Lose yourself in the California desert in the summer of 1969
Lose yourself in the California desert in the summer of 1969
I took the bicycle down the dirt road. My heart thudding, the tightness of pressure behind my eyes. I liked feeling the sting of my mother’s slap, the aura of goodness she had so carefully cultivated for the last month—the tea, the bare feet—curdled in an instant. Good. Let her be ashamed. All her classes and cleanses and readings had done nothing. She was the same weak person as always. I pedaled faster, a flurry in my throat. I could go to the Flying A and buy a bag of chocolate stars. I could see what was playing at the movie theater or walk along the brothy soup of the river. My hair lifted a little in the dry heat. I felt hatred hardening in me, and it was almost nice, how big it was, how pure and intense.
My furious pedaling went abruptly slack: the chain slipped its bearings. The bike was slowing. I lurched to a stop in the dirt by the fire road. My armpits were sweating, the backs of my knees. The sun hot through the cutwork lattice of a live oak. I was trying not to cry. I crouched on the ground to realign the chain, tears skimming off my eyes in the sting of the breeze, my fingers slippery with grease. It was too hard to grip, the chain falling away.
“Fuck,” I said, then said it louder. I wanted to kick the bicycle, silence something, but that would be too pitiful, the theater of upset performed for no one
I tried one more time to hook the chain onto the spoke, but it wouldn’t catch, snapping loose. I let the bike drop into the dirt and sank down beside it. The front wheel spun a little, then slowed to a stop. I stared at the bike, splayed and useless: the frame was “Campus Green,” a color that had conjured, in the store, a hale college boy walking you home from an evening class. A prissy fantasy, a stupid bike, and I let the string of disappointments grow until they looped into a dirge of mediocrity. Connie was probably with May Lopes. Peter and Pamela buying house- plants for an Oregon apartment and soaking lentils for supper. What did I have? The tears dripped off my chin into the dirt, pleasing proof of my suffering. This absence in me that I could curl around like an animal.
I heard it before I saw it: the black bus lumbering heavily up the road, dust rising behind the wheels. The windows were pocked and gray, the blurred shapes of people within. Painted on the hood was a crude heart, crowned with drippy lashes, like an eye.
A girl wearing a man’s shirt and knitted vest stepped down from the bus, shaking back her flat orange hair. I could hear other voices, a flurry at the windows. A moony face appeared: watching me.
The girl’s voice was singsongy. “What’s wrong?” she said.
“The bike,” I said, “the chain’s messed up.” The girl toed the wheel with her sandaled foot. Before I could ask who she was, Suzanne came down the steps, and my heart surged. I got to my feet, trying to brush the dirt from my knees. Suzanne smiled but seemed distracted. I realized I had to remind her of my name.
“From the store on East Washington,” I said. “The other day?”
I expected her to say something about the bizarre luck of encountering each other again, but she looked a little bored. I kept glancing at her. I wanted to remind her of our conversation, how she’d said I was thoughtful. But she wouldn’t exactly meet my eye.
“We saw you sitting there and thought, Oh shit, poor thing,” the redhead said. This was Donna, I was to learn. She had a touched look, her eyebrows invisible so her face took on an alien blankness. She squatted to study my bike. “Suzanne said she knew you.
The three of us worked together to get the chain back on. The smell of their sweat as we propped the bike on its stand. I’d bent the gears somehow when the bike fell, and the teeth wouldn’t line up with the spokes.
“Fuck.” Suzanne sighed. “This is all messed up.”
“You need pliers or something,” Donna said. “You aren’t gonna fix it now. Stick it in the bus, come hang with us for a while.”
“Let’s just give her a ride into town,” Suzanne said.
She spoke briskly, like I was a mess that needed to be cleaned up. Even so, I was glad. I was used to thinking about people who never thought about me.
“We’re having a solstice party,” Donna said.
I didn’t want to go back to my mother, to the forlorn guardianship of my own self. I had the sense that if I let Suzanne go, I would not see her again.
“Evie wants to come,” Donna said. “I can tell she’s up for it. You like to have fun, don’t you?”
“Come on,” Suzanne said. “She’s a kid.”
I surged with shame.
“I’m sixteen,” I lied. “She’s sixteen,” Donna repeated. “Don’t you think Russell would want us to be hospitable? I think he’d be upset if I told him we weren’t being hospitable.”
I didn’t read any threat in Donna’s voice, only teasing. Suzanne’s mouth was tight; she finally smiled. “Okay,” she said. “Put the bike in the back.”
I saw that the bus had been emptied and rebuilt, the interior cruddy and overworked in the way things were back then—the floor gridded with Oriental carpets, grayed with dust, the drained tufts of thrift store cushions. The stink of a joss stick in the air, prisms ticking against the windows. Cardboard scrawled with dopey phrases.
There were three other girls in the bus, and they turned to me with eagerness, a feral attention I read as flattering. Cigarettes going in their hands while they looked me up and down, an air of festivity and timelessness. A sack of green potatoes, pasty hot dog buns. A crate of wet, overripe tomatoes. “We were on a food run,” Donna said, though I didn’t really understand what that meant. My mind was preoccupied with this sudden shift of luck, with monitoring the slow trickle of sweat under my arms. I kept waiting to be spotted, to be identified as an intruder who didn’t belong. My hair too clean. Little nods toward presentation and decorum that seemed to concern no one else. My hair cut crazily across my vision from the open windows, intensifying the dislocation, the abruptness of being in this strange bus. A feather hanging from the rearview with a cluster of beads. Some dried lavender on the dashboard, colorless from the sun.
She’s coming to the solstice,” Donna chimed, “the summer solstice.”
It was early June and I knew the solstice was at the end of the month: I didn’t say anything. The first of many silences.
“She’s gonna be our offering,” Donna told the others. Giggling. “We’re gonna sacrifice her.”
I looked to Suzanne—even our brief history seemed to ratify my presence among them—but she was sitting off to the side, absorbed by the box of tomatoes. Applying pressure to the skins, sifting out the rot. Waving away the bees. It would occur to me later that Suzanne was the only one who didn’t seem overjoyed to come upon me, there on the road. Something formal and distant in her affect. I can only think it was protective. That Suzanne saw the weakness in me, lit up and obvious: she knew what happened to weak girls.
Visit one of India's most famous cities – and home to some of its best-known writers – by adding these books to your reading list.
Ahead of her much-anticipated debut novel Burnt Sugar this month, we asked the writer to share the books she loves, her biggest regrets, and the importance of digging into soft soil.