'The Girlfriend' — a Short Story
When an angry man tries to force love into his life.
As Jan walked up to the front door, squeezing Martina’s hand, he ignored a drop of sweat that was rolling down on his left temple, despite the cool October day. He wanted things to turn out well today. The yard sale was already in full swing, his friends must have been there already.
He had to rest his finger on the front-door bell three times before anyone would let them in. The quiet single-lane street of the suburban town was invaded by the party chatter mixed with music coming from the back of the house. His friend and colleague Ben finally opened the door and, after a quick fist bump to Jan, he laid his eyes on the woman he had brought with him. Jan’s sweat drops on his left temple intensified. His insecurity turned into pride. Martina was a beautiful woman. Her shoulder-length toffee locks and her sparkling green eyes seemed borrowed from a hand-manufactured silicone doll. But what fueled Jan was not her good looks, but his friend’s reaction. He had shown up with a goddess on his arm, and everyone could now stop and stare. After the first confirmation, he was eager to introduce her to his other friends.
They were ushered towards the back of the house where everyone was crammed in the narrow yard. Next to the back door, there was an improvised beer stand with a plastic bucket holding cold beers in ice. Jan grabbed a pair and gave one to Martina after popping it open.
It looked like the hosts had poured the contents of their entire house through the back door out into the back garden, like loose lego pieces falling out of a toy house turned upside down. They were selling everything to raise some more money for their upcoming ‘round the world trip. Jan knew most of the people there, work colleagues and friends. Some neighbors were also present, everyone suddenly interested in home decorations to show their support.
Jan was considering where to start. The stuff on display didn’t interest him much, he was locating his friends so he could introduce his new girlfriend to them. His chest was puffed up, his chin high as he walked arm in arm with Martina. He couldn’t help but smile when he looked at her, proud of his discovery a couple of months before in a bookstore downtown.
The day he met Martina he had been flipping through the travel section, looking for destination ideas for his own ‘round the world trip. The fashionable hobby of the 21st century middle-class had made yet another victim. Jan wanted to live his own voyage of discovery, in Christopher Columbus fashion. A few months, he wasn’t sure how many yet, exploring faraway lands, trying out new food, making friends across the globe. Conveniently, that also meant he could take a break from adulthood. Jan had barely turned 32, had a good formal education, so he was expected to start bearing the weight of society on his shoulders. Or at least the weight of his family. His parents kept asking about family and kids. The recent change in his father’s health condition put that on the table. His buddies were buying houses. He just wanted to escape all that.
He was pulling out a book on Vietnam from the shelf when he had seen Martina. She must have felt his sustained look as she returned the glance with a smile, just for a moment. She stopped at the foreign language fiction section on the next aisle. Jan had become a pro at being witty with women online, on dating apps. But for that real-life encounter, he needed an extra moment. He opted for doing the crazy thing and went to speak with her directly, hoping she wouldn’t take him for a maniac. The pit of his stomach confirmed with a twitch that she was the woman he’d been looking for. At least she looked like that. Lately, he kept meeting women who were more infatuated with their phone’s selfie camera than with what he had to say. That made him want to scream in despair. But this woman, who even looked back at him, seemed to be the kind his parents would approve of.
The hosts of the yard sale, the couple almost off around the world, were just thanking a neighbor for buying their dining table set when Jan and Martina approached them. Turning around, the woman instantly grinned at seeing Jan. Giving him a tight hug, she looked curiously at Martina over Jan’s shoulder. Letting go of his old friend from the embrace, Jan jumped at the chance to introduce the woman he had brought with him.
‘This is Martina’, he smiled sliding his arm around hers. That was the smile of a man in love. In love with the idea of having a woman like her on his arm. The host completed the sentence he didn’t finish: ‘…your new girlfriend?’
Jan confidently answered ‘yes’ at the same time as Martina opened her mouth to say ‘not yet’. She didn’t get to say her own words, perplexed at Jan’s answer. She simply forced a smile, only with the corners of her mouth, her eyes were sending silent messages of confusion into the thin air. The host disappeared into the crowd as quickly as she had turned towards them just a minute before, nodding and winking at Jan.
Alone again, Martina could wipe the polite smile off her face and, baffled by the awkward moment that had just happened, asked Jan:
The last letters of the word pitched higher than she aimed for. Her own perplexion was coming out through her voice. Jan put his right arm around her shoulders and looked at her with that peculiar look he always pulled with women when he wanted to seem sincere. Big Bambi eyes and a serious, expectant face that most women could not resist. And usually, they did not resist it, at least the first weeks of dating. Bambi Eyes waited for Martina’s reaction.
Martina wasn’t able to put on that forced smile again, and although she wasn’t displeased with the idea, she thought it was too soon to talk about a boyfriend/girlfriend situation. They had been dating only for a few weeks. What was Jan doing introducing her as his girlfriend?! But not wanting to cause any tension at the garden party, she said in a pacific voice:
‘Just introduce me as Martina for now, will you?’
Jan’s arm suddenly dropped heavily from her shoulders. He was puzzled for just a moment before that feeling turned into anger, distorting the Bambi face. He inhaled a bit of air, but he forgot to let it out. His stomach tightened, his heart started pumping blood faster and he could feel his hands turn cold.
‘My beer warmed up’, he said looking down at the bottle in his left hand. ‘I’ll go search for another one. Do you want a fresh one too?’. He used the first pretext he could think of to get away from Martina for a few minutes.
‘I’m good, thanks. I’ll just look around this living-room stuff over here.’ she answered, aware that he took the whole discussion a little too seriously and needed some space. Martina realized another woman would have been flattered, but the way Jan turned cold in an instant when she slowed him down made her ponder what might have been behind his exaggerated reaction.
Passing the beer stand, Jan ignored it and rushed straight into the house, stopping only at the other end of the ground floor. With the crowd far out in the backyard, and Martina’s words still resounding in his ear, he felt a rush of adrenaline invading his bloodstream. Breathing heavily, he kicked down one of the few items still inside the house, a silver vase left behind on a coffee table. The vase flew off the table farther than he expected, smashing into the wooden floor. It turned out it was not silver-made but simply silver-looking, and lighter than Jan thought when he thrust all his force upon it. He could have smashed down a wrought iron vase with the force of his hand at that moment. The kick and the sound of the vase smashing on the floor cooled his nerves just a bit before he thought of the hosts and hoped the object wasn’t too valuable.
Ben, his work colleague who had opened the front door earlier, had just stepped in from the back door to look for some grill tongs in the kitchen. He stopped in mid-air spotting Jan in action. He was in charge of the barbecue, but figuring out what just happened with Jan became more important than potentially leaving the party guests without grilled sausages. As he started walking towards him, Jan heard footsteps and turned around. ‘No need to say anything, buddy. The vase stays between us. But what’s going on?’
Jan felt a layer of shame cover up his fuming anger, as he realized Ben witnessed his discharge. He was sorry for having ruined what seemed to be a nice vase. But nobody was sorry for him. He had put on pause his travel plans for that woman, that, that… woman who didn’t even seem to appreciate him calling her his girlfriend. Anger and shame were fighting for the podium in Jan’s head. Anger won like it did most times. That trip had been his escape plan for a couple of years. And now he was at that stupid yard sale, to help other people go on his own desired trip. That ‘round the world trip was supposed to give him the time of his life, a few months of peace and quiet while discovering some of the places everyone in his generation now felt obliged to visit. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu were waiting, dammit. But Martina and her irresistible green eyes had derailed him from his perfect travel plan.
All the women Jan briefly dated for the past couple of years seemed to have derailed him from his perfect travel plan.
They were all cherry-picked for their physical beauty, but he usually forgot to get to know them beyond the first layer of skin. What he didn’t forget was to show them off in front of friends and family, usually too soon. The boost in his confidence that gave him was his drug of choice he was unconsciously taking. The story repeated itself countless times, the women pulled away when they sensed they were being love-bombed too soon. Jan would get blinded by anger, would blame the women and would mention his unfulfilled dream trip plans.
‘What’s going on with you?’, Jan’s friend repeated as Jan was just standing there looking into nowhere, eyes glaring towards the shattered vase.
Coming back into the room from his troubled mind, Jan avoided getting into the details with his friend. He knew what he had to say, as Ben had witnessed some of his other failed attempts to get a girlfriend, and had told him before to slow down. Brushing off the whole smashed vase affair, Jan offered to go help Ben with the barbecue to take his mind off things.
They had to throw in a bit more charcoal and wait a few minutes as the fire was about to go out for being left unattended a little too long. Jan scanned the yard looking for Martina and saw she had found her way into the party, chatting with a group of women, out at the other end. Noticing where he was looking, Jan’s friend took another stab at starting the conversation.
‘She seems really nice, Marta was her name, right?’
‘No, Martina’, Jan returned. ‘She’s Italian’.
‘She is mingling very well considering she doesn’t know anyone around’.
‘Yeah, she’s a real catch. My parents would love her’.
‘And that’s why you were smashing bowls earlier in there? Because she’s such a catch?’, Ben tried to lighten up the atmosphere. His specialty was cracking jokes when his friends started getting into real conversations.
‘It was a vase, not a bowl. Look it’s so frustrating, I cannot understand how to treat a woman so that she’s happy. I introduced her to the host as my girlfriend and she didn’t like that, I think’.
Here we go again. Jan’s friend lost count of how many times he had seen Jan rush things and scare women away. He would strangle the life out of any relationship even before they properly started. And then, confused and disappointed, he would let his anger get the best of him when the women pulled away.
‘I mean, isn’t that what women want? A boyfriend, a relationship. Looove’. Jan said the last word in a deep, Barry White voice, elongating the ‘o’ in a mockery of the very concept he couldn’t really understand.
Ben tried to point out the obvious. You couldn’t force a relationship to happen faster. You couldn’t talk about girlfriends and love every couple of months. You had to give this thing time. But time is all that Jan didn’t have. Instead of fighting back with the usual arguments, Jan spoke in a surprisingly calm tone.
‘You’ve heard about my father, right?’
Ben hadn’t heard anything about Jan’s father and couldn’t see how that, whatever it was, related to the topic.
Jan’s father had cancer. His mother wanted him to be there for the family, and show them he could get a grip on his life, settle down and start a family.
‘You’re a little old to care about what mommy says, aren’t you?’ Bad joke at the bad time, but that was Ben all over again. Brushing off uncomfortable moments by cracking a joke. Jan didn’t seem to hear his friend, and he continued.
When the news dropped in his parents’ house, they immediately changed their routines and priorities to create a proper space for healing. That’s when Jan started having episodes of anger, followed by frantic attempts to find a woman to settle down with. He didn’t have much time left with his father. And he wanted his father to see Jan starting a family. His wish to go around the world suddenly seemed like a trivial whim in the face of cancer. At the same time, it was his wild card up the sleeve. When he felt life start to choke him, he pulled out his wild card and dreamt of setting off far away all alone. His friend Ben was silent now.
Jan was forcing his way into the role of the responsible son. The clock was ticking. Jan needed to find a woman, build his own family and make his father happy. Because happiness pushed back cancer. Or so he had heard. There is a tipping-point moment in life when children become parents for their parents. The whole balance flips and children feel responsible for their creators’ well-being, wishing they had more time with them, desperately realizing that parents are not immortal.
Jan felt grilled by his new life, like the hamburger patty he was pressing between the grill bars and the tongs. His way of coping was anger. He would blow up, smash a vase from time to time, that would cool him off and he would start the cycle all over again. A feeling of impotence surged through his bones, as he thought of his father. Doctors were optimistic. He was stable and had a lust for life, but Jan couldn’t help but think of the moment he’d lose him. Of the moment he’d become an orphan. Becoming an orphan at 32 years old was not in Jan’s life plan.
He kept looking over at Martina from a distance. She was talking with people she had never met, like a butterfly fluttering from flower to flower, throwing in his face how perfect she was. And how much his talkative parents would like her. ‘She’s not shy at all’, they had commented after his last girlfriend had been over for dinner. They preferred when his girlfriends were outspoken, easily following conversation. They would love Martina. The smell of burnt meat reached Jan’s nostrils and he looked down to see he had been pressing the poor patty a bit too long with the tongs, turning the meat into charcoal. He started ungluing it from the grill bars, striving to salvage what could be salvaged of the situation. After he managed to save the patty, broken only into two pieces, he saw another one turning black. You think you’re done salvaging one situation, but then the next one always comes up without a moment of a breather.
Jan dropped the tongs by the grill, leaving the second meat patty to burn. He needed some fresh air to escape the choking feeling. His father was dying. He went straight for the front door, avoiding the crowd in the backyard. His father was dying. A drop of sweat was rolling down on his left temple, despite the cool October day. The yard sale was in full swing.