Series Fiction | ‘When You’re Far Away’ — Chapter 3

Jennifer Gulbrandsen
Jun 19 · 11 min read

If you’re new to this story, catch up on Chapter 2 before continuing

Ryan

I heard a sigh behind me as I was scrolling through the celebrity news of the day on my laptop. There was only one other person in the apartment with me, my girlfriend of three years, Lauren.

Guiltily, I snapped the laptop shut. I heard another loud sigh behind me when I did.

“You don’t have to pretend you weren’t reading about Jenna,” Lauren said in a tone that conveyed she was equally mad and resigned, “When does Jenna Jax stop being the third member of this relationship, Ryan?”

Lauren walked around the couch where I was sitting and settled herself in the easy chair across from me. We had been dating since my first year of medical school, and moved in with each other the last summer. I met Lauren at a party hosted by a mutual friend, and we hit it off right away. She was shy, unassuming, charming, and quiet. Petite with dark hair and dark eyes, she was the complete opposite of Jenna in every way.

While I did truly love Lauren, and could see myself marrying her one day, I simply could not let Jenna go. It wasn’t a creepy stalker type of obsession, but I felt the need to compulsively check on her via celebrity news every morning and evening. If I saw her on TV or heard a news report as I was passing through, I would stop in my tracks and watch or listen for an update on her.

Lauren was always patient with me where Jenna was concerned when I explained to her what had happened ll those years ago. Lauren was a social work student, and understood how sometimes we have to just wait out the closure we never get. She asked questions about Jenna and our childhood. Lauren was also great at giving me insight about why Jenna took off like she did.

“Jenna doesn’t think she’ll survive the pain of losing someone again, so she will cut and run before the possibility arises. She didn’t leave because of you. She left out of her own fear,” Lauren explained early in our relationship.

You would think that having insight into what made Jenna tick and how it wasn’t my fault that she left would have helped me to move on, but it didn’t. It only made me worry about her more. I knew Jenna better than anyone, and I knew her pride was her biggest enemy, and she would fight like hell to prove to everyone she was fine even if she was falling apart. The pop star life wasn’t exactly ideal for one’s mental health. So I became preoccupied with following the news of her waiting for the inevitable shoe to drop.

However, the news gave no indication that anything was wrong in the world of Jenna Jax. The headlines were always full of star power and glamour. She had already amassed a number of awards and had been the biggest star in the world for nearly five years now, almost surpassing the biggest star of them all, The Diva.

Actually, the only negative press about Jenna was the supposed rivalry of Jenna and The Diva since they shared the same producer and mastermind in that unbelievable prick, Alan. From what I would read, it seemed manufactured and click bait for the most part, but I worried about there being an undercurrent of truth to all of it. The Diva’s antics and scandals were legendary.

But Lauren was right. Jenna was the third member of this relationship. I didn’t want her to be, but there I was sitting on the couch scrolling the news sites for any word of her.

“I’m sorry, Lauren. It’s only out of curiosity. I don’t mean to hurt your feelings,” I apologized.

Lauren let out another heavy sigh, “Ryan, we’ve been together for three years, and the ghost of Jenna Jax hasn’t stopped haunting this relationship. Do you know what it’s like to feel like you have to compete with the most famous woman in the world? I can’t. What if something does happen to her five years from now and we are married with kids. Do you run to her? Do you become absolutely consumed with it that you check out?”

Yes. I knew the answer already, but I didn’t want that to be the truth. Jenna hadn’t indicated that she wanted anything to do with me in five years. I barely even saw her brother or father anymore when I would visit my parents. Jenna McKenzie was gone, but I couldn’t let her go. I had to move on with my life even if it meant lying to myself for a while.

“No Lauren, you aren’t competing with Jenna. You know I worry about her, and I swear to you it’s just out of curiosity. Someone I grew up with became the most famous person in the world, naturally I’m inclined to read about it. You’re the one who is here with me now, and I love you.”

Lauren bit her thumb for a moment thinking about what she was going to say next. “I think we need to take a break. This isn’t a fresh breakup you’re getting over. This is a preoccupation you’ve had since I’ve known you. I can’t be the number two in this relationship anymore,” Lauren stood up, walked over to me, and kissed me on the top of the head, “I am going to move out and stay on my own for a while. I think we need some space to work this out. There can’t be any us if Jenna’s everywhere.”

I didn’t fight her. I simply sat there quietly looking straight ahead as I heard her walk down the hallway, close the bathroom door, and heard the sound of the shower starting.

I knew Lauren was right. I needed to find a way to get over Jenna or it was going to torpedo the rest of my life.

I opened my laptop to check my email to check my schedule at the hospital for the next day. The screen still showed the gossip site I was browsing when Lauren came in the room. The page updated, and I read the latest headline:

Songwriter Mike McKenzie, father of Jenna Jax, dead at 49.

I don’t believe in signs, but the timing of this took my breath away.

Jenna

You know what they say… never meet your heroes.

My hero growing up was The Diva. I wanted to sing like her, look like her, be her.

Then I met The Diva.

I hated her.

Over the last few years, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would always be the kid sister of inspiration where Alan was concerned. While I never thought for a minute he loved The Diva or they had any kind of romantic relationship, one thing was for sure; she was his muse. For the last fifteen years, Alan gave The Diva the best of himself artistically, and I would get the cast offs.

Not that I had anything to complain about. By now I had a mantle of awards and two sold out world tours. My trajectory was much higher than The Diva’s at the start of her career. I think that’s where the rivalry between us began. She got the good songs, I got the people’s love. She was now the elder stateswoman clinging to her youth while I was infringing upon her turf. It made for many tense situations.

The Diva was legendary in her emotional circus that matched her stage name and persona. Recently, she had trashed an entire luxury yacht with a golf club after her much younger boyfriend dumped her. She then had to go on a three day psych hold after this breakdown. Drugs and alcohol had absolutely torn her voice to shreds, and served as a cautionary tale for the path I was on as producers scrambled to make her sound good, short of having someone else sing the track for her.

But for all of her faults, The Diva has a fierce fan base who loved her, and she wasn’t going anywhere for a very long time, and she knew it. She could fill an entire arena whispering the Yellow Pages half crocked. Even though she could coast now, it didn’t stop her from hating younger women. Especially me.

There was something about her that reminded me of my mother, and it incited rage inside of me whenever I had an encounter with her. However, I knew better than to open my mouth around someone like that, so when she would condescend to me and call me, “Baby Jax” I would grit my teeth and smile. If anything, it motivated me to have bigger hits than her every time.

The press loved this and made it a much bigger thing than it really was. I hardly saw her except for an industry party here and there and run ins at the studio, but some of her public shade and sound bytes fueled the fire of an epic rivalry between two pop stars. The Diva knew what she was doing. It kept her relevant and in the press.

I wasn’t a press darling, and the whole thing freaked me out. I had my own issues to deal with.

My coke and booze habit continued to get worse, even though I would take ‘breaks’ for a week or two at a time to convince myself I was doing it all for medicinal purposes and I wasn’t like my parents at all. I didn’t have a problem. See? I can stop at any time. I’ve got it all figured out.

While I had myself fooled, there were moments I couldn’t hide my secrets. There were times I would pass out in my own vomit on the floor, or wake up in my car not knowing where I was or how I got there. Jaye was a master at keeping all of it under wraps, and not even Alan knew how bad off I was. I should have gone into acting, because I was fooling everyone. I looked like a wholesome wonder next to The Diva.

Alan was on top of the world and didn’t even notice that anything was wrong; eating his newfound fame and respect with a spoon. He was the most successful and sought out producer in the world now, and it made him even more unbearable than he was before. Only now his reputation for being impossible to work with was excused for genius.

With The Diva and I monopolizing headlines, our management teams thought it would be a great idea to capitalize on it by co-headlining the ‘Women In Music’ television special. We would rotate sets with other women, and end the show with a new duet written by Alan.

Welcome to my waking nightmare.

When we began rehearsals for the show, I was spiraling. It was all Jaye could do to get me in the right pharmaceutical balance to function day in and day out. My life felt like a constantly uncomfortable out of body experience. I couldn’t be like The Diva and thrive on constant attention whether it was positive or negative. I hated having eyes on me at all times. It made me a virtual recluse and prisoner in my home. There were times I longed for my life back in Minnesota where I could just be a normal human doing normal things.

I didn’t even have a passion for the music I was doing. Again, I was on autopilot pantomiming my way through every performance. I didn’t love it or hate it; I was just there. Existing. If it all went away tomorrow I wouldn’t even be upset. I was hollow and dead inside. The only time I felt good was when I wasn’t feeling anything at all.

Rehearsals were a nightmare. Even though I was achieving functionality through a delicate chemical balance, my work ethic was still better than The Diva’s. I showed up on time and took my direction like the robot I had become, and The Diva would flounce in hours late tipsy on champagne, and wobble her way around the stage yelling at everyone. Her voice was terrible, and she had gained at least twenty pounds since I had seen her last.

Our closing duet was written and produced by Alan, but The Diva and I recorded it separately. It was a ballad about a life passed by with hope for tomorrow called, “One Wish.” I identified with the life passed by part, but I was apathetic about my future. However, it was a good song that skyrocketed to the top of the charts when it was released. The video for the single would be the live performance at the ‘Women in Music’ show.

Though I carried most of the vocal weight of the song, I was worried about how The Diva would handle her end of things. Her vocal on the single had been produced within an inch of its life to have her ruined voice attempt to sound like that of her heyday. During rehearsals she could only manage a breathy whisper voice, and complained about production not getting the sound or her monitors dialed in. I braced myself to just do my best to get through it without too much fanfare. The last thing my fragile state needed was The Diva making a spectacle of this performance.

Between sets, I would excuse myself and go into the bathroom backstage, take out my trusty ‘lipgloss’ and do a couple of quick bumps of coke to help me get through the day. I would always start intensely craving a bottle of vodka, valium, and a dark room as we got closer to the end. I dreaded the duet rehearsal today. The Diva had already thrown her bejeweled microphone so hard across the stage it nearly missed a country singer’s head.

As I screwed the lid back on my lipgloss container and let myself out of the stall, there was a commotion outside the bathroom door. The noise of high heels and a husky voice grew louder as the door swung open.

It was The Diva towering over me as she entered the bathroom and the door swung shut behind her. She eyed the lipgloss tube in my hand, snatched it, and stuck it in her bra before I even had a chance to react.

“Do you expect anyone to believe you’ve applied your own lipgloss in the last five years, Baby Jax?” She leered at me through her heavy false eyelashes and with her caked on makeup creasing around the corners of her mouth. Her breath smelled like stale champagne and I couldn’t tell if she was going to punch me or not. I didn’t know what to say, so I just stood there staring at her blankly.

She stepped forward and gently put her hands on my shoulders, her brown eyes locked on mine. The Diva took a deep breath, “I see you, Baby Jax. I see myself in you, and I know what you’re doing. When you walk out of this room, your whole life is going to change, and I’m telling you, there’s no way you’re going to numb your way out of it, so don’t. You have made enough money to go back to North Dakota, or wherever it is you’re from, and raise goats or something.”

I backed out of her grip and gave her a confused look, who should stop doing drugs here?

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“The news just broke that your father has died. GossipRox just reported that he collapsed in a studio and was rushed to the hospital and he didn’t make it. I’m so sorry,” The Diva said softly with tears welling up in her eyes.

In a flash, I rushed passed her and out the door. I turned toward the corridor that led to the dressing rooms and began to run shouting Jaye’s name. I spotted him down the hall on the phone looking pained. When he saw me his face let me know that it was true. I let out a scream I couldn’t even hear in my own head and collapsed onto the floor.

He was gone. The one person I had done all of this to keep alive was gone.

Jennifer Gulbrandsen

Written by

Author of ‘The Secret Life of Lies’ and ‘Some Die Just To Live.’ Twitter: @jenngulbrandsen