From Bad To Worse
The good thing about rock bottom is that once you hit it, you can only go up.
The bad thing about rock bottom is that you will never know when you’ll reach it.
Our plane had only landed four hours ago, and I already regretted coming on this trip. The weather was hot and humid, and our rental car’s AC was broken. Even worse, we were stuck in traffic under the midday sun, surrounded by big, old, repurposed school buses covered in tacky flame stickers that spat out a thick, black cloud of soot every time they crept forward.
June had forbidden us from opening the windows because she was afraid, we’d get cancer from the smoke. June, however, did not seem to mind the chemicals in her headache-inducing, bubble-gum-flavored vape. So, here I was, stuck in an oven on wheels, slowly simmering in my own sweat, trying my best not to run out of the car screaming.
“How long until we get there?” asked Kaitlyn. She was slouching in the back seat, her bare foot laying on my headrest, and the back of her hand resting on her forehead. She huffed loud and often, as if to show she didn’t want to be here anymore than I did - which was probably the only thing Kait and I had in common.
“The GPS says eight hours,” I answered, after checking on my phone, “but I think it might be more because of all the traffic.”
“Eight?!” she shrieked. “Why couldn’t we find a retreat closer to the airport?”
“This isn’t a retreat, Kait, it’s the retreat,” said Ana, excitedly tapping the steering wheel with her long, skinny fingers.
“It has a yoga platform facing this beautiful lake, and it’s only a three-hour hike from some cool pyramid or something,” added June, as she loudly scrolled through pictures on her phone with the tip of her acrylic nails.
“Yoga and hiking, seriously June?” mumbled Kait. “I thought we were going for the parties and the hot guys.”
“We can do both,” said June. “and... we could do with both, right Sarah?”
“Huh?” I answered, turning around to look at June and Kait, giggling at each other in the back. I turned to Ana, who softly shook her head and smiled.
“When was the last time you had sex, Sarah?” asked Kait.
“None of your business,” I answered curtly, diving under my seat to pull out a pack of Doritos.
“You know what?” said June, before snatching the Dorito bag from between my fingers the very second I held it up, “We’ll coach you: our mission will be to get Sarah laid!”
“We’re in luck,” Kait snickered. “I heard Latinos like fat girls.”
“Fuck you,” I snapped, “I’m not fat.”
“Hey, language,” she answered, snapping her fingers.
“She’s just ′big-boned’, you know,” I heard June whisper.
“No, no, it’s ‘mid-sized’,” mocked Kait.
I stared at the road in silence, trying to come up with a witty comeback, but the more time I spent thinking, the less relevant it would be, and the stupider I’d sound. I ended up just closing my eyes, hoping that if I shut them hard enough, then all my problems would go away.
My peace and quiet managed to last a while, long enough for us to get off the main road and out of the hellish traffic. So far, the country looked nothing like the retreat’s brochure - no lush jungles, no turquoise rivers, no spectacular waterfalls nor colorful birds. In fact, it looked almost desertic. All around us were dusty, barren landscapes, littered with flattened cans and plastic bottles, dead trees, rotting cacti, and the occasional skeletal stray dog.
I felt scammed. I’d spent my hard-earned money on this retreat. Ana had told me this trip would be great to forget my day-to-day, shitty life. ’It’ll be life-changing″, she said, and dumb as I was, I believed her. But it was my fault, really. How could I have thought that hiking up an old pyramid would fix all that was broken? My broken family, that fell apart years ago. My relationship I’d broken off a few months prior. My broken stove, which had forced me to eat nothing but microwave ramen and salads for the past three weeks as my landlord still wasn’t answering my texts. That’s not how life works, and at twenty-three years old, I should know better.
Ana broke the heavy silence inside the car, as she pulled into a run-down gas station on the side of the road.
“Toilet break, skinny bitches!” she cheered as she parked the car.
The second the engine turned off, Kait and June jumped out. They immediately ran towards each other, hiding their faces behind their hands as they snickered, and rushed towards a ramshackle outhouse in a corner of the dusty parking lot. Ana turned towards me and sighed:
“Listen, Sarah, I’m sorry I-”
“You don’t have to be,” I said, cutting her off. “I really wanted to come. Really.”
She stared at me desperately for a while, and I think she knew I was lying. Her eyebrows drew together, just as they always did when she worried about me.
“You just need to get to know them better,” she said, tilting her head to the side.
“I’ve known them for years, Ana,” I sighed. “We’re just not from the same world, them and I.”
“I’m from the same world as you, and I get along great with them,” she insisted. “You need to open yourself up a bit more.”
“So it’s my fault then?” I snapped, and my smile quickly turned into an exasperated frown. “They’re always going on and on about me being fat and ugly, and boring and depressing, but it’s me who needs to open up?”
“Don’t take it out on me, Sarah, I’m just trying to help,” she huffed as she rolled her eyes at me. “That’s just their sense of humor. Honestly, they’re really sweet, I promise. They’re just joking with you.”
“I’m sure they are.”
I faked a smile and grabbed the door handle. She huffed loudly behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder to watch her shake her head in despair.
“Hey, can you grab me a Coke?” she asked softly as I set one foot outside.
I nodded and stepped out of the car. A few feet away from the car, June and Kait’s screams and giggles echoed in the rusty metal shed as they joked about the faces I had made. I swallowed back the lump in my throat and quickly shuffled towards the gas station’s little store.
The inside of the shop was tiny and cluttered. All you could hear was the echo of the bell that jingled as the door shut behind me, the loud, low-pitched hum of an old refrigerator, and the regular flickering of a neon light. It didn’t sell much - mainly packs of chips, sodas, and beers - most of which had brands and flavors I’d never even heard of before. I opened the musty-smelling fridge and quickly grabbed a Coca-Cola in a glass bottle for Ana, and a local beer for myself.
As I walked up to the cashier, I noticed two men leaning on the counter. I don’t know if they had been there, standing in silence for the whole time, or if they had just snuck in while I was choosing my drinks, but something about their demeanor and the way they stared at me as I walked up, without so much as a twitch or a peep, sent a cold chill down my spine. I nervously tugged on my shorts as I got closer to them.
Both of the men smelled strongly of sweat and perfume. One of them seemed like a dowdy fifty-something-year-old, with a receding hairline, old-fashioned glasses, and wet stains all over his light blue polo shirt. He wiped the sweat off his brow, and I noticed a thick, tacky golden watch around his wrist, with blingy stones that clashed with the rest of his appearance. Behind him stood a younger guy, with a shaved head, broad shoulders, and a gold chain around his neck. He hid behind his golden-framed aviator sunglasses, and I noticed he had a gun tucked into his jeans. Not in a holster, not in a pocket, just squeezed in between his stomach and his waistband. I took a nervous step back.
“Adelante, señorita,” said the older man, waving me over towards the counter with a swift hand gesture.
Go ahead, miss.
I nodded politely and whispered back a shy “gracias”, before setting my can and Ana’s coke bottle in front of the cashier. I pointed to the wall behind him and asked hesitantly, and in a slightly broken Spanish:
“Uhm... puedo tener cigarillo?”
Can I have cigarette?
The two men on my left were looking right at me, in silence. I could almost feel their breath on the back of my shoulder. I tried my best not to stare back, fixating instead on the young cashier who was pointing at a blue pack of Marlboros.
“Si, por favor,” I said, and he set it down beside my drinks.
I threw a couple of crumpled-up banknotes onto the counter, hoping to get out of the shop as fast as humanly possible, yet the cashier seemed to be counting my change painfully slowly.
When he was finally done, I hastily swept up the coins and scuffled out from the shop, probably leaving behind a good half of the change. Despite the crippling heat that crushed me like a wall of bricks, opening the door and stepping out felt like a deep breath of fresh, liberating air, and a sweet, warm, and cozy creep-free atmosphere.
Ana was sitting on the car’s hood, in the shade of a big palm tree, stretching out her long, skinny, brown legs. She looked like a model, with her deep brown doe eyes, her dark complexion, her bright white smile, and her baby hairs she had carefully finger-curled in the airport bathroom earlier that morning.
I’d also caught a glimpse of myself in that bathroom mirror. With the blue bags under my eyes; red spots on my forehead; thin, cracked, purplish lips; a green bruise where I had banged my cheekbone on a coffee table a week ago; and dull, brown roots peeking out from my frizzy dirty blonde hair, I was the sorriest rainbow anyone had ever seen. Although she’d been my best friend since we were toddlers, moments like those where I saw us side by side were a painful reminder of how far we had grown apart.
I shook off the bitterness and waved the pack of cigarettes at Ana.
“Want some?” I asked her. “I think they’re mint-flavored or something.”
“Ooh, don’t mind if I do!”
I flicked on the lighter and, with a guilty delight, lit a cigarette and let its deliciously poisonous smoke fill my lungs. June and Kait, who had been shrieking about the massive, supposedly man-eating spiders in the outhouse, burst through the door - sadly, seemingly alive, and still as annoying as always.
“Ew, Sarah, why are you smoking?” asked June in a condescending tone.
“It’s gross and trashy,” added Kait as she walked by, pulling a disgusted face.
I bit my tongue and kept quiet. I quickly glanced at Ana, who turned away her head to blow out her smoke. I hoped and prayed she’d stand up for me, but right now, it didn’t seem like that was going to happen.
She couldn’t always support me, I reasoned. She’d done so much for me in the past few years - when my dad died, she came to visit every day and made sure I’d smile at least once a day. When my mother got hooked on pills and booze and wasted away before my own eyes, Ana was there for me. Some nights, I’d run down to her house right down the street, barefoot and with nothing else but my pajamas on my back. Her mom would cook me tostones for dinner, tuck me in bed with Ana, and drop me off at school the next morning.
It happened often enough that people started to think that we were sisters, although we didn’t look much alike. Throughout high school, she’d helped me with my homework, found me my first job as a waitress in a local Dominican restaurant, visited studio flats with me, and walked with me around Goodwill to find decent furniture that we then hauled back to my place in the back of her dad’s pickup truck. Yet I had never given anything in return.
Ana had always been my best and only friend. I don’t know what hurt me the most - the jealousy I felt while seeing her find new friends who were prettier, richer, and happier than I would ever be; or perhaps the feeling that we were growing apart, and I had overstayed my welcome in Ana’s life. I often caught myself thinking that I was some kind of burden to her, after so many years of needing her but never really being able to give anything back. But the worst part was that I had no one else but her to rely on. My life was already miserable, but without Ana, it would just be an endless void. I choked back a few tears.
“Are you alright, Sarah?” asked Ana.
“Uh, yeah,” I stuttered. “I just need the bathroom.”
I flicked away my half-smoked cigarette and trotted over to the outhouse. With a shaking hand, I barely managed to shut the door behind me right before I broke down in tears. I tried hard, so hard, to stay silent as I cried and grieved for my friendship.
“It’s only two weeks,” I whispered to myself, under my breath.
Two weeks. I cried even harder and started laughing at the irony of it. My body quietly shook with tears and hiccups, and the pain I had been holding up inside of me seemed to suddenly burst through my chest. Inhale, exhale. Long, deep, heavy breaths slowly calmed me down once the explosion of emotions had passed. I buried my head in between my hands, sheltering it from the outside lights and sounds while I took some time to think. In two weeks’ time, maybe things could change.
Maybe Ana was right, and I’d get to know the girls, and they would grow onto me. Maybe I’d enjoy the yoga, the hiking, and blowing all my savings on watered-down cocktails. If I tried to just enjoy things, they’d get better.
“At least, at this point,” I told myself with a bitter giggle, “They can’t get any worse.”