Contents May Have Shifted

73. Zaafrane, Tunisia

 

It is already below freezing, an hour before sunset, when we take off on the camels: Rick on Don Quixote, me on Ali Baba, Saief, (which means sword in Arabic, he tells us) on foot. In his New York Yankees cap and his leather jacket, Saief looks more New Jersey than Tunisia, though he speaks French, Spanish, and Arabic, and is, he said, learning English only a little at a time.

Saief tells us repeatedly how tired he is, which comes as a relief after all those smiling guys in Douz who couldn’t stop talking right up in our faces, who wanted to sell us a tablecloth their grandmother made, or a camel ride, or a rug. He makes a big deal of telling us how strong Ali Baba is, twice the strength of Don Quixote, and I look appreciatively down at his giant feetless like hooves and more like bedroom slipperspadding slowly, steadily, and soundlessly across the small dunes that are washed golden and deeply shadowed in the waning light.

We haven’t gone half a mile when Saief informs us the camels are tired. I raise one eyebrow at Rick. I thought the whole point of camels was they could walk hundreds of miles between oases, without a blade of grass or a drink or a nap.

Saief throws his shoulder into Ali Baba’s chest and makes a gurgling noise deep in his throat. Ali Baba drops to his knees, groaning in return.

We sit on the crest of a cold dune to watch the sun—now a magenta ball of hot lava—pour itself onto the desert floor, Saief between Rick and I. Saief takes my hand and pours sand into it. “Farina,” he purrs, drawing out all the vowels, tracing gentle rings in my palm. I take my hand back and dig both palms under the sand, but his hand finds mine underneath and continues to draw circles.

Besides a low dune here and there, the Sahara stretches out forever flat in all directions, and Rick asks Saief how camel drivers keep from getting lost.

“We know the desert like we know the faces of our mothers and fathers,” he says. “We sleep in the day and navigate by the stars.”

I try not to roll my eyes. What Saief doesn’t know is that I used to be a river guide, used to be married to an African safari guide, and this particular brand of guidely bullshit is old news and worldwide. What I don’t know is that while he is turning circles in my palm with his left hand, he is turning circles in Rick’s palm with his right.

Another mile down the camel trail, and Ali Baba peels off in one direction, Don Quixote in another. Apparently, Ali Baba is the camel in error.

“Turn him, Pam!” Saief yells, repeatedly, but I have no reins, and leg pressure has no effect.

We are nearly a mile apart by the time Saief trots over.

“I ride with you,” he says, slinging himself up in the saddle behind me, making a different sort of throaty noise that encourages Ali Baba to trot.

A camel trot is not the world’s smoothest gait, and the saddle is not meant for two. First I realize that what I am feeling banging up against my ass is Saief’s little erection, then I realize the fact that he is holding on to me right at tit level is no accident. I think, How old and unattractive must one get before this shit stops happening? I grit my teeth and concentrate on not falling off the camel.

“Is this how you ride in America?” he shouts, like a guy in a Windsong commercial.

Then the giant water bottle that has been tied to the saddle falls off, and he jumps down to get it, and when he tries to remount I say, “No,” and he says, “But I am so tired,” and I say, “Okay, then, you ride, I walk.”

When we catch up to Rick, who has the hood up on his nifty new Obi-Wan Kenobi jacket and has missed the whole thing, I say, “Predicament,” and he says, “Klepto?” and I say, “No . . . but egregious.”

Minutes later we arrive at a fake Bedouin campsite and meet the French people who will be sharing our camp for the night: the dapper grandfather; his blue-haired wife; his son, Eric; Eric’s ironic, bookish girlfriend, Madeline; and their four-year-old boy, Esteban. Immediately we start sticking so tight to them they probably go home and tell the same kinds of stories we tell about Saief and us.

Around the campfire, in the icy icy night, under a million stars, Rick tells Esteban a story about a camel who comes out of the sky and reaches down to chew the leaves of the trees over Esteban’s head. When he is finished, Esteban puts his head in my lap in a way that makes me miss Madison and I think, I wonder if I give off some different kind of scent to all children now.

When I first smelled the blankets on the cots in our tent I thought, No way I am getting my face near them, but then the ice started to form in our water bottles and right now I would eat one of these blankets if it would warm me up on the inside, or make me know what to do on the off chance Saief comes in here later, looking for a threesome and wielding some big camel jockey knife. One tent over, the French grandfather snores loudly.

In the morning, the dunes are covered with a thin layer of ice that sparkles in the first sun like water. Rick stands to his full height in front of Saief as we prepare to remount the camels. “Today,” Rick says, and pauses, forcing Saief to look right at him, “the woman rides alone.”

 

 

 

74. Tucson, Arizona

 

The idea is that you catch, tie, and groom the horses, and the horses reflect back to you your fears, shortcomings, and insecurities, in a loving, nonjudgmental, equine way. Which is fine, I think, if you are a wealthy urbanite with an abject fear of any creature larger than a chinchilla.

Grooming is supposed to take two hours, but Tami and I get the big gray Percheron looking like a Mercedes Benz inside of forty-five minutes, mane and tail all Show-Sheened up, hooves painted pretty as a pedicure with Hooflex.

Afterwards, in the group therapy portion of the class, after Rachel from the Upper East Side gets teary because it took her so long to figure out the halter, and Janice from Westchester flat-out bawls as she relives the terror of combing out her Arabian’s forelock, eventually Dr. Wyatt Webb turns his attention to Tami and me and says, “Looks like you two had a pretty sweet time with Apollo.”

We nod in our smug outdoorsy western women way.

Wyatt says, “Tell me, Pam, what would you have done if you hadn’t been able to get Apollo to pick up his feet?”

I think, But I did get him to pick up his feet. I say, “I would have walked a few steps away and come in with greater intention, and asked him again,” and Wyatt says, “And what if that didn’t work?” and I say, “I would have untied him, walked him in a circle, come in with better focus and asked him again,” and Wyatt says, “And what if that didn’t work?” and I say, “I would have gotten a lunge line, and trotted him first in one direction and then the other, and then I would have tied him up, and refocused, and asked him again.”

We go on like this for several more rounds until, finally, Wyatt looks around the room and says, “Can anyone tell me what Pam is forgetting?” and Lori from Park Slope raises her hand.

“Asking for help?” she says, and I have to admit it. He could have asked me fifty more times and that would never have been my answer.

If a lesbian has a collection of over four hundred dildos, does that mean she is no longer from West Texas? On his first day in office, the new president said, “We reject the notion that we have to choose between our safety and our ideals.”

At the Madison hand-off last Friday, we were supposed to collect at her mother’s house, but Sofree, Tom, and Madison were out at a crafts fair, and decided at the last minute they wanted to drop her off instead. According to the mediation agreement, Rick is supposed to have his cell phone on thirty minutes before pick up, but he forgot, so in the last few minutes before five o’clock, when we were racing out the door to get to Sofree’s on time, and they were racing over to Rick’s house so we wouldn’t miss them, we all but collided cars at the bottom of Rick’s driveway.

Sofree flew out of the car shrieking about the cell phone and Rick kept backing away from her growling, “Don’t touch me, don’t you dare touch me!” and eventually backed all the way into the house, Sofree hot on his tail. Madison got out of the car and climbed the apricot tree, and Tom and I exchanged one quick glance through the windshield that might have said, You and I should really get a beer some time, and then Sofree swept back around the corner, smiling ferociously, plucked Madison out of the tree, clutched her to her chest once, twice, three times, and said, “Don’t worry, darling, this is exactly the kind of thing that happens when feelings run deep,” then set her down onto the dirt driveway, whirled into the passenger seat, and was gone.

 

 

75. Creede, Colorado

 

The first thing Rick’s father wants to know when they arrive is which one is his bathroom.

“That’s not,” I say, “exactly the way it works around here.”

“Well,” he says, “then just tell me which one you’ll be using.”

“It all depends, really, on what you want to do,” I say. “If you want to take a bath, you use the pretty bathroom, if you are up to something more utilitarian, the ugly one is good enough.”

“But which one should we use?” he says, and I sigh, point to the pretty bathroom.

All of a sudden I can see my house through Rick’s parents’ eyes: Marc’s giant painting of the ear of corn with the bright red word Hallelujah scrawled over top of it, four two-hundred-dollar-a-piece organic cotton dog beds taking up most all the space on the living room floor, the set of tiny silver opium weights lovingly carried back from Laos.

We settle in to watch the Texas Rangers play the Tampa Bay Rays, and Rick’s dad calls the Ranger’s right fielder a gentleman three times before I realize that what he means by that is black.

All year long Rick’s mother has been sending me email slide shows called things like Tears of a Woman and The Bright Red Hat, which contain a lot of roses and baby’s breath and women with strong shoulders and big hearts finally realizing, at sixty, that looks don’t matter and they can conquer the world.

The first time I was in her big house in Texas, with Rick’s dad and all four brothers playing a computer bowling game where you hold a little box in your hand and hurl your upper body at the screen, she crossed the room to give me a hug and said, “It can all be a little overwhelming,” and I knew that she knew I didn’t want her to ever let go.

Now the whole upper half of her body is inside my oven, and she is scrubbing like somebody half her age.

“I was afraid we would start a fire,” she says to me, under her armpit. This from the mother of a fifty-year-old man who takes all of the spoiled food in his refrigeratorrancid salami, deep green cottage cheese, half-and-half gone solid as Play-Dohand moves it up to his freezer.

“I don’t know if you know this,” his mother had whispered in my ear the night before, “but there are no hand towels in the pretty bathroom.”

I nodded solemnly and didn’t tell her that it would be an accident if there were any hand towels in the entire house.

During the seventh-inning stretch, the commentators mention, but do not explain, the team’s recent shortening of their name from the Devil Rays to the Rays, the incorporation of a sun into their logo, and their decision to retain the cutout of the sea creature (Mobula Mobular, from the family Myliobatidae) on their sleeves.

I say, “I don’t know, but it seems to me that when the biologist or fisherman or maritime explorer made the decision to call that particular ocean-dwelling animal a Devil Ray, the conversation could have been over at that point.”

Rick clears his throat and Rick’s mother nods politely.

“It’s still the devil,” Rick’s father says.

 

 

76. Boulder, Colorado

 

At the Bright Angel Circus Camp Celebration, I have to sit right behind Sofree and watch her perform good parenting for hours while a whole bunch of little girls warm up for careers as strippers on trapezes, their butch and buff trainers looking beatifically on.

This is especially trippy after reading Margaret Atwood’s latest: a futuristic universe where women only have two choicesto work as strippers with embedded fish scales or without themand where penises are pretty much blamed for every single thing wrong with the world.

It is midsummer and Sofree wears a sleeveless top which shows off her best feature I have seen so far: very prettily shaped shoulders. Madison can’t get vaccinated and has to wear homeopathic glasses instead of real ones, but it is just possible Sofree has had a nose job since what we are now calling “the disaster in the driveway.”

The next afternoon, Madison and I take the dogs to the playground, and she spends several hours flinging herself at the highest bar on what we used to call a jungle gym, but is now called a play structure, and flipping all kinds of ways over the top. Then we play freeze tag with the dogs, which is extra fun because the dogs can’t figure out the rules, especially Liam.

Even though it is our weekend, Sofree needs Madison for two hours for a special family party, and I am in charge of seeing that she gets there. When we get one block away from the corner where we are supposed to meet up, Madison starts limping, and Sofree rushes over and sweeps her up in her arms. When Sofree brings her back to Rick’s that night Madison is wearing an ace bandage and Sofree violates the mediation agreement by carrying her all the way inside.

Madison wants to sleep in the fuzzy brown Phantom Menace coat we brought her back from Tunisia. Of course, the Berbers were wearing coats like that a thousand years before George Lucas came along.

At the store in Tozeur we haggled over the price of those coats in four languages, and Rick finally said, in Spanish, “Amigo, from my heart, I have to make a bargain with you or my woman will think I don’t have any balls,” and that is when the guy almost started to like him.

The next morning Madison wakes with the coat turned around backwards and goes charging after the dogs again, ace bandage slapping the asphalt, and I get an email from Sofree that says she is having a crisis in her being.

“Where else would she have it,” Tami says, “in her vagina?”

“Well,” I say, “she does have that little problem with her yoga pants.”

“Acute camel toe,” Tami says, and sighs, “poor Madison.”

 

 

77. Kairouan, Tunisia

 

All we want is a fast pass through the fourth holiest city in Islam, and enough couscous to get us through the day. Few things in life make Rick happier than a Roman ruin and even though it is 700 kilometers away, I have promised I will get him to Thuburbo Majus by closing time.

We start the day in Tataouine, drive first to Medenine and then to Gabes. It is Eid al-Adha-Eve Day, the Festival of Sacrifice commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim to kill his son Ishmael as an act of obedience to God, but then God lets him off the hook and tells him to slaughter a sheep instead. As a result, there are way more trucks than usual on the narrow motorways, hundreds of decapitated sheep hanging for sale along the sides of the road, and women, sitting on makeshift tables, selling ristras and olive branches to every third car that passes.

If, when I say the driving is aggressive in Tunisia, you think of Boston, or even Rome, you are not even in the ballpark. The roads are single lane, shoulderless, winding, and poorly engineered, and it is not uncommon, when looking in your rearview mirror, to see a car that is in the process of passing you being passed by another car. At a stoplight, the instant the light changes, the eighth car deep will honk loudly at the seventh car, and sometimes even grind against it, bumper-to-bumper.

The white piece-of-shit Punto we have rented has significant dents in every single panel, the brights stick on, and the horn doesn’t work. But we have come to love the Punto, because in it and moving is the only place we are safe from being hawked.

It is the low season in Tunisia, and the hawkers outnumber tourists twenty to one. If we stop the car just long enough to take a picture, somebody comes running up the road and tries to sell us a rug. The worst part is that when we try to explain we just stopped to take a picture of the hilltop village, with the golden Sahara spread out on one side of it, and the blue Mediterranean on the other, and that buying a sixteen-by-twenty-four-foot Persian rug that weighs three hundred pounds and costsfor us, special—$2,500 dollars wasn’t on our to-do list for this morning, the rug men get unimaginably angry, as if we have insulted their mother, or carelessly run over their feet.

In Mides, an old Berber town on the Algerian border, there was a hawker who wanted to sell us, not a rug, but himself, as a guide. He said, “You go to the Algerian border, you American, you maybe have a problem, but you go with me, and then nix problem, nix problem.”

To Rick, he said, “I like you because you talk seriously to me,” and then he asked Rick if Rick liked him, and Rick said, “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” which I thought was a brilliant piece of evasion, but when Rick finally insisted we did not want a guide for any price, the hawker leaned over and spit on the ground right next to Rick’s foot.

By the time we got to the Algerian border it was late afternoon and there were goats and a goat girl coming down the mountain. There was the call to prayer ringing out of the mosque in the village, and there was a weird border station fortress that looked like a torture chamber in an Xbox game, and little white posts all along the mountaintop marking the border. Below it all was a twisted river canyon, and tables and tables full of a rock called desert rose, which was either a great gift, or worthless, depending which way the hawkers were trying to haggle.

Now, in the fourth holiest city in Islam, I am trying hard not to pause too long at a stop sign or miss a green light, and we get almost to the wall of the Medina before there is a red light I just can’t run, and that is when the guy comes up and bangs on my window, points up ahead to where the Great Mosque is, and says, “Madam! Madam! S’il vous plait!”

I shake my head no, and the light changes, and I gun the engine and he follows on his moped. I drive too fast for the cobblestone streets, but he has the moped pegged, gunning for our back window. I hang a left and a left and a left and then, finally, a left that turns almost all the way back on itself, and it feels just like the French Connection until a man steps out into the street in front of me and I slam on the brakes and the moped man slams hard into my rear bumper. I jump out of the car and so does Rick.

The man is picking himself up off the cobblestones, does not appear to be badly injured or dead.

“Go away!” I shriek, at a volume and intensity that surprises me.

The man walks up to me, gets right in my face, rubbing his arm as if it is hurt, then rubbing the tips of his fingers together for money.

“Leave us alone!” It’s me again. Just full-on shrieking.

There are men drinking coffee on porches all around us, watching, impassive. There are always men drinking coffee on porches everywhere in Tunisia. Where the hell, I wonder, are all the women in this country, anyway?

“Get out of here!” I shriek. Rick is watching me now, too. He has never heard me make sounds like these. The man is still rubbing the tips of his fingers together. It occurs to me that I am about to strike him.

Somewhere, right at this minute, in a country not so far from here, a man has just hurled both of his shoes at George W. Bush.

“Get out of here,” Rick says, calmly, from the other side of the Punto, and the man turns and pushes his moped in the other direction.

We get back in the car and turn towards the Medina.

“I’ve got to get out of this country,” I say to Rick.

 

 

78. St. Helena, California

 

In the car, driving down Highway 29 on the way to AKA Bistro, Cindy starts telling a story about a 9-1-1 call she heard about on television in which a woman was reporting a drunk driver.

“So the dispatcher said, ‘On what highway?’” Cindy says, “and the woman said, ‘Highway 29,’ and the dispatcher said, ‘In the direction of St. Helena or in the direction of Calistoga?’ and the woman said, ‘In the direction of Calistoga,’ and the dispatcher said, ‘Are you in view of them right now?’ and the woman paused for a minute and said, ‘No, see, them is me.’”

I say, “Was this last night?” because we were driving on Highway 29 last night on the way home from dinner, and Cindy says, “No, it was about a week ago,” and I say, “Well, what was it, somebody’s desperate call for help or just a prank?” and Cindy says, “I guess the woman knew she shouldn’t have been on the road,” and Sarah says, “Is this some kind of an amnesty program the wineries have put into place to get more business?” and I say, “Well, why didn’t she just pull over and take the keys out of the ignition?” and Cindy says, “I just thought it was funny that she said them is me,” and Sarah says, “Wait, I was driving on Highway 29 last week, and I’ve been taking Vicoden for my tooth infection,” and I say, “Don’t worry, it couldn’t have been you because you would remember if you called the police,” and she says, “Oh yeah, that’s right,” and I say, “Hold on a minute, this didn’t really happen on Highway 29 between St. Helena and Calistoga, did it?” and Cindy says, “My God, I suck as a storyteller.”

 

 

79. Poncha Springs, Colorado

 

Exactly halfway home on the five-hour drive between the Denver airport and the ranch, I get a call from Colt who says, “What time are you getting in?” and when I tell him, he says, “I’ll meet you there. I just want to see the look on your face.”

But even so, I am not prepared for what I walk into: every piece of furniture, every piece of arteven kitchen condimentseverything in the house that was not too heavy to lift has been moved. Only the piano, the refrigerator, and the bookshelves remain in the same place they were only seventy-two hours before.

My first reaction is classic children of alcoholics, “It’s not so bad,” I say to Colt. “I can live with it.”

Then I see the gouges in the pine floor, then I notice that she has taken down every single picture of me and my friends to hang up fifteen tchotchkes of almost no value, a wooden fork I bought at a market in Zimbabwe and a ukulele made out of an armadillo from Ecuador—items she can only have found by digging around in the basement—and to hang them she has used four-inch framing nails.

“Who does this?” Colt says, and I say, “Apparently, Harmony. She’s Rick’s friend from Boulder. I barely met her for five minutes once. He said she needed a weekend away.”

Colt shakes his head and goes home to Tassie’s, and I don’t start crying until I pull the first nail out of the wall. Then I go down to the basement and waste an hour looking for spackling. Finding none, I use toothpaste, which, unfortunately, is no longer white. Then I call Rick, who promises to call Harmony. I say, “Do you know one single woman who didn’t make up her name?”

It takes the better part of a week to get things back where I had them. A few things I like better in their new spots, so I leave them alone. An email I get from Harmony three days later says, “I’m sorry you didn’t appreciate my gift in the way I imaged you would.”

Cliff Parker is paying me to read his novel, which is pretty darn good, although I am having a hard time understanding the character of Kristen, whom all of the central male characters fall for, including three brothers and two cousins. The love of Kristen leads all the boys to lie and cheat and take stupid risks in snowmobiles and kayaks, and two of them even sign up to go to Iraq. The only male character who is not in love with Kristen is her brother, who still likes her enough to commit murder in her honor, because she made up a story about being raped.

“What can all of these men possibly see in her?” I write in big red letters, in the margin, knowing as I do that the book is pretty ingenious in its creation of a contemporary woman who can still, in the most old-fashioned sense, launch a thousand ships, and what I am really screaming about is Sofree.

Last month, in the office, Drew said, “The average rat will push a lever somewhere between ten and fifteen times in hopes of getting a pellet, but if you give me three days with that rat, and a whole lot of intermittent reinforcement, I can teach that rat to push for a pellet 225 times.”

 

 

80. Cheyenne, Wyoming

 

First, there is the nonfiction writer from Ft. Collins who claims, from the podium, that every piece of clothing she owns came out of a Dumpster. We look her up and then down and then up again, and not even the most gullible among us believe her.

We have only been in Cheyenne for twenty-four hours, and so far Karl and I have run into a convention of Republican women at the Holiday Inn, the swearing in of a brigadier general at the community college, and about forty-five Mormon missionaries commandeering the Baskin-Robbins.

It has been almost twenty years since Karl and I have seen each other, long enough for me to get married a couple of times, and for Karl to become a dad and then watch his wife go crazy. All those years ago at Breadloaf we had walked around together for ten days singing Van Morrison, snapping our fingers to the intro to “Jackie Wilson Says,” but we didn’t fool around because, even then, he was so completely in love with Rosemarie.

“This house where we’re going has two swimming pools, I hear,” says Gloria, who is sitting in the front seat with her stunningly nondescript husband and sparkly ribbons tied into her hair. Gloria is in charge of driving Karl and I around, even though we both have rented cars, because in Cheyenne, Wyoming, you don’t want to find yourself stuck somewhere.

What the house turns out to have two of are elaborately landscaped waterfalls. One cascades from the circular driveway around the right side of the house to a pond in the back, and the other is entirely inside the dog run. The dog is a black-and-white Shih Tzu. Of course there is no actual creek.

“Rosemarie’s not interested in the kinds of things married people do anymore,” Karl says, as we admire the dog run, and I am pretty sure he means sex and not the Home Depot.

Earlier today Trish emailed to say that she saw on Oprah that sperm-bank only children feel even more isolated than those with siblings, and so she’s decided to do the whole thing again, pull another one of her eight fertilized eggs from whatever kind of freezer they are kept in, and shoot it up, so to speak, hoping it will stick.

Karl and I are seated at a table with three sisters from Lamar, Colorado, a small town out east which is, they tell us, the home of the Savages.

“Still?” Karl asks.

“Russell Means even came to our high school in the seventies to tell us why we ought to change the name,” the smartest sister says, “and we had an assembly and listened to him talk for two hours. But then whoever was in charge of these things decided to leave it alone.”

After dinner, we go to the Holiday Inn bar to watch the Rockies, and it is pretty obvious that Karl is trolling, but even he won’t stoop to the lady Republicans. The Rockies are beating the Dodgers in the bottom of the eighth inning but Bettencourt, the set-up guy, is struggling.

“I can’t just leave her, Pam,” Karl says, as if I have asked him. “I’ve loved her all my life.”

On the long, silent camel ride with Saief and Rick, out of the desert in the early morning frost, the camels were tied together, and I saw Don Quixote cross too close behind Ali Baba and I knew the rope would get caught under Ali Baba’s tail, and then it did, and the two camels started circling and circling each other, and then Ali Baba reached down and took Don Quixote’s leg into his mouth and I did a flying dismountpretty efficiently, I thoughtand Saief said, in French, barely concealing his amusement, “Were you scared?”

I said, “You mean when the camel I was riding twisted around backwards and put the other camel’s leg into his mouth?”

Saief said, in English this time, “It is the marriage of the camels these three months”—except he called it mar-ee-age, like decoupage—“and Ali Baba tells Don Quixote that he is the man and Don Quixote is the woman, and Don Quixote tells Ali Baba that he is the man and Ali Baba is the woman, and neither of them want to believe.”

 

 

81. Portland, Oregon

 

Rick says, “Pam, if everyone deserved a down pillow, there wouldn’t be any more birds.”

 

 

82. San Francisco, California

 

The two English acrobats on Pier 39: the skinnier, less charismatic, possibly drug-addled brother, perpetually falling and falling and falling from the waist off his towering unicycle as if onto the crowd, and the older brother’s muscles, which did not go at all with his high-pitched and infectious giggles.

“You have something on your right side,” Denise said. “You are all caved in. You are even putting your hair over there to try to fill the hole.”

“Is it a blockage,” I said, “or a ghost?”

“It is an entity,” she said. “But don’t get all caught up in that. Just say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for coming, but I don’t need you right now.’”

Getting dressed for bed last night, Madison said, “Daddy, why do I have such a cute little hourglass figure already?”

This morning, I have a mass email in my inbox from Sofree and the subject line is How to Be a Gracious Bitch. Above the forwarded message, Sofree has written, “I love this!” with one of those little yellow winking smiley faces underneath.

The story below the smiley face is about Jennifer, who is determined not to let anything dampen the excitement of her wedding day, including her parents’ nasty divorce. It seems her mother has found the perfect dress to wear, something that will really stick it—visually, at least—to her philandering father. Turns out Jennifer’s father’s hottie young girlfriend bought the same dress, and even though Jennifer asks the girlfriend nicely to return it, the girlfriend says, “Absolutely not. I look like a million bucks in that dress and I’m wearing it!”

“Who are these people?” I ask Rick, and he says, “These are the characters that populate mass emails, sweetie, don’t think too much about it.”

So Jennifer is left with little choice but to tell her mother about the dress, and her mother says, “Never mind, sweetheart. I’ll get another dress. After all, it is your special day.” The two of them go shopping, and do indeed find another great dress, but when Jennifer asks her mother if she wants to return the other dress, she says, brightly, “Oh, I don’t need to return it, darling, I’m wearing it to the rehearsal dinner!”

Underneath the story, all in caps, someone, possibly Sofree, has written: NOW I ASK YOU—IS THERE A WOMAN OUT THERE, ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, WHO WOULDN’T ENJOY THIS STORY?

“Anywhere in the world?” I say to Rick. “Bangladesh?”

I forward a copy of the message to Tami and she sends me a text that says, “I guess you didn’t appreciate the gracious bitch story in the way that Sofree imaged you would.”

Driving down Nineteenth Street towards the airport feeling oddly, solidly inside myself.

In synesthisia, a color can be a taste or a feeling can be a sound.

On YouTube, you can watch a ten-minute video, set to sad, jangly music, of people committing suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge.  Some of them jump down to the chord first, the thirty-two-inch orange beam just beyond the four-foot safety railing. Some climb up on the railing and do a modified swan dive. Others just haul themselves over, unself-consciously, like a kid from a farm vaults over a fence. One guy in the video has at least three feet of straight black hair and at first I think it’s a woman, but when he stands on the railing, facing back towards the bridge, the wind lifts it to show his receding hairline just before he bends at the waist and gives into gravity. In the 220 feet between the chord and the bay, a body can reach a speed of eighty miles per hour. It’s hard, watching this video, not to imagine the man behind the camera, about how many hours it took to get those pictures, what he told himself, as he edited them, about the relative value of art.

Denise said, “Are you paying attention to your friends these days?”

I said, “You mean my actual walking around ones?”

“Yeah,” she said, “girlfriends: Karen, Heather, Tami, whoever.”

Once in Portland, a wise old man called me singular. Then he said, “That must make life very difficult for you.”

It was like the time Rick’s parents walked into the coffee shop just as I was explaining to Madison why it was important that the president was having a beer with the Harvard professor and the policeman who arrested him for breaking into his own house.

“Well, the first problem,” Rick said, “is that you said beer.”

 

 

83. Sacramento, California

 

I take Rick to dinner at the Waterboy, my favorite California restaurant east of the Carquinez Bridge, where you can get white anchovies as a little pre-appetizer appetizer, and the bottled water they serve is Badoit.

We don’t have a reservation, so we have to wait on the patio for a table and because we are finally starting to feel all in love and grand about ourselves Rick tells the waiter to ask the bartender to make us something interesting, one with rum and one with tequila, and he comes back with elderflower-this and Vat #54-that, and even though we know they are going to cost twenty dollars apiece it is nice to see Rick be spontaneous.

Before we even have time to finish our drinks we are tucked into a corner, and at the four-top beside us there are two couples who seem to have made their money in something like snowmobiles. They spend a good fifteen minutes reading the wine list out loud to one another, saying “succulent,” “ripe,” and “juicy,” each adjective followed by suggestive guffaws. There are jokes on the subject of boob jobs, hand jobs, hose jobs, and blow jobs. When they look guiltily over at us we smile, magnanimous in love.

When Rick orders the sweetbreads, I am pretty sure he is thinking, like, accompanied by some kind of cinnamon roll, but I don’t say anything because, let’s face it, I can be a know-it-all bitch. He is a good sport when they come, not afraid to ask the waiter what he is about to put in his mouth, and the waiter is genuinely pleased to tell him.

By the time the waiter comes back to ask if we want dessert, we are stuffed, and the foursome next to us has finally jollied their way out of the restaurant.

We agree to look at the menu, perhaps split one dessert just to say we have, when the waiter says, “Just so you know, the gentleman at the table next to you has picked up your entire dinner. He felt that you were trying to have a romantic evening, and that it might have been compromised in some way by their rowdiness.”

“In fact, it wasn’t,” I say, and then I say, “That’s unbelievable.”

“They’ve left more than enough for dessert and gratuity,” he says, grinning. “How wonderful,” he says, “that there are a few people who remain conscious in the world.”

 

 

84. Calistoga, California

 

In the mud bath, there is a rococo unpainted ceramics-style bust of a lady coming out of the wall with a garland of flowers and fruit on her head. The woman in charge of burying me alive is named Evalina. She is at least eighty-five years old and no more than four feet tall. She has a long gray and silver braid and the kind of laugh lines anybody would aspire to. When she holds my hand and walks me from the mud bath to the shower, and then again to the mineral clawfoot, I feel like a big pink giant beside her. When I get too hot in the mineral bath she comes and sprays icy water on my stomach with a sweet little gleam in her eye.

The palm trees at Indian Springs remind me of the oasis in the Tunisian Sahara, which also reminded me exactly of Bugs Bunny cartoons. You spend all morning driving across the nineteen-feet-below-sea-level Chott El Jerid, with its strange crusted mineral stains and its miraged bands of watery heat, but inside the oasis it is cool and damp and smells like fruitcake. Old men riding tiny donkeys look like centaurs and the birdsong is deafening and every date plantation has its own massive hand-carved wooden door.

Last night, the adorable waiter at Mustards said, “Anything else I can do for you ladies?” And Karen and Cindy and I laughed and laughed like three old biddies who had been, for a few hours, let out of the home.

Last time I ate at Mustards, it was almost twenty years ago and I was having a passionate argument with Ron Hansen and Bob Shacochis about whether or not epiphany was a language-based moment or if it occurred, essentially, outside of language, and we sat there for hours, amidst the remains of organically raised lamb spare ribs and crab chowder and glasses of big gorgeous wine and I thought, Wow, I am out with the big boys now.

A week ago, at the ranch, Madison woke me up at four in the morning. I was so sound asleep she had to push and push and push on my back to rouse me. She said she couldn’t sleep, and I know from experience what it is like to be eight and not sleeping.

I got up and we made cinnamon rolls from one of those fancy kits you buy at Williams-Sonoma. I am a good cook, but I suck at following directions and had never used a rolling pin in my life, so it took two and a half hours to get them to the point where they could even go in the oven, but that was okay because by the time they were baking, the winter sun was coming over the mountain, and we settled in at the kitchen table for a Rat-a-Tat Cat marathon while they baked, and it occurred to me that maybe the real reason I haven’t wanted a child all these years is because when you hurt for them when they are hurting it is the hardest hurting of all.

At lunch, at Solbar, our waitress says, “I am sorry, we don’t have a specific menu that lists our non-alcoholic beverages, but if you would like me to, I can verbalize.”

In Tunisia, nobody gives a damn whether or not you like them or not if you are a girl.

After lunch the sun comes out, and Cindy and I go for a drive down the Silverado Trail in her rented Mustang convertible. Jackson Browne is singing “The Fuse” and the vines are a month past their prime and backlit. I am thinking about Bob’s reading, thinking about how the older we get the more we’re inclined to simply name the things of the world: a whole valley that smells of grapes fermenting in oaken barrels; the taste of doughnut holes dipped in café anglaise; a Great Blue Heron, standing on one foot at the rippling edge of a pond.

Later that day, I get a text from Shannon telling me that a bunch of people got arrested for protesting the pay cuts and the tuition hikes and the police brought riot gear, helicopters, and dogs. The next text says, “Did you get a mud bath? Is Heather wearing her mini skirt? These things matter, too, in this complicated world.”

Next to the giant pool at Indian Springs, the hot water crashes and crashes up from the ground forever, and during our midnight swim Tami looks like a beetle on her back with about seventeen water noodles sticking up from underneath her.

“It sounds like a dragon,” Tami says, “like the dragon who lives at the center of the world.”

About Pam Houston:

Pam Houston is the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat. Her stories have been selected for volumes of The Best American Short Stories, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize, and The Best American Short Stories of the Century. A collection of essays, A Little More About Me, was published by W.W. Norton. In 2001, she completed a stage play called Tracking the Pleiades, and her first novel, Sighthound, was published in 2005. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, and The Evil Companions Literary Award. She is the Director of Creative Writing at U.C. Davis, and lives part of the year on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Her forthcoming book is called Contents May Have Shifted.