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Authors: Hillary Jordan


BOOK: Aftermirth
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by Hillary Jordan



the day my wife was electrocuted by her underwire bra.

You must have seen it on the news, some Ken-and-Barbie anchor team struggling not to let a hint of morbid amusement crack the thinly applied veneer of sympathy on their faces as they listened to the fulminologist (“That's science speak for someone who studies lightning,” Barbie said, with a
those wacky scientists
waggle of her eyebrows) from Stanford University explain how it had happened. Contrary to popular belief, he said, metal worn on the body does not attract lightning. “Well, I'm sure a whole lot of women will be relieved to hear that!” Ken exclaimed, with a sidelong glance at busty Barbie. “Yes, and anyone who wears a wristwatch,” the fulminologist said, obviously annoyed at being interrupted. He went on to explain that since my wife (“the victim”) was found directly beneath a tree that had been struck by lightning and had not been hit directly herself, one could assume that the current had jumped from the tree to her in a “side splash,” a phenomenon that accounts for 30 percent of all lightning injuries but is rarely fatal. It was in my wife's case, because of the two curved pieces of nickel titanium supporting her breasts, which conducted the current and stopped her heart. “Freakish,” said Ken and Barbie, with crinkled foreheads and mournful shakes of their heads. “Tragic. What a thing.”

You probably saw the headlines in some of the trashier papers too:
. The worst was
hardy har har. I would have loved to have gotten my hands on the clever son of a bitch who wrote that one, and the other piece of garbage who dug up the photo some paparazzi took of Jess in a bikini on our honeymoon in Costa Rica. Her head's thrown back and she's laughing at something I said, but the way they cropped the shot I bet her smile wasn't what you noticed.

Not that I could blame anyone for noticing. My wife had magnificent breasts. They were smooth and luminous and almost perfectly round; two soft, heavy moons capped by nipples like rose quartz marbles. Atomic nipples, I used to call them, because they were so irrepressible. The slightest touch or breeze would stiffen them. Jess actually had to wear padded bras to hide them, an irony whose hilarity was lost on her. She hated being large-breasted, hated the catcalls and lascivious stares, the sly insinuations of other women that she'd had implants, the difficulty in finding clothes that fit without drawing even more attention to her amplitude. She wanted to have reduction surgery, but I talked her out of it. That's the real knee-slapper: if I hadn't loved my wife's breasts so much—their softness, the sweet heft of them in my hands—she might still be alive.

You know that spot between a woman's breasts where the scent of her settles, distilled to its most intoxicating form? That was my favorite place on earth. I could lie for hours in exquisite near-suffocation, my nose pressed against Jess's breastbone, my face harbored by the pliant orbs of her flesh. I knew I wasn't the first man to have berthed there, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that unlike all those other poor schmucks,
had been granted a permanent mooring, a lifelong lease to wallow in Jessness.

But permanent is a lie we tell ourselves and each other. And lifelong turned out to be less than four years.

before I ever saw her. It was the spring of 2006, and I was living in LA. I'd been out there for six months, licking my wounds after having failed to make the cut at
. My agent had gotten me a gig at the Ice House in Pasadena, which was a big deal for me then. I was up fourth and the two comics before me were lame, so by the time I took the stage the audience was restless and scenting blood. I got off to a rocky start. I could feel them slipping out of my grasp, preparing to turn on me, when a woman in back laughed, startling me to momentary silence. It was a sound like nothing I'd ever heard: artless, weightless, utterly abandoned. I told another joke, and she laughed again, a bright, rippling arpeggio from the most joyful aria ever sung. I peered into the audience but couldn't see her; as always, the stage lights turned everyone beyond the first few rows into an amorphous horde of humanity. I kept telling jokes, wanting only to keep hearing that glorious laugh, and before long I felt myself entering what I call the drop zone, becoming more audacious, inventing fresh material that was twice as good as the prepared stuff I'd walked onstage with. It was all for her, but the rest of them were laughing too, helplessly and uproariously, laughter like I'd only gotten a few times in my whole career, when the audience was packed with family and friends. I wasn't just funny that night, I was the god of funny, and she was my angel.

And then my run was over, and the audience was roaring as I took my bows and bounded off the stage into the wings, where I received a high five from Jimmy, the club's manager, and a tight, go-fuck-yourself smile from Ethan Cohen, the headliner who was up after me. I was supposed to get the crowd nice and moist for him, not bring them off. I gave him an apologetic shrug. On any another night I might have enjoyed his irritation, but the crowd's adulation made me magnanimous. I was Caesar and they were the mob, and for long moments I just stood there, sweaty and ebullient in my crown of laurel, bathing my swelling ego in the warm gush of their love. The laughing mystery woman may have kicked things off, I thought, but I was the one who'd made the ninety-nine-yard punt return. Still, I owed her a big thank-you, and I couldn't wait to give it to her. I would go out front during Cohen's act and listen for the sound of her laugh. It would lead me to her like a homing beacon.


I felt a welling of panic. What if she didn't find his big Jewish dick schtick funny? Which she very well might not; it didn't exactly double me over. Or what if she had to be somewhere, had to work the night shift or take the dog out, and she didn't even stay for his act? She could be walking out the door at this very second, and I didn't even know what she looked like.

Jimmy's hand on my arm brought me back to the moment. He jerked his head in the direction of the stage. The crowd was shouting for an encore. I was so grateful and relieved I could have French-kissed each and every one of them. When I stepped back onstage they erupted. I waited for them to subside and then asked for the houselights to be turned up—something I normally only did when I was scrambling for laughs and needed some people in the audience to make fun of. I took a perfunctory swipe at a pudgy bald guy with a blonde half his age and another at a table of drunken twenty-somethings having a bachelorette party. I got some laughs, but not the one I wanted.

I launched into my encore. It was one joke, a long lead-in to a big payoff, and as I told it I scanned the audience, searching for a face that could possibly belong to that laugh. I rejected one after the other. The brunette with dimples: too sorority-girl. The tall streaked blonde: impossible, my angel didn't wear leopard-print halter tops. The redhead cozied up to the guy with twenty-inch biceps: please God, let that not be her.

And then I spotted her: twinkling blue eyes set in a heart-shaped face framed by a mass of wavy, honey-brown hair. She smiled at me, a teasing, see-you-backstage smile, the kind I got from a handful of women at almost every show. Not because I'm some hunk—I bear an uncanny nonresemblance to Brad Pitt—but because women think that if you're funny you'll be good in bed (and for the record, I always did my best to bear out this assumption).

I'd received hundreds of smiles like that, and I'd come hither to my fair share of them, but none of them had ever made my heart lurch and my knees wobble like hers did. I stared straight at her as I delivered the punch line. She opened her mouth—and brayed, a piercing, nasal hee-haw that went on and on before culminating in a loud snort.

It wasn't her.

My eyes moved further down her table, to the source of the sound I'd been listening for. There, producing gales of sublime, irresistible laughter, sat a plain-faced middle-aged woman wearing an oversized sweater that hung on her like a sack. That's what I saw, and that's all I saw, shallow bastard that I was then. This
was my angel?

Numbly, I thanked the audience and made my way offstage and toward the exit, ignoring kudos and back slaps and even half a dozen offers of free beers; that's how stunned and disappointed I was. I didn't look in her direction, but her laughter seemed to pursue me through the club, mocking me. And it didn't stop at the door. It followed me home and took up residence, haunting my dreams and troubling my waking moments. I heard it at the gym, in restaurants, on the street, always behind me or off in the distance, a siren's tease promising joy like I'd never known in my whole empty, pathetic life. Joy, I was painfully aware, that I'd walked away from like an adolescent fool.

I heard her laughter everywhere except onstage. I listened for it after every joke and scoured every face in every audience in search of her, but she remained silent, absent. My act started to suffer. I stumbled through three gigs in a row and showed my hairy naked ass at the Improv like I hadn't done since I was a baby comic doing fart jokes at airport Hiltons. There's nothing more humiliating than the moment when your death throes become so anguished and unseemly that the crowd starts to feel sorry for you and the women let out embarrassed little titters that are worse than the deafening silence they're meant to break.

I had a big show coming up at the Downtown Comedy Club that I'd been looking forward to for weeks, but now I was dreading it. Scouts from
The Daily Show
were going to be there, and so was my agent, who'd called a couple of days after the Improv fiasco and let me know, ever so nonchalantly, that she was planning to drop by. No doubt she'd gotten an earful about my recent spate of unfunniness. I couldn't afford to choke again.

I was backstage waiting to go on, sweating like a margarita in Death Valley and kicking myself for not bringing a spare shirt, when I heard it: a brief, radiant trill like a shimmer of light on water. I went still and cocked my whole being to listen, praying it was her and not her ghost, silently beseeching the gay comic onstage to go somewhere funny with his endless rant about fat cells. And by some miracle he did, and my angel laughed again, and I was delivered. I don't remember a thing about my act that night. Jess said I was brilliant, and I must have been pretty damn good because a week later I was in New York auditioning for Jon Stewart, but all I can recall is the sight of her face beaming up at me from the second row. How had I ever thought she was plain? She was beautiful, in the way that a mesa is beautiful, or a pine tree: perfectly unadorned, made just as it should and must be. And the more she laughed the more beautiful she became, until by the end of my act I could hardly stand to look at her, or not to. When I took my bows she stopped laughing and gazed straight back at me with wide, luminous eyes. Her face filled the frame, filled the universe.

We were married six months later, which was about five months too long for me, but Jess wanted to wait; to be sure we were sure. She said it was because of the age difference—she was thirty-seven, six years older than me—but I think it went deeper than that. Our connection had been so instantaneous and strong it felt like a magic trick, and Jess needed to poke at it to be sure it wouldn't vanish in a puff of smoke. In the meantime she came to all my shows, fueling me, feeding me with her delicious, infectious laughter. My audiences got bigger, and my name moved to the top of the slate. At her urging, I wrote a couple of pilots for shows that had been rattling around in my head for a while: a sitcom called
Pet Court
and a dramedy called
I didn't get the
Daily Show
gig, but I landed an American Express campaign, which led to a couple of man-on-the-street skits for Leno, which led to a four-episode guest slot on
The Office.
Then HBO said yes to the pilot of
and we shot it and they greenlighted the show, and Jess and I packed up and moved to New York. She'd never been here before, and seeing my hometown through her eyes made it wondrous, an enchanted forest of towering stone through which we wandered with the eagerness of children, casting bread crumbs in our favorite spots: the penguin house at the Central Park Zoo, the roof garden at the Met, the gelato stand on the Hi Line, the midpoint of the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset.

Jess fell in love with Cobble Hill, so we bought a brownstone and spent a happy year feathering it to her taste. Hers, because I had none of my own. I'd lived a typical bachelor's existence; when I met Jess my worldly possessions consisted of a bed, a threadbare sofa I'd pulled off the curb, a plastic patio table and chairs, some IKEA bookshelves and a humongous three-thousand-dollar flat screen. Suddenly I had flower vases and napkin rings, occasional tables and bedskirts—bedskirts!—and a set of those little yellow corn prong things. I had unmoldering vegetables in the fridge, tampons under the bathroom sink and long brown hairs on the new five-hundred-thread-count pillowcases. And I had softness everywhere: sofa cushions that were like sinking into pudding, plush towels that hadn't been swiped from hotel rooms, sheer curtains that gentled the light, Jess's hair and skin and mouth, her fingers stroking my back, the warm sigh of her breath against my neck.

Even our dog was soft, a springer spaniel mix we adopted from the ASPCA. We named him Izzy, after Eddie Izzard, Jess's second-favorite comic. She was walking Izzy down Clinton Street when the lightning bolt struck her.



MICHAEL LARSSEN, 34, is standing in a well-appointed open kitchen, chopping carrots in time with the cheerful tune he's
. He's wearing shorts and a T-shirt that says “I'm with stupid” over an arrow pointing down. Every few seconds he looks up and gazes with eager expectation at the front door, like the love of his life is about to walk through it any minute. He's so distracted he cuts his finger with the knife.

BOOK: Aftermirth
9.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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