Onslaught

Issue 36 by Julie Beals

Onslaught

You are moving forward! You are moving forward. You’re cruising down the road in your jeep, on the way to work. The leather seat is cool beneath you; the world that’s passing by is overcast, but the yards and flora surrounding the nearby houses are almost a fluorescent green. There was a thunderstorm the night before. You pump the windshield wipers once, clearing rain droplets, and then you hear your cell phone buzz. It’s Ruby:

Have you seen the beetles yet?

Ruby reads the morning paper. She’s similarly asked you about the maglev on display at the local technological museum, the Egyptian mongoose being recategorized as an endangered species, and the currently trending grapefruit diet. She assumes that you keep a finger on the pulse of events too, but you do not. You remind her of this with one hand on the steering wheel and one thumb punching at your phone.

She explains: An approximated 200,000 mountain pine beetles, Dendroctonus ponderosae, are cruising towards your town from southeast Wyoming, where they wreaked havoc on whole forests of ponderosa and whitebark pine trees. They’ve come to mate. Ruby saw several scuttling in the base of her rain gutter this morning. She even saw some in the windshield wipers of cars as she crossed the parking lot to school.

You crane your head upward, causing the seatbelt to jut into your neck. You peer into the chlorine-blue tint of the windshield, scanning for black dots buzzing around the outline of trees. But you see nothing, and already, you’ve become swiftly preoccupied with something else. You’re feeling a bit squirmy in your stomach. You pull over to the curb outside an unknown house.

If beetles are coming to town, does this mean that a particular person is also coming to town?

- - - - - -

When you get into the classroom, Ruby is pouring animal crackers into an assembly line of Dixie cups. You tell her that you didn’t see any beetles. You hang your raincoat up by its hood. Then you venture to ask: She hasn’t heard anything about Rodney coming into town to study the beetles, has she?

Ruby raises an eyebrow, continuing to pour crackers. No, she has not. And might she remind you, Rodney is rumored to have a significant other now. A significant other who essentially lives with him, has a law degree from Cornell, and spearheaded the formation of a seven-acre wildlife reserve of which she’s now the sole manager. Did you see the Facebook pics? In one of them she’s nursing a baby bat with a milk bottle.

No, you didn’t see the Facebook pics. You wonder why Ruby seems to find satisfaction in stamping down any licks of hope that ever arise with regard to Rodney. Not that you have any hope. But she does do that—she does seem to become energized by giving you reality checks.

The classroom door opens and screaming, open mouths flood inward. An abundance of unmatching color. Backpacks flung. The questions begin.

- - - - - -

The next day: It’s morning again. You’re bumping down the road in your jeep, on the way to work. The beetles are now visible everywhere. Small black dots with a golden sheen to their wings. They patter against your windshield and hover outside your windows, threatening to enter when you roll them down. You’re coming upon the intersection that’s hardest for you to pass. It’s the intersection where you used to routinely turn left to head for Rodney’s house, which is now occupied by his parents. Tinley Street NE and Ayre Road. You usually approach it, gulp down the faint beginnings of pain, and lean into the accelerator, launching yourself away from the situation. But this time, it’s different. This time, as you come up upon Tinley Street NE, a large sign immediately grabs your attention. It’s a hunk of wood at least six feet tall, slathered in red paint.

It reads: Give into your impulses! Turn this way.

It’s accompanied by a giant arrow, pointing left. It’s clearly some kind of mortgage sign—there’s a phone number and icon at the bottom—but the message creeps beneath your skin, eking out adrenaline. The sign knows you. The sign knows your heart. You do, in fact, want to turn that way. But you want it for reasons that vanish the moment you turn to face them.

You continue on your way to work. When you find yourself side-to-side with Ruby, you go out on a limb and mention the sign. Doesn’t she find it peculiar? It’s as if the universe has its fist around your heart and is squeezing tight. Merciless.

Ruby demurs as she sprays antiseptic on a tub of plastic toys. The sign is not a sign, amiga. And the sign shouldn’t cause you any pain. It’s the work of a run-of-the-mill real estate agent. It could be posted at any intersection. It could be posted anywhere. It could be taken down in two days.

Then Ruby adds, as she sets down a rag and breathes heavily, looking at you with pity-filled eyes: I know what you’re thinking, but Rodney is not thinking about you. You are not on his mind.

- - - - - -

It’s the end of the day, and you’re squatting on a rug bearing the image of a world map, holding a clod of tissue to the barely present bicep of a first grader. He’s a redhead with a distinctly passive disposition, and his eyes loll around the classroom as if to say: This is just another of a line of events that I don’t much understand or care for. He fell while riding a see-saw. You assure him that his uncle is on the way.

Your cell phone buzzes. Is that his uncle?

No.

Hello, hello. Guess who’s back in town? I’ve been thinking about you lately. I’m on dispatch because of the beetle invasion.

Ruby was wrong. You’ll have to remind her about this the next time she’s right. You instantly take the first grader’s hand in yours, replace his hand onto the spot where your hand was holding the tissue, and give a little gesture to indicate, there. You hold it just like that. Then you take your cell phone in both hands and gleefully, relievedly, text back.

I thought you might be! I’ve been thinking about you too, actually.

(It’s all right to say that, right? Because he said it first?)

Then you venture a little further, but within the bounds of what feels safe, given the tone of his text:

Do you want to meet up sometime? Are you staying with your parents?

You watch the blank screen of your cell phone for a minute, then put it down. No message yet. The long-awaited uncle arrives, shaking rain off of an umbrella and making an accentuated, clown-like frown expression when he sees his nephew with the bloody tissue.

- - - - - -

The next day, you’re in the jeep again. It’s a foggy morning—the weather is mirroring your inner state. Your cell phone is in the front pocket of your backpack, which is lying, slack and loose, on the passenger seat. The pocket is undone. As you break for stop signs, you glance over at it, hopeful for a lit screen. But nothing yet.

It’s been sixteen hours. Does that mean no, he does not want to meet up sometime? But if that’s the case, why reach out at all? Why say that he’s been thinking about you?

You relay this thought to Ruby while washing your hands in the deep, finger-painting sink. You pump pink soap onto your hands.

Ruby sighs. I’m going to attempt to divert your attention from this, she says. But I need you to let me divert your attention, okay?

Okay.

Come to a monster truck viewing party at my boyfriend’s house, she says.

You snort out loud. You can’t help it.

I’m serious, she says! You don’t have to make monster trucks your newest passion. Just attend. Show up. Eat some sun chips. Drink some beer. Smile. Chit-chat with my boyfriend’s unextraordinary but more-or-less humane male friends. It’ll be fine.

You don’t want to go, but you don’t want to be the sort of individual who regularly complains about a predicament while never taking measures to rectify it. How can you know that it won’t help? You’ll talk to other men. You’ll laugh, even if it’s gratuitous laughter. You’ll get a little buzzed, which you rarely do. You figure that you can’t be thinking of Rodney while simultaneously speaking to another human that’s looking at you with wide, curious eyes.

- - - - - -

Before the party, you light a candle to Saint Beatrix, the patron saint of facility in delicate matters. You bought it at the local bodega. You look up at the ceiling and think, I really need you to deliver on this one. I can’t endure another six months of being ignored off and on. You wait a moment. Then you blow out the flame and grab your purse.

You enter the party address into your phone’s GPS. It routes the path with a pixelated blue line, winding from your starting point to your destination. You take one look at the destination and are besieged with horror. It gushes in your throat.

Tinley Street NE.

Unbelievable! Not possible! What are the chances? Did Ruby not know? The party is a mere two houses over from Rodney’s old house. Could this house’s yard be seen from their house’s yard? Is Rodney there? Will he see you? You are not comfortable being that close. If he wanted you that close, he would have texted back. It’s now been thirty hours. Your questions are still there, in the text thread, waiting. Like a tossed ball, suspended in midair. Like cadence that hasn’t been resolved. Do you want to meet up sometime? Are you staying with your parents?

With an upset stomach, you navigate the car, wending through darkened streets. You approach Tinley Street NE. You see the giant red sign. You turn left, just as the sign says. You stare ahead, over the steering wheel. You’re not breathing much. You don’t check your mirrors. You remain in this state until you reach your destination: A modest house that was once white but has since been dirtied up. The grass is uncut. The porch light is on.

While still in the car, you allow yourself to steal one glance in the direction of Rodney’s house. But you don’t see any lights on and it’s not all that close. You probably couldn’t be spotted, even if Rodney were hunched on the roof with binoculars. And it’s dark, anyway. You open the car door to the sound of cicadas and the buzz of beetles this way and that.

It turns out that a monster truck viewing party consists of exactly what you’d envisioned: Dudes Oooohh-ing loudly with beers in hand. Eyes fixed on a TV screen. Ruby socializing in flocks of women, gaping sensationally at each other’s stories and then throwing their heads back and laughing. Chips and salsa. At one point you stand, gazing at a watercolor painting in the hallway, just outside the room where Barbie-colored hummers are bulldozing Toyotas. The painting is of a dreamcatcher. Watery feathers teardrop downward. In the center of the dreamcatcher is, oddly, a tiny hippopotamus.

You hear someone behind you. A man with not much hair but an authentic smile approaches. He tells you that his name is Earnest and shakes your hand. In this order, the two of you discuss the following topics: This “kitschy” painting. Your fear of parallel parking in any vehicle that’s not a compact. The pros and cons of small cars. Recipes for southwest salsa. Ruby, and the dynamic you two have at work. Earnest’s career as patent attorney. Whether you have a family of your own. Whether you’re ready to leave the viewing party. Whether you’re ready to leave the viewing party right now, and whether you’d like him to drive you home.

Reaching for your coat and entering the beetle-beset air, it occurs to you that there’s a good possibility that Earnest expects to both drive you home and enter your home. You did not think about this while accepting his offer to be discharged from the party in a socially appropriate way. Oops. It’s occurring to you that you’ve allowed events to cascade toward a destination you’re not much interested in, when you open Earnest’s passenger side door and see something: Right on the seat, neatly placed, is a copy of Beetles and Other Winged Wonders in hardback. It looks like it was recently purchased; its dustjacket shows no signs of being pushed into a backpack or nuzzled in a bed comforter. Beneath the image on the front cover—a beetle with yellow spots and aquatic-colored wings—is the name “Rodney J. Williams.” Rodney’s latest book.

Within the course of one second, you turn to stone. Frozen.

Your clueless companion looks at you over the hood of the car. Something wrong? he asks.

You duck into his four-door and ask, in your most deliberately neutral tone, if you can toss the book on the floor. He says yes. You toss it on the floor. It then sears you, boring a hole in your forehead, throughout the entire drive. You and Earnest run out of fuel for conversation. There’s a lull in your filler remarks. Earnest turns on the radio.

- - - - - -

Now it’s been thirty-eight hours. There’s no way that Rodney is intentionally ignoring you. Why would he ignore you? He was the one who originally reached out. So, you chalk it up to a distractible mind and send a single, innocuous text that will remind him of the previous, more significant text:

These beetles are wild. I went to move a tarp off of a friend’s lawn chair the other day (true, not made up)and there were about 50 swarming underneath.

Then you wait. Meanwhile, “wild” was actually an understatement. Ruby texts to remind you that the city is conducting waves of insecticide-spraying—an insecticide that will discourage the beetles from destroying its pine trees—and you need to look up your street’s spraying schedule. So, you do.

You take a tuna fish sandwich, wrapped in tin foil, to the local library. You sit on the library’s steps, absent-minded, eating it. You’ve got three and a half hours to kill while the city completes the spraying on your street.

The air is mild. The dappled shadows cast by the oak tree overhead ease this way, then that. You watch a dog, a big poodle, galloping down the street with its leash trailing behind. You watch the dog’s owner following in a displeased jog. Then, you hear it:

Yeah, it’s complicated. But I think that’s what makes it interesting. I mean, this girl, she’d never been out of the city in her life. Then she moves down here, to Colorado— Yeah, but that was after law school. She’s thinking of establishing a wildlife refuge here, too.

Rodney’s voice.

You look up and around, fast. You find yourself ducking.

And there he is: Confident walk, shoulder bag across his chest, clothes made of high-quality fabric, boots that were definitely more than $100. Well-curated hair. He’s with a male friend. He’s walking right past you.

You lift a finger, as if you’re in class and meekly asking if it’s all right to ask a question. Your mouth is dry from hanging open. Your vocal folds start to vibrate. But then, it’s over! He passed you. He didn’t see you. You can almost smell him, almost smell the evidence that he just passed you, just a few feet in front of you.

That was the first time you’d seen him in three years.

- - - - - -

In your desperation, you try a witchy bath. You procure a packet of “Witchy Bath Salts” from your local bodega. The salts were on the same shelf as the Saint Beatrix candle. On the back of the packet, you’re promised a potent cleansing from dark emotions as well as enhanced digestive health. The bath salts are violet and glittery. They remind you of a junior higher’s eyeshadow. You let them fall out of your hand into a tub of water and then sit, naked, in the bubbling concoction.

Reflective thoughts while sitting in the bathtub: Firstly, you cannot control anyone else’s behavior. Only your own. So, if you don’t like how Rodney is making you feel, it is you who has to change the situation. Secondly, you probably ought to delete the thread where your texts have been left hanging. As long as it still exists, you’ll be reminded of it.

With one sopping arm, you reach over to the pants that are heaped in a pile on the toilet seat. You slip your cell phone out, and voila. It’s done. The text thread has been deleted.

Later that night, feeling surprisingly more lighthearted, you decide to buy another packet of bath salts. There was another packet, a glittery lime green one, that claimed to yield insight about one’s ideal career. Swinging into the driver’s seat, you twist your way through the streets, the occasional light whipping by. You see the faint movements of beetles in your windshield wipers. A rainstorm is rolling in, forecasted by plops of water on the windshield, and the bodega closes at midnight.

You say to yourself: Isn’t this enjoyable? It’s already hours past dinner time, and you didn’t have to check in with anyone before grabbing your keys and heading to the store. Didn’t have to warn anyone that you’d be taking a long bath. Don’t have to coordinate your bedtime with anyone else.

In the process of purchasing the bath salts, the wind and rain have become more noticeable. The rain is now flying in a slant. You get veritably wet, jogging back to your car. You ease through the streets at a conservative speed, accounting for decreased visibility, when you arrive at Tinley Street NE. Before you can even accelerate into the intersection, before it even occurs to you that there’s potential for danger, you hear a deep crack, which you recognize as the sound a tree branch makes when it’s wrested from its trunk during a hurricane. A deep CCCKKRruuunnnck! And before you can breathe, before you can think, the red sign leaps toward you and smashes against the windshield in a tremendous cacophony of shattered glass.

The windshield splinters. You let go of the wheel without thinking, jerking your body backwards—then recover, and hit the brake.

- - - - - -

The tow truck doesn’t arrive until it’s light out. The sky is rose-colored behind the silhouettes of trees. The dots of beetles swarm around the silhouettes, as if in valence shells. As you ride along next to the towing professional—a middle-aged woman named Donna—you listen to the radio. The station is playing a series of songs that nod to the beetles’ presence: Fly Away, Black as Night, To the Skies, Invasion. Donna reaches out and flips to another radio station. The song playing on that station is Always Something There to Remind Me.

You shake your head nonsensically at the window, the world gliding past. What can you do? It’s hopeless. You can’t escape him.

Donna takes your keys as you stand in the tow company’s parking lot, waiting for your paperwork to be processed. The plastic strap on one of your flip-flops broke during the accident, so you now stand barefoot, your broken shoes hanging from one finger. You take in your surroundings. From where you stand, Rodney’s house is just three blocks away. You make a decision.

Under the brightening sky, you walk barefoot back to Tinley Street NE. You walk past the site of the accident, the glass still glinting on the asphalt. You walk past the dirty white house where you attended the monster truck viewing party. Then you walk up the stone path and brick steps of a house you’ve known for nine years. You ring the doorbell.

Rodney opens the door.

Hey, he says, shock smacked on his face. He looks both alarmed and discomfited—as if he’s anticipating that something is about to go wrong. As if he were caught in the act of doing something wrong.

I know it’s strange for me to just show up here, you say. You lift your flip-flops, still dangling from one hand. You got in a car accident not far from here, you explain. You were standing in the parking lot of the tow company, basically doing nothing, and you thought…

Rodney gives a slight grin. He looks less threatened now. His hair, indeed, looks perfectly curated.

You can see behind him, into the house. A pair of jeans are flung over an arm chair. Slim jeans—women’s jeans.

You ask him how he’s doing and he answers generically, but then he points up to a spot about eight feet over your head.

You see that? he says. There’s a grocery bag stuck in that tree and the beetles have taken up residence inside of it. They’re constantly rioting against the plastic. You can’t hear it now, but it’s a real racket at night. It’s directly outside our bedroom window.

Our. Our? His and his significant other’s bedroom window? The significant other with the ivy league degree and wildlife refuge? So, his parents are away?

You pause to listen, as he’s saying this. You can hear a faint rioting.

The volley of conversation slows to a pause. You apologize for coming over so early in the morning. You apologize for coming over unannounced. He dismisses your apologies with a facial neutrality that epitomizes the phrase “as cool as a cucumber.” Nothing about your unanswered texts. Nothing about the three years that have elapsed since the last time you saw each other. You bid him goodbye and the two of you don’t hug.

As you’re walking away, you berate yourself. What ever made you think that you were important to him? It’s just as Ruby said—you were never on his mind. He was on your mental radar, but you weren’t on his.

You’re thinking about all of this, intensely, while gravel bites into the soles of your feet. You’re thinking about all of this when your phone rings.

It’s Rodney. You pick up.

Yeah? you say.

I just wanted to ask, he says. Did you come over for anything in particular? Was there something you wanted to talk about?

You want to remind him that it was he who reached out to you. You want to remind him that it was he who had a significant other in his life, but he reached out to you. And you have the lurching bodily impulse to turn around, right then, on your bare feet, and sprint back to his front door—reaching him in his moment of candor. Reaching him at just this moment. In the absence of affect.

But you won’t. You know perfectly well that if you arrived at his door, at this very moment, and stood on his steps, your feet bare on the bricks, you’d only find the exact same person you faced before.

About the Author

Julie Beals

Julie Beals was formerly an editor at the Smithsonian Institution, but is now schooling to be a speech-language pathologist. She hopes to work in adult rehabilitation with people who have brain injuries. She has one desk for her speech affairs; another for her fiction writing.