Jillian: A Novel

Jillian: A Novel

by Halle Butler


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The "sublimely awkward and hilarious" (Chicago Tribune), National Book Award "5 Under 35"-garnering first novel from the acclaimed author of The New Me—now in a new edition

Twenty-four-year-old Megan may have her whole life ahead of her, but it already feels like a dead end, thanks to her dreadful job as a gastroenterologist's receptionist and her heart-clogging resentment of the success and happiness of everyone around her. But no one stokes Megan's bitterness quite like her coworker, Jillian, a grotesquely optimistic, thirty-five-year-old single mother whose chirpy positivity obscures her mounting struggles.

Megan and Jillian's lives become increasingly precarious as their faulty coping mechanisms—denial, self-help books, alcohol, religion, prescription painkillers, obsessive criticism, alienated boyfriends, and, in Jillian's case, the misguided purchase of a dog—send them spiraling toward their downfalls. Wickedly authentic and brutally funny, Jillian is a subversive portrait of two women trapped in cycles of self-delusion and self-destruction, each more like the other than they would care to admit.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143135524
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/07/2020
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 640,477
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Halle Butler is the author of Jillian and The New Me. She has been named a National Book Award Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree and a Granta Best Young American Novelist.

Read an Excerpt


Jillian was in the rapture of one of her great musings.

"But what I really want is to be a personal assistant, or to go door-to-door and help people get organized. Not, like, as a psychologist, but I might be good at that, too. More like helping people get the right bins and sort through their stuff. Just go in and help people get organized."

"You really like organizing?" Megan asked. Megan was not listening. She pronounced it flatly. "You really like organizing."

"I'm obsessed," said Jillian. "My house is packed with color-coded boxes and labels and stuff like that."

"You're a collector," said Megan.

Jillian burped, a discreet, air-valve release through her mouth. "Ha ha, yeah."

The phone rang. Megan picked it up and said, "Good afternoon, doctors' office." The woman on the phone asked if this was Dr. Billings's office. Megan answered in the affirmative.

"Well, finally," said the woman. "I left a message on your machine and I did not receive a call within twenty-four hours, as promised."

"How may I help you?" asked Megan.

"I was beginning to think Dr. Billings was a figment of my mind," said the woman. "Like I was imagining him, and that maybe I had dreamed leaving the message."

Megan sniffed.

"But when I checked my call history just now, I saw that I had really called." Megan didn't have the energy.

"Umm, hello, hello," said the woman.

"Yes, how may I help you?" said Megan.

"I'd like to make an appointment, like I said in my message. Should I just start from the top?"

"Could I have your name and availability, please?" said Megan. She thought of her current mindset as "allowing the shit to happen."

The microwave beeped in the background. The microwave was in the closet where they kept drug samples, and it sat on top of the mini-fridge. People used the mini-fridge to store both lunches and biological samples, side by side. Megan did not like to use the mini-fridge or the microwave. She did not like to think about how the heat from the microwave might combine the side-by-side contents of the mini-fridge.

She thought about the microwave and the mini-fridge while scheduling the appointment, and she also thought about how people affectionately referred to using the microwave as "nuking."

"All right, Mrs. Davies, we'll see you next Wednesday at ten o'clock," said Megan.

Jillian walked back to her desk from the microwave, holding her lunch. The lunch came in a small plastic tub and had an indeterminate odor.

Jillian's desk was large-executive, almost-and made of mahogany-colored laminate. Megan's desk was small and made of glass and cheap, black metal, and Megan had decorated the glass with a fanciful pattern of coffee splatters, adhesive, and various other dribblings. Megan's desk was placed in the corner between a fax machine and an oversized, locked trash can. She had a nice view of the wall.

"I mean, don't get me wrong," said Jillian, "I love my job." She peeled the plastic flap off her lunch and slapped it on her desk with a practiced gesture. "But it's a dream of mine to work on my own terms. And I think, you know, when a person has a passion, they should follow it."

"Mmmm," said Megan.

"And since I keep collecting all this organizing stuff, I think it's pretty clear that it's a passion, so I'm trying to really listen to it so I can understand what it means for my future."

Megan squeezed the bridge of her nose.

"I'm sorry?" said Jillian.

"Oh, nothing, I'm sorry. I was talking to my computer."

"Oh, don't worry. I do that all the time," said Jillian. She laughed. "So what do you think of my idea? Do you think about that stuff sometimes?"

"Yeah, I guess. I don't know about organizers, though," said Megan. She dropped her voice an octave for the authoritative thrill. "I think sometimes people buy organizers to make themselves feel satisfied with their intentions, rather than to help them organize."

"Hmmm, that's interesting," said Jillian.

"It's just an opinion."

"It's cool how different people are," said Jillian.

"Yeah, maybe," said Megan.

"So, Miss Megan, what's your dream job? Go ahead and describe it to me."

Jillian was a thirty-five-year-old woman. Megan was twenty-four.

"Gee, I don't know," said Megan. She looked around the office. "I guess this." She widened her eyes at her keyboard. "I guess I would like to have a job that's easy like this, but maybe with better pay and fewer hours."

"Awww," said Jillian.

"What?" said Megan.

"We do hard work."

Megan threw her skirt on the floor and said, "Jillian."

Her boyfriend, Randy, was making dinner. He was cutting a zucchini into slices and laying the slices on top of a frozen cheese pizza.

"Today she burped in the middle of a sentence," said Megan. "Like it was a word in her sentence."

"Ha ha," said Randy. Megan leaned against the kitchen sink.

"JILLIAN!" said Megan, raising her arms.

"Yeesh," said Randy.

"She thinks she's going to become a personal organizer."

"I don't know what that is," said Randy.

"Yes you do."

"Yeah, I guess I do," said Randy.

"When she told me about it, it occurred to me to say, 'Well, never in all my life!'"

Megan thought about this and tried to sit on the edge of the sink. "I don't really know why I wanted to say that. I just want to do my work without having to listen to her dreams." Megan gestured again. "I don't want to stress out about her dreams."

"It's a really small office, right?" her boyfriend asked. "So, you're really trapped in there."

"Completely trapped."

Megan kept thinking about Jillian and tried to sit on the edge of the sink, but fell backward into it. She hit her head on the aluminum cabinets. Randy heard this, along with the noise of some dishes.

"You all right?" asked Randy.

Randy walked to the sink, which was attached to the wall shared with the living room. Megan started shaking and said she thought she might throw up. He put his arms around her and lifted her out of the sink. When he looked down into the sink, he cringed.

"I fell on that knife," said Megan.

"You sure did," said Randy.

He walked her through the living room while assuring her that she would be fine. Megan's knees jiggled.

"Here, lie down," he said. Megan got on her stomach on the bed and Randy pulled her tights down. He looked over at the pile of clothing in the corner of their small, unlit bedroom, hoping to see a pair of sweatpants in the wad.

"I'm going to get something for this," he said.

"Did I cut myself?" asked Megan.

"You did," he said.

"I thought so," she said, and then nearly fainted.

Randy got up from his squat beside the bed and walked to the kitchen. Megan continued to lie on the bed on her stomach, her face pointed at the clothing wad. In the kitchen, where he was getting a bowl of warm water and a roll of masking tape, Randy saw the knife she'd sat on. It was surrounded by watery blood. Next to the knife, floating in a teacup, was a small crouton.

He went to the bathroom to dry-heave and get gauze, Neosporin, and Tylenol.

When he got back to the bedroom, she was sobbing. He set his things on the nightstand and took a moment to look at the underwear around Megan's ankles.

"Hey, it's not that bad," he said. The gash was deep, but not incredibly bloody. He rinsed and dried it, then covered it with a quarter of the tube of Neosporin.

"It really hurts," she said.

"I know, I know," he said. He rubbed her head for a minute. "Do you still want me to make that pizza?"

"What? No. Maybe. Maybe I'll want that pizza later," she said. "You decide, I don't know."

"Okay, I'll decide," he said. He wiped her nose and eyes with the extra gauze. She looked like a disgusting dead sea creature. Randy began to smile and wipe the stray hairs out of her face.

"My ass hurts so much," she sobbed.

"I know it does, honey," he said.

Megan remembered what she had been talking about when she slid into the sink and said, "Jillian is such a fucking idiot!"

"I know, honey," said Randy. "She's a total idiot."

"No, I'm serious," she cried. "This is serious!"

"Of course it is," said Randy.

"I get a dangerous sense of foreboding when I'm around her." Megan swallowed some spit. "She's seeping into me! Everything she says and does, whenever she opens her mouth!"

Randy nodded and rubbed Megan's ears. "I know."

"But I won't let her get to me."

"That's good. You should really try to let this all go, it's not good for you. You talk about her every day. I'm so happy you're going to brush it off, that's really mature."

Megan omitted his statement from her mind. "I'll turn the tables," she said. "I'll enjoy it. Every stupid idea she has is mine now. I'll savor it, that's what I'll do."

Randy frowned and balled up the snot gauze before tossing it onto the nightstand.

The bus pulled up to the eight-story medical building and Megan had her usual fantasy about remaining onboard until the end of the line, but she heaved herself toward the doors of the bus anyway. Slumping along, sort of throwing her feet one after the other, she crossed the street, entered the building, rode the elevator, walked down the hallway, and then stood facing her office door. She stared at it. Then she went inside and there was Jillian.

"Hey, Miss Megan!"

"Hey," said Megan.

"How was your night, do anything fun? Anything new?"

"Nothing's really changed since yesterday, no," said Megan. Megan put her knee on her chair and opened Citrix, the intranet portal that connected her office with the hospital. Citrix was complex and opaque, and to understand it fully a person would probably need to attend a three-day regional seminar. Megan entered her secret username, "Megan," and her secret password, "password."

"Well, if you don't have any news, let me tell you about my crazy night." Jillian separated out the words "crazy" and "night." Megan tried to ease her weight slowly down on her injured haunch.

"I am going to get a dog and start my own business," said Jillian.

"Oh yeah?" said Megan.

"Oh yeah. Do you want to see the dog?"

Megan did not want to see the dog, but she agreed anyway. She walked the two paces to Jillian's desk and stood there with her arms crossed. Let's see this fucking dog, you fucking moron.

"She's a special needs puppy," breathed Jillian. "And she's dog of the day. It's a two-hundred-dollar adoption fee. I don't really have that much, but I want her so, so bad. Isn't she cute?"

They both took a second to admire the dog. Megan thought it was a completely idiotic idea. She was, in some ways, ethically opposed to pet ownership.

"Yeah, she's cute. But the adoption fees are to make sure the new owners can afford dog food and vet bills." Megan cleared her throat and walked back to her desk. Her foot slipped out of her shoe. "And, if she really is a special needs dog, you know the vet bills are gonna be high. Just saying, might not be the best dog for you. Or, maybe it's not the best time to get a dog. You have to plan for that stuff."

"Yeah, well, I'm pretty sure my little boy really wants a dog, and I think the most important thing for a special needs dog to have is love."

Oh my god, this dog is going to die within a week, thought Megan.

"Oh, and I have to tell you about my idea to work from home."

Just as a thought experiment, Megan scanned the room for potential weapons. Jillian's voice came in and out of focus.

". . . software I can . . . medical coding from . . . that cool?? . . . I can take . . . little companion!"

Megan's cut was starting to scab, but the scab was still thin and new-that kind of yellow, crystallized pus, like dried snot or eye-crap. It cracked a little when Megan put weight on it.

"It's going to be so great. I can't wait for summer. I'm gonna work from home, and I'm gonna have a dog on a leash and my baby's hand in mine," said Jillian. Megan glanced over her shoulder and confirmed that, yes, Jillian did have a faraway look on her face.

"Yep. This summer's gonna be the best," said Megan.

Megan started filing the images from the colonoscopies performed the day before. The large volume of documents suggested a kind of drive-through approach to the procedures that Megan found tactless. The images in the folder were the same as they always were. Each patient was represented by a grid of two-by-two inch photographs of twisting, ribbed tunnels, which were sometimes pink and slick, but sometimes filled with crust, sludge, blood, or little hangy-balls of bowel skin. The one thing she never saw in any of these photos was waste, but sometimes she came across a report with no images and the ghastly description "patient failed to empty completely, reschedule procedure."

"Hi," said Jillian. "I'm calling about the software package I saw on your website. . . . Yuh-huh. Yeah, I'm really, um, really interested in it. Yes, ma'am, I am starting my own coding business. Yes, ma'am, medical coding. Yes, I will. Okay. You want me to give you my number?"

Jillian hung up the phone and sighed, thrilled. "Oh, dude, Megan, this is going to be so awesome!"

"Huh?" said Megan.

Jillian gasped. "Oh, I almost forgot! We have twelve patients this afternoon, so get ready! I made up some new registration forms." Megan could feel that Jillian was approaching her.

Jillian opened a manila folder under Megan's face and said, "It's basically the same as the last one, except for here." She double-tapped. Jillian's fingers seemed to get a great sensory thrill from paper, judging by the way they touched it.

"And this is the new confidentiality agreement."

"I got it, Jillian," said Megan. "Thank you. Thank you for doing this."

"Oh, and since you were late again today, I took your missed calls. You had lots. Let me get those notes for you."

"Thank you very much," said Megan.

The doctors arrived ten minutes later, and Megan gave them both a curt, nonverbal greeting. Jillian showed them both the dog.

Later, Jillian received a phone call. Megan observed an immediate shift in tone. Her ears perked.

"No, I'm sorry but that's not fair," said Jillian. "It's not fair, and it's incorrect." Pause. "No."

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