Helen picked the Badlands for their honeymoon because her first fiancé once told her it was like camping on Mars. She told Jeremy the Mars part but left out who’d said it. Jeremy wanted Hawaii, like he had wanted a big wedding. Once again, Helen got her way, this time by agreeing to a cabin at Cedar Pass Lodge, the only housing within park limits. On the phone with her little sister, Ruthie, she admitted she hadn’t taken much convincing: She was past the point where tent sex sounded fun.
Helen and Jeremy were 39 and 35, respectively. She worked in movies and TV, floating between props and set dressing. He was an associate general counsel at NYU. Ruthie set them up; she knew Jeremy from Sunday softball in Central Park, a pastime she’d picked up half in earnest and half as a lesbian joke with herself. “He’s maybe a little boring,” Ruthie had said, “but give him a shot. He seems really stable.” Helen and Jeremy went on activity dates: canoeing on the Gowanus Canal and group cooking classes at the Institute of Culinary Education. Helen told Ruthie his enthusiasm was refreshing. He kept his Upper West Side apartment neat and learned her favorite brand of orange juice.
He liked stories about her wild days, would look at her with disbelieving admiration even as she cut around the really bad parts. She told him about the three-day parties, but not the three-day black-outs; Caleb’s less-close calls — tap dancing at the edge of a roof, bar fights in a powdered peruke — but never his overdose. She painted out Caleb’s addiction entirely, shaping him to look like her and Ruthie — club kids who loved the party and emerged unscathed. Having edited the coke out of Caleb’s life, she kept going: Next she told Jeremy that she’d been the one to leave. “It was time to move on from all that,” she said. “Grow up a little. I needed to straighten out my life.” This was what Caleb told her, when he finally got clean. They hadn’t spoken in eight years.
After three months, Jeremy proposed. He’d made dinner reservations at the Central Park Boathouse, but stopped to grab Helen’s hand as they walked by the fountain. “I know this is a little crazy,” Jeremy said. He trembled. He had a big ring in a little box. “You’re the love of my life,” he said. Helen looked at his unremarkable features and felt lightheaded with relief.
They got married at City Hall two months later and threw a party in her Park Slope backyard. Jeremy had just finished moving in. Ruthie made the cake, two pink tiers with 1950s figurines up top and a loop of script below: Can You Believe It’s Not Shotgun? Helen saw Jeremy startle, glance around for her friends’ reactions, and then laugh. He froze the top layer for the next year.
In the morning they flew to Rapid City and rented a car. Helen napped in the parking lot while Jeremy did a grocery run; she woke to him stowing a cooler in the backseat. He passed her a communal iced coffee and two doughnuts. “You’re a saint,” she said. Watching Jeremy switch lanes on I-90, Helen realized this was the first time they’d driven together. He was a careful driver, but not a slow one. She liked the sure way his eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror and back to the road. Jeremy was a car talker, it turned out. Helen never had been. For fun, they counted the motorcycles on the highway — a kind of game. When they lost count, they tallied the hand-painted signs for Wall Drug instead. Jeremy got more and more excited about the place with each sign: Take a Picture of Buffalo, Free Ice Water, Cowboy Up! Helen fought her hangover.
“This is going to be amazing,” Jeremy said, pulling off at the exit.
“Like five minutes,” Helen said. She needed to pee and figured it couldn’t be that bad.
Wall Drug proved to be a pharmacy, café, and tourist monument that took up an entire block. Jeremy headed over right away, camera pointed at the Old West porch and high-kitsch lettering. Helen dawdled near the tiny community library across the street. Its walls bubbled with rocks. The door to the library was locked. She tried to peek in, but the ripples of the glass brick windows didn’t reveal much.
Jeremy called to her from across the street. He was talking to a short guy in leather chaps and a very tall, very tan woman. Jeremy made friends easily; it was one of the things that had first attracted her. Sometimes, though, it could be a little much. It took her a second to maneuver among the motorcycles clogging the parking lot.
“Apparently you can take your picture with a giant jackalope,” Jeremy said.
“On the jackalope,” the woman said. “There’s a brontosaurus, too, but you can’t ride that. I’m Barb.”
“Helen,” Helen said. She waved her hand around the lot. “You all passing through?”
“On their way to Sturgis,” Jeremy said. “Biggest motorcycle rally in the world.”
The short guy was wearing a stars-and-stripes bandana. He said, “Should be a party over at the park. Surprised you managed to find a cabin this time of year.”
Helen had assumed the density of motorcycles on the road was a Western thing, not a western-South-Dakota-in-early-August thing.
“They should’ve told us,” she said, as soon as they were clear of the couple.
“The lodge people. That’s the kind of thing they should tell their customers.”
“They’re customers, too.” Jeremy held the door for her. “I liked them. Barb and Ricky, I mean.” He lowered his voice as if they were in church. “Did you hear that Barb’s grandson has cerebral palsy?” His tone was charitable, serious: gossip decked out as sympathy. Helen looked around her.
They were in a room full of souvenirs. There were lots of heads on the walls.
“Check it out, babe. This place is insane.” Jeremy pulled her to the back of the long room, where a glass case held three animatronic cowboys and an assortment of coyotes.
“Barb has a grandson? In what world does a woman with tits like that have a grandson?”
“She had her daughter young, her daughter had her son young, I guess?” He dug in his pockets for change.
“No wonder her grandson’s fucked up.”
Jeremy went still.
“Kidding, kidding,” Helen said. She reached to give him fifty cents. When he took the money, he barely touched her palm.
“That’s a really messed-up thing to say.”
“I was joking, Jeremy. Jesus.”
He walked away, over to a side display with a man in a frock coat on a saloon balcony. Jeremy bent down and then the man started jerking and growling about snake oil. Helen stood for a moment watching the salesman wave his little bottle.
“Hey, I’m sorry. That was tasteless,” she said. She brushed her fingers across the back of his shoulder. “Can we pee and get out of here? This place is claustrophobic.”
“Places aren’t claustrophobic, people are.”
“Okay, this place is making me feel claustrophobic.”
“Let’s just find the jackalope.”
They took the picture, Helen on top of the giant gray rabbit, forcing a smile. She wished she’d put on more sunblock. Back at the car, Jeremy didn’t offer her the keys. Helen kept quiet. With Caleb, she would have grabbed them and thrown them into the grass or, if she was feeling subtle, played an album she knew he hated. She and Jeremy had never fought before, and she didn’t have a strategy.
In the distance, the horizon broke into drained pink ridges. They passed into the park. The earth reared up into towers and mounds, spires like teeth. She laid her hand above Jeremy’s knee and felt him relax under its weight.
They picked up their key in the main building, a high-ceilinged gift shop and restaurant complex, and drove the few yards to their cabin. It looked like any motel cabin. Jeremy parked the car and walked around to open her door.
“I don’t know how historic Historic Cedar Pass Lodge is proving to be,” Helen said. “You wanna pop the trunk?”
Jeremy grabbed her around the waist and below the knees, hoisting her up. “Let’s leave the bags for a while.”
He propped her against the front door while she fumbled for the keys. “This would be a lot easier if you’d put me down,” she said.
He shifted her closer and kissed her neck. She couldn’t deny that the bride-on-the-threshold routine had its appeal. She fit the key in the lock and they stumbled into the entryway, blinking away the dark until the room took shape around them: knotted pine walls, dull white cabinets, a dripping sink.
The windows bristled with polyester eyelet. A close smell haunted the room — cigarette smoke scrubbed down to sweetness.
Jeremy flipped on the lights and pushed open the window. He crossed to the bedroom. Another window slid up. Helen felt a little guilty. She followed him in, registering the polished-cotton bedspread, his backlit silhouette. Was it too late to change their plans? They weren’t so far from Yellowstone. Maybe one of the fancy lodges had an opening.
Jeremy reached for her, drawing her to the window. Outside, pink stone bit at the sky.
“Fuck Hawaii,” he said into her hair. “This place is incredible.”
She pulled him to bed.
They had dinner in the dry grass out back of the house. Jeremy spread a blanket and unpacked the cooler. He arranged plates of cheese and baguette and salami and fruit. Helen stretched out, shower-wet hair soaking the cloth. She felt hazy from sex and hot water. She watched Jeremy opening a bottle of white wine and marveled that she’d wound up with a man who not only owned, but thought to pack a red-checked picnic blanket.
Their sex had surprised Helen from the start. “Weirdly not boring,” she told Ruthie after the first time. “Actually really — nice?”
“So nice is a good thing with you now,” Ruthie said. “I guess you’re fixed. Let’s talk about me.”
“Maybe robust is what I mean,” Helen said. She found she loved Jeremy’s body, its solidity, the reliability of his desire. She couldn’t imagine getting bored: There was no novelty to go stale. Instead she felt a quiet and predictable pleasure, like rereading a favorite book. Their riskiest proclivity was a certain will-they-won’t-they approach to condoms, which clearly turned him on. This close to 40, anything more than loose caution struck her as overkill.
Jeremy lowered himself down next to her, a plastic cup in each hand.
“To us,” he said.
Helen took her wine. “To the future.”
In the morning, Helen unpacked their bags while Jeremy showered. She liked the way their underwear looked in the drawer together. She shook out her sundresses and placed them, two to a hanger, in the shallow closet. Three layers down in her neatly packed bag, her fingers hit the smoothness of satin. She pulled out an old-fashioned nightgown pouch, crudely embroidered with wedding bells — very Ruthie. As she laid out the delicate slip her sister had tucked inside, something hard bounced off her foot. Helen stooped to find a small brass box. Her mouth went dry. She flipped open the lid and unfolded a square of paper. Two peach-colored pills sat on top of Ruthie’s handwriting: Have fun, you crazy kids! A retroactive fright swept through her, zoetrope scenes of long-nosed German Shepherds, grounded planes, men with billy clubs. Two aging honeymooners and their stash of Ecstasy.
The door opened and Helen snapped the box shut.
“What’s that?” Jeremy said.
“Present from Ruthie.” Helen tilted the box so he could see the flowers engraved on the lid, then tossed it back into the suitcase.
“It came with something prettier,” Helen said, “but that’s for later.” She gave an exaggerated bat of the eyelashes. Her pulse still sounded in her ears.
“Can’t I get a preview?”
“Don’t be bold.”
“Okay, okay. Speaking of something prettier, though, I take it we’re not hiking today?” he said, indicating her dress.
She zipped the half-emptied suitcase and shoved it in the closet. “I want to see the buffalo. I think that’s a fairly in-car activity.”
“I love you,” he said.
“I know,” she said, grateful. She kissed his face and hoped he heard it the way she’d meant it.
They drove the looping route through the park, stopping at every pull-off to read the informational plaques. The parking lots were filled with motorcycles. Every so often Helen stopped at the side of the road to let a phalanx pass. “It’s just nicer without the noise,” she said, keeping her voice as light as possible. They rolled the windows down anyway. The wind smelled of dust and warm grass. They came to mounds with stripes like bruises, purple faded down to yellow roots. There was something frightening about all this erosion. She should have known not to come to a place Caleb had loved so much.
“How great is this?” Jeremy said. “Who knew there were vineyards in Dakota?”
They’d decided to have dinner at Cedar Pass Restaurant. There wasn’t quite enough food left in the cooler to make a meal, and neither of them felt like venturing out of the park.
The wine was bright red, like fruit juice, and chilled. It had an absurd name, Mirage or Respite, maybe. Helen hadn’t really been listening when Jeremy chose it from the laminated triangle sitting in front of their napkins, and now she couldn’t bear to look.
She set her glass down. “I wonder if it was such a great idea, though, babe, getting a whole bottle.” He’d ordered so assuredly when their waitress appeared.
“We only have to walk like two feet,” Jeremy said.
“I’m a little dehydrated is all.”
Jeremy laid his hand on hers, and she rushed to add that she was okay. “It’s so dry here. Tomorrow, though,” she said. “Tomorrow I’ll get crazy.”
Their waitress lumbered over with hair in her face and a long account of what the kitchen was no longer serving. Helen ordered the Rocky Mountain rainbow trout. Jeremy ordered a Huckleberry Salad with buffalo strips and fry bread on the side.
“When in Rome, right?” he said to Helen’s lifted eyebrows. “Tomorrow let’s actually get some hiking in. You up for the Castle trail?” Castle was a ten-mile round trip, the longest maintained trail in the park. When they’d stopped at the Fossil exhibit that afternoon, they’d seen it, a barely visible scuff winding across the parched ground. “We should get an early start, avoid the Sturgis crowd. I’ve been scoping some backcountry maps, too.”
“I don’t think the Sturgii are going to be doing a whole lot of hiking. They seem more like the stay-on-the-bike types.” At last, Helen thought, something in common.
The food didn’t come for a long time. Helen found that if she opened her throat and swallowed very quickly, she could almost entirely avoid the taste and get straight to the alcohol. By the time their meal arrived, they’d made it through the bottle.
“Can I get you folks anything else? More wine?” their waitress said from behind her hair.
Jeremy said yes. Helen said, “Actually, I think we’ll switch to the IPA.”
Jeremy’s salad was huge and alarming, the lettuce dripping a milky cerise goo. Helen watched him load his fork.
“This,” he said, “is absolutely disgusting.” He didn’t look upset.
“Why don’t you send it back?”
Jeremy forked a chunk of meat. “Local color.”
“I’m not sure the National Park cafeteria counts as local color,” she said.
The waitress returned with their beers.
“Would you like a hair tie?” Helen said.
“I’m good,” the girl said, but Helen caught her blush.
Jeremy widened his eyes. When she was gone, he said, “You’re wicked.”
Helen recognized her cue. She ran a cursory toe along his shin.
“What if,” he said, dropping his voice, “you told me one thing about what Ruthie put in your bag?”
“It’s really more of a show than a tell. But I will say it involves lace,” she said.
The lettuce glistened. “Also, some Ecstasy.”
Jeremy put his fork down. “Tell me you’re joking.”
Helen shook her head.
“She let us fly with drugs in your bag? Jesus fucking Christ. The whole country isn’t the East Village.”
“I don’t think they’re doing that much E in the East Village these days anyway. The great banker invasion and all.” It occurred to her that she’d been hoping for some sign of curiosity on his part, some bad little flicker. “Although, who knows — those Wall Street idiots do get wild.”
“Your sister is fucking nuts. Jesus. What did you do with it?”
Helen looked out to where the sunset dyed the pinnacles a deeper red.
“I flushed it.”
“I mean, she knows you’re not like that anymore.”
She took a sip of beer. “I feel a little bad about it. That stuff is expensive.”
“Your sister needs to grow up.”
“She was just trying to do something nice.”
Jeremy stabbed another lump of buffalo. “Well, good job, Ruthie.”
The fact was, it probably wasn’t even buffalo. His face looked the same, Helen thought, chewing fine Camembert or syrup-soaked meat. She flexed her hand and watched the bones shift under her too-large diamond.
In the morning, she begged off sex and the hike, saying she didn’t feel well. Jeremy rubbed her back and said he’d stay with her, but she insisted he go. “Have fun,” she said.
“You don’t seem like you’re having fun,” he said. “Are you mad at me?”
“I’ll be having fun when this hangover passes. No more South Dakota wine.”
When the door shut, she pulled her phone into bed with her. Service was terrible. It took her four tries to get through, and in the end, Ruthie didn’t pick up.
Helen walked from room to room opening cabinets and drawers, searching for signs of previous visitors and trying to push down a rising sense of dread. She ate the remaining baguette and brie and started the mini Mr. Coffee. A motorcycle fired out front.
What she’d taken for openness, for warmth and joie de vivre, was daftness, pure and simple. Jeremy hadn’t chosen her; he’d chosen to marry. Any helpful lesbian’s straight-ish sister would have done. She was the love of no one’s life.
She unzipped her bag, felt around for the brass box, stepped into the bathroom, and lifted the toilet seat. She did a quick calculation: miles per hour at a normal walking pace, the length of yesterday’s drive to the trailhead. She figured she had five hours, best-case scenario — not really enough. She sat down on the lip of the tub. She swallowed and slid the box back into her pocket.
The remaining pill rattled back and forth as she made the bed. She was standing in front of her closet trying to decide whether to unpack the rest of her bag when the walls listed. She’d forgotten this part. She sat down on the floor and pulled her knees to her face, felt their reassuring pressure on her eyeballs. The cold sweat and nausea hit together. Maybe she could puke it out in time. She’d shower and be fresh for Jeremy when he got home. She’d match him smile for smile.
She made it to the bathroom. The cold moved somewhere deep beneath her skin. She leaned forward and vomited.
She felt okay, she decided. She felt pretty good. In the mirror over the sink, pupils overtook her eyes. She washed her mouth out twice and then brushed her teeth for a long time. In the bedroom, the polished cotton coverlet felt slippery against her legs. She dragged it off the bed and onto the grass outside. She took off her cardigan and lay in her slip and felt her skin all around her. A woman smoked a cigarette next door. A man came out and stole a drag. The woman punched him in the arm and he kissed her. He looked a bit like Caleb. Helen waved.
Color was coming back into the Badlands. Helen watched until the brightness hurt her eyes. The back door opened and there was Jeremy.
“Quite a setup you’ve got going out here,” he said. “Feeling better?”
Helen thought she should probably panic, but she didn’t feel up to it. Was it worth it to try and act normal?
“Much,” she said. “Let’s be quiet, though.”
“I turned around. I couldn’t hike.”
“Could I have that water bottle?” Helen said.
“You seem so determined not to enjoy this. I think we need to talk about it.”
“I have determined to enjoy it. Jeremy, would you say you consider yourself a discriminating person?”
Jeremy looked at her. He said, “Holy shit.”
“There’s still one left if you want.”
“You need to get high for this? For our honeymoon?” His voice sounded so sad. It irritated Helen, how sad he sounded.
“Don’t be such an alarmist. It’s not heroin.”
“You are on drugs, for Chrissake.” His hands made brackets around his face.
“On Drugs,” she said. “Please.”
“Am I a discriminating person? What are you even talking about?”
Behind him, a scrubby little tree cast its shadow against the cabin. The fake adobe caught the darkness in its nap, turning it to violet lace.
“Actually, can we maybe not talk right now?” Helen said. “I would really love it if we could not talk right now.”
Jeremy slammed his way into the house. Helen lay back, smelling the air, smelling the way Jeremy changed it. A hawk scooped by, hunting. She wondered if, even for a moment, it considered hunting her. Inside of her were many tiny creatures, after all. Jeremy’s sperm at this very moment danced inside her — one day, three days, even five days old — wriggling toward their slow deaths, alive for now. Each time he died off within her, more of him would appear. She couldn’t tell if the adrenaline spiking through her was joy or terror.
She’d never be alone again.
A burst of music shot out nearby and then stopped. Some old spandex-and-hairspray number. Who did it belong to? Not-Caleb next door had vanished. So had his girl. Their little motel box made no sounds. You couldn’t tell by looking at these boxes what they contained: one person, two persons, none?
Helen looked closer at her own cabin. It had the little tree’s shadow. It had its own particular grime. Through the open window, she could hear water on metal. Something clinked. Jeremy, doing the dishes. Maybe they would have a baby.