by Jaime Campbell
Tessa lay in bed as she traced the tattooed ridgeline that peaked along the lower half of Justin’s back, her thoughts about her husband Ben distanced from the present moment and from the reality of his death. It was as if he were still alive, but somewhere so far away, so irrelevant that his point of view merited little consideration. Like Tessa was making a benign, mundane decision about dinner or a movie and Ben would not be there, so she could go ahead and do what she wanted, which, right now, was to brush her hand against the turkey vulture’s wings that spread against Justin’s left shoulder blade and then the nearly mythical golden eagle’s on his right.
Ben hadn’t had a drop of ink on him, and this new canvas of a man entranced Tessa, aroused her, too. She followed the scales of a dirt-colored rattlesnake toward Justin’s side, where it twisted and thinned into the body of a black and yellow racer snake.
“Turn over,” she said. “I want to see your chest.”
Justin flipped onto his back, revealing his erection. Tessa ignored it, instead stroking the palm of her hand along the prickly pear that bloomed across his heart, nestled amongst the toyon, the scrub jays and murder of crows embedded into his flesh, both a part of him and separate at the same time.
His fingertips were busy themselves, petting the bare arch along the back of her neck, below her platinum blonde buzzcut.
She entwined her pale legs with Justin’s rainbow-colored skin as she touched the branches of an oak tree at the bottom of his sternum, then its trunk, all the way down to its parabola of roots at his left hip. Her hands stopped there as the music faded into looping vinyl static. She got up and crossed the room feeling the pleasant weight of Justin’s eyes on her naked body.
He watched her lift the vintage player’s arm, then drop the needle back at the beginning of side one again, the guitar and drums starting, followed by the piano. Together, the instruments and Richard Manuel’s vocals coalesced into “Tears of Rage.”
Justin’s eyes remained full of attention for her, which aroused Tessa further as she sat on the bed, slinked her body lower, encouraging her cheek against his inner thigh, her tongue against her lips.
She and Ben had been on track to get a divorce. Tessa still wondered sometimes if she would ever call him her ex. So far, she hadn’t. So far, she’d thought and spoke of him as her dead husband, but had he not shot himself, he would have been her ex-husband by now. Still, once she sat on top of Justin, she closed her eyes and pretended it was Ben underneath her.
It was too different, though, from sex with Ben. Justin pressed his hands against her lower stomach, drawing her out of her imagination. His body was larger—taller, too—her hips rising higher and her legs spreading wider as she straddled his body. Her general sense was that she was relating to a man who didn’t resent her, wasn’t entirely sick of her.
“Tessa?” Justin said.
She opened her eyes and at the sight of him, she changed.
Tessa felt so young suddenly, so liberated and untethered from what Ben had done. She felt free from all of the problems she had to solve on her own now. She was a body, a soul, too, but not a practical being in need of solutions. She was capable of satiation, capable of being fulfilled, however brief and fleeting it would be, she wanted it—needed it—as her body rocked against Justin’s, her gaze held by his.
When she came, her body shuddered. Then she rested down, on top of him, and didn’t move, not even when she could feel her tears wet between her face and Justin’s chest. It wasn’t until the record reached its static end yet again and her ten-year-old daughter Pesha knocked on the door that Tessa jumped up and threw her dress over her head.
“Mom, I’m home,” Pesha shouted.
“Just a minute, sweetie,” Tessa said, looking at the clock, wondering how she’d allowed herself to so completely lose track of time.
She leaned over Justin, lingered there as she ran her face along his neck, then whispered, “You’ll have to sneak out the window.”
Lately, when Tessa called Pesha from another room, her daughter would hesitate, wait an unnatural few seconds before answering. Sometimes Pesha wouldn’t say anything at all, and Tessa would have to walk from one room to the other to verify her daughter hadn’t vanished on her. So Tessa wasn’t particularly worried when she called to Pesha from the kitchen, and she didn’t say a word.
But Pesha was not in her bedroom or the bathroom. She wasn’t in Tessa’s room or the yard either. Tessa walked out to the narrow, pothole covered road. She looked both ways but didn’t see Pesha. She crossed the Olive Hill bridge and looked into Modjeska Creek, first to the east and then to the west—no Pesha. She ran past the fire station and stood in the middle of the street, her gaze pausing at the compromised construction site, her awe at what she’d done penetrating her concern about Pesha for just a moment.
Orange County had been building a subway system, and it was controversial that it reached the canyons, which were supposed to be legally protected from such forms of development. The project was on hold, though, because of the vandalism from months earlier—someone had used a fire hose to flood it. Modjeska Canyon had been abuzz with theories about who had done the deed, but Tessa hadn’t told anyone it had been her. And as far as she could tell, no one had seen her do it, either.
She looked up at the oak-dotted ridgelines cradling in Modjeska Canyon and headed over to a small ramshackle craftsman house her neighbor Jerin had built himself forty years before. Jerin was one of the men known as the canyon rats—they loved the canyon and would never, ever leave it. They shared an aesthetic style, too—long grey beards, tie-dye t-shirts, and faded, ripped jeans. One of them never wore shoes. They scurried around every day, from one house to another, in a pack. They were all either retired or unemployed house-husbands who, at the moment, sat on Jerin’s porch smoking weed, telling stories and jokes.
Tessa approached and asked if they’d seen Pesha.
The man who held the joint, Bad Buddy they called him, exhaled and said, “Yeah, I saw her hoppin’ the fence to Madame Modjeska’s place.”
Tessa felt such relief then that she took the joint he passed to her and inhaled, even though she’d given up weed almost two decades ago.
“Thanks,” she said before heading over to the Helena Modjeska House, the historic property across the street from her own. No one had lived there in well over a hundred years. Helena Modjeska had been a famous Polish actress who’d sought to build a utopian colony right there in Southern California’s Santa Ana Mountains, but she and the other artists she’d settled with hadn’t a clue how to manage the land. So they’d abandoned the project, and now the property was a museum.
Pesha had climbed a large oak along the perimeter to get over the locked gate, which was what Tessa did now.
The doors were locked, but Tessa saw the cracked window off the main bedroom. She climbed through and then found her daughter in the bathroom, sitting fully clothed in the empty clawfoot tub, light flooding through the ruby glass window. Tessa wondered if Madame Modjeska had wanted red glass there so that the room might double as a dark room or if it had been installed to keep the bathroom warm, which it was right then.
“Pesha,” she said. “We can’t come here.”
“Why not? It’s huge and empty and no one else uses it for anything,” she said, shrugging her shoulders and then pushing her blonde-red bangs out of her face. She looked at her mother, held her gaze, and waited expectantly.
“What is it?” Tessa asked.
“Dad used to take me here.”
“He showed me how to get in.”
“When?” Tessa asked. “When did he take you here?”
“I can’t remember,” she said, Tessa understanding that her daughter was lying to her.
“Fine.” It was exactly the kind of thing Ben had always done, anyway, Tessa decided. She felt the same annoyance with Ben as if he’d been alive. When she reminded herself that he was gone and never, ever coming back, the feeling deepened into an anger so strong, Tessa forgot where she was, who she was with for a moment.
Tessa wiped her own face, brushing her fingertips from her nose to the outer edges of her eyes, and said, “Let’s go.”
Pesha climbed out of the tub and said, “I’m coming.”
They walked down the creaky hall and climbed out the window. The grounds were maintained by the Modjeska garden club—thriving rose bushes, matilija poppies, drought-resistant Cleveland sage, and Mexican evening primrose all grew under branching live oaks and olive trees. They passed by the dry swimming pool and Pesha said, “We should fill that with water and let all the neighbors use it. A public pool for all.” She skipped, then spun around, her arms out at her sides.
“That vandal should’ve flooded this pool, not that stupid subway site. What a waste,” Pesha said.
“That subway has no place in the canyons,” Tessa said.
“That’s what you think. Once I’m a teenager I’m gonna take it to town whenever I want.”
“Yes we will,” Pesha said, her words more exhale than speech.
“God, you’re so angry,” Tessa said.
Pesha held her tough-girl expression—eyes squinted, mouth a straight line—for a good five seconds before her face, then body, collapsed.
Tessa crouched next to her and took her in her arms. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s okay to be angry, it is.”
In the dirt drive lay a dead wood pecker. When Pesha saw it, she stopped crying, gasped, and said, “It’s bad luck.”
“What? No it’s not. Where’d you get such an idea?”
This information did not fit with Tessa’s understanding of Ben. He hadn’t been superstitious. He’d believed in what he could see right in front of him. She stared at the small red patch on the dead bird’s otherwise black and white feathered body thinking she would never understand who Ben had become. When they’d met as teenagers, she’d thought no one else would ever get her like he had, yet some time over the years, the opposite had become true. He had understood her less and less over time, and his suicide, and so many other much smaller, more minute details—a newfound belief in omens for instance—clarified for Tessa how little she’d understood about him, too. The more she’d learned about him, the longer they’d been married, the more foreign and less recognizable they’d become to one another, even if there still had been a thin yet strong thread they could latch onto at times that had allowed them to pick up their old connection, recognizable and familiar. This thread had diminished and obscured Tessa’s comprehension of the distance into which they’d grown for years, and it had kept them in relationship limbo for much longer than Tessa would have ever imagined either of them tolerating.
Pesha crouched next to the bird, staring at it as she said, “Have you found a job yet?”
Tessa stood up, stretched her hands above her head and said, “Nope. Not yet.” She hadn’t even begun looking, but she had started a mental list of expensive things they owned that she could sell—the house being the most valuable.
They went home, climbing the fence and then down the oak. They had dinner and fell asleep together in Tessa’s room.
Tessa woke an hour later, sneaked out, and met Justin in the meadow outside her house where he reminded her of the offer he’d already made, before Ben had died.
“I mean it, you and Pesha could come and live with me in Mendocino.” Justin was an old friend and had been in town for awhile now, visiting his daughter Penny next door, who’d been born when Tessa, Justin, and Ben had all been teenagers in high school together. Penny’d had her own baby recently, on her own, no father in the picture, and Justin was in town temporarily to bring her and the baby home with him. He was a grandfather at forty-five.
Justin held Tessa in the cold night as she stared at the ridgeline behind the house and wondered how she could ever leave. But it felt like love, her and Justin.
Still, her thoughts migrated from Justin and back to Ben, considering herself so outdated, so old-fashioned. How had she allowed herself to become entirely financially dependent on Ben? When she thought about her circumstances, she became disassociated from them, as if they could not possibly be the details of her own life. She’d had a job before Pesha, managing a small, local theater until her early thirties when she’d decided it was finally time, finally okay for her to have a baby. She hadn’t even been pregnant yet when she’d quit, and it had taken two years for them to conceive after that. Tessa hadn’t minded the necessary financial scaling back that had been needed without her income, and she hadn’t wanted to go back to work at any point after Pesha had been born—couldn’t in fact go back to that same job, which had long since been filled by someone else, probably a few someone else’s by then. What did one do with an outdated theater degree at forty-four? Trying to become an actress now at her age was a laughable idea.
The possibility of moving all the way to Mendocino to depend on Justin to take care of her and Pesha—Tessa hated how tempting the idea was, felt ashamed that she wanted to tell him yes. She could feel her desire looping, solidifying into a pattern as she kept her head nestled against his neck and pet the tattoo of an x-ray image of a hummingbird on his forearm that was for Penny’s dead mother. She kept her eyes on the bird’s thin, hollow bones as she said, “Okay. Yes—Pesha and I will go to Mendocino with you.”
Her mind returned to the possibility of selling the house, chip in this way with Justin. It was over halfway paid off, worth well over twice what they’d paid for it. She could walk away with half a million dollars.
Tessa’s mind was moving now, fueled by having a direction in which to send her thoughts. A plan, a map of where to guide her efforts. The relief billowed inside her, pressed its way through her lungs as her eyes watered with relief.
Justin looked up at the sky and his face broke out of its typical stoicism, into a smile.
Tessa couldn’t remember the last time she’d made Ben happy—it had become an impossible goal, an unachievable task. Pesha had barely been able to pull it off toward the end. And here was a man in front of her who wasn’t sick with depression and addiction and refused to get help, who wasn’t focused on his own anger and sadness, his own self-defeating narratives that she hadn’t had any hope of rewriting for him no matter how hard she had tried, even after she’d found out that he’d cheated on her. Again, the sense of being freed and untethered overcame Tessa. Somewhere inside her, guilt registered in response, but it was easy to ignore as she took Justin’s lower lip in her mouth and then slowly pulled away from him.
Pesha and Tessa walked past the construction site, the work still halted because of what Tessa had done. It wasn’t that Tessa hadn’t seen the value of a subway system for the rest of Orange County—she did—but the canyons were different. Development was to remain at a minimum so that there might be one small place left for nature to thrive with little human intervention. The thought of having committed this brash act in light of her recent decision to leave had created dissonance in Tessa, doubt in her dedication to this place. She was abandoning the canyon. Such a strange feeling to have for a place that could not love her back, but it was how she felt.
Pesha walked past the yellow tape and peeked down the hole. “It looks perfectly dry in there now,” she said. “I can’t believe one of our neighbors did that.” Pesha sounded impressed, in awe of the action, like the vandal had evoked her respect, despite her dismissal of the act just days earlier at the Modjeska House.
They walked further, past the canyon rats, who waved and nodded from Jerin’s porch.
Tessa waved too, then said to Pesha, “I have a plan.”
“What’re we gonna do?” Pesha asked, picking up a giant stick off the ground.
“We’re going to sell the house then move to Mendocino and live with Justin.”
Pesha chucked the stick into Modjeska Creek as they crossed over the bridge and said, “I don’t even know where Mendocino is.”
“Northern California,” Tessa said. “By San Francisco, sort of. It’s beautiful there.”
“Is Justin your boyfriend, then?” Pesha asked.
Tessa and Justin hadn’t discussed the situation in those terms, but she said yes anyways.
“Is he my stepfather?”
“What is he to me, then? Why should I move into his house, share a stinky bathroom with him?” She was crying.
“Penny and her son will be there, too.”
“I hate Penny,” Pesha said.
Tessa ignored her daughter’s statement. “Justin’s good for us. You know things with your dad and me weren’t right for a long time.” “Fine, whatever, Menda-whatever.” She crossed her arms. “Can we turn around now? I want to start packing.” Her voice, her face, it wasn’t just anger Tessa found there. Her daughter felt as lost as she did, and was as trapped by circumstance and culture, money and Tessa’s poor choices. Tessa had failed the both of them, she thought. She considered if she weren’t getting what she wanted now—Justin—at Pesha’s expense.
They turned around and walked in silence until they got back to the construction site where Tessa stepped over the yellow tape as Pesha had done earlier. She mounted the ladder and said, “Come on.”
Tessa could tell that the command had surprised Pesha, snapped her out of how she’d been feeling. She followed her mom into the hole, which was musty and dank, fit for wild animals. In an odd way, both of them felt at home there, though. The darkness, the air that was cooler than it had been above ground. It felt comforting somehow. Tessa climbed further down to where the tracks would eventually go. Pesha followed again. They looked into the darkness as Tessa said,
“It was me. I was the one who flooded this place.”
She wanted Pesha to know she could do things, be active and not passive. Bring about change. Because of the vandalism, those who had opposed the development had more time to fight the building of the station. Tessa had gone door-to-door to collect signatures, and every single person that she’d asked had signed. Modjeska was largely home to political extremists on both sides—liberals like Tessa who approved of the subway for the rest of the county but still wanted to protect the canyon from development, as well as conservatives who opposed the subway entirely, insisting nothing needed to be done about all those cars and their carbon emissions. Either way, both sides had signed. Their discordant values had zigzagged into matched priorities, uniting them.
There was hope now that it might never be completed, and if it hadn’t been for Tessa the project would already be done.
Pesha looked around, as if with more attention this time, as if there were more for her to learn from this place now. “Why’d you do it?” Pesha asked.
“To stop Modjeska from becoming like everywhere else in Orange County.”
“Does anyone else know it was you?”
“Nope, only you.”
Pesha knelt down, picked at the gravel on the ground, and said, “I won’t tell anyone.”
The house was all packed when Pesha vanished again. Tessa climbed the oak and then crawled through the window of the Modjeska House, but Pesha wasn’t there. Tessa walked the halls, the grounds, and checked the empty pool, but her daughter was somewhere else. Instead of panic, though, Tessa felt the lightbulb overhead—she knew exactly where Pesha had gone.
The roosters crowed as the sunrise gleamed over the eastern ridgeline. Two woodpeckers fought at the top of an old phone pole. A dead tree trunk in the distance looked as if it could be a small hobbit of a man hunched over. A tarantula stepped across the street, and as Tessa avoided it, she felt like she had no kite string, no way of knowing how far she’d go, where she’d end up, despite the plan that was in place.
When she reached the construction site, there were three county trucks and a cement mixer there. No one was doing anything, though—the construction workers hung out, looking at their cell phones.
“What’s going on?” Tessa asked Jerin, who stood in a line with the other canyon rats.
“The County Supervisor pushed through the approval last night, and Pesha’s down there now. She won’t come out,” he said.
Tessa pushed past everyone and headed down the ladder.
She found Pesha alone on the ground, sitting with her arms laced around her knees.
When Pesha saw her mother, she pulled her legs closer to her chest.
“What are you doing down here?” Tessa asked.
“It’s a sit-in,” Pesha said. “I don’t want Modjeska to be like the rest of Orange County, either.”
Tessa didn’t know how, exactly, that her daughter’s desperation to complete this futile exercise in freedom of speech was connected to her grief, Tessa’s, too, but she understood this was the case. So she sat down next to Pesha and said, “Okay, it’s a sit-in then.”
A few minutes later, their neighbor Frances came to check on them, and she stayed. Frances’s father Abram came next, and he stayed, too. Then the canyon rats came down, the whole lot of them, and they stayed. The yoga class across the street at the community center got out, and all of those yogis came down the hole. By lunch time, that dank, dark space was packed with Modjeskans. The mood was upbeat, party-like. Neighbors who weren’t sitting in, brought food and wine, a camping toilet and sheet to set up down the tunnel.
Tessa had already drunk two glasses of wine when Justin showed up. She passed him her glass as they walked into the tunnel, in the opposite direction from the toilet.
“We aren’t leaving tonight as planned, are we?”
“We’ll have to wait—this is important to me, and to Pesha. I’m sorry.” But the apology was defensive and empty. She was talking to him like he was Ben. She felt like he was Ben, too, even though the two men were nothing alike, treated Tessa in entirely different ways—opposite ways, even.
“It’s okay,” he said, setting down the wine glass on a rocky ledge. “I understand.”
Somehow though, Justin’s understanding reminded her of Ben’s critical, dismissive approach with her, and this triggered her grief. She wanted Justin to leave her alone so badly, didn’t want him to stay and be nice to her.
Tessa tried to shake the feeling, cradling his face in her hands. It was the only part of his body not at least partially covered in ink, and at that moment, the lines that had sprouted across it since she had really known him last when they were so young—they were more beautiful, more meaningful than any of the other artwork on his flesh. It almost convinced her to stand up and climb that ladder with him. But as her hands glided down his painted arms, she said, “We could meet you there, in Mendocino,” even though she was unsure that she’d end up going on her own.
“No, that’s okay. We’ll wait. I have to get back to Penny, though.” He climbed above ground, and over the course of the next few days, so did most everyone else. It was just Pesha and Tessa and those canyon rats left.
Pesha said, “I want to stay here in this hole forever.”
“We’ll have to go back to our lives sooner or later,” Tessa said, even if she liked the idea of staying as much as Pesha did. Time had stopped down there, like nothing and no one was waiting for them—this had become their existence and it was safer, more welcoming than their real lives above ground. It was as if the space were a carriage cradling them in, tightening around them out of love or protection from what was above—their grief, a need for a job and money, and an unresolved head-first dive into a romantic relationship Tessa didn’t really understand.
“Sounds like you’re a canyon rat, too,” Jerin said to Pesha.
They heard someone at the ladder then. It was the police, who were, at first, friendly. The canyon rats gave them some lip, but otherwise headed up the ladder. Pesha, though, refused to get up, and when Tessa tried to gently nudge her daughter to leave, the cops got frustrated, aggressive. There were four of them. Tessa wrapped her arms around Pesha, but one of the police officers took Pesha from her as another pulled her back by the shoulders.
She should have been able to fight him off. Tessa tried to pull her arms from him, but she was powerless—he was stronger than her. He gripped her tight, without any regard for her flesh, for her muscles and bones. Her body should have been heavier, too, Tessa thought as he began to push her toward the exit. The man who had Pesha dropped her halfway up the ladder. Tessa cried out when her daughter’s body landed so unnaturally against the ground. They picked up Pesha again and managed to get her up and out this time. Then it was Tessa’s turn, no one left to watch as the man who had her from behind gripped her breasts, his breath against her cheek. Another cop, who had stood along the sidelines until then, grabbed her by the hips from the front, glided his hand over her crotch and then picked up her legs, laughing with the other cop. “Nice MILF we got here,” he said.
“Stop it,” Tessa said. But they didn’t—of course they didn’t. Instead, they joked that they ought to have their way with her before taking her up, and the anger felt just like it should inside Tessa—boiling hot, trembling and roiled, laced with an infuriating helplessness.
Above ground, the whole canyon watched as one of the cops handcuffed Tessa and pushed her inside the back of a police car with Pesha. Through the clean window, Tessa saw Justin’s daughter Penny, and she felt jolted by the young woman’s presence, thrust back into a reality she hadn’t existed in since before Ben’s death. Her gaze shifted toward Justin at Penny’s side, his grandson in his arms, and she didn’t have the slightest sense of what to think about any one of them, about their plan, either—she had no clue anymore of how to consider a plausible role for Justin in her life. Pesha lifted her mother’s handcuffed arms around her own body and then tilted her head toward her mother’s chest.
“Are you okay?” Tessa asked Pesha.
When Pesha looked up at her, something had been erased from her daughter’s face—a small fraction of grief or tension. She looked satisfied, satiated, as she said, “I’m okay.”
Of course she was okay. When Pesha had been in the womb, she’d had a twin who’d miscarried. Tessa had always thought this meant that Pesha was the stronger of the two, and the look on her face at that moment seemed proof of this—Pesha was capable of a primal kind of self-protection.
Tessa pulled Pesha even closer, thinking of her daughter’s strength as Pesha slipped her arm behind Tessa’s waist, gripping her tightly.
Tessa closed her eyes and listened to Pesha say, “It’s okay, Mom. We’re safe now, we’re so safe.”
*Title Photo by Jaime Campbell
Jaime Campbell’s work has appeared in Sonora Review, Santa Monica Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Angel City Review among others. She is Managing Editor at Citric Acid, an online literary quarterly focused on regional writing in Orange County, California. She teaches writing at Chapman University, Santiago Canyon College, and Irvine Valley College. Jaime also teaches mindfulness and meditation at Cloud Mindfulness.