Jacob had warned Mia of the heat wave that would coincide with her visit to Little Rock. Still, she had only packed two sleeveless items. She had gotten in the habit of asking him if she smelled bad. She had heard “Don’t worry about it” so many times that she now just periodically said, “I’m sorry, I know I smell bad.” When Jacob told her not to apologize, she apologized for apologizing.
They were the only people sitting outside the café that day. Jacob ordered a chicken salad sandwich for them to split. His friend Vicki made their sandwich and took it out to them. She smiled brightly at Mia, then looked at Jacob and said, “I always make the best sandwiches.” Even though Mia wasn’t hungry, she ate her entire half. A fly circled her head. She swatted at it, but it always returned. Jacob moved his sandwich crust around the plate.
“Did you ever try to date Vicki?”
“Sort of. We were drunk once and started to have sex, but it didn’t work. We just started laughing. I don’t know, she’s my best friend.”
Mia nodded. “She’s pretty.”
The fly flew close to her ear and she darted out of the way. Jacob picked apart what was left of his sandwich, then put it back together. He drummed his leg under the table. Mia worried that when people did this, it meant they were bored with her. Jacob straightened in his chair.
“I think the heat is making me resent everything,” he said, looking out at the parking lot.
Two months ago, Jacob flew to Chicago to meet Mia. She had solicited him to be in the first photography show she curated. They had known of each other’s work for about a year. Jacob had just completed a series of photos called “The Target Suicides,” which depicted people elaborately killing themselves in every aisle of Target. Mia had taken photos of dead Christmas trees posed as if they were engaged in mundane human activities. They exchanged casual but frequent e-mails. Jacob said he was excited to meet her. Mia said she was excited to meet him.
When he arrived an hour late to the show, he walked to her with his head tilted to the side and his elbows so close to his body that his chest pushed forward. It seemed natural for him to walk this way. He reminded Mia of some kind of exotic, crane-like water bird that wasn’t supposed to fly, but frequently attempted flight anyway. She liked him immediately. They spent most of the night sitting in different places in the gallery, making up stories about the more eccentric-looking patrons.
After the show, they went back to Mia’s apartment and didn’t leave for four days. They thought of nicknames for her cats. When they had to eat, they would order food. Sometimes when they made eye contact for more than three seconds, Jacob would say Mia’s name and then Mia would say Jacob’s and they would grin at each other.
“We’re being cheesy,” Mia would say.
“We are. It’s good.”
On Jacob’s last night, they decided to drive as long as they could without a destination. He rested his hand on Mia’s thigh when she drove. They stopped to eat at a travel plaza. An old man was sitting alone in the area between a Popeye’s and a Burger King. Food items from both restaurants were on his table. Mia whispered, “Look!” and gestured excitedly at the man. “Both places.”
“Oh my god,” Jacob said as he tugged Mia’s sleeve. “He’s so depressing. That’s going to be me someday.”
“I know, me too.”
Jacob didn’t immediately let go of Mia’s sleeve. They sat and ate their French fries quietly. The low, atonal hum of a semi-truck sometimes passed them on the highway. Jacob squeezed a ketchup packet onto his wrist and rolled his eyes back in his head. Mia dipped one of her fries in his ketchup blood.
“You should come visit me in Arkansas. I mean, if you want. I’d like it if you did.” He licked away the rest of the blood.
Mia smiled. “I’d like to visit you.”
After Jacob returned home, he contacted Mia almost daily. His e-mails contained list-like accounts of his daily thoughts and activities, and usually closed with something about wanting her to be near him. He told her stories about his friends, referring to them only by their first names, as if Mia was already familiar with them. She wasn’t sure if this meant he felt she was already a part of his life, if his friends were interchangeable, or if this was just how he talked about people. Mia felt jealous of his social life. In her responses to Jacob, her acquaintances became friends and her nights alone went unmentioned.
Jacob called Mia one night to tell her that a strange man pulled a gun on him and his friends at a bar. They were sitting outside. The man sweated profusely and wouldn’t leave their picnic table. He wanted someone to buy him a beer and no one would, so he fired three shots into the air and ran away. Mia walked the perimeter of her apartment, putting fingers into her mouth and saying “Oh my god” as she listened.
“Is everything… Are you okay?”
“I’m fine, I was shaken up a little bit but. Everything’s fine. The cops came, eventually. It was ridiculous.” Jacob’s voice sounded dreamy and far away.
“I feel like I would be shaking right now. Shaking and hiding somewhere.”
“It’s weird, the thing I cared about the most was making sure I was the last one inside when everyone started running. Like, I wanted my friends to know that I was the one holding the door for them.”
“That means you’re a good friend, right?”
“I just wanted them to think I was brave, I think. The cavalier one.” Mia didn’t say anything. “I’ve been talking about you to them. They’re excited to meet you.”
“Oh, good. I’m excited, too. I hope a week isn’t too long for me to be there.”
“It won’t be. You could probably even stay longer.”
A mysterious, semi-constant fear of dying in a car crash on the drive down to Little Rock permeated throughout Mia the week before she left. The logical voice in her head that usually intervened to console irrational anxieties had, to her surprise, submitted to this idea – had actually thought of her death as reasonable outcome. Mia pictured technicians in heavy gloves pulling her body out of her windshield. How would they tell her parents?
Her apartment began to take on a claustrophobic quality. She retreated daily to a nearby park to where she watched people walk their dogs. Something was comforting about strangers – it seemed like they would exist forever as the same, unknowable mass. The sun warmed her body and made the white pages of her book seem so bright that they were radiating. It was hard to concentrate on reading. She texted Jacob, “It seems highly possible that I’ll get into a fatal car crash on the drive down there, haha,” then set her phone to vibrate and put it under her thigh. Ten minutes later Jacob responded, “My dad is a car mechanic. Did I tell you that?”
Mia drove slightly under the speed limit the entire way to Arkansas. She played the same song on repeat. The air conditioning in her car was broken so she kept the windows down. Though she had known this was coming for a long time, had imagined herself sleeping next to Jacob every night, had tried to mentally map his house and piece together small details of his life – it was suddenly very apparent to her that her visit was not just a pleasant abstraction to be considered and forgotten, but an event actually happening. Something could go wrong. An ex-girlfriend could resurface. Conversation could run out. She looked at her hands on the steering wheel and thought for only a moment that she had eight, not ten, fingers. As she neared Jacob’s house and had to drive slower on the smaller streets, the heat seemed almost visible. Her pulse beat against the skin of her neck.
From a distance, she couldn’t tell if Jacob was smiling or squinting to keep the sun out of his eyes. Another man sat with him on the porch, and went inside as soon as she pulled into the driveway. Jacob leaned his head into her window and kissed her. They said “Hello” to each other until they started laughing. Mia pulled her suitcase out of the car.
“That was Bill, my roommate. The guy who went in. You’ll meet him, he’s a big pothead.”
“Oh.” Mia didn’t know what to say. “Nice.”
After Jacob gave her a tour of the house, they went to his room and had sex. Mia rested her head near his armpit. It smelled good. She traced one of his tattoos with her finger until she became drowsy and allowed herself to close her eyes. Jacob idly rubbed her upper arm and looked at the long rectangles of yellow light that spread across the ceiling.
“We can go for a ride on my motorcycle, if you want. Would you want to do that?”
Mia didn’t open her eyes. “Now?”
“Oh, sorry. Did you want to nap? I guess you had a really long drive.”
Mia rolled over to face the wall. She listened to the rhythmic motor of the ceiling fan. When she woke, it was dark and Jacob wasn’t in the room. An oily, sticky kind of sweat covered her body, and when she moved under the sheet, she could smell herself. On the pillow next to her was a note that read: “Decided to let you sleep. You seemed so tired. Come to Vicki’s, five houses down. We’re drinking on her porch. Everyone wants to meet you.” Mia wanted to lie still for thirty hours. She thought about making herself sleep again, but instead took a long shower and walked to Vicki’s.
People had already been drinking for some time when she arrived. The porch was cluttered with lawn ornaments, broken folding chairs, full recycling bins, and large, jungle-like potted plants. Five people sat around a white picnic table, and three others leaned against the porch railing. Jacob wasn’t there. A girl led Mia inside to a bedroom where he, Vicki, and two other people were drinking beers on a bed. A small TV was on. Jacob hugged Mia and seemed happy to see her. Vicki introduced herself and said Jacob was her only friend in the world. She had a strong southern accent. She and Jacob told each other stories about memories they had together. Mia wasn’t sure if she was a part of their conversation, or just listening to it. She tried to ask questions, but eventually gave up.
Mia drank eight beers over the course of the night. She went to the bathroom frequently, and used some of Vicki’s sesame body oil every time. People left the house and eventually only Vicki, Jacob and Mia sat around the table on the porch. Mia took pictures. In most of the pictures, Vicki’s face was animated in mid-sentence and Jacob was doing something on his phone. Mia smoked five of Vicki’s cigarettes.
On the walk home, Jacob said, “I don’t see why anyone would ever smoke cigarettes. It just seems counterintuitive. Like, you know it’s the shittiest thing in the world for you.”
“Fast food is worse. It’s not like I smoke all the time, this is the first time I’ve ever done it around you. Vicki smokes all the time. You’ve really never smoked one?”
“Absolutely not. It’s just stupid. Everything about it is stupid.”
“You’re mad. Are you drunk?” Mia almost tripped but caught herself. She laughed. Jacob picked at something on his hand.
“I’ve only met one other person in the world who’s never smoked a cigarette,” he said.
They argued for a long time after they had gotten back to Jacob’s house. In the morning, Mia remembered raising her voice and felt embarrassed. She vaguely sensed that the conversation had, at some point, shifted from cigarettes to her feelings of insecurity about their relationship. Jacob held her from behind. She turned to face him and he was awake. He rolled onto his back and put a hand on his forehead.
“Something happened last night. Sorry.” Mia said.
“Yeah. Drunk fight. It’s okay.”
“Do you want to talk about anything we said?”
“No. I can feel myself start shutting down when people try to engage me in emotional discussions.” Jacob yawned, looked at Mia, and shrugged.
“Really?” Mia sat up. “But your e-mails… I don’t know, you seemed very aware of yourself, emotionally.”
Jacob removed his hand from Mia’s calf and played with his chest hair. “Maybe because I’m not really talking to a real person then. It’s just an idea of a person.”
Mia could smell the hot sourness of her breath. Her mouth felt pasty and dry. She looked away from Jacob. “Well, I’m sorry if I said anything offensive last night. I don’t think I meant it. Do you feel okay about me?”
“You didn’t say anything bad. I feel fine about you. I’m glad you’re here.”
That day, four of Jacob’s friends invited him and Mia to swim at a lake in the mountains. Jacob drove Mia’s car and got lost a few times. Their legs stuck to the vinyl seats. Jacob played songs from his iPod. He was friends with many of the bands whose songs were playing, and had stories about stealing food from stranger’s plates in diners with them, or getting drunk and tattooing each other. Mia worried that it was becoming noticeable that she had only been saying “Seriously?” and “Wow” in response to Jacob. She watched a small, mosquito-like insect fly repeatedly into the inside corner of her window.
“Does it bother you that I don’t have crazy stories like that?”
“Why would that bother me?”
“I mean it’s not like I don’t know how to have fun or anything.”
Mia rolled down her window and the insect was vacuumed out.
“I know you have fun.” Jacob made a concerned face.
When they reached the lake they took off their shoes, rubbed sun block on each other, and walked a soft dirt path. The sky was cloudless and still. Mia stepped on something that vibrated. She sensed the thing was alive and fragile, and immediately drew back her foot. Nothing was there. She scanned the ground surrounding her.
“Are there lizards here?” She called to Jacob, who was fifteen feet ahead. He stopped walking.
“Did you say lizards?”
“Yeah, like in Florida? You know, they have these chameleons running around everywhere. I just stepped on something.”
“Why would you think it was a lizard?”
Mia squeezed her toes into the dirt. “I guess because it got away fast.” For a moment, it seemed possible that she could have absorbed the lizard into the bottom of her foot. Something unreachable inside of her itched.
Jacob’s friends swam along the perimeter of a wooden platform in the middle of the lake. Jacob showed off by doing elaborate dives that Mia sometimes applauded. She dangled her feet into the water and sat silently next to another girl, who eventually jumped in.
Jacob’s friend Elliott approached her from behind. “Hey, are you having fun?”
“Oh, yeah, Arkansas is good. It’s pretty. I like this lake a lot.”
“I ask because when I moved here from Phoenix, I felt a little out of place. The people were nice and everything, but it took a while to get used to things, for some reason. It was an adjustment.”
Mia thought for a moment. “The people are really welcoming. You guys, I mean. You’re…welcoming.”
“I just want to be sure you’re having a good time.” Elliott cocked his head to the side.
Jacob swam up to them. “Is he scaring you about the water snakes?”
“Oh my god, there are these black snakes, they live in the water – they mate by getting into this big, swarming ball. The ball just swims around, right below the water.”
“Jacob, fuck, I forgot about the snakes.” Elliott adjusted his swim trunks. Mia leaned over the platform and peered into the water.
“Yeah, sometimes they make it into the trees,” Jacob continued, “they’ll just like, drop out of the swarm once they’re done having sex.”
“No one’s ever seen them,” Elliott said to no one in particular.
Mia gasped and pointed at the water. “Holy shit, Jacob, get out of the water right now.”
“What?” Jacob’s movements became frantic. He climbed the ladder to the platform. “I hate snakes.” Elliott and Mia laughed. Jacob looked at Mia’s face.
“You look pissed,” Mia said.
“I hate snakes.”
At the café, the fly landed on Jacob’s sandwich crust. Mia thought it looked lost. Jacob went inside to use the bathroom. Mia felt a bead of sweat drip down her stomach. She patted it with her shirt and then realized it would leave a mark. She fanned the fabric away from her body. When Jacob returned, his hairline was wet from having splashed water on his face.
“Vicki just said it’s a hundred two out here, but the heat factor is a hundred eight.”
“I don’t know what it means either.”
An ice cream truck playing “You Are My Sunshine” on a loop was nearing the café. Mia looked down the road, squinting a little.
“Our bodies are 98.6 degrees. It’s sort of like we’re living inside a person with a fever right now, being outside,” Jacob said.
“Yeah.” Mia sank back into her chair, eyes still focused on the road. “This song has always made me feel sad for some reason. It just sounds sad.”
Jacob looked at Mia and breathed in and out. “We should go. Rick wants to meet us soon. You’ll like Rick, I think. He’s the philosophy professor guy.”
“Oh, Rick. Yeah. I’d like to sit inside somewhere.” Mia felt a little delirious. She had an urge to pick up her shadow and shake it. Something would fall out. She stood up after Jacob and followed him to her car.
At the restaurant where Jacob worked, it was dark and cool but many people crowded around in clusters. The only face Mia could clearly see was Jacob’s. He asked if she wanted a beer. She smiled and nodded in a way she thought was slightly too generous, and when she went to touch his arm he was already gone. The vent under the table blew aggressively and made the hem of her skirt ripple. She realized this was the first time she had felt cold in this city. A chorus of voices moaned at a football game on TV. Mia didn’t know anything about Rick and was tired of meeting people.
A tallish man in his mid-thirties approached Jacob at the bar. Mia watched them talk for a few minutes before they joined her table. Rick extended his hand and Mia shook it for him.
“So, you drove all the way down here for this guy? What is that, eleven hours?”
Mia’s eyes moved from side to side. “I like driving.”
“Evidently.” Rick smiled at Mia in a way she thought she had seen Jeff Goldblum smile at a girl in some movie. Jacob watched his hand as he made circles on their table with his beer glass.
“They just told me at the bar that I need to come in for a shift tonight, but Rick says he can take you with him to a party after we get beers. Or you can hang out here with me, but it would just be sitting around. Sorry.”
“I ordered nachos,” Rick said. “Don’t let that influence your decision, though.”
Mia listened as Jacob and Rick talked about a road trip for a long time. She drank two more beers before the nachos arrived and wondered why she came here at all. Rick periodically asked her funny, sometimes overly personal questions that she responded to candidly. Jacob sometimes noticed her answers, but mostly he looked bored. Mia watched Rick’s fingers as he sandwiched his nachos together. He left a stack of fresh jalapeño peppers on the side of his plate.
“What’s wrong with the peppers. Why aren’t you eating them?”
Rick grinned. “Why don’t you try one and find out.”
“If I do, then everyone has to.”
Mia didn’t wait for them to agree. She ate a pepper and didn’t feel anything for fifteen seconds, but then her throat and mouth burned intensely. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped in an openly cartoonish way. One hand cupped her mouth, the other grabbed her unopened silverware napkin and banged it on the table a few times. Rick laughed, Jacob didn’t.
“Oh my god, this is insane,” she said.
“Yeah, it’s got a little heat, doesn’t it?” Rick said.
“It’s so hot, it’s making me want to punch something!”
Rick gave her a spoonful of sour cream. It didn’t do much. Her face began to sweat. “It’s going to be like that for about five minutes,” Jacob said.
“You didn’t even wait for me to tell you.”
“It’s so hot. I want to fight someone.” Mia smiled in disbelief at Rick, then looked at Jacob and chugged the rest of her beer.
“That’s just going to… spread it around,” Jacob said. “There’s nothing you can do. You just have to wait until it’s over.”
Rick shook a finger at Mia. “Impulse control, young lady.” She used her forearm to wipe her face.
“I’m getting another beer, at least it’ll be cold.”
At the bar, Mia felt a hand on her lower back. Rick stood behind her.
“You didn’t ask me if I wanted one.”
“Oh, sorry. Do you?”
“No, but I think you should get two for yourself.”
Mia didn’t see Jacob sitting at the table anymore. Someone needed to say something but she didn’t know what.
“Sorry if I smell bad.”
Rick removed his hand. “Girls can’t smell bad.” He walked past her to the bathroom. She watched the back of his head disappear into the crowd, then reappear by the bathroom door. Jacob walked out of the bathroom as Rick walked in. She waved to him. He waved back. A man and woman stood in front of Mia at the bar. Their faces were animated and they spoke too quickly for Mia to discern any words. Jacob walked to her with his head tilted to the side. He now seemed happy to see her. She was unsure if the world around her felt foreign, or if she was the foreigner in a normal, functional world.
“Is your mouth still freaking out?” Jacob said.
“A little. It’s okay. I think I’m just getting my check, though.”
Jacob nodded. “Are you going to the party with Rick?”
“Maybe. I haven’t decided yet. No, probably not.” Mia felt the cold air going down into her lungs, but couldn’t feel it leaving.
“People are sticking around here and drinking after work, if you wanted to do that.”
“Yeah, maybe. I think I’m going to walk around for a while. I’ll stop by later.”
Jacob paid Mia’s check and she thanked him. When Rick returned and she told him she was going for a walk, he said in a cautionary tone, “Don’t get lost,” then scrunched up his face and pointed his out-turned thumb at the door, “Now, get lost!” He laughed, and Mia made herself smile.
Outside, it had cooled down significantly, but the sun hadn’t yet set. Mia passed shops and a residential area. The only other person on the street was a woman with a large dog. Everything was quiet. Mia followed a mulched path to a small wooded park.
Some kind of tinny, electronic music played in the distance. The melody sometimes vaguely resembled “Silver Bells,” even though it was August. Dusty beams of yellow light shone through the treetops, spotlighting arbitrary patches of plants.
Mia heard a rustling that matched the sound of her footsteps on the leaves. Something moved in her peripheral vision. She stopped walking. The rustling was a cat-sized mass of forest debris. It moved slowly from side to side, and then stopped. Mia stood for a moment and waited for it to move again. She threw a small rock at it. It didn’t move. She cautiously took a few steps towards the mass and saw a miniature cloud of flies hovering above it. Without getting any closer, she knew an animal had come here to die.