Featured in Colorado Review
What She IsFeatured, Fiction
Published Summer 2017
Long white-blonde hair in front of the white clapboard chapel. Her body almost invisible in the afternoon sun except for tan legs, bare feet, the straps of sandals held in one hand like an invitation. A small valise at her feet, weathered, blue, hardly big enough for a change of clothing. He noticed her before he saw her thumb, out of place the way she was in front of Phillips Chapel. One thing for a white man who had business there, but a white girl with white hair standing on that corner in front of the church, white in the daylight, he wasn’t wrong to pause, to question, just for a moment, before deciding the answer wasn’t important. Her thumb pointing the opposite direction of the way he was driving. His foot on the brake before his mind made the decision. No harm in it.
He regarded her from across the road. The green patterned fabric of her dress met itself in seams, draping her hips. Her lips were red, but not from lipstick. He’d been on the road for two weeks. It was July already, and he had a few hours’ drive ahead of him. Years later Jim Flessroy would reassure himself that anyone would have stopped for the girl, that she seemed an innocent, that she seemed in need of rescue.
“Where you headed?” he asked through the car window, putting his hat to his head. As he lowered his arm against the open frame, he noticed dirt caked in the beds of his nails. It didn’t matter how much a man scrubbed.
“I don’t know,” she answered.
From just beyond the chapel came the strange call of the lesser prairie-chicken, a small spiral of a hoot followed by a cackling laugh.
“I’m heading to Carlsbad. I’ve got to see a man outside of town. Then on to El Paso,” he said.
She crossed the dusty road, not blinking at the tiny rocks she must have felt underfoot. He hadn’t noticed, until she drew closer, that she was tall. With her shoes on, she would have stood at his height. He got out of the car to put her one small piece of luggage in the trunk alongside his. Her suitcase might as well have been empty, how light it felt in his hands.
“Opposite direction,” he said, walking past her to open the passenger door.
“The way you were facing. That way wants to go to Silver City.”
She looked the way he pointed, squinting as if she might be able to see the place, hundreds of miles away.
“I was facing that way because I liked the sun on my back.”
He held the door for her and she gathered the skirt of her dress in her hands. A smell of heat and sweat and orange blossoms as she slipped past him into the passenger seat.
The street was deserted. No one to speak any judgment about right and wrong. Nothing except the bird’s cackle as he settled into the driver’s seat once more, leaving his hat on. “Jim Flessroy,” he said, touching the brim.
The name startled him. Something about the formality of it.
“You go around with no shoes often?”
Her blue eyes on his, the same shade as the hydrangeas his mother grew back home. He wiped the back of his neck with a handkerchief.
“Smells like a new car,” she said.
He patted the steering wheel. “1959. Right off the line.”
She ran a finger across the ridged dashboard.
“A Plymouth,” he added, in case she hadn’t noticed.
Turning away from him, she rolled her window all the way down, circling the crank slowly. “Carlsbad. Aren’t there some caves there?” she asked, looking through the open frame. Clouds had covered the sun, but they were nothing, a thin layer of skin wounded by the circle of light boring through.
“Caverns,” he said. “I haven’t seen them.”
As he grew older he would forget the conversation, forget how they, as strangers, got it into their heads to walk into the caverns. In his memory, he would see her sitting on the passenger side of that old car, then new, see her golden shoulders, the curve from her neck down into the green folds of her dress, and he would try to recall which of them spoke of it first, which of them decided to go.
* * * * *
“If you don’t have a place you’re going to, then you must be running from something,” Jim Flessroy said to the girl named Margaret. The sound of tires on the road, the whine of speed, filled the car.
“Look at the colors,” she said.
The sun had burned its way through the meager clouds, and towering mesas glowed red in response.
“You’re not from around here,” Jim said.
“Not yet,” she said.
He glanced sideways at her. “You’re moving here?”
“Moving through here.”
Jim thought she might be confused. “So where are you from?”
“All over. Here and there.”
“You sound like a gypsy.”
“I guess that’s what I’m trying to be.”
Jim Flessroy didn’t know anyone who was a gypsy or would want to be a gypsy. He pictured long skirts and earrings, scarves that draped to hide unwashed necks.
“I’m from California,” she said. “Originally. Orange groves.”
“Orange Groves. That the name of a town?”
She shrugged. “Maybe it is. They probably named some town that way.”
“But not yours.”
The dress she wore was faded from the sun. Up close the green pattern was made up of little flowers, hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Underneath her skirt, one leg crossed over the other. Her bare foot dangled, smooth brown skin on top and rough white skin on the bottom.
“No trees around here,” she said.
“Not right here, no. But back where I picked you up, Las Cruces? They’ve got all kinds of trees. Oaks. Acacias. And more pecan trees in this state than you’d know what to do with.”
“Oh, I’d do something, all right. I’d sit underneath one of those trees for the rest of my whole life, letting the pecans fall on me and eating them up. I love pecans.” She said the word funny—pi-cahn—like the percussion of a lady’s high heels on pavement.
Jim Flessroy laughed. “How would the tree feel? You eating its babies right underneath its nose.”
“I ate oranges in the orange trees, and none of them ever said a word to me about it.” She grinned at him. In a glance he could see the orange-eating girl in her, enveloped by this womanly version, too tall to be a kid anymore.
Jim Flessroy couldn’t remember the last time he’d talked to a female who seemed more girl than woman. He was no stranger to women. He’d been a boy still when the girls his age became suddenly, somehow, older, wearing gloves and lipstick, their adolescent giggles disappearing into gravelly laughs. He hadn’t known what to say to them, these newly burnished women, versions of girls who had once jumped into the green waters of the river with him, laughing and screaming as they swam above the current. In the dark backseat of his father’s car, these girls had been eager to let him erase their lipstick, his clumsy kisses leaving smears of color on their faces.
“You ever climb an orange tree?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“You can hide in the branches. Because of the leaves. Green and thick. Nobody can find you.”
“That what you did in your orange groves?” he asked.
She looked out the window. “When I could,” she said.
The car’s tires rearranged dust on the road.
“You have a place to stay tonight?” he asked the girl.
“That depends, I guess,” she said. “Do you?”
He wiped the back of his neck. “How old are you?”
“Older than you think,” she said.
“And how old is that?”
“What if I said twenty-five?” he asked.
“Then I’d say younger than you think.”
* * * * *
When they arrived in Carlsbad, in the late afternoon, he took her to a restaurant known for the size of its steaks. Before they got out of the car, he reminded her to put her shoes on, and watched as she fastened a strap around her ankle.
The restaurant was dark inside, but the sun was still strong in the sky, pouring through the windows in sculptured angles.
“You folks in town for the holiday weekend?” A red-headed waitress towered over their table. Jim Flessroy found himself cut out of the forward movement of time. He could not recall the date, the month, as if a frame had been placed around this table with the strange girl sitting across from him, and everything surrounding it was blank.
“The Fourth of July,” the waitress said. “The fireworks.”
“It’s July already?” the girl asked.
“You oughta get your girlfriend a calendar,” the waitress said.
After they ordered, they sat in silence a moment. Making conversation was part of his job, talking to farmers and ranchers, putting people at ease, but Jim Flessroy found himself checking his thoughts, wondering about jokes he might make. He wanted her to know that he was a decent man, that he didn’t stop and pick up strange girls along the road as a habit. He was just a man who’d stopped to give a girl a ride. A blonde-haired girl standing in front of the Phillips Chapel could have done a lot worse than getting in a car with him. A lot worse.
Finally he asked: “Been away from home a long time?”
“Not long enough,” she answered. “Not long enough, not far enough.”
“How far you planning to go?”
“As far as I can.”
The girl’s back was to the window, and the sunlight streamed in around her, creating a halo and rendering her blue eyes opaque.
“The moon?” He laughed at his joke.
“If I can,” she said without smiling.
“You’re a funny girl.”
The waitress brought them salads, bright orange dressing dripping over white-green leaves.
“You going to see the caverns while you’re here?” the waitress asked. “One of the wonders of the world.”
“You’re wrong,” he told her. Waitresses were always offering questionable information.
“Might as well be. You take her there,” she said, gesturing toward the girl, “and she might just marry you.”
“Maybe we’re married already,” the girl said before Jim could reply.
“If you are, he got you cheap.” The waitress wiggled the fingers on her left hand. “Make him buy you a diamond, sweetie. A big, gleaming diamond.”
The waitress left after giving Jim a wink.
“I hope that didn’t make you uncomfortable,” Jim said.
“That? It takes a lot more than that to make me feel uncomfortable.” She licked orange dressing before it dripped from the lettuce.
“That talk about marriage. About being my girlfriend.”
“I don’t mind the talk. What’d make me uneasy is if any of it was real.” She was about to put the bite in her mouth, but stopped herself, the fork in midair, her mouth slightly open. Her eyes creased into a smile. “I don’t know why anyone is interested in whether or not a person is married.”
“So you’re one of those girls,” Jim said.
She put her fork down on the plate, then wiped her mouth with her napkin. Something had shifted, and Jim wasn’t sure how or why. “One of which girls?” Her eyes were clear.
Jim found he couldn’t answer. He wasn’t sure what he had meant, once he thought about it. He put his hands palm-side down on the table.
“You can get to know me, if you’d like,” she said. “I’d like to do that. But I am who I am. I’m not this girl or that girl. I’m not something you know already.”
Jim was quiet. Then he said, “I’d like that. I’d like to know you.”
* * * * *
Jim Flessroy didn’t usually stay at the Crawford Hotel when he was in Carlsbad. He stopped the car just shy of the front door, hoping to have a moment. For what? Things seemed obvious and not.
Two huge potted palms stood guard at the hotel’s entrance. Why did people do that to the flora of the earth? It was one thing to tame the land, to ask it to provide. That was a two-way street, the nourishment going both directions. But trees in pots seemed wrong to him, like forcing a man to wear a dress.
She spoke before he did. “I love hotels. We’ll sleep on a bed that a stranger dreamt in the night before.”
“We?” he asked. The valet opened his door.
She didn’t answer, not with words or her eyes. He put on his jacket and hat, stalling.
“Sir?” the valet said.
“Just one moment,” he said.
He took a breath, about to speak, but no thoughts came, nothing he could translate.
“Sir?” the valet said from miles away.
The girl took his hand and turned it palm-side up, the tips of his fingers facing her heart. She traced a line that creased his thick skin.
“This is your life line,” she said. “And here”—she stopped where a fainter line intersected it—“is your opportunity.” She held his hand up to her lips and just barely kissed the meeting of the lines.
His position on the earth, the longitude and latitude of it, appeared to him as the center of a rounded map, all roads traveling toward this destination. Forcing his body out of the car, he shook the valet’s hand. “Thank you,” he said to the boy. “Thank you.”
If she’d known where she was going, he thought, if she’d asked for him to go out of his way, he would have gladly taken her anywhere, dropped her at another corner, left her, and continued on his way. Even if she’d been going to Silver City, he would have taken her there.
The lobby’s floors were tiled in marble. Sofas with dark wooden feet and upholstered with floral cushions were arranged in an area off to one side. He registered, signing them in as Jim and Margaret Flessroy. The writing of her name with his was natural, more so than he would have thought. On its own, his name was humble, but alongside hers it gathered some kind of importance, weight. He heard the big doors open behind him, followed by padded footsteps, and turned to see where the girl had settled herself into a chair, her feet tucked up underneath her skirt. He wondered if the Crawford Hotel allowed bare feet in their lobby, but when he looked back to the clerk, the man gave him a simple nod and one key.
Jim carried both of the bags, refusing the suggestion of a bellboy, his brown square suitcase in one hand, her blue valise—almost weightless—in the other. Their room was on a corner with a window to the west. The sun blinded them as they walked through the door. He closed the curtains but immediately felt ashamed, as if the closing of them meant something vulgar. He stood there a moment, his hand still on the fabric, his eyes on the greenish wallpaper, waiting to turn around, thinking of what he might say to her in explanation. And what might he say? They had taken a room together. What might he say? But it was she who broke the silence.
“Green, like the shoots of crocus, prying their way out of the ground.”
And though he didn’t know why she’d said it, or what she meant, it called up a decades-old memory, a thought of boyhood so powerful that he could smell dirt after a fresh rain. He might have cried, even, but for the hands he felt on his back, fingers tracing his shoulder blades, her touch shocking him through the layers of cotton and silk that lay between them.
“My father named me Margaret,” she said, “but I call myself Maggie.”
She reached around and under the lapels of his jacket, and he held his shoulders back slightly to help her lift the jacket off of him. He turned to her, feeling younger than his thirty-four years.
“Hello, Maggie,” he said.
* * * * *
When she opened the curtains, the sun was melting crimson on the horizon.
“You oughtn’t show your body like that in the open window. Naked like that,” Jim said, folding a pillow behind his head.
“Nothing looking at us but mountains,” she replied.
In the dimming light, her body became a shadow of what he had just laid his hands to.
“We’ll need sustenance, don’t you think?” she asked from the window.
Sustenance. He used that word often in his line of work. When he spoke of it to farmers and ranchers, he felt that he was opening their worlds to unending possibilities, but the way she’d used it, he could sense the compactness of their time together. A few days in a hotel room seemed like nothing. It would be over in a flash, and the ending would last an eternity, like a scar.
“There’s a little market up the road,” he said.
She turned to him, her body more sensed than seen, the fading pink delicately outlining her shape, then disappearing as the room darkened.
“I ought to get some clothes on, oughtn’t I?” she said with a laugh.
“Maybe not just yet,” he said.
* * * * *
The next morning they descended the winding stone path that led them deep into the caverns, walking single file, she in the lead. Every so often she would stop and point. “Look at that,” she’d say, and he’d look up to find a wet stone that seemed as if claws were spreading out of it, somehow dripping out of it. Or she’d point across the gaping cave to a floor of glittering needles. He knew the stones he saw were not like the stones at the bottom of the river that belonged to his childhood. Those stones were kindred in size and shape, hewn smooth as the water rushed over and around them. He knew that the stones in this peculiar cavern changed with each tiny drip of water, growing, being carved into something new.
Light bounced off the stone in a green aura that got sucked into darkness. The air was cooler than it had been outside, and he was aware of how much rock lay over their heads, swallowing them into this world that was alive and not. The path wound through figures bulbous or pointed; cisterns with water as clear as air; limbs that emerged from ceilings and floors, reaching toward each other.
“A world of gleaming texture,” Maggie said, grasping his hand.
It was one thing for their bodies to meet in the privacy of a hotel room, but her hand in his on this path, deep below the surface of the earth, scattered gooseflesh up his arms. He had held a woman’s hand before. He knew the shock of skin on skin, the way the soft palm flesh could fit, suction-like, in his palm. He’d known women who seemed to convey currents from their bodies to his. So perhaps a person could chalk it up to the surprise of the moment, the feeling he got from the unexpected grasp of a woman who was as close to a stranger as she was to a wife.
All around them the caverns dripped, movement heard but not seen, a smell of wet stone, clean and musty at once. He followed her on the path, her blonde hair colorless in the strange green light. Passing few other people, they wound through one cavern and then another: the Hall of the White Giant, the King’s Palace, the Queen’s Chamber. In the last, they found themselves alone. The room seemed inviting, as if, with a sprinkle of fairy dust, the craggy structures could be transformed into the royal compartment it was named for—the queen’s bed, the linens rumpled and unmade, the stone somehow altered into pillows.
“Imagine the lights went out,” Jim said. He was thinking that the blackness would be the purest blackness a person could know. Maggie closed her eyes. And though he had intended to close his as well, he found he could not against the image of her, swaying before him, her face lifted to a sun that could not penetrate the miles of rock they stood beneath. He touched her waist, grazing her shape at first, then with a firm hand, feeling what lay between his fingers and thumb.
“I’m seeing the shape of darkness,” she said with her eyes still closed.
“You talk like a poem,” he said.
* * * * *
Jim’s thighs were shaking by the time he squinted into daylight, the sun dropping to eye level as they emerged from the mouth of the caverns. On an incline above the entrance, they shared a cement bench, warmed by the day, and took out a loaf of bread they had bought in a little market. Tearing the bread off in hunks, they chewed silently for a while. The heat was dry, but the early evening breezes of the desert swept past them.
“What is that?” Maggie asked. She was looking up at a winged creature that had flown out of the cave and was silhouetted against the sky, flapping and circling. As they stared, another flew out, and then another. Soon hundreds were darting up to the sky and shooting back into the cave. Up, out, around.
“They bats?” Jim wondered aloud.
A voice behind them answered. “Nope. The bats come later. Once the sun leaves entirely. These is swallows.” An older man in a park ranger uniform tipped his hat. “Evening,” he added.
“Bats come?” Maggie asked.
“Yep. Right out of this big hole in the ground. But the birds first. Cave swallows. They’re eating up all the insects. First round, anyways.”
“We didn’t see any bats down there,” Jim said.
“Oh, no,” the man answered, “it’s a whole mess of caverns down there. We have ours and the bats have theirs.”
“There’s a hawk, too,” Maggie said, still looking up.
“Yep. The hawk’s looking for the swallows.”
The birds danced in the sky. Jim had seen red-tailed hawks catch squirrels and snakes, ospreys pluck fish right out of the ocean, had once seen a giant ferruginous hawk eat a rat in one gulp, but he’d also once seen barn swallows form a mob and attack a Cooper’s hawk. You had to wonder about the laws of nature. You never could tell.
“There’s usually more folks here,” the man said, “but I expect everyone’s in town for the fireworks.”
“I’d rather see bats than fireworks,” said Maggie.
“I agree, myself,” the ranger said. “I’ve seen them a million times and I never get tired of it. The bats. It’s quite a sight. There’s hundreds of them. Thousands.”
Jim had no opinion about fireworks one way or the other. A person could see fireworks every year for his entire life, and maybe one year there’d be one or two that would make him gasp with their bigness, their boom, but he was sure that if given the choice between a yearly gasp and the woman who was smiling up toward the silhouetted birds, he’d rather sit in the present moment forever, surrounded by bats if he had to be, or hawks, or a mob of swallows. He hadn’t known such a feeling about another person was possible.
Maggie shivered as the sun dipped below a rounded hill and cool air rose from the desert floor. He put his jacket around her shoulders.
“Now you’ll be cold,” she said.
“I’ll be just fine,” Jim said.
“A body’s better than a jacket.” She moved to settle against his arm, but her words had stirred him. He pulled her against him, encircling her waist from behind, like a lasso. Some part of him knew the ranger was there, and he wanted the witness of another man. The ranger would be right to stop him, to tell him it was indecent, pulling her between his legs like that in public, but he’d also be wrong. The girl had said what she’d said. She’d gotten in his car. She’d slept in his hotel room.
He felt her breath, fast and deep beneath her ribs. Jim reached around her and rubbed his thumb hard against her breast, less for him to feel her body than to give her a signal. “This what you mean?” he asked in her ear. And still, the ranger stood quietly behind them, where their movements were small and not suspect. Maggie hummed in Jim’s ear. Not a song, just a hum, air forced out, like someone had tripped over an accordion. He felt her pushing into him and holding back from him at the same time.
“You folks want to know anything about the bats, just ask,” the ranger said.
And what if he could see? What then? The girl had made herself available to Jim Flessroy. Any other man, ranger or not, would have agreed.
“That’s what I’m here for,” the ranger added.
The birds were disappearing back into the cave. The hawk was nowhere to be seen. Maybe the hawk had gotten its dinner, or maybe it had been chased off. Jim wouldn’t have been able to say, not then, and not in later years when he would talk about the bats, leaving the girl out of the story, leaving any part of her out, as if he’d taken a detour from his work one day to see the caverns on his own and just happened to see the swallows in the fading light, the hawk circling from high above, where it had a view of the birds in the evening sky.
Daylight disappeared, and as it did, tiny stars emerged, twinkling as they ever did, thousands of them. Millions. Jim lifted his head to take in the whole of the dark sky. He smelled something both flowery and musty in the girl’s hair. It might have been uncomfortable, sitting on that backless cement bench on a cool desert evening, but he hardly noticed.
“Is there a chance they might not come?” Maggie asked.
“Occasionally they don’t come out,” the ranger said. “I don’t know why. But not usually in the heart of the summer. They’re hungry. God willing, half of them are fertilized by now. They need their sustenance.” He chuckled. “Funniest little creatures, bats. Like God made the beasts and the insects and the birds, and then thought, what if I rolled them all together? All in one.”
They were quiet, listening to an orchestra of crickets. The night sky was without a moon. Jim knew it was in its waning days, that the sliver they might see wouldn’t show itself much before midnight. Maggie hummed a melody he recognized from his childhood. Some lyrics came back to him (cry down my rain barrel—or was it climb down my rain barrel?—he couldn’t remember) and he thought again of her strange words about crocuses the night before. Their bodies had relaxed together, his arms encircling her waist as she leaned back into him. Jim couldn’t recall when her resistance had lessened. Even in that short time, it seemed that it was she who had brought herself to him, had come to sit between his legs, reaching for his hands and wrapping his arms around her. He inhaled the scent of orange blossoms, a fragrance that, in the mere day he had known her, had come to seem a comfort that he had known his entire life.
A stillness came over them: the cricket song paused, the desert wind settled and—just as Jim registered the shift of sound, of air—a wave roared out of the cave entrance and raced past them, a dark moving river against the blue-black night, filling the sky, blotting out the stars, a rush of energy and speed above them, all around them. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Where had they all come from? This swell of creatures. Where had they come from?
* * * * *
Later, in the hotel room, she told him to close his eyes. She stretched her naked body over his. A nearby boom of fireworks rattled the glass in the window.
“Do you see colors?” she asked.
It seemed like a game. “I see black. You asked me to close my eyes.”
She shifted her body. “Now?”
He opened his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re asking.”
She told him to close them again.
“It’s purple. A kind of purple, my body against yours,” she said.
He was silent, thinking about what she might mean.
“You and I have a color. Together.” She kissed him. “That was orchid. Like the orchid blue of midnight. Keep your eyes closed.” He did. She took his fingers and put them on her, inside her. “Do you see it?”
He did his best to see it. He manufactured an orchid inside his mind, the flower rather than the color. He constructed a green-stemmed plant that bloomed in an explosion of white petals covered in pink splotches, and in the interior, a purple carpel. A replication of a photo he’d seen before.
“Do you see it?” she asked.
“I’m doing my best.” He thought maybe he didn’t understand what she was asking.
“Do you feel it?”
“It’s beyond reckoning,” he said, opening his eyes.
But she was gone, inside herself, distant, even as her body enfolded his. He tucked his face into her collarbone as she grabbed the back of his neck, holding tight despite the sweat that had dripped with nothing to hinder it. Her hand on his neck. The feathery brush of her hair as she twisted her head to the side. The smell of orange blossoms. He stifled a howl into the flesh of her arm.
She held tight to him for a spell before stretching her body alongside his.
“It became silver,” she said, tracing his arms with the backs of her fingernails. “It was orchid, and then silver. Blossoming stone, wet and bending.”
The window rattled with another explosion.
* * * * *
He sat on the side of the bathtub the next morning, scooping soapy water over her shoulders. She’d pinned her hair atop her head, but long wisps had fallen down and were trailing in the bath water.
“Careful you don’t fall in love with me,” he said to her. What he’d meant was the opposite.
She laughed. “Where to next?”
The laugh skinned him, but he didn’t let her know. He couldn’t have said why.
“I have a rancher on the far side of town I need to see in the morning. And that’ll put us on the road to El Paso. The hotels I usually stay at might not be as fancy as this one, but they charge me the same for one person as for two. You can go as far you like with me, Maggie.”
“As far as the moon?”
He wanted to say yes. Instead he said, “Would Corpus Christi do?”
She was silent, and her silence felt the same as her laugh.
“I can’t lay flat,” she said finally.
He sifted through the possibilities of her meaning.
“No one’s asking you to,” he said at last.
“Maybe I’d never ask.”
“Wouldn’t you?” She smiled at him.
He continued pouring water from his hand down her back.
“Maybe you don’t know me,” he said. “Maybe you’ve got your own ideas of who I am, and maybe you’re wrong.”
“Who are you then, Jim Flessroy?”
A shiver ran up his arms and across his shoulders. At the same time, a slow heat entered the back of his head. He felt himself go clammy. A hard breath forced its way through his nose. Finally he said, “You go your whole life, and you don’t know you’re waiting for a sign, but you are.”
“What if the sign says something different from what you think?”
“Now see, you talk nonsense sometimes.” His voice scratched through his throat. “I don’t understand everything you say.”
“You’re not the first.”
Jim Flessroy took his hand out of the bath, holding it above his leg, drops of water falling on his pants. Hotel rooms play tricks. They close out the world, make things seem possible that aren’t meant to be. A man can live a whole life passing a night or two. He can fall in love and watch that love wither and die before he’s checked out of his hotel. He can be tricked. Jim felt the wet on his leg as the drops soaked through fabric, but still he held his hand aloft, unsure where it belonged.
“I haven’t asked one thing of you,” he said. He put his hand on the back of her damp neck.
“I know that,” she said, her body suddenly frozen in his grasp. He could push her under if he wanted to.
“What are you going to do?” she asked.
There was water in his eyes and he didn’t know how it got there. He blinked.
He let go of her, stood up, grabbed hold of the sink. His head burned. The bathroom felt small and humid, but not nearly damp enough to douse the feeling inside his skull. He leaned over the tub and almost lost his balance, but steadied himself against the wall, breathing hard until he felt his balance restored.
“What are you doing?” she asked. But she made no move to protect herself, her body exposed in the soapy water. There was nothing in her eyes that seemed to recognize him. Like she was looking at a stranger.
“You got soap in my eyes,” he said.
He took her wrist and held it hard, pulling her out of the tub, her wet feet slipping on the bathroom floor. Her wrist cracked. He wasn’t sure if he heard it or felt it. Falling to her knees, she sighed through closed lips, like a hum, her face in some kind of contortion. He knelt down, wrapping his free arm around her waist, pulling her against him, his lips on hers, pressing hard, pushing her down on the wet floor, straddling her body as he undid his belt, his trousers, pushing himself into her, her body already changed, already unknown to him, drops of water sliding down her neck, her body transformed into something unwilling, unbending.
“Don’t,” he said, not knowing what, exactly, he was demanding of her.
She reached for him before he could stop it, her hand coming toward his face, her nails on his face, the metal of his belt buckle slapping into the damp flesh of her belly while her hand curved into the skin of his face, her nails like blades that cut from the corner of his left eye down past his jawbone to his neck. A drop of blood fell into her white-blonde hair.
He never spoke of it, but for many years this is what he remembered—the end of the story as if it were the entire story. The girl stood on an empty corner in Carlsbad, New Mexico. Barefoot. White-blonde hair in noon light. Left wrist in her right hand, as if the hand connected to that wrist might fall off. Jim Flessroy could see the outline of her in his rearview mirror, ten yards, twenty yards, fifty yards behind. He could not see her expression; the angle of sun wiped out her eyes, her red lips. In front of him, the road lay long and open, and when distance swallowed her up in the mirror, her image too small to comprehend, he sustained his glances between the flat-topped mountains ahead of him and the boxy town disappearing behind, its buildings receding into loamy soil as he rounded a curve that would take him to a farm a few miles outside town, where Jim hoped to convince the man of the benefits of growing sorghum. Between the land ahead and the reflection behind he caught a glimpse of himself: a long, thin scab, fresh and red, running down the left side of his face, disappearing under the collar of his shirt.
Years later, when he met Claire, the woman who would become his wife, and she asked him if he’d been in a fight, looking at the side of his face as if her eyes could soothe it, and some years after that, when their daughter, laughing, ran a finger along the raised skin, following it past his jawbone to feel the texture, when she asked him why he had that funny scar, and much later, when the young nurse washed his lined face, years after Claire had passed, after he’d stopped driving himself, sometimes forgetting little things like the name of the flowers his mother used to grow, blue against the lush green of rain-watered grass, or even the name of his own daughter, when the soft hands of the nurse slipped beyond the wet washcloth to touch, for a moment, his thin, aged skin, the scar, a silvery line that stood against the crevices of his face, he didn’t remember the girl holding her wrist on the side of the road, didn’t think of her at all, though he felt something rise, not within him but all around him, something without shape or color, some force, he felt it rise against him, a current, like the current of the river he swam in as a boy, the laughs and screams of girls, not yet women, echoing around him.
Emilie Beck’s plays have been produced and developed at theaters across the country. A recent graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers in fiction, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons.