Symbols on Labels
SOPHOMORES Jefrey and Jenniffer met and coupled, ostensibly over lust-love, each young and attractive, each with the aesthetic balls of flesh and muscle in the best places on their symmetrical waif bones. Neither went much beyond the ostensible, in mind or heart, nor did either anticipate there being much else to learn about relating. In her name they rented a loft near campus, with plans to stay there until graduation and the wedding.
Aside from a similar body structure, their sole bond was the letter F: Jefrey believed two wrongs made a right — he liked how she held his mislaid alpha character, while Jenniffer assumed two oddball statements better than one — she loved that he could commiserate. (Technically, Jefrey’s mom and dad sculpted the spelling of his name after a song by The Pixies, Space I Believe In; Jenniffer’s letter-mess occurred on account of extended bouts of experimental birthing drugs slurring and confusing her mother’s pronunciation for the month surrounding the birth.) As can be imagined, each child was tested, tormented and teased more often than is usual, because of an odd birth-name. This pushed Jefrey into extremist athleticism and Jenniffer into punk music and punk prose just following those few experimental years in junior high... In high school they each made their mistakes early and learned from them.
By the first year of college, each half of the couple was anxious to couple. Love at first (in-person) chat, was their story; the first part of their story. During the first semester they met twice. During the second semester Jefrey shared with Jenniffer these lyrics, from “Space (I Believe in)”:
We needed something to move and fill up the space
and his interpretations of the verses. During the third semester Jenniffer shared with Jefrey a poem re why she appreciated her double-F:
the first F belongs to the IF,
That time shared, for nearly a year, engulfed them as a flood; they were drowning in love, that honeymoon phase when even foibles are endearing and the rest of the world matters less and less; that love seeped over onto most everyone else in their overlapping lives, bringing popularity and a long list of contacts for each of them, a list of footholds to help establish themselves in the Real World. Being culturally naive yet, each admired the contact list in a shallow and nonutilitarian way, like a candy dish of treats rather than a veritable arsenal against unexpected sinkholes... Anyway. What follows concerns that list.
“We said crescent moon and star,” Jefrey said one night, retaining his casual personae, upon opening a packet of return address labels, ordered over the ’net. “These ones have rainbows.”
“Dumb automaton automation at factories,” retorted Jenniffer from the bedroom, head bent over psychology coursework.
Jefrey stuck in the hall outside the bedroom, thumped the packet of labels against his palm, waited for his fiancee to look up from beneath the wispy rainbow-stripe strands of hair hiding her face. A trail of slush from his gym shoes melted down the hall to the front door. “Obviously, an error,” he said.
“So, okay; send them back.”
He stared helplessly into the bedroom, wondered at his dulled lust for the vixen, on their padded futon, clad in tight-fit sweater and denim hot pants. Today, her face — in her tone, her words, indirectly — she was shorn of her adolescence.
“Send them back? Our holiday cards go out this week,” he griped.
Jenniffer quit studying to level her perturbed oval eyes on him. “No need to curse,” she said, defensively. “They’re only labels.”
“Rainbows,” scoffed Jefrey. "How can I send my family something like this? My frat brothers?"
He sent the labels sailing, aiming for the sociology texts, trying to engage his mate in the fight. Jenniffer kept on studying; the labels tumbled to the floor.
“This is a homo logo,” the man warned, sweating in the black warm-up sweats that she gave him yesterday, a gift to chase away the finals blues; when he thought that he loved her, like yesterday, she was the best, and on days like today, she was the worst mate he could have selected. “You telling me you’re a gay person, by ordering these labels, Jenn? We could invite in the dyke across the hall for a party, that what you want? some carpet to munch?”
A nervous sniggle escaped when Jenniffer bowed her head to avoid him seeing her grin. “Laurel? Are you talking about Laurel, across the hall? She’s fifteen! and very straight.”
“How do you know all that?”
“I met her. We all met, I met her boyfriend.”
Jefrey realized his aggression and took a step back. Without conscious awareness of movement or motivation, he'd assumed a threatening stance, a handful of inches from her. Yet she deserved his aggression. The more he thought about the labels being wrong, the angrier her got.
After a breath, he said, “Your secret fantasy? to wave the rainbow flag? This why you went punk with your hair? Fess up.”
Jenniffer shut the text, jogged her notes and said, pedantic as ever, “The rainbow is a symbol of beauty among the storms of life. Iris is my goddess.”
“I could not care any less.”
“You could get to like the ‘bow’ part of it, Jef. That’s masculine! And, ‘rain’ gives us boys and girls wet in their tee-shirts. Think of: an enormous bow, for a giant, surrounded by busty coeds getting doused with rain...”
Jefrey fumed, “That rainbow was your idea. You, you’re a dirty fighter, know that? Behind my back and all that! Rainbows. Of all the idiot selections.”
Looking startled beneath her rainbow of hair, Jenniffer started to sniffle. “I like rainbows,” said she, ripping a page from her notes. She blew her nose on it. “So I lose. I flubbed up. Let’s design a decal ourselves, instead. At the computer lab, on campus, they have the software — I have a pass.”
“Star and crescent moon, ’s’what I wanted,” he reiterated, entering the bedroom to retrieve the roll from the floor.
He read the labels again. “For Christmas we got 500 homo logos. They even got the spelling right! This, it, this ain’t the first pungee stick, that you jabbed me with, Jenn.”
“Poon-what?” mocked the boyfriend, incredulous.
“No, Jef. What word was that word. What was that that you said.”
“Not to sound as know-it-all retarded as you! Jenn. Jenn. Pungee sticks are wood spears, smeared at each tip with fecal matter, to cause infection, in the new wound.”
For awhile Jenniffer sat nervous, twitching. She folded the snotty page of sociology notes. “How am I infecting you? I’m nice. You said so yourself yesterday.”
“Figure it. Those sticks are a metaphor.”
Eventually the girlfriend created a notepaper pen, each wall triple-ply, her mucus buried inside. “You hate that you’re missing an F,” she accused in monotone, placing the tiny enclosure on her palm and looking at it. Seeing a likeness of herself trapped in there, she craved breaths of fresh air. “For some reason you think your name makes you defective — less of a person. And you like me because... of my weird name?... I’m freakish, in the same way as you. Is that right, Jefrey?”
“Birds of a feather,” he shot back, knocking the trash off her palm with another toss of another roll from the packet containing the sticky labels. “We’re claiming our freaky-deaky. What of it?”
Before getting off the bed Jenniffer swept parti-colored hair into a binder, and scooped her coursework into a bookbag.
“We’re bad together, all these pungee jabs,” she told him, jamming her arms into a military coat with punk patches all over the sleeves, then swung the bookbag over her shoulder. “I need a guy who loves me. Not someone who puts up with me because we have Defective Name Syndrome.” She sought her purse and coat. “Next year, we’re officially Over.”
“Our holiday cards,” Jef stammered, turning frantic. The woman’s hush as she walked out the door fed his fears. (Handwritten notes to everyone they knew, already, from each of them, in those cards!) Sneakers skidding on the damp carpet, he followed her into the hall, to toss this:
“Double negatives do cancel each other out, that’s a math fact, Jenniff-f-fer. Look us up sometime. Together we’re logic.”
THE coed sat languid in the stairwell, wrists crossed over her crossed legs. She considered the warm-up suit she gave to Jef, how good he looked. She dared not cry. Why she chose to mark the order form with a rainbow logo was a mystery to her. To humiliate him, maybe! To defy their joint decision. To out herself; yes, she had same-sex attractions; everyone had them but few acted on them, was her quick consensus. Not enough of a pull to act on usually. Her romance with Jef, dull and plebian in bed to begin with, was humming along as well as anything she’d expected or even wanted for her holiday.
So why call on the rainbow? The symbol was biblical — maybe her subconscious reasoning was religious. Her formative years were cluttered with occasional spells of her family or her and her mother attending a protestant church religiously. That excuse might work! she thought: The crescent moon with star is very dark, wiccan; satan is in its symbolism. She'd tried to save her soul, with an order for the rainbow labels. Wait— is the moon a feminine symbol? that lunar mystique? She began to worry that Jef was the gay.
Footsteps sounded beneath her in the stairwell. Jenniffer patted her moist eyelids and lashes, sat up, swam up out of her reverie.
A teen in a parka, hood fuzzy against dark shiny hair and slick face, rounded the corner of the stairwell. Tall and easy on the eyes, but... peculiar. On his hands were flaps of skin, a webbing stretching from thumb to index finger. Jenniffer had never seen webbed hands.
“Are you a student at Bellingham?” he said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Another something?” she said.
“How’s the workload here, from the courseload? How many hours a night, on average.”
“Comparable to Grinnell.”
“Oh,” said the teen, as though he now needed to find out the workload at Grinnell; it was written on his face. “Thanks I think.”
Resuming his climb, the high schooler shot past the coed, sprinkling her with misty sleet from his parka, and exited the stairwell on her floor. A moment later: a knock, on a door midway down the hall. The click of a lock and the sound of a door opening.
“Study-buddy!” squealed Laurel, muffled somewhat in her loft behind the acoustical flow to the stairwell. “You’ll never guess... I have a surprise for you, Chucky-Chuck...” The sound of a door closing.
Jenniffer used the handrail to pull herself to her feet, considering the teen’s hands, the oddity of a man with webbed thumbs. A throwback, to the days of ocean-living, before evolution brought us out of the deep and onto dry land and into the elements... A break from her intermittent Protestant upbringing! Lest she fall into a belief in Intelligent Design, she clung to Evolution as though she thought she could scale that wall to salvation. She thought: A Darwinian marvel, that “Chuck”.
Down the stairwell, then to the outdoors, she kept her oval eyes downcast. Icy rain hit her from the front as she slid across the street and to a cleared sidewalk. The gutter slush filled her low-siders and dampened her thin socks, melted on her ankles. All along the boulevard cars were crowding and sliding at intersections. The weather, the ebb and flow of bad weather! The coed quickly crossed. Once inside the campus chain coffeeshop she ordered a yogurt smoothie.
The coed knew the voice, from somewhere. She paid the barista and turned from the counter to see, from where and when.
“Hi! It’s me, Cloud Dawber.”
After a moment Jen registered a semblance of him. “Silver Cloud!” she said, then gave Cloud a hug. (After which she used a hand to shake loose rain from her hair.)
Warm and cold and wet, he warmed her with kiddie nostalgia.
“Just Cloud now,” he said, removing his cap and flicking off the near-frozen rain. “I dropped the Silver, too heavy of a distinction. Wow, Jenniffer. You look exactly the same — excepting for that 'fro — wow, wild. Are you a witch?”
“Oh, this?” she preened, touching her permed and dyed hair again. (She loved to downplay her hair.) Cloud was a mature version of the quiet, arty boy she once blamed a fart on: same sly face, only larger, stronger, bonier, an adult suddenly. He’d grown and thickened. She on the other hand had matured not a lot since her instant blooming during junior high, physically, as the women in her family were known for doing.
“How’s your mom?”
“My mom? ...She’s good... She’s getting her master’s. That was strange, a strange question, Silver, just Cloud.”
“Gosh, how long’s it been.”
“Since...— Fat Ol’ Shagrynne, Mondays and Tuesdays after school.”
“We had Advanced Math together one summer too, remember? So we would be at the top of the class by the time we finished junior high.”
“You were in that class?”
“Wow, Miss Shagrynne! I had to listen to her every day after school; you got out easy, Jenniffer: Tuesdays and Mondays. Did you hear that she got fired — for reading to kids from obscence storybooks?”
“What? Oh. I did hear something. Wait. Something about a, a dirty story, that she told to some kids, in the library.”
“Get this, get this: I think we heard it.”
“We heard it.”
“Oh. Really. That’s a lot of memory card to explore.”
“Here’s a hint: a time-traveler... travels to the future... Another hint: she meets a bevy of beauties who want to sorta paint her portrait?”
“The ugly painter and the sluts at the swimming pool?”
“That’s the one. Talk about sex-ed, apparently! I thought the story wasn’t prurient. But you know all about my hippie parents.”
“That I do.”
“Gosh, Jenniffer Foggerty! Are you a witch?”
“Am I a witch?”
“Are you in school, here at Bellingham?”
Jenniffer picked up the smoothie and put a spoonful in her mouth. A witch, no, she thought. “You’re the second guy to ask me that question tonight.”
“It’s not a trick question.”
“Yes. But I’m taking a leave of absence next term. That will give you a whole semester to try and catch up with me.”
“If you deny the witch, then are you in the military? No, nevermind, with those patches on your coat... Are you joining the Rainbow movement?”
“The rain-bow movement... No. No, I’m not gay.”
“No. No, the Rainbow people, the gatherings: the peaceniks, beatniks, what-all-ever-niks, college drop-outs, rat-race drop-outs, life drop-outs, families on the run, living off-the-grid...? Peace and free love, ganja, salvia, and organic wine and a constant noise of bongos and lutes?” — and here Cloud cupped his palms round his mouth and bellowed — “Aliens may be landing next week with pollution zappers, but clean up your campsites anyway!”
Jenniffer glanced round the coffee bar, assured herself that no one else was there to spread any new gossip or slander about her. “Oh, those Rainbow people. No.”
Cloud smiled, the silver fillings in his molars flashing in the harsh overhead light of the sparsely peopled chain store. “Forgive me. What it was was only a stupid comment based on your hair, that art project you’ve got going on in your hair. Reminds me of those latch-hook rugs we all had to sit on with Miss Shagrynne. I always wanted to go on a magic carpet ride on my latch-hook rug.”
“Okay. I never did that.”
“Is your boyfriend Japanese?”
“Japanese? No. He's white. Why would he be Japanese?”
“You know, the rainbow? It's a thing with them, the rainbow.”
“Okay. How did you know I have a boyfriend. Have you been stalking me, Silver Cloud?”
“Wow. Same old Jenniffer Foggerty! Same personality, exactly! Did you know, personality is the filter for the I.Q.”
“The I.Q. Cloud, that’s clever. Can I get your e-mail? I need some alone time. To process. My brainwaves...”
WITH a lurch in his thumping heart, Jefrey found the apartment locked. He jiggled the knob several times anyway. He banged on the solid paneled door with his palms. Who stood on the other side? Was Jenniffer home? A prowler, maybe, saw him go into the apartment across the hall, then slipped inside. He wiped frazzled sweat from his brow and cheeks, eyesockets. The door opened.
A crumpled-looking Jenniffer pouted, “There you are.”
“Am I welcome? I know this loft is in your name.”
Jenniffer stepped aside with an ushering motion, long loose sleeves on her floor-length robe swaying, and Jefrey entered. To him, within his racing thoughts, the apartment looked suddenly much smaller in scope, a child’s playpen. No adult lived there. Someone had shrunk it all.
“Why are you sweating? Why were you in the hall?”
Jefrey deflected the inquisition with a “hm?” and found a fold of newspaper to skim, to occupy and calm his mind. His brain buzzing, his balls emptied, he was wired, existing in a new place altered-dimensionally. The "ringer” hit, that one huge lungfull of smoke, though it had left his eardrums after a minute, was still making noise.
“Jefrey. Are, are you? are you high?”
“I,” and he paused to clear the frog from his throat, “I was across the hall —”
“Across the hall with Laurel.”
“She invited me in. I was, I was curious, about what you all did, the three of you, the other day. You and her and her boyfriend. So I knocked.”
“She had some, stuff, to smoke...”
“You got high with her.”
Jefrey took a big breath. “You were right.”
“I was right.”
“Right about what.”
“You were right. About Lauren.”
“Laurel,” said Jenniffer, emphasizing the second L, “as in... a laurel.”
With a frown, she joined her thumbs and index fingers in a fingery-leaf ring, and bowed, placing the ring on her rain-damp day-glo-streaky crown. Then she stood up straight and said again: “Laurel.”
Jefrey said with much petulance, as his high was being interfered with by her, “You were right. She is straight. I just now f.ed her.”
“You just now f.ed her?”
“Yeah. She wanted it like a Spartan boy. Kept saying she wanted me to make her a Spartan.”
After he’d said it, Jefrey felt much lighter, more sober. He smeared the sweat and lube and dirt from his loins into his new sweatpants, feigning a scratch. If she would relax, quit studying all the time, she’d be a whole lot sexier, he decided. That nubile body, his body pumping that body, their bodies sweaty and entwined, on the ottoman... the floor...
“Jefrey, she’s fifteen.”
“Jenn, come on. Jealousy is ugly on you.”
“She is a minor. I told you that earlier today. Jefrey! (why did I break up with you?) That’s statutory rape. This could get messed. You did, you did take precautions against her getting pregnant.”
“I did her, but in the butt.”
“What’s so sick about that? Jenn? And what is she doing with her own apartment, at fifteen? That’s totally not logical. Only college kids live in these apartments.”
Jenniffer tore a strip of skin from chapped lips with her fingers, absently ate the detritus. “Her dad let it for her. For privacy from her siblings.”
Any other time, Jefrey would’ve condescended to say, “Ew, Jenn,” to stop her from eating her skin. But he withheld the reprimand. Floodinging his system instead with memories of his impromptu f.ing across the hall — that luscious fling, with the sexy stoned girl in the shiny green socks, and now allegedly underage — he forgot the reprimand. He created a change in his tone, a new direction with his approach. He said, “You need lip balm.”
“Your lip needs repair.”
“Oh.” She petted her lips rather than tear at them.
“You were at that corner coffeeshop for over an hour. I know you went in ’cause I took a walk over and saw you in the window, with some guy.”
“Over there. Oh. That was Silver Cloud.”
“Someone from your Acting Fundies class?” said Jefrey, implying a faggotry in the man and the discipline.
“How’d you guess.”
“So you kicked it with Moon Cloud for awhile.”
“No. Silver. Just Cloud now. (gasp!) Did you really get it on with Laurel? (Did you? you dick?)... After I excused myself from Cloud, after five minutes, I sat down alone, with the alternative news. I had a smoothie. Correction: part of a smoothie. I abandoned it when I was reading about a, ah, alternative rag, from Boulder. A, ah, a woman who ate her newborn, parts of her newborn, face-first, and I almost gagged. Ugh. I retched. I did retch.”
“Ate? her baby? She ate? her baby? ...Alive?”
“Oh, it’s too stomach-churning! She started in on the toes, then bit off the nose, before scooping out the brain with her fingers... Repulsive. Ugh... Repulsive. I need a bath.”
Gazing above the foggy crackle on the pane, watching the rainfall become sleet, the vixen coed became an actress in films; she held Jefrey’s interest. She could amaze him, the odd things she said, the places she went, the people she knew. She was as good as any of the others, at the personable stuff. Amicability could ensnare him.
When Jenniffer made for the bathroom, with wide sweeps of her sleeved arms, Jefrey followed her to the door. To taunt her, he persisted: “She ate it alive? Girl or boy?”
“Jef, I don’t wanna talk about this. This horrid current event that happened over a thousand miles from here.”
While filling the tub, she fidgeted with the faucet, tested the water, reset the plug in the drain. Her sleeve ends, saturated in the pouring bath, looked like dirty dishrags dangling from her wrists, to Jefrey.
Before the steam clouded the glass he glanced over at his gaunt, runner’s build in the cabinet-mirror, searched his temples for white hairs, his hairline for signs of thinning. His side of the family aged quick, as quick as hers, and that was a reason to not stay together, to split, in his view. He was quite a catch, in his view. And quite bright intellectually, despite his vacillation in declaring a major. Anthropology piqued his mind.
“Obviously an insane cannibal woman,” he said, the words rolling more slowly through the sieve of his mind, easier to catch. “Or an evil experiment, get this! Some covert faction dosed her tapwater with an experimental drug designed to make her go crazy, they put a slowly dissolving cakes of this stuff in her pipes, you know those concentrated pucks of chemicals, this faction maybe put those cakes in her pipes...”
“Was the mother on anything? any psych drugs? That could explain her behavior. It could be her case. I should study pre-law.”
“Jef. Please stand down, step back, in the hall, and close the door. I’m sorry. I need my alone time,” she whined-shouted above the tussling of the pipes. From her seat on the tub’s rim she sat defiant and withering. “I need my alone time. To process. To...”
Jef took several steps, backward. “We’re not through talking.”
“Alone time?” She got up to shut the bathroom door.
At another locked door in his face, Jefrey ran a palm through his hair to catch the last pools of sweat. Unexpected weirdness all day. He’d been furious. Then the girl let him in... a minor! (She was taller than fifteen, for sure mature,) sexed up with her body, her tits and her ass, her bad-girl come-ons. She spoke like she was already in college. Now he was: a felon, a rapist? No way she’d call the cops. She’d invited him in.
The waterflow stopped, so Jefrey knocked on the hollow metal door.
“We do need to talk about those labels,” he said, to engage his (ex-?)mate. “If you’re going to keep living here, if we’re going to keep living together.” He could hear the sound of water rippling. “Jenn? Jenn?”
“I need you to package up those logos and send them back to the maker,” he told her, “with a new order for the crescent moon and star.”
“Here’s my solution: This year, the holiday cards go out with no return address! So easy. Everyone we know already has this address.”
“And Jenn, one more thing. Then I’ll leave you alone. Tell me I’m a logical man. That’s something I need to hear right now. That I’m logical.”
“Please, Jenn. Tell me.”
“We’re a math equation, you and me. A math fact.”
*2012 WOOD COIN: Controversy! Blasphemy! Slander! Marriage!... Issue: Beach, “Symbols on Labels”