When They Met:
Rubicon Jones and Jennifer Bellweath met for the first time since 1981 beneath the four-sided clock in Waterloo Station, South London, at 3:45 in the afternoon. It was now November of 2004, and the American Presidential election was only days away. Rubicon didn’t give a rat’s ass about that; she hadn’t been back to America for years, and had long been embarrassed both of her nationality and her accent (though wasn’t above using either to intimidate those foolish enough to be bullied by such things). As for Jennifer, It would never have occurred to her that Bush wouldn’t win. She still lived in rural Illinois, it was war-time, and he was Our President. Plus, he was kind of cute, with those tight frat-boy hips and that nervous little squint.
They knew they wouldn’t discuss politics. Or money, in all probability, or how each awoke in the mornings all alone with their options draining away. Not that they felt the latter, but they didn’t need to—men and media conspired to keep assuring them their value was going down. Neither was wealthy and both were 40, after all. And it was the Bling era—spend, spend, spend to prove your value! Buy some Botox to freeze that brow in feigned surprise, and don’t forget to suck the fat out of your thighs before your market rate plummets, girls. Buy some Manolos, some Marchesa, some sparkle, some time. Max out your credit and we’ll find value in you yet.
But, and here’s where fate stepped in and got ingenious, neither Jenn nor Rubicon did any of those things, or at least, not yet. Instead, the two erstwhile friends from Illinois met up and had tea and shopped and went to a party and fought over a guy and eventually involved themselves in a murder that sold thousands of newspaper columns. So, ultimately, people became interested in what they talked about, who they fucked, how they lived. Instead of buying, they ended up selling (newspapers). Which goes to show you that even nowadays it can sometimes still be age before beauty, if you have a juicy enough story for the media. Cast your pearls before those swine and the gutter scribes will scramble to retrieve the opalescent rounds from the dust, then string them along the usual lines: Who’s the Good Woman? Who’s the Bad? Weight is involved, and hair color, and god knows it helps if you’ve got a man.
But the real problem, clearly, is with the whole concept of the Good Woman.
Who she is and if she exists at all.
Of course, there was much debate in the press. Many said that Jennifer, at worst, was a good bad girl. Which means she gets to be bad, but with approval. Yes, the papers admit, she killed. She’s admittedly a little dim, a God-botherer and a Septic (American); but she’s a mum doing her all for her kids. Plus she’s blonde and full-breasted. Which helps. And Rubicon? Well, no approval for poor lonely Rubicon. She had an affair with a married man and turned her friend in for murder. Also American, but small-chested. She doesn’t like kids (collective gasp of disapproval for that one) and then committed the ultimate sin of gaining weight. The press strongly suspects Rubicon is the bad one.
But in November 2004. Rubicon was still gaunt and chic, and waiting for Jennifer beneath the clock at Waterloo. Jenn was 12 minutes late, and every minute was giving Rubicon hopes she wouldn’t show up at all. Rubicon had taken the 2:28 train in from Richmond, keeping one eye on the trollied Irishman who was slumped next to her, exuding cider fumes and sandalwood. He’d slurred something in her ear as she slid into the beige vinyl seat, something about giving her a proper seeing to. “Promises!” Rubicon said to the Hyacinth Bucket type seated opposite, as the Irishman passed out on her shoulder, “They’re full of promises, right?” The older lady tightened her lips into a thin pink ribbon of disapproval, and Rubicon winked at her. Ah England, she thought. I love it so. Looking away from the pepperpot opposite, she saw the low brick buildings sliding slowly by the dirty, rain-splashed train window. Roofs of red clay and small round chimneys.
Low-ceilinged, cozy, angry, verbal, cynical, more-ish England.
Rubicon was not looking forward to seeing her old friend, who’d somehow tracked her down through the internet. She anticipated an afternoon of platitudinal boredom spent at the café of the National Portrait Gallery, being forced to look at photos of their 80s stomping ground, Southern Illinois. (And actually, Rubicon decided after seeing the photos, in southern Illinois it still was the 80s; everybody was older and enrobed in fat, but still gamely sporting mullets and slut-cuts and stonewash—oh my!)
The train slid on. The low damp roofs of south London contrasting with the modern architecture that was springing up near the City; the Gherkin gleaming like a glass tampon in the distance, construction cranes swinging slowly to their purpose. This town was taking to the blinging and terrorized 21st century—it rose again, shaking Thatcher’s dust off its feet.
Rubicon had left Illinois twenty-three years ago. She’d stood in O’Hare airport, a crooked-nosed brunette who was plump and awkward, wearing black leggings and a Siouxie and the Banshees sweatshirt. Listening to the roar of the departing planes, breathing in the thin burnt air of their fuel, she swore right there—next to Paw Paw’s Prettzel Knotts at Gate G4 (International)—that as boring-ass Baby Jesus and the Illinois Council of Goddamn Soybean Reports were her witnesses, she’d was saying goodbye to Illinois for good. She’d never work another hour on the soft-serve at the Dairee Freeze, never get cornered by another three-fingered farm boy, never listen to another high-pitched Illinois girl scream of excitement.
Which, she knew, was exactly how Jenn would greet her.
Now aged 41, slouching beneath the Waterloo clock in her charity shop Helmut Lang jeans and the elegant poncho she’d made of random scraps of suede, Rubin’s face was already hurting from the false smile she’d pasted on in anticipation of seeing Jennifer. Who was 15 minutes late. Although Rubicon nowadays rarely ate more than a few scant snacks each day, she went into W.H. Smith, bought a packet of Wotsits, and tore the packet open. An obscene cloud of orange dust puffed out, and she began picking at the chemical cheese straws. 103 calories. So that’s lunch then, thought Rubicon. The last thing London needs is another fat Yank.
Rubicon had left Illinois plump and ambitious, with a scholarship to St. Martin’s College of Arts. After three months of English food (she detested mayonnaise, and meringue, and fried fish, and even full English breakfasts)—she discovered her hipbones. And she never ate a full meal again, apart from one gluttonous year after a heartbreak. Jenn had never seen her slim like this. What would she say? At the height of her Prom Queen popularity, Jenn had airily taken to calling everybody “Sweetie.”
She’d better not “Sweetie” me now, Rubicon thought as she bit down hard on a Wotsit.
17 minutes late.
People passing by looked at the tall gaunt woman with the short dark licks of hair standing flamelike around her head, her seeming cool, her angular chic. . .and some of them recognized her. Rubicon, you see, was famous. Or had been famous. In the early 90’s, for a brief and shining moment of the Waif Era, Rubicon had hosted a show on ITV called “It’s Pants!” The show made snarky fun of the music videos of the previous decade. After graduating from St Martin’s, Rubicon had been discovered by a TV producer in a Chelsea nightclub with her nose whitened by mooched cocaine, loudly taking the piss out of Sloane Rangers and their shoulder pads, court shoes. She’d been whisked in to audition in torn minimalistic clothing of her own making, and used a voice she’d created for the occasion: the nasal vowels of Illinois meeting the clipped arrogance of Chelsea and the pushing “Innit?” of the East side street kids.
Rubicon had been bone-thin, with a hungry confidence and inarticulated beliefs—so she mocked. What other people did and said and wore and loved, she mocked with the bright-eyed cruelty born of a desperation to be liked. “It’s Pants!” was a huge hit. Rubicon became one of the ladettes of the era, papped on the piss with one hand down her pants and the other holding a rapidly draining pint glass. Newspaper columns predicted her early death, her cirrhotic old age, her heartbreaking loneliness. . .but none of those evils had come to pass yet. The only addiction Rubicon had was to fame.
And after a year or so, the paps grew bored of her eager accessibility, preferring the antics of fresh prey. “It’s Pants” ratings began to drop as 80s music video footage ran out and the paucity of the format became clear. A cooler irony came into style for television presenters, and Rubicon’s mocking and squawking and cruelty borne of neediness quickly became to seem tiresome, dated.
The show was cancelled and she was gone, she was done.
The funny thing was, that when fame abandoned her (and Rubicon had loved fame more than almost anything she’d ever had —more than anything except a man she’d once lost to a friend), she thought of Jennifer. One day, about three months after the show had been canceled, Rubicon had been walking by a shop and caught a glimpse of her face in the dark-mirrored window. Her shadowy hawklike eyes were fixed forward, darkened by confusion—and her mouth. It was the mouth that most particularly reminded her of Jenn. It was lipsticked but stretched in a mirthless smile, a smile of forebearance and pain, a smile of loss.
It was the way Jenn used to gaze at her in the Pinekill High School lunchroom, after Rubicon had ended their friendship.
What would Jenn look like now? One of those who hit middle-age hard, or one of those who barely notice? Does she still smear her conversation with patronizing diminutives, or did life shove those “sweeties” back down her throat? Could go either way. Having watched her husband die a slow death, she might be worn down, flabby from hospital food and gray-skinned from fluorescent lighting. Jennifer had the disadvantage of being blonde, of course. Rubicon complacently flicked long fingers through her dark hair. One consolation of blondes is how badly they age; by their late 30s they seem aghast—pale eyebrows disappearing into sun-damaged skin, and their previously silken locks thinning from shock at time’s passage. Brunettes, Rubicon mused, just keep on keeping on. A little ropy in the arms, sometimes. A little gaunt around the cheeks or maybe the telltale droop in the neck. But basically, Rubicon felt she was still lean and wry and ready for the next impulsive leap. The one that’ll land her somewhere good. Somewhere permanent.
Or at least somewhere she felt important again.
It didn’t even occur to her that she’d feel loved.
By now the tabloids have all covered Rubicon and Jenn’s friendship: School in Pinekill from K-12. Elementary and junior high years swearing allegiance to the flag, which waved complacently under the vast inescapable Illinois sky—and to each other. Slumber parties in aluminum-sided ranch houses, their mothers serving them onion dip and Lay’s chips as midnight snacks. Afterwards they’d lie together beneath a faded Holly Hobby quilt, dehydrated onion bits trapped in their braces as they whispered dreams of the future. Jenn wanted to be a newscaster and a wife. Rubicon wanted to go to Chicago and start an all-girl roller-skating rock band called the Freudian Slips. She wanted to wear torn tights and cut t-shirts, which would be embossed with diamante rock-n-roll skulls.
By freshman year of high school their friendship weakened and faltered. Jenn’s chest had grown by six inches over the previous summer. Rubicon’s height did the same. One became a cheerleader who fixed Halloween cupcakes for the kindergarten classes, and the other a stoner who designed herself Poiret-inspired hobble skirts to wear with hiking boots.
But Jenn still tried to trail Rubicon around, not knowing how ludicrous it was, like a shit-szu stalking a giraffe, not knowing that this friendship had passed its sell-by date. So one noon-day that September, Rubicon ended the friendship brutally in the stairwell behind the cafeteria while her new punk stoner friends watched from a distance. “I don’t want to hang around with you any more. I’m tired of it.” She never forgot Jenn’s eyes. Tear-filled but still white and round as glass paperweights, expression uncomprehending, small white teeth churning Hubba Bubba gum around in her mouth. Jenn asked for a reason, had she done something wrong?
Copyright Dana Burnell 2017
Represented by Martha Millard at Sterling Lord Literistic