Lisa meets Jenny the day after Christmas in the Burger King parking lot off Broadway. Jenny wears a black-and-gray checkered scarf with a braided fringe. Lisa recognizes the scarf instantly. She bought it five years ago from a former B-list actress hocking novelty items at a flea market in Los Angeles (Pasadena, technically).
Jenny doesn’t know this scarf once belonged to Lisa. Jenny doesn’t know much about Lisa, the person. Only Lisa, the ex-girlfriend. (Lisa, the slut.)
Lisa doesn’t need an introduction to Jenny, the fiancée. Lisa never put a ring on it, but she doesn’t judge Jenny for saying yes. There was a night, back in Boston (Allston, really), outside The Silhouette, while flicking popcorn kernels from their teeth, he pressed his hips into Lisa’s and promised he would follow her wherever she went, even if it meant moving to Auckland or St. Petersburg or worse, still, New Jersey.
Jenny planned to have a baby with him. She would give the baby some archaic Celtic name to honor his ancestry. The baby never happened. Instead, Jenny purchased a bus ticket to Newark. She took only her hunter-green duffel bag, electronic typewriter, and an elderly calico cat, Pickles.
Lisa blows up the air mattress in the center of her attic apartment: a one-bedroom with beige wall-to-wall carpeting. Brass chandeliers and a rusted claw-foot tub give the apartment its only sense of charm.
Jenny presses her nose against one of two dormer windows flanking the living room. Newark in January is a ghost town on a faraway planet. A trio of German shepherds stalks the perimeter of the used car dealership across the street. They bark at passersby, teeth rattling metal bars.
Those dogs are crazy, Lisa tells Jenny.
It’s a shame, Jenny says. To be locked up that way.
Over their exhaustive email chain, Lisa and Jenny joked about living in the Hamptons like the Bouvier women. They would wear fake furs, adopt twelve more cats, and dance.
Am I Big Edie? Lisa wrote.
Definitely Big, Jenny wrote back.
When the air mattress reaches its full capacity, Lisa collapses onto her back. You can take my bed tonight.
Jenny remains at the window. I can’t believe I said those things to you.
Lisa didn’t know what to write when she first read Jenny’s email. She’d typed: No, I did not mean what I meant.
Lisa and Jenny won’t talk about [redacted] for a while. They’ve been told that they shouldn’t until they’re ready. Both women have used that as an excuse to sidestep emotional landmines. Jenny has more of an excuse for this silence. Lisa left [redacted] two years ago.
Was there a timeline? An equation?
Lisa wanted to write back: I don’t know what you mean.
She wanted to ask: What is abuse, anyway?
The rhetorical is always safer.
[redacted] used to ask: What happened to you?
Lisa thinks Jenny has disrupted her ordinary life. Lisa enjoys her job writing copy for an environmental nonprofit, where she has two friends with whom she eats lunch. She could count the bouncer at her regular dive as a friend, too. Lisa attends Mass every Sunday, reads each night, but can never finish a book. She’s trying to do things that are good for her, but she’s not yet sure what those things are.
Lisa drives Jenny to the Social Security office, so Jenny can apply for SSI checks. Snowflakes sprinkle onto the windshield like confetti. Etta James plays from the radio. “A Sunday Kind of Love” on a Monday.
She sings like she’s in mourning, Jenny says.
Maybe she is, Lisa says.
Turn it off, Jenny begs.
Jenny is always crying. Jenny, broad-shouldered and braless, buzzed hair and septum piercing, is constantly fighting the feminine. But Jenny is fearful. She expresses her fear. Her nearly bald head radiates it. (Gendered? Maybe.)
Jenny imagined Lisa differently. [redacted] had said Lisa was one of the only beautiful women without makeup. Jenny imagined Lisa as effortless, maybe French, no zits, always wearing black. [redacted] mentioned that Lisa was a little crazy. Jenny didn’t expect Lisa to be so reserved. Or maybe Jenny did. [redacted] also claimed Lisa had a problem with expression.
Before [redacted], Lisa dated a man who was blonder and smarter and meaner but sober. They lived in a townhouse apartment—white-walled, stucco exterior, linoleum everything—on the UC Irvine campus while he completed his English PhD. Concentration: British Romanticism. The British Romanticist would quote Edmund Burke as they drove over the lush hills toward the smooth, white, cliff-lined beach (romantic). They sipped dark coffee in their scratched Ray-Bans and thrift shop clothing beside overheated Newport moms in cashmere pashminas. He read Lisa’s writing and said she had a feminine partiality (Burke). He was obsessed with beauty, with small expensive objects and postcard landscapes and her soft female body. He admired but did not love.
On their second anniversary, Lisa and the British Romanticist drove down Highway 73 toward Laguna Beach. The British Romanticist again quoted Burke. He thought it romantic.
Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime.
Lisa asked: But which is the true test—the infinity or the horror?
Lisa now fucks a twenty-two-year-old who cannot quote Burke. They drink at pubs along Market Street, rub their noses together on the bridge over the Passaic. Orange lights illuminate ripples on the black river. Shadows jutting from steel structures blanket their cheeks and foreheads (romantic). They sleep until 8 a.m. and fuck, careful and slow, until noon. She makes the pancakes; he makes the eggs.
Their second night together, the twenty-two-year-old tells Lisa to let him know if she’s ever uncomfortable during sex. Don’t be afraid to tell me, the twenty-two-year-old says.
Lisa wants to know if this story is interesting enough. Do you find that you need more clarity? Could the general feelings of malaise and meaningless sex be explored more surprisingly than what you see here?
Lisa watches Jenny sort out her pill cocktails each morning. One pill for complex PTSD, one for bipolar II, one for ADHD. Jenny swallows each pill with her eyes closed. As if in silent prayer.
Here’s something that Lisa thinks you might find interesting: Lisa once found a text on trauma, the sublime, and her favorite foreign film in the book stacks at the Newark Public Library. A coincidence? No—Lisa doesn’t believe in coincidences.
There was validation in the first paragraph. Something had happened, even if it resisted comprehension and understanding.
Lisa checked out the book and returned home to watch her favorite foreign film. She was happy. Amnesia could be a form of resistance, consciously or not. But we’re not concerned here with private forms of traumatic experience like rape, incest, or forms of primarily domestic terror.
Lisa is afraid to leave Jenny alone, but the office is busy; they are preparing for Women’s History Month. Lisa is tasked with compiling a slideshow for a presentation at a municipal ceremony on distinguished women scientists. In her cubicle, Lisa scrolls through a digital archive of responses to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
We can live without birds and animals, reads one anonymous letter-to-the-editor. (Gender unknown. Likely a man.)
As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! the letter writer continues. (Just like a man would!)
Lisa’s first serious boyfriend once called her hysterical, and then opened the passenger door of his Nissan and told her to get out. He didn’t like cats or dogs, never took Lisa to the aquarium, not even when she begged.
A few years later, she watched her roommate, the one from Arkansas, punt a tiny kitten across the kitchen. Don’t tell [the other roommate], he said. She’ll get hysterical.
But [redacted] liked cats and dogs. [redacted] took her to the aquarium.
[redacted] enjoyed all animals. The British Romanticist did, too.
Lisa cannot figure out this pattern.
Lisa takes Jenny into the city because she needs a break from the twenty-two-year-old. She also needs a break from sad Jenny, moping Jenny, refusing to brush her teeth and take her pills Jenny. This is not how Lisa meant to live.
Living well, without you, is the best revenge, they say.
(Who’s they? Lisa has never asked.)
In the upstairs alcove of an overpriced cocktail bar on the Lower East Side, Lisa and Jenny pretend to be more straight and less interesting. But they don’t attract any men—just a woman with cloudy gray eyes, her arms dotted with tiny, silver magnets. The woman wants to know their story.
Lisa and Jenny take turns explaining: man, abusive, depressive, emotional, asshole. He beat you? the woman asks. Oh no, they reply. Jinx! They speak in unison for the first time. As if they are one person.
After several rounds of Manhattans, the woman removes a deck of tarot cards from her purse. The edges are curled, slightly torn. She begins without being asked.
One, two, three.
You, the woman says to Jenny. You cannot make decisions.
The woman pulls three more cards. She turns to Lisa: There is no growth here.
Lisa and Jenny walk the High Line, dodging hand-holding couples as they head north toward Penn Station. Christmas trees still shine through spotless apartment windows. Lisa counts the trees one by one. She did this alone last year; couples do not bother her anymore. Jenny still tears up whenever a couple passes, yelps whenever a pregnant woman steps onto the subway.
The British Romanticist is married now and having a baby. Married to the type of wife who doesn’t mind if he says, I’m having a baby. Not even we’re having a baby, which Jenny finds a bit more equitable.
They reach the overhang that juts out over the avenue, completely boxed in by glass. What would you want a man to say? Jenny asks.
That I’m having his baby, Lisa says.
Possessive, Jenny remarks.
Did the British Romanticist want babies? Lisa can’t remember. Only that the British Romanticist was a self-proclaimed atheist, then, having spent much of his childhood at those redneck bible camps in Florida. Didn’t they proclaim their godlessness together, once, in the tiled courtyard of his Pico-Union apartment complex during their college years? He’d wanted Lisa to say it with him. But now the British Romanticist is married to a Catholic woman, even though he told Lisa that he would never marry in a church. Besides, the British Romanticist would say, you’re not Catholic enough.
[redacted] goes to church now, Jenny says, because of you.
Did it change him? Lisa asks.
Jenny smiles. He drinks later on Sundays.
Lisa and Jenny sit at the kitchen table, scooping marshmallows into their cereal. Jenny wears that scarf, the black-and-gray checkered one. This time, it’s twisted around Jenny’s head. An impromptu turban.
I like that scarf, Lisa says.
[redacted] gave it to me, Jenny says.
Lisa doesn’t correct her.
Pickles meows and bats a toy mouse around the kitchen table.
How did that woman know? Jenny finally asks.
Jenny nods. About us.
Lisa considers the woman, the one covered with magnets.
Maybe it was primal.
Maybe it’s just what you have to ask.
What is abuse, anyway?
Tarot is bullshit, Lisa says, collecting her purse and house keys.
Lisa calls out sick to wander along the Passaic. She resists calling the twenty-two-year-old, resists going to the liquor store. She used to walk along the Charles the same way, without the British Romanticist or [redacted].
When Jenny left [redacted], she threw the cubic zirconia engagement ring into a sewer somewhere on Commonwealth Avenue, rented a cheap sublet in East Boston, and bought a bus ticket to New Jersey. [redacted] showed up on her rickety back porch while she packed her duffel bag. [redacted] presented her with a gold-plated necklace and some catnip for Pickles.
Our passion is too strong, Jenny wrote to Lisa in an email. I’m okay, but you wouldn’t understand.
Lisa read Jenny’s email while riding the Path Train into the city.
What did Lisa witness, if she was a witness no one believed?
Lisa finds Jenny pacing along the fence of the car dealership. The German shepherds pace along with her, ears forward but silent. When the German shepherds see Lisa, they flip their ears back and bark, haunches creeping lower and lower toward the asphalt. Enough, Jenny whispers, and they stop.
Hysteria is knowing we cannot live without the birds and animals.
Hysteria is knowing what we cannot live without.
Jenny sometimes yells at Lisa in the middle of the night. She stands beside Lisa’s bed, pushes her shoulders until she wakes. She accuses Lisa of making [redacted] mean. A man is his collection of scars, and Jenny holds Lisa responsible for his.
Lisa didn’t understand, then, but she does now.
(The search for a feminist utopian anything only leads to disappointment.)
The twenty-two-year-old comes by in the middle of the night, once the bars have closed, and long after Jenny has passed out on the air mattress. He steps over Jenny and enters Lisa’s bedroom. He takes off his shirt, soiled with sweat and spent cigarettes, and wraps his arm around Lisa, who shivers under three layers of blankets.
Why do you put up with her? the twenty-two-year-old asks.
The rhetorical is always safer.
[redacted] used to ask: What happened to you?
The twenty-two-year-old is only twenty-two, but he likes to think he knows some things.
He holds Lisa closer. Guilt isn’t a very good reason.
When Lisa left the British Romanticist, she gave him this note. She thought it was romantic.
Astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror (Burke).
The German shepherds wake Lisa at 6 a.m. Lisa lies on her side, watches the light break over the Passaic. She dreamt of being handcuffed to a hospital bed, but she could not remember her disease.
The Passaic is gray this morning. There is never any blue in this city, in this state. Even the Atlantic is more green than blue. [redacted]’s eyes were always more green than blue.
A man reads this story and says: Maybe you should give [redacted] a name toward the end. As he develops.
Memory develops like film.
Lately, Lisa’s mind has been turning up blank.
Lisa rolls into the twenty-two-year-old, still shirtless, skin slick with sweat. She tells him about one of her sexual assaults, the one that happened before she met [redacted]; before she met the British Romanticist. The twenty-two-year-old turns on his back and begins to moan. He can’t look at her or the ceiling. He asks her to move the wastebasket beside the bed. He cries more than she does. She does not cry at all.
She is no longer horrified.
She is suspended.
This may be the horror.
The twenty-two-year-old wants to take this test about love. Or the language of love. To help us, he says. But the twenty-two-year-old has no idea. How can you love me? Lisa asks. The twenty-two-year-old leaves her key under the mat. Lisa leaves a striped sundress he bought her on his doorstep.
It’s hard for Lisa to think about the twenty-two-year-old. What will she remember of him?
[redacted] used to say: I will follow you forever. Be yours forever.
Sounding like the diary of a twelve-year-old girl.
Lisa first met [redacted] at their workplace in Boston. In the editorial department at a corporate copywriting company. The first time she shared a bed with [redacted], she still shared a bed with the British Romanticist.
She has edited this out for you (her).
She has edited this out to hide the fact that she is complicit.
An accessory, not a witness.
Is it possible to be both?
Lisa doesn’t know what to do now, without the twenty-two-year-old. She dances, shyly, in the middle of the living room, to a Lesley Gore album. It’s Judy’s turn to cry, Judy’s turn to cry.
Jenny holds Pickles on her lap, watches Lisa dance. [redacted] said you were a good dancer.
[redacted] said a lot of things.
What else did [redacted] say? Lisa asks. That I’m a liar?
No, Jenny barks.
Lisa pushes the air mattress into the doorway and holds out her hand. Jenny takes it. They dance together beneath the brass chandelier.
Don’t lie. Lisa smiles.
Lisa, Jenny, and Pickles huddle around the portable space heater, snowed in on a frigid Friday night. It’s a week after Valentine’s Day, and Jenny has finally received her SSI checks. They are throwing a belated party, complete with chocolate truffles and red wine. Lisa thought about inviting her work friends and the bouncer, but she found it best to keep everything between the two of them.
What did you know? Lisa asks Jenny.
That I wanted it to be real, Jenny says.
Me? Lisa asks.
Jenny points to herself.
Lisa runs a warm bath with vegan bubbles and lights a vanilla-scented candle. Little bubble islands form under the faucet and converge, seamlessly, in the center of the tub. She eases an exhausted Jenny into the water. The bubbles consume her.
The British Romanticist once took Lisa to his professor’s million-dollar home in Santa Monica for an unofficial lecture on soap bubbles and Romantic art and nineteenth-century politics. She cannot remember the thesis of the lecture now. She can only remember thinking: Sometimes, you’re obsessed with the connections that aren’t there. In the professor’s Japanese garden, while standing beside a koi pond, The British Romanticist said that Lisa wasn’t trying hard enough.
Jenny crinkles the bubbles with her fingertips before she lays her head against the tiled bathroom wall. She closes her eyes and says, Come in.
Water seeps over Lisa’s nipples; Jenny watches them become more apparent through her pink cotton nightgown. The water gradually turns the nightgown purple. Pickles stalks the base of the bathtub. Outside, the German shepherds thrust against the metal bars.
And Lisa did not think that Jenny, in the bathtub, on disability, with no money, still yelping at pregnant women, still yelping with the German shepherds across the street, had the strength. But Jenny lifts her head, grips the sides of the tub, the bubbles floating away from her chest.
They’re not tough, Jenny says. They’re scared.
Lauren Barbato’s fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Blackbird, The Hopkins Review, North American Review, Hobart, Cosmopolitan, Ms. magazine, X-R-A-Y Literary, and Pacifica Literary Review, among others. She’s received residencies and scholarships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Squaw Valley, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Lauren holds a B.F.A. in Film from the University of Southern California and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Rutgers-Newark. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Temple University, where she researches and writes about reproductive medicine and religion.