A small city is arguably worse than a small town. The level of anonymity is humbling at times, when one realizes that her story is neither more significant than the next person’s, nor interesting. Residents from other small cities can come and go, and never quite feel as though they’d left the comfort of the city they’d hailed from. The downtown will typically consist of one road filled with local small businesses that open and close within a six-month period. These stores will often sell internationally procured tourist products, with no relation to the history or the culture of the city the shop resides in. The outskirts, close to the main highways are always littered with big box stores. Each one the same structure, each one providing more and more money to the owners of the land than is being paid to the greeters that stand just inside the doors. This is the nature of small Canadian cities; they are undoubtedly the least remarkable places in the world.
Enraptured in the simplicity she mistook for complexity in herself, Jenny stared off into the stark aisles that held equally simple products. Slick new linoleum flooring reflected the fluorescent lights hanging above, one or two swaying with no apparent breeze. She didn’t feel whole but she didn’t feel empty either. It was a state of limbo she’d become accustomed to, a feeling she found comfort in when everything around her was in turmoil.
It was easy to find pleasure, or rather excitement, in small day-to-day banter between co-workers. Despite a heightened amount of animosity around the store as of late, the thrill of hearing employees raise voices to their superiors could instantly ignite a satisfactory jolt of electricity in Jenny’s belly. She tried once or twice to join in the disputes but never could quite find the correct arguments to back up her ideas. As such she would watch on, unfalteringly on the side of her co-workers.
Jenny was born, raised, and ultimately jaded in a small city in Southern Ontario. At the age of 26 she had never once ventured out of her parent’s bungalow basement to live in a more interesting place as many of her friends had done. While they studied abroad and toured Europe or hiked in the Rockies, Jenny continued to work at a job that paid slightly above minimum wage and offered no real fulfillment. That’s not to say that Jenny didn’t have any dreams. Her greatest ambition (as stated in her initial interview at the age of seventeen) was to become wealthy enough to purchase a pool in the back yard of her parents’ home. Despite showing no other types of initiative, she was hired into the position that would ultimately define her.
The majority of Jenny’s free time was spent working on scrapbooks. She enjoyed outings with her friends and often stumbled home drunk around 3:00 in the morning, but she was happiest when alone with brightly coloured papers and patterned scissors. Her scrapbooks ranged from movie nostalgia to war history, kite designs and more. Jenny had done this from the age of 6, and her large basement bedroom’s walls were home to more than four thousand five hundred and twenty three scrapbooks. When her friends would visit, they would politely discuss the collection, but calmly move on to the next subject of conversation quickly. Jenny made note of this often. She had found one friend in her twenty-six years that had been interested in her craft, but he moved out of town within a month of arriving.
She found men in her small city to be very similar in all regards. Many of them with the same style of dress who defined themselves as lumberjacks, several who wore clothing that was much older than they were. Many men with shaved heads and sports sunglasses, and a few who wore low slung shorts mid-way down their calves, even during winter. Jenny often wondered how these men could walk around with the sense of entitlement they possessed. It was inherent in each and every male, and often most females would demonstrate their self-proclaimed power by having screaming matches on the side of the road. None of these types appealed to Jenny and she had remained single for most of her life. She lost her virginity like most girls from her city, in a pitch-black field just north of the city border, crossing into the countryside. She never wondered why panties were found crumpled in odd places ever again.
Although a small Canadian city is really nothing to behold, there is a magic stillness at night when everyone has gone to bed and there are only streetlights to guide a person home. Suddenly, everyone becomes a poet in her own right and can instantly recite haikus about sleeping birds on the telephone wires. Flashes of inspiration often come from drug-induced ramblings of the mind, but on rare occasions a true poet will emerge from such a place.
Jenny was taking her lunch break in full work uniform at a café as usual, reading a magazine filled with beauty tips. Although Jenny never really took to the proper application of makeup suggested in these magazines, she loved the visual appeal and stimulation it gave her. Marking pages with images for her scrapbooks, every day she would eat salami on a white bun with mustard, and drink a grande caramel macchiato.
Though she had been doing this for a number of years, she failed to notice a man who on occasion would sit in the same café and stare very intently at her. Jenny didn’t have the perceptive knack to notice this type of male behavior. Unless a man was direct and forthcoming with his intentions, she would assume that he was just being friendly to her, or in this case, just abnormal.
On this day in particular, the hyperactive barista she’d come to know as a friend approached her while cleaning some tables, and said, “He’s checking you out you know. Why don’t you go talk to him?” Jenny grew immediately flush and quickly glanced at the man. He appeared to be tall although sitting down, with dark brown hair and a scruff around his neck and chin. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but the mere thought of a man looking at her made her feel both uneasy and stirred at the same time. He smiled sort of, but not really, from the corner of his lips, then looked back to his book. The barista said “You’re welcome!” to Jenny before returning to her post behind the counter. Jenny quickly finished her sandwich, took her coffee and magazine and returned to work.
She did not return to the café the next day. Days later she still had not returned, and her barista friend asked her whether she’d become sick. “No,” Jenny said, quickly fishing for an excuse, “Just too busy to come all the way to the café, that’s all.”
“What you write, it tastes like olives. It tastes like bitter, puckering, salty olives,” he said, looking at her from across the room. “I don’t know how or where I would publish something like this. It’s so… I mean it’s not bad. It’s really, I mean I love it. But in the newspaper? No…”
Jenny sat very still on a couch in an office with the editor of the local newspaper. Her hands folded on her lap, her legs crossed in a semi-unprofessional manner. Her hair was pulled back into a bun, but still looked unkempt. She felt her face growing flush, much as it had a year ago, sitting in the café on her lunch break. “I can re-write it, or give you something else that’s maybe…” she said quietly. “No, no ,no,” he cut her off, “this is actually exactly what this city needs. Do you think I like publishing crap that was relevant a week ago? Not that I have a choice, the journalists do their best but nobody gives a rats ass about this city. It’s a dump. The way you write about it though, it’s as though you’re seeing a dump covered in tiny little flowers, and I almost smell the flowers more than I smell the shit.”
He reached for his pen and started making notes on her paper. She had written in a short poem about her city, in hopes of making a small impact. Although out of character for Jenny, she had been influenced recently by a group of high school students who had painted all the fire hydrants in the downtown area with various characters and themes that they’d created in the middle of the night. Instead of a story about delinquents (the only thing that the city’s newspaper would focus on) it was more focused on the lifelessness that the kids faced daily, and the need for more artistic freedoms for youth. Jenny had only ever known the satisfaction of cutting and pasting in her scrapbooks, and couldn’t fathom how these young people had become so inspired with absolutely nothing beautiful in the city to look at. Somehow she managed to write a poem that was longer than six lines, and had just a little bit of courage. She had never been proud of a creation before, and this time she was very wary of the way people would perceive it. This meeting was going better than she’d hoped.
“Can’t print it. Sorry,” he said after scribbling a few names and numbers down that she’d assumed were corrections or amendments. He handed her the paper and said, “Look. Like I said, this is really something I’d like to print, but there’s no way. This city is a fucking stink hole. There are some people around town though that publish zines and shit, maybe you can talk to them?” She rose and thanked him, and walked out of his office. Her face had now turned completely red. She could feel the blood rushing around her cheeks. Her eyes felt watery, but she dismissed it as something rancid in the ventilation system of the building. She made her way to the bathroom, locked herself in a stall, and sat on the pee soaked toilet staring at the wall for about half an hour.
One thing that could be said for her city was that there was a thriving underground music scene. The beer was always cheap and there was hardly ever any cover to pay. Jenny would go to bars with her friends on a regular basis, listening to the same bands over and over and over. It was a tradition that she enjoyed however, to see all of the musicians up on stage together rotating instruments at the end of the night, one of them whacking at a washboard with makeshift metal gloves. It would circulate, it seemed, to every outing. She had no idea who owned it or who made the gloves. She did know that most who tried to use it were terrible percussionists.
Her favourite washboard whacker was a girl with flaming red hair that seemed to explode out of her head. She wore trashy black eye makeup that smeared all over her sweaty boozed up face inevitably, every night. She definitely enjoyed sleeping around, almost incestuously, with every band member of any band she could get her clammy hands on. Her name was Stacey although Jenny had never actually spoken with her. She did once help her up the stairs from the bathroom, not that she felt accomplished in any way for doing so.
These evenings out always left Jenny a little drunk or high, stumbling home whether it was sweltering hot or freezing cold. On winter nights wearing a short skirt and thin tights she would mumble “Canadian girls cannnnn doit,” to herself. Then she would accidently walk into a bank of snow, filling her shoe with ice. “Damnit. FUCK THIS CITY.” And it was her usual routine.
After one especially lengthy evening out, Jenny was tired, but not exactly inebriated. It was the sort of feeling someone will get when she’s had enough of a social scene, and the alcohol doesn’t stick inside the veins, rather it dissipates into thin air. She’d spent enough money, there was a lot to do the next day, errands for her parents, may as well call it a night. She left her friends and set out on her usual path. This evening was wet and cold as it neared her birthday in November. As usual there were no cars on the road except for maybe one or two. There was never any point in trying to catch a bus, they came once every hour and stopped at 12:00am. It was now about 3:00am, spitting rain on her head. She felt insignificant and started stomping her feet on the wet ground, singing herself a song, almost like a march. She tried to remember everything she had to do the next day, listing the items in her head, counting them on her fingers, slipping up frequently.
She then realized she wasn’t walking home alone, and about 10 meters back there was a relatively tall male keeping pace with her. As she stopped and turned, he paused, and then slowly moved forward. She was feeling defiant and decided to wait to see who it was. She didn’t recognize the stride. Her heart started pounding as she forced herself to feel adrenaline and excitement, not something she often felt. “I’m being such a tool,” she said to herself as he came closer. He stopped about five paces away, almost startled by her glare. “What,” she said flatly. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to freak you out or anything.”
She waited for something to happen, for him to rape her or try to mug her. It’s not that she wanted the pain of the outcome, but she wanted the thrill of the moment. There was nothing thrilling about her boring, routine life. “Well fuck you,” she said, trying to egg him on.
“I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out, sorry,” he said and started to walk past. She stopped him abruptly; as he came closer she recognized his face. Although she couldn’t feel the effects of the beer, she certainly felt the courage it gave her. “You’re that creeper that was staring at me in Starbucks a week ago. Right?” Gritting her teeth she prepared herself for at least a shove off to the side of the road or an elbow to the ribs. “Well, I mean I saw you, I mean I’ve seen you there, I just recognized you that’s all, that’s why I was staring. I didn’t mean to be creepy. Sorry.” He began to walk off, but she followed him. “Well why didn’t you say something instead of just staring? I’m not a weirdo! I’m a fucking nice person!” “Well, I would believe you, except that you’re sort of ripping my coat right now and you’re swearing a lot.” She backed off as she realized she had his coat sleeve gripped tightly in her hand. “Oh…” She had shocked herself. “Dude, I’m, I didn’t mean to do that. Sorry. Sorry. I guess I’m just a little drunk and bored.” “Hard not to be here, eh?” They both laughed politely into empty space. “Well, I’m going to keep walking now…. Bye…” and he strode off quickly ahead of her. Intrigued she tried to keep up at a safe distance but realized that her short chubby legs were not exactly adept to keep up with the swift movements of what appeared to be a man-gazelle. Realizing that her beer had finally caught up with the rest of her, she promptly vomited into the nearest bush and went home.
Two days later at lunch she looked for him, but he wasn’t there.
Jenny would often try very hard to think back to a time that she was particularly ambitious. She would ask her parents if they ever thought of her as an achiever or a go-getter. They replied without fail every time, “Jenny you’ve achieved so much! How can you ask that kind of question?”. Despite her parents’ efforts, she knew it was pretty clear they thought of her as a lifeless lump that passed a lot of gas in the basement. Her father would clean her bathroom for her if he saw it getting too disgusting which made her feel even more inadequate. “Not even good enough to clean a bathroom. Bullshit.” She would think, every time he mentioned it to her. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to keep it clean, it was just that she honestly truly didn’t notice it getting dirty.
In an effort to become more interesting to other people, she found the library card her mother had signed up for when she was in elementary school. She went to the library downtown and took out a book on The Romanov family. She proceeded to leave it on the floor of her room and not read it for four weeks. She then paid late fees on the book when she returned it and several days later tried once again to take out a book that looked interesting and smart. This time she went for a political science textbook.
Leafing through it at a private study desk, she struggled with the terms and continuously flipped back and forth between the text and the vocabulary section at the end. She then concluded that the book was so dusty that it could no longer possibly be relevant and she stood up to leave.
Defeated once again by this insurmountable goal to become less bored with life, she was stopped by a book of short poems by Keates. She grabbed it quickly thinking it wouldn’t be too hard to get through a really short book and headed to the counter to check it out. Not surprisingly, the same man who had followed as she walked home a 3:00am a month ago was behind the counter.
“Card?” he said without even glancing at her. She felt her cheeks flush. “Here,” she said quietly, hoping he wouldn’t look up. He took her card, swiped it and handed it back to her. He took the book, looked at it with a quick smile, and then, realized whom it was standing in front of him. “Oh hey,” he said casually, scanning her book. “Keates?” “Yup,” she said, not making eye contact. “Have you read Keates before?” “Oh yeah totally all the time. It’s great, I love him.” “Really? My favourite poem by him is this one about a loon crossing a lake. The imagery is so severe, the loon just trying to get back to her nest.” “Oh yeah? Yeah that one’s good, I like it. It’s really good.” “Really? Because I was just bullshitting you.” “HAHA OH yeah I know. Ok I should go.”
She grabbed the book off the counter and started to walk to the doors, “Jenny,” he said. Confused that he knew her name she turned back. He was waving her card at her, “Jenny Bennett.” He stood reading her card. “Jenny, you have a terrible signature.” She tried to grab the card back without being awkward, “Yeah, my mom wrote that for me when I was a kid. I should go.” “You should probably get a new card, this card is actually for kids under 12.” “Do you read peoples names off their cards all the time?” “No, just you,” he said. She felt a strange angry feeling rising from her belly. Scared that she might need a bathroom within the next three minutes she snatched the card from him. “OKAY bye,” She said and stormed off.