The Clearing

Posted on: April 21, 2015

                          Continued from West, This is It, The Story of Everything, and Living the Dream

“So Chuck is really okay with us having a bonfire out here?” Dena asked.

“Yeah, it’s cool,” Jennifer said. “I think this place used to belong to his mom or something. But then they tore the house down. I don’t know.”

Dena swore as a thorny vine wrapped itself around her bare leg, almost making her drop the cooler of ice.

“Fucking jungle.”

“Mowing doesn’t seem to be high on Chuck’s to-do list,” Jennifer said, laughing.

They came to a clearing someone had hacked in the weeds. Dena gathered limbs and sticks while Jennifer scuffed a makeshift pit with the heel of her boot.

“We’ll just get everything set up and light it when Shelly gets here with the beer,” Jennifer said. “So what’s the deal with Chris, anyway? Is he coming later or not?”

Dena snorted.

“Maybe? He’s trying to get Bon Iver tickets, which basically means he’s camped out in front of the laptop clicking refresh for two hours until the disappointment sets in. That’s why we didn’t leave after lunch.”

“Where’s the concert?”

“LA. Next month.”

“He’s got it all planned out, doesn’t he?” Jennifer rolled her eyes and crouched in the dirt to dislodge an uncooperative rock.

“I know, right?” Dena’s eyes traced Jennifer’s spine from her black-and-pink ponytail down to the bare skin above her jeans, where her tank top was riding up. She had those tiny, shadowy dimples on her lower back, as if someone had held her waist from behind and left lasting thumbprints.

“You should stay here for a while,” Jennifer said. “LA's crap. I bet Chuck would give you a job.”

“I only know how to change tires.”

“Maybe he could use you in the office? Or grading our quizzes.”

“I’m super impartial,” Dena said, elbowing Jennifer in the ribs as she bent to unload kindling into the fire pit. “I can’t stay in Texas. It’s Texas, no offense. And it’s too fucking hot.”

“Are we in Texas? Austin is not Texas,” Jennifer said, arranging the firewood into a teepee.

“Denial’s the first stage of grief, you know.”

Jennifer didn’t answer. She pursed her lips, then sat down on the cooler.

“Not that you’re grieving,” Dena backtracked. “I mean, there are worse places to be from.” Jennifer sloshed fire starter on the branches. “Sorry, I’m totally projecting,” Dena said. “It’s been kind of a shitty year.”

“You should just leave him. He doesn’t really seem to get you.”

“Who, Chris? What do you mean?” Dena probed, her heart picking up. She took a step closer to Jennifer, watching her extract a half-smoked cigarette from her pack, then flick her thumb across the wheel of her American flag BIC to light it.

“Just the way he is around you. Like you’re some fixture that’ll always be there,” Jennifer said, standing and blowing a trail of smoke over her bare shoulder. “Like you could be anybody.”

“Shit,” Dena whispered.

“Sorry. That’s what I see. But I’ve only known you for a week, right?”

Jennifer reached to tug on the hem of her tank top.

Dena saw her own hand move to Jennifer’s wrist, saw it slide around her bare waist, saw it pull Jennifer close to her, until they were hipbone to hipbone.

Jennifer’s eyes locked on Dena’s, surprised, but not offended. It was the look of a girl who was often wanted, but also in control. Dena remembered watching her stomp down the sidewalk by the Starbucks. Goddess of grunge. She felt Jennifer’s hand stroke the back of her neck, then grip a fistful of her hair. Defense--or intensity? She paused for half a second until she heard Jennifer’s breath quicken.

Dena pulled her closer and kissed her. Her lips were softer than she’d expected, her tongue slow and smoky. Dena ran the tip of her finger under the waistband of Jennifer’s jeans, then up, until she found the indentation of one dimple. Jennifer tugged Dena’s hair, sending a jolt through her body. Then she unbuttoned Dena’s chambray shirt, leaving her in her bra and cutoffs, the breezeless Texas heat intensifying like a blanket, like a cocoon--forcing them closer.

“Is there anyone around?” Dena breathed.

“Shelly won’t be here until five,” Jennifer said, prying her feet from her boots as Dena slid her hand up the front of her tank top.

They flattened a nest in the weeds, not caring about briars or dirt. They didn’t think of their own individual histories--identities or proclivities or commitments. They were outside of their stories. Or were they? Dena could feel something inside herself unfold, the bulb of sadness she kept nestled in her core beginning to loosen, to bloom. Jennifer gasped.

“Slow down?” Dena asked.



It billowed ten feet high, at least, and so thick they couldn’t see as they tried to dress, grabbing shirts and stumbling back to the clearing.

“Your cigarette--” Dena coughed.

“This isn’t my fault! Why the fuck is there so much smoke?”

Jennifer staggered around until she found the cooler.

“A little help?!”

The two women, half-dressed in each other’s clothes, upended the cooler of ice and melted water onto the fire pit.

As the fire hissed and the smoke died down, Jennifer crouched to look closer.

“What the fuck--all this wood is green, Dena!”

“How was I supposed to know? You think I’ve ever done this before? You must have dropped your cigarette!”

“I wouldn’t have if you hadn’t--hadn’t--”

“I’m sorry, okay? Jesus. Look, it’s okay if you’re straight or--I mean, I am, too. Mostly.”

“No, no--it’s whatever,” Jennifer said, locating her jeans and sliding back into them. “There is something you need to know about me, though, okay?”

She took off Dena’s chambray shirt and tossed it to her. Dena looked at Jennifer, standing in the still-smoky clearing, wearing only her jeans. Her breasts were small and pert, but uneven. Her hair had come out of its ponytail and was adorned with bits of dry grass. Dena knew that even if Jennifer could see herself, she would be entirely unapologetic.

“What is it?”

“I have a kid,” Jennifer said.

“What? I don’t understand.”

Jennifer turned her head in the direction of a rustling sound.

“Hello, hello! Girl scouts! Where are you? I come bearing s’mores and concert tickets!”

As Chris entered the clearing, a breeze, the first of the day, carried the remaining smoke away from where they stood. It was all in view: the green branches, the upturned cooler, Jennifer’s tank top pulling tight across Dena’s stomach, their shoes scattered apart, Jennifer’s arms, still not ashamed, still not crossing over her bare chest.


Chris dropped his grocery bag of graham crackers, and the bulb inside Dena’s heart curled up tight.

Written by: Dot Dannenberg 

Photograph by: Marshall Blevins

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