13

“You want to know if he raped me?” Jess lounged in the ergonomic computer chair, wearing a comfortable black dress and a red cardigan. Her yoga-toned body was no longer crumpled in a heap of anxiety, held upright by poised confidence. She was wearing headphones over a platinum blonde bob that shaped her bemused face. Jess observed the host, relishing the palpable anticipation. Keith Dewey’s podcast had become more popular than his stand up act, Jess wondered if it had something to do with the fact that he looked like someone stretched out Roger Daltry, left him in the microwave too long and tried to cover up their mistakes with a bushy beard and a beer gut.

“I think we all want to know that…” Replied Keith, clasping his hands together on the desk and leaning forward toward the microphone, mocking sensitive. Jess could see through the fake concern. He just wanted the juicy details like everyone else. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in through her nose.

“No.” Jess said, opening her green eyes and meeting his blue. “Everything that happened was consensual. I was a willing participant in all of it.”

“What? Really?” Keith did little to hide the disappointment in his voice. “But you said on YouTube last year…” Jess put her hand over his as he was about to pull up a video on the computer screen in front of him.

“Listen… It was an awkward sexual experience. Plenty of people have them and move on with their lives. Do you want to know what proved to me that it wasn’t sexual assault? I went into an anonynous chat room for rape victims. I will not diminish the pain they went through by claiming this kinda weird experience was anything like that. I am not a victim… Not anymore.” Jess raised her chin in defiance of Keith’s slack-jawed disbelief.

“Wait a second, you said he was pretending to be someone else when you had sex…” Keith pointed to a highlighted paragraph in the print-out of Jess’s introductory email. Jess rolled her eyes and sighed.

“I should start from the beginning…” Jess took a copy of her novel out of her bag and placed it on the desk in front of her. Her fingertips traced the fancy gold embossed script of the title “Fangirl” inside a red heart on a powder blue background. “Do you read any fan fiction, Keith?”

“Pssht! No! What even is that?” Keith wasn’t fooling anyone, but Jess played along.

“Well, if you don’t know, fan fiction is when nerds like me take the intellectual property of others and make up new story lines, sometimes intersecting universes and often involving pornographic fantasy.” Jess stated, sipping her green tea from a blue mug.

“I’m listening…” Keith said, leaning forward again.

“A few years ago, I wrote some fan fiction. I was going through a lot at the time and it was a way for me to work out my issues. I posted this story under a fake name and tried to forget about it. I never expected anyone to figure out it was me.” Jess said, looking at her tea.

“Ah, bullshit! Why did you put it online if you didn’t want to be found out?” Keith raised an incredulous eyebrow at Jess. His half-smile put her at ease.

“I suppose you’re right about that. I think the lies we tell ourselves are the easiest to believe.” Jess smiled back.

“Fair enough. Continue…”

“Ahem… A few years later, I needed a new creative outlet, so I decided to try stand up comedy. I took a workshop taught by a handsome older comedian named Bill…”

“Ooh, hot for teacher are ya?” Keith’s lascivious grin made Jess roll her eyes again, but she indulged his interest.

“I doubt I’m the only woman who wants to be given a good, hard detention every once in a while.”

“You know, I teach a workshop…”

“Ew, Keith. I think of you more as an uncle… And you’re gonna want to hear the rest of the story.” Jess put her tea down and clasped her hands over her book.

“Okay, okay I’m focused!” Keith struggled to contain his excitement.

“It was bad timing. I was still in a deteriorating relationship and I wish I had had the courage to break it off before expressing interest in anyone else. When I went over Bill’s house, I wasn’t aware that I intended to ruin my relationship.” Jess’s cheeks were glowing red in embarrassment.

“What happened when you went over there? Did you go down on him?” Keith’s glee oozed across the desk at Jess.

“No, he went up on me.” Jess deadpanned.

“What?”

“The details aren’t important. There’s plenty of masturbatory fuel in the book.” Jess cleared her throat at the look of frustrated disappointment on Keith’s face. “Two weeks after that my boyfriend of four years broke up with me… He didn’t find out about Bill, Danny just couldn’t handle the fact that I didn’t believe he was psychic.” Jess delivered, impassive. Keith burst out laughing at what he thought was a joke.

“Wait, you’re serious?” Keith asked.

“As a heart attack. At that point, I was glad to see it end. I thought Bill would be happy I was available…”

“Lemme guess, he wasn’t thrilled that you broke up with your boyfriend for him?” Keith’s skeptical smirk stiffened Jess’s posture.

“Danny broke up with me because I refused to accept his version of reality… The irony of what happened next is not lost on me.” Jess’s jaw was tight. Keith relaxed back in his chair, hands laced behind his head.

“Go on…” Keith languished in the oblique silence before Jess spoke.

“I was painfully alone, living by myself for the first time in my life… I just needed someone to talk to… So I started looking at Drake’s List…” Jess paused, expecting the outburst of excitement.

“Yes! Here’s where we get to the good stuff!” Keith said, bouncing in his chair.

“You’re familiar with Drake’s List?” Jess asked, smiling at Keith’s proclivity for deviance.

“Yeah, I know it’s a website where you can sell a bike… or some pussy.” He bared his tobacco stained teeth at Jess, grinning in expectation of a salacious revelation.

“Hmm. I never thought to charge. Before I met Danny, I used Drake’s List for anonymous sex.” Jess maintained her poise in contrast to the slobbering beast Keith was becoming in front of her.

“So you ditched the boyfriend and started hooking up with random dudes on Drake’s list… I like where this is going.” Keith was barely sitting in his chair, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Not really… I only started looking at Drake’s List again after I saw it in Danny’s search history… A year before we broke up… And six months after my dad died.” The seriousness on Jess’s face seemed to deflate Keith’s excitement. “Dad had problems… I loved him, but we hadn’t spoken in years. Danny didn’t know how to handle my grief and he had some Daddy issues of his own.”

“Oh… That sucks. Why would a guy cheat on a hot little number like you with some skanky chick from Drake’s List?” Keith’s confusion seemed genuine.

“First of all, thank you…” Jess smiled at the complement despite her complete physical aversion to him. “Second, not every woman who likes anonymous sex is a ‘skank’… And third, it was a guy.” Jess giggled through her nose as Keith spit out his coffee.

“Your ex-boyfriend was gay?” Keith said, delighted by this juicy tidbit.

“I don’t think he ever was. I think some folks try out gay sex and decide they like straight sex better…” Jess’s matter-of-fact tone seemed to placate Keith’s giddiness. “I said I forgave him and we just kinda moved on without talking about it anymore. I should have broken it off… But then I met Bill…”

“That’s when you decided to get a little revenge, huh?” Keith’s knowing expression made Jess uncomfortable, but her face remained firm.

“I told myself it wasn’t about that… I didn’t want to hurt Danny… I was just walking around with all of these open emotional wounds and I was desperate for someone to save me…” The reality of these words settled over Jess as they came out of her mouth.

“…And you went to Drake’s List for help?” Keith stated, incredulous. Jess didn’t blame him.

“It wasn’t on purpose. I got a little obsessed with looking through the ads, trying to catch Danny cheating again… Which can be a rather addictive thrill by itself…” Jess’s cheeks were pink again.

“Hey, who doesn’t love a good cheater catch, am I right?” Keith was leaning back in his chair again, enjoying himself.

“I don’t think I really wanted to catch him. It didn’t matter anyway. Danny watched one too many YouTube videos, suddenly discovered he was psychic and that he couldn’t be with someone who didn’t believe he was talking to his dead grandmother. I’m an atheist. You can’t make a cucumber out of a pickle.”

“Your ex is an idiot.” Keith said, full of disdain.

“Danny is intelligent, he just has a lot of growing up to do. It was over before it was over. Unfortunately, I was left with this pathetic habit of checking the personals, wondering who was behind the screen.”

“I think ya dodged a bullet there, kid.” Keith gave her an avuncular nod. Jess returned it with a prim smile.

“Yeah, it would have been smart to take a break from relationships and figure some stuff out… If not for those pesky lingering feelings for Bill. On the surface, he started to push me away… I can’t really blame him, I was acting codependent as hell.”

“Love is a drug best served cold…” Keith delivered in a gravelly, philosophical tone.

“I could have handled outright rejection, but it was more complicated than that.” Jess sipped her tea and took another deep breath. “I started to notice some strange correlations between the ads I was seeing in the ‘Missed Connections’ section of Drake’s List and Bill’s social media posts. It was starting to look like he was posting ads to get my attention. I hadn’t told anyone that I even looked at the personals… it was my dirty little secret… I guess I was in denial that I had been found out.”

“So this guy was posting anonymous ads to mess with your head? How did you know it was him?” A slight skeptical gleam appeared in Keith’s eyes. Jess’s eyes narrowed at him.

“Come on, Keith. I know you’ve been to plenty of open mics where all the male comic’s bits are thinly veiled references to how they want to fuck the one chick comic.” Jess responded.

“Hey, I don’t veil shit, I’ll come right out and tell ya I wanna fuck ya!” Keith guffawed at his own joke. Jess rolled her eyes and smiled.

“Let’s see if I can change that opinion with the rest of this story… It was a lot like an open mic where I feel eyes all over me when all I want are ears for my words… Just online. The ads had references to his posts and vice versa. I would see Bill at open mics in real life and he would make references to the ads in his jokes, right in front of me. It was getting a little weird. When the ads started to have references to where I had been that day, I started to get creeped out. It was becoming clear that my phone was being tracked.”

“Whoa, that is seriously creepy! This dude was stalking you?” Genuine concern seeped into Keith’s eyebrows. Jess appreciated that.

“It appeared that way. I decided to confront Bill about what was going on, but I didn’t have the guts to do it in person, so I sent him an email.”

“Oh, yeah? How did that go?” Keith’s expression was back to cynical stasis.

“Not well. He denied everything and blocked me. It was still happening and I still had feelings for him… I just didn’t have anyone to talk to.” Jess said.

“Why didn’t you talk to the cops?” Keith said, as if that was the obvious answer.

“And tell them what? This dude I hooked up with once may be stalking me based on these thinly veiled references in anonymous ads I’ve been obsessing over?” Jess snapped. Her flash of anger took Keith aback. He held his hands up in defense.

“Good point… Continue.” Keith said, folding his hands in front of him.

“There was an ad in the ‘Strictly Platonic’ section that I knew was posted by Bill…”

“How did you know it was him?” Keith interjected in the gentlest tone he could muster.

“It was written in the same voice. A writer’s voice is difficult to disguise from a discerning eye…” Jess smiled at the irony.

“Did you save screenshots?” Keith probed.

“Yes.”

“Can we see them?”

“No. You can believe me or not. I don’t need to prove anything. I’m just here to tell my story.” Jess held her ground.

“Okay…” Keith held an air of skepticism with a whiff of openness that emboldened Jess’s stance.

“The ad simply offered someone to talk to, which is what I needed more than anything. So, knowing it was Bill, I started talking…”

“Oh yeah? About what?” The lascivious tone was back in Keith’s expression.

“Well, my mom had cancer at the time, so it was mostly about that at first…” Jess said, intending to pop his bubble of arousal.

“Oh… I’m sorry.” Keith said. Jess could tell there was more truth in those words than any he had spoken so far.

“You didn’t give her cancer. And don’t worry, she’s better now.” Jess said, in a warmer tone.

“Good. You know I took care of my mom when she was dying of liver cancer, right?” Keith said, vying for solidarity.

“Yes, I read your book. That’s why I wanted to talk to you about this, I figured you would understand the desperate mindset that develops when your parent is sick.” The tenderness in Jess’s voice shifted something in the air between them. They were survivors together.

“Absolutely…” Keith said, his eyes drifting off into some dark memory.

“Once the floodgates were open, there was no stopping me. I poured everything into those emails. I talked about my dad, my ex, my mom, my life, Bill… Everything that was bottled up inside me came rushing out like someone popped a champagne cork.” Jess took a deep, shuddering breath at the memory. “I needed the release so badly, it didn’t even matter he was pretending to be a sixty-nine-year-old biker.” Jess giggled at Keith’s double take.

“Um… Wait, what?” Keith asked, flabbergasted.

“Are you familiar with the term ‘catfish’?” Jess asked in response.

“Yeah, isn’t that when pathetic nerds create fake online profiles with pictures of hot people and hit on women, right?”

“I used to catfish… ostensibly for political protection. You can’t breathe in the wrong direction of the NRA without getting death threats from gun nuts.”

“Pssht. You never used a fake name to get laid?” Keith made a skeptical smirk.

“What am I, a superhero?” Jess shrugged, prompting a low chuckle from Keith. “I suppose we can smell our own… But even an idiot could have figured out this guy’s a character.”

“You’re the character, little lady!” Keith guffawed as if that were a joke.

“No, like literally, he was pretending to be someone else online.” Jess rolled her eyes, crossed her arms in exasperation. “Ugh, this is hard to explain. Have you ever heard of Tony Clifton?”

“Tony Clifton? Yeah, I did a gig with Tony in the 70’s at the Phoenix Improv.” Keith kicked back and grinned at his presumed credibility.

“Well, everyone knows Tony Clifton is a character created by Andy Kaufman and Bob Zamuda, right?” Jess searched Keith’s expression for recognition in vain.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Keith said, suddenly suspicious.

“Are you serious? I thought everyone knew that! There was a movie about it starring Jim Carrey, it won a bunch of awards!” Jess couldn’t believe she found the one podcast host on Earth who wasn’t in on that joke. Keith remained bewildered by the revelation.

“Are you telling me… I shared a stage with Andy Kaufman?” A touch of wonder tinged Keith’s expression and made Jess smile.

“Well, yeah… Or Bob Zamuda. They shared the character to fool people. They didn’t invent catfishing, but they sure did make good use of the idea… If you consider filtering all of their worst impulses as performers and human beings into an awful character with an over-inflated ego a good idea… Which I do! But I’m not the only one…” Jess peered across the desk at Keith, who was lost in the glee of a 40-year-old prank. She snapped her fingers to bring him back.

“Oh, so uh, what you’re saying is this guy was pulling a Tony Clifton on ya?” Keith asked, the joy lingering in his smile.

“Sort of… He was pretending to be a biker who went by the name of ‘Grizzly’… We exchanged emails and texts, talked on the phone… He never broke character, but I recognized his voice.” Jess stated, quite sure of herself.

“This is weird, why didn’t this guy just talk to you as himself? Why all the theatrics?” Keith said, sounding on her side.

“I… Well, I used to have this problem with confidence. I couldn’t bring myself to talk to Bill in real life. It was already awkward because of the sexual encounter and it was starting to feel weird having extremely intimate conversations with someone playing a character, then seeing that person in real life… I didn’t know how to act.” Jess said, pitying her former self.

“Intimate, huh? How intimate?” Keith said, wiggling his eyebrows at Jess.

“Very.” Jess set her lips in a line of firm resolution. Her fingers traced the heart on the book, unconsciously indicating the sultry content within.

“Come on, Jess! We’re gonna lose listeners if ya don’t give up some details…” Keith pleaded in a taunting tone.

“Well…” Jess looked around conspiratorially, as if there were anyone else in the studio. “I liked calling him Daddy.”

“Shit, I have to pay girls to call me Daddy! Haha… Or bang their mom twenty years ago.” Keith chuckled.

“He got me to embrace a lot of things I liked. There was a kind of freedom in the anonymity.” Jess said, savoring a deep inhale.

“Did you send him pictures?” Keith said, leaning forward, suppressing a grin.

“Yes… It had been a while since I felt… Beautiful. Sexy. Desirable. Talking to Daddy Grizz felt good for my self esteem.” Jess said, corralling his full attention.

“It’s crazy to think a girl like you could ever have self esteem problems.” Keith said, unsubtly looking her up and down.

“Thanks Keith, but I think everyone is a little ‘crazy’, no matter what they look like. I got into stand up comedy to confront a lot of those issues and I fell in deep and fast.” Jess intended a sinister tone, came off as seductive again.

“You fell in love…” Keith said, revealing a tenderness that softened Jess’s smile.

“Yes… But it took me a long time to realize it wasn’t with Bill… And it wasn’t necessarily with the Mic… Although I was starting to see the therapeutic benefits of both.” Jess replied.

“A lot of comics end up working out mental issues on the mic. It can be horrifying or brilliant! I always say, if either Stand Up Comedy or Psychiatry went out of business, the other would close their doors too!” Keith said.

“I did have an excuse to go back to the open mic every week. I was terrible as any newbie, but at least I was trying, even though it was out of spite.” Jess said, feeling the tendons between her shoulder blades relax. She was starting to feel like an equal.

“Ah, everybody’s terrible at first. Why did you let this guy intimidate you? Couldn’t you have told the club owner?” Keith asked, the protective, uncle-like tone back in his demeanor.

“I was afraid to tell ANYONE. It made me sound crazy or like I was being tricked or something. Besides, Bill totally ignored me in public. None of his jokes used my name. I couldn’t prove a god damn thing! I didn’t want to sound like some crazy jilted lover, concocting a wild conspiracy theory to ruin the reputation of the man who cast me aside!” Jess raised her voice just shy of shouting for emphasis. Keith leaned back as if bracing for a physical attack.

“Some things sound the worst in our own heads?” Keith offered. Jess paused, then burst out laughing.

“Haha, I’m glad I decided to talk to you, Keith. These incredibly profound statements just tumble out of your face sometimes.” Jess said, wiping a tear away from the corner of her eye.

“Thank you! So, go on, the dude is fucking with your head and you’re sending nudes to a grizzly bear…” Keith urged. Jess giggled through her nose again.

“I was falling in love and I didn’t know what to do. A few days before Halloween that year, I worked up the courage to at least talk to Bill…” Jess said, cringing at the memory.

“What’d ya say?” Keith coaxed.

“I just said ‘Hi Bill!’…” Jess’s voice cracked on the last syllable. She cleared her throat.

“And?”

“He said ‘Stop acting weird.’ and walked away.” Jess said.

“Oof. That’s cold.” Keith responded, in a mixture of pity, anger, and protectiveness.

“I fuckin’ snapped when I got back to the car. I started speed texting ‘Daddy Grizz’ that I was gonna post all of our emails online and tell everyone he was stalking me unless he dropped the act.” Jess looked at her nails as she spoke. Her cheeks were bright red.

“Hmm. How’d that go?”

“Welp, he didn’t cave. Even though it was mortifying as fuck, I told on myself. I posted all of the emails in a manic, self-destructive social media post. I told everyone I was being stalked and I couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t use Bill’s name, but there were plenty of local comics who figured it out.” Jess said.

“Probably national comics too…” Keith said.

“What?”

“Oh, uh… Nothing. So, keep going, what happened next?” Keith said, eyes darting around. Jess pursed her lips and shook her head. She had a sense she was telling this story to someone who already knew the ending.

“Anyway… My mom was going through radiation at the time, so I went back to Virginia to stay with her for a while. I needed to get away.”

“That’s understandable, considering how unsafe you were.” Keith said.

“That’s the thing… I didn’t feel unsafe… Just watched. He never made any threats of violence and I never told him to stop talking to me or leave me alone. I just wanted him to stop pretending to be someone he wasn’t.” Jess pleaded for understanding.

“You and half the women on Earth!” Keith joked. Jess smiled and nodded.

“I suppose there’s a learning curve in every relationship, but this was ridiculous! Gaslighing distorts your reality…” Jess said in a grim tone.

“Now, what the fuck is Gaslighting? I’ve heard the femminazis use that term, but I never really understood it.” Keith baited with a smug half-grin.

“It’s when someone does something that drives you crazy and then tells you you’re crazy. It’s based on a play from the 1940’s where a husband keeps turning down the gaslights and telling the wife it’s not really happening, she’s just crazy.” Jess responded.

“That’s a hell of a gag.” Keith said, dripping with morbid curiosity.

“Except he was doing it so badly, it was easy to see through all the nonsense, he just wouldn’t admit it. I know bullshitters, my dad was an alcoholic. I grew up believing beer was legitimate pain relief medicine.”

“That is Bullshit! Whiskey is medicinal though… I have a prescription!” Keith said, pointing to a frame on the wall containing a piece of paper printed in comic sans. The text said “I can do whatever I want.”

“Indeed. I was so angry he was acting like my dad that I couldn’t see what was really going on… He had created a fake character for me to work out all my issues without burning all my bridges. He made it easy to see through the bullshit because the world is FULL of bullshitters who will NEVER admit their lies. I have to be secure in my own reality and not fall to pieces when I can’t make someone tell the truth.” Jess took several heavy breaths.

“I don’t think you should make anyone do anything.” Keith said, arms crossed.

“Certainly not without admissible evidence. He was very careful about that. So, I decided to fight Gaslighting with fire. When I was staying with my mom, I would drive her to radiation treatments by day and go to comedy open mics in DC by night. I used several fake names, made jokes about my mom’s cancer, having a stalker, et cetera. I felt like I was actually getting better at it, hearing more laughs than awkward silences, just because I was angry and I didn’t give a fuck.” Jess smiled at the memory.

“Hmm. I’d kinda like to hear one of those jokes.” Keith said, already amused.

“Okay… I used to start every set like this…” Jess cleared her throat and held up an invisible microphone. “I have to make a confession… It’s not a popular one, but I’m tired of the stigma! So here goes… I have one of those, ya know (looking down) stalkers!” Jess paused for Keith’s polite chuckle. “The tag is: ‘Did ya think I was gonna say ‘penis’? Nah, but he is a dick.'”

“Ha! Good one, kid. Bold too.” Keith nodded in approval.

“You’re too kind… The downside is, false confidence fueled by anger tends to dissipate. I was still lonely and depressed, so I started talking to ‘Daddy Grizz’ again.” Jess said, looking down.

“Hey, we’ve all had that one who keeps coming back.” Keith consoled.

“He was always there when I needed someone to talk to. After mom’s treatment, I decided to go back to New York and see a therapist.”

“Sounds like it was about time.” Keith said, giving her an encouraging nod.

“I’ll say! It was really helpful to have a professional to talk to. I would just tell her my feelings, she would explain why I was feeling that way and how I could handle it better. If I had known it was that simple, I wouldn’t have resisted so long.” Jess said, feeling her shoulders lower in relaxation.

“Everyone needs a little help sometimes. Sounds like it wasn’t exactly shock treatment?”

“It was a huge relief. I worked through a lot. One day I heard the song ‘Sunday Morning’ by The Velvet Underground come on the radio and I just started sobbing… I realized all of the pain and anger I experienced was because I missed my dad. He loved that song. He was a complicated mess, but I loved him.” Jess refused to let the tears burning behind her eyes flow.

“Wow…” Keith said, stunned.

“Yeah… That night, I was determined to apologize to Bill for everything I said about him. He had a show and I tried to talk to him before…”

“Why would you talk to a comic before a show?” Keith asked.

“It was either that or sit there staring at him the whole time. He yelled an ran away as soon as he saw me, so I left.” Jess said.

“Yeesh.” Keith winced at the awkwardness.

“I cried the whole way home. I spent the next day in bed… And the next night, something happened that changed my life.” Jess said, elation seeping into her smile.

“Oh yeah? What was that?” Keith asked, seeming glad to see her smile.

“Do you watch the show ‘American Family’?” Jess asked.

“The cartoon? Yeah, I love it! Bruce is just like my dad!” Keith said, slightly confused.

“Me too. Have you seen the episode where Bruce is in therapy?” She coaxed.

“The one where Elton John is the shrink? Yeah, funny stuff!” Keith agreed, still befuddled.

“When I saw that episode, I realized Henry O’Connor was the one stalking me the whole time.” Jess said, a huge grin growing on her face. Several seconds of silence filled the space.

“What?!” Keith almost shouted.

“Yep.”

“For real?”

“Totes.”

“Henry O’Connor, the celebrity?”

“I’d like to think of him as an artist, but yeah.” Jess smiled.

“Jesus, if people found out a celebrity was stalking a fan, it would be big news! Why didn’t you go to the press?” Keith asked. Jess was intensely relieved he wasn’t doubting her.

“That’s what I’m doing now. It took me a while to figure out how to tell this story. I was afraid of sounding crazy.” Jess said, a twinge of anxiety still knitting her eyebrows.

“You don’t sound crazy. You’re a young chick with some emotional issues, but you’re not some babbling psychopath.” Keith urged.

“Thank you, Keith. That means a lot.” Jess said, giving him an affectionate pat on his hand.

“So, Henry O’Connor, huh? That guy was stalking you? I gotta ask, how did you know?” Keith asked.

“I’m not sure why it took so long to hit me. Remember that fan fiction I mentioned? The title was ‘What I Would Do Sexually to Henry O’Connor’.” Jess grinned at Keith’s outburst of laughter.

“No! Haha! That’s fuckin’ hilarious!” Keith wasn’t laughing at Jess and she could tell.

“I don’t know why I thought he wouldn’t read it… I guess I caught his interest.” Jess said, smiling at herself.

“Jess, you’re lucky you didn’t write a story titled ‘How I Wanna Bang Keith Dewey’, you’d be chained up in my basement right now!” Keith laughed at his own joke.

“If I wanted to be chained up in your basement, I’m sure all I would have to do is ask.” Jess admonished, still smiling.

“You let me know.”

“Sure.”

“So that Grizzly guy wasn’t really Bill?” Keith asked, back on track.

“Nope. Neither was Bill.”

“Wait, what?” Keith cocked his head to the side, confused again.

“Bill and Grizz were both Henry.” Jess said.

“Whoa…” Keith sighed.

“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Mrs. Doubtfire’?” Jess asked.

“The one where the divorced guy dresses in drag and tricks his whole family into thinking he’s a granny? Classic!” Keith said, still amused and confused as things started to click into place.

“Bill and Grizz were both Henry’s version of Mrs. Doubtfire.” Jess explained.

“You mean he dressed like an old lady?” Keith said, grinning.

“Haha, not that I know of, but there was some movie-quality latex makeup involved. Bill and Henry looked nothing alike, but neither do Ron Pearlman and Hellboy.”

“Who?”

“Comic books.”

“Ah… This sounds…” Keith hesitated.

“Crazy?” Jess finished. “Yeah, I know. It gets crazier. Not long after that, I met another comedian named Lewis Richards.”

“Do you mean Richard Lewis?”

“Pssht, he’s not that neurotic.” Jess said, rolling her eyes and smiling. “I fell in love with Lew’s voice while listening to his comedy albums around the time I started going to open mics. His stories were hilarious, intellectual, utilized gorgeous language and stirred some deep emotions. When I met Lew, I knew he was really Henry in disguise.”

“How…? Ya know what? Okay.” Keith said, throwing his hands up in mock defeat. “What happened next?”

“Lew said he was working on his movie in LA over the summer, so I asked him if I could come and help out. I’ve always loved movies and I wanted to see how far Henry would take this gag.” Jess said, half-smiling.

“So, you were okay with all this?” Keith asked.

“More than that. It was the best thing that ever happened to me…” Jess said, drifting off for a blissful beat. “I quit my job in New York and I told ‘Daddy Grizz’ I was running away to Hollywood. That’s when he said he wanted to meet me.”

“You never actually met the biker dude?” Keith said, incredulous.

“Nope, we communicated over the phone, through text and email, bit I’d never met him IRL. Since I was leaving anyway, I decided to see where this would go…” Jess paused for emphasis.

“And? Did Henry show up?” Keith said, on the edge of his seat. Jess was enjoying herself.

“Yup. As Daddy Grizz, in character, wearing a fat suit, and riding a Harley.” Jess said, giggling.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa! Back up. Fat suit?!” Keith said, delighted by this information.

“Daddy Grizz was a 69-year-old biker. Henry went all out with the costume. I could see the color contacts in his eyes, I could feel the muscles of his shoulders under the rubber suit, and red marks didn’t appear on his back, no matter how hard I scratched…” Jess said, struggling to contain her exhilaration.

“You’re into fat old bikers?” Keith said, immersed in confusion again.

“I’m into Henry O’Connor. I knew he was in there.” Jess said, never more sure of herself.

Did he get in there?”Keith pressed, his eyes darting to Jess’s lap, then back to her face.

“I’ll tell ya one thing, Keith. Voice actors have some talented tongues.” Jess said, raising a salacious eyebrow.

“Damn, I gotta get cast in some cartoons!” Keith laughed.

“I had a lot of fun with Daddy Grizz.” Jess continued. “He took me shopping, helped with my laundry, I sat on his lap and ate an ice cream cone at a motorcycle rally in Lake George… That’s when I realized the fat suit was good camouflage. Henry is too famous to do all that stuff without it ending up on the news. We got to be un-famous together for a bit. It was nice. I was kinda sad to go, but LA was calling and we had a movie to make! So, I headed west.”

“What was the movie about?” Keith asked.

“What’s any indie movie about? A young artist trying to find her place in the world.” Jess chuckled. “But this one was brilliant. I’d always felt like Henry’ writing skills were severely under-appreciated. Start out in comedy and that’s all some folks think you’re good for.”

“Are ya saying I should play Hamlet?” Keith joked.

“Do you want to play Hamlet?” Jess asked.

“No.”

“Then don’t. Your comedy is tragic enough!” Jess laughed.

“Touche, kid!” Keith said, smiling despite himself. Jess smiled back.

“I think all good comedy has an element of tragedy. Lew’s movie was hilarious, but it effected me in such a profound emotional way. The main character was a young woman, also named ‘Lew’, who would create these Banksy-style art projects that were more like practical jokes, then get upset when the art world turned its snooty nose up at them. Movie-Lew was me, she was IRL-Lew, she was every artist struggling to earn that elusive big break. The male lead was just a guy trying to help her out. That’s what Henry was doing for me. During one scene where two characters are arguing in a bathroom, I had to crouch in the corner with the slate. I started shaking because I was getting flashbacks to my childhood. Then Lew said ‘Cut!’ and it was over. It dawned on me… I could do that with my own thoughts. Do you realize how fucking grateful I am for this information?!” Jess said, an evangelical zeal wafting from her being.

“Sounds therapeutic…” Keith responded, fascinated and a little intimidated.

“It was… But I was neglecting my actual cognitive behavioral therapy while I was in LA and I ended up getting overwhelmed. Towards the end of the summer, my mental health declined to the point where I was borderline suicidal, so Lew offered me a plane ticket or a bus ticket back to Virginia. I took the bus ticket because I needed a few cathartic travelling days. When I got back to Grandma’s basement, I started therapy again and began writing my novel.” Jess breathed a sigh of relief. She felt like she just ran a marathon.

“Hmm… So, did ya bang Lew?” Keith said, a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Our relationship was strictly platonic.” Jess responded, her lips set in a firm line.

“Really? Come on…” Keith grinned, skeptical.

“Why would you want me to say any different? Who are you helping?” Jess snapped. Keith put his hands up again.

“Okay, okay… So what’s the novel about?” Keith asked.

“It’s an adaptation of the fan fiction I wrote several years ago, mingled with some fictionalized reflections of my life at the time I was writing it, leading up to when I met Danny.” Jess said, bright-eyed in self-pride.

“Interesting. Why wouldn’t you include the story you just told me in the novel?” Keith asked.

“I’m doing that right now. We are in the novel.” Jess looked around at invisible observers.

“No shit?”

“No shit. You, Keith, are also a fictional character. While Bill and Grizz were amalgams of all the men who ever let me down and Lew was a compilation of every man who ever gave me what I needed, you are a mixture of several podcast hosts, comedians and writers who I knew would challenge my reality… in order to make it stronger. You’re like a vaccine for my soul.” Jess explained.

“Get out!” Keith said, laughing in existential amusement. Jess looked at her phone.

“Unfortunately, I have to. Big things coming up…” Jess put her novel back in her bag.

“One last thing… Did you ever think you were wrong?” Keith asked as softly as he could muster.

“Every damn day… But I don’t let that stop me.” Jess said, grinning.

“Haha! You’re alright, Jess. Okay, I know ya gotta go. This has been ‘Kickin’ it with Keith Dewey’ folks. Catch ya next time!” Keith said, clicking off air. They both took off their headphones.

“Thanks, Keith! This was fun!” Jess said, shaking his hand.

“I’ll say! Even though you’re batshit crazy!” Keith cajoled.

“Oh, I know… but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

***

Jess got into the passenger side of the Tesla outside the studio as Jade shouted into her Blu-tooth.

“Yes, the dressing room needs to be wheelchair accessible! Are you fuckin’ high? Listen, you smarmy fuck! No, shut the fuck up and put my words in your brain right the fuck now. If Mandy has to deal with even an ounce of stress before the show, we will take this comedy special to a network who knows who the fuck they’re dealing with! Ya got me?! Good. We will be there in thirty minutes… wait, no. Twenty minutes! Make it happen, Jack.” Jade clicked the button on her earpiece and let out an exasperated sigh.

“Hello, sunshine!” Jess cheered, clicking her seat belt.

“How’d it go?” Jade asked. The vehicle whirred to life.

“Great, better than expected!” Jess said, sinking into the leather seat.

“What’d you expect?” Said a voice from the backseat. Jess made a happy gasp.

“Baby!” Jess shouted before diving into the backseat to kiss Henry in a frenzy. Jade laughed and started driving.

“Guys, calm down. If the EP’s show up smelling of sex funk, we’re gonna lose some credibility.” Jade said, rolling her eyes and smiling at the swirling tangle of limbs and lips in the backseat. Jess popped her head between the seats.

“Jade, you should know by now… We can do whatever the fuck we want!” Jess said, diving back in to make out with Henry more.

“Yes we can!”

One thought on “13

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