by Willow Verkerk
Why Jolene picked this rusty little town was something she had given more thought to than she let on. She would say that she liked the antique shops and the lake, that she had an uncle (not the blood kind, the family friend kind) who had lived here when she was young. It was the nature of the place and the quiet way of living that made it so special. It was a good place to get away from a city life that had turned rancid, she thought, but she didn’t say that.
The most difficult question at first was how to set up the school right. She had to make sure it sounded professional but not snobby, somewhere fun for kids, special to suit the town. Jolene knew her looks could be eccentric, but that it could work for her as long as she seemed friendly, humble, even a bit homely at first. She stopped wearing makeup, pulled her hair in a bun and wore those wrap-around ballet shirts that look very ballet-like.
She had certificates made up and pulled some photos together from jazzercise and aerobics. Old photos of her with her younger cousins playing dance were useful too, then her classy headshots from the acting gig and a couple pairs of used point shoes made the place feel official. She advertised in the local newspaper. The signs at the schools and community centre helped, but the biggest help was the ladies book club. One of the members, Angela, was a former beauty contestant who praised the discipline and fine breeding of ballet. Jolene winced inside when she met her, swearing that she was one of the working girls from the city. But, when Angela convinced five mothers to sign up their daughters during their first meeting Jolene decided it was a foolish case of paranoia. The girls she knew were never that nice.
The dance classes were full of laughter and silliness, just what she had hoped for. It was taking longer with the ladies though. Angela was open and friendly, but Jolene was concerned getting close too early could make her an outsider to the others. Jolene chose the practical option and invited members of the book club along with Angela over for pie and tea. The ladies took a liking to her after that.
It became dinners alternating with Angela and her husband Barry one week, Becky and John the next. John and Becky said they wanted to introduce Jolene to a nice young man, but said there was no one in town deserving of her. Jolene always laughed and said she didn’t mind, or that her school was keeping her busy and that was more than enough for her, thanks.
Angela was the easy choice, but Becky was the more interesting one. Becky had played sports and never had the chance to dance. Family life had slowed her down, but now that her kids were close to twenty she was looking for something new. They started with lakeside walks and hikes, then work-outs at the dance studio. Jolene cooked for her when John was away on business and they went to the movies once a month on Monday evening. The rhythm was deliciously slow.
The pressure started when the ladies started noticing how “glowing” and “fit” Becky looked. Angela suggested Jolene start group dance classes for adults and private training sessions. Jolene felt compelled to agree. Not all of the women kept up or came to the group class, but there were enough for it to continue. Angela was the only private: it was weekly and followed by dinner at her place.
Jolene caught on early that Barry and Angela wanted to sleep with her. It wasn’t just the way that Angela’s hands lingered on her shoulders too long allowing her fingers to slide down the side of Jolene’s back, lightly caressing her side breast. It wasn’t Barry’s compliments just slightly inappropriate, the way an old lover would compliment you overenthusiastic after years of absence. Those were easy to brush off. Angela’s confessional attitude wasn’t.
Not that Angela was unattractive nor Barry either. But, Jolene had located Angela’s familiarity. She reminded her of the woman from the couple she was close to in the city kept around for cash right up until the end, rich people to get high with and take off on when he told her too. People who became instruments. Jolene had wanted a break from that consumerism, to build up a friendship and then find someone (one not two) in for the long haul. The plan was not working.
Sex became a monthly meeting, part of the after dinner choreography. It was the usual heterosexual fantasy role, nothing difficult or disgusting: she was the missing now found link. It became boring for Jolene, but seemed to be an endless source of excitement for them so she did as before and contrived desire, forcing orgasm again and again.
Jolene tried to tell herself that it wasn’t so bad, a kind of status quo maintenance just like any place, like any job. But it became an itch, the not so bad of the past job bad coming back. That part of her former job was not so awful and Angela and Barry weren’t so awful either. But, there within all that familiarity and repetition was a very sour reminder.
Jolene paced herself with Becky. The Saturday morning walks with the swans and ducks, early and cold in the quiet sun; attuned listening to Becky’s marital difficulties with large glasses of golden wine swishing in the decanter, cheese and fruit on the table; sharing a good book on the plush cushions of Becky’s living room floor listening to each other read and laughing during the awkward parts. When Jolene left Becky she felt enlivened, but at rest, a sense of completion in their pure friendship.
The potential to find herself in this town with a small dance school for kids, some close female friends and nature walks on the weekend was real for Jolene. She sensed an opening and an escape here, no matter how mundane it was to people like Angela. It was perfect for her here with Becky, fucking perfect.
She knew she didn’t have a right to be surprised that Angela pursued her and that people here searched out sex and kink too. It was stupid even to believe that running a kids dance school would make her immune to those desiring wills. How could she have thought she left those things behind with him in the fire?
What lingered and prevented her from ending it with Angela was the question of debt. How much did she owe Angela for her small town glamour abilities to build up her dance school? And had the sex helped lower the debt or increased it? Was Angela becoming part of the larger debt? There was some karmic pull left over from the fire, the violence of the explosion. She was getting away with it all too easily. It had been months and everything had seemed to be going great, but now there was that strong push against the surface.
Angela had started trying to get sex from Jolene without Barry. Barry too had made suggestions. First the missing link now she was that thing of want. It was too much pressure for her and a dangerous place to be in, dangerous for them mostly, but also for her, she knew that.
It was her fault for letting it go on so long, for being so affirmative, available, so agreeable, really. It had followed her here, that character flaw that was the source of every mistake she made before. With all she had done to get away she was pissed that she had fallen back so easily, so submissively into the flow of flesh and naked bodies. Jolene was angry, she resented herself for having to take it this far. But, being stuck again was like going backwards. She couldn’t do that.
Yes that’s the drug, Angela, Jolene said. It was incredible, best sex of my life. Yah! It goes on for hours. Yes, I have some, sure, of course, for you and Barry. We will all take it, yes, for sure. I’ll give it to you now. Take it before I come over and you will be ready when I arrive. Serve a light dinner, a little wine is okay. Jolene gave Angela a passionate kiss and squeezed her body close before she sent her away.
The phone call came the next day. They were on Becky’s couch sipping hot cocoa and playing scrabble. It was tragic they agreed, so tragic. Drugs? Becky said she was surprised, but then if anyone would do that it was them. Barry had said something strange to her once, a long time ago. They talked about it for a while and Jolene listened to the sadness in Becky’s voice. She felt sad too for a while with Becky, sad mainly because Becky looked sad.
Inside, Jolene felt the weight dissipating. She though of his body burning in the flames, the drugs too and how that last bit of botched ecstasy was gone with them, erased. She was a tabula rasa, shaved, unworn, unstuck, the itch gone. All gone, she whispered as Becky turned to get her cocoa. All gone, she said again in her head. Jolene let her hand rest for a moment on the slope of Becky’s neck before she pulled her close. All gone.UG
Willow Verkerk is a Montreal-based writer and scholar. She is a doctoral candidate at the University of Leuven in Belgium, specializing in the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. She has published several book reviews and has a forthcoming article, “Heroism in Sophocles’ Antigone” (Philosophy and Literature) and book chapter, “Nietzsche’s Cruel Offerings” (Nietzsche’s Therapeutic Teaching, Continuum Press). She has traveled extensively and has taught English in Japan, where she is the co-founder of a retreat centre for foreigners interested in experiencing Zen temple life (http://www.zenretreat.com). She recently won second place in the 2012 Quebec Writing Competition for her story, “Manufactured”. Read or Listen to Verkerk’s “Manufactured” on CBC, followed by a short Interview. She lives between Leuven, Montreal and Victoria.