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The California Girls

By Lacey Jane Henson


Published:

The rain starts coming when we hit southern Texas. It has been hot up until then, crowded and dry, the interstate lined with summer traffic, the sun glinting off the rows of bumpers. Once we reach the desert and catch our first glimpse of yucca, it pours.

“Funny it decides to rain now. Not funny ha-ha, but you know what I mean?” Amy says. When I don’t respond, she says, again: “You know what I mean, Mona?”

“More like annoying,” I say. “Roll up your window.”

We seal ourselves up in my sour-smelling car. Amy goes back to reading her book of mental disorders. I say she but it’s not exactly accurate. Amy is a hermaphrodite. I don’t know the details, but she told me as much once. Looking at her is a kind of puzzle that can’t be solved. Her body is thick and bulky; her voice, deep. She chooses the weirdest diseases and reads them aloud—a kind of game. I understand why she does this, but it’s something that goes unsaid between us, running like a current beneath our conversation. She turns the pages with her man hands and reads them in her man voice and feels a little bit better. I understand because I feel the same way. She’s a freak, like me.

“Here’s one,” she says. “Lesch-Nyhan syndrome.”

“You feel like . . . you’re constantly being watched?”

“Lesch-Nyhan sufferers,” she reads, “have an uncontrollable desire to engage in self-mutilation.”

“Oh,” I say. “We called them cutters.” I’m thinking of the girls who drew knives across their upper arms. Behind the high school, on the strip of brown grass where we all smoked, they would roll up their sleeves and flaunt their puffy pink scars.

“That’s something else,” Amy says. Lesch-Nyhan, she explains, is way more extreme. If left unrestrained, you might lop off a finger, chew your lips down to the bone. “It’s like your body revolts too,” she says. “You start producing crystals that tear up your organs.”

I can’t imagine this. The logistics, I mean. The syndrome itself seems vaguely familiar. I have a small, insistent impulse to jump, to veer off the road. A tiny voice I hardly ever give into. The difference is that they keep giving in. They can’t help giving in. I wonder if you can see it in their faces somehow. Like maybe they look brave. Or would it be scared?

For some reason, Amy has shut the book and put her elbows on top, holding her chin in her hands.

“That’s it?” I say.

She shrugs. “I have to pee.”

“We’re almost there,” I say, even though we have close to an hour. I’ve been driving since we left Illinois, and I’m not stopping again. This whole trip, she has been nothing but demands. Her bladder is always full, and her stomach empty. She has a million little needs and tells me about all of them, like a child I never wanted.

“My dad says El Paso’s the armpit of the world, ” Amy says.

“You’ll fit right in,” I say.

“Ha,” she says.

Amy’s father is a Vietnam vet, and she grew up listening to his war stories. He told her that all the freaks lived in California, which is one reason we’re headed there. I went over to their house once for dinner and afterwards we gathered in the living room around the muted TV. Her dad sat alongside the couch in this sagging blue recliner, drinking beer and talking about some of the places he’d been. I got the feeling it was a frequent occurrence. When Amy was a baby, her family was stationed in El Paso. She wanted to see it, I guess, to give shape to her past—something concrete to ground all those childhood stories. It’s sort of out of the way, but she insisted. I figured we could spend the night there and catch the interstate to San Diego. We’re not exactly pressed for time.

She told me her dad said the Southwest looked like shit—literally. Even through the rain, I can see what he means. Nothing but brown, except for some weird shrubs, scattered around like an STD. I mention this to Amy, but her head is lolling against the seatback. Her mouth hangs open, stupidly.

She can fall asleep like it’s nothing, and won’t wake up until she wants to. When we were dorm roommates, I didn’t mind. I had sex in our room, microwaved food at odd hours. Now, it annoys me. She’s spent the last three days napping on and off. Maybe if we were old friends it’d be different, but we only met by default—assigned to each other in our first semester of college. Sometimes, I wonder what would’ve happened if Amy got assigned to some sorority girl. Other times, in rare moments of mysticism, I wonder if there is any reason for the world to have thrown us together. As far as leaving together, our reasons were practical. She wanted to get out of Illinois just as bad as I did, and I needed the extra money. I figure we can go our separate ways once we get to California.

 

In El Paso, we hit a strip of buildings with blinking neon signs. I pick a motel called the Sleep Inn. No bad metaphors here. Before I shut the car door, I shout at Amy to wake up, and then run across the lot with my hands over my head. I bang in through a glass door, panting.

There is a woman wearing a fringed, suede vest behind the lobby desk, who is filing her nails and takes a minute to look up.

“Hey!” she says and smiles. Her teeth are large and yellow. “It isn’t still raining out there, is it?” She nods at my damp shirt, an oversize tee that says: This Bud’s For You.

“Yep,” I say, smoothing back my hair.

She blows upward. Her bangs lift a little, then settle back across her wide forehead. “If I had my druthers . . .” she trails off, shaking her head. “Don’t we need it though. I’m telling you. Can’t complain, I guess.”

She wears makeup like my sister Lindsey does: loudly. She’s got this elaborate purple eye shadow. She’s not too self-conscious to make herself up and show it off.

She laughs. “You look like you’ve never seen a Texan.”

“I haven’t,” I say, attempting a smile.

“Well,” she says. Her manicured nails click across the countertop. “Now what is it that you want?”

I take a deluxe king suite because it’s the only thing they have. Or that’s what she tells me. When we drive over to the room, Amy remarks on the parking lot’s emptiness.

“Don’t you criticize,” I say, though she’s right. The blacktop gapes like a mouthful of missing teeth. There seems to be only a pickup truck and an El Camino, which slouches a few spots away from where I park the car.

As soon as we go into the room, Amy lumbers toward the toilet. “I feel gross,” she shouts, shutting the door. I hear the shower turn on.

The walls are papered in a pattern of faded orange and white stripes. There’s a long yellow stain in the middle. I try not to think about what it might be from. A moth circles the naked globe on the ceiling. I close my eyes.

On the underside of my eyelids, the after-image of light appears. Purple orbs shifting through grainy black. It reminds me of the lava lamp my sister had in her bedroom when we were kids. She used to turn it on before she went to sleep. I’m thinking of a time when she came home drunk and I made her a sandwich. She laughed and peanut butter smeared her teeth. She must have been fifteen. We got along. We were saying lines from a bad movie we had memorized. I was hamming a song up and she was laughing.

I’m sinking, almost asleep, when Amy’s voice drags me back up again.

“Where should we eat? I’m hungry.” The faucet is running alongside her voice.

“There’s a whole strip of restaurants right outside,” I say, curling away from her.

She spits into the sink. The water goes off and the bathroom door clicks shut.

When Amy sits on the bed it leans with her. She starts tapping out a beat on her leg. Not acknowledging her takes work. It’s a kind of meditation. I think: If I’m just silent for a few more minutes, she will dissipate, like smoke. The mattress shifts again as she lies down. I roll into her inadvertently. She lets out a long, purposeful sigh.

“Do you ever quit?” I’m looking at the creases in her thick neck. I imagine putting my fingers in them and squeezing.

“What?” She gives me her blank look. The one that tells me she really doesn’t get it. Or, I don’t know, maybe it’s an act. Not an act, exactly, because it seems unintentional, but maybe it’s a look that doesn’t mean anything. It’s a child’s look. Nothing seems worth explaining to that face.

“Forget it,” I say. “Let’s just go eat.”

 

Outside, we step into the long shadow of the hotel. The rain has gone. In its place is a blood red sunset smearing the sky like a wound. We walk down the street, through the dirt-smelling air. I stop at the nearest bar, a place called the Blue Moon, and walk in. Amy follows. It’s dark inside and there’s a row of men standing at the bar beneath a yellow Corona sign. A few of them turn, and their faces look sickly in the florescent light, as if they’ve been there for years, dirtying their livers. We sit in a booth at the back. When the waitress comes, I order a pitcher of beer and two plates for us.

“When we get to California, I’m going to buy something I always wanted,” Amy announces.

“Like what?” I say.

She thinks a minute. The pitcher comes and I pour two pints for us.

“A dog,” she says, finally, grinning.

I can’t imagine her taking on that kind of responsibility. In our dorm room, she left dirty glasses alongside the floor next to her bed until they grew mold.

“My dad smuggled one home from Vietnam,” she goes on. “But get this. After all that, it ended up dying in our garage. Got into some antifreeze.” She sticks her finger into the foam and sucks it. “So.”

I take a sip of my beer. There’s really nothing to say.

“Well,” she says. “What do you want to do?”

“In general?”

“In California. Like, your plans.”

“Go to the beach.”

“That’s it?”

I shrug. The truth is, I haven’t really thought about much except leaving. But I’ve never been to the beach. My sister sent me a photo once, from a stretch along Highway One. She and her boyfriend were way up on a cliff and the little beach was below, deserted and white. You could be completely alone on that beach—and happy about it, too.

 

It takes a while for the food. We’re into a second pitcher by the time the waitress brings the plates. As soon as she sets them down, Amy shovels in three huge bites, smearing one side of her mouth with green sauce. She doesn’t stop eating or wipe it away. One of the things about traveling with someone is you learn all their disgusting habits. Or maybe it’s that you start to find all their habits disgusting. I can hardly stand to eat at the same table as her anymore.

“Here’s one,” she says. A piece of food flies out of her mouth and lands on the table. “Androphobia.”

I wonder what will happen when we run out of diseases to talk about. Andro, android. I guess: “Fear of robots?”

“Men,” she says.

“Is this a confession?” I say. She has a tendency to lose her way around men.

“Ha,” she says. Another something flies out and lands on her chin.

I want to be alone for a minute. I go to the bathroom as Amy gets up to put a song on the jukebox. When I walk in, there are a couple of girls at the mirrors, applying lipstick and gossiping about the men. I sit in the stall, reading the graffiti on the back of the door. It’s like a conversation, too, between other, faceless women. “The cowboys at night are big if not bright, deep in the pussy of Texans,” one says. “UR a whore,” someone responds. “You can lead a whore to liquor, but you can’t make her think,” says someone else, quoting Dorothy Parker. I’m going to use that one on Amy.

I’m waiting for the girls at the mirrors to leave. Girls like that make me nervous – the normal, pretty kind. Like that woman with the eye shadow, like my sister. Rachel knows something I don’t. A certain manner of address, a way to fix her hair. I don’t mean I’m ugly. But there’s something hard about my face. It translates to the rest of me, too. There’s something off about the way my dirty blonde hair falls, the way my eyes are set. I have the kind of looks that other women call pretty with a kind of self-satisfaction.

I hear cheers when I come out of the bathroom. Once I walk through the hallway, I see why. Amy is alone on the tiny dance floor, shaking her hips to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” I step into the shadow of a guy at the bar and watch her thrust her wide-set body around. Her face is contorted, like a fist.

What could she be thinking? Does she believe these guys like it? They’re obviously making fun of her, laughing a little too loudly. One man bends over and grins while his friend slaps him on the ass. “Baby, baby,” he keeps saying. I wonder if she knows this and chooses to ignore it, dancing just because she wants to. Or maybe she doesn’t know, is unaware of her effect on people. I’m not sure which I feel better about. She dances a little haltingly though and keeps looking around, like she’s waiting for someone. Her awkward rhythm breaks as her eyes search the crowd. These wide smiles. Garish.

I feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s our waitress.

“Shouldn’t you take her on home now?” she drawls. She taps a pencil against her thigh.

“I don’t actually know her. She just happened to sit down next to me.”

I shove a twenty in her hand and slip out the door before she has a chance to respond. The sky is black now, the only light radiating from the neon everywhere. I head back to the hotel.

 

In the room, I lay in bed with the lights off. The cheap blinds can’t block all that neon. In the half-light, I see a long crack in the ceiling. I follow its path until it breaks off into tiny rivulets, like a vein. If there is something I should do, I don’t know what.

I switch on the lamp, and pick up the book of disorders from the bedside table. I find the section on Lesch-Nyhan. There is a picture of a baby with a black bar over his eyes. Its little red mouth, open wide, is completely bare. White scar tissue where the lips used to be.

I shut the book and sink back down.

Once Rachel kept saying: “Everybody needs a mother around.” I was telling a story about how I had moved in for a week with some guy who wore a fedora, during which time I remained in his house like a concubine. I was trying to get at something. “You need a mother,” she said, “to remind you.”

“I am a mother,” I said. I was one month pregnant.

“Don’t be melodramatic,” she said. She missed it entirely. “What I’m saying is why don’t you just call mom? Go home for a while. She’d love it.”

I waited too long. One night, I drank vodka until blood smeared my thighs. How could a person like me be a mother? No one would allow it. Look at what I just did there, in the bar.

 

When I hear Amy rattling the doorknob, I pretend to be asleep. She stumbles over the edge of the bed. I can smell the alcohol wafting off her body like perfume. The mattress bends as she sits down and I feel her hands on my shoulder, shaking me.

“Hey. You asleep?”

“I was.”

“What happened to you? The waitress said you just took off.”

“Driving all day is tiring. And we’ve got another one tomorrow.”

“I met the weir—hic—the weirdest guy walking home.”

“Mmmm. I’m going to bed.”

Amy continues her story anyhow. I can’t help but listen. She wanted a cigarette when she got outside the bar, she says. So she walks for a while and runs into a man with a parrot on his shoulder. “Not a parrot, but one of those big, white birds with the plume on top of their head. You know which one I mean?” Every now and then he gives this bird a drag, she says. The bird seems to enjoy smoking, too. Kind of cries for a drag. She figures that this is a guy who’d give her a cigarette. “We got to talking about how I ended up here and it turns out he was in the war, too. He tells me Saigon is the real armpit of the world. That the place is just filled with air that seems like sweat itself. Sky sweat, he called it.”

“I guess it seemed different when my dad described it . . .” her words start flowing together. A thick stew of sounds, each one indistinguishable from the other.

 

“Fuck!” Thirty minutes outside of El Paso the next morning, smoke starts rising from the hood of the car. I check the thermometer and see the gauge past the red.

“We’re overheating!” I glance at Amy but she just stares at me with that dumb cow look of hers. I’d smack her in the nose if I could. But I’m flooring the gas, and the car is just decelerating and decelerating, until I’m forced to pull over on the shoulder beside a squat ugly bush. I stare at the road, tapering off into the horizon. The sky is so blue it burns my eyes.

“What happened?” Amy asks, blinking.

“What the hell do you think happened? My car is fucked.”

“Where are we?”

“Why don’t you tell me what you see outside? Because I see a whole lot of fucking dirt.”

“There has to be a town somewhere close by. One of us could walk.”

“One of us, meaning me.”

“Hey, if you want I’ll go. You want me to go?”

We sit in silence for a minute.

“No, I’ll go,” I say.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

“I don’t trust you not to fuck it up,” I say. I slam the car door as hard as possible.

The thing about this landscape is that it doesn’t provide any shade. It’s like a giant mirror that reflects all heat. The cloudless sky is bright as aluminum. I walk for a while, trying to ignore the sun. I’ve heard people talk about the advantages of dry heat over humidity but when it’s this hot, I don’t care whether it’s dry or not. All this unused land—miles of waste you can’t do anything with. What would it be like to wander out into that? In Illinois everything that doesn’t have a house on it is still organized into a crop.

And then, a ways ahead, I see a small bird skimming across the sand. Things do survive out here I guess. When I hear my name, I think it’s the bird for a brief, hallucinogenic second.

A large white Cadillac pulls up next to me. Amy waves from the back window.

“I found us a ride!” she yells.

There’s an elderly couple in the front seat, the woman smiling at the wheel.

“You must be Megan,” she says as I slide into the back seat. “I’m Carmen and this is Earl. Say hello, Earl,” she adds, sharply.

He complies, giving me a small wave.

“Nice to meet you,” I say.

“Well, the circumstances could be a little better,” Carmen chuckles, for some reason.

“I just saw Amy sitting outside of that poor little car, baking in this heat,” she goes on. “You girls ought to be more careful.” She gives us a stern look through the rearview mirror. Amy nods earnestly.

“But nevermind all that. We’ll take you on into Las Cruces, to a garage, won’t we?” She directs the question at Earl, but he doesn’t respond. Carmen pats his knee.

“He’ll think on that. Amy tells me you all are from Illinois.” She pronounces it Illi-noise.

“Carbondale, Illi-noy,” I say.

“That’s fascinating. And what are you planning on doing in California?”

“I’d like to go back to school,” Amy says.

“Oooh. Good for you. In what?”

“Nursing.”

This is news to me.

“Any specific area?”

“Psychiatry, I think.”

Oh please, I think. Is that for real? I picture her in white with a nurse’s cap, administering an injection to a man’s ass. The man is screaming.

“My sister is a nurse,” Carmen says. “We’ve got a great school here in Las Cruces.”

I tune them out, and rest my head against the seatback, leaning into the rhythm of the car. For once, I’m the passenger. The sun is coming through the window on my side of the car. I touch a patch of the dark blue leather that’s in the light. Fingers splayed, palm down. It burns but I leave it there until I can’t stand one more second of the heat.

Carmen and Amy seem happy to chat without me. It’s as if I’ve disappeared entirely, slipped into the exhaust system. An element that’s negligible unless it gives you trouble. Carmen reminds me a little of my mother, anyway, the last person I want to think about right now. They both have that same domineering attitude, that same stiff bleached hair. I wrote my mom a letter before I left, explaining that I was failing all my classes. I can see her at home, on the phone, wrapping the long blue cord around her finger. Talking to my sister, both of them clucking their tongues.

I notice Earl is picking his nose. The sun visor is down and there’s a little mirror in it that reflects his face and mine. He sees that I’m watching but doesn’t stop doing it. His dark eyes stare vacantly behind his thick glasses. Something seems off, but maybe he’s just old, just strange. I ruffle through the disorder book in my mind, searching for a condition that might describe him. Vacant, watery eyes.

“How’s about you Megan?”

“Hmmmm?” I say.

“What are your plans for California?” Carmen asks.

“I plan to get a boob job,” I say.

Carmen laughs. “Well,” she says.

Earl starts laughing, too. It’s unsettling.

“What’s got you tickled Earl?” Carmen says.

“Oh,” he laughs. “I don’t know. What a response,” he says.

Amy is laughing too, like she’s one of them. They all keep cracking up at my dumb line. And I can’t think of a thing to say.

I look out the window. We’re driving through town now, past a small mountain with an A painted on its crest. Past a desert park, where the cactus are planted in starburst formations. Past a bunch of houses, different from the ones I’m used to—they’re shorter, with flat tops, and painted bright colors like orange and pink. There’s a shabby, dusty feel to the town that I don’t mind. There is a sudden, startling green – a field where the trees are planted in neat lines. They’re prettier than corn and soybeans, the fields I’m used to. Carmen tells us it’s a pecan farm. The city’s famous for them, she says.

Then, there is a garage with a large awning that Carmen pulls in underneath. She puts the car in park, idling in the lot.

“Well, girls. Do you need anything else?” Carmen eyes us in the rearview mirror. I tug self-consciously at my tank top. She acts nice, but I wonder what she really thinks.

“We’re fine, thank you,” I say, before Amy has the chance to take up the offer.

“Let me give you my phone number.” Carmen starts rummaging through her giant purple handbag. “Where is that pen?” she says, absently.

“Really, don’t worry about it.”

“Here it is.” She writes her number on a napkin. There’s a smudge of red lipstick in the corner. “You girls be careful from now on. You never know what kind of crazies are out there these days.”

“Bye now,” Earl adds.

We stand on the blacktop, Amy waving as they drive away.

 

After we got the car towed in and looked at, I didn’t feel like taking the time to find a motel. I tried to act intelligent as the man explained the problems, but I couldn’t understand most of what he said, couldn’t get a clear time frame or price. We walked down the street to the first diner we could find. Inside, it’s loud and crowded, music blaring, burgers sizzling on the grill. Amy and I are drinking coffee, sitting at a table by the window. She’s smiling.

“I like it here,” she says.

“Why?”

“The vibe is good.”

It isn’t a bad vibe. Maybe I’m just too tired to disagree. There are some old women playing cards in one of the back booths. A group of dusty construction workers are drinking beers at another. Our waitress is surly and slow and about four hundred pounds. It’s full of people with no particular place to go.

The bell on the door jingles as a woman walks in with a little boy.  She’s a pretty, young blonde wearing a khaki skirt. They sit at the table next to us. The boy looks like he’s about five or six. He acts kind of funny though, and his speech is a little off. The woman has to repeat some things to get him to pay attention. But she’s really patient and smiles about it like she doesn’t mind. And she doesn’t talk down to him or anything, just a little slower sometimes. I shouldn’t stare, but I can’t help watching her with him, talking to him like he’s just any other kid.

Something is wrong. The woman says the boy’s name: Danny. She says it again. She keeps saying it over and over, like she’s chanting. Then his head jerks back and he starts flailing – his chair clatters to the floor. The woman screams. All the other noise drops off except for the sizzling burners. She crumples to the floor, trying to cradle his thrashing body.

“Don’t touch him.” In one swift movement, Amy is over them, gently pushing the mother away. The mother sits on her knees. Tears streak mascara down her cheeks. Amy takes off the flannel shirt tied around her waist and places it under the boy’s head, turns him onto his side. He keeps moving though, like he’s dancing to some chaotic melody no one else can hear. “Can someone call an ambulance?”

I keep thinking I should do something, but I feel numb, like my limbs won’t work. I just sit there watching Amy. She looks serene above the boy, her movements slow and graceful. I wonder how she can keep her cool above his small, thrashing body. Then, just as quickly as they began, the spasms stop. He lays there, eerily still and silent. Amy holds his wrist between her thumb and forefinger.

“He’s going to be okay,” she says.

The woman places her hand on the boy’s head and kisses him. “He’s never done this before. I panicked.”

She looks up at Amy. “Thank you.”

Amy stays with them until the paramedics come, red lights flashing. They load the boy onto a stretcher, the mother trailing after them. After they leave, Amy approaches me.

“Let’s go,” she says. As we’re walking out the door, an old man stops us. He puts out his hand, his leathery face creasing into a smile.

“You did a fine job there, son,” he says, shaking Amy’s hand. “A real fine job.”

He looks at me. “He your boyfriend?”

I want to slap him.

“Practically,” I say, putting my arm around her waist.

“You’re a lucky girl.”

“I know.”

Outside, we start down the sidewalk, moving slowly against the grain of traffic. I can’t stop thinking about how that kid almost died. I’m sure there’s a word for him in Amy’s big book of diseases. We’ve probably even read the symptoms aloud to each other before. Still, seeing that happen, right there in front of me, has a weight I can’t shake off.

If I were a different kind of girl, I’d hug Amy right now. I’d kiss her on the cheek and leave a faint sheen of lip gloss behind. I’d congratulate her and press her hands between my own.

Instead, I ask: “How’d you know what to do?”

“I took a couple of EMT classes,” she says. “Where’re we going anyway?”

“Someplace where you won’t continue to annoy the shit out of me,” I say.

She laughs. “You’re annoyed by everything.”

“Listen, why don’t you tell me where?”

“Here?” she asks.

“Here,” I say.

There’s no escaping the sun here, the buildings are all too low to the ground. We walk toward the light, past them, searching for a shadow.


Lacey Jane Henson grew up in Illinois and spent time in New Mexico and Paris before landing in Seattle. She has an MFA from the University of Washington and founded a popular reading series called The Off Hours. In 2009, she won first-prize in the Katherine Ann Porter Prize for Fiction given by Nimrod International, and her stories have since appeared MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine, Third Coast, among others. This year, she’s a fellow in Seattle’s Jack Straw Writing Program, and finishing her first novel, Nobody Told Me.

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