“We need ice,” she said, just as he had gotten his shoes off. “There must be an ice machine somewhere. All motels got them, don’t they.”
“OK.” And he started to pull his shoes back on.
“And what about a Coke machine? Did you see one when we came in?”
“No, but I’ll look.”
“If they have one, I want a Dr. Pepper, OK?”
Vernaise pulled her sweater up over her head and caught her elbows in the wool. She looked like an animal trying to wriggle out from under a tarpaulin. When it finally came loose, her glasses were lost and she had to dig through the sweater as if it were a suitcase.
“Here they are,” she announced, but Bill was already off in search of ice and drink. The smell of wet wool was everywhere.
The weather in the mountains had been just awful and they abandoned their campsite for the Capri 700 motel with gingerbread decorations on the veneer four-poster bed and scenes from Pompeii framed around the walls. The TV had cable and adult video. Vernaise had chosen it.
“No ice,” Bill slammed the door. “But here is a Mountain Dew.”
“No Dr. Pepper?”
“No.” He looked at her in her underwear. It didn’t fit. The elastic in her panties was all stretched out of shape and her bra was too big. Her breasts looked like hard boiled eggs rolling around in cereal bowls.
“The rain looks like its getting worse,” he said. “I think we did the right thing.”
“No shit. I’m soaked,” she said with more than a hint of whine in her voice. “Even my bra is wet.”
She unhooked it and hung it over the towel rack in the bathroom. It looked friendless.
The pasty marks it left on her back and sides was a topographic map. Red lines on clammy, white skin.
Bill pulled the tab on her Mountain Dew and took a slug himself. “Here.” He offered it to her.
She took it and turned the knob on the TV. As the tube crackled and whistled while warming up, she sat on the edge of the bed and sipped her drink. A game show came on and she got up and spun the dial.
“Nothing but game shows.”
“What did you expect in the afternoons?”
“But what about those adult videos? They gotta be here somewhere.”
Bill started taking off his wet clothes. His shoes squeaked; his socks left wet black lint between his toes. His thighs stuck to the damp denim of his jeans. His scrotum shriveled.
“Isn’t this romantic,” she sighed.
“Your glasses must be fogged.”
“No, I mean, here we are in a motel, pretending to be married. And we can spend the whole night together in bed.”
“That’s what we would have done in the tent.”
“But this is different. Everybody camps together. Staying in a motel is something that would give Mom shitfits.”
Bill unbuttoned the last layer of flannel shirt and peeled it back from his skin. “That makes it romantic, huh?”
“Sure. It’s exciting.” She turned the dials some more and settled on Family Feud.
He walked to the bathroom, picking up rug lint on the bottoms of his wet feet, and turned on the hot water for a shower. The water was hot enough, but the spray from the shower head was a mere drizzle. “Hey, there’s no soap.”
His voice sounded to Vernaise like it came from an oil drum. “I’ll look through the pack and get ours.”
She pulled nearly everything out of the pack — it was all damp. She found the soap and it was already lathering. “Here it is.”
“Thanks. Want to join me?”
“I never take showers. Only baths. Bad for my hair. It gets all frizzy.”
He was already burbling and sloshing before she finished her sentence. She went back to Family Feud.
As she was watching, she unconsciously started pulling off her panties. All Bill heard was a horrible scream.
“A tick! A tick! Get it off!” She had found it clinging to her skin just above the dark line of her pubic hair. She jumped and wiggled her hands aimlessly in the air. “Get it off! Get it off!” Her voice was an octave higher than usual.
He ran into the bedroom, not knowing what to expect and dripping like a mop. He saw Vernaise performing a St. Vitus dance in the middle of the floor. “Get it off! AAAAAAAHHHH!”
“Calm down. Let’s see.” Sure enough, there was a tick burrowed in. “Calm down, we’ll get him off.”
“Now! Now! Don’t wait!”
“Lie down. Sit still. Let’s see.”
She sat down on the bed and then lay down. Bill tried to brush off the offending spot, but it wouldn’t move. “I’ll try a match.” He rummaged around through the pack and found the watertight capsule. He lit one and blew it right out. He applied the smoking end of the match to the tick’s head, but it wouldn’t pull out. He tried again. Then he tried dousing it with mercurochrome from the first aid kit. It looked pretty all in red, but it didn’t budge.
“I’ll have to pull it out,” he said, and grabbed the tick’s body and yanked. The body came, but the head stuck firm. Vernaise thought she would be sick. Bill somehow grasped the remaining head between two fingers and it pulled loose, taking a sliver of skin with it.
“Yuck. Yuck. Awful. I’ll never go out in the woods again.”
“Come on, it isn’t that bad.”
“You wouldn’t say that if it was your body. I feel so unclean. I gotta take a bath.”
Bill just stood there, dripping, naked, holding a tick’s head in his fingers and wondering if it were time for a tick check of each others’ bodies.
The tub filled and Vernaise sloshed in. “Yuck!”
The mood had been ruined for Vernaise. All she could think about was crawly things. Bill found a Marx Brothers film on one of the cable channels and reclined on the bed, watching the film between his feet. Vernaise dried off and wrapped herself in a blanket. The red lines on her body had faded somewhat, but her skin, no longer clammy, was still wet.
“Bring those lips over here,” said Bill, in the way of being romantic.
“No, I couldn’t. Are there bedbugs in the bed? Fleas?”
“No. Don’t be silly.”
“Sure. It was just a tick.”
“Just a tick?”
“Yeah. It won’t kill you.”
“Men!” She was only 19, but already she knew the curse that described all that was wrong with the universe.
“Duck Soup. Marx Brothers. It’s on.” He gestured toward the tube but she didn’t seem interested. She sat on the edge of the bed, turned away from Bill.
“Don’t be that way,” he said, reaching across the bed to squeeze her boiled eggs. She jumped up, taking him with her and he fell, flat on his nose on the floor.
She screamed, too. “Bill! Are you OK?” His nose was a bleeding pancake.
“What’d you do that for?” He sounded a little like an oboe. “Why’d you pull away?”
“You scared me. Besides, I don’t feel like it, after the tick and all.”
“Jesus.” He held his nose and walked naked to the bathroom where he pulled off a skein of toilet paper and mopped his schnoz with it.
“It’s swelling,” he yelled from the oil drum.
They slept in the bed with its stiff sheets and hard mattress. Bill’s arm wrapped around her. She had her back to him. Once, in the night, she had to get up to pee. He hardly noticed.
The next morning, it was still raining. One of those warm April rains that rises in steam to your nose and saturates the air with humidity.
Bill could hardly breathe. His right nostril was split and a black plug of blood hung on the fleshy part. The nose was not only larger than it should be, but bent, too, he thought.
Vernaise rolled over towards him, opened her eyes to a slit, barely aware of the daylight. She saw the plug of blood and let out the beginning of another scream, but caught it mostly in her throat. In the haze of sleepiness, she thought it was a tick, or it reminded her of the tick she had.
It wasn’t a pleasant way to start off the morning. She lifted the sheets and looked down at her crotch. The tick was gone. Hardly even a little ring of redness remained.
“Damn, my period started,” she said. It was regular as the full moon, and because of that dogged dependability, she purposely refused to keep track of it, and it surprised her punctually every 28 days.
“Huh?” Bill honked. He was just waking up, too. In fact, he didn’t want to wake up. He wanted to stay asleep. But he slowly became aware of something wet in the bed, and consciousness jumped him like a bandit.
“What’s that? Oh.” He knew as soon as he asked the question. This wasn’t a new thing in their relationship.
“I’ll get a towel.”
He got up, walked to the bathroom, stood over the toilet and drained for a minute or two, grabbed one of the face towels and wiped the clot off his nose, brought the towel back into the bedroom and handed it to Vernaise.
“No, I don’t want your bloody old towel,” she said. “I want a clean one.”
He walked back into the bathroom, picked up another towel and stood there for a minute, as if he had forgotten what he was doing.
It is important to realize that men don’t, in such situations, actually think about love or relationships. They wouldn’t have the vocabulary for it even if they had wanted to. But there were fleeting sensations and images flashing across the inside of his skull. He stood there and thought about the wet, sticky part of the mattress. He thought about Vernaise demanding a clean towel. It reminded him of the time she wanted a sticky bun for breakfast, and when he went out to the 7-Eleven and brought one back, she had complained it wasn’t the right kind of bun. He shoveled that thought on top of his memory of the red-striped skin from yesterday under the elastic of her underwear. That soaked over the thought of the way her voice rose an octave when she got upset. It not a pleasant squeak in her voice. More like a door that needed oiling. Annoying. Oh, and he thought about her mother. Large woman. Muu-muus. Teased hair. They say you can tell what a woman will become by looking at her mother. He pictured her mother with Vernaise’s face. He pictured Terry Bradshaw passing to Lynn Swann in the Super Bowl. He was losing focus.
“You have the towel?” she asked from the next room.
“Oh, yeah.” He remembered why he was there.
Vernaise sat on the edge of the bed, feeling a little logey. Perhaps it was the time of month, perhaps it was the interrupted camping trip and the lack of sleep. She looked toward the bathroom and saw only Bill’s behind as he stood there like a statue with his head cocked to the side.
She had been attracted to him, she realized, because — well, now she was wondering. She thought it was because he seemed older and more experienced. But she realized now that he wasn’t really. He played in a band, but then, it was only a garage band. He took her places. They had sex. She liked that. Mostly.
She tried to remember exactly why she was with Bill. Probably because he asked, she realized. Being wanted is the most potent aphrodisiac.
But she also admitted to herself that she already knew he wasn’t the one. Her thoughts were more direct than his. She didn’t wander: She compared him with Paul. She compared him with Shelley. Then with Al and Frederick. She had a mental tab column in her head. Make a list. Looks. Potential. Sense of Humor. Check, check, check. Al gets a double check here. Oh, and Ted, too. She had forgotten Ted. She hadn’t stayed with any of them longer than she did with Bill, but she wasn’t really sure why.
Later in the morning, still in the room, since there was no place to go for breakfast, they mixed up some of their trail food — a strawberry shake that tasted less like strawberries than liquified cardboard.
They signed out of the room at noon when the maid knocked, went back to the campground and struck the tent. It was twice as heavy with all the water soaked in. They threw it in the trunk.
“Some romantic weekend,” he said.
All he could think about was the squeaky hinge. All she could think about was the tick.