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Jessica
by Ryan Miller

 

 

Jessica and the Artist

 

"I have my standards," Jessica said to him. She looked as if she needed sleep very badly or maybe as if she had just awoke, either from far too much sleep or not at all enough. Her clothes were wrinkled and there were many light-colored stains on her T-shirt and her blue jeans were dirty. Her face was round and puffy. She was overweight.

"I shouldn't compromise myself by making exceptions," she said. "I can not do that."

"Nor should you," he said. "That would be degrading. How could you live with yourself?"

"I live alone," she said and she looked at him and her face revealed absolutely nothing. He could not tell whether she understood what he meant. She opened her lunch pail and removed her lighter and a pack of cigarettes. She tapped on the pack and took out the last cigarette and lit it, then reached over to a nearby table for an ashtray.

"I only go out with artists," she said after a while. This was said as if it were an immutable law of nature.

He said nothing and he looked at her uneasily.

"Are you an artist?"

"No," he said, turning away from her. He turned back and looked at her in the eyes and said, "No. No, I'm not."

"Oh," she said stolidly. There was no trace of confusion, no sign of disappointment. It was not possible to read anything about her from her voice or from her reactions.

He nodded his head almost imperceptibly and waited through the silence.

"You look like an artist," she said, then taking a drag off of her cigarette. She peered at him through the smoke, her eyes half-closed, her head tilted to one side and a little to the back, in that way exposing a bit more of her throat. She thought she must appear seductive.

He looked away from her.

"What do you do?" she asked.

He looked back at her, at the way she had her head tilted, and he imagined that she was trying to appear seductive. He smiled uncertainly and again said nothing. He picked up his glass to take a drink, but it was already empty. He put the glass down and glanced around the room.

"I work at the pound."

"I love animals," she said, almost with emphasis.

"I work with the incinerator," he paused. "I put the animals in the furnace. Then I clean out the ashes."

She continued to look at him with the same expressionless face. She crushed out the stub of her cigarette in the ashtray and said nothing for a long time.

"I need cigarettes," she said. "Come with me to buy cigarettes and then I'll take you home with me." She began to think how it would be to kiss him.

He looked at her and said nothing. She found his silence reassuring.

"My, what a beautiful boy," she wanted to say aloud. "He's the most beautiful boy I've ever seen." She thought of his beautiful, perfect body next to hers on her bed and of his eager, rebounding desire for her throughout the night to come.

"Oh," he said finally, "let me go tell my friends that I'm leaving."

He got up and went over to some people that were standing near the bar. She sat in the booth and watched him as he talked to them. At one point he gestured toward her and everyone in the group turned to look at her. To herself she smiled a secret little invisible smile, as always revealing nothing to others.

When she wasn't watching, he slipped out the back door near the end of the bar.

She sat there all alone for a very long time, wanting a cigarette and waiting for him to come back.

Jessica and the First Kiss

 

Jessica was sitting all alone at a booth in the dark restaurant. Her short red hair was poorly cut and tousled. She had very large circles under her eyes, and the eyelids seemed to have each suffered a mild prolapse. Her fingernails were very short and erose and they were not clean.

She was smoking a cigarette and looking at the crowd of people in the restaurant. She would blow out a puff of smoke and peer through it, seeming to squint as she leaned her head back. "People must think I'm mysterious," she thought. "Sitting here all alone, writing in my little notebook, smoking my cigarettes and looking at the world around me. Imagine the things they think I must know."

Jessica had been there a long time waiting for something to happen. When it didn't, she decided that it was time to leave. She was not bored; Jessica was never bored. But it was time to go somewhere else to watch a new crowd of people and to learn new things about them and about the world, and she needed to buy more cigarettes.

She picked up her lunch pail and opened it and put her notebook, pen, and cigarette lighter into it. She carefully closed the lunch pail and stood up to leave. Her clothes were wrinkled and it appeared as if she had been sleeping in them. Her blue jeans were tight around her thighs and ass and they rode too low down on her below the waist, and they were dirty. She had developed a slight paunch and her double chin was getting worse. The T-shirt she was wearing had many light-colored stains on it, principally around the shirt tail.

Standing there by her favorite table, she exhaled a large breath of smoke upward and glanced around the room one last time and in that same instant the front door opened. The most beautiful boy Jessica had ever seen walked into the restaurant.

"My," she said to herself, "he's the most beautiful boy I've ever seen." She crushed out the stub of her last cigarette in the ashtray that already had several butts in it, and she hoped that she looked as if she had just woken up. "I want to meet him."

She began to think about how it would be to kiss him. She pictured herself sitting in her car behind the steering wheel with the door still open and the engine running and her foot on the brake pedal. With one arm across the roof of her car and the other atop the door frame, he was leaning over and talking to her; not wanting her to leave, not wanting the conversation to come to an end. She saw him bend down, come down to her a little awkwardly, and kiss her and she felt his beautiful deep lips upon her own. It was a hard, rough kiss and she tasted his breath and took in his strong odor and felt his beard scratch her face. Jessica liked all of that.

She knew she would want to run her fingers through his beautiful hair and to hold his beautiful face between her hands, but she would say to him only good night and then drive away. In the rearview mirror she would look at him, standing there in the parking lot, watching her leave him all by himself on this perfect warm spring night. He would feel a little hurt, a little sad, disappointed that she was gone so soon, but very anxious to see her again.

Jessica walked over to the most beautiful boy she had ever seen as he was about to sit down in a booth. She stood there next to him and said nothing. She looked at him and almost smiled. He stood there and looked at her for a moment and said nothing. Then he sat down.

"Hi," she said to him, continuing to stand. She looked at him with a look that could have been mistaken for blank earnestness. He said hello to her.

She could tell that he was looking at the way she was dressed. He looked at her face and at her hair, and there was something encouraging that Jessica thought she recognized in the way he was looking at her. He glanced at her T-shirt and noticed the stains. He looked back up at her face and still said nothing. Jessica liked it when boys looked at her. She had a feeling that he was attracted to her, but she didn't let it show. She didn't want him to know that she knew. In that way she maintained a slight edge over him, she thought, some little bit of knowledge he didn't have.

"Does it look like I just woke up?" Jessica asked him.

"No."

"It doesn't?" Jessica was almost a little let down. She liked for people to think that she looked as if she had just gotten up.

"No," he said, "but it looks like you need to get some sleep."

"I'm not tired," Jessica said. "I'm an artist." She looked at him for a moment to measure the effect of her words. "It's part of my creative process to look this way. I've transcended the need to be concerned about my personal appearance."

"Really?"

Neither of them said anything for a moment. She saw him glance again at the stains on her shirt, and she thought she saw him nod his head just a little.

"I don't care whether my clothes are clean or not. How I look is not important to me."

"What is it?" he asked. "Some kind of reverse aesthetic or something?" He looked up at her, right into her eyes.

She wanted to smile, but, of course, she didn't. "He understands," she said to herself.

"I don't feel compelled to make myself conform to someone else's notion of beauty," she said to him, encouraged now and wanting very much to explain herself to someone who finally understood. "That's why I never wear any makeup. And I don't do anything to my hair."

He looked around the room. He turned his head way around and glanced back toward the kitchen. The waitress was not in sight. He looked up at Jessica again. She bent over a little and leaned on the table and stared into his eyes, then she turned her head slightly upward and a little to one side, exposing more of her throat. In this way she had to roll her eyes downward to see him. She wished that she hadn't run out of cigarettes so that she could look down at him now through a veil of smoke. It was more seductive that way.

"And I no longer feel the need to be concerned about my weight."

"I can see that," he said.

She felt almost triumphant telling him all this. She no longer had any doubt that he knew exactly what she was talking about. Jessica remembered all the other beautiful boys that she had met and that she had wanted to kiss, all the beautiful boys to whom she had tried to explain herself, and she remembered how none of them had really understood that to be an artist, especially a female artist, required a conscious throwing over of certain conventions and expectations. It was not so much rebellion as it was rejection, a rejection of what the consumer society told women that they had to be. Jessica wasn't buying any of it. She defined for herself what her role was, not some man, not some fashion magazine, not her parents over whose garage she lived and certainly not society as a whole, and now she had met someone who understood fully the principles upon which she had shaped her life.

"I can not make an arbitrary distinction between my life and my art. To compromise one would be to compromise the other. I can not do that."

"Yes," he said. "I see what you mean. It's a moral position you've taken. An ethical one."

Jessica could not believe what she was hearing. She looked at him again with that look that could be mistaken for blank earnestness. "If you can't understand this about me, and accept it, I wouldn't want to go out with you," she said.

In response he merely looked at her and nodded a little.

Jessica stood there and looked at him and said nothing more. She knew that she had gotten through to him. She could see it on his face. It was as if they shared a secret. She could feel, almost palpably, deep in her very soul, that he understood and that he cared. She was certain of this. She felt her desire to kiss him mount inside of her. "Oh, what a beautiful boy," she wanted to say out loud. She was almost happy.

"I like girls who wear makeup," he said finally. "Especially lipstick. I like it a lot."

Jessica looked at him passively. There was no noticeable reaction. She revealed nothing about herself. She practiced this.

"When they know how to use it, it makes them look pretty," he said to her. "And I like it when they dress up. Especially when they wear short skirts. That's what I like. Long, thin legs and really short skirts." He looked at her for a moment and nodded his head just a little. Then he turned around to try to find the waitress. She was behind the bar now and he motioned to her. He turned back around and looked again at Jessica, who was still standing by the side of the table.

The waitress was walking toward the booth, and Jessica watched her as she approached. She was tall and thin. She was wearing a short black skirt and a clean white T-shirt and black tights. She was pale and her lips were blazing red. She had abundant dark hair and her eyes were a clear and impossible green with flecks of very dark blue in them. She was exceptionally attractive. She was perfect, the kind of woman that men dream of when they dream of women.

The waitress came up to the table and stood next to Jessica. They looked at each other for a moment.

"I'm leaving now," Jessica said to him. "Walk me to my car and kiss me good-night."

He sat there and he looked up at Jessica and said nothing. Then he looked at the waitress and when she handed him the menu, he glanced at it and ordered a cup of coffee and something to eat.

 

Jessica and Her Very Good Friend, Peter

 

"You won't believe this," Jessica said. She was almost excited, but she said this in the same dull way in which she said everything, a flat, lifeless monotone. To someone who did not know her, it would sound as if Jessica herself was not interested in the very things that she had to say.

She looked at Peter and took a drag off of her cigarette. She slowly and deliberately put the cigarette back into the ashtray before saying anything more. By taking her time she thought that she was making herself less obvious and building suspense and making him more anxious to hear what she had to tell him. She didn't want Peter to think that she attached any undue importance to what she wanted to say. Jessica never wanted others to know what she had seen or learned or thought until she was ready to tell them. The less others knew about her the more they would have to guess. She liked the idea that others thought that she was mysterious.

Peter looked at her and waited.

He wanted to be somewhere else. He had been having his dinner alone when Jessica came into the restaurant. She saw him and came over to the booth where he was sitting.

"My," she said, "what a surprise. My very good friend, Peter, sitting at my favorite table." She put down onto the table her attractive plaid lunch pail, which served her as purse and satchel, and she sat down.

He had noticed that Jessica's clothes were clean for a change, but they were still wrinkled. "She must have done laundry," he thought.

"This is my favorite cafe," Jessica said to him. "I love coming here. I always see people that I know." She glanced around the room and when she looked back at Peter her face revealed absolutely nothing.

"I phoned your house," she said, "but you weren't there. I left a message."

He no longer enjoyed doing things with her. Two hours alone with Jessica was about all he could take, but she kept calling him up and asking him to do things and he always said yes. He had a very hard time saying no to anyone.

He was glad for at least one thing though. She had come here in her own car. That way he wasn't tied to having to take her home. He could leave whenever he wanted.

"I called to see if you wanted to have dinner with me. And here you are. Isn't that ironic?"

"No," he said to her. "It is not ironic."

"It's not?" she asked. She was almost a little confused. "Then what is it?"

"It's just a coincidence." He felt contrary. "It has nothing to do with irony."

She said nothing for a while after he had said this, and he wondered for a moment if she had sensed his slight antipathy. When she finally spoke to him it was to tell him that there was something he was not going to believe.

Peter was still looking at her and waiting for her to tell him what this was. It seemed as if she had forgotten what she had wanted to say.

The waitress had come up and Jessica ordered only a Coca-Cola with a glass of ice. When the waitress brought her the drink, Jessica said, "I wanted a straw."

She did this always and it annoyed Peter. She neglected to ask for a straw when she ordered her drink. Then she made the waitress go back and make an extra trip to bring her a straw. He had never been able to decide whether this was done purposefully and spitefully or if she just forgot.

"I don't like that waitress," Jessica said.

Peter looked at the waitress. She was tall and thin with abundant dark hair. She was wearing a very short Black Watch tartan skirt and a white blouse. The folds of her skirt were held together by one of those giant safety pins and she had on black tights. She was pale. Her lips were full and alluring and she wore a blazing red lipstick. She had impossible green eyes and she was exceptionally attractive. Peter dreamed of going out with this woman, but he had never had the nerve to ask her out.

"Do you think she's pretty?" Jessica asked after the waitress had brought her the straw.

"She's beautiful," Peter said. "She's stunning."

"I don't think so," she said. Out of its paper wrapper she took the straw and stuck it into her drink and took a sip. "I don't think she's pretty at all, and I don't like her lipstick."

Peter waited and he said nothing. He watched the waitress as she went from table to table. It was very hard for him not to look at her. He had for the moment forgotten about Jessica.

"I met the most beautiful boy." Jessica said this as if at last remembering what she had wanted to say. She paused and drew on her cigarette, exhaled, and then took another sip of her drink.

"It happened one night," she said, "earlier this week. Here, at the cafe. I walked right up to him and I said, 'I'm leaving now. Walk me to my car and kiss me good night.'" She looked at Peter for a moment without saying anything. She took another puff off of her cigarette.

"Yes?" her very good friend, Peter, asked. "And?"

"He walked me to my car and he kissed me good night. Then we went to buy cigarettes." She took a final, long drag off of her cigarette and then she ground out the stub in the ashtray. "His kiss was the most unbelievable kiss I've ever had. It was hard and rough and I could taste his breath. He had been drinking beer. There was a strong odor of cigarette smoke in his hair and his beard scratched my face. He was a little bit clumsy. It was awkward. He had to bend way over, down into the car, to kiss me. I liked it."

"The most beautiful boy?" Peter repeated.

"That's right," she said, nodding her head only a little. "The most beautiful boy I've ever seen."

Peter wanted to leave. He had heard this same story too many times already, but he sat there and waited in silence. Jessica said nothing.

"Was he an artist?" he asked finally.

She looked at him for a while and made no attempt to answer him, and when she spoke again it was as if she had forgotten his question.

"I took him home with me." Jessica was silent for a moment. She played with the straw in her glass, slowly pushing it down into the ice and then pulling it back up and holding it above the glass, watching while drops of liquid fell from it.

She looked up from the glass and said, "We were sitting on my bed and I said to him, 'Why don't you kiss me again?' We started kissing and then I stood up and started to take off my clothes. When I was about to take off my bra, he said to me, 'Leave it on. I like it better that way. It's more fun.'"

She leaned back into the booth and against the wall and she glanced around the room, looking at the crowd of people in the dark restaurant. She looked back at Peter and took a very long sip of her Coca-Cola through the straw until she reached bottom and the straw slurped up air.

"I gave him head," she said. She picked up her paper napkin and wiped her mouth off and wadded it up into a tight little ball. She threw the napkin down onto the table and it skidded across the surface and fell on the floor. Jessica did not bother to pick it up.

Peter watched as the waitress walked by. She stopped and bent down to pick up the napkin, and through her tights he saw the muscles in her lovely legs flex, a long, cleanly defined indentation form along the outside of her thigh, starting just above the knee and disappearing under her skirt. The skirt went taut and rose a little higher on her legs and stretched across her delightful buttocks. As she reached for the napkin, the fabric of her blouse tightened across her back and he could see that she wasn't wearing a bra. He imagined the unimaginable curves of her lissome body beneath her clothes, the axillary arc formed by the torso and upper arm, the line of her small firm breasts, the outline of the areola and nipple, her long flat abdomen, her perfect waist.

He wondered if she had a boyfriend.

When she stood up, she looked at him and for a moment their eyes met. He had never before now looked at her in the eyes for any length of time, and she did not turn away. Peter's heart quickened and his world stopped for an eternal few seconds.

Jessica was saying something to him and he turned to look at her.

"When he was finished," she said, "he picked up what he must have thought was a towel from the pile of my clothes on the floor and wiped himself off. Then he went home."

Peter just looked at Jessica. It took him a moment to remember what she had been talking about. "I don't believe you," he said to her. Peter turned to look once more at the waitress. She had walked away and was standing at the bar drying the silverware with a dishcloth. She looked at him for a moment and smiled. She shook her head a little and then turned her attention back to what she was doing.

"It's true," Jessica said. "That's exactly what happened."

She took a fresh pack of cigarettes out of her lunch pail and slowly tore the cellophane off the top and set it aside, near the ashtray. She then removed one from the pack and lit it. She exhaled and looked at Peter through the veil of smoke. She seemed to squint. She carefully and deliberately put the cigarette down into the ashtray.

"It was very romantic." Peter looked away from her and said nothing in response.

There had been a time once when he had been attracted to Jessica. It had been many months earlier, before she had started to gain so much weight and before she had stopped caring about what she looked like. That seemed to him now so long ago. He looked at her sitting across from him and he could no longer imagine how he had ever found her attractive. Whatever beauty she may once have had was lost now to fat and neglect and to an irreversible, accelerated aging process fueled by the way Jessica had at one time chosen to live her life. He had seen pictures of her when she was in her late teens, her early twenties, and it was difficult for him to believe that such extreme changes could have occurred in so little time. She was twenty-four, but she appeared as if far older, like someone beset by some awful, degenerative, but not quite fatal, disease

He understood that in certain aspects Jessica had borne more than a slight resemblance to his most recent ex-girlfriend at that time, but he no longer liked to think about that and about how he had been so vulnerable solely on account of a similarity of appearances.

One night a very long time ago, Jessica had taken Peter back to her apartment above the garage behind her parents' house. They had kissed sitting on the bed. He spent the night with her and nothing else happened. Nothing else ever again happened and she told him she only wanted to be very good friends. He sulked for a while and then he got over it, and he told himself now that he was very glad nothing had ever come of the relationship.

"He wants to see me again," she said.

Peter was not looking at her. He was watching the waitress as she cleaned the top of a table and he said nothing.

"I know that he does," she said, and she believed it. To doubt this belief was a thought that Jessica almost could have had. It hid in the back of her mind, deep behind barriers to memory and to logical thought built up through time, built up during all those years when Jessica had been fucked up on drugs, alcohol, and industrial solvents. But that was a very long time ago, her high school and college days. She wasn't fucked up any more.

Jessica picked up her cigarette once again and took a drag off of it. She leaned her head upward and a little to one side. She blew out a breath of smoke, and in that same instant the front door opened and Jessica watched walk into the restaurant the most beautiful boy she had ever seen.

Peter watched Jessica and then he looked at what had caught her eye. He knew what she was thinking.

"The most beautiful boy?" he said to her.

"Yes," Jessica said, standing up and crushing the stub of her cigarette out in the ashtray. Peter and Jessica both watched him as he walked toward a booth on the other side of the restaurant and sat down. "He's the most beautiful boy I've ever seen."

There was a short pause here, as there always was, and Peter waited for Jessica's next words.

She just stood there for a moment, as if in a trance. She said and did nothing, just stared, and on her face was a look that could have been mistaken for blank earnestness, but Peter knew better. He knew her face revealed nothing because there was really nothing much going on inside of her head to reveal. She was untroubled by any thoughts other than the immediate, preconscious sensation of her desire to meet the most beautiful boy she had ever seen. She was little aware of the rest of the world around her, of the other people in the restaurant, or of Peter still sitting only a few feet away.

"I want to meet him," she said finally and she began to imagine what it would be like to kiss him and she took the first step across the room toward him, and Jessica's very good friend, Peter, knew it was time for him to go home.

 



About the Author

When Ryan Miller began to write fiction, he wrote spare, lean stories mostly devoid of adjectives and adverbs. He has since come to relish the use of modifiers, often employed ironically, and he tries to have fun with the language. With degrees in philosophy and architecture, he had no academic preparation in fiction writing. In the fall semester after completing architecture school, he took his first course in writing. Another followed the following semester. He has lived in New York, New Orleans, Fort Worth, and has spent a good deal of time in Paris. He lives now in Los Angeles. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Pointed Circle, New Rag Rising, The Wilshire Review, Indigenous Fiction, The Roughneck Review, Shades of December, The Armchair Aesthete, The Dallas Observer, and the online literary journals, Carve Magazine, Facets Magazine, 3 A. M. Magazine, Opium Magazine, SNReview.