The room is full of candles and the apartment is too small, making everything seem aglow and also slightly dangerous. We’re here for dinner and girl-talk in this empty desert town, all of us miles from home. The ex-Catholic from Louisiana makes gumbo at her graduate student stove while the atheist from Alabama talks to the Mormon about sex. Alabama married her high school sweetheart and—maybe it’s the accent—often sounds the most conservative among us, despite the fact that she isn’t, that none of us are, that she’s the only one brave enough to breathe the word “atheism” even after all these university degrees. Alabama is explaining to the Mormon that she likes that her husband cannot compare her to anyone else in bed. Her point is that the Mormon’s waiting—though none of us would have ever bothered for this long—does have its advantages. We are lying to her, outright, or respecting her, or trying not to make her feel bad.
“You don’t understand,” the Mormon says. “I’m starting to look forward to seeing the gynecologist.”
The Mormon, who is blond and liberal and working on a PhD in critical theory and cultural studies that her father refuses to understand, understands much more than her father thinks. In the pauses between her sentences, you can see wisdom brewing. A lack of sex has kept her from nothing but sex. She is thirty-one; a man has never touched her on any space a bikini would cover. She says that she would like to be able to stand in her underwear in front of a man and not feel guilty. She’s reached a point where she’d like to renegotiate the rules of chastity and somehow remain chaste. Devotion—she does not say “to God”—does have its limitations. Her last relationship with a man, a lapsed Lutheran, stretched over three years. For one year, they shared a cactus-lined apartment two miles from here. The doorframes reverberated with their chastity. You felt it whenever you sat in the same room with them. I have a thousand questions about this (Did they sleep in the same room? The same bed? At what point, exactly, was the jig up?), but my cheeks turn red, embarrassed for me, whenever I begin to ask.
“That’s the interesting thing,” Louisiana says. “Guilt stops Mormons but it doesn’t stop Catholics.”
This is one of our talents as women: We build little bridges over the divides between our ideologies for the others to cross. They make our circle here complete. I’m fascinated and concerned by the Mormon’s chastity. It’s as interesting as casual heroin use.
“That’s true.” I say, speaking myself as a lapsed Catholic. “I feel guilty about most things but can usually hold it off until the next morning.”
I should explain that I’d been trying to wean myself off men, or off one man, a man who I had loved a little bit for years but who, it seems, does not love me. He does not return phone calls for weeks—except when he finally does. He calls one night to tell me there might be someone else.
I say, “Might be?”
But suspicion wrecked everything much earlier than that. It started as one of those long-term, long-distance friendships where there’s always a larger question. And when we finally arrived at that point, him above me, I remember trying to gauge what number I’d been in line.
Insecurity bubbled out of my throat. I knew it would be over soon, that he would never speak to me like this again. He said, I’m really enjoying your body, and traced a thumb from my breast bone to my belly. He called me baby, a word I didn’t expect. I’d never heard that tone in his voice before, I couldn’t breathe. I knew it was all probably a terrible mistake—I didn’t trust him with any of this—but despite that, or maybe because of it, I wanted to soak in every second of his touch. He had to sense that. There was a point, afterward, when I wouldn’t let go of his hand.
“Sex is nice,” I tell the Mormon. “I’m not saying it isn’t nice, but it’s not—everything. It’s not like you’re missing out on the entire world.”
What I don’t say is that it’s the memory of it that will kill you.
The third one of us raised Catholic, the one from the Midwest, the one with the broken heart, arrives late then immediately goes out to the porch to smoke. We believe the outdoors will soothe her, and measure her silence as she walks by. The Midwest is another kind of virgin: she’s never really been in love. She’d broken her own heart this time, though; she’d been careless with it, relentlessly stuffing it into envelopes to a man she didn’t know. Her disappointment looks familiar but misshapen, a cardboard box left out in the rain.
“When I finally did,” says Louisiana , politely pretending not to notice Midwest’s suffering, “It was more like rebellion, like I was tired of all the guilt and just did it out of spite.”
I want to say but what about desire. That’s the real question.
“How old were you?”
“I was young y’all. I’d rather not say.”
Outside, Midwest stands on the porch, pale as the potatoes she says she craves in winter. She misses the potatoes. She misses the winter itself. She looks out over the desert turned city—tiny lights cropped between mountains and nothing after that—then pokes her head back in the living room and asks if anyone has more cigarettes.
There is a pause here. Suddenly we all want one. The solidarity of the lonely-hearted.
“I have some but y’all can’t act like you know I smoke,” Louisiana says and disappears into her box-sized bedroom—jewel tones and chenille—then reappears with cigarettes she passes around. Being a lady sometimes requires elaborate modes of self-deception.
“Officially I’m against this.” I say. “My uncle got cancer.” He appeared to me one night in a dream after I’d been with the man who I loved a little but who did not love me, and said, as clearly as if we talked about these things all the time:
Ahh, the guy is a bum.
I take a cigarette.
Midwest stares at the stars. They are like points of ice in the dark, their coldness prickling our fingers. This desert town is a landlocked country. There’s nothing else for hundreds of miles and we’re pinned like bugs in the middle.
“Y’all, it’s not really that bad.” Louisiana says, squatting down and swaying a little, her smoke circling around us. “One cigarette now and then won’t kill you.”
“It might,” I say.
I lean over the railing and smoke. I’ve never been a smoker and what I can stand of it rips my lungs. I lean forward and feel the weight of the railing underneath me. I’ve been taking dance classes and practicing feeling centered, practicing spinning on my own axis. I test this new feeling against the weight of the wood. Alabama and Louisiana go inside to check dinner. The Mormon follows to check dessert.
“You okay?” I ask Midwest.
I’m begrudging her this misery because there’s something weird about the way she achieved it, the way she handles her grief. It was an Internet romance—the two never actually met. How to tell an otherwise smart and funny girl that this is teetering on the edge of mass pet buying? She poured everything inside herself into letters to a man into whose eyes she’d never gazed. And she was disappointed. She should know that for this kind of gamble, you need a tougher hide.
“No,” she says. “But there’s not really anything you can do about it.”
I don’t know what to say to that, so I don’t say anything.
“Tell me something,” she says.
“Anything. I need to be distracted.”
So I distract her. I tell her everything I’ve experienced over the last two weeks—plots of movies, of books, how to make an herbal flea infusion for your dog, a skill only people stuck in the desert have the time or patience to acquire, about the man on whom, in the wake of my recent heart ache, I’d developed a crush, but who himself had a crush on another woman—he told me this over coffee—but how in the end, none of us were really in love with any of us, it was all just the loneliness of this town—we have The Great Outdoors here but nothing else—and inside the Mormon answers her ringing cell phone. She is the only one among us, besides married Alabama, who has the possibility tonight of a date. I tell Midwest a few more things and inside, the Mormon squeals. I can’t see, but am certain she jumps up and down. In a moment, she will paint her blond eyelashes black, drawing her eyes into existence, preparing them to see the world.
I realize that none of this is helping either of us so I decide it’s time to switch tactics: I tell Midwest about the sharks I saw on the Discovery Channel, how this surfer guy had been attacked. The shark’s teeth sunk in and latched onto his leg but instead of fighting, which would have gotten his leg torn off but might have been the natural reflex, the surfer somehow knew to grab onto a fin and hold on while the shark thrashed, to not let himself be jerked around but instead, like a dancer, to ride the shark’s movement in the current. How, then, the surfer beat at the shark’s eyes with his fists and the shark instantly released him, swimming into deeper water—that sharks protect their eyes because they need them for hunting, for their very survival, and that without eyes sharks can’t live.
“It’s like the opposite of puppies,” I tell her, in a sudden rush of inspiration.
Midwest looks at me blankly. She’s wearing a white sweater I know she wishes were black.
“I don’t get it,” she says.
All these conversations that take place on the balconies of rented spaces that we will never see again.
“When a puppy rolls over for you to rub his belly, he’s defenseless,” I explain. “All his important organs are exposed. He’s saying, I trust you not to kill me. Those organs—his heart—are the most important part of him, the part that if you get, there’s no going back.”
For a moment, Midwest has nothing to say to that.
“So the shark was trying to make friends with the surfer?”
“No, no, no,” I say, and my words come out in smoke. I don’t know what I’m trying to accomplish here. Maybe I’m not telling the story right. I want her to see that it’s possible to give of yourself without being totally eviscerated, to take a chance and not lose your limbs, to ride the unknown but to do it deftly, to protect your eyes. You could be both the surfer and the shark in this story. I take another puff and try to find the words to what I mean. I mean that while, sure, it’s courageous to show your heart and all, you don’t have to just roll over and let yourself be slaughtered. But I don’t know how to say any of this then. We stand there and smoke, Midwest’s face crumpling in confusion.
Alabama and the Mormon come out, wondering if anyone has something a little sexier for the Mormon to borrow before she goes out on her date. The Mormon’s face shines, her eyes alight with a wisdom you hope never gets buried; you hope she knows what she’s doing. Her father lives hundreds of miles from here and, at thirty-one, it’s time to wear something slinky and trust that she can live with the outcome. I want to cheer for her but my body is a caution sign.
Midwest breathes more smoke into the desert, smoke that, if she were home, would be fog that would creep up panes of frozen glass, leaving trails like the wake of boats in water—which we don’t have here either—and then Louisiana comes out, talking loudly to announce her presence.
“Y’all ready to come inside?”
“Almost.” I say and turn towards the door.
“I still don’t get the shark thing.”
Despite the little bridges we build, there’s something in the Midwest I don’t know how to talk to. There’s an empty space inside her the size of the desert. She carries it with her wherever she goes. The Mormon questions me with her smart, new eyes, so I fill her in on the story.
“But that doesn’t really make sense,” she says when I finish. “Falling in love and being eaten to death. They’re not really the same thing.”
“Well” I say.
“You know?” She asks.
“Right. Of course.”
Midwest takes a final puff then pitches her cigarette over the balcony. It shines orange for three stories then lands between concrete and cactus, rolling into the darkened swimming pool below us. We are taking the outdoors in small doses tonight. We’re pretending that in small slices, it doesn’t make us feel alone.
We go inside and eat gumbo and years later, most of us never see each other again. Graduate school ends, we collect our degrees, move to cities, go home. On the other side of the country, the man I love a little bit phones me and wants to try for a second chance. He’s supposed to meet me by a beach. I imagine the waves soothing us. It’s a hopeful plan, a gamble. The fact is, I love him a lot. I wait all day, but he never shows. He doesn’t even call. My chest roars as if I were breathing smoke. I don’t know what else to do, so I go to a gift shop and buy the Midwest a postcard: a group of sharks circling their own centers, their soft parts graceful and hidden in the water. On the back I consider writing the point of the shark story. I sit there, pen in hand, and try to remember what it is.
Caryn Cardello lives in San Francisco where she teaches writing and literature at California College of the Arts. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and recently did a residency at Vermont Studio Center. Once, long ago, she was an award winning journalist. She's working on a novel.