Before they found the bodies in the reservoir, those bodies left so long beneath the surface that they'd become, at last, something other than the bodies of women, become creatures of the water, too gruesome to print in the newspaper—before that, the water pressure was low and there was a strange smell, something like iodine maybe, and my girlfriend called the front desk and said We’re on vacation, we want to be able to take a fucking shower, and I understood, even if whatever tired employee at the desk didn’t, that she wasn’t angry about the water. We’d driven nine hours through the Arizona desert the day before and it was close to midnight by the time we arrived and still, astonishingly, 112 degrees. We laughed like kids seeing snow for the first time, and even though we were so exhausted it felt like a chore staying upright, we were smiling as we walked into the lobby, her arm around my waist, and I felt certain the trip had been the right choice, that it would mend whatever small thing had broken between us. The woman at the front desk wasn’t hostile, but she was a shade of polite that was nearly indistinguishable, saying I’ll need your friend to sign this pass for her car—Not my friend, my girlfriend—Your friend—My girlfriend—and so on, and I remembered a time when garden variety homophobia had felt thrilling, a confirmation that the choice we’d made to be together was transgressive. Now it was only an unwelcome reminder of the world we lived in, and by the time we walked away from the desk and up to our room with its two queen beds instead of the king we’d requested, all the delight had drained out of the moment, and there didn’t seem to be any way to put it back in.
I fell asleep with my girlfriend’s head on my shoulder, but woke to a too-familiar absence—one that had somehow followed us down all those highway miles—her body a shadow on the other bed that could have belonged to anyone, could have been an axe murderer for all I knew, but I just closed my eyes and willed whatever future was coming to hurry, I was tired of waiting for it. On my second waking the sun was shouldering its way into the room through the crack in the curtains, my girlfriend now missing from both beds, and the room was made strange by her disappearance so that I flung myself out from under the covers. I found her in the bathroom with her hands on either side of the sink, the water running and There’s something wrong with it Liv she said. What do you mean wrong? but even my voice was wrong now. Sometime in the night the balance of anger had shifted so it belonged to me, I had become the one who needed to be appeased, and she had to do the appeasing or be angry in turn—in which case perhaps this trip would not be a mending, would instead rupture us in ways irreparable—but she only gestured her beautiful, haggard face towards the water and said Touch it and she sounded tired and afraid and so I touched it.
The water was only water, cool against my fingers, just the right combination of hot and cold. My girlfriend had a knack for happy mediums—vegetarian not vegan, ambitious but relaxed on the weekends, able to maintain desire for men and women both—that I lacked entirely and at first I was too busy thinking about this to notice the sensation, but then I couldn’t help but notice, and I forgot about the rest. If you have never existed as a woman in the world you might not know the feeling in the water, might have been able to wash your hands and feel nothing, not something skittering from your hands up your arms, not a clenching in the pit of your stomach, not a crawling on the back of your neck—not a hundred other clichés that are clichéd precisely because of their exhausting familiarity, but there it was, and I yanked my fingers back, stared at them, waited and kept waiting for the feeling to fade, that entirely recognizable feeling of being prey.
We didn’t do anything about the water then, didn’t call and complain or ask to switch rooms or look up carbon monoxide poisoning or the definition of folie à deux, we didn’t even turn the water off. The look we shared didn’t belong to us, had nothing to do with the way we’d loved each other for seven years and tried, all that time, to protect one another from the violence of the world, from the fatigue of it, each thinking our body could be a safe haven or an alternate timeline or another planet, so we were constantly disappointed when our bodies were only bodies. This look was just two women on a dark street. Strange how a bad thing can make everything else better, so that our eyes met and we were both afraid and it reminded us that we didn’t have to keep passing our anger back and forth, we could set it down and walk out of the bathroom, which we did, our hands finding each other, the water still running in the background and the sound of it became soothing, like an ambulance going to someone else’s home. Back in between the two queen beds my girlfriend kissed me, looking for comfort, an echo of that first time: the two of us, only friends then, sitting in my car outside her house, unwilling to let the night end, to return to our husbands and kitchens and how was the movie honey?, so when her lips touched mine it felt shocking and inevitable, and I understood there were other kinds of lives to live. All these years later and her kiss was still a hook in my stomach, pulling me towards her so the aperture between us dwindled to almost nothing, negligible against all the gaping divides in the world.
We didn’t intend to forget the water, leave it running all day—a mistake we would later be ashamed of, as though we’d inflicted some extra harm on the women’s bodies—but the kiss had opened a doorway that we had to walk through or it would become a wall again, so I pulled my girlfriend onto the bed, buried my face in her neck, bit her ear, dug my nails into her back. All of it a little too hard, the desire to bring her pleasure intertwined with the desire to hurt her, but I forgot that, too, as her body began to move against mine, and all I could think was that I wanted our skin to shred like tissue paper so we could truly touch. Afterwards, we lay with our legs entangled and I was certain that if we stayed silent we could live in the softness sex had created between us, but, Liv, my girlfriend said, and I realized I was hot and the sheets were soaked in sweat. I need to shower, I said, and it was true that I wanted coolness, but more than that I wanted to pull the bathroom door closed and be separate from one another.
It’s funny isn’t it, how a tragedy becomes the texture of a memory or a point of reference or statistics or a scare tactic or a story that you tell to explain why you are the way you are or a thing you don’t think about because of all that is wrong with your own life or a thing you think about instead of all that is wrong with your own life or a TV special or a poem or a reminder that things could be worse or a reminder that everything is worse than we are ever willing to acknowledge it is. My girlfriend and I would read about it in the newspapers after we left, the way one of the bodies had escaped its anchor, floated to the surface of the reservoir. We would follow the events obsessively, learn about the bacteria that survive inside a person after she dies, consuming soft tissue and transforming it into something less vulnerable, gases like methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, which carry the body upwards. The media was focused on the murderer’s identity, whether he was one or several, what his motives were, but we understood that none of these details mattered, that if he killed the women out of rage or spite or for simple pleasure, none of this would change the story, which was always the same story, and to pretend otherwise was to name the two faces of a coin while denying the existence of the coin itself. We didn’t care about him. It was the women we wanted to know about. We learned their names—Maria Crystal Lina Desirée Sara Chana Jenice. We scavenged the details of their lives, how Desirée was two months from defending her PhD in biochemistry, that Lina had a daughter named Lianna, the way Crystal lisped a little in the video that surfaced of her as a child. We talked about them until they came to feel like friends or lovers or alternate versions of ourselves, and maybe it was inevitable that eventually they became another language we used against one another, so that when we found the video of Sara’s husband proposing to her at Disneyland it was only natural to say That’s what you wish you still had isn’t it? A man down on one knee?
Later, long after we had accepted that there was nothing to fix between us—that we had only grown steadily towards the light of different suns—we still called each other once in a while just to say Remember the heat that summer, by which we meant Do you remember the water, by which we meant Promise that I am not alone with this. But I was alone that day as I stepped into the shower, sweat chilled into goosebumps on my skin, my girlfriend an ominous presence on the other side of the bathroom door, and the shower’s water guttering like a candle flame so that I knew it was a bad idea to step beneath it but did so anyway. I watched myself in the mirror like watching a stranger, but then I wasn’t a stranger anymore, I was there, in my body, beneath the water, and the women were there with me.