Jenny shifted her weight. Now she could see Officer Moore’s jaw and, as she moved back, his neck and shoulder came into view. When he turned, she saw a bright crimson slash: an armband. She moved away from it, repulsed, before even seeing what it was, before her brain had translated. He no longer wore a police cap. What he had on his head was similar, but instead of the plain shiny black bill, his new cap had an eagle and a swastika on it. Jenny shut the door with a click and sat down, heavily, on the rim of the bathtub. She didn’t know where this Nazi shit had come from. She wanted to believe, but didn’t believe, that New York City cops were in the habit of carrying Third Reich memorabilia around with them. She couldn’t accept that it had anything to do with Christopher, he of the pink satin smoking jacket, he of the anarchist revolution, he of that insouciant cult of the senses.
Jenny climbed inside the bathtub and pulled the shower curtain closed. She laid back, her vertebrae pressing against the flat hard porcelain. She clasped her hands behind her head to form a cushion and stared up at the ceiling lamp, its white glare softened by a red paper Chinese lantern, four gold tassels swaying beneath it, trembling, each attached to a pale green bead. Now she was trying not to listen for sounds coming from the bedroom, but she caught herself straining to hear. She propped the bottle between her knees and covered her ears with her hands. Even so, she imagined too much, sensed too much, attuned to fugitive noises that ran beneath the music, low and faint, like someone sighing. Blondie’s voice dominated.
“Once had a love, and it was divine, soon turned out, to be a waste of time,” came the words in their inimical offhand, nasal whine.
Blondie was trying to tell her something.
Jenny lay down on her back and stared up at Christopher’s skylight. It was shaped in a circle, and the design he’d painted around its edges made it look as if he owned a piece of sky. It was the middle of July, and the window was full of blue sky with one streaky white cloud stretched thin over it, like a phantom hand whose bony white fingers reached ahead towards something Jenny couldn’t see.
When she opened her eyes again, the factory was quiet and the sky was the color of ink. Jenny had drifted off to sleep.
“It’s safe to come out now, you chicken,” Christopher called as a sliver of moon slid out from behind a darker cloak of cloud.
“Bluck-buck! Bluck buck-buck!” Christopher was imitating chickens clucking. He rattled the doorknob. “Any chickens in there?” he said.
Jenny climbed out of the tub and unlocked the bathroom door. There stood Christopher in jeans, sneakers, and t-shirt, his long straight hair combed neatly as a schoolgirl’s. He was shrugging on his black leather trench coat, ready to go out to dinner at the local Chinese restaurant, as they often did, as if nothing unusual had happened. With a bemused, cynical expression on his face, he said, “I’m sorry you didn’t meet the officers, Jenny. What nice police!”
“I could stay,” Jenny said, shyly, in a soft voice, eyes downcast, twisting the bouquet of daisies and irises in her hands.
“Stop. Hold that for me. Don’t move.”
She’d posed for him on the windowsill of the warehouse on Bond Street, contained within the window frame, her face in profile. Like many an overweight girl, Jenny had a delicacy about her face. She had her attractions, yes, but she was full of defects. Christopher, oppressed by his family’s worship of athleticism, had initially been drawn to her sickliness. Jenny had sunken, deep-set eyes, shadowed by purplish circles. Potato chips, soda, donuts and fries were her four essential food groups. In Christopher’s world, the one built by the Benedicts, no one was fat. Fat people were looked down upon by his mother, who was unable to hide her aversion to them. That Jenny was overweight had recommended her to him. His lust for her pillowy belly and pendulous breasts commingled with a thrill of repulsion at the loose wobble of slack flesh.
Simply by standing by the window in her transparent dress, this buxom girl subverted all that generations of Benedicts had preached. Sloppy and cheap, she laid waste to the Benedicts’ Calvinist Weltanschauung, their shit about decency, self-control, and perseverance. Her huge tits repudiated the puritan work ethic. Her puckered thighs denounced the allure of elite private colleges. Her soft hips spread out over the sill to question the benefits of good taste and advantageous social connections. She was a poor fat girl with dirty hair and torn underwear who fucked strangers on her rooftop and lived off government checks.
How Christopher’s camera worshipped his muse. She’d been a bad girl turned good by the Second Chance Society, Mrs. Benedict’s charity for inner city girls. Second Chance volunteers had Jenny studying hard and staying sober during her school semester, when Christopher and his camera came to Jenny’s rescue. He’d seen her original sins that day and he’d restored them, turned wild Jenny loose, gave her back to herself. She was a slut from uptown who’d been hired, by Mrs. Benedict, to feed the household parrot and water the plants. And he wanted her to remain like that. Savage Jenny, saved.
Christopher had been looking at Jenny through his viewfinder, and now he peered up at her with his naked eye, instead. It had taken him all this time to hear what she’d said.
“Did you just ask me for my hand in marriage, doll?”
I think I could marry you. She’d said this, he was almost certain of it, but she’d spoken softly. Jenny now examined the peeling paint on the window casement.
Christopher, who had two cameras strapped around his neck, raised one of them, his Rolleiflex. He preferred that to the Pentax. The Rolli’s slower shutter speed would heighten textures and make each detail prominent: the pebbled surface of the wall; the wilting sateen petals, Jenny’s skin. Click. He captured her as she twisted daisies in her two red, work-roughened hands. It was the end of summer and Christopher was leaving. He had to drift away before finishing anything. He did this deliberately, in order to upset the extended family of Benedicts, who complained about him. “Where will you end up if you don’t buckle down and apply yourself?” “We opened doors for you.” “We invested in you, Christopher.” And Senator Benedict’s perpetual gripe: “To get you into that school, you realize, I paid a visit to the favor bank.”
None of this meant anything to Christopher. He would become precisely what the Benedicts feared. He aspired to be a low-level drug dealer, a rake, an impregnator, a thief, a penniless heroin addict. A degenerate. Well, they could go fuck themselves. He was leaving for California and British Columbia. Dropping out of art school for the second time, he’d be taking what his parents called an “extended academic leave.” He planned to travel across the country on his motorcycle, from the East Coast to the West, arriving in Seattle by early October. From there, he’d take the ferry to Victoria, and on to Vancouver, where he and his fiancée would breed race-horses on her farm. Christopher had told Jenny only that he was taking a trip.
“That’s good,” he said, aiming the Rolli at Jenny.
“Excuse me.” She crossed her arm over her chest. “Are you deaf? Did you hear what I just said?”
Amid the cameras, tripods and piles of contact sheets marked with grease pencil, Christopher sat draped over a leather club chair, one leg thrown across the arm. His fervent wish was to ignore whatever Jenny had said. He only wanted to keep on snapping, photographing her to the beat of Blondie.
Jumping down from the windowsill, Jenny landed on the floor with a heavy thud. “Christopher.”
“You know I do,” he said, in response to a question. He was lying. Christopher was ashamed to be seen with the big, slatternly girl in public. Now she crossed the room and sat down, literally, at his feet, her hands on his knees, looking up at him.
“You mean it?” Her expression was earnest and needy. She glanced down, picking at the rubble between the rotting floorboards of his factory. “Ever think of getting married?”
“Not to you.” His voice was cruelly playful. “Why would I? You’re a loser.” She’d dropped out of summer school by the middle of July, after her grades had plummeted. She’d started sniffing glue again, on the roof, in June. She’d completed two short films with him, produced and directed by Christopher, each 12 minutes long, by the first week of August.
“We could get a marriage certificate in Las Vegas on the way.”
“On the way where?”
“Across the country,” she said in a strident, high voice.