I study the mother and daughter as they beeline to my cosmetics counter. Thanks to my physics degree, which degraded into biology then petered out to nothing, I can turn customers into lab subjects with ease. But predicting their behavior is still a challenge. There’s momentum, and there’s position.
The daughter, slightly older than me, approaches our magnifying mirror. From here I can tell she is a Fruit Extracts Starter Kit. Easy. She hovers a safe distance from the mirror, so I tilt it steeper, talk her in. Everything blown up ten times, more drastic, pores and wrinkles a mottled wasteland. The daughter prods the area underneath her eye. Pushes up, pushes down. Tiny wrinkles, no wrinkles. The mother’s mouth inflects sympathy, but her upper face is placid, cow-like. The Botox Blank.
“It’s barely noticeable,” says the mother.
“So it is noticeable?” The daughter slap-spins the mirror, backs away in an arc of panic. She seeks comfort in the natural sponges, fondling, but she’ll be back.
The urge to halt the inevitable is infectious. I battle my own magnifying mirror. Lines deepen overnight. Moisture evaporates. How many years of tautness do I have left?
The mother drifts to the Elizabeth Arden counter, clearing a visual path between me and our shampoo display—an Aztec pyramid of botanical enzymes. Unexpected, poking at bottles, is a boy. Cute-ish. Staring. I pop open the tester bottle for the ginger lotion, rub it in as the boy is drawn over.
“Skye,” I say, extending my moist hand.
Date Two. Newal—New for short—rolls out the same story from Date One, The Amazing Folding Metal from the Roswell crash site. When he gets to the line about the nighttime raid, the government confiscation of said metal, his palm cups my elbow. I shift on the couch, and he flinches—just slightly. I am too powerful.
We both hear the friction of a near-death engine pulling into the carport. New gets twitchier. He has a roommate.
“I thought you were closing tonight,” New says to the tall guy who comes through the door.
“I finagled a switch.” He walks over, nods at me. “I’m Jimmy.”
“Skye,” I say and smile. He is truly beautiful. All that crap I learned in Intro to Psych about the power of facial symmetry hits home. Plus he has the giant wide eyes of an infant, triggering a hollowness in my chest.
Jimmy sits down on the coffee table opposite New and me, his knees separating us. New relaxes into a mild slump. I get the feeling that perhaps this scenario has happened before, and to New the outcome is preordained.
“Thirsty?” Jimmy pulls out a bottle of wine from his bag. It screams expensive, a pale blue label showing through a layer of dust.
“I can’t believe no one catches you,” says New.
“I’m too quick. Always moving.” Jimmy tosses the bottle up and catches it with the same hand. It slides dangerously fast through his grip until he gets a strangle hold on the neck. All the while he is locked on me. “It’s their fault, Skye. It took me three months to learn Alsace or Umbria, late harvest or reserve. How could I not feel deserving?”
I smile as if I’m following his logic.
Jimmy picks up a package of plastic cups from behind him, stretching until his shirt rides up and exposes the furrow of his spine. He turns around and passes out two, then takes a screwdriver and pounds the cork down into the bottle.
“We have a corkscrew somewhere,” says New as two thin jets of wine shoot out, accommodating the volume of the cork.
Jimmy ignores him and pours for me and New, then pulls a bag of Cheetos from his bag. He takes a giant swig straight from the bottle and crunches happily, oblivious to the odd smear of orange flakes and red wine on his lips. I want to lick it off. I grip the couch cushion but still feel like I’m rushing toward him.
Our days end up a crowd of three. Days we don’t mention the nights spent in Jimmy’s room. It isn’t difficult. New goes to bed early, leaves early. Our own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. A few weeks later, coinciding vacation time leads the three of us to decide on a road trip. New’s car, so New’s pick of destination. Roswell.
We leave Austin the next Thursday. Jimmy plays navigator in the front seat, and I stretch out in the back, watching the sky move. For six hours I listen to Jimmy tell New, “Man, you should really let me drive.” Finally, Jimmy claims debilitating carsickness and insists we stop in Big Spring to spend the night. A fifties-style motel, whitewashed and small. But the lobby is dark and wood-paneled. Jimmy heads straight to the counter while New and I loiter.
“One room, two double beds,” he says to the man working the desk. The guy lays his palm on his bald head and scratches without saying a word. New and I lower our heads, eye each other, then turn away. Jimmy extends his palm over his shoulder for New’s credit card. New stares at the hand, then at the back of Jimmy’s head. After a few seconds, he pulls out his wallet.
Transaction completed, we clump at the room’s doorway, staring at the beds. New flops on the closer one. I set my bag down by the closet and claim the other. Jimmy made this brilliant decision, let him make another. He opts for the bathroom. New flips on the TV. The toilet flushes and Jimmy heads for my bed like it’s the most natural thing in the world. If New minds, he doesn’t show it.
Dinner is an assortment from the vending machines. We watch On the Waterfront and Real Genius, argue over whether Val Kilmer has turned into post-Godfather Marlon Brando. Finally, New passes out on the far side of his bed. Jimmy slides his hand under my shirt, across my stomach. New’s thin back is to us, the salmon-colored bedspread pinned between his elbow and rib cage. Jimmy’s finger presses against my belly button, slipping under the waistband of my jeans.
“Uh-uh,” I tell him. I go to the sink, do the ritual. Make-up remover, soap, scrub, astringent, moisturizer, moisturizer, moisturizer. My skin misses the humidity of home. I run the water until Jimmy turns off the TV and the bedside lamp. I flick off the bathroom light and find my way to the bed using the shaft of light from the parking lot. It struggles through a gap between the thick curtains. Jimmy’s eyes are already closed. I scootch in and turn my back to him, but he presses up against me. He kisses the side of my neck, teeth scraping softly.
“But New,” I whisper.
“Quiet. He’s asleep.” The heater is putting off a steady roar, but giving in to Jimmy would be wrong and I know it. I force him back with my shoulder and face him. I shake my head. He smiles, pushing my bangs back from my forehead, then grasps my hips and shifts me on top of him. I’m about to get up, leave the bed, but the wedge of light from the window falls across Jimmy’s face. Benign expectation, like a child waiting to be picked up and carried. Both sides of his mouth, with his perfect lips, tip slightly down. The artificial warmth of the heater laps up my moisturizer. I am blinded. Baked. My mind abandons me.
We make it into New Mexico, just a couple of hours outside Roswell in Hobbs. I walk out of the 7-Eleven swinging an apple in a plastic bag. I hate not buying organic—toxins show up in the skin—but at a convenience store pesticides are the least of my worries. The car is locked and empty, and Jimmy’s gone to Burger King. A well-creased woman talks on the pay phone while she stares at New in a clearing beside the store. It’s nice to be in a place where a stand of pine trees grows next door to Slurpees. He’s ten feet back from the largest pine tree in his trashy green sweater. The woman pulls her sunglasses to the tip of her nose, as if they are the barrier keeping her from diagnosis: crazy or homeless? Then she notices me, my eggplant-tinted hair and Jimmy’s borrowed trench coat. With me as context, I imagine she is able to place New: not crazy, just not from rural New Mexico.
I remove the apple, stuff the bag half in my front pocket. It whips and crackles in the wind. I take a bite and the juice runs into the crack at the edge of my lips—the moisture flees from my face no matter how much ChapStick I apply. It hurts like hell until I lick the juice away, my tongue catching on pieces of skin that hang off in tiny flaps. I press my lips to the exposed meat in the bite mark until the burning fades, then I pull the apple back and try again. Maybe I can burn them off—my own fruit extract. I keep up the press and release until I realize the woman at the pay phone is now watching me. Embarrassed, I go to New.
In the stand of pines we say nothing. I want to shoulder-bump him, but he’s taken to flinching when I touch him—tiny motions of contraction. He sometimes even flinches when I touch Jimmy, and I’m left wondering whom I touched.
“What’s up?” I ask.
“Check out the bark. It’s different than the rest, looks like snakeskin. Maybe it’s older?” says New.
After taking another bite of my apple, I offer it up.
“Nah, Jimmy’s getting burgers. Weird pattern, though.”
“Aliens?” I say.
It takes New five seconds to fashion a retort. “Fuck you, miss.”
“I’m going back to the car. Await the murdered burger stink.” I try to bite the apple pointedly, but the crunch is lost in the flapping of the plastic bag.
“Your indignation might be sexy if your vegetarianism wasn’t just a cover for an eating disorder. A little extra fat could hide those wrinkles.” It’s a new expression on his face. I’ve know New for a month, and it’s the first time I’ve seen disdain. I am momentarily frozen, but I overcome my inertia and hurl the apple at him. He catches it and stares at me as he takes a bite. Then he smiles, mouth full of white meat. “Sorry, Skye-o. Unwarranted road trip rage.”
We roll into Roswell too late for tourist stuff, so Jimmy directs us to yet another motel. I think New might rent his own room, but he doesn’t. Maybe I should get a room, but I don’t.
The boys settle onto their separate beds, and the bathroom is mine. Clean, fluorescently bright, with the water pressure of a geyser. I huddle at the end of the tub under the tap, turning the knob until the water is as hot as I can stand. Right as I plug the drain, a knock.
I yank the curtain closed. “Yeah?”
New opens and shuts the door. The water rumbles. The curtain has a barely translucent film, making his body messy and imprecise as he closes the toilet seat and sits down.
“I’m sorry about what I said earlier.”
“It’s okay. Bathtub confessional not necessary,” I say.
“No. It was mean.”
New is screwing up my bath. I use my big toe to ease the plug up and let the water trickle back out.
“I’m over it.” The annoyance in my voice pierces plastic.
New leans back hard, porcelain grinding against porcelain. Fuck him and his constant presence. I let the plug settle back in, and the waterline pushes up. I lie down, my head flat against the bottom of the tub, knees bent. The water crawls up the sides of my body.
“You don’t feel like you should apologize to me?” he says.
“For what?” There are many things I could apologize for. The water reaches my ears and muffles whatever New is saying into blocks of meaningless sound. He’s not playing by the rules. We’re supposed to have separate orbits.
I get lighter and lighter. Water makes my scalp tingle, covers my neck, leaving my head like an island. I inhale to keep my eyes above the surface, to float. No mass, no weight, until I exhale and turn off the tap with my foot.
New’s voice bleeds back to me.
“You can’t lay the blame on Jimmy. He’s not some irresistible force.”
The conversation has changed direction in my absence. I think of sounds muted by water, of sounds probably not muted by last night’s heater.
“Fucking five feet away. Jesus, Skye.”
The door shuts. I pull the plug with my toe. As the water recedes, I become heavier and heavier, my body’s own mass now an unexpected weight.
When I come out of the bathroom, Jimmy does not look up.
“Where’s New?” I ask. He gives nothing but his profile and a small shrug. Turns out Jimmy must have limits, too—bathroom sharing appears to be too much. I get dressed and sit a foot from him on the bed.
“I need a drink,” I say.
“See you later.”
I want to pinch Jimmy’s earlobe and twist, but instead I grab one of the room keys and head out the door, thinking I’ll walk somewhere. New is laid out on the hood of his car. It’s a clear night, no moon, but the lights of Roswell weaken the stars.
I tug his foot. “Buy you a drink?”
After a pause, he pulls his keys from his pocket. We find a bar up the road. It’s packed, and when I return with the beer, New has staked out a section of wall by a window.
“No tables,” he says.
Outside is a long line of cement trucks glowing white under halogen security lights and surrounded by hurricane fencing. The neon fuzziness from the Miller sign on the wall suits New. He looks thicker, stable, strong.
“Free beer is fine, but I’d rather buy the next round in exchange for an apology,” he says.
“You want an apology? Or an apology is the most you can get?” I meant it to prod, to flirt, to push him into action, but he doesn’t take the bait, his face closing as if slapped.
My windpipe mistakes beer for air, and I stifle a gag.
“That’s your option number one,” New says. “Or, are you just so in love with Jimmy it gives you the appearance of a narcissistic bitch?”
“Neither. A mistake. A momentary human lapse.”
“You don’t love him.” He radiates triumph. I study the trucks while I consider the question, shelving coyness for honesty.
“Not that simple. Like and something else powerful.”
“Love is powerful.” He dims.
“No. Something . . . biological.”
“Ah.” He smiles, but there is pity in his face. Motherfucking pity. Like he’s had an epiphany. Like he knows my classification.
There’s an ache in my throat, and as I look at the brown stubble beneath New’s jawline, that ache moves into my mouth. I suddenly want to inhale his skin, want to hurl myself against him and create an unbroken bruise down the length of my body. Pain as proof of contact, emotional intent made concrete.
“What’s the silence mean?” New asks.
“It means I need another beer. Get the next round?”
He leaves me at the wall, directionless.
The next morning Jimmy and I sit at a diner in downtown Roswell. Inflatable alien dolls have been pinned to the ceiling, and their mouthless faces stare down at us. The anger has left him, and he scoots up beside me, sliding his fingers from my cheek to my nose to my other cheek.
“Earth to Skye. Come in.”
I soften. Who can resist that mouth? Ketchup stuck in the folds of its corners.
“That was the world’s crappiest museum. How could New still be in there?” says Jimmy. The International UFO Museum and Research Center, a shoddy little hole.
“Not that here is bad,” I add.
“Not bad at all.” The ketchup is licked away. “We should go to the Trinity Site tomorrow.”
“Where they set off the first atomic bomb.”
“They let you go to the actual detonation site?” I am shocked. All that lingering radiation.
“Supposed to be perfectly safe. Less harmful than an X-Ray or an airplane ride.” He leans in closer, “And it’s only open two days out of the year, tomorrow being one of them. Too perfect.”
“Why?” he says.
“It’s got to be safe or they wouldn’t let people come in.”
“When did New infect you with his governmental distrust?”
I roll my eyes. “When did you become the regional tourism officer?”
“I raided pamphlets from the motel lobby last night. To amuse myself. After being left alone.” The comment slides out and sits on the table. “Come on, baby. You are far too beautiful to be affected by a wee bit of radiation.”
He takes my smile for acquiescence. New arrives, scanning the room for us, holding a bag from the museum gift shop.
“Hey, buddy, guess where we are going tomorrow,” Jimmy says.
It’s lunchtime when we get to the Trinity Site. The four-hour drive has left us fidgety and sullen. Jimmy perks up when we get within five miles, but a huge line of cars waits at the gate. There are big wire fences with faded radiation signs attached. X-ray X-ray, I tell myself.
The cars caravan onto the site. Flat, scrubby land and lots of sky; I feel dwarfed by its ugliness. We get out at a parking lot. Around its edges vendors are selling t-shirts, mugs, and hot dogs. The boys stop at that one, but I say “No fucking way” and start trekking to the fenced-off site. According to the pamphlet, there used to be a huge crater where the bomb had gone off. The military had filled it in to “decontaminate the site.” There’s a sign as I enter: “The use of eating, drinking, chewing and smoking materials and the application of cosmetics is prohibited." But I go through. The site is a flat circle with a narrow pyramid in the center. There’s a plaque, but so many people mill about I can’t get to it. There are people laughing, people on the verge of tears, people just bored.
I think about the energy released here, how it must have changed the place. But the grass has returned. Where did the energy go? I trust how I feel, that everything is on its same old atomic level.
One of the boys is standing close behind me. And it also feels right, like I knew the one I wanted all along. But if I look behind me, examine my emotions, they will change course. Always something different. So I just stand, take in the monument framed by mountains in the distance. Eventually, I’ll turn around, but I want to enjoy this small moment of certainty a little longer.