If Jennifer told the story of her life so far, would she tell it as a beautiful dream, or as a nightmare? That’s what Rufino asked her, up on Lookout Mountain. It was a beautiful question. No, it was more than that. It was sublime.
“Honey, your life is a beautiful dream,” said her mother, holding both Jennifer’s hands in her own. “But even beautiful dreams sometimes have bad parts in them. That’s just reality.”
Jennifer’s mother wanted Jennifer to tell what happened between her and Rufino on the mountain as a nightmare. She wanted her to tell it that way to Headmaster Jackson and even the police.
Jennifer pulled her hands out of her mother’s and jumped from the couch. “Maybe my life’s a nightmare and Rufino is the only beautiful part!” She stumbled to her room and threw herself on her bed.
Her mother didn’t even know him! No one did. He sat in the back of the class, like all the unknowables, and never said anything. A big, freckled rock, trapped behind the leaf of his desk. There were rumors about his having done time in the juvenile jail, the D-Home or whatever they called it, but like all good rumors, she didn’t know where she’d heard this. He lived south of town, where his family raised horses and alfalfa or something. He had big farm boy hands, full of blood.
Headmaster Jackson and the other administrators must have known at least something about him because this was a private school and they didn’t let just anyone in. Rufino was good for the school’s diversity, they knew that much. He called himself a Chicano, but he could probably mark four or five boxes on one of those what-race-do-you-belong-to questionnaires. His freckled skin combined oddly with his kinky black hair. Small brown eyes and a broad nose. Big teeth. He really wasn’t very good-looking. But then neither was she, was she? He sat at his desk, silent, one of his heavy, green-veined hands dangling at his side while the other cupped his chin.
He’d been admitted that fall. In late September some jocks from one of the public high schools had crashed the homecoming party and tried to start a fight. That was sport for them, picking on the prep school wussies. Rufino waded into them, slopping his big fists into their faces as girls screamed in terrified delight. People thought that would be the end of Rufino at Prep but in fact Mr. Jackson congratulated him. Let townie bullies be warned! Still, the incident hadn’t won him any friends at the school; people were even more afraid of him now.
Jennifer and Rufino had English class together. At the time of Rufino’s proposal to her to go up Lookout Mountain with him, they were studying Romanticism. To Jennifer, romantic had always meant walks on the beach and candlelight dinners with someone you loved; but their teacher, a small, dark-haired woman with a smile full of secrets, liked to point out the dark side of the Romantic writers. Even Blake’s Songs of Innocence were full of ominous moments, such as the shadows and darkening at the end of the “Echoing Green”; and “A Blossom,” though it only talked about birds in trees, was about how you can be sexually attracted and repulsed by the same person. The sparrow in the poem, she added, was a phallic symbol. The important thing about Blake, she said, ignoring the snickers, was the way he kept two conflicting things going at once and then took them to another level.
Then there was this Romantic thing called the sublime, which Jennifer understood was something like when you looked out at the desert or ocean from a mountaintop and felt afraid but not really, because even though you knew that all that out there was a lot bigger than you and could swallow you up and you were nothing compared and were mortal, you were still you and alive to tell about it.
She looked up the word “sublime” in the index of a library psychology book. The entry was followed by subliminal, submission, and a little further down, suicide. She noticed the way the book’s cover dented the bright blue veins of her wrist, and slammed it shut. The sound was practically sublime itself, an echoing boom that made heads look up, including Rufino’s, who turned his strange face slowly to hers.
She left the library and went down into the arroyo behind the gym to smoke. At home she also had to hide in the arroyo to smoke, because her mother hated, absolutely hated, smoking. That was fine for her mother, who was skinny as a rail and didn’t need to lose weight like Jennifer did; and smoking helped you lose.
Rufino followed her. He scuffed the ground and asked her what she thought of their English class.
She took a drag, exhaled through her nose, and said, “It’s sublime.”
“I’m joking,” she said.
“I know.” He swung his freckled face up and looked worriedly at the mountains. Jennifer followed his gaze.
“It really is sublime from up there, I guess,” she said (somebody had to make conversation). “The view.”
“Yeah,” he said. Then: “Wanna go?”
“Up there? Like, now?”
“No, I don’t mean now.”
“Well, when?” She couldn’t believe she was helping him ask her out, but she was.
“Tomorrow’s a school day.”
“Yeah,” he said.
She was afraid that if she didn’t say yes he might not talk to her again.
“Maybe,” she said at last.
“What’s maybe mean?”
“Maybe means maybe.”
His face turned red, the freckles disappearing in the flush. “But what does it mean? What’s maybe mean?”
“Okay,” she said. He was like a child, but a really intelligent one. “Tomorrow, then.”
Her mother called it Lookout Mountain because she could never remember the real name for it, Atalaya, which meant the same thing, but in Spanish. (Until she was probably eight years old, Jennifer thought it was Look Out Mountain, like in watch out you’re going to fall.) Though Jennifer had lived in Santa Fe since she was little, she hardly ever went hiking in the mountains. She didn’t like heights; she had a lot of falling nightmares. Falling to your death seemed so absurd; yet it was the simplest way to die. First I’m up there, all alive; then I’m down here, like totally dead.
She’d never really noticed the rocks at the top of Lookout Mountain until that day in the arroyo. It was hard to tell how big they were. Houses, she supposed. There was one particularly big, craggy one at the very top. Anyone standing up there would be too tiny to be seen from town. It was weird to think that once you had been up there, forevermore you could look at it from any point in the city and say: I was up there.
The morning of her and Rufino’s hike, she got up early and sneaked into the kitchen and made a cheese sandwich. She took her books out of her backpack and replaced them with this sandwich, along with a pint of Evian water and a rain poncho. Oh, yes, sunscreen on her face. She burned easily. Her complexion was what her mother called milky, a description Jennifer found repulsive.
She bicycled past the school. Probably people saw her from the classroom windows. Well, fine. Rufino was waiting for her at the trailhead, as agreed, his heavy arm dangling out the window of his mud-spattered pickup.
Rufino dragged his pack off the front seat of his truck and shrugged it onto his back. He slammed the door, making bits of manure in the bed of the pickup tremble. Jennifer locked her bike to the signpost, which read, “Atalaya 2.5 miles.”
The mountain loomed before them. She could see the individual trees on the rim, serrated against the sky. The boulders up there looked precarious. She wanted a cigarette badly, but it wasn’t right to begin a hike with a smoke.
Rufino went first, shrugging his backpack some more to get it comfortable. He had a shambling gait, like a bear’s.
“Rufino,” she said.
“Are there bears up here?”
It took him a while to answer. “Sometimes, I guess.”
“Did you hear about the two guys walking in the woods?”
“They came across this bear. A grizzly. With cubs. The first guys goes, ‘What do we do?’ The second guy goes, ‘Run.’ The first guy goes, ‘Are you kidding? You can’t outrun a bear.’ The second guy goes, ‘No. All I have to do is outrun you.’”
“That’s a good one.”
In fact, it was kind of horrible, like all jokes. That’s what made them funny, being kind of horrible.
The first part of the trail ran fairly flat, the chamisa bushes oily-smelling in the sun, but they soon began to climb into the shadows of tall trees. Rufino forged ahead, his breathing heavy.
“I have to stop,” Jennifer said. She was out of breath too.
Rufino’ face was flushed, his hair sweat-matted to his forehead. Even his small eyes looked hot. He let his pack drop from his big shoulders and took out his water and drank big gulps. Jennifer drank her own water and then lit a cigarette. OK, so cigarettes were anti-nature, but she had to have one.
They had come to a bend in the trail that showed, between the trees, the city below. Behind the city stretched a range of mountains like a long blue cat.
“That’s school,” he said.
He pointed to flat roofs dotted with silver bells.
“Maybe we should go back,” Jennifer said.
“You said that?” her mother said. “You told him you should go back?”
“I said ‘maybe’, Mother. Maybe we should go back.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said it hadn’t gotten sublime yet.”
“What was that supposed to mean?”
Jennifer began to cry then. She suddenly felt great pity for her mother. The only thing she’d ever heard her mother call sublime were the éclairs from the Chocolate Maven.
Her mother held her head and stroked her hair and waited for her to continue.
Jennifer snubbed the cigarette out against a rock very carefully so it wouldn’t start a forest fire (she didn’t tell her mother about the cigarette; she had to be very careful about what she did tell her) and gave a last glance at the school before she and Rufino continued up the trail. Inside one of those buildings their classmates were gathering for English class, vaguely aware that a couple of losers were missing. Assholes: they’d already forgotten that Rufino had saved them from those high school thugs. And little did they know that she and Rufino were about to experience what they were only studying.
The only person they saw on the trail was a woman coming in the opposite direction with a walking stick and a muscular Rottweiler on a leash, which she pulled up short as they passed. The dog was probably bigger than a wolf, but it wasn’t sublime. A dog could never be sublime like a wolf, a wild thing. Were there wolves up in these mountains? She didn’t think so. In any case, wolves didn’t attack humans, or so she’d learned in school. Now, snakes… Were snakes sublime, or were they just gross? Actually, she really didn’t even find them gross. One time when she was little she woke to find her stepfather standing over her only in his shirt, a stiff snake peeking out through the shirttails. As soon as her eyes fluttered open he disappeared. He disappeared so fast and silently that she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a dream. That’s what her mother would probably tell her, it’s only a bad dream, go back to sleep, so that’s what she told herself, though she didn’t think it was a particularly bad dream, just strange. She remembered it the next day, and at breakfast she told them about it. “A snake, huh?” her stepfather said in that fake voice he always used with her, but even more exaggerated now, almost a shriek. “I felt sorry for you,” she said. And she added, gaily, “I always do!” Her mother barked a sudden laugh and he broke into a weird grin and turned red. Later her mother prodded her for more information about this dream, but Jennifer didn’t have much more to say about it. Soon afterwards the stepfather left the home, and her mother didn’t marry again; after that it was just her and her mother and her little sister, in houses without males; even their cats were all girls. Her mother moved them from what she called “nasty old Chicago” to the fairy-tale town of Santa Fe and enrolled the girls in private schools, where she believed they’d be safe. It wasn’t until later that they found out that Santa Fe had one of the state’s highest rates of reported rape.
Jennifer and Rufino climbed. The air thinned and cooled. Her head grew light. Every now and then a break in the trees offered a view of the approaching mountain, which looked strangely close and far away at the same time, like the dreamworld backgrounds of medieval paintings.
Then she found herself ahead of him, and wondered how that had happened. The trail became much steeper as they neared the top of the mountain. They had to grab the jutting trailside rock to keep their balance. Small chunks of white quartz rolled under their feet. One of the authors they were studying about the sublime also had a lot to say about what things were beautiful and what things weren’t. He’d probably say the color of the quartz was beautiful, but not its jagged shape. Only smooth, rounded things were beautiful. Her milky legs, for example.
She became aware of him close behind, aware of his eyes on her legs, and aware that he might think the reason she wore shorts and had taken the lead was so he could admire her from the rear. Her self-consciousness tripped up her gait and she slipped on the mica-slick rock and fell forward. She pushed herself up before he could help her. Her scraped knee glittered with specks of mica even after she brushed it off, and a few tiny droplets of blood welled and joined the silver sparkles.
“You go first,” she said.
Finally they reached the saddle of the mountain. Sweat trickled between her breasts and dampened her bra. She drank what was left of her water and was still thirsty. Rufino offered her his, or rather, the extra water he carried in his knapsack.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” said her mother. “He had another water?”
“In his pack—”
“Was is fresh? Was it sealed?”
“What are you talking about, Mother!”
“Listen to me, Jennifer. Was it sealed? You know, sealed? Did it go crack when you opened it? You know, snap, crackle, you know cra-ack, like that?”
Had her mother lost it? And then Jennifer got it. Her mother thought maybe he’d spiked the water with what did they call it, roofies or whatever—
“My God, Mother, I don’t know! Yes! It crackled.”
God, why was she telling her anything! A nightmare, this was a nightmare!
The top of the mountain was strangely park-like, with short grass between the trees and rocks, and the trees looking as if they had been pruned and tended, except for a lightning-shattered one split right down the middle, leaving the yellow heartwood jagged and bright.
“Need to make a pit stop,” said Rufino, and he lumbered off behind a boulder.
She needed to pee too. Funny how even when you’re thirsty you have to pee. She went behind a tree on the other side of the trail. She looked down at the padded crotch of her panties. Her period was starting; she was just beginning to spot.
Speaking of spots, what was that? She flinched from the thing crawling near her foot, and then saw it was just a ladybug. She let it crawl up her finger. Round, cute little thing. It flew off. Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home, your house is on fire, your children are gone. Who would invent such a horrible nursery rhyme? Why were children’s minds poisoned with such things?
She rejoined Rufino on the trail, which continued along the saddle of the mountain for a while. To her left, between the trees, she caught glimpses of the vast, golden desert spreading out to where the earth actually seemed to curve. It made her queasy.
“There’s a rock up ahead where you can see it all,” Rufino said.
“I don’t think I want to go there yet. I feel a little dizzy.”
“You felt dizzy?” said her mother. “Like you were going to faint?”
“I was hungry, Mother!”
“Do you want to eat our lunches now?” said Rufino.
They sat in the shade of a grove of pines and ate their lunches. Rufino had brought a bean burrito and a boiled potato. She offered him a bite of her pimento cheese. He’d never had pimento cheese before. He declared it good stuff. He offered her more of his water.
“You mean, he kept the water for you? When he gave it to you the first time, you gave it back and he kept it for you?”
“Yes!” She knew what her mother was implying: that he could have slipped something into it when she wasn’t looking. Rufino and his roofies. Oh, hideous, Mother!
“I felt fine, Mother, fine!” In fact, she did feel a little better, after her sandwich, but still light-headed. A smell of decay rose from the soil—was it a good smell, or a bad? The spot where they sat was like a pasture with tasseled grasses and blue flowers–what was the word? Pastoral—on the right it fell off into dark ravines and to their left were the boulders, the ones you could see from the city, beetling out into the sky. Her knee still sparkled, though the specks of blood were dried black now. She tried to wake herself with a cigarette, but even after smoking she began to nod, overwhelmed by a dreamy fatigue. Not drugged! Just sleepy… A nap… But she wasn’t sure she wanted to nap in front of him, and anyway, he wouldn’t let her. He wanted to get to the rock and show her the sublime view.
They clambered up one rock and down another, she following him, headed to the farthest boulder, which jutted into the void. And suddenly they were there, suspended in space, tilted into the sky, the tawny desert stretching out to distant mountain ranges, the adobe city below a mere insect-like disturbance of the earth. The only signs of life were the occasional knife-like glints slicing up from some distant windshield or window. Directly below rose the pointed trees, like green-cellophaned toothpicks.
This silence would swallow up her scream like a puff of vapor. But she didn’t have the breath to scream. She had to stay perfectly still and keep her balance and look straight ahead. She mustn’t let it overwhelm her, yet she had to submit to it. She had to bring it into her, make it a part of her…
His voice startled her. “Jennifer.”
“Something I was wondering.”
“If you woke up from your life, would you tell it as a beautiful dream, or as a nightmare?”
He was somewhere behind her, a little to the left, but she was afraid to turn around and face him.
“He was behind you?” said her mother. “And you were afraid?”
“How do you wake up from life?” she asked Rufino.
“Like maybe…when you die?”
Why was he talking like this? But she knew what he meant. She knew exactly what he meant, though she had never thought about it that way before.
“How about you?”
“How about me what?”
“Is your life a beautiful dream, or a nightmare?”
“I could tell it either way.”
“So how do you tell it?”
“Depends on who I’m telling it to.”
“So how do you tell it to yourself?”
“On what part of me’s listening.”
“And how do you know what part of you is listening?”
“That depends on how I tell the story.”
Mother: “I’m sure that’s true. He’ll tell his version whatever way it helps him get out of this.”
She wasn’t understanding the conversation at all, her mother. She was just hearing what she wanted to hear.
“Rufino. Grab me.”
“Grab you? You told him to grab you?”
“Catch me, I don’t know, Mother! Hold me.”
Her mother held her for a long while. Then, still holding Jennifer’s hands, she looked into Jennifer’s eyes and said: “What happened then?”
“Nothing!” Jennifer looked away. She could feel her mother’s eyes boring into the side of her head.
“Nothing? What does ‘nothing’ mean? What does it mean, Jenny?”
Jennifer didn’t answer, and her mother sighed one of her forever sighs. She told Jennifer to rest and that she’d be back soon.
Jennifer sat up in the bed. “Where are you going?”
“Just to the drugstore.”
“That’s all? Just to the drugstore? Then you’ll be back?”
“Yes,” said her mother, wearily. “I’ll be right back.”
Jennifer threw herself on her pillows and listened to her mother drive away. She knew what her mother was getting: the morning-after pill. Okay, whatever. As long as she didn’t call the cops, like she’d threatened to earlier. God, she was so tired. Too tired to go to the arroyo for a smoke. Too tired even to cry any more. Almost too tired to think about Rufino, his big hands grabbing her…
Tomorrow—the morning after. That’s when she’d wake up to her nightmare life, or her beautiful one.