(Page 3 of 6)
The horizon surrounding the camp was uninterrupted, with the exception of one small, gnarled tree in the distance. There was no breeze. The heat seemed to oppress everything, weighed so heavily on the landscape that it had crushed it flat. Somehow, in spite of the heat, she still felt chilled looking out onto the acres of gold desert. She went to her tent to cover herself in sunscreen.
Squeezing the lotion into her hand, it occurred to her that, since the translator had never shown up, no one had talked to the refugees—not even Meme, who spoke some English but not a single word of the language of the neighboring country from which the refugees were fleeing. And so they had no idea what she and the newsman and their guide were doing there, or who they were, or why they were part of their exodus at all.
Meme was very good at origami, especially birds. She sat in the meal tent nearly all day, every day, and after she made food and scribbled in her notebook, she would sit at the table and fold sheet after sheet of square paper, creating swans and cranes and chickens and doves. After three days at the camp, Virginia and Karl interrupted her folding to ask when they would start moving toward the “big camp,” the one that was actually a part of civilization.
She looked up only momentarily from the plumage of the peacock she was folding and shrugged, smiling with her incredible teeth.
“No one say so. No space,” she said.
“Well, can you radio the embassy and ask when they might have space? Or maybe tell them to send a translator?” asked Karl.
“The translator coming.”
“When will he get here, though?”
Meme shrugged and made a noise like naya-aya, which was meant to imply she didn’t know. Virginia looked at Karl, wondering if he found this all as unsettling as she did. In the last three days, nothing had been accomplished: without a translator, Karl wasn’t able to interview any of the refugees. He was also unable to photograph them. None of his film equipment was working properly, they assumed because of the sand. In all the digital photographs he took, the refugees looked distorted, like they were made of melting wax.
Virginia had been following Karl around, not knowing what else to do. She had imagined holding malnourished babies while the media swarmed around her, making a hype that would lead to the start of her own charity foundation. But the media, like the translators, never showed up. There was just Karl and his broken equipment.
“So sorry,” Meme said finally. “You’re disappointed, I see this. I can make coffee.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Karl, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Virginia, I’m going to walk out and climb the tree to see if I can get a cell phone signal.”
She nodded at Meme and followed him. They passed the clump of refugees and ignored them, walking out onto the desert savannah toward what she and Karl had started referring to with mock reverence as The Tree, because it was the only one around. They’d never gotten close to it before, but from a distance it looked like a giant piece of licorice someone had started to chew, thought better of eating, and spat out. It stuck upward from the ground, gnarled and rejected. The licorice was Karl’s metaphor. He was a smart person and she liked him, had gotten to know him over the last few days because she had nothing better to do and was afraid to be alone. She slept in his tent not because she had a sexual interest in him (he had a wife and little girl in Michigan with matching mother-daughter dimples) but because she was afraid to wake up to another refugee in her tent, staring at her with wide, empty eyes, ready to shuck another one of her bags.
She and Karl walked and talked about the kind of hell they would raise back at the embassy with whomever was responsible for this debacle. She told him the entire plot of the film she was going to be in, the one in which she played the widowed shepherdess, and they still hadn’t reached the tree.
Karl wiped his forehead. “Well, that’s an optical illusion. Looks a lot closer, doesn’t it?”
“It does. Do you mind if we rest for a moment?”
“Why don’t you just sit right here for a second, and I’ll run up ahead and check it out.”
She hesitated. She wanted badly to be able to call her brother. He’d know what to do, and would make everything seem mundane, like she was stuck at an airport on Easter Sunday and getting home was only a matter of talking to the right people. But she had little faith that climbing a tree would get them a cell phone signal anyway, and her legs felt brittle. The sun seemed only to go down for a couple hours each night, and it constantly made her eyes water. She got a shade tanner each day, even though she wore gobs of sunscreen and stayed in a tent the majority of the time.
“Okay. But if you get a signal, wave your arms wildly in the air so I can come join you.”
She plopped down on the ground, shielded her eyes from the sun, and watched Karl walk ahead. Her stomach rumbled and she distracted herself by scooping up handfuls of sand and then moving her fingers slightly apart. She brought her face close to one cupped hand and saw it through the lens of an imaginary camera. If she did special effects, she thought, this would be a good way to design a desert-sucked-down-into-the-earth scene. Except one wouldn’t want to use this rocky, irregular sand, but soft, homogeneous sand, like the kind in Malibu.
Her stomach resumed its rumbling at the thought of white sand. Something had happened there, in Malibu, not just in her dream, but in real life. Nobody was quite sure what had happened there, though. She could remember the events, but she couldn’t remember their cause, or even say to herself, That means this, or, I need to change _______ (eating habits, exercise habits, antidepressant dosage, personal relationships). The events were this: She brought her family to the beach for a week-long vacation, something they hadn’t done together since she was an adolescent, and never in a place so luxurious. She did it because the studio had just offered her a ton of money to be a widowed shepherdess, and if the film turned out to be the success that everyone seemed to think it would be, she wasn’t sure what would happen to her after that.
They played at least a dozen games of Trivial Pursuit at night on the hotel veranda overlooking the beach. Her dad smoked clove cigarettes and asked for each plastic pie piece in a different accent. Her mother squinted at him and begrudgingly handed over his winnings. “You goddamn know-it-all,” she muttered, and Virginia and Scott laughed so hard they blew soda out their noses and injured themselves jerking in guffaw, elbowing each other in the sides. Their mother shushed them by smacking their shoulders and reminding them that her daughter-in-law and grandson were sleeping, curled like cats on the overstuffed hotel furniture.