentions, whatever that can mean.”

“I did. I actually … care about her.”

“I had my doubts, but with the trouble this stunt could’ve brought you, has brought you,” his eyes get bigger again and I’m trying not to laugh at this eager beaver, eager to save our wretched souls, “I’m starting to think you do.” He looks like he wants to hug me and I cut bait and leave before he can, which underscores everything I hate about this place. Now, God knows I was lucky to be there, cause prison, nobody wants that. But this therapeutic garbage …workstance was their wishy-washy therapeutic way of saying punishment. Basically, it meant we had to work off any offense we caused, but with a name like that it wouldn’t be punishment at all, but an opportunity for personal growth, that we’d actually learn something, see the error of our ways and all that crap. I’m like, you let child murderers in Amberly, rumored or not, that guy is a creep and I’m sure he’s not the only one who’s done something equally horrific to land a stay here in the short past. Crazy or not, those fuckers should be in prison, getting it up the ass with a tire iron for a lifetime, if not shot through with 10,000 volts, not in here getting goddamn workstances.


Course, I tried to throw a man from a building, so what do I know?

So I don’t get to see her till the next day, and when I do she doesn’t want any parts of me, and I’m more than a little hurt, more than a little worried and more than a little offended, I mean, who does this chick think she is? All I went through for her and this is the thanks I get? The next week or so she continually rebuffs my advances, but I’m getting good marks otherwise, unbelievably, by both Kratz and Lou. Lou says that they’re “taking care” of Jennifer, and not to “worry.” I find this patently ridiculous.

So one day when Duke isn’t watching over the girl’s wing, our guard Gene is on a smoke break, and the older, grizzled woman guard who doesn’t mind when we “sneak” past her is minding the store – and, just as importantly, when Lou is nowhere to be found – I do just that and make it to Jen’s door which is shut.

I knock on her door. No answer. I knock again.

“Jennifer, it’s me.” I suddenly feel really stupid, dumb. I don’t wanna barge in. Girl doesn’t wanna talk to me she doesn’t wanna talk to me.

Suddenly, open sesame, and the door laggardly opens, and what I see confirms my suspicions. Her eyes are bloodshot, face tear-streaked, hair a mess, much of it matted, and she doesn’t say anything, but falls into my arms. A bunch of pills drop out of her right hand onto the floor, a whole shitload; she’d been holding them so long that her hand is stained blue. Yeah, these people here are helping her alright. I don’t know if she’s taken some already or not, but I’m not taking any chances, and I scoop her up like some hero in an antiquated movie and take her to the doctor on duty; she’s as light as a wisp, like a child, really. He takes one look and calls an ambulance. Me, I know full well I’m gonna go to the hole or somewhere else bad for being over there, but really, who cares about me?

Well, I did get sent to the hole for a week or so, and during that time Lou, sweet Lou, tells me Jennifer – who had taken some of those pills – has been transferred to a more “intensive inpatient facility.” Jen’s gonna be a drugged-up walking zombie wherever she goes, and while I know I may never see her again, and this deeply saddens me, I at least know she won’t be able to kill herself there. Or it’ll be harder to than it would be here, where at times they almost invite it. So given the circumstances I was in shock when I hear from her again three years later. I’d been out of school for a while and living in Bel Air with Steve, working for High’s and about to get promoted to adjunct accountant. I’m not sure where she got my email address, but I welcome the letter with the thirst of a landed blue whale. Here’s how it goes.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: August 23 2003
Subject: All Cleared

Hey Brian,

How are you? God, it’s been awhile eh? I’m assuming you finally got out of that rat trap? Well, since I kinda left you hanging I thought I better clue you in on what happened to me. I ended up at this place called Grove Creek , and it was hell. They watched us all the time, never giving us any privacy, even had female nurses with us when we showered, right in the bathroom – luckily we had curtains on the stalls! But saying this, there was this one therapist, Ginger Jacobs, who I did sorta connect with. She was youngish and slightly hip (she liked the Cure), and seemed to understand what I went through as a child victimized by someone I alternately wanted to make my boyfriend and alternately wanted to kill, and the resulting obsession with my weight. I was really fucked up at Amberly and I’m sorry we had to meet under those circumstances. Well, now I’m back in Seattle, or, Lake Wammabagi, a suburb of it, living at home. I’m actually working at Pizza Hut, can you believe that? Me, goth girl, serving up hot pies and salads and pitchers of Bud. The only salvation is the jukebox, which I waste too much money on while there. At least it’s computerized, hooked up to the internet, so I can listen to some half-decent music (Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Division, Interpol and the Strokes, you know, Siouxsie and the rest). Through the suggestion of my psych Mary, I’ve even reluctantly talked with my parents in therapy a few times. Mary’s actually kinda cool: a lot cooler than Dr. Kratz That earth-hugging psychopath. Things are guardedly better with them but I’ll never be able to forgive them, and I gotta accept it and move on, try and salvage some type of relationship with them, even if it’s not worth it. I’m not in a terribly great place, but nowhere near where you saw me that night at Amberly. I’m really sorry for what I put you through Brian. I’ll always remember how sweet you were to me and you may have saved my life. Who knows what I was gonna do with the rest of those pills? Maybe we can hook up one day when I get out of this house. Miss ya.




From: Brian Garry
To: Jennifer Gants
Date: August 24 2003
Subject: RE: All Cleared

God Jen I’m so happy to hear you’re outta the nuthouse and back home. When I found you that evening I was worried, now I’m happy you’re dealing with your problems even though you have to live with your treacherous family. Hope you can salvage something from that mess. You deserve all the happiness in the world. Me, well, I’m living in Bel Air, MD, either a suburb or these days what they’re calling an exurb of Baltimore, and it’s just as lame as it sounds: teenage boys in tricked-out Hondas, little lasses with the daisy dukes, nice lawns, soccer moms, and a bunch of new development, you know, Joe Average Baltimorean Outgrowth Bedroom Community. No action, none for me anyway, living with my friend from school, Steve. Happy Hour at DuClaws and trips to Towson and Baltimore and home turf Severna Park, and once in awhile D.C. or trips to Philly to see some cats we know.

Ah … you’re all the way out on the other coast. I hope we can meet up again soon. Maybe when one of us saves up enough money and gets a cheap flight. Here’s my aol IM in case you catch me online: BrianGarry. Real fuckin original, eh? You work at Pizza Hut and I work at High’s, we’re both really setting the world on fire. Hey, beats Amberly. Here’s my number when you get the chance: 410-420-9682. Call me or get back to me on aol. I’m on a lot at night, jerking off to porn. Haha. Glad to hear you’re doing well.

Miss You Too,



From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: August 28 2003
Subject: RE: All Cleared

You, jerking off at online porn? No, please tell me it’s not true. Not my precious Brian! I’m gonna tell Dr. Kratz and your ass is going to the hole! Duke! Duke! I’m doing pretty well at Pizza Hut, well enough that they are letting me train other waitresses. I know, who knew I’d find my calling? I’m up to 96 pounds, up 10 from when you knew me. But I’m short you know, like 5’2”. I’m little, remember?! So I’m not that small, not that skinny. I met this dude Seth at the mall. He works in the record store there. He’s 26, into Skinny Puppy and other goth industrial stuff. He asked me out and we saw a show in the city last night, some industrial metal band called Crucifixication. I know, horrible name, eh? Anyway, he has dyed black hair, dresses like me, black, is pale like me, is misanthropic like me, and is kinda cute in a weird, brooding way – like me! Kidding. Plus he’s skinny like me. Won’t get fat around him. I’ll try and give you a call soon.

Take care,


I answer her like I did last time, and I don’t hear from her for like a month or two. And this is what she says when I do.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: October 14, 2003
Subject: Life or something

Hey Brian,

Long time no talk, eh? How are you? Sorry I haven’t mailed you, been really busy. I gained like four more pounds and broke the three-digit barrier, but felt so bad about them (all four of’m, not to mention having made the big three) that I started puking again and my parents caught me and things were a little dicey again. Me and Seth are doing so-so, he seems to want sex as much as I don’t want it, and we haven’t quite gotten there yet, just fooling around. Oh boy, like I say, he’s a guy! We’ll see what happens, but, you know, I may be little and I may be a girl but I have rights, you know? Anyway, still at Pizzaslut and I hate it, the boss, Ernie, is dumb as a brick and all these adolescent high schoolers and college losers are making me want to go back and finish school, but I have awhile before I can register and things here aren’t the greatest. If my parents hadn’t caught me puking things would be better for me at home. Seth wants us to get a place together; he currently lives in an apartment in his folks’ basement, but, hell, I haven’t hardly gave’m head yet, let alone live with him? Slow down cowboy, Mr. Dark and Angry.

I’m friendly again with Sue and Jennifer, my best friends from high school. They still live in the area, been hanging out with them. Jennifer (we used to be Jen #1 – me, and Jen #2 – her. Clever) is about to get married to some guy in med school. He’s cute too, and totally different from me. She’s changed, a lot more straight-laced, an elementary school teacher, no more dark Vampire lipstick. Both Sue and she have finished school and Sue is in grad school to get her MFA in writing, something that interests me. I feel a little weird around them though, like they’ve changed and I’m still the same troll who listens to Morrissey and the Smiths and paints her nails black – sometimes. Anyway, miss you, hope we can chat soon online or on the phone. I got your handle and number.


From: Brian Garry
To: Jennifer Gants
Date: October 14, 2003
Subject: RE: Life or something

Hey kiddo,

Long time no talk no kiddin, was startin to think you ran off and married that Seth character. Sounds like things are progressing, even though you had a little slip-up there. All things considered, glad they caught you. Don’t want you sick like you were. Please, I’m begging, you’re beautiful, and a few more pounds would only add to your pale, brooding beauty. Don’t give it up to Seth, that ass, or at least make’m work for it. If he’s too pushy tell’m I’ll come looking for him. Been thinking about coming out there, but I’ll wait until you get out of the house. Pizzaslut Highslut. I hate my job too, except they made me some type of lay accountant, which I can hopefully parlay into some weenie (but well-paying) corporate job with benefits, get some goddamn healthcare. My luck I’ll need it. Anyway, jump on IM sometime. Hang in there, you’re doing good. Call me. I’d like to hear your voice.

Talk to you soon,


We indeed talk a couple times and keep emailing, but then things started to change. Here’s a glance.

From: Jennifer Gants
To: Brian Garry
Date: December 17, 2003
Subject: Breakin’ Up

Hey Bri,

How are you? Hope your job is doing good. Me and Seth broke up. I’m pretty bummed about it but he started acting nasty to me, telling me if I loved him I’d have sex with him. Original, eh? Guess the occasional BJ wasn’t enough for him. Well, screw’m, the loser.

Anyway, I moved outta the house and got a place in Capitol Hill with my friend Sue. My parents are glad to have me out of their hair, me and my sullen attitude and loud music and weird friends. Like Sue is weird. Come on. Not anymore, or not like she was, no more blue hair. She’s like a refined punk now, politically aware Betty Boop-looking thing. Please. They hated Seth, but he was an ass, though unfortunately that’s the kind of guys I go for, not sweet ones like you Brian. Here’s a kiss. Actually, now that I’ve moved out we seem to be getting along better. I actually passed out again the other day, must have skipped a couple meals there while I was working at my new job. But don’t worry, I’m fine. I can eat, I’m not fat. I’m little! Remember?

Gotta go, Call you soon!


From: Brian Garry
To: Jennifer Gants
Date: December 19, 2003
Subject: I’m glad


I’m glad you dumped Seth, that dumb, mopey fuck didn’t realize what he had. Now maybe there’s a chance for me? Haha. I’d like to come out sometime and check out your new place in Capitol Hill. You and Sue still fighting over the TV? I just want you happy and healthy and it was cool chatting with you online yesterday, you seemed somewhat sunny. You’re in my thoughts a lot and I’m glad you made 1000 bucks last week bustin your ass at that swanky place. I’m sure you have plenty of suitors there, no? Just keep at it. I’ll try and give you a call before Christmas.



When I called her the next day she wasn’t there, nor was she a week later, nor the week after that. A month or so goes by without contact and then this.

From: Sue Billingshead
To: Brian Garry; gleboweicz@hotmail.com; bspanagon@yahoo.com; reni2times@ …
Date: February 15 2004
Subject: In memoriam

Hello everyone,

This is Sue Billingshead, Jennifer Gants’ best friend and I have sad news. As some of you know Jen and I have been living together in Capitol Hill in Seattle for awhile now. Well, I’m extremely sorry to say Jen has passed away. I walked in yesterday evening and found her laying in the bathroom next to the tub, not moving. I called the paramedics and they said she had likely been dead since the morning. This hurts me very, very much because I really loved this girl, we all did. I’ve been close to her since middle school. As some of you know, she was coming back from a very bad time. But things were going deceptively good. She had just gotten a waitress job at McMannus downtown, making good money, and planned to go to school next semester to finish up her degree in English. She had a good core group of friends, some old ones like me and Jennifer Acostia, and some new ones. She even had a boyfriend for awhile there, and recently started dating this great guy she met at a party here, an architect. Despite some rocky patches things were looking up. But her demons were crafty and many. While she had initially gained some weight in her battle with anorexia, this past month or so she began shriveling away again, and hiding it with extra clothing and even cooking a bunch for a dinner party we hosted. I can’t help but feel a little responsible, and couldn’t believe how thin she had gotten again when I saw her on the floor. I knew she was gone but I was hoping for a miracle. She’s with God now.

The funeral will be held at Lowe’s Funeral Home in Lake Wammabagi this Saturday, with a viewing Friday night, same place. The address is at the bottom of the email. Let’s all keep Jennifer and her family in our prayers as they go through this awful time.

I’m devastated, we lost an incredible girl, an incredible friend. Listen, whoever reads this, let’s not let Jennifer’s death be in vain, let’s all keep a closer watch on the ones we love, because pain and deviance go together. Really, none of us had any idea the demons that had controlled her came back, and so swiftly. Jen battled, but in the end those demons had their day, but they can’t take away what she meant to those who knew and loved her. She’ll be missed and wherever you are Jen, up in heaven, in the ether, stretched out blazingly over the universe, we miss you and LOVE you and may you REST IN PEACE. You’ll live on in the hearts of many.

Sue Billingshead, Jennifer Acostia

P.S.: If you can, please join me in donating to www.nationaleatingdisorders.org. I don’t want another person to suffer like Jen did.

That’s why I don’t think about Jennifer Gants too often, and why I hadn’t mentioned her yet. And that’s why I won’t mention her again. Jennifer Marie Gants, may you rest in peace.

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