Joyland

The Midwest |

Castaways and Worry Dolls

by Jackson Bliss

What the fuck was wrong with the goddamn speedometer? If there was one, simple thing Brianna really needed right now, it wasn’t better wheels, air-conditioning, or the new Foo Fighters LP. It was a goddamn speedometer that respected the accelerator, that reacted to her foot kicking the pedal like a Powerpuff Girl. Was that so much to ask? Obviously, it was. The dead speedometer was a signifier, Brianna felt, of desperate women, unreliable narrators, and used car salesmen. She should know, she spent four years in college buying lemons from conmen.

After her Blue Moon Jeep Cherokee suffered a major coronary during her senior year, Brianna bought a gray 78’ Volvo from a shaggy, corn-husking boy dressed in baggy jeans and a woman’s beret named Shane who was a community college dropout and a “townie for life,” he declared. It was a term she always found odd, as if Shane chose to live in Iowa. The truth was, townies were just there, like fire hydrants. Shane fixed up old cars, stared at women’s nipples, and nodded when he wasn’t listening to you, which was like, always. At the time, she liked that about him. Here was a simple and robust man who didn’t overintellectualize the complexities of life. Here was a man who couldn’t use his mind to problem-solve even if he’d wanted to. Here was a man who fixed everything with a monkey wrench, a swift kick, and sometimes just brute force, a prelude, she’d hoped, to a non-stop fuckfest in the unisex bathroom: standing against the door with the stainless steel handle, on the pealing toilet seat freckled with urine, the wheelbarrow position through the open window, the M position with Shane fucking her from a standing position with her legs dangling off the bathroom sink, the smell of industrial strength, peach-colored hand soap mixing with motor oil and a nagging English aftershave. And if they got caught, they could say it was part of the full-service component.

Shane had also served another function in Brianna’s brain then: he was the perfect antithesis to Christian and his dreadful obsession with Lacan, movie clichés, and cultural appropriation. Shane was all body. A man who only knew three sexual positions and thought cuddling was for fish farms. Shane was an intellectual antibiotic for her own critical thinking and also the last man she ever kissed in college before she snatched her bachelors degree, packed her geriatric Volvo, and got the hell out of Iowa forever. It wasn’t until she was near the Toledo city limits, until her quaint little college campus was a distant mirage, it wasn’t until Iowa was just a Caucus again, just another data-illiterate batshit crazy red state in Middle Earth that she finally admitted to herself that men were both her disorder and her therapy, her chemical imbalance and her lithium adjunct. All of her boyfriends had been pretty-boy losers, all of them except Cody, and he moved to Seattle to become a famous platform diver.

Brianna had broken it all down in her blue notebook:

Shane (and his beret) = rebound from Christian (the neo-Freudian)

Christian (and his bloated collection of philosophy books) = a rebound from Cody (the platform diver).

Cody (and his unwashed Kurt Cobain cardigan) = a rebound from her first college boyfriend, Konaté (the liberal arts hustler)

Konaté (and his dog-earred copy of Orientalism) = the first boyfriend of hers to cheat on her and break her fucking heart.

________________________________________________________

= A lot of fucking ricochet.

 

It was like Brianna’s entire college career had been a game of handball, and she didn’t even know she was on the court. It was one thing to date Christian, a guy who actually cried reading Zein und Zeit, but it was another to date Shane, the All-American Grain Master, a boy who had an uncultivated talent for ignoring the subtleties of physical intimacy, and for that matter, the physics of the clitoris, a textbook Christian at least analyzed and Cody wrote a song about. What was worse though? An intellectual who studied her clit, an Emo-kid who could sketch a perfect replica of it on a cocktail napkin, or a grease monkey who pretended it was an old doorbell? With the aid of various Top-10 lists that she wrote in her faithful blue Moleskine, ranking and comparing the pros and cons of each boy she’d hooked up with, dated or lusted after, she finally decided that Cody was the gold medalist. Christian and Shane, bridesmaid and copper alloy.

If there were only some way Brianna could combine Shane, Christian, and Cody, the only boy she’d ever truly loved. If there was some way she could connect them all together and throw in Konaté’s virility, she’d have the ideal patchwork man who would surely be gay, twice married, drugged out on botchy cocaine or cordoned off by Homeland Security for venereal diseases. But that’s not how things turned out. It never was. Cody was flighty. Christian was depressing. Konaté was unfaithful. And Shane was disappointing. She’d had such high hopes with Shane too. She thought she was finally getting it on with the heartbeat of America. But he wore a woman’s beret. And not even a hot woman’s beret. And every time they got drunk on Pabst Blue Ribbon, he’d remind her: I’ll always be a townie for life Brie and you can quote me on that!  But like she ever did. After frolicking for months—not in the Shell bathroom with the mysterious glow-in-the-dark condom dispenser—but inside her own broken down Jeep, the one he was supposed to be fixing, Brianna realized Shane didn’t actually repair cars. He just resold cars that women abandoned. He just replaced their individual parts. Sometimes it was the right part and sometimes it was the wrong part. Sometimes that wrong part was a $3 sparkplug and sometimes it was a $3,000 Macpherson Strut. Shane’s technique for car repair—much like his fucking—was to move a bunch of stuff around and hope something worked out.


519 miles from her college in Des Moines and a 1/3 of an orgasm later, Brianna wasn’t feeling charitable anymore. Shane could fuck off for all she cared. Her new old car was in worse shape than the one she traded it for. It overheated for no goddamn reason and the fan belt clicked like the Wheel of Fortune. And now that she’d graduated from college, she was one of the little people again. And Brianna hated the little people. She’d been avoiding them since high school when her class took a field trip to Seattle to “study” urban poverty. All of them were eating lunch outside at a Fremont restaurant when an angsty teenage girl leapt off the Aurora Bridge, yelling something no one could understand. It was a gesture that seemed so pointless and grandiose. That moment of random violence ended up consecrating big city life for her with all of its congestion, tragedy, and mythos. After that, Brianna couldn’t wait to go to school at some tiny liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere far away from the caffeinated non-profit army of Portland. College was the perfect retreat from the heartache of city life, but boys were her weakness, and she knew she should have stayed away from them the most. She’d known since her first make-out session in the back of her Mom’s Toyota Hybrid with a college freshmen when she was twelve. Since her first awkward school dance. Since Cody broke her heart with a spoon like a crème brûlée. The problem was, Brianna didn’t have enough discipline to stay celibate, which meant she was always hooking up with the wrong guys—and all guys were wrong on some basic level (just ask Adrienne Rich). In this confusing time of professional androgyny and male disempowerment, men were wounded birds. Dual income households had emasculated them of their sacred institutions of power. Wings clipped, humbled and demoted to democratic gender roles, men had no choice now but to accept their new gun-to-the-head humanism and become motivation speakers and fitness gurus, construction muscle and Pentagon Yes-Men. The only thing they had in common was their ninja status: they knew how to pierce the female heart like trained assassins, hurling throwing stars into the voluptuous air, scarring the thighs of Mother Night.

Brianna looked out the diner window. She contemplated her itinerary, scanned highway signs for proof that her move to New York was both understandable and inevitable. She wanted evidence for her rejection of the Midwest:

 

The Haunted Trailer

Gifts, gags and more

Perfect for the Whole Family

Exit 40b

 

Stoopey Motel

Where Mr. and Mrs. Fancypants

Come to Die

Exit 40b

 

Grandma Melba’s Jam Shop

All-American Gifts

Canned Delicacies,

And Homemade Candy

For the Little Monsters.

Exit 41

 

—Miss, you ready? The waiter asked. He was a tubby thirty-something dressed in old jeans, camouflage trucker’s hat, and Kid Rock t-shirt.

Brianna was spaced out and his voice sounded like it was under water.

—I’ll come back, he said.

—Oh, wait, you can’t leave yet, she said, waking up.

—Sure, I can.

—Well, I’m ready.

—That’s what they always say. Wuddya having?

—The Lumberjack.

—Lumber—

—The breakfast I mean.

—How you want your eggs?

—Fried but gushy.

—You wanna explain that?

—I can’t. I’d also like to substitute the biscuits and gravy with a house salad if that’s cool with you.

—It’s not.

—Please?

The waiter shook his head.

—Fruit? A fruit salad then?

—No subs.

—But why?

—Ma’am, have you read the sign? he asked, pointing to the cash register with his thumb. She turned around and read the sign, which was an old newspaper with large block letters scrawled in black marker:

WE DON’T GIVE NO EXCUSES

WE DON’T WANT NONE EITHER

NO SUBS & NO QUESTIONS

—Isn’t that discrimination?

—Isn’t what discrimination?

She considered her words carefully. —I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to refuse service for asking a question.

—We just like straight shooters here, is all.

Brianna looked around the diner. The place was full of massive ass cracks and bellies wide as Texas. —Uh, well can I combine the Lumberjack and the Lowrider with the Paramedics Delight?

—Just because you use a different word doesn’t mean you’re not still asking for a sub.

—You could think of it as a Rotary program for meals.

—I could, but I’m not gonna.

—Can I ask you one final question?

No.

—You’re a tough nut to crack, you know that?

He sighed. —That’s what they say.

—Maybe just you need a girlfriend to soften you up a little.

—That’s the last thing I need right now. My life’s already fucked up.

—Hmm, okay, I guess I need more time then.

Brianna scanned the menu like men in a bar: she looked for the specials first and then she considered the sides, specifically, the pleas of the pancakes, and the come-on lines of bacon strips and sausage links. She imagined each entreé, open-faced, exposed, and resting on a plate, waiting to be sampled. In the end, Brianna went for side dishes: hash browns and an obviously canned fruit salad, a chocolate milkshake, some apple-cured bacon strips, one anti-social egg scrambled with cheese that looked like a vinyl shirt covered with photocopied mushrooms. Slouching in her booth, Brianna sipped dank, textured coffee and skimmed through her blue notebook used for people watching and fractal-drawing, hijacked inevitably by shopping lists, dream interpretation, Top 10 Lists, and boyfriend psychoanalysis. Exercises she’d performed faithfully for twenty-seven months in a row until the moment she realized the names of her last three boyfriends sounded exactly like a religion seminar she’d dropped her sophomore year.

Brianna looked at one of her drawings, a furtive sketch of a Seattle bridge and a trampoline underneath, little stick insects bouncing back and forth. She lost her appetite every time she looked at it, but she couldn’t stop herself. It was in this blue notebook that she tried working out boy’s contradictions, treating them like differential equations. And it was in this same notebook that Brianna discovered her natural obsession for boys. It was easy obsessing about them because they didn’t make any goddamn sense: only boys pretended that grilling was cuisine, porn was love, and golf was sport. Girls knew better. They were better at acknowledging delusion. They were better at accepting the blind spots of blindness. She should know. Cody never saw her in his peripherals. Never thought she cared enough to disappear because he asked for space. But she did, and he was so beautiful when he was lost. That was how she knew she loved him. She did things for Cody simply because he asked her to, and she loved him for every retrograde movement. She waited for him because he never asked her to. He just needed time to find her again, that’s what he’d said, he just needed to get his shit straight. But once Cody stopped spending the night at her place and returning her calls and showing up in her kitchen with a Styrofoam containers of Habanera chicken wings and six-packs of Sierra Nevada, once he stopped appearing out of thin air while she was in the shower, once he was no longer a spell that could make all of Iowa disintegrate with a single brutal sentence, with a single careless piece of affection, she realized her love was eternal. Eternal because unfulfilled, and therefore lost.

           

Brianna read the highway signs again from the window. The Stoopey Motel. What a stupid fucking name. Only in a state that meant good morning in Japanese.

—Here you go, Ma’am.

Brianna asked for a to-go container without touching anything. The waiter’s face tightened in disbelief before he stormed off. She ignored him and read her last Top-10 list about Cody written two years ago:

10 Reasons You Need To Erase Cody

1. His love was defective

2. His hands were unforgiving

3. He kissed like a violent femme, uppercutting the roof of your mouth with his tongue

4. He knew how to hold you, and even worse, he chose not to

5. When you came, he took all the credit for it

6. When you needed him, he evaporated

7. When you needed space, he was ubiquitous

8. He tried too hard to dress like Kurt Cobain

9. He convinced you for a week that his name was Jehosophat, and you argued with people who said otherwise because you thought you were the only one who knew his real name

10. You don’t know how to forgive him. Or yourself

The bus boy brought food in Styrofoam containers. Brie imagined, as she did with every boy that disappeared from her life, that the waiter was bitching about her, maybe in the kitchen, maybe in the alley with two cigarettes in his paws. She imagined the waiter locking himself inside the men’s bathroom and jacking off in the stall furiously, tight-fisting a picture of Pamela Anderson or copulating giraffes in the Kalahari desert or a picture of Ronald Reagan waving to a small crowd seconds before John Hinckley fired his first shot.


The Stoopey Motel was a dump. The kind of place upper middle-class twenty-somethings loved staying at because it seemed like a retreat from their own white privilege (Dear Mom, I’m slumming it!). She sat and chainsmoked on top of the crusty bedspread with embroidered haystacks forming an outline of Ohio. The motel was like a field trip of temporary misery where she could wake up the next day with odd fabric marks and a painful rash. Tomorrow morning, she’d be a survivor of bed bugs, a champion of lewd dreams and expanding grease stains on peeling wallpaper. Tomorrow, she’d have life creds or something besides (white) flight guilt and a string of So-When-I-Was-In-College stories. Little steps. She opened the window, lit another cigarette, and turned on the TV, something she hadn’t done since Christmas. She rested her arms on her knees and inhaled. Why was she so boy-crazy? It wasn’t like they treated her well: they either cheated on her, wanted anal sex on the first date, or they were flakier than a box of Wheaties. Case in point: there was Konaté, a man more beautiful than his sensual lover archetype. Initially, he was just a hook-up, and by October, her smooth-talking lover from Côte d’Ivoire. He became her first college boyfriend, seducing her with his killer accent, his stories of civil war and bloodshed, his self-exotification, and his emotional suffering. She loved the contrast of creamy arms and blue-black chest. She loved the way he used to force her to touch the scar lines on his cheeks and smelled sweeter than fresh rain. Konaté was patient in the beginning and confident in the end. Such a confident lover, in fact, that he fucked Brianna’s two best friends, Lisa and Anastasia on alternating days. The tragic night Brianna found them cavorting in Anastasia’s divided double was the end of her college bubble, Lisa and Anastasia straddling Konaté and devouring him in the bedroom, covered by lines drawn with sick moonlight and entangled branches.

After Konaté there was Cody (né Art), a boy who only loved her when they were apart. He never spent the night when she asked him to, never touched her except when she was asleep, never held her unless he was cold. But when she was home for Spring Break snuggling with her Mom on the couch, only two blocks from the 21st and Lovejoy Streetcar stop where they’d met for the first time a year earlier when he’d visited his aunt—a minor coincidence considering they both went to the same liberal arts college in Iowa where everyone had their own life theory, a recently scabbed forearm tat, and an ongoing political rant—a year later, the phone rang and it was Cody-the-boyfriend-Cody. Drunk in Juneau with his friends Cody. The new Cody who called her on his cell everyday for twelve consecutive days just to tell her that flashback was stronger than distance. She’d laid her head on her Mom’s lap, telling her about Cody’s renaissance as a full-fledged loverboy, her Mom stroking her front highlights, smoothing the lines on her forehead the way she used to when Brianna was a fesity teenager afflicted with vulnerability. Back when the Portland winter inhaled the sun and when Isaac—her one and only goldfish—started doing the permanent backstroke. They’d had an agreement after all: Isaac wasn’t supposed to leave or stop breathing. Ever. And goldfish aren’t really so different from boys. They move their lips a lot, they swim in graceful little circles that make girls dizzy, and they never last very long, especially when they’re pretty.

 —It’s about time you met someone strong enough to love you for who you are, her Mom had said. —Cody seems like a good guy, Brie. I’m glad they still exist.

But two weeks couldn’t be a relationship unless the world was coming to an end. Brianna was in love with Cody against her will, and that was how she knew. She’d allowed herself to need him in disempowering and unglamorous ways. She let herself kindle furious desire when he kissed her and jealousy when he asked for space. She smelled his boxers when he was showering and came with her eyes closed when they fucked, her lips muttering girlish voodoo that would bind their souls together like a terminal cancer. In her mind, she nursed little sanctuaries of imaginary family trees for their three pale children they’d have someday who’d attend bilingual Waldorf school and become the rock stars of their classes. Their three children (Kenji and Singapore and Wanderlust) would carry their parents’ torch through the human galaxy and fulfill a legacy they’d started so long ago when they were college hipsters rotting in Podunk Iowa studying Psych, Nigerian Lit, and Physics, transforming themselves into the darlings of urban self-transformation. Brianna loved Cody both emotionally and hypothetically. She loved him like a composer haunted by an unfinished melody. He was the greatest song she couldn’t finish. And right after she’d allowed herself to finally invest and despair, to surrender and sabotage, she watched him backtrack, rewinding his song in front of her, which drove her insane. She’d let herself go with him, committing acts of vulnerability and plotted seduction she’d never done before. For the first time, she cried for a boy. She cried because he called her at home when he could have come over. Because the phone was a way to manufacture distance when you lived in the same college town. Because he had his own set of keys to her one-bedroom apartment but never used them. Because he couldn’t tell her why one day he was on a Greyhound bus headed for Seattle by himself, wearing whisky for cologne.

Cody was Brianna’s first and only love. A boy who looked at her the way she’d always wanted to be looked at: with fleeting scorn, boyish infatuation, and a broken soul. His face had the most anguished transparency and the most affectionate torment she’d ever seen. He was everything she didn’t need in her life. But on February 17th, four months after he left campus without a word and two months after Brianna and her Mom drove around Latin America in a rented jeep and one month after Cody’s mom forwarded him a care package dressed in stamps of Mario Monteforte Toledo and just a few hours after he’d tried calling Brianna for the last time—who didn’t pick up because she couldn’t deal with his Houdini routine anymore—a whole eternity passed inside Cody’s mind as he walked halfway across the Aurora Bridge and climbed on top of the steel-enforced hand-railing, his muddy shoe dangling off the edge. In the course of a few seconds, he lived a complete and separate life inside his mind. Up there where the air was thin and crisp, Cody airbrushed the imperfections from his family photo in Alaska. He removed the C fibers from his memory and created a new relationship from old wounds. His last thoughts of Brianna were eternal because unfulfilled. He thought about the last time he saw her, a memory that resurfaced between his bouts of drinking and depression: She was sleeping in her bed with the window open on a warm spring day in his favorite Nirvana t-shirt and black panties, her hands gripping the sheet tightly, last night’s mascara crumbling on to her cheeks. Cody looked one last time at her, stifled his tears, and then slipped outside before he walked to the Greyhound station. Dangling over the bridge now, he thought about the fragrant silence inside Brianna’s bedroom and the armistice of sleep when a small angry teardrop exploded on his cheeks. He felt like he was drowning in his grief again, drowning in his memories of imperfect things he’d destroyed imperfectly, drowning in the eternal sensation of his own sadness and misery. And so he jumped, his body plummeting at a speed that would be debated for years to come by a group of high school kids on a field trip who saw the whole thing from their picnic tables as they ate sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil and sipped languidly from juice boxes. They say that after he threw himself off the bridge, his body looked like a giant corkscrew spinning into the hard layers of locked earth. They say that when his head finally smashed into the tarmac, his blood splattered like a Japanese woodblock from the Floating World. They also say that when the authorities took a final inventory, they found twelve Guatemalan Worry Dolls adorned in fluorescent outfits of Alpaca wool hiding in Cody’s pant pockets like tiny castaways, following him to the other side.