The Constant Variable

Jeanie Keogh

You arrive at Bjorn's going away party dressed in a neon green sequined bustier and pleather shorts with tassels, purposely outrageous for added courage. The bass throbs through concrete as you mount the warehouse stairs. Stopping, you hold onto the wall to steady yourself because your heart—the stupid thing—is staging a furious protest against your plan to win him back before he returns to Berlin in four days.

I know what I'm doing, you tell yourself to calm its beating.

In you go.

You don't look around to see where he is, but you know he can see you. Straddling a djembe, you bang rhythms that are drowned out by the PA system. You start to dance but feel uncoordinated and cumbersome, like a Great Dane in a studio apartment. This was never your crowd.

False start. Retreating, you crawl through the entrance of an egg-shaped dome and fumble around to find pillows free of sprawling bodies. You lie beside a woman who tells you she is marrying her husband-to-be because, despite being fat and unattractive, he can go down on her for a record-breaking 45 minutes without coming up for air. She kisses you and her lips feel like warm Plasticine. It is nice to feel attractive to someone, as he has not made you feel that way for weeks now. When her hand starts to rove, you roll away and out the door. Experimentation isn't on the agenda tonight.

The room is fuller now. More people are standing in lines for the bar, the bathroom and the fire escape to the roof, coats still on, the drugs kicking in. You can't feel where he is anymore and fear the night will swallow both of you and spit you out in the morning without having spoken to each other. Catching him at the right time will take precision and you're losing time. You start to make your rounds stopping at a place where he will be sure to see you.

A woman lying suspended in a hammock wearing enough makeup to pass as a drag queen tells you she likes your costume. One of her false eyelashes is coming unstuck at the corner. Looking at it makes your eyes water so you break her gaze and glance down at her fishnetted thighs. They could pass for Butterball turkeys wrapped in mesh.

“How do you know Bjorn?” she asks.

You sit on the couch next to her and pick at the cushion where a cigarette burn hole has exposed its foam innards.

“We're ... complicated.”

“Oh ... I'm sorry.”

You wonder if she can smell your desperation like your dog smells menstruation. The speakers are buzzing, the volume levels way too high.

She gives your back a motherly rub. You get up and leave without saying anything. You need to settle on a fixed place and stay there for long enough that he is sure to stumble upon you. Become the constant variable. Make him come to you. The dependent variable of whether you will be going with him to Berlin hangs in the air like an invisible piñata.

You get into a claw-foot bathtub filled with pink Styrofoam packing pellets. You suspect he is watching you as you do this, although your faith is waning. A burlesque dancer balancing on a catwalk dips her nipple tassels into a shot glass of lighter fluid and ignites them. She is intimidatingly confident. She twirls the tassels in the air and her flopping breasts are encircled in fire. The crowd cheers. You listen to see if you can distinguish his voice from the other catcalls.

The bottom of the bathtub is cold and makes you think of sitting in a wet bathing suit for too long. Predicting he is getting ready to play a set, you make your way to the DJ table. He is there. You take it as a sign. Hugging him, you recall what it was like to slow dance with a boy at Catholic elementary school—too much space between you and a fear of what might happen if you got closer.

You tell him how happy you are to see him.

In his left pupil you see a miniature version of yourself. Behind him five lines of cocaine are set up beside the turntables. This is the moment where everything can go one way or the other, you think. Your heart is a tiny shrub in winter, wrapped in burlap, choked off at the trunk. He puts the headphones up to his ear and adjusts something on the mixing board.

Watching him concentrate, you begin to feel like an item he crossed off his to-do list before his travel visa expires—pack suitcase, break up with girlfriend, get annihilated at going away party. Your emotional attachment to him is overweight baggage when he only wants carryon. You are a stamp on his sexual passport.

A girl runs up and jumps on him, wrapping her twig-thin legs around his waist in a bear hug. He puts both his hands under her bum to steady her. This, you aren't strong enough for. You go to the bathroom. Thankfully, it is a single stall and you can have a moment of relative peace. Another bathroom similar to this one comes to mind. Your best friend pulled you into it on your twenty-third birthday with a much older man, the three of you squished inside like a photo booth.

“Happy birthday,” she said, pushing you toward the back of the toilet where you faced a white line that looked like detonator powder set up by ants.

You had no idea how to snort it and felt the way you did when your mother first taught you how to swallow a pill, being too old to have them crushed up and mixed with jam. You exhaled by accident, blowing it all around so it had to be re-cut. When you tried again, it shot up into your forehead where it burned like wasabi. The rest of the night you felt dangerously volatile.

You look at your reflection in the mirror. On your forehead there is a big dipper of scars formed by chicken pox when you were little and couldn't resist the novel thrill of picking scabs. There are blackheads on your nose that you could squeeze the living daylights out of. The decision is made: you are not in any emotional condition to give yourself over to a drug that doesn't give a shit about you.

Someone is thumping on the door. You wash your hands and dry them on yourself because the rest of the paper towel roll is on the floor.

Getting your coat, you walk toward the exit. You are scared you have lost him to the night but you must leave, escape while you are ahead of the game. The last thing you see before you make your way out the door is him bending to receive the offering of white bliss from the altar of club culture. Do this for the remembrance of me. The girl who bear-hugged him stands beside him, ready to do the next line.

He looks up at you and gives a small salute that says, See you on the flip side.


Three nights later he comes to your house. His pupils are the size of a pencil lead and he is wearing the same clothes you last saw him in. He hugs you. It is a comedown hug, needy and sweaty. You breathe in the smell of cigarettes that will always remind you of your father. He spells off the drugs he did in no particular order, as if they were items on a grocery list. You hold off reprimanding him, happy you are the one he has temporarily come home to.

A voice from somewhere deep inside you asks him if he went home with someone, prepared only for the answer that dispels your fears.

“Yes, I did.” He says it like he is reporting on the weather.

Proceeding to make him tea, you look for the teapot lid and loose leaf strainer in a cluttered drawer and seek solace in the sound of rattling metal utensils.

“Do you want a big mug or a small one?” You open the cupboard door to block his view of your face, which has started to contort.

“A big one.”

The cup in front of you reads, I don't do Mondays. He got it from the thrift store when you were having a bad day at work and brought it to you on your lunch hour. You hide it at the back behind another mug. You wait to hear the coils of the kettle come to a boil, so that when you emerge from the cupboard you will have something to do.

“Did you sleep with her?” You choose two generic mugs. White. IKEA.

“What does it matter now?” Technically, he's right.

“What was it like?” The water has boiled. Steam billows into your face as you pour.

“If you really want to know, it was good.”

A bread tag lays on the counter. March 16—still good for another week, when he will be back in Berlin, resuming his life there. A month ago he brought up the idea of you going with him, describing the best neighbourhood to live in. You bought a German-English dictionary in anticipation and Googled Nachbarschaft.

You wonder if his pillow talk was original, if he protected you from her scrutiny, assuming she was curious.

“Did you tell her about me?”

“You didn't come up as a topic for discussion.” The hint of a grin forms on his lips.

What you don't discuss is that a week ago he told you he wasn't turned on anymore because he couldn't make you come like he could his other girlfriends. You hated him for not working harder to figure out how you work. The challenge to please you was too great and he wasn't interested, preferred someone who didn't have complex sexual issues, who loved everything he did. He said that when climaxing you were too private, despite how vocal, despite the neck nibbles, each punctuating the series of 'I love yous' you whispered.

The dog puts his head on your lap, his eyes shifting back and forth from your eyes to the remains of breakfast on the table. He opens his mouth and pants. If only relationships were as straightforward as this one—one creature begging and the other conceding.

“You should try to get over your jealousy of other women. It makes you less attractive.” He brings the cup to his mouth and blows on it, gently.

Trying to maintain the composure of a politician through the rage, your hand betrays you and starts to shake, spilling the contents of the tea and scalding your hand.

Without realizing it, you have started to yell.

“The only reason you do this open relationship shit is because you get off on the chauvinist idea of many women fighting over you. Are you so weak that the love of one woman is not enough? My love is NOT a fucking SOUVENIR.”

“I don't need to listen to this.”

He is pre-emptively on his way to the door.

Let him leave, you think, he'll come back. He'll probably just go outside for a cigarette.

The door clicks shut and the lonely silence creates a fear he won't return.

Running out of the house in stocking feet, you latch onto his arm, feeling the fresh rainfall wet your socks. You are breathless, hoarse, not sure what to say.

“Wait. I'm sorry. Stay.”

He shoves himself away, holding you at bay with one hand and opening the front gate with the other. It swings shut between you.

“What about Berlin?”

“There is no Berlin. It's over.”

Lifting your mug over your head, you smash it down and the murky tea mixes with the puddles on the sidewalk.

“Control yourself,” he says.

“Control myself,” you mock, “You are so fucking German.”

His German-ness used to be a loving generalization you made about his culture when he was being overly precise.

“Calm down.” His voice is patronizing.

“Easy for you to say. You aren't in love with me. You never have been.”

“Tell yourself whatever you want.”

He walks away. Suddenly laughing, you follow him with a self-destructive desire to do something crazy.

“Thank-you for being a complete waste of my time.”

He walks more quickly and you reach out to grab him. He runs and you try to keep up, your fingers straining to catch his flapping jacket, skimming it. You trip and fall, the heel of his sneaker grazing your chin on the way down. Smacking the pavement with your hand, you scream in defeat. He keeps going without looking back. You lie in the middle of the road, the painted yellow line the only horizon.

A neighbour you have never spoken to comes out of his co-op and asks if you are okay. Staring at his shoes, you mumble an apology for disturbing him. He takes his hand out of his pocket and helps you up and off the road. His eyes are soft. You feel exposed, as if in front of a paramedic after an accident, vulnerable and shaken. It is on the tip of your tongue to ask him: What does heartbreak drive you to do?

Instead you say, “I'm not usually like this,” needing to re-establish an impression of normalcy you hope he has shaped from the times he has seen you bring your groceries home, walk the dog, get the mail.

“I know.”

You pick up the large shards of your mug and carry them inside. The smaller ones you will sweep up tomorrow.

His tea is on the table, half drunk and still warm. Your heart begins to calm. You listen to it beating. Let go. Let it go. Let him go, it tells you. 

Jeanie Keogh is a Vancouver-based writer. Her short stories have been published in FreeFall (“Out of True”) and The Puritan (“Now and Then”). Her play Baby Making was produced at both Geordie Theatre in Montreal and Harbourfront Centre in Toronto by SummerWorks Theatre Festival. She is a recent graduate of Humber College's School for Writers. "The Constant Variable" was the honourable mention in Room's 2011 creative non-fiction contest.

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