by shukyou (主教)
Reagan Henry’s the kind of girl who doesn’t like the word ‘no’. So I agree to drive her to Florida and back.
I linger closing up at the restaurant as long as I can, until Mr. Diaz is practically pushing me out the door, and I drive around the block three times in the hope that they might all spontaneously decide 11:30 is late enough and go the hell home. But they don’t, and I can’t justify burning any more gas, so I park three houses down so I don’t block any of their cars in the driveway, and go in through the front door, because maybe that way they won’t see me.
No such luck. They’ve all gathered in the living room, sprawling around on the furniture and the carpet and each other. Mom must’ve yelled at them to keep it down because she’s got an early morning tomorrow, because nobody’s laughing and no music’s playing, just the TV on a low Late Night rumble.
“Hey,” says Ben as I try to sneak by the doorway and fail my roll for stealth, “why doesn’t Di drive you?”
I freeze, halfway out of the black blazer the restaurant makes me wear, caught in the headlights of my brother and a dozen of his friends. “Uh,” I say, because I’m apparently an idiot.
Reagan reaches up to tuck a strand of her salon-frosted hair behind one ear. She looks much like she ever does, made up to perfection, always moving like she’s posing for a magazine, hesitating for half a second when she knows it’s time for the shutter to snap — but she’s got a rawness to her face that isn’t usually there, hanging out around the corners and edges. I wonder if anyone else in the room has seen it. One leg crosses over the other at the knee, where her legs touch briefly before they separate again, moving up into the divided highway of her denim shorts. I gape like I’ve forgotten how my jaw works.
“No, hey, it’d work out perfect.” Ben gestures at me with the neck of his beer bottle, something I don’t appreciate. “You’re off school this week, right, Di? That’s plenty of time to make a trip out to Miami.” He punctuates this all with the type of shit-eating, world’s-greatest-genius grin he gets when he’s been drinking too much. “Haven’t you always wanted to go to Florida?”
“That’s a pretty sweet spring break!” adds his friend Rosa, who has her boyfriend’s meaty arm slung possessively around her shoulders. They talk to me like I’m a preschooler, even though I’m only two years younger than Ben and four years younger than Joe, our oldest brother. If he were here right now, he’d tell them to leave me the hell alone. But his framed Army Corporal portrait on the mantle, decorated with hopeful blue stars and yellow ribbons, doesn’t say anything.
I fidget in the doorway, still unable to process the information I’ve been given. “Florida?” I finally stammer out.
Reagan sets me in her sights, and I feel a thousand times smaller than I did walking in the door. “Some shit’s got to get dealt with, you know?” She flashes that smile-for-the-camera, but it doesn’t wrinkle the skin at the corners of her eyes. Smile-for-the-camera rarely does. “Just some shit.” I know better than to ask why the hell she doesn’t just drive herself. I remember last November, having to throw on clothes at two in the morning and drive to a police station on the other side of the city to pick Ben out of the drunk tank after he and a couple others had gotten themselves stopped by a DUI checkpoint. Reagan had been behind the wheel, and a .15 blood alcohol level is enough to convince most judges to suspend your licence for a good long while. Ben had told me she’s been living off her parents’ admittedly ample generosity ever since.
Another guy whose name I don’t know, whose face I barely recognize, leans forward over his knees, like he’s sitting on a toilet, real attractive. “You know we’d all love to,” he says to Reagan, and his voice has a touch of the kindergarten teacher to it, “but, you know. Bosses.”
“Don’t blame your boss for your lazy ass,” Reagan shoots back, with a bit of an edge to her smile. She recrosses her legs, and there’s a big red circle on one smooth thigh where they’d been pressed together before.
“Hey, he’s the one who’s threatened to–” he starts, and then it’s pandemonium, like what happens when you scare a flock of seagulls. It seems like everyone knows this story, and everyone’s got their own opinion on the matter that just has to get heard, even if it’s got to be shouted of everyone else. Reagan’s on the defensive, though I can’t see the guns she obviously thinks she’s got trained on her. Voices rise, closing in on the it’s-going-to-wake-up-Mom volume, a bunch of friends rehashing an old friendly disagreement, only one of them isn’t joking anymore. So, like a dumbass, I open my mouth:
“I’ll do it.”
I confess, I sort of said it to shut everyone up. And it works. They all look at me, Ben especially, like the last thing they’d expected was for me to go along with their little joke. I guess I showed them. Or something.
Gary, the only one of Ben’s friends who’s always nice to me, no exceptions, breaks the silence first. “It’s okay, Di, I’m sure Reagan can work out something–”
“No, it’s okay.” I shake my head no, then rake my hair out of my face. It’s humid tonight, and humidity means my hair has its own ideas about where it should and should not go. “I can get someone to cover at the restaurant. It’s only a couple shifts this week, anyway.” Four, actually, and the weekend’s the busy time, but they don’t need to know that.
It’s then I make the mistake of looking at Reagan, who’s got me fixed in the way you sometimes look at things in a museum, the really weird things where you can’t figure out why those crazy primitive people from that island you can’t pronounce and will never go to would have bothered making a little oyster shell carving of a penis, or something equally bizarre. She was a senior when I was a freshman in high school, and her meanness was legendary. She’d once made the student council president cry just by staring at him long enough, or so the story went. With her gaze running a spear through my lungs, so sharp I can actually feel it, I can believe it.
Finally, Reagan clicks her tongue off the roof of her mouth. “Whatever,” she shrugs, like people offer to drive her to Florida and back every day, and twice on Sundays. Which, knowing her, they probably do. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll go.”
“All right,” I tell her, my voice gone white. I escape before someone can talk me into giving up a kidney, or something.
Everything in my life crystallized the day I met Reagan Henry. Or, really, ‘met’ is too strong of a word for it — I saw her across the gym, in her drill team uniform, cussing and pulling a wad of gum off the bottom of her shoe, and the fuzzy picture that had been my life snapped into an almost-shocking clarity. I guess for Buddhists, achieving enlightenment must be something like this: I had perfect awareness of everything about myself, the great explanation for everything that had gone before, the key that turned the last lock and let me into my own heart.
So I ran off from the bleachers and went to throw up in the nearest bathroom. My math teacher caught me and made me go to the school counselor for six months to talk about the eating disorder he was sure I had. The whole experience made me swear off all organized religion, especially Buddhism.
Anyway, maybe this makes it make sense, the part where I agree to a 1100-mile road trip on a minute’s notice. I don’t blame people if they laugh at me; I’d laugh at me, if I felt good enough to laugh. As it is, I’m considering throwing up again as a lifestyle choice. It turns out that ‘tomorrow morning’ means ‘not before noon’ to Reagan, and I’m sitting on the same spot on her parents’ living room couch that I’ve been sitting on for the last five hours, reading the Hemingway novel I was smart enough to toss into my backpack. By now, I’m almost halfway through. A nervous-looking older woman with a thick Spanish accent keeps walking by, dusting one flat surface or another, and asking if I need anything. I keep declining, because I don’t know if I can keep anything down, except now I’m hungry.
Maybe she’ll change her mind. Maybe she’ll come down, or send someone down with a message, telling me that this is all one big ‘never mind’, sending me on my way. Maybe this is all my brother’s idea of a great practical joke. Maybe he’s hiding in the closet, ready to jump out with a video camera.
I wonder idly if eating and puking it right back up will make me more, or less, hungry.
The hands on the grandfather clock against the wall tell me it’s 1:12 when she finally makes her way down, a purse-sized backpack slung over one shoulder, the handle of a rolling suitcase clutched in her other fist. She’s got on a pair of shorts and a tank top, because it’s South Texas, and it’s ninety degrees in March. She parks the rolling suitcase, but leaves the handle upright. “Let’s go,” she says, like I’m taking her no farther than the end of the block. Like I know at all why I’m taking her anywhere.
“Do you have directions?” I ask lamely as I follow along behind her, picking up her suitcase because it’s obviously expected of me.
“Just east, right?” she calls at me over her shoulder.
My feet grind to a stumbling halt; I’m willing to go with this nonsense pretty far, but there’s only so far nonsense can get you. “Uh, it’s a little more complica–”
She cuts me off mid-sentence by flipping out a piece of paper between two long, well-manicured fingers. I can see something scrawled on it in tight blue letters, though I can’t read them from this distance. “Relax. I’ve got the address. Just get to Houston and get on I-10, and the next decision won’t be until Florida.”
The suitcase sounds like a tiny jet engine as it rolls down the pebbled walkway from the Henrys’ front door to the street where my car’s been parked since morning. I’m surprised someone hasn’t called the cops and had it towed for marring the planned community aesthetic with its ’97 Taurus-ness. Maybe they saw the magnetic SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbon Ben stuck on there and decided they didn’t have it in their hearts to displace such a patriotic vehicle. Somehow I doubt it.
I’m braced for any of a thousand different comments on my available mode of transportation, but Reagan says nothing as I pop the trunk and put her suitcase next to my hand-me-down army-issue green duffel with GLASS, JOSIAH P. and his ID number screen-printed on the side. I’m waiting for her to add her backpack to the pile, but she tucks it under her feet as she takes shotgun, so I slam the trunk lid shut and climb in the driver’s seat. The air conditioning roars to life along with the car, and Reagan turns all available vents on herself as I pull out of her cul-de-sac and head toward the expressway. We are officially on the road.
Before she passed, Grandma Taylor used to say that she’d never met an uncomfortable silence, so at least I know I get it from her. My car rattles and the air conditioning roars and the highway keeps its steady hum beneath my wheels, and that’s enough sound for me, I guess. I don’t even notice anything’s wrong until we pass a truck stop an hour out and Reagan says, “Stop the car.” I don’t argue, having already gotten it into my head that this trip is going to proceed on her schedule, so I take the exit and pull up by the pumps as she gets out of the car. Probably has to pee, I figure, and around here it’s not a bad idea to take the opportunity when you can. Past a certain point, you can go a long way without running into a working toilet.
But when I get done topping off the tank and walk inside, she’s spinning around a rack of tapes, frowning thoughtfully. “Your tape player work?” she asks when she notices me. Between those half-moon fingernails she’s trapped a Linda Ronstadt album.
“Not for that.” I snatch it from her and put it back on the rack with all its brethren — or sistern, I guess would be more appropriate. I give the offerings a cursory once-over and make a face. “Or that. Or that. Or that.”
“Come on, there’s got to be something.” She sighs with irritation and draws her hair away from her neck, and her breasts lean against the front of her shirt like they want to get to know me better, which I suspect is an absolute misinterpretation on my part. “It’s twenty hours in the car and I’m not going to spend the whole way just … sitting there.”
I think about asking, why don’t we just talk?, but I try not to ask questions I already know the answer to any more than necessary. “How about the radio?”
“How about not.” She pulls another tape from the rack, this one a Dixie Chicks album, and holds it up for my consideration. Under normal circumstances, I find the Dixie Chicks solidly tolerable, but the thought of driving all the way to Florida with them on repeat set my teeth on edge about as much — well, about as much as the idea of doing it in silence set Reagan’s on edge, probably. The Quiet Gene is obviously a recessive one.
Figuring it’s rude of me just to object without bringing anything to the table, I reach for the only artist I recognize on the side of the rack facing me, which turns out to be Bette Midler and her Songs for the New Depression album. I’ve never heard it, but she had me at the title. “Acceptable?” Reagan gives me the look over the tops of her sunglasses that you can only really give over the tops of glasses, that picture-perfect are-you-shitting-me? gaze that needs no further commentary. I sigh and put it back where I got it. “Look, I doubt we’ll agree on anything here, so maybe we can see if they’ve got a cheap walkman with headphones or something, and you can–”
Then I see what she’s picked up, and the picture of King George on a horse, done in traditional Ethiopian art style and set against a cream-coloured field, stops me in my tracks and makes me think that maybe there’s hope for this venture after all. Paul Simon’s Graceland album saves the day, I suspect not for the first time in human history, and undoubtedly not for the last.
Five minutes later, we are flying down the highway to the rhythm of African percussion and the whine of an accordian, the afternoon sun at our backs as the road bends east and we bend with it.
We make it across the border from Louisiana into Mississippi, and I pull into the parking lot of the motel after I realize I’m too tired to keep my head upright. Reagan stirs a little in the front seat when I pull up in front of the manager’s office, but doesn’t wake up enough to bitch until I’ve come back with the key in my pocket. “This isn’t Florida,” she frowns at me, standing out in the deep, muggy night air.
“Nope,” I say, pulling my one bag out of the trunk and slinging it over my shoulder, “it’s not. But I’ve got to sleep.”
“I thought Ben said you could make it to Florida.” Even as she snaps at me, she takes my cue and pulls her rolling bag out on her own, apparently angry enough not to make me be driver and porter at once.
I pride myself on keeping my emotions — all of them — in check, but the more exhausted I get, the sharper my tongue grows. “You know what? It’s possible I could have — if we’d left around eight, when I got to your house.”
From behind me, I hear the wheels on her bag stop rolling. “You … got there at eight?”
Without giving her the satisfaction of looking back and acknowledging the dramatic weight of her sudden stop, I jam the card key into the lock so hard I’m surprised something doesn’t break — the lock, the card, my hand. “And I don’t know what time you’re going to feel like moving tomorrow morning, or even how far I’m expected to go, so I’m going to get some sleep.” The room’s got a No Smoking sign on the door, but I take a sniff and strongly suspect the previous occupants took that as more of a suggestion than as a hard and fast rule. “Unless you really feel some burning desire to get me back behind the wheel of that car just so we can both become road fatality statistics that get used in high school slide show programs to warn kids about the dangers of Driving While Exhausted.”
She tosses her suitcase on the bed closest to the bathroom, farthest from the door, and I don’t argue her choice. I do, however, question her sanity as she gives herself a once-over in the mirror and says, “I’m going out.” Maybe I gape a little at her, even, but I try to keep it to a minimum. “There’s a bar across the street.”
Instead, I fish into my pocket and hand her the key. “Here.” She takes it from me, and I fall back against the bed, kicking off my sandals and letting them rebound with a satisfying thunk off the door of the room’s mini-fridge. “Just don’t wake me up when you get back in.”
Reagan hesitates for a moment at the door as she shoves the key into the back pocket of her jeans. “You want to come?”
“I want to sleep,” I tell her, and I stretch out along the bed without even bothering to pull the covers down. The pillow is so inviting as my head comes to rest on it that I don’t even really hear her leave the room.
I don’t hear her come back, either, and it all might have gone unnoticed to me, except that there’s a little tug at my waistband and I wake up to find the clock in the room reads 3:04 and someone is undoing the button of my jeans. The motel is weird and new, and I’m so exhausted from driving that even this doesn’t drag me entirely out of my deep sleep, so I’m not entirely certain it’s not a dream — one particular dream, in fact, and I refuse to acknowledge how many times I’ve had it before.
Except in the dream she doesn’t smell like five good margaritas and maybe some beer on top of that, and that’s exactly what I taste when she smashes her lips and teeth against mine, sticking her tongue in so deep I can taste salt in the back of my mouth. The motel curtains are shut, but the motel is cheap and the curtains are thin, and the oily orange light from the parking lot beyond the glass seeps in just enough that I can see suggestions of her body, hints that help me categorize what is and isn’t hers. She reaches for my hands, and brings them upward from her waist, beneath her shirt, beneath her bra, until my fingers catch the roughened surface of her nipples. I feel the world go a little soft, and dimly think that I should probably take off my jeans before how wet she’s making me soaks through my underwear and into the denim. But that concern is a long way off right now.
“You like my titties?” she purrs into my ear, and it would be such stupid, pointless, porn-star dialogue, except yes, God yes, I love them. I squeeze them, feeling how soft and heavy and completely unlike mine they are, and as my knuckles pinch her nipples like a vise, she groans and grinds her body against mine. There are probably no words in the English language to describe exactly how incredibly drunk she is right now. “You want to lick them? Want to suck them?”
The part of my brain still capable of rational thought warns me that any second now, she’s going to turn on me and laugh at me and threaten to tell my brother about me and maybe even kill me, if all those movies about gay panic slayings are to be believed. But I nod anyway, greedy like some stupid puppy begging for a treat, and she rocks back on her knees enough to strip her shirt and bra off, then leans back in until one of her nipples is a half inch away from my mouth. I’ve never done anything even remotely like this in my life, have never even been kissed before a few minutes ago, but I’ve kept myself company with the internet enough nights to know that the one hard and fast rule in all of this is no teeth. So I run my tongue across the pebbled skin before taking it into my mouth and sucking hard.
She groans and rocks against me, straddling my hips and rubbing against me just above the button of my undone jeans. “Don’t be gentle now,” she hisses. That rational portion of my brain reminds me that she may not even have a good idea of what or whom she’s doing, and that sex without full and sober agreement on behalf of both parties can be considered rape in some courts of law. I tell my brain that if informed consent is the issue here, at worst we’re actually just raping one another, which is sort of a neat trick, and probably not prosecutable. And then she’s stuffed my hand down the front of her underwear, and I resolve to come back to this dilemma at a later date.
With a little wriggle I can only half-see in the dimness, she shimmies out of her shorts and panties, until she’s completely naked and on top of me. My fingers feel wet, and it takes me a moment to realize that it’s because she’s taken three of them and shoved them inside herself, and is rocking up and down, fucking herself on my hand, pinching her nipples and gasping. Despite her rocking, the motel bed doesn’t squeak, and I’m almost disappointed to find out that particular cliché is false. “Come on,” she hisses through clenched teeth, glaring down at me from within a halo of her wild hair. “I know you want to fuck me, so fucking do it.”
At a loss for any other response and despite the awkward angle of my wrist, I start to move my hand deeper into her. I bring my thumb back until I find the hardened nub of her clit, navigating clumsily against the wet, slick warmth of her skin. The basic geography is like mine, but not enough that I feel perfectly comfortable; her clit feels smaller, her pubic bone more prominent, her lips wider, and so I mostly hold myself still, letting her drive me for now.
Reagan, for her own part, seems to have little trouble with this arrangement. Stretched back above me, her body is all curves and soft angles, her breasts bouncing just beyond my reach. She’s panting harder now, making little grunting noises every time she brings her hips down, nothing approaching words, just sound. The edge of a smile she wore earlier has vanished, and now she just looks almost pained, her eyes shut, a little vertical line constructed by how her eyebrows pinch together. There’s nothing I know how to do, and maybe even nothing she wants me to do, so I hold my hand steady and lean back, watching her move in the darkness, feeling my pulse throb where my own legs join.
I wouldn’t even have known she’d gotten off, really, if her vaginal muscles hadn’t started clenching around my fingers in rhythm, quick and strong at first, and then slowing, until little twitches there mirror the fluttering of her eyelids. At last, with a sigh, she pulls back and off of me, and walks naked over to her own bed. I sit up just in time to see her pull back the covers and slip beneath them. Another few seconds, and she’s snoring too.
Profoundly disturbed by the weirdness of it all, I settle back against my own pillow, staring at the ceiling and taking deep breaths as my heart rate slows. I bring my fingers just beneath my nose, and they smell like her, a thought which looses another brief torrent to wet my thighs. But before I can decide to do anything about it, exhaustion takes over, and I’ve fallen back into my former deep sleep.
Even before I’ve opened my eyes, I’ve run through my options: meet the situation head-on by being the first to talk to her about her actions (which I mentally shorthand ‘the confrontational way’), or preserve our mutual dignity by insisting, should she bring it up, that I don’t remember anything at all between going to sleep and waking up (‘the amnesiac’s way’). I’ve nearly finished considering their merits when I hear her rise from the room’s other bed and stagger her way into the bathroom, at which point I decide on the coward’s way, which can be summed up as: see what she does first.
The shower runs for less than five minutes, and when she emerges, she’s got a towel wrapped around her body but her hair’s still dry. I’ve turned on CNN, where the talking heads are talking head-like about the economy, and the ticker in the corner tells me it’s 7:49 Central Time here and an hour later in most of Florida. “Do you need the shower?” she asks.
I’m poised and ready to say no, and then I shift in my jeans and remember what a mess I’d made of myself the night before. What a mess she’d made of me. “Sure,” I tell her, grabbing a change of clothes and retreating to the bathroom. If she thinks it’s okay not to wash your hair every day, I can live with that.
By the time I come out, fully dressed and only slightly more coherent, she’s pulled on a pair of shorts and a tank top similar to the ones she’d been wearing the day before. She’s got her bare feet crossed beneath her on the bed, and I can see her pink-painted toenails have little green flowers carefully detailed on the big toes. I guess when you’re a girl so pretty that people like looking at you all the way down to your feet, you have to think of things like that. Without makeup, her face looks a little more worn than it usually does, and I can see dark shadows puffing beneath her eyes. If she’s hung over, she sure doesn’t treat a hangover like Ben or even Joe does.
“Ready to go?” she asks when she sees me, giving me an almost-smile. Either she actually doesn’t remember anything from the night before, or she’s pretending she doesn’t because she’s so horrified by her actions, and either way, I can live with it.
I consider leaving that pair of underwear and jeans here, maybe for some maid to find and give to charity or keep for herself, anything so I don’t have to deal with them again. But a pair of jeans is a pair of jeans, and I’m not bleeding money the way Reagan is, so I shove them into a clean plastic motel garbage bag, and shove that to the bottom of my duffel, so far down I won’t be able to smell either of us on them. “Let’s drive.”
You can see the ocean — or, well, the Gulf of Mexico — on both sides of I-10 out to the east of Mobile, and Reagan keeps her nose pressed to the glass as I weave my way through traffic, like we don’t live right next door to it ourselves, like she doesn’t see it every day of her regular life. The Gulf is flat this morning, and the morning sun shimmers off its surface like someone cast a bunch of diamonds onto it, which would be a stupid overused simile if it weren’t so damn true. On the stereo, Paul Simon is singing for at least the dozenth time about how I could call him Al if he could call me Betty, and it’s a good thing this album never gets old.
“So, what are you in school for?”
It takes me a good several seconds to figure out what’s happened — that Reagan has spoken, and spoken to me, and said something other than a command to pull over the car at the next rest stop, and it’s a question that I’m supposed to answer. By the time I work this out, I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m the dumbest thing ever to own a pair of lips and a brain. “English,” I finally stammer out. “Creative writing, I mean. As a concentration.”
“Oh,” she says. “So you, like, write novels?” She doesn’t look at me, just keeps staring at the diamond-water as it rolls on by far beneath us.
I shake my head a little. “Short stories, mostly.”
“I like those. They’re short.” She laughs a little at her own joke, and seems unbothered by how I don’t join her. “So you want to be the next Stephen King or something?”
“More like the next Flannery O’Conner. Or Eudora Welty.” I glance at her out of the corner of my eye, and see that she’s unimpressed by my naming of my heroes. “Southern women writers. Writing about, you know, the South.” We’d gotten into a big discussion in one of my lit classes about whether or not South Texas constituted ‘the South’ in the way Southern writers like O’Conner and Welty and Faulkner had thought of it. General opinion tended toward ‘no’.
“True stories or made-up ones?”
“What, me or them?”
“Fiction. Mostly. Me and them.”
Reagan laughs a little and shifts in her seat, so as I can tell she’s looking at me now. “For a writer, you don’t say a lot.”
I scoff quietly, not meaning to make it sound hurtful, but I can tell it does a little when she settles back into her seat. “Sorry. Just … a lot of people ask me that, and it doesn’t really make sense to me. I mean, maybe it’d be weird if I were in the theatre or political science departments. But you don’t expect writers to talk. You expect writers to write.”
“No, I get it.” She takes a drink from the iced coffee in the cupholder between us, and I don’t bother pointing out that it’s mine, because she probably already knows. “Your brother talks a lot, though.”
“Both of my brothers talk a lot,” I point out. “I guess by the time I got around, there … wasn’t really anything left to say. Or any room left to say it in.” I ease the car into the left lane, ahead of the morning commuters waiting for their right-hand exits. “I mean, do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“Are you going to write about this trip?” Reagan answers, a little too fast, a little too sharp. Warning shot. If I don’t back off, the next one’ll land straight between my eyes.
A bright green sign on the right tells me it’s 30 miles to the Florida border, 41 to Pensacola, 222 to Tallahassee. I guess they put the long-shot destinations on there to help keep everything in perspective. “No.” I turn on the cruise control and settle into the rhythm of the highway. Thirty miles ahead of us, Florida waits.
Reagan’s got somewhere to be, that’s for sure, and not telling me about it doesn’t make her any less anxious to get there. She looks frequently at the car clock and at her cell phone, and even sighs dramatically as we cross into the Eastern time zone and I set the clock ahead another hour. Just east of Tallahassee, I vote we get out of the car and have a meal in a real restaurant that lets you sit down and brings the food to you and maybe even has cloth napkins. But Reagan insists we get lunch to go, so I suck up the ache that’s developing in my right knee and pull into a gas station next to a McDonalds. Five minutes later, the car is fueled up and she’s got a paper bag in her hand, so there’s really nothing left to do but get back in the car and keep going.
It’s not enough. When we’ve crossed into the city of Jacksonville, she starts reading to me from the directions she’s scrawled on a piece of paper. She’s bad at navigating, and has a tendency to tell me that I need to turn about two seconds before I actually need to do it, which does nothing for my nerves or for hers. After a couple of dicey merges, we’re both on edge, and I’m more than grateful when I finally get the instruction from her to take an exit that looks like it’ll get us off any major roads. It does, and a few right-hand turns later, she points me into an empty parking lot next to a big white building. Above the door are the black letters DISTRICT FOUR MEDICAL EXAMINER’S OFFICE. There are no lights on in any of the windows.
As soon as I put the car into park, Reagan’s out, up the front walk in her big, long strides. Even before she pulls on the handle of the front door, I know it isn’t going to open. I might even be able to find her exaggerated frustration at finding it thus hilarious, were I not certain that she’d kill me for laughing at her right now, so I let it go and get out of the car. “They’re open at eight tomorrow,” I call at her, pointing to the sign by the entrance.
“You drive too slow!” she yells back at me, pacing in front of the glass doors as though sheer force of will might convince them to open. Her hands are balled into fists at her sides, clenched so tight her knuckles have gone pale and bony.
Despite my best efforts, I roll my eyes. “I drove as fast as I could. They closed over an hour ago. I would’ve had to bend space to get us here by four.”
She pulls the handle again, maybe in case she just wasn’t trying hard enough the first time, but the deadbolt catches and it holds fast. “So what, we just wait?” The wooden soles of her wedge sandals make sharp cracks against the pebbled cement.
“It’s a morgue.” I point up to the letters above the door, just in case she’s somehow missed the memo. “Whoever’s in there, they’re not getting any deader.”
I know it’s the wrong thing to say when Reagan snaps her entire body toward me, eyes wide and jaw set, and I start preparing myself with what I’ll do if she actually comes after me. With two older brothers looking out for me, I’ve never had to hold my own in a single fight, and I don’t know if I’m ready to face Reagan’s wrath.
She doesn’t rush me, though — doesn’t even move her feet from where she’s planted them, just takes her right fist, hauls it back, and smashes it into one of the white stucco pillars that holds up the building’s face. There’s a crack that I can at least identify as one of the plastic rings she wears, not her bones, but when she pulls away, there’s a little pink smear against the pillar. She staggers backward, cradling her hand to her chest, her mouth wide open as she tries to work past the pain to remind her lungs how to breathe. I’m fairly certain most people who talk about punching walls as a means of stress relief have never actually hit a wall. It hurts like a bitch.
“Oh, Jesus.” I nearly trip over the yellow-painted curb trying to get to her. I’m not good with blood, it’s true, but I’m okay in general with people who need help, so I try to keep my mind off her injured hand and on Reagan in general. “Here, just get in the car.” I try to put my hands around her shoulders, maybe to point her in the right direction, but she jerks away the instant I make contact.
“Don’t touch me!” she snaps, and for the first time I’m frankly glad the building is deserted, so nobody overhears and thinks I’m trying to murder her. Maybe coroners would like it if more people were considerate enough to commit murder right outside the morgue. It’d save them a lot of transportation hassle.
Rebuffed appropriately, I step back and open her side of the car, grabbing a stack of clean yellow paper napkins from where she’d jammed them between the armrest and the emergency break. “Here,” I say, holding them out as a peace offering. “You’re … kind of bleeding on your shirt.”
She looks me over, her eyes red-rimmed with tears of pain. I don’t think she’s broken anything — I think she’d be in a world more hurt if she’d actually managed to shatter bone — but I’m not entirely sure. When she takes the napkins from me and wraps them around her knuckles, though, I can see all five of the fingers on her right hand move. I think that’s a sign nothing’s broken. I think.
“Look.” I take a deep breath and rake my fingers through my hair, wishing I had a scrunchie on me, something to pull it back with. “Let’s find a motel or something, stay the night, and like the sign says, they open at eight. We’ll come back tomorrow morning. First thing. You can wash that off, put a band-aid on it. You can sleep. We can both sleep.”
Reagan frowns, giving the impression that she’s vaguely insulted by the situation, but she nods and starts for the car. I step out of her way, and she gets in without my help, managing well enough with just her left hand. I let her, because it’s not my place to try and baby her now. That’d be something for a boyfriend, or a father, or maybe even a brother. But not for someone who, even a thousand miles later, might as well still be a stranger.
I’m not expecting her to say anything else to me, which is good, because she doesn’t, not all the way to a little Super 8 fairly close up the road, not even as we check in. But she doesn’t protest, and I take her silence as consent. After I unlock the door, I go to bring both of our bags in, and when I return, she’s gone into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. So I turn on the TV and wait.
This whole experience is turning out to be so surreal, some spectacular vindication of the principle that tells you to be careful what you wish for. I’d wished for Reagan Henry to notice me for years, to find some reason to give me even just a smile or a nod. What I finally get turns out to be a cross between one of those teen movies about the beautiful spoiled girl and a Beckett play. I refuse to believe in God, so I just wind up being mad at the universe in general for this one.
Somewhere between pulling up in front of a coroner’s office and hearing the angry shattering of her ring against the plaster, I’d given up trying to make sense of this. It’s like one of those Magic Eye puzzles, the ones where you know the trick and can even see the subtle variations in the otherwise meaningless background pattern, but son of a bitch, there’s no sailboat there. I’ve got some information, but any way I put it together, it’s meaningless. Flopping back on the bed and draping an arm across my eyes, I resolve to leave the mystery genre to other writers.
I must fall asleep, because the next thing I hear is the bathroom door, and by then, the light from outside the window is dimmer and Anderson Cooper has magically jumped to the middle of an interview with some foreign leader for my viewing pleasure. Reagan walks gingerly out, a washcloth wrapped around her fingers. Her eyes are red, but her cheeks are dry. “Hey,” she says, her voice soft.
“Hey.” I scrub at my face as I sit up, trying to make sure I hadn’t drooled or formed some giant booger in my sleep. Such indignities are about the last thing I need right now. “You hungry?”
“Nah.” She shakes her head and sits down on the edge of her bed, watching as the segment cuts to commercial. She keeps her hands in her lap and sits up straight. In the glow from the TV, I can see the faint browning lines where she’d touched her hand to her shirt. I hope she isn’t particularly attached to that shirt, because no matter what the cleaners say, blood never comes out enough so you can’t tell it’d ever been there in the first place. There’s a beat, and she smiles. “Actually, yeah. I am.”
“Pizza?” Our room key has the number for the local Domino’s on it, and that’s good enough for me. Effective advertising. I roll over enough to fish it out of my back pocket.
Reagan scoots back on the bed and pulls her knees up to her chest, circling her arms around her legs. One of the little green flowers has chipped and lost a petal. “Yeah, okay.”
Deciding not to burn my minutes on what here is a local call, I go for the room’s beige phone, which must be at least as old as I am. “Yeah okay what?”
She frowns at me, looking lost. “Yeah okay … please?”
“No, I–” I sputter for a second or two, then burst out laughing. “Yeah okay sausage, or yeah okay pineapple, or what?”
Reagan stares at me as though I’ve grown a second head, and then — and this totally unexpected to me — breaks into a smile just this side of a giggle. “Yeah okay whatever,” she says with a shrug. “Just no olives. Or anchovies.”
“You know, I don’t think anchovies exist.” I can see the corners of her mouth begin to pull down, fighting any telltale mirth. “I really don’t! I mean, it’s like people threaten to order pizza with anchovies like it’s the worst thing in the world, but have you ever seen a pizza with anchovies on it? Or eaten an anchovy? …Is that what you call just one of a group of anchovies? Anchovy? Anchove? Maybe just an anch?”
She shakes a little with the force of holding back a laugh, and she’s biting her lips together. After a deep breath, she points to the phone. “Dare you to order one.”
I spin the card with the phone number on it between my thumb and forefinger. “If I order it, you have to eat it.”
“If they exist.”
“If they exist.”
“So really, you’ve got nothing to lose.”
No, I think but don’t say as I go for the phone, right now I feel like I’ve suddenly got a whole lot to lose. And that scares the hell out of me.
Around 8:30, Reagan steps out for what she says is a walk, and shakes her head when I offer to go with her. Twenty minutes later, she’s back with a brown paper bag, from which she pulls a six-pack carton of pre-mixed bottled mojitos. “To wash the anchovies down,” she tells me when I raise an eyebrow.
I tuck the motel key between the pages of my book; the TV is still on, but for background noise as much as anything else. “I’m not much of a drinker.”
“Yeah, I didn’t figure you’d be.” She hands me a bottle, which is dripping wet with condensation from being out in the warm night. Everything sweats in Florida. “But you don’t seem the type to have a fake ID either, so I can’t take you out to a bar with me, and I can’t drink alone or I feel like an alcoholic.” She wraps her unbandaged hand in her shirt and grabs the top of the bottle, twisting the cap free with one firm jerk. “So, bottoms up.”
The glass is cold and slippery in my hand, and the liquid inside is murky. I’ve never had a mojito before, but the picture on the label promises mint and the ingredients list promises sugar, and both those things are all right by me. Following her lead, I twist the bottle open, and sniff at its contents. It’s like somebody dissolved a breath mint in a bottle of cough syrup, but not in a bad way.
She watches me carefully over the top of her own bottle, as she leans against the mini-fridge, her eyes pinning me down. I can’t tell if she’s laughing at me or just near me, but I’m determined not to show weakness, so I take a taste. It’s drier than I expect it to be, and it makes me cough a little. “Sorry.” I wipe my mouth on the edge of the sheet, and it leaves no stain.
“You’re really not a drinker,” she says, and she sounds almost as impressed as I’d imagine her to be if I’d taken down the whole thing in one swallow. “Guess it’s been a while since I’ve met someone who wasn’t.” She, for her own part, tilts her whole torso back and chugs about half her bottle before taking a breath.
“How’s your hand?” I point to her bandaged knuckles. She’s got it wrapped in toilet paper and some medical tape I found in a pocket of my duffel bag, but the tape is starting to come loose from where it’s trying to stick to skin. Everything sweats in Florida.
She shrugs and takes another long drink. A little trickle spills out from the corner of her mouth and rolls down her cheek, down her neck, until it disappears into the valley between her breasts, leaving a long wet trail in its wake. “Better with this,” she sighs. I can hear the sugar and the mint rasp in her throat. I can taste the same in the back of mine.
I’m down to the bottom of my third bottle and that point in The Breakfast Club where they’re all dancing around the library when the lights go out and the air conditioning grinds to silence. Reagan turns to me. “I didn’t do it.”
I try to get up to see what the problem is, but I fall back to the bed before I’m even really on my feet. Maybe I should have started paying better attention about the time she reached into the bag and pulled out a second mojito six-pack. But it feels so decadent, the drinking and the heat and the night and being so far from home, and it’s Spring Break and I’m on vacation, so every time I stop, she hands me another bottle and I do it. Now I can’t seem to find my feet.
“Maybe it’ll come back on in a minute,” I say, and we wait a minute, but nothing happens, not even an emergency generator. With the air conditioning gone, the air gets warm fast. Aren’t you supposed to reset the breakers or something when this happens? Maybe there’s a breaker in the room. Maybe if I can remember how to stand up, I’ll find it.
There’s a knock on the door that makes us both jump, and Reagan makes it there before I can even completely get my head around the idea of moving my feet. She pulls open the door, and there’s a heavy man with a flashlight and a wifebeater with sweat stains. Looks like a manager, or at least a night manager, since tourists don’t usually bring their own flashlights to motels. “Power’s out,” he says in that curious Florida mush-mouthed accent, the one that almost sounds like Texas except when it doesn’t.
“No shit,” Reagan says flatly. Every second she stands there with the door open, I can feel what’s left of the air conditioning osmose out into the world at large.
“Yeah, um.” He clears his throat and can’t take his eyes off her chest. “Big delivery truck, you know, backed up into a pole, knocked out a lot of things. So, uh, we’re gettin’ it fixed, but we don’t know when it’ll be up and running again.”
“Uh-huh.” I can hear the rough coating of irritation around every syllable, and it’s almost shocking to me, because in a day and a half, I’ve almost forgotten what a total bitch she is, or at least what a total bitch she can be. She, however, hasn’t.
He clears his throat again, the phlegmy grumble of a marathon smoker. I remember hearing the same from my dad. “So, uh, you girls lock up your door and just sit tight, and if you need anything, you just come down to the front desk, and I’ll see what I can do, okay?”
“Thanks,” I wave at him. “We’re fine.”
The manager opens his mouth like he’s about to say something else, but Reagan shuts the door and turns the deadbolt. There’s a quick pause, and then the sound of his footsteps trundling off down the breezeway, onward to inform another patron of the fine establishment about the terrible incident with the truck. Reagan slides the chain shut and eyes the large plate-glass window just to the right of the door. “God, I hate these motels where you can’t even open a fucking window.”
“Maybe the one in the bathroom?” Motel pillows are invariably awful, and I start rearranging mine in the most comfortable arrangement possible, which still isn’t very comfortable.
She glances in the direction, but instead of taking my advice, she peels off her tank top. The streetlights must be on a different breaker, because there’s still a dim glow that seeps through the cheap, thin curtains, and it shines off the curves of her satin bra. “You’re going to burn up in that,” she says.
“No, I’m not,” I tell her, even though I know she’s right — I’m still dressed down to my jeans and socks, and I’ve got on a long-sleeved men’s dress shirt cuffed only as far as my elbows. The air has a tangible weight to it, a muggy heat you’d think I’d be used to after growing up on the Gulf Coast, except I don’t think anyone ever gets used to it, we just learn to live with it. I can feel the sweat starting to gather under my arms and where my jeans circle around my waist.
Shaking her head, Reagan slips out of her shorts and lets them pool on the floor. Maybe she’s drunk again, but she doesn’t seem drunk, but maybe that’s because I’m still drunk at this point. Perception, I figure, has become somewhat more relative than it usually is. I try to remind myself that she probably goes to the beach in less than this. “Don’t be shy. Just us girls.”
That makes me sweat even worse. This whole conversation is counterproductive. “It’s late. We should probably just go to bed anyway. My watch alarm’s set for 7:30 anyway.” I kick off my socks, which is as much of a concession to nudity as I feel like, and pull back the covers.
Reagan clucks her tongue and sits on the edge of my bed. “How come you only like fiction?”
I blink at her for a moment, honestly unable to figure out how she’s made this segue. “I don’t only like fiction. I only write fiction.”
“So, okay, how come you only write fiction, Miss English Major College Student?”
“Because it’s….” I swallow. This is a hard argument to put together even when I’m thinking clearly, and clarity has gotten long-lost in a fog of heat and humidity and alcohol and the awareness of Reagan’s hand less than an inch away from my left ankle. “Neat.”
“Neat?” My eyes have grown accustomed to the dark, and she looks good in it. “God, it’s really hot in here.”
“Yeah,” I say, trying to sound casual, and it comes out as breathy, nervous laugh, damn me. I can’t stop thinking about the previous night, about the possibility that it wasn’t an accident, about the possibility that it might have been an accident, about the possibility that there might be another accident. I press my palms flat against the mattress to keep my clammy hands from shaking. “I mean, yeah. Neat. You know. Happily ever after. You can stop the story. Fiction, you know where it ends, and you know there’s not any more to tell, because if there were, the author would’ve told you. But the author didn’t. So you know you’re done.”
“And real life?” She reaches up to the middle of her chest, and I realize that the bra she’s wearing must be a front-closure one as she slips it off her shoulders.
“There’s almost always more. Unless someone’s dead. And even then, there’s more. There’s their family and all their friends and what happens to them after they die.” I’m babbling now, I know, but it feels better than trying to put together some coherent response. “You leave a story with real people and you know the real people just … keep on going.” She starts leaning closer to me. “And they don’t do what you want them to do. With the story.”
Reagan’s hand comes to rest on top of my thigh, and it burns even through the denim. “So if I was a character,” she says, and I shut my fool mouth because a grammar lesson about the proper use of the subjunctive is so not in order at the moment, “and you wanted to write me, what would you make me do?”
I once read somewhere about a gas called sulfur hexafluoride, which is five times denser than air. Breathing it makes your lungs feel heavy and your voice drop, like the opposite of helium. If you breathed too much of it, you’d die. “I … don’t know,” I tell her, which might be more honest if I follow it up with which of the hundred fantasies about you I’d choose, but I don’t.
“If you could do anything.” One of her hands traces down the length of her neck, down the curve of her breast, coming to rest in an orbit around her nipple. “Would you make me fuck you again?”
“Reagan,” I say, because it’s become the only word I know. My stomach’s all knotted up, half-afraid she’ll stop, half-afraid she won’t.
She lets that same hand trail lower, until she’s hooked her thumb in the waistband of her panties. “You know,” she says, sounding thoughtful, “I almost didn’t believe Ben when he told me you were a dyke.”
The invocation of my brother’s name drops my core temperature at least twenty degrees; instead of burning, I turn to ice. “He–”
“Oh, he knows. Or at least he thinks he knows.” Her laugh sounds like a bucket of seashells poured out onto a tile floor, and everything breaks on impact. Thoughts like this are why I don’t do poetry workshops. “And it turns out he was right! So, come on. What happens in Florida stays in Florida, right?”
I can’t get away from her fast enough. My feet don’t move right, but they move enough, and when I finally stand, it’s like getting off the spinning cups ride at the fairground, but it’s still standing up. “I don’t–” My hands grope for the edge of the dresser, feeling my way along. Everything’s coming back up, and it can’t happen here.
She’s behind me now, but I can hear her move, can hear her stand. “Diane?” she asks. The first time she’s said my name and she gets it wrong. Figures.
“This is very–” One bare foot in front of the other on the cheap motel carpet. I bet there’s a lot of human fluid ground into it, over time, the kind that vacuums and even really good carpet shampoos don’t get out. “Why’s the–” I don’t know why I keep starting sentences that I don’t have any intent of finishing. Maybe if I keep talking, she won’t have any room to say anything else. Baby’s first uncomfortable silence. Maybe I should take a commemorative photograph.
I manage to make it into the bathroom, lock the door behind me, and position myself over the toilet even in total darkness before everything comes back up again, sugar and mint and anchovies and all. Bully for me.
I flush, and as the noise recedes, I hear a tiny tap on the door. “Are you…?” asks Reagan’s voice, muffled by the cheap door. The door is cheap, the carpet is cheap, the electricity is cheap, everything is cheap about this stupid motel. Pay for what you get.
“I’m fine!” I mean to yell at her, except it comes out as more of a strangled gasp. “Just … fine.” Cheap motels are predictable, though, which is good, because there’s a washcloth on the rack above the toilet, just where I expect it to be. I drag it across my face and chin, and then inside my mouth, trying to scrub out the sick acid taste. But I must bump something else too far back in my throat, because I haven’t gotten more than a few seconds into it when a second wave of nausea strikes. I don’t make it to the toilet in time, but it doesn’t matter, because nothing much comes up but air.
She’s quiet, but I can hear her feet just beyond the door, hovering, waiting. I think of something else I need to tell her, something else really important, something like I’m sorry or it’s not your fault, but I get sidetracked by wondering if the cool tile floor will feel good against my flushed cheek. It’s so dark in here, I can’t tell the difference between my eyes open and my eyes shut, so since it doesn’t make a difference, I shut them. And that, for a little while, is all.
It’s 7:09 by my watch when the power comes back on. The suddenly renewed roar from the air conditioning unit jolts me from a deep sleep into my disgusting waking state, and I sit up as gently as I can. When I rub the side of my face I can feel the lines from where my cheek was pressed against the bathroom tile. I use the sink to pull myself to my feet and grope for the light switch. In the harsh fluorescent light of day, the bathroom still looks remarkably un-vomited in. I congratulate myself on my aim and determine that a thorough cleaning is in order.
My clothes are so slept and sweated in that I consider turning on the shower before undressing. Common sense (and a quick inventory of my pockets) convinces me that this might not be the wisest course of action, and so I peel myself naked, wincing as damp fabric separates from damp skin. I don’t even bother with the hot tap, just twist the cold one all the way open and stand under the stream. Coffee for masochists.
There’s a million things for my brain to think about, so instead I studiously use my shower time to run through all the words to ‘Graceland.’ I’ve got negative musical talent and a terrible ear for lyrics, so this is a sufficiently distracting task. I get hung up on the very first line, even, trying to figure out if it’s a national guitar or a natural guitar, eventually resolving that neither one really makes sense, all of which takes a good five minutes. I spend another ten wondering why a girl would call herself a human trampoline, and if it’s entirely a metaphorical concept, or if there’s actually some literal component to the title. By the time the song is over in my mind, I’m mostly clean.
I lean against the bathroom wall as I dry off, still not entirely steady on my feet. I’m still a little woozy, but not nauseated or headachey, so I suppose that means I’m not hung over. I think about food and my stomach does a little half-growl, which is more hunger than upsetness, so that’s good. My reflected complexion’s not too pale, and my hair’s already started to poof out into its horrible little semi-curly pyramid, which means everything’s mostly back to situation normal. Inside the bathroom, that is. Outside it’s another matter.
Standing there in front of the medicine cabinet mirror, I realize I have two choices: put back on my old clothes, or go out in nothing but a towel. It’s an epic battle between my modesty issues and my gag reflex, and I almost have enough body image issues to convince myself back into the previous day’s outfit, telling myself that it’d be just for a few minutes. But I take one prospective sniff of my underwear and nearly pass out. A towel will have to do, then, because there’s no way I’m getting my nice clean body back in these filthy things.
The biggest towel in the bathroom fits around my body with cloth to spare, and I’m thankful for once that I have the body shape of a ruler, because fewer curves means fewer chances for embarrassing spillage. With a deep breath, I venture out into the motel room at large.
I don’t know what I’d expected — anything from Reagan’s passed-out form still sprawled across the bed to her having absconded with my car keys — but it wasn’t what I get: Reagan, sitting on the corner of the bed, wide awake and dressed. She’s watching CNN and munching on the corner of a piece of toast, and there’s a plate by her side with half a dozen other pieces stacked on top of it. On the bedside table is a cup of orange juice, a cup of milk, and a styrofoam bowl of dry Cheerios. Honestly, it’s almost creepy.
“Hey,” she says as I walk out, giving me a little wave. Her expression is hard to read, but something about her body language bleeds nervousness into the air. “I didn’t know what you wanted, so I got some stuff.”
“Thanks.” I’m hungry, but I’m also still mostly naked, and in the grand scheme of things, I know what’s more important. Holding the ends of the towel in a death grip with one hand, I use the other to rummage through my bag until I find clothes suitable to wear. For a moment, I consider running back into the bathroom and putting them on there, but Reagan’s eyes seem fixed on the television screen, so I decide to chance the brief exposure. She doesn’t even glance my direction as I pull on panties, broomstick skirt, and little tank top at lightning speed. Sometimes not having to wear a bra has its advantages.
Pouring the milk over the Cheerios seems like what Reagan intended to happen, but I don’t see a spoon anywhere, so I settle for drinking the milk and eating the cereal dry with my fingers. “That all right? Because they had Raisin Bran, if you wanted me to go back down to the main office.”
“It’s fine,” I tell her through a mouthful of wholesome breakfast goodness. I haven’t had Cheerios in years, not since before Dad died. They were his cereal of choice, and he’d always cut slices of peaches to put on the top of his and mine. With him gone, it didn’t seem the same, so I stopped eating them, so Mom stopped buying them. We stopped a lot of things when Dad died, I guess.
She finishes one piece of toast and starts on the next, and I can see that she’s slathered them all with peanut butter. “About ready to go?” she asks. The little clock in the corner of the screen reads 8:32 EST. I’ve forgotten to change my watch to accommodate the time zone change. I feel like an idiot.
“Just about.” I swallow another handful of Cheerios, then reach into my bag again for a bandana to keep my hair back from my face. I ponder sandals versus loafers for a moment, then figure that if I’m going to have to be inside a morgue for any stretch of time, for whatever reason, I’ll probably want my toes covered. Reagan seems to have come to the same conclusion, as her footwear of choice today is still wedges, but these have closed toes and silver laces up the bottom half of her calves.
I am filled with the sudden and almost crippling certainty that I will never again have the opportunity to have sex with Reagan Henry.
My socks aren’t quite the same colour of blue, but I doubt anyone will notice. Truth be told, as long as I stand near Reagan, I doubt anyone in a ten-mile radius will even notice I exist. Under regular circumstances, this might be comforting, but now it sort of makes me sick. “Is it a national guitar or a natural guitar?”
“National. It’s the name of a guitar company.”
“Oh.” The explanation is almost disappointingly mundane. I slip my loafers onto my feet and head for the door.
When the man behind the counter just inside the front doors reads Reagan’s first name off her driver’s licence, he says it like ray gun, like the former President’s last name, and not like he’s supposed to, to rhyme with vegan. Reagan doesn’t correct him, though, just nods and tucks it back in her pocket. He hands her a stack of papers to fill out, like we’re at a doctor’s office, and points her to a small row of folding chairs. I follow, and take a seat, and stay silent until the coroner comes out.
The coroner has a lot of pretty, dark hair and a long Indian last name stitched onto her lab coat in a cursive script that’s hard to read, so I silently dub her Dr. Coroner. “Excuse my rudeness for not shaking your hand,” is the first thing she says to Reagan, “but you probably don’t want to anyway.” Her hands have that kind of pale powder-softness I associate with wearing latex gloves too long in high school biology labs.
“Of course,” says Reagan. There’s something different about her now, something stiff and almost impossibly adult to her speech and body language. She’s trying to make herself out to be older than she actually is, I realize, like a bird puffing up all its feathers so enemies don’t know how small it is.
Dr. Coroner looks at the papers in Reagan’s hand. “And you’ve filled out all the release forms?”
With a nod, Reagan hands them over. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get here sooner.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Dr. Coroner shakes her head and gives Reagan a comforting smile, and I decide right then that I like Dr. Coroner. I don’t know how good she is with dead people, but she seems to do just fine with living ones. “You’re actually quick, compared to some. We’ve got personal effects in storage dating back twenty, thirty years, even. We’re not required to keep anything that long, of course, but … well, you never know.”
I guess you don’t. Right now all I know is that I don’t know much of anything, so I keep my mouth shut and my hands folded in my lap. Reagan, however, appears to know a lot, and has stepped up to take charge of it. If her spine gets much straighter, it might snap. “You said there’s not much?”
Dr. Coroner pulls a photocopied sheet from the pocket of her lab coat, and from the corner I can see, it looks like a typed list with a few handwritten annotations. “She was found in a Mr. Douglas Kemp’s apartment; he’s the one who made the ID. If anything’s missing, I can supply his contact information, and you might speak to him about it….”
“No.” Reagan shakes her head, and I can see where her fingers close a little too tight around the edge of the paper. “I doubt there was much anyway.”
“Then if you’ll come with me?” Dr. Coroner gestures to a pair of heavy-duty double doors, the kind that you sometimes see waiters entering and exiting briskly in high-traffic restaurants, only these have huge NO ADMITTANCE WITHOUT PROPER AUTHORIZATION and STERILE PROCEDURES IN EFFECT IN ALL EXAMINATION BAYS and ABSOLUTELY NO FOOD OR DRINK IN LABORATORY AREAS signs plastered on all surfaces.
I squirm expectantly in my seat, but Reagan doesn’t even look at me as she follows Dr. Coroner, so I stay put. Ten minutes later, I’m getting antsy and Reagan’s still not back, so I ask the guy behind the desk to tell her I’ll be right outside, and step out into the morning heat. There’s a voice mail message from Mom asking how things are going; I quickly calculate the time difference, determine that she’s probably at work, and send her back a quick text message with the standard having a great time, wish you were here sentiment. Mom’s a good mom like that — not a worrier, not negligent, just the right balance of concerned for my well-being and willing to let me live my own life. I guess she thinks if I haven’t caused her a lick of trouble over the past twenty years, I’m probably not going to start now.
A little while after that, Reagan emerges with a cardboard box tucked under her arm. “Let’s go check out of the motel,” she says, opening the back door to my car and placing the box on the seat behind her. “We can head back.”
“Just like that?” I glance back to the doors to the building, just to make sure Dr. Coroner isn’t coming out with another thirty forms or so to fill out, but the place is pretty quiet this morning. I guess it’s too early on a Monday morning for much trouble to have gone down.
“Just like that,” she says, climbing into the front seat of my car. She snaps her seatbelt closed and bursts into tears.
Reagan doesn’t even get out of the car at the motel, and I don’t ask her to, just dart into the room by myself and grab the bags. When I mention something to the day manager about the power’s going out — nothing aggressive, passive or otherwise, just a comment that I’m glad it got resolved — she cringes and knocks twenty dollars off the price of the room. I feel thanked for my business.
Traffic is light as I wind my way back to I-10, and pretty soon we’re headed west again, with the morning sun at our backs. Reagan doesn’t say anything, just tucks her knees up as close to her chest as she can and leans against the door, staring out the window. I’d shoved some of the McDonalds napkins into the glove compartment the other day, and she makes her way through them, crying quietly into them until the moisture renders them unusable, then crumpling them into balls and throwing them onto the floorboard. It’s messier than I like to keep my car, but I figure she’s entitled.
After nearly an hour, she inclines her head slightly toward me. “You’re not going to ask, are you?”
“Nope.” I negotiate a merge with the I-75 traffic which is, I feel, designed in a manner that makes it more dangerous than it strictly needs to be. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the lanes weren’t overrun with tractor-trailers. The harder I think about trivialities, the less I have to think about my life.
She nods and reaches for the stereo knob, and voices start singing in a language I can’t even identify. Just loud enough to be heard over them, she says, “Because you’re mad at me.”
Usually the type of deep sigh I make is best accompanied by covering my face with my hands in some way, except that I’m driving and that’s probably not the smartest idea I’ve had all day. “I’m not,” I start, and then I realize I’ve raised my voice more than is strictly necessary. She’s upset, and upset people don’t generally like to feel like they’re being yelled at. At least, that’s what I heard Ben’s last girlfriend yell at him across our lawn late one Saturday night. Her name was Leticia and she had an amazingly loud voice. “I’m not mad. It’s just … none of my business.”
“None of your business?” she echoes, like I’ve started speaking the same language the singers are using, like she doesn’t get it either. “You drive me across six states for this, and you’re not even curious?”
I don’t tell her that it’s only five states; I think she’s counting Georgia, and we never technically drove through Georgia, just very close under it, close enough to see road signs for Georgia destinations, so I can see how she’d get confused. A school therapist once observed, after I got jumped by bullies in the fifth grade, that when I don’t want to think about something, I follow any other train of thought I can catch. Joe and Ben made sure the bullies didn’t bother me again, and they caught hell for it, but I never got bothered again. They’re good brothers, really, most of the time, except when my middle brother apparently thinks he knows I’m a dyke. I wonder if Joe thinks he knows too. I’ve almost forgotten Reagan’s question. “It’s none of my business,” I repeat, mantra-like, because it’s really not, and getting too far into other people’s business is just asking for trouble.
She shakes her head and pulls her knees closer to her chest. “Do you like being everyone’s doormat?” she snaps. Classic anger response to emotional distress; I remember reading about it in the Intro to Psych class I took in my first year to fulfill a science requirement. The best response is not to engage.
“It sucks,” I hear someone say, and it takes a moment for me to realize it was me. “It really, really sucks. But after a while everyone usually gets bored with it and leaves me alone.”
“This,” she makes a vague, expansive gesture I take to mean her, the car, the highway, the trip as a whole, “is leaving you alone?”
“No, leaving me alone is what Ben did when I called his bluff.”
I take a deep, noisy breath, hold it to the count of five, and let it out just as noisily. “When I told him I’d drive you. He didn’t think I’d do it; he was just giving me shit. And if I’d said no, he’d just have teased me more there, in front of you all. So I said I would. I called his bluff. Now he’s not going to bother me for a while.”
I don’t have to look over to see the expression on her face; I can feel it boring into my skull, that slightly horrified curiosity, the same one second-graders use when they encounter bugs and other objects of gross fascination. It’s familiar, and I don’t like that it’s familiar, but what can you do? “Are you mad at him?”
“No,” I say, because it’s true. “He’s just … like that.” He’d been more ‘like that’ ever since Joe shipped out, but I can’t be mad about that, either, because I know he’s scared for Joe too. Boys get funny about loss sometimes. Intro to Psych, remember?
“It’s my sister,” she says, another leap of logic, only this time I can’t even reconstruct the path that might have landed her here. Her voice is so calm and almost casual, that I’m not expecting it all when she follows it up with, “In the box.”
There’s an exit for a rest stop less than a quarter mile ahead, so I flip on my right turn blinker and pull off, obeying the sign directing cars to the right and trucks and buses to the left as I search out a parking spot far from anyone else. It’s nearly noon, and the lot is already starting to fill up with travellers looking for lunch. I put the car into park, but leave the engine running.
The box in the back seat has a sticker on the top that I didn’t see before, with the name HENRY, ALEJANDRA ROBIN printed in neat handwriting at the top, and the dates 09/19/84 and 03/07/09 written on the two lines beneath. It’s a white cardboard box, one of those you can buy at an office supply store for storing papers and files. Your sister must be very small now, I think but don’t say, not because it’s untrue or because I think it’ll upset her, but because all I can think of is how small Dad’s ashes seemed when the funeral home director handed them to Mom. He’d been a big guy, well over six feet tall and at least three hundred pounds, but they made him fit into something the size of a shoebox. “That’s why I don’t tell true stories,” I say, mostly to myself. “True stories make people very small.”
She laughs and sniffles, and I don’t realize that she’s started crying again until I see her bring another yellow napkin to her face. “They wanted … they were going to leave her there.”
“Who?” I ask, except even as I do, everything starts to fall into place, heavy as rocks. Like how the daughter of a rich attorney, whose family has more than enough money to buy a plane ticket, has to get someone else to drive her across five states with nearly no advance warning.
Reagan blows her nose and leans her forehead against the window. “My parents.”
I wish I could feel more surprise. “Did they not know, or…?”
“No, they knew.” Little sobs choke the edges of her words, and it takes her a minute to pull herself together enough that she can speak clearly again. “Allie got pregnant by her boyfriend when she was sixteen. He was thirty, a truck driver or something, I don’t remember. And she didn’t want to have it, so she asked Mom for the money, only Mom told Dad, and Dad … well, he’s real Catholic.”
Quietly, I feel justified in my continued disdain for organized religion. “Not happy, huh?”
“Furious. Shouting, throwing things, doors slamming, Mom crying in Spanish. I hid in my room a lot. Nobody ever told me outright what was happening, but, well, when everybody’s screaming, it’s hard to miss what they’re screaming about.” Reagan balls the napkin and pitches it onto the floor with its used brethren. “So they send her to this Catholic boarding school up near Austin, for rich pregnant girls. Only she runs away and shows up again at home again two weeks later, not pregnant anymore. And Dad flips his shit and tells her to get out of his house, that he never wants to see her again, that she’s not his daughter anymore, all that stuff that parents say but aren’t supposed to mean, you know?”
I want to touch her, want to put my arms around her and rest her head against my shoulder, or my head against hers, maybe. But there’s an armrest and a stick shift between us, and things are awkward enough already without my engaging in some kind of contortionist display, so I fold my hands in my lap and do nothing. After a minute, she sighs. “Well, he meant it. He really meant it. And he talked Mom into meaning it too. So she just … disappeared.” She rakes the heel of her hand across her cheeks. “I didn’t even know she was in Florida until the coroner called. They had to call four times before they got me, and not one of them.”
“How did she…?” I ask, letting the question trail off into nothing, because it seems too morbid to finish.
“Overdose.” A man with two Great Danes on leashes passes the car on the way to the designated dog-walking area, and she watches them go by, a little smile lifting the corner of her mouth that I can see. “Coroner said they can’t tell if it was an accident or on purpose, but … she did it to herself. No trial, no more cops. Nothing to do but take her stuff and the rest of her home.”
“What about that … Kemp guy that they mentioned?”
Reagan shakes her head. “Just a guy she was subletting a room from. It sounded like there was more, maybe, but … I kind of didn’t want to hear it.” She unfastens her seatbelt and steps out of the car, so I turn off the car and do the same. The day is still hot, but at least this far inland there’s enough to a breeze to keep most of the moisture in the air from settling too heavy. Almost a nice day.
After an awkward moment, I nod in the direction of the service plaza, one of those with four or five little chain restaurants squished together inside a single building. “I’m going to go get some lunch. What do you want?”
She shakes her head again, tipping her face back and letting it catch the sunlight. “I’m not hungry.”
“All right, what do you want for when you get hungry later?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
I fold my arms across my chest. “Look, I don’t care if you’re hungry now or later or not at all, you need to eat something. This is not even up for discussion. Now, look at the restaurants listed on the sign over there, and tell me, if I had to strap you to a chair and force a meal from one of them down your throat, which one would you object to the least?” It seems slightly ironic, giving that I’d barfed up most of the comfort pizza the night previous, but one bad incident is hardly sufficient to disprove Grandma Taylor’s time-honoured wisdom about the healing power of food.
At that, she turns and takes a long, hard look, not at the choices, but at me. “You know, for a doormat, you can be pretty stubborn,” she says, and the kindness in her voice stops my heart in my throat.
A map in a rest stop just outside of Pensacola tells me that it’s about 240 miles to Baton Rouge, and that there’s nothing much for another two hours after that. Given that it’s already on past four and rush hour traffic’s starting to clog the roads around the big cities, I decide on that as a good stopping point, figuring that I can make the remaining five hundred miles or so with no problem the next day. Tomorrow night, I’ll sleep in my own bed again.
When I get back to the car, I find Reagan nosing through the white box in the back seat. “Not much in here, like the coroner told me,” she says as I walk up behind her. She’s got the photocopied list in her hand, and I can see that someone’s pencilled in little checkmarks by each item since I saw it last. “A purse, a little address book, her wallet — no money in it — a couple of pieces of cheap jewelry, two shirts, and that’s pretty much it. They only knew to call us because she still had her old school ID.” She turns a little plastic card my direction. The words CARROLL HIGH SCHOOL 2000-2001 and a blue tiger are printed on one half of the card, and a girl stares at me from a picture on the other half.
I take the card from Reagan’s outstretched hand and look closely at the photograph. The girl posing in front of the standard blue-watercolour school photograph backdrop is young, years younger than either of us is now, and has apparently decided not to smile for the birdie. Instead, her lips are set in a menacing sort of line, painted pale beige and bordered by a deep plum lip liner. She’s got dark hair and a darker complexion, but she still manages to look almost exactly like Reagan, down to the angry little lines drawn between her eyebrows and at the corners of her mouth. “She’s two months pregnant in that picture,” Reagan tells me, and if I look hard enough, I can imagine the places where her face has started to fill out a little, where even this early the added weight would be starting to show.
“She’s pretty.” I hand the card back to Reagan. “She looks a lot like you.”
“Does that mean you think I’m pretty?” she smirks, slipping the card back into its slot in the purse.
It’s meant as a tease, I know that, and I know that I should let it evaporate into the air like the joke it’s supposed to be. But I’m too tired and too broken for jokes now, taking on water and sinking fast. “You know I do,” I say quietly, looking down at the places where our shoes meet the pavement.
She stops for a second, then slips the purse back into the white box and shuts the lid tight. “Thank you. For doing this. All of this.”
“Just a drive,” I shrug. “Nothing much.”
“Diane–” She starts to say, but stops when I shut my eyes and chuckle quietly. “…What’s funny?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
“No, tell me.”
“It’s just … that’s not my name.” She frowns at me, and I shake my head. “I mean, Ben calls me Di, but it’s short for Dinah. Not Diane. You know, like, Dinah won’t you blow your horn, someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah, strummin’ on the ol’ banjo, like that.”
As I talk, she raises a hand self-consciously to her mouth. “…God, I’m so sorry.”
“No, it’s cool. Really.” I shrug and stick my hands in the voluminous pockets of my skirt, feeling its hem swish around my bare calves just above the tops of my socks. I really wish I’d decided to wear sandals today. “I mean, no reason you should’ve known. Plus, how many Dianes do you know, and how many Dinahs? It’s a reasonable assumption.”
Reagan nods, but looks unconvinced. “So … do you like Di or Dinah better?”
“Dinah,” she says, weighing the word, trying it on for size, seeing how it feels. “Dinah. Dinah. I like it. Dinah. You seem like a Dinah.”
“Still working on the banjo part, though,” I quip. She laughs, and as she laughs, she brings a hand to rest on my arm, the kind of unconscious gesture very physically affectionate women sometimes make when they’re talking to people they feel comfortable around. If I’m really a ship going down, she can throw me an anvil instead of a life preserver, and I’ll be grateful to her all the way to the bottom of the ocean.
The first thing I do when I get into the room is to fall face-down on the bed closest to the door. The mattress is harder than I budget for its being, though, and I mostly just bounce right off the edge and land on the floor. I can hear Reagan’s laugh. “Shut up. It’s not funny.”
“Yes it is.” She shuts the door behind her, then places her bag on the end of her bed.
“You’re such a bitch,” I say, meaning it to be a joke, and it’s only once the sentence is out of my mouth I realize how downright mean it sounds. “Hey, no, I didn’t–”
“No, it’s okay.” She sits down at the edge of her bed and starts unlacing her shoes. She’s kept quiet most of the afternoon, speaking when she’s spoken to, answering my questions about does she want to pull over at this rest stop or can I get her anything from the convenience store when I go in to pay for gas, but otherwise refraining from comment. I suppose this isn’t any different from the way things were on the way to Florida, but now, on the way back, the silence feels heavy, like the night air.
With a deep sigh, I settle myself back on the bed, more gently this time, letting my limbs splay wide. My skirt bunches up just above my knees, and the room’s air conditioning blows right over the exposed skin, making me shiver. “…I didn’t mean really.”
“You can think whatever you want about me.” With an absent efficiency, Reagan reaches up under the hem of her shirt and takes off her bra without taking off her top in a way that always fascinated me when I was younger. I’d been at Girl Scout Camp, the summer before even the earliest developer among my peer group had enough breasts to worry about supporting them, and one of the counsellors had so astonished us with this trick that we’d made her repeat it three more times. She laughed and complied with every request, the last one under the condition that after she’d performed this trick again, we’d let her turn out the lights. When you’re a little girl, even the mundanities of womanhood seem wondrous.
And then I’d grown up so thin that my chest was flat as a boy’s until well into high school, and even now the topography below my collarbone is so unimpressive that I’ve thought about trying to pull off a topless trip to the beach, to see if anyone even notices enough to get offended by. “I don’t think you’re a bad person. If that’s what you think.”
Reagan folds her bra neatly; it’s lilac, with little lace trim along the top, and the cups hold the shape of her breasts even away from her body. Unfettered, her breasts push against the fabric of her shirt, and I can see the barest suggestions of her nipples, darker through the fabric. “Everybody else does.” She tucks the bra into her bag without looking at me.
“I’m not everybody.” I turn on my side to face her, propping my head in my chin and resting my elbow against the bed. “Can I ask a question?”
“You just did.”
“Funny. I mean a kind of personal question.”
Reagan zips the front pocket of her bag closed, and somehow her trepidation carries even through the purr of the zipper. “Why not?” She folds her hands atop the seam and doesn’t look at me.
It takes all the courage I’ve got to keep this line of inquiry going, but I’ve come this far, and I might as well go all the way. “Who are you when nobody’s looking?” I can see deep lines furrow her forehead, and rephrase the question. “I mean … look, I’ve been with you for three days and I can’t tell what you’re thinking. Ever. Something happens, and I can’t tell if you’re going to be awful or nice about it. To me or to anyone.”
Her shoulders shake with the dryness of a little laugh that doesn’t make it up to her mouth. “You’re wondering, am I really a bitch on the inside?”
“See, I don’t think you are. I actually think you’re a nice person. But I don’t know, you could be doing all this to … maybe make me like you better so I don’t leave you at a rest stop on the side of I-10 somewhere in Alabama. Which I wouldn’t,” I hasten to add.
“Thanks.” She sits on the side of her bed, facing me across the gap, and I’m thankful that I haven’t offended her enough to the point that she won’t even look at me anymore. “I can’t figure out why you think that, though. That I’m nice.”
“Because you wanted to drive all the way to Florida to get your sister when no one else would do it,” I say like it’s obvious, because it is.
That catches her off-guard, and it takes her a second to come back with an appropriate excuse: “Maybe I’m just selfish.”
I shake my head. “Selfish means you wouldn’t have come at all.”
“I’m selfish making you do it.”
“Hey, I volunteered.” The implication that I might not want to be here stings a little. “You don’t have to answer. I just … was wondering. That’s all.”
She tucks her legs up under her on the bed, a childish sort of posture that makes her look young, like the picture of her sister on the ID. “So this is sort of a package deal, four days, three nights, and free crap psychology?”
With a disgusted sigh, I flop back to the bed and cover my face with a pillow. “God,” I say, knowing full well that everything out of my mouth now meets the world in a somewhat muffled state, “do you decide your emotional response by spinnywheel? Look, someone is trying to get to know me better as a person! Time to spin to see if I should a) laugh it off, b) snap back something mean, or c) seduce them!”
The silence I hear from the other side of the pillow lets me know my sarcasm has crossed a line. After a moment, I sit up again. Reagan’s still there, sitting in the same position, wearing almost the same expression as she did before, only now here eyes have gone bloodshot, and tear tracks mark vertical lines down her cheeks. “Hey, no,” I say, reaching for the box of tissues on the other side of my bed and handing her a good clump of them. “Shit, I didn’t … I really didn’t mean it like that. God, now I’m the bitch.”
Reagan takes the tissues from me and dabs at her eyes, breathing deeply. “Oh, I’d say you’ve earned a free hit. A couple of them.”
“Maybe, but…” I let my chin drop, and my hair curtains my face. “Look, can I tell you something embarrassing about me, and maybe we’ll call it even?”
“You don’t have to–”
“No, I do. I really should.”
Truth be told, I expect her to find some way to change the subject, steering the conversation along one of the million possible threads it could follow about the following day’s plans or practical concerns, or even just declaring it bedtime and switching off the light. But instead, she folds her hands in her lap. “Okay.”
The world stops for me as I try to figure out how to start this sentence, and fail, and try again. I keep waiting for Reagan to find some way to interject, something to prod me along, but she sits patiently, and after a while, it starts to fall into place. “I said I’d come on the trip because I knew I’d never get this close to you again. And I thought, you know, maybe by the end of it you’d … maybe at least know who I am.”
As I fall back into silence, Reagan swallows audibly. “Dinah….”
“And you even know my name now! So. Mission accomplished.” I tug at a thread that’s come loose from my skirt, chasing it back to its point of origin. “So maybe if you see me sometimes, and you’re out with your friends, you could just … say hi to me. Or wave. I like waving.”
Reagan leans across her knees, as close as she can get to me without actually crossing the distance between us. “Dinah … I’m not worth it.”
“Well, I think you are! And I have for a while. So.” I wind the thread around two fingers and give it a tug, and it snaps free. “So there we go. Maybe we should go to bed. So we can get up early and maybe be home by dinner tomorrow.”
After a moment’s consideration, she unfolds her legs from beneath her and stands, then moves so she’s sitting on the side of my bed. The gravity of her body draws the edge of the mattress down, and rolls my legs toward her until they’re touching the small of her back. Neither of us pulls away. “And all you want,” she says in a low, distant voice, “is for me to say hi to you?”
“Or to wave,” I hasten to add. I can’t really look at her now; I feel so very small, like my father, like her sister, all burned through.
She hesitates nearly a minute before she moves, settling her body on the far side of mine, stretching out until my back is pressed against her chest, and her forehead touches the back of my neck. Her arm drapes across my waist, her long loose fingers coming to rest just at the flat plane of my belly, and I am frozen in place, unable to move or think. I don’t know if they make a Hallmark card with the sentiment ‘your very proximity causes paralysis’, but if they did, I’d get her one for Valentine’s Day.
I expect her to do something, and maybe she expects me to do the same, but instead we are both still. For a long time, we stay like this, she curved into a half-moon against me, the nestled spoons of our bodies tucked gently into place. The regular meter of her breath rustles the tiny hairs at the back of my neck. I close my eyes and listen carefully, and at last I can pick out our heartbeats, the twin faint rhythms falling in and out of time with one another. Everything is too quiet, though, too distant, and over the roar of the air conditioner, I can’t even tell which one is hers and which one is mine.
“Look,” she whispers, finally breaking the silence, “can we … skip the getting drunk part and go right to the sex?”
At that, I can finally tell which heartbeat is mine, because it suddenly spikes. “You don’t….”
“I want to. I really, really want to.” Her arm tightens its grip around my waist, and her hand splays flat against my belly, the heel just below my navel and all the fingers stretching downward. I bite my lip to keep from whimpering. “This isn’t a pity fuck, or payment, or anything. We’re just … here right now. You and me. And tomorrow things’ll be different, and we’ll be home, and we’ll go back to normal.” The motion of her jaw as she speaks presses in time against my shoulder. “But we’re not there yet.”
Maybe it’d sound like a shitty deal to someone else, but I’ve always been easy. I don’t say anything, just lean back into her body as her fingers slip beneath the elastic waistband of my skirt. She cups her hand over the top of my underwear, scratching lightly with the tips of her fingernails at my clit through the light cotton. She gives an sharp flick with her thumbnail, and I squirm in her touch, gasping; she laughs and does it again, and this time I curl in on myself, burying my face in my pillow.
With a little bounce, Reagan pushes herself upright and crawls down until she’s hovering over my lower half. “Off you go,” she grins, hooking her fingers in the waistband of both my skirt and my underwear, and yanking them both down with some efficiency. I squeak and clamp my thighs together, but she grabs my knees and muscles them apart. “Don’t be shy. Nothing I’ve never seen before.”
“Trust me, it’s something no one’s ever seen before.” I try to squirm my butt so I can at least get my thighs together, but Reagan has superior leverage, and my struggle is mostly futile. The worst part is that the knowledge of what’s going on — that Reagan Henry has a good, clear view of my vagina and it’s making her grin wickedly — nearly makes me come right then and there. Apparently I’ve got something of an exhibitionist streak. I guess you learn something new about yourself every day. Because no one ever looks except me, I’ve gotten out of the habit of shaving my bikini area with any regularity, and I am suddenly very sorry that being a Girl Scout apparently taught me nothing about planning for any and all contingencies.
Reagan, however, gives no indication that she minds as she traces her fingernails along the inside creases where my legs meet my body, making me shiver. “Are you really a virgin?”
It’s a more difficult question than you might initially suspect. “Well … does the night before last count?”
Her eyes widen. “You serious?”
“I’m serious that I don’t know if it counts,” I tell her. Conventional definitions of virginity seem not to apply. I no longer have any idea what I’ll tell the nice gynecologist at Health Services when she asks during my appointment next month. Does it count as being sexually active if you’re mostly just sexually passive?
“Oh, shit.” Reagan laughs and brings a hand to her mouth, looking sheepish. “Look, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have….”
“It’s fine.” I honestly can’t believe we’re having this conversation when I’m naked from the waist down and Reagan’s sitting between my legs. “Seriously. I mean, you were drunk, and I was–”
“Oh, honey, if you think that was drunk, you need to hang around more drunk people.”
Despite my better inclinations, I decide to continue this line of inquiry. “You weren’t?”
With a little shrug, Reagan pushes at my hips. “Scoot up.” I follow her instructions, folding a pillow in the small of my back as a preemptive ergonomic measure, and she gets on all fours between my thighs. “I just … wanted someone to touch me. To keep my mind off it.”
My mouth goes dry as Reagan bends down and presses a kiss just south of my navel. “So now…?”
“Maybe I owe you.” She parts my lower lips with her thumbs, and the air-conditioned chill against my exposed damp skin sends shivers down to the tips of my toes. I can smell myself, and I’m horrified that it’ll make her stop, but instead she sticks out her tongue and drags it upwards toward my clit. “Or maybe I just want to.”
I’m sure there’s something appropriate to say at this juncture, but all my language has shorted out. I gasp as she sticks her face between my thighs and starts to eat me out, flicking her tongue across the tip of my clit. I feel her hand press right against the entrance to my vagina, and I tense up, but she doesn’t go in, just keeps stroking with the pads of her fingertips. My nipples grow hard and start to stand out in relief under my shirt, and every time I move my body, fabric brushes against them and they get harder. She takes my clit between her teeth and tugs, just lightly enough not to hurt, then apologizes with a kiss. Every time the sensation of her mouth on me gets intense, I close my eyes out of reflex, and every time I do I fight them open again. If this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I don’t want to miss a moment of it.
After a few minutes of this, at practically the very moment I realize that if she keeps this very action up much longer I’m going to come, Reagan stops and pulls back a little, looking up at me. “Why don’t you play with yourself?” she says mildly, a casual offer. “While I get undressed.” She wipes her mouth with the hem of her shirt.
My developing exhibitionist streak runs face-first into a wall of shy terror. “I can’t….”
“Sure you can.” She leans back against the armoire this motel hides its TV inside of and folds her arms across her chest. “You stop, I stop. You go, I go.”
I’ve got some talents, but masturbation on command has never been proven to be one of them. “I really don’t know if I–”
Reagan holds up her hand, and I stop talking. “Have some incentive,” she grins, and she peels off her shirt. Her body curves and winds down into her jeans, and a little silver ring loops through the skin of her belly button. Her bare breasts hang full against her chest, those dark nipples perfect circles against her skin. With one hand, she reaches up and grabs one, twisting it hard; as she does, she gasps a little and catches her lower lip between her teeth.
That does the trick. I reach between my legs and catch my wet, swollen clit between my index and middle finger, teasing it back and forth. My other hand mirrors her gesture, reaching up under my shirt and rubbing somewhat more gently at one of my own nipples. It’s embarrassing, to be seen like this, but somehow the embarrassment factor just makes me want it more.
“Good,” she smiles, pushing her shorts down off her hips. “Keep it up.”
Determined now, I wet my fingers and rub them across the top of my clit, trying to mimic the sensation of her mouth on me. It’s not the same, but it’s good nonetheless, and I find myself lifting my hips in time with my strokes. What a difference a little incentive makes.
Reagan sends her panties to the floor in a pile with her clothes and mine, then comes back to the bed, mirroring her body with mine. “I got that,” she smiles, taking my hand away from between my legs and replacing it with her own. I gasp, and she kisses my open mouth, sucking at my lower lip. Her fingers move faster than mine, rougher, pushing the bud of my clit back and forth with a speed that has no respect for rhythm. “You like that?”
“Yes,” I say, and it comes out as a weak gasp, but right now, I don’t care what I sound like or how I look. I need this — actually, physically need this. “Please, please, right there, please–”
She doesn’t let up, and a few seconds later, my eyes are shut and my back is arched as I come hard, making noises I didn’t really know I was capable of making. Everything is electric and oversensitive, and then Reagan kisses me and I can’t pay attention to anything but her mouth as I shiver beneath her touch. When I finally start to come down, her hand on me starts to hurt, and I hiss against her mouth; she relents accordingly, cupping her hand over my whole pubis and letting me grind a few more times against her. And then I’m done, and she’s caught me in her arms, and we’re kissing one another as we lay stretched on the bed, caught in each other’s legs and arms and lips.
Reagan doesn’t ask me to touch her back, but neither does she relent when I break from the kiss and start to suckle roughly at her breast. “You’re better at this than most girls are,” she says, playing with a lock of my hair. “Probably because you’re not just showing off for some guy. You actually like it.”
I’m fuzzy and post-orgasmic, and thus have returned no longer caring to watch what I say. “Did you learn to do this by eating out the whole drill team?”
“Cliché, but true.” She teases at her other nipple, then reaches down between her legs and begins to rub at her own clit. “Guys like to watch girls do other girls. And some girls like it than others.”
“Like you.” I run my hand down the curves of her belly and hip, then back again.
“Like me. Give me that.” Unsure of what she means, I hesitate, and she grabs my hand, bringing it down between her thighs. “Give me three fingers together, Girl Scout pledge-style.”
“Girl Scout pledge-style?” Amused and horrified by the image, I nonetheless comply.
With a wink, she shuffles her hips downward, moving gently until all three of my former Girl Scout fingers are inside of her, like she’d had them the previous night. “Like that, right there.” Her hand finds her clit again, and I can feel her knuckles bump my wrist as she moves. “Just … hold that there, and you can go back to sucking my tits.”
It’s hard to argue with an invitation like that. I rest my cheek against her shoulder, taking her nipple in my mouth and flicking my tongue across the tip. She’s right: I do like it, and not just because it’s a heady feeling to see someone so aroused and know I’m personally responsible. She’s soft and beautiful, and these are the breasts I watched bounce inside her sports bra all those pep rallies, and I’m here because she wants me, and she tastes like sweat and soap, and she smells like roses. If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never find anyone else quite like her. Maybe it’s a good thing; maybe the world can’t take any more of her. Maybe one’s enough, and right now, that one is mine.
She stays like this for another minute more, quiet except for her breathing, and I do only exactly as she’s told me. She’s slick and warm inside, like she was the other night, only at least this time I’m not too shocked to appreciate it. I revel in it, in fact, committing every inch of her to touch memory. At last, I hear her breath hitch and feel her vaginal muscles start to clench around me, so I hold fast and let her ride herself down.
When she’s finished, she collapses back against the bed and pulls me toward her for a long, slow kiss. I try to say something to her, something pithy about how she’s beautiful or she’s amazing or she’s perfect, but no sooner have I opened my mouth than a monster yawn comes out. I guess I’m more tired than I thought.
Reagan laughs and reaches for the covers, tugging at them until we’re both appropriately beneath, then reaches up and flicks off the light switch over the bedside table. The room, however, remains persistently bright, and we both shoot dirty looks in the direction of the main light switch, which taunts us from just beside the door. I lift my hand, waving it in the general direction. “Oh, the Force is weak in me tonight.”
“Need to work on your mind control powers,” she agrees. “Maybe if I throw something at it, it’ll turn off.”
“What do you have to throw?” I glance around the bed, seeing nothing that might function as a projectile.
She looks past me, and I can tell she’s eyeing the phone. “Maybe I can call the management, and say that if they’ll come up and turn off the lights for us, they’ll get a free show.”
“Or I could just get up and do it,” I sigh, untangling myself from her. I’m still a little unsteady on my feet, which seems to be a problem I have around her, but at least my navigational skills are sound at present.
“Spoilsport,” Reagan teases. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”
I point to the bed, with its rumpled covers and embellishments of discarded clothes and beautiful woman sitting right next to the space where I belong. “Right there.” With a flick of my wrist, I turn out the light.
The sun’s not even up, but the mercury already reads well over eighty degrees as we stand on the pedestrian walkway of the Horace Wilkinson Bridge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Far below us, the Mississippi River is wide and grey, its surface rippling slightly in the still morning air. A lone tugboat putters its way up one bank, leaving deep ripples in its wake that lessen and eventually disappear as they meet the larger river. I’m carrying a paper cup of coffee. Reagan has the box of her sister’s ashes in her hands.
We are very certainly not supposed to do this.
“Maybe we should say something,” Reagan says. She looks so plain without makeup or jewelry, uncharacteristically real. A large pair of sunglasses sit on top of her head, holding her hair out of her eyes.
I shrug, looking down the bridge to make sure no one’s coming up after us to tell us not to jump. It’s early, yet, and only a few cars and trucks are on the road. “You can say something, if you want.”
“I don’t know what to say.” She looks at the little box in her hands, even smaller than the box they fit Dad into. Inside is a bag, and inside that bag are the grey remains of a girl I never knew.
In the distance, a heavy tanker sounds its long, mournful horn. “I don’t either,” I admit. I’ve never been good with funerals. Two days after Dad died, I promptly came down with the flu, and spent his funeral and graveside service in my own bed, wrapped in what felt like every blanket in the house, sweating out a high fever while Grandma Taylor read me an Agatha Christie novel and put extra marshmallows in my hot chocolate. When she died, I came down with strep throat and declined the opportunity to haul my highly contagious self all the way to Fort Worth for the goings-on. My health at these proceedings is unprecedented.
She casts her eyes out over the water, over the city as it starts to wake up. “Maybe a prayer or something?”
“I don’t really believe in God,” I admit. I can tell from the look she gives me that it’s the wrong thing to say. “What? I don’t.”
Reagan sets her jaw and pokes me hard in the chest, hard enough that I’m probably going to have a bruise tomorrow. “Look,” she tells me, drawing her lips into thin lines of anger as her eyes rim red with tears again, “it’s my sister’s funeral, or at least as much of one as she’s ever going to get, and I never got to say good-bye to her, and I don’t know if she ever forgave me, and I’m never going to know, so I don’t care if you don’t believe in God usually, I need you to believe in God right now! Okay? For me.”
“Okay! Okay. Believing in God, starting now.” I hold up one hand defensively, clutching the coffee in the other, and she backs off, turning back to the river. In a few minutes, on our right, the sun will rise. “…Forgave you for what?”
“For … everything.” She presses the palm of her free hand to the metal girder nearest to us. A moving van rumbles across the bridge, and I wonder how its vibrations feel beneath to her, what the difference is to her between the bridge’s metal and my skin.
I put the coffee down on the floor and take the box from her, removing the lid and looking at the plastic bag inside. It’s been secured with a twist tie, like you find on loaves of bread, and I gently unwind it. “Okay, so, if there is a God, then He’s supposed to forgive people, right? If they say they’re sorry, I mean, God forgives them. And if she’s dead, well, she’s with God. And so maybe if she didn’t forgive you already, God can … give her lessons, or something.”
Reagan wipes a tear from the corner of her eye, but when she looks at me, she’s smiling. “Forgiveness lessons?”
“Yeah,” I smile back at her. “She can major in it. Get her BF.”
“Bachelor of Forgiveness.” That makes Reagan laugh and cry all at once, and the result is sort of a snotty mess. Fortunately I’ve had the foresight to pack my pockets with tissues, though, and I hand her a bundle, then wait for her to clean up. “But I think that means you too,” I add after a moment, when she’s calmed down a little.
“Me?” She takes a deep breath.
“Yeah.” The first bright copper rays of sunlight have started to burn the top girders of the bridge. Within a minute or so, it’ll be on us. “If she’s going to forgive you for staying behind, you’ve got to forgive her for leaving you.”
Reagan reaches into the box and pulls out the bag of ash, weighing it in her outstretched palms, considering it. “I do,” she says to the bag. “You were a good sister, Allie.”
I put a hand on Reagan’s shoulder. “Tell me something you remember about her.”
She swallows hard. “My eighth birthday, I was leaning over to blow out the candles, only my ponytail fell in and caught on fire. By the time they put it out, I was okay, but all my hair was burned. Mom had to cut practically to my scalp to get the burnt stuff off, so I didn’t smell like it all night. The next day, she took me to the hairdresser and they had to cut it all so short, I looked like a boy. I was crying and miserable as I got out of the chair, and nothing Mom or anyone could say would make it better. But Allie — she had all this long, dark hair she loved, and I loved to watch her brush and braid it — she got right in the chair by herself and put the cloth around her shoulders and said, ‘I want mine to look just like Reagan’s.'”
“I bet you looked cute,” I say, trying to picture it.
“I looked awful.” Reagan smiles, her gaze distant. “We looked awful. Together.”
I nod to the water beneath us. “Now let her go.”
There’s a moment of hesitation when I’m sure she won’t do it, she’ll close the bag again and we’ll climb back down the structure and into the car and drive away. It’s all right that way, I figure, and probably far less illegal. Then she steps forward with a burst of determination and grabs the bottom end of the bag, letting the contents tumble free.
For a moment they hang there, suspended between the updraft from beneath the bridge and the light wind at our backs. Then gravity wins, and they fall, a gently spreading cloud no darker or lighter than the mighty Mississippi beneath. Dawn breaks across our faces, and we shield our eyes from the light with our hands, straining to chart the ashes’ progress as long as we can. But by the time they near the surface, they’re so far away that we can’t see them anymore, and they meet the river without comment or complaint, ready to join its eternal return to the ocean.
When I’m telling the story in my head, it goes something like this: I see the final exit that’ll take us back home, and I look into her eyes, and she looks into mine, and I laugh and speed right on past it, down the coast, southbound to all the places where nobody knows our names. She’s going to teach me Spanish, she promises, and I tell her I’m going to write best-selling books every day and make love to her every night. I’ve got a convertible, too, and I’ve rolled the top down, and the wind blows through her hair but never tangles it, just keeps it blowing like a flag whips in the wind. And we live happily ever after.
I put the car into park just outside her house, and she sits there for a minute, her hands folded in her lap. “You need me to help you get anything?” I ask.
“I’m fine.” She shakes her head, then opens the door. “Will you pop the trunk?”
My fingers pull the little latch, and I hear the lid unlock. “Done.”
“Thanks,” she says, pulling the white box of her sister’s personal effects out of the back seat. She sets it on the curb while she goes to get her suitcase from the back. I wonder what she’s going to do with it, or if she’ll ever show it to her parents, or if she’ll even tell her parents where she’s been these past few days. The trunk slams shut, and she comes back around to the front, so I roll down the passenger side window. “Thanks again for … for the ride.”
“Not a problem.” From the car stereo, Paul Simon tells me for what seems like the ten thousandth time about how he learns to lose his walking blues with diamonds on the soles of his shoes. I’m astonished the tape has made it this far without giving up. I’ll probably keep listening to it until it breaks, and when it does, I’ll carefully pull it loose from the stereo and wind it back into its cartridge, and put it in the box on my bookshelf with Dad’s navy medals and my high school graduation tassel: all things that have outlived their usefulness, all things I don’t want to let go.
Reagan stands there in the blue-white glow of the streetlight. From behind her, I can see the light come on over the front door to her house. Someone must be up; someone must have been waiting. “I’ll call you,” she says. I want to think she means it.
“I’d like that,” I tell her. She turns from me, box under one hand, suitcase in the other, and proceeds up the front walk. I take off before the person who turned on the light can see me.
The drive back to my house is a good ten minutes with the lights, and I make it nearly on autopilot, so removed from everything that I’m surprised to look up and find myself staring at the turnoff to my own street. Everything’s quiet on a Tuesday night, so I park out front and haul out my own duffel bag, going in through the front door this time.
I expect everyone to be asleep, but Ben’s there, sitting up in the living room, a magazine on his lap. “Reagan texted, said you were back.” He lifts his phone to show me, as though I might not believe him in the absence of such evidence.
“Just got in.” Carrying my duffel to my room suddenly seems too much effort; I leave it by the door, resolving to get it in the morning.
“There’s leftover pizza in the fridge. Plain cheese and sausage.”
I’m not hungry. “Thanks.”
He puts the magazine down and stands, shoving his phone in his back pocket. I realize it’s the first time I’ve been with him alone in months, and I wonder how we’ve come to be like this, where we’ve turned into perfect strangers who just happen to know everything about one another. Right there, I want to tell him everything, every inch of it, every last detail I can remember. I want to tell him at least this one story so that he can know that he’s right about me, that he’s probably always been right about me, that I love him and forgive him and want him to forgive me.
“So,” he asks, keeping his voice down so he doesn’t wake up Mom, who has to go to work early tomorrow morning, “did you two have a good trip?”
“Yeah.” I nod and give him a little smile, and swallow the story whole.
This story takes a large part of its initial inspiration from Sherman Alexie’s This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, though the end product is obviously quite different (and nearly seven times longer). Apologies made for absurd claims about coroners in Florida. Science, however, confirms that Graceland can be listened to on repeat a theoretically infinite number of times.