She couldn’t swim. It was a reason to stay away from the river, to stay in San Francisco—no one swam there.
Sitting on the edge of the bathtub, she rubbed lotion into her elbows and clipped her toenails into a trashcan, excited that the hot divorcee would be there. He owned a music venue and had arms sleeved in tattoos, a deep divot in his chin like a superhero and a daughter, which was, you know, adorable. She tried not to dip deeper than that, to consider the meaning of a daughter. What she saw when she looked at him was a cool guy, and she had never been with a cool guy. At forty-one she thought she might finally be ready.
The single friend had been single for a long time. It had become her defining quality, the one who preferred to be alone. Only her closest friends knew she took lovers. Why did she keep her relationships private? She hated that word relationship, she hated the word boyfriend and girlfriend and commitment; she hated all those words, embarrassing and predictable and beaten into meaninglessness. She especially hated the word lover and opted instead to refer to her late night visitors merely as friends, though they were most certainly not friends. She liked having something that required no words, no description.
She was also excited that the friend who had invited her on this camping trip as a sort of platonic shield against the hot divorcee was recently separated. Maybe this was the first invitation of many, a rare second chance for a relationship she’d thought was dead.
The doorbell sounded, her brother waiting on the other side. Even though he’d been back in the city for over a year, seeing him still sent a shock through her system. He’d put on weight, his face taking on a jolly round appeal. He looked more like their mother, who had passed three years ago of an aneurism, which the single friend pictured as a blowout of the brain.
He smiled, his teeth tiny and brown, the wrinkles at his eyes finding their deep grooves. He had been wearing out of fashion raver jeans for so long they were starting to come back in. His hairline had receded into a sharp peak.
“Hey jerk,” he said to her. He’d been saying that for years, a stand-in for the closeness they once had. It made her tired, the absence of improvisation, the lack of shift, stuck in this banter as they’d been for years.
She invited him in, suddenly aware of the electronics in her apartment, the jewelry, which had been their grandmother’s, her old violin, which she hadn’t played in years. Any of these things could be gone by the time she returned from her weekend camping trip.
“Can I see the rat?” he asked.
She led him to the laundry room, where the bright multicolored plastic cage sat on the countertop. Charlene, a nocturnal creature, was asleep in her loft bed of soft filling and her own excrement.
“Some pet,” her brother said. “I’d feed that thing to Fred.” Fred was his pet boa constrictor, which didn’t even have a cage. It roamed their father’s flat, where her brother now lived, again, for the first time since high school.
“That’s not funny,” she said. “Charlene is a member of the Gildengrandt family.”
He laughed, an ugly snort, the nasal sound of contempt. Had he always laughed like that? “You still work for those yuppies?”
Charlene was one in a series of hamsters from the Gildengrandt family, who had been using the single friend for eleven years, and she could hardly say no even though it felt below her, pet sitting, now that she was a dog walker and trainer. The parents were both doctors and inexplicably kept having children. Each child got a hamster on its fifth birthday, and this one, Charlene, was nearly identical to the others with its brown spotted coat and black pebble eyes and a jittery twitching nature, running madly on its wheel, then darting to its bed, then into its tunnel, then staring at you in bald fear, unless she was anthropomorphizing. It was hard to love animals without thinking of them in human terms, the way they angled their heads or cried out when you left or circled in your lap. It was easy to think they could love you, and maybe they could, but not in a human way. They didn’t want to amass property or wealth with you, they had no words to express their insecurities when you came home smelling of a strange animal.
“You don’t have to do much. Make sure she’s got food and water. I just changed the stuffing so it should be fine until I get home.” She almost felt guilty, giving her brother this job, something a child could do, but she’d had no one else to call. She had once had an arsenal of friends, but many of them had been priced out of the city, moving to the East Bay, never to be seen again, or worse, down the Peninsula. Lots went home to their parents, not to live with them, but near them, going back to places they had all once deemed unlivable. Compromise, endless compromise. She’d been lucky.
Her dad had helped her on the down payment when the housing market crashed and the prices were temporarily reasonable. He’d never believed in the stock market, and took ample pleasure in writing his daughter a check from the credit union. “All those fools thinking it could go on forever.”
“That’s what they all say, Dad.”
“Well, they’re all right.”
That’s why she gave him no crap when he paid for her brother to go to rehab, let him move in after. Her dad lived in Noe Valley, in the same flat she’d grown up in, only the neighborhood had gentrified all around him. The park where her brother had once congregated with his druggy friends was now Astroturf and a gated playground populated with legions of nannies and mothers who looked impossibly old.
The single friend lived in Bernal. It was cheaper and funkier and on a hill. From her back porch she could see downtown, for now. A hospital was growing before her very eyes. Would it steal her view? Who could she talk to about that?
Her brother picked up the framed photo of their mother on her wedding day, and he did it again—the ugly laugh. “Why’d you frame this one? She looks miserable.”
In the photo their mother is sitting on a bed in her modest bag of a wedding dress, the tiny veil cinched into her hair, bleached yellow for the day. She’s hunched, face in hands. To an outsider, someone who didn’t know her, it would look as if something was terribly wrong.
“I don’t know. I guess I like it.” The truth was nothing tragic. Her mother was overwhelmed, probably. That happened often. She didn’t really like people or attention or ceremonies. The single friend didn’t tell her brother that it made her feel closer to their mother, seeing her captured like that, not frozen smiling for the camera.
He put the photo down, asked who she was going camping with. She mentioned her friend, who he couldn’t possibly know, having been in Denver at the time, living out of his truck. He nodded his head and sunk into her couch. “Got HBO?” he asked her.
“Uh, no. But there’s Netflix. You could call a girl, Netflix and chill.”
He didn’t laugh. It wasn’t a funny joke, but that’s not why he didn’t laugh. He didn’t get it. He didn’t use Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. He only had a few friends, whom he rarely saw. He had a computer, though. She’d asked once on a rare visit to her dad’s what it was for, going rigid with the realization: porn.
She gave him a hug at the door, taking in his smell, cigarettes and no shower. “What are you going to do while I’m gone?” she asked.
“Sleep, mostly. Dad gets me up by eight every day.”
“To do what?”
“I help out.”
“I’m sure you do.”
She was not going to apologize, not then, not later, stuck in traffic, not even over the bridge yet. God, she’d get there past dark. Why hadn’t she left earlier? To avoid the water for one more day. If she showed up late, they’d be having dinner, a campfire, drinks, more her speed. Long ago she’d learned that being late was advantageous; it made people anxious for your arrival, and she would like that. The look of pleasure on the hot divorcee’s face, her long lost friend running to greet her.
They had once competed for men. Or rather, the single friend had preyed on the men that her friend fancied. She liked to win. It felt good to be chosen, to be the better of the two options. Only, over time, years of noncompetition, as her friend labored in her marriage, the single friend had realized it wasn’t really fair. For it to have been fair, they would have both had to have known it was a game, and her friend never seemed to catch on. She would find boys in her classes and go on actual dates over dinner, to the movies for crying out loud. She would announce one day that she had a boyfriend until finally one stuck, the one she married, and he stuck for a long time, three years of dating, seven years of marriage. Christ! A whole decade her friend gave to him, to that relationship—terrible word—and now what did she have to show for it? The child, which was fine, a fine child if you liked a challenge, a bit of adventure. The child was covered in scabs and always dangling from something. The single friend was certain now that there would be no competition, not this weekend. Her friend, though still quite svelte, had aged terribly in the face department. Maybe she was still not sleeping, or a closet smoker. The single friend didn’t really know her well enough to say anymore.
It took her two hours to get to Santa Rosa. Finally she got off the freeway only to find her phone had no signal. She dug in her purse for the directions her friend emailed over. They were of the intuitive variety, forgoing street names for a stop sign and a liquor store, a restaurant with a stork or some other variety of waterfowl on its signage. Her friend was trying to be funny in the absence of actual information. The single friend should have printed directions from the internet before she left. It was dark now, as if at a sudden, no it had to have happened slowly, where had her mind gone?
Amazingly the directions worked. She saw a liquor store at a stop sign and made a right, a restaurant with a stork on its sign, or maybe a crane, and she made a left.
No one was manning the booth at the campground’s entrance, so she rolled past, a sign telling her to go 4 MPH, which proved difficult, even on the uneven gravel. There were rows of RVs, and arrows everywhere, a little dog park. She wound around the campground—the whole setup was massive really—until she found site twenty-two in the dark.
No one was there to greet her. She checked the janky directions. The only thing her friend had written with any confidence had been the campsite number, twenty-two. She rolled onto the site behind a station wagon.
A dog barked madly from one of the two tents—she could see its crazed shape through the vinyl—and then she remembered something on Facebook about her friend getting a terrier. The single friend would have warned against it, as an animal expert—barky, intelligent, mischievous animals—but no one asked her. Her friend erupted from the tent, wielding a sharp object.
“Is that a hatchet?” the single friend called in the near dark. She turned off the car, but left the headlights running until she could fetch the flashlight tucked into her pack in the trunk.
“Shush,” her friend hissed. “Everyone’s asleep.”
“It’s only nine.”
“The kids go to bed at like 7:30.”
“And the grownups?”
“I was really tired from swimming. Fell asleep with Zoe.”
“You still sleep with her?” The girl had to be six by now, school age. No wonder the marriage failed, the single friend thought cruelly, then checked herself, going in for a hug, the hatchet’s handle cold through her t-shirt.
Her friend’s slender face tucked into a pout. She was wearing sweats and her long hair was wild and really she looked like a frightened animal.
“Well, I’m here now. Have a cocktail with me.”
“It’s freezing. I’m going back to bed. We saved room for you in the tent. It’d probably be better for you to come now because Diamond’s going to go crazy.”
“You named your dog after a precious jewel?”
“Zoe named it. Are you coming?”
“In a minute. I need to stretch my legs. I’ll be quiet, I promise.”
Her friend didn’t look happy but she said okay and went back into the tent.
The single friend made a cocktail from the trunk’s offerings. Ice, vodka, cranberry, lime, plastic cups, sharpies to warn the kids with poison labels. Her friend had been right—it was freezing. She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and rummaged in her glove box for a joint, lighting it, trembling as she took a seat at the wooden picnic table. A zip, and the hot divorcee popped his head out of the other tent. It was too dark for her to see his chin divot.
“Hey, you made it.”
“Yeah.” She was about to ask him if he wanted to join her, when he said, “Can you take a walk with that? I don’t want Sadie to get a contact high.”
“And you should probably turn off your headlights. You’re going to wake up with a dead battery.”
He was right! She had left her lights on and gotten used to them. She flipped them off, dug a flashlight out of the trunk, and took a walk.
She didn’t like it, doing what he told her to do, but at least she could explore. She realized the river was right there, a nice stretch of beach, and she walked it, never mind the rocks, the stumbling, trying to enjoy it, nature, but her friend was right. It was freezing.
In the morning, she put on her water shoes, purchased online after she’d done her research. She wanted to wade out into the water, up to her waist, float on a tube. She could do that much.
“What are those things?” her friend asked.
“Water shoes, you don’t have any?”
“Those are ridiculous looking."
“Don’t be so vain. It’s just footwear. The beach is rocky, you know.”
After a breakfast of cold oatmeal, she took some pleasure in watching her friend painfully navigate the beach barefoot. She looked great in her bikini and board shorts, tossing a tennis ball into the water for Diamond to chase. Better than the single friend who had not bore children, who had no excuse, hiding under her giant t-shirt. She’d taken to shopping in the men’s section. Bucking tradition—that’s what she hoped people thought she was up to when really she was shielding her soft underbelly. She had spent her whole life feeling like she was five pounds overweight and she comforted herself by saying that even if she lost those five pounds she would probably still be five pounds overweight, like her mother on a perpetual diet, operating on the never-ending urge to shrink.
The hot divorcee was in the water, dragging the two girls around on a tube, too fast, Sadie crying while Zoe squealed with pleasure. He didn’t notice his daughter’s terror for the longest time, working hard at his task, muscles flexed under his tattoos, almost like he knew he had an audience. But the single friend understood. The current was strong here, the water swift and headed for the ocean—the girl was scared of being swept off, of disappearing.
Never once had the single friend put her head underwater. Her mother had tried, taking her to swimming classes at the local pool, but she had been so scared of drowning, she’d screamed, like a banshee, her mother always liked to tell people, fond of familiar safe phrases as she was. According to her mother, it was so embarrassing they never went back. Her younger brother learned to swim easily, one afternoon at a hotel pool on some summer vacation. He was the color of a sea lion while she was imitation crab. She watched from the steps, eager for him to gas out in the middle, to call out for grownup help, but he glided through the pool like he’d been water born.
She took a walk to the general store to catch a signal, and with two measly bars, she texted her brother: How’s Charlene? But she got no response and after a few minutes she went into the store and bought a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice and an ice cream sandwich, a Dixie cup of birdseed, and she went to sit in the shade by the duck pond, where a couple of boys were fighting over the gold sifting setup. She cracked a Smirnoff Ice and ate her ice cream sandwich, appendages puckering with goose bumps. The ducks were everywhere, and they were used to people, crowding around her. For a moment, she felt afraid and shook a leg and they flapped and quacked away from her. She threw the seeds far and in one go, and the ducks went nuts, fighting and pecking until the more aggressive had scared off the meeker, and they feasted.
As she was cutting across the baseball field back to the beach, her phone blinged with a text: Sorry, sis, but I can’t find the rat anywhere. You musta left her cage unlocked cuz I haven’t even opened it.
She stalked back to the store to get a better signal and called him, but the call failed, so she tried texting again: Are you serious?
Her brother had once been funny, the mean kind of funny. When he was nineteen, he convinced her he’d gotten a girl pregnant. He’d resurfaced in Denver a few months earlier, and she’d been so afraid he’d disappear again she’d held back her anger, kept herself from telling him how stupid he was, how he could never be a father, especially now, but never, he would never be ready.
She had located a Planned Parenthood, made an appointment for the girl and everything, even offered to fly out to Denver to make sure it got done, before he’d admitted the pregnancy, the girl, all of it was fictitious. Furious, the single friend had been furious, and he laughed and laughed like it was the funniest of jokes and she wanted to explain to him that like most things, he didn’t understand what a joke was, but she hadn’t done that, hadn’t bothered. She went through the motions of believing, of being a sister, but in her heart she knew he would never understand.
She felt both sweaty and cold as she typed: Is this one of your jokes?
I’m serious, sis. The rat’s gone.
Shit. Should I drive back right now?
I closed all the windows and put out some food. Don’t worry, I’ll catch it.
Put out some food? You have to get some humane rattraps. Set them all over! You have to catch her. Should I come back?
There was a long pause, before finally: No. I’ll set the traps. Geez. Maybe I should have Fred over.
That’s not funny!
He sent back a devil-faced emoji and she wanted to kill him.
When they were kids, her brother broke the backs of their gerbils by hanging them from the sides of their cage. He said he liked to watch their little claws clutch, to see them dangle. He didn’t mean for them to fall, to die. The single friend hadn’t tried hard enough not to hate him. He fried ants along the side of their house. He picked flecks of stone from their very home, flick flick, and she wondered how long it would take for him to flick the whole house down.
But he’d been there for her when it counted, simpatico, like the time they went on strike when their mother had grounded them, or when the neighbor boy had dared the single friend to go far enough into the flash flood tunnels that there wouldn’t be time to come out. Her brother had gone with her, and they’d studied the dirty words older kids had spray painted on the town’s innards like they were cave paintings.
She cracked a second Smirnoff Ice, already tired of the terrible chemical flavor, over sweet, like guzzling corn syrup. When she got back to the beach, the others were gone. She found them at the campsite, the fire started, the trees noisy with crows fighting and colluding and scouting. It smelled good, like hot dogs, and she realized she was hungry.
“Can I help,” she said to her friend, who was lining up corn on the iron grill top of the fire pit while the hot divorcee poked at the fire with a stick. He had a shirt on now, unfortunately, and he had yet to make eye contact with her, like he was avoiding her, and she wondered if he disliked her or liked her too much. That kind of avoidance could go either way.
“Can you keep an eye on the girls while we get dinner ready,” her friend asked.
“Sure,” she said though that wasn’t the kind of job she was looking for. Sadie had changed into leggings and an oversized sweatshirt but Zoe was still in her swimsuit and totally filthy. They hopped between tree stumps until Zoe slipped and skinned her knee, drawing blood. She didn’t even cry, looking quickly for her mother who hadn’t noticed and using her own spit to wipe away the blood. Understanding, the single friend grabbed a wet wipe from the canister on the table and applied it to the girl’s knee.
“I won’t say a word,” she whispered to Zoe, Sadie too, crowding in to watch. It was a bonding experience of sorts. After that the single friend was a part of the game, and they had to go to the beach, and it was okay with the grownups, so why not? She didn’t want to go, but she felt obliged, and she supposed this was love, going where you didn’t want to go, entertaining ideas that weren’t your own.
At the beach, the girls got to digging while the single friend sat on the rocks, watching. She should have brought another Smirnoff Ice with her. A headache was starting to pulse behind her eyes and it was getting cold now and Christ, Zoe was still in her swimsuit, carrying something dripping mud and water, dropping it into the single friend’s lap. She squirmed from underneath it, picked it up in her hands, heavy, and turned it over, its liquid insides sloshing, wiping the mud—a skull, maybe a deer? Screaming ensued. The single friend’s T-shirt was a disaster of brain matter and rot and worms—there were worms.
“Where have you been,” her friend called as the single friend crossed the street arms out, trying not to touch herself, the girls trailing behind her. She must have looked like a sea monster. Her friend broke out in a laugh.
The single friend went to the showers, where she had to wait a full fifteen minutes while a woman shampooed and shaved her legs and sang an old Bing Crosby song. When the woman emerged, far younger than the single friend expected, she looked startled, angry even.
“I didn’t know you were waiting,” she said, like an accusation. Then she went to the mirror to put on her face.
After her shower, the single friend went back to the general store to get a signal. The store was closed, the booth empty. No one was feeding the ducks. In fact, she couldn’t see a single soul in the whole place, and it gave her a shudder, how alone it made her feel. She texted her brother: Any luck?
He got back to her right away, just one word: Nope.
She was furious, ready to leave, but felt swimmy from the Smirnoff Ice, and it was getting dark, her head throbbing.
When she got back to the campsite, she grabbed her flashlight and a joint from her glove box and said to the huddle of bodies around the fire, eating ears of corn over their knees, dripping butter onto paper plates, “Don’t worry. I’ll take a walk.”
She went to the beach. Again. She was getting tired of this stretch, so she walked further. The wind was up and the river looked cold and brown, and she stayed away from it, even if that meant bigger rocks and tougher walking. Christ, she was still in her water shoes. Her feet were starting to chafe, her heels blistering. She reached a point of sorts and stooped to light her joint, looking out at the tiny island twined in young trees and sea grass.
A voice, male: “There you are!”
She turned to see the hot divorcee with his own flashlight, looking right at her for the first time all day.
He called out, “I was worried about you.”
“You seemed upset.”
“I’m fine. I just drank too much. I should probably eat.”
He pulled a veggie burger out from behind his back and grinned beautifully. My hero, she almost said, but God that would have been stupid, and she was glad at forty-one she had the power to hold back such lazy phrasing.
“May I?” he asked, pointing at her joint.
She passed it to him, and bit into the lukewarm burger, so dry, and he did it again, pulling a can of beer from his pants pocket and handing it to her.
“What other magic treasures are you hiding?” she asked. Then she felt stupid and took a long swig of beer and wolfed down the rest of the burger, still so much to learn.
As they were walking back, he told her he was sorry for being kind of a dick last night, and she told him no big deal, already forgotten, and he nudged her with his shoulder and said, “cool,” just the word, and she was seriously giddy, an emotion difficult to contain, yet contain it she did.
They sat around the fire roasting marshmallows and trading ghost stories that weren’t really scary. The hot divorcee told one about a child who got caught in a refrigerator until he turned blue and had to be resuscitated; it had the tone of an afterschool special with a poorly veiled moral.
The single friend knew that her turn was coming. She couldn’t tell a classic, the axe murderer in the backseat or the dumb babysitter and the phone calls. She listened as her friend told a story about a tree nymph who took care of little girls. She was invisible in the daylight, but always there, holding the girl up, keeping her from serious injury. The story left a bad taste in the single friend’s mouth. It reminded her of the kinds of stories her own mother had told about angels. She’d come up Catholic but lapsed in the Sixties, like most people her age. Still, it tugged at her, the draw to church, to believe. Heaven was a nice concept, of course, but the single friend was not a fan of fantasies. And she was distracted, rubbing her leg against the hot divorcee’s in their circle around the fire. She couldn’t tell for sure whether he was aware of the contact, if the casual way he rested his leg against hers meant anything at all. They were both wearing pants so maybe he didn’t even notice. No, that couldn’t be true. Warmth, heat, it was there—she was certain he felt it too.
Then it was her turn to tell a story. She went with the first thing that came into her head, a swimming pool. During the day, it was crowded with kids, mothers gossiping on their loungers while the lifeguard kept watch. But at night the pool would disappear lone swimmers, mostly old ladies and bachelors, definitely no kids or, you know, moms. The premise had potential. She developed several characters before disappearing them and a hero, a lone girl seeking the truth about the disappearance of her music teacher. But as she neared the ending, the single friend started to panic—was it a creature lurking in the chlorinated piping? A murderer? A portal to another world? She decided that it was merely a plumbing problem, a vortex sucking swimmers into the pipes and plunging them out to sea. Eventually they were all found alive because the single friend understood that no one could die in these stories, which made her story dumb and not scary and she felt embarrassed and went to the trees to smoke a rare cigarette, always in her glove box in case of emergencies. Her friend followed, bumming a smoke. “What’s with you?”
“Is it Craig?”
The single friend had forgotten the hot divorcee’s name. Had she ever known it? Craig! He was better without a name. “I could care less about Craig. I only like his chin. I told you that.”
“Well, what is it then?”
She wanted to tell her friend about the hamster, how it was loose right now in her house, her brother setting humane traps and discovering her Oxycontin and—it’s a terrible thing, recovering trust. She had never once managed it. Is that normal, she wanted to ask her friend. Instead, she said, “I’m having a fine time. Are you having a fine time?”
Her friend exhaled a plume of smoke like a total pro. She was definitely a closet smoker. “I thought we were going to spend time together, but all I do is cook and clean and this is worse than staying home.”
“Can’t Zoe go to sleep on her own so we can talk?”
“No. She can’t.” She took one last deep drag, then stubbed out her cigarette and left. The single friend followed, watched her friend zip herself into the tent where Zoe was naked and dancing in the lantern light.
The single friend was alone, Craig zipped into his tent with Sadie, humming all dad-like. The fire was dying, and the single friend didn’t know whether to throw on another log. She didn’t want to appear too hopeful.
Sitting there in the cold, listening to the dog snuffling in the tent, Zoe shifting and singing, the single friend felt guilty. She hadn’t even asked about the separation, what that meant for her friend, how she was feeling. She wanted to go to bed but she was afraid, of messing with the make of things. For a flicker in the dark, she saw what her friend saw when she looked at her: a fuck-up. But to her, her brother was the fuck-up—was there no end to this chain of fuck-uppery? She wondered whether it was truly hierarchical or if at some point it looped back around, the old snake eating itself. She hated that symbol, attached it to too many dumb guys who thought they were deep with their silly tattoos of iconography they didn’t quite grasp. Or maybe they did, and she was just an asshole.
The single friend waited twenty minutes, watching the fire die, listening to the even rise and fall of sleep-breathing, before she zipped herself into the tent, shushing Diamond when he growled at her.
At night, she dreamed the hamster had grown in size, like the rats of Flores, gigantism her ecology professor had called it, and then she made a bad joke about island living’s expansive effect on Marlon Brando and everyone laughed in a snorting, we shouldn’t way. Charlene’s tiny black eyes were the size of human heads, her little curled claws like a saber-toothed tiger the single friend had once seen at the La Brea tar pits. They’d gone there as teenagers, her brother sullen and skinny in his oversized raver jeans, shredded and dragging the ground like so many tentacles. She was sick, watching that bubbling mud, erupting like time’s ancient farts, the bones there still to be unearthed or never at all, forever buried.
It was a bad idea to invite the hot divorcee into the woods. But they’d both emerged from their tents at the same time, to pee he said like a dad. She wanted to hug him, his emasculated dadness so adorable, but instead she suggested they go together into the trees, like grade school bathroom buddies. He didn’t say no, and she found this exciting. They both peed simultaneously, and she could hear him, which meant he could hear her, and she was smiling the whole time, like tightly, her cheeks starting to twitch in the cold. Really, her body wanted back into bed, but he was warm behind her and there was maybe a small patch that wasn’t scattered in poison oak. The hot divorcee had a tough time wrestling her out of her T-shirt. Never once did she turn around to face him.
After, nestled uncomfortably in his armpit, she shined a flashlight on his tattoos. Around his arm was a wave-like band made of tetris shapes. “What is that?”
“It’s a geometric entanglement of prime number intervals.”
She wondered how many times he’d practiced saying that before he got it to come out casual. “They make a wave. Weird.”
“In college I got really into Euclid’s proof of the infinitude of primes. He came up with the idea before the Greeks had even conceived of infinity. It’s like he gave birth to it.”
“I doubt that,” she said, though what she meant was: giving something a name is not the same thing as giving birth. He was smarter than she expected, and it was late, her brain chugging oxytocin, but it made sense, prime numbers going on infinitely. To be alone was to be alone was to be alone. Sure, she was projecting, but it made sense.
“But did you also know there are infinitely many pairs of twin primes?” he said like a goofy math teacher.
She didn’t want to admit she couldn’t remember what a twin prime was. Had she even heard of it before? It sounded familiar, but lots of things did, and it made her tired grabbing at something she wasn’t sure was there. “I guess I didn’t.”
“Twin pairs are even more random than square numbers.”
“So they occur infrequently.”
“I didn’t say that. I said more random.”
But what does it mean, she wanted to ask. “I never understood proofs. Got a C- in Geometry II.”
“How did you manage a C- if you didn’t understand proofs?”
“I exploited the extra credit system.”
He made a sound like laughter and gently rolled out from under her. “I should get back. If Sadie woke up and I wasn’t there, she’d be scared.”
She wanted to cling to him, to keep him with her, even though she could feel something wriggling up the back of her leg.
“I’m not sure how this happened,” he said, embarrassed or playing at being embarrassed; either way it was contagious. He was making her feel embarrassed and she wasn’t even dressed yet and she was mad at him for not at least letting her get dressed before he hugged her awkwardly, hunching down. She could smell herself on him, and she considered suggesting he wash up, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it—why was she so shy? She realized it—she wasn’t ready for the hot guy, she never would be, even if he was a divorcee, a dad, in his forties. He took his flashlight with him and left her in the dark, and she couldn’t find her underwear, no matter how hard she looked and after she gave up and put her pants back on, pushing her way through the trees, she found her friend waiting up for her.
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said, not bothering to keep her voice down.
The single friend could feel it like a barometric shift, her friend’s flash of anger, buried there a long time. “Why?”
“This is a family trip.”
“Well, you invited me. I’m not family.”
“I thought you understood. I invited you here to support me.”
“To support you?”
“Yes, it’s a thing friends do.” The tent shook with movement, Diamond scratching at the side, and the friend flinched, raising her hands in a startled ready posture, and the single friend couldn’t help thinking it—she’s become an animal! The tent shook again, the child whimpered. “I’m going to bed. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
Then the child wailed as if she had woken suddenly to a world on fire, and the friend looked to the single friend as if it were her fault, and she had the urge to open the tent flap and tell the girl she was right—the world was on fire, burning from the inside, churning magma beneath them.
The single friend turned off her flashlight. In the new dark, there were no shadows, no shapes, only black. She pictured a machine somewhere working out prime numbers, churning and pushing to try to discover a new one, always another.
She was the last up and gave a gruff good morning before huffing over to the general store. When she got within signal’s reach, her phone binged with a message, a photo: Charlene! In her cage!
She pounded out: You found her?!?
Right away her brother responded: Hahaha, I was just screwing with you.
“Oh my God,” she said aloud. She started to type I hate you, catching herself, deleting, the feeling of memory flooding over her, his sense of humor, so cruel, always this way! She’d been distracted by the hot divorcee and let herself be duped by her brother, whose functions were so predictable she would never need a map.
She sent him a series of random emojis representing something like anger confusion madness silly face hearts. It was somewhere in there, her love. She dug in her pockets for change and got a coffee from the general store. The woman working the register was extra friendly, “Good morning, hon. Coffee’s right over there.”
Part of her wanted to leave right then, but that would be an admittance of shame, that she had done something wrong, and she was never going to admit that. She trudged back to the campsite, empty now, and put on her suit, her water shoes, her oversized t-shirt, and she went to the water where she knew she’d find them.
The girls played on the shore, deep in some invisible world, the rules cast out by Zoe. “Pretend the water’s rising. Pretend you’re scared. Pretend you yell for help but no one comes.”
The hot divorcee was trudging waist-deep in the water, until he lost his footing, going under. The single friend let out a loud bark of a laugh, then bit it back. When he surfaced, he saw her smiling and gave her a disappointed shake of the head. Her friend was watching them both as she set out a spread of snacks.
The hot divorcee carried the kids to the tiny island in the middle of the river, first Zoe, then Sadie, the terrier following. He was a good swimmer, and they were all cheering for him from the island’s edge, go, Diamond, go, until it was clear the river was too swift and he was pushing his tiny body against the current and— “He’s not gonna make it!” shouted the hot divorcee, who was running into the water, but the dog was past him so swiftly, and the women got to their feet, gave chase down the rocky shore.
The single friend was wearing her sturdy water shoes and was faster. She got ahead of the dog, ran out into the water, but he was near the middle and she couldn’t get there unless she dove.
“Don’t!” her friend shouted.
But she did, she dove, grasping at the dog, grasping hold of him. He clawed at her chest, her arms, her giant shirt billowing and sucking water inside itself, sucking her down down down until her knee thudded something hard, a rock, and she found the bottom with her feet and stood and the water—it was only thigh deep in this part, some berm, invisible from the shore.
She could only imagine what it must have looked like, her panicking, the terror. Embarrassed, she waited for the hot divorcee to swim to her. He walked up onto the sandy berm, took the quivering dog from her arms.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. The feeling of being swept off in the current, taken out to sea, still pulsed through her.
He waded back out into the water carrying the quivering dog to the island, the girls waiting there with their twig legs and bug eyes, seeing the single friend’s fear, something they both understood. The shore—it was too far for her to jump, the current too strong for her to attempt a short swim. She could have called for help, but she just stood there on her berm, for that’s what she thought of it as now, hers, claimed, the first to set foot.
Her friend swam out to her with a tube. “Come on,” she said, all reluctant, like she didn’t really want to, “I’ll pull you over to the island.”
The single friend nodded, settling onto the tube. It felt like it could flip right out from under her and she held onto the tube’s handles with clenched hands. Her friend was a good swimmer; she could have delivered them to the island in no time. But she flipped onto her back, linked her legs with the single friend’s, her arms moving in a steady but ineffective backstroke. They were barely moving, the kids calling from the island, come on, hurry up, we’re waiting! So impatient.