BY ELLEN RHUDY
He brings her to the desert but won’t put a palmful or even a finger’s pinch of salt in her mouth. She can feel the lure of it, the rush of saliva warm and thick down her throat. Her body feels dry and gray, a thing that will be unfamiliar no matter how many years more she stays wrapped in its flesh. As the sun rises he ties himself around her, lets her rest her head on his shoulder, holds her arms to her sides in their yellow hotel room. They tour a village that is in the business of mining salt, and while he uses the bathroom she buys a quarter-kilo bag, a woman stamped in red on its front, which she can hold in the palm of her hand. She watches people walking and laughing, tying scarves, searching in their bags for change, and wants to tear them all in two. But then he is there, trailing his fingers down her back, whispering kindnesses in her ear, and she follows him to the Jeep.
When she was eight years old her neighbor’s wife was hit by a car and when she came back, this was how she came back: the same as her, today. She stood outside their neighbor’s house, her fingers hooked through the fence, to watch this woman stumble through her chores, the blood stilled in her veins and her eyes gone milky and vague. She walked the dog every day, she attended her son’s football games, she came for neighborhood barbecues; she smiled when someone spoke to her and rested her hand on her husband’s waist; she was almost but not quite a woman. The brother of the woman, our woman, brought the neighbor a spoonful of Morton’s table salt, he eased it into her mouth with a care our woman had never seen. The neighbor’s wife cried but stayed the same. Maybe she didn’t even know what had become of her, our girl thought; or no, maybe she knew exactly what had become of her.
They stop for photographs on the ridged earth of the salt flats, the driver sitting on the Jeep’s hood and smoking cigarettes while they pose. He holds her shoulders and tells her to stay where she is, he runs back and sets a beer bottle on the ground, lays flat on his stomach and frames her in its mouth. He asks the driver to take a photograph of the two of them together, he stands in the foreground and holds her on a spoon, opens his mouth just so. The world is so flat, so much the same, that she feels she has lost all perspective. She stands and blinks against the sun, her skin gritted with sand, and all around her other couples are taking their own photographs, finding ways to make themselves small. He shows her the pictures while they drive to a hotel made of salt. He laughs at the predicaments in which she finds herself. After a dinner of baked chicken and rice, a glass of beer each, he lays over her in bed, pushes himself in while she reaches for the wall, licks her fingers.
One woman so didn’t want to be brought back that she had it tattooed across her chest: “Leave Me Be.” But what does it mean, to leave someone to be? To keep them with themselves, maybe, to keep them with us, to keep them the same, leave me be, leave me be leave me be. Women have written their desire to die in their wills, they have detailed their plans with their doctors. What people want in life and what they want in death, though – these things are different, and can’t be trusted. Our woman has stood before fogging bathroom mirrors, pebbling her fingers across her skin, searching for words that are there or are not there or never were there. The brain becomes fogged in a way that makes it impossible to say what she ever intended. What were her dreams for herself, what size were they. Were they this big, or this big. Spreading her hands wide under the water.
The next day they drive to a rocky hill that makes no sense in this place, cacti spiked up its sides. They hike together, her breathing labored and slow. She stands next to a cactus four times her height and smiles for his camera and after, hiking behind him, looks at the bloodless piercings it has made in her palm. I’m so happy I’m here with you, he tells her when they reach the top of the hill and can look down on the desert, flat flat flat in every direction. I love you so much, I can’t imagine it without you. He holds her hand on the walk down, his palm sweating and warm in her cool grasp. I love you I love you I love you. Their driver takes a photo of the two lovebirds leaning into each other before the impossibility of this green place. They spend one more night in their salt hotel, which looks unlikely to dissolve under the gloss of her spit. In the morning they rise before the sun, they stumble from bed and into their Jeep, she sleeps on his shoulder while they drive to the border.
Her band teacher in high school, a woman with waves of red hair that sprang free from crosses of bobby pins. The woman who worked the checkout at the Rite Aid on her college campus, who began to wear so much makeup that she looked like a clown, like a joke, like a thing worse than death. Her first manager’s wife, who visited him every day at lunch, who wore the same black dress every day and who every day sat in the same cracked leather armchair. They are so loved, the most loved, her friend said – our girl, our woman, she cannot remember her friend’s name. These women carried everywhere the weight of their husbands’ love, a thing so strong it was powerless to let them go. They could be quiet, demure, supportive, loving, they could be all the things they needed to be, they could be close to being themselves.
They sit at the border almost the whole day, the sun rising and sharp overhead, rain spitting for a moment and then stopping. She sleeps in the back of the Jeep, surrounded by their bookbags and jackets. He walks in circles, holding his cell phone high. One time she wakes and finds the driver photographing her, his breath hot on her face. It’s nothing, he tells her, it’s nothing. She scrapes at the seams of her bag of salt, scoops a nail’s worth free and lets it dissolve on her tongue. Nothing happens, of course; of course nothing happens. When he comes back to the Jeep and sees the torn bag on her lap, he brushes her hair from her face, he pulls her close to him. The border agent appears when the sun is drooping behind the line of cars. He looks to her face with a moment’s curiosity when he sees the pigeon gray cover of her passport, her birth and death dates listed side-by-side.
This is a thing she remembers, a thing that is real and true: when her mother died she wanted her back. She was not a woman with a tattoo on her chest, with a desire for death written in her will, with a string of plans agreed to by her doctors. The woman, our woman, was only thirty when her mother died, and she went to her father and said Bring her back, you can bring her back. This is a thing that her brain will not fog over. She will forget everything but this will not let her be, not even after the world has shuttered itself around her. How mad she was when he covered her mother with earth and a carpet of grass! How mad she was, like he had done the worst thing that could be done, even worse than her mother lying betubed and pale and with her joints bulging in a way that highlighted the temporary nature of all flesh – unless you were so lucky to be made a woman whose flesh was not temporary but permanent.
They stay in a town lined with jewelry shops, they drink too much red wine at dinner, she watches him eat a steak with a crisp-edged egg centered on its sweating skin, they nap in hammocks in the hotel courtyard, he buys her a necklace, a silver leaf with etched veins. It lays cool on her chest as they stand in a field looking for the rings of Saturn, the moon so bright when she happens on it that she jumps back from the telescope, blinking, as he laughs and reaches to her. They walk the narrow path of a shifting sand mountain to watch the sun set in a cavalcade, and after two nights they leave again at dawn, climbing on a bus to ride all day to the sea.
Can they remember their deaths? It’s a question no one can answer because the only way to learn the answer would be to let them speak. She, the woman, our woman, cannot remember how she died, but she has ideas. She slipped and fell on the subway tracks. She stepped in front of a car. She went the same way as her mother, from the inside out. Her heart thrudded free of her chest while she ran through the woods. A man followed her through the woods. Flesh-eating bacteria, bacteria hidden in an egg, a baby that rotted her from the womb out. She has a new idea every day, an image that sparks and holds her in its grasp before setting itself free, leaving her to find the next and the next and the next.
He wraps a scarf around her neck before they walk in the city by the sea, he cups her shoulder in his palm. He tells her what they will do when they go back home, how happy her father and brother will be to see her again. I wish I never had to go back to work, he tells her. I wish we could stay here forever. They walk along a four-lane road to the beach, passing a mural of a woman with thick black hair waving into hills behind her, a woman who forms her own landscape. He buys them two chocolate ice creams to eat as they watch the pulsing sea, he holds all four of their sandals tucked under his arm. She steps in shallow pools of water as she licks the edges of her ice cream bar. She lets the cold sand ooze between her toes. She pulls her scarf free and watches it whish in the air. He laughs and grabs the scarf and she runs for the water, leaving her ice cream and her sandals and her man behind on the shore. She has never been to the Pacific Ocean. The water shatters around her ankles, she stumbles as it pulls her in, she lets herself fall and be enveloped. She swallows mouthfuls of water, salt and sand making her thirsty for more. She could drink forever, she could take in enough that her voice would be returned to her – she could drink so much that the rules would be changed for her, for a woman who provides her own mouthful of salt. But then he is with her, pulling her upright and slapping her back, water spilling from her lips. He carries her to shore as she opens her mouth and tries to say one true thing, just one true thing: this thing, or this thing, or this.