Monday, August 20, 2007

I See Johnny

Sometimes words get stuck in my head - much like songs. This weekend it has been a short story that I read Wednesday afternoon in the floor of Borders. The Virginia Quarterly Review caught my attention on the magazine rack, and in an effort to satiate an ever-restless mind, I plopped down in the middle of the aisle. The idea of literary magazines is just recently beginning to captivate me - not passionately, but my interest has been piqued.

I randomly flipped open the pages in search of something profound - "I see Johnny." The first thing that captures me is the 1960's setting and Miss Betsy's coral coat. She waits for the El in the chill of a Chicago winter season (having missed the "summer of love"). Miss Betsy is the host of a children's show, but awaiting the train, we interrupt the recollection of her first sexual escapades at 16 with an older boy, Johnny. She remembers telling herself that she doesn't love him, yet when the Korean war takes him - by means of a shot to the head - she realizes the flaw in her nay-saying mantras, for years later she is still plagued with thoughts of him. Standing on the platform in the opening paragraph, in her coral coat of course, she thinks of the grease trapped beneath his fingernails. She loved him, you see. Love is a tricky thing.

Her life is monotonous. I imagined her as a bit of a prude, a straight-line perfectionist. She probably wears pearls, probably dresses like Jackie. As a part of Miss Betsy's character, she carries a hand mirror lacking the reflective center. It's used on the show as an interactive prop allowing her to peer into the viewing world and "see" her audience. She sends salutations through the t.v. screen, and likewise carries one in her purse for those occasions in public when children ask her to perform the bit.

One morning for reasons undisclosed, Claire, the show's make-up artist, invites Miss Betsy to a party. The host notes a significant age difference, and also that she has no idea why she opts to attend the event. Nevertheless, Miss Betsy obliges Claire's request. Between a marijuana joint and several pills, Miss Betsy finds herself locked in the bathroom and for the first time, irrefutably high. She reaches for her mirror frame and peers deep into it's emptiness. It offers an image of Johnny, a painfully disturbing image only produced by the torment of lost love...and hallucinogens.

Her behavior deteriorates, she increases her drug use and attends more parties with Claire, with whom she falls in love. At the height of their interaction Claire disappears - again Miss Betsy is abandoned. She begins seeking any social event that might result in a reunion with Claire, but never finds a trace of her. The climax of the tale brings us to one last psychedelic occasion. Miss Betsy, having stumbled on an unusual invite, knocks on the unfamiliar door of a sketchy neighborhood (foreshadowing at its finest). The door opens, she drops acid upon entry, and quite literally runs into Claire - screwing a mutual friend in the bathroom. I wouldn't usually use such casual descriptors, but it's just that casual of a scene. Miss Betsy has spent countless hours pining, and when they are again face-to-face, Claire gives nothing more than a careless and blaze greeting.

This is the tipping point as emotional trauma and a "bad trip" begin to mix. Miss Betsy bumps into the children of one of the party goers in the hall. She locks the young girl in a closet, and attempts to kidnap the small boy, whom she has convinced herself is the childhood embodiment of Johnny. Before getting far on foot, Miss Betsy is stopped and the child returned. She loses her job, moves back in with her mother, and refuses to speak. She begins to feel that speech is overrated, and no matter how hard her mother coaxes, she shuts down. Oh, and Claire becomes the show's next host...a daily mockery.

I had a point, an idea of why this bizarre piece of literature has lingered in my head. I am ashamed to admit my ignorance to the actuality of this war, to military culture, and the previous luxury of maintaining a faceless image of our soldiers. I arrived on Thursday for our coffee date, mine and the staff sergeant's. Only then, I knew him as an "out of work writer." Although a bit put-off by the initial lack of profession, it seems that the struggling artist persona would at least foster worry on another, less intense level. But such is life, and I was captivated by the conversation. Date number 2 ensued, and again I was intrigued. Over the course of the last few days I have learned a bit more about the Army, a bit more about the culture and the expectations...and the tours. He has suggested not to take up News watching, has mentioned a friend of a friend who didn't make it home and the reality that event provided.

So, Miss Betsy and her mirror...perhaps the link is apparent.

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