SPOTLIGHT: When the Hermit Appears by Laura Eppinger

FIRST 10 pages

Somewhere between 600 and 1400 B.C.E., humans carved images of other humans, the sun, and now-indecipherable symbols into red rock. I stood apart from Ty and Elisa during our visit to the petroglyphs at V Bar V Heritage Site, soothed in the presence of something so ancient, so distant from the life I was living now. The carvings peek out in a burnt orange hue, reminding me of the waxy layer underneath tree bark. The illustrations are arranged in a circular pattern: think of numbers on a clock.

We can now only speculate about what the images meant to these ancestors of the Hopi, as the language and culture of the carvers has been long lost. No one can interpret their meaning for certain.

At least three spirals appear—or perhaps they are labyrinths, for their shape is square. I traced the repetitive lines with my nose, trying to focus on the smell of creosote and the inescapable dryness of the air. This shape can be sacred; it is continuous yet mysterious. Or we can descend into madness, spiraling out. The few days I’d been in Arizona had been filled with confusing interpersonal dynamics, so I smoked cigarettes covertly. I was supposed to be a quitter, but in my discomfort, I longed for that familiar vicious cycle. I sunk into guilt about smoking, but life was miserable without nicotine.

My throat prickled as we made our way out of the site; I’d forgotten my water bottle at home and had not been drinking all morning. Ty, my boyfriend of a year and a half, had brought me to meet his best friend in Phoenix at last. It wasn’t going well. Before meeting Elisa, Ty’s longtime friend, I’d been primed: she was one of the rare women to earn a PhD in mathematics, she biked to work, and Elisa didn’t date, but if she did, she’d date women or nonbinary folk. That sounds like a person I’d love to meet, but I’d had the wind knocked out of me from our first encounter. When she fetched us from the airport, Elisa did not greet or embrace either of us. She told Ty to take the passenger seat without a smile. He complained of chafed hands after a day of air travel and now the desert climate, so I passed him my 3 ounces of Jergens. Elisa said that an oil-based lotion wouldn’t work in Phoenix. These are the first words she spoke to me.

Now standing in the sun and walking around the heritage site had made me aware of my thirst, but I was low on cash as well. Ty and Elisa were sharing her reusable water bottle. I’d rather lick morning dew off a saguaro than put my mouth to that Thermos. I eyed the gift shop, offering one chance to score a cool drink from a sterile mouthpiece.

“If you give me one dollar now and don’t ask any questions, I will give you $20 later,” I whispered to Ty. We were headed toward the parking lot where the car was baking, and I knew I’d be stuck in the back, carsick and dizzy, on the way to our next destination. I wetted my wilted lips and tried to smile at him.

“What do you need?” he asked at normal pitch. He didn’t whisper back to me, reminding me once again of his math-brain’s blind spot for discretion.

“Just give me a dollar,” I insisted, hoping Elisa hadn’t heard. She’d badger me away from spending money, single-use plastic, or drinking water she didn’t control if she knew what I wanted. I admit: Elisa’s quirks felt heightened for me because I’d been sneaking cigarettes. Dizziness hit me hard and my sinus cavity pounded as if it was collapsing in on itself. The sunlight sliced as a laser, as a light through a magnifying glass.

I snatched a $5 bill out of his hand and told them not to wait for me, I’d catch up to them at the car.


That trip was a week of gagging on words, aching to say something but realizing I couldn’t land on it. I arrived already weighed down by the expectations of others: When two 31-year-olds who’ve been together more than a year go to the Grand Canyon, coworkers and extended family coo and ask if a diamond ring was produced. I didn’t share that expectation and clammed up when my nosy elders asked. I felt too embarrassed to tell Ty I’d been asked this question at home and at work.

And now I couldn’t imagine returning to say: His best friend hosted us and wouldn’t allow us to share a bedroom; he was forced to sleep on the living room couch where she could walk in to launch a fugue of speech at him at all hours. I couldn’t wait for a pause in conversation over Christmas dinner to confess: A strange power dynamic coursed through them both like a magnetic field. I was on the outside and felt unspeakably alone.

                I hold little in common with the generation of women from home (blue collar New Jersey) who see each holiday season as a chance for men to propose, propose, propose! But now, roaming the desert with these ascetic academics, I couldn’t understand them either.

After our day at V Bar V, Elisa announced she’d be doing our laundry for us. I told her No thank you as clearly as I could. She said she was about to run the machine for her own clothes, as if that settled it. Ty told me not to fight this, so I hunched my shoulders and plopped onto the living room couch to flip through the photos on my camera of that day’s hike. I had captured mostly images of sun-blanched nubs of dead trees, worn down by wind and sand and time. In that moment I couldn’t quite say why.

Elisa ducked into the guest room, dug through my clothes, and threw what she identified as dirty into the wash without my permission. The dryer didn’t work well. My yoga pants and sports bras were returned to me still-wet and smelling of used kitty litter. I went to the bathroom to cry. On the way Elisa reminded not to leave any face powder in the sink.

What was happening around me? I wasn’t thinking clearly and I couldn’t fit these experiences into words.


I sat on a rigid wooden chair watching Elisa berate Ty for 10 minutes when he handed me a plate intended for him. The tomato, onion, and cheese omelet meant for me would be identical in every way. It’s just that the one plate was supposed to be his. Throughout the trip, we were forced to eat her leftovers—a dry quince tart that didn’t set right, a veggie stir fry that had already gone off. She planned meals hours in advance and we couldn’t opt out. I tried suggesting that Ty and I go out to dinner alone, but Elisa said this wasn’t her plan and Ty wouldn’t back me up.

He never backed me up. When she stayed in a room to watch him change, or began listing her friend’s medical histories to strangers, he would not agree that these behaviors were strange. Once she started talking, there was no stopping her. The words spewed out about skin allergies or even once her former roommate’s miscarriage, and the only option was suffocating in her words. I learned to brace myself and let the wafting speech overtake me, succumbing to a dust storm. She couldn’t understand that Ty and I wanted to be alone, or that he could ever change the habits he had kept in years past. I once stormed out of an outdoor market stall when Ty had started gathering spices to purchase and she walked over, took the items out of his hands, and said he didn’t need them.

No one in my life issued commands to me, so Elisa’s pronouncements left me in silent shock. I couldn’t believe Ty bowed to her whims. It had never even occurred to me to boss him around like that, and now I had to watch him submit to this odd friend.

Only later could I see that what I was experiencing was power. It was the power someone wields when they are desired, as Elisa was wielding then. It was addiction to wanting someone who can’t be had, when I hadn’t known Ty was this kind of masochist. I was rubbing up against a decade of Ty’s self-denial while climbing down stairs at 3 a.m. to satisfy a craving for an American Spirit. There was isolation in experiencing something I had never named. I needed a model or metaphor to work out my feelings, but all I knew how to do was coil back in on myself, keep my thoughts inside, and look for an opportunity to sneak away to smoke.

Nicotine withdrawal made me cruel. I spent my days feeling like I could nap at any moment if I was left alone to shut my eyes. Then at night no sleep would come. I jittered in bed and longed for just one more drag. I reviewed the day’s interactions over and over again, but never arrived at clarity. Ty did not boss me around in our life together, so how could he have this kind of relationship with Elisa? What did it mean, for him and for us?

Maybe if I didn’t have to spend every moment of the week around both of them, maybe if I didn’t find Elisa so damn grating, I would have been able to recognize Ty’s responses to Elisa. I’d seen them before, once. That week, I was too busy feeling betrayed and angry. Previously, I’d seen him check out mentally around his family. His dad could unleash a gale of speech at him, criticizing and insulting him, refusing to listen or even stop speaking for a moment. Ty went vacant behind the eyes then, just turned off his mind, stared ahead blankly, so as to not be bothered by whatever was said to or about him. I have never sought solace in that particular defensive mechanism and indeed find it disturbing to be around. But Ty had to do this with this close family member on a regular basis. This is also how he survived Elisa’s same manner of speaking without pausing or listening. It must have become second nature to him, or just the thing you do around the people you love.

But not me! I felt both superior to Elisa and frustrated that Ty didn’t seem to appreciate me for being an empathetic listener who didn’t just talk at people for hours without ceasing. Why wasn’t I being prized over Elisa for my exemplary boundary-setting and communication skills and—well, when I wasn’t silently fuming and hiding a self-destructive habit from my partner, that is. When I wasn’t so squirrelly and pent-up that I was always on the lookout for a way to ditch those two in public (I paced a lot of parking lots on that vacation). When I wasn’t so oversensitive to my surroundings and converting every experience into a way to criticize Elisa to Ty privately.


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