Sour Jane by Shebli Zarghami

Chapter 1

     I am approaching my thirtieth birthday. The significance of birthdays has consistently faded throughout my twenties, but this particular one is making its presence felt as the inevitable launch party for the downfall of my manhood. “That party started twenty-nine years ago,” my most recent ex-girlfriend recently said, gracefully seguing into her proposal for the dissolution of our romantic partnership. This was only a week after my parents had begun an aggressive campaign encouraging me to shave away the “rest” of my hair. The two situations are unrelated, however, as the aforementioned ex confidently assured me that our irreconcilable differences were related more to my personal hygiene and bitterness of character than my grooming. What I am trying to express in a very roundabout way, is that until recently I had not worried about finding love, but I am no longer able to ignore the significant dwindling of my prospects for happiness.

     In my prime I might have been considered a six or a seven. As I understand the rating standards with regard to attraction, this is high enough to attract someone intelligent and passably attractive, or attractive and passably intelligent (though the former combination is far more likely than the latter). Sixes and sevens with standard insecurities and neuroses don’t have to worry about dying alone, so I was getting by just fine. What they don’t teach sixes and sevens, however, is that you have pretty slim odds of still being a six or a seven, or a five for that matter, past thirty. Sic transit gloria. Glory fades. Incidentally, so does your hairline. Metabolism slows down, while personal hygiene becomes a heavy burden, and your will to live starts to dissipate. When all is said and done, my expectation is that I will level out at somewhere around a three (a four, if I’m successful in growing the hair out on the right side of my head, and combing it “over” some of the gaps). While I lack the conviction requisite to ending my own life, if my situation doesn’t improve soon I could easily envision telling people that I’ve contemplated suicide more than I truly have. Where does this leave me? Despair notwithstanding, I do possess some charisma, so it would not be unreasonable that I reach for a (if slightly emotionally damaged) seven, even after completing my descent into three-dom. This is my best-case scenario, going forward. The trouble is that it won’t be enough, because of another secret nobody tells you. That secret is that it is absolutely not better to have loved and lost. Happiness was only possible before I ever loved Jane at all. 

 

Chapter 2

     Jane was a seductress. Not professionally. Not to my knowledge, anyway. An amateur seductress, if you will. The pain she would inflict, however, was unmistakably that of a seasoned pro. Had Jane’s actions been as sweet and gentle as her name, I would likely be looking at brochures for preschools over a nice brunch with a wife (a nine or a ten, possibly). The song Sweet Jane was not written about this turd. Actually, Sweet Jane might be ironic. I don’t know the song, to be honest. I’m not really a music guy. Anyway, I digress. Jane is the patient zero of my debilitating mistrust of women. Pre-Jane, I was known for my generosity and trust of humanity. However, her shameless infidelity, generally unconscionable behavior, and blatant disregard for my emotions have left me in psychological and financial ruin. Post-Jane, my relationships struggled due to fits of jealousy (mine) and gross frugality (mine again). I have tried to take responsibility for my shortcomings but, objectively speaking, they are mostly Jane’s fault.

     Jane was aggressive. She came on strong, and my penchant for strong, aggressive women was as pronounced then as it is today. Working on my art one morning in a shared studio where I spent my weekdays back then, I felt a heavy stare in my direction. Uncomfortable at first, I looked back and returned the intense eye contact she was imposing, and my feelings quickly shifted into excitement. Jane was… perfect. In that moment, I knew that my journey through life had been permanently altered. She approached me, pointed to my cyan colored crayon, and asked “can I have your blue?” I politely pointed out her mistake, and thus began the emotional rollercoaster that would define my life for the quarter century to come.

     The year was 1987, and though the period is often referred to as the glory days of cocaine, mine was a natural high. The first time Jane held my hand, I felt a rush that I am now too jaded to feel again. Jane was older, so as you would expect she was slightly taller and her hands dwarfed my petite ones, but these were issues we could not have cared less about at the time. We sketched together, and we played games. Jane was great at playing games. More than anything, she made me laugh. I have not since laughed with such innocence and unbridled joy. I fell for her so quickly. Two sleepless naptimes into our affair, Jane discreetly inquired as to my personal finances. “Do you have a quarter?” she asked me sheepishly. I told her I could procure one for her. “For us.” Understanding the underlying message of Jane’s request, I took a loan from my mother that night. The interest rate was disproportionately high, as I would be making my own bed for weeks to come, but this was the nest egg with which Jane and I were to begin a life together. I never hesitated. The next morning I ran to Jane and showed how her I would always provide for her. “Jane, you needn’t worry about money again,” I said to my heart’s desire. She took the quarter from me and, with a notable absence of gratitude, placed it into the designated slot of the nearby gumball machine and twisted the knob. The gumball was red, much like the flag it represented. Ignoring the foreshadowing of fiscal irresponsibility that could threaten our children’s college funds, I reached for Jane’s hand again. The warmth of her hand always washed away my worries. She obliged. I felt that my eyes had communicated the disappointment I had felt, and she seemed to understand the gravity of the moment. It is equally possible that she understood nothing at all. I guess that’s how she always kept me on my toes. Moments later, her hand left mine as she laughed at something that Tambir, the new Sri Lankan boy, had said. Tambir’s exclamation of “Cowabunga!” caused the first small tear in the fabric of our love. If I had to highlight one criticism of Jane, it was that her attention span was terribly short. Tambir had recently discovered the Ninja Turtles, a popular animated series riddled with plot-holes that followed the travails of some mutant turtles and rats (not really my bag, entertainment-wise, as I was more of a Star Search kind of guy, but that’s a story for another time), and he had taken to emulating its catchphrases. Pretty lowbrow stuff, in my opinion. Regardless, Tambir’s usurping of Jane’s attention was a bad sign, but who was I to see through love’s blinders. Tambir’s role in our ill-fated romance would tragically expand in the days to come.

 

Chapter 3

     Tambir was a good friend, but he was also kind of a slut. This is a guy who would offer you crackers from his lunch box just because you had been staring at them for a while, only to turn around and steal the hand of your fiancé. I guess that isn’t so much an analogy as it is a description of precisely what happened, but my point stands. While no member of this love triangle would be physiologically capable of sexual excitement for some years to come, my affair with Jane had reached its proverbial climax. The gumball fiasco, while a dark time for us, seemed to open her eyes to my caretaking nature. Clearly wanting to take a significant step forward in our relationship, Jane proudly proclaimed in front of our friends and supervisors at the studio: “We are married.” Jane was never a fan of social conventions or red tape, so I had to delicately explain to her that marriage usually involves an engagement period, before signing some official documents to certify our commitment. My explanation was followed by a blank stare that was just classic Jane. Her silence was deafening. Message received. I knew that ours would have to be a rush to the altar.

     That evening, I pieced together an elaborate plan to make sure Jane and I could be wed by week’s end. I suggested to Mother that I was beginning to come down with a stomach flu and/or head lice, and would need to take the next day off. I couldn’t be expected to be productive with the rest of my life coming together so quickly. I felt bad about not letting Jane know about my absence ahead of time, but I was confident that once she discovered my plan, she would be ecstatic. Anyhow, I couldn’t reach her even if I wanted to, because my whimsical bride-to-be did not know what her phone number was. Can you imagine? Then again, I wasn’t technically allowed to use the telephone, myself. Still, I was going to look up ‘marriage’ in the yellow pages, and sneak a call to make the necessary arrangements for our impending nuptials. The day did not go as I had planned, however, as I was confined to the bed by Mother, and therefore could not follow through on the wedding planning. Frustrated, I returned to the studio the next day to seek the consoling hand of sweet Jane. What I would find instead, would be the cause of my destruction.

     I entered the studio, and looked all over for my Jane. She was not by the lockers, nor was she with the art materials. She was not in the washrooms designated for either gender, nor was she by the lunchbox corner. I finally found Jane in the aptly named playroom, mounting building blocks with her right hand, her left firmly embracing Tambir’s right. I could feel my heart breaking apart in slow motion. The blocks that Tambir and Jane were building had detonated a nuclear weapon beneath the foundations of the building blocks of my life with Jane. As I fought back tears, I struggled to ask Jane what the meaning of this was. The astonishingly callous response that I received to this question remains deeply and vividly engraved in my mind. “You weren’t here yesterday, so I’m marrying Tambir now.” It was that simple to her. Cuckolded and gutted, I turned and left the room. The playroom in which Jane toyed with my emotions witnessed the swan song of my ability to experience true highs or lows. I became a man that day, my sensitivity numbed and my survivalist need for blissful ignorance engaged. That was the day I stopped worrying, and stopped hoping. It was the eleventh day of spring, 1987.

 

Chapter 4

     For the remainder of our time at the studio, Tambir and Jane would parade their love before me. Tambir seemed to evolve as a result of this love and they became more and more of a unit. This should have been painful to see, but I was too broken to feel anything. Maybe I had been too evolved for Jane. She needed a simple man, and Tambir certainly fit that bill. I would exchange pleasantries and the occasional crayon with the couple, but that was the limit of what I had to offer to them, or to anyone. In a dark twist, the three of us learned that we would be moving together to the same new, more advanced (and more challenging, according to rumors) studio in the fall. I did not much care for change and, treacherous as they may have been, Jane and Tambir were the devils I knew, so I was somewhat comforted by their inclusion in this transition.

     The summer came and went. Jane still didn’t know her phone number, and I doubt Tambir could work the device, so it was impossible for any of us to keep in touch during that period. If Jane and Tambir were communicating, I was unaware. Mother often asked if something was troubling me during those months. Sadness, she could understand, but her only son had become numb, and this seemed even more unsettling. I would have explained, but it was over. There was nothing to say.

     Shortly before the fall, I was to present myself at the opening day festivities for the new ‘school,’ as it was being called. I arrived and found Tambir sitting and waiting, rather eagerly. I quickly understood that this excitement was intended for Jane. He told me of how she had held his hand months ago when they parted for the summer, and Jane promised Tambir a tantalizing kiss on the cheek when they would see each other again. The sensation building in my stomach upon hearing this story made me optimistic that I could feel again, even if that feeling was nausea. And so, once Tambir finally shut up, we sat down and waited. A supervisor entered, and began reading names aloud. As names were called out, each artist exclaimed: ‘Present.’ The studio had done this as well, but my former desire to be affable overrode my sense of oppression and kept me quiet. No longer afraid of ruffling feathers, I made a decision to speak with the supervisor about this policy. I tugged on the man’s arm, and began to explain my concern for the precedent that might be set by this level of monitoring. As I entered the full swing of my rant, Tambir interrupted me. It wasn’t enough that he stole my wife, but he was interrupting one of my better speeches now, too? That was when I saw his eyes watering, and I realized that Jane’s name had not been called out.

     Tambir inquired as to the absence of Jane’s name from Il Duce’s attendance list. The supervisor began to explain to us that while there was a Jane on the list, her name was crossed out. He said something about changing schools, but my attention had drifted. All I could do was watch Tambir crumble to the floor, and I saw myself in him. Everything became clear. Jane was a ten. We were sixes and sevens who flew too close to the sun. Tambir was a victim of love’s ambition, just as I had been. I walked over to Tambir, put my arm around him, and helped him to his feet. As I propped him up and we began to leave, the supervisor stopped us. “Just to be sure that it’s the right Jane I’m talking about, what was her last name?” Tambir and I stared at each other for what felt like days. Neither of us knew the answer. We didn’t know Jane’s last name. We didn’t know Jane. We never would. Maybe we never should. As our gaze grew uncomfortably long, the supervisor asked if we would like to know the last name of the Jane on the attendance list, perhaps to track her down during a later midlife crisis. I spoke for both of us. “The heart can only take so much, sir.” We left, not to return until the conclusion of our morning recess.

 

Epilogue

     I live my life now with a low ceiling over my head. Tambir never seemed to recover, and he changed schools after that first of elementary years. I would have wished Tambir well, were it not for the telephone problems and such. I think it was best that we all go our separate ways. I did suspect that he might have secretly tracked Jane down and gone after her. I’ll never be sure. What I do know is that Jane offered me a window into reality at a young age, stealing the ‘kinder’ out of my garten year. As a result, I quickly came to understand that life takes you down one of two romantic roads. You can experience extreme highs that are inevitably balanced by extreme lows, or have the stability of moderation that is unexciting, but reliable. Jane was a ten who showed me the former and set me up for a lifetime of the latter. My feelings for her were profound, wonderful, and yet came to a crashing halt. I was too young to handle feelings that were so intense and forced myself into a lifetime of disappointment, as no adult can match the pure exuberance of youth in love. No partner could make me feel what Jane did because I am no longer capable of the requisite innocence that spawns that emotional intensity, and so I am doomed to eternal disappointment. I’ll drop to a three over the coming years, and likely settle for a six or seven who is not impressed by ambition or success, and doesn’t discriminate against poor hygiene. Maybe we’ll have a family. If I have kids one day, I will do my best to ensure that they enter consciousness already jaded. Post-Janed. Maybe it isn’t all that important whether I hang on as a five or drop to a two. Whoever she turns out to be, she won’t be Jane. Hopefully, she’ll just be enough.  

 

Shebli Zarghami began his writing career as a freelance journalist, writing Arts & Culture reviews for several online magazines in Montreal and Toronto. In 2009, he graduated from Ryerson University with a degree in History and Political Science and has since worked as a Copy Editor at McGill University. As Shebli tragically came to realize, print journalism and editing were wildly inappropriate vessels for his comedic instincts, and he has since transitioned into fiction. Shebli’s recent work includes the web series Agnes & Harold, an official selection of the L.A. Comedy Festival.

 

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