The outline of the volcano pierced the sun above them as they surfed waves of discharge. They would stumble and catch each other every once in a while, then keep pressing on toward nowhere in particular. What was once splashing liquid flame was now an uneven field of jagged rocks that would often roll from under their feet. Martin stopped by a large, flat rock and threw down his jacket. After looking around with her hand as a visor, Maggie sat next to him and they were silent. They faced her parked car, up on the road that now seemed so far away.
The sign by the road had explained the history of the volcano, which both of them had pretended to read but neither could currently remember. More interesting was the sticker that declared in yellow letters ‘warning,’ then in black letters ‘unstable rocks can result in,’ then in yellow letters again ‘injury or death.’ The yellow letters were nearly invisible against the white background. Martin had gotten a kick out of that, but decided it wasn’t quite amusing enough to comment on.
He had made a similar decision back on the airplane, while passing over Dresden on his way to Paris. The clouds had been red with the setting sun, and for a moment he could vividly picture all the little dollhouses and flea-highways below ablaze. He could see in the clouds around him the British and American WWII bombers as they rained fire on the dots and grids, all the shapes and lines. He could hear a roaring inferno in the wind. He decided not to mention this to the elderly German next to him, who would very likely be offended. Just another culturally insensitive American.
The teenage girl in the seat behind him was complaining to her friend about a breakout on her face. Martin had a weak grasp on the language, and could pick up most of what she was saying. Apparently, there were two huge pimples right next to each other on her forehead. She wanted two little airplanes to crash into them, make them go away.
Martin looked back out his window, and wondered which buildings below were churches. He had heard somewhere that during bombings in London, very devout Britons would stand on the roofs of churches. They would wait for bombs to land, then knock them off the roof with sticks before they exploded. He closed his eyes and pictured himself on top of a Dresden church. The bombers split the sky above him. He clutched his stick tightly with both hands, his eyes narrowing as an inferno rose up against the skyline. An impossibly wide, massive wall of orange and black seized the horizon. Cold air rushed toward it on the streets below, pulling screaming women and children over the pavement as if they were falling vertically to their incineration. He raised his stick and planted his feet firmly against the roof. He felt the pull.
The elderly German shook him awake. They had landed.
“It’s beautiful.” Maggie had turned herself around on the rock, and was sitting cross-legged, her head tilted slightly to the side as she soaked in the volcano. Still facing the car, Martin looked over his shoulder and nodded.
“Yeah, beautiful.” He was looking at her.
“Just humbling, really. Think about how old this all is. It’ll be exactly like this when our kids and grandkids visit.”
“Our kids? Do you mean kids we’ve had together, or kids we’ve had with other people?”
“Ok, I didn’t mean it like that. Christ, Martin, that’s wasn’t the point. All this bullshit that we think is so important, the bullshit between us being a pretty damn good example, doesn’t mean much out here. It’s all just a little flicker on the screen, you know? A little flash in the pan. This mountain will be here long after we’ve…”
“Blown ourselves up?”
“Blown each other up, yes.”
“Well thank you very much Maggie, you’ve opened my eyes to the awe and majesty of nature with your original and completely unique vision of…”
“Shut up Martin.” Her face twisted the way it used to when they fought. He always thought that she was prettier when she was angry. “It says something that you’d see this as just a cliché.”
“Half of what you say is a cliché, babe. Remember your little breakup speech?” He knew he was being an asshole, but he couldn’t stop himself.
“Well it worked, didn’t it? Got you out of my life.”
“What are we doing here then?”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m trying to calmly and maturely reflect with you…”
“On what? The good old days? Because that really was a high point in both our lives, wasn’t it Maggie? Lots of fond, fond memories there. A real healthy fucking relationship.”
“Wasn’t it though? Just a grand old time. See, I can be sarcastic too. Wow Martin, just thinking about it makes me want to do it all again. Gee, wouldn’t it be swell to cry myself to sleep after another few nights of screaming fights. Just hearing the musical sarcasm in your voice makes me want to fuck you right here on these soft, comfy rocks.”
Martin abandoned sarcasm and tried to sound earnest, with a slight undertone of angry. “The shit you expected me to put up with for you.”
She laughed. “What? It went against your oh-so-precious moral values? Give me a fucking break. You have no morals, just pride, and too much of it. You betrayed me. You didn’t care enough to make any real sacrifice.”
“I made every fucking sacrifice you could have expected from me and more. I betrayed myself by staying with you. I was a fucking bastard for you.”
“You were a fucking bastard to me.”
“Yeah, but only when I had been pushed too far, when I couldn’t stand what you had turned me into.”
“Oh, so dramatic. It wasn’t that huge a deal. I loved you, I would have done the same for you and more. I thought it was mutual, I guess it wasn’t.”
Martin replied in his head, while she kept ranting in hers, and they sat in the loudest silence as the sun disappeared behind the tip of the volcano.
The flight from Paris to London had been uneventful for Martin, not counting the headache that was the Heathrow airport. It was the flight across the Atlantic that had been memorable, thanks to the strange girl with bleached hair in the seat next to his. There had been a terror warning recently, and there were quite a few empty seats on the plane. Consequently, they were alone together in an aisle of three seats. Out of the corner of his eye, she looked a little like Maggie. He checked his watch and then she did too.
He looked at her directly for a second. She was flicking her pen against the open binder on her lap, which was filled with writing.
“What’s that you’re working on?”
Her pen stopped flicking and she looked over to him.
He cleared his throat and repeated himself. She looked good in glasses, he decided, especially when her eyes had that vaguely disinterested look.
“Hopefully my saving grace in Soc. 250,” she replied. The way she shortened Sociology to “Soush” made him smile.
“Gotcha. Man, that brings me back.”
“Oh? How far back?”
“A few years.”
“You done school?”
“Actually, nope. I just finished taking a year off in Europe.”
“Wow, I’ve always wanted to do that. I was just in London for a week, visiting relatives. That must have been amazing.”
“Yeah, I’m glad I did. I really needed to get away for a little while, and this really gave me a break from it all. Still, it’ll be good to, you know, get back to school, see everyone again.”
“Yeah, totally. I’m sure you’ve got some great stories to tell.”
Martin laughed briefly. “Yeah, well the greatest stories are the ones I’m not allowed to tell, right?” He concluded from her sideways smile that he was making a good first impression so far. He held out his hand.
“So what’s your paper on?”
Carroll gave him a sheepish look. “I don’t know if I should say. It’s a little weird.”
“That’s cool. I like weird.”
“Alright, but you’ve been warned. It’s called Death and the Penis.”
“I’m just exploring different cultural practices and attitudes towards death, as related to that organ in particular. It’s fascinating, really.”
“I’m sure.” Martin tried to appear unfazed. “Learn anything worth sharing?”
“Well, for one thing you’d be surprised how many famous historic figures have their… members in a jar somewhere. Something to remember them by, I guess.”
“Whoa. That’s not particularly something I’d like to be remembered by.” After thinking quickly, he added “not because of any insecurities, mind you.”
“Well, don’t worry about that. If you’re all still in one piece, any insecurities you may have in life are remedied in death.”
“Well, death appears to have… some complementary effects for a man. Tragic, almost, that men are at their best after they’re gone.” Her voice went into professor mode, which Martin found a huge turn-on. The subject of conversation, on the other hand, he tried to tune out.
“You see,” Carroll lectured, after adjusting her glasses with an exaggerated poke to the center, “during the process of embalming, a man’s member will actually increase in size, as the tissue responds to the chemicals that are so effective at keeping us from being, well, stiff.”
“A case in favor of embalming I guess. Still, I think I’d want to be cremated. I like the idea of those I leave behind scattering my ashes. Although an open casket funeral has a certain appeal.”
“Yeah, that’s what my boyfriend used to say.”
Martin blinked. Boyfriend? But in the past tense. She kept talking as if she didn’t realize the potential importance of her last comment.
“Well, I really don’t care what happens to me. I’ll be dead, it’s not like I’ll mind. Besides, for all we know our choices now won’t mean much then. What if we’re lost at sea, or hideously mangled?”
Martin wondered briefly if she was trying to scare him away by being overtly morbid. He decided to keep a poker face and play along. “Fair enough. I guess I’d miss out on the benefits of embalming then.”
“Ah, fear not. My research tells me that even a corpse that hasn’t been tampered with can still get a few improvements to its manhood. You see, a rotting body goes through a process called bloat…”
“Forgive me for asking, but what does your boyfriend think of all this?”
“My boyfriend is dead.”
Carroll looked away, biting her lip.
“I’m sorry,” Martin added.
“Don’t be. I’m over it. To be honest, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I really wasn’t that happy with him. Now that he’s gone, what little we had seems like so much to me. It’s like waking from a dream that you didn’t really enjoy, and wanting so badly to finish it. Maybe it’s because everything seems better when you mourn it, or maybe it’s because even a bad dream is better than being awake.”
Martin was taken aback by her sudden intensity. He was also getting a distinctly interested vibe from the looks she shot him and the little mannerisms that couldn’t really mean much else. He changed the topic of conversation to small talk, but she kept slowly re-intensifying. Finally, he steered the conversation onto the rocks and there was a silence. He looked back out the window. Clouds. How very exciting.
He heard her move behind him, and felt her breath against his neck. She whispered something.
“Hmm?” He turned.
“What clubs did you join when you were in university?”
“I don’t know, I joined a few but never showed up.”
“Well, there’s always been one club I’ve wanted to join.”
She whispered in his ear again, and this time he heard her loud and clear.
She pulled her seatbelt tight and gave a dramatic little gasp, then snapped it open and lifted from her seat.
“Count down from twenty. I’ll be in the last one on the right.”
“I don’t do this. Casual sex, I mean.” Martin tried to keep his voice as low as possible.
“Is that some kind of moral thing, or are you just too proud?”
“Moral, I guess.”
“Or maybe you’re just scared. I’ve done it before, it’s really not that big of a deal. Me and my ex would do it all the time.”
She looked quickly to her feet and back. “Well, he’s dead, isn’t he? Come on, you’ve gotta try everything once. I’ll be waiting.”
Her hand limply draped over the headrest in front of them, and dragged after her.
She managed to walk with a smooth grace on the shaky airplane floor, and part of him yearned to follow her.
Another part of him, however, was not responding. The part that would be most important should he join her was the part that was now truly, and completely dead.
He stuck his hands in his pockets, closed his eyes, and dreamed of a crashing plane.
Maggie looked over her shoulder at him.
“I was sixteen years old when I lost my virginity.”
“Thanks for sharing, Martin.” She rolled her eyes.
“I was really bad at it. I just lay there. She told me after that it felt like necrophilia.”
“Please, please stop talking.”
“The thing is, as bad as it was, it felt good. It felt innocent, clean. It was moral. She didn’t have another guy on the side, for example, who she wasn’t telling about it.”
Maggie stood. “This was a bad idea.”
Martin stood. “I love you.”
She sat back down, and so did he. They said nothing, facing different directions, for what seemed like a long time. When she broke the silence, she still said nothing.
“That cloud over there looks like a mushroom cloud.” Nothing important, that is.
He looked to his side, and saw it right away. It did look like a mushroom cloud, fresh from the obliteration of a nearby city. They were close enough to worry about nuclear fallout. Another lengthy silence. He looked back to the volcano. It really was beautiful. And fucking huge.
His eyes followed the rolling waves of rock down to where they pushed into the tree line. He squinted, and the red rock was burning magma, frozen in time as it barreled downhill, pummeling though the forest at the bottom. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, his gaze held on a tiny shrub growing up between the rocks.
“You’re right, you know. All our problems really are so very petty.”
“Yeah, here we are, ready to kill each other over some dumb shit left over from our breakup.”
“Yeah, fuck it. I love you too.”
They kept talking, but it didn’t really matter who said what. Both of them were thinking the exact same thing. Cross-legged on the rock, the turned themselves to face each other. She leaned over to him and they kissed. He closed his eyes, and felt the earth start to shake under him.