The Secret History of Love
by Hans Burger
After Jen’s parents died it took her eight weeks to begin cleaning their house, finally bowing under pressure from her aunt Morgan, who said her brother Tom had been squatting there and something needed to be done. Jen left Seattle on a Friday afternoon, driving over the Cascade Mountains with the a/c on full blast, enjoying the liberation of being away from Peter but knowing the feeling of solitude would sour before long, like eating candy until you became not so much sick as bored with sweetness. She hadn’t really looked at the scenery in years, rocky outcroppings a hundred feet tall, immense hills covered in carpets of pine which, seen from this distance, had the scale of coarse hairs. Then the dry desert air coming down into the Yakima Valley, the itching in nostrils accustomed to Seattle humidity, the straight shot down I-82 between scrubby lumps of hill, blowing past the cattle trucks that trailed straw and manure dust, then the jarring slowness of the drive through town, pulling up to her parents’ house, where flies buzzed wantonly in and out of a propped-open screen door, and her brother wasn’t even there, though the living room smelled like mildew and cigarettes. She walked into her bedroom and set her things down, not tired per se but thinking there was nothing appealing in the world except sleep.
She came downstairs in the morning and saw Tom passed out on the couch, some girl wrapped awkwardly around him. She began packing up the kitchen things, trying to clank dishes with exactly the same volume and force she would have used if there weren’t people asleep in the next room. She opened the fridge, smelled an ancient vomitous odor, fetched a black trash bag and swept food into it by the armful. In her peripheral she could see Tom kind of sneaking awake, could hear him rolling and shifting while her back was turned, and she went upstairs to brush her teeth and when she came back he was taking all the knick-knacks off the living room shelves and piling them on the floor, which wasn’t exactly helpful but at least he felt obligation’s shadow, the need to be helping out. The girl was on the porch talking on her phone and smoking a cigarette, the smoke drifting in through the screen door. Her hair was a moldy green and she was wearing an outfit that managed to be both shapeless and revealing, ragged in a faux-accidental way.
Jen loaded several boxes with kitchenwares and took them to Goodwill, dropped the food at the dump, and when she came back Tom had spread their parents’ record collection all over the living room floor. He and the girl were sorting it into piles based on some unspoken formula, and it was fine with Jen if he wanted to save the records but they were mostly bad pop from the eighties by forgotten artists, no lost treasures or dorm-room classics here.
Around three in the afternoon her phone rang. She hadn’t been expecting any calls and it took her a moment to make sense of the sound, to place its meaning in the context of her parents’ home. She didn’t recognize the number or even the area code but she pushed the button and said “Hello?”
“Is this Jennifer Young?” It was a woman’s voice.
She pulled her phone away from her ear, looked at the number and still didn’t recognize it, put it back to her ear. “Speaking,” she said. It was two years since anyone had called her by her maiden name and it had a sense of unexpected honesty, like dropping a mask she’d forgotten she was wearing.
“I wanted to say I’m terribly sorry to hear about your mother and father. My name is Wanda Jackson, and my husband and I were very close friends of your parents. I don’t know if you remember us.”
“No,” said Jen. “I’m afraid I don’t.” She sat on the couch and it sighed a cloud of dust which she tried to wave it away like a fart, with no effect.
“My husband Phil used to swing you around,” said Wanda. “He’d grab your hands and spin you in a circle until you were both too dizzy to stand.”
“That doesn’t ring any kind of a bell,” she said, though perhaps it did, the image tapping some cultural memory of summer delirium, blandly generic yet white-hot emotional. She’d read once that children who enjoy getting dizzy grow up to be drunks.
There was an awkward silence. Jen scratched the couch, her fingernail against threads of rough canvas-y fabric. The dust had settled on her skin, had been trapped in her sweat, and now she would spend the rest of the afternoon feeling dusty. “How exactly did you know my parents?” she asked.
“We were close friends. They were the most delightful people.”
“That’s not a real answer,” she said.
“It’s a complicated matter.”
“My husband and I would love to explain it to you over dinner. Tonight even, if you’re available.”
Jen rubbed her temple with thumb and forefinger. “I’m only in town for two days,” she said. “I’m trying to clear the house out and it’s been very stressful and I just, I have other stuff to do and honestly I really have no idea who you people are.”
The woman sighed. “I know how you feel,” she said. “Just every little thing you’re going through, Jennifer. I understand.”
There was a pause, during which Jen realized she was waiting for the other woman to further attempt to convince her, that maybe she was enjoying the sense of power, and she agreed to meet them for dinner. Since the death she’d spent a lot of time wondering about the prerogatives of grief, a lot of time catching herself abusing them.
On the day of the accident some disinterested small-town cop had called her at work, and Jen went to tell her supervisor, hyper-aware of her own body, knowing she was in one of the most important moments of her life but mostly thinking about the basic mechanics of walking, her supervisor telling her to go home, to which some awful detached part of her whispered Oh good, it was a boring day anyway. She sat at the dinner table with a bottle of expensive rum—she and Peter had been saving it and there was a comfort somehow in the indulgence, in being inspired by tragedy to seize the moment—and the first shot was just a good taste but the second burned through some inner dam of numbness and then she was crying, which made everything perfect, wiped out the over-analysis and let her function naturally. She had to respect the need for release, the way crying unified body and soul into one heaving mass; it felt important in some deep evolutionary way.
Peter came home and she imagined herself from the outside, the enigma of her sadness, and she felt defensive telling him about their deaths, like she was saying this is my right to be acting this way. He said the usual Oh my Gods and asked why she hadn’t told him sooner, why she hadn’t called him at work, and they went to bed and she cried, curled fetally atop the comforter, both of them still in their work clothes, and it didn’t matter that their bodies fit at awkward angles and they both needed a shower, because she was grieving and she thought maybe this was why she hadn’t told him sooner, because she wanted to conserve these little touches of privilege and she knew they would be a finite resource. Peter began asking questions, indulging his lawyer’s curiosity and the need to prod for details, what kind of accident was it, were her parents at fault, but she didn’t know and didn’t care. Then there was the disappointment of a conversation struck short, and she thought of how these silences gave her room to ponder all the things she’d never liked about his face.
The Jacksons had taken a patio table at the restaurant, shielding their eyes from an evening sun that was somehow dodging the table’s umbrella. Both had deep tans, shimmering white teeth; they were attractive in an artificial way, meeting an abstract idea of beauty but not, in practice, nice to look at. Phil was pudgy in the way of the middle-aged man but he shook her hand and she could tell the pudge hid something solid, maybe the strength of old military. He had a terrible salt-and-pepper mustache, the worst kind of Burt Reynolds sleaze. Wanda had probably been beautiful once, long ago, but now she seemed painted and chemical, every part of her given careful attention. Both were dressed in tropical colors, Phil in a Hawaiian shirt and Wanda in a bright sundress, inappropriate for the desert drabness of the Yakima Valley. Phil was drinking a mint julep and Wanda was drinking a tequila sunrise.
“It’s damn good to see you,” said Phil. “You’ve turned into a fine young woman. We hear you’ve done well for yourself.”
“We knew you when you were just a little thing,” said Wanda. “Not more than four or five years old. Seeing us like this, I don’t know if it rings any bells.”
“You seem kind of familiar, I guess,” said Jen. She felt like they were types more than as people, like characters she’d see on television.
“Oh,” said Wanda. “Well, let’s have a seat then.”
The table was made of painted wicker with a glass top, a shaky construction which produced drink-spilling wobbles from the merest bump. The waiter came over and asked if she wanted something and she ordered a gin and tonic.
“We don’t mind if you don’t remember us,” said Phil. “It’s been quite some time.” There something military about the cast of his mouth and the way he shaped his vowels.
“We read about the accident in the paper,” said Wanda. “You can’t avoid these things now, you know. You get old and it’s everywhere.”
“I couldn’t help noticing the other driver had a Hispanic name,” said Phil. “Just between you and myself. I’m not going to say anything else about it, because the fact is there for whoever to see and I’m just observing it. I don’t know if you’ve kept track, but this community’s changed quite a bit.”
“Phil,” said Wanda. “For God’s sake, she doesn’t want to hear that.” She reached forward and squeezed Jen’s hand. “We’re so glad to see you again. It’s been too many years, but your parents were always a fond memory. So we tracked down your aunt Morgan, she’s quite prominent around here. And she said you’d be in town this weekend. We’re so glad to see you.” Her sweetness seemed both calculated and compulsive.
“It’s funny,” said Jen, “how fast my drink has gone.”
“I’ll take care of that,” said Phil. He picked up the glass, waved it at a passing waiter, glared, stabbed a finger into its emptiness. Wanda squeezed the waiter’s wrist and told him he was doing a wonderful job.
“I had this friend once,” said Jen. “Her boyfriend would go to bars and try to start fights. He wouldn’t even be that drunk. He’d just start talking shit for no reason, and it would be her job to talk him down. The point was to bring them closer together, to show they needed each other. She was just as complicit as he was. Except neither of them knew, on a conscious level, what was going on.”
“That’s a very interesting story,” said Wanda. “What made you think of it?”
“Nothing in particular,” said Jen. “How long did you live around here?”
“Oh, we’re everywhere,” said Wanda. “Phil did quite well in contracting, some time ago. We have places here and there, and friends, well, we have friends almost everywhere.”
“We lived in Wenatchee back in the Eighties,” said Phil. “We had a lovely place in the mountains. Your parents would come and stay the odd weekend. But we’re from Florida, deep down.”
“We have the tropics in our blood,” said Wanda. She gestured at their clothes. “We’re on island time. Always.”
“That has a certain logic to it,” said Jen. “The tequila sunrise. Sort of a coastal thing.”
“Oh, yes,” said Wanda. “You’ve got us figured out.”
“Were you some sort of a drug smuggler?” A mild poke, just testing the boundaries.
Phil said ho ho ho without actually laughing, like some tanned Coca-Cola Santa. “Oh, I wish,” he said. “That would have been a good line.”
The waiter brought Jen new drink. “Why weren’t you at the funeral?” she asked. “I don’t want to be rude but I wonder.”
“We were so sad we had to miss it,” said Wanda. “We heard it was very nice.”
Jen uncrossed her legs just so she could watch the table bounce, little dribbles of julep running down the side of Phil’s glass. “It was good,” she said. “They both knew the minister. So they had a good eulogy. It wasn’t one of those ones where you get a lot of hedging. The minister wasn’t saying ‘I never met Fred but I’d imagine.’ Or ‘The family has told me so much about Beatrice.’ I’d forgotten a lot of things about them. I’ll be honest, we weren’t that close. Do you think they did their job too well? Maybe they made me too complete an adult? I wonder sometimes if the people who’re closest to their parents are the ones who didn’t cut the cord. If maybe being too close to your parents isn’t healthy.”
She sat and watched the Jacksons, thinking she’d put a lot of thought into these questions and actually wanted their perspective. But Wanda was staring at a vacant space above Jen’s shoulder, her face sagging like she was soaked in some deep sadness that welled up in idle moments.
“We’re not very close to our kids,” she said. “But we’re close to our grandkids. It comes full circle somehow. Would you like to see their pictures?” She pulled a smartphone out of her purse and began flicking the screen. “I know we’re too old for technology,” she said. “I know it’s against the rules.”
“I wasn’t going to say,” said Jen. “The joke’s too obvious.”
“Oh, yes,” Wanda mumbled, still peering at the screen. “We all know.” There was something tranquilizing about her reaction to the device and she seemed very distant.
“We had an intimate relationship with your parents,” said Phil. “We were all very close. I don’t know how your generation feels about this, where you draw the boundaries or what kind of practices people have nowadays.”
“I don’t think you can stereotype so much anymore,” said Jen. “I don’t think we have generational trends on the scale you did. Though I don’t really know what you’re talking about.”
Wanda pointed her phone at Jen, the screen displaying a girl in a dress in front of a studio backdrop. “This is little Calista,” she said. “She’s very good at piano.”
“I think our generation was the first to accept the idea that monogamy doesn’t work for everyone,” said Phil. “That there’s no shame in people finding their own arrangements for what keeps them satisfied and it can, in fact, really strengthen a marriage and make it more like an adventure, which I would say is what a marriage should be like, is an adventure. Definitely ours has been an adventure, and we’re proud of that.”
“This is Hunter,” said Wanda. The picture she held up was of a boy no more than five, but already Jen look into his eyes and see a future of douchebaggery, date rapes and white baseball caps, an entire life lived with no self-examination at all.
“Of course these things have always gone on,” said Phil, “but in our generation they were part of the public consciousness. In some ways, you know, I feel sorry for people your age, because there’s no sense of a frontier to be explored. Your parents have done it all, or now, if you’re Calista or Hunter, your grandparents. So what do you do?”
“You’re talking about being swingers,” said Jen, and it all made sense, the unfamiliarity of these people, their absence from the funeral, their general air of mournful decadence. “You have the wrong family,” she said. “You want somebody else’s dead parents. Not mine.”
“Well, I’m sure it’s nice to think that,” said Wanda.
“I’m actually disappointed right now,” said Jen. “There’s this big mystery, these people come alone who you’ve never seen, they buy you dinner and whatever, they say they know your parents. And then it turns out you’re not the person they want and, you know, the mystery deflates. I mean, you’d get this if you’d ever met my mom and dad. Which clearly you haven’t.”
“We made a video,” said Phil. He took a sip from his drink and then wiped mint fragments out of his mustache with a napkin. “Morgan said you were clearing the house out, and we wanted to know if it still existed.”
“What were the names of the couple you’re thinking of?” asked Jen. “Maybe I can help you find them.”
“This is a photo of us with your mother and father,” said Wanda. She handed the phone to Jen, who had to squint before she understood the image, a grainy scan of an old Polaroid, some face-shaped blobs scorched white by the flash. And yet Jen had to admit there was something about the blobs which had the unique flavor of her mother and father.
“This was a powerful time in all our lives,” said Phil. “Just a welling up of love and excitement that maybe you can’t totally conceive of.”
“I really don’t know exactly what’s going on here,” said Jen. “That’s the funny part. It’s some kind of, I don’t know, some prank or scam or some weird vicious complicated thing, and I don’t know who’s behind it but I’ll just put the most obvious word on it and say it’s fucked up. And I’d appreciate it, first of all, if you deleted this photo from your phone. In fact,” she scrolled quickly through a couple of menus, “there. I’ve done it for you.” She set the phone back on the table. No doubt the photo was still drifting somewhere in the worldwide electronic cloud, but that wasn’t the point.
“I wonder,” said Phil, “what gives you the right to destroy the record your family wanted to leave behind. To second-guess their judgment about what’s an appropriate way to document their lives.”
“I don’t know,” said Jen. “That’s a very good question.” She pulled at a loose strand of wicker in the table. “Dad didn’t even own a video camera.”
“He rented one,” said Phil. “He borrowed one. I don’t know.”
“He borrowed one. Right. To film his swinger adventures.”
“I wish you’d quit using that word,” said Phil. “You’re trivializing a very complex relationship that I think you maybe don’t understand.”
Jen dipped one finger into her drink, brought it to her mouth and sucked on it, relishing the ironic sexiness of the gesture. “Would you fuck me?” she asked. “I mean, hypothetically.”
“That’s not at all relevant to the matter at hand,” said Phil.
“It seems very relevant to me,” she said. “And it’s a simple yes or no question. If I wanted to, right now? Would you do a partner swap with me and my husband? Or am I excluded because you knew my parents? Do you think you could do it to me without thinking about me as a little girl?”
“We came to you with a simple request,” said Phil.
“It’s not that I want to fuck you,” she said. “I’m not offering anything. But you’re coming to me and saying this is something my parents did. And as such it makes sense that I’d want to know more about the terms of whatever it is you people do.” Phil and Wanda had both turned a deep red, and she felt a huge sense of power, though she couldn’t articulate its source. She had no attraction to them and she didn’t know where these questions were coming from, but somehow she felt reconnected to her own physical presence, the tingling bundle of excitements that came with a female body, the way she carried desire and power with her everywhere she went, the way fear and wanting and excitement were all bundled together in the same physical response. For the first time in two years she allowed the conscious thought that maybe she was sorry she’d gotten married.
And then she saw that Wanda was crying, that she’d turned her face away and was every now and again rubbing her eyes with a thumb smeared in runny mascara, and Jen had an immediate rush of guilt. She wanted to reach across the table, take her hand and say she felt sorry for them, sorry they’d gotten confused and made this embarrassing scene, that she felt terrible for enjoying the fact that she’d made them uncomfortable. But of course she’d tainted any physical contact so she stood up and mumbled I’m sorry and left, hoping she hadn’t ruined whatever memory had brought them here.
When she got back to the house, Tom was sorting her father’s old magazines, slippery piles of Consumer Reports and National Geographic and Home Woodworker scattered across the floor of the living room. The girl was lying on her stomach looking the Road and Track New Car Buyer’s Guide for 1987. She wasn’t wearing shoes and Jen was struck with a moment of irritation, the inappropriateness of going barefoot in a space that not only wasn’t her own but was in the strictest sense no longer a home at all.
“Cars were so ugly in the eighties,” said the girl. She held up a picture of some ancient Mitsubishi. “It’s like a geometry puzzle. Just think, someone actually designed that.” She put the magazine down, flipped a page. “I’m Chelsea, by the way. I don’t think we were introduced.” She flicked her eyes at Tom.
“How was lunch?” asked Tom.
“Those people,” said Jen. She sat down on the carpet with her legs crossed. “They tried to tell me mom and dad were into swinging. Isn’t that hilarious?”
“They were too young,” said Tom. “That was, like, the Forties.”
“She means fucking,” said Chelsea. “She means your mom and dad slept around.”
“Only they didn’t,” said Jen. “They had the wrong couple, it was so obvious they had the wrong couple, but they didn’t know it.”
Tom frowned, rested his hand on his chin. “When did he say this was?”
“Sometime in the early eighties. I guess.”
“Hm.” He drummed his fingers on a magazine. “I’m trying to remember what they did in the eighties. I feel like we spent a lot of weekends at Grandma’s house.”
“Only the best part is, get this.” Her delivery was becoming more like a joke as she went on, a swell of buoyant comic enthusiasm, because Tom hadn’t yet recognized how absurd this all was. “They said there’s a video.”
“Damn.” A few rolling slaps as Tom continued drumming his fingers on the magazine.
“Well?” asked Chelsea. “Are you going to watch it?” She hadn’t looked up from her new car guide.
“There’s nothing to watch, Chelsea. It’s ridiculous.”
“Dad never threw anything away,” said Tom. “You know that.”
“Can I look for it?” asked Chelsea.
“I mean, I guess we’ll run into it eventually,” said Tom. “If we have to clear the house.”
“I know just where to start,” said Chelsea. She jumped up like an excited child and thumped barefoot up the stairs, and Jen walked into the kitchen and started packing up glassware.
“Goddammit, Tom,” said Jen.
“You know what. That girl’s not even a member of the family.”
She pulled the tablecloth from the table and began folding it up. Her mother had always insisted on using terrible vinyl tablecloths; the surface beneath was unscratched and brilliantly polished, but now it didn’t matter.
“So go stop her,” said Tom.
“She’s your girlfriend. Or whatever she is. You go stop her.”
“I can’t stop her. She’s going to do what she wants.” He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his jacket. “I’m going outside for a smoke.”
She watched his receding back, pulled a plate out of a box on the floor, looked at it. Her parents had a unique mongrelized collection of glassware produced by years of breakage and replacements. She held the plate by its rim and smashed it against the table’s edge, watching Tom jump and turn around.
“What did you do that for?” he asked.
“Why not?” She pulled another plate out and smashed it against the table. “What does it matter?”
“Can I smash one?” asked Tom.
“No. But you can smoke in the house,” she said. “It all just comes back through the door anyway.”
“Why can’t I smash plates?” asked Tom. “That’s bullshit.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” she said. “I’m just tweaking you. Do whatever you want. When did I turn into some kind of authority figure?”
“Oh. Okay.” He walked over and hefted a plate, pondered it, as though the smashing of the thing would take some kind of thought or planning. She decided she should call Peter, for no reason other than a sense of obligation, the fear she would get in some obscure sort of trouble if she failed to tell him what was going on.
“Hello,” he said.
“Oh! Hey, babe, how’s it going?” This was an odd habit of his, the cycle of flat greeting followed by friendly recognition, the same way he’d answer a landline, except of course it was a cell phone so he already knew who was calling.
“It’s been a weird day.” She told him a short version of her encounter with the Jacksons.
“They’re full of shit,” he said. “Of course they’re full of shit. I met your parents. They wouldn’t do something like that.”
“I don’t know. They had a Polaroid of the four of them in a restaurant.”
“Oh, come on, Jen. What does that mean? They ate dinner together once?”
“I don’t know.” She felt weirdly defensive, hostile toward his insistence on her parents’ boringness.
“It’s a scheme or something. It has to be. What’s going on now?”
“Tom’s girlfriend is digging through their bedroom. She’s trying to find it.”
“Well, stop her. She shouldn’t be ransacking the house.”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? Go stop her.”
“Yeah.” She set the phone down and began doing Yoga stretches, which a friend had recommended as an anti-stress thing.
“Jen?” With the phone away from her head he sounded flat and distant. Which she thought was just about right.
“I have to go,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She hit End.
She walked into her parents’ bedroom and saw Chelsea sitting in their closet, feeling in the pockets of her father’s shirts.
“My husband says you shouldn’t be here,” she said, “but he’s a prick and it’s not his family anyway.”
“Oh, cool,” said Chelsea. “I already found some weird stuff. Did you know your mom had a vibrator?” She held up a tan dildo.
“No,” said Jen. “But I guess I’m not surprised. I mean, I have one.”
“See, this is an older model,” said Chelsea. “You can tell by this seam at the base. The newer ones, the cover is molded in one piece.”
“That’s very interesting.” Jen looked at the vibrator on the bed, daring herself to touch it, wondering if it would spark some unexpected round of sadness. The week after the accident she’d be sitting at a traffic light and her vision would blur and she would realize her face was wet, her sinuses sphinctered shut, and she would wonder what the hell is wrong with me and then remember her parents were dead. But the memories grew smudged by overhandling. She began welcoming the reminders of her of her sadness, like the later stages of falling in love when the initial high is over and you’re happy about anything which confirms yes this is still a strong feeling. At the funeral there were two big framed headshots, one resting on each coffin, and she took them back to Seattle and propped them in the living room, but seeing them every day made her think about their inadequacy, the way they were just some dots plastered on slick paper, and anyway the photos were both taken in the late nineties. Car accident or no, the people in those photos had been gone for a decade.
So she felt nothing about this vibrator, but she still sat looking at it for ten minutes as Chelsea felt around in her parents’ dresser and then yelled, “Tom? Hey, baby, come in here.”
Chelsea was sitting with an upturned dresser drawer in her lap, an old videocassette attached to its bottom by a web of yellowing tape. Tom peeled the tape off, picked the video up, wiped it on his pants. “It’s been here forever,” he said. “They must have forgotten about it.”
“Someone should watch it,” said Chelsea. “Just to be sure it’s what we think it is.”
Jen could see she was trying to hold back a smile. She took the tape, held it, turned it over, thought how odd it was for all three of them to be squatting on their haunches around this little piece of plastic. “It’s odd,” she said. “An hour ago I thought there was no way this thing could even exist. And now here we are, you know, approaching the problem of what to do with it. Though, God, I barely want to touch the thing.”
“I can watch it,” said Chelsea. “If you’re afraid to.”
“I don’t know,” said Jen. “I don’t think I want you seeing it.” There was something childish about Chelsea’s face then, not just how disappointed she looked but about the way she was trying to hide it. “No offense,” she said. “You seem very nice. But you never met Mom and Dad, and I don’t want this to be the only impression you have of them.”
“Oh, no problem,” said Chelsea, “I totally understand.” And Jen thought of how melancholy dogs the heels of excitement, and leaned over and put one arm around her.
“I guess it falls on me,” said Tom. “At least to at least see if it’s what we think it is.” He used a fingertip to probe dust out of one sprocketed wheel. “It’s like the ultimate high school dare.”
So he got the VCR from the closet and hooked it up to the downstairs TV, which they’d been saving for Morgan, and she and Chelsea went back in her parents’ bedroom and shut the door and they sat together on the bed, the comforter and fringy blankets neatly arranged. Her mother had probably made the bed on the morning of the accident, and she felt an immediate urge not to disturb it. So she grabbed one of the pillows and threw it across the room.
“Why did you do that?” asked Chelsea.
“You get certain pointless feelings,” said Jen, “and you can’t give them half an inch.” She looked at Chelsea, the elegance of her cheekbones and the roundness of her chin, the way her hair seemed accidental but still framed her face in a perfect way. On closer examination she was beautiful, the kind of beauty that can’t help but make you a little sad, the kind of beauty which makes shallow people seem wise and thoughtful. She wanted to touch Chelsea but she couldn’t quite say where the urge came from and she thought an affair with Chelsea would be like a sneeze that wouldn’t quite go off.
“Are you freaked out?” asked Chelsea.
“About what?” asked Jen. “Why do you ask?”
“The videotape. Does it freak you out?”
“Oh.” Jen pulled her legs up and hugged them to herself, aware of the uncleanliness of her shoes on the bed. “I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t know anything. On the whole.”
“That sounds about right,” said Chelsea. “You have to wonder. Why such a taboo on the sex of our parents? It’s our existence at the most basic level. Just the fact that you’re thinking and breathing is an announcement that, hey, my parents had sex. Nothing else in the world is, you know, just so there.”
“Yeah, it’s a funny thing,” said Jen.
“Inevitably it hides some deep longing. You don’t want to think so but there’s no way around it.”
“Jesus.” Jen put her feet back on the floor. “I’m not trying to be a jerk, but this is maybe the worst time to have this conversation.”
“Oh, yeah, whatevs,” said Chelsea. She brushed some imaginary dirt from her fingernails, turned her head away and straightened the sheets.
Jen tried to think of some way to salvage their moment of connection and then asked, “What’s my brother like? I don’t know who he is anymore.”
“Well,” said Chelsea. “It’s hard to put those things into words. You know someone by intuition. It’s like if someone asks how vanilla tastes, all you can say is it tastes like vanilla.”
“Is he happy? I’m worried about kicking him out of the house.”
“Oh, he gets by alright,” said Chelsea. “I think he feels an absence of meaningful problems. Deep levels of sadness escape him. There’s a certain depression you get from not experiencing real trouble, you know. It’s like something gets miscalibrated and then your levels are set wrong. I think he suffers from that.”
“Do you have that?” asked Jennifer. “That kind of depression?”
“Oh, no,” said the girl. She rubbed a hand up and down her calves, which Jen saw now were sprinkled with thin light hair. “I’ve had lots of real trouble. I think it’s something you have to seek out sometimes. You look for tragedy because it lends meaning to your happiness. It’s like turning the heat up all the way so you know your thermostat works.”
“Is that a good metaphor? I don’t think I said it right.” She plucked at one edge of the comforter. “Last summer I worked on a cruise ship. There was this old man who was a guest on the ship, I mean, he wasn’t that old, he was maybe fifty-five, but older than me. And I was having sex with him. For cocaine. And I found myself terrified, you know, terrified of the end of the trip, of not being able.” She brushed her hair backward, then forward. “Well, of not being able to be a crack whore anymore, basically. You catch yourself in moments like that and it makes you happy when you gain some real self-respect.”
“Okay.” And then there was a knock on the door and Chelsea gave Jen a questioning look like are you ready for this? Jen nodded and Chelsea stood up and walked to the door, and Jen felt sad watching her walk even that far away, some unnamable twinge of loss which she was sure had nothing to do with sex, and Chelsea opened the door and let Tom in.
“You have to watch this,” said Tom. “Not the whole thing but the first part of it.”
“What is it? Is it what we thought it was?”
“Just trust me. It’s amazing, it’s wonderful. Please.”
Jen crossed her arms, sighed. To have hoped, even for a moment, that this might push through whatever fog was between them. “Tom, tell me if it’s a pornographic videotape of our parents. Just tell me.”
“Okay,” said Tom. “Yes, it’s that. But it’s not, is the thing. In the way you mean.”
“Jesus, Tom,” said Jen. “Can you understand why I don’t want to watch this?”
“I think,” said Chelsea, “you’d better watch it. If Tom says so. I don’t know what he’s up to but I think he might be on to something.”
The three of them sat down in front of the television. Tom had already rewound the tape and he hit play and then reached over and took Chelsea’s hand.
A jolt of white static, several seconds of blackness, then the image of a man and woman sitting on a couch, the furniture different but Jen recognized the shape of the house around them. The man and woman were Phil and Wanda Jackson, younger, less tan, Phil with a dark beard that covered his face, Wanda in a long white dress that surprised Jen with its frumpiness, their clothing dated in some way she couldn’t point to.
“Say hello,” said the man behind the camera. Phil nodded slightly, waved. He was, of all things, shy. Wanda blushed, pulled her skirt down to cover her ankles, took Phil’s arm and kissed his cheek.
The cameraman turned the camera around to face himself, and Jen saw it was her father. She’d been alive at this age but couldn’t remember this version of him; all her memories and mental images put him in later middle age, face lined and hair gray-specked. She was older now than he was in the video, and for the first time she understood her resemblance to him, the mimicry built into her bone structure.
“The Jacksons,” said her father. “Our guests for the evening.” And she realized he was nervous too, his voice quivering with tense energy, but he was smiling. She’d played basketball with her father in their carport until she was old enough for it to feel tomboyish, and this was the same nervous smile he’d had during their games, the same smile he adopted when chasing her across the house as a little girl trying to pin her down and tickle her. She hadn’t thought about that smile in a decade or more, had forgotten it ever existed.
“Martin.” A woman’s voice, milky and affectionate. The camera turned and she saw her mother walk back into the living room bearing four drinks on a tray, something about the cut and shape of her dress that was timeless in a way that none of the other peoples’ clothing was. The curves of her body, the way she swayed her hips as she moved, there was something pure here which Jen remembered only in a weaker form, diluted by the plumpness of age, and she felt a mad love and a great gutswelling jealousy for something she couldn’t identify, something similar to what she felt for Chelsea.
“She’s beautiful,” said Jen.
“I didn’t remember that,” said Tom. “I didn’t remember Mom like that.”
“I don’t know if we ever saw her like that.”
Two seconds of jolting blur as the camera was passed and suddenly Phil was holding the camera, was facing her mother and father, who were facing each other. Her mother put her arms around her father’s waist and he put his arms around her, his hands resting on the shelf of her buttocks and she saw now the imperfections of her mother’s body, a slight plump swellings above her hip that Jen’s father caressed with one hand as he raised the other to trace the curve of her spine and he said Antonia and Jen realized she’d never heard him address her by her full name. They started at each other in rapt adoration and then kissed, their lips pressed against each other and then pulling apart just the width of a breeze and noses mashing and the tips of their tongues flicking against each other, and then her mother brought one hand up and made a long caress with the tip of her index finger, running from the hollow at the base of her father’s throat up to the point of his chin, and then he slapped one of her buttocks just hard enough so the camera’s microphone could pick up the flat smeck and she giggled and they rubbed noses again and Tom hit the pause button.
When Jen moved into her new apartment she put the tape on the mantle. She liked the fragility of it, the knowledge that it was the only copy in the world and it wouldn’t last forever. She never watched it beyond the first ten minutes but appreciated the idea that it was something powerful which only she could unleash. She felt like she owned the last vial of smallpox in the world, but in a good way.
Sometimes she would have a date over, and she would stand next to the mantle and wait for her date to ask why she had an old videotape on display, and she’d resolved that if anyone ever asked, man or woman, she would explain and offer to show the tape, and they would watch it together. And whoever understood and could share her joy in it, man or woman, would be a soulmate, and she would right there on the spot dedicate herself to that person, maybe not out loud but in a binding conscious way. In the years after, in the flowering of their life together, she knew she would never come to regret that choice. This was the test she had constructed, and she knew she might never meet anyone who would pass it but the creation of it seemed like a good exercise, a way of stretching her capacity to feel and imagine. Though she also knew something would come along which made the test irrelevant, that the test was a way of conceptualizing her need for something she didn’t understand and wouldn’t understand until she had experienced it, which she thought was not wholly unlike how other people thought about God.
Hans Burger recently completed an MA/MFA at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he lives and teaches. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bayou and Main Street Rag.