COLUMN: DIRT CITY | 07.10.2022

What’s wrong with Jessica
by Barbara Genova

Down-home demonology comes easy in the summertime. I don’t believe in fallen angels; the Devil doesn’t exist. Limbo is a narrative device introduced in the late nineteen twenties; Hell is a washed-out metaphor — do better, Senator.

But, for the short time I was in league with Jessica, this much I can swear: evil is real. Evil’s the weed you brush against on a country road at dawn. Hate you can feel.

Jessica was this bullet knife stab-stab motion incarnated in a promising young woman, a rising artist, lime green eyes drilling up in your face, a motor mouth spewing thoughts and hot takes at you, and before her I never knew why a regular person would contemplate violence, unless a yummy real estate inheritance was involved, and then I knew. Oh, that’s how it happens. They say one thing one time too many.

You’re having pizza for dinner, you ask a question, is it hard to rent here, feels like the polite thing to do in a different city, she’s gabbing gabbing gabbing — who signed a contract who got an offer — and then you think: bitch, if you don’t shut up I’m gonna shove a fist all the way down your throat. You go quiet. She’s still talking. As if you would ever punch a girl! You’re just jealous.

Here’s the clearest picture I can give you about Jessica without anyone getting sued: I was bending in front of an old school vending machine. I punched the keys, one two three. Three cups of dirty coffee here we go. One to drink hot, two later in the evening, I didn’t mind the cold.

Jessica sighed, I’ll pretend I never saw this, and she did a twirl on the spot.

The appropriate response — who asked you didn’t come to me soon enough. I marinated in fury.

She thinks she’s so cute.

Nobody remembers Room Theory, which was supposed to be an enormous deal. Career-making hours at the identity factory for sure. We were gonna get maaade. A traveling circus of media personalities had been given a square room each to decorate. All the rooms looked identical. Fault lines, parental alienation, dope balloons — fashionable takes on the present. Mine had a wall scribbled in crosses. I chipped away at the paint for weeks until I got sick of it. You didn’t miss much, no.

Cursed itinerary. Cursed production. Months without updates, half the talent got replaced. Started out with one live panel and a pitch-black review from a guy who got offended. Didn’t move units. Two weeks in, nobody cared to show up for the panels. Three weeks in, our publicist stopped pretending the sun was about to rise. My commitment to the promotion of Room Theory must end here for mental health reasons. Regrettably, etc. Agents were yanking people out left and right — this is not playing, drop it drop it, next. Everyone acquired a situational personality disorder that spilled over to the next project we did and the one after that and another one afterwards. To the day, I maintain we lost a novelist to the woods.

Wanna drive people crazy? You take a bunch of wannabes, tell them they’re the greatest, the meanest; you brainwash them into believing they are relevant gold, and then, you leave them stranded on a broken train, and you don’t deliver on money, opportunities, all the clout they were raking in — it’s gonna be murder, it’s gonna be a riot.

In the middle of it, Jessica was on the fast lane to heaven.

There’s a flutter around the girl — always a rail-thin girl — who’s in the process of being re-branded as a huge fucking deal. Maybe it’s the light chasing her around. Maybe it’s the insane buzz her performance generates. Jessica was the only one who was gonna get a tangible career bump out of this albatross hanging from our collective neck, not because her work was better than anyone else’s: men would point at her and go, watch her talk, wolf teeth bared, kohl everywhere, see?, she’s ambitious. She wants it more.

She got an offer, I got nothing. She told me before we went on stage in the city. She said: c’mon, give me a smile.

I’m gonna smile once we’re on the other side of the door.

And then I didn’t.

I could sense hot doom pushing in, watching her take up space, sprawl, command, failure heavy on the horizon: I had no vocabulary to articulate what kind of dam was about to break.

Was it her features — lines a crisp mask of contour, her nails clicking on the iPad screen as she talked about freeganism? Poor table manners. Never a thank you (it was weird). On a stage she could turn it on. She could chat about books in long smooth sentences.

Off stage — she had a stillness to her.

If this girl doesn’t get everything she wants, the minute she wants it, we’re in for a body count.

This I should have said out loud.

She got everything. I got anger shooting up a black bullet in my head. She’s a fucking child. The more the love needle moved to her, the more I resented the situation. Her. The inevitable drip drip drip of it all. I need to get away from her. It’s the road. It’s the pressure, the heat. At some point it’s gonna blow. I’ll be happy again.

Did Jessica drive me crazy over a doomed summer, or was the crazy there, a plump blue vein waiting for two fingers, tap tap tap, and we’re off.

Before the summer, we had been close enough, in the warped way I used to collect girl friends — I wasn’t fucking men so I serially dated straight women I didn’t fuck either. Coffee on ice and cigarette breaks between gal-pals. You get me. You’re the one.

First person to suggest I should get laid gets a chuckle and a yeah, have you seen what’s out there, mate.

Although, it is a reasonable observation — I did need Jesus, a lot — and a male romantic interest would have spared me an ocean of girl trouble. Wasn’t in the cards. Love. I didn’t have the look for it.

Back then I could make for a decent heel, that is, a stage nemesis. Blonde. Nerves. Insomniac. Uhh. Cat scratches on the back of my hand. Prone to statements such as I am but a screen for anyone to project what they want to see. Didn’t wash my face before bed.

Look at her — skinny, art school, left-wing as shit, reads theory — look at me. Who are you going to believe? This one can’t even talk right.

Plus: it was the archetypal street fight good men pray to see once in their life span; the firebrand upstart versus the establishment.

Looks suspicious if a guy steps in to tip the scales, so, what you do is, you persuade a woman into assuming the position. You leave a blade on the table next to the phone. She wants it, she’ll do it. She’ll fit the profile.

The next time you find yourself loving some underdog narrative: watch the blade.

Jessie got the offer we all waited for. Jessie resented the offer, so low, so demeaning. She turned it down nine times. She said yes. I got nothing.

Over the fall women started coming around, making little observations, real casual.

Hey Barbara, don’t you think Jessica would be a better artist if she stopped acting like a precious seventeen year old, huh.

Well, Jessica’s not my problem anymore, is she.

Lady, your team picked her over me. Now you want me to give you the nod, uh-huh uh-huh, confirm your buyer’s remorse is valid. Not-gonna-happen. You made your bed, you lie in it.

(And lie in it they did. They’re probably in there now.)

As for the gentlemen, the ones who paid the bills for all this awesomeness, they got deep into all good mode. They wore tight smiles at the Affordable Art Fair; they worked on the alibi for Jessica’s latest no-show, family emergency this dropped her phone that, because the truth — because reality made them wonder.

(You hitched your star to a crooked wagon, friendos.)

Men can and will tolerate lunacy in case of (a) would smash, (b) class guilt, (c) the woman being useful; when she breaks out, unspoken goes the promise, she will raise her entire friend list up. Everybody’s gonna get paaaid.

Jessica got the offer. Jessica did the Work. Jessica was a terror and a half through the entire production.

Jessica got elevated to important female talent — on paper. I’ve seen the numbers.

We just can’t understand why her project didn’t do better!

Dude, have you considered the disdain Jessica sweated out in what minuscule amount of publicity she deigned to do.

Blink.

Dude, she came across as super unlikeable.

Wait. Really?

The disconnect bounced me up the wall. Don’t you see what I see? My dude, you cannot seriously be banking on the hate-buys: don’t you have eyes.

Palace intrigue gets the people going. And people love a feud. Yessir they do! For a minute there, my claim to fame was, used to kick it with Jessica, now they can’t stand one another.

What should have been a basic falling out between adults who had nothing in common other than a profession, and an intermittent interest in current affairs, turned into drama.

I may or may not have referred to her as my ex wife, who’s a cunt.

What? She was.

So many girls got friendly with Jessica: here we go. Sweet, another woman I can’t hang with. Fuck me twice the world is getting small. Sooner or later she’s bound to coil up and hiss at them too, she can’t help it. The minute they won’t roll over.

I harbored a brittle hope. Maybe Jessica will reach an undeniable level of success — all the money, prestige — and then, any friend she makes, she will cherish. Love them for real. Because those will be the ones she wanted to begin with.

We’ll see.

May-be.

For a while we shared a particular lady friend. I never spoke the J-word, she never asked. She was the finest. Super smart, quite slender. With her, I got careful. Texted. Put it in writing. I’m happy you’re working — you’re good at this yet, I kept my distance.

You have no sense around beautiful women, B.

Don’t want a Jessica repeat, now, do you.

No way to salvage shit with a woman, or a man, who turns your brain on hate. Can’t strip it for parts, either. Human material actively resists the process. You may put their button eyes mouth on a doll, same as you may trick yourself into believing this will all make for a great movie someday: it doesn’t.

Some time later, but before the last look at Jessica. 10:15 AM in a seaside town. I opened a closet and I was staring at this old white sundress and a sentence came in, unspooled, black letters on soft cream:

if I can’t have peace, I want you dead

Well o-kay then. I backed out of the bedroom, forgot about the dress.

This is serial killer talk.

Once a death sentence visits you, it’s there. A sharp reminder of your mental state. You have been capable of this much hate. You better watch it.

A few weeks earlier I had been lured to an apartment. Another city, not my own. There had been a single, naked light bulb hanging from a desolate ceiling, a man rattling excuses about how impossible it was to rent elsewhere, like it was a fact, and I walked out the door two hundred years older, stomach split open from this shaky red line in the shape of Cassandra’s hammer, pumped full of Plan B: I was alive, though.

Reality settled in. Eventually.

You brought your performative ass to a stranger’s apartment in the middle of a heat wave. It’s a miracle no one got killed.

Take the miracle.

I played Kanye on repeat, made myself presentable in an elevator mirror — I kept walking until the crazy came down.

I’m talking about contact crazy, of course it can come down. It can and it will. Give it time, do the work. Shit it out; get on a plane; keep a journal, watch some porn that’s new to you, masturbate. It works. Work it.

In the winter I was giving a short, PG-13 version of it to a married man over some food. Can you believe I got so aggravated about so little?

I had been shallow as most — I’d seen a picture, skimmed an interview. Never really hit flame with her Work. But man, listen, the camera loved her. Piercing gaze. I wanted some of that shine for myself.

The second to last time, she was in the thick of a crowd at a party, I raised, like, a wrist in her direction, her boyfriend said something, to which Jessica yelled no, cut the air with a whole arm swinging left to right, chop, and she stalked off.

We’re not patching it up, yeah? Keep moving.

A woman with blue hair. I’d met her through Jessica, and she was waiting in line at the bar. I rolled the dice.

Yo, Jessica just cut me.

Ah. That girl.

No love lost there. I pressed, a little.

Can’t be that mad about it, I said, I did fall for her act.

We all did.

… why did we fall for it again?

She draws you in.

Text from Blue Hair the following Tuesday: Jessica abused multiple individuals I respect professionally.

I was still around when people started talking. Not in the usual ah, such divine brilliance, no, the other way. Talking. Trying to get a witness. You’re eating, it’s a vegan Indian bistro in Venice or whatever, and your host goes: what is wrong with Jessica?

You have one shot.

Choose wisely.

There could be a mental health problem — I think there is — and her management ruined her. They poisoned her into seeing the outside world in terms of faithful devotees and mortal enemies.

Look at that. All of a sudden I wanted to paint a sedate, fuller picture of someone I used to call the Angel of Death. Guess by then I was feeling less divorced.

You should have seen the glimmer-fear in the eyes of the lambs, every time making a risk assessment in the space of a gulp of water, who’s the craziest here? Barbara’s certifiable, but, but, she did that tour! She might have seen some stunning desperation. Do we ask? No, you ask.

I was shocked at the utter lack of empathy in her Work.

What do you know, she turned that offer down nine times.

Shop talk, I could handle — the offer the contract — and I never mentioned what precious little I knew as a fact from girl talk. Impermanence. The boyfriend with the big house, the C-lister she had been banging on the side. Which was fine, I told her to deny deny deny. Never come clean. If you do, this affair will get re-litigated on and on. You will not be able to get past it.

Hadn’t had a beer in a decade, but girl trouble took me back, as it does — the lick of stale foam in the air, mid-afternoon yellow light stop and go, you’d saddle up a barstool — the TV on mute, the electrician complaining about whores and skanks, your head would slide over your arm, where it’s soft, you’d mouth the words, let it go, man. She ain’t worth it.

Certain women are good at keeping the score. We become links in a whisper chain.

I should have known who Jessica really was when she demanded the restaurant stay open after hours — no reservation made — twenty people and she didn’t tip, at all. She’s bad.

There I got spooked and impressed at another girl laying it bare in a hush.

There it is. The word you’ve been searching for is bad.

Last time Jessica and I did interact, and boy, interact, it’s a reach, she was being interviewed or congratulated about her magnum opus in the corridor of a culture palace. I had to walk past her and rush rush to an event I hosted, poorly, there she is, had her back to the wall, there was my door, we’re doing this now go and as I moved she turned and whipped a whole head of hair away from me in such a huffy, imperious manner, her chin whooshed the air in slo-mo. You’re dismissed, peasant.

There I did smile.

I had to. This is some Puppet Master stuff.

I had anticipated a moment, in the days leading up to the day — visualized it so that I could stand and deliver: Jessie will be there. You will see her face across a room. She’s gonna be all dolled up. Hesitate. You will go to her. Say hi. Say you heard good things. Wish her well. Be nice. And, cut.

It got much worse. Her mood swings were wilder. Louder. More public. Rage blackouts and hold the blackout, just Jessica going tropico on whoever paid her a compliment. How dare you talk about my Work, you never reviewed it before. And so forth. The more accolades she got, the higher the flames. Her mind becoming the story, dissected as fact. Petrified interns listening in. More people reaching out. Felt like the last minute of Jeepers Creepers 2, some actor in old-man makeup, a harpoon ready to go for the carcass on the wall, in case it moves, and it’s gonna.

What you mean, she flipped a table. What’s wrong with her. God, talk about a mask off moment.

Younger people are preoccupied with mask-off scenarios. A bit too rich for my blood, this vision of truth as a scaly beast lurking under the water, relentless, watching, waiting for the liars to trip up, reveal.

And I’m a firm believer in separation, preferably putting several hundreds of miles between you and whatever turns your bones into an army of miniature blades going eeh eeh eeh

However.

That summer. Morning in a small town, a spot in the shade. Taking a seat. Hey, how’s it going. Her face coming up. Blank.

Dead behind the eyes.

For that I had no name.

Barbara Genova (she/they) is the pen name of a public woman who went private. Poetry and stories written as Barbara have been published / are forthcoming at The Daily Drunk, surfaces.cx, Anti-Heroin Chic, Sledgehammer Lit, Scissors and Spackle, The Final Girl Bulletin Board, Fahmidan Journal, Misery Tourism, Hallowzine (2021), Expat Press, The Bear Creek Gazette, A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Roi Fainéant Press, Discretionary Love, and the Hecate Magazine anthology issue #2 (DECAY, winter 2021). She can be found on Twitter and on Instagram.

Image by Uki Eiri from Pixabay.