Rodge Glass wrote an extraordinary, touching love story. In his outstanding collection “LoveSexTravelMusik: Stories for the EasyJet Generation” (from which this story is taken), Glass skillfully reveals the helplessness and confusion of an entire generation that can allegedly travel the world at a click of a button and a reasonable price, with razor sharp writing, originality and humor. The falsehood of this mobility is keenly exposed in the bitter-sweet story before us: she is a caregiver for the terminally ill, he is an unemployed young man, and together they are trapped in the vicious cycle of financial survival – day in, day out, night in, night out. The magic solution, the only escape from their daily hardships, much like that of workers at the bottom of the social ladder, who sell the only asset they have, themselves – is the body. Thus – sex! They fuck. They pretend. They role play. And on the interwebs, where one can find e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g, from “Pumpkin Growers of Yorkshire” to “Witches and Neo-Paganists of the Deep South,” they find the group most suited to them – “A home from home for open-minded travelers who appreciate natural beauty of all kinds.” The story spins on the screechy axis of the promise of everything the world has to offer, and the ever-limited reality – like so many young people of their generation, Jennifer and Daniel will never travel to Arizona, but by virtue of their beautiful love, they too can be Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie every once in a while.
There’s been more time to study her since the tribunal, but you can’t do it twenty-four-seven. Some people in this world still have jobs, and Jennifer’s boss would hit high C if she found out you’d been trailing round after her in the ward. Sampling the tablets. Asking dumb questions. Pulling her into the supplies cupboard for a quickie while some war vet was spluttering his last on the other side of the wall. No — once you’re struck off in that business, you’re struck off for life. And not all Jennifer’s ideas are good ones.
So for most of the last three months you’ve limited your study to home hours, entertaining yourself in the flat alone while she’s been out at work. You cooked prawn linguini with chillies the night you were sacked, vegetarian lasagne the next. The whole first week you hoovered and dusted like a demon. Jennifer called you her bitch and you laughed together. She predicted your periods would synchronise soon; she made you pinky-promise to run her a bubble bath whenever she demanded it. That was when you were still buzzing from the freedom and every task was fun — then the role-play started. Now, some nights, when Jennifer’s on duty, all you do is cup your balls inside your trackie bottoms and make plans online, in the darkness. At the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, you mutter to yourself, clicking the mouse with your free hand. At the Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Just thinking about it makes the back of your neck wet. Your mouth dry. When it all gets too much, you revert to mastering FIFA 12.
Whole nights pass this way.
It’s been four months since the management asked Jennifer to cover a couple of night shifts as a favour — one of the new girls was off ill, they said. It was just till she felt better, they said. Probably wouldn’t be more than a week or two. But it’s nearly Christmas now, the ill girl has become the depressed girl, and Jennifer’s still on these nightmare lates with no sign of a pattern change any time soon. You hoped that once you were out of the call centre it might mean a chance to discuss starting again, perhaps somewhere life was cheaper and the sun was more likely to shine. But there’s been no time for that sort of talk. Six times a week she leaves home after sunset and gets back before sunrise. Day is night and night is day. Jennifer says it’s playing with her senses, and it’s affecting yours too. You’re having to adjust your sleep patterns just to coordinate being awake at the same time. On the Apache Trail, overlooked by the majestic Superstition Mountains.
You make sure you’re ready when she gets home from work — lights off, blinds shut — so Jennifer can kid herself it’s night-time. She deserves a proper welcome home but you’ve learned not to bother her at the door. She doesn’t like to be fussed over. What she does for a living, you can’t imagine it. The last moments of ordinary men and women, stripped of themselves. It’s no wonder she needs a few minutes alone. So you lie there in bed, pretending to be asleep, listening to her move in the kitchen, picking from things in packets in the fridge and eating standing up as night becomes morning outside. Then she’ll crawl into bed, kiss you once and fall asleep, sometimes fully clothed. If that happens you undress her slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements, removing her makeup with a face wipe. You put her bra, knickers and tights into the washing basket, and hang her uniform up on the back of the bedroom door ready for the following day. Then you pull the duvet over both your bodies, run your arms round her waist and wait for tiredness to take over. Most times Jennifer sleeps deeply. Sometimes you do too.
Jennifer’s dreams don’t clear her mind, but when she opens her eyes she acts like the world is a shiny new penny she just found on the pavement. Most days she’ll wake up around two, roll over to face you and before you’ve even focused she’ll whisper, Shall we, cowboy? When she’s tired, her pupils look like roulette wheels. When she’s horny, she wraps her short legs around yours, holds you hard and asks you what it’s gonna be today. Barack and Michelle in the Oval Office? Beyoncé and Jay-Z in their LA mansion? Brangelina in their South of France hideaway? Usually you decide together. Then it’s dress-up time, half an hour of what Jennifer calls rock n’roll in the same old holes, and by three you’re both asleep again. You wake around five, crash in front of the TV and grab a sandwich while watching the soaps or a DVD. A couple of hours later it all starts over, and the next ten hours are your own.
Last week you told Jennifer this couldn’t go on anymore. They were taking the piss, these suits, and you advised her to go on strike. It wasn’t practical, this sort of life. You told her that, if it went on till Hogmanay, there were gonna be problems. What were you gonna do for the bells, eh? Sky Plus the whole thing? Watch Big Ben the following afternoon, all lights off, singing Auld Lang Syne and pretending it was a different year? Jennifer wrinkled her nose. The corners of her mouth turned upwards. Then she said, We should get busy during the countdown. Try and co-ordinate. You know, 3, 2, 1… Jennifer’s a real romantic. These past few weeks, you’ve noticed some things you didn’t see back when you had a job and still picked up the phone when it rang. If Jennifer’s sleeping, you concentrate on her breathing, trying to echo it with your own, wondering if she only stays with you because she’s too exhausted to leave. If she’s awake, you pay attention to her tics and habits. Her desires. You still have some uses, right? In the disabled toilets at the Sea Life Aquarium in Tempe. In full Native American costume at the Heard Museum.
From the timings, you know she hardly ever makes a stop on the way home from work. The thin layer of wet mud on her boots proves she always uses same the same shortcut through the park — the route takes around twenty-three minutes, door to door. The played count on her iPod shows she listens to the same albums while she’s en route — full-up Born in the USA on the way to work, empty Nebraska on the way home. (She only listens to Springsteen these days. She says he’s written all the songs she ever needs to hear. On this issue, you disagree.) There aren’t many shops open on that route at 6 a.m. but anyway, even if there were, you doubt she’d stop in anywhere before coming back to her man. Her Daniel. Jennifer’s a pretty regular girl. The numbers speak for themselves.
Give or take a few seconds, Jennifer spends thirty-seven minutes getting ready for work every day — you know this because you have a stopwatch on your phone. That thirty-seven minutes usually includes about eight to get dressed, two of which she spends putting on the jewellery you bought for her birthday, for Valentine’s Day, for last Christmas. It includes six-ish minutes for her daily bowel movement. Three to brush her teeth. Nine minutes to put on a little blusher and eyeliner. Then she usually spends four or five discussing what you plan to do with yourself while she’s feeding, bathing and changing what she calls the drooling zombies of Yorkhill. It’s hard to think back that far — it was when you first got together, two or three years ago now — but when she started at the hospice, Jennifer was softer round the edges.
Back then she talked about doing work that was good for the soul. In company, it gave her a certain glow. Now the two of you don’t socialise, she tries not too think too much, the patients have become the zombies, and at home it’s all dressing up as Hitler and Eva Braun and pretending your flat is the bunker, allied bombs raining down from the outside as you squeeze in one last desperate lay before the pretend suicide pills kick in. From what she’s told you about what goes on in the ward, all these behaviours seem like pretty essential survival tactics. Jennifer says that if you think about it, the fantasies actually improve the quality of care someone’s granny and granddad are getting in their last days on earth. Out there in the world, the fantasies are saving lives. So the least you can do is run the odd bubble bath and make sure you get the outfits for a decent price off eBay.
For a few weeks after the tribunal you indulged in conversations about how you’d go about contributing to costume costs, also to more mundane stuff like the mortgage, the gas and electric; you promised to scan the papers for opportunities. You told Jennifer you’d check the job sites and sign up for email alerts. Sometimes you said you were meeting this or that contact for a pint before last orders — most of the time this was a lie, but Jennifer let it go. She didn’t ask for details, or follow up afterwards if you said you had an interview at O2, or H&M, or wherever. Still, it was obvious you had no desire to re-enter the job market. Barman. Waiter. Shop assistant. When you only get one life, you’ve been thinking, why would you bother with any of that?
Last Tuesday, when Jennifer asked about your plans for the day, you just came out with it: Remember when we talked about putting a pillow over Auntie Joan in Arizona? you said, trying to make out her expression. Taking over her place? Well maybe we don’t need Auntie Joan. Look, I’ve found something. Then you showed her the site: 17 — At the Arizona Science Centre. 18 — Mid-hike, on Squaw Peak, in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. You waited for her to throw something. List the bills she’d been covering since Greg and the guys at Head Office liberated you from The Man. You wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d left the flat and never returned. But Jennifer’s a fucking saint. She’s a naughty girl. She wrapped her arms around your neck, her warmth swimming through the air between your bodies, and she bit your earlobe, once, holding the flesh between her teeth for a few seconds before letting go. Use your imagination, she said. And that’s what you’ve been doing ever since.
Sometimes you wonder about what life would be like if you’d grown up pre-internet. What did people do? Perhaps they just gazed out of windows or down at their shoes all day, sure there was life out there somewhere, unable to prove it. How lucky you are to have access to every wonder of the universe in a millisecond. With more possibilities for the human imagination than ever before, there’s no excuse for boredom. There’s a community out there for everyone. Pigeon Fanciers of the Ex-Yugoslav States. Pumpkin Growers of Yorkshire. Witches and Neo-Paganists of the Deep South. Some people find so much available information overwhelming. They see the world, notice how small they are, and freak out. But you’re one of those who can happily spend the length of an entire hospice shift downloading music for free, watching YouTube videos of hippos dancing, and surfing for unusual places in foreign countries to give the girl you love a good hard seeing to. The universe has its arms open for you both. There’s no reason to be afraid. And, as is proved beyond any reasonable doubt by these magical virtual pages, everyone’s got their thing. The tagline to the website reads: A home from home for open-minded travellers who appreciate natural beauty of all kinds.
Number 23 reads: At dusk, in the remarkable Desert Botanical Gardens.
Number 31 reads: In one of the amazing underground caves at Kartchner Caverns State Park. (Some joker has added a pitch black photo here, captioned ‘Inside a Cave’.)
Below the full list of all 59 ‘Challenge Spots’ are links to a series of photo albums, each showing images of couples who have recorded themselves in various places on the trail. Most people don’t hit more than ten locations. Most of the images are amateurish. It doesn’t matter. One snap, of a couple from Copenhagen, is taken from the perspective of a woman straddling her husband by Lake Havasu. In the picture, you see her knees pressing down onto his arms. He’s on the floor, gazing up. This man’s expression, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before, and when you show it to Jennifer she wonders aloud what he does for a living. Whether he lied to his boss about why he wanted the time off from work, and whether his workmates know all about his holiday. Then she pushes you onto the floor, a slideshow still showing the couple from Copenhagen in a variety of ambitious positions in Canyon de Chelly, then at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park, then at Old Tucson Studios. In one video clip they’re wearing matching Stetsons, running naked from two Park Rangers. Jennifer insists on doggy style, with both of you facing the computer. She pushes back into you hard.
That was three nights ago.
Tonight, as she was leaving for her shift, Jennifer hugged you tight and asked if you had anything to help her through to break time. You thought about it, eyeing her closely as she picked up her keys, put on her coat and walked out the front door. She started down the drive. Then she stopped on the pavement. Looked back. Leaning in the doorway, seeing her as Marilyn Monroe, you as JFK, you said, Number 43 — Inside the vast depths of the Grand Canyon, overlooking the spectacular views of what geologist and explorer John Wesley Powell once called ‘the most sublime spectacle in nature’. Jennifer turned back towards the road, shook her head, smiled. As she was walking away she called out, Someone’s feeling freaky today. Then she was gone, and you watched her go. Your Marilyn. Your Coco Chanel. Your Michelle Obama.
Jennifer always said the first few hours of her shift were the worst, so you made sure she had a text waiting when her first short break finally came round — something to help the second part of the shift pass that bit quicker. It read, On one of the tables at the legendary Pizzeria Bianco (average Trip Advisor Rating 4.0 out of 5). Feeding each other optional. You attached a jpeg of Bob and Sue Hampton from Bournemouth, him in nothing but a chef’s hat, her as a topless waitress, the two of them busy next to a large plate of antipasti. At ten past midnight the reply came through, Looks messy. But tasty! I’m up for it if you are… After that you sent suggestions more regularly. You couldn’t help it.
Option 1: IN THE WILD, WILD WEST — 1880s-style, in the famous Rawhide Wild West Town, taking a ride on the mule-driven Butterfield Stagecoach, which passes through the picturesque Sonoran Desert. (Other options include shotgun wedding — cost $10, inc. souvenir photo. Potential complications: What to do about the guide? Can you hire your own Stagecoach? And would your mother mind if we got married abroad?)
Option 2: AT THE MOVIES — In Monument Valley, dressed as eccentric four-time Academy Award-winning director John Ford & his beloved wife of 59 years, Mary. Suggestions: wear an eye patch, as Ford did; reproduce versions of scenes from Ford’s most revered works. (Possible issues: how to make The Grapes of Wrath sexy? See also: How Green Was My Valley).
Option 3: SAINTS AND SINNERS — At the San Xavier del Bac Mission in Tucson, founded 1692. Dressed as Pastor and enthusiastic member of congregation. (NB: In a supposed miracle witnessed by people from all over the Tucson area, apparently Father Ignacio Joseph Ramirez y Arellano is believed to have continued sweating hours after death. He was later made a Saint. Perhaps he could be incorporated somehow?)
Jennifer didn’t answer any of these suggestions but then, she did prefer dramas where the woman dominated. Or maybe she didn’t reply cos this was stupid and you’d gone too far and she had no time for this sort of thing cos she was busy wiping the backside of some frail, frightened old lady who’d probably have a heart attack right there and then if she heard what you were planning to do with her sweet, kind-hearted nurse. Why didn’t Jennifer reply? Something was wrong. It was, it was. Even though you knew you weren’t supposed to when she was on duty, you had to phone. Her mobile was off. Of course it was off. Instead of leaving a voice message, you texted her one more time: I miss you. I’m really proud of you. Come home safe, okay?
She arrived eleven minutes later than usual so you knew something was wrong before you saw her crying. She ran into your arms in the hallway and hid her head in your shoulder, keeping it there for a long time. When she looked up, her face was all running make-up and fear. She couldn’t breathe. You said, Come on, cowgirl, lifted her off the floor and, waddling along with her raised in front of you, carried her up the stairs. She laughed. You held her softly as she hit you and said, You’re not allowed to go anywhere. Soft kisses turned to hard ones and soon after you were lying on the rug in the bedroom, facing each other, two bodies in the morning light. Get me tissues, Daniel, she said. So you did. Then you went upstairs to run her a bath. As you did this you thought that if you were still working at the call centre, or anywhere, there’d have been no time for this. Jennifer would have gotten home, dried her tears while you slept, not wanting to wake you before your alarm went off. You’d have woken shortly after, showering and getting dressed in a rush, noticing something was wrong but having no time to respond to it, promising the two of you would talk later. You’d have gone to work, fretted about Greg, about targets, about how much the others in the office were selling. By the time you got home Jennifer would have been getting ready to leave for her next shift and wouldn’t want to cause worry, so she would have pretended to be fine, and before you knew it the feeling would have passed. In Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona. Amongst the birds, animals and plants of the southwest at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum. In Paradise Valley. No, you never want to work again. You don’t ever want to miss being there for her. The thought of it makes you sick.
But it’s okay because you don’t have a job, you’re here, and you’re free, and you know the way she likes it so you load the bath with two capfuls of bubble potion, run the cold tap a while first. You fill it to just over halfway. Then you lead her up to the bathroom, take off her uniform, laying each piece down, careful not to crease. She says, I’m awake for once. You say, Yes, I know. You kiss her collar bone, behind her ear, bend down and kiss between her toes. She pretends to push you away. You let her. All this time she’s crying. You pick her up again and put her gently into the bath. She turns from pink to white, the bubbles swarming around her, her body disappearing under them. Then you go back downstairs to the fridge, uncork a bottle of white wine and return, laying both bottle and clean glasses on the floor. Do you want me to pour? you ask, and she nods. Do you want to call your mother? you ask. She shakes her head. Later, she says. Then Jennifer touches your arm and tells you to stay.
You pour two half measures.
With a sigh, Jennifer says, I shouldn’t… I mean, it happens all the time but… Victoria died during the night. You answer, I didn’t know you gave them names. Jennifer hits you lightly, laughs, takes a glass and says, They have names when they arrive, dummy. And then she starts crying again.
Between tears she tells you the life story of this woman you’ve never met and Jennifer has never mentioned before. She lived fully, she travelled widely and spoke four languages. She had three children, including one called Samuel that succumbed to cot death. She worked in Polish jazz clubs and once played the piano at the Royal Albert Hall. She lived in Arizona with her second husband for six years before moving back to Glasgow, and told Jennifer stories about her friends and family who settled there after the war. Victoria had seemed fine yesterday, when she complimented Jennifer on looking rosy-cheeked. By which she meant happy. Not that any of it matters now, says Jennifer. Yes it does, you say. You ask her questions about Victoria while you’re on your knees on the bathmat. You run a sponge softly over Jennifer’s arms and legs, then her stomach, then her shoulders, until she seems unable to keep talking. Then you dry her eyes, hold her hand in yours, and take over the talking. You do so quietly.
Here’s the plan, you say. You ready?
Tomorrow night I’ll break into Greg’s car, hotwire it, speed over to the hospital and pick you up, mid-shift. You’ll stab your shift manager with an infected needle right there in the corridor, then burst out of the doors and jump into the car through the window. Then we’ll hit the motorway, making our plans as we go. Number 46 — In the cage with the lions at Phoenix Zoo. Number 49 — On the stairwell of Montezuma Castle, looking through the turrets at the tourists below. Number 53 — Out in the open, on board a boat on Lake Pleasant. You think as you’re talking. Then, at the ferry port, I know a guy, I’ve planned ahead, and as the sun’s coming up I slip him a wad of cash in return for fresh passports. Jennifer says, Where did we get the money? You squeeze her hand to remind her not to ask questions. I become José, you say. You become Rosita. Then we queue with the rest of the passengers, getting onto a luxury cruise liner bound for New York. On the boat we both face the little round windows, the water, the sea. The heat rises off us. In New York we steal another motor and travel the two thousand or so miles to Phoenix. We sleep in the car. We hold up petrol stations on the way with the gun our man gave us at the port. You’re a natural. You threaten the staff and I grab the money from the till. Amazingly, none of these places we rob have CCTV. Jennifer makes a face but lets you continue. Only a few people get a cap in their ass, and it’s okay cos most of these guys are old anyway, or are bad to their wives. Jennifer squeezes your hand back and says, Daniel! You smile. Okay, okay. Anyway. Nobody follows us. It takes two weeks to get to Phoenix but by the time we get there we have a huge surplus of cash. Jennifer says, And then what? You grin. And then we head off on the trail!
Jennifer’s drinking from her glass, then she puts it on the side and lays her head back on the side of the bath, facing the ceiling. Sounds okay, she says, looking at you with those roulette eyes. But what about tickets for this cruise liner? You wave imaginary tickets in front of her. Now. Would I forget something so important? She snatches the air from your fingers, leans forward and kisses. I really want to get out of here, she says, the wobble in her voice returning. I know, you tell her. To stop her crying again you raise your glass and say, To Arizona! — but you clash glasses so hard that Jennifer’s smashes, leaving hundreds of little shards in the bath.
You hold her hand tight and say, Don’t move.
*This story is taken from: LoveSexTravelMusik, Freight Books © Rodge Glass 2013.
*Image: Patcho M. Torres