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Madame Bovary, it's me

Arts & Humanities


By Kristopher Jansma '06SOA |Summer 2014

A. Orama

SOn Saturday morning we race down the steps to the 50th Street C / E train. We scurry through a half-lit corridor and come to the turnstiles. With a practiced movement, Susan tucks her book under her left arm, removes the MetroCard that marked its place on page 338, and crosses it out neatly. My own card is slightly creased along the magnetic stripe and needs to be swiped one more time, and one more swipe, and as I desperately try to downsize it, Susan pulls her dark blue skirt down where it slipped up and yells for it can hear the train coming and while the people behind me crowd to my left and right I paint one more time and pray to the MTA gods that it please work and then, miraculously, I am let through. We whiz past dawdling children and avoid a guy playing a full steel drum because the train has arrived and the doors are closing, but Susan rushes forward in her flip-flops and rams an elbow between the closing panels protesting and then brooding open up again when we all squeak, just as the doors slam angrily and the whole thing starts to move.

The car is tightly packed, but Susan skillfully meanders between the sweaty tourists and locals to a vacant spot. She is sandwiched between an obese, snoring man and a little girl who instills apple juice on herself. Everyone silently adjusts their pockets, hair, and elbows to accommodate us. Susan opens her book and starts reading. She knows her limits well. People around her have to believe that she is yogic in her calm, but I can see exactly where her jaw is clenched. You think she wears navy skirts and the eyeshadow and tortoiseshell glasses all the time, but I know it's all just for today. Just for the show. She begins to scan the last fifty pages of her book and I grab the rod and hold it.

We're late to the book club. More accurate, you is late for the book club. It's a girls-only book club, and while she's talking about Flaubert, drinking specially selected Normandy wines and eating melting moldy cheese, I'll be in the next room with the husbands and friends pretending to understand their rules about darts , Drink bud lights with limes and pretend you know the Yankees. Most of the time I hover near the doorway to catch snippets of discussion from the kitchen. None of the other boys disturb this exile. They never read (nor could they be made to endure through physical torture) Madame Bovary that I kept stealing from Susan at night and during her long phone calls with her mother and when she went to the toilet. Which I finished four days ago and waited to discuss them. Susan doesn't want her opinion to be influenced or infected by mine until after the book club (or preferably at all).

I put my headphones on and tune in to some old Green Day when I see a girl on the platform on 42nd Street. The doors open and tourists flock away as the girl squeezes past me. An electric-yellow-black-checked dress. Brown hair is neatly parted into braids. Those leggings that everyone seems to be wearing now.

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She grabs the counter in front of me and pulls a book out of her bag. Don DeLillo. White noise . In hardcover, with those weird, unevenly cut margins that I hate and Susan loves. Did she buy it used? From the beach, perhaps, or from a random stoop sale. Unless she might have a literary parent or older sibling. Unless she might have stolen it from a friend's bookcase, no, maybe a one night stand - a guy with a bookcase made of wooden planks and cinder blocks. Or milk boxes. Overgrown spider plants that serve as bookends. Several John Irvings, this first Richard Ford, some picked up Tom Wolfes. A not-yet-dead, white-male-heavy bookshelf. Perhaps justification for stealing the book. At the moment I wish that she could see my shelf - our shelf - with its deliberately diverse selection. Susan's book club classic, balanced by my NYRBs and Europa Editions. With a few African writers, and not just the obvious ones. She wouldn't steal a book off this shelf is all I say.

She has something familiar. A couple of years younger than me. Enough to rule out the possibility that she is an old classmate or a friend's ex-roommate. She reads the first chapter (my favorite part of the whole book, I want to tell her) and regularly lets 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 am sure that I have never seen them before because I am sure that I would remember these stars. My eyes keep wandering back to them. I try to stare up at the whiskey ads that repeat upstairs in the car.

Star-Wrist Girl isn't the prettiest girl in the car. On the other side of the bench is a blond man in a white summer dress. And there's Susan beating the rest by a mile. She wants me to say that she looks the same as she did when we met at a friend's farewell party five years ago. But the truth is, those years did a great service to the girl who nervously dug pieces of tomato out of the guacamole with the edge of a chip. Now I'm the nervous one and she seems sure of everything. It hurts the way she now reads the last few pages angrily, her face firm and determined. Star-Wrist Girl - she really needs a name - maybe Donna or a Zoë? Alex? Alex reads more shyly. Jump back a line or two; sometimes jump forward. She gets to the second page of the first chapter, where the narrator first mentions that he is the head of the Hitler studies department at the college he works at, and gives a rough chuckle at the same time. I smile and wish she would notice.

The Green Day song ends and a techno version of La Bamba follows. Why did I download this? It has to be stopped. But just as I pull out my iPhone, she looks at me. Laterally. No eye contact. But definitely with me. I'm worried she might get the wrong impression of my pink Ralph Lauren polo shirt and Madras shorts. I want to tell her that I'm in disguise. I'm going underground to a room full of guys and darts and bad beer! I usually wear tight jeans and carefree, slightly wrinkled button-down shirts! The La Bamba is unbearable, so I pull out my iPhone and quickly mix the music into something - anything - other.

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A. Orama

And the shuffle gods smile at me. Just Lennon. I gently angle the tiny screen so Alex can see John and Yoko kiss in black and white. And Alex seems to be smiling out of the right corner of his mouth, just before turning the page. The relief I feel is incredible. Yuppie showers don't listen to vintage Lennon. No, this is a's iPhone Connoisseur - someone who, yes, has a nice phone, but also collects records and hangs yellowed 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 top notch pieces from her over the years that take up a lot of wall space.

Alex picks up her book to turn the page again, and this time I'm doing a little show to notice the cover. I smile widely, which suggests I know the book well. She smiles back. We do all of this without ever looking each other in the eye.

I suddenly wished I had something to read - the stories of Kenzaburō Ōe that I left in the bathroom, or the poems of Juana Inés de la Cruz that are in my other pocket ... and then I remember Susan one New-Yorker curled up in her purse. I could bend down and ask her to do it. But not me. Because I don't want to bother you? Or because I don't want Alex to see we're together? A muddy guilt overtakes me. What exactly am I doing here? We slide into 34th Street Station and there is quite a crowd, but luckily Alex stays right next to me.

In the novel, Madame Bovary lets herself be seduced in a carriage - an affair that drives her to suicide and later brings Flaubert into great trouble with obscenity trials. Adultery never seems to end well in fiction. Nabokov called it the most conventional way to rise above the conventional. But it's not that I really want to grab this Alex and kiss her. I don't think we'll rush off the train together. No. To be honest, I don't feel like talking to her. All I want - and I realize that is horrible, but I just want her I find it interesting .

The train brakes sharply as it pulls into 23rd Street, and that makes Alex crash into me. Without making eye contact, I silently apologize. She accepts without a word. We straighten up again. I wonder which stop she will get off at. Is she tied to 14th Street like us? Or is she a Brooklynite? Maybe just returning home after a night on the Upper West Side with the bookshelf guy? They met yesterday evening and everyone snuck into Isabelle Huppert's retrospective in the Filmforum. Then there was pancakes in the Hudson Diner. After some not very big sex. Fingers still sticky 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 drive home. Something to keep her from having to decide whether or not to reply to his messages in two or three days. She currently thinks she won't, but she knows that based on her previous experience, she has a 50 percent chance of changing her mind.

John Lennon pauses and I desperately skip a number of others, embarrassed to feel their eyes slide to my screen. Belle and Sebastian? Too obvious. Deftones? Too Gothic. The Greys Anatomy Soundtrack? (She chuckles) Humble mouse? I can't remember if they're cool or not anymore. I think I see her eyes roll Finally I settle down, yeah! A Nirvana demo track. I feel Alex's mute approval as she turns the page to scan the back of the book - she may be wondering where it is going. Where is it going

We're approaching 14th Street and I hope Alex will get off with us. Perhaps she lives with three other girls in a poorly lit apartment where the stovetops don't work and the toilets keep clogging. She doesn't cook, but she eats a lot of raw vegetables. No. She is a mad meat eater. She watches a lot of TV but generally feels bad about it. She once used oil paints, but they got expensive. Her roommate's bulldog pup is currently chewing on her other pair of converses.

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The train is slowing as we pull into 14th Street, and I see Susan hurtling through her last side as we have to get off now. The Bud Light is waiting for me. Susan reaches the last line and triumphantly closes the book. The little clap makes Alex look down. She starts twisting her wrists again. Suddenly I wonder if maybe I misunderstood them. She's a temp data processor down in the financial district. She was called over the weekend to type numbers into an Excel spreadsheet. She dressed up from brunch with her mother. Alex makes no move to put her book down, and I can tell she is not getting out. I know I'll never find out - not where she gets off, not where she comes from. Not if she likes the book and not if her wrists are okay. Not even her name. Alex suddenly feels wrong. Suddenly she seems a lot more Katherine or Casey.

Susan gets up and makes her way to the door. Without thinking I put my arm around her and kiss her forehead. She turns away thinking she's a sweaty mess, but my thoughts are on Alex / not-Alex. She can see me out of the corner of her eye and I want 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 carriage. As the doors open, I can already imagine her telling her roommates about this guy she spied on on the train. About his surprising taste in music. About how he seemed to know what she was reading. About his girlfriend who had read Madame Bovary right there all the time.

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