Thursday, July 15, 2010

“And all this is folly to the world” by CJ Hallman

Last year, when Mark and Jamie were sleeping side-by-side in a house on the beach, when they were riding bikes together in national parks and arguing about politics (Jamie, though perhaps as much a sympathetic socialist in theory as Mark, simply couldn't reconcile her hard-work, capitalist escape from an economically disadvantaged background with the idea of income redistribution), when they were strolling with warm Starbucks cups through art galleries, when Mark was dolling out small portions of his trust fund on foodie dinner dates in restaurants with oddly-shaped plates and hauntingly sparse decor, when Jamie was trying to convince all of her graduate school friends that Mark wasn't just an aimless, ambition-less millionaire's son, back then, at some point, a video came into existence, a future was determined, a ghost was born...

April now, a new year, and Jamie lies in bed beside a new man, a man not caution-to-the-wind wild and wealthy like Mark, but a man who is honest and who is stable and who will never cheat on her and who she knows loves her more than she will ever love him. The man, who has a receding hairline and works in finance and genuinely (and often tearfully) enjoys German opera, snores, and Jamie sits up in bed and looks at the clock—6 a.m. Early; she hasn't slept, but she isn't tired.

Since she saw the news the day before, Mark has been on her mind, has plagued her sleepless dreams: ambition-less, maybe; aimless, sure; but he is still rich and he is charming as anything and now he is running for office like a neo-JFK—striking, confident, poised, young—and he is married, newly, to a frail blond woman with bobbed hair and perfectly arched eyebrows.

(Do not want for more than has been provided; do not covet shiny things; do not long for the past, as its instigating circumstances have long passed and can never again be duplicated.)

Jamie digs around in a pile of clean laundry, pulls one of the man's college sweatshirts over her head, grabs her phone, tiptoes out of the bedroom and through the living room, and steps out onto the balcony. The sun is rising, glitter dancing on the city skyline, and Jamie squints into the scene. She deleted Mark's number from her phone months ago as per the man's request, but she soon finds her fingers dialing from memory. There is ringing, ringing, ringing, and finally Mark clears his throat and answers in a somewhat irritated, and devastatingly familiar, morning grumble...

Last year, there was period of time, an overlap, as Mark referred to it in his own head, when he ate lunch with the blond woman at clean-swept downtown bistros among very important people, and ate dinner with Jamie at hipster-filled Thai and vegan joints, when the smell of his cologne and his deodorant and his pheromones lingered on the bed sheets of two very different females, when his father called him daily and reported upon donors and investors and campaign finance and the utmost importance of a clean public image, a time when he would look at Jamie and see a girl with fanciful thoughts in her head and instability in her soul and a tattoo of a phoenix on her upper arm, when he would look at the blond and see a woman with manicured fingernails and perfect posture and a coquettish way of deflecting personal questions, a time when he was torn apart with indecision about whether he should stand for something or simply fall to his knees and ask Jamie for her hand...

It is just past 9 a.m. and the Burger King off the Interstate where he agreed to meet her is littered with truckers and en-route road-trip families smacking hash browns and slurping sugary orange juice. At a booth, Jamie sits, nervously shaking her leg and staring at the two cups of coffee she ordered, hoping that Mark will arrive before his goes cold.

(Do not worry, for worry is derived from distrust and you should always trust that the world has your best interests at heart; trust in spite of yourself, in spite of the evidence that suggests you should not, in spite of that feeling in your stomach like you're going to be sick; trust.)

Seconds later, Jamie watches out the fingerprint-pocked window as Mark's SUV pulls into the parking lot. He parks crookedly in a space beside the dumpster, away from all the other cars, and a full minute passes before he finally steps out and charges inside. He is wearing dark sunglasses, and makes a straight line to Jamie's table. He sits down. He removes the lid from the cup of coffee she bought him, stares inside it for a moment, and then presses the plastic back on. He says, "So, should I be concerned about you poisoning me, or what?"

Jamie shrugs. "Take off your sunglasses, Mark. We're inside, and you're not so important that anyone's gonna recognize you. Not at Burger King. Get over yourself."

He does not remove his glasses. He pushes the cup away from him. A child across the restaurant shouts, "I don't like French toast!" and the child’s mother tells him that she doesn’t care.

Jamie removes a clear case containing a CD labeled in sharpie, "Mark Coleman’s Wild Life: 3somes, whips, chains, men, drugs, etc." from her purse. She stands up and with this CD, disappears from Mark's sight. She returns a moment later, still holding the disc and now also a handful of creamer packets and a stirrer. She sits down and sets the CD on the tabletop, keeps it close to herself.

Mark sighs and says, "You look pregnant in that. Whatever that is."

Men, Jamie thinks, never notice details and thus never remember the names of the things that define girls—mascara, blouses, blush, pencil skirts, etc; everything is just “whatever” to men; men, Jamie thinks, are inherently doomed to total self-absorption; even their thoughts about women are ultimately just thoughts about themselves. She glances down and ties the bottom of her shirt into a knot, tightens the material against her body, like a girl in the 80s, like a desperate girl, like a frustrated girl. She sucks in her stomach and says, "Jesus. Fuck you. I've actually lost weight. Do I really look pregnant? Fuck you."

Mark slips his cell phone from his pocket and glances at its screen. He puts it away again. "Jesus. You sound like a trucker. My wife," he says, "is pregnant. She told me yesterday, last night, I mean. After I announced my candidacy."

Jamie dumps three packs of creamer in her coffee. "Congratulations." She stirs the white into black. "I'm sure it will be as Aryan and beautiful as its mother. Carry on the political legacy or whatever. How very thrilling for you both."

"Yeah, well."

There is silence; families begin to leave, well-fed and anxious to hit the road, anxious to escape the concrete city, to gape at fields crowded with cows, to gape at giant balls of string, and patriotic gift shops, and roadside museums brimming with pseudo-artifacts, brimming with sleazy small town businesspeople making iffy historical claims.

“Have some coffee, Mark. I bought it for you.” Jamie pushes the cup towards him. Mark does not touch it; he doesn’t even want to look at it.

"I talked to my father,” he says, “He thinks we should just settle this now, Jamie. How much do you want? Be reasonable, and I can have the money to you by this afternoon."

But she doesn’t want his money, and she tells him this. She tells him what she does want, and she stares at him all the while, stares at her own reflection in his Ray Bans, or whatever.

(Do not lie; be honest; liars go to hell; speak truth; speak.)

And he remembers at this moment something that he had forgotten, thought he had forgotten, had tried to forget—the intensity of her eyes, undomesticated, eyes of an unpredictable animal, eyes that draw men in and promptly scare them away, eyes that, if buildings or stars or lies, would surely collapse under their own weight...

Last year, when Jamie found the blonde's number in Mark's phone, when she discovered the jewelry store charge on the credit card statement, when she developed an infection and received the doctor's diagnosis, when she confronted Mark about his double life, when she was too hurt to even cry and instead smoked an entire pack of Marlboro Lights in one sitting and swallowed down several fiery shots of vodka, when she sped off in her Pathfinder and drove in silence and without destination through the city and the suburbs, and when she finally found herself sitting in a throw-back movie theater just east of downtown watching an Audrey Hepburn double feature, and when between "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "Roman Holiday" a man two seats over with kind eyes and a receding hairline and a college sweatshirt and a self-assured voice asked her about the sour candy she'd purchased with Mark's credit card from the concession stand, when at some point, a year later, she found herself living with this same man rent-free and attending the opera and being showered with compliments and co-planning a romantic getaway to Morocco and being sincerely surprised each time he showed up at her office with her favorite frozen coffee drink and sleeping in his old clothes and living without fear that he would ever leave her and co-existing comfortably, and when she saw the grinning blond and Mark on TV, when she heard him announcing his plan to take the state, to succumb to ambition and success and a somewhat-self-made future, when all of this happened, at some point, Jamie realized that life and love, they are not parallel structures...

It is ten a.m., and Burger King is nearly empty. Behind the counter, two teenage employees, both slightly overweight girls with bad skin, playfully lip-sync to a pop song that crackles softly over the speakers. They occasionally erupt into giggles.

(Do not compromise; do not sign contracts; do not, for anything, ever give your soul away.)

"You," Mark says, "were always the one who told me I should do something with my life. You," he says, "were always the queen of these grand adventures."

Jamie nods. She keeps one hand on the CD case on the tabletop. She does not move her hand; her hand does not shake.

"You are shooting yourself in the foot here," he says. He is beginning to sound desperate, she thinks. "What will this do to you, Jamie.” he says it like a statement. “You'll never be able to keep a job. That guy you're with will leave you. I mean, for the rest of your life you'll just be the girl who fucked a failed politician. The whore who scored drugs and accompanied him in all of his sexual exploits, and who was dumb enough on top of that to film it all. Hell, if the media spins this right, they'll probably make you look like the one who egged it all on. They'll ruin you, too," he paused, "Unless you're looking for a career in porn. But, and I apologize for being blunt here, you don't exactly have the physique for that kind of thing."

Jamie casts her gaze downward and slowly unties the knot in her shirt. She says, "Fuck your campaign, Mark. Please. Let's go somewhere.” She lowers her voice. "Let's go to France or Ethiopia or Tibet. Or Idaho. Fucking Idaho. I don’t even care. Somewhere. Anywhere."

Mark's eyes flicker as he studies her face. He does not speak for a moment, as though he is actually considering her proposal, her demands, as though he is considering the way a diamond ring might sparkle on her finger, considering the way her shirt would fit if her stomach really housed a baby.

"I have a wife,” he says finally, same as he said before. “A sweet, beautiful, loving wife. And a kid on the way. A real career in front of me. Commitments. Don’t do this to me. Please, Jamie. You don't want to do this."

Jamie cannot look at him. She stares instead out the window at an approaching couple, in their sixties or seventies maybe, dressed in coordinating sweat suits, with thinning gray hair and spider web wrinkles on the corners of their eyes and fat rolls around their middles. They are smiling, surely content, somehow, this couple, and they are even holding hands, propping each other up; the man only lets go for a few seconds, and only to open the door for the woman. The teenagers behind the counter stop play-singing and return to work, to taking and filling orders, to serving these two happy people.

(Do not doubt the existence of order; for doubt only serves to inhibit love; serve each other and feel its grasp.)

Jamie spoke. "Remember when you told me that I made you want to be a better person, and I, I laughed at you because I thought that was so stupid, like something some dope in a romantic comedy would say?"

Mark nods. "Yeah,” and then he snorts, laughs a little, catches himself. "That was, like, the worst possible reaction anyone could have had. I was so pathetically in love with you, Jamie. And you laughed at me. You always laughed at me. Christ Almighty. Maybe you never even loved me at all. Maybe I made the right call."

Jamie's eyes narrow, collapsing maybe, and she stands up abruptly. She grabs her purse in one hand and her coffee cup in the other; on her way out the door, on her way out of his life, she throws the cup in the trash; that little trash can door swings; back and forth, back and forth, and the old couple, still holding hands, make their way to a booth...

Today, when Mark removes his sunglasses and is startled by how bright the room seems, when he finally picks up his coffee cup, lukewarm, and holds it like a shield in front of his face, when he is reminded of the way Jamie swings her left hip more than her right as she walks, when he watches her leaving the restaurant and climbing into her car and exiting onto the Interstate, when he imagines himself married to her and her tattoos and her liberal arts degrees instead of to the blond and her boutique clothing and her Ivy League diction, when he sees the way his life would play out with this girl who once backpacked around Thailand with a bandanna in her hair and glitter on her cheeks, when he understands that with this girl there would be no escape from his feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, and when he understands that he would never be able to make this girl feel deeply happy or merely satisfied or even simply secure, when he glances down at a spot of creamer on the tabletop and notices that she's left the CD, which also reads in small letters "master copy," and when he realizes that she must have changed her mind and that there's no one left to hide from, that there's nothing left to fear—

(Do not speak; just be thankful; for when you speak, you curse. In the Garden of Eden, you know, that snake, it, like Adam, had a tongue.)

—he jerks the coffee cup up to his lips, and he drinks.

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