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Jess

Prose, Veronica Wasson


And then Jess, her beautiful Jess, with crew cut, suit jacket, Doc Martens. A party at Rose’s apartment and Veronica never went to parties but something prompted her. And there was Jess, the magnetic center of any conversation.

Never one to introduce herself, Veronica hung back, drowning, seeking only to be rescued, resuscitated, pulled to shore, tresses wet and dripping on the sand, she waited outside the circle. Later she took a cigarette from her pack and Jess was there lighter flicked open to bring the flame to the cigarette’s tip. She quivered within, mothlike, aflutter. Her handsome gallant Jess.

What was said was said awkwardly. This was something she had been practicing. Leaning into her social awkwardness. If the other person was suave, they would take the reins and guide the conversation. And if not that was OK too, they would muddle through it together. There was nothing to do but press on.

She mumbled her own name and it fell from her lips like another person’s name – Veronica, she said, Veronica.

Like a found object, musique concrète, her name rolled on Jess’s tongue wryly, as Jess said Well Veronica I’ve been looking in this world but my hands are tied, I know who I am but not what I am, if our eyes meet in Rose’s Los Angeles apartment, across pot smoke and heavy bass, if I glide into your field of vision gallant and suave, then don’t mistake me, dearest Veronica, don’t mistake what you see.

If Jess glides on Doc Martens, comfortable in a suit jacket, lighter flicking in deft hand beneath Veronica’s cigarette, the tip glowing up orange as a firefly pulses in the hot summer night, in this cave of sudden intimacy, then —

Veronica inhaled sharply. Always one to hang back, the glass woman, the fragile woman, ready to break. Her shards will glint, hard as diamond, refracting a thousand lights around her. She will be empty and cold. Smashed into a myriad tiny fragments. Laid bare, stripped, glittering.

She was unseen, the unseen child, the girl who vanished when nobody looked, who vanished from herself, in cunning silence, like the fox that hunts on silent paws snatching the hen in its jaws quick as death. The invisible girl. The monster slumbering.

She imagined her blood as a red fire that cooled when it touched the air. The skin that held herself, enclosing all of her stars and suns, her tiny novas, her moons. At night her moons orbited inside of her pulling their tides in their wake, her tidal blood.

Jess said Well Veronica we are at this party, there is Rose in her denim overalls one strap loose. There is Rose a tall drink of water, her grandmother once described her this way, that Rose is a tall drink of water, she’s a peculiar child that Rose, certainly a peculiar one.

Dearest Veronica said Jess, I see the tremor in the muscle in your cheek, where you have carefully applied blush, I see the quiver of your eyelid, where you have carefully applied shadow, here in the shadows, I see how you hold yourself, defiant, I see the sweep of your thoughts, I don’t know you, we’ve only just met, but I feel that I know you.

The sudden leap into emotional intimacy as if leaping a gap, when previously she would have held back, that feeling was new to Veronica like the sensation of stepping into a Ferris wheel, closing the metal bar over her lap, the machine shudders forward and her stomach falls but the cabin glides forward and upward, the park spread out like candy lights below her.

As a girl she hated the roller coaster but she loved the Ferris wheel, although it scared her, that sudden lurch. As a girl she loved bright lights, colors, she hated noise and crowds. At the face-painting booth she sat grave and silent, face painted like a cat’s, watching, motionless except for her flicking tail.

In the playground she played hopscotch by herself, tossing a piece of chalk or a pebble. Righting herself, balance recovered. She wore sneakers but she wanted a pair of saddle shoes, brown leather saddle shoes from Buster Brown. She saw a drawing once in a book, of a little girl rolling a hoop with a stick. The girl wore a pinafore dress and a beret. A black cat followed her. She was fascinated by the girl with the hoop, wondering if the hoop would roll away down a hill, wondering how the hoop stood upright, like a bicycle wheel without a bicycle, a perfect circle, a round companion that rolled along before the girl, leading the way, eternally.

In the playground she watched the other girls jump rope. Counting out the rhythm. At night she cried bitterly.

Hardly a day goes by, her mother said. I mean really, her mother said. These men, these stuck-up know-it-all men, these tenured full-of-themselves so-and-so’s. Oh not all of them of course.

The soothing noise of her mother typing on the IBM Selectric. The papers strewn across the dining room table, so they ate dinners on a blanket on the living room floor like a picnic. Stacks of manuscript pages marked in blue pencil. What is a dissertation. It’s very long. It’s about Simone de Beauvoir. And so it is.

What is a pinafore, what is a smock, what are jacks. She never wanted a doll, a doll in a little stroller. Mommy look. Look. Doll baby is taking a nap. Doll baby sleeps. Doll baby dreams the dreams of infants, opaque and mysterious, the glassy eyes beneath long lashes.

I don’t like parties, she said, but I came tonight. I don’t know why. I’ve known Rose since well forever.

After the party you’ll come back to my place, Jess said. We’ll climb the stairs to the third floor landing, you’ll take off your jacket in the narrow foyer, I’ll put on a mix tape of 70s disco, turning it up so loud it’s impossible to talk and we’ll sit together on my threadbare sofa. I’ll put my feet on your lap and you’ll unlace my Doc Martens.

I grew up all over but mostly San Diego, Jess said. A scrawny little skater punk. Shaved my head. Dirt biked until I fucked up my leg. Read all the queer lit I could get my hands on.

She unlaced Jess’s Doc Martens with clumsy fingers. She cherished her clumsiness in that moment. Her awkwardness was grace. She could only be herself in that moment. She could only move as she moved, fumbling.

Remembering the pier. Laughing she played skee ball, missing all but the easiest throws, the 10 and 20 point. She bought ice cream and Rose bought cotton candy. Sea gulls watched, perched on pylons that stuck up from the sloshing oily water. She wore a summer dress and the sun warmed her and sweat pooled at the small of her back.

Rose said My friend Veronica you are open with me, you walk lighter and you look at ease, you strike a model’s pose, you laugh, we have been free today two friends laughing at the pier.

Rose said My friend Veronica let us always be this way, through thick and thin, through ups and downs, through trials and tribulations, through high points and low points, through the summer rain and the winter sunlight that falls thinly through the trees.

Veronica knew it. She knew it as the gulls knew the rhythm of the waves, as the Ferris wheel knew the sweep of the sky. White clouds bumped against each other, lazy as sail boats.

She imagined another version in which she did not unlace the Doc Martens, did not sit on the threadbare couch, did not climb three flights, did not leave the party. Did not see the black and white photographs pinned to Jess’s wall. Vita Sackville-West, Josephine Baker, Greta Garbo.

Handsome Jess, she said, I saw your fragile outline, the skater punk, the smirk. Your survival instinct. A word, a movement, a gesture. At the party I held a cigarette poised on my lip and dug in my purse for matches, I nodded toward the flame that you held with a nonchalance I can only assume was practiced, for I’ve practiced it. I practiced it then, leaning forward, holding back a loose strand of hair from the flame. Inside you are that skater punk, that scrawny kid in San Diego, defiant and lonely.

And Jess, handsome Jess, in suit jacket, Doc Martens, heavy keychain on your belt loop, leaning nonchalant. Do you feel the pain. You tread your path. I’m scared, thought Veronica, but aren’t we all. Scared as I enter a room, but only for a moment, the fear of the threshold, the fear of the debutante, only I never blush.

Take my arm Jess. Let us promenade. In Veronica’s mind this unfolded inevitably. Here in the room she fumbled. She fell into the four-on-the-floor that boomed from Jess’s stereo. She steered with her body. Jess said to her, baby there’s no pressure, let me tell you about my fears, if I drop one of them I don’t bend to pick it up, I just go on, smooth sailing.

The space they created was as fragile as a birds’ nest. Its walls were this cave of sound. The shelter of the threadbare couch. Veronica was no longer the drowning woman, Jess no longer the gently mocking bon vivant. They moved like Vita, like Josephine, like Greta. Watched over by the sardonic ghost of Simone de Beauvoir exhaling a benediction of smoke from her Gauloise while Jean-Paul moved around somewhere offstage in a haze of phenomenology.

They didn’t speak, they couldn’t speak. These two in their shadows. Well Veronica it’s just your body, Jess said. Move how you wish to be moved.

The clumsy girl, the awkward girl, the girl humiliated at any party. Oh but hush. Don’t overthink. Jess’s fingernail lightly on her cheek. Gain pleasure. You fear that you are drowning. Afraid to name it. She whispered Veronica’s name, the name that tumbled flowing from her like a brook, Jess whispered again, Veronica, again.


 

Veronica Wasson (she/her) lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has studied writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and her work has appeared in Mulberry Literary.


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