Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
“Trippy,” I said.
“Oh God,” Abigail asked. “I haven’t taken acid in so long. You don’t trip, do you, Dumbo?” She gave me a look that was almost sympathetic, and heading toward conspiratorial. She wanted me to say yes.
“No,” I said. “I was just trying to be funny.”
“Oh,” Abigail said. “Right.” She got out of the car and clicked the door shut. This was something I had chosen to do: try to be funny. It had been a year since I started at improv classes, and six months since I started performing stand-up at a small but well-known theater downtown. Inside our family, Abigail had always been the funny one, and she conveniently forgot that I was trying, that my failure was so guaranteed that it would be better if she ignored my efforts entirely.
My best bit was about Abigail. It was always changing, depending on the reaction from the audience, but I called it “Older Sisters Are Pretty Much Nazis” and it always got a big laugh. It started with the way Abigail liked to lock me in her closet while she pretended we were playing hide-and-seek, but really she’d just leave me there all afternoon, until I was crying because not only was I afraid, but my bladder was about to burst. From there I went to a bit about Abigail making me lick the bottom of her shoe in front of a large crowd on the school bus. But the biggest laugh of all was when I revealed that she was now a stay-at-home mother of two, responsible for the moral and ethical development of two human beings. It wasn’t like Abigail had never done anything nice for me,
though. At the very least, she’d made sure that I had the immune system of a New York City sewer rat, impervious to disease or poison.
The hotel room was big, with two queen-sized beds along one wall, and a TV and dresser along the other. Abigail put her purse down on the bed closest to the bathroom.
“You don’t mind, do you, Dumbo?” She was already unpacking, stacking up short piles of T-shirts and underwear.
“No, I don’t mind,” I said. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to mind.
“It’s just that I get up a lot, at night. I think it’s from my maternal clock, you know, always thinking I’m hearing the kids. This way I won’t wake you up.” She dug both of her hands into her pulley suitcase and pulled out four plastic bags filled with travel-sized portions of all her various lotions and creams.
“They let you on the airplane with all of those?” I asked.
Abigail shrugged her left shoulder all the way up to her earlobe. “I told them they were breast milk.”
I sat down on my bed and ran my hands over the quilted blanket. The room smelled like cleaning products and coconut. The air-conditioning was on, but I was still warm. Abigail hummed something to herself, and I started picking at my nails, pretending that I wasn’t just watching her. I wanted to know what she had in her suitcase—not just how many pair of shoes but where she bought the shoes, if they were tight in the toe or the heel, what they were made out of.
When I looked up from the tip of my jagged nail, with its half moon of black polish, Abigail was naked. I hadn’t seen her without any clothes on since she was thirteen, or maybe even younger.
She’d left for college when I was in the seventh grade, and it had been a long time since she’d let me in her room while she was changing, even on vacation. Her nipples were darker than mine, and pointed toward the ground. Her stomach was bigger, too, and protruded out from her body, almost like when she was pregnant, a full swooping belly that started at her pubic hair. There was a red indented line going all the way around her waist from her underwear. She was putting on her bathing suit. Abigail looked up and saw me watching her, but didn’t make any moves to cover her body more quickly, the way I most certainly would have done.
“Don’t you want to go swimming?” she asked, wiggling from side to side to scooch her black one-piece over her hips.
“Sure,” I said. “Yeah, let’s go.” I stood up and walked slowly to the foot of the bed, where I’d let my bag fall on its side. After righting it, and unzipping, I felt about for the slippery material and pulled out my suit. I hadn’t worn it in nearly a year. The only place I ever went swimming was the YMCA, and I’d long since let my membership lapse. When I straightened up to step out of my shoes and socks, Abigail was staring at me with her arms crossed over her chest.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing!” Abigail said. “Nothing!”
I slid my underwear down with my skirt still on, and replaced them with the bikini bottom. Then I turned around and faced the wall before pulling my shirt off over my head.
It was Saturday afternoon and the poolside recliners were almost all taken, with towels, tubes of sunscreen, and paperback books left as placeholders while their owners took a dip.
Abigail led us down a narrow shady alley between rows of recliners until she found two empty ones next to each other. She whipped off her gauzy cover-up and lay down on her stomach, her thighs rolling out to a resting position. I tucked myself into the seat next to her and put a towel over my face.
“I need sunglasses,” I said. “It feels like my eyeballs are turning into hard-boiled eggs.”
“We’ll get you a pair of sunglasses, Dummy,” Abigail said through the plastic slats of the recliner, her face pointing straight down to the concrete. She moaned.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m amaaaazing,” she said. “Look, I don’t have any children! None! I’m hands-free!” She waved her hands on either side, and then lay them palm up beside her body.
The pool was split in half by a string of small white buoys, cordoning off the deep end from the shallow. On the shallow side, three sets of mothers and babies paddled around, the babies’ chubby arms held aloft by inflated wings. The other end of the pool was full of young couples splashing each other while simultaneously trying to hold their drinks above their heads.
The heat was different than I expected. It wasn’t like in Florida, where the minute I was outside the air-conditioning, my pores expanded like sponges. Here I didn’t even notice I was hot until the sun was directly overhead, as though all the heat and warmth was transmitted directly from the rays themselves. Abigail’s bathing suit had migrated into her butt crack, and I waited for her to tug it out. She didn’t.
“Hey, Lizzie,” she said. Abigail only used my given name
when she wanted something. “You think anyone around here would sell us some pot?”
I squinted at the people hovering around the edges of the pool. There were a couple of teenage boys at the towel stand. One of them had a wispy goatee, the hairs making up in length what they lacked in quantity.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
When it was almost sunset, and she’d had enough of the plastic slats digging into her legs, Abigail decided it was time to go on a tour of Modern Palm Springs. She’d picked up a brochure at the desk. We put clothes on over our dry suits and hopped in the car.
The visitor’s center lived in a building that had once been a gas station, with a swooping roof that came to a point way overhead, high enough for spaceships to dock underneath.
“We’re at a gas station,” I said. “This is part of the tour?”
Abigail slapped my wrist lightly, which stung nonetheless. “Don’t be a pill.” She paused, and looked through the window. A couple of white-haired ladies in crisply washed polo shirts came out, clutching unfolded maps. “You can wait in the car, if you want.”
I rubbed my wrist. “Okay,” I said, and did.
The self-guided tour consisted of about seventy-five modern houses and buildings, including the former gas station where Abigail bought the map. We started at the next nearest destination, a house with a name I didn’t recognize. Abigail slowed down a few blocks away, and we pulled up in front of an address with a gated driveway and a ten-foot-high hedge all the way around it. On the other side of the gate, a
gardener was using a leaf blower. Abigail and her husband had a gardener, too. I wondered if she watched him work, or just left an envelope of money under the doormat. The only plants I had were plastic.
“Wait, so this is the tour? Going around to look at houses you can’t even see?” I said. Over the top of the hedge, a flat roof was visible. “It looks like everything else. You can’t even see anything.”
Abigail shook her head and rolled down her window, as if that was going to help. I stared at her while she stared at the invisible house. Tiny little lines formed a fan around the creases of her eyes.
“I’m sure we’ll be able to see the next one better. They can’t all be like this. I’m not that crazy about Neutra anyway,” Abigail said, turning back from the house. She hit the button to roll up her window, stabbing it with her pointer finger until the window was all the way up. There were sweaty spots on her cheeks, and she whisked them away with her palm.
In fact, almost all of the houses on the map where similarly blocked from the street. The fold-out brochure, with its ten or fifteen color photographs of interior shots, held vastly more visual information. We drove by Frank Sinatra’s house and a dozen others, seeing nothing more than gates and fences and hedges and maybe a slip of a house receding into the hillside.
“One more,” Abigail said. “One more, and then I’m going back to the pool. This is absurd.”
I nodded in agreement, though she would have called the tour off even if I’d protested. She had had enough. Despite the pumping air-conditioning, Abigail was flustered and sweating even more.
We picked the one called Elvis’s Honeymoon Hideaway, though it had another name, too, and neither of us knew for sure that it was actually where Elvis and Priscilla had honeymooned. Everything in Palm Springs seemed to be surrounded by quotation marks, all the gas stations that had turned into tourist attractions and the Denny’s that were now dining destinations for vacationing gay guys from San Francisco. Even Abigail and I were playing the part of happy sisters, when we were just two women captive in the desert.
The house was inside a small park—at least it seemed that way on the map, a green rectangle with fat white lines for streets. It took us a few wrong turns, but finally we were parked in front of the address, on a tiny cul-de-sac, with nothing blocking us but the owners’ electric blue Ford, which seemed far too modest for the house it stood before. The roof was peaked like the gas station’s, with two straight lines pointing high into the sky, only they were orange, and sat on top of a boxy teapot of a house. It was hideous.
“Elvis lived here?” I asked, checking the map for details I knew it didn’t contain.
“No, just his honeymoon. At least that’s what it’s called. How am I supposed to know?” Abigail crossed her arms over the steering wheel and rested her chin on her wrists.
“It’s really fucking ugly, huh,” I said.
“So is Graceland,” Abigail said, shifting the car into reverse.
The mustachioed kid at the towel stand not only had weed, he had mushrooms. I’d never taken them before, but it seemed like something Abigail would be impressed by, if
I brought back something more serious. That night, we met in the parking lot of the motel next door while Abigail was talking to her children on the telephone. His name was Justin.
“You should go to Joshua Tree,” Justin said. “Shrooms and Joshua Tree are like peanut butter and jelly.”
“Or like peanut butter and bananas,” I said. Justin passed me a joint, expertly rolled. He only looked like a slacker. “What do you do around here for fun? You know, when all the tourists go home?” I asked. The smoke hit the back of my throat like a brick wall, thick and heavy.
“Man, nothing. You’re looking at it.” We both looked around. The cleaning ladies’ carts weaved in and out of open doors, and all the cars in the lot were rentals. “Only the parking lot is empty.”
“You know where I could get a pair of sunglasses?’”
Justin nodded and took two more hits in quick, sharp breaths. “Yeah, man. I can hook you up. One-stop shopping, you know? One-stop shopping.”
The night was so dark it seemed imaginary—no lights, only stars. A cool breeze made its way through the palm fronds. Goose bumps appeared on my arms, and I rubbed them quickly. “My arms feel like alligator skin,” I said, suddenly high.
“Oh yeah?” Justin said. He dropped the roach and crushed it under his flip-flop. Before I even knew what he was doing, his wispy goatee was tickling my chin, and his hands were cupping my boobs over my T-shirt. When he turned away, Justin stuck his hand out behind him, silently asking me to follow him. I took his hand and let him lead me back to an
empty room in our hotel. There were no sheets on the bed, and I could hear a television blaring in the room next door. Before Justin peeled off my clothes, I said, “Who watches TV on their vacation? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do when you’re bored at home?”
“You’re funny,” Justin said. And then I knew I’d let him do whatever he wanted.
The next morning, I went back to our room to take a shower, and Abigail was already gone. I found her by the pool. She was lying on her back with a towel over her face and her straps hooked under her armpits.
“Hey,” I said.
Abigail pulled down a corner of the towel, enough for one eye to peek out. “Bow chicka wow wow,” she said, and covered her eye again. “I mean, good for you and all, but it wouldn’t have killed you to let me know that you weren’t, you know, dead.” All of her blond curls were piled on top of her head like an elaborate wedding cake.
“I had my cell phone on me. You could have called.” I sat down next to her and looked at my arms. They had already passed through whatever tan zone they may have been in, and were now halfway to bubblegum pink. “I got us some mushrooms.”
Abigail pulled the towel off her face completely and struggled to sit up. There were fat red marks across the backs of her arms from the slats in the plastic chair. “Does that mean that you stayed out all night
with a drug dealer
?” She leaned forward, close enough that I could smell the lingering notes of her breakfast.
may have,” I said, and turned toward the pool, waiting an extra beat for comic effect. Abigail gave a long, loud, hooting laugh, and then slapped my knee. Justin, with all of his twenty-two years and suntanned boredom, hardly seemed to qualify. Maybe I could work it into a joke—the only drug dealer I ever picked up sold drugs mostly at his former high school, and spent the rest of his time handing out chlorine-scented towels to pale tourists. A plane flew by overhead, and we both leaned back to watch the tiny object, no bigger than a bath toy.