You have never slept with a married couple before you swim out of your skirt in the back of Charles and Beatriz’s gutted van—you’ve never slept with two unmarried people, for that matter, except for the time a drunk roommate tongued your nipple while your boyfriend hoisted your legs over his shoulders. You are in a strange, new place. You are in the parking lot of a Walmart at the foot of the Great Smoky Mountains, to be exact, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. You’ve been riding south with Charles and Beatriz for six days after meeting them at a dive bar. Before that, you’d been staying in town with a friend, but you were beginning to realize that you didn’t like this friend—was maybe ashamed to call this person a friend with his ghoulish howling and brown teeth, so when Charles and Beatriz invited you to come with them, you did.
Beatriz feels alarmingly soft in your hands, and you graze her body with your palms the way you would pet the long grass by the river where you live. She tosses her dark hair aside, wraps her hand over yours, and clenches down on her own flesh.
You can’t break me, she says, a hint of a challenge in her voice.
All three of you are twisted together on the mattress in the van. Besides the bed and the checkered green curtains they’ve hung, Charles and Beatriz haven’t done much to convert the van, though they talk about a ventilation fan, wood paneling. Charles shoves the waist of his jeans down around his knees, and you’re thankful you’ve had so much to drink. Is that right—being thankful? How should you feel? You taste the side of his penis and it bobs in response.
It’s remarkable how far you’ve come in one week. You know Charles and Beatriz better than some of your old boyfriends, especially the ones who would never let you call them boyfriend. The couple quit their jobs as a lab technician and a sales rep and moved into the van two months ago. Explaining it at the bar, Charles said, Plan is to travel as long and as hard as we can. He poured a handful of peanuts down his throat. Take on jobs here and there, stretch our dollar. Who knows where we’ll end up. Maybe we’ll end up the mayors of Buttfuck, Arizona.
You know that Charles needs a snack every two hours, something savory, or he starts to sulk. Sometimes, when the road is empty and he thinks you’re both asleep, he recites a Shakespearean sonnet in his rolling Jersey accent: When I do count the clock that tells the time, and see the brave day sunk in hideous night… Beatriz scans the highway for signs pointing to obscure tourist attractions: a poodle tchotchke museum, a haunted mini golf course, an emu farm. She likes to pull over to take pictures of the landscape, even if it’s just the trees under their shrouds of kudzu, the vines creating an alien landscape, dark and wild.
She crawls to you and scoops her husband’s penis out of your mouth and into hers with her tongue. He exhales and cups the backs of your heads, like a mother encouraging you to suckle. It was yesterday that you were on the side of the road with Beatriz, smoking a cigarette while she panned her phone across a field. You were mooing with her to make the cows moo. The van was idling at the top of the embankment, splashed with mud and freckled with insects. She asked for a drag and said to the cows, I don’t know how long I’m going to do this.
Do what? you asked. Drive around?
I don’t mind driving around. It’s the being married part. We’re not alike.
You don’t have to be alike to love each other.
I don’t know if we love each other.
Those are the words you hear as Charles flips you around and uses a knee to pry your legs apart.
The next morning, Charles and Beatriz argue about where to get breakfast. Beatriz wants waffles with butter, syrup, and blueberries. Charles unwraps a Slim Jim and eats it in four gulps. You’re all still naked except for Beatriz’s black socks.
We can’t exactly afford room service, he says, rocking the van as he scoots back into his jeans. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a leak. He picks his way to the front seat, opens the door, and jumps out with a raspy crow.
Inside, the air smells like it’s about to turn, like it’s thickened and beginning to clot. You feel around the edges of the mattress for your clothes, and as you shake loose each crumpled item, step into your old skin, Beatriz begins to cry. She makes a fist and tries to punch her mouth still with it, but the corners of her lips keep twitching.
I thought leaving everything behind would make it better, she says. I thought I’d remember how it used to be. But remembering just makes it worse.
You don’t have a chance to answer because Charles climbs back behind the driver’s seat and starts the engine, which absorbs your body in its vibration and hum. Anyway, you don’t know what to say. You think about the friend you abandoned, the friend you stayed with—whether he’s blinking awake and hating you now.
Who’s ready to see the Great Smoky Mountains? Charles shouts back.
Beatriz manages to stay quiet, breasts swaying as the van pulls onto the road.
You want to pull her to you, fit her wet face in the hollow of your neck, but you can’t even stand to look at her. Raising yourself on your knees, you lift a corner of the curtain and look out onto the bright, flat road. Cartoonish buildings line both sides of the highway, stretching towards the furred green foothill in the distance. Warped barns advertise Wild West dinner shows, and the walls of the Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride are painted the wet, foggy colors of a prehistoric forest. Wonderworks is a white mansion that looks like it has been turned upside down, the ragged foundation still clinging to the new roof. Beatriz would love this, love the baldness and crassness of it, but you don’t dare turn around to tell her.
Eventually, Charles realizes that he’s been talking to himself. He twists around, glimpses his wife’s wet face, and turns back to the road in distress.
Is this about breakfast? he says. Hey, you can’t take it the wrong way. I was only saying that I’d rather we go a few extra days than indulge in, you know, earthly luxuries like waffles and eggs.
You pass a medieval castle whose turrets are shaped like human faces wearing wizard hats.
But hey, he continues, it’s a special occasion. Let’s go get waffles. Hey, I’ve changed my mind. Let’s stop and get waffles and celebrate. Let’s celebrate each other, all three of us. I see a place.
You see it, too, an aluminum diner reflecting the street like a funhouse mirror, light and color stretching across it.
Here it is, he says. Let’s see if they’re open.