Where We Must Be
by Laura van den Berg, recommended by Indiana Review
INTRODUCTION BY BRITT ASHLEY & PETER KISPERT
We all want someone to help us create our best, most fantastic lives. To be witness to a rare event. To inhabit myth. The narrator in Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be” has made a living out of realizing others’ fantasies. As an actor paid to embody Bigfoot she lumbers and roars “with convincing masculinity” for patrons of the Bigfoot Recreation Park who badly desire their own encounter with this scarce and valuable monster. She loves a dying man who clearly cannot return her affection much longer. It would be so easy for that to be the story — a person in service only to others, to the fantastic, who loses themselves in the effort. But that might well be too easy. And that is not the story.
Instead, van den Berg carefully blurs the line between reality and fantasy, illuminating the narrator’s struggle for her own sense of balance between the two. It is her actual job to embody Bigfoot, a rarely-seen but enduring creature of myth, while she tends to Jimmy, a man who is literally fading from his life. This story reaches beyond the human/inhuman dichotomy and offers readers a striking sense of the fragile and the fierce, of how we can hold ourselves on careful tightrope between the two.
Jimmy dreams of “a time when the world was nothing but cool, blue water,” and in time narrator brings him to that place. A customer arrives on the ranch to kill Bigfoot, and he comes as near as he can. At work she pretends at death and at home she experiences it. Her ferocious imitation of Bigfoot is careful and well-planned, yet it is transparent. As a result we see just how impossible it is to sustain such fantasy. How even though we can be bigger than ourselves for someone else, a mythical beast with our own well-learned roar, we remain subject to our messy, dangerous hearts.
– Britt Ashley & Peter Kispert
Editors, Indiana Review
Where We Must Be
Laura van den Berg
“Where We Must Be”
by Laura van den Berg
Some people dream of being chased by Bigfoot. I found it hard to believe at first, but it’s true. I was driving back from Los Angeles in late August, after a summer of waiting tables and failed casting calls, when I saw a huge wooden arrow that pointed down a dirt road, “actors wanted” painted across it in white letters. I was in Northern California and still a long way from Washington — which wasn’t really home, just where I had come from. I followed the sign down the road and parked in front of a silver Airstream trailer. It was dark inside and I felt the breeze of a fan. The fat man behind the desk said he’d never hired a woman before. And then he went on to describe exactly what happens at the Bigfoot Recreation Park. People come here to have an encounter with Bigfoot. Most of their customers have been wanting this moment for years. I would have to lumber and roar with convincing masculinity. I can do that, I said, no problem. And I proved it in my audition. After putting on the costume and staggering around the trailer for a few minutes, bellowing and shaking my arms, I stopped and removed the Bigfoot mask. The fat man was smiling. He said I would always be paid in cash.
Today I’m going after a woman from Chicago. She’s small and sharp-shouldered, dressed in khaki slacks and a pink sweatshirt, her auburn hair held back with a tortoise-shell clip. I’d be willing to bet no one knows she’s here. For a brief time, this woman will be living in another world, where all that matters is escaping Bigfoot. People say the park is great for realigning their priorities, for reminding them that survival is an active choice. I’m watching her from behind a dense cluster of bushes. The fat man has informed me that she wants to be ambushed. This isn’t surprising. Most people crave the shock.
My breath is warm inside the costume. The rubber has a faintly sweet smell. I like to stroke my arms and listen to the swishing sound of the fake fur. The mask has eyeholes, but blocks my peripheral vision. I can only see straight ahead. The fat man says this is an unexpected beneﬁt of not having more advanced masks. According to him, Bigfoot is a primitive creature, not wily like extraterrestrials or the Loch Ness Monster, and only responds to what’s directly in front of him. Two other people work at the park, Jeffrey and Mack, but our shifts never overlap. The fat man thinks it’s important for us not to see our counterparts in person, to believe we are the only Bigfoot.
I wait for the woman to relax, watching for the instant when she begins to think: maybe there won’t be a monster after all. I can always tell when this thought arrives. First their posture goes soft. Then their expression changes from confused to relieved to disappointed. More than anything, the ambush is about waiting the customer out. I struggle to stay in character during these quiet moments; it’s tempting to consider my own life and worries, but when the time comes to attack, it will only be believable if I’ve been living with Bigfoot’s loneliness and desires for at least an hour.
The woman yawns and rubs her face. She bends over and scratches her knee. She’s stopped looking around the forest. Her expectations are changing. She checks her watch. I start counting backwards from ten. When I reach zero, I pound into the clearing and release the ﬁrst roar: a piercing animal sound still foreign to my ears.
Jimmy and I are sprawled out in his backyard, staring through the branches of a pear tree. Earlier I found him sitting on the front porch, trying to stop a nosebleed. I told him to tilt his head back and then pressed the tissue against his nostrils and watched the white bloom into crimson. It’s not love. Or at least not what I thought love would feel like. It hurts to be near him and it hurts to be away.
“What do you dream of?” I ask.
“Of a time when the world was nothing but cool, blue water.”
I spread my legs and arms and imagine floating in an enormous pool. Jimmy lives across the street from the one-bedroom bungalow I’ve been renting since early September, a long structure with low ceilings, the paint a chipped turquoise. When I first moved into the neighborhood, he dropped by and offered to give me a hand. I told him I didn’t really have anything to unpack, but invited him inside anyway. He grew up in Oregon and drifted over to California after high school and took a job as a postman. He was willowy and pale, dark hair and electric blue eyes. He didn’t look like anyone else I knew. I pulled a bottle of Jim Beam out of my suitcase and he ended up staying the night.
He rolls toward me, leaving a silhouette of flattened grass. “What about you?”
“I dream of a room with empty white walls,” I say. “Someplace quiet and clean.”
He tickles my nose with a blade of grass. I laugh and try to snatch it from his hand, but he drops the grass and returns to lying on his back. He has a slightly crooked nose and long eyelashes.
A hawk with white-tipped wings crosses the sky; I wonder where the bird is headed. It’s mid-October. The weather is cool and breezy. “I wish we could keep winter from coming,” I tell him.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s a real shame.”
Jimmy told me he was sick the morning after we met. We were sitting on the ﬂoor of my living room, drinking water to ease the hangover. I raised my glass and pointed at the grit pooled in the bottom. He shrugged and said the water has always looked that way. And then he told me about the cold that lasted for three months and the clicking sound of the X-ray machine and the spot on his lungs. When I asked if he had help, he said he’d lost touch with his friends in Oregon and hadn’t made any new ones in the Postal Service. His father was dead and his mother had re-married a carpet salesman that drank too much and smoked Dunhills, and moved east a few years back. His mother tried to arrange a nurse once Jimmy’s outcome became deﬁnite, but he refused, saying he didn’t want a stranger in the house. He stopped delivering mail months ago and was collecting disability checks. He told me all of this and then said he’d understand if I minded and we could go back to just being neighbors. But I told him I didn’t mind at all. When I was young, my mother worked in a hospice center, although I didn’t mention that to Jimmy. Most of the people who worked at the center got depressed from being close to so much death, but it never seemed to bother her. Sometimes, out of nowhere, I remember the scent of rubbing alcohol and ointment on her hands, a strong sage smell that made my skin itch.
“How was work?” he asks.
“Not bad.” I stretch my legs and bump against a browning pear. At the end of the summer, the branches were heavy with fruit. We picked as many as we could and made huge bowls of fruit salad, but eventually the pears began to rot and fall onto the ground. “I gave a woman from Chicago a good scare.”
“You can practice your roar today if you want,” he says. “Since we’re already outside.”
“I can only do it when I’m in costume.” I kick the pear and listen to it roll through the grass. “It’s impossible to get into character if I’m not wearing it.”
He moves closer and smushes his face into my neck. “You would have made a wonderful actress,” he mumbles into my skin.
He often asks about my months in Los Angeles. I tell him how difﬁcult it was to make enough money, how alien I felt carrying trays through a chic bistro that boasted a ﬁfteen-page wine list and thirty dollar desserts. And when he wants to know about the acting, I tell him the casting directors said I wasn’t talented enough. I don’t tell him how they often praised my poise and personality, but in the end all said the same thing: you just aren’t what we’re looking for. I don’t tell him this felt worse than having them say I wasn’t pretty or gifted, because it gave me a dangerous amount of hope.
I touch the back of Jimmy’s head. His dark hair feels damp. In my mind, I list the things I need to help him with over the weekend: wash the sheets, mop the ﬂoors, gather all the rotten pears. Just when I think he has gone to sleep, he looks up and asks me to stay with him tonight. I tell him that I will. He lowers his head and we both close our eyes. The late afternoon sun burns against us.
I wake to the boom of a loudspeaker. We are running tests. Please don’t be alarmed if your water is rusty. I glance out the window and see a truck from the water company inching down the street. The water has never looked right here. People complain and the company comes out for an inspection, but it never seems to get any better.
Jimmy is still asleep, one spindly arm draped above his head. I don’t wake him before I go, even though I know he’d like me to. I want to be alone now, although as soon as I’m on my own, I’ll only want to be back with him. I leave a glass of murky water and his pills on the bedside table. He doesn’t stir when I kiss the side of his face and whisper a goodbye.
I walk across the street to my house, where I undress and take a shower. The water is a cloudy red. The color makes me uneasy and I get out before rinsing all the shampoo from my hair. I wrap a towel around my body and stand at the mirror above the sink. My hair is light without really being blond and the dry climate has made the skin on my knees and elbows rough. I have an hour before work, although I wish I could go in early. I’m starting to realize I can’t stand to be anywhere, except stomping through the forest in my Bigfoot costume. That’s the reason I always wanted to be an actress: when I’m in character, everything real about my life blacks out.
In my living room, which is still more or less unfurnished, I do lunges and Pilates in preparation for my role. It’s essential my muscles stay long and supple, so I can skulk with persuasive simianess. The little furniture I do have came from the Salvation Army across town and since I spend most of my time with Jimmy, I haven’t had the incentive to acquire more than the necessities. The place could be nice, I sometimes think, walking through the sparsely decorated rooms and observing the patterns the sunlight makes on the wood ﬂoors, abstract and pointed shapes that remind me of origami.
The phone rings and it’s Jimmy. He wants me to come over for breakfast. I tell him I’m late for work, which is about thirty minutes away from being true.
“And I have to ﬁnish rehearsing,” I add.
“I thought you just do stretching exercises.” The connection is bad and his voice pops with static.
“It’s more complicated than that,” I reply. “And any actor will tell you that it pays to do your homework.”
He relents and makes me promise to come over after work. When I ask what he has planned for today, he says he’s going through the jazz records in his closet.
“There’s a guy from high school I’d like to mail some of them to.”
“Don’t you want to talk to him or try to visit?” I ask. “If you’ve already gone to the trouble of getting his address.”
“No,” he says. “I really do not.”
I walk over to the window and look across the street. Jimmy is standing in his living room window, waving and holding the phone against his ear. He’s still only wearing his boxers, and through the glass his ﬁgure is pale and wavy.
“I was wondering how long it was going to take you,” he says.
“Doesn’t it feel weird to see the person you’re talking to?” I ask. “The whole point of the phone is long distance communication.”
“Talking to you isn’t the same when I can’t see your face,” he says. “It’s impossible to tell what you’re thinking.”
“Do I give away that much in person?”
“More than you know.” He presses his face against the pane, so his features look even more sallow and distorted. I giggle into the phone and stick out my tongue.
“Okay,” I tell him. “Now I’m really going to be late for work.”
“All right.” He pulls away from the window. “Go if you must.”
After we hang up, we stand at our windows for a little longer. His hair is disheveled and sticking up in the back like dark straw. He gives me one last wave, then disappears into the shadows of the house. I wait to see if he’ll come back, but the sun has shifted and the glare now blocks my view. I imagine him watching me from another part of the house, through some secret window. I return his wave to let him know I’m still here.
The fat man says my client wants to kill Bigfoot. The customer is a man from Wisconsin who came equipped with his own paintball gun. He tells me not to ambush, but to let the man sneak up on me and then moan and collapse after he ﬁres.
“I didn’t know killing Bigfoot was part of the deal,” I tell him.
As always, the fat man is sitting behind his desk. He leans back in his chair and picks something out of his teeth with the corner of a matchbook. “It’s a recreation park,” he says. “They get to do whatever they want.”
“How do people even ﬁnd this place?”
“I take out ads in magazines for Bigfoot enthusiasts,” he says. “It was important to open the park in this part of California, since there have been lots of sightings around here. My cousin saw Bigfoot behind his house, just a few miles down the road. He was standing in the backyard, going through garbage cans.” He ﬂips open the matchbook and rubs his thumb against the rough strip. “Some shit, I’ll tell you.”
I open the closet and take out my costume. “So this guy is going to shoot me with paintballs?”
“To be honest, you might feel a little sting,” he says. “But I’ve banned any other kind of weapon after an old Bigfoot got shot in the face with a pellet gun.”
“It was at close range too. He was covered in welts and bruises for days.” He runs a hand across the few brown wisps on his bald head. “If the weapon doesn’t look like a paintball gun, then shout your safe word.”
I step into the costume. “I have a safe word?”
“I don’t like to tell people when they ﬁrst start the job,” he says. “In case they scare easily.”
“I don’t.” I seal myself inside the rubber skin. “So what’s my safe word?”
“Jesus,” he says. “It’s really more for the customers, but this is a different kind of situation.”
“How’d you come up with Jesus?”
“You’d be surprised at how religious some of these people are,” he says. “I always thought screaming Jesus would get their attention.”
I lower the Bigfoot mask onto my head and inhale the sweet scent of the rubber. Through the eyeholes, I can only see the fat man and his desk.
“And what if this guy doesn’t believe in God?”
“Then you’ve still got the element of surprise.”
I’ve been pretending to not see the man from Wisconsin for over an hour. He’s positioned in the branches of a cedar: back pressed against the tree trunk, nose of the paint ball gun angled towards the ground. He’s wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap, so I can’t see his face or eyes. He paid for two hours and I can tell most of our time has passed. He must be saving the killing for the very end.
While waiting, I’ve been trying to do all the things Bigfoot might actually do. I ambled around, rubbed my back against a tree, ripped up some wildﬂowers. I sniffed the air and gave two magniﬁcent roars. But the whole time I felt myself slipping out of character and soon I was only a person in the woods, waiting for something painful to happen. I wonder if this is how Jimmy feels when he wakes in the morning — alone and waiting to be hit.
One night we had a long talk about the days when he was ﬁrst diagnosed and receiving treatment. He was in a hospital with a cancer center, two hours away from our houses and the Bigfoot park. He’s young — twenty-nine, only two years older than me — and says he’s never even held a cigarette; it wasn’t until the hospital that he began to overcome the shock, to look ahead and weigh all that did and did not await him. He would sit around with the other patients and talk about what they would do if the chemotherapy and radiation and surgeries failed — if their hand was called, as he put it. Some wanted to travel to exotic places, islands for the most part, while others wanted to ﬁnd lovers they had let go or to make amends with children they had neglected. Jimmy said he wanted to drive to the Grand Canyon and stay until he was no longer impressed with the view. He couldn’t say why he chose that destination, only that it was the ﬁrst thing that came to him. But he didn’t go to the Grand Canyon and he couldn’t say why that happened either. It wouldn’t have been so hard, he told me, only a long car ride and a little money. After that night, I thought a lot about why he never went out to Arizona and ﬁnally decided it was fear — of having the experience fall short, of realizing too late that he should have made a different choice. For him, it was better to not know for sure what the Grand Canyon looked like, to retain the splendor of his dreams.
I’m so caught up in my waiting and thinking and not being Bigfoot that the shots come as a terrible shock. Two red splats in the center of my brown chest. I fall on my back, my furry legs and arms rising and then hitting the ground with a thump. Air rushes out of my lungs; I gasp underneath the mask. I feel the point of a rock digging into my back, and a sharp pain in my forehead. I hear branches snapping and footsteps. Soon the man is standing over me, still holding the gun. He’s shorter than he looked in the tree, with pasty skin and knobby elbows, a white smudge of sunscreen on the tip of his nose. He’s wearing a T-shirt with a bull’s eye on the front and camouﬂage pants.
He nudges me with the toe of his boot and, forgetting I’m supposed to be dead, I squirm to the side. He frowns and raises the gun. I remember my safe word, but I’m able to stop myself. I want this to be as good as he hoped. If this man is dying, I want him to walk away feeling satisﬁed with his life.
He shoots me once in the neck and again in the shoulder. I shriek and press my rubber paw against my arm. I hear quick footsteps, then nothing at all. When my breathing steadies and I’m able to stand, I take off the mask and touch the hard lump on my neck. The ground is speckled with red paint. The man is gone.
“I was always one of those people who assumed I had my whole life to do whatever I wanted,” Jimmy says without any prompting. He talks like this all the time now. I call them philosophy spells.
“Like what?” I’m sitting at his kitchen table, drinking a whiskey and Coke. The welt on my neck has swollen to the size of a date. The bumps on my chest and arm are smaller, but still bright pink. Jimmy has yet to notice my wounds — or perhaps he has and just decided not to comment.
“I don’t know,” he says. “See the Great Wall of China. Climb a mountain. Get married. Have a kid.” He opens a beer and joins me at the table. “The point is I never felt much urgency.”
“The last two aren’t exactly the kind of things you’d want to rush into.”
“I guess,” he replies. “But maybe the only reason we tell ourselves that is because we think we have all this time.” He spreads his arms and turns his palms upwards; the skin on his wrists is as translucent as tracing paper. I remember him telling me about his last day of work, how the weight of the mailbag bruised his shoulder, and he carried it until he couldn’t anymore, how he dumped all the envelopes onto the sidewalk and began tearing them open: bills, love letters, subscription renewal notices, credit card offers. He told me that even though he’d never become close with anyone on his route, he was suddenly overcome with a desire to know what their lives contained. Because of his condition, he didn’t get into much trouble, but was talked into resigning with a year of disability compensation. They only agreed to the disability because they knew the payments would outlive me, he says whenever the checks come, but I take them to the bank and make his deposits all the same.
We’re quiet for a while. I ﬁnish my drink and make myself another. When I offer to get Jimmy a second beer, he shakes his head and squeezes the can until the metal dents. I stand behind him and rest a hand on his shoulder. The ceiling light ﬂickers for a moment. Earlier in the evening, I washed all the dishes and scrubbed the ﬂoor. The room looks dull and empty. He lets me do what I know best: acquiesce, accommodate, allow my desires to melt like wax around someone else’s life.
“It’s almost a relief to not consider the future,” he says. “To not wonder how my life will turn out, if I’ll ﬁnd what I was looking for or just be disappointed. Everything falls away in the face of this.” He tips his head back and looks at me. His eyes are bloodshot. “So it doesn’t really matter if you love me or not, does it?”
“Of course it does,” I tell him, because I think it’s the right thing to say. With Jimmy it seems more important to say the right thing than to be honest. Or maybe I have it backwards. But it does matter in a way, although not in the sense that it could change what’s going to happen to him.
“What did you do at work today?” I can tell he wants to change the subject.
“I got killed.”
“They can do that?”
“Is that why you’ve got that lump on your neck?”
“Yep.” I brush a clump of hair from his forehead. “Shot dead with a paintball gun.”
“There was a woman in the hospital who had cancer in her lymph nodes and when they swelled, it kind of looked like that,” he says. “We kept in touch for a while after leaving the center. She died last winter.”
He hunches over the table and hangs his head. I prepare myself to comfort. He surprises me with laughter.
At two in the morning, I’m woken by a barking dog. I kick away the covers and sit up, but the sound has already faded. Jimmy is curled underneath the sheets, his breathing nearly imperceptible. I watch him until my eyes adjust to the darkness and I can make out the rising and falling of his chest. His face is pressed into the pillow, his lips parted so I can see the wet bulge of his tongue.
I get out of bed and wander through the kitchen. I can still smell the cleaning products I used on the ﬂoor. The house seems much smaller in the night and I suddenly want to be outside. I go out the back door and sit on the concrete steps. The sky is black and starless. I’m wearing a pair of Jimmy’s boxers and one of his T-shirts. Both ﬁt me perfectly. Before we went to bed tonight, he came into the bathroom while I was brushing my teeth. He didn’t say anything for a while, just stood in the doorway and stared. And then, as I was rinsing the spearmint toothpaste from my mouth, he asked if I would like to have some of his clothes. It was the ﬁrst time he’d mentioned anything about his belongings, and I’d been happy to avoid the subject altogether. I spit green liquid into the sink and watched it swirl into the drain. I mean when we’re not doing this anymore, he continued. After it’s all over. I turned from the sink and told him I’d take whatever he wanted me to have. He didn’t say anything else, just nodded and walked into the bedroom.
I notice a rotten pear sitting on the bottom step. I reach down and pick it up. This one is really far gone, dark and sticky in my hand like an exposed organ. A kidney, perhaps. Or some kind of decayed heart. When I look ahead, I see the trunk of the tree. I throw the pear and it smacks the bark, exploding with a sound like a mufﬂed gunshot. I sit in the stillness of the yard for a moment longer, then wipe my palm on the steps and go inside.
“You don’t have to stay here,” Jimmy says when I return to bed. “If you’re having trouble sleeping.”
“I’ve been sleeping ﬁne,” I reply. “Something just woke me. That’s all.”
“What were you doing in the backyard?”
I tell him about ﬁnding the pear and the noise it made when it splattered against the tree. I tell him how I’ve always had good aim, ever since I played in my ﬁrst softball game as a kid. I ﬂex my arm and he squeezes the small swell of muscle, pretending to be impressed.
“Maybe that’s what I’ll do tomorrow,” he says. “Smash the rest of the pears against the tree.” He takes my hand and places it on his chest. “Pop, pop, pop.”
“That’s one way to get rid of them.” I swing my legs over his and ask if he ﬁnished sorting the records in his closet, which ones he ended up sending to his friend.
“I mailed him both my Django Reinhardt’s.”
“Why did you pick those?”
“Because Django has the most interesting story,” he replies. “Do you know it?”
I shake my head, my hair rustling against the pillow.
“Django’s ﬁrst wife made paper ﬂowers for a living and one night they all caught on ﬁre. It’s said Django knocked over a candle, but of course no one knows for sure. Half his body was badly burned, including his left hand, his guitar hand. His doctors thought he would never play again. But he did. And he became the greatest.”
“What does that have to do with your friend?”
“Nothing, really.” He brings my hand to his mouth and kisses my ﬁngertips. “I just wanted to share the story with someone. And he lives too far away to drop by for one of those ﬁnal visits. All the way out in Hawaii, if you can believe it.”
A light rain begins to fall. We both turn quiet. I hear the barking dog again. I can’t tell which end of the street it’s coming from, the noise all at once distant and immediate. Soon Jimmy’s breathing becomes hushed, and I know he’s drifted off. I keep my hand on his chest. His bones shift beneath his skin.
When I get to work the next day, the fat man says we need to talk. I stand in front of his desk, since there are no other chairs in the trailer. The welt on my neck is still large, and the color has deepened into a purplish red. I wonder if he’s giving me another customer with a special request.
“Jean,” he begins, and I realize it’s the ﬁrst time he’s ever said my name. I know then that this isn’t about a new assignment. It’s always a bad sign when someone who never says your name suddenly starts. “Your last customer wasn’t satisﬁed with his Bigfoot experience.”
I tell him how difﬁcult it was to wait for so long, how I kept dipping in and out of character, how I was so used to being the attacker, I couldn’t keep the same momentum while pretending to be prey. I promise to work on this angle, to stand in my backyard and practice waiting.
He shakes his head, round and pale as a cantaloupe. “No,” he says. “That’s not the problem.”
“What did the man say?”
“He said you fell like a girl.”
I tell him that’s impossible. I explain how I deliberately let my torso hit the ground ﬁrst, the way Bigfoot would, and refrained from shoving out an arm to lessen the impact. “I know how to fall,” I tell him.
“The man said you ﬂailed your arms and squealed.”
“I did not squeal. Screamed maybe, but deﬁnitely didn’t squeal.”
“He said the moment you fell, he knew it was a woman in costume, not Bigfoot. And the dream was broken.”
I point at the welt on my neck. “He shot me two more times while I was on the ground.”
The fat man shrugs. “Maybe he doesn’t like women.”
I open the closet and push through the other Bigfoot costumes, looking for mine. It’s smaller than the rest and has my initials written on the tag. The fat man had it specially made for me, with lifts in the feet and extra padding sewn into the body. When I don’t ﬁnd it, I shut the door and press my lips together.
“I almost had to give him a refund.” He rises from his chair. “Sorry, Jean.”
He’s being nice enough to not ﬁre me directly, to let me ﬁgure it out for myself, so I don’t give him a hard time. I don’t yank the other costumes from the hangers. I don’t swipe my arm across his desk. I don’t strike a match and set the whole place on ﬁre. I nod and thank him for giving me a chance, then open the door and go outside. The sky is a deep, cloudless blue. The winds are high and grey dust rises around me, as though I’m standing in the quiet center of a storm.
I’ve been walking for twenty minutes and haven’t seen a single person on the road. It’s three miles from the park to my house. The wind keeps blowing specks of dirt into my eyes. Normally I drive, but today I felt like being outside. And after getting ﬁred, I’m glad I have to walk; parts of my body feel so heavy, I worry if I sat down for too long, I’d never get up.
I ﬁnd myself thinking of things that haven’t come into my mind for months. Like how I was married once, to a guy who lived in my neighborhood in Tacoma. We eloped to Las Vegas and were married in a tiny white chapel, like every other couple that gets together for the wrong reasons. It lasted for less than a year. I always knew he was seeing another woman. When I would ask why he was late or who was on the phone and he began laughing uncontrollably and tugging the collar of his shirt. He had such a terrible game face, it was almost charming. He kept a stack of pornography underneath our bed and one time I sat on the carpeted ﬂoor and looked at the magazines, nothing but pages and pages of women kissing each other. I tried to not let his collection bother me, but, of course, it always did. Once I asked him to explain why he insisted on keeping all those magazines, but he wasn’t able to give a reason that made sense. It’s just what we do, he told me.
I worked in a bottle factory back then and painted houses on the weekends, so I know there are other things I can do for money. Maybe I can get a job at the local fairgrounds, transform myself into one of the clowns or magicians I’ve seen roaming the weekend carnivals, paint stars around my eyes and drape a black cape across my shoulders. What I really want is someplace balmy and hillless. Someplace where it never rains and the dirt smells like salt and seagrass. That is, of course, if it weren’t for Jimmy.
It’s occurred to me that part of his appeal is the guarantee — as much as anything can be guaranteed — that he will love me, and only me, for the rest of his life. He will die loving me. By default, of course — he doesn’t have the time or energy to ﬁnd someone else. But if I could grant him more years, enough time to make it likely that he would abandon me for another woman, or at least have a brief dalliance, probably with the college girl that lives down the street and likes to ride her bike in shorts and a bikini top, I would do it. I said this to him one night, when we were in the backyard, underneath the tree, telling the truth for once. Then you do love me after all, he replied, a smile spreading across his hollowed face. And I wondered if he might be right.
A red truck passes on the road, ﬂecking my skin with gravel. The wind has settled. The sky is still a clear blue, the brightness of the sun muted by some transparent sheet of cloud. It isn’t long before I see the low peak of Jimmy’s house in the distance.
“I need to get in the water,” he tells me when I turn up at his door. His eyes are wild and determined. I worry he’s beginning to get delirious, which the doctors told him might happen towards the end.
“You’re cracked,” I say. “You get tired after picking up a few pears in the backyard.”
“There’s a lake twenty minutes down the road,” he says. “I need you to drive me.” He steps onto the porch and closes the door behind him.
“But you could get a cold,” I protest. A cold for Jimmy could be deadly. “And then you’ll be back in the hospital, which is exactly where you don’t want to be.”
“I had that dream again,” he says, glossing over my practical concerns. “Where the world is a pool of cool water. I woke knowing I had to go to the lake today.” He looks longingly across the street, at my dented gray car. “And anyway, my body is where I don’t want to be, but there’s no changing that, now is there?”
“I’m really low on gas.”
He steps off the porch. “There’s a station on the way.”
“Remember when you told me you never learned to swim?”
“I don’t know how to swim,” he says. “But you do.”
He walks across the street and, knowing I usually leave my car unlocked, opens the door and eases himself into the passenger seat. When I hesitate, he honks the horn. I wonder if he’s just trying to make everything go more quickly and has decided to enlist my help. Today it’s swimming, tomorrow skydiving. The thought paralyses me. It’s an effort for him to sit at the kitchen table or on the porch for a few hours. After we make love, which we’re doing less and less, he rolls onto his side and plunges into a deep sleep, as though he’s been drugged. I hear the engine start, which means he’s found the keys in the cupholder. I consider telling him I’ve just been ﬁred and don’t feel like swimming, but he wouldn’t care. And he shouldn’t. He honks the horn again. I sprint across the street and join him.
I park underneath a sequoia and toss the keys into the glove compartment. I watch Jimmy get out of the car and walk to the edge of the lake, moving with all the speed he can muster. The late afternoon sunlight pours through the windshield, illuminating the ridge of dust on the dashboard. I lean forward and blow; the particles scatter and hang in the air like the petals of a molting dandelion.
I leave the car and stand with Jimmy on the bank of the lake. He removes his shoes and T-shirt, then begins to unbutton his jeans. He asks me to take off my clothes. The lake is half a mile from the main road and surrounded by trees and dark green bushes. I feel emboldened by the enclosure and slip out of my shorts and blouse. I fold our clothes and place them on the knotted roots of a tree, align our shoes so they’re side by side. Once he’s naked, Jimmy slowly wades into the lake, extending his arms for balance. I wait until his knees disappear into the water, then follow. It’s cold at ﬁrst and my skin goes numb after just a few minutes.
“This is too shallow,” he says. “Let’s go out there.” He points to the thick darkness in the center of the lake.
“That will be too deep,” I tell him. “You won’t be able to stand.”
“I don’t want to feel anything underneath me.” He tucks a loose strand of hair behind my ear. His wet hand slides down my throat and rests against my collarbone. “Will you teach me to ﬂoat?”
“I’ll do my best,” I say, meaning it. “But we have to start in the shallow water.”
He nods. I tell him to let his body go slack. He relaxes a little, but it’s not enough. I tell him to let himself sink and when the water rises over his shoulders, I place my hands underneath his back and turn his body horizontal. We manage this in one graceful movement, like synchronized swimmers rehearsing a number.
“The trick is to let your arms and legs dangle, but keep your back ﬁrm.”
“I can do that,” he says.
I take away my hands, and after he’s ﬂoated on his own for a while, I grip his upper arms and swim into the deep water. I tell him to close his eyes, to not think about trying to stay above water, to pretend my hands are still pressing against his spine. The muscles in my thighs burn from treading and holding onto Jimmy. His hair is glossy and black, his eyelashes long and curved. I can see the teardrop shape of his cheekbones, the green and purple veins in his face. He looks so delicate I almost consider dragging him back to shore, but I know that’s simply not possible now. After we reach the center of the lake, I release his arms. His position in the water doesn’t change, a good sign. I drift backwards and tell him to open his eyes.
“The sky is spinning,” he says.
I tilt my head back and the water swallows the ends of my hair. I see a huge cloud that resembles a mountain range and recall his wish to visit the Grand Canyon. Perhaps the failure to make that journey explains his persistence today, his refusal to grant himself the opportunity to be dissuaded. Maybe he has grown tired of seeing things only in dreams.
“How far out are we?”
“All the way in the center,” I reply. “But don’t look. It will break your focus.” For once, he listens to me.
The sun is beginning to drop, a brilliant orange disc with liquid borders. Jimmy is ﬂoating on his back, staring up at the sky. His lips are turning blue, but I don’t say anything. I’ve never seen anyone learn to ﬂoat so quickly before, but maybe people learn faster when they don’t have much time. Time. I’ve grown to hate that word. I think of it often, how much is wasted, how freeing it would be if we weren’t always counting. I look at Jimmy, his skin excruciatingly white against the dark water, and wonder if he’s stopped paying attention to time, if he’s resigned himself to allowing the days to pass until they don’t anymore. I think of what he said back at the house, about how his body is where he doesn’t want to be, how neither of us are where we want to be, yet somehow, at this moment, we are.
“Will you roar for me?” he asks.
I shift in the water, creating small ripples that push his body farther away.
“Your Bigfoot roar,” he continues. “I want to hear an echo.”
“I was ﬁred today.” I touch the bump on my neck; it’s down to the size of a grape.
He’s quiet for a minute. He doesn’t move in the water, and I’m proud of him for maintaining his concentration. “That doesn’t matter,” he ﬁnally says. “You can still be Bigfoot.”
“It’s not as convincing without the costume. I’ve told you this before.”
“Then imagine it,” he says.
“You’re supposed to be an actress, right?”
I shut my eyes and picture Bigfoot lumbering through the forest, more alone than any human could grasp. I imagine the weight of his solitude. I open my mouth and ﬁll my lungs with air, then arch my back and push it all out. The noise that comes from my body is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. It beats against the thinning branches and the fall air, shoots towards the clouds like smoke. The echoes last for a long time, the vibrations moving across my skin like electrical currents. When I open my eyes, the lake and treetops are washed in a blue darkness.
Jimmy has ﬂoated out of my reach, but I don’t swim after him. When the crescent moon turns luminous, he asks to be taken back to the car. I guide him to the shore, and once he’s on dry land, he crouches and begins to shiver violently. I scold myself for not bringing a blanket, or even towels, and try to get him to at least put on his clothes. But he shakes his head and asks me to help him wait it out. It will pass, he tells me. I’m being tested, I realize, to see how long I can endure suffering in another person. I bend over and press my hand between his shoulder blades, feeling all the slender ligaments and bones a healthy body conceals. The moonlight makes the lake glow like an enormous black pearl. The soft skin on my stomach hardens with goosebumps. The night is quiet, save for the sound of Jimmy’s rapid breath. I kneel next to him, the damp leaves sticking to my knees. I look down at Jimmy’s thigh, at the dirt smudged across the pale stretch of skin; I brush it away, the grit damp and cool on my ﬁngers. I bring my hand to my lips and let the dirt melt off my ﬁngertips, tasting the bitterness and metal. The moon shifts and the grass in front of us catches silver, the light passing over us and away.