Oona got into the shotgun seat of Isaac’s 2003 Chrysler minivan; Isaac, who considered himself a provocateur, pointed to the void of the backseat and told her that was where he’d lost his virginity. Oona replied, “Okay.”
They drove west. Away from Boston, away from their university’s campus, with its magnolia trees, mulched every morning by blue-uniformed buildings and grounds staff who vanished by the time the most industrious students woke for their 8:45 classes. They drove toward Oona’s hometown in the Berkshires. Isaac had never been to the Berkshires, but associated them with blueberry picking and the scene in The Age of Innocence when Archer watches a man kiss the hem of a lady’s gown unnoticed. These associations made him rhapsodize: “I have it all planned out. We’re going to go hiking, and smoke weed, and listen to ‘Old Money’ by Lana Del Rey.”
They were listening to Lana at that moment, through the tinny speakers of Isaac’s iPhone six, which was placed in the minivan’s cupholder to amplify the sound. Intermittently, Isaac– who’d earned several solos in his collegiate Jewish a capella group– would sing along, “Got your bible, got your gun.”
Oona, meanwhile, sat silent, hunched. One foot was hitched up on the dash and her other unshaven leg bent, so that her chin rested on her knee.
Isaac said, “And I can’t wait to meet your friends– what are their names?”
“Crystal and Seren.”
“How do you all know each other?”
“We met working at the hotel when we were fifteen.”
Oona went back to work at the hotel every holiday and summer, while her and Isaac’s peers learned how to grow artificial meat in laboratories or earned world civilization credits while wine-tasting in Italy. Oona often said that they needed her at the hotel, and that people who had never worked “don’t understand anything about anything.” Isaac, too, had worked since he was fifteen, but he saw nothing noble about it. It was simply necessary to earn money so he could buy museum tickets and takeout from the Egyptian restaurant across from his apartment. Maybe he didn’t understand anything about anything. How did picking up a catheter with one’s bare hands make one a “good” person?
But he didn’t ask Oona this. He asked her, “Where do Crystal and Seren go to school?”
“Seren went to UMass Amherst for a semester, but she dropped out. She keeps saying she’ll go back but I don’t know… once you get out of the flow of things, it’s harder than you think to get back. If she’d stayed, she would’ve been graduating now, like us. She got promoted to night manager at the hotel, though. If she keeps advancing, she’ll make good money. And Crystal… Crystal is crazy.”
Isaac was intrigued because, though Oona seemed unaware of it, she herself had a reputation at school for being a generally unhinged individual. This was because she had a flat affect and because once at a party at the frisbee house freshman year, a man had grabbed her by the wrist and tried to make her dance with him and refused to let her go, so Oona had grabbed a bottle of Lysol from the kitchen counter and sprayed him in the face.
Oona said, “Well, Crystal got banned from UMass when she was fourteen, actually, because she was visiting her boyfriend at a party which got busted and she threw a bong at a cop. Now she works for the town, giving out parking tickets. Funnily enough.”
Except Oona, Isaac had never known any girls who used physical violence; he knew girls who wore chiffon blouses and added pollen in their lattes.
He exited the highway. He passed horses in wet green meadows; the REDEEMED motel; a half burnt-down barn; yards full of moldering swing sets, engine parts, mossy cement angels; hand painted signs advertising GOOSE EGGS 4 SALE and NITE CRAWLERS; a skinned buck hanging from a yellow-budded tree branch; abandoned gas stations; estate sales; gaps in the azure mountains where trees had been cleared mansions had been built; a still-frozen shallow lake; Trump 2024 banners; and everywhere, purple loosestrife.
Oona told him directions to the white clapboard duplex where Seren and Crystal lived. The house was filled with mandala tapestries, but had magnet poetry on the fridge, which surprised Isaac, though he didn’t know why. Seren was home, and she was extremely beautiful, which also surprised Isaac. She had long black eyelashes and a wide pelvis. She hugged them and asked if they’d like to smoke.
“Yes, please,” Isaac said. “I was telling Oona on the way here, I want to smoke and go on a hike and listen to ‘Old Money’ by Lana Del Rey. I like to roll my joints with lavender, have you ever tried that?”
“I can’t say I have,” Seren said as they entered the living room, where the largest bong Isaac had ever laid eyes on was on the coffee table. He and Oona sat on the couch and Seren packed the bowl. Isaac complimented her technique.
“Thank you. My mom always impressed on me the importance of one clean hit for everyone.”
Isaac took the first rip; then Seren took one. She offered the bong to Oona, who shook her head. “You know I’m no good at rips.” So Isaac and Seren each took another. Isaac expected them to stop after that, but Seren kept going. She inhaled with the grace and power of a pearl diver, and seemed utterly unaffected– not coughing, talking in a laconic monotone not dissimilar to Oona’s, pronouncing for like fir.
The television wasn’t playing anything, but wasn’t dark either. Instead it showed rotating images of saturated cityscapes. Isaac began to identify them– Lyon, Amsterdam, Bratislava. “Do you travel a lot?” Seren asked.
“Well, my friend Emily does, and she’s generous enough to take me with her,” he explained. Emily could not be alone. When they traveled together, it was Isaac’s responsibility to navigate, to create itineraries and research “authentic” restaurants, to find someone in every city who sold ket, to order chicken nuggets with barbeque sauce from the vast glowing screens in whatever language at McDonald’s at four in the morning, to apologize to strangers when she shouted at them in English, to assist when Emily’s phone was stolen by a hookup named Luca. “I like to travel and have new experiences.”
“He’s doing a Fulbright in the fall,” Oona boasted, in a way she would never boast about herself.
Seren bit the inside of her cheek and looked bemused. “I’ll be teaching English in Vienna,” Isaac quickly elaborated.
“Oh, nice. Have you been there before?”
“No. But I consider it a kind of homecoming. My family’s Austrian, originally, but my great-grandparents had to leave.”
“Well, you know, the Holocaust.”
“Uh-huh. That’s special for you.” Seren took another rip. The water gurgled.
“Have you traveled much?” Isaac asked her.
“I drove across the country when I was eighteen.”
“Oh my gosh, I’m so jealous. Was that something you always wanted to do?”
“Not really. I just left school and um, didn’t want to be at home anymore. Waking up every morning and seeing the same four walls. So I drove and I worked at different national parks. Someone always needs someone else to clean their sheets. It was beautiful but yeah, it was so not what I expected, not what my parents expected either, leaving school, leaving here. It made me not believe in cause and effect anymore. I don’t know if that makes any sense. Anyway. After a while I came back home.” Seren swiftly turned to Oona and asked, “So how is Boston?”
“Oh god,” Oona said. “There’s all this drama with my housemates. So in our apartment, people normally sign two-year leases and all the stuff, the furniture and utensils and appliances get passed down, it’s all junk but it’s just college housing, right? But the girls moving in next year don’t want any of it. They’re going to buy brand new shit. It’s so wasteful, it pisses me off. Why put lipstick on a pig? But anyway, we have to throw out everything in the house when we move out. I told my roommates that there’s an industrial dumpster a block away, behind the sci-tech complex, and we could gradually dump everything there if we all work together. But they refuse to do it. They want to rent a dumpster, which is four hundred to begin with and of course it gets more expensive the more shit you put in it– which I don’t think they understand. I told them I can’t afford it, my parents don’t pay for my shit. But they don’t listen to me. For them, convenience is the highest virtue. They’re always complaining about how they want boyfriends to change the batteries on the smoke detector. Meanwhile, I’m the one changing the batteries. They’re such girls.”
Sometimes Isaac thought Oona was just bitter. He knew he was the kind of person who, no matter where he ended up, would be happy. But he did want to end up somewhere better than where he’d started. Wasn’t that why they’d gone to college? To associate with the more fortunate, to hold back their hair when they were drunk, to make them feel a debt, to endure them, perhaps to one day fall in love with and marry them? For Isaac, suffering was no virtue, but he wasn’t ashamed of being obsequious when he needed to be.
As he contemplated this, suddenly, inexplicably, Seren and Oona began to discuss a nineteen-year-old girl that had been found dead in the nearby woods. Oona said her mother had told her about it, that the girl had been strangled by her boyfriend. Seren said no, it was a suicide. The two went back and forth until finally they realized they were talking about two different dead nineteen-year-olds, one in Cherry Plain State Park and one in Beartown Forest. Then Crystal walked into the house.
She had bleached blond hair, an aquiline nose, and a fractal scar on her left cheek. Oona made introductions: “Isaac, this is Crystal. Crystal, this is Isaac, my friend from school.”
Crystal scrutinized him. “Where are you from?”
“Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.”
“I’ve never been to Pennsylvania. Are you gay?”
“I had a gay boyfriend once,” Crystal said, then did not elucidate. She went into her bedroom.
Seren quietly said, “It’s not you two, she’s angry at me.”
“What happened?” Oona asked.
“We were hooking up– I know, I know it’s stupid when you live together. Then I didn’t want to get serious, and I met Keith– Keith is my boyfriend,” she told Isaac. “It was… not good, for a while. A couple of weeks ago I suggested Crystal and I go campaign together to try and patch things up. We were sleeping in the tent and a bear came along and scared the shit out of us, so we hid in the car and we ended up having sex. Three times.”
“Jesus,” Oona said.
Isaac was flabbergasted. “How did, um–” He touched his left cheek, indicating Crystal’s scar.
Seren bent forward; Oona and Isaac leaned toward her as well. In a half whisper, Seren said, “Last year, her boyfriend shoved her head through a window. Luckily, she was also fucking a med student at the time, so she went to him and he stitched her up for free.”
“More useful than when she was screwing that trombone player,” Oona muttered.
Crystal’s bedroom door creaked open, and the three of them straightened up. She was now wearing a sheer blouse and glitter on her face. “Well?” she said. “Are we going out?”
The bar was owned by Oona’s former English teacher’s husband; the teacher, tending bar, was a blond woman who had never assigned Oona any work or made her take any exams, but had simply let her read William Makepeace Thackeray in the back of the classroom. Now she embraced Oona and said, “I was always so scared you wouldn’t make any friends but now look at you!”
A country band played and sounded like cats in heat; rum was served in literal buckets; on the dance floor, a woman in her third trimester, wearing a tight zebra-patterned dress, gyrated. Isaac decided to get fucked up. In less than thirty minutes, he downed eight shots.
The night, the country took on a pleasingly irreal quality. Isaac had moments of lucidity. The fuschia light of the bar sometimes refracted from the mirror ball at the precise right gleaming angle. But mostly sounds, sights, smells passed through him without significance; he was like a person who had been lacking one of the five senses since birth, then recovered it after a lifetime of doing without. The phenomena had no way of being interpreted with the world as he’d been raised to understand it. It was only rods and cones, waves and frequencies. He could not feel his toes or fingertips. His head lolled against Oona’s shoulder.
He watched a scarecrow of a man wearing stiff Levis and a belt with a scorpion buckle saunter up to Seren and ask her to dance.
“Um, I don’t know.”
“Now, before you go getting the wrong idea, you should know– I’m married. My wife is home, she’s well aware of my whereabouts. She wishes she were here with me. I love to dance, and so does she. But she’s got MS. So, with her blessing, I come here and ask lovely young ladies like yourself to do me some kindness. I’ve danced with over three hundred women and never touched one.”
“Oh, all right,” Seren replied, and allowed the scarecrow to spin her around.
Later, she got to talking to a boy in big steel-toed boots. He told her that he had dropped out of high school, but now he was twenty-three and regretted it, wanted to get his GED and go to community college. He thought maybe a 529 account, created by his family a generation ago after the sale of some logging rights, might exist in some invisible vault somewhere. “Don’t give up,” Seren encouraged him.
Oona, meanwhile, did not dance. She leaned against the bar, drank whiskey, and talked to her former English teacher, both of them straining their voices to be heard above the music. The teacher asked Isaac what he majored in. Isaac didn’t say anything. Eventually Oona shouted, “History, and he minors in French and religious studies.”
The teacher asked Oona what she was going to do after graduation.
“I don’t know. Go back to the hotel, it looks like. At least for a while. I can’t even get any interviews anywhere.”
The teacher sighed. “It used to be, you get a job you could reconcile with. You save money, spend money, give some away– that’s very important to me, ethically. You find someplace, buy a house, go somewhere nice every year, have kids, put them through college. You do the best you can, then hope they do the best they can. I’m sure your parents feel the same way.”
Oona laughed, nearly unhinging her jaw.
“Now,” the teacher said, “I don’t know if that’s possible. I just don’t know.”
Crystal drank two buckets of rum.
Oona did not trust Isaac on his own, and so had him accompany her to the fetid, salmon pink ladies’ room. Isaac leaned against the clammy wall and watched women of all ages reapply their lipstick and pop the zits on each others’ shoulder blades. No one paid Isaac any mind. He was one hundred and four pounds, unobtrusive.
The pregnant woman was there, weeping. Her friend was shouting at her, “He’s making bad decisions! He needs to be kind, he needs to be sweet. Honey, it’s time for you to make a decision.”
Another woman declared to no one, “I’m a weathered woman. I’ve seen it all. I don’t have a husband, I don’t have goddamned chickens or goats.”
By the sinks, a group of women in their 50’s and 60’s had gathered. Their skin was simultaneously doughy, grizzled, sandpapery, and ruched. Their mascara left black specks on their hooded eyelids. They were discussing a woman they knew– a friend of theirs, Isaac eventually deciphered. “When Andy got back from rehab, she had a 40 waiting in the fridge. That was that. He developed wet brain and granted her power of attorney. She sold all his beehives, took the money, went on a cruise. Andy went into a coma. Technically he belongs to the state now, and she’s in a heckuva lot of trouble. Last I heard, she hired Sharon as her defense attorney. You know Sharon– she represented me in the divorce. What a hassle.”
Another woman, not in the group, interjected, “But she did it, didn’t she? Your friend?”
The storyteller regarded the stranger. “Did what?”
“Well, I don’t know what law she broke, but it must’ve been one of them, right? Her… her intentions were bad.”
“Al-leg-ed-ly,” the storyteller said.
Then it was sunrise, and Isaac woke up back at the white clapboard house, on the couch, with Seren’s pet cat curled up on his face. His last memory from the night before was of “Jesus Was a Crossmaker” playing, and Oona, Seren, and Crystal harmonizing the melody.
Crystal slept late; Oona cooked potatoes with fried eggs and sriracha sauce; Seren skulked in the kitchen around ten-thirty. She had gone home with the boy with the steel-toed boots. They’d driven up the mountain and made out by the cell tower with its blinking red light, then descended the mountain in the neutral gear. The car gained terrible speed; it was all the boy could do to turn the wheel around the bends in the road; Seren had laughed and laughed. Just when he was about to lose control, the boy had opened the driver’s side door and stuck the heel of his steel-toed boot into the gravel to slow them down.
“What about Keith?” Isaac asked.
Seren stared at him.
Oona interjected, “Does anyone want to go to Ashintully?”
Ashintully had once been a beautiful white stucco mansion; it had burned down in 1952, leaving only the stone foundations and four Doric columns. “Oh, good. We can hike and smoke weed and listen to ‘Old Money’ by Lana Del Rey,” Isaac said.
Seren said she would come, she just wanted to take a shower first. Oona knocked on Crystal’s door and asked her as well; Crystal said no, that she was going to try and write a poem that day. “You write poems?” Isaac couldn’t help but say.
During the car ride, Isaac had to concentrate hard on not vomiting; he felt like Coyote after he ran into the tunnel painted on the brick wall. But as he walked with Seren and Oona through the field of goldenrod toward the ruins, his spirits revived. He imagined what it must have been like to live in such sumptuousness.
Seren had a joint tucked behind her ear; she held it in her hands, Isaac flicked the lighter, and Oona guarded the fledgling flame from the wind.
“We’re actually doing it,” Isaac enthused. “We’re going to hike and smoke and–”
“Listen to Lana Del Rey?” Seren said. She was smiling, but to Isaac the words seared, like when he and his little brother used to whip each other with branches of forsythia. He went quiet. Then, needing the moment to pass, he said:“When I’m older, ideally, I’d like to have a house in the mountains, a house by the sea, and an apartment in the city.”
Without bitterness, Seren said, “I don’t know if I’ll ever own property. I don’t know where I want to live. Maybe I’ll move in with Keith. He’s in Boston.”
“What will you do for work?” Oona asked.
“Keith is an engineer, he makes like 70 K. So I don’t think I’d have to work.”
“That doesn’t sound so hot to me,” Oona said.
Isaac asked her, “Well, what do you want?”
Oona picked up a long piece of grass and put it between her teeth, gnawed on it for a long time. Her eyes were brackish, and there were two deep vertical lines between her brows. Her expression reminded Isaac of the disintegrating angels of death he’d seen in cemeteries across the sea; it reminded him of the frowsy, thick blooded, stoic women from last night. She had not one thing in common with the girls he knew from school. No wonder she was miserable there. He recalled how she had once told him that when she was young, her mother would rinse her hair with vinegar and kerosene so that she wouldn’t get head lice. He could almost smell it now. He saw, briefly but completely, what she would look like when she was an old woman.
She was silent for so long, Isaac thought she wouldn’t answer the question. Then at last she said, “I don’t want anything.”