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A Touch of Jen
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This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around July 13, 2021. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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A young couple’s toxic Instagram crush spins out of control and unleashes a sinister creature in this twisted, viciously funny, “bananas good” story (Carmen Maria Machado).
“Um, holy shit…This novel will be the most fun you’ll have this summer.” –Emily Temple, Literary Hub
Remy and Alicia, a couple of insecure service workers, are not particularly happy together. But they are bound by a shared obsession with Jen, a beautiful former co-worker of Remy’s who now seems to be following her bliss as a globe-trotting jewelry designer. In and outside the bedroom, Remy and Alicia’s entire relationship revolves around fantasies of Jen, whose every Instagram caption, outfit, and new age mantra they know by heart.
Imagine their confused excitement when they run into Jen, in the flesh, and she invites them on a surfing trip to the Hamptons with her wealthy boyfriend and their group. Once there, Remy and Alicia try (a little too hard) to fit into Jen’s exalted social circle, but violent desire and class resentment bubble beneath the surface of this beachside paradise, threatening to erupt. As small disturbances escalate into outright horror, we find ourselves tumbling with Remy and Alicia into an uncanny alternate reality, one shaped by their most unspeakable, deviant, and intoxicating fantasies. Is this what “self-actualization” looks like?
Part millennial social comedy, part psychedelic horror, and all wildly entertaining, A Touch of Jen is a sly, unflinching examination of the hidden drives that lurk just outside the frame of our carefully curated selves.
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"Les attractions sont proportionnelles aux destinées."
This Could Be Us
Alicia says that maybe she should print out a photo of Jen's face and tape it over her own while they have sex. "I could cut little holes in the eyes."
Remy says that would be creepy. "But I love how your mind works."
She scrolls through photos that Jen recently posted.
"Definitely that one," says Remy.
"I'm just joking around. Unless you aren't."
Later, when they're sluggishly moving towards the bed, Remy takes Alicia's face in his hands. "Ah, Jen—how I've longed to hold you in my arms!"
"Remy, it's not right!" says Alicia, pretending to be Jen. "What if your girlfriend finds out?"
Their movements are theatrical and corny. They mash their faces together like soap opera stars. Remy shuts his eyes and plays a movie in which Alicia has been replaced by Jen, with her freckled boobs and baby hairs and adult braces.
He's talked to Alicia many times about these adult braces. They've discussed the spectacular, loopy temerity of a beautiful person like Jen taking such a risk with her appearance. She could have done Invisalign. But no. Now she looks like a hot shark.
Alicia imagines herself morphing into Jen's light-struck, perpetually tan body, and her body language is much more tender than it would be if she were just herself. She takes off her dress and tries to picture Jen's body naked, but can't imagine her without an outfit. When she's Jen, she's always wearing clothes.
Afterwards, they keep looking at Jen's photos from Cambodia, each of them on their own phone.
"I like this one," says Alicia.
"She looks great here," says Remy.
"The waves were amazing!" says Jen's caption.
The next day, Alicia showers with the door open. She shouts down the hall, "What would you do if Jen were in the shower right now?"
"What?" He stands in the doorway.
"Jen's in the shower. She has no idea you're here. Maybe you walk in by mistake."
"How would that happen?"
"You're in the wrong house. Or you're the gardener."
"Am I me, or am I the gardener?"
"My boobs are so freckly and slick!" says Alicia in a porny voice.
Remy says he feels like she's making fun of him. He was the one who told her that Jen had freckly boobs—not that he's ever seen them in their entirety. She says he should hurry. Jake will be home soon.
Jake is their perfectly nice roommate. They despise him passionately. His ringtone is the sound of a baby crying.
Remy and Alicia watch a television show about a spy with exceptional fighting-slash-torturing skills. Most of the plot involves the spy protecting either his family or the American way of life. They only watch it when Jake isn't home because Jake always wants to pause the episode until he figures out what else he's seen the actors in.
About once every episode, someone gets their kneecaps drilled, or is dissolved in a tub of acid, or stabbed with an unusual object like a wine opener or a soccer trophy.
They watch an episode in which the spy's dog is kidnapped and tortured by an evil scientist. The apartment is filled with the off-screen sound of the puppy—an intermittent cheeping, like sneakers on a basketball court.
"Bitch!" screams Alicia at the evil scientist. "Fucking cunt!"
"Why is it that the people are always tortured on screen but the puppy they torture off screen?" says Remy.
Alicia calls him a sicko. Does he want to see the dog tortured?
"It's just a question. It's not even clear what she's doing to this dog."
"Kick her in the stomach!"
"He can't—he's tied up."
"I hate this!"
"I think you love it," he says. He watches Alicia instead of the show. She's eating waffle fries from a takeout box slanted with age. Alicia's eyes don't move from the screen and her hand searches blindly for the fries. She's not as appealing as Jen and never will be. But in this moment, he feels a surge of affection for her that he doesn't think about too hard. He just likes her anger.
"Fuck her up!"
"Yeah!" says Remy, quieter than her.
He would like, in this moment, for Jake to come into the apartment. He would like for both of them to turn their eyes on him.
He has a sixth beer. "I'm so proud of you. You used to hide behind a pillow during the gory parts. Now look at you. Eating waffle fries."
Jen posts a picture of herself with fiberglass earrings she made. "Cuts all over my hands but it was worth it!" says the caption.
She posts an old photo of herself in Belize.
She posts a photo of herself on a mountain somewhere, holding a baby goat. "Say hello to my little friend!" says the caption.
Remy and Alicia look at these pictures amid the chaos of their separate jobs, and then again the next day when they sleep in together.
Remy says, "Normally, I hate pictures of mountains. But this is a great mountain. She did a good job capturing it."
"She's so beautiful. You can tell by the expression in her eyes that she has a good heart."
"I wonder who took this. It could be a self-timer, right?"
"I like how the sun catches on her braces," says Alicia. "There's such a sense of destiny about this photo."
"One thing I remember about her is that she really knew how to take up space."
Alicia points out a shadow that looks like it belongs to the person taking the picture. She wonders aloud who was there with her. He argues that the shadow could be a rock, or a tree, "or another one of those little mountain goats."
The idea of Jen surrounded by goats thrills Alicia. "I bet animals love her. I bet they aren't afraid of her at all."
"You never even met her," he says, but Alicia imagines songbirds making Jen's bed in the morning, and woodland creatures brushing her hair. She imagines Jen crushing a small animal beneath her foot, slowly. Maybe a bunny.
Alicia goes to her lunch shift. Remy keeps texting her every five minutes. He sends her a video of a toddler stuck in a claw machine, then a video of a guy shitting himself on a roller coaster, and then a screenshot of Jen's latest post—Jen in a car with some guy Remy doesn't recognize. He says:
That guy looks horny as hell. He isn't tagged.
The comedy of the caption is multilayered: "No sleep till Martha's Vineyard!"
Remy wouldn't put it past Jen to take a trip to Martha's Vineyard for purely ironic reasons. He feels annoyed at his inability to gauge if she belongs there or not. Just how fancy is she? Is she Martha's Vineyard fancy? Has he lost his sense of her? Is this something he would have known before?
Around three, Jake comes home lugging a frame so large that only his frat-boy calves are visible. It's a movie poster for Seven Years in Tibet that Jake is excited to put in the living room.
Remy tries to close the laptop but the movement is too furtive to go unnoticed. It makes him look guilty, and Jake is thrilled. Remy keeps the laptop open, to seem more casual, but this only allows Jake to get a better look at the picture.
"Wow!" says Jake. "Who is she? Circle of trust!"
Remy says it's just someone he used to work with. "I'm catching up. Seeing what's going on in her life."
"Did you, ah, boink her?"
Only Jake would say "boink." Remy has a vision of himself poking Jen in the forehead with his finger and shouting, "Boink!"
"It was complicated. We worked together. She was in a weird place…and I was recovering from all this dental work so I wasn't able to be present, you know?" Remy complains about the cost of the dental work, and how if it weren't for all the distracting molar pain, everything might have been different.
Jake leans the poster against the wall and sits at the kitchen table, stinking of his macho soap. He gives Remy a serious talk about how Alicia's super cool. "Take it from me and my personal experience. You don't want to give up a good thing when you've got it. And hey, man, there's a lot of temptation out there."
Remy can't imagine what personal experience Jake could be referencing. Jake rarely goes out, except on Thursday nights. "I really don't think that's going to be an issue," says Remy. He looks at his hand, resting on his cup of coffee, and then observes the distance between his hand and Jake's helpful face. It's amazing how people live day to day without hurting each other.
"The other day she was telling me all of these interesting facts about tropical parrots," says Jake. "I didn't even know Alicia was interested in birds."
"She wants to go on a tropical vacation. I don't think it's going to happen soon."
"It gave me a great idea for her birthday. That maybe you should, like, bring the tropical vacation to her. You should get her a parrot! I wouldn't mind at all. And I'd take care of it if you guys went away for a few days."
"It sounds like maybe you want a parrot," says Remy. Then he says, "For the record, it's not that this girl wasn't interested."
"For sure, man."
"Have you ever reached a state of equilibrium with a person and not wanted to disrupt that?"
Jake says something inane about "the friend zone," and Remy says that no, it wasn't that at all and then tries to explain the holy, delicate suspense of nothing happening with Jen, and the beauty of their perfectly calibrated distance from each other. "We used to play this game where I'd see how many pens I could stick in her bun without her noticing, and in a way that was erotic, even though it wasn't technically sexual."
Jake nods and nods. "I'm trying to follow, dude, but I don't always get that"—and here Jake makes a motion above his head as if screwing in a light bulb—"that intellectual level you're working on. Don't get me wrong—it's very cool, dude. Very cool."
After a few moments of silence, he says, "The only problem with the parrot is that you have to put newspaper in the cage…for the poop. And I don't even know the last time I saw a newspaper."
Alicia has a terrible day at work, since Cassie didn't show up and she has to handle dispatch as well as sandwich orders at the counter. During her single bathroom break, she notices that her hairline looks as if it's thinning, although only from certain angles.
When she comes home, she and Remy argue about whether or not Jen is rich.
"She has to be," says Alicia. "She's not like other people in service. She travels all the time."
"She's not rich." He says it like he knows for a fact, even though he doesn't. "She still picks up shifts at that tapas place. So she must need the money. And she didn't go to private schools or anything crazy like that."
"A public school in Vermont is more luxe than most private schools."
"You're talking out of your ass. You've never even been to Vermont."
"We should take a vacation sometime. There's no reason we can't." Alicia says it would be nice to have something to post other than funny content from other accounts. "Wouldn't it be great to post about our lives for once?"
They have a repetitive conversation about money that doesn't deviate meaningfully from any of their previous conversations about money. Remy tries to convince Alicia and himself that by not posting about their lives, they're actually superior. "It shows we're not self-absorbed."
He goes to the bathroom and when he comes back, Alicia's swiping through Jen's pictures on different social media accounts, her lips parted.
Remy and Alicia decide to see an afternoon movie on a day when neither of them has a shift. They pick something with zombies. Before they leave, Alicia spends an hour in front of a palette of eye shadow that seems as complex and intimidating as a pipe organ. She asks Remy over and over if it's "too much."
"I'm putting on my shoes," he says, meaning that they should leave.
Remy looks at Alicia, dabbing at her face in the mirror. Her wrist is held at an awkward angle, and her attitude towards the mirror isn't at all performative, the way it is when she's pretending to be Jen. Her hands are too large and taper weirdly at the fingertips, as if she were wearing another pair of hands as gloves. Her mouth is ovoid and horrible.
"I don't know why I'm doing this," says Alicia. "It's not like we're going to see anyone."
"We'll be sitting in the dark."
"I actually look frightening. I would get scared if I saw me walking down the street."
For the next few minutes, she paces from bedroom mirror to bathroom mirror, working herself up into a state of self-conscious mania about her eye makeup. She gets something from the closet and hits her head on the frame. She holds her forehead and cries in a silent, annoying way.
"This is just going to make things worse," she says. She says this because she believes that she suffered brain damage as a teenager and that every time she bumps her head, it speeds up an ongoing process of deterioration. She believes in this more than she believes in the moon landing.
"I'm putting on my shoes," Remy says. He doesn't want to hear her paranoid little speech about brain damage again.
There's an issue with the trains, and it takes twice as long as usual to transfer to the right uptown platform. The next train doesn't come either.
Alicia's eyes are scrubbed raw and swollen from removing all her eye makeup. She says, "I'm really sorry. Who did I think was going to see me?"
"We might still make the movie," says Remy. Then, when she doesn't respond: "I should have put on a jacket. I thought it was finally summer."
He looks at the people around them on the platform. He'd be ruder to Alicia, but he doesn't want them to think he's a bad boyfriend.
The train still doesn't come and they shiver and don't touch each other. They both try not to breathe in the cold, fruit-punch smell of the transit deodorizer.
Remy feels that Alicia's silent misery must be disrupted, but the idea of talking about the weather anymore depresses him. He complains about one of his coworkers. Alicia doesn't say anything. He complains that his manager, Rocco, is always coming into work drunk.
A woman waiting next to them is eating a banana and Remy says, "I read that bananas are going extinct. Like honeybees."
Alicia's eyes fill with tears.
"Jesus Christ," he says.
"It's going to be fine. They can put robots into people's bloodstreams now. I'm sure they can figure out the banana situation."
Alicia excuses her tears by boring him with a complicated explanation about when her menstrual hormones kick in. Even a cursory analysis would reveal that the timing doesn't make mathematical sense.
The movie start time comes and passes while they're still waiting for the train, and Remy has to pretend he's not irritated. Alicia continues to apologize abjectly, her face slimy with tears.
Eventually they stop waiting for the train and go aboveground, trying to figure out what to do now that they've missed the movie. They go into a thrift store, both agreeing not to spend any money unless they find a shirt for Remy, which he needs. The store is small and no music plays. The clothing-insulated quality of the silence makes it more bearable not to talk for a while.
Eventually, Alicia holds up a crocheted halter-top. "Doesn't this top look like the one Jen was wearing?"
Remy knows which top she's talking about. He's actually seen it in person. He remembers Jen working the patio and then coming back inside with sweat in her cleavage, asking the barback can she please eat another cocktail garnish because she's absolutely starving. He tells Alicia this.
"It's strange how much I've forgotten her." He's transfixed by the halter-top. It's not exactly the same, but close enough. He can almost visualize Jen in front of him—almost. Alicia pets the top while she listens to him, as if trying to wake it up. "There's a difference between being reminded of someone from their pictures and viscerally remembering them," he says. "One thing I forget is how her face moves. Now when I picture her face moving, it's just a blank space attached to a ponytail."
"I can put it on," says Alicia. She goes to the fitting room and puts on the top. She moves around for his benefit and for the mirrors. She tells him to bring her something else.
Remy looks around the store, picking out items that Jen might wear. Some sort of shiny tunic. A weird Dust Bowl–era dress. Something eighties. Alicia reads aloud the brand names on the tags, which mean nothing to Remy. The project makes him feel stupid, but it's better than not connecting to Jen at all.
"I'm Jen and I'm headed to a yoga retreat," says Alicia, stepping in front of the dressing room curtain and turning in front of the mirror. "I'm Jen and I'm allergic to synthetic fabrics." This makes Remy laugh.
The other customers stare intensely into the clothing racks or their phones. Alicia puts on a dress and does a wholesome milkmaid spin. Remy squints his eyes and looks at the outfit. To the best of his ability, he erases Alicia. Perhaps it's the close, woolen atmosphere of the shop that makes him so suggestible.
"Ah!" he says, batting his hand in front of his eyes. "That was so weird. It's like she's close or something."
"Sometimes you talk like she's dead."
"I remembered the specific intervals of the rings on her fingers. Not the rings themselves, but the spacing. I don't know why, but it sort of did it for me. Like, brought her to life." It's been two years and seven months since he's seen her.
"Do you want me to wear rings?" says Alicia.
He analyzes the mechanics of this. Alicia's hands aren't like Jen's and the rings wouldn't look right. Jen has stopped even wearing rings, at least as far as he can tell from her recent posts.
He buys the top for Alicia to wear, on the condition that she only wear it at home.
"It wasn't so much that you reminded me of Jen," he says as they walk back to the train, "as that I was able to superimpose my memory of her on you." He holds her shoulders. He asks if that makes sense.
Alicia says, "The things I do for love!" Then, to push this charged word out of the air, she says, "It's been a long time since you've seen her. Maybe we could invite her over." They both walk down the street with the overwhelming sense that they could bump into her at any second.
"No," he says, smiling in a way that implies he could be persuaded. "No, no."
They watch an episode of the spy show and then lie awake in the dark, predicting what the evil scientist's punishment will be. The show's punishments reveal a creative, often biblical sensibility not evident in any other aspects of the show's writing.
Alicia says that since the evil scientist has so much plastic surgery, she should be subjected to a nose job without anesthetic. "You know," she says, her voice eerie and sourceless in the dark, "that with a nose job, the doctor has to pull the skin up over your eyeballs. So maybe she could just be, you know, peeled apart and then left like that."
"You know so much about nose jobs."
"I'd do it if I had the money. But I don't really need it. Honestly, all I want is eight thousand dollars." Alicia's always talking about eight thousand dollars. "Eight thousand dollars would really set me up. I could quit the Hungry Goat. I could just chill for a while."
The room is filled with cold light. They sit up. They've each received a notification that Jen posted a new photo. They laugh at the simultaneity of their movements.
"God," he says, "you know we have a mystical connection."
Alicia laughs, and the pleasure on her face is so naked that he's embarrassed for her.
"I mean…me and Jen. Not you and me."
"Just kidding," he says. "Kidding!"
"Ah," says Alicia.
"Still thinking about the coffee in Reykjavík!" says Jen's caption.
Remy gets up for work before Alicia and sees the halter-top slung over the side of the bed. He feels quieter. He notices this quiet feeling, but doesn't interrogate it for fear of disturbing it.
He works at a health food restaurant with a casual atmosphere but high-maintenance clientele. Jessica Alba came in once. Everyone on staff made a big show to each other about how they didn't care (except for Inez, who kept fanning herself with her hands).
During brunch, he's surprised to find that he isn't bothered by the low buzz of anxiety he normally experiences at work. A woman comes in, alone, undulating her arms like Isadora Duncan. He doesn't think he's seen her before, but Inez tells him that she's a regular and that she always does that—never stops moving.
"Don't be alarmed," says the woman when she sees how he looks at her, holding his notepad. "Movement keeps you young. I'm a holistic doctor. I know what I'm talking about."
"…Okay," says Remy.
"Movement is the essence of life. No one tells you that. Right now I'm adding years to my life."
He recites the specials to her. She raises her arms above her head and asks if the rice in the vegan pilaf contains arsenic. He informs her, with a phrasing that has become more practiced and scientific over time, "All rice contains arsenic on a molecular level. But it's not present in harmful quantities."
"That's incorrect. There's a difference between organic and inorganic arsenic levels, and it varies by region. Do you know whence the rice is derived?"
Remy watches her movements for his opening, like the spy from the TV show, who times his jump off a road bridge so impeccably that he lands in the villain's convertible. When rhythmically permissible, Remy suggests the tartine.
Normally this interaction would make him cranky, but as he leaves her table to input the order, he enjoys the sensation that he's pulled something off and that if he were being filmed, he would appear confident. There are times—when he's not too hungover—when the monotonous rhythm of food service gives Remy a druggy sense of satisfaction, as if he's slipped into some preordained stream of motion in which his decisions aren't made but assigned to him.
- On Sale
- Jul 13, 2021
- Page Count
- 8 pages
- Hachette Book Group