Photo by Flickr user Arian ZwegersI stared at the desert, feeling the beads of sweat drip down my back, as I sat on a rock waiting for Frank to come out of the Port-A-Potty in the middle of the desert in Monument Valley.
We had stopped for lunch earlier at a roadside diner advertising Navajo tacos. I was always excited about trying new food, and Frank was hungry and willing to eat anything, so we had hunted down the diner after seeing the sign as we flew down the highway. Sometime after we saw the sign but before we reached the restaurant, we got into a fight because I had read the map wrong and thought we were going south when we were really going north or something stupid like that.
We weren’t talking when we got to the diner, so we ordered our meals and then sat in silence. I watched the other people in the restaurant and wondered if anyone else was as miserable as I was. Frank stared out the window.
The waitress — a large, soft woman with white hair and a faded gray uniform — shuffled over to our table. She held out two plates of food, set them on the table, uttered an unconvincing “enjoy your meal,” and wandered away.
I stared at my plate. Everything on it was beige. There was some soft, flat, tortilla-looking bread with a pile of refried beans on top, covered in a dull brown sauce. I stole a glance at Frank to see how he was reacting. His brow was furrowed, and his white tank top plastered to his chest. His dark blonde hair was damp from the long drive in the big, old, un-air-conditioned Buick. I wanted to make a comment about how disgusting the food looked, but we weren’t speaking to each other.
I picked up my fork and jabbed at the mess of drab brown elements on my plate. There wasn’t even any salsa or hot sauce to be seen, just a glass salt shaker with a dented metal lid which held salt and a few rice kernels to keep the salt from sticking to itself.
I poked my fork into the beans and put a bite in my mouth. It tasted awful. Actually, it didn’t really taste awful. It tasted like nothing. Stale, musty nothing. I decided to break the silence.
“These Navajo tacos are the worst thing I’ve ever eaten,” I said.
Frank looked up. He didn’t look surprised at my speaking. He just looked annoyed. His dark eyes narrowed.
“We’re not at the Four Seasons,” he said.
“I know,” I said. “I’m not saying it has to be great. I’m just saying this is gross.”
“You know, you’re such a food snob,” he said. “Nothing is ever good enough for you.”
“I’m not being a food snob,” I responded. “I’m just saying, objectively, this food is gross.”
“I like it,” he said. He started shoveling the Navajo tacos into his mouth. “This is actually really delicious.”
I rolled my eyes and stopped trying to make conversation. I stared across the restaurant and out the front window at the cars passing on the highway. When the waitress came back, I asked her to box up the rest of my meal.
Frank cleaned his plate. We paid the bill and walked out the door. I threw the box of Navajo tacos into the trash. Frank stopped, turned, and stared at me. His eyes looked even colder than they had in the restaurant.
“What?” I asked, against my better judgment.
“You’re so wasteful,” he said. “You’re just going to throw that away?”
“I don’t want it,” I replied.
“Then why did you get it boxed?”
“I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want to be rude.”
“You got it boxed just so you could throw it away?”
“That’s so wasteful. You couldn’t just throw away your food, you also had to make them use up a box.”
“Why are you always so critical all the fucking time?” I exploded. “It’s just a fucking box and that food was disgusting. Everybody else in the place seemed to love it so I didn’t want to be the asshole that hated the food. I was trying to be polite. Who the fuck cares? God fucking damn it, Frank.”
Frank pursed his lips, stuck his hand into the pocket of his cargo pants, pulled out the keys, and then turned and walked towards the car with no further comment. I waited in the beating sun on the hot pavement for a few minutes, debating whether I should follow him to the car or run in the other direction. Maybe I could go back into the restaurant and get somebody to just drive me to the airport to buy a ticket home. But I decided that seemed like a good way to get raped and murdered so eventually I walked over to the Buick and pulled on the door handle.
The door was locked. I knocked on the window. Frank was staring at the map. I knocked harder. Why was he ignoring me? I walked over to his side of the car and pounded on the window. He rolled it down.
“What the fuck, Frank.”
“Somebody is using a lot of profanity today.”
“Why won’t you let me in the car?”
“You were standing around in the parking lot for so long, I figured you wanted to stay there all day.”
I felt tears stinging my eyes. “Damn it Frank, why are you being such an asshole?”
“I’m not being an asshole,” he said. “I’m just trying to help you realize that the universe doesn’t revolve around you.” He reached over and unlocked the passenger door. I walked back around and got in the car. I put on my sunglasses, folded my arms, and glared out the window.
He started the car and pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the highway. We drove in silence. I rolled down the window all the way and let my hair whip around in the wind. I watched the orange and red landscape roll out in every direction around us.
We hadn’t been on the best terms leading up to the road trip, but we had already planned it as our graduation trip and there was no question of staying home. Optimistically, I had hoped that spending a month together would make our friendship stronger. But now, one week in, I was stuck in a tiny, overheated car with a person I was starting to hate and with no way to escape. I felt more alone than I had ever felt before.
After a while, we arrived at a sign pointing us in the direction of Monument Valley. We pulled off and rolled down a dirt road which led to the first scenic overlook. There was a pale, sunburned British family wearing ironed shorts with crisp creases photographing the scenery and themselves. Frank stopped the car. I reached into my purse and dug through the lip gloss and loose change to find my camera at the bottom of the bag.
I got out of the car and started taking pictures. Frank had already gotten out and walked off by himself. I couldn’t stop photographing the amazing rock formations that rose up from the desert in every color of the rainbow. The sky seemed endless and huge, and only a few perfect cumulus clouds floated in it. I wondered how exciting these pictures were going to be once I got back home. It would probably be a series of almost identical scenes, totally losing their impact when viewed in a stack of four-by-six rectangles in the fluorescent lighting of a Rite Aid on the other side of the country.
“Frank, come be in a picture,” I yelled.
“I don’t want to,” he responded. By now, I knew better than to pressure him to be photographed when he didn’t feel like it so I let it go.
He walked back over to the car and got in. I got in the other side. We began driving to the next overlook.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” he said, breaking the silence.
I looked over at him. This was strange. He hated talking about going to the bathroom or anything else he considered personal. He must have really had to go.
“I really have to go,” he said.
“Well, there must be a bathroom around here somewhere,” I offered.
“Liz, we’re in the middle of the desert. There’s no bathroom.”
Just then, we reached the second scenic stop. A Port-A-Potty towered up in the middle of a sea of desert shrubs.
“Look,” I said, pointing at the tall, mint-green plastic box.
Frank stopped the car and practically ran into the Port-A-Potty. He slammed the door. I sat down on a rock and waited.
He had been in there for a while, and I was starting to worry. He hadn’t said anything to me about feeling sick, but I knew something must be wrong. I felt my skin baking in the hot sun, but I felt too lethargic to get up and find my sunscreen. Finally, he came out. He looked pale. He sat down next to me and put his head in his hands.
“Hey, are you sick or something?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m having stomach issues.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “It had to be those Navajo tacos.”
Frank groaned. He remained hunched over, holding his head. Seconds ticked by. Sweat dripped down his neck.
“Yeah,” he said finally. “It had to be.”
“I told you those things were gross!”
“I know. They were gross.”
“So you admit it! They were disgusting! You were just pretending to like them to piss me off!”
“Yeah,” said Frank. “I was.”
“Oh my God. You idiot. You ate those stupid Navajo tacos just to piss me off and now you have the shits.”
“Yeah,” he said.
I felt gleeful, but then suddenly I felt bad. Poor Frank. He must have felt like hell. He looked miserable.
“Can I do anything? Do you want me to drive?” I asked.
“Yeah, can you? I feel really gross.”
“Of course,” I said.
We got back in the car. I turned the key and put the old Buick into gear. I was heading for the next overlook when he asked me to pull over. I stopped the car by the side of the road and he got out and wandered around slowly in some tumbleweeds, looking green. When he got back in, I handed him a water bottle.
“Thanks,” he said.
“You know what, let’s just try to find a hotel or something. You need to rest and I need air conditioning,” I said.
“Yeah, okay,” Frank agreed. “That sounds like a good plan.”
I wound the old Buick through the desert and back down to the expressway.
“I’m taking a nap,” he said, leaning against the window and closing his eyes. “Don’t get us lost.”
“I won’t,” I said.
I glanced at Monument Valley fading off into the distance behind us in the rearview mirror. Then I focused my eyes on the road ahead. It was long, straight, and narrow, and it seemed never ending.