Madame Bovary, C’est Moi

Fiction by Kristopher Jansma ’O6SOA

by Kristopher Jansma ’06SOA Published Summer 2014
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There is something familiar about her. A few years younger than I am. Enough to rule out her being an old classmate or a friend’s former roommate. She is reading the first chapter (my favorite part of the whole book, I want to tell her) and periodically letting go of the subway bar to roll her wrists around in little circles. They are covered in star tattoos, yellow and pink and green, and now I’m sure I’ve never seen her before because I am sure that I would remember these stars. My eyes keep zipping back to them. I try to stare up at the whiskey ads repeating at the top of the car.

Just as I move to pull out my iPhone, she glances at me. Sidelong. No eye contact. But definitely at me.

Star-Wrist Girl is not the most beautiful girl in the car. There’s a blond in a white sundress on the far edge of the bench. And there’s Susan, who beats the rest by a mile. She’d want me to say that she looks just like she did the day we met, five years ago, at a friend’s going-away party. But the truth is that these years have done a great service to the girl who’d been nervously digging tomato bits out of the guacamole with the edge of a chip. Now I am the nervous one and she seems steely-sure of everything. It makes me ache, the way she furiously reads the final pages now, her face firm and determined. Star-Wrist Girl — really she needs a name — maybe Donna or a Zoë? Alex? Alex reads more timidly. Jumping back a line or two; sometimes flipping ahead. She gets to the second page of the first chapter, where the narrator first mentions he is the chair of the Hitler Studies Department at the college where he works, and emits sort of a rough giggle. I smile and wish she’d notice.

The Green Day song ends, and it is followed by a techno version of “La Bamba.” Why did I download this? It must be stopped. But just as I move to pull out my iPhone, she glances at me. Sidelong. No eye contact. But definitely at me. I worry that she is getting the wrong impression of my pink Ralph Lauren polo shirt and madras shorts. I want to tell her that I’m in disguise. I am going underground into a room full of frat boys and darts and bad beer! Normally I wear appropriately tight jeans and carefree, gentle-rumpled button-down shirts! The “La Bamba” is unbearable, and so I extract my iPhone and quickly shuffle the music to something — anything — else.

And the shuffle gods smile upon me. Solo Lennon. I discreetly angle the tiny screen so that Alex can see John and Yoko kissing in black and white. And Alex seems to smile out of the right corner of her mouth, just momentarily, before turning the page. The relief that I feel is incredible. Yuppie douches do not listen to vintage Lennon. No, this is the iPhone of a connoisseur — someone who, yes, has a nice phone but also collects vinyl records and hangs yellowing CBGB posters on his exposed-brick walls. In fact, I don’t, but only because of all the books, and because Susan’s best friend is an artist and we’ve gotten several prime pieces from her over the years, which take up a lot of wall space.

Alex lifts her book up to turn the page again, and this time I make a little show of noticing the cover. I smile widely, indicating that I know the book well. She smiles back. All of this we do without ever looking directly at one another.

Suddenly I wish that I had something to read — the Kenzaburō Ōe stories I left in the bathroom, or the Juana Inés de la Cruz poems that are in my other bag ... and then it hits me that Susan has a New Yorker rolled up in her purse. I could lean down and ask her for it. But I don’t. Because I don’t want to disturb her? Or because I don’t want Alex to see that we are together? A sludgy guilt moves through me. What exactly am I doing here? We slide into the 34th Street station and there is some jostling, but Alex remains, thankfully, just beside me.

Madame Bovary, in the novel, allows herself to be seduced in a carriage — an affair that drives her to suicide and which later got Flaubert into tons of trouble with obscenity trials. Adultery never seems to end well in fiction. Nabokov called it “a most conventional way to rise above the conventional.” But it isn’t like I really want to grab this “Alex” and kiss her. Not like I think we’re going to rush off the train together. No. Honestly, I have zero desire to actually speak to her. All I want — and this, I realize, is terrible, but all I want is for her to think that I am interesting.

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