My boyfriend is moving to Mongolia. He tells me this in February, when he’s not my boyfriend, but rather some guy I sleep with on weekend nights. “Mongolia,” I say. “That’s amazing.” Then I search for my bra in the sheets. Soon we are dating and he is moving to Mongolia and I’m moving on, too. I don’t sleep much. I learn Mongolia is icy; the coldest capital in the world. There are dangerous levels of Uranium in the drinking water. Ex-pats date native women half their age. I find pictures of these couplings on the Internet. I tell him this, flip through photos of women on my phone. By August he is my boyfriend and he is moving to Mongolia and we shop for wool pants. I ache for him already. He asks to go away for a weekend; says in Mongolia he won’t see the ocean for a year. I veto Cabo. Tell him, “Men with machetes roam Tulum.”
We leave for Carlsbad at dusk. The sun is setting; whitecaps blister the Bay. We don’t say this is our last trip together, instead we eat milk duds and twizzlers; speed past Las Vegas in the dead of night. At dawn we drive through New Mexico, where sagebrush tats the road like lace. We’re both from San Francisco and each time we drive onto a bluff we think we’ll see the Bay. We keep saying that—“there should be ocean down there,” we say—but there isn’t, just cacti and tumbleweeds, and in the distance, thunderclouds blooming like abrasions on the sky.
We get gas outside Roswell. Light shadows the suburbs in the shape of a dick.
“Look.” I shake Ben awake.
“Are you trying to tell me something?”
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
In Carlsbad, the sky is charcoal. Wind whips the car like an angry hand. All week Ben has read news reports about protests at the caverns, angry ranchers boycotting government grazing fees on their land. So far it’s quiet. There’s no one else here. We sleep for an hour, stretched out in the backseat. When we wake, the sun is gauzy, fishnetted in cloud.
My heart’s pounding.
“I’m dying,” I tell Ben.
“It’s the Red Bull,” he says.
“Should I take Aspirin?”
I already have four in my hand.
In the parking lot, we meet an elderly couple. “Caving here since 1964,” Nan says, extending a hand. She’s wearing an “I Love Arizona” shirt. Her husband is already panting.
“He’s moving to Mongolia,” I say, gesturing toward Ben.
“Mongolia,” Nan exclaims. “I’ve never been.” She tells us to visit King’s Cavern, a small tunnel you slide through on your front. “It’s beginner.”
“How beginner?” Ben asks.
The trail into the cave is muddy. The dirt bucks and ripples, forming craters like colanders that catch the heels of my boots. 250 million years ago these caverns existed as ocean reef, far below an inland sea. The walls still look like coral, dalmationed with gashes and holes. The trail is illuminated every four feet by small spotlights. Ben and I move slowly, our eyes adjusting to the dark.
“Do you know how to tell the difference between stalagmites and stalactites?” Ben asks.
He’s walking behind me, his breath on my neck.
“Stalactites sound like lactate.” I say. “Milk drips down.”
“I suppose you could remember it that way.”
The path cuts sharply to the left, skirting a thin pillar. In the car, we watched a video on stalactite formation. Ben wanted to move on, but I was fascinated by the process: drops of water that clung to the ceiling long enough solidified there, becoming part of the cave’s speleothem. I want that to happen to us—for Ben to hang around long enough to get stuck with me. I knew this girl whose boyfriend moved to Mongolia. Actually my friend Isabel knew her, but it’s the same, the girl followed him, not forever, just to visit for the summer. They still didn’t work. She married someone else. Imagine telling your next boyfriend you followed an ex to Ulaanbaatar. It’s embarrassing.
Past the pillar, the opening of the cave disappears. In the half-light, I glance at Ben. His skin looks ghoulish; shadows appear beneath his eyes like pools. I stop to take a photograph and he cuts ahead of me, walking toward a rock formation that looks like an iceberg. Within seconds, he disappears. I pick my way down the path, searching for him in the darkness. I round a corner and suddenly he’s charging me. He runs full tilt, bent at the waist, face obscured. He’s never screamed at me before, but I feel sure he will now. I cower back against the railing, stomach sucked in, hands crossed at my chest. As the man passes, I realize it’s not Ben at all, but a teenager hurrying toward fresh air.
I catch my breath on the landing and head down. Ben’s waiting patiently at the next turn. “Look,” he says, gesturing to a boulder called Iceberg Rock. “Jack and Rose.”
“Couples who had it worse than us.” He lists more: Romeo and Juliet, Humbert and Lolita, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.
“Romeo didn’t move to Mongolia.”
“Maybe he should have.”
“I don’t think so,” I say.
Up ahead, there’s a boulder blocking the path. The stone is smooth, garnished in moss.
“Need a hand?” Ben says, holding out his arm.
“I can do it.”
“I know you can.”
His hand is still outstretched, dangling between us like bait. I step over the rock, cutting my knee on a jagged section.
“Put your hand down then,” I say.
Because I’m not supposed to say no to Mongolia, I’ve replaced that no with others: no to Cabo, no to the hand, no don’t touch me, no. I used to think relationships were about compromise. Now I know they’re like being embalmed—safe and comforting once you accept your vocal chords have been pulled out through your nose.
Ben hops the rock.
“Ready?” he asks.
Yes, when I’m walking. Again when you leave.
We hike until the ceiling opens up. The view above looks like how I imagine Earth through a telescope: a long tube of grey, and beyond that, a round smear of blue sky and tawny hills, the stalactites jutting from the rock like rotting teeth. It’s raining. The drops fly diagonal, streaking the ground like paint. We stand in the oval, faces pointed up.
“We’re getting wet,” Ben says.
“Humans are waterproof,” I say.
He pulls me toward him; sweeps his tongue through my mouth. I lean into him. He tastes salty. The water collects in a small pond at our feet.
“Hey,” someone shouts, and I unhinge Ben’s mouth from mine, pull my palm from his lower back. “Some dude’s having a heart attack.” I blink at the stranger. Even in the darkness I can tell he’s massive, his upper arms hanging like flags at half-mast. He has two kids with him. They point toward the previous switchback.
I don’t want to walk back up and I can tell Ben doesn’t either, but we do, panting as we hike. When we reach the spot, we find the “I love Arizona” man leaning against the railing and clutching his chest. His wife stands beside him, her arms crossed.
“Are you alright?’ I say.
“He’s fine,” Nan says. “He can’t hear.”
The man is in bad shape. Sweat pours down his face, staining the back of his shirt. I shiver, sure the wet will make him cold.
“Is everything okay?” I repeat, but he says nothing.
Nan unlatches her husband’s hand from the railing and pulls him onto the path. In the darkness, I can just make out the whites of his eyes. At the next bend, I look back. He’s stopped again. Nan’s ahead of him, scowling, and I wonder if that will be me in 40 years, pulling a man down behind me and not stopping to listen. In that instant, I want to grab Ben and tell him everything, how much I love him and how I hate him for leaving, but when I start to speak he pulls back. “It’s only a year, Soph. No time at all.”
But a year is tons of time. In a year, the Carlsbad Caverns could cave in. A tsunami could come off the Gulf and cover the desert in sea.
“You could meet someone else,” I say.
“So could you.”
“But that’s even worse,” I say.
The more we walk, the darker it gets. We pass beneath a boulder draped like a huppah and I step closer to Ben, wondering if we see the same things. Past that, an array of stalactites labeled “Spirit World” protrudes from the wall. Early explorers thought these pale rocks looked like angels.
“They’re angels,” Ben says.
Up close, I’m right. The stones are yellow and waxy, like my teeth after I’ve had a bad week and haven’t really brushed.
“They look like candy corn to me,” Nan calls down.
Beyond the Spirit World, the trail opens into a large room. We stand at a four-point intersection. To our right, the wall is soft and contoured, like an egg crate upside-down.
“I’m going to the little boy’s,” Ben says, his steps echoing as he walks away.
I used to listen to the sounds of my roommate fighting with her boyfriend. She would scream, throw a slipper, then a plate, then cry on the pavement outside. Ben and I’ve never fought like that. “I don’t ever want to,” he said, when we heard them, his bicep curled beneath my neck. “Of course not,” I whispered, but now I long for that moment, to scream at him and break something. In the parking lot, Nan warned us that that our voices would travel—like speaking on a still lake.
In the cave, I find a small pool. The rocks surrounding it are smooth and sloping; the water pine. I take off my shoes and step in. The ground is slick and sudsy. Water laps at my waist like strange hands in a bar. I walk until it reaches my ribs. Ben would never go swimming here. He doesn’t wade when he can’t see the bottom. I wonder if it’s the same with our relationship—if he only entered it knowing he would leave.
I hear footsteps and turn. The Dale’s are standing on the edge. Larry’s mouth is downturned. His face is the color of fresh snow.
“How’s the water?” Nan asks.
“Lovely,” I say.
“I’m sorry about your boyfriend,” she says, stepping in. Her head looks like a planet, bobbing in space. “It must be awful that he’s leaving you.”
“We’re both moving on.”
“You’re not going to Mongolia.”
“That’s true,” I say.
She takes my hand and squeezes. In the water, her palm is steel wool.
I know things won’t work out with Ben. I’m no idiot. I’ve done distance before. When my boyfriend and I finally saw one another then, all he could say was, “I miss you,” like he’d forgotten how to talk to me, like leaving once had taken all of me away. We went sky diving. I think he really badly needed to push me out of a plane. But when we got up high and the wind was blowing, the instructor made him jump first. I’ll never forget the look he gave me as he leapt, his blonde hair blowing, his arms chimneyed up toward me, his lips forming the words I miss you. I didn’t jump after that. I just rode the plane back down.
“I miss you,” I tell Ben now.
“Already?” he says.
He looks at me. “You’re all wet.”
“Let’s carve our names in the cave.”
“We can’t do that.”
“Come on. We can write them really small.”
“These walls are thousands of years old.” He passes me a towel. “We can’t scratch them.”
“Let’s get tattoos then,” I say.
“What’s wrong with you?”
My socks are wet, like walking on sponge. There’s water in my ears. My boyfriend is moving to Mongolia. Sometimes he’s so quiet I want to pry open his mouth.
“Did you say something?” I ask.
“Well can you?”
“We should’ve gone to Cabo.”
“This is Cabo underground.” I point toward the Dales. Nan and Larry are lying beside the pool, spread on the shore like sunbathers.
We walk forward, until a stalactite hangs above us, it’s shaft smooth and long, the end bunching at the bottom like tulle.
“It looks like a lion’s tail,” Ben says.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “It looks like a plunger to me.”
“Is something wrong?”
“You’re leaving me.”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“You did too,” I say. Then I list the various applications he put in to work abroad, the internship farming in Malaysia, the Fulbright in Greece, the fellowship in England, the teaching job in Mongolia.
“I have to go.”
But that’s not true either. Ben thinks living abroad will make him braver. I know better. He’ll be the same person in Mongolia he is in this cave, just with stomach bugs and without me.
“You didn’t even take me into consideration.”
“I wasn’t ready to,” he says.
I stand under the plunger for a long moment and wish for it to fall. It doesn’t. Instead, the features of the cave seem to shift in the darkness. When I look up, I see the night sky, the water drops winking like stars. Everything down here mirrors something above. It’s the same with Ben—yesterday we were in a hotel and today we’re in a cave and next week we’ll be driving to the airport, and always, I’ll think, I could do this forever, but he’ll still be leaving and I’ll still be left.
“Are we going to sleep with other people?” I ask.
Suddenly, the lights go out. Someone screams. All around us, people are calling, “Wait, where’s?” and trailing off. Somehow, the children have multiplied. They cry out in the darkness.
Ben takes my hand.
“How are we gonna keep in touch?”
“The power’s out.”
“I mean in Mongolia. Is there Internet?”
“What about Christmas?” I ask. “Could we see each other then?”
A stream of light appears near the bathrooms, then flickers and goes dark. Two headlamps move toward us. In the darkness, the lights look like colored ornaments, or the pictures the doctors show you of the magnetic fluid they inject to read abnormalities in your brain. Ben stands on his tip-toes and cranes his neck. “Focus,” he tells me. “Live here and now.” But I’ve never lived like that, which is why I know the instant the headlamps reach us they won’t be rangers, but protestors. We’ll never get a chance to speak about this again. The headlamps pass beneath an Emergency Exit sign and for an instant, I catch a flash of metal like the barrel of a gun. There’s no noise but the sounds of our breathing, the old man’s cough, the pounding of the two strangers moving forward. The protestors walk in sync until they reach us. One is tall, the other short and round. Both are wearing black facemasks. They are Frank and Geoff Ridgeway, fighting federal land use of their land. Frank climbs a low stalagmite and presses his flashlight under his chin. His legs are spread wide on the rock, like even in the dark he has a big dick and he wants us to know it.
For a long moment, nobody speaks.
“We have dinner reservations,” Ben finally says.
Geoff laughs and for the first time I feel scared. “We have dinner reservations,” he mimics. He looks like a straw someone’s sucked on, his head’s bent the wrong way.
“Hey,” Frank says “We don’t have to be assholes.”
“Shut up,” Geoff says, and socks him. In the darkness, it’s hard to make out who’s who, but I hear the sound of boots on skin. Frank topples off the stalagmite and skids across the ground. The headlamps bounce off the walls. I remember a sit-in like this in Oregon, I just don’t remember if everyone died.
“I don’t like this,” Frank says. “There’s kids down here, man.”
There’s a sound like a gunshot and I realize it is one. The shots echo in the cavern, or maybe Geoff’s just shooting again and again. Rock splinters and that sound echoes too. I think how dangerous it is to shoot in a cave. The children are screaming. The fat man covers their ears. Larry is panting on the ground. Bits of cave rain down around us, cutting our skin.
Ben grabs my shoulder and pulls me down. We lie on our stomachs, hands overhead. The ground is damp, the rocks jagged. They cut into my thighs, drawing litmus tests on my skin and staining my shorts. I’ve only brought one pair for this weekend. I don’t want them dirty. I have to wear them to dinner tonight.
Ben puts his lips to my ear. “Are you okay?” he says.
Above us, the ceiling is dripping steadily, like standing by the Golden Gate Bridge in a fog. The water mixes with the blood coming off my eye lid.
“I’m bleeding,” I say.
I squint at him. His face is as cut up as mine. There’s a rock in his forehead; shards line his chin like blinds. They bleed orange into one another; they remind me of Passover candy, each welt lined with gummy rind.
“You’re bleeding too,” I say.
Ben says we met in an airport. I say it was English class—we were standing in a hallway. He asked me how to pronounce Balzac. I told him “ball sack,” and ran. This isn’t right either, but it’s closer to the truth. What really happened is this: We saw each other in an airport and I ditched him, I didn’t want to be late for class. Years later, we had sex on accident. It was supposed to be my first one-night stand. So I get why he goes with the airport story. It’s works well with the Mongolia narrative. Also it’s transitional. But I’m working on the truth.
“I can’t get a tattoo,” Ben says now. The blood has dried on his nose. It’s clumped like a raison by his lip.
Ben is silent. I move closer to him, tangling my hands in my hair. His breath is warm against my skin.
“What are you doing?” he whispers. “People will see.”
The cave is black.
“It’s dark,” I say. “I can’t see my own hands.”
“You need to eat something.”
“It’ll still be dark.”
“Have some banana.” He roots in the backpack.
“I don’t want your banana,” I say.
My words echo in the cavern. The stalactites above seem to sway. Ben and I sit still for a long while, until my back aches and my hands go numb.
“Say something,” I whisper.
“You’re mad at me.”
“Not if you talk.”
Ben looks at his watch. “Do you think the car will be towed?” he asks. “We parked in day parking. Maybe the Park Service thinks we’re illegally spending the night.”
“She doesn’t want you to talk about the car,” Nan says.
“Don’t you have anything to say about Mongolia?”
“I hope we get out of here and I get there,” he says.
Sometime later, the children cry and the fat man asks for the banana and Ben hands it to him. “That was nice of you,” I say, and Ben reaches for me, our knuckles catching in the dark. I think he wants to touch me again or say something but then Frank walks past and Ben pulls back. It’s like he’s already disappeared. Beside us, Larry and Nan are laying on the rock, their arms wrapped around one another like vines. I count the spaces between Ben’s breaths. “Anything else?” I say.
“Stop asking him that,” Frank says.
He’s wearing boots and black jeans.
“How long will we be here?” Ben asks.
“Until the Fed signs off on our demands.”
I can tell Ben wants to ask what branch of the Fed specifically, so I place a hand over his mouth and feel his breath warm and wet on my palm. At some point, Geoff passes out miniature bottles of water. Then he and Frank settle onto a stalagmite fifty yard away. The rock is slated, pyramided at the top like a Hershey kiss. Frank’s pit bull attacked Geoff’s terrier last week. They’re arguing about it. Maybe the rock looks like a nipple. Or the profile of Ben’s face when he’s turned away.
Ben has goosebumps now and I think, summer’s gone.
I stand up.
“What are you doing?” Frank says.
“I have to pee.”
“I’ll take you,” he says.
“We weren’t done talking,” Geoff says, but Frank ignores him, sliding down the rock and landing on his heels. His boots slap the smooth rock. I look at Ben to see if he’ll stop me, if he’ll say “We weren’t done talking too,” but he’s picking the blood off his face, his lips pressed together, eyes stale.
Frank grabs me. His hands are sandpaper and I yell. The shout feels good. I do it again and stare at Ben.
“Shut up,” Frank says.
He pulls me along the rock. We walk in silence, his gun inches from my spine. At some point, he turns off his headlamp. Without it the dark is so strong I think it’ll swallow us whole. Every so often, one of the children screams.
Frank stops when we reach the bathrooms. He pushes me against a stall, one hand pressed across my mouth, the other at my back and I think, 1 in 4.
But I’m wrong. He just bends his head toward my ear and whispers, “Geoff is a dick.”
I try to say something but with his hand on my face like that no words come out. I’m basically Frenching his palm. I go slack and he releases me, pushing me further into a stall. I stumble onto the toilet seat and wipe my mouth on my hand. My mother used to make Jello molds with Jesus figurines in the center for Easter. Frank feels like that.
“Ditch Geoff,” I say. Then I tell him about Oregon. About protestors being shot by SWAT teams. “Take me out. Get a pity deal. You’ll be a hero.”
“What about your boyfriend?”
“He’s moving to Mongolia,” I say.
Frank’s eyebrows hover above his forehead like the fabric of an umbrella bent off its stretchers by the wind. “Mongolia,” he says. “That’s crazy.”
I hold out my hand. It hangs between us, a waning moon.
“Do we have a deal?” I ask.
Back with Ben, I pretend everything is fine. He does the same, stroking my hand with his thumb, and I wonder if this is what every relationship turns to—both of you holding your breath underground, trying not to scream. Somehow, Ben falls asleep. He breathes heavily, his snores harmonizing with Larry’s like choristers.
I lay still, and when Frank takes my hand hours, or maybe seconds later, I’m ready. I slip off my shoes and we move into the darkness. We walk quietly, tip toeing on the smooth rocks. It’s cold and I shiver. We pass a series of stacked stalactites. Illuminated it looked like whale’s teeth, now it resembles melted wax. We pick our way upward, using the railing to find the way. Within minutes, we reach a break in the cavern’s ceiling, a scope through which we can see the sky. The sun is rising. It paints streaks on the boulders. Frank’s hair is dust-colored and lank. Pink scars line his neck. They look bouncy, like if I threw a penny at them it would bounce back. He looks the same age as my little brother, with a gauzy mustache and cloudy eyes. I want to ask him how he got wrapped up in this, if everything will be okay, but instead I step in front of him and lead the way.
Past the window the cave is darker than before. It smells bad, like something spoiled, and I realize we’re passing bats, thousands of them, black velvet on the walls. It’s windy and we climb quickly. The darkness fades. In the light, I see Frank’s teeth are corn yellow; like cardboard sliced in sections and glued onto his gums.
We pass Iceberg Rock. There’s a small sign explaining that the boulder fell from the ceiling 20,000 years ago, creating this hole. I wonder if that’s what I’m doing to my relationship, abandoning my boyfriend in this cave. But then I remember Mongolia and the way Ben refuses to talk late at night. I know I should stop, go back, shake him awake, whisper that I love him and that everything will be okay, but all I can do is press upwards, feel the stitch in my side, the dirt beneath me, see the cave grey, my skin greyer. And suddenly I’m running toward sky.