By AMMI KELLER
For Rachel, the plague ended in May of 2021, on the day she again touched a stranger.
This stranger appeared when Rachel entered the clothing optional area of Dessert Springs. The name was a pun, the resort’s sign featuring a cartoon girl reclining in a banana split boat. Only two of the nine hot tubs were occupied, both by white women naked except for full suits of what appeared to be rockabilly tattoos. Rachel and her wife SJ, both one month vaccinated, started filling their stock tubs. Then, as Rachel walked past the women on her way to the outdoor shower, they laughed.
The sun was in the center of its arc and unbarred by clouds, the drought-crazed air pulling moisture from anywhere it could find it. The rock doves nesting in the pepper tree made their confusing noises. It was Rachel’s first time going without a mask in public, and her nose and jaw felt painfully sensitive. She had a lovingkindness meditation practice, which she called on as she got naked to avoid the paranoid delusions that other bathers were laughing at her. What was there to laugh at?
Rachel was feeling a bit like the banana split girl as she removed a yellow jumper that split down the front to her waist, releasing first her midline of cleavage and then, from the skort’s ruffled bottom, her underbutt, toned via months of online HITT videos. Her thighs were downed with Jewish lesbian pubic hair to mid knee.
She stepped carefully across the sun-bleached deck, lay back in the burning water until her pores screamed and shivered, and then settled into happiness. Vacation: the hot fudge sundae of sensation after a year of limited textures (keyboard, screen), limited sounds (the bark of voices over laptop speakers, the anger of crows), limited sights (her pod of four’s pale faces), limited smells and tastes (takeout international cuisine eaten on the same folding table beside the couch).
And now? Damp skin laced with sulfur, the shrill cries of killdeer, a CBD soft drink flavored with lavender and lemon balm, the gold grass hills above. And still the most intense sensation was the proximity of unfamiliar people, of their meat and bones and smells, after a year of no strangers (clothed or unclothed) at all.
Rachel splashed her face, put on her sun hat, and began taking short sideways glances beneath its brim at the other girls. They had so much ink that she could take her time, seeking an answer to the question that, more than any other, haunted her life: friend or foe? For a reader and an overthinker, this was an ideal way to ease into what she hoped was about to be the after-times. At first all she saw were muddles of color. A waterlily. A sleeve of thorns and sunset.
Then the taller woman—Rachel nicknamed her Marie—stood to stretch, revealing hips trellised with roses as though to hold her tush in place from the sides. Also her back piece: an enormous bald eagle, its wingspan opening out over four American flags. This, after a year of partisan battles over a piece of cloth—the face mask one either did or didn’t have to wear in order to contain the plague. Rachel, a diligent masker (physically, until now) and longstanding flag burner (mentally, at least) felt her lower face spasm.
Not that Rachel had had the guts to get tattoos herself. There was nothing written on her to oppose the American flag or to mark the queer anarchist life she’d lived: climbs onto abandoned rooftops and up bridges, public sex and public drugs, protests against policy and police, getting kettled and escaping to do it again and again—at least it had seemed so to her a decade ago—her whole life long. That and so much loneliness, not that she would have known how to draw it.
Would the second girl’s tattoos upend or validate Rachel’s conclusions? This investigation by scanning felt familiar in practice, like scrolling a feed. The slightly younger woman—Rachel named her Lee—had long knots of dark hair. She was prettier, meaning that Rachel didn’t mind looking at her, felt herself extending the good will one offered attractive people. On Lee’s elbow, which hung over the side of the tub, was a red spider web.
History lesson: during the eighties and nineties, if you were punk, you watched or took part in battles to save your spaces from neo-Nazi skinheads. Anyone over thirty back then seemed not to perceive what was going on or to underestimate it, making you feel like a participant in a war between superheroes—the people on both sides looked the same to the authorities and the stakes were that high. Two decades in a nutshell: the good guys won. In cities and towns across the U.S., in places like Pittsburgh and Oakland, Portland and Columbus, the would-be Nazis were removed from the clubs, which stopped them from recruiting young teens. Rachel was a touch too young and too sheltered to have been a superhero herself but she carried the symbols and the stories, the friend of a friend who got stabbed and didn’t make it. She would never have chosen white supremacist symbology at a bar trivia night, but her mouth went dry and her heart beat like a chicken’s when she saw that spiderweb. Only after did her brain swoop in, trying to help.
To be fair, Rachel used to forget the code to skinhead bootlace colors—which colors meant someone would hurt people who belonged to a minority group and which meant someone would defend them. Maybe she had gotten it wrong again? Or maybe the girl was a confused goth. Lee’s back was covered in some amorphous Japanese-style willows. But there was a blocky symbol on the elbow, over the red web, that looked like two S’s.
Oddly, the air that dried Rachel’s upper lip was cool, almost powdery. Adrenaline fed her bloodstream like a drug she didn’t know she needed. SJ was safe a few feet away, reading Black feminist theory about sea mammals. And Rachel was not here with just her wife. She had friends coming.
Rachel was not singular. She was a kind of person, and these girls didn’t know that yet.
Maxwell, Camelia, Kay, Zora, Jess and whoever else was coming this trip—Rachel never knew the full extent of their crew until she saw everyone gathered around the campfire—were here somewhere at Dessert Springs, or soon to arrive. They were a sprawling group of queers/lesbians who carried themselves like they owned the place while somehow also acting like they might get 86’d at any moment. They’d been coming for a decade, not counting the year lost to COVID, because the place was inexpensive and relatively lawless.
Maxwell, Camelia, Kay, Zora, Jess and perhaps a half a dozen or so sometimes-bathers had an origin story at Dessert Springs that they retold so often Rachel was forced to question the meaning of its retelling (she adjunct-taught queer theory at SF State). Zora and Jess, as the story went, “discovered” Dessert Springs while on a road trip. They’d brought back others. On that first big trip, the whole crew had been letting their assorted traumas out into the sulfured water while playing hearts on the deck, when the man who owned the resort admonished them.
Homophobically, according to Zora, Camelia, and Kay.
Non-homophobically, according to Rachel and Maxwell (and maybe Jess, who refused to commit).
“There are other people here,” Rachel remembers him saying. His body was dignified and a bit sad, boxy muscles going soft, a face just north of fifty. He told them that card playing wasn’t allowed because, as he pointed out (literally, with his finger), their group was occupying all of the clothing-required tubs. Rachel saw a person reluctant to right the situation but aware that he was the only one in a position to do so. Some of her friends saw a blustering, domineering stance, a prejudiced mind that assumed they were together because they looked gay (but they were together, Rachel argued).
What happened next, they all agreed on.
They put away the playing cards, got quiet and descended into full sulk, visited their tents for headlamps and warmer clothes, then gathered at one campsite as the cool of the desert night came in and the birds—there were fewer before the drought and fire years—were silenced by the dark.
They were different people ten years ago: two grad students (including Rachel), two workers at their first serious jobs (Zora), a pro Dom (Kay) and two others were sometime sex workers transitioning out of the business (Camelia), a landscaper (Maxwell), a restaurant manager, a massage therapist, a motorcycle mechanic (SJ), and a dogwalker (Jess). The sex workers had long had the money to go to a resort but for the rest of them putting out the cash was a first, though they found it hard to demand respect because of it. The part of a Gen X queer that could always be made to feel fourteen years old and stuck with a choice between two mutually exclusive categories—homosexuality and adulthood—had been activated. They started drinking.
Picking apart stories was one way they tried to process trauma (getting reminded of hot tub rules isn’t trauma, but there is a lifetime under every fingernail). Laughter helped. Queers also had other ways. A few more logs on the fire and Kay started beating Maxwell with a switch pulled from a tamarisk tree. Then somebody else wanted a turn. Beating people is much louder than playing cards. But as the hours went on, the man who owned the resort didn’t come to tell them to be quiet. Rachel understood: her friends had become werewolves and were she not one of them, she would have been afraid to approach after moonrise. The next day the queers again enjoyed the tubs. Emboldened, they kept coming back.
At least, Rachel was counting on them coming, on this first weekend post-quarantine. Where were her friends? There were three bathing areas and cell phones didn’t work at Dessert Springs.
From out of the tubs, the tattooed woman Rachel was calling Lee stretched out a leg to rub some salt on it—an environmental hazard and thus a rule even Rachel’s friends had not broken—and there was a stylized confederate flag at the back of one hairless thigh, the word “Remember” in script below.
On the front of the same thigh, which Lee was palpating, was an iron cross.
The girl’s knuckles were like a book Rachel desperately needed to read in a language she only knew a few words of. Symbols, it seemed, on every segment of every digit: a sort of trident, something blurry that looked like a Pac Man but felt ominous, arrows and runes.
The zigzag inside a circle on one section of her ring finger: was it or was it not a swastika? And what was Rachel going to do if it was?
When they had their first showdown a decade before, Maxwell, Camelia, Kay, Zora, Jess had been young—or youthful enough, especially because they dressed like hookers and skateboarders, to be taken for young. But they’d since crossed the threshold into midlife. There were still a lot of tits and leopard prints, the nineties styles adhered to or expanded on, although the clothes themselves were better constructed.
They now: taught college (Rachel), worked for nonprofits (Camelia), organized or researched for unions (Jess, Zora), ran STI-testing campaigns for the department of public health (Kay), repaired biotech machines (SJ), and nursed cancer patients through the COVID year (Maxwell). In their free time they took part in anti-racist reading groups, did yoga (even the ones who swore they’d never ohm), got arrested during well-coordinated civil disobedience. Rachel hungered for their presence now, for them soaking and squinting at their academic papers or anti-colonial science fiction (or taking in the words with ease in their first pair of readers), wearing suits bought after Googling “retro bikinis for fat bodies” or “genderqueer swimwear.” Rachel’s friends were very comfortable being naked in public, except for the two who were never nude and were comfortable with that. The group no longer day-drank and drugs were reserved for spiritual journeys or Dyke March Saturday.
The difference from a decade ago: they were not looking for trouble.
Rachel’s friends had become people who, after plenty of wrangles with trouble, had learned how to take vacations. Their bodies were as intricately inked as those of the women now near Rachel, their tattoos also running the gamut from decades old stick-and-pokes to multi-thousand-dollar body art. To the untrained eye, the two groups were indistinguishable. But to those who could read, Rachel’s friends’ bodies were upside-down mirrors decorated with tented fists, diamonds surrounded by switchblades, a man’s body skewered by the eyes of a woman, blood running down his back in jet-black drops.
The taller woman, Marie, posed and Lee took her picture—though cell phones weren’t allowed at the naked tubs. Marie aimed the hose at her own face and curled her tongue upward, like a porn star. Like the water was semen. Rachel imagined the man who’d be receiving this photo when they got back into range and hit a conundrum. No matter how gross and sad the offering, he still didn’t deserve it. The edges of the clear stream falling from the hose were sharply visible to her. Rachel’s vision was crisper than made sense and her breathing was shallower.
And she was still an intellectual: that this woman had laughed at Rachel—at her lesbianism or her Jewishness or her pubic hair or her Jewish lesbian pubic hair—reminded Rachel of an essay she read on Gogol’s short story “The Nose,” in which a nose tootles around doing its thing. The writer thought the story was about the way our minds are all entirely different on the inside and sometimes life makes that obvious. That both Rachel and Marie found each other’s sexuality pitiable and aberrant said something about life, but what? And Gogol: wasn’t there anti-Semitism in his fiction? Was it absurd that in trying to make sense of murderous absurdity Rachel could think of no one better to turn to than a straight male Cossack?
As Marie turned to allow for a second angle on the money shot, she revealed the reddened outline of a Nazi cross on her leg, a new tattoo in progress, still empty inside.
Rachel’s body wanted to harm these bodies.
Hold on and think it through, her brain said.
To be a Jewish body 65 years after the Holocaust and 116 after the pogrom that brought Rachel’s great-grandfather to America meant she felt willing to kill a stranger, despite not feeling particularly motivated. She didn’t feel angry or scared, just willing. As though hurting these women was a way to right the situation and she was the only one in a position to do so.
Rachel’s family had an origin story: her great-grandfather had killed the Cossack who raped his sister, then fled to the U.S. to start the family that would result in overthinking gay Rachel. To be a body is to sometimes act before you think. To be a middle-aged lesbian on the weekend when the coronavirus lockdown was finally lifting was to think: you’ve put a lot of effort into not getting banned from Dessert Springs.
Rachel’s inner dialogue, adjusted to the speed of hand-to-hand combat outside a shtetl in Russia, spooled out possible actions.
One option: collect her sprawling group of friends, confront the neo-Nazi girls, prevent them from accessing any weapons that might be in their bags, and then: something.
Another: find the owner, ask him to do: something. Kick the girls out? But it would be hard to be out here with a small staff, nothing but miles of dead dry hills, including the BLM land that served as a de facto rifle shooting range. To worry these girls would come back one early morning with another ten of their crew.
A third possibility: fight. Right now. SJ was there, unaware and with a bad back, but undeniably a warrior. She was naked, Rachel was naked, and their opponents were naked. No one, per definition of the word naked, had a weapon in hand. Rachel and SJ could fight them on the hot wood of the deck. Both used to do different martial arts. The body would remember and the Nazi girls were probably not so smart, therefore not so good at fighting. Though it’s also possible that if you covered your hands and neck in symbols of violence you might brawl more often than Rachel and SJ did, which was never.
Rachel stood up, dripping. Birds dipped and cawed, the screaming peace of a ceasefire, while SJ, Marie, and Lee looked at their phones, napped, or engaged in small gestures of self-care like pressure point massage. Rachel leaned down beside SJ’s tub, ruffled the short, delightfully prickly haircut Rachel had given her herself.
“I’ll be right back,” she said. And because alerting SJ would have started the conflict right then and there, that was the only thing she said.
You can be in a shtetl, reliving every fight your ancestors never finished, while you are at the same time walking down a dusty hill in flip flops, a damp jumper from which your lumps are protruding, and a wide brimmed hat. Because she didn’t know how long she had or if SJ would be safe with them, Rachel moved like a desert hare down the path to the main office.
Should she find the owner? During every retelling of their origin story, she had defended him. But her gut, tuned to a pitch that felt both ancient and immediate, said that he was a good man, but that she could not trust him to recognize the immediacy of the situation. (He was, after all, part of the generation that hadn’t gotten it.) Nor to take action when it might cost him his own safety at the most, revenue at the least. Rachel rocketed past the office, scattering a cotton-tail rabbit lying belly down in the shade. It was unfortunate that possibility narrowed during a crisis, or that she did. The campsites came into view around the bend.
Rachel’s friend group had been such a source of easy closeness, at least after the dates, breakups, and reshufflings were done. For a decade now, they had been good at avoiding trouble in their relationships with one another. Would this split them apart?
The women and queers Rachel found setting up camp chairs at the most central site—Maxwell, Camelia, Kay, Zora and Jess—were white and not Jewish. They had all been involved in an anti-racist reading group Rachel had been too busy for, during this year of protests and plague. Nonetheless, she was to be its beneficiary.
Kay’s copy of My Grandmother’s Hands was face down on the cooler when Rachel arrived. As she gobbled up her friend’s hugs, she felt the quakiness of her limbs compared to theirs and the tightness of her jaw against their smooth shoulders. Even before she spoke, Rachel regretted getting her freak-out all over these people, on what was supposed to be the day when freaking out was over.
Rachel explained. Her friends were people she’d escaped police kettles with and they adjusted almost instantly to the immediacy of trouble. They were disturbed, as queers and as anti-racists. But they did not panic. Eye dilation and skin flush remained at normal levels.
“To hell with them,” Maxwell said. “But I don’t think we should just go scream at them or something. What would be the point? I mean, I get it, it’s horrible, but it’s not like we’re going to change their minds.”
“That’s not why we’d do something,” Camelia said. Undefined, the word something continued to bloat.
“What then?” Kay asked.
“We could just let them know we can see them,” Zora said. “As in: we don’t approve.”
Rachel had to shake herself in order to speak and when she did her thighs took up the shaking. “She’s got an iron cross tattoo. That’s a Nazi symbol. It advocates extermination.”
It wasn’t what Rachel said—was that even a fact? She couldn’t get on the internet to check—but her taut, desperate vocal cords that made the others quiet, careful. Kay sat forward in her camp chair; Zora’s brow furrowed. Because of their book club they knew that a body couldn’t react inauthentically, couldn’t unfeel what it felt or feel what it didn’t. Was it possible that even though her friend were queers, being a Jewish queer was different? Though she taught the concept of intersectionality, Rachel only now understood it as the presence of wounds one needs to sit inside, in all of their particularity, in order to clean. So her friends did not lean in to squeeze her arm because they understood. They did so because they cared.
“I need you all to go up there with me,” Rachel said, a painful whisper.
No, it didn’t break them apart. The white non-Jewish queers stood up, literally. They were willing to take off their clothes and get in the water.
The plan: enter quietly alone or in pairs, fill tubs, get naked. The undressing part was consensed upon because it was both a feminist speech act and a way to keep the girls from getting suspicious. They would all shower, soak, and observe until all nine tubs were filled. Then when Rachel gave the signal: something.
She felt guilty on the long march up the hot hill: guilty while passing the enormous salt cedar where the adolescent owls slept, guilty for not getting SJ’s consent and for orchestrating something that was bound to be disagreeable. Nonetheless, her body was marching past the grill and deck chairs and her friends’ bodies were behind her.
Kay unlatched the gate and disappeared behind it. Then Zora, followed by Maxwell and Camelia. It was hard to wait beside the sapling with the rock dove nest. Jess went. When Rachel entered last, the line for the shower was nearly done. Her friends had left her the tub nearest the girls.
Those girls—women really, of their own vintage. Marie did stretches on the deck with her bundled clothes as a yoga prop, which infuriated Rachel. Because who invented yoga? Not Christian Nationalists! Lee was fake-asleep in her tub, irritated and gleaming.
Rachel sat up in her tub, her chest drawn like an arrow into the quiver of her haunches, while her friends effected poses of relaxation. Maxwell’s head was tipped back so their eyes fell under the shade from the sun umbrella, GODDEXX written in enormous Old English font below their collarbones and above faded top surgery scars. Camelia was bedecked in enormous cat’s eye sunglasses, her fat triceps decorated with that surrealist image of the woman spearing a man with daggers that emerged from her eyeballs. Kay cracked open an energy drink, the Sylvia Ray Rivera tattoo on her thigh looking purposefully out over the water’s edge. Jess, whose tattoos were all of medicinal herbs, experimented with the right blend of hot and cold by aiming the hose at the maypop vine on their thigh. Zora had only one tattoo: a pink triangle with the words SILENCE=DEATH on one calf. She did a transgressive-for-a-butch-person burlesque move to flash it at Rachel while Rachel’s husband-wife SJ smiled at everyone in turn—utterly oblivious—then went back to her book.
Because Rachel had no tattoos, she had no markings to celebrate the life she was finally getting to live: queer and recently married to the genderqueer of her dreams (and accepted as such by both her elderly family members and her own generation of radical, anti-marriage queers, everyone in their own way proud of having mellowed), teaching the next generation to get smart in order to make trouble, cultivating a backyard garden of radishes that came from tiny seeds. It was life! It was lovely. And it was in no way preordained. People fought for that shit, every step of the way.
“We can see you,” Rachel said.
At first the neo-Nazi girls didn’t react, relying on the assumption of hot tub etiquette, in which one never engages a stranger. But when Rachel said it again Lee’s head snapped to and her eyes narrowed. Marie immediately looked afraid, then, after tracking Lee’s lack of a reaction, defiant.
“We can see you, the tattoos. What is all this?” Rachel flitted her hand to indicate their bodies, sounding like the Yiddish great-grandmothers she never knew: Vat is all this? Eh? She wanted to laugh out loud at the goofiness of her voice. This wasn’t unpleasant at all. Her friends’ faces were not in focus but she picked up on the color of their flesh turned toward her.
“None of your business,” Lee said. She closed her eyes as though finished with Rachel, but there was a pulse in her neck, a tell.
“But I think it is my business,” Rachel said. Then she leaned forward so quickly that by the time she sat back she’d thrown Lee’s bag, clothes, and towel over the fence. It was beyond a doubt the smoothest physical move of her life. (The first time she’d kissed SJ, Rachel had clipped SJ’s lips with her teeth.) On the other side, Maxwell, who did smooth things regularly—they had once dated, long ago—tossed Marie’s belongings over the fence.
So these were to be the terms: mano a mano, naked girl vs naked girl. Rachel’s body fed on the pure ticklish thrill of believing that the big brawls of life might happen after the pandemic, instead of it marking a permanent retreat into her home office.
“You can’t—” Marie looked between Lee and Maxwell, intimidated enough that her voice trailed off.
“You should know you can’t come in here with that ink,” Camelia said, giving them all pause. It carried the most weight coming from a woman with not one but three switchblades on her thigh, arranged around a gemstone meant to be rose quartz. “Get out of here and don’t come back.”
Camelia, at forty-eight, had fought these battles thirty years ago and won. Her voice was solid and she was not going to get out of her tub. It was done.
“You can’t tell us what to do,” Marie said, though Lee just rolled her eyes and began to wring out her hair. It seemed likely Lee was just going to glide out while choosing her insults in order to impress her friend—whatever, they were leaving anyway, etc. This outcome, to Rachel’s jacked body, was not acceptable. Luckily, to Marie, an unforeseen injustice seemed to be occurring.
“We’ve been stepped on long enough,” she said, a divot appearing between her eyebrows that made her look stunned as a victim of elder abuse or a pre-teen. Her logic must have gone like this: she and Lee were heterosexual white Aryan representatives of everything that was still right about America and people like Rachel and her gender freak friends couldn’t possibly replace them as hot tubbers. Because if that was allowed to go unchallenged, then what? The scene must simultaneously have been a validation of what Marie had taken in via radicalization and a gross violation of it.
Lee tried to tell her friend, with eye and head motions, that America would be great again at some later date but for now that were outnumbered and there were snacks in the car. But Marie couldn’t stop herself.
“You are—” she shrieked, teeth and gums taking over her face.
The vitriol that followed was directed at Rachel and contained all the slurs and assumptions she expected plus a few surprises: Marie seemed to have concluded from Rachel’s stretch marks that she had spawn which wouldn’t live to see adulthood after the coming storm.
This part of Rachel’s plan was the clearly not-adequately imagined something. She looked to Lee (who she had titled “the evil one” due to her pictorial commitment to brutality) from Marie (“the one who wants to fit in” due to the barely healed ink and the pathetic photoshoot). Lee’s nostrils were dilated but her eyes remained hooded. She seemed prepared to wait this out, to avoid legal trouble. The girl was a felon, Rachel concluded. Good. Rachel imagined her doing time and her abolitionist heart snapped closed before she could even begin to debate it.
Marie continued yelling, but whatever the girl’s ancestors had gone through in England in the seventeenth century, Rachel still found the wideness of Marie’s eyeballs unpleasant. She found the girl’s triggeredness itself annoying, wanted to kick Marie in the cunt so her foot went all the way in.
“Wait outside for me,” Lee told Marie. Only that. And all seven of them froze. She was a scrawny (okay nice tits) naked girl without a weapon and they all felt the fear.
What would she do? What could she do?
Marie put on her flip flops, told them they were going to be in jail or camps by late summer, and exited the gate. Curiously, she latched the latch behind her, so now she could hear but not see what was going on at the tubs. Lee looked at Rachel with a coldness that seemed as hollowing as it was hollow. She opened her slim lips.
Rachel sprang forward out of her tub, grabbed Lee’s head from the sides and forced it down under the water. It might not have worked—the girl was all sinew and strategy—but Lee’s foot slipped against the bottom of the tub, and her long hair became two perfect handles.
The senses become more acute when you are holding a girl’s head underwater.
The hair that wasn’t knotted around Rachel’s fingers unfurled like a dark brown octopus and floated near the surface. Lee struck out with her fists, sending half the water in the tub over its sides. So Rachel let her back up for a breath, looked hard at her raw pink skin and astonished eyes, and shoved her down again. Little screams had escaped and now they stopped escaping from the mouths of friends Rachel had temporarily forgot existed.
“You okay?” Marie yelled from outside, but given orders by someone above her, she didn’t unlatch the gate. The sun shone down on them all: on Marie with her jumper half on her undried body, on the newly powerful muscles of Rachel’s shoulders, on Lee’s hips bucking and her knees cracking the side of the tub, on the baby rock doves and rabbits, most of which wouldn’t live to see adulthood, on Rachel’s friends who didn’t know what to do, only that they must not call her by her name.
It was all up to her now. What had her great-grandfather felt, killing the Cossack? Had he felt anything emotional at all or had he just been aware of his opponent’s body, as Rachel was of Lee’s slippery skin? Of the cloudless sky and the strength of her own fingers, which had learned how not to let go when it counted. Rachel waited till the screams were over, then listened to the churning of the water and the slapping of Lee’s body against the tub and beyond that to the silence in which these sounds were held.
Then SJ’s hands were on Rachel’s shoulders.
“Okay, okay. That’s probably enough.”
You could not deny a body. A body that knew the risk of doing too much and the risk of doing too little. So SJ did not tell Rachel she was crazy, that she had to stop, that she could go to prison.
She didn’t say anything else at all, just rested her warm hands on Rachel’s back.
And it was a smoothly made rhetorical argument in favor of love, one that defined what love was and what it could offer. Not just for a good life in the present but for forgiveness for the crimes committed by one’s ancestors when they had fewer choices than you did. Warmth—kindness as opposed to heat—spread through Rachel and her fingers let go. Lee sat up, retching, breathing, and audibly and grotesquely weeping.
Lee pulled back her elbow as if to throw a punch, but her fist landed on the deck chair between them, specifically on Rachel’s towel, which she stole. The sockets around Lee’s eyes were red and wet streaks flowed out of them continually, even after she’d wiped the rest of her face dry. Her gaze stayed trained on the surface of the water.
As if directed by an outside force, everyone in the clothing optional bathing area began drying and dressing in a hurry. Which must have made them look ridiculous, and also like part of the same team, to the nondescript couple who entered and assessed the umbrellas, choosing the best angle for midday shade.
Once outside the gate, all the women and queers were as silent as co-conspirators. Lee looked different in her cut off denim overalls and trucker’s hat, the long t-shirt that covered her elbows, her worn sneakers. She walked with her shoulders bowed, not like an ashamed person but like a tomboy, a scrapper who had lost a fight.
Rachel felt her friends’ eyes on the back of her head.
But it was going to be okay, wasn’t it?
Only then did the thoughts stampede, as if released from the animal pen of her limbic brain: if she hadn’t let go, her friends could have become accomplices to a killing. Rachel kept watching Lee, ready to collect more symbols, more proof, but the names on her hat and shirt were just brands. They didn’t mean anything.
They walked down the hill parallel but at a distance from the girls, in order to make sure they left. Marie stayed quiet, looking at Lee with alternating concern and disappointment. Lee burned and boiled. But aside from her leaking tear ducts, she held her emotions in.
It was easy to see the abused little girl who learned how to do that.
Rachel felt zero pity.
The women reached Marie’s hatchback, with its Playboy bunny bumper sticker, and turned its nose toward the highway. Rachel was no longer afraid that the women would get their boyfriends and return with guns. By the time they got to Bakersfield they’d have decided to keep the humiliation a secret. Rachel knew this the way she knew the resort’s owner wasn’t homophobic. She knew when hatred was present and when it was not, and she knew how lonely one could feel when it left.
“I’m going to soak at the clothed tubs,” she said brightly, then looked at last at her friends.
Their expressions were ragged. SJ’s was brokenhearted. But Rachel had nothing left to say for herself. Her body had spoken for her.
The senses become more acute when you’re walking away from the people you’d hoped always to belong to: the crisp snap of tamarisk twigs underfoot, the giggles of children who shouldn’t be doing cannonballs in the soaking pool, the piercing cry of an adult killdeer hazing a ground squirrel.
The senses become sharper still after they’ve let you leave. Though Rachel had no tattoos she could almost trace the images imprinted on her skin from the inside, facing out.
Ammi Keller is at work on a story collection about Gen X women and queers during the coronavirus pandemic. Her stories appear in the Best American Nonrequired Reading, American Short Fiction, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere. In the early ’00s, she wrote the zine Emergency. Ammi’s fiction has been supported by a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and the Lambda Emerging Writer’s Retreat.