About the Feature
Photo by jan go
I drove Harry from LA to Michigan the same August that California burned down. California burned every year, of course, and had all my life. Fire was one of the only seasons we had. But it was getting worse in a way we could see and sprawling out over the calendar. In May, I’d driven to CSULA to take my last final of the semester with the smoke so thick on the highway I had to turn my headlights on. Here and there, ash fell at the sides of the road.
The fires had raged through mountains and down hillsides, eating up landmarks and houses and trees. They weren’t that big a part of my life, really, though Harry and I worried that the Getty Villa would burn. We’d both taken field trips there as kids and had returned last year, back when we were sleeping together, and gotten told off by a security guard for making out on the lip of a big mosaicked fountain. The fountain was a reproduction of one from Pompeii. The museum didn’t end up burning.
Harry loaded her old Camry to its limits with boxes, and together we strapped a black roof bag to the top. The little cactus she’d spent a year tending on her dorm windowsill was wedged into a cup holder, and her hamster, Emily Dickinson, sat in a white wire cage in the backseat. Harry had graduated in May, and she was going to the University of Michigan to get her master’s in social work. It was a good school for that, she said, the best.
I still had a year of undergrad left and was flying back after I helped Harry settle in.
We passed through miles of burnt hills on our first day. There was something beautiful about the pitch-black earth, like lava rock or certain descriptions of a woman’s hair. But more of the burning was patchy—an uncertain patterning of char against the summer’s usual brown grasses. Harry had her music up as high as it would go and was singing along. Recently, she liked Joan Baez, so that was what we trailed out our open windows: her long, sweet melancholy, and Harry’s own untuned voice. Harry sang like someone who so, so badly wanted to sing beautifully.
There was the occasional tree still standing against the ash, some blackened, raising their branches and twigs against the blue sky like paper cutouts, and some inexplicable survivors scattered a dusty, living brown amidst their burned brethren.
“It looks like another planet,” Harry said. “Like Mars.”
“Mars is red,” I reminded her, looking away out the window. It wasn’t me leaving California, but I felt like it was. I wanted to look at these hills as if I’d never see them again.
“It’ll be gold again next summer. Amber.”
It felt too generous to call that patchy brown and yellow after anything you might use to make jewelry. Most summers, our hills were like the set of a Wild West movie. They had actually filmed some Westerns, as well as some movies set on Mars, out at Vasquez Rocks, the spiny, sloping formation of stone that my father used to take me to climb as a kid. I took Harry there once, and we got drunk sharing a bottle of raspberry rum and made out, lying on our sides on a wedge of stone until Harry’s shirt rucked up and she told me, laughing, “I’m getting gravel down my pants.” You could still see the stars clearly from Vasquez, and the moon was bright, which was good because we hadn’t brought flashlights. We kept stopping on our stumbling way back to the car, Harry clinging to me and pointing up at the glittering sky—“Look at that, Jane. Holy shit!”—amazed each time by our new angle on the stars, and me wrapping my arm around her waist and saying, “Don’t fall. Don’t fall.”
Harry and I had both lived in California all our lives. When Harry looked at grad schools, she mostly applied out of state. She said she wanted to go somewhere green. She was going to freeze her ass off in Michigan.
This trip was the last we were going to see of each other for a while, and we’d decided to make an event of it. We were going up the coast first, stopping on the way in our favorite cities, and then driving through Glacier National Park, up the Going-to-the-Sun Road, before we began the long, blank journey through the Midwest and finally to Ann Arbor and Harry’s tiny, waiting apartment. I would spend a few days there, help her unpack, settle in, buy furniture from the used shops. Then a flight back to California in time to move into my own dorm.
“It’ll probably burn again next year,” I said and flicked my hand at the countryside, the rushing air catching my palm.
“God,” Harry sighed. “Don’t say that.”
“Would you roll up the windows? I can taste the smoke.” The fires along the freeway were out days ago, but something was burning somewhere. Harry rolled the windows up. Joan Baez, louder now that she was trapped against the glass, sang “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.”
Harry drove with one hand on the steering wheel and her head leaned against the driver’s side window. She looked like some kind of desert animal—short, big-eyed, arranged out of angles. Like a pocket mouse, tiny and staring, with quick, knobby knees. Her hair was a ragged twist of sandy curls. All of it made her look younger than she was. The car wove minutely side to side with her steering. She was a crappy driver, but she loved to do it. “Did they ever cancel school for the smoke when you were a kid?”
“I won’t miss that,” she said, “or waiting for the big one.”
I leaned over and knocked her on the shoulder. “Don’t be so sure yet.” I loved Harry’s shoulders, which fit perfectly in my cupped palm. “We’re driving right over the San Andreas.”
When Harry laughed, she threw her head back, and I could see the tips of her teeth. It was beautiful and also something I think she did because she saw women do it in movies. Sometimes, even when trying very hard, Harry didn’t quite manage to seem original. “You’re such a dick,” she said. “You’re gonna be out there for another year. You’re the one who’s gonna fall into the sea.”
“Guess I’ll drown, then.”
“Ugh.” Harry stretched her free hand out. I dropped a handful of pistachios in it from the bag I was holding between my knees, and she shoved them into her mouth. “Don’t drown. I’d miss you.”
“Sure, you would.”
“Sure, I would. I’d miss your sweet temper.”
From the speakers, Joan Baez finished, Should I leave them by your gate? Or, sad-eyed lady, should I wait? “Bob wrote this for the woman he was with after Joan,” Harry told me. Harry talked about artists like they were her friends, with first names. “The woman he married.”
When we finally came down out of the hills to the long, straight highway that would smell like cows for the next hundred miles, Harry whooped and slammed the accelerator. On these empty roads, she drove like a teenager who wanted to die. The car lurched so quickly toward ninety that I could feel the world narrow.
I met Harry in my second semester of college, on the steep staircase that went from the cement island of our campus downhill to the dorms—a collection of boxy, white stucco apartment buildings. In the spring, the one stunted cherry tree that grew on that steep hill flowered pale pink, and the concrete steps filled with hundreds of black caterpillars. At their largest, they were about the size of my thumb and covered in a layer of bushy black spines, so each looked a little like a scrap of wool dropped on the ground. I didn’t know where they came from or why there were so many of them, but they showed up every year. For days I couldn’t walk down the steps without seeing dozens upon dozens of their bodies crushed underfoot, smeared like rotting fruit. Hardly anyone even looked to avoid stepping on them. It’s amazing what college students can ignore, especially by the middle of the semester.
That day, I saw Harry bent over at the base of the stairs. She had a stick, and she went down on her knees and coaxed one of the caterpillars off the cement and onto the stick, then she flicked it into the grass. Then she climbed a couple of steps, spotted another one, and bent down for it. I watched her do this for almost five minutes. She was getting in everyone’s way, and her face was very serious, puckered, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. I’d never tried to pick up a girl I didn’t know before. I wasn’t sure how you were supposed to do it. I started at the top of the stairs and began collecting the caterpillars as I found them.
When we met in the middle, I held one out to her in my cupped palm. The caterpillar was curled into a tight little ball, looking even more like a stray bit of yarn. Harry looked down at my hand, then up at me, and grimaced. “Oh no,” she said, “I don’t like to touch them. They’re kind of disgusting.”
I blinked at her and then, obediently, tossed the caterpillar off onto the hillside. I wondered how many of them actually survived out there and didn’t crawl back onto the steps to be crushed or else scooped up by birds or infiltrated by parasites. “Then why are you picking them up?”
Harry winced and tugged on the long fringe of her ponytail, a nervous gesture she would have up until she lopped it off. “I just feel bad letting things die.”
There would always be something compulsive and anxious about Harry’s kindness, which made me think sometimes about the difference between not being bad and being good.
That spring I had a single because my roommate had moved home and hadn’t told housing services, and Harry had a girlfriend who she said she was in love with. The girlfriend was tall, coltish, a criminal justice major. She had that unfortunate verbal tick that articles are always warning women about now, where you qualify all your statements by saying I think and As far as I know and This is just my opinion, but when you don’t need to. Saying I’m sorry whenever you start or stop speaking.
Most of our motels didn’t allow pets, but Harry always snuck Emily Dickinson in anyway. I told her the hamster would be fine in the car overnight, but she wouldn’t have it.
The nights were nice. We knew how to live in each other’s space and had for a while. Sometimes there were two beds and sometimes only one. I didn’t ask what Harry’s preference had been when she booked the rooms. If there was just one bed, one of us would sit on the floor or go play with the hamster—both of us quiet with our headphones in, me reading my book about cannibalism, while Harry tapped thoughtfully at her keyboard. She liked to go on Reddit and give relationship advice to strangers. Sometimes she’d lift her head and tell me whatever crazy shit she’d just read.
“This guy used his girlfriend’s savings to buy a $5,000 dog.”
“A $5,000 dog.”
“What kind of dog is $5,000?”
She waved a hand. “One of those fussy purebreds with all the health problems.”
Or I’d close up my book and say, “This guy thinks climate change might make people eat each other.”
Harry looked at me with very wide eyes. “Why?”
And then she’d go back to typing for a while, telling the man on the internet what to do about his fussy dog and his girlfriend he’d robbed, and I’d go back to my book and the descriptions of prion diseases. Later, we’d huddle around my laptop and find somewhere to order takeout. We shared greasy food out of greasy boxes, flipping through the channels on tv. Ghost-hunting shows and late-night History Channel documentaries about aliens. Harry leaned on my shoulder and then, sometimes, climbed into my lap, and I put my arms around her body. She was so skinny, but her stomach was still soft, still stuck out a little. I’d always loved having Harry in my lap. We talked about the things we were both excited for: driving the coastal roads, Powell’s in Portland, the explorer myth of getting to see glaciers.
Harry was the first girl I ever hooked up with. Because she climbed into my lap like that and took my hand and put it on her stomach. We were watching tv in my room under a blanket that my roommate left behind. I never got to know the roommate, but I think she moved home because she was afraid of killing herself. For a few weeks, I wouldn’t go on her side of the room at all. I left it empty except for her cheap sheets on her cheap mattress. Then I stripped her bed and spread myself out as much as possible, trying to crowd out her presence. Harry angled my hand until my fingertips were in her shorts. I could feel the thick elastic band of her underwear and a few coarse curls of hair. I asked her if she was sure. We’d made out a couple of times, drunk, but hadn’t talked about it. She was still with her girlfriend.
“Yeah,” she said. I remember my uneven heartbeat and the sensation of having half-swallowed something I couldn’t get down. I remember that I only really thought of her girlfriend because I was thinking that I’d never touched anyone but myself, and Harry had probably been fingered plenty of times. I remember feeling like the shape of her skeleton would be imprinted on me for the rest of my life.
In Portland, we stopped at Powell’s bookstore, where Harry darted off toward the true crime section and left me holding her hamster. Emily Dickinson was tucked in a little denim purse, squirming violently against my hip. I wondered if she was frightened, having been moved around so much and taken so many places. Harry joked about her being the farthest-traveled hamster in history. I conceded that she might be the farthest-traveled hamster alive. It was ridiculous to me that Harry insisted on bringing her. Her parents would’ve taken care of Emily Dickinson, I’m sure, but she insisted. She didn’t want her to be alone, she said. Or she didn’t want to be alone. One of those.
I slipped my hand into the purse and tried to pet Emily Dickinson’s fragile little skull. She bit me. I had helped Harry move the hamster into her dorm. I drove her to pick up the cage from her parents’ house. The house was musty, nearly fungal, and Harry introduced me to her father as her friend Jane. This was true because we’d stopped fucking then. I was hooking up with women I met on Tinder who I made sleep in my vanished roommate’s bed if they stayed over because I hated sharing mine, hated unfamiliar limbs sweating on my body. It felt like the thing to do to make these girls breakfast in the morning, but I never learned how to cook, so breakfast was microwaved packets of oatmeal or a rubbery egg on toast. Harry said she was taking a break from sex for a while, with anyone. She didn’t want to talk about what happened with the girlfriend.
In the bookstore, I browsed. Mary Oliver and Edna St. Vincent Millay, art books full of stark photography, political nonfiction with nervy, shell-shocked titles. In the science section, I read about why the bees were disappearing. And they were disappearing, not just dying. Colony collapse disorder is when the bees abandon their hive in the middle of the night, leaving their queen behind and their larvae pupating in sealed, waxy cells. So far as scientists could tell, there was no single responsible factor but rather a crescendo up to a breaking point—pesticides and pestilence and climate change and mites and stress. Against my leg, Emily Dickinson had finally, blessedly, calmed. I was also pretty sure she’d pissed on me.
When I got bored enough to go looking for Harry, I found her picking through a wall of cookbooks. She couldn’t even reach the second highest shelf standing on tiptoe. “Which one do you want?” She pointed, and I handed her a beginner’s guide to French cooking.
“Thank you, stranger.” She swayed, smiling against my side. “That’s very chivalrous of you, stranger.” My chest ached. I kissed the part of her curls. If either of us were a man, or even if we’d been a little older, we wouldn’t have tried to actually be friends after we stopped fucking that first time. Not right away, at least. We went to a big school and could have faded seamlessly out of each other’s lives.
“I think I’m going to become a woman who cooks,” Harry said. “Like, really cooks.”
“You cook.” There was one month in sophomore year where she came to my dorm and made dinner for both of us once a week and left me a mountain of leftovers, sealed in Tupperware that overtook my tiny fridge. I’d said something about how my tv dinners made me want to shoot myself. There was one grocery store in walking distance, and it sold pouches of soup that you had to shake, frozen, out of their bags before you could microwave them, and burritos that got so hard at the corners it tasted like you were eating part of your paper plate. Harry’s food had been simple, maybe even a little bland. Chicken and rice dishes, pasta, the kind of biscuits that you squeezed out of a cardboard tube and then put in the oven. Warm comfort food. It was the tenderness of her doing it at all that got me. I hadn’t known she thought about me that much.
“But like really cooks,” Harry said and showed me a book on making different kinds of pies. The index revealed that there were more kinds of pies than I’d formerly known about. “I think I’m going to become someone who hosts dinner parties and brings in macaroons for my coworkers and has a spice drawer.”
“I think you could do that,” I agreed. “Maybe not very big parties.” I’d seen pictures of her apartment.
“Don’t harsh my buzz.”
“Your hamster pissed on me.”
“Oh. Good girl, Emily Dickinson.”
I snorted. I handed her Emily Dickinson’s purse, and she put it back on.
“The best part of moving,” Harry said, tucking her head under my chin, “is getting to reinvent yourself. I’m going to be someone who cooks. I’m going to buy new clothes. Maybe I’ll go by Harriet again. Or Etta. Or one of those names girls make up, like Bunny or Goldie or Mouse.”
“I’ve never heard of anyone doing that.”
Harry shrugged, her shoulders pushing against my chest. “You read the wrong books. I’ll dye my hair. I’ll learn French. I’ll stop using my contacts and get glasses. I’ll make all new friends. Next time you see me, I’ll be somebody else.”
In the mornings, Harry’s alarm would wake us both up. She would refill Emily Dickinson’s food. I would put on coffee. She’d start packing our things while I went down to the continental breakfast, if there was one, and brought up not-quite-expired yogurts and dry bagels. Harry’s jaw popped when she chewed. Sometimes she would put on lipstick. I would swallow my meds, two white, circular pills, with coffee. The antidepressant I’d been taking for over a year had stopped working, slowly, and then all at once, so I spent the spring in a low static. I still went to work and most of my classes, pulled As on a lot of my papers. Those were things I did. I read a lot of essays online by people who wanted to kill themselves. Everyone on my mother’s side of the family had attempted suicide at least once, except, so far, me. I wouldn’t call us unhappy people. It’s just that these things run in the blood. During lectures, I’d look out wide windows and imagine my body hanging in the frame of them, swaying and purpling. I performed gruesome mental surgeries, picturing myself flayed open, my organs on display, quietly amputating a limb or opening an artery in my mind while I talked to people.
It’s maybe not a surprise that my sex drive was low. The one time Harry and I ended up in bed together last semester, her body was a little skeleton straddling my thighs, so beautiful that I actually wanted to puke my guts up. I thought about a sharp, calm blade, removing slabs of flesh like slices of deli meat from my stomach, hips, my wide shoulders, the breasts I kept tight behind a sports bra. Until my naked body looked something like her naked body.
“You’re not really into this right now, are you?” Harry had asked, taking her hand away and wiping it on the bed.
“No,” I admitted. “I don’t think so. Sorry.”
“That’s okay.” She flopped beside me on her back and leaned her soft head on my shoulder. I told myself I was a jealous bitch. “You don’t apologize to friends.”
We hadn’t tried to have sex since then; it just didn’t happen. In January, when she told me she was going away, I think she resented me for not having more of a reaction. We’d just come from the Women’s March and were tucked into a Starbucks, drinking Frappuccinos, sweaty and coming down off the high of our anger. A sign someone had handed Harry was wedged in next to our bags on the floor. It said, “We don’t have time for denial” in blocky green letters. I was so tired I could barely lift my head. My hands were shaking. I usually liked crowds, had always liked protests. I just wanted to go home and sleep. On a list of symptoms I’d written for my psychiatrist, I had scrawled, “When I’m around other people I don’t feel real.” In elementary school, when we made papier-mâché sculptures, they had us paste the paper and glue over a balloon and then pop the balloon. That was something like the feeling, like whatever was usually under my skin had all gone out at once. “So”—Harry kicked the base of the table—“I got into the University of Michigan.”
My stomach rocked briefly, a boat going over a rough wave. I think I said, “I’m glad you’re going somewhere with seasons.”
We checked ourselves out of the hotel. Harry snuck Emily Dickinson out through the back door, like this was clever. We piled our tired suitcases back into the trunk, and I asked Harry to find somewhere other than the cup holder to put her stupid cactus. My arms were longer than hers and I was worried about shoving my elbow into it while I drove. She ignored me.
After so much flat road, there was something breathless about the mountains we entered. The clusters of trees, from even a little distance, were like crumpled green velvet. I once inherited a dress that color, from a suddenly departed aunt, when I was already a couple sizes too big to wear it. Not being able to make it fit had convinced me that I’d never be as beautiful in anything as I would have been in that dress.
Harry looked up from her phone and said, “This guy on Reddit threw out all his girlfriend’s clothes and replaced them.”
I laughed. “Holy shit.”
“The internet always makes me feel better about how shitty I am at relationships.”
When the new medication finally started to work, it was like the tide washing out. For the last few weeks I’d felt like I was catching my breath, standing on the damp beach of myself. I have always known I am getting better when things that are beautiful start to feel relevant to me again. The trees green and rich against that slap of vivid sky, all of it still and irreplacable. The truth was that despite everything with Harry, I was doing better than I had been in months. Sadness is different when it is coming from a place you can make sense of.
Harry wanted me to tell her she wasn’t shitty at relationships, but I wasn’t going to. I was looking at the trees. Later that year the Amazon rain forest would be burning, which doesn’t really have anything to do with anything.
We were both looking forward to Glacier National Park. With our coastal destinations behind us, the uninterrupted stretches of driving were long. I was beginning to feel so dreary about the rest of the trip that it seemed like the glacier might be the last beautiful thing I was ever going to see. Harry had started talking more and more about school. The classmates she’d been emailing, the courses she was excited for. I pulled out my phone and swiped through Tinder just to have something to do with my hands. Funnily enough, there were not that many queer girls in this part of Idaho, or at least not that many with Tinder profiles.
Harry was still driving one-handed. I minded it more than I had the first day of the trip. “You’re weaving,” I said. She ignored me.
I wanted to think that Harry and I were a matter of timing. That we both regretted something. After her girlfriend had broken up with her, she stopped dating, and then she said she wanted to try men for a while. “I usually get along better with other women,” she said, “but I don’t know. Maybe it’s easier with men. I think men expect less from you, as long as they’re getting sex.”
I told her I didn’t think that was how it worked. I told her, “At the risk of saying ‘not all men,’ I don’t think that’s even most men.” I told her if she went into it with that attitude, she’d end up with someone who treated her like shit. There was a boyfriend for a little while. He was fine. I think he broke up with her. I think it was before we started having sex again. It’s not like I waited in the wings, though. I dated, then decided I was too busy to date, then hooked up with people who weren’t her, and dated again.
The spring I met Harry was 2017, and the inauguration had happened a month or so before. There were protests every few weeks. Our school sent out emails promising that the administration would do its best to protect undocumented students, but it didn’t say what its best meant. One of my classes derailed into debating whether a nuclear missile could reach us from North Korea. “I heard they can reach New York,” a boy on the other side of the room kept saying. “If they can reach New York, they can reach us.” This led to the realization that a lot of us didn’t know where North Korea was. When I visited my mother, she sent me home with iodine tablets she’d bought online, and I kept them in the bottom drawer of my desk. And Harry was there, and we had a lot of sex. These things didn’t really have anything to do with each other, except that it always felt like something was on fire in the next room. And when things are on fire, the regular rules don’t apply.
We pulled into a rest stop, and as soon as she’d parked the car, Harry twisted around and poked her finger between the bars of Emily Dickinson’s cage. “How are you doing, baby?” She cooed. “You sweet little thing. How are you doing?” Emily Dickinson was a little ball of white fur, with long orange teeth that sometimes protruded, and rheumy, pink eyes. I sometimes thought about killing that hamster. Harry craned her neck to look at my phone. The girl whose profile I was looking at was blonde, ruddy-cheeked, smiling. She was nineteen. She had a face that made you want to take someone dancing. “You kind of have a thing for girls with small tits, huh?” Harry said.
I clicked the app closed. “Come on.”
“I’m just, like, saying you have a type. I’m your type. It’s not an insult.”
She was twisted up, weaselly and golden in her seat. Pretty and small and the same live animal who I’d gotten in a car with because she said, Come with me. I sucked my lip between my teeth.
“You’re kind of a cunt.”
“What the fuck?” Harry started laughing and then stopped in the middle of it, her mouth open, bottom lip curled so I could see the flat, white tips of her teeth, the slick of her spit inside her mouth.
There was something dry in my throat that I had to swallow around, something like a ball of chalk. There was a scattering of discarded pistachio shells on the carpet by my feet that Harry had never picked up. I was so tired. “You heard what I said.” I hadn’t raised my voice yet, but I would rather yell at her than cry.
“Where did that even come from?”
I shrugged. “From you kind of being a cunt.”
Rest stops are such beautiful, liminal spaces. A long way below us there was a lake so bright I couldn’t look right at it. There was a quiet wind, as there always seems to be at rest stops. Maybe cars make it. The parking lot was empty except for one beaten-up sedan parked in a far corner, glittering indifferently where streaks of paint had been scraped off. There was no way to tell if it was abandoned or not.
“What crawled up your ass?” Harry demanded. “What do you care what I say?”
“Never mind.” I had the sensation of something bubbling in my chest, like those mouths that open in the earth and spit sulfur and steam, venting themselves into the sky. If I had shouted at her then, I probably would have shouted a lot of things. At this point, though, it didn’t feel worth it to argue with her. Five days and a long empty road from Michigan, it felt both too early and too late to air any grievances. “Forget it.”
“No.” Harry twisted over the center console, snarling. “You don’t get to just suddenly—” She cut herself off halfway through the word, sucking in a breath so sudden and high it sounded like a scream, and clutched her arm back to her chest.
I startled. “What?”
“Fuck!” Harry inhaled again, sharply. “Holy fucking fuck! Jesus!”
“What?” I looked around the car, frantic, but also wondering, a little, if this was a joke at my expense.
“I put my hand on the fucking cactus!” Harry shouted at me.
I stared at her, at the cactus, innocent in its cup holder, and then at her arm, which was indeed lit from the base of her palm up her wrist with little golden spines. My breath made a hitching sound—not quite, but almost, a giggle.
“What the fuck?” Harry snapped at me, clutching her wrist in her other hand. “Shit! It isn’t funny. Christ. Do something, whore!”
This time I did laugh. I couldn’t help it. I did see her pain, bright as sunshine where it perforated her skin, and wrung into the raised, canine set of her shoulders. I didn’t want to make fun of her. It was just that Do something, whore was the funniest thing anyone had ever said to me. I dropped my head between my knees.
“Jane!” There was real hurt in Harry’s voice. I bit the tips of my fingers to stop laughing. It didn’t quite work.
“Shit,” I said. “Shit. Okay.”
We were lucky that Harry plucked her eyebrows, I guess, because I only had to go into her makeup bag for tweezers instead of trying to unpack anything. I opened the door, and she leaned forward out of the driver’s seat, into the mountain air, swearing in a low rush under her breath.
“Does it really hurt that badly?”
The light was watery and indifferent. “You need to move forward,” I said. “I can’t see.” Her swearing was starting to feel theatrical, but I didn’t tell her to stop. Instead, I put a hand on her waist and scooted her toward me and gently wrapped my other hand around her upper arm to guide it out into the sun. “Okay.”
Harry put her good hand to her forehead. “It smells like cow shit out here.”
She was right. I picked up the tweezers. “What do you want me to do about that?”
I was pushed up awkwardly close to her, trying to arrange myself at the right angle. I straightened, reached up past her to turn the dome light on, squatted down on the asphalt, and leaned my elbow on the leather seat right next to her thigh.
“It really hurts,” Harry said.
“Hold out your hand.” She did, until I was in kissing distance of her knuckles. I held her still by the bare tips of her fingers. My hand was shaking too. I caught the first spine between the tweezers and pulled.
Those little thorns were so thin and so many that they looked like a layer of fur. It took me nearly an hour to get them all out. Neither of us really talked, except when I would say Hold out your palm or Turn it this way. And Harry would do as I said. It was meditative—the sound of our mutual breathing, the way our bodies kept the air between us warm, the layer of sweat dampening the places I touched her. Her lashes, casting needle shadows on the bones of her cheeks, were almost the same color as the cactus spines.
When we were finally done, Harry said, “Jesus Christ.” Her voice was softened like a fruit going old. She stretched out her legs and got up to walk in a few gingerly circles around the car. I checked on Emily Dickinson, who was chewing up a toilet paper roll, and then plucked the cactus out of its cup holder.
“Where are you taking it?” Harry asked, leaning against the Camry’s side.
“I’m going to leave it here.”
“No, no.” She reached toward me in protest. “I want to keep it. It’s not the cactus’s fault.”
I shrugged and got into the driver’s seat, while Harry went around to the back and began rummaging things around, hissing occasionally when she used her sore hand. “Don’t prick yourself again.” I slid the seat back to give myself legroom, as I had to every time I claimed it from Harry. When she got back in, she curled up on the passenger seat and pulled the blanket that we had brought for napping over herself. As we turned back onto the freeway, her voice was sedate. “This person on Twitter was talking about a mouse we drove extinct.”
“Or a rat,” she said. She’d pulled out her phone. “It’s called the Bramble Cay mosaic-tailed rat. It went extinct in 2015. We drove it extinct”—the “we” she used was very personal—“because the seas rose.”
“Oh.” I wondered who on her Twitter feed was talking about dead rats.
“Do you want to see a picture?” I was driving, but she held her phone up in front of me anyway. It was a rat. Big-eyed and sandy brown and curled over itself. It felt strange to be looking at a photograph of something that didn’t exist anymore, though I guess lots of photographs are of things that don’t exist anymore. The rat looked a little like those desert mice, which I’d always thought looked a little like Harry.
Harry sighed and tucked her phone away. “Isn’t it so sad?”
The morning before we drove Going-to-the-Sun Road, Harry made us stop at a gas station because I admitted I’d forgotten to eat breakfast. I chewed on a granola bar, feeling a little sullen, and watched her stretch out her legs in the parking lot, pacing back and forth amongst the cars. One of the side effects of my medication was decreased appetite. I knew a side effect was nothing to be particularly proud of. The granola bar was stale.
When Harry got in the car, she handed me an apple. “Do you know what makes a glacier different from regular ice?”
This was something I definitely should have known, but I paused for a moment because I wasn’t sure I did. “A glacier is permanent.”
Harry beamed at me. “And it moves. That’s one of the criteria.”
“Yeah. I looked it up last night. I think I must’ve learned it in, like, fourth grade, but I forgot.”
I laughed. “Me too.”
“One of the criteria is that it’s always moving because of the weight they put on themselves. All of them are crawling all around the world but so, so slowly.”
I started the car, pressing my foot onto the accelerator and jumping us into motion. All of the corners of Harry’s face were smiling. There were rare times when Harry and I got inside the same golden note, which was why she had been my friend even when she was other things. I could picture those glaciers treading across the earth like bright glass elephants on a time line of our irrelevance.
Going-to-the-Sun Road wound up around the body of a mountain, looking down over a white river and glacial lake and a valley that bled so richly green it looked like the earth’s opened artery. Harry kept rolling her window down and then closing it again, pressing her face to the gap and then the glass.
“Why don’t you leave it open?”
“I don’t want Emily Dickinson to freeze.”
Her knees, her elbows, her sharp little chin—all of it squeezed against the glass like she wanted to hurl herself into the open mouth of the sky. I took the bends carefully and mostly kept my eyes on the road. We pulled over at the first outlook, and Harry touched the inside of my wrist where my hand was tight on the steering wheel. We got out of the car and stood at the side of the road together, looking over the edge and down at the world.
“Oh.” The sound came from somewhere deep in my stomach. The valley was vivid, green as a place no people had ever been. And there were spots where the trees gave way to the stone tops of the mountains—gray rock exposed like the earth’s wrists and clavicle, vulnerabilities that were not vulnerable. “God.” Harry leaned over, knocked the top of her head against my shoulder. It was the kind of beauty I didn’t even try to take pictures of because I knew they wouldn’t matter.
“Just imagine how it’ll be when we get to the glaciers,” Harry murmured. “How many people get to see glaciers?”
“Probably less and less,” I said.
“Don’t say that.”
We got back in the car.
All the way up the mountain, Harry was quiet. When I turned my head to her, she was looking at me like I was part of the landscape. Like I was something too wide open and heart-wrenchingly colorful to be photographed. Harry’s nose was red and her face was pale from the cold. I had a brief, obscene thought that I could fuck her for probably the last time ever on Going-to-the-Sun Road, in her car, looking out over the green vertigo of the canyon.
And for what? Why? To have done something memorable or important or probably arrestable. Quietly, Harry said, “Where are the glaciers?”
“I don’t know.”
She sat forward in her seat a bit, rewrapped her blanket close around her shoulders. We were pretty far up the mountain. “Shouldn’t we have seen them by now?”
I shrugged, helpless. “I don’t know.”
We passed a shuttle parked by an overlook. It had its roof open, and there were tourists hanging out of it, resting their folded arms on metal that must have been frigid.
Harry licked her lips. We were so close together in that car, I could almost hear her tongue moving. “Did you look up whether they were still here?”
“No,” I said. “Did you?”
She shook her head. “We would know if the glaciers here had melted. Right?”
I blinked at her, confused. How on earth would we know that?
“Maybe they’re farther up the mountain. Maybe you can see them from farther up the mountain.”
We passed more tourists, clustered in their bright jackets on ledges. We passed little waterfalls and streams and a wall that wept snowmelt, which was in fact called the Weeping Wall. I’d heard you could rent cabins here. I wished we’d gotten a place to stay overnight. I wished I had come alone, just me and this place that looked like a different planet because it looked so much like Earth in picture books. Harry had wanted to go somewhere green. “Even if we don’t get to see glaciers,” I said, “it was worth it to see all this.”
Harry’s mouth made a somber pink line. “Definitely.”
The wind sounded like we were pulling something out of it that it wanted to keep. “They can’t just be gone,” Harry said. “Can they?”
“I don’t know.”
There were pockets of ice occasionally, small and muddy and melting, which could not have been called glacial. And there were wide, discolored swaths of rock where ice had been and was gone, had left its ghost on the earth. I pointed these patches out to Harry. She bit the heel of her hand.
“It’s called Glacier National Park,” she said. “Shouldn’t they have to say if there are no glaciers?”
And “That can’t really have already happened.”
And “It’s not fair. That something can just already be gone.”
“No.” My hands ached on the wheel. I felt alone in the car right next to Harry and full of the kind of mourning that comes with moving away from home, even though it was Harry who was moving away from home, and I was going back.
“Stop!” Harry shouted when we rounded a corner, and I hit the brakes very hard because I thought an animal must’ve run out in front of the car. I pulled over. There were a lot of people gathered at another observation point a little ahead of us. Harry let herself out of the car and ran before I had even put us in park. She stopped at an outcropping of rock that looked downward over a sharp slope and, through a grove of trees, to mountains in the distance. “Jane!”
“What?” I had to jog to get to her. I was a little distracted by how close Harry was standing to the edge, the way that her knees trembled under her.
“Look.” She pointed, and I followed her gesture to two peaks, far away, snowcapped, with a blue triangle of ice nestled between them.
“There’s one,” Harry whispered. I stepped in closer behind her, and she leaned against my chest. I could feel each of her breaths searing against my own ribs in the hitch of her shoulders. I thought of the first time I held her in my lap. “There’s one.”
We walked the rest of the way to the observation point where the other tourists were. Some of them had binoculars. The glacier was far in the distance, cold and small, fluttering like a silk scarf on the mountain’s throat. Harry stood right up against the railing and looked at it in silence for a long, long time. There was a sign next to her with a photo of a man in 1938 standing astride a glacier like an arctic adventurer and a picture in 2016 of the place where the man and the glacier had been. Lake water and a few chunks of dirty ice. The sign told me that in fifty years, 85 percent of the ice had melted. The sign told me it might all be gone by 2030.
I told Harry this with my voice lowered. “Just in time, I guess,” I said. The mountain air was cool all around us, and I touched the top of Harry’s spine. I could see that she was crying.
“Don’t touch me right now,” she said and then, “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” I went over and stood on the other side of the observation deck. The ice was very far away from us. I tried to estimate its size. Two miles across? Three? I was no good at guessing these things. Maybe it was twenty, maybe not even half. I felt still and very small, like how everyone feels in the presence of beauty. If I brought children here one day, they would not see this. It would still be beautiful. I would find myself trying to tell them that something was missing and then unable to describe why it should be so important to see a particular triangle of ice. Because you can’t now. You’ll never be able to again. I was twenty-two. I was a baby. There was the glacier that had inched its long, slow body over the surface of the earth, shaped stone, and settled here in Montana.
I would outlive it.
I was crying. I was glad to be crying. I wondered if Harry was thinking what I was. That either of us could come back to this place in the next ten years, or both of us could, together. That this didn’t need to be the last time we saw that glacier, glittering and dying and still at some unknowable pace moving. But things are disappearing all the time. You can’t sit in hospice with any one of them forever.
Harry and I were both dry-eyed when we got back to the car. But I did hold her, sitting in my lap, her body clutched into mine, tight and awkward, her pulse drumming against my skin at several points. And not there, where it felt sacrilegious, but a little farther down the mountain, I did kiss her, and she did kiss me back, and it did taste like something that wasn’t gone yet, and we probably would have had sex if we weren’t both so cold by then. But we were. So we kept driving.
When we came down off the mountain, we ordered slices of huckleberry pie at a restaurant with a touristy wooden sign out front: Huckleberry Pie! Huckleberry Shakes! Huckleberry Ice Cream! Huckleberry Jam! A stuffed bear reared up in the middle of the dining area. There was a fake fire in a fake-stone fireplace.
Harry pushed a bite of her pie around her plate with her fork. It was hot and really good, touristy or not. It tasted like the fruit cobblers my mom made sometimes when I was little, which meant it tasted like sitting at the gray-marble-topped kitchen island lit by the chandelier my mom always hit her head on, the lights off in the rest of the house, and the sound of whipped cream hissing out of a can.
On the wall-mounted TVs, California was still burning.
“Let’s get married,” Harry said.
“What?” I had taken a bite too quickly and scalded my mouth. I sat there with my tongue hanging out a little, tasting huckleberry. Harry’s hair was limp around her face. Another thing that gave her a hungry look, as so many things did. There was a purple streak of pie filling on her cheek, and she was still holding her fork in mid-air. It dropped crumbs when her hand shook.
“Let’s get married,” said my ex-girlfriend who had never been my girlfriend. “Let’s have kids. Let’s go to Italy and France and Spain. Let’s fuck a lot. Let’s”—she put her fork down— “let’s have a lot of kids. Let’s live in a cabin with a lot of kids and a dog and—”
“Let’s eat pie,” I agreed. I think I was smiling, because my mouth hurt.
The difference between a Shakespearean comedy and a Shakespearean tragedy is whether there’s a marriage at the end. Here, whatever has come before is answered with love, which means sex, which means children. Let’s fuck and be plentiful. That’s how you send death out of the room for a while.
“You’re beautiful,” Harry said, looking at me very intently, like she wanted to swallow me into the centers of her eyes. But her gaze also kept flicking away to the TV behind me. I took her cold hand in mine, and she put another bite of pie in her mouth.
“Is it burning anywhere important?”
“No.” She licked the huckleberry filling from the corner of her lips. “Just by my old elementary school.”
I felt so tired, tingling like a limb after the blood has rushed back into it. Harry rubbed her face, her pinkish eyes. She’d put on makeup in the morning, I guess for an imaginary camera or the eyes of God or maybe for me. It was smeared everywhere now. “Let’s get married,” she said, once more.
She was mostly done with her slice of pie. I’d only eaten about half of mine, but I slid the plate across the table to her. Harry took it delicately, without touching my hand.
Outside the window, the trees bent in a high wind, right down to the ground.
About the Author
Kathryn Harlan is a fiction writer based in Wisconsin. Her work can be found in the Gettysburg Review, the Michigan Quarterly Review, and Strange Horizons.