Jenna is tweeting when she’s supposed to be painting. Ennui is the religion of my generation. The singer of her favourite band updates his own Twitter feed as she refreshes her browser. She’s in a small white room that smells like oil paints. Apparently, he sits in a Calgary university library with aching lumbar muscles.
Man. Since when did my lower back decide to turn 65 while the rest of me remains 30? Get me a stretcher
Jenna is alone in her studio, unprotected from the summer heat outside. Over the speaker, his pretty male voice coos over a single strummed acoustic guitar and sweet piano triads. She cranks the volume and stands, waltzing with an imaginary partner.
The object of her obsession is gay. And in her own reverie, slender, blond Jenna herself is more to his liking. She’s a muscular older man with a thick black beard and calm dark eyes. Her flimsy yellow baby-T is instead a plaid flannel workshirt, filled out by testosterone and with sweat. Her secondhand cargo pants from Value Village are replaced by some kind of uniform; she’s a janitor, a streetcar driver, a night watchman. Her thin wrists and forearms are thick and strong, corrugated with a dense patchwork of salt-and-pepper curls. Her voice is deep as a cave and the natural opiate of her masculine embrace could soothe an emotional young man, ease gentle sobs to quiet.
She walks the perimeter of her white-painted artist’s studio, from the window views a Bavarian forest instead of a Parkdale pharmacy, listens to cicadas rather than car honks and the non-sequitur bellows of a street fight below. My darling Luke would love me like this, she thinks. Together in the woods, I’d be his father figure and he’d be my submissive soulmate. She would lay down atop him, oppressing his limbs with her burly weight and height, as he squirmed and giggled on a blanket of pine needles, smiling. In a single movement, she would flip him over onto his belly. She’d fix his sore back for him. Or at least take his mind off it.
Fingertips to MacBook again, Jenna concocts a new, fake Twitter identity with a picture of a good-looking trucker she finds on Google Images. She calls herself @PaulBunyan. @Paul posts a flirty reply directed at the Alberta troubadour Jenna’s crushing on. I happen to be very good at lower-back massages, young man. Even on Twitter, she puts periods at the end of her sentences. Self-assured. Definitive.
Jenna lays down on the clean wooden floor of her studio, the nearby canvas almost untouched since her arrival three hours ago. Skinny indie chick with one hell of an imagination. Her ex, Gabe, could be here any minute now. They are going to a show together, two bands she hates. The Mountain Goats — too nerdy. And the New Pornographers — too raucous. She likes delicate music. Gabe always tells her she’s such a gaylord.
Gabe is crude and noisy himself, but he doesn’t judge her for being so weird and he won't ask why she hasn’t finished the last painting, even though her show is in two days. Instead he will hork at random as they manoeuver busy downtown sidewalks, and dart between two buildings to take a piss whenever he feels like it, barely out of view. Gabe sometimes picks his nose and eats it right in front of her. Jenna feels a lot of affection for this boy but she’s glad they aren’t kissing or messing around anymore.
They go to concerts together because Gabe’s new girl, Mindie, doesn’t like bands. She’s only into her religion, which believes that dead people are just sleeping. At the second coming, they wake up. On the plus side for Gabe, her religion also doesn’t believe in using condoms. “I’m gettin’ it wet,” he will say just to try and get on Jenna’s nerves.
She closes her eyes and thinks again of the handsome singer serenading her, as the song switches in iTunes. He’s wearing a yellow parka, a tartan sweater and a tender blue-eyed gaze fixed on hers, his chestnut locks dappled with snow. He romps toward Jenna through the trees, red-bearded and smiling. Jenna slides her finger down her pants. They kiss.
The concert was tedious. Moody songs about the Bible. Jenna liked it better when the Mountain Goats sang about crystal meth and robbery. Up the street from the show, she and Gabe sit under fluorescents. All day breakfast all night long. He stabs the yolk with his fork and then mashes it like a bright yellow zit.
“I’m surprised Mindie didn’t want to hear that. Isn’t she into Deuteronomy?” Jenna cuts her bacon strand into seven one-inch squares and passes the first one between her lips.
“She doesn’t like to be around people who drink alcohol,” he replies flatly. Gabe grabs his half-litre of Neilson’s chocolate milk and tips it into his mouth for a few open-yawed chugs. Neither Gabe nor Jenna drink booze either.
He belches but it isn’t a loud one. Jenna has one hand on the ketchup bottle even though she doesn’t like it. Gabe grabs the bottle from the top and tugs it out of her hand. He smothers his home fries.
Jenna lightly butters her French toast. The blackened, elderly knife looks like it’s been used to heat hashish. Hot knives. Stoners in the kitchen, she thinks, glancing back to see an old man with a round belly in a thin grey apron and sweat-steeped tam. Hmm. Gabe used to make her French toast when they were dating. He knew she didn’t like syrup so he made it her way. Savory. He tossed oregano and pepper flakes into the eggy mixture.
Gabe would cook in his underwear. A naturally athletic body with arms he didn’t even have to work for. Luck of the Portuguese. More rugged than handsome. When he returned to her kitchen with the stack of plates, you could see a tuft of hair poking out just above his butt in the white Unicos. Taking creative license, one time she excised them with a Lady Bic razor when he was asleep on his belly, and he didn’t even wake up. She mixed the hairs into one of her paints. It was her first painting that sold to someone she didn’t know.
“Do you need to get back to her before you turn into a pumpkin? Or a Satanic imp?” Teasing. Gabe has dated the new girl for almost a year, and he’s allowed out on Fridays. Mindie watches Everybody Loves Raymond and then goes to bed. Gabe alternates between street hockey with the guys and music with Jenna.
Gabe picks his nose behind his napkin. He sticks it on the serviette and folds it over, then wipes his mouth on the booger-free part.
“She just told me she’s pregnant.” Gabe pulls his BlackBerry out of his pants pocket, looks at the time, and stuffs it back in. He doesn’t wear a watch.
Jenna eyes the waitress’s approach down the long corridor of the restaurant as she puts the last perfectly cubed piece of toast in her mouth. She’s been working here longer than Jenna has lived in the city. Jenna likes her very pink nail polish. She looks back at Gabe.
“What are you going to do?”
“It’s not up to me, is it?” He pushes his plate away. Gabe stands up, pulls a twenty out, and puts it on the table. “Gotta take a leak.” He hitches up his pants and heads downstairs for the can.
“Your plate is spotless,” the waitress says. She puts Gabe’s, a sea of red and yellow liquid splotches, on top of Jenna’s naked one, efficiently stacking the two of them with cutlery and all the disposables from the tabletop. Walks away, the back of her blue skirt accented with a lopsided white bow.
One hand braced on the desk, Jenna fucks herself with a UHU Glue Stick. Her forehead drips with sweat. Smells the grease from the restaurant on the jean jacket at her feet. Her black pants and olive cotton panties are pulled down around her ankles. The rectangle of the laptop screen glows, a pulsing LED shoebox in the otherwise dark room. The window is open. Outside, junkies yell at each other about something again.
judging from your tiny twitter photo, i’d most definitely let you give me that massage, @PaulBunyan
One minute, she’s a bearded high-school coach, making that Calgarian singer do 100 pushups in a pair of tattered grey sweatpants. When she steps on his back with the worn sneaker of authority, he’s unable to rise. The next, she’s a nerd from a high-school glee club. Her and Luke are teenaged boys, stroking one another’s faces, clad in pyjamas with twin erections tented toward one another. Then she’s back in the art studio, Luke is playing with her vagina like it’s the first one he’s seen, stroking himself and poised to enter her. And Gabe’s sweaty foreskin slaps her cheek so she opens her mouth. Then it’s just the two of them again, Jenna laying on her back with Luke’s bearded chin connected to her wet pussy, his nose bumping her clitoris and sliding around it as she bucks, looking up at her own paintings which for once seem less abstract than usual.
Jenna punches her own clit five times with the ball of her hand and she’s done. The glue stick falls out of her other hand to the floor.
She closes one of the tabs on her web browser, a video of Luke and bandmates busking in a park in London, England. As the tune had hit its emotional crescendo, that’s when she got off. Silly maybe. Whatever. It did feel odd that some young kids were watching the band in the video as she frigged herself. She went back to the Twitter page and tapped out a reply from @PaulBunyan.
It would be hard to keep my hands on your back muscles. I know they would want to roam lower.
Funny she had incorporated Gabe into the sex fantasy. He would never get into a scene with two guys. The time they brought home a girl from a club together had been a disaster.
By 3 a.m. Jenna feels wiped. The apartment is three blocks away but she needs to get painting again first thing in the morning. She pulls the sleeping bag out of the corner, unfolds it under the studio window, and lays on top. Cool breeze blows. She likes her own sweet smell on her hands.
Jenna hears her phone vibrate in the middle of her crumpled pile of pants over by the desk. Closes her eyes.
Jenna is painting. The canvas she couldn’t fill yesterday remains untouched. Sitting in the chair, she has a Filbert brush in one hand and a white Riddell football helmet in the other, purchased off eBay. The left side she’s turned a solid black. On the right, she creates a green dinosaur wearing a yellow crown about to eat a red car. She stole the idea from a Montreal painter she admires, but doesn’t think he’ll mind the tribute. If he even hears of it. If anything, she feels strange putting nine hand-painted football helmets in the show simply because she knows they will sell if nothing else does. But a girl’s gotta eat.
When the helmet feels complete she puts it down on the worktable, and her phone vibrates over on the desk. Just when I need a distraction, it comes at the perfect moment. Magical thinking.
“What’s up. I called you last night.”
“I just finished something. I need a break.” The sun is starting to heat the studio. Jenna needs to go home to shower and change.
“Free for lunch?”
Gabe never hangs with her on a Saturday. “Yeah, sure, bro.”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I was on the Soundscapes website this morning. That Calgary band you like is in town next month. Want to go?”
“Cool. I’d love it,” she says.
“I’ll pick up tickets.”
“I’ll give you money.”
“Let’s meet at the red brick place, College and Palmerston. The patio must be open. Give me an hour. I need to shower.” She hangs up. Puts down the phone and logs on. Seven guys have added @PaulBunyan on Twitter overnight. She has a DM from Luke.
thanks for the offer handsome. i’ve got a bf though
Jenna smiles. She reciprocates the adds from the other guys. Gets up and puts on her shoes.
The meal is all small talk till Gabe pushes his finished plate away.
“The baby isn’t mine.” He says it like he’s commenting on the weather. “She’s been getting it from the youth pastor at the Seventh Day Adventist church. She’s moving to Brampton to shack up with him.”
Jenna touches Gabe’s hand. “She belongs in Brampton.”
“I feel dead.” He looks like he’s gonna cry, actually wipes at his eyes with his messy napkin.
“Resurrect yourself. Somebody’s got to help me set up at New Gallery tomorrow. I need a bartender too. It’s a good thing you’ve got time on your hands all of a sudden. I’ve really got to get back to the studio. Walk me.”
Gabe looks down at his remaining swirls of gravy.
Jenna pushes her chair back. “I’ve got to pee. Back in a minute.” She rubs his neck for a second as she passes by.
On the toilet, Jenna takes out her phone and tweets a reply to Luke’s direct message while urinating.
No worries, friend. I don’t think it would work between us anyway. See you in T.O. I’ll be the bearded guy at the back of the club. Smiling. Her character count down to zero, Jenna wipes herself after putting the iPhone down. Enough of that. She’s supposed to be painting.