Authors: Katie Kacvinsky
Tags: #Romance, #Young Adult, #Chick-Lit, #Contemporary
I let out a long sigh. I can’t believe we’re having a conversation about her car’s preferred music taste and driving style. I can’t believe she tricked me into spending another day with her. I have a life, I want to tell her. I have four episodes of
to catch up on. Okay, I don’t have a life.
I look out the window at a range of rolling brown hills in the distance. The word
is written on one of the peaks in white capital letters.
“Why do people write on the mountains out here?” Dylan asks me over Pickle’s loud rattling.
“Because they can,” I say.
Her eyes narrow. “It doesn’t mean they should. It looks like giant piles of bird poop smeared into letters.”
“I guess you could look at it that way. I see it as white paint.”
“If you could write one word on a mountain for everybody to see, what would you write?” Is she capable of a serious conversation?
“Are you capable of a serious conversation?”
She looks me straight in the eye and insists that this is
“That’s a tough one,” I finally say.
Her eyes perk up to discover we agree on something. “I know! There are so many great words, like
“But there are also some terrible words,” she continues. “Like
” She emphasizes this point by pretending to vomit next to me. I look over and pretend to be grossed out by the imaginary vomit.
Dylan continues to banter as we head south, and her voice starts to relax me because it’s a distraction. I stretch my legs out and lift my face to the window to catch the hot desert breeze. I rest my dirty tennis shoes on Pickle’s dashboard, and I’m comfortable. I can’t help but grin to myself, because I realize Dylan wasn’t being rude yesterday. She was just being herself. Why bother asking somebody permission to be yourself?
She talks about the photography class she’s taking at Mesa. It’s her Aunt Diane’s idea, she says, to give her something to do for the summer. She’s housesitting while her aunt’s traveling to art shows around the country, and she’s helping out with house projects to make money, mostly painting jobs. She tells me her aunt’s recently divorced and recently out of the closet. Dylan claims she knew all along, ever since a family reunion when Dylan was in middle school. Aunt Diane (Aunt Dan, as she’s now referred to lovingly by her family) spent the entire reunion trying to coordinate a women-only rugby match. A dead giveaway, Dylan claims. She also owns one too many pairs of those khaki hiking pants that can zip off at the knee and become shorts. To my surprise, I’m laughing.
We exit the highway for Picacho Peak State Park, and desolate dry hills surround us. It isn’t much of a park. It looks like a barren, dusty terrain full of tumbleweeds. We curve along a winding blacktop road until we come to a deserted parking lot. A small state park sign welcomes us, faded in the baking sunlight.
Her car door squeaks open as if it’s screaming in pain (Pickle has arthritic joints, Dylan claims). She tosses some water bottles in her backpack and checks her film supply, and we head up a rocky trail. The highway is still visible from the park—the scrubby desert bushes and cactus leave miles of visibility in every direction, and the roar of semi engines in the distance compete with the noisy humming of cicadas.
Dylan talks about her assignment as we head up a winding trail. She has to pick one stationary object and capture it from four different angles. In class, they’ll dye these four images different colors. The point is to show how stepping around things and taking the time to see them from different perspectives changes their entire image. Her dad gave her his old manual camera for the summer. She tells me about shutter speed and backlighting, framing and focusing.
While we hike, we discover the unique beauty of this state park—it’s home to a sprawling community of saguaros. These cactuses are Arizona’s mascot; they grow to be hundreds of years old and their green, prickly stems look like arms reaching out to the sun. We walk up to a saguaro with a gaping wound in its side, as if a giant bent down and took a huge bite out of its green flesh. Its skeleton is exposed—a core of long, vertical beams of tan wood. Dylan stops to examine it and I stand next to her.
“It’s dying,” I say. “When the center is exposed like that, it doesn’t have a chance.”
“But it’s beautiful,” she points out. I stare at the shriveling cactus and try to see the beauty in it. “That’s the way I want to go out,” she decides.
“What?” I ask. “Torn up and ripped open?”
She shakes her head. “Totally exposed, with no regrets. You can tell this cactus lived; it has the battle scars to prove it. Why go out looking perfect and put together? It means you didn’t experience anything. You didn’t take any risks.”
I walk around it and Dylan follows me, snapping pictures. When she isn’t looking, while her focus is concentrated on finding the perfect frame, I steal glances at her. She seems different today. Almost graceful. Her tall, gangly body ducks and crouches, and my eyes are drawn to her movements. I watch her back and neck curl into a squat. I notice her long fingers, with silver rings twinkling in the sun. I watch the muscles tighten on her slender arms, where thin bracelets clang from her movements.
We analyze what the cactuses are doing. She points out a cactus that’s dancing and one that’s praying. I point out a cactus with all of its fingerly stems curled over, except for the middle one, which is sticking straight up in the air.
“It’s flipping us off,” I say. She stands next to me and studies the middle finger, stretched out proud and defiant toward the freeway in the distance.
“You must feel a special connection with this one,” she says.
She snaps a picture and looks over at me with a smile. She’s smiled a hundred times today, but this one is different. It fills her eyes. It makes my breath catch. I look away and drain the bottle of water. The heat must be messing with my head.
She turns and steps back on the path, but I stand with my feet planted, mentally trying to coach my feelings into being reasonable. I can’t actually like this girl. She’s too random. She sprawls out on public sidewalks and makes friends with homeless people. She insists her car has a personality. She thinks cactuses move like people. But few people surprise me. And my eyes linger on her body and my mind lingers on her words. I can’t deny that. I internally store this realization in my Oh, Shit file.
I don’t want to feel anything toward Dylan. It’s safer to stay numb.
We loop around the trail and head back
to the parking lot, where Pickle is waiting for us in the gravel yard. I open up a cooler and two floating sandwiches slosh back and forth in the melted ice water. I inspect the baggies and they’re still sealed, so I hand Gray a sandwich and a soda. I grab a bag of chips and a pack of licorice, and we sit on top of a picnic table with our legs crossed and look out at the desert plain.
Gray takes off his hat and runs his fingers through damp, curly hair that’s so dark, it’s almost black. It’s thick and jumps out in all directions, as if to celebrate a rare moment of freedom. It makes his eyes stand out.
“So,” I say. “You helped me with my assignment. Now let me help you with one of yours.”
He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and chews on his sandwich. He takes a long drink before he answers me as if he’s contemplating whether or not to open up, no matter how casual the topic. Finally he says he’s stuck in a poetry unit and it isn’t exactly his strength.
“How can you say it isn’t your strength?”
“Because it’s poetry,” he says, like it’s some kind of stomach flu.
“It’s the only style of writing where you can break all the rules,” I say. “It’s so liberating.”
He chews on his sandwich and considers this. A gust of wind blows his hair over his forehead. “Yeah, but you have to use metaphors and personification and all that crap.”
“Crap?” I argue. “It’s just sewing words together. Random words in any order. It doesn’t even have to mean anything. It just has to mean something to you.”
He smirks and explains this one has to mean something. He tells me he has to write a descriptive poem. I take a bite of licorice and tell him it sounds like my photography assignment but with words. I point out the hills around us.
“You could describe a saguaro,” I offer.
He finishes his sandwich and grins. “Yeah, a poem about a cactus. How original. Maybe my mom will tape it to the fridge next to the one I wrote in preschool.”
I unzip my bag and pull out my inspiration log. Gray notices some words scribbled on the front cover. He scoots closer so he can see, and reads out loud:
“Normal: Conforming to the average or standard type. Weird: Odd, eccentric, suggesting the supernatural.”
He meets my eyes and I smile. He leans away and studies me for a few seconds, as if he still doubts my planet of origin. It’s a common reaction from people, since most of my functioning brain cells are programmed for random thoughts.
“Did you make up those definitions?” he asks. I shake my head and tell him I looked them up. He doesn’t have to ask which definition characterizes me. It’s also easy to see which category he currently fits into, and he looks insulted.
“You know, being normal isn’t a terrible thing,” he says.
” I agree. “It’s just a lack of courage.” He narrows his eyes and I point down at the cover. “You have to admit, one of those words sounds a little bit more exciting. Which way do you want to live your life?”
He glances back at the definitions. “It’s something to think about,” he says. Then his eyes move up, but slowly this time. I noticed Gray’s starting to look at me today. Really look at me. Sometimes his eyes linger.
I uncap a pen and open up to a blank page and start to write. Strands of hair blow into my eyes and I brush them away. I hand the journal to Gray, and he tries to decipher my small, messy penmanship.
“I think too fast for my hand to keep up,” I inform him. He reads the line out loud.
“‘Ode to the Mighty Green Ones.’” He sets the journal down and I nod for him to continue.
“Am I supposed to do something?” he asks.
“It’s the title of your poem. We’ll take turns writing it, line by line.”
I wait for him to say forget it, but he picks up the pen. He throws a few chips in his mouth and starts writing. He tosses the journal back at me, and his writing is clear and neat and legible—the opposite of mine. I shout his words into the wind, and it makes him jump with surprise.
“My Phoenix cactus,” I yell, and clench my fist in the air for dramatic emphasis. I look over at Gray and nod. “That’s a solid start.”
This goes on for an hour. We scratch out lines; we take turns standing on the picnic table and reciting our poem to the family of cactuses around us for approval. I try sneaking the words
into his poem, since saguaros are the most phallic plants I’ve ever seen, but he points out his classmates will read this and he doesn’t want to sound like he has an obsession with the male anatomy.
“Oh, fine,” I say.
I ask Dylan to stop by my house
on the way into town so I can grab my work shirt. The hours flew by and I’m going to be late for my evening shift. We pull into my driveway just as my mom’s getting the mail. She stares with disbelief as Dylan’s car sputters and wheezes to a stop.
“Does Pickle have emphysema?” I ask, and Dylan looks horrified I can suggest such a thing.
When my mom notices me in the passenger seat, her tired face softens.
“She’s pretty,” Dylan whispers. “She has your blue eyes.”
I tighten my lips and open the car door. I hadn’t planned on making introductions, but Dylan takes care of it for me. She kills the engine, to Pickle’s relief, and jumps up to grab my mom’s hand and give her arm a solid pump. My mom looks startled, and she offers a confused grin.
“Nice to meet you, Dylan,” she says, and then turns to face me. Her eyes are glassy, as if she’s recently been crying, but this is such a normal look for her that I’ve stopped wondering what’s wrong.
“I have conferences so I’m leaving in a few minutes,” she tells me. “Dad’s flight is getting in late, so you’re on your own tonight.”
She meets Dylan’s eyes and Dylan sees this as an invitation to share her life story. She explains she’s in town for the summer and she met me at school. She tells my mom I’m a talented poet with a lot of potential. I’m amazed because Dylan’s spoken more words to my mom in five minutes than I’ve spoken to her in a week. My mom looks equally surprised. She turns to me and asks me what my plans are for dinner, and I tell her I’m running late for work so I’ll grab something out. Her eyes stare through me while I speak.
“Great. You can warm up leftovers for dinner,” she says. I glance at Dylan to see if she caught this and her eyes meet mine for a split second to confirm that yes, she did. Of course she did. My mom says goodbye and we watch her disappear into the garage.
“She seems sad,” Dylan says quietly.
“She has a lot on her mind,” I say and she faces me.
“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“No,” I say quickly, and shove my water bottle in my bag. I can feel her watching me, and I want to tell her that unending curiosity can be extremely annoying.
“You’re mysterious, Gray,” she tells me. I shrug and take my iPod out of my pocket.
“I think that’s why I like you,” she grins, reaching out and squeezing my arm. I feel my face redden and instinctively back up out of her reach.
I turn to glance at her once more before I head inside. She’s leaning against her car, her ankles crossed, a thoughtful look on her face. Both her hands are tucked into the front pockets of her shorts. She looks at me and grins again, and I feel something twitch inside my stomach. It has to be hunger pains.