Of all the things that upset her about Jay and his unbounded self-obsession, perhaps this one bugged Betty Jean the most: The fuck always waits to fill the gas tank until she was a captive passenger in his car. He knows she hates to sit idly in the front seat, breathing in those nauseating fumes while he slowly squeegees the windshield, winking, licking his lips, leering in at her like a kiddy diddler station attendant from some Hitchcock movie.
Or worse yet, introducing her to people. Picking out total strangers at the next station island, sometimes choosing entire families, bringing them over to her side of the car, announcing that she's new in town, saying her name with an exaggerated Southern drawl while she sinks lower into her seat and his victims begin to slant their eyes with suspicion.
Fucking Jay. It's always about getting a rise out of her. Being The Teaser. Seeing how far he can go before she kicks at him, or yells out in frustration, saying things designed to hurt.
"Humpback, yellow teeth," she'll say, like a kid sister or something, not a wife. Then, immediately, she feels guilty.
"I'm not your sister, Gleeson," Betty Jean will say.
"Bingo, baby ducks," he'll answer. "Lust of my life."
But no matter how many times she tells him, here she is again, beginning another Saturday morning bicycle outing with a Jay Gleeson Comedy Central pitstop at Barney's Quick Lube Mobil.
Jay walks back to the White Knight, his muffler-hanging old Pontiac, after flipping the albino-skinned Barney his Discover card. He removes the nozzle from the pump with a clattering noise, unscrews the cap on the driver's side of the car. Watching the queer grin on his face, Betty Jean knows what he's thinking about:
The smell of gasoline. Jay craves it. Says it reminds him of road trips with his father, filling up in scary-strange gas stations along old Route 20 in Upstate New York, running for the bathroom, his hand squeezing the neck of his 10-year-old dick like a clamp, dragging out the tiny restroom key with the chromey-shined Buick fender attached as an anti-theft device.
Jay says the aroma of fresh superior-grade petrol should be made into a cologne for men, dispensed in coin-operated mist machines in truckstop and airport restrooms nationwide. While the old White Knight no longer deserves high-grade, Jay still stands there breathing in huge snootfuls of Mobil regular unleaded like a gluesniffing 15-year-old, grinning an entrepreneurial grin.
Betty Jean scoffs a black little scoff. Because there's that other love connection her husband has made with the gas station. Years ago, he wrote a story for his college paper called "Pumping Gas" that set the tone for his freak show approach to the world.
Since then, Jay hasn't been able to pump gas the same way.
Now, every time he leans against the car with a slump-shouldered scowl, she knows Jay is imitating Al, the Vietnam veteran in his story who was happy with his full-time job pumping gas. He was the one who imparted to Jay the perverted truth about gas stations: that they were all sexual in nature. For Al, the pump was a phallus to be wielded with both hands, at hip level, eyes gleaming. And the gas dribbling from the nozzle ... that oozing, unsavory substance he loved to inhale, was for women. Especially women who drove sportscars, with the gas caps in the back, where Al could shove the nozzle in hard and stand there with his hands on his skinny hips, having his way with the car. Having his way with her, while staring down at his scuffed-up biker boots.
Betty Jean watches her husband, this sick, unpredictable and yet somehow lovable man she has hooked herself up with, knowing that he shares this Hustler Magazine cartoon view of the gas pumping world, embraces it. She slumps in the front seat, crosses her arms, digging the heels of her untied sneakers into the dashboard, hoping Jay will notice, knowing how much that bothers him, seeing smudge marks on his polished plastic dash. Mr. Neat.
“I'm not anal retentive,” he’ll say. “I'm anus attentive.”
Sometimes, the shit Jay says, well, it kind of scares her. But when she glances at his face after hearing something abnormal and prison sick, something not quite the product of a well-adjusted 35-year-old man's mind (like the way he says he wants to die, on a skinny single mattress, an 84-year-old man being jerked off by three 13-year-old Japanese girls), just when he says things like that, she looks at him and she sees it: The little boy grin, right there, talking to her, telling her she's been had again.
Jay doing the goof. Or so he says.
Still, she wonders what could possibly have turned the cute wide-eyed kid in his elementary school pictures into such a dirty nearing-middle-aged man. Could a single seamy experience permanently twist a boy's mind? or does the damage come slowly, deeply rooted and self-conscious, like an old woman's chin hairs?
Sometimes looking at Jay is like seeing those grainy black-and-white ads in the back of the Ammunition Magazines her Daddy used to read, the ones showing side-by-side pictures of the innocent boy and the older, dangerous felon with a nylon stocking pulled down low over his face and a sawed-off shotgun in his hand, asking how did this happen, how did This become ... This? Was it a childhood fall? Some freakish genetic breakdown? Masturbatory brain failure?
Was this the funny young reporter she fell in love with? The one who claimed his professional mission was to lift up rocks throughout the city and describe what crawls out from underneath?
One day, Darlene hit it perfectly. Darlene knows a lot about men, Betty Jean thinks. She should: she's had enough of them. Darlene says that getting to know a man is like peeling a raw onion, one papery layer at a time, until you get to the rotten parts.
“All men have their rotten parts,” Darlene always says. “Even doctors and the ones who snuck into Harvard. They may be opening doors and not farting out loud when they first meet you. But pretty soon, they're pushing your head down under the covers. And laughing! And if you're in a relationship with one of those, well , girlfriend, you just better hope you see the rottenest parts early, when there's still time enough to get the hell out!”
Sometimes, after she's dumped some guy, or gotten the heave-ho herself, Darlene will get philosophical about men, saying that you can usually cut away an onion's worst parts with a paring knife. That means forgiving him, she says. Other times, you have to just chuck the whole damned thing away.
But Jay Milhaus Gleeson, Betty Jean knows, is no regular onion. He's a guy whose trying to decide how he really feels about women. When they met, Jay told her his line about having five sisters, about how that gave him this innate understanding of the way women think. It came from all those years of sitting on the toilet in the upstairs bathroom, he said, watching his sisters put on their makeup, the thick streaks of black eyeliner, the lipstick bloodtrail.
It also came from listening to their nighttime conversations with their boyfriends, how they acted all giggling-innocent and girlish on the telephone, pacing the room, wrapping the cord around their fingers, whispering, and then how they gossiped to one another about those same boys after they hung up the phone, ripped them all new assholes is what they did, with laughs and snickers that sounded garish and malevolent and unsettlingly ungirlish.
His sisters didn't sleep in bedrooms, Jay tells Betty Jean. They were more like lace-curtained locker rooms for girls. And it just made him insecure, even nervous, he says, knowing that women talked about him behind his back like that.
But through trial and error, Jay found just the right response to women:
He teases them. He started with his sisters and he continued with
his girlfriends, moving right on to his wife, Betty Jean thought, his oh-so-lucky
Sometimes, his Dad chased the family mutt, a girl named Sam, and squeezed her muzzle until she yelped. Whenever Jay acted up, or whenever he just damned well felt like it, Jay's father would go into the living room and drag the boy off the couch and into the kitchen, where, laughing, holding him in a bullying head-lock, he passed a bottle of horseradish under his son's nose just to hear him holler. That's when old Sam headed off under the kitchen table.
And when the old man had taken a shit, Jay would tell her, he used to push his only son into the bathroom and hold the door closed from outside, until the kid screamed and scratched at the wooden door and tears ran down his eyes until he lit enough matches.
In the end, Betty Jean knew, Jay grew up to be a lot like his father. He wouldn't dare pull any of that horseradish shit with her, but he does things she thinks are just as bad.
Constantly, he teases her about her weight. Whenever she gains a few pounds, he'll grab at her belly in the mirror. And then, when she's about to cry, when the salt bombs well in her eyes, he'll hold her, hanging his hands low around her hips like a serious high school slow dancer and he'll swear that he's just kidding, that he loves every inch of her body. And then he'll criticize himself with such unmerciful accuracy it makes her want to hug him back.
“I'm such a grotesque man, Betty Jean,” he'll say. “But I'm so lucky. I have a woman like you to love me.”
And then, 10 minutes later, when she's alone in the bedroom, her feet shoved under the bed frame for balance, doing 25 stomach crunches before bedtime to reduce the gut, Jay will sneak up behind her and grunt every time she tries to pull her body up.
“Uh,” he says when her head rises, like taking a shit. “Uh.”
Until she yells. Or laughs. Or swears so loud he runs from the room. “Teasing,” she'll yell after him, “is a form of torture.” But she can never stay mad at him for long. Jay disarms her by doing something simple, like drawing his own card for her on birthdays and holidays and sometimes just for no reason at all. Cards with funny little stickmen and third-grader scribbled notions about love and sex and fun that make her laugh and put her arms around him and forget about the teasing.
The car door opens up with an ugly creak and Jay lurches into the seat, smelling of gas and morning sweat and the body-odory biking shorts he refuses to wash.
The stickmen make her smile at him.
“What was that for?” he asks.
“For nothing, Gleeson,” she says, leaning over, pressing her lips into his right ear, sticking her tongue inside and swirling it around, spreading saliva, breathing in and out quickly through her nose until releasing a long snort.
Puppy kisses, she calls them.
“Start the car, asshole,” Betty Jean says, laughing, settling back in her seat. “Let's get the hell out of here. You know how I hate gas stations.”
Write "Ellavon" at firstname.lastname@example.org.