They were running everywhere, the children. There was this confident little girl running around, Judith, the one who’s name we wish we’d have thought of before Jennifer was born. She ran around within that, wearing this little pink polka dot dress. It was the kind of thing that if Patricia were here she’d talk about how she wishes she’d have been able to give it to Jennifer for Christmas and talk about how it would have suited ‘ours more’. Patricia wasn’t here today, she couldn’t be. The agency was taking off and at least one of us had to be there to man the phones and those phones had been ringing lately. It was finally working. That dream we’d had was getting there and was breaking the wall that had stopped it for the last five years. But she’d have been jealous of that kid of all things.
Me and Patricia got together young, younger than we should have maybe. Some couples that love just blossoms a little faster even like ours in the early winter sun. Things like that, they remain in your mind. It was fresh like the frost was the first morning we woke up together in my shitty place, where her one leg hung out of the bed, still stockinged up, back when life didn’t need to be as good as it did now. We need to project success now. Back then all we had was us and we didn’t start out that way. It’s bad enough that I only remember the darkest highlights, I mean, what could be better? I don’t need to remember now; we’ve got our own little dream running around to feel better through.
Jennifer has a heart of gold and she hangs around with Bobby. He was a quiet kid Bobby. Doesn’t like loud noises so Jennifer steps around him in a wideberth, like he’s two tables wide and ten feet tall when it couldn’t be further from the truth. He’s doing his best to be taking part, being a little too forced by the teacher but we let it happen. His mother is so proud of everything he does, an achievement just because it was, so proud in fact that she let him be pushed. What could we do, we didn’t want to make a scene. We didn’t want our kids to be looked at differently. But poor Bobby, right? Thank God he had my Jenny to keep him company. The one time he lashed out, she came over to me and I put in her favourite hair tie, ran my hands down her cheeks and over her arms which always made her feel better. Then she’d bulge her eyes and go running back to Bobby. Even when it seemed like he didn’t want her around, there she was. I think she liked him that way.
Jenny was our first and when she popped out I didn’t feel much. The usual bubbles, balloons and cigar clichés were all around but nowhere to be seen, at least on the inside. The room was full of little celebratory signs and I stepped out into the hospital hallway to take a breath. It had been a long fifteen hours and I was able to leave the room one more time before I was going to collapse. I noticed every other room decorated like that for boys, girls and those that just didn’t know. There was nothing special about me, Patricia or Jennifer, we just were. We were just following the line. At the time I thought it was a mixture of sleepdeprivation and the six pints that came before I got the call to come down to the hospital but that feeling lingered long after I woke up hours later. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything I hadn’t seen before. She was just this fat little alien that didn’t do an awful lot of anything.
Then when she started to change so did everything else. She finally seemed vital the day she started talking to Bobby Aspergers. Much like mine and Patricia’s love bloomed quickly in the most unexpected of times, the love between me and Jennifer was the opposite and grew bigger and bigger until I couldn’t ignore it any more. She was beautiful, more beautiful than anything I could write. She filled me up because she filled that room up and now she was trying to fill that boy up and some days she was close to succeeding, I know it.
I fell for that little girl when I saw she was just like me. The ego right? Not because she had my eyes, she got that from her grandmother on her mother’s side but when I started to see that she had that thing that you can barely put into words other than she was a healer. That she wanted everyone in the room to feel good. She was going to be big in whatever she did, whether she was the CEO of a multinational chain of pubs or clubs out of London, as far away from here as she could get, or working the floor in McDonalds. Hell, she’d lived long enough in both.
All the other boys and girls in that class adored her and instead of lapping up that light, she sat in the corner in the dark with little Bobby Aspergers. I never forgot how she looked that day, like she knew the light wasn’t right for Bobby so she sat there with him, waiting for him to break away from what he was playing with in his hands. All the other parents stood around and stared. They told me that me and Patricia should be worried about what was happening, how she sat there quietly with him staring at Barbie while he barely spoke to her. I smiled and nodded along. Inside I wanted to tell them to go fuck themselves. I wanted them to see the magic that nearly saved me.
Jennifer grew up sometime around five years ago. She started going out with the drummer in this sleaze band that never went anywhere. They never did, just like my band hadn’t before. I only knew it because of Judith when I saw her sat on the porch of her mother’s house, waiting for her to take her out shopping. She rolled her eyes because I’d asked her before, I’d near begged her to tell me where Jenny was. This time she’d seen I was a little cleaner than before, coherent, free of stupor. She pointed at the entrance to a warehouse a quarter of a mile down the hill where they used to make nuts and bolts before it shut down a couple of decades ago. Apparently the acoustics were pretty good in there and that’s where I’d find her.
I opened the door and closed it as quietly behind me as the band were downright terrifyingly loud. It seemed so pointless. The room shook and I felt like I might just fall if it knocked me the wrong way, if there was a wrong way to fall anymore. The floor was covered in brown dust, clumped and sugary, remnants of metal with the occasional needle here and there. Junkies had to do it somewhere, everywhere’s got junkies. Everywhere I’d been had at least one junkie, even and sometimes especially a place like this with a dwindling population and no trade. No wonder they felt no hope. It’d never appealed to me back when I was Jenny’s age. Most parents in search of a daughter would probably walk through a wasteland like this terrified, where the flickering light from the sheet sealed window frames was as uncompromising as the cold. But I wasn’t worried about my Jenny. I still talk to those same parents from time to time when they decide on a drink at the bar on a Friday night and while they are a little more jaded and nowhere as protective as they had been fifteen years ago, they’d still say ‘Not my little man’.
‘Not my Alex’,
‘Not my Fiona’,
‘Not my Pamela’.
But it’s got to be someone’s somebody, right?
I wasn’t deluded, because I knew too well why it wouldn’t be my Jenny. I’d not seen her for so long but I still knew her better than anybody else.
In the main room, where they used to tool the bolts, she stood in front of the band watching them and judging their every note and movement, just like Judith said she would be. She’d made herself their manager and she stood there looking more punk and more sleazy than they ever could but with her arms crossed, more of an authority than maybe any man that’d stood there wearing the hard hat on his head that she just had from nature. Those boys never stood a chance.
My friends had commented on how she looked and how she’d grown up, sometimes in the same sentence, the way she stomped by, when they’d seen her from the window in the bar, walking by the hostel, the tourists looking too much. By that time we were all in our early 50s and Jennifer was 17 going on 26 and I told them not to talk about her like that. But still I pictured her how they saw her and thought about what her mother might think. That was the great contrast of Patricia, that stubbornness that stopped her from seeing almost anything coming. When I got close enough to Jenny for it to matter in the warehouse that day, I saw that contrast.
I saw Patricia.
Her hair fell in front of her eyes like it was 1974. She didn’t have a chain in her hair but this plastic band of little skulls.
And she had deep blush adorning her.
She had a head on her shoulders, nodding back and forth, shouting ‘tighten up, tighten up.’ Where she got it from I don’t know. I walked under the dark ceiling and out of the light from the window frames where she was standing and she stood there in stockings that looked like they’d been halfinched from her mother’s wardrobe, the one place I’d told her never to go. She had on this leather jacket I’d bought her for her 14th birthday, that she’d asked for when all this started. She still wore it and it was so small on her now, even smaller than it was before.
The closer I got the more details I saw. And she just stood there listening to those notes The crescendos and the timings of the snares listening for a perfect moment in her mother’s stockings and Bobby sat behind her in beige trousers and a baggy tshirt with his hair pushed back, like his mother would have pushed it back.
At first she couldn’t hear me. The acoustics were good in here, too good by all rights, especially with nearly all the windows being out and the roof falling off.
She turned around, her eyes bulging, surrounded by the thickest, blackest of black makeup and she looked at me like I’d disturbed her all over again.
“Dad. You know the rules.”
I looked at the ground for discarded needles, crap and rats and satisfied, I sat down amongst the dust.
“Jenny, what did I tell you about going in your mother’s closet?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“Answer the question Jennifer.”
“Someone had to.”
She turned back and listened to the guy I’m sure she was fucking play a solo, the one thing that she seemed satisfied with, Bobby letting out an approving cheer. She nodded.
“Yes, Bobby. That was the moment.”
I cleared my throat, struggled to my feet and moved up next to her and put my arm around her. Bobby kept playing with his little block set, building something that shook through the vibration of the bass and the pounding drums and Jennifer would steady them every once in a while.
“What if I told you that you were conceived while your mother was wearing those stockings?”
I pointed at a small hole around the thigh, not significant but I knew it was there.
“That’s where I got a little too handsy.”
“If this were even true it would be appropriate somehow.” I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek and held her like a father was supposed to, like I felt a mother was supposed to.
“They cost a lot of money once. Lace like that.”
I stood and watched the band with her. She didn’t move one way or the other but she felt harsher than before.
“I’ve missed you.”
She pushed me away from her shoulder. She’d grown strong and I was glad that her grandmother hadn’t let her go vegan or vegetarian or become one of those lost people who go through the bins for the food the supermarkets throw out. I moved away running my hands down her arms which showcased new scars from old blood.
“I’ve missed you.” I said blowing my nose on the back of my hand.
The band moved on to a different song, a song that sounded just like the one that had come before it.
“And I wanted to see you. I wanted to see you doing the thing that you love.”
“He’s up on the stage…”
“I can’t watch you anymore like you want to watch me now. It doesn’t work anymore.”
I picked up a pad on the table next to me, where she’d moved away from where she’d been making notes. The music was so loud that I wrote on her pad those three words again. I learned the pattern of the drums and threw the paper in the air.
And she barely smiled, hiding the look on her face from the people on stage and Bobby behind her. Like her mother, she liked the easiest of anarchists.
“I miss you too Dad. But you’re messing up the timings in my head. You shouldn’t be here.”
I could feel her softening. Like a ballerina, I began dancing on one leg to the music coming from the sleaze. I moved in front of them and did some version of the hot potato. I waltzed with myself when she declined my invitation with a smile. I looked over at Bobby who had been watching me all along. You sometimes forget he’s there; he doesn’t want to be noticed.
“Bobby, what do you think, should she dance with me?”
Bobby took his time about responding and rubbed his cheek vigorously with his palm.
“I’ll bet you’ve got some killer moves there Bobby. Why not show the old man?”, I said through what had now turned into thrash like riffs, sounding a little too much like the best bands that I grew up with. Jennifer didn’t know them, nor did Bobby or so I thought. When I started headbanging Bobby nodded along and laughed. I moved across the floor in front of the band like it was a ballroom and slowly moved towards Jennifer, a horrified look filling her, now seated against the first row of chairs from the upcoming gig that would follow this performance. I didn’t care for the band.
They didn’t care for me.
They became cacophonous more so than they already were.
The melody disappeared. It evaporated like the rest of the world had when I’d hit my third drink that night, a couple of miles up that hill I’d come down from and as I approached Jennifer and she lowered her arms from in front of her, I was sure that I saw her mother in almost every way but here in the room.
“No, you stop.”
I pulled her up by her hand with a great resilience, so much so that I stumbled and nearly fell down to her. I’d forgotten how big my Jenny had gotten. How much she’d grown, how much harder she was. But the music grew softer in my head, even if she hadn’t and for all I knew this could have been LA Woman by The Doors or Hotel California by The Eagles or I Would Rather Go Blind by Rod Stewart.
But she was harder than that.
That’s what her mother would’ve wanted to dance to. We were dancing to the sound of the damage in the window behind us when all I thought is that it would bring us closer. But we were dancing and there was little better and every time I turned from the spin that we were both in, the endless turn, there was Bobby watching us, smiling. He smiled like I’d not seen before, like he’d finally seen the magic.
Until then I could only imagine what goes through Bobby’s head, but in that moment I could see that he was seeing something lasting, finally, coming from his friend. I hoped that’s what he was thinking. That’s what magic is, there’s nothing else that it can be.
“I miss your mother.”
I didn’t want to make her the parent, not again. But I wanted to see what Bobby Aspergers could see.
So I turned away.
“I miss her too.” Jenny said, her arms by her side, with no escape, shaking, after the band had stopped playing. I turned away from that boy, the same boy we drove away from to escape all those years ago that boy that had meant the world to my Jenny for so long.
Long after I didn’t.
And finally listened.
“They were running everywhere,” Jenny whispered. “And you took me away so you could forget.”
I ran my hands down her arms, running bumps across scars and life and pain and the future she saw but was too scared to realise. The one that fell away like the rest of it did.
Bobby Aspergers stood up and dashed over to put his head on Jenny’s shoulder and said something in her ear, something I never heard but that I’ll never forget. And I listened to her tell him it was okay.
But it wasn’t, because the damage behind us that we’d driven away from had stayed with us all along.
All she lost, really, was everything else.
One day that band left town and took everything that I never had with it too.