On the way to Canada, the speed of Anna’s car makes the countryside colorless and cloud-like. You fall asleep often. You dream of you and your friends building a fire near a cornfield on the side of the road, crouching over it, letting it spread, burning the landscape down.
After two days on the road, you pick up Wendy.
“You guys look so tired and pretty,” Wendy says as you drive away from her mother’s house.
You note with pleasure that she is right; that if photographed from the right angle, smoke pooling out of the windows of Anna’s car, all off-the-shoulder tops and dangly earrings, the three of you could be an advertisement for bad examples on a billboard PSA.
Wendy sucks on a rolled cigarette and blows it out the side of her mouth. “Lara.” She grabs the top of your arm. “How was your summer, baby girl?”
Except for you, actually. You would be the one off to the side, hunched and lost, imploring the viewer to consider the benefits of the D.A.R.E. program.
“Stupid,” you reply.
Anna rolls her eyes. “Lara’s a Debbie Downer. Everything’s been bad and stupid.”
“But it was stupid, compared to both of your summers,” you say, and take a sip of vodka-bittered orange juice.
Anna had met a self-proclaimed shaman in Hawaii over the summer. He told her that evil spirits can be mistaken for dehydration. Anna didn’t believe him, but even after she consumed nothing but coconut water for several days, hot, dark shadows were haunted her mother’s yurt. She’d left Hawaii early. Because something was evil was going to happen, Anna had told you, grinning as the two of you drove through Ohio. She could feel it.
You buy gas somewhere across the border and it is much more expensive than the U.S. The man behind the counter takes your credit card, watching your friends wash the windows of the car over your shoulder. You follow his gaze.
Over the year and a half that you have known them, their beauty has become a fact, something that happens all around you but you only remember once in a while, like photosynthesis or gravity. Lately it has become more pronounced. They had both gotten sun, and this way of doing things like they had done them a thousand times before.
From the backseat, Wendy talks about her summer in Central America. She didn’t go to that Zapatista convention. Instead, she found a former Israeli soldier on vacation. The two of them rented an isolated hut on a Colombian beach and didn’t leave it for ten days. Like a goddamn movie.
Wendy looks at you in the rearview mirror. “Now you tell me a story.”
You rack your brain. It is so difficult to distinguish from day to day.
“Well, in July sometime, there was this guy who left his number on a napkin and I called him up. So we end up going to Spangles, this fast food restaurant. Anyway, we went back to his house after and it turns out he was studying to be a male nurse. So we get drunk and we watch something and we start to make out.”
“Good!” Anna says, hitting the steering wheel. “See, this is good. No more Dan.”
“But then, he wants to, like, take off my pants,” you say.
“So?” Wendy says.
“And I let him, and he, you know, descends there with his mouth. But then I look over to his coffee table, and there’s this big book lying there. And I’m squinting to read the title on the spine and I realize that it says, ‘Vaginal Anatomy.’ The book is called ‘Vaginal Anatomy’ and this male nurse wants to, like, I don’t know, conduct a scientific study? Like maybe he has a test the next day?”
Wendy has already started to guffaw.
“So I left. I went home.”
The car is silent, just the hum of the wheels going over the highway, David Bowie turned way down. You recall the guy’s name was Michael, pronounced Mick-ale, or something like that.
“Sorry I called you a Debbie Downer,” Anna says, and you tell her it’s fine, you are.
“Well, it’s all over now,” Wendy says.
You want to reply, I hope you’re right, but that is a very Debbie Downer thing to say.
In Montreal, you are staying at a Days Inn. You spy an Applebee’s sign through the window, down the street. There are Applebee’s even here. You feel your skin leaden.
Your final day at the restaurant, your general manager, in lieu of saying goodbye and good luck, had held out her soft, white hand for a high five. Her name was Raz.
Raz would always ask you to have a cigarette with her. You don’t smoke, but Raz would say, “Come anyway,” and the two of you stood by the blue dumpster while Raz shook her head and said, “Motherfucker.” Raz would shift back and forth and never look at you but say things like, “You’re rocking this shift, you know that?” The sun would set behind the Applebee’s fence and Raz would blow out smoke and say, “You’re my star.”
By that, she meant that you learned to not make food-related jokes. You asked before you put lemon slices in the water. You wore the required t-shirt that said, ‘I’m a rib-publican.’
But that is all over now.
You and Anna and Wendy run in from the warm rain, lopsided with a case of beer. The automatic doors close behind you and Anna starts stroking the wall, which is covered by a blown up photo of a forest scene. She leans against it and says, “I love this.”
You drink beers outside when it clears up, because there is no air conditioning. After your fourth, you tell them, “I don’t want to stay at the Days Inn tonight. Why do they have Days Inn in Canada?”
“We have to,” Anna says. “My mom made reservations.”
“I want to sleep on the side of the road.”
“I want to sleep next to the railroad tracks.”
You pour out your beer on the parking lot.
Anna mutters, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
You can’t remember. “I can’t remember,” you say.
“Well, stop it,” Wendy says.
“I can’t just stop—”
“STOP IT,” Anna shouts in your face.
After a silence, Wendy says, “Let’s go out.”
You return inside and try on different combinations of each other’s clothes. Then you walk to a street lined with a rainbow buzzing of bars and clubs. You feel simultaneously saturated and out of place. All you know is basements, your co-workers’ carpeted dens that still smell like last week’s flood, where muted, pregnant teenagers cried on MTV in the background.
Wendy and Anna hook your arms on either side. Perhaps Montreal will change you through osmosis.
“You have to wait in line to get inside these places?” you ask.
Wendy, who is wearing shorts, cowboy boots, and a halter top, says, “We don’t. Come on.”
You follow her back, squeezing through thin bodies with glaring, sharp faces, conversing in French. This one is a perfume ad, you think. We are the women wearing the perfume, the ones who come into focus at the end.
Anna keeps saying, “Excusez moi, excusez moi.”
A bouncer is in front of you, huge, guarding a dark and throbbing door.
“Can we get in? We were here earlier, and we’re meeting a friend,” Wendy says, smiling.
“We’re American,” Anna says.
You just stand there, staring at him, willing him silently, promising that once you are there, your image will bleed into theirs. Open, open, you think. This is my chance. You realize you are drunk.
“Okay,” he says, finally, and lets the three of you through.
Anna waits to go in behind you and shouts, “Bon! Bon! Merci!” to the long line of people and you jog away into the cavernous levels, laughing and looking over your shoulder. The three of you say, yay! in tiny voices while shaking your hands, as you had gotten in the habit of doing to celebrate small victories.
“Canadians are very stylish but very shy,” you say loudly a few drinks later.
“I need a man,” Anna says, looking around.
“No, Lara needs a man,” Wendy says. “Our priority is Lara.”
“I can find my own man,” you say.
“Then do it,” says Anna.
“You guys just keep telling me to do things, these things take ti—”
“Here,” Wendy interrupts, putting the rim of her glass to your face. “Drinky, drinky. You drink up now.”
You chug the gin and tonic, wipe your mouth, and look around. Three men of indiscernible age stand in a corner, wearing different versions of the same polo shirt.
You walk over, distorting your face in different ways, trying to relax it.
“Hello,” you say to them. Their teeth glow in the dark.
They say things you can’t hear over the music, which sounds like machines melting, or coming to orgasm.
You point to your friends. They follow you over.
“They’re kind of stupid,” you mutter before they arrive.
At the same time, Anna and Wendy say, respectively, “You don’t know that,” and, “Sometimes stupid is better.”
You are dancing with one of them, in a faster type of middle school slow dance. Your pelvises are touching.
“I’m American,” you’re telling him.
“You wouldn’t know it.”
“We’re from British Colombia.”
You are nodding. The music gets louder, and no one leaves. Anna has turned her back to her British Columbian, practically sitting on his lap standing up. Wendy is doing some type of square dance while her partner watches her, clapping.
“Your friends are very beautiful,” the man tells you.
“I know,” you say. Thank you, you almost add.
“You are also very beautiful.”
You feel yourself looking at him skeptically.
“You probably don’t hear that enough,” he whispers into your neck.
That freezes you. You wish you didn’t want to hear that. You think about people who have said similar things without really meaning them. Like Dan, for instance. He could mean it, but he also couldn’t. Either way, you could shove off and sit in a corner, drinking, and not make much difference to the room.
The British Columbian ceases dancing, and starts to look around. You see yourself in the corner. Two words, then, would follow you. Stop it, Anna had said.
So you do, and instead you are shoving your tongue down his throat. He is seeming to enjoy it, and you find yourself thinking, Taking one for the team, for some reason. The team being all those around you who would look at you and think, She is so carefree! Like Wendy and Anna for instance. They are here, and they deserve a friend like that.
And now, you are. You can feel them looking at you.
When you remove yourself from the British Columbian’s arms, you wonder if they know you are different now. It happened quickly, but sometimes things happen like that. Everything is different now. You’re shouting at Anna and Wendy that you wish they’d been there on your fake birthday, and your real one.
They’re shouting back, but you can’t hear them. They’re smiling.
As the night grows dimmer and more colorful, you’re only able to communicate in gesture. You and Anna and Wendy move in concentric circles, pointing at each other, imitating one another.
The next day, as the club closes, the three of you jog down the street in the dawn. The three of you had told the British Columbians you were going to the bathroom. That was your idea.
Anna shouts, “Bon! Merci!” to the passersby on their way to work.
You get in the car and leave Montreal, ripping through another cloudy, building-less horizon.
On a two-lane highway, a terrible sound grinds through the haze. You turn down a dirt road and stop at the nearest gas station, which appears empty and closed. Your tire has blown.
A woman emerges from behind the station. She’ll call for help, she says, but she doesn’t know how long it will take.
You look at Anna and Wendy, not knowing what to expect. At this rate, you will be late returning to Minnesota. School starts tomorrow. The air has started to move, getting colder. There’s no food, either.
Anna and Wendy sit on the curb close together, and watch the woman inside as she flips through a magazine. They share one of Wendy’s rolled cigarettes. You scoot between them and take a drag. Wendy lays her head on your shoulder.
“Someone should take a photo of us here,” you say. “It’d be funny.”
“The camera’s in the car,” Anna says, but you don’t move from the middle of them.
You feel heavy, but in a good way, weighted down against the wind. You tell them you don’t know why, but you’d rather not get up. After awhile, they don’t move either. No one seems to mind.
Front page image by Romain Toornier.