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‘Jennifer’s Secrets’ by Kathy Stevens

You know her name already – I was never a guy for pointless introductions. I should say what she looked like, how she smelled, what she studied. Her major, if we’re going to speak like Americans. Maybe these things’ll come out and maybe they won’t but I’m damned if I’m going to make a list out of her. Introductions are such bullshit; something we’re taught to do as kids. I’m old enough to reject them now altogether. She’s bullshit too, I know that now and if I’m completely honest I think I had a clue even then, seven long years ago, when we met. I’ve since made the conscious decision that she isn’t important to me anymore but that’s bullshit too, isn’t it? Five years since I’ve seen her and I’m still clogging up my hard drive with half-baked odes to her memory, full to brimming with cliché. Everyone knew her name, that’s just the kind of girl she was. We’ve all known a Jennifer. 

The first thing you should know about her is that she was ludicrously far out of my league. She should never have approached me in the first place. If anything I should have tried my luck with her, but I wasn’t drunk enough to bother, the first time I met her. I almost shit myself when she turned to me in the student union and asked the name of the song the DJ was playing. It was ‘Billie Jean’ for fucksake. Who the hell has to ask for the name of ‘Billie Jean’? Jennifer, that’s who. If she’d been any less good-looking I would probably have taken the piss a bit, patronised her – I wasn’t nice when I was eighteen but in my defence I don’t think anyone’s all that stand-up at eighteen. You’re still thinking with your dick at that age; I know I was. Jennifer had this way of lowering your expectations about her to the point you’d began to think she was some vacuous (albeit extremely hot) loser with no clue about anything, then she’d wallop you with the most impressive skill or bit of knowledge or kindness and before you knew it you were on your knees again. Sometimes literally – I won’t go into that though; I’m not completely devoid of class any more. So I told her the name of the song and hit her with some eighties pop trivia too, for good measure, but I could see by the way her huge brown eyes were looking somewhere just over my right shoulder that she’d stopped listening. It never occurred to me then that she already knew more about music than I did. It never occurred to me that she was just as nervous talking to strangers as I was, or that she might even fancy me a bit. I could see I was losing her by the time I got to Duran Duran so I said ‘Can I buy you a drink?’, and she said ‘Yes’, and four hours later she was naked and straddling me on my single bed. Twenty minutes after that she was being sick in my ensuite toilet. It’s daft, I know, but I’m so glad she was sick that night. I really believe that if we’d done the deed, cuddled a bit after and parted in the morning vomit-free then that might well have been that. But as it was she’d mildly humiliated herself, and she’d got red-wine vomit all over her slutty gold dress, which lay abandoned on my bathroom floor like a pool of liquid metal. She took a shower and I gave her my XL Metallica T-shirt to wear. In the morning, I left her in my room and went to source the makings of a bacon butty for us. But as I joined the queue in the student union shop I suddenly panicked that she might be vegetarian, so I went to find some cheese for cheese on toast. When I got to the front of the queue again it struck me that she might be vegan, or at the very least a healthy eater. So, not wanting to look like a slob in front of her, I went around the shop once more and put the bacon back, picked up cereal, dairy free milk, three types of herbal tea, oranges, apples and bananas and – on a complete whim – a bunch of chrysanthemums. Though I didn’t know they were called that at the time. Back then, they were all just flowers to me. 

It was as I was walking back laden with bags of all sorts of things I’d never use and sweating in the harsh morning sun that I realised what I’d done. It was an innocent mistake, to have locked her in my room like that. I was a safety-conscious chap, even at that tender age, and rarely left so much as a transom window open when I went out. Oh fuck, I distinctly remember thinking. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. And I started to say it out loud. There was a guy from the Christian Union preaching to a bunch of hung-over looking students at the bus stop by my building. He always preached at bus stops; it was the only place he could guarantee a captive audience. They looked around at me, with my overflowing bags of fruit, saying ‘oh fuck’ over and over, and seemed glad of the distraction. The teenaged preacher carried on obliviously as always. I heard him say ‘Jesus’ about ten times as I began to run to the door of my halls. As I put the key in my own door’s lock my heart was in my stomach and at real risk of falling out of my arse. But when I opened the door, my dry throat full of apologies and explanations for her, I caught sight of a pile of something golden on my pillow. Her hair was luxuriously free of last night’s sick-proof ponytail, and she was breathing softly, still out for the count in my bed. She would never know that I had accidentally locked her in my room, and more importantly, every student, lecturer and bus driver that I’d ever encountered in Bath would never know that I’d locked her in my room. How close I’d come to being known as Sex Offender. Weirdo. Creep. Oi! Weirdo, over here, my one remaining friend would have called to me across a crowded bar. The bus stop’s over there, by that sex offender, one student would have told another. When I saw her there I could have cried with the relief. 

I went over to where she lay swaddled in my Iron Man duvet (a parting joke from my father) and, making a quick decision, woke her by kissing her lips. She kissed me back, and it was the first real, sober kiss of our two year relationship. She reached up and stroked my face before even opening her eyes, and when she did finally look at me I could’ve sworn she was pleasantly surprised. I asked her if she’d slept well and she said ‘Yes, do you have any bacon?’ I chucked the flowers in the sink, got my keys and told her I’d be back soon. 

There always seemed to be so much potential, where Jennifer was concerned. I once had potential of my own, sure, way back when it was still conceivable that I might write comedy scripts for Radio 4, instead of burn myself out editing someone else’s copy for a dull grey square of a software magazine. Still, I was just another faceless bloke. I think even my own parents found me a little underwhelming. Not like Jennifer. Christ, that girl could make a first impression. She could steal a room, and often did just for fun. She could talk to anyone about anything. She could be sexy or funny or intimidatingly astute. Everyone knew, just knew, that she was going to be something really fucking impressive. Just as soon as she reached her potential. Just as soon as she applied herself. To what? To life, I guess. But Jennifer was one who never bothered to be the best she could be; she hardly bothered to be the second or third best either. She could shine in an exam, with her ability to bullshit anyone and everyone about anything at all. She’d take one cursory glance at a subject and then make it her own – challenge you to see it differently to her. After failing to read Antony and Cleopatra, she wrote two thousand words for her final on why Shakespeare was clearly a homosexual, and was so downright confrontational in her writing that the prof, probably out of fear, awarded her a 2:1. I’d grafted like a caffeine-fuelled monk: reading every scrap of material the library and the internet could offer; ignoring the sounds of summer – frying meat, laughter and cans of cider being popped open – going on just outside my window; watching my skin become ever paler, almost blue; generating a stack of notes as high as my knee, all on lined A4 and all in my spidery handwriting. I did all this, and was awarded 2:1 to match hers. Written beneath my mark was the barely legible signature of the marking prof, and one poxy line from him: Yes, but what do you really think? I dimly wondered why he’d underlined ‘really’, before chucking my essay in the bin along with all the spent cans of Red Bull. I think that was the day I lost all faith in academics. Worse than that, I became jaded, churlish. I drank more. I hardly read a thing apart from Kerouac. The only thing I annotated in my last year of university was a second-hand copy of A Confederacy of Dunces I’d found on the bus. I wore my hair differently and it became very important to me that I be perceived as cool. I got really good at sarcasm. I came out with a third class degree. 

The winter of 2011 seemed to go on forever. It should have been a time for us; for me and her to snuggle up together and watch crap movies from my single bed. But I couldn’t be bothered with her anymore, and anyway, I’d realised I preferred to watch movies at the cinema on my own. Most of the last instalment of my student loan went on Cinema City tickets for one and bottomless punnets of salty popcorn. I kept it official with her because it was easier than breaking it off. But it was over. It was very comforting to know that it was over and to also know that she had no idea it was over. I’d applied for an internship in France – I didn’t know it would be the first of many grey magazine jobs – and had somehow got it. So we had a deadline, me and her. I’d take what she’d give to me and I’d leave at a moment’s notice when what she had to give wasn’t to my taste. I cheated, naturally. I bided my time. 

I’d lent her my Jacobean Theatre essay and all my Ovid and Clarissa notes because she’d been in tears, crying to me that she didn’t understand a word of it, and I’d wanted some peace. If Richardson wasn’t already dead, I’d kill him – she told me this earnestly. I said it helped to read the books and she went off to sulk. Much later that night I’d got so horny I couldn’t even think straight so I thought, whatever, I’ll bite the bullet and go say sorry – those being the days when the rare circumstance of my apologising was almost entirely due to, and dependant on, what I thought I might be able to exchange for the word ‘sorry’. I found her in her room, alone, with all the curtains drawn tight shut and a musty, lonely smell in the air. I could tell she’d been sleeping or crying or something of the sort because it was so close in there. So hot and sickeningly organic. I wanted to open her window but stopped in my tracks when I heard classical music playing. I don’t know what the piece was. I just know it was really beautiful. The notes climbed, climbed… and fell, and in my mind I saw a fledgling bird trying to take flight for the first time and each time it took off, for all its trying, it’d fall back to earth. The bird and the music became more and more broken with each new development of the melody. It was sad and desperate and frustrated, that sound. I guess it was pure emotion, yeah, that’s probably the best way I can describe it. 

For a moment I thought I’d got the wrong room (she always came to mine), but then I peered round the frame and saw her cross-legged on her bed. And she was playing a violin. It struck me how different she looked when she didn’t know she was being watched. Not beautiful, exactly. Not even that pretty. Her back was slumped and hunched over her instrument, when it was usually erect, curved into a feminine S shape. Her hair was a state; she still hadn’t washed it from the night out before when we’d been clubbing and later argued about her letting a bloke kiss her on the dancefloor. It was a whole shade darker with grease, half up and half down. She shook her head minutely every few bars or so, and it spilt further out of the clasp which was nestled like a fat spider in the mass of fine, knotted hair at the nape of her neck. I realised after watching her a while that she shook her head when she got some part of the music wrong, though I didn’t know enough about music to tell if there was really anything wrong with what she was playing. I thought it odd for her to play something so specific. She bowed each note to its furthest extent, and just when I thought it would die, a single, sombre note in the room, she’d tease another over the top that was so unpredictable but undeniably perfect, that I couldn’t imagine how it had not been ringing out all along. It was urgent – her music – everything about it had to be NOW. Jennifer, the girl who fannied about at her studies and her life… never finding out until the last possible minute what she should have read or where she needed to be and habitually a half hour late for everything… sitting cross-legged on her bed and playing the violin. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Nor could I help be but affected by the music coming from her unassuming fingertips. In all my wisdom, I thought: If she’d just apply a fraction of this effort to her actual life, the things she could do. 

As I watched her I began to feel really stupid. I began to realise how stupid she was too. I mean, there was a whole entire layer of ridiculousness to her that I hadn’t even realised existed until then. She’d hidden herself from me so perfectly that I’d thought she was half the being she really was. She’d hidden what she saw as her ugliness under make-up and pouts and good posture – I knew that already. But she’d also hidden the best part of herself from me – of course I naïvely assumed she must therefore have hidden it from the world, but I later discovered she gave recitals monthly at several local churches – she’d hidden the part that wasn’t applied with a brush. Her music was so great I could’ve stood there and just listened and rocked in the dark of her doorway, stealing her most guarded emotions like a thief. 

I suppose you think that’s the day when I started to fall for her. Or when I realised I loved her. A normal bloke might have burst into a big hearty round of applause and given her a snog. Maybe I should have. The memory is a bit on the fuzzy side – a lot has happened since then – but I think the reason I just backed away and left without a word is that I felt like I’d committed a crime against her. She hadn’t wanted me to see her like that, to hear the music that caused her to shake her head as if a wasp was circling her. Maybe if I’d married her… one day, with a child or two chasing in the garden, she would have let slip after too many Proseccos with our Sunday lunch. She might even have got up from the wicker garden furniture and tiptoed into the house, a bit worse for wear, and told me to close my eyes. She might’ve emerged from behind me, playing a piece she’d been working on in secret. Maybe Brahms, or Vivaldi. Maybe something she’d written. But standing there watching her like that… I was a creepy bloke watching a woman undress from a bush beneath her window. One hand on the binoculars and the other down his pants. She made me feel like a rapist. She’d set me up for a crime and I knew it was over. 

Just now, I started writing a postcard to her. I don’t even know if her address is still the same. I moved out of the halls we shared as soon as I could after that day, spending my remaining months at uni in a house with three awkward demi-virgins. It stank and there was always a noise, but what you saw was what you got and I guess I was happy enough. She moved in with a bloke and then another (his friend) and then finally found a place on her own. I never saw the inside of it, but I passed it often enough on my bike; her flat was above a chippie, and on one of the many routes I could take to get to the university. It was the only route I ever took. I started writing a postcard but soon ran out of space and tore a page out of an A4 notebook and then another, but it wasn’t enough. I don’t think it’ll ever be enough. So I’ve written this to myself instead, typed it at my desk like it’s work and saved it in the file on my desktop called ‘Jennifer’s Secrets’. I don’t know why I called it that. The words are right but the term is wrong. Like that old Terry’s Chocolate Orange advert: They’re not Jennifer’s secrets, they’re mine. Another three thousand words, give or take, and I still can’t find a way to finish. I’ve weighed her up and I’ve loved and hated her in equal parts, and still, I’m none the wiser. The clichés are abundant and reassuring. I can’t reach the end. Such is life.

 

 

Kathy Stevens is currently a student on the Creative Writing (prose fiction) MA at the University of East Anglia, where she is the Kowitz Scholar. Her work has appeared in Prole, The Cadaverine, Supernatural Tales and Obsessed with Pipework, and is forthcoming in the Bath Short Story Award Anthology 2016, the Bath Flash Fiction Anthology 2016, the Patrician Press Anthology and Firefly.

 

 

Image credit: jessicahtam

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