Frumpy Jennifer poked him at recess, was how it began. “Me and you,” she said, blushing but not much. “Someday it will be me and you together in love. I’ll steal your heart; I’ll capture it. Doubt it now but you’ll see.” Ethan turned from the football huddle and told her that in fact he did doubt it. Still, he said, grinning, he’d keep it in mind, especially if she promised to ditch all the lumpy grandma sweaters.
Later, in college and her first years as a young professional, Jennifer flowered, became misty-morning beautiful. The lumpy grandma sweaters had been replaced with form-fitting cashmere. She was in a different state now but sent Ethan long flirty emails about her life and adventures. And the pictures she attached! Jennifer lipsticked and cashmered, black hair gleaming, shimmering. Sitting in his lonely office cube, Ethan just stared and stared. Such a beauty. Such a change. Still, even now, he couldn’t quite think of Jennifer as a girl to date. There were other girls, after all, geographically feasible girls, new and mysterious and numerous girls. But as the years went on, life became colder and Jennifer’s emails became warmer. When he finally saw her again, at a high school reunion, Beautiful Jennifer glided over to his table, talked charmingly with his date, and then whispered in his ear that she was going to steal him from this stupid woman if it was the last thing she did. But then she laughed cruelly and said, actually, no, it would be the first thing she did. Ethan felt a warm prickling glow. It was like a sunrise; it was like getting born. The sex that weekend, back at his spare apartment, was sweet agony. The sheets had to be thrown away, the walls scrubbed. They were married six months later.
“You thieving slut,” he said, watching her pack up her belongings five years later. “You took my heart. I wasn’t offering it but you took it anyway. You stole it.” But Bitch Jennifer responded that in fact everything was for sale. And that all these years they had just been negotiating a deal. She had gotten what she wanted, and loved it dearly, but where did he get the idea that it was forever? Even caviar had an expiration date. Even cashmere had a good-will day.
In the years following, Ethan turned to drinking, then cocaine. The gutter beckoned, and the graveyard. Then one suicidal afternoon, convinced he’d get caught, and fully hoping to, he pocketed a red cashmere beret while browsing around a department store. But when he exited the building into the breezy dusk, undiscovered, his insides surged with victory. He felt bathed in love: born anew. He assembled a crew and they traveled the country knocking over banks and jewelry stores. There was some anxiety involved, but some thrills as well, some satisfaction for sure. The women he paid were pretty enough but had snarly voices and just lay there snarling baby oh baby; the motel bed rarely got very rumpled. At random moments, the original Frumpy Jennifer rose up in his dusty playground memories, blushing but not much, talking of love, and Ethan felt a terrible pang. Oh, youth. Oh, love. But a beer and a shot made everything good again. Here was the life, right? You probably couldn’t steal the whole world, but maybe you could. And if you could, then you’d have it all. Then you’d really have it all.
Mark Benedict recently completed an MFA in Fiction Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. His thesis is titled That Autumn Feeling and contains sixteen short stories, including “The Birds and the Bees and the Take What You Want,” which also previously appeared in The Abecedary Project. Mark loves and lives for music. His favorite acts include Neko Case, the Gaslight Anthem, and the Hold Steady.
Featured Image photograph by E.B. Bartels, www.ebbartels.com.