Joyland

The Midwest |

Courtship in 2184

by Rafal Redlinski

Joan took special care with her scars that morning. She used the expensive glue and the smallest brush and worked so slowly that her hand cramped up and her butt numbed from the cold bathroom floor, but she didn’t move for fear of knocking the open accessories lined up in a circle around her: the glue, the creams, the powders and paint—multicolored bottles fluorescent under harsh overhead light. She crafted the same fake scar every day, but today’s was exceptional, and just then she decided that she would end things with Jack. But it sounded strange. Seven perfectly pleasant dates over a month. She wasn’t sure things had ever started.

She traced the pink double helix pattern along her forearm. It looked so real today that it made past attempts seem amateurish and she wondered how many of her clients knew their scartist was wearing fakes. Take a break. That’s what she’d say.

 

The scar parlor was nestled between a novelty barbershop and a cane liquor bar in a purposely run-down neighborhood—peeling brick buildings and low street light and carefully placed graffiti. It had once been a hip place to live but was now a tourist trap for middle-aged men who’d seen too many classic movies and overpaid for drinks to feel like they were roughing it in the bad part of an older world.

Inside, Joan worked on the narrow hairless shoulder of her last customer. The iron she used was chrome and shaped like the hind leg of a bee, with a beautifully complicated box at the top end and exposed interconnected coils and a glowing green fuel cell. The procedure was mostly painless, but this guy looked away and clutched his balled-up suit jacket in fear, and Joan didn’t say anything because if she worked slowly and pretended there was danger involved, the customers felt they got their money’s worth.

She finished. Three diagonal lines across the shoulder, the tiger slash. That was the most popular design, though there were also the repeat clients working on expanding full body tracks—those were fun for the challenge—and a third group who wanted asymmetry, scars that could pass for accidental, the kind with stories. Joan preferred those.

“Looks good.” The man looked at the view screen and nodded slowly. His hand crept up toward the scar, but Joan slapped it away.

“Don’t touch, not for a while.” She set the view screen down and rubbed a paste onto the raw wound. “What I’m using is a special formulation to help prevent infections.” It was soap. But it was green and expensive, and Joan worked it into his skin with slow fingertip circles, just enough pressure to hurt. Some scartists spent sessions touching, giggling, making small talk, but Joan knew what guys really wanted was the pleasure of her cool detachment, the way she looked down and spoke low and radiated boredom until this final lingering touch, after which she’d look up for a moment of pretend accidental eye contact as if they’d teased out some hidden softness in her. She was a beautiful woman—skin tone so even in its copper her freckles were invisible until she came close, a magic trick—and she knew her meanness and size both terrified and excited the men she scarred. She felt a heartbeat through his shoulder skin. “You can’t get it most places, but we do sell it here.”

He bought a bottle. Sometimes they bought two.

She wasn’t meeting Jack for another hour, so she tried to keep busy. She moved some things from one drawer to another. She wiped down the antique real wood bench near the entrance. She adjusted her chair. But there was not enough to do and soon she was slouched forward, looking through the bay window out at the dwindling foot traffic and vacant blacktop lot across the street. This idle time was almost always trouble because though Joan believed she was a generally happy person, that happiness was flighty, spooked by contemplation.

She thought about Jack, about his size, his enormous clumsy hands and trunk-thick neck, its width feeling somehow old fashioned. He was unwieldy, a rare real match for her, and maybe that’s why she’d been so disappointed when, after perfectly pleasant date number three, she’d discovered he fucked like a much smaller man. After perfectly pleasant date number five, she tried to provoke a dormant roughness by biting his lip, hard. Then she turned away, reached back, brought his hand to her shoulder and pressed against him. He groaned weakly. “Slap me,” she said, and he hit the sturdy part of her thigh, but it was halfhearted and he stopped to ask for feedback which guaranteed she wouldn’t come. Jack was sweet and when he traced his jaw with the side of his thumb—a tick—she melted, felt malleable in a good way. But he was aggravatingly ordinary, and this annoyed her for many reasons but mostly because it reminded her of the lengths she’d go to dislike the people in her life. She was the youngest of seven, but besides her grandmother who’d died a year before, she didn’t particularly like any of her family. The ease and cruelty of this thought scared her. Her heart beat faster.

A tap against the glass. Jack stood outside, wearing his a plaid suit with a new pork pie hat and a look on his face like he was already apologizing for something. He swayed toward the door and stepped back. He looked at her and turned a palm up for permission. This was a crucial moment. Any last hope for their relationship depended on whether she found this hesitation endearing or annoying and maybe something bigger hinged on how she reacted to him, open-mouthed, lit by ugly yellow streetlight, one hand behind his back. She waved him in.

He shuffled through the door and handed her a tired white rose. “It’s a flower.”

She nodded but did not smile. “Are we—”

“Tonight. Tonight is going to be special.”

 

He called it a three tiered date and didn’t notice her disappointment when he described the plan: into the city, then walking from park to eatery to bar. It sounded exhausting, but he looked excited and she wanted to reward the effort, a gold star for a slow but hard working child. So on the tube she gave him a pat on his enormous thigh, though he definitely noticed this gesture’s unsexy implication because he looked at her funny and turned to the porthole, to the dark blur of moving city. The small two-seater craft dipped below and above ground, up high, weaving between buildings until it diverted to a side track and creaked to a stop at the park’s basement platform.

“It’s one of the oldest parks in the city,” Jack said.

The basement level was cold, all grey concrete aside from the central black root, a smooth bark column extending thirty floors up and even farther down. Clean moisture radiated from above. They walked along the wall in the vast circular space, into the elevator.

“What do you think, cherry blossom garden? Rose palace? Maybe a nice open field?”

“This one.” Joan pointed to the top listing of the floor directory.

“World of Ferns?”

The elevator door closed and they rose so quickly she could barely see the other park levels passing beneath them—an open apple orchard, a boxy shrub maze, a dense jungle of overlapping vines. It was clear that all of these, even the mostly fallow cornfield on floor 13, would have more romantic potential than World of Ferns. But when she stepped out of the elevator and felt the warm wet air and shaded artificial light, filtered through something soft and made real, she realized she had miscalculated. It was beautiful.

“Good choice,” he said and stepped in front of her.

The path was straddled by ferns of all sizes so the plants seemed stacked atop one another. There wasn’t enough room to walk side-by-side and she noticed for the first time how oddly he swung his arms. If she’d been following more closely he would have been hitting her crotch with his palm. This was his problem. It was like he was doing an impression of someone walking instead of just walking. He was always like that, rehearsed but unsure, and she decided that she hated it, hated how much he liked her, hated the way this made her feel, the uncomfortable pressure of distance from him, from everyone, then the anger of letting a stranger have such power. This was a fragile flash hate, brought on by the aimlessness of courtship in 2184.

They reached a rustic wooden bridge—placed there only for effect because nothing needed bridging over—and settled onto a bench facing a few informational signposts. Joan squinted, pretending to read them.

“Ferns are really old, I think,” Jack said.

“What?”

“I mean, evolution. They’re one of the first—things.”

“Really?”

“I don’t know.”

She wished he’d at least have the decency to make something up, like Clarence, the most memorable former lover who made up stories and told little pointless lies, smiling crooked through small teeth, half-joking and unflappable always, which Joan was now nostalgic for even though at the time it was incredibly frustrating to be with someone so pleased with their awfulness. They’d stuck together for long after the relationship’s expiration date because when Joan looked at other people her age—the now distant college friends, her siblings, a roommate who eventually left and was never replaced—she saw a hopefulness, the focused eyes of people invested in love, and at that time Joan tried harder to fake that feeling.

“You know—” Jack stood from the bench and walked to an odd patch of fern, the same mellow green but with a wider, aristocratic shape and a perfectly straight tower of cinnamon colored fronds poking out of each bundle. “This place is a lot like us.” He looked away. His voice was muffled like through a washcloth.

This was trouble.

“My dad told me they converted some of these older parks from automobile towers. Can you imagine that? A whole building just for their cars?” He cleared his throat. “But anyway, it seemed crazy back then. The combination of steel and concrete and taking nature vertical. Making something great out of such different—opposite things. ”

She had to do something. She knew with absolute certainty what was coming next, knew even before he turned and looked at her in that sad male way of professing love, like it hurts them, the resigned look of a doctor’s terminal prognosis. She panicked, couldn’t think of anything to say to cut him off.

He continued. “The thing is—”

She shouted. A short, high whimper of nonsense sounds.

“Are you okay?” Jack asked.

“I don’t love you.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry.”

She expected him to slump, to get teary eyed and say something like I understand. But he just looked confused.

“I think we should break up,” she said, surprised by the word choice.

“Really? Yeah. Sure. I guess.”

Joan stood, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It’s just that—”

“No, it’s okay.” He smiled sadly, but it was less like the smile of a man whose life had just been ruined, and more like the look you’d give after a poorly delivered joke.

She wondered why he was going to such great lengths to pretend as if he hadn’t been about to tell her he loved her, especially because—now that she thought about it—that suggestion had been there from day one. He looked at her too long. He overused the word we. Sometimes his mouth opened and closed, stifling probable I Love You’s like sneezes, even on the first date, even when they first met—both of them squeezing through a tight packed crowd of sidewalk spectators gathered outside a burning building. They bumped into each other at the center of the massive huddle, and each would have moved on, but at that exact moment there was a far off explosion and they flinched into each other and even though Joan was looking into his eyes, she also saw how the two of them looked pressed against each other, their combined size, the odd sense that together they seemed sturdier.

Jack stepped back. “But—”

Here it was.

“Do you still maybe want to go to dinner? I made a reservation.”

Joan did not want to eat dinner. But Jack was either unaffected by what she’d said or was acting well enough to make it seem that way, and either case seemed so unlike him that he seemed like a slightly different man. “Sure,” she said.

 

Time Hop was a gastro pub dinner theater hybrid—kitschy for that early dating time of novelty and forced fun and best behavior and Joan could smell it on them all. But she was relieved that that designation no longer applied to her and Jack. He seemed to stand less straight now and flagged down a black ale as soon as they’d walked in. He drank in energetic gulps, leaning back in a small chair across from Joan at a table near the small elevated stage.

A few minutes earlier—after twenty minutes of loitering in the lobby, waiting for the performance to start—they were ushered into a dining room by the curator, a wiry man with a thin mustache dressed in a pleated white shirt and black vest and top hat, trying very hard to seem old fashioned. He jumped up onto a stool and gestured at the air with a slim walking stick. “Imagine, if you will, our world, but different in every conceivable way. Well, you won’t have to imagine for long because the next three courses will span 30,000 years! Come along on this journey through civilization, see the scope of humanity’s profound and insatiable quest for greatness, and most importantly, remember that the soup of the day is turkey chili and all house ales are half priced until midnight!” The scene was already in progress on the stage. “Behold, the time of the cave man!” Three men dressed in zebra-patterned loincloth drew chalk designs on a big fake boulder. The curator disappeared into another room, and for a moment everyone stayed cautiously hushed.

“This place is weird.” Jack smiled. His teeth had always seemed a little too big for his mouth, but now, upper lip slicked with ale, knot of his tie loosened and hanging at chest level, his face seemed more proportional. He spoke without looking up from the appetizer menu. “What do you think they mean by wild boar wings?”

That was all he said until the waiter came, and when Joan looked around the room and saw the other couples laughing carefully or flexing their jaws and running out of things to say and looking concentratedly toward the stage for an escape, she was grateful for the comfortable silence. Jack finished two large ales by the time the curator announced a jump forward into the future.

They moved into the renaissance for the main course. Powered by some unseen mechanism, the stage shifted and the whole platform rotated out of view and was replaced by a new set. On this new stage, a woman wearing a green bell-shaped dress and a man in a loose white tunic danced slowly to light baroque guitar strumming. The repetition was maddening. Joan and Jack both ordered roasted chicken, but he got the Leonardo DeVincheese fries and she ordered the plague salad, which was just a regular chopped salad.

By the time they reached the 21st century, Jack was piss drunk and smiling stupid. Perfectly content, oblivious to the action on stage. The actors were dressed in skin tight denim leggings and loose cotton t-shirts, reenacting a scene so perfectly typical of the early 21st century Joan thought she had seen the exact image in a grade school history book—two couples sitting in a cross legged circle, passing around a tiny marijuana cigarette, slurring a dialogue about the existence of God.

“So, what’s your deal?” Jack said. He looked straight at Joan for the first time in a while. “I mean the scars.” He reached across the table and touched the space between her wrist and the sleeve of her jacket, to the ends of her fake scar. “Why go to the trouble?”

She pulled back. He knew they were fake. “Who would trust a scartist without her own?”

“Yeah, but why not just get it done for real?”

“Well, I—”

As a child, Joan spent most Sundays in her grandmother’s old mildewed colonial, watching her work silently over a craft table. She was there because her parents understood that they should somehow acknowledge Joan’s grandmother but did not want to actually spend time with her. So Joan was over every Sunday, payment of some unspoken familial tax. At first, the old woman’s quick movements and habit of muttering sing-song curses was frightening, but Joan eventually found comfort in the silence of her grandmother’s projects: creating, shaping, and coloring prosthetic hands and heads, sometimes working on her own body, sometimes Joan’s, applying gruesome makeup effects. Raw wounds, scars, a distended eye. Before she’d started practicing herself, before she even knew that in another life her grandmother used to be paid for her work, that movies used to need makeup and real human actors, Joan watched in awe, fixated on the magical temporariness.

“Never got around to it.”

“I think maybe that says something about you.”

“What?”

“Hey, can I be real for a second.” It was not a question. He was nearly yelling, words rolling into each other, a slurred poetry. “I guess I knew we wouldn't work out for long but I thought it was cool though that we’re so different you know that we were like opposites but still giving it a shot I guess I thought it was romantic like in those old movies and that if you want to I think we could be actual friends.”

“Could you keep it down, man.” This was also not a question and came from a man at the table behind them. His suit jacket was slimmer than Jack’s and the pants were tapered, maybe too narrow, an illusion to distract from his smallness. His face was sharp and scrunched up, leading to a point, ferret-like, with tight colorless lips and a painfully dimpled chin. He was trying hard to make his voice sound deep.

Jack went on, oblivious to the man talking at his back. He spoke even louder now, the same kind of hopeful rambling.

“Hey, fella!” The man turned his chair to face them. His date stayed silent but attentive, far more interested in this than the performance on stage, unblinking, forcing her eyes wide like a doe. Joan hated her.

Jack did notice now, like a bear half-conscious of a single bee encircling his head. “Pardon?” He turned, one arm wrapped around the chair’s back.

“You heard me.” The man had been staring in their direction but looked down now. After a second of silence looked to Joan. “We’re trying to watch the show.”

“Yeah, us too. It’s good stuff,” Jack said. He still no idea he was in the middle of a confrontation. He turned back around. “That was odd,” he loud whispered.

“I said we’re trying to watch the show.”

Joan wanted to tell the man that they’d try to keep it down, but also that the stage performance was mostly visual, that the dialogue was more like background noise, and that maybe it was not 100% necessary to hear it all. But because of the pressure to say something and the man’s persistent beady stare and the quick mental picture she’d developed of his life—a nasty, small man who needed constantly to prove his worth to a succession of women out of his league—and because of the night’s weirdness and this mixed up feeling of exposure, like cool wind hitting sunburn, the words came out as Go fuck yourself.

Jack laughed, a high wheezing when he tried and failed to stifle himself. The stuff that happened next—as he would tell Joan later, the retelling filtered through a sober mind—was completely accidental, as he only sensed some unclear tension and wanted to buy the man behind them an ale. Jack stood up and his chair fell to the side. It landed with a sharp thud. The man, seeing this as an invitation to fight, jumped up and came close, though he was much shorter and it looked like he was leaning in to kiss Jack’s collarbone. Jack stepped sideways and lost his footing and stumbled backward toward the man’s table. He reached back to steady himself, but instead of finding the edge of the table he found an empty pint glass and crushed it with his hand. This all happened very quickly, but even through this flurry of fast movements and noises, Joan stopped to think about how the glass looked like a teacup under Jack’s hand—or like fragile thin ice against his palm.

He was bleeding badly. The room was silent. The actors stopped moving. The curator came around and in an incredibly reasonable voice said “You and your husband need to leave” and it took Joan a long silent time to understand that he was talking to her. “I understand,” she said but moved slowly, and before she took Jack’s arm and before they walked out of the restaurant, she moved to him, gently pried open the closed bloody fist, picked out a piece of broken glass, and pulled out a red handkerchief from her back pocket, wrapping it around the wound in a gesture so intimate it felt obscene in a room full of strangers.

 

They stumbled through the parlor door.  “Here we go,” she said more to herself than him, and guided him onto the big scarring chair.

He lay across the low, extended chair and stretched out his legs, staring up at the white ceiling as if he were making out stars in the night sky. “Sorry I got so drunk.”

“How’s your hand?”

“A scratch.”

She took his hand and  unwrapped the handkerchief. His hand was a dark, chalky red. She felt his breath on her stomach. “I guess we should clean this.” Aloud, the words deflated something, gave a logic to their trip back to the parlor when before it was unspoken and exciting, aimless in the best way. But before she moved to a drawer for disinfectant or to the sink to wet a towel, he sat upright.

“A scar.”

“What?”

He stood from the chair and moved to the nearest freestanding cabinet and opened the middle drawer. “Woah.” He pulled out the iron carefully, first pointing it up at himself, then Joan, then down at the ground as if it were a gun. “How does it work?”

“Point and shoot.”

“Can I try it?”

“On yourself?”

“On you.”

“I’m not—”

“Come on, you’ve waited long enough, right?”

Silence. She did not want to answer. In that pause Joan felt a sinking claustrophobic feeling about to take over and change the shape of everything. Because—and she didn’t know this at the time and maybe never would—the truth about courtship in 2184 is that it has very little to do with action or real feeling; it’s noticing and words and reactions, a wobbly top to be righted and guided away from an edge. Soon, she’d notice the sheen on Jack’s face and booze blotched cheeks and it’d no longer be cute, and she’d hate him again and the feeling of being near him, near anyone, and the temptation to be alone would prove too strong, the stillness of her bed giving off the irresistible warm feeling of soup on an empty stomach. And she’d leave or make him leave and they’d never see each other again.

But before this feeling took over Jack broke the silence and explained that he’d changed his mind and wanted the scar for himself, and he lay back down and rolled one already wrinkled sleeve up to his shoulder, and even though it was an ethical breach for Joan to work on a drunk client, she grabbed the iron and clicked in on, laughing when he jumped to the sound of its sudden high hum. “You have a design in mind?” she asked and moved it closer to his arm, expecting he’d squeal from fear. “Tiger slash. Maybe a Chinese character?”

“No, surprise me. Make it look like an accident.” He closed his eyes.

She might’ve thought he’d fallen asleep and that it was a stupid idea anyway, that he’d wake up and regret it in the morning, but it was almost like the iron’s hot chrome tip was magnetically attracted to a pink square of skin just below his shoulder, mole-spotted with three stray hairs poking out like grass through pavement cracks, a new unexplored part of his body. She pressed it to his skin. He didn’t move. Just before she dragged it across to another point—a smooth but not unsubstantial movement, like pulling a sled through hard packed snow—she hesitated and only moved on by tricking herself that the already red mark was temporary and could be rubbed out or worn away or washed clean off.