Joel is naked, possible traveling clothes circling his feet like a Christmas tree skirt, when he announces that he has the body of a fifty year old: white, flabby, varicose-veined. He is, in fact, twenty-six. Julie, who moved into Joel’s apartment six months ago, is not repulsed by his fat. Therefore, Joel concludes, she must be in collusion with it. “Why don’t you two run off together,” he once suggested. His flesh is so lively and slippery, it seems to Julie it could be taken off, a selkie slipping out of its sealskin. Joel fixes one eyeball on Julie. Will she take the flab’s side against him? With the other eyeball he takes a final survey of their home through the open bedroom door before their departure: Did she leave anything lying about? He spots an apron decorated with strawberries on the floor. Julie doesn’t cook, exactly; she just likes to walk around wearing aprons and rollers. “Harrumph,” Joel says. He pronounces every letter: “H-a-r-r-u-m-p-h.” Joel’s elocution always makes Julie shiver. He taught her that word: elocution. Julie is a very ungathered girl. It’s so comforting when Joel compartmentalizes her. Her actions are no longer inexplicable; they’re Pyrrhic. She is Pavlovian, she is neurotic. Each time he tells her how she is, she bounces the word on her tongue for weeks, forming the syllables with agility and completely like he does. She feels named, and she’s not afraid anymore. Julie senses the eyeball still waiting on her response. She wonders if it’s better or worse that in fact Joel looks more like a shaved albino bunny than a fifty-year-old man. She decides not to bring it up.
“I wanna pickpocket you,” she says finally. “Your front pockets. Heh, heh.” She means she is captivated by the secretive way his skin folds over itself even as a little girl she loved pockets, lots of pockets, and her grandmother would sew an extra half-dozen on all her outfits but she can tell Joel thinks she’s just being gratuitous again. Julie, Joel notes sullenly for the thousandth time, is absolutely pretty, in face, body and in crazy mind. He steps clumsily into the pants he chose; he puts the rest of his clothes back in their proper drawers. Julie loves the contrast between his exact thoughts and his imprecise physical form. She wants to pickpocket his mind as well follow him around and then, when the opportunity comes, make off with his head’s contents! She doesn’t tell him that part. Joel is perplexed by Julie’s interest in him. Frankly, he finds it a little irritating. He knows he’s nothing to shake a stick at: he processes claims for a living; he likes TV. Joel doesn’t want anyone shaking any sticks at him. Julie is a pronounced stick-shaker. Julie is the one who picked Yellowstone as their vacation spot, because of a vague but urgent theory that only by changing atmospheric levels going below sea level or up a mountain, thus changing Joel’s and Julie’s atomic makeup could love be renewed. But Yellowstone is neither below sea level nor up a mountain, Julie’s mother pointed out when apprised of the plan. Yes, but it is only two hours away, Julie countered. The fact that Julie’s reasons constantly shift doesn’t make them any less compelling in her eyes. Besides, water is not supposed to go up, but at Yellowstone it does, in the form of a sixty-foot geyser. Joel was in a rare state of disorganization when he fell in love with Julie his workplace flooded, his father disappeared. Julie is counting on the confusion of water moving the wrong way and goats fainting to render him once again incompetent to defend himself against her burrowing advances. The brochure doesn’t explain the goats; it just presents them. “See our famous fainting goats.”
It is raining and cold. Joel drives; Julie watches the stream of rain cover her window. She can’t see through it. The water is a wall constantly moving away, but it never leaves. It makes Julie feel resigned and gentle. Julie thinks about marrying Joel. She has a feeling that he’ll ask her tonight, after the spa activities. Joel puts a Stevie Wonder tape in, and the image of the man smiling and bobbing intrudes on Julie’s pretty rain window.
“Go away, Stevie,” she hisses.
“What are you talking about?” Joel says.
“Is life with me a living nightmare?” Julie asks. She says it conversationally she wants to know.
“Yes,” Joel says. Then he realizes that she can tell, from how immediately and confidently he answered, that he’s used the very phrase to himself many times. He glances at her profile. “It’s okay, Max,” he says. He calls her that because she goes to Office Max so often. Julie has a powerful longing for architects’ pens in graduating sizes with decimal points, and folders. Julie isn’t hurt, though: nightmares slip into dreams and back again. Even when she’s awake, everyone looks as if they were underwater to Julie, and everything is mutating. So she’s sure Joel’s bad feeling will soon turn into something else.
“We’re here,” Joel says, as if he has won something and Julie has lost. Julie trails her boyfriend’s sulky, lumbering form into the spa, where they are hustled off through long, clammy corridors to opposite ends of the buildings (male and female). Condensation oozes down the walls and across the ceilings. Puddles collect. At the end of the women’s line, a sweating golem makes gestures indicating that Julie is to take off her clothes and step into a tub of mud. She sits on the edge of a chair uncomfortable and small, a middle-school chair and takes off one shoe. Julie is miserable. This mud had been used before. There are indents on the surface, in the shape of retreating foot, hand, unknown part . She removes her other shoe, rolls down one sock, the other . She would try to argue her way out of it, or sneak out a window, if she thought escape was possible. But the golem stands squarely in her path: silent, eternal, inevitable. Immersion is gonna occur.
One hundred and twenty feet west, Joel’s body too is subjected to things he doesn’t want. But once one is naked, it’s easier to just go along with it.
Julie is in the mud, naked, orifices undefended, under the heavy-lidded gaze of the golem. Only Julie’s head sticks out three-quarters of her head. She attempts to discover her sensuality. Before she can find it, she’s distracted by a feeling in her hand, like it’s entangled. She begins the laborious process of lifting her arm out. She holds her hand before her face and inspects it. She can make out definite strands: there’s hair in her mud! She feels with her other limbs. There’s hair everywhere! It’s a hair bath!
“Um, I’m ready for my shower now,” she says in a small, hopeful voice.
Alone in their cabin, Joel turns on the TV. In black and white, a woman plays something scary on the church organ and gets kicked out by the priest, who suspects her of being possessed, so she goes to an abandoned carnival at a beach. Swirls of fog rise off sand-strewn tar, a ride carriage tilts in the wind.
Julie is hanging out in the spa bar (it’s decorated like an Old West saloon, a pair of plaster-of-paris bull’s horns mounted over a gilded mirror), waiting to meet Joel for their arranged date. She feels like she’s escaped something truly horrible. And she had! She spies a pay phone. It would be great to talk to her sister. She makes change by buying a bourbon.
“Rose, I think my plan is working,” Julie tells her.
“I have my doubts about your original supposition, Jule.”
“It’s just like those ‘Second Chance’ Harlequin Romances you’re always reading,” Julie reminds her. “There’s an affliction leading up to”
“to him cupping her breast tremblingly,” Rose interrupts.
“and realizing he’s wanted to marry her all along,” Julie concludes.
“Right! The man is blind and proud, he confused her love with pity, but now he knows.”
“Right! Or he’s not blind but he sort of accidentally kidnapped the lady, or she has a retarded child.” Julie thinks a minute. “Rose, do you think a hair bath will do?”
“Hey Julie,” Rose says suddenly, “do you remember when we moved in the middle of the night a couple times, you me and Mom?”
“To get out of paying back rent, remember? You were too young, I guess. We’d take whatever of our toys and clothes that would fit in the car, and glasses wrapped in towels.” Rose sounds wistful.
Joel abandons the black and white woman to her amusement-park fate, walks through the real Napa Valley mist. He feels unhinged in this sad, sepia-colored resort town. Normally, Joel is quite hinged. He picks up a stick and whacks at some bushes. The resulting “thwack!” is a satisfying sound.
While talking with Rose, Julie has been eyeing a fellow leaning up against the fake wood wall next to the men’s room. He has shoulder-length sandy hair, surfer clothes, and a miserable expression. When she runs out of coins, she walks over to him. “I didn’t know surfers got sad,” she says. “Wanna get drunk?” They move to the bar, where they speak with the bartender and ignore each other for a few minutes, like infants on a play date. Julie notes that the surfer’s sentences are incomplete and their meaning drifts. He is not precise at all.
“Your voice is like an éclair,” Julie says upon completion of her second mai tai. “The words get kind of soft in the middle, you know?”
“I’m gay, you know,” the surfer says. “I’m not going to do anything with you like that, okay?”
“I came here with my boyfriend,” he explains, “to patch things up, I guess. He went into the bathroom twenty minutes ago.” He laughs.
They order another round. He stops looking over his shoulder at the men’s room door, and Julie stops looking over her shoulder at the saloon doors. This is when she had thought Joel would propose. They order another round. Julie says something approximating “This is truly the transports of delight.” Somehow comes about a kiss between them. Julie is ferocious, Surfer is tremulous. He tells her to slow down. She puts a hand on his thigh s-l-o-w-l-y. “I guess it’s just the woman in you that brings out the man in me” runs through her mind. Who sang that? Foreigner? And then Julie starts to cry.
She’s not exactly sure how she got to her cabin, but she’s under the covers. Joel is in bed next to her, but he’s on top of the covers. He probably stood her up, she realizes and probably he didn’t ask her to marry him. Joel clears his throat. “Things happened to me that I really didn’t want today. Max, that’s how I’ve felt about you, about our sex life, for these last few months.”
It’s one of those things you say when it’s definitely over. Julie has a liquid-turning-solid feeling.
“Yeah?” Julie shoots back. She feels wild and even happy. You have six moments in your life, maybe five, when everything is peeled off, all your politeness, fear, scheming, hypotheses, confusion. You’re just a nugget of yourself. You’re a nut, a rock. You have nothing to lose and nothing to protect. This feels like one of the six (or five).
“You want to know what I think?” Julie says. “This whole stupid relationship was stupid!”
They smile at each other. Julie can’t believe Joel’s smiling, and she can’t believe she is. It’s over. She thinks it might be neat to see what it feels like to be something solid kissing something solid inside a solid night. Two rocks knocking together. She says, “Do you wanna have sex?”
“No,” Joel says, still smiling. “Nope. No, definitely not. No.”
“I’ll pee on you,” Julie offers instead. Joel looks both disgusted and intrigued. Ten minutes later, it is Joel who is peeing on Julie all the way up to her breast. They are standing in the shower, and then they’re doing it, one fat and belligerent, one thin and eager. They slip down, their legs on the slimy shower stall floor, torsos and heads out on the bathroom floor tiles. Tiny, ancient tiles . . . a few missing, like the teeth of someone almost dead, Julie notices right before her face gets smushed into them. She sees, not stars, but a giant piece of crinkly tinfoil, all the crinkles flashing in the sun.
The next day is even colder and even rainier. Joel and Julie drive the sixty feet or so to where Old Faithful is supposed to erupt. Joel has no intention of getting out of the car, so Julie goes alone. The miracle of rearranged atoms is all for her now. Her foot lands in quickmud. Slowly, the whole sneaker gets sucked down with a sickening “squelch.” Pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be pleasant, she reminds herself. Joel watches her weave through hot dog stands and picnic tables to the beat of Muzak coming out of eight or ten loudspeakers, a looming pole of a girl with a big head and oversized sneakers. He turns the heater up. A marker informs Julie she’s reached the geyser’s edge. “Step back!” it warns. She doesn’t. Sixty feet high it will be that’s ten men on top of each other! Standing so close to a natural wonder will change her, she’s sure, it will imbue her with some of its majesty, its surety. She wants to be good. She wants to understand things. These are the things she wishes for, standing in the rain alone and waiting. All at once, the geyser erupts: four feet of stinking sulfuric water splashing her. God, it’s putrid! No wonder the goats faint. Where are the goats, anyway? She trudges back to the car. “You stink,” Joel remarks. When he leans over to kiss her, he notices, right before closing his eyes, one naked, sulfuric foot. She must have lost her shoe and sock in the mud. And Joel feels it for the very first time: he wants Julie in his home, if for no other reason than so he can warm up that sad and cold-looking little appendage. n°