On my birthday, my wife read from a paper scroll to announce our divorce. She decreed that she and her boyfriend, a champion jouster at Medieval Times, would get married during the Renaissance Festival.
“He calls me Princess Caroline,” she bragged, “and recites poetry, like Shelley.”
“I thought Shelley wrote Frankenstein.”
“You’re an enigma,” she said. “You didn’t even try to get close.”
Like I had a choice. You try spooning every night with restless leg syndrome.
She started to gather her things. I didn’t want her to have the satisfaction of leaving, so I began to pack. It quickly became a race to see who could get out of the house first. I grabbed what was important and bolted.
I’d always heard good things about the Badlands, so I took a leave from my job and headed west. Three days later I was in a truck stop-like coffee shop in the middle of Badlands National Park. The Badlands there resemble the surfaces of moons none of us have visited. Miles of craters and eroding land blend into golden sand mounds that swirl in the wind, like something you can’t get out of your head.
Badlands, proclaimed the Lakota Sioux, because it was such a difficult place to cross.
The desolation dominated, but the young women from ex-Soviet republics who worked in the tourist attractions intrigued me more. Irina served me Buffalo Tacos and read Russian novels. I preferred Crime and Punishment, she Gogol’s Dead Souls. The chasm grew wider on the topic of love.
“Americans. So many foolish, romantic movies. When Harry Screwed Sally. Where I come from, love is a business contract. How can two people help each other get ahead?”
She seduced me with her approach, maybe because it was so un-poetic. Maybe because I worked as a contracts lawyer.
I opened my laptop. I didn’t know Irina very well, so I gave the agreement a six-month term. I included a clause that emotional discussions — my wife’s specialty — were null and void. Irina included her one demand and signed.
We rented a cabin on the national park grounds. The town’s name was Interior, population 38, but Irina called it Marvelous, because that’s what was scrolled on the travel brochures.
We spent most days in the coffee shop with the park rangers from the nearby Minuteman Missile National Site. During the Cold War, South Dakota housed enough warheads to destroy the world many times over. Now, dead-enders like me took guided tours of the underground silo.
After three carefree months, Irina surprised me, saying her younger sister had tired of handing out nugget samples at the Mitchell Corn Palace. Svetlana had been a rhythmic gymnastics champion but you cannot survive in the real world on that.
“Perhaps she can live with us,” Irina suggested. “The French call it — ”
“In contracts law, it’s called an addendum!” I’d seen rhythmic gymnastics so I sprinted for my laptop. Irina only requested the addendum recite her sister’s dream of becoming a showcase model on The Price Is Right. To help achieve that, she had started calling herself Jessica.
Svetlana Backslash Jessica arrived days later. While Irina was dark and flat, Svetlana Backslash Jessica was light and layered. She surrounded a stiff Irina with careful hugs, like trying to wrap a colored ribbon around the crumbling statue of a Politburo member.
Svetlana turned, and caught me calculating the terrible damage her body would do to Bob Barker’s skinny microphone.
“So you are the boy who has made my sister’s heart lighter,” she said.
“It was either that or Laughter Yoga and I was afraid I’d get a hernia.”
Svetlana gave me a strange look and said something in Russian.
“What’d she say?”
“She says you are like a puzzle.”
Svetlana did not go unnoticed at the cafe. The head ranger pointed at me and said Boss as he returned to the bunker with a dozen Buffalo Tacos. Since I arrived, Marvelous, South Dakota had undergone something of a renaissance.
Svetlana signed the addendum without reading it. She said, “I can tell from your eyes that you’ve dotted the t’s.” I actually welcomed the language barrier because then there was a logical reason to be misunderstood.
Months passed without any breach of contract. Sure the cabin was small for three adults, but I made do. I learned more in the Badlands than I had in the preceding ten years, not the least of which was that when you cash in a 401(k) early you have to pay a tax penalty but it sure makes buying a Mustang convertible a helluva lot easier.
The Mustang arrived in time for one of our Friday night raves. The girls, in little clothing, guzzled Red Bulls and Stoli while I pounded King Cobra 45’s and tried to not let the smooth taste fool me. I’ll never spin at Hyde, but I know three songs girls cannot resist dancing to: You Shook Me All Night Long, It’s Raining Men, and That’s What I Like About You. I ran that killer mix for hours, just like in my dreams.
I showed the girls the Mustang out back, and their partying got intense. At one point, Irina shouted over the music. “Your old wife. She like vampire.”
“She did make me see Twilight.”
“No, she like vampire. She sucked all the blood from your heart.”
“This,” Irina said, “is a good thing.”
By the time I woke, the girls had packed the Mustang. It was our six-month anniversary and the contract had expired.
I jumped into my El Dorado and drove through the grasslands. If I believed Irina, I should follow them to Hollywood and live the fuck out of the most hedonistic life a bat-for-a-heart could provide. But I didn’t. I headed back to my Kingdom of Alone.
With the quiet vacancy of the Badlands unfolding, I crossed the bridge into Interior and heard only the thump, thump of the tires, rolling over cracked wood.