I had known Jen for six years; we had kept each other company during the loneliest of hours. There was that night in 1993 when Jen got into a fight with her boyfriend, and she and I sat on a merry-go-round, talking about our relationships until dawn. There was that morning when I came across Jen on the front porch of a beach house on Poplar Avenue. Jen was alone, wrapped up in a blanket. And we sat there and we drank and we listened to 100.7.
Jen worked the games on Surfside Pier from 1992 to 1994. She bounced from job to job after that, and eventually she stopped working on the boardwalk altogether. I called Jen after the two of us had lost contact, on Christmas Eve of 1995. Meghan and I had broken up, I informed Jen. I was in Delaware County, nearby. Jen rushed me off the phone, and after that we didn’t speak until the second week in August, 1997. Jen came meandering along the promenade one afternoon. She was holding hands with a boy named Andy. Andy was short and tan, wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a baseball cap. Jen introduced us, before continuing east to visit the water park. She returned alone a few hours later, at which point I agreed to meet her at the Poplar Café after work. Once there, Jen and I drank; we played the jukebox. We decided to leave. We walked through Glenwood Park.
It was Jen’s idea to climb a tree. She helped me up, then we sat cradled by the base. I kept trembling when we kissed, holding onto a nearby branch for balance. There was a gazebo to the right, and – for a moment – I considered leading Jen onto its canopy. We climbed down and wandered west toward my apartment. The following morning Jen made arrangements to stay with me for a few more days.
We avoided any talk of Jen’s relationship, opting instead to drink and dance, then eat at Ernie’s. Jen was a Northeast Philly girl; she had graduated from Archbishop Ryan. I was a product of the suburbs, Cardinal O’Hara. The two of us were skinny, built like coat bags; we had long hair with lemon streaks throughout. Time and again, Jen and I bonded over our lack of communication with our fathers. I was Jen’s mistress, and I felt in control.
Jen left town that Tuesday, but she came back the following weekend. On Saturday night, Jen got plastered and she told me that she and Andy had agreed to see other people. I assumed this was a lie told for our mutual convenience; one of those heresies people justify by saying, “It’s just made matters easier.”
Jen got along with my roommates, and the three of them spent a great deal of time together whenever I was at work. As a result, I became increasingly consumed with the possibility that Lori or Joanna might dissuade Jen from seeing me. Joanna, in particular, had ample reason to see me thwarted. I had acted cruelly toward her throughout that summer, acknowledging her with vitriol on the occasions when I acknowledged her at all.
Jen and I were entering a new phase. We spent our free time at the apartment, or in public places, surrounded by people. Jen remained vigilant, fearful of who might see us on our own. There was sex, but only during pre-dawn hours, when the two of us felt weary and the walls ran dark with sweat. Beyond that, the closest thing Jen and I shared to intimacy amounted to passing notes beneath the bar. I dared not mention Jen to friends we shared in common, and Jen, at large, continued pretending as if I didn’t exist.
It was the bottom third of August now, and each day was passing by with the intensity of weeks. Jen’s late-night calls were arriving less frequently. I would phone Jen from the pier, only to be told that she was out. I knew Jen would be heading back to Shippensburg the first week in September, and I was growing frustrated over this when I came across Gerry Vessels one afternoon.
“Whatta you been up to?” Gerry asked. He was standing along his front porch.
“I’ve kinda been seeing somebody,” I said. “I think it’s somebody you know.”
“Oh, yeah,” Gerry said. “Who’s that?”
“You can’t tell anybody,” I said.
“Who the fuck am I gonna tell?” Gerry asked.
“It’s Jen,” I said. “Y’know, Pier Jen? Jen who used to work up at the Fishy Fish?”
“Hippy Jen?” Gerry said. “Like, Whacky Jen?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s been coming down every now and again.”
“Be careful with that,” Gerry told me. He was shaking his head.
“Be careful with what?”
“Be careful with getting too caught up in the way things were,” Gerry told me. “The two of you are older now. Besides, if I remember correctly, isn’t Jen a little shady?”
“Yeah, but not, like, bad shady, y’know?”
“Didn’t she get fired for stealing?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t get too caught up in it. That’s all I’m sayin’.”
“She’s got a boyfriend,” I muttered.
“A boyfriend?” Gerry blurted. “Dude, what are you thinkin’?”
I had made plans to travel back to Delaware County so I could see Jen before she left for school. Jen had agreed to this, but as the day in question neared, I could not get her on the phone. I traveled to my parent’s house anyway, taking two buses and one train to get there. I had been day drinking, and when I called Jen, she insisted she didn’t have access to a car. I gave Jen the address of a bar where I would be, and she showed up unexpectedly around 9 PM. My demeanor was off-putting. I kept reintroducing Jen to a handful of people whom she had already met. Jen left alone – and unhappy – a few hours later.
Jen was gone now, back at Shippensburg, but I would think of her throughout September, whenever I passed that lazy cigar tree in the park. I’d envision Jen on autumn nights as if she was meandering the promenade – cigarette in-hand, wearing a cable-knit sweater that ran two sizes too big. We had shared this thing that maintained no integrity whatsoever. And it was because of it her sudden absence left a void … some emotional hurt based on having rediscovered each other after so much time, and determining in the end that neither one of us was especially proud of who or what we had become.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB.)