From above, Tina imagines she and Tony look like fleas on the spine of a slumbering beast. In their drab hiking attire, they’d merge with the landscape were it not for their backpacks — his blue, hers pink. Up close, their nostrils flare with exertion. Up close, their skin glistens with sweat.
This summer, Tony’s obsessed with hot springs. This summer, they’ve been bouncing over bumpy roads in his truck, plodding down dusty trails to sulfurous pools fed by steamy water bubbling from the earth.
This July 4th, they’re checking out Deep Creek, west of Hesperia in the Mojave Desert. Tony’s been here, but couldn’t remember which dirt road to take. They drove all over, trespassing through somebody’s ranch to find the trailhead.
Tony’s eyes scan the trail left to right, in search of a triangular head protruding from the brush, or a twig that’s actually a rattlesnake.
That leaves Tina free to focus on Tony’s calves, fine and muscular below his cargo shorts. They’re her favorite part of his body, so different from hers. Just like Tony’s favorite parts of her are the ones he doesn’t have — curve of breast and hip.
Taking a hydration stop, Tony holds out the water bottle so Tina can drink first, and she realizes she likes his hands as much as his calves. Powerful but also kind, if hands can be kind. She drinks and passes the bottle back, delighting at his Adam’s apple quivering as he swallows.
“Down there’s the hot spring,” he says, pointing to a rock outcropping far below.
“Are those people on the rocks?” Tina asks, swatting a fly drinking sweat from her arm.
“This one’s crowded. It’s on the nudie websites.”
Tony points again. “There’s the really deep pool. That’s where I saw the channel cat.”
Far below, water trips down a gash of light-colored rock and collects in pools. As they descend, lush willows and cottonwoods appear. And then they hit bottom.
Human forms, mostly men, are draped on rocks, looking like apes without their clothes. Tony shrugs out of his shorts. Tina strips off her shorts and t-shirt, but leaves on her orange bathing suit.
“You don’t have to take it off if,” he says.
“I know,” says Tina, feeling annoyed. As if she can’t make decisions about her own body. Or worse, as if he doesn’t want other men looking at his property.
They slip into the biggest, most crowded, pool. As it turns out, no one seems to even notice Tina. Because at the spring’s source, where water trickles down a mossy channel filled with strange lifeforms, a woman wearing nothing but aviator glasses juts from a rock.
She’s skinny, with hard breasts that hug her chest, a washboard stomach and protruding hipbones, snakelike black hair. She’s not much to look at. But that doesn’t stop the men from looking.
The naked woman is telling a story to her sidekick, a blonde woman hiding her ample flesh under a wet t-shirt. But the men are the real audience.
“I was here during the earthquake,” she says. “Never seen Mother Earth so pissed.”
“What was it like?” one man asks.
“Rocks were flying. See those boulders,” she says, pointing to granite chunks wedged in the creek bed. Her breasts flatten as she points skyward. “They used to be up there.”
She smiles proudly, then slips into the water near Tony. Tina feels a stab of jealousy. Besides the aviators, the naked woman is wearing flesh-colored makeup to hide acne scars. She’s talking about the time she scaled the rockface above them.
“I get off on granite,” she says. “Lived in the Cascades for a month. Would have stayed there if I hadn’t run out of food.”
A guy with butcher-paper skin passes a joint. The naked woman takes it and inhales. When she exhales, smoke from her lungs mixes with the steam.
To remain the center of attention, she stands, inviting the men to watch droplets of water course down her tits, over her pinpoint hard nipples and down the bank of her stomach and hips. Tony’s staring along with everybody else. When Tina realizes she’s staring too, she stalks off.
Her anger feels complicated. On the surface, she’s disgusted at the naked woman’s antics, the men lapping it up like puppies. Below, envious of the woman’s wildness. Jealous she’s getting all the attention. Also fearful, since that kind of attention is dangerous.
Boulder hopping to put space between her and the situation, Tina comes to the second pool. Something moves in the olive-black water. Maybe a snag of green algae, a thread of sunlight, or the giant catfish.
She sits down and waits for it to surface. If she tried to explain her feelings to Tony, he’d probably think she was making a big deal out of nothing. There are some things men don’t understand.
Tina imagines what she’s missing, the naked woman collapsing in the creek bed, seaweed hair making her look drowned, hoisting herself on her elbows and opening her legs. Tina sees a shadow in the murky water and she’s looking into the channel cat’s wise eyes.
When she returns, Tony’s backpack is there, but the big pool is empty. Putting on her shorts and hiking boots, she waits, wondering where everyone has gone.
When Tony returns, flushed, he asks, “Where were you?”
“Upstream,” says Tina. “Where were you?”
“Downstream. There’s an even hotter pool just around the bend.”
Tina stabs him with a stare. “Where’d that woman go?”
He doesn’t ask who she’s talking about. “She went exploring with a couple of the guys.”
Tina gives him a knowing look. “Hmm.”
“I know, right?”
As the sun lowers around their portion of the earth, and they ascend, an animal cry reverberates over the canyon walls. Part pleasure, part pain. Part human, part animal. They listen until the silence settles. Tina thinks there’ll be just enough daylight to make it back up the spine of the slumbering beast before it awakens.
Margo McCall is a Pushcart-nominated Southern California writer whose short stories have appeared in Pacific Review, Howl, Pomona Valley Review, Dash, Toasted Cheese, and other journals. Her nonfiction has been published in numerous newspapers and magazines, including Herizons, Lifeboat, and the Los Angeles Times, and her poetry in Amethyst Review and Umbrella Factory Magazine. A graduate of the M.A. creative writing program at California State University Northridge, she writes primarily about the L.A. region and lives in the port town of Long Beach. For more information, visit http://www.margomccall.com or follow her on Twitter at @wordly1.