Strangers at a Wedding

by Justin Jacobs in


Writers note: Hello there. This is kind of a nervous moment for me. It's been a long time since I've posted any of my fiction on the internet. I've always been more self-conscious about it than I have with essays, reviews or sports stories. I really hope you guys enjoy, and feel free to leave feedback with me on the site or anywhere else on the internet. Not carrier pigeon though, too messy on my porch. 

Jesse Rogers’ wedding was not unlike most weddings these days. There was a beautiful outdoor gathering on a golf course during a cloudless but scorchingly hot day in July. The reception was held at the golf course’s clubhouse, complete with mediocre DJ, prime rib and the always intolerable “Electric Slide”. Rob Jordan had been going to weddings steadily now for ten years, and still had to leave the room whenever the “Electric Slide” began to play. If there was a hell, Rob knew what the theme song would be.

When Rob walked out onto the clubhouse’s patio, narrowly escaping a group of feral bridesmaids sliding to the left, he took a giant breath of fresh air, and a sip from his flat beer then cursed under his breath.

“I’m sorry, are you OK?” Asked a woman from across the deck.

Rob looked up, cheeks turning red from embarrassment. He didn’t notice the woman when he stepped out of the reception. She had his full attention now though. She had curly red hair that went below her shoulders, her face was dusted lightly with freckles. She was wearing a red dress that fit the contours of her body perfectly. She was tall, almost as tall as Rob. She looked like she came right off the set of Mad Men. She was stunning. She was also looking at Rob like one may look at a bicycling bear.

“I’m fine,” Rob said after a pause that seemed to last five beats too long. “It’s just that song, it drives me crazy that we’ve had to listen to that song at every wedding for the past ten years. You would think after all this time we’d have a new contender to the throne of embarrassing songs to watch your friends and family dance to at these things.”

“Oh I think they they tried that with ‘Who Let The Dogs Out’, but they had to take it out of the rotation after that nasty slew of reception murders in the early 2000’s,” the woman in red said. “Such an unnecessary and avoidable tragedy.”

Rob looked down at his shoes and smiled. He was aware that he had been staring, and was grateful for the excuse to avert his gaze. “So how do you know the bride and groom?” he asked.

“I went to high school with the Erin,” she answered. “I was a little surprised to be invited to be honest. we haven’t talked a whole lot since then; just at random holiday get togethers and those dreaded high school Reunions. How about you?”

“I’ve been good friends with Jess for as long as I can remember. It seems that the perks of friendship include getting to wear a tux and standing up front at a wedding with the heat index at 101 and nary an air conditioner in sight. If I knew it was going to be this hot at his wedding I would have tried less hard in our friendship. We still would have been friends, but I would have skipped a few birthday parties, just enough to get me knocked back to a seat somewhere in the shade.”

“Yeah. I noticed you changed clothes,” she replied. “I didn’t know a guy could sweat like that just from standing still, it was kind of impressive.”

“It’s a real talent of mine. I even have it on my resume under unique skills.” Rob took the moment walk over to the lady in the red dress, offered his hand, then added, “I’m Robert by the way, Robert Jordan, but everyone calls me Rob.”

“Rob, the Amazing Sweater. It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Wendy.”

Inside the DJ was now playing a mashup of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Michael Jackson.  Rob couldn’t help but move a bit from side to side in what was a very distant cousin to what could be considered dancing. “So Wendy,” he began to ask, “what’s it like to be a redhead growing up with that name?”

“About as fun as dancing to the ‘Electric Slide,’ although it did make Halloween a lot easier.” Wendy glanced down at her phone then stared off into the majesty that was rural Iowa at night. “So what do you do when you are not performing public displays of extreme perspiration, Rob?”

Rob sat down on a patio chair. “That’s a bit of a long story,” he answered. “In the past decade I’ve written for half a dozen newspapers that have shut up shop within a year of my employment. Sometimes I feel like I should wear a black hooded robe and carry a scythe to job interviews. They say that the internet and a disinterested young audience is killing American journalism, but I think I am the harbinger of death when it comes to newspapers. Woe to the the establishment that crosses my path, for I leave nothing but red ink and death in my wake.”

Wendy laughed. “I have to admit it’s been awhile since I picked up a newspaper, the majority of my daily news intake comes from John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and the rest from my Twitter feed. Although I can sympathize with your plight in a way. I’m a high school English teacher, and getting kids to read anything from before this century is like making an anorexic eat wedding cake -- if you’ll excuse the slightly inappropriate wedding analogy. I like to keep them topical.”

Rob noticed her checking her phone again.

“Expecting a call,” he asked.

She looked up at Rob, it was her turn to be embarrassed. “Sorry,” she answered, “I’m in a bit of a rough patch with my boyfriend. It’s not really something I’m interested in talking about.”

“I know the feeling,” Rob said. “One of the great things about weddings is that they shine a huge spotlight on your own relationships, or lack thereof.”

Wendy put her phone away and took a chair across from Rob at the patio table. She put her head in her hands for a second then blew away a refugee strand of hair hanging in front of her eyes; then reached into her purse for what looked like a cigarette at first but turned out to be an electronic cigarette. “You don’t mind do you?”

“Not at all,” Rob said. “My dad switched over to them a couple of months ago, he was worried about the big C. Aren’t we all? He also likes that he can smoke in the house now. Those ten steps to the porch were starting to be intolerable for the old man.”

“Yeah, my mom has been on me to quit since I started smoking my freshman year of college. I’ve tried all kinds of things to snuff the habit: the patch, Nicorette, my boyfriend even took me to a hypnotist a couple years back, but the only thing that seemed to accomplish was giving me a ravenous craving for bacon. This little guy,” she said while holding up the eCig, “has helped me go without the real thing for over a couple of months.

“So wait, you’re telling me you went to a hypnotist, but instead of curing you of your smoking addiction it just made you crave bacon?” Rob asked. He had an incredulous look on his face.

“No joke! I swear to God, I probably ate three pounds of bacon in a matter of two weeks. I felt like someone had injected me with Ron Swanson’s DNA. You hear about women getting cravings for ice cream and pickles when they are pregnant, this was like that, only I knew I wasn’t preg...” Wendy cringed, as if hearing herself say those words activated a shock collar she had wrapped around her neck. After a few moments she looked up and asked Rob, “So, where’s your date?”

“I think I’m going to need another drink before I can answer that,” Rob said. “You want to head in and brave the heathens? Now that dinner is over and people have gotten that dance of the devil out of their systems, it should be slightly more inhabitable in there.”

Wendy took a couple of puffs off of her eCig, put it back in her purse and stood. “Well, given the drinks at this reception are free, I don’t think there’s any harm in letting you buy me one.”

Rob and Wendy were blasted with cool air when they opened the patio doors, what they don’t tell you about summers in Iowa is that it often stays above 80 even when the sun goes down. And the humidity? Don’t even ask.

 There was crowd of people surrounding the dance floor. Jesse’s little nephew Brooklyn was slow dancing with a girl who looked to be a year or two older than him, while a multitude of women watched in awe. Almost all the onlookers were taking photos and recording video on their  smart phones. There are few things more adorable than watching children dressed up in little suits and dresses, slow dancing to KC and JoJo’s immortal ballad, “All My Life”. This was undoubtedly a Kodak moment, and there was a race to see who could capture it first and post it on Facebook.

At the bar, a group of Rob’s friends were huddled together, Jesse was dishing out hugs like they were going out of style. The groom looked more than a little inebriated. “I love you guys so much,” Jesse said. The smell of bourbon radiated off of him like a toxic spill. “This is the happiest day of my wife.  Life. This is the happiest day of my life. Just a couple of years ago I was just some poor shmuck who couldn’t even carry a conversation with a chick to save my life. Now look at me! If it wasn’t for our flag football league I would have never met Erin. When I sprained my ankle and went to the hospital she was my nurse. She thought I was an idiot when I told her that I rolled my ankle while performing a touchdown dance. Now that idiot is her husband!”

When Jesse saw Rob and Wendy walking his way he shouted, “Rob Johnson, my oldest friend. Get your ass over here and have a drink with me. Who’s your friend?”

“This is Wendy,” Rob said. “She went to high school with Erin.”

“Barkeep, we’re going to need three shots of tequila,” Jesse yelled to no one in particular. “Whatever you have is fine, I’m not leaving this reception until all of my favorite people are good and drunk, then it’s off to seal the deal -- if you know what I mean.”  Jess looked around, then after a moment added, “I mean sex with wife.”

“Perhaps you should slow down on the spirits Jess,” Rob suggested. “I would hate for my best friend to be another story about the drunk husband who couldn’t consummate his marriage because he had one too many drinks at the reception.” Rob went up to the bar, instructed the bartender to not serve the groom any more hard liquor, ordered two glasses of Bud Light, and gave Wendy a glass.

“Thank you sir.”

“You are most welcome.”

After introductions were made -- which is no small deal when you are introducing the majority of your lifelong friends to a new acquaintance -- the guys returned to their heated debate about who was going to be drafted first in their fantasy football league. The conversation had the tone of a UN general assembly meeting; half the group thought Adrian Peterson worthy of the first selection, the other half  was in Arian Foster’s camp. It’s amazing how civil sounding a bunch of drunk twenty-somethings can be when it comes to talking about the subtle intricacies of professional running backs. As the guys were talking, Wendy was taking tiny steps away from the group, as if being pulled away by a tractor beam. Rob was the only one to notice and was more than happy to get away from the football talk. He’d been thinking constantly about football since writing about his local high school teams for his small town’s newspaper.

The two sat down at Wendy’s table, which had the benefit of being one of the closet to the bar. “You ever notice that they always sit the least important people nearest to the bar at these things?” Wendy asked.

“I think it’s the other way around,” Rob replied. “I wonder how many marriages have been saved the first night by the real estate between where the wedding party sits and where the bar is? By the time you get through dinner, the speeches, and both sides' friends and family come up to give their respects, enough time has past that neither the bride nor groom can drink enough to truly embarrass themselves. Once people start dancing, and those who have kids start having to play babysitter, no one really pays attention to how much everyone else is drinking. As you can see though, my boy Jess can do a lot of damage in a hurry. I wonder where Erin is? She’s usually the first person to put the reins on him.” Rob looked around for a moment, “Oh I see her, she’s talking with her parents.”

“So, about you not having a date?” Wendy asked.

Rob took a couple of drinks of his beer. “Like I said it’s a long story. I’d been dating this girl for a couple of months, and one night while laying in bed she asks me where our relationship was heading. I didn’t really know how to answer her. I liked her, and I enjoyed the time we spent with each other, but I didn’t have serious feelings for her. To be honest I’ve never had serious feeling for anyone.” Rob looked up to the dance floor, which was starting to turn into a ghost town. He could see that Erin was saying her goodbyes to everyone up front, which was mostly older people and what appeared to be family. “That wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear. She told me that if we wanted to continue seeing each other we’d have to apply some labels to our relationship that I didn’t want any part of. When I told her I wasn’t ready to take that step, she left me. Like, literally, she got out of bed, got dressed and walked out. I haven’t heard from her since.”

“Sounds like a real charmer,” Wendy added. “Although you come to enough of these things and it’s easy to see why girls my age get a little anxious when it comes to their dating lives. It seems like everyone I know is in a hurry to either get married, or get the hell out of their marriage. It’s like a mad scramble to find the right guy before the music stops and you're stuck with some loser.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why didn’t you boyfriend come with you to the wedding?”

“He’s on a business trip to New York right now. He works for a company that builds websites for big businesses, so he’s on the road a lot.” Before she could continue Erin was at the table.

“Hey you two!” Erin said. Even though it was the end of the night the newlywed Mrs. Rogers looked radiant. Rob had known Erin for five years but had never seen her look so happy as she did in that moment. There was a rapturous mix of victory and contentment in her smile. Like she had finally beaten a nearly impossible game, only instead of rescuing the princess she got to become one. “I didn’t know you two knew each other.”

“We just met tonight,” Wendy said. Then added, “the wedding was absolutely beautiful, I’m so happy for you two!”

“Yeah," Rob added. “You even managed to make Jess look presentable; I don’t think I’ve ever seen the guy in anything else besides jeans and athletic shorts. He wore jeans to prom!” The three of them had a laugh. “Seriously though, you two looked great up there. You are exactly the kind of girl Jesse needs in his life, but you already know that.”

“Thank you so much!  This wedding has been an ordeal, believe me. You do all this planning, and for the first couple of months it felt like the wedding was never going to happen. Then a switch flips and all of a sudden you can’t sleep because the big day is so close and you feel like you aren’t going to be ready. To be honest I’ve barely had a chance to catch my breath today. I’m glad there are so many people taking photos because all of this feels like a dream right now, and it’ll be nice to have some evidence that it actually happened. That I am actually married!” Erin shook her head like she was still having a hard time grasping the concept for herself. “Well guys,” she said, “I have to go. It was wonderful catching up with you, now I need to find my husband before he changes his mind about all of this.” Erin gave Rob and Wendy both long hugs and zoomed off in search of her new groom.

“God,” Rob started, “can you imagine that being you any time soon? The woman looks like she had just been through a natural disaster.”

“Come on Rob. I’m a 30-year-old woman. I think about it almost as often as you think about pretty ladies without clothes on. Every time I come to one of these things it feels like someone is sucker-punching me over and over. The more people you know who get married, the more it feels like I’m playing for the losing team. I want to feel what Erin is feeling right now. Believe me, with what I’ve been going through the last couple of days, I’d give almost anything to be able to feel one-tenth of the elation Erin is feeling.”

“Sorry, it was a dumb question.”

“That’s alright,” Wendy said. “When I told you why my boyfriend, his name is Brian by the way, couldn’t be here I wasn’t telling the whole truth. We had to make a pretty major decision a couple of weeks ago and we haven’t talked much since.” Wendy bit her lip, ran her hand through her hair and looked into Rob’s eyes. “What I hate about weddings is that it makes me feel like everyone else has this life thing figured out. I feel like I’m defective for not being able to put the puzzle pieces together. All my life people have been telling me how great of a mother I’m going to be. How great with kids I am.”

...

“Join the club,” Rob intervened.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to be married though. Especially not to someone who is on the road all the time. I can’t be married to, and have kids with, a person who is never going to be around to see them, you know? It wouldn’t be fair to the me, and in all honesty it wouldn’t for him either. Don’t you agree?”

“How often is Brian on the road?” Rob asked.

“At least two weeks out of the month. God, last year he even had to work over Christmas. That really went over well with my mother. Having to bear the brunt of her angst was not something I wanted to handle alone. My mom is really desperate for grandchildren since my dad died. She just wants people in her life, and I’m her only hope when it comes to kids because my brother is gay. So now it’s three calls a week that always include the following talking points."

She started counting off the fingers on her left hand with the index finger from her right. "Has Brian asked you to marry him? When are there going to be little Peterson’s for me to take care of? You know it’s only going to get harder to have kids as you get older right? I just don’t want to see you 40 and alone."

Wendy shook her head in disgust.  

"Every time she brings this shit up it pierces me like a bullet. I should be happy because I know she cares about me, and she even likes Brian, which is a miracle given the way she felt about the other boys in my past, but there are times when I just want to change my phone number, if only for a few weeks of weeks. Because the more often we talk, the more those words get bored in my head. Sometimes I can’t sleep because there’s this little voice saying, ‘I just don’t want to see you 40 and alone,’ over and over.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, where does Brian fall on all of this?” Rob asked.

“He wanted -- wants, it both ways. He wants to get married and start a family, but he also loves what he does. He says that we could make it work for a couple of years while he is still out on the road, and by the time our kids were old enough to be in school he would be high enough at a company that he could settle down. I told him maybe we should have that conversation after he was settled down -- and that didn’t go over very well.”

“Hence you checking your phone a lot?” Rob asked.

“Yup. Have to love being in the middle of a long distance fight at a wedding.” she sighed.

The DJ announced that this next song was specially requested from the bride and groom, “Purple Rain” by Prince. Rob couldn’t help but smile. He knew it was an inside joke for people who knew Jesse and Erin. When the couple would be at a bar they didn’t particularly like they would Prince Bomb it, meaning they would load the jukebox up with Prince songs and leave before the patrons would notice. Of course “Purple Rain” has the added benefit of being an amazing song.

“Listen,” Rob said, “I’m not much for talking about relationships, the last time I talked about one, I got dumped, but I’m not too shabby of a dancer. You want to dance with me?”

“To Prince?”

“Why not?”

“I think this would be a first,” Wendy said. “Slow dancing to Prince I mean.”

“Oh you haven’t lived until you’ve slow danced to Prince.”

“Alright,” she said. “If you say so. But if you grab my ass I will knee you in the nuts so hard you will spend the rest of your days sounding like the lead singer of a Prince cover band. And let me tell you, you’ll have no problem hitting those high notes.”

By the time Prince declared that he didn’t want to be her weekend lover, Rob and Wendy were fully pressed together in each others arms; doing the same two-step dance they’d been mastering since junior high. Robert could feel Wendy breath on his neck and her breasts against his chest. As they danced, Robert couldn’t help but thinking about how beautiful Wendy was. He fantasized about them being a long time couple, and how after the reception they would go back to their hotel room and have hot, passionate sex. He knew it was wrong to think about it, but here was a beautiful, smart woman with a sense of humor, and she was dancing with him. It’d been a long time since Rob danced with a girl as beautiful as Wendy. For a few fleeting moments he felt all the conflicted emotions he felt as a teenager. Here was another amazing woman who belonged to someone else. Another woman who could confide in him, but never be his. He heard somewhere that some of best art in the world was made about this very subject. Surely, Prince could empathize with his plight.

After the song ended Wendy asked Rob if he’d join her outside so she could smoke. By now a lot of people were leaving. The bride and groom were off doing whatever mysterious things brides and grooms do after weddings. Most of the older couples and people with children were long gone, and those who remained were making plans to either get together later or were saying their goodbyes for now. Rob told Wendy he’d join her in a minute, then went and said his farewells to his friends. They all gave him a sly look, but Rob didn’t care. When he rejoined Wendy were the only two people out on the deck of the clubhouse.

“So, where you staying?” She asked.

“I have a friend who lives in town, he’s on vacation but said I could crash there for the night. You?”

“At the hotel Erin and Jess booked.” She answered with a smile, as if it should have been obvious.

“Well I’d tell you to save your money and stay at my friend's place but that would probably be wildly inappropriate, eh?”

“Eh, indeed.”

“How about this?” Rob asked. “Let’s find a place to grab one last drink then I’ll drive you back to your hotel”

As if the universe knew how bad an idea this was, Wendy’s phone began to ring. “Would you excuse me a second?” She asked, then walked to the other end of the deck. Rob watched her as she talked to, who he was sure must have been, Brian. From the other end of the deck she looked like a ghost restlessly pacing the far end of the patio. Every once in awhile she would put her hand on top of her head, or stick it out to the side. This was not a happy conversation. Before she hang Rob heard her yell, “Fine, if that’s how you want it to be, you’ve got it. Fucker!” She came back in a hurry, panting a little.

“Let’s go get that drink,” she said, walking right past him towards the parking lot.

Rob drove them to a bar that was a couple of blocks from Wendy’s hotel. She didn’t say much on the ride over, and Rob knew now was probably not the time to ask what was wrong. The woman clearly needed a drink to put out whatever fire was burning in her. When the two bellied up to the bar, Wendy was quick to order, “Vodka tonic please,” she said to the bartender.

“I’ll have a Guinness if you have it,” Rob said.

As they were waiting for their drinks Wendy asked Rob how he felt about being single at his age. “I don’t know,” he started. “I’m kind of agnostic when it comes to love and relationships. I’m willing to believe that love exists, but I haven’t found for myself. I mean, fuck, forever is a long time. I have a hard enough time seeing what the end of my week is going to look like, let alone 20 or 30 years from now.”

“But aren’t you afraid of being alone?” Wendy asked. “I mean spending the rest of your life alone?”

“I think my biggest fear is winding up with someone I don’t truly love.  Or worse yet having kids with someone I don’t love only to have the relationship explode before they are out of the house. My parents got divorced when when I was like four, then my dad got divorced again when I was in high school. Those experiences really broke him. The guy used to be a romantic, but he's now the most cynical person I know. And if that’s not enough to make me suspicious of marriage, just look at our peers, how many people do you know who have already been divorced or are stuck in a marriage they hate?”

“A lot of people. I see your point. But don’t you think it’s worth the risk, to find someone who truly makes you happy; someone who will make this whole living experience a little bit easier?”

“Of course. We all do right? It’s like, fucking hard wired in us to keep the future of the human species intact. It’s just. I haven’t found that person yet, or at least someone who felt the same way about me.”

They got their drinks and for a moment neither said a word to each other.

“You want to know what Brian and I were talking about on the phone?” Wendy asked.

“Only if you want to tell me.”

“I think we should take a break,” Wendy said. “Of course he said a whole lot more than that, but it boiled down to a message that he could have sent me over Twitter. It’s fucking fitting though, we’ve experienced most of this relationship over the phone, why not end it that way?”

“Fuck Wendy, I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say."

Then Wendy started to cry. She held the tears back at first, but it seemed like the harder she tried to keep it under control the more worked up she got. In less than a minute she went from misty eyed to full out emotional downpour. Rob got up and put his arms around her. She dug her hands into Rob’s back, sunk her head into his shoulder and disappeared for what seemed like a short lifetime. By the time she pulled away her makeup was a complete wreck, her eyes were bloodshot, and Rob could tell that every nerve she had was frayed. She turned back to her drink and downed it in two big gulps. “I’ll have another bartender,’ she said. Then to Rob, “thank God you drove.”

Three drinks later Wendy was clearly wasted. The bartender called out for last call but Rob had long since switched to water and was in full-blown support mode. “I’m sorry about tonight,” she said. “It was your friend's wedding, and I’ve kept you away from your friends, and now I’m a complete mess.”

Rob shooked his head. “It’s not as if you had a gun to my head and said, ‘hang out with me or there will be trouble bub.’ You seemed like the most interesting person at a wedding full of people I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in talking to. I’ve been hanging out with my friends for the past week heading up to the wedding, and I’m a little bro’d out to be honest. You don’t have to apologize to anyone, you just got some really shitty news. We are all afforded to get hammered when we get dumped. I can still feel the aftershocks from my last breakup hangover. If I remember correctly the next morning I woke up pantless on my friend's beanbag chair, curled up around a bag of Fritos. God, I still get shit for that.”

This made Wendy laugh so hard she snorted. “God, a bag of Fritos and a beanbag chair sound pretty great now.”

“Hey that’s my own, personal breakup routine, get your own!” Rob insisted. “How about this, I’ll take you back to your hotel, and tomorrow we’ll grab brunch before getting out of here.”

“Sounds like plan, Stan.” Wendy said, then fell off the back of her barstool. She was definitely wasted.

When Rob got Wendy to the hotel Wendy was fast asleep, -- passed out you might say. Rob helped her to her room, got the door open, took off her shoes and got her into bed. The entire time she didn’t say single coherent word. She just uttered series of different grunts in an impressive number of octaves. After he got her comfortably in bed (of course in her condition she would have slept comfortable in the bathtub) he filled a cup with water and put it on her bedside table. Then he found a piece of stationary and wrote down his phone number, adding:

If you still want to get brunch tomorrow let me know.

-Rob

On the drive to his friend's house, Rob felt a little sick to his stomach. He was pretty sure he had food poisoning, or was completely smitten with Wendy. He knew both feelings well, and it surprised him how similar they were when he thought about it. The entire night felt like a roller coaster ride. From the moment he laid eyes on her, Rob’s heart was in overdrive. Wendy was smart, and more impressively, self aware; willing to make jokes at her own expense. She was also beautiful. God was she beautiful. And she made him laugh! This was a rare breed of female. This was a girl to be pined for. This was someone you don’t breakup with over the phone.

Right, Rob thought. Here’s a girl who just broke up with her boyfriend, and you are already thinking about putting the moves on her. What an asshole I am. Then he thought about his last couple of girlfriends. How they had met. How they had all just gotten out of relationships, and how he was always there with open arms for them to fall into.

“Fuck. I’m the grim reaper of relationships too,” Rob said to himself. How had this not occurred to him before? There was Ashley, Hailey, and Kate, all refugees of bad relationships. Rob was a soft landing for them all. He was the definition of a good rebound boyfriend. He was naturally curious, knew what questions to ask, and always made girls feel like the center of attention. He was a journalist for Christ sake, that was his job.

How could he have been so oblivious to this pattern in his own life. Maybe it wasn’t that he was having a hard time finding someone to love. Maybe it was just easy for girls who were not looking for love to find Rob. Were his relationships just island’s for misfit toys? Rob could see the advertisement for himself in the paper. ‘Hey girls, have a case of the blues, spend some time with the love doctor, Rob Jordan and you’ll be cured in no time! He’ll be your soft landing. He’ll be your golden parachute. And when you're through, you will be ready to love again.’ The more Rob thought about it the worse he felt. A rage had built up in him. He was so worked up he started to feel-light headed. He felt like he could throw up. He pulled the car to the side of the road and threw open the door, but what came out wasn’t a great heartfelt scream. It was prime rib and beer, mostly.

Rob woke up to his phone ringing. He reached down for his pants, then realized he wasn’t wearing any. He was lying in his friend's bed. Thank heaven his friend didn’t own a bean bag chair, and was fresh out of Fritos. He found his pants laying in a bundle by the door. He fished out his phone then answered on the last ring. “Hello?” He answered, alarmed at how horrible his own voice sounded.

“Hey there stranger,” said the voice on the end. “You still up for brunch?”

“Yeah. I could use the coffee, I’ll pick you up in twenty minutes, it that cool?”

“Sounds good, see you then. Oh, and Rob? Thanks for being so cool last night.”

“Don’t mention it, I’ll talk to you soon.”

Like all breakfasts that take place the morning after an important day in one’s life, Rob and Wendy found themselves at a booth in a Denny's. The waiter came by and took their order.

“Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have,” Rob said. “Wait. Wait. I’m worried that what you just heard is give me a lot of bacon and eggs. What I said was, ‘give me all the bacon and eggs you have.’ Do you understand?”

The waiter flashed a knowing smile and Wendy completely cracked up laughing. They both ordered Grand Slams, Wendy ordered hers with a side of bacon. Old cravings die hard. There were a lot of quick glances and soft smiles at the table. It was awkward. They didn’t have sex the night before but emotionally they definitely had a one night stand.

“So I don’t think I ever asked where you were from," Rob said.

“Chicago,” Wendy said. “Well kind of, Oak Park actually. Do you know where that is?”

“Vaguely,” he answered. “I live in the Quad Cities, but I spend a lot of time in Iowa City.”

“Why’s that?"

“I know some people who go to school there, plus there are a lot of writing workshops at the University.”

“The University of Iowa?”

“Yeah. It’s a big time writing school -- one of the best in the country. I can’t afford to take full time classes there, but they are really great about having workshops for people who are interested in writing fiction and poetry. After a decade of writing about sports for newspapers and blogs, the change of pace feels right. Covering sports has gotten a little stale for me.”

“So you want to write a novel, or short stories, something like that?” She asked.

The waiter came by with their breakfast and they both took a moment to enjoy a piece of bacon.

“I’m not sure really. I love writing, but I’m not sure I have the chops to write fiction. You read some of the stuff at those workshops and it's humbling to say the least. There’s nothing like being told by an 18-year-old that your stories lack emotional depth.”

“Who cares how good the writing is at first,” Wendy said, while ripping into her pancakes. “If it’s something you love, just keep doing it. Odds are you will improve with time. Do I need to make the obvious comparison here?”

“I think I follow,” Rob said with a smirk.

“You know, we talk about all these people who have gotten married and had kids. On one hand it’s like, good for them, but it also feels like they’ve given up a little. Once you make those kinds of commitments you have to sacrifice some of yourself, certainly you are sacrificing a large chunk your time and attention.” Wendy took a few bites of her food then continued.“Remember last night, when you were talking about being agnostic when it came to love. Well maybe you found it, but it’s not a girl you fell for, it’s writing”

“Hm. Was it Shakespeare who said that? Or perhaps Yeats?”

“Alright. Alright.” Wendy said. She was pointing her fork at Rob, which had a sausage impaled on the end of it, for emphasis. “I know it sounds corny, but it doesn’t make it any less true. You keep looking for the right girl, but who knows when she is going to come around. You have the opportunity to do something that you love, and the fact that you’re single, and free of obligations, means you no have excuses.

“You know,” Rob said, “that may be the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me while pointing their sausage in my face.”

“I take back everything I just said. You’re hopeless!”

They finished their breakfast and got up to leave. “You know we didn’t talk a lot about you this morning,” Rob said. “How are you holding up?”

“I’m alright - well, I’ll be alright,” Wendy answered. After a silence that can only be described as awkward she added, “When I was standing out on the patio last night I was waiting for the breakup phone call. The argument that we got into before Brian left for New York, well, let’s just say it wasn’t one that you don’t recover from.”

Rob and Wendy walked out to his car, and it wasn’t until Rob got in his driver's seat that it dawned on him what she could mean by an argument you don’t recover from. “Is it still something you don’t want to talk about?” He asked as he started driving back to Wendy’s car.

For a long time, Wendy was silent, but Rob could see in her face that she was searching for the right words. Wendy lightly chewed her thumbnail then began. “It wasn’t breaking up with Brian that made me flip out last night. It was the culmination of the last couple of weeks of my life. Brian wanted kids, but didn’t want to take the responsibility of being a full-time father. I wasn’t ready to have a kid without a full time man at my side. I made a really hard decision, and even though I felt it was the right one, Brian never did. He gave his consent, but I haven’t seen him since. He wasn’t there the day I had the procedure. God help me, I had my mother take me. The call was just a formality. Our relationship was over the moment I chose to not have the child.”

The car was deathly quiet for a few minutes after that. Finally Rob said, "Well fuck, Wendy. You really know how to leave a guy speechless."

"It's my gift," Wendy replied.

"Well between my powers of perspiration and your ability to leave men dumbstruck, perhaps we could join the X-Men?"

"I'm not sure they'd take us," Wendy wondered out loud.

"Why's that?" Rob asked.

"Too weird."

They both had a good laugh. The rest of the ride was filled with idle chit-chat, the exchanging of emails, twitter addresses, and some light musings about how in a couple of hours they would both know all of each others secrets. Social media has the power to kill all mystique about a person.They promised each other that they would plan a visit. Rob would come into the city, and Wendy would take him to the best deep dish pizza place in town. Deep down, neither was overly optimistic about their chances of getting together. They’ve been through this routine before, you meet someone while away on vacation or at wedding, and in the fishbowl of those places you form an accelerated friendship, because you are in a position to do so.

When they got back to Wendy’s car Rob got out and hugged her goodbye, too afraid to risk a kiss, even one on the cheek. They held each other for a long time. “Thank you much,” Wendy said, her voice sounding on the verge of cracking. “I wish it was six months from now, and we got to meet under entirely different circumstances. Maybe next time we can dance a little bit more, perhaps I can even get you to do the ‘Electric Slide’. You know, it’s kind of our song now.”

“Ugh.” Rob bellowed. But he it was a half hearted retort. He was coming around on the song.


My (Half) Year In Books

by Justin Jacobs in


In January I set a goal to read 50 books in 2013.  

Before I get too far into this, here is a link where you can track my progress.  

At the time it sounded like a good idea. I've always thought of myself as a good reader, but there were/are some huge holes in my backlog. I'd been staring at a copy of The Brothers Karamazov on my bookshelf for years. It would just sit there, taunting me with it's presence, screaming, "look how much Russian Literature is crammed inside me, you are not ready for this!" There was also the endless list of authors that people had recommended to me over the years: Murakami, Roth, Chandler, Chabon, and Joyce (yes it shames me that I have never read James Joyce before), just to name a few. 

Here's the thing about reading a book every week, it can be either incredibly easy or practically impossible. A couple of weeks ago, a friend pointed out that I could just read through a bunch of Goosebumps books and reach my goal in a couple of weeks. Of course that would be besides the point. The point was I wanted to feel like, if nothing else, I was making an effort to being well read. 

When I told my friends that I was taking a break from being an obsessive sports fan to read more I got a lot of laughs. 

"Yeah... OK," people would say. "Get back to us in a couple of weeks when you are begging to get back into your fantasy leagues, and watching light night curling on Canadian Public Access television to get a fix." That hasn't happened - yet. I'll still pop in for big sports events like the NBA Finals, but it's been surprisingly easy to just up and drop the biggest hobby of my 20's and reading has had a lot to do with that, but I digress. 

So I've been reading a lot. What books have I particularly enjoyed reading this year? I can't think of a better place to start than The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The few things most people know about this book, if they know anything about it at all, is that it is long and Russian. I remember buying the book because Kurt Vonnegut writes of it in Slaugherhosue-Five:

 

There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life... it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.

As a strict follower of all things Vonnegut I found it my duty to purchase and - eventually - get around to reading Dostoyevsky's Magnum Opus. Just so we're on the same page about how large this novel is, the Bantam Classics paperback edition I have is 1044 pages of small print. Like a lot of readers I was scared aware by not just the book's length, but also by the stereotype that all Russian Litereature is basically an exercise in how much suffering and bleakness can an author squeeze into a work of art. The idea of taking a Russian Lit class was enough to send me running to the hills of postmodernism with my tail between my legs. 

 What I found when I began reading was that the Brothers Karamazov wasn't some kind of opaque look into a world I could never understand. It was a book about how people struggle with family, religion, knowledge and our carnal nature. It's a book about what it is to be human. It had the timeless quality of speaking to feelings and emotions that just don't change in the human experience over time.

There's a chapter in Brothers in which Ivan, one of the books main characters, who is an atheist falls ill and has a dream in which he has a conversation with the Devil. It is perhaps the greatest writing about the nature of the Devil, or the nature of evil in all men ever written, not to mention the best scene I've ever read in a novel or anywhere else. 

There are many moments in The Brothers Karamazov that left me breathless, and plenty others that were laugh out loud funny, which is not a reaction I have to books all too often. There's a certain joy to experiencing a piece of art in which you can tell that there is a genius at play, and I felt that joy the entire time reading the novel, and when I reached the end I was shocked how fast I had taken it all in. I remember staying up to two in the morning one the night I finished it, I had read the last 300 pages in one sitting! There was a feeling of guilt for not savoring every bit of the writing. I take solace in knowing that I will return to this book in due time, because there is an undeniable power in the words here. 

Vonnegut was right, because of course he was.  

In Infinite Jest news: I still love Infinite Jest. Last month I read David Lipsky’s, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is a compilation of a series of interviews Lipsky did with Wallace at the end of the book tour for Infinite Jest. What I found fascinating about Lipsky’s book is just how much Wallace cared about people’s perception of him, and in turn how much he cared about the fact that he was in a position to care about how much people thought about him. You can watch a couple of video interviews with Wallace in which it’s almost painful how much Wallace is self aware about the interview process and what makes this book so good is that Lipsky spends enough time with David to crack through that seemingly impenetrable shield of self awareness. If you are in any way of fan of Wallace’s work I highly recommend the book.

Speaking of books I highly recommend, I finally got around to reading Hemingway's, The Sun Also Rises which is one of the two major Hemingway's works that I hadn’t read, the other being Old Man and the Sea. Some people have a problem with Hemingway’s strong and spare prose, and the fact the man either could not write strong female characters, or just chose not to; but I absolutely love the way he can set a scene in a city, where characters are having a drink after work, or are somewhere off fishing in the middle of the day. Everytime I read a Hemingway novel I wish I was a writer living in Paris just after World War 2, trying to figure out what it all means and enjoying the little things in life.

One more note on Hemingway, if you haven’t read his Wikipedia page, take some time and skim through it right now, you won’t be disappointed. I look forward to reading a biography about the man, he lived one hell of a life.

One of the real pleasure’s of this years reading has been bouncing around from genre to genre and learning what kind of writing appeals to me. I was browsing a local used bookstore a couple of months ago and came across a couple of Michael Chabon books. I knew a little bit about Chabon, one of my favorite movies of the last 10 years is Wonder Boys, which is based on Chabon’s novel of the same name. So when I came across copies of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, I thought why not give them a shot.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s about the journey two young cousin’s growing up in the 1930’s who create a series of comic books that become famous. The book is essentially a rags to riches tale, but it packs in so many themes and is written so beautifully that at times it made my head spin. While I did not enjoy The Yiddish Policeman's Union quite as much as Kav and Clay, it pretty much cemented Chabon as one of my favorite working authors. I look forward to reading his latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, later in the year.

One last book I want to specifically point out from the books I’ve read this year is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk the debut novel from Ben Fountain. This book came out last year to a ton of critical acclaim, I was really excited to read it, and when I dove into it last week I couldn't put it down. 

The novel takes place over the course of a single day inside of Texas Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Our lead character, Billy Lynn, is a member of the newly famous Bravo company of the US Army. Bravo company has achieved a level of celebrity for their heroic actions in the Iraq War under the Bush Administration, and Billy along with the other members of Bravo company are at the end of a two week victory tour. After the game the heroes will be heading back to Iraq.

There is a lot going on in this book. Through the main character Fountain is able to get at what it means to be a soldier in a country that is both quick to acknowledge it’s love for its armed forces, and even quicker to put them out of mind at its earliest convenience.

There’s this great moment in the book where Bravo company is forced to take part in the halftime show, which is featuring the one and only Destiny’s Child. Lynn realizes the absurdity of the proceedings, and the fact that he and his friends are basically being used as mascots for everything America wants to project is good about itself. With all the pyrotechnics and flashing lights of the performance Billy hopes that none of his friend’s PTSD kicks in, and it takes all of his intestinal fortitude to make it through the show without losing it. The punchline of the scene is after the show is over, after they have done their duty for America’s team, they are completely forgotten about and have to find their own way off the field. It’s a standout scene in a book full of great moments.

Billy Lynn is the kind of novel I want to show to everyone who is afraid to try more "literary" books.  It's the kind of book, like Catch 22 and Slaughterhouse-Five that is able to thoroughly entertain and also hit upon some of societies greatest faults. Sometimes as a reader you can have your cake and eat it to, this is a prime example of that. This is the kind of book that gets you excited about the medium and keeps people like me coming back for more. 

All of the books I’ve talked about would probably be among the favorites that I’ve read this year. With millions of opinions about books on the internet it’s pretty easy to find great books, and the only book that I really didn’t care for so far this year was Gone Girl. I think Gilliam Flynn did some interesting things structurally with the book, and I think she really nailed how the media looks at - or better yet - exploits missing women cases, but the characters in the novel were just too weak for me to really care what happened. Someone made the argument to me that the characters were suppose to be unlikable, which I understand, but likable and interesting are two different traits, and the main characters in Gone Girl were neither in my opinion. I didn’t think it was a bad book, it certainly had some neat ideas and fun moments, but it just didn’t resonate with me.

So that’s a bit of what I’ve been reading. I’m looking forward to diving into a whole new patch of books in the second half of the year. I’m currently 20 pages into Meg Wolitzer’s, The Interestings and after that it’s on to last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Orphan Master’s Son. Beyond those two books who knows, I have some ideas in mind but it’s exciting to be able to choose books without any particular rhyme or reason. It feels like teleporting to planets far, far away with the turn of a page or the touch of a button. That’s what I love about reading, when you get lost in a book you get to go to the world an author creates but you inhabit in your mind. You’re an active participant in a work of art in a way that no other medium can provide.

Go read a book, a million little worlds await.

 


New Album From El-P and Killer Mike

by Justin Jacobs in


Killer Mike's R.A.P. Music, produced by El-P, was one of last year's best albums. In 2013 the dynamic duo have rechristened themselves Run The Jewels, and have just released a self titled album, which you can download on their website for free. If you are unconvinced by the price here is a video of the single "Banana Clipper" featuring the world famous, Big Boi. 

It's nice having something to knock Yeezus out of the rotation for awhile. 


A Bit More On Infinite Jest

by Justin Jacobs in


It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip - and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent...

...Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.
— -David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

Still thinking a lot about this book, and I realize that I should have added some quotes in with the review. Some passages in Infinite Jest hit home like a sledgehammer. Here's another:

[...] almost nothing important that ever happens to you happens because you engineer it. Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.

Here is David Foster Wallace speaking at a commencement in 2005, he uses the same antidote about fish and water in Infinite Jest. This is a speech I come back to all the time.


Japandroids - Adrenaline Nightshift

by Justin Jacobs in


The Japandroids are a two piece band out of Vancouver, Ontario. Their last album Celebration Rock was one of my favorite albums of last year, and one of the best rock albums of the last decade. I have a feeling in ten years, when I'm nostalgically looking back at about my late 20's, the soundtrack to my collective memories will probably be this song.