Jens

Ross Nervig

We all got married. We all got scared. We looked beautiful in the Tiki torchlight. All of us.

Jens catches the fly in a tight fist and shakes it by his ear.

“It’s all about the delicacy of the operation,” the holdout bachelor says and plucks a strand from his long brown hair. Some of us lean in, watching his hands. “I learned this from . . .” With his free hand and teeth he ties the hair at one end of its length into a small loop knot. “I learned this trick from this chick who let me crash on her houseboat. Water everywhere, but we survived on just tequila and Catulus.”

Helena says, in a cartoon voice: “I’m Jens. Water bores me. I’m a poet.”

Jens had slept with all of the wives before the husbands had, when he’d pell-melled around campus and drunk himself and whichever girl was at home into a state where they’d couple with such abandon that beds broke, lamps fell over and popped. Then we’d hang around—the girls did—until we became part of this collection of misfits we were in college, such misfits.

One of the husbands goes inside and comes out with a bottle of Patron, pinching glasses.

“Is Jens a poet? Are you still a poet, Jens?”

He relaxes his grip just enough to let the fly crawl towards the light. “The trick is not beheading the little devil.” Jens slips the loop of hair around the head of the fly.

The fly swings in frantic arcs at the end of its tether.

We all remembered our times with Jens fondly. Those of us who’d been to bed with Jens, it seemed, understood that it was all for the better that we’d gotten that out of the way. He’d long stopped circling our age group anyway.

Our husbands, we think, like inviting Jens to our get-togethers to hear about his encounters with these college girls. We allow it and only some of us hope some debilitating venereal infection will bring his streaking comet down. Jens passes the fly on its leash to a husband who watches it struggle in the air.

“Carnal detective…” Jens says, lighting a cigarette.

“Womanizer.” Helena again.

“I’m not a womanizer. I’m being womanized.”

He could be exasperating.

“Fine. Tell me what a carnal detective does, then.”

“Anybody want one of these?” he asks, setting his pack of cigarettes on the table and giving them a tap to table center. He doesn’t know how cruel he’s being.

“I was out with this girl last night.” The wind-up. “You know, at a bar. Sitting. Talking. The bar is kind of busy and there are a couple of chicks behind us waiting to get the bartender’s attention. Well, one of these little girls says to Sheena—”

Of course her name is Sheena. Jens nods at our eye-rolling.

“—one of these little girls says ‘nice hair’ to the back of Sheena’s head. You know, in a real snide college girl way.”

We knew. And Jens is drunk.

“Sheena shrugs it off. We drink some more. Watch these horrible, keening bands of boys. Sheena’s dancing, whipping her hair around, I keep buying rounds, putting it on the credit card.”

Jens leans forward, five fingertips on the table.

“But then. Bar closes, we’re all outside smoking cigarettes. And that girl walks by and Sheena says, ‘Hey.’ The girl stops. Sheena’s like, ‘Can we hug? It’s cool. You know, sisterhood.’ The girl’s, like, perplexed but drunker, so they hug and then mid-hug Sheena rips out the girl’s earrings.”

“What the fuck!”

“Jesus.”

“What did you do?”

“I, Jens Severide, was stunned. Stunned.”

“You fucked her, didn’t you?”

“She threw up on the walk home, but yeah, I fucked her.”

Some of the husbands, some of the wives, high five Jens.

“I have not talked to her since. That girl is crazy.”

The lake was behind him and the moon was in the lake.

“A new low,” Helena says.

Jens produces a shitty corner store cigar. Takes out his pocketknife and slices the cigar open. We can smell the cherry of the paper. He takes one last drag on his cigarette and stabs it into the ice of his empty drink. Jens is responsible for the most cups, glasses, and mugs around the lake house’s sink. This is something we’ve talked about mentioning to him.

“If that’s a new low, rock bottom is gonna be so kinky,” Jens says.

From his pocket, he brings out a folded up twenty-dollar bill. Unfolds it until lengthwise there is just a clean, crisp fold of very potent marijuana, ground and sprinkled with keef. He feeds it into the split cigar. Rolls it like a ritual between his fingers and seals the blunt with a lick.

“You’re gonna die a lonely man, Jens,” one of us says. It’s kinda a mantra among our group. Nobody’s sure who said it first.

Sometimes the shittiness of this situation dawns on us. We just keep drinking.

Helena goes inside, touches the volume knob of the lake house stereo until the music thickens through the sliding glass doors.

Jens lights the joint, hands it off to Yasmina, and expels a cloud of smoke.

Jens always coughs furiously after a hit.

Yasmina pats him on the back, her eyes already bloodshot.

Nobody ever talks about Khioniya Guseva—the Russian prostitute who stuck a knife into Rasputin’s stomach.

There’s a guitar in Jens’s hands now. He feels out pinched chords high on the neck of the instrument to whatever’s issuing from the stereo inside.

The patting hand stays on the back.

We’re on vacation. We’re here. One or two couples have handed children over to grandparents—people we’ve come to realize did only a (let’s admit it, terrifyingly) OK job raising us. Our mothers seem starved to mother something. Our babies stricken by grandma’s enthusiasm and red lipstick.

 

“C’mon, hand them over,” Jens had said as a greeting. He made the lid of the saucepot talk. “Feed me . . . Feed me!” We did. We put our phones in the pot.

“Thank you. You’ll get them back on Sunday.”

Jens loathes smartphones. “Facts shouldn’t be at one’s fingertips like that. Ruins a lotta brilliant lies,” Jens had said.

He refused to negotiate. “I’m not spending my hard-earned weekend being shown one baby photo after another.”

“Remember when I was the biggest thing to pass through that vagina of yours?”

This stunner had been uttered at a christening, the swaddled child in his arms. He seemed tickled to be a godfather, though.

 

We’re in the kitchen, we’re back on the screened-in porch. The husbands arm-wrestle. Laps are sat on. Cigarettes are slipped out of Jens’s pack and shared. The porch is a light box of laughter and smoke. Below the music, a cycling chorus of frogs. The moths want in. Hannah brings out the Midleton single malt in its wood box and deep glasses are poured and just thrown down the hatch. Her husband makes a pained face. “It’s, um, supposed to be sipped . . .” A strand of Jens’s hair floats through the smoke. And then we’re dancing. Jens pinches little white pills from an envelope. He places one on each of our tongues and traces the sign of the cross on our foreheads with his thumb. We’ve lined up for it.

 

We’re wading into the lake, our bodies as cheese-pale as the moon. Except for Jens. Jens and his rings in the moonlight, running his fingers across the water’s surface like a king in his favorite field of wheat. He’s laid out somewhere completely naked for hours. The scenarios multiply.

We tell them, when prodded, what it was like—those nights with Jens. His long hair, a veil and a vacuum, its thickness walling the world away. “It’s just,” we’ve said, “there’s no unfamiliarity, him above us, it’s exactly where he should be. Years ago, those nights. What do they matter now?” we ask. We’re all friends. A night spent in a hospital with a sick child is a mansion of emotion compared to it, to fooling around with Jens Severide on some unanchored mattress.

Maybe Judas was the brave one. Maybe all the apostles plotted, but were weak of heart.

Jens stumbles, waist deep. He laughs, we laugh.

He dips and comes up with a rock the size and shape of a baseball covered in a viscous algae.

“I bet this is what the earth feels like in the hand of the universe.”

He passes it around.

The rock’s density, the rock’s weight is incongruous with the slime on it. Jens snatches it back. Every scintilla of moonlight on the water seems to chirp. Cut glass crickets or talking diamond earrings. The prisms grow.

Jens moves away from us and throws up with a splattering plop. Water into water. Then laughs. Then throws up again. We wade backward. Nobody speaks, nobody even says, Jesus Jens.

“Jesus,” Jens says. “Jesus Christ.”

 

Two of our husbands carry him across the lawn, his toes dragging in the grass. His arms are slung around their strong necks. He’s telling them that he loves them. “Do you,” he asks, “do you know how lucky you are?” They lay him on the couch and we drape a beach towel over him.

“Can somebody bring me a beer. A nice cleansing beer?” he asks. Yasmina brings him a glass of water.

We file behind our husbands up the lake house’s spiral stairs. Our windows are open, curtains waltzing summer skirts. The sheets are rough with sand, but the frogs have ceased their chorus and nobody but him lies awake listening to the rhythmic clunk of a rowboat tied to the dock. He yells our names from the couch, like a man calling from a pit. “Helena!” “Yasmina!” “Gabby!” “Elizabeth!” “Hannah!” Our husbands turn their backs to us and we slip a hand around their stomachs or chests, our hips to their backsides. Kiss the skin between their shoulder blades.

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