THE TOOTH CLATTER OF THE DOWN & OUT
(By Matthew Walden)
SEPTEMBER 24, 1997 [28 days remaining]
Jane Manilius had decided to kill herself on her 16th birthday, which at less than one month away, was hurtling itself toward her with all the chaotic force of a derailed train. She had yet to determine her method of execution, weighing various instrumentations in her mind for effectiveness, pain, and symbolic resonance, but she was steadfast in her resolve.
Recusing herself from the living was not a choice she’d stumbled on without reflection; the event had hung over her thoughts since she first realized it was an option, a poisonous fog that descended into her interior landscape, distorting her experience of life with its whispering vapors of mystery and release. She wanted to destroy the world, but seeing no plausible way to accomplish this, had settled on destroying her access to it instead.
Jane’s deepest wish was to slip on a pair of delicate stretch satin gloves and nudge a pistol against her temple in the exact same manner as her idol had, the French film starlet Claudine Molaire, at the climax of her most notorious film,
The Devouring Flame.
However, lacking access to vintage Mousquetaire evening wear, or the fashion coterie it circulated amongst, not to mention the barriers erected against firearm possession by Clinton’s liberal fascist police state (her father’s words, not her own), Jane’s mind had eventually reached an armistice with more utilitarian, and less glamorous, methods of dispatch.
Jane arrived at the Chattaloosa Public Library on her sleek, silver Cannondale bike on a late Saturday afternoon, the cool gust of air conditioned book stench enveloping her as she strolled through the library’s lobby, past the musty grey curtains casting shadows across the stacks, pausing only to tie the laces on her pumpkin orange Keds, when her shoulder clattered against the table displaying the library staff’s recommendations for Banned Books Week.
Half a dozen books on display tilted and collapsed, and even though she was too low to the ground to see them, she could feel multiple sets of eyes drilling her with disappointment over puncturing their drowsy silence.
Great, three more people who hated her, she thought. Join the line.
Jane stood and gently reset each of the books behind the laminated placards extolling the titles’ situational importance in the fight for First Amendment protection that must be waged in our local communities as well as the national stage…. blah, blah, whatever.
But hold on. Maybe one of these books wasn’t so dull after all. The miniature sketch of a gallows scaffold in the front corner of You Say Goodbye sang out to Jane. She could feel a tickling warmth rise up from the back of her neck and crawl over her scalp.
The way it would feel to be choked, the rough edges of the rope grinding against the front of her throat, the last look in her eyes of peaceful release.
Jane imagined a crowd gathered in front of her execution, children with dirty faces, burly mustached men in coveralls wiping sweat from their foreheads with intricately patterned handkerchiefs, women in dainty dresses holding parasols, tittering and pointing, a few pretending to feel heartbroken, but not a single one of them free of jealousy as Jane swung from a noose in front of them, her neck snapped to the left like a promise delivered.
She’d found her escape. Where would the rest of these bastards find theirs?
Jane flipped the book over:
With tremendous compassion and a deeply abiding sense of tactfulness, You Say Goodbye: The Compassionate Guide to Breaking the Bonds of Breathing delivers careful instructions on the step-by-step process of dissolving your physical presence on Earth. Whether faced with a terminal illness or simply buckling under the two-ton weight of sadness inherent to existing, You Say Goodbye charts your exit route to the realms of the beyond. It has become the quintessential source for suicide and euthanasia to the suffering, and the loved ones they leave behind.
"HELPS YOU NAVIGATE THE THORNY THICKET OF LAWS SURROUNDING THIS COMPLEX & VITAL ISSUE." —Dr. Alfred R. Shamoo, pediatrician and ethicist
"THE BULLYING BUREAUCRATS WILL HAVE TO PRY THIS BOOK FROM MY COLD DEAD HANDS." —Pudding DeMothra, lead singer of The Horrible Twists
Jane opened the cover and ran her finger along the list of stamped due dates on the yellowing catalog card stapled inside:
AUG 27, 1992 DEC 09, 1993 JAN 21, 1994 FEB 15, 1994 JUL 06, 1995 OCT 22, 1996
A few spots of black mold dotted the inseam in symmetry with the dates. Did any of the people who borrowed this book go through with their plans? Had they returned the book before they killed themselves, or had a relative returned it afterwards on their behalf? Did it lay open next to their dead body on the bedside, providing instructions up until the moment of surrender?
The book surged with the electric currents of her comrades in defeat. They had the courage to wave the white flag, admitting to the world what they already knew inside, that it was over for them; their turn on the merry-go-round had reached its end. Jane soaked in the numbers, repeating them in her mind as if they were an incantation, hoping to channel their strength.
The last due date on the list carried particular significance:
OCT 22, 1996
Jane’s 15th birthday, the year prior. If that wasn’t a cosmic signal, then signals didn’t exist. She was determined to elevate those numbers to the consciousness of those that knew her. She’d leave them as a giant stain on the calendar for others to ponder the subterranean sulfurs that had dragged her under.
She carried the book with her through the library and found a table to throw her plaid green Jansport across. Ostensibly, she’d come to the library that afternoon to study for the Regionals of the National French Oral Competition.
You’d have to excuse her if she wasn’t particularly thrilled about representing the Fédération des Alliances Françaises for her entire town next month. She wasn’t anywhere near finished memorizing her Rimbaud passage for the competition, and she doubted a single afternoon’s cramming could repair months of handwringing and second-guessing her abilities.
You’d have to excuse her if planning her own murder was momentarily more captivating then facing up to her impending academic failure.
There’s no way she’d officially borrow the suicide book and risk someone trying to lecture her, though. She’d have to read it right there in the library. A stack of atlases from the shelf nearby provided decent cover, and after building a fortress around herself, she became absorbed in You Say Goodbye’s hypnotic prose.
“Suicide can be traced throughout civilization. It has always been a part of the human experience. The ‘death deniers’ will scarcely bat an eye at putting down a family pet to end its suffering. Why can’t they understand that humans also deserve the dignity of elective self-termination? A good death awaits anyone willing to apply careful planning to the problem of unrelievable pain. Elective deaths can be significantly satisfying on a spiritual level for the terminally ill and their loved ones. Because the dying person has the opportunity to say, ‘Today is the day I die,’ it removes the element of surprise, allowing relatives to say their goodbyes and thank-yous.”
But that’s not what Jane saw. She’d been gifted with a dowsing rod that let her dive beneath the surface of words into the wellspring of hidden meaning waiting for those who knew how to look. It actually said:
“Jane, kill yourself on your birthday this year. Don’t just think about doing it. Be brave. Everything will only get worse. Don’t get fooled when things temporarily get better and you have a good day. It always cycles back to garbage. You’ll find a way to screw things up again, because you’re a gigantic screw-up, and no one here likes you in the first place, and none of it is real, none of it means anything, and this is just the door you have to step through to reverse the colossal mistake of being born. The people you hurt, if they’re really people and not just a part of this nightmare that your mind’s invented, they’ll recognize that you’ve tried to make amends. They may feel sad when you’re gone, but that’s because they’re nice people. In the end, they’ll realize what a favor you’ve done them, and your final act can be the first true act of selflessness you’ve performed in sixteen years of a worthless existence. Now is the time to become a responsible woman.”
Now where was the “How to Do It” section?
She couldn’t think of anything more miserable than surviving a suicide attempt. If she was really going to do this, she would do it right. As she got further in her reading, the only method the book seemed to prefer was a combination of sleeping pills and suffocation. Jane tried to imagine herself locked in her bedroom with a plastic bag secured to her head by rubber bands, waiting for the pills to kick in and drifting out slowly, the bag tightening against her mouth as her body fought against her desire for death, hungry for the oxygen her spirit had already rejected.
The book described it as the most painless and humane way to proceed, but the imagery wasn’t pleasant. It seemed pathetic. Which matched how she was feeling, definitely, but this was supposed to be a transformative act. Something that elevated her, rather than smothered her. It possessed none of the poetic flash she hoped to communicate about herself.
The book had still been useful, though, even though she only made it through the first half that afternoon. Never in her years of suicidal reflections had she ever felt the concreteness of the act, the feasibility, the suspension of moral constraints.
Suicide was acceptable to someone else besides her. It was okay enough for them to put it in print, to offer the book in the library, to promote it under their Banned Books display. How could it be a sin? It became a mission of hope for her rather than a shameful secret. It was finally okay for her too.
Ding went the light on the shuttle to her execution.
SEPTEMBER 30, 1997 [23 days remaining]
Jane hit pause on her VCR’s remote control. It was an ancient model, the kind that had to remain tethered to the unit with a wire. White lines of static scratched across the screen, marring the black and white image of Claudine Molaire, the French starlet’s mouth slightly ajar, her eyes downturn, more than likely contemplating fundamental truths. And that hair, that dark hair that promised mystery, long bangs that purposefully concealed the right side of her face, a statement to her Gallic pursuers, to the world, that there was much more to her than one person could ever hope to discover.
Jane wished she lived back then, when life was grand, when people walked and talked like they meant it, like they were on the edge of something new.
She wished that one day she too could stroll along a rain-soaked boulevard, hopping puddles with her sprained ankle and cane, wandering — but with a purpose, waiting for the gentleman she had pretended to bump into as they passed outside the bakery shop, a love that was noble because of the purity of her intentions; she could be graceful, she could be wanted, she could be alive.
If only she lived when they had filmed The Allure of Defiance, or anything else in the New Wave.
She lived in a stupid time, though, a stupid, stupid time, one worn dull by the constant roll of chattering idiots and demeaning demagogues, all reading from the wrong script, playing rolls uncast in the idealized movie she watched in her head. In that film all the denigrations of daily life were escapable, Jane’s pride and grace too tall to be affected by the ingravescent wolves that nipped at her heels.
Jane’s dad, for example. There was a goddamn wolf worsening by the day. Burt Manilius was always in his study, his tiny glasses hanging limply at the end of his nose, which caught the reflection of the lone lamp at the edge of his rolltop desk. He sat there slackjawed, rubbing his forehead with a pencil in his mouth, thin patches of grey hair jabbing like swords at his temple, head sunk deep in some academic study he only pretended to understand, underlining words he’d probably never re-read, as if the entire universe was watching and admiring his attentiveness to detail.
A charade with no audience, because Jane didn’t care, and who knows if her mother cared about anything at all anymore.
Burt twiddled his pencil in the air without turning to face Jane when she approached the doorway. “Honey, you read your Auden for the day? Cross the silent empty ballroom, c’mon I want to hear it, Doubt and danger past…”
The condescension in his voice choked the air like the exhaust of a greyhound bus. She stood silent behind him, fingering her crumpled deficiency slips from school in the pocket of her jeans. There was no way she’d muster the courage to have him sign them.
A projected D for Geometry, an F for World History, and an F for Home Economics. If the teachers didn’t make any phone calls, she could just ride it out the next few weeks, kill herself before report cards were issued.
Burt turned around and scooted up to her with his rolling office chair. He pointed his pencil at her face.
“AP English starts next year. And exactly how do you propose to get there with two B minuses on your essays so far? Extra credit, you’ll …”
“…never regret it. I’m on top of it, Dad. And you can stop pointing that thing in my face.”
“It’s just a pencil,” he sighed.
“Well, then you wouldn’t mind if I took your penknife and plunged it into your false heart?” Jane walked behind her dad, took the pencil from him and held it against the front of his throat, the lead tip faintly pressing against his adam’s apple.
He laughed and removed his glasses. “You did the reading, then? That’s a girl. C’mon. Hop on pop.” He patted his knee with his palm.
“Nuh uh. Way too old.” She dropped the pencil.
“Pray that you never get too old to give me a hug.”
She grimaced as he drew her in to his embrace. He brushed her hair behind her ear. It felt so ungenuine. She’d wondered if it always felt that way and it just took her this long to notice.
“I’m glad you did the reading. Grades up are goal number one. Goal number two is getting my little rascal happy again. You used to be so much fun. Now you’re just sour all the time.”
“Maybe I’ve been sucking on limes.”
“You used to bring us so much joy, little Jane. I think with some effort, you still could.”
“Well, why don’t you jump back into Epistemological Variance, or whatever’s so joyful you’re reading,” she said, casually flipping the cover closed on her father’s textbook.
“For Christ’s sake, Jane. You lost my place. Everything isn’t a game.”
“Clearly,” she said as she left the room, turning the desk light off on her way out. Her father fumbled for the switch in the dark.
OCTOBER 8th, 1997 [14 days remaining]
Jane walked in circles across her room, twirling the blue phone cord so that it wrapped around her body, slowly inching up like a snake. When she couldn’t twist it any tighter without snapping loose the connection, she leaned against the doorway to her room and slid to the floor. She tried her best to pay attention to Trevor, but his words slapped against her ears with such callous force that she could only afford to give him half her attention.
“… what do you mean you’re sad?” Trevor whined. “How is that supposed to make me feel? If you want to make me feel guilty, then congratulations. Because I almost do.”
Is it possible to still love someone even when you’ve begun to hate them? Jane drew a spiral with bats flying out in the upper left corner of her notepad. She didn’t know where they were flying to, but it certainly had to be better than here.
Her notepad contained a list of conversation topics. She always brainstormed topics to discuss before she called her boyfriend (/ex-boyfriend) Trevor in order to fill any awkward gaps in conversation. And with boys her age, conversations were mostly awkward gaps with a few snippets of stolid interjections sprinkled around the margins.
Jane was better than that though. All of her conversations would be fascinating; if her interlocutors weren’t up to the task, she’d carry the mantle. This particular call had taken a little less planning, however. They were starting to feel like a waste of effort.
While Trevor droned on, she crossed off three more items from her list.
- TELL ANECDOTE ABOUT WEIRD HOMELESS GUY IN PARKING LOT
- ASK HIM ABOUT NEW TRUCKS ON HIS SKATEBOARD
- PENNYWISE BASSIST SHOT HIMSELF
- THAT COMPUTER WINNING AT CHESS AND HOW IT’S SAD
- HOW I’M SAD
- TELL HIM ABOUT SUICIDE PLAN (AS A JOKE)
- ASK IF IT’S OFFICIALLY OVER
“I mean it’s not like you and I were going to get back together. I just assumed that,” Trevor said.
“It’d be better if I wasn’t here,” Jane said.
“Where, in Chattaloosa? Yeah, this place blows,” Trevor said.
“No, not Chattaloosa. Chattaloosa’s fine. Just here in general.” Jane said, making quotation marks in the air, even though she knew Trevor couldn’t see her. She slid the phone cord up around her neck and pulled it snug. She closed her eyes. “Like here in life. Wherever this is. It would be better if I weren’t here right now.”
Silence on the other end. This wasn’t awkward silence though. It felt pregnant, with something. A silence that arrived bearing gifts. Jane’s chin trembled and she lifted up the neck of her shirt to sigh into, hoping Trevor wouldn’t hear.
“Yeah, well, so,” Trevor continued, “I told you how me and Cyndi kind of made out on a dare that one time?”
“Uh huh,” Jane said.
“Well, Tommy and the guys and I went camping last weekend, and he got so wasted. He drank like two 40 ounces. Then he tried to finger that townie girl in front of everyone but she just laughed at him. So he walks away from the fire pit and passes out in front of his tent and me and Rick stuck two cigarettes up his nose and took a picture.” Trevor laughed in that breathless stoner way Jane had found endearing less than four weeks ago. It was quickly shifting to the CONS column.
“Anyway, because Tommy hadn’t unpacked his extra tent that he brought for Cyndi, and it was still locked in his truck, and we couldn’t find his keys while he was passed out, I told Cyndi she could sleep in my tent. And this is the news I wanted to tell you about. Me and Cyndi kind of lost our virginities together.”
Jane’s chest felt compressed, like a cinder block had slammed against it.
“Uh huh,” Jane said.
“I just thought you’d be happy for me,” Trevor said, “Because it’s kind of a big deal. I mean the sex wasn’t a big deal. It was fine. But just the moment, you know? I mean it only happens once. And it’s not like you and I were ever going to, right? You’re still not ready.”
“I never said I wasn’t ready,” Jane said.
“Yeah, I know, but seriously, you aren’t ready. I could always tell. But I know we always talked about how it would be a big deal if it happened, and how we wanted the situation to be right, and for it not to happen in some dumb clichéd way. And I just thought you’d be happy to know that I did it with Cyndi, because it was just like we talked about, but, you know, with her instead, and it was special to me.”
“No. Totally,” Jane said, and instantly hated herself for it.
“You’ll always be the first girl I told that I loved. That won’t ever change, Janey.”
“Wait. You told Cyndi that you love her?” Jane asked.
“Yeah, I mean. We had sex. It seemed like the right thing to say. But that doesn’t mean you won’t always be the girl I loved once. Do you still love me, Janey?”
Another silence. Jane was beginning to find their utility.
“I don’t know,” Jane said. “No. Probably not.”
“Ouch,” Trevor laughed. “I still kind of love you, in that in-the-past way I was just talking about.”
“Yeah, I imagine that’s real easy for you. Not everything is easy for everyone. Some people take life seriously.” She was in tears, but that asshole didn’t deserve to know.
“Okay.” Trevor said, his discomfort apparent. “I’m going to watch The Simpsons. Should I hang up? Or do you want to listen to me while I watch The Simpsons?”
Jane hung up.
Sunday Morning, October 10th, 1997 [12 days remaining]
Water splashed from the plastic 7-11 cup into the toilet. Jane poured some water into her mouth before coughing it into the commode as well, hacking, blowing her lips against each other. Don’t overdo it, she reminded herself. Just enough so they could hear. Once more oughta be enough.
She refilled the cup and poured the water from as high as she could hold her hand. She slammed the porcelain lid shut when the cup was empty and coughed a few more times while she flushed the toilet. Her shrill inhale must have sounded adequately pitiful. Two more weeks of this excruciating debasement until she could free herself.
Burt knocked on the door. “All right in there, Plain Jane?”
Jane counted to three in her head, spit a few times, sighed as loudly as possible, then responded, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Cause that didn’t sound too fine.”
“I’m just not feeling well. It’s fine, though. Promise.”
Jane smiled. He had bought it. She looked into the mirror and loosened her pink and white necktie, ran her fingers through her blonde hair and shoved her bangs outward. The frizzier the better.
She unwrapped the thin roll of Smarties candies in her pocket and tossed three into her mouth. Her teeth stung slightly when she bit down, her right eye twitching instinctively as the rush of sour pineapple charged underneath her tongue. She chewed the wafers into a thin paste and spit the chalky yellow glob in her palm.
Perfect. A dab on her cheeks just trailing off the side of her lips, yeah, a little on the white collar of her blouse, and why not, a little drop on her Doc Martens too. It had gotten out of control in there. She brushed her hands off on her skirt and washed her hands.
What else do you do when you puke? Her mother’s giant toothbrush leaned up against the soap dish, surrounded by brown circles of crusty mold. Yeah, you do brush your teeth after you puke. Jane didn’t keep a toothbrush in the downstairs bathroom, but her Mom’s toothbrush? Nasty.
It probably tasted like Rum and Coke and failure.
She heard her dad shuffle back through the hallway. She squeezed the biggest dollop of toothpaste onto the bristles and went for it. The things we do for art. She closed her eyes and grinded her palms into her eyelids to make them look red and exasperated.
The bathroom’s light beamed down on her, brighter than the white of the highest peak. She turned off the overhead fan, unlocked the bathroom door and immediately plopped down on the tan leather couch in the living room.
Burt walked in and trembled at the sight of the yellow scum on her shoes. Jane stretched out on the couch and sighed.
“I threw up,” she lied.
“I can see that. Shoes off the couch, please.” Burt grimaced and grinded his teeth. He did it whenever he needed to make a decision, showed off those chompers, stained yellow and chipped at the edges from decades of coffee, Earl Grey, and indecisiveness.
“Guess I shouldn’t go?” Jane said scrunching her right cheek up.
“No, I suppose you shouldn’t.” Burt put his hands in his back pockets and tapped his foot. “They’re going to be crushed. You know that right? Absolutely crushed. Green Forest won the last six regionals in a row. You’ll have to call Ms. Gaboriault and tell her yourself.”
“Nnnnnng.” Jane stamped her feet on the ground. “This sucks. I really want to go. It’s like, why did I waste the last two months studying in the first place if I’m just going to be sick?”
Laying it on a bit thick. Walk that tightrope, Jane. She tried on the saddest version of her daddy’s-daughter-eyes. If she broke them out too often he’d catch on, but reserved for special occasions they often proved irresistible.
Burt walked over and placed his hand on her forehead, “You do feel warm. I’ll get you a washcloth. Take your shoes off, catch your breath for a moment.”
Jane complied and sighed with relief.
But her father’s tone had already changed when he returned 10 minutes later.
“Shoes back on princess. You’re going. Called Ms. Gaboriault for you. We’re leaving now. She talked me into it.”
“What?” Jane said.
“I said you’re going. I know you’re sick.” Burt bent over to tie a knot in his leather oxfords. “She knows you’re sick too. She said it’s too important to miss. We don’t have to stay for the whole thing. You can come home and sleep as soon as you’re done with your passage. It’s just a twenty minute ride up to Turner High.”
Jane exhaled through her nose. Interesting tactic on his part, not doubting the sickness. How else could she escalate it?
“I don’t want to get the rest of those kids sick at the competition. It’s not fair to them.”
“I don’t care about those other kids,” her father said as he smiled. “All I care about is you getting what you deserve. Let’s go get another medal. You’re a Manilius, aren’t you? We get back – I make you some soup. You can stay home sick on Monday. Today you’ve got some winning to do.”
Burt’s eyes darted around the room like a rat with miraculous endocrine efficiency. He couldn’t be talked out of anything when he got like that. He’d zone out, blinders on to the world, as if nothing else existed besides him and the object he pursued. It’s what got him his chair at the philosophy department of Chattaloosa City College. It’s also what made him insufferable as a father and a husband.
Jane could feel her heart thumping underneath her left ear. She didn’t have a backup plan. Couldn’t the world just end right then? A big old crisis or explosion would be good. Like another Oklahoma bombing, except at the stupid school where they held the regionals.
“Let’s go. Let’s go. We should have left 20 minutes ago.” Burt put his hands under Jane’s armpits and lifted her off the couch. He fastened the top button on her blouse and yanked on her tie, pulling it taut against her collar.
This was really going to happen, wasn’t it? There was no Saint of Unstudied Sundays to pray to. No fiery purge of destruction to rescue her. She had less than a paragraph memorized from her five-minute passage. There was no way this wouldn’t completely suck.
They walked out to the red convertible Volkswagen together. The sun sat atop the morning with its typical brashness, proud of its accomplishments, proud of heating the seething mass of despondent families and field mice in Jane’s neighborhood. Their house sat a few blocks away from the local dog tracks, a magnet that sucked in scraggly-faced men from the city, most with foul mouths and empty pockets dodging their wives and kids for the day, looking for a place to chew skoal by the bucketful, throw cash around like it still meant something, envy a creature that still felt the desire to run. Jane glared at the line already forming near the entrance of the dusty field.
The car pulled to a stop at the red light. Jane sunk down in her seat and loosened the seat belt against her lap, which was actually beginning to feel sore now, her brain sending signals to her stomach she couldn’t ignore.
Burt reached up to unlatch the black hood of the convertible. “Could you get your side, hon? Gorgeous day out.”
“I’d rather not. Shoulda brought my sunglasses. Throwing up gave me a headache.” Jane placed the back of her hand against her forehead and closed her eyes. How much of her passage could she actually get through?
A tout asservie,
J’ai perdu ma vie.
Then what came next? Je me suis qu’on? No. Je me suis retraite? This was going to be an utter trainwreck. If she spoke slowly she could eat up half a minute of the judges’ time at most. She’d immediately be unrobed as an imposter.
It’s not that she hadn’t cared enough to study. She really did have a passion for the language, had a natural aptitude for it, loved the way the words sounded when they came out of her mouth: soft, round and non-abrasive. French was a cold glass of water she could dissolve the salt of her bitterness into.
But September had been a hell of a month. She’d become a student of sadness, studied how it could infiltrate her mind and push everything else out to the periphery.
It didn’t help that Ms. Gaboriault had chosen a Rimbaud passage significantly above Jane’s comprehension level. That was the expectation though, for her to rise above expectations.
She kept her eyes closed for the entire car ride, ignoring her father’s out-of-tune whistles along to Steely Dan on the cassette deck, berating herself for not thinking this through further, for not being good enough to match the accomplishments already chosen for her, and for being too dense to concoct an effective escape plan when she inevitably failed to measure up.
She finally opened her eyes when the car pulled into the parking lot outside Turner High. Rust had eaten a tiny hole all the way through the floorboard just to the right of her shoe. Jane stared at the small dot of gravel that rolled underneath them and wished she could shrink down and fall through, dissolve into the rocks below.
Trapped in time,
I lost my life
Through weakness of heart.
Or something like that. She hadn’t finished translating it into English yet. So on top of it all she didn’t even know what she’d be saying today. Just syllables falling out of her mouth like a braying mule.
Ms. Gaboriault greeted them with a maelstrom of obnoxiously enunciated bong-zhoors and air kisses on an overrun patch of grass at the entryway to the auditorium.
“Jeune femme! Comang tahlay voooooooooooo? Your color looks pale, does it not? And this is your father? Monsieur Manilius?”
Ms. Gaboriault bent her hand forward in front of her as if she expected a kiss. Burt, who was as graceful as any other professor of neo-classical pragmatism, which was to say not at all, grabbed ahold of her outstretched hand and yanked it up and down like he was milking a cow.
“Call me Burt. Pleasure. Definitely a pleasure. Glad we could get Jane here. Rough morning, but she’s feeling better.” He finally released Ms. Gaboriault’s hand and they both pouted their lips at Jane, who stared at her shoes. She was beginning to intimately learn the physical dimensions of shame, how it could squat on her back, or hop along her forearms with tingling jabs of fire, a rabid infestation of lice crawling through her hair that everyone could see.
Burt took off his glasses and breathed on them, untucking his shirt briefly to wipe off the fog before crudely jamming it back into the front of his pants, revealing the waistband of his underwear in the process. It was that total obliviousness to protocols of decency that humiliated Jane the most when they were in public together. He probably thought because he was an academic he could get away with it, pawn it off on being lost in his thoughts, but at this point Jane just assumed everything he did was an affectation.
And Ms. Gaboriault, she’d clearly woken up that morning and swallowed a bowl full of blueberries and meal worms, her chipperness and false enthusiasm at its shrillest. She ushered the two of them through the gymnasium doors toward their seats on the bleachers. A fourteen-year-old boy with a mop of brown hair feathered across his forehead was in the middle of his presentation to the row of judges at the foot of the stage.
Jane chewed at a cuticle on her left pinkie. The sheen on the floor of the basketball court reflected the fluorescent lights needling down at them from above. She was getting it from all angles in the thunderdome. The boy continued spitting out his passage in rapid-fire Parisian prose. He rowed his hands to the side as if he were paddling the oars of a boat. He stood on his tiptoes and plucked an apple off an imaginary tree. The judges laughed whenever he paused for effect.
He was good. He was quite good.
The gravity of the event tugged at Jane as she sat there. She didn’t have any hand motions planned out. She couldn’t even recite the whole damn thing. Her mind emptied itself of options as she drank deeply from the lake of her self-hatred.
Successive contestants passed by in a white glaze on the stage. They all had smiles that boasted an intimacy with the material. They were all knocking it out of the park. The girl on stage did a curtsy and the fifty or so students and family members in the front rows applauded. The judges rapped their knuckles on the table at the floor of the stage.
Finally, the lead judge leaned forward into the mike: “Representing Green Forest, Mademoiselle Jane Manilius.”
Ms. Gaboriault smiled and patted Jane on the back. Either she knew something Jane didn’t, or she was in for the disappointment of her life. Jane rubbed the sweat off her upper lip, stood awkwardly, and headed toward the stage.
Her Doc Martens squeaked against the gymnasium floor, a chorus of frogs croaking along the lillypads lining her defeat. The walk felt like it took half an hour, but she wished it would last forever. The stage kept approaching no matter how strongly she desired to delay her arrival. She clomped up the stairs behind the curtain and heard her footsteps bounce across the empty auditorium. The microphone stood before her as she crossed the stage, and she received a sickening jolt of déjà vu as she approached it.
She wondered when she’d done anything like this before and realized it wasn’t the setting, but the feeling that rang familiar. Dread was her bread and butter. Waking up every morning felt exactly like this.
She grabbed the microphone stand with her damp hands to steady herself. She looked down at the four judges sitting at the table in front of her, at her father and her teacher sitting proudly with their hands clasped in their laps.
“Bonjour. My name is Jane Manilius. Today I’ll be reciting Rimbaud’s Chanson de la plus haute tour.”
She felt weakness swallow her knees, so she transformed her wobbling into a false half curtsy, splaying her fingers upward with a quick jab that she hoped communicated her firm grasp on irony. One of the judges in his mid-forties with a tan corduroy jacket gave her a boisterous chuckle. He either felt sorry for her, or wanted to sleep with her, she didn’t care which one.
“Oisive, jeunesse A tout asservie …” Jane began. She could see the infinite blankness in her mind where her knowledge of the passage ceased, where she had no option but to admit defeat. She couldn’t simply stop, though. She’d have to offer an explanation.
Just run with the sickness, she decided. That’s all she had left.
She blew air out of her mouth and swallowed into the microphone. Then she continued with the few words she still knew, “Par délicatesse J’ai perdu ma vie.”
Then some more.
Jane swallowed again. The corduroy judge shifted in his seat and put his elbows on the table. She didn’t notice his dissatisfaction. She was looking at her feet.
“I’m not feeling well today. I’m sorry.” She began again in vain. “Par delicatesse J’ai perdu ma vie …” This time she threw in a little hand motion of her fingers strolling down a lane and gave a big smile like her passage was really going to take off. But there was nowhere for it to go, so she took off instead.
“Excuse me. I’m sorry.” Jane hurried off the stage. She went directly through the doors leading outside, her hands clanking so very loudly against the industrial metal handles as she made her exit.
This didn’t matter, she told herself, while she made retching noises she hoped the audience could hear. This was the real passage she came here to recite, the action she came to pantomime. That none of this mattered. That all of it would end soon.
She peeled off her “My Name Is Jane” sticker and placed it on the door to the women’s restroom she had stumbled into.
It would feel so good to peel herself off too, leave a blank white rectangle in place of this pettiness and humiliation. She tore at the buttons on her collar. She threw away her pink tie. Oh, would the day finally come when her heart ceases to beat?
When she left the bathroom forty minutes later she didn’t have to fake the redness in her eyes. Burt and Ms. Gaboriault stood waiting for her. They handed her an envelope. She’d won an honorable mention.
“Thank you so much for coming out, darling,” Ms. Gaboriault said with sincerity. “It’s a gift certificate to Chez Pierre. I know you probably don’t want to think about food now, but it’s a lovely restaurant. Vraymahn Delishoooooo.”
No one spoke, so Ms. Gaboriault papered over the silence, “We shouldn’t have made you come. You did a wonderful job. The flu. What an inconvenience! You’ll perform it for class when you’re feeling better, won’t you? I hate to think of all the effort you put in.”
“I’m sorry,” Jane said. “I’m sorry for all of this.”
Ms. Gaboriault tilted her head to the side and gave the dear girl a sincere look of sympathy, eyes present, lips withdrawn.
OCTOBER 22, 1996 [One year prior, 365 days remaining]
Ms. Gaboriault sat alone in her house, smoking a Marlboro light. She pulled a picture out of her wedding album and rubbed the smoldering end of the cigarette into the groom’s face. Funny thing about rat bastards: their faces light up into ugly little bubbles when you set them on fire. When his face had melted into a charred blotch, she turned the photo over and scrawled a note on the back with a black felt marker. It felt good to destroy this image. Something good had happened here today.
She slipped the burnt photo into the back of the library book sprawled open on her bedstand. She simply wouldn’t need it anymore. She was too pissed off to do something so self-defeating.
That same evening, across town, Jane slouched on the family couch, celebrating her 15th birthday in solitude.
Her mother, Christy Manilius, stumbled into the living room at 9:00 while Jane was watching Aperçu Féminin on the large 27-inch family TV.
“Oooh, putting on airs are we, with your fancy French films? I used to watch that stuff too. Your father made me. I didn’t want to.” Her mom swayed in the corner of the room. She pursed her lips as if she had more to say, but those wobbly wheels rotated slowly anytime after 3 pm.
“I’m a bit juiced if you couldn’t tell,” her mom said, giggling as she slurped from a plastic party cup. Jane ignored her, focusing all her attention on Claudine Molaire sashaying across a pool hall along to a tune from the jukebox.
Jane’s mom galloped her way in front of the television, heel to toe, drink held high in the air in a crude mockery of Claudine’s graceful dance. She lost her balance and reached out to steady herself, accidentally hitting rewind on the VCR. The machine screeched as it snapped the tape wheels. Claudine danced backwards on the screen toward the jukebox, summoning the quarter back into her fingers from the slot, the men’s lustful stares reverting back to pool hall machismo.
“Jesus, Mom. I’m kind of watching that.”
“No you’re not,” her mom said. She hit eject and dropped the cassette to the floor.
“You’re watching E.R. because that’s momma’s show. And it’s time momma got something she wanted. You have to take one for the team. Hold on, stop. I have hair in my mouth.” Her mother burst into a fit of laughter and chewed on the ends of her blonde hair. Somebody had rum in the gums.
Jane sighed on the couch. Why would today be any different? Why should she expect her birthday to be a respite from her life as it was lived? Her mother gulped down the rest of her drink before staggering in front of the television and flipping through the channels. She threw the cup over her left shoulder and it bounced on the floor at Jane’s feet. Jane kicked it to the side.
“I was just thinking, since it’s my birthday, I could finish my movie,” Jane said.
“Fine. You’re trying to get rid of your Mom. Mom’s show isn’t good enough for smarty britches with her stuck up French fluff. That rhymes. French Fluff. Well, it doesn’t rhyme, but you know the thing I’m saying.” Christy walked up to Jane and brushed her hair down the side of her face, then slapped her cheek lightly. “And don’t sass your mother, smartass.”
Jane recoiled and brought her knees up under her chin. “I wasn’t sassing you. I just want to enjoy one night without any drama.”
Her mother walked out of the room and began humming the theme to E.R. Jane got back up, picked the cassette off the floor and started her movie again. She had to adjust the tracking knob to minimize the static.
Claudine put the quarter into the jukebox once more and began her mesmerizing dance across the pool hall, her hands turned down seductively over the front of her plaid wool skirt.
Before Jane could sit down, she felt her mother’s cold damp hands slip clumsily over her eyes. They smelled like the bag of empty beer cans stinking up the recycling closet in the hallway. “Guess who, honey?”
“Princess Di?” Jane said, peeling her mother’s fingers off her eyes.
“Nope. It’s the Easter bunny. I brought you a birthday present from the kitchen.” She twirled Jane toward her and pulled out a can of Coors from the pocket of her fleece house-jacket.
“Swell, thanks.” Jane tried to turn back to watch her movie, but her mother grabbed her shoulder and popped open the can.
“It’s not for you to drink angel. You’re going to watch your momma drink it and enjoy herself. It’s rarer than you’d think.”
“Because you’re so much more interesting than my movie.”
Christy slapped Jane on the cheek again, this time much harder. Jane raised her hand to her face. She could already feel it reddening as a prickly rush of blood surged toward the skin.
“I told you not to sass me.” Her mother sloshed some beer in Jane’s direction, the liquid splattering across the front of her shirt.
“Great. Thanks. Now I smell like depressed housewife. This isn’t my 40th birthday.” Jane turned to leave, but her Mom dug her hand into the top of her shoulder again, holding her in place.
“That was an accident, Jane, and you know that. You’d know if I poured it on purpose.”
Her mother raised her hand and turned the can over Jane’s head. The ice-cold beer gushed down and drenched Jane’s hair. The sickly smell of sourdough bread overwhelmed her.
A cold shiver shot through Jane’s back as the beer continued to pour from the can, down the back of her shirt, the sticky stream navigating its way into her training bra and underwear, dripping from the tips of her fingers and splattering across the floor.
“I gave up a lot for you Jane. When you were born I gave up so much of myself. It wasn’t easy. But I never regret having you. You’re the most special part of our family. Nope. Definitely no regrets here. You turned out to be such a pearl.”
As her mother shook out the last drops of beer into Jane’s hair, her eyes didn’t betray any signs of affection. They were the same eyes Jane had seen her use during long lines at the post office. And Jane could feel the moment burrowing its way into her memory as it happened to her, the beer trickling off her ears, the words soaking into her emotional plains, breaking up the soil that would house the future constructions of her own becoming.
Claudine Molaire mouthed the words along to a French pop song, subdued strings echoing behind guitar. Claudine bent over to take a shot with the pool cue.
Balls scattered into pockets.
Jane was a ball. Jane wanted to disappear into a dark hole.
She spread her sticky fingers apart and let herself sink into the slimy pool of penance.
Afterwards, Jane bumped into her father in the hallway. He said nothing, seemed afraid to look at her. He already had a towel in his hands. Jane took it from him and wiped her hair.
“That’s for the floor, honey. Don’t let it soak through the carpet. You’ll need to take a shower anyway.”
Jane returned to the living room and knelt down on the floor. She pressed the towel into the puddle on the carpet, the liquid soaking through in damp patches, cold against her fingers.
Her father stood and watched her, dispassionately. “Your mother’s having a hard time lately, so let’s all go a little easy on her. You’re a lot stronger than she is right now.”
So this was fifteen then. Hooray. If the universe didn’t want her shamed, it wouldn’t have created her Jane.
October 22nd, 1997 [Jane’s 16th birthday, 0 days remaining]
The day that glittered with the strength of a thousand suns had finally arrived. Jane’s eyes flittered awake. She couldn’t remember ever sleeping so heavily, so at peace. Hopefully, there would be a lot more of that in store.
If she had to guess, nothing came next after you killed yourself. Silent blackness in all directions that you could just swim through. A lawnmower kicked up outside and Jane wanted to run out the front door and give the giant stupid world a goodbye hug.
The trip down the stairs felt like walking on the moon, her feet in short white socks so small, so easy to lift, the burgundy carpet softer than a stack of pillows under her toes.
Lights off in the kitchen. Lights off in the living room. A letter on the table from her mother:
JANEY, Good morning, sleepy girl. Papa and I went out to run some errands. We didn’t forget about your big day. 16!! We can hardly believe it. I remember the first day we brought you home from the hospital. You were so calm until then, but the minute we carried you through the front door you cried like a banshee. Now you’re a young lady!! There’s some cinnamon rolls in the microwave for you. Enjoy yourself and we’ll have cake later this afternoon. -Mom
Perfect. Sounded like they’d at least be gone for most of the morning. Plenty of time to run deep into the woods and murder herself. Jane grabbed the pen next to her mother’s letter and considered writing a response for them to find.
Words would only cheapen it though. How do you communicate everything dissatisfying about life in a single letter?
“Dear Universe, You suck and so do I. Au Revoir.”
Better to let the final act speak for itself, no?
Jane hadn’t been able to track down a pistol, but she had secured an entire bottle of Lorazepam from her mother’s medicine cabinet. She’d also purchased a pair of stretch satin gloves at a secondhand shop in midtown, and borrowed her father’s credit card to purchase a vintage Mondrian-inspired wool jersey dress with a stunning black cross that ran down the center, bracketing perfectly proportioned red and white rectangles that ran across the bust.
Suffocation through sleeping pills wasn’t the stunning encore she hoped for, but at least she’d ride out of this world in a mod chariot made of couture.
Jane changed in the downstairs bathroom, and even though part of her realized she looked stunning in the dress, staring at her sunken eyes in the mirror filled her with a nauseating amount of self-pity. You poor girl, she thought. This is it for you, isn’t it? You’re really going through with this.
Claudine would be proud.
Jane stuffed her Jansport with empty plastic garbage bags and some twine. There was a nice little park that led into a few acres of thick forest just behind the public library. Jane would ride her bike there, take a hike off the trail, find a secluded spot, and lay on the thick dead leaves beneath a large Southern Oak tree. She’d swallow the bottle of pills, tie the plastic bag around her head, and surrender to the autumn air, drifting back to wherever her spirit had blown in from.
The spokes on her Cannondale clacked out as she rode off into the cool morning breeze. When she passed the library, she decided to make a quick stop and pay homage to the book that had helped her locate the exit sign to this shitty world. She was drawn in by compulsion, not sure why she was taking the detour, or even what she would do when she found the book again. Maybe she could autograph it.
She greeted the lobby with disappointment; the Banned Books display had been removed since her last visit. In its place sat a gaudy papier-mâché jack-o’-lantern, surrounded by Halloween-themed children’s books.
Jane approached the reference desk and meekly requested the section for ethics and euthanasia.
“It’s for a report,” she added.
“That’s a tall subject,” the librarian smiled. “You’ll want the 170s, second row from the back. Would you like me to guide you?”
“No thanks,” said Jane. “I’ll find my own way.”
After scanning the spines of several books with her white gloves, she finally found her sacred tome, You Say Goodbye.
She opened the cover to see if anyone else had checked it out in the interim.
AUG 27, 1992 DEC 09, 1993 JAN 21, 1994 FEB 15, 1994 JUL 06, 1995 OCT 22, 1996
The same list of dates. The same fallen soldiers. Jane was ready to add her name to the list. She flipped to the index to see if Lorazepam was listed anywhere. Her mother’s pills would certainly do the trick, but she hoped the preliminary side effects of an overdose would be mild. As she thumbed through the final pages of the book, a black and white photograph slipped out and coasted to the floor. Jane knelt to retrieve it.
God, was that Ms. Gaboriault? She looked so skinny, but there was no mistaking that chipmunk nose.
Jane held the photograph up to the light sneaking in from the library windows beneath the curtains. She poked her finger through the hole in the groom’s face and a few specks of burnt paper flaked out.
This had to be the ex-husband Ms. Gaboriault always slagged off in her shameless tirades to their French class.
Maybe there was something useful in all that anger. At some point she must have returned the book without following through on whatever fitful dreams of suicide she once harbored. Not that the mundane life of a high school French teacher appealed to Jane, but the woman had found some kind of fire to hold onto.
Jane flipped the photo over.
Ugh. Jane recognized it immediately: it was a section from that dreaded Rimbaud passage. Shame washed over her again. She’d done her best to blot the competition out of her memory.
She tried her hand at translating the section.
We should desire
The nothing of night
And the day on fire
It was actually easy. She didn’t suck at French. She just sucked at confidence.
You know what? Fuck that competition. Fuck her parents. Fuck Trevor. Fuck all of them for making her hate herself. If she had photos with her she would have burned their faces too.
Jane sat down in the middle of the aisle and covered her eyes with her gloves so no one could see the current of emotions pulling her under.
She didn’t want to die. She just didn’t want to live like this. She could at least wait a few more days before she killed herself. Maybe ride it out until the end of the week.
If she gave herself the chance, she knew she could become someone better, someone more interesting and ferocious than the delicate mouse she saw in the mirror. Somewhere in these stacks of books a reservoir of courage remained hidden, passed on through history by people just like her, hands reaching across time.
Jane unzipped the front pocket on her Jansport, nudged aside the bottle of Lorazepam and pulled out a black pen. She found last year’s birthday on the yellow catalog card in the front of the book and crossed it out with a thin line.
OCT 22, 1996
The front doors to the library opened and a rush of children swarmed in led by a volunteer storyteller in a green apron. A cold gust of wind followed them and blew through the stacks, fluttering the grey curtains on the windows as it passed.
Jane felt the chill, the hairs on the back of her neck rising, her teeth chattering.
She closed the book, placed it back on the shelf, and snagged her white satin gloves tight against her fingers.
Maybe she’d settle in for a spell. Find some books to read. Figure out what the hell to do with her life. Before the morning passed, she’d rip the curtains off the windows and eat every book alive.