Jim Daniels’ new book, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013. Other books published in 2011 include Trigger Man: More Tales of the Motor City, Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry, and All of the Above. In 2010, he wrote and produced the independent film "Mr. Pleasant,” which appeared in many film festivals across the country. He also published From Milltown to Malltown, a collaboration with photographer Charlee Brodsky. His poem "Factory Love" is displayed on the roof of a race car. A native of Detroit, Daniels teaches at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Jenny sat on the edge of her bed and stared at her thin fingers, the bones beneath pale skin, their fragile hinges. Her room was a narrow rectangle—bed, dresser, desk, bathroom—one of the few singles in New Dorms, the unnamed modern dormitory quad at Alba College. When she'd returned from France, she didn't want anybody seeing her thin, naked body. Watching her sleep. Asking her what was wrong. She slipped in and out, a sliver, a slight irritation beneath the skin of the friendly, intimate dorm. It cost more than a double, but her worried parents gladly paid the difference.
Now, here was Jason, sprawled in her desk chair, grinning like a fool, talking about sex like he knew something. He was the first person to enter her room besides her RA, who poked her head in once or twice early in the semester, then gave up.
Two years ago, when they were sophomores, Jason had been sleeping with Kate, who lived across the hall. Early one morning, Jenny dashed out of the communal bathroom in her bra and panties. It was usually safe that early, but as she neared her room, Kate's door opened, and out stumbled Jason. Little Kate with the big boobs and shit for brains who stole Jenny's hairdryer and could not be trusted. There was no turning back. Jenny quickly squeezed by him into her room, burning under his blatant stare.
"You sure looked sexy," Jason marveled. As if such a thing were possible, given her present state. Black underwear. Silky.
"I was half asleep. Seeing you woke me up." Jenny smiled slightly, still trying to figure out what Jason was doing in her room. "A long time ago," she said.
Earlier in the semester, he'd started joining her in the student union where she sat with her coffee and books. They had mostly talked about their philosophy class. Then last week, out of the blue, he asked her to a concert: Gemini, a mediocre one-hit-wonder rock band on a tour of small colleges throughout the Midwest. "It was a good hit, though," he'd told her. Out of the blue. Out of the blue, blue sky. And she had emerged from her cloud long enough to laugh. To say, "Yes."
It was black now out there, behind her drawn curtains. She reached over and pulled them open a crack, imagining it would help her breathe. Music still buzzed in her ears, and Jason was still there. She'd invited him in for tea. Tea. He was amused by that. Jason seemed amused by everything, his laughter like a false wave he rode on, keeping him on the surface. But she needed more surface. She needed to stop digging away at herself.
"Woke me up, too," Jason said. Not touching his tea. Herbal, Jenny's own mix. Jason looked around the room, nodding as if everything confirmed something he knew all along. A lone green apple sat on her desk. Everything else neatly stashed away. No cute or tacky posters on the wall. No scattered make-up or hair products. No open notebooks or dirty clothes. He picked up the apple and polished it with his jacket, which he was still wearing. "Never been in single before," he said. The pressure of focusing on him, on making ordinary speech, had exhausted her. Jenny hoped the silence meant he would leave soon. But no—he had simply paused before asking the question that sent her spiraling down into the echoing cavern where she shouted, hello, hello, and no one answered.
"So, what happened? What happened to you?" She bunched the bedspread in her hands. Her grandmother's, one of those bumpy kind, not like the girly, flowery ones she used to have. "What do you mean?" She tried to make her voice go flat, but it still seemed as shrill as a radio ad.
"You go to Paris for a semester, then you come back. You lose all this weight. You quit the sorority. You get a single. I mean..."
She didn't want him to go on, to hear what he meant.
"The doctors first thought I had ulcers. Then they thought I was hypoglycemic. Then they thought I was a hypochondriac. I have trouble. I have trouble eating."
Jason paused. He tried to catch her eye, but she turned away. "You're anorexic?" Jason was thin himself, and tall. Handsome, everyone said, and he ran through girlfriends monthly, it seemed. What was he doing here, Jenny wondered again. Was it curiosity? He placed the apple back on her desk.
"Yes, “she said, "that's what they settled on." It was what she had settled on a way to slowly withdraw, disappear. Everybody said she was sealing herself off, but wasn't Jason Settles sitting in her room after midnight?
I should take a picture of you to send home, she said with a bitter laugh, but then she felt tears coming and clammed up. She was pathetic. How had Paris leeched out all her color? Learning another language through immersion. People don't think about how you can get immersed in yourself, alone in a foreign country.
I should take a picture of you to send home, he replied. He brushed a tear away from her cheek with his thumb. It surprised her, how gentle. "What happened over there?" Then he said, right when she was beginning to imagine she felt something, "Somebody break your heart?"
Jason was suddenly sitting next to her on the bed, putting his arm around her. No one had ever broken her heart. She thought she should stand up, move away, but she felt weak. She'd promised herself to eat that apple before she went to bed, a Granny Smith she'd picked up from a bowl in the cafeteria. The smell of that place made her nauseous. She couldn't even eat an apple in there, at a table by herself—the Stick Girl, too good for the Alpha Thetas, too good for her old boyfriend Mitch and his studly jock friends. The sounds of everyone eating and talking clattered in her head like the casual disasters of dropped silverware and breaking glass.
"No, nobody broke my heart. Petulant, not the tone she was looking for. She was looking for disinterest. She knew it was in her somewhere, that lack of interest. She depended on it to get her through each day.
"You were one of the hottest ladies on campus—I don't mean you're ugly now but..." That was it: he had a crush on her old self. She had just about convinced him that the one he remembered was long gone. Maybe now he might be willing to leave. He was fiddling with the zipper on his jacket. Maybe she should show him her plain white sagging cotton underwear and finish him off.
"Hot ladies, Jason?" She shook her head. He wasn't a frat boy, but he surely was a boy.
"Hey, give me a break." He was standing now. "I only quit drinking two months ago," he blurted out. "I'm trying to figure out how to act around girls when I'm not loaded. I thought you'd be a good place to start."
"Jason, I'm not a place," she said angrily. "Sit back down....I didn't know you'd quit drinking." He hesitated. "Sit down and take off your dam jacket."
His smile was back. "I'm sorry," he said. He looked like an innocent little boy with that smile. Or a spoiled boy who could get away with anything. "You used to be a place," he said.
"What the hell does that mean?" She had to laugh though. She could see he was joking, and that he was serious too. She used to be a place. She used to have substance. Now, she was a twig. A twig broken off a tree, blowing in the wind, or ground into the dirt.
Yeah, I quit. I was getting lost all the time and ending up with a lot of names I couldn't remember. I remembered your name."
"You remembered my underwear," she said.
"I remember what I remember," he said. She was going to roll her eyes, but he bent down and kissed her. Her lips were like a dry sponge, but they met his. When he tried to pull her to him, to moisten her mouth with his tongue, she did not resist. She did not respond. He stopped.
"I'm sorry, Jenny, but that's creepy. I feel like I kissed a ghost or something. Don't you...?"
"No, I don't. It's not just you." She leaned back on the bed until her spine cracked against the wall. She felt as if she were nearly shouting now." Ask Mitch. I used to..." Why was she defending herself?
"I don't have to ask anybody," Jason interrupted, "Christ, you were sexy. I remember watching you dance you had some moves...." Jenny hadn't danced at the concert, though Jason had repeatedly asked her to. The loud music bored her. Gemini played its one hit twice they were old, rundown, running on fumes.
Jenny couldn't dance. She felt like her body might simply clatter into a pile of bones on the floor. All she could manage was an awkward sway. She was so stiff it hurt everywhere. Sometimes even walking was a struggle, mechanically kicking out each leg. Who had gone and stolen her grace? She was still young that's what everybody kept telling her.
"How old do I look?" she asked.
"What?" Jason asked, though she knew he heard her.
"Standup," he said.
"What?" They were both going deaf in that small room.
"Nevermind," he said.
"You wish you were at a party or something."
"I've had enough party for a few years," he said. "Problem is I don't know what to do with the time. The time I used to spend on parties."
"You could study," she said. They both laughed.
"Yeah, there's always that. He was a double major in economics and philosophy. She knew he had another side, and she was half interested in seeing if she could find it. Maybe he was too. She herself was getting too thin to have another side.
She went to Paris as a French major, but her professor on campus said her French was worse when she returned. She'd switched majors to English because she'd always liked poetry, but now her voice was disappearing along with the rest of her. Her body was shrinking into the flatness of a cartoon. Even her thought bubbles were going blank.
Back when they were sophomores, she would've liked to sleep with Jason, just for the pure physical rush. Even though she thought he was a jerk, he was handsome. She remembered the joyful rhythm of sex, the slick skin, but it was like a movie that had ended the lights were on in the theater, and all she could do now was squint as the picture faded. She remembered entering her room that morning he'd seen her, closing the door, leaning back against it, her body jolted with shock and lust. Her roommate Jill was still sleeping, buried under her rumpled covers. Jenny threw a pillow at her woke her up to tell her what had happened. Jill, who now treated her like a bad grade she didn't deserve.
The sex with Mitch had been great. He had an athlete's endurance and grace. But when she returned from Paris and he was all over her, his pent-up energy waiting to be released, she was repulsed. Her body rigid as he pounded inside her. She had hoped seeing him again would snap her out of the spell she'd fallen into, wandering lost through Paris streets like a zombie, but the zombie had returned with her, sapping all desire. She broke up with Mitch within a week of her return. He first assumed there was some romantic Frenchman, then asked her if she was a lesbian. Everyone wanted an explanation.
In Paris, she'd been free to be someone new, to remake herself without the baggage of the old self. What an opportunity, everyone said. She herself couldn't wait to get away from the small college where Greek letters were stamped on her t-shirt and an invisible map of the rest of her life was traced on her forehead.
At the school in Paris, a converted Catholic convent, students from all over the world studied French. She remembered walking down a dark, damp street mined with dog shit, feeling none of the magic you were supposed to feel in Paris. And if she couldn't feel it in Paris.
She had built it up in her imagination: Paris for a whole semester. Good wine. Good food. Beautiful art. Sophistication. And yes, maybe a romantic Frenchman. In the small town in Northern Michigan where her father owned the hardware store, no one ever went to Detroit, much less Paris, but there she was. Her weekly hometown newspaper wanted her to write a story and send it back. "How to Become a Ghost," she'd titled it in her mind, but never wrote down a word.
One day, a month after she arrived in Paris, she encountered a handsome man who was helping set up a small carnival in a park near her dorm. He wore a tight, ribbed t-shirt, and dark curly hair sprawled out from beneath his blue cap. Grease streaked his muscular arms. Early March, but the sun was strong enough to allow her to imagine spring. She walked up and asked when the carnival was going to open. "When you kiss me," he said. It might have been a flirtatious comment, except for the look on his face more than disinterest of rudeness. More than glower and bluster. It looked like pure hatred. The menace from his dark eyes staggered her. Her bad accent gave her away as American. "No," she said, trying quickly again, "When does it open?" He spat at her and grabbed his crotch, then turned quickly back to his work to make sure she understood. He didn't want a kiss.
Was she so windblown she couldn't recover from one rude man on a street? She had not even told this story to the psychiatrist. It wasn't enough to call a story. Everyone seemed to think she must have been assaulted or raped. She couldn't tell them it had been such a small thing. She might have given the man a kiss. He was robust and swarthy, not like the scruffy carnies who passed through her small hometown working the midway at the county fair. It was like biting into a beautiful ripe apple and finding a worm.
That was when it began when she had stopped eating the wonderful crusty bread, the rich gooey cheeses. The other Americans in the program had bonded during the first week when Jenny was still getting over jet lag and missing Mitch. She had tried to mingle, but there was a whole new complicated structure to it. The city was enormous, the dorm overcrowded, and the school's extraordinary mix of languages disorienting. She withdrew into the small safe town of her tiny cell where nuns had lived for centuries. She crossed days off her calendar. In class, she refused to speak. She shopped by pointing and shrugging at the angry merchants. Her grades were bad. Her parents assumed she was just having too much fun. This is what she'd become, and nobody liked it. It was like letting a lion out of its cage and the lion getting out and making an even smaller cage for itself, locking itself in.
"I just found myself drinking more and more at every party. It was expected of me, Jason rambled on, "I treated some girls pretty crummy. Drinking made me an animal. I don't want to be an animal."
"Is this what you want? To confess to me?" she asked. Jason had serious problems, Jenny realized. And here he was trying to kiss the priest. "Is this your new way to pick up women?"
Her breasts were shrinking, her body turning into sharp, brittle angles. Was she killing herself? Her parents called nightly, and she gave them the news. She'd missed the call tonight. Maybe they were worried. "Yes, I have an apple on my desk right now," she could tell them. She was staring at it.
Jason ran his hands through his long blonde hair, then rested his elbows on his knees. "Well, maybe you're right. I mean, about confessing, not the picking up part. I guess I'm pretty dull when I'm sober....seems like you're tuning me out just like my friends....I figured you must've stopped drinking too and everything since you..."
"I did, but it's not just drinking, Jason. It's life. You're trying to simplify your troubles..." She could still taste his tongue in her mouth. She swallowed the last of her tea, then took Jason's cup and set them both together on the shelf above her bed. Two empty cups. She felt like she might have a few things to say to him after all. "Who are you to come into my life and mock me with this sensitivity and confession shit? You'd still be talking, even if I turned into a ghost this very second."
Jason didn't respond. Didn't rise to leave, to make her room safe again. Instead, he moved the desk chair closer to her. She was bent over too, as if something was pushing them both down, elbows on knees, point to point. A football huddle who was going to call the play? Jason leaned his head forward till their foreheads touched gently at the hairline, bone to bone.
It was late. Jenny was tired. Jason wasn't going anywhere, the sober pretty-boy tired of his own good looks. Maybe she could teach him to starve, Jenny thought. She bit her lip, halfway between tears and a laugh. His forehead felt cool against hers. She closed her eyes. "Go ahead," she sighed, "tell me everything."