This piece originally appeared in the print magazine Soundings East.
You are fascinated by the hippies sitting by the river. They remind you of puppies, the way they sprawl on top of each other in a pile on the stone steps leading down to the bank of the Mississippi. There are even a few dogs mixed in with the people, mutts that flop on to their backs and demand to be scratched. You’ve only seen hippies like this once before at a gas station on the highway between your university and your hometown, a group of four or five traveling in a rusted, run-down RV. They fascinated you then, too, but this is a bit different. This is a group of thirty people. Did they get together like this intentionally? Or are hippies naturally attracted to New Orleans, and then to the river? You aren’t even sure you should be calling them ‘hippies’ really, but you don’t know what else to call them. New wave hippies? Millennial hippies? Hippie wannabes?
“When do you think the last time they showered was?” Nathalie asks, following the direction of your face to the pile of people by the Mississippi.
“Judging by their hair?” you say. “It’s been at least six months.”
Nathalie giggles and lays her head on your shoulder, bits of her brown-red hair flying up into your eyes. Her natural inclination towards public displays of affection amazes you, especially considering that while you two may be staying in a liberal city, you’re still in the South. Two years out of the closet and you still find touching in public unsettling. You aren’t sure if you can blame that entirely on dating a girl, though. You were just as uncomfortable touching Andy last year which really was a miracle, considering he looked like an underwear model.
“We should become hippies.” Nathalie scoots closer to you, forcing you to put your arm around her shoulders. “We could drop out of college. Get a dog. Sell our cars to buy an RV.”
“Think of the weight we could lose,” you say. “No money to buy food and all.”
“I think it’d be fun,” Nathalie says. “Like camping.”
“Camping isn’t fun.” No electricity so you can’t straighten your hair, no decent mirror for you to do your make-up. Nathalie thrives on being unkempt, her naturally wavy hair looking fixed when it isn’t, her eyelashes so thick she doesn’t need mascara. You have to work much harder to look like you belong next to her.
You turn even though no one has called you Amy since high school, not even your mother. It’s a reflex, really. The idea that someone you know from high school, someone who you haven’t seen in such a long time that they call you Amy, would be in New Orleans.
Nathalie sits up and looks around. “Who’s yelling?”
You see the girl before Nathalie does. She disentangles herself from the arms of a man who could be tan or could be dirty. Among the mass of people in brown-tinted clothes with brown-tinted hair she’d blended in, but by herself, you recognize her. Lexa Denizen, dressed in a long skirt and a stained tank top, is running towards you, smiling with square teeth.
“Do you know her?” Nathalie asks.
“Did I ever tell you about the first time I had a crush on a girl?” you say.
It’s all you have time to say before she’s there and you’re standing, giving her a hug, breathing in sweat and thinking you’ll have to take a shower after touching her.
“Amy, it’s so good to see you!” Lexa says, letting go of you. “You look beautiful!”
You’re blushing. It’s a ridiculous feeling. Nathalie is looking between you and Lexa, her eyebrows raised, amused.
“It’s good to see you, too,” you say, not adding that this is not how you would have wished to see her. “Lexa, this is Nathalie. My girlfriend.”
“It’s so great to meet you!” Lexa says, not stopping for one second to mention ‘girlfriend.’ You wonder if Lexa is being kind or if your interest in both genders had always been obvious to everyone but you.
Lexa hugs Nathalie, still smiling, and Nathalie hugs her back, giving you a look that clearly indicates that hugging is not what she wants to be doing. Had Lexa always been a hugger? Or is that only now that she doesn’t regularly bathe?
“What are you doing in New Orleans?” Lexa asks, turning back to you. You recognize the necklace she’s wearing, a little silver cat that you know she got from her mom right before she died of pancreatic cancer when you were both in junior high. It’s the nicest thing she’s wearing.
“It’s spring break,” you say. “We drove down here from school.”
“You’re still in school? Shouldn’t you have graduated already?”
You shouldn’t have, actually. You’ve only been in school for three years. You aren’t sure just how concerned you should be by Lexa’s misplacement of time.
“Come have a drink with us!” Nathalie says once she realizes you’ve been stumped by Lexa’s question. “It’s almost five.”
“Oh, no,” Lexa says, looking back and forth between you and your girlfriend. “I wouldn’t want to crash your vacation.”
“We insist,” Nathalie says, the hand she places on the small of your back asking you to play along, pressing nails into your skin.
“Our treat,” you say, hoping your smile doesn’t look fake. Really, one drink couldn’t hurt. Maybe you could get her some food, too. The way her collarbones are sticking out makes you uncomfortable.
“Let me just tell Dylan where I’m going,” Lexa says, bouncing back towards the river.
“Sorry,” Nathalie says, the hand on your back dropping down to her side. “I just wanted an excuse to give her food.”
“It’s fine. We were friends in high school. It’ll be nice to catch up.”
“Or maybe sad. You don’t become a hippie for a good reason.”
The bar the three of you end up at is nice and dark, the kind of classy place you imagine your dad goes to with his accounting clients after an expensive steak dinner. You think it’s perfect for this situation. The dark will help to hide just how dirty Lexa is and there won’t be drunk people around to harass any of you.
The three of you settle in a booth, Lexa on one side and you and Nathalie on the other. A waiter shows up within seconds, a young guy with nice hair and a smile that proves he knows he’s cute, cute enough to maybe score with one of the three girls now sitting in his section. Nathalie orders a Pinot Grigio and Lexa asks for a Shirley Temple. You order the first cocktail on the list of specials, handing over your ID before asked because you know he will ask. No one ever asks Nathalie for an ID even though you’re both the same age. Nathalie says you aren’t confident enough when you order, but you think it has more to do with your lack of cleavage, especially when compared to her. You are stuck looking perpetually fourteen.
“So,” Nathalie says once the waiter has walked off, looking at Lexa, “tell me all about your life. I love the idea of roving the country, but I can’t get Amelia to join me.”
Nathalie smiles and reaches under the table to squeeze your leg, letting you know she’s joking. You have trouble smiling back at her.
“It was my ex’s idea,” Lexa says, carefully adjusting the headband holding her curly red bangs back form her face. “College wasn’t a good fit for us.”
“You were at Wesley, right?” you say. “Pre-med?”
“Right.” Lexa’s expression drops into a frown. “I hated it. When Jonah suggested getting rid of everything and hitting the road it sounded like a dream. And then we found this whole community. It’s like having a family.”
The drinks arrive and Nathalie spends a few moments flirting with the waiter, likely hoping to get a second glass of wine on the house. You almost feel bad for him. Of the three women at this table, Nathalie is the only one he has absolutely no chance with, having declared herself uninterested in boys in elementary school.
“Tell me about your life,” Lexa says, stirring her drink with her straw, the cherry bobbing around on top. “What’s the real world like?”
You take a sip of your drink before you answer, disappointed at how fruity it is. You’d wanted something closer to kerosene.
“The real world is okay,” you say. “We both graduate next year, which is terrifying. I’m getting a degree in psychology.”
“I don’t know how you stand it,” Lexa says, innocent, not realizing that could come off insulting. Or maybe she does realize it and doesn’t care. “School was so draining for me. All of those crazy expectations and false knowledges. It’s no wonder our generation has such mental health problems.”
“We should order an appetizer,” Nathalie says. For someone who’d said she was interested in Lexa’s life, she doesn’t seem too thrilled to hear about it. “Sliders, maybe? Or nachos?”
“I’m a vegetarian,” Lexa says. “Do you think they have mozzarella sticks?”
Nathalie has no trouble attracting the waiter and you take advantage of his presence and complete devotion to your girlfriend to down half your drink without her noticing. Nathalie is picky about drinking, thinks it should be done slowly, with care, especially when the drink costs twelve dollars. You don’t care about enjoying the drink. You just want to get a good buzz going so you can handle seeing Lexa, a girl you were so obsessed with you actually wrote poems about her, wasting away with a group of delinquents. You then realize that thinking of Lexa’s ‘family’ as a group of delinquents is exactly the kind of thing your father would do and swallow the rest of your drink.
The waiter walks off, promising to bring the three of you a round of drinks on the house, and Nathalie settles her hand back on your thigh, tracing a circle with her pinky.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” you say, pushing Nathalie’s hand off.
“That’s what you get for drinking that cocktail so fast,” Nathalie says, smiling at you as if she isn’t serious.
The bathroom doesn’t have a window. For some reason you thought it would, imagining yourself climbing out of it like people do in sitcoms when they have bad first dates. Climbing out of the window wouldn’t have actually worked though, because then you would have been abandoning Nathalie which doesn’t seem right. You’re staring at yourself in the mirror now, your straightened hair pulled back into a messy bun that took you thirty minutes to look perfect and your make-up applied to make it look like you aren’t wearing anything. Despite the dirt in her hair, Lexa has managed to pull of the look you’ve barely managed to achieve far better than you did, even with all the time you took and all the money you spent. It doesn’t seem fair.
The door opens and Lexa walks in, the light of the bathroom highlighting just how disheveled she is in a way the light outside and the dark in the bar hadn’t.
“Was I taking too long?” you say, turning to face her and making yourself dizzy. The drink is starting to kick in.
“No, you’re fine.” The smile on Lexa’s face is a little strained. “I just wanted to talk to you alone for a bit. I have a favor to ask.”
A favor. You do not want to commit to a favor for Lexa, no matter how simple it is. She’s a problem, you can feel it. People don’t become hippies for no reason and Lexa has always been a bit unstable. Losing her mom like she did was hard on her and you never thought that she fully recovered from it.
“Amy,” she says, taking a deep breath, making eye contact with you. You always thought her eyes were nice, a watery blue-green. In your memories of Lexa her eyes are always happy, but now they look sad.
“Amy,” she repeats, reaching out and grabbing your hand. “I’m pregnant.”
That’s not a favor. It’s a statement, a very scary statement, one that you are certainly not prepared to deal with.
“Lexa, that’s. . .I mean, congratulations?” It comes out like a question even though you hadn’t meant for it to.
“I can’t have a baby,” Lexa tells you, her grip on your hand tightening. “Not like this. Some of the girls do, but it isn’t right.”
“Why do you want to stay like this?” you ask.
“I’m happy like this, but I wouldn’t be happy with a baby.”
“Look, Lexa, I can’t pay for you to have an abortion.”
“I don’t want an abortion,” Lexa says, her hand dropping yours and going to her stomach. “Why would I want an abortion?”
If she doesn’t see why that makes sense, you have no way of explaining it to her. Lexa was always childlike, approaching the world with a strict right or wrong mindset. Her wide eyes tell you what you should have already known. Lexa is in love with the clump of cells in her uterus and nothing will convince her to get rid of them, even if that would be the simplest thing to do.
“Amy,” Lexa says, grabbing your hand and pulling it towards her until it rests on her stomach. “I want you to have her.”
There is nothing for you to feel at this point, no kicking, barely even any firmness. Lexa’s hands are hot, hotter than Nathalie’s have ever been. She’s burning you, trapping your hand between her hand and her stomach. You think that she must be branding you somehow, forcing some sign on to your palm so everyone will see that you didn’t help an unwed pregnant woman.
“It’s Amelia,” you say, not sure why it matters now when you haven’t corrected her before.
You take your still burning hand back, wishing you could run it under cold water and scrub away whatever she’s left on it. Lexa is standing in her baggy, stained clothes, holding her belly, looking at you like she doesn’t understand. What could there possibly be to not understand in this situation?
“You want me to just take your baby?”
Lexa smiles. It looks like she might be about to cry and you really can’t handle that. “I’ve been praying to the Universe to give me an answer, to tell me what to do, and now you’re here. This was a sign. I can’t just let a stranger adopt her.”
“I can’t adopt a baby, Lexa. I’m in college,” you say. “I want to go to grad school. I’m going to have debt. I’m not married—”
“You have Nathalie,” Lexa says. “Your parents have money. You can afford a baby. You can giver her real parents and stability, all those things I can’t. She would even look like you, I think. People always used to think the two of us were sisters.”
There are a lot of reasons Lexa’s plan is wrong. Your parents money is for not yours. The baby’s appearance has nothing to do with anything. Nathalie has only been around for six months which is not long enough to count on for eighteen years. The whole idea of being ‘stable’ is unfounded, considering you decided to go on this road trip with your girlfriend a day before you got in the car and left, not to mention you find the idea of not being able to act spontaneously more terrifying than thinking of life after college. Of all those reasons, acceptable reasons, reasons that may convince Lexa that she has picked the wrong mother, you pick the one that will guarantee Lexa will never ask you for help ever again.
“Why would you want a life for yourself that you don’t want for your kid?”
You had thought this would make Lexa angry at you, that she’d start yelling at you here in the bathroom with a quiet bar full of people right outside the door. But she doesn’t. She shrinks in front of you and her hands drop to her sides. Your hand, the hand she pressed up against herself without asking, still feels like its been set on fire.
“Tell Nathalie that I’m sorry I had to leave early,” she says, being careful not to let any part of herself brush up against you as she turns to leave. You wonder if your touch had burned her, too.
* * *
You don’t tell Nathalie what happened because you don’t want her to know how terribly you handled it, how terrible you are. It’s only been six months. In junior high your health teacher told you and a roomful of eighth graders that the most intimate thing you can do with someone is have sex. He was wrong. The most intimate thing you can do with someone is show them how bad of a person you can be.
“Are they just always there?” Nathalie asks.
The two of you walked back to the river today, this time at sunset so Nathalie could bring her camera and take advantage of the light. Nathalie takes out her camera now and puts on one of the smaller lenses, eyeing the hippies. “Think they’d let me take their picture?”
“Go ask,” you say, kissing her forehead and taking the camera bag from her, knowing you will be stuck waiting for her for at least thirty minutes.
You look for Lexa in the group and don’t see her. You don’t see the man she was with yesterday, either, so you think she must have left town. You’re sad she isn’t here, but if she was you don’t know what you would do about it. Go up and apologize? Tell her you changed your mind? You haven’t changed your mind.
Nathalie is talking to a young woman with hair that would probably be blonde if it was washed but instead looks light brown, falling in strings around her shoulders. The woman has a little girl balanced on her hip, maybe three or four years old, with the same color hair. She’s a pretty little girl, pretty enough that for a moment you wonder what you would look like with a baby, or what Lexa would look like. You’ve never wanted a baby but something about seeing a baby now, seeing this woman with her daughter looking so happy, makes you wonder what that would be like. No more pressure from school or student debt. Just traveling with a pretty little girl who has no choice but to love you.
That night, for the first time since you started dating Nathalie, you wish you were with a boy. With a dick you would be able to create a nice fantasy, a fantasy where there is no condom and no birth control and you are going to have a baby that really will look like you. Instead you have small fingers and a vibrator and the thought that if you were Lexa, you would be happy to raise a baby with the hippies. It sounds like a dream.