August brought with it a new easy-swallow scheme by a new self-improvement mentor. Luna Rojas had measured out her life with the likes of them – detoxes, spiritual awakenings, fad diets. She craved the promise of change.
That first night, she filled the restaurant’s three-compartment sink with water and tube ice. She sucked in her breath and plunged in face-first, submerging as much of her torso as she could, the water going up above her elbows.
A blot expanded up the fabric of her rolled-up sleeve by capillary action. I watched the dark thing, idly, feeling that I should speak.
“How long do you hold it for?”
“Eight minutes.” Her eyes were fixed on the water’s surface an inch in front of her, littered with noodles and pork shreds.
Minutes passed. Her arms began to quake, first in violent spasms, and then with a nice, jerky rhythm. “It’s healthy for the brain,” she said. “The nerves’ system.”
“And it helps the bones.”
“Mm.” I didn’t know if I was humoring her or what. She was in pain; it was in her voice and in the tautness of her back. Her face was set, the way women look in movies before they cry or explode. Then something in the foundation of her face slipped and her teeth were chattering together, the noise sharp and unpleasant.
When her phone’s alarm finally rang, her hands came out of the water looking like two red slabs of raw meat.
I helped her wipe down the kitchen that first night. I mopped the floor and threw the spoons and chopsticks into a plastic tub with bleach, and we went outside.
It was humid, the June bugs flying like shuttlecocks. Earlier there had been a shimmering puddle of mirage water in the parking lot. A shimmer of heat still hung over the asphalt, hours after the sun had set.
Luna shivered the whole way to the bus stop, her body fighting to stave off hypothermia in the sweltering Texas night.
The two of us worked in a Dallas sushi restaurant. I was part of the young, all-oriental waitstaff, each of us doing it part-time through college. We were a merry lot. On the nights when we felt life’s petty pace creeping on, it was with the assurance that it was a transitional place; we were moving on to better things.
Luna (along with everyone in the backroom, up to our sushi chef) was Mexican. She washed the dishes, was only a few years older than I was, and had been there forever.
She was the only person I really talked to there. I didn’t know much about her, only the stories that trickled in the way they do with your work friends. I knew she’d been expulsed from a Mesquite post office after stealing, for no good reason, five Christmas cards from five separate families. Her brother was a local pastor. She sometimes referenced an operation she had two years ago but never defined it, and I knew it was almost certainly an abortion.
She told me, over the next week, the finer points of her new regimen. The idea of it was to build up the body’s cold tolerance, familiarizing yourself to lower and lower temperatures through gradual exposure. The program promised a bevy of health benefits, as well as wholeness and wellness and words like that.
Luna stuck to it. She swore off hot beverages and incorporated breathing exercises into her daily routine. She continued the ice bath submersions each night, steadily increasing the time as well as the ratio of ice to water. By October she took cold showers exclusively.
I ran into her, once, in the kitchen’s chrome walk-in cooler. It was dim, and I heard her breathing over the thrum of the refrigeration. It really did sound different, like she was drinking in the air in shallow sips.
“It doesn’t make you feel any less,” she told me.
“It doesn’t make you numb,” I clarified, for my own benefit. I always need the right name on a thing.
Luna nodded. “It helps you clear your head, you know?”
She was working, preparing the week’s soup bowls. Each bowl needed five or six tofu cubes in it and the same amount of diced green onion.
She began to talk about cancer. She’d researched the subject at length, she told me, and was convinced she already had it. Lung or pancreatic, most likely – something hard to detect, trickier to excise. She listed her symptoms: headaches, an inability to lie still alone in bed, a listlessness that manifested in drives around unfamiliar neighborhoods in the deep afternoon.
“My grandparents all died of it. All four,” she said, and rapped out the list without inflection: “Melanoma, liver, liver, breast.” In went the steady hand into the cloudy pot, and back out again with its consignment of tofu cubes. It occurred to me she’d been in there doing it for hours already.
We were surrounded by tubs of marinated meat. I imagined the Rojas family, here in this area since before the Texan revolution. I thought of the generations of them living and marrying and being buried here, and it all seemed momentous to me somehow.
I thought of the latest rumors about Luna. She’d kicked smokes for the first time. She no longer went to church. She didn’t call her family anymore, was cutting herself off from old friends. I didn’t know how much of it was true, and I never asked her.
In December she sold her heater on Craigslist.
All of that happened years ago.
After graduation I found an entry-level position at a good tech company and never looked back. Director is just around the corner now.
I got married a year later. There’s the suggestion of a firstborn in the air. I’m chipping at the mortgage, now, for a starter home in Richardson.
Luna had collected her week’s pay and disappeared. It had been on the coldest night of the year; single-digit weather, her in a tank top and neon exercise shorts.
They’d tried reaching her to no avail. She hadn’t told anyone she was leaving at all, never mind where.
A few months after she left, I got a postcard with a mountain peak on the back. The address was from Denver. Then, four years later, I got another one from Calgary, in Alberta.
When I received the third one a week ago, I cashed in my vacation days. I knew how long a journey it was but resolved to visit her or die.
The town’s small, built along a rusty railroad track. Snow is in the air; falling from the sky, being kicked up by the gales from the ground and the rooftops, coming from every direction.
Just like her letter said, the only bar within miles is inside a log cabin. The tables circle a blazing hearth, and the way people sit tells me I’m the only one there who’s not a regular. I drink and talk to them, and I learn. The roast bird they eat is puffin. The sun won’t rise tomorrow morning, not for another month.
They know Luna. She was a cheerful girl and a hard worker. But she’s gone now; she just went away again.
“No one else I’ve ever known in my entire life,” I tell one of them, in a moment of drunkenness that feels like an epiphany, “has ever left Texas.”
It’s not strictly true. Some of us have gone to California. But no one goes further than that; no one really escapes the vastness of the American Southwest. I visualize the early midlife waltz around Dallas or Houston or Phoenix and their respective patches of suburbia, every place looking the same as the next. None of us ever see so much as a white Christmas.
And year by year I feel the temperature creeping up in springtime, and each year I tell myself there’s no way I can survive another Texas summer.
I drive back South. There are no true cities in this corner of the world. The Yukon skyline is an endless dark row of conifers and the ghostly bare scaffolding of civilization – filling stations, oil wells, timber boomtown houses. Everything is gray and formless. It’s the color of the night when you can’t sleep.
I take the gravel road South. Sometime along the drive I see a lake in the distance.
There is something about driving past a waterbody that always arrests my attention. It seems to slow everything down. As the hills and the trees break away, I steer carefully on the gravel highway as the world careens and it’s all the black lake, immense and quietly blazing.