by: Jennifer Green
When Life and Love becomes a chore, and the shine of youth has become polished to a dull finish by experience…
Sylvie didn’t start writing about the desert until well after she had left it behind. She had almost forgotten how much she loved the way the early morning sky blushed in fierce hues of red and orange and the way that light painted the hills in pastels. The landscape stretched on endlessly in all directions, sand and cerulean sky meeting at the farthest edges of her vision. By noon, the sun would bleach the landscape, burning white and gold into her eyes and onto her skin. The heat stood like a wall, tall, vast and impenetrable. Franky used to say it was like living on the moon because you couldn’t find water in either place. Sylvie would remind Franky that they now had a way to deliver water to people in the desert – all you had to do was turn the handle on the faucet – but Franky would just laugh and say, “But how much longer are they going to be able to do that?” Franky didn’t believe much in the future of the human race.
Sylvie had almost forgotten how quiet the desert was. She could stand on a ridge and look down at the I-10 freeway and not hear a lick of it. It was like the desert hoarded sound like a child unwilling to share his favorite toy. The only thing she heard was the wind and her thoughts. Franky hated the quiet. She always had to have background noise because, Sylvie suspected, she didn’t like the sound of her thoughts. That’s why they stayed in that apartment. Franky liked the idea of being surrounded by people. Hearing their neighbors through the walls gave her comfort. Sylvie tried to imagine what it was like to be in Franky’s head, all those maddening, disparate pieces of inaccurate self-conceptualizations, legitimate and depressing information about the world, and a cherished nihilistic philosophy. All those things floating around in there, bumping into each other and competing for valuable air time. Sylvie thought it must be like a 24-hour circus.
Franky left the desert first. She said she was going to get a tattoo in Tijuana and never came back. Sylvie knew she had gone there to flame out in the sun’s hot embrace, as this was the price she paid for loving Franky. In Franky’s absence, the desert felt too big for Sylvie. She felt exposed and raw. The wind lost its gentleness and it began to feel like a scalpel peeling off layers of her skin every time it brushed against her cheek. Sylvie decided she wouldn’t miss it, so she left, too.
Sylvie loved the way the sand eventually yielded to the lush green grass of the prairie. The transition was subtle, though. She didn’t even realize it had happened until she found herself in a diner in Burlington, Kansas, perched upon a booth with a cup of stale coffee in her hands. The small community was peppered with trees that grew much taller than the trees in the desert. They were heavy and full with summer leaves that dappled the sunlight on the pavement below. Franky would have looked around this place and scoffed. “Small town, small minds,” she would have said. And she probably would have followed this statement with, “Besides, it’s a tornado magnet.”
The townspeople were friendly enough, but they were guarded. Sylvie suspected they treated all strangers this way but she wondered if her California tags made them draw into themselves more. She wanted to ask them if this was an OK place for her to stop for a year or two, but she held her tongue when they looked at her with clenched jaws and narrowed eyes.
The waitress refilled Sylvie’s cup and glanced down at the notebook open in front of her. “What’cha writing about?”
Sylvie humored her with a smile. “Oh, just writing down stuff I see in every place I stop along the drive. I don’t want to forget the details.”
“Why don’t you just take a picture?”
“It’s not the same.”
The waitress shrugged and left it at that. Sylvie didn’t have any pictures of Franky, or the desert. She hadn’t written about either, and she understood that their details were already beginning to soften and fade. In time, she would forget.
Sylvie looked out the window again at the narrow street, one of just two main thoroughfares through town. She thought she might head east after this and see the Neosho River. She hadn’t seen water like that in a long time.
Burlington seemed like a good place to stop. She was tired from the drive and thought the other half of the country could wait. Time felt different here. It was impossible to tell one day from the next, not unlike the desert, she thought. Maybe that comforted her. Maybe she wasn’t ready to leave the desert just yet. Maybe she would just trade one desert for another and Franky would come back. Maybe it wasn’t her fault that Franky burned up in the desert. Franky had decided to go with her, after all. She hadn’t forced her. Sylvie figured Franky was supple and malleable enough to adapt. But maybe there were things Franky kept locked away, little secret things she hid from Sylvie, things she hid under layers of blackness. Maybe these things were there before Sylvie. But maybe there weren’t.
“If Hollywood is so intent on remakes, why don’t they bring back the Wonder Woman series and cast what’s her name? You know the one I’m talking about.”
Franky was at the stove whisking the powdered milk mixture into a sauce. She wore navy blue boy shorts and a white tank top, the same outfit she’d been in for days. Her dirty blonde hair swept up into a high ponytail. She was cooking mac and cheese again, the only thing she ate when she was on a bender. The taste of her was still fresh on Sylvie’s mouth. The air conditioning whirred to life and rather quickly, the warm air of the kitchen began to cool.
“There are too many what’s her names in Hollywood now, so I’m afraid I don’t know to whom you are referring,” Sylvie said and bit into a Saltine. She had started craving them lately, mostly after sex, and Franky would laugh and call her pregnant.
Franky poured a shot of Tanqueray. Not long ago, Sylvie suggested she just drink from the bottle since she was going to drink most of it anyway. “I’m not a heathen, baby girl,” was Franky’s reply.
“Turn the fan on, will you? I hate that gummy smell,” Sylvie said and pushed up from the table, bare feet landing on the cold tile. She pulled back the thick curtain that hung over their sliding door to the balcony. White diamond light and waves of heat forced Sylvie’s eyes closed. They watered when she opened them and tried to focus her gaze on the hills in the distance. The world outside was so still. Even the cars that trundled along the freeway seemed to be hardly moving. Sylvie was naturally high-strung and had a way of barreling through life, but the desert had slowed her down. Relentless sun and sky and heat could be a wonderful salve for an overwrought mind.
“You got that faculty thing tonight, right?” Franky said, and Sylvie blinked in her direction as her eyes refocused in the dim light. She noted Franky had managed to work her way through half the bottle since she had had her back turned. She watched Franky run a finger around the bottle’s opening, a move she usually reserved for Sylvie.
“Yeah, but it won’t run long. I should be home by six-thirty.”
“Good. That’ll give me time to finish reading your book.” Franky poured half the mac and cheese into a bowl and swiped a fork from the drawer.
Sylvie knew Franky would get through only a chapter before the booze dulled her senses and made her mind wander. She looked at her phone. “I need to get ready.” She kissed Franky on the cheek on her way out of the kitchen.
Franky put the bowl on the table and threw open the curtains, dousing the kitchen in the acrid light of the desert in. She stared into the emptiness beyond the glass, felt its weight on her, pushing her down and swallowing her up.
Franky heard the shower start. She began to count down the hours until Sylvie would be back. Sylvie hadn’t even left the apartment yet and already Franky felt the chill of the empty space that was opening up between them.
If Franky didn’t have the booze, Sylvie’s leaving would have surely erupted into a fight. Franky had learned that alcohol held her tongue. Sylvie would leave and sometimes stay gone for long stretches, and Franky found that all the words she needed to say were at the bottom of those bottles. Sometimes Franky would ask where she’d gone and Sylvie would smile down at her and speak in a tone a mother would use on her child.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Sylvie would say and Franky would take a long, burning pull off the bottle to force those words back down.
Sylvie tolerated these faculty get togethers well enough, but she struggled to keep from checking her watch at five minute intervals. Doctor Harris stood too close to her, his bloated belly nearly touching the buckle on her slim black belt. He fingered the plastic wine glass, his wedding ring tapping against it. Sylvie smiled thinly at his attempt at small talk.
“But trying to get the kids interested in Nineteenth Century literature is like trying to train a puppy to play Mozart.”he spoke.
“Oh, you know, I have to say Hi to Gene,” Sylvie said and slipped past him. She squeezed between two adjunct professors and made a beeline for the snack table. She felt Doctor Harris giving her a sideways glance that lasted too long. Sylvie left her wine cup on the table and began to move through the crowd.
“The newest member of our faculty doesn’t get away that easy,” Owen Banks said as he grabbed her arm. The head of the English Department was a narrow but imposing figure with an angular face set against a wide, thin mouth.
“I’m not one for these meet and greets. Besides, I’ve made the rounds,” Sylvie said in her most neutral voice. She wondered which bottle Franky would be on by now. She knew the Tanqueray was probably gone and thought there was a good chance she had begun working her way through the Jim Beam.
“I know these people can be terrible gossips, but I just hope you know that no one is judging your lifestyle.” He looked at her with emphatic eyes that made Sylvie’s jaw tighten. He bent in close to her and dropped his voice and said, “An affair with a student is not anything new in academia.”
Sylvie nodded. “Thanks Owen. I liked your book, by the way.” She skirted past him and with heels clicking on the sandstone tile, breezed into the fiery desert evening.
Long shadows cast deep pockets of darkness on the streets and Sylvie tapped the steering wheel impatiently. She slowed for a red light on Monterey and considered dialing Franky’s phone, just in case, but decided not to. Leaving was becoming more difficult and more inevitable, a paradox Sylvie found to be more absurd the longer she lived in it.
The moment Sylvie had stepped into the apartment she knew. The smell was rank and it made Sylvie’s eyes water. Franky was spread out on the couch, her blue boy shorts a few shades darker from the soaking. Her eyes darted back and forth beneath closed lids. The empty bottle of Beam stood silent on the floor like a sentinel guarding its master. Sylvie imagined it nipping at her heels if she tried to rouse Franky from her stupor.
Sylvie kicked the bottle away. The girl on the couch was thin, thinner than Sylvie remembered. Her collarbone jutted out sharply from her chest as if it was trying to escape the cage of skin that contained it. The fabric of her tank top sank into the deep spaces between her ribs. Her breath was shallow, sending waves of panic through Sylvie. She put a hand on Franky’s arm and shook her.
Through half-slit eyes Franky gazed up at her. “Am I Delilah?”
Sylvie blinked. “No, you’re Franky.”
“No shit. Delilah. Your Delilah.” Franky pointed to Sylvie’s book on the coffee table. It was open to chapter twenty. Sylvie was surprised Franky had made it that far. “She’s lost in the Canadian woods, right? She’s running from that guy. What’s his name?”
“Right. So she’s running from that guy, and he’s like, all these terrible things about human nature, just wrapped up in one person.”
Sylvie nodded slowly. “I never really thought of that before.”
“He’s like the physical manifestation of all my demons,” Franky said in her drunken drawl, a language that Sylvie had learned to translate only recently. “What stinks?”
“You forgot to put on your Depends again.”
“I’m going to have to replace the couch or something.”
Franky sat up and Sylvie took her arm. Franky stood and yellow rivulets ran down her legs and puddled on the floor. Her leg shook and they walked with agonizing slowness towards the bathroom. Sylvie glanced back at her book on the coffee table. Chapter twenty was when Delilah finally figured out how to defeat the demon-man. Her heart sank because she knew Franky wouldn’t finish the book.
This is the way Sylvie remembered it: Life had become a chore. The shine of youth had been polished to a dull finish by experience. Nothing seemed charming anymore about they way the sun colored the sky an ominous shade of rust on days when the pollution scattered the light just so. Even the thrill of nicotine smoke coiling itself around her lungs had lost its appeal. She quit smoking out of boredom.
Sylvie marveled at how her students seemed to get younger and younger, while she found herself older, more jaded. Her students just wanted to get a passing grade and then move on to something more important than English Lit. But there was this one girl. This one girl who asked incisive questions and whose eyes blazed with curiosity during Sylvie’s lectures. This one girl with smooth, unlined skin like delicate moth’s wings and thick hair that tumbled carelessly over bronzed shoulders. This one girl with a hunger for Sylvie’s words. This one girl with wild ideas and an appetite for life that astounded Sylvie.
They were in love even before they could articulate it. It had been a gradual seduction, like being out at sea when all you glimpse is the glint of the sun and moon on a desert of blue and suddenly the lush green hills of the tropics throw open their doors to greet you.
The day it started, Franky was in the front row of the lecture hall. She had devoured her lecture, her eyes never leaving Sylvie’s face. As the class filed out, Franky stayed and they talked about Faulkner and Joyce and Capote.
Sylvie finally glanced at the time. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you. Hope I didn’t make you late.”
“I don’t have any other classes for the rest of the day.”
“Oh. Good.” Sylvie packed up her bag and felt her cheeks color under Franky’s gaze.
“Want to grab a drink?”