Authors: Emma Straub
Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author)
Joshua Tree National Park was a forty-five-minute drive away, and the compact car got noisier and noisier the higher into the mountains we drove, as if in complaint. It was only ten in the morning—we figured we’d go, tool around, and be out of there before it was noon and so hot that we’d fry as soon as we got out of the car. Abigail had a water bottle, the stainless-steel kind sold at health food stores, and I bought a big plastic one, which made her wince.
“I bet you don’t even recycle,” she said, shaking her head.
“They fine you if you don’t,” I said, which was true, but only if you put your trash out on the street on the days you were supposed to, and didn’t just throw it away in the can on the corner like I did.
The park seemed, at first glance, to look like more of the same—knobby trees with prickly hands sticking out at odd angles, dry and dusty earth. Justin had told me what to expect. He’d said, “It’s the desert. It’s only exciting if you’ve never been there before.” I tried to see everything out the window of the car through Justin’s eyes: boring birds making
noises at each other, boring lizards zipping across the cracked ground, boring boulders stacked on top of each other like an ogre’s abandoned game of Jenga.
The map from the ranger station wasn’t encouraging.
People have died here from preventable accidents
, it said. Abigail dug a dirty tissue out of her purse and blew her nose. “I think I need to go back to the allergist,” she said. “Do you have allergies, Dumbo? It’s all genetic, you know.”
“Nope,” I said, though I hadn’t been to a doctor since I graduated from college, and had a runny nose every year from April through July. “All clear.”
“Oh, that’s lucky,” she said, but I could tell she didn’t mean it.
After a few miles, Abigail pulled into the first small parking area, which was empty. “Wait,” she said, turning around in her seat to look behind her, out the back window. “Let’s take the mushrooms.”
“Right now?” I wasn’t sure if I’d been planning on taking them at all, and certainly not in the middle of the desert in the middle of the day, when one of us would have to drive the car back into Palm Springs while staying on the correct side of the highway. “Won’t they make us hallucinate?”
“Oh, come on, Dumbo. It is
not that big of a deal. Just eat half if you’re scared. John and I used to take mushrooms all the time. In a lot of cultures, it’s really spiritual.” Abigail held out her open palm.
It was hard for me to think of Abigail ever having been a child, despite the fact that there was massive photographic evidence to the contrary. There she was in overalls, smiling
through her missing teeth! There she was in a two-piece swimsuit, careening down a Slip ’n Slide! There she was, arms raised over her head on a balance beam! To me, Abigail had always been an adult. She did everything I did so many years earlier—preschool, summer camp, menstruating—that by the time I got around to it, it seemed like ancient, boring news, like something mimeographed and yellow at the bottom of a forgotten drawer. For my entire life, I had always deferred to Abigail’s judgment, because it seemed impossible that a situation would exist where I would be right and she would be wrong, where she would come up short. And yet here she was, flapping her fingers back and forth, impatiently waiting.
“Okay,” I said. “Fine.” The little bag with the mushrooms was somewhere at the bottom of my purse, and I leaned down and probed around blindly until I felt it. They were small, brown shriveled-looking things, not at all like the mushrooms you would see on a pizza, which were the only mushrooms I ever ate. I pulled out two, and placed one in Abigail’s twitchy fingers. She popped it in her mouth immediately, rolling her head back to wash it down with a gulp of water. I held mine up to my nose and sniffed. It smelled like something rotten and poisonous. Abigail opened her eyes and looked back at me.
“You take it?” she said. She hadn’t seen me tuck it back into my palm.
“Yup,” I said. “Gross.” I scrunched up my face in imagined disgust.
“Ha!” I’d never made Abigail laugh so much, and wondered if the drug’s effects were instantaneous. “Okay,”
she said, opening the driver’s-side door. “Let’s go interact with some nature.”
Neither of us had hiking boots of any kind, but I was wearing sneakers, which at least had rubber bottoms. Abigail had on a pair of strappy leather sandals that wound around her ankles and tied in a bow at her calves. When I’d asked, she said she could always tell which trails were difficult, and which one old ladies could do in their wheelchairs. We would do the latter.
The loop was two miles and took us immediately up a flight of stairs made of rocks and boulders. Was there a difference? It seemed easy enough, and I kept up with Abigail. In the places that were wide enough to walk two people across, we walked next to each other, and when the path narrowed, I fell back and followed her through. That was the way it worked.
“Dumbo, come look!” Abigail pointed at a gecko zipping across the ground, its body twitching quickly back and forth as it scurried to safety. I watched the lizard vanish into a crack between two rocks, jealous that it had found shade. There were voices above us, and we both turned to look. Three men were dangling by thick ropes, climbing up or down, I wasn’t sure. They had helmets and carabiners and would have loved to have a long conversation with Abigail about the Master Cleanse, I just knew it. “Meow,” she said, as if she’d heard me.
I wanted to wait and see how long it would take, how much silence we would need, before Abigail asked me a question. Not if I was hungry, or if I was as sweaty as she was, but an honest-to-God question about my life. That she hadn’t
even followed up about Justin the drug dealer seemed like a sorry indicator. We were somewhere about halfway through the two-mile loop when I realized what I wanted to do. I wanted to leave Abigail in the desert. It wasn’t like she would have to sleep there—we encountered small groups of people every few minutes, and there were the hunky rock climbers. If I left her, she would still be able to find someone, to get a ride back into town, get to the airport. I wondered what the desert would look like on drugs, if the bright blue sky overhead would start to darken and change, if clouds would appear and speak to her in languages she didn’t understand. I wondered if all the creatures in the park would hear her cry out for me, and whether they would come running to her rescue. Maybe they would stay put, hearing it all in her voice, every mean thing she’d ever done in her entire life. There were foxes and rattlesnakes, animals that could hurt her if they wanted to. Maybe I would just let her get a few steps ahead at a time, until those few steps became a few more, and a few more. I might just go and sit in the car. Or I might drive away, find a gas station that actually sold gas, and keep going until I was home
ackie was from Newport, Rhode Island, which as far as Franny knew was Nowhere, Rhode Island. Even though Franny was from Brooklyn, they both felt like total rubes at Barnard, where all the city girls wore going-out clothes to English class just because they felt like it. Their dormitory room was exactly the same as all the others on the hall, narrow and spartan, perfect for two eighteen-year-old nuns. Jackie tried to spruce it up with some pictures she’d cut out of magazines, mostly models dressed up to look like Ali MacGraw. The two girls tried to do the same—sweeping bell-bottoms and collegiate sweaters. The effect was not great on Jackie, with shoulders as wide as an Iowan football player, or on Fran, who stood just over five feet and had to hem every pair of pants by several inches, sometimes cutting off the bells entirely.
Jackie’s family spent most of the winter in Florida, and sometimes she was permitted to bring a friend. When she asked Franny to go to Palm Beach with them during the Christmas break, Franny was so excited that she punched Jackie in the arm. It took Mrs. Johnson three phone calls to convince Mrs. Gold that airplanes were safe, and then the tickets were booked, and Jackie packed all three of her swimsuits, knowing full well that Franny would want to borrow them.
There was the Breakers in Newport and the Breakers in Palm Beach. Franny didn’t know the difference. They pulled up in the rented car and Jackie’s father handed the keys to a kid their age wearing a Sergeant Pepper jacket. The boy was tan and blond, and Franny looked at him like he was made of ice cream. Jackie thumped her in the arm.
“Hey,” she said. “You coming?”
Franny grinned. That’s what Jackie liked about her: Fran wanted to be from Newport as much as Jackie wanted to be from Brooklyn. If Franny could have pushed a button and swapped lives with her, like in
The Parent Trap
, she would have done it in a heartbeat. They both scrambled out of the backseat and picked up their purses, letting the bellboys take the rest of the luggage on a golden cart the size of their dorm room.
The hotel room had two twin beds but the girls swiftly decided that it would be better to sleep in one and use the other as the depository for all of their belongings. Franny forced Jackie to hang up her fancy clothes and then complained that she didn’t have anything that would suffer from
staying folded. They lay on their stomachs and waggled their bent legs back and forth. The Atlantic Ocean lapped and crashed outside the window, which was open.
“I can’t believe how warm it is here,” Franny said. They’d stripped off their airplane clothes and were wearing only their underwear. Jackie wore white briefs she’d stolen from her father and a flimsy camisole. Franny wore a bra the size of Cleveland, with latches and hitches that would have held up a lesser mountain range. Jackie was impressed. A breeze snaked in and slipped around their waving calves.
“Want to go to the beach?” Jackie was a great swimmer and had been the captain of her high school team. Franny shook her head. “Or Worth Avenue? Or get some lunch?” It was only noon, and Jackie’d only eaten a banana for breakfast. Franny met the Johnsons at the airport with both of her parents, and the look on her face told Jackie that she would have rather committed ritual suicide. Jackie couldn’t imagine she’d eaten much, either.
“Lunch,” Franny said. “Immediately.”
There was a good place nearby. It had the best shrimp cocktails and was close enough to walk. Franny changed into one dress after another—she needed something that said
, she said. Jackie sat on the edge of the bed and sang songs to try to hurry her along, but could only remember the chorus to “Both Sides Now,” and so was singing it in an endless loop, her deep voice occasionally muffled by a pillow. “I’m going to eat this,” she said. But then Franny trotted out of the bathroom in a pink dress and bright, shiny lipstick, and Jackie was happy enough to let it go.
Every street they passed started with
Seaspray, Seaview. “God,” Franny said. “They really got creative.”
Jackie held her hands up to shield the sun from her eyes. “Tell me about it.” After every block, the ocean appeared, a little window of blue. She could tell that Franny wanted to look and walked slower. In her hand-me-down madras shorts and plain white T-shirt, Jackie felt like Franny’s older brother. She still had a swimmer’s body; her shoulders were as wide as a man’s, if not wider, and stretched and moved as she walked, like giant wings. Jackie’s whole body was taut and boring, a straight line, and Franny’s was wiggly. Everyone they passed on the street turned to look at her, and Jackie couldn’t blame them. Franny moved her bottom from side to side with every step, like she was Fred Astaire dancing with an invisible Ginger Rogers, always pushing her backward in those heels.
“You will come in the ocean, won’t you?” Jackie asked.
“Will you save me if I drown?” Franny replied.
Jackie nodded. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
The restaurant had white tablecloths and painted murals and a long bar filled with girls their age and their fathers or husbands. Jackie looked at Franny, ready to bolt, but she just sailed through the crowd, as if she were walking into their bathroom at school with her towel slung over her back. The maître d’ seated them at a table overlooking Worth Avenue, where they could watch women window-shopping while their patient chauffeurs trailed them like the world’s worst Secret Service.
Jackie didn’t even need to look at the menu. “Two Cokes, one shrimp cocktail, two BLTs, please,” she said, then looked
up at Franny. “Is that okay?” Franny thought it was hysterical that she was Jackie’s first Jewish friend, and Jackie still had tiny panic attacks when she was confronted by something that struck her as a Jewish issue. Bacon was one of them. She didn’t know enough to worry about the shrimp.
“It’s fine,” Franny said.
The waiter came back with two tall, slim glasses of fizzy Coke, straws bobbing happily. They both lunged forward and sucked, the sugar gliding across the roofs of their mouths and then all the way through their veins.
“I love Florida,” Franny said, and right then, Jackie did, too.
The reason Jackie’s family stayed at the Breakers every year was for the Preservation of Newport Society’s Pearl of the Sea Ball. Jackie hated wearing skirts and shoes with heels and so she started planning their exit strategy as soon as they were in the hotel room. Jackie pretended to be totally unconscious of Franny’s excitement. She tried to tell her everything she hated about the ball: There was an orchestra. There was a seated dinner. There were boys from all over the country, slick with money. Rockefellers. Kennedys. There would be photographers from the Shiny Sheet, the same photographers who took pictures of Teddy when he was too drunk and had his arms around every woman at once. Franny’s eyes got wider and wider and Jackie knew she’d said the wrong thing. There was no way they were going to miss a minute of it.
The Johnsons, Jackie’s parents, had real first names, but almost nobody used them. Her father’s name was Edward, and her mother’s
was Elizabeth, though other women tended to call her other things: Bitsy, Betsy, Betty. This had long since seemed strange to Jackie, but Franny raised an eyebrow every time somebody called her something new. Jackie’s mother would kiss them on both cheeks, no matter what they’d called her. She went with the girls to the pool, claiming she just wanted some sun, but Jackie knew she wanted to keep an eye on them. Jackie spent most of her time diving off the highest board and ignoring her mother’s requests to talk to other children. She told Franny they’d been kidnapped. They were hostages.