When you’ve been intimately acquainted with someone for long enough, it’s easy to get familiarized with their shtick. Only at the time of truly “knowing” them, you aren’t fully aware that it’s a shtick. You get the misleading impression that the way they’re behaving isn’t, in fact, an act or contrivance. And then, one day, their gimmick is so known to you that they decide to move on and try it out on someone else. They lust for the newness of another person’s reaction to their (in their mind) unwitting machinations.
This is precisely the reason that drove 32-year-old Jake Lamont to rather precipitously up and leave his girlfriend, Johanna Morgan, five years his senior, one day in early fall. Though they had had a good, comfortable run together, he felt that suddenly, he was out of ways to get a reaction from her. The well was fairly dry on storytelling, too; it always seemed that she would interrupt him now when he was in the midst of recounting a tale he was sure he hadn’t already shared with her to inform him that, yes, she was very familiar with it.
And though she was an endearing and attractive woman–except, that she was approaching forty was gradually detracting from her cachet–he was no longer excited by the prospect of sharing himself with her. He was too known, too readable by her. This was very bad for his ego, a thing that needed to be fed on a constant basis as a result of being a musician. Ironically, his musicality is what had repelled Johanna from him at the outset, when she saw him play at a hole in the wall on the Lower East Side called Stank. At the time, his schtick was new to her, and she couldn’t recognize it as such. He played the part of “shy boy,” that don’t look at me lead singer/guitarist who secretly loved to be admired. His band’s name in that period was Jake and the Gyllenhaals, which is about fifty percent of what attracted Johanna to even going to the show with her best friend, Marie, three years younger than her and therefore far more concerned with the scene.
Johanna couldn’t help but notice the largely female audience in attendance, and therefore took to a quiet corner of the bar when Marie pushed her way to the front to join the others. She was old enough to know she was too old for this shit. And she drank accordingly to numb the boredom. When Jake and the Gyllenhaals’ set was over, she watched amusedly as the girls in the crowd flocked to Jake to tell him how great he was as he coyly put his guitar back into its case, a fittingly stickered aesthetic punctuating its attempt at distinctiveness. She turned back to the hairy, bearded bartender and ordered another beer/shot special to pass the time.
“Did you like the band?” the bartender asked with a vested interest.
Johanna couldn’t have known that, at that moment, Jake was approaching from behind her. It was thus that she frankly assessed, “You know, it’s your garden variety The Strokes shit.”
The bartender looked past her to flash Jake a sheepish smile as she said this, and Johanna knew that something was amiss. She side glanced over to find Jake grinning at her with satisfaction.
“Finally, an honest appraisal from somebody. Thanks for confirming what I know I’ve needed to do for a long time.”
Johanna raised her eyebrow. “What’s that?”
She nodded. “Well, glad to be of service to you.”
He extended his hand to her. “I’m Jake. What’s your name?”
“Are you here alone?”
She chortled, and it was then that Marie scuttled over to her upon seeing that she was talking to the lead singer.
“Great set,” she gushed to Jake. “Didn’t you think so, Johanna?”
Johanna rolled her eyes. “It’s the most adequate thing I’ve seen in months.”
Marie appeared to be mortified, almost blanching at Johanna’s rudeness.
“Forgive Johanna. She’s not very musical. I sort of dragged her here.”
Jake barely made eye contact with Marie, clearly setting his sights on Johanna–at least for the evening. But he could sense he wouldn’t be able to get one without the other, so he extended the strategic offer, “We’re having a party back at my apartment down the street if you guys wanna come.”
Marie’s eyes alighted. “We’d love to. Wouldn’t we Johanna?”
Johanna was in mid-shot downing, almost spitting it out as Marie said this.
At the party, Johanna felt, once again, unchallenged and unbemused by the demographic. This is exactly why she had quit her own musical pursuits a long time ago. It was such a vacuous “industry,” just like all mediums of art inevitably proved to be. For it was never really about art, but influence, clout and currying favor.
Looking around her, drink in her hand, for someone–anyone–worth engaging with, she yawned and wandered into the nearest bedroom, which she quickly learned was Jake’s upon seeing the black and white photostrips of him with various different women who had found themselves in his life. She was, however, at least impressed by his book collection, choosing to pick up The Master and Margarita and sit down on the bed with it. She had barely gotten past the sentence, “And here the sweltering air thickened before him, and a transparent citizen of the strangest appearance wove himself out of it,” when Jake burst into the room.
He simpered at her. “You didn’t make me do very much work to get you in here.”
She glared. “I’m just waiting for Marie to pick up a guy and then I’m leaving.”
He noticed the book and said, “Ah, one of my favorites. Have you read it before?”
“I’m not one of your early 20s groupies. Of course I’ve read it before.”
“Why do you have such contempt for me?”
“You obviously do. Either that or you’re trying to mask the intensity of your attraction to me.”
Johanna slammed the book shut and tossed it on the floor. “You know what. You’re right. Why play games? Let’s fuck right now.”
At this, Jake froze. He could deal with evasiveness, but not directness. It was too honest.
“Hey, I didn’t say anything about ‘fucking,’ okay? I just wanna get to know you.”
Johanna took her shirt off in a sexless flourish. “Does this help?”
Months later, they were still together, and Johanna had allowed her guardedness to drop enough to relinquish her own shtick of being a “bitch” to make Jake’s manufactured persona stand out even more to himself. And this was, in part, what made him feel so strongly about letting her go. He no longer wanted to feel bad for his “fakeness,” for being made hyper-aware of how unfiltered Johanna was, and how feigned he was by comparison.
Johanna was more than somewhat stunned when Jake broke the news to her, citing her age as the reason they needed to cut ties. When she saw him again, roughly a year later, at a cocktail bar that he looked completely incongruous in as a result of his self-designed “dirtbag” look–leather jacket, tight black Levi’s and greasy hair–he didn’t notice her, allowing her to watch his comportment from afar. He was there with a sophisticated-looking Asian woman. His “self-effacing” act was at an all-time peak as he air drummed while she went to the bathroom, only to look ashamed when she returned and caught him. But Johanna knew Jake well enough to see that his “humiliation” was simulated for the purpose of being viewed as enchanting, of being a lost little lamb that just needed to be taken in by a woman who could accept his alleged Pierrot-ness. But Jake was no fool. It was only Johanna who had been all this time, for not cultivating a shtick of her own. Maybe that was why she was alone at the bar. She wore no veneer for anyone to try penetrating for years at a time.