Madame Bovary, C’est Moi

Fiction by Kristopher Jansma ’O6SOA

by Kristopher Jansma ’06SOA Published Summer 2014
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The train brakes sharply coming into 23rd Street, and this sends Alex thudding into me. Without making eye contact, I mouth a soundless apology. She wordlessly accepts. We straighten up again. I wonder what stop she will get off at. Is she 14th Street bound, like us? Or is she a Brooklynite? Perhaps just returning home after a night on the Upper West Side with the cinderblock-bookshelf guy? They met last night, each sneaking into that Isabelle Huppert retrospective at Film Forum. After, they had pancakes at the Hudson Diner. After, some not very great sex. Fingers still tacky with syrup, bellies still leaden with pancakes. This morning she grabbed the book from his shelf as she tiptoed to the door. Something for the long ride home. Something to keep her from having to decide whether or not she will answer his texts in two days or three. She thinks right now that she won’t, but she knows that, based on past experience, she has a 50 percent chance of changing her mind.

John Lennon stops and I frantically skip over a series of others, embarrassed as I feel her eyes darting over to my screen. Belle and Sebastian? Too obvious. Deftones? Too Goth. The Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack? (She giggles.) Modest Mouse? I can’t remember if they are cool or not anymore. I think I see her eyes rolling. Finally, I settle on, yes! A Nirvana demo track. I sense mute approval from Alex as she turns her book to skim the back cover — perhaps wondering where it is going. Where is this going?

We are approaching 14th Street and I hope Alex will get off with us. Maybe she lives with three other girls in a badly lit apartment where the stove burners don’t work and the toilets are constantly clogging. They don’t cook, but she eats a lot of raw vegetables. No. She is a raging meat eater. She watches a lot of television but feels generally bad about it. Once upon a time she painted with oils, but they got expensive. Her roommate’s bulldog puppy is currently chewing on her other pair of Converses.

The train slows down as we come into 14th Street, and I see Susan racing through her last page because we have to get off now. The Bud Light awaits me. Susan gets to the final line and slams the book shut triumphantly. The little clap makes Alex look down. She begins swiveling her wrists again. Suddenly I wonder if maybe I’ve had her all wrong. She’s temping as a data processor, down in the Financial District. She’s been called in on the weekend to tap numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. She’s dressed up from brunch with her mother. Alex makes no motion to put her book away, and I realize that she is not getting off. I realize that I will never know — not where she’s getting off, not where she came from. Not if she likes the book and not if her wrists are all right. Not even her name. “Alex” feels wrong, suddenly. Suddenly she seems much more Katherine, or Casey.

Susan gets up and begins to edge her way over to the door. Without thinking, I hook my arm around her and kiss her forehead. She twists away because she thinks she is a sweaty mess, but my mind is on Alex/not-Alex. She can see me out of the corner of her eye and I want, horribly, to break her heart before she breaks mine. As Susan and I slide away, I wonder why. This is the end of the seduction in our modern-day carriage. As the doors open, I am already beginning to imagine her telling her roommates about this guy that she spied on in the train. About his surprising taste in music. About how he seemed to know what she was reading. About his girlfriend, who had been reading Madame Bovary right there, the whole time.

Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, received an honorable mention in the 2014 PEN/ Hemingway Awards. His work has been published in the New York Times, the Believer, and the Millions.

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