The Worst Kind of Girl
“They found another body,” Seth called from the motel’s lone breakfast table, across from my front desk. “Out past the dry lakebed. This one was on fire.”
His overgrown, salt-and-pepper hair was wild from the night before. Too much wine, but also: Ruby in Room 4. He thought I didn’t know. He bit into a toasted slice of the white bread I put out every morning, because otherwise he’d eat nothing at all. He thought I did not see what he tipped into his coffee some mornings, including this one. Seth rented by the week, and this was week ten.
“I hope it wasn’t on that land I just bought,” I said. “I wish these L.A. types would stop dumping their trash out here.”
I pushed a rag around the coffee carafes and the case of organic pastries made fresh by Sky, a local baker and dancer. I thought she might have a little crush on me, but I told her I was straight. I felt my curls bouncing as I cleaned. They’d pulled into tighter spirals as the gray pushed out the brown—prematurely, strangers sometimes remarked, but I did not necessarily agree. My hair was coarser, but that was me in general, at fifty. Everywhere but the inside of my arm, powdery soft as an old woman’s. I was not old, but I could see it in the distance.
San Bernardino County said hairnets were required, but I was tired of being told what to do.
“Aren’t you an L.A. type?” said Seth.
“I’m from Connecticut. Didn’t I tell you? I think I told you.”
“Probably,” he said, rubbing his forehead. “That is a helluva thing to do, light a body on fire.”
“Hopefully a dead body.”
“Oh, we would’ve heard the screams. Maybe not here by the highway, but a little further out? The way sound travels in the desert?”
Something out the window caught his eye and he watched it for a moment.
“People make no sense,” he said finally, like I was inside his head and could follow the jumps. “That’s why I write plays.”
“I want people to say the right things at the right time, I guess. My wife called me a control freak. Ex-wife.”
Seth knew that I knew he was stalled, maybe permanently, by the embarrassing reviews of his last play, ridiculed for its “straight white male gaze.”
“What gaze am I supposed to have?” he asked. “I’m not even that straight.”
“Who is?” I replied, every time.
Only once did our friendship drift too close to something else, one late afternoon in his room at the end of the concrete strip that was the Hi-Dez Motel, one block off the highway, in Yucca Valley, California. (I bought it a year ago, when my husband John was finally declared dead in absentia, after too many billable hours with a lawyer who called me kiddo because he was five years older). Seth invited me down to Room 6 to share the boxed red wine he got from the gas station across the highway.
“I never noticed how tall you are,” he said, pouring me a glass.
We were both about six feet, slim and sturdy. My late husband John was almost 6’5” and made me feel tiny by comparison. I used to love that.
Seth said, “Let’s toast to our exes. Mine takes good care of our daughter.”
“John wouldn’t touch me,” I said. “Then he left. Died, I mean.”
Seth kissed me, and I kissed back. Then I shut it down, and we were both relieved. Anyway, I had a man: Jasper. Since I bought the Hi-Dez. Once a month, not much conversation. Jasper was more than enough after my life of men.
I said, “Let’s drive out to where that body burned.”
“Paula, that is dark,” Seth said. “Let’s go this afternoon. First, I think I’ve got some writing in me.”
He had no writing in him. He was going to take a nap. But that was good; he’d be sober by afternoon. Seth knew that I knew what it was to be middle-aged and disappointed. All the words we had tried and failed to say and write were stuck to our lips and fingertips.
I watched Seth walk back down to Room 6. He’d lost weight in the weeks he’d lived at the Hi-Dez. His old linen shirt hung from square shoulders that looked strong, like shoulders you could lean on, but at my age, I knew better.
The detectives interviewed me at our house in North Stamford, which boasted a posh Greenwich, Connecticut address. That kind of stuff mattered to John. When they arrived, I ushered them into our formal dining room with its seating for twelve. I sat at the big, glossy table we almost never used. I expected the detectives to join me, but they remained standing. Power move; I respected that, but it pissed me off that I fell for it.
The shorter of the two detectives asked if I knew where my husband was.
“He’s been missing for years,” I said.
I knew it would make everything worse. But in those days, I was always hot and cranky and I no longer watched my mouth. My moods shifted like tropical storms.
The short detective said, “Your husband flew across country to hike and camp in Joshua Tree National Park, alone?”
“Were there problems in the marriage?”
“Such as?” asked the other, taller detective. Not my height, but close.
“We’ve both been so busy,” I replied automatically, as I had for years, whenever someone asked if I was okay, if John and I were okay.
Heat crept up my neck and I flushed with it. Sweat ran down my spine, between my breasts, and from each armpit. I took one of John’s autographed headshots from a stack on the sideboard and fanned myself with it..
“Menopause,” I told the detectives.
Both men looked at their shoes.
Then the tall one asked, “You and Mr. Bowen been married a long time?”
“Forever,” I said. “Fourteen years.”
Now both men looked at me.
“We thought we were a good match, but stuff happens,” I said. “John is a jock and I am not. I am an artist, in theory. John lives for his fans and was excited for his promotion at WBTW from sports guy to their first Black news anchor. He never complains about the long drive to Hartford. He enjoys being alone,” I said.
Once, I asked John what it was like, growing up with so many white people.
“You tell me,” he said.
Toward the end, one of the few things John and I agreed on was the California high desert, so different from Connecticut. We talked about retiring near Joshua Tree National Park, maybe Twentynine Palms or here in Yucca Valley. John and I both came out here alone, sometimes, when we needed space, more space than was already between us. It got worse, after the miscarriage. We did not know how to grieve.
Months after that dining room interview, one of the detectives called me. I could not remember if he was the short one, or tall.
He said, “We’re not giving up.”
He said they had coordinated with San Bernardino County law enforcement, the National Park Service, local search and rescue groups. They had John landing in Palm Springs. They had him renting a car. Then nothing, not a trace.
The detective said, “When a man just disappears, it’s usually because he wants to.”
At 3:00 PM, I locked up the motel office and went to my room, Room 1, to check on Alan Alda. Alan was my old, sweet-natured, silver tabby, a cat with straightforward needs. He was easier than a man.
Before I knocked on Seth’s door, I listened for him tapping the keys of his laptop. I wouldn’t bother him if he was writing. But then the door swung open, and there he stood, sober, truck keys in hand.
Joshua Tree and the surrounding towns were known for their spectacular natural beauty, but Highway 62, which bisected the Morongo Basin, was a commercial strip. We rattled east in Seth’s old Mazda pickup before turning off the highway and heading north into the desert. Seth turned onto another road and asphalt gave way to dirt that alternated between thick, sloppy sand and ridges that felt like we were driving over someone’s ribcage. Seth drove towards the low mountains in the distance, passing my property, my little square of sand and possibility, then other undeveloped parcels marked with stakes and a few small houses and trailers. He drove fifteen miles an hour because too much dust kicked up otherwise. Seth could be considerate.
He slowed to a crawl and stopped. He cut the engine and the sudden quiet was exquisite. It was a bright, sunny spring day, and a chilly wind sighed through the truck’s open windows. Seth pointed out the curve of steep rock, all that remained of a prehistoric lakeshore. He squinted across the expanse of sand in every direction, punctuated by scrub: creosote, white bursage, brittlebush, and lots more that I hadn’t yet looked up in John’s Guide to Mojave Desert Flora. It was one of the few things he left behind that I could use.
I wanted to tell Seth to put on his sunglasses; drink more water and less wine, whiskey, and tequila; look closely; pay attention. I reminded myself that I was no one’s mother.
Seth leaned across me to open the glovebox to grab an Altoids tin, repurposed to hold a few joints.
He finally spoke through a long exhalation of smoke: “It’s all Bureau of Land Management that way,” he said, pointing. Already he seemed more at ease. He passed me the joint. “Somewhere out there is where they found him.”
I drew a deep inhale and let the smoke settle through me. “Him?”
“I meant as in ‘person’.”
“Hmm. Do you have some idea where to look?”
“Some idea,” he said.
Seth put out the joint and got out of the truck. He started walking, and I followed him because I was a little high and he said he had some idea.
It was a beautiful spring day in the desert: blazing blue sky stretching forever, wind whipping just a little too hard. Some of the creosote bushes were starting to break out in yellow. Golden daisies bloomed from the brittlebush, and pink flowers burst from beavertail cactus, clumped here and there in the sand. It seemed impossible that anything dark or murderous could happen here. It felt good to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine, away from the motel and highway, the drive-thrus and out-of-town visitors. It was nice to take a walk with a friend. A man who was my friend—imagine that.
Seth had long legs, but he walked slowly. He wandered, while I was ready to hike. I resisted the itch in my legs to pass him. I had resisted that itch since junior high, when I was already my full adult height, mostly legs and long feet. I was bigger than most boys and convinced that pretty girls were small. So I shortened my stride.
Seth said, “Tell me something embarrassing.”
We stepped down into a wash and followed the path it carved through sand.
Finally I said, “My first night at the Hi-Dez, after I bought it, I checked out the rooms. Everything looked fine, if old and tired. Each room had the same dark brown furniture. The same tacky bedspreads and patterned carpets, hotplates, and ancient microwaves. But in Room 4, I found a penis.”
Seth came to a halt.
“Not a real one. Hot pink silicone. Battery operated. With bunny ears or butterfly wings or something.”
“A dick can be a threat, a promise, or a joke,” said Seth.
“Are you quoting something?”
“You should use that in a play, if you haven’t already,” I said.
“I think you’re the writer.”
Seth knew that, after John disappeared, I got it in my head to write a novel, not so much drawn from my life as inspired by it.
I said, “I found a garbage can liner and slipped it over my hand. I picked up the penis and threw it away. What else could I do? Then I washed my hands, which I guess I didn’t really need to.”
“Never a bad idea to wash your hands,” Seth said. “But I’d hardly call that story embarrassing.”
We arrived at a blackened clearing of sand. “Here, maybe?” Seth said. “This might be where they found the body.” He straightened to look around, squinting against the sun’s glare. “Or maybe this was a campfire. Helluva place.”
I looked down at the scorched sand where something had burned. I sniffed but all I smelled was creosote.
I said, “It must be hard to burn a body.”
“And why would you want to? Bodies are sacred,” Seth said.
“Sacred? Come on.”
“I found my only sanctuary in the bodies of women.”
“That line needs some work, but you could probably edit it into something.”
“That was from my first play,” he said. “It had a six-week run at a little theater on Santa Monica.”
I looked down at the sand. I realized it did not matter if this was where a body was found. What mattered was that people burned, before and after they were dead, and most of the time no one noticed.
The drive back to the Hi-Dez took longer. The highway was clogged with vacationers, retirees, military vehicles, delivery vans. There was no choice but to slow down. Seth’s radio was tuned to an oldies station out of Palm Springs: “Next up: Pat Benatar!”
“Pat Benatar is oldies now?” I said.
“Patty is my daughter’s name,” Seth said.
“She’s a teenager, right?”
“Fifteen,” Seth said, “Shit, no, sixteen.”
“If my daughter had lived—”
“What?” he said, turning down the music.
“I was in my first trimester,” I said.
“Oh,” said Seth, switching lanes to pass a Walmart truck. “I’m sorry.”
The day after it happened, I lay bleeding in our bed. Doubled-up maxi pads, sweatpants. John sat perched on the side. We did not touch.
He said, “If only we’d stuck to our plan. No kids.”
“They said we can try again.”
“Shh,” he said.
John was a logical man and none of this made sense. He looked glazed, in shock. Maybe it had not occurred to him until then that he was powerless. Afterward, John would not touch me. Could not. Did not. He brushed my hands away, almost angrily, like I had broken some unspoken rule. We lay beside each other without touching, arms at our sides, hands to ourselves, John seemingly resigned to something he had not discussed with me. In the years that followed, things got a little better and then they got worse. And then John was gone.
Back at the motel, there was a dark blue BMW with Arizona plates parked outside the locked office: Jasper. I never knew exactly when he’d show up. He liked it that way. One week a month, he wanted me expecting him at anytime. Always in my good underwear, just in case. I slipped my hand up my shirt—yes, the lacy black bra. Not the super sexy push-up but good enough. Every month, Jasper traveled from Phoenix to Riverside, California. Yucca Valley was out of his way, he said, but I was worth it.
Seth recognized Jasper’s car, too. He didn’t say anything, but I felt his mood darken. He steered his truck into a parking spot.
He said, “What can you possibly have to talk about?”
“Well, we talk about how much we like fucking each other.”
“Nice mouth,” he said. Seth looked gaunt in the deep yellow, late afternoon light.
Jasper was hot in an executive way. He rolled dress shirtsleeves over muscular forearms. I still was not sure what he did for a living, and it did not matter.
In the office, the front desk between us, I caught the familiar sting of his cologne as he bent to sign for Room 2, the room next to mine.
Hours later, Jasper said, “I promise I will never say I love you, even if you say it to me.”
“I won’t,” I said, and we laughed.
Time had scarred and weakened us, sure. Jasper couldn’t put weight on one knee. I needed neck support. But when we touched, we both felt the jolt: so powerful it banished self-doubt and regret. It was lust that healed. It did not matter that we did not have much in common and lived too far apart; that was kind of the point. When I emerged from Room 2, the Hi-Dez was dark and quiet. No one saw how my cheeks burned.
When I accused John of withholding sex, he said, “You’re exaggerating, Paula. It hasn’t been that long.”
He said I looked desperate, and how could anyone find that attractive? I told him I was hurt. I was furious.
“You’re so dramatic,” John said, a lot.
I found other men, eventually, after John disappeared. I had luck in the produce section of Whole Foods, where everything was perishable and expensive. Men still found me attractive. I thought maybe it was the silver in my hair. It caught their eyes and made them wonder what other ways I might let nature take its course.
I slipped into Room 1, now my permanent home. I had downsized to a single motel room, and not a great one, from a two-story, four-bedroom house in Connecticut, still for sale. After almost a year, I had not received any real offers. My realtor told me it was a tough sell with just a two-car garage and all my stuff left behind.
My niece Gerry moved in to keep an eye on it. She was on leave from New York University to heal up from a bad fall. Gerry was a big girl, tall like me but heavier. I knew her size made her unhappy. I wanted to tell her that I was big at her age, too, and I still was in lots of ways. Good ways.
I started a bath. A text buzzed from Seth: “Dinner.”
I opened the door and there he was, holding a clear plastic take-out container with a colorful assortment of sushi, each a singular, sculptural beauty.
“I know gas-station sushi sounds crazy, but I swear it’s the best in the Morongo Basin,” he said. “They get regular deliveries from some fancy restaurant down the hill, in Rancho Mirage, I think. The owners are brothers or something.”
I reached for the container, but Seth held on tight.
“You deserve better than that capitalist,” he whispered.
“I deserve great sex,” I whispered back.
“And also more than that.”
“Thanks for dinner, Seth. Next one’s on me.”
He left and I hurried to the bathroom to shut off the taps. The waterline shivered near the top. I sank carefully into the old porcelain tub, thinking about all the Hi-Dez guests who had bathed there before me, everyone trying to get clean or feel better.
Maybe a woman’s body was Seth’s sanctuary, but silence was John’s. The miscarriage drove John further into silence and away from me. A week later, when the bleeding finally stopped, I drew a hot bath and got in and stayed for an hour. I topped off the hot water until it ran lukewarm, then cold. My long body was folded into the tub’s contours like an overgrown fetus, overdue for birth.
Tonight, in my bathtub at the Hi-Dez, I did not fold myself up. My knees jutted from the water; my elbow knifed over the side. Alan Alda perched on the toilet lid and watched me.
John used to watch me like that, just as silent, from across the kitchen table, from across the bed, offering no clues to his thoughts. As if he knew we were different species, incapable of communication. So he did not try.
It was just about 5:00 the next morning, still dark, when I heard a knock on my door. I was still in my nightgown and robe, on my first mug of coffee. I was about to get dressed and write. I already had the Word document open: In_Progress.docx. So far, I’d set the font to Times New Roman, 12-point, double-spaced. The page was blank.
A fresh-poured glass of water sat beside my coffee mug, a safe distance from the keyboard. In an ashtray I had one pre-rolled joint, purchased at a dispensary in Desert Hot Springs with the help of a friendly young budtender. I planned to light it and write until it was time to open the breakfast buffet.
I peeked out and saw that it was Jasper, showered and dressed for a hike. His bulky chest filled his moisture-wicking tee.
“I’m taking the morning to check out the Park before I turn around and head to my dad’s in Riverside,” he said. “Come with me.”
“I have guests checking in this morning.”
“Guess I’ll say goodbye, then,” he said, tugging at my robe’s silky belt.
I pulled him inside Room 1 and closed the door. I said, “I open breakfast at six.”
It was not love we made, but it was something.
Susan Rukeyser writes and reads in Joshua Tree, California. Her debut novel, Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications), was an SPD Fiction Bestseller. Her short fiction is collected in Swap/Meet (Space Cowboy Books) and Whatever Feels Like Home (above/ground press). Susan founded World Split Open Press to publish select feminist titles and hosts the Desert Split Open Mic, Joshua Tree’s feminist, queer, and otherwise radical open mic, occasionally interviewing local and visiting authors. She hopes to soon find a home for The Worst Kind of Girl. susanrukeyser.com