portion of the artwork for Jac Jemc's story

Madness Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over
and Expecting Different Results

Jac Jemc

Every night I stunned myself with gin. On one date, a man and I ended up at the airport and ate rhinestones. It was fast. The plane moved in handfuls of miles at a time. It was real. I refused to keep secrets and he told them to me anyway. After a few days of gorging under the guise of vacation, I hit the road, figuring out how to be kind. This man could rile me, lift me, convince me with his hands. It felt too much like a disadvantage.

When we met, one man looked at me like I might gnaw off his face before dragging him into a bush with me. He calmed down and we shared a holy week of drinking. I suffered a hairline fracture, which meant simply that every few minutes it felt like someone shot a hockey puck up my leg. We were sailors behaving badly. We skated on predictions of what might happen between us. I whispered in his ear, “I know what’s beneath your pillow,” and he asked me to repeat myself. We watched pig dissection on his computer and had bad dreams. By the end I kept suspecting apologies were hovering around us, but neither of us could tell who was supposed to say them, so we lost each other.

The next boy I met on a mission. My fingers were asleep, a handful of beetles. He showed me a map and asked me to read it. When we were done I applauded and we knew we would draw new cartographies on each other’s skin. This news was abstract, far from comforting. I quieted bell after bell against my tongue. One night, fleshless, he emerged from the basement and began making accusations: You are delirious. You are dungeoned. You are stapled shut. I admitted my faults: I am a drawer full of fire. Only a flash flood could put me out. My appetite was pared. Starving myself of him did not feel like starving.

I slowed a little. I felt like I had made up for the lost time. I was all soft and crazy hair everywhere and boys paid me extra-attention because they were looking at me all the time like I’d just woken up beside them. But you can’t go for it every time. You’ve got to dangle the carrot.

I kept running into men I’d dated while on dates with other men. I found new ways of explaining them to each other. Every time it happened I thought about how Wittgenstein called language a cage: I was living in a city that seemed smaller and smaller every day. I had few deal breakers: I didn’t trust hunters or jokes with punch lines. Beyond that I would allow myself to forget any vows I’d taken and looked forward to forgetting how many fingers I had on each hand. One guy kept insisting he was not hungry while we were watching a movie, but I caught him—twice—in the kitchen with a fork in his mouth. I was developing moods that felt like they could be stretched forever like a piece of dirty bubblegum. Despite however much I tried to erase it, I had this human heart that was always showing up and milking itself into my body.

I made up things to say and tried to find the right person to say them to. I am vibrating. I am beckoning. I have riddles for you. There were men with thick piano keys for fingers. Men who offered to change light bulbs for me. Men who seemed made of glass and ones built of brick. Men who took me to concerts and tried to tilt their heads to mine. Men who the closer you got, the less you could see. Men who held me down when I asked and ones who just couldn’t do it. There were men with rabbit hole smiles and men with gruesome peristaltic nervous tics. I could watch each of them happen. I could see the wrongness. I could find beauty everywhere. When I woke each morning I could see that the day was capable of forking like the foot of a crow. I tried to remember where I’d been. I was sure I was smiling too much. Everything was funny. Deadlines were moving themselves around me in a counter-clockwise direction. Every night I tried to figure out how to talk to someone new.

One night I went out with a gorgeous boy who had a brain in his head and kept trying to figure out what my faces meant and I had to keep plucking his fingers from my mouth, against all of my desires. And I could feel that neither of us knew what to do with the yoyo that was swinging between us and that both of us were fighting our collars with tugs and pinches. All around us, people were caring about each other, their hands were finding other hands. We spent every minute of our time together trying to forget the other one before we could remember them. He spun his straw around his glass and I was happy to have the distraction of watching the layers of liquid unstripe themselves with each revolution. On this evening, I was fearful: it was easy to imagine spending years living alone deep inside his body. We muted ourselves for several moments and looked at each other. I started trying to jigsaw him into my future. I closed my eyes and fit the piece of him onto a big porch in the country. When I opened my eyes I caught him flummoxing some other girl at the next table. I told him I was ready to go. The conversation outside was a jumble of cigarettes and irreversibility.

At home I avoided my basement. I’d had a series of dreams of round teeth pushing through the gums of the doorway downstairs. I drew pictures diagonally on paper like women do and let the lines curl on themselves. I answered the door, unconcerned that my dress, my hands, my mouth were open. I put air in my tires like I might go somewhere. At 6 a.m., I’d tell myself, I will know if I will always be alone. I was never shy enough to wave goodbye; I’d just say it and mean it. I would watch the sky for stars rising slowly and evenly like car windows. I made my neighbor knock on my door while I was entertaining these men, and shoved them under the bed, saying it was my boyfriend coming home, just to keep things interesting.

I finally learned to play chess: the violent knocking down, bold decisions, the small leaps that make statements. I met a man at those chess tables in the park. Every time we finished a game he convinced me to start another. He kept saying “polyglot” like it was something that showed up in a blood vessel. He threw up in the bushes on our walk to the café. When I asked if he was all right, he apologized for being nervous. I’d thought he was just being an asshole. His mustache looked more like a horseshoe than a handlebar; there were flecks of spittle clinging near his mouth. He was balding, which was normally something I found sexy. While he was saying things I didn’t care to hear, I imagined eighteenth-century children running toward us on the path, sticks nudging hoops ahead of them. When I tuned back in, it seemed he was trying to stretch my impression of him in another direction, but, really, it was snapping back opposite. At dinner, when he looked down into his bag to pull out his journal, I rolled my eyes, until he opened the book and a flyer for a strip club fell out portraying a beautiful fakeness: star pasties, boots so tall the edges licked the folds of the woman’s labia. His hands crashed to his face before he turned to the potted plant beside him like he was going to retch again. Instead his body seized several times and then relaxed. I picked up the flyer and said, “She is pretty,” before the waiter took our order.

A few days later I’d had too much coffee. The city felt like a pinball table, like I might slip between the sewer grates and be lost to the game. I met a man at the natural history museum. I could tell by the way he pushed the buttons on the exhibits that we could have some fun. Each time the screen changed, another graph, another map, another face appeared and he turned to see my reaction. I asked lots of questions about his life and no matter how I tried to fool him into being honest, he plumped the stories up so they seemed fancier. It was like seeing someone in the middle of a snowy field with no footsteps around them. Everyone has to get to where they are. I told him I didn’t believe him and left him with the water birds.

I was starting to make questionable decisions. Crawling out windows onto porch rooftops in heels. Crossing against the light. At the amusement park I pulled the plush head off one of the workers wandering around in his cartoon costume. I got held for several hours, reprimanded, released, banned.

I allowed a spindly piece of a man to empty me of my bridesmaid dress. This gentleman in a good suit felt the urge to take that suit off, to put his glasses on the nightstand, to properly tell me the story of how he could touch me. I was veins and rich tastes in my mouth. I was gutsy and howling. I was a variety of surprises. I was wrong. I bared my teeth. I was a bird split open. Proximity, suspense, and patterns clicked themselves together to try and predict the secrets of what lay ahead. I outweighed wisdom with pig-faced lust.

I started wearing my glasses all the time. I started wearing big clothes to make me seem more vulnerable. I started dropping coins on the ground to get people’s attention. I told myself, “I’ve changed.” I started asking men directly to my apartment and when they emerged through the front door I’d do my best to let my arms act as clothing. I was overrun with ghosts. I was looking at everything as if from above. I was unfastening chains from morning till night. I spoke in lilting tones. I was narrowing things down with my eyes and my brain. I felt like every angle was assaulting me. I was trying to figure out if this was some kind of self-imposed death sentence. I stood outside closed doors and tried to make myself happy about it. My mind was full of a basic conglomeration of faces, the specifics fading fast. Sometimes it was all you could do to be comforted by some vague ending glimmering in the distance. A slithering feeling was constantly distracting me from the task at hand. I remember staring at a snail trying to curl its body into a Coke bottle.

I left my windows wide open, and even in the pitch black I imagined my neighbors could see the glint off our bellies and backsides, imagined that they were watching what I was doing over and over, until I got it out of my system, until it made me feel different.

In the early part of 2009, newly single, I went on twenty-six first dates in six months.  There were a handful of second, third, and fourth dates as well, but the serial nature of the endeavor was all-consuming.  I was minorly obsessed with the exhilaration and awkwardness of the first-date experience. If given the option of a second date with someone I liked or a first date with someone new, I chose the first date. 

At the same time, and perhaps there’s more resonance here than I’d previously recognized, I was writing stories that couldn’t stretch themselves longer than a page.  I felt like I needed to write something with some length just to prove I could still do it, but the only way it seemed I could do that would be to write a bunch of shorter bits that I could string together. 

The details of this story are all untrue, but the stagnating cycle has its origin in the truth of this experience.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 28 | Spring 2010