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Perfect fifths, p.5
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       Perfect Fifths, p.5

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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  There is a minor commotion at the Clear Sky customer service center. It’s difficult for Marcus to see or hear from this distance, but it appears and sounds as if the women in front of Jessica have linked arms and are sway-bouncing side to side and … singing? He tilts his ear in the direction of the noise and can barely make out the aaaaaahs, oooooows, and oooooohs, something vaguely musical…

  “Tissue?” flirts a voice behind him.

  Marcus turns to address the woman possessing this studied, seductive voice. She’s attractive in a way that most men would find attractive, but Marcus isn’t most men. According to the name tag pinned to her shrunken black suit jacket, her name is Jonelle. Marcus free-associates professions for Jonelle: She’s a clinical therapist. A perfume spritzer. A masseuse. He instantly regrets falling into the trap of snap judgments and tries to make up for it with a smile. He also takes a tissue, out of courtesy, but he doesn’t use it.

  “You seem lost,” Jonelle says.

  He knows Natty would lose his mind if he were here right now, as he always does whenever Marcus gets approached by an attractive woman. He would be particularly amused by Jonelle’s reversal of the standard hot-girl gambit.

  “You can’t go out in public without some hot girl asking you for the time, or directions, or what’s good on the menu,” Natty once pointed out.

  “So?”

  “Hot girls are always coming up with excuses just to strike up a conversation with you,” Natty said. “It’s just like the awkward dialogue before the fuck scenes in porn.”

  Marcus shrugged off his friend’s observation not because it was untrue but because the truth was an embarrassment. He has been chatted up by attractive women since the onset of puberty, even more so now that he has stumbled into his current state of dead-sexy dishevelment, which earned him the nickname “The Slutty Professor” by the smitten first-year females who pass by him on campus. He isn’t really a professor, of course, but because he’s nearly a decade older than the youngest students, he might as well be. (Had most of their affair not taken place during the summer, when few students were on campus, the moniker might have shifted to describe the infamous anthropology professor. But Marcus doesn’t like to think about how close it came to that.)

  Before he even started orientation at Princeton, Jessica warned Marcus about the nicknames. She knew they were inevitable for someone destined to become such an obtrusive, potentially empyreal presence on campus, and she even used them as evidence as to why she couldn’t possibly be the girlfriend—or fiancée—of a twenty-three-year-old college freshman. But Jessica failed to predict just how many women would be compelled to call him by a code name. For a tight-knit study group whose members daydream about him every Monday and Wednesday between 1:30 and 2:50 P.M. during REL 382 Death and the Afterlife in East Asian Cultures, he’s “The Wounded Buddha.” A chattering clique from one of Princeton’s oldest and most pretentious secret societies refers to him as “The Mark,” which is not a misspelled foreshortening of his name but a synonym for “target” because there is big money to be won by the lucky Ivy girl who lands him in bed. Marcus wouldn’t know about any of this if it weren’t for Natty, who benefits greatly from his friend’s refusal to sleep with anyone whose birth doesn’t predate the 1990s, and whose ever-present proximity to Marcus makes him the first and most logical choice for girls who want to save face (“Who does Marcus think he is? He’s not that hot!”) with a fallback fuck.

  If not for Natty, these girls would barely register with Marcus. He’s too preoccupied by the ones in his past with whom he shared a genuine—if brief and debauched—connection. Forty-something girls, or so he has been told. He must rely on secondhand information because his teen years were dominated by drugged-and-alcoholic fugue-state fuckery Forty-something is a number that he honestly cannot confirm but has never tried to deny. He suspects the real number is maybe half that tally, if only because he cannot live with the idea of so many girls (now women) once fucked and forever forgotten. That he made it through this satyric phase unscathed isn’t as miraculous as it seems. Marcus always used protection, but not because he was so concerned about his own reproductive health or that of his partner. No, he always wore a rubber because an older friend (possibly Hope’s own brother, Heath) told him it would make him last longer, and Marcus certainly didn’t want to be known as a two-pump chump. It was this own egotistic preoccupation with his budding reputation as a sex machine that, ironically, prevented his contracting what Natty calls “cock rot,” not to mention the proliferation of illegitimate Fluties toddling around South Central New Jersey.

  “I can help you,” Jonelle promises.

  The watch Marcus is wearing—the one he’s worn and scarcely noticed all day—starts to weigh heavy on his wrist.

  twelve

  “Hey, Jess,” Hope chimes. “Happy—”

  “Thanks,” Jessica interrupts. “But it’s already too late. It’s not so happy.”

  “Well,” Hope says, her voice taken down a notch, “we miss you here.”

  “I miss you, too.”

  Jessica misses Hope more than a roommate logically should. But for the last two years, Jessica has spent far more time on the road than in their subterranean apartment in Brooklyn. This is the same long, thin, dark space that once served as the former bowling alley of the Swedish American Men’s Athletic Club, where Jessica and Hope split two bedrooms four ways with their high school classmate Manda Powers and her genderqueer boifriend, Shea. They were all supposed to lose this apartment once the family on the lease returned from a yearlong sabbatical in Europe, but that one year has turned into four. Manda and Shea moved out after that first year, leaving a spare bedroom for either Jessica or Hope to grab. The two of them flipped a coin. Jessica lost. She agreed to move into the former playground of fetish and flesh only after hiring a professional cleaning service to perform a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling sexorcism.

  Jessica didn’t admit it to Hope, but there was another reason she wasn’t so eager to dismantle the bunk beds and move out of the tiny bedroom nicknamed the Cupcake, after the cloying color scheme selected by the tween twins who were its previous tenants. Chloe and Claire were in high school now—just like the Girls, just like Sunny—and would definitely balk at bunk beds if their two mommies ever did choose to return to Brooklyn. The twins had outgrown the decor, so it stood to reason that Jessica should, too.

  Jessica dragged her belongings down the hall, bought a queen-size bed frame and a button-tufted headboard. This is a luxurious bed. There is nothing stopping her from sleeping vertically, horizontally, or diagonally across this vast expanse of mattress. There is no one. And yet to this very day, whenever she thinks about those cramped, uncomfortable bunk beds and all those months of twilight giggles and moonlight sighs—Hope above, Jessica below, and yes, Marcus occasionally astride—she fears she might never feel that close to anyone ever again.

  Hope would want to know about her run-in with Marcus, but there is no casual way to broach the subject. No breezy “oh by the way” segue. Not today.

  “How is she?” Hope asks. “How are you?”

  “She’s the same,” Jessica replies. “I’m …” Her voice drops out suddenly. Whether Jessica is overcome with emotion or undermined by a bad connection, Hope doesn’t ask the second question again.

  “I’m sorry,” Hope says. She never met Sunny but has come to feel like she knows her through stories. Sunny has often said the same thing about Hope.

  “Yeah, well,” Jessica says, “me, too.” I should just say it now, she thinks. Hey, Hope! Guess who I just ran into? Literally! Marcus Flutie!

  “I just wanted to see how you were doing.” Hope pauses before cautiously adding, “And to find out what time you think you’ll get here.” Hope flew to St. Thomas yesterday, took the ferry, and met Bridget and Percy and a well-edited group of family members and close friends on the smaller, less touristy island of St. John. Jessica originally booked herself on the same flight, same ferry,
before she got the news that forced the detour in Pineville.

  “I’ve been better.” I’m in shock. I just ran into Marcus Flutie. “I missed my flight.”

  “Oh,” Hope groans before revising her tone. “Oh!”

  “I shouldn’t have gone back to Pineville yesterday. I should have just flown down for the wedding, like I originally planned, then back to New Jersey to see Sunny before flying to Chicago …” But if I hadn’t changed my plans, I wouldn’t have run into Marcus Flutie.

  “No, you did the right thing,” Hope insists. “Bridget and Percy understand. With them, it’s not about the ceremony, it’s about everything that comes after.”

  “Yeah, I know,” Jessica replies. “But I’m kind of a major part of the ceremony.”

  “If it makes you feel any better, they’ve found a backup minister, you know, just in case.”

  This does not make Jessica feel any better. Of course Bridget and Percy found another minister, you know, just in case. It was the practical thing to do, but the news overwhelms Jessica nevertheless. Hearing that they have prepared themselves for the probability of another no-show forces Jessica to pinch back the swelling storm of emotion gathering between her eyes.

  This is too much, she thinks. This is all too fucking much.

  “He’s a pro, the local go-to guy for secular celebrations,” Hope is saying, totally unaware of Jessica’s meltdown. “We crashed one of his services today so we could check him out. He’s not so bad, though he acts as if he’s the first minister to ever come up with the whole spiel about how wedding rings are circles, and circles symbolize eternity, and that this ceremony symbolizes the bride and groom’s eternal love.”

  Hope has heard just about every version and variation of the modern wedding ceremony. Before she made a name and a living with her portraits and original paintings, Hope had attended approximately two hundred weddings in her two years of employment with Capture the Moment. This photography firm specialized in documenting wow-factor weddings involving acrobats, belly dancers, drag queens, drum cores, magicians, fireworks, Klezmer bands, celebrity look-alikes (fat Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Thriller-era Michael Jackson are very popular), Disney On Ice (the princesses, mostly) on a portable dance rink, and a combination of the Viennese table and Japanese Nyotaimori known as the Naked Human Dessert Tray. Such tacky pageantry was enough to turn even a swoony romantic like Hope into a valentine-stomping hater.

  But it was the trend toward paparazzi-style wedding photography—wherein Hope was paid to stalk the future Mr. and Mrs. D’Abruzzi-Glazer in the weeks leading up to their wedding as if they were Hollywood A-listers whose every gesture was worthy of a million flashbulbs—that epitomized the loss of moral values in favor of production values and gave Hope the final incentive she needed to quit the business once and for all. Bridget and Percy never would have asked her to make a reluctant return to the genre. Hope surprised them by offering up her services for free.

  “I need to document two people who care more about the marriage than the wedding,” Hope said a few months ago, when she first told Jessica about her role in Bridget and Percy’s celebration. “It will give me, um, hope.” She half laughed, the way she always did when she caught herself optimistically evoking her own name. “I have to remember to make the photos about Bridget and Percy and not give in to the temptation to make it a crass composition of contrasts. His dark skin, her white skin. Dark suit, white dress. Dark sky, white sand. The stuff of dorm room posters the world over.” She sighed in admiration. “Jeez oh man, those two are so gorgeous. Who could pass up the opportunity to photograph them? I don’t know how they manage to do anything else, quite frankly. If I looked like either one of them, I would just spend every minute of every day capturing my own gorgeousness as a form of performance art.”

  “You could do that,” Jessica said from another bedspread. Another assortment of minibar snacks. Another hotel room somewhere. Another phone call.

  “And Cinthia’s gallerina friends would pay any price!”

  Hope made this joke because she could. Her career took off when a piece from her (Re)Collection series (Birthday Girl, 1973) was featured in a Wallpaper magazine spread devoted to the former wig factory on the East River that was gutted, renovated, and decorated at the behest of Cinthia Wallace, the twenty-five-year-old party girl turned philanthropist/patron of the arts with her finger on the arrhythmic pulse of anything worth knowing anywhere. Hope had no qualms with whatever impact Cinthia’s money and connections had on her own success as an artist. Even if it were true that the only people commissioning portraits were Z-list artfuckers who had too much money to spend—which wasn’t the case at all—Hope honestly doesn’t care. Not if they allowed her to make a decent living doing what she loves.

  Similarly, without Cinthia’s vision and investments, the Do Better High School Storytellers project wouldn’t exist. The Girls—and Jessica—would be a lot worse off. Unlike her blithe-spirited friend, however, Jessica felt guilty about having her life’s work both founded and funded by Cinthia’s charity. What Hope viewed as friends helping other friends, Jessica considered a form of freeloading. Jessica knows she’s being un necessarily neurotic when she worries about what a dead-end in-debt position she’d be in right now if it weren’t for Cinthia’s big faith in her little idea. Her only comfort for this onus of unworthiness is the hope that one day she’ll be in a position to return the favor for someone she believes in.

  “And if you stack the rings on top of each other,” Hope is saying on the other end of the phone, presumably paraphrasing the backup minister, “the circles come together to make a figure eight, which is the symbol for infinity, and …”

  Jessica knows she should be on the phone with the Clear Sky automated customer service system right now and not on the phone with Hope. And even if it were okay for her to be on the phone with Hope right now, she shouldn’t be having a leisurely, inconsequential discussion but a hysterical heart-to-heart rant about how she just ran over Marcus Flutie. Jessica knows this. Yet she’s desperate for a diversion, and there’s no one more qualified than Hope to provide it.

  “Hey, Hope,” she breaks in. “Tell me a strange-but-true story right now. One I haven’t heard before.”

  Hope is used to this random request. “A strange-but-true story you haven’t heard before. Okaaaaay.” Jessica can picture Hope scrunching her sunrise-orange curls with her fingertips, a primitive way of stimulating her brain. “How about this? A twenty-five-year-old woman with gaidrophobia—”

  “You’re still afraid of donkeys?” Jessica blurts, remembering her best friend’s most irrational—and therefore comical—fear.

  “You would be, too, if you nearly got trampled to death at the Ocean County fair when you were three years old,” Hope retorts, dead serious. “And I’ll have you know, Jessica, that more people die every year from donkey kicks than in airplane crashes.”

  “As encouraging as it is to hear that while I’m in an airport waiting to get on an airplane, I’m pretty certain that’s an urban legend. I mean, what’s your resource for death-by-donkey statistics?”

  “May I continue?” Hope asks.

  “Yes.”

  “So a twenty-five-year-old woman with gaidrophobia, who has spent her whole life avoiding county fairs, petting zoos, farms—”

  “Pin-the-tail games, the whole Shrek franchise, and the Democratic National Convention,” Jessica adds, trying her best to play along.

  “… is invited to a destination wedding on St. John, the smallest and most unspoiled of the U.S. Virgin Islands. St. John may not have its own airport, but it does boast an abundance of plant and animal life, including a thriving wild donkey population!”

  “Oh, no,” Jessica says.

  “Oh yeah. And I’m freaking out, Jess, just like the Pickle Girl on Maury Povich. Wild donkeys are to St. John what pigeons are to the city, only they have a tendency to mount each other during beachfront wedding ceremonies. There are packs of fornicating donke
ys all over this island.”

  Jessica has to cover her open ear to block out the ruckus being made by the Tristate Chapter of the Barry Manilow International Fan Club. They have made a collective decision to shut off their cell phones and are now loudly debating their options for recompense.

  “The locals say that wild donkeys are highly perceptive creatures, very in tune with other animals’ emotions. So they, like any human wedding guest, get so caught up in the display of love between bride and groom that they are driven by instinct to mate right there on the sand.”

  The volume has suddenly dropped in the BMIFC’s discussion. They turn in Jessica’s direction, give her a big thumbs-up and exaggerated winks.

  “At first Percy and Bridget were all for it, like, Let them do their thing, make it a wedding that no one will ever forget,” Hope continues. “Until they actually saw a pack of wild donkeys going at it as the backdrop to some other couple’s wedding. I mean, have you ever seen two wild donkeys going at it? The male donkey is swinging one heckuva meatbat. It’s very disturbing even for someone without my, you know, problem.”

  It begins hushed and hesitant.

  You … know … I …

  Then gets louder, more confident.

  Can’t smile without you …

  “The only way to stop two wild donkeys from humping—” Hope breaks off. “Am I hearing things, or are there people singing in the background?”

 
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