A work of fiction, inspired by the deeply affecting music of Neutral Milk Hotel, where an alluring future flashes all too briefly before one couple’s eyes…
by: Samantha Kathryn O’Brien
Jeffrey is readying himself for bed. After brushing, flossing, and applying his medicated acne cream, he’s now laying flat on his mattress, attempting to wriggle into his Buzz Lightyear boxer briefs with as minimal exertion as possible. A podcast about human cloning lingers on the queue. When the phone rings, Jeffrey jumps, grabbing a bed sheet to conceal his skinny, freckled midsection, like an adolescent caught in the act of self-service. It is a number he doesn’t recognize, which isn’t saying much as he is generally bad at saving contacts to his phone, relying on the continuation of long text message threads to keep in touch with his trusted few. He swipes the unlock screen and clutches a trembling palm to his ear.
“I’m coming over,” a voice informs.
The voice registers as vaguely familiar to some remote compartment of Jeffrey’s brain.
“Isabel?” he croaks out stupidly.
“Yes Jeffrey, it is I. I’m walking across the lawn right now. I’ll be there in fifteen seconds. Ten. Five.”
Jeffrey opens his mouth and then clamps it shut again.
“I’m outside your room. Get your hand out of your pants and make yourself decent,” Isabel commands, her voice echoing eerily from the other side of the door. She hangs up and Jeffrey begins groping around in the dark dutifully for a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
Standing up to the likes of women has never been something that Jeffrey has believed himself to be particularly equipped for. Quite the contrary, if growing up with three boisterous sisters has taught Jeffrey anything, it has been how to be submissive, how to nod vigorously with his eyes trained to the floor any time he sensed conflict brewing, how to shut his bedroom door and throw on his noise-cancelling headphones, prepared to ride out the next menstrual cycle or two to the sounds of Neutral Milk Hotel.
Flicking on the light switch, he catches a glance of himself in the floor length mirror, just enough to confirm that his jeans are zipped, his shirt isn’t on inside out, before pirouetting on his heels, and swinging open the door. Here stands Isabel, decked in a floor length fluffy pink bathrobe, hair tied up in a magenta towel wrap. He barely recognizes her with her face washed bare of makeup. Yet her objectively plain features are illuminated by an odd expression of amusement, her eyes twinkling and hand lodged in the crevice between her torso and her hip. Jeffrey is aware that he is staring at her, aware that he should probably say something, but his tongue has taken on the quality of cotton. He finds himself feeling absurdly self-conscious of his Rick and Morty t-shirt, chosen in haste, as if his outfit were somehow more alarming than hers.
“We need to go somewhere,” she says, apparently unfazed by Jeffrey’s bewilderment. “Somewhere off-campus. Preferably McDonald’s, although I’m open to negotiation. And no, before you suggest it, it can’t wait till tomorrow. I recall you having a car?”
Jeffrey blinks. “A car. Yes.”
“Excellent.” She flashes her teeth dangerously.
In direct spite of Jeffrey’s better judgment, his rudimentary self-preservation instincts, he complies. Shimming into a windbreaker and grabbing his keys from off the night table, Jeffrey scuttles out the door to catch up with Isabel, who has already made her way halfway across the hall.
Isabel, it should be noted, is not Jeffrey’s girlfriend. Their relationship thus far has been confined to three happenstance sexual encounters, enabled by the social lubricants of alcohol and dark rooms filled with sticky, thrashing bodies. What Jeffrey knows about Isabel can be reduced to a handful of embodied facts. She has tiny firm breasts, full thighs, and a long mane of curly brown hair that manages to be everywhere all the time. She has big brown eyes that are always open, unblinking, during sex. She smells earthy, like a wood stove or a cabin in Maine. What he does not know about Isabel is just about everything else.
They exit his dorm and locate Jeffrey’s car parked on the edge of the Freshman Green. As they are about to step in, Jeffrey pauses and shakes his head.
“I’m sorry. What the hell is this about?”
Isabel makes a little clucking noise with the back of her throat. “Patience, patience, dear Jeffrey.”
Jeffrey fixates his eyes on the yellow lines as he motors his way down the winding country roads. In his periphery, Isabel sinks into her chair and props her legs up on the glove compartment. The feeling of having inexplicably done wrong, slithering around in his gut, is not unfamiliar. It brings to mind the sound of his mother and his sisters shouting, women angry for reasons that were never entirely clear. It recalls his mother’s brief Jesus phase, where she forced Jeffrey and his sisters to sit through penance, the sheer terror, as he wracked his brain prior for something to confess to. It wasn’t that he thought himself pure or incapable of wrongdoing, quite the opposite, it was that he found it impossible to predict the infinite ways he could and inevitably would, fuck up.
The glowing, golden arches catch his eye and he pulls in. As they exit the car and begin walking in silence, he gets into a momentary debate with himself as to what to do with his hands, trying at first his pockets, then clamping them into a single fist, before resolving just to let them hang limply at his sides. Isabel, conversely, seems perfectly at ease, strutting ahead through the McDonald’s door, her fluffy pink bathrobe trailing behind her.
“I’ll grab a booth. You get our food. French fries and a vanilla milkshake, extra BBQ sauce. Please and thank you.”
Standing up to the likes of women has never been his forte, but Jeffrey could hardly deny there was a strange comfort to it all, letting someone else run the show. Making his way up to the counter, he is relieved to find that the employee looks unfazed by, if not wholly disinterested in, the sight of the odd-looking pair. Jeffrey places their order and their food instantly appears, seemingly by miracle. He retrieves the tray and spots Isabel in a booth on the other end of the room. Thankfully, she has removed the towel wrap from her head and is now folding her wet hair into two thick braids, her brow furrowed. Unaware of Jeffrey’s gaze, it is as though she has momentarily bared herself naked, she appears to Jeffrey frightened and pensive, a little girl.
Jeffrey sets the tray down on the table and clears his throat in a clumsy attempt to make himself known to her. She straightens, her smirk returning, and without a word, rummages through the fries. He remains standing for a second, as if waiting for permission to sit, until hastily resolving to slide into the seat across from her. He realizes he has forgotten to order food for himself.
She glances up at him, “Well you’re awfully quiet tonight, aren’t you? Late night playing Settlers of Catan with Kyle and Ricky?” she goads.
Jeffrey is startled to hear her toss out the names of his two best friends and their favorite pastime with such blasé familiarity. His surprise must have shown because she continues, “What? I do this weird thing where I like to make a habit of remembering basic facts about the people I get naked for.”
Jeffrey coughs. The silence hangs inelegantly between them yet Isabel is far too engrossed in her fries to notice.
“I do love McDonald’s at 1 am,” Isabel says mid-chew, looking oddly dignified, despite BBQ sauce pooling at the corner of her lips. “It’s the only place on earth where you’re bound to find people looking and feeling more pitiful than yourself.”
Jeffrey surprises himself, letting out a low chuckle. “Well, we’ve really exceeded a low bar,” he says, gesturing to the scattering of emaciated heroin addicts lumbering about, slurping up zero calorie soda and staring off into space vegetatively. Isabel lets out a throaty cackle, baring a mouth full of fries.
Jeffrey watches with something akin to admiration as Isabel plows through her food at light-speed, one fry right after the other.
“Okay,” she says finally.
“Okay, as in, okay, time to get down to business.” Isabel swallows her last fry and meets Jeffrey’s eyes while cracking an attempt at a small, mischievous grin. His slithering gut-feeling returns. He had been content to just watch her eat her fries in silence, return home, and climb into his dorm bed, unmade and waiting for him.
Isabel rifles through her bathrobe pocket and removes a plastic bag, placing it on the table. Inside of the bag are three white plastic sticks. On each, a tiny red plus sign. Jeffrey looks up, to find that her face has gone blank.
The world goes blurry for a moment and he steadies his temple on the tops of his knuckles. He takes a deep breath and then raises his head slightly.
“Mine?” he manages.
The corner of her mouth turns upward back into a smirk. Which should seem out of place given the circumstance, yet for some reason, appears to Jeffrey as a strange, profound comfort.
“No, not yours, one of the other half-dozen guys I’ve been shagging,” she says, snickering into her milkshake. “I just brought you out here because I wanted a free meal. Also because you really struck me as the kind of guy who’d be a profound source of comfort during my time of emotional duress.”
Jeffrey scours his brain for a line, some sort of cultural script as to what respectable fathers-of-unexpected children say in such moments, when over the restaurant speakers crackles the opening chords to “Two-Headed Boy” by Neutral Milk Hotel. He feels suddenly as if he is of two selves. There is the self, sat on the stiff and unyielding wooden bench in a McDonalds in Western Massachusetts, the year twenty-nineteen, and confronted with one of life’s rare moments that determines that sort of person you are going to be, the sort of person you are, versus the self that is tucked in some space small and safe and eternal — under his cool of his bed sheets or beneath the hood of his car, where no one can find him. He closes his eyes and lets Jeff Mangum’s granular voice wash over him.
Before he can stop himself, he is regurgitating something he once learned in a podcast about Neutral Milk Hotel. They’d only recorded two albums in their entire musical career, one in 1996 and the other in 1998, and despite the immediate success these albums achieved and the cult following they soon acquired, the band went on indefinite hiatus shortly after. When asked to comment, they cited vague reasons such as mental health, but otherwise avoided speaking about it. Even during the brief period when they were active, they’d shied from the public eye, avoiding interviews and publicity, and when they did tour, their members wore masks or costumes, heightening the cult of secrecy surrounding the group. And still, or perhaps because of this, their cult following only grew as they, the object of the obsession, shrunk from the public eye. Many fans felt angry or shirked, claiming that Magnum was being selfish, going as far as to demand that the band produce more music. Yet by this point, the band had all but disappeared, as if it had never even happened. For Jeffrey, it is particularly strange being born in ‘99 and therefore among the generation of people who never lived in a world in which Neutral Milk Hotel was producing and recording albums.
“It’s like being emotionally invested in a phantom, a specter, something that may or may not have existed,” says Isabel, more or less completing his thought.
Jeffrey looks up at her, startled.
She shrugs. “You’ve given me this spiel before, at least the last two times you’ve gotten me into bed.”
She’s smirking in her way, yet Jeffrey detects a trace of hurt in her eyes, one that he will spend the nights to come wondering if he’d imagined.
Isabel sucks up her last drop of milkshake and slams it down on the table for emphasis.
“Okay, she says decisively.
“Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do.”
“Yes. Please. Go,” he breathes, the mere suggestion of a pre-formulated plan having close to an intoxicating effect on him.
“Okay,” she pauses, her eyes boring into his, unblinking, “We have a shotgun wedding.”
“It’s only way to avoid the all-mighty hand of social stigma clamping down on us for the rest of eternity, of course.”
“Preferably sooner rather than later, though — ideally before I start showing. Don’t wanna give the people any reason to suspect that our sweet Matilda over here is,” she pauses, cupping her hand around her mouth, “a bastard child.”
“Right — wait, Matilda, really?”
“But even if they do, hopefully within three to five years I will be able to show my face in public and get the red “letter A” branded on my forehead surgically removed.”
“One can only hope.”
“And at the end of the day, a loveless marriage isn’t the worst thing in the world. My parents did it, their parents did it, it’s a tale as old as time, really.”
“And then, you know, we start a family, you, me and sweet Matilda,” she pauses, patting her stomach, “It’s not ideal, but I think we can make it work.”
“You’re literally insane.”
She grins, big and toothy. “Since I, too, happen to be a big fan of the great Neutral Milk Hotel, I take it as a sign that you and I are destined for a lifetime of happiness.”
They’re both grinning now, conspiratorially.
“I’m ready to get out of here if you are,” she says, finally.
He isn’t ready, exactly. Remaining true to form, however, he agrees.
Jeffrey and Isabel make their way back to the rusty old Volkswagen awaiting them beneath the artificial lighting of the golden arches. They let the silence hang over them, a different sort of silence than before. It’s liquid and swimmable, from one moment to the next.
They get into the car and Jeffrey hooks his iPhone up to aux cord, thumbing through his iTunes until he lands on On Avery Island, his favorite Neutral album. He glances over at Isabel whose grinning. She rolls her eyes playfully in response.
They drive for a while through their quiet.
“You know I’m going to end the pregnancy, right Jeffrey?” Isabel says suddenly.
“I had assumed,” Jeffrey manages after a pause.
Quietness envelops the case and they both staring off blankly into the night.
Jeffrey isn’t sad. He doesn’t really feel anything. If anything, he feels numb, as if some sort of viscous fluid is oozing out through his extremities. He is enveloped by a white noise, drowning out both hers and the voice of Jeff Mangum.
In his periphery, Isabel suddenly looks so small and far away and he has an unspeakable impulse to reach out and run the back of his hand across her ivory cheeks, her puckered lips. He realizes he doesn’t remember what it felt like to kiss her. He wonders if this was a sensation that he had ever truly experienced.
And just like that, they are in front of Isabel’s dorm. Jeffrey turns the car off, unbuckles his seatbelt, and pivots to face her. He feels paralyzed by a thousand different, contradictory urges, pulsing through his body and pulling him in countless different directions. He finds words.
“So you know, I’m happy to take you to your appointment. Or whatever — whatever you need, I can be there.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Jeffrey,” she says. She isn’t cold, just far away, as if at some point she’d slipped beneath a surface of water, a sheen of liquid across her eyes. “I’m used to handling my lady business on my own,” she quips, making air quotes, her voice trembling ever so slightly.
She begins to gather herself, unbuckling and removing herself from the vehicle. Jeffrey is struck by an unspeakable sense of loss for something he realizes he never had. She turns to face Jeffrey one last time, pauses, and then nods.
Jeffrey sits with the car off for another ten minutes, staring at the spot that once was Isabel.
Samantha Kathryn O’Brien is an emerging writer based in New York and a recent graduate from the Creative Writing MSc at the University of Edinburgh. Her work can be found in The Los Angeles Review, Tidal Echoes, and From Arthur’s Seat and she is a current finalist for the New American Fiction Prize.