Hero Day

Carla Stern

I. You thinking about Bend?

Byron wasn’t looking for any kind of partner, but that didn’t dampen Karina’s enthusiasm for spending a weekend with him during one of his pot-buying missions to Oregon. She would get away from the hospital, have sex, and never have to drive. Their incompatibility would be rendered unimportant by the unfamiliar surroundings; anyway, they would be high a lot of the time, so conversation would be easy and silence tolerated. Karina packed lightheartedly.

Byron was eleven years younger than Karina. Her friends insisted that this age gap did not make him a different generation, but she was unsure. What mattered more than any shared historical reference, though, was his physical appearance: he was handsome, with luxurious dark hair and a muscular, supple body that invited caress. She, on the other hand, was an aging woman who had never been beautiful. She worked to stay trim, but her face was starting to droop and the lines emanating from her upper lip grew deeper every day, giving her a witch-like mien.

Karina couldn’t understand why he chose her as a lover. He did hot yoga and must have had many pretty young admirers, but since his breakup with Alyssa a year earlier he seemed to be going it alone, except for those occasional evenings when he came over with his supplies. Although Karina wasn’t big into marijuana, she would take a few puffs from a joint and watch him consume the rest. Then they would have sex, lying in the stillness for a while before he got up to leave. He never spent the night.

She liked the way he grabbed her hair and twisted it around his hand. He laughed uncontrollably after climaxing.

Ever careful about her appearance, she made a mental note of what needed to be done before the weekend with Byron. The mirror revealed stubborn grey roots; hair dye was a must. She imagined his body over her, moving up and down as she lightly tickled his sides, and decided on a pastel gel polish. Finally, rogue chin and upper lip fuzz would have to be ripped off; after that ordeal, she would have her eyebrows shaped. Karina couldn’t shed the ten years, but she was going to do her best to look fuckable.

That Byron had a sexy, wolf-like stare. He lasted forever, he told her, because yoga had made him learn how to breathe. He wasn’t very warm, never talked dirty, and smoked too much weed. But she kept thinking about the time he picked her up, carried her to the bedroom and dropped her on his mattress before taking off her underwear and slowly submerging himself into her. She liked the way he grabbed her hair and twisted it around his hand. He laughed uncontrollably after climaxing.

“I’ve never come across that. You’re the first.”

“Alyssa used to think I was laughing at her. But it comes from deep inside me. It’s just a reflex.”

“I know. I like it.”

“It’s funny. Fun and funny.”

“Fun and funny,” she repeated, drawing a deep breath on his glass pipe.

Shortly after they first got together, he sent her a text saying he didn’t see a future with her. From there followed a volley of messages hashing out the parameters of the relationship. Byron was dubious, but after Karina attested to her ability to remain unmoved and free of emotional need, he agreed to a sexual union with no commitment and no rules. Theoretically this left her open to pursue other men, although there weren’t any.

Karina accepted this arrangement because she was lonely since she’d split from her husband and moved into her own apartment. She welcomed the distraction of a younger man with stamina, however ill suited they might be. So when she read his text at work, delight was her first and only reaction. She was standing outside a patient room in the ICU waiting for the trauma doctor to show up when her phone buzzed. She looked down and quickly scanned the words: You thinking about Bend?

II. You’re not very good at navigating

Byron picked her up at 8 am sharp Saturday morning. He looked taken aback when Karina greeted him with a big hug and kissed his lips. Perhaps he was anxious to get on the road, or maybe he was having second thoughts. He said nothing, though, and grabbed her backpack, heading down the stairs. She followed him, hoisting herself up into his reconstructed van—after her Honda Insight, the ascent was steep and the altitude dizzying—and they headed toward I-84. The weather was not good.

Karina was pleased to find easy talk as they sped past the miles and miles of sprawl outside of Boise. They discussed camping spots, a volcano they would visit and the fact that Bend alone had ten marijuana dispensaries. By the time they hit Highway 20, the topic had turned to his life as a building contractor and his plans for retirement, fifteen years into the future. Karina listened carefully and sympathized with the difficulties Byron had been having with an apprentice who had professed a crush on him. She learned with some relief that he had no interest in the young woman.

They stopped for gas in the tiny town of Burns. As she swung down from his van, Karina saw a dusty pickup drive by with a Confederate flag sticking up from the back, flapping in the wind. God, guns and country, Karina mouthed under her breath, recalling the recent occupation that had occurred at a nearby wildlife refuge between a group of fringe right-wing ranchers and the feds. Let’s get the fuck out of here. She paid for the gas and they continued on toward Bend.

Highway 20 was a two-lane road, and Byron liked to pass. He would get uncomfortably close to the offending vehicle and swerve to the left, his eye expertly calculating the space available for safe passage. Karina shrank during these moments, her heart racing and her fingers digging into her palms. After working as a medical interpreter for the last decade, Karina had developed a deep fear of car accidents due to the many she had seen in the hospital, each one uglier than the last. The first time she slunk into her seat during one of these high-velocity incidents, Byron shot her a curious look.

“I have plenty of time.”

“Yeah. I just get a little scared. I’ve seen a lot of bad car crashes.”

“I’m an excellent driver. I volunteer teaching kids how to drive, what to do in various situations, how to stay safe.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Two nerve-wracking hours later, they came into Bend. As they drove through town, Byron pointed out all the marijuana dispensaries he wanted to visit. Karina wondered why he had to go to so many, but she wanted to be agreeable and so she listened and nodded her head approvingly. Feigning interest was second nature.

“There’s that one that Leafly gave good ratings,” he said. “Diamond Tree. I want to check it out later. First we’ll go to Tokyo Starfish. It’s on Arizona, what they call the Mill District.”

“Sounds good,” Karina said.

He reached over, pulled out a map of Bend from the glove compartment and handed it to her. She stared at it disconsolately, pretending to know which direction they were going and where to make turns.

“Can you look at this for me?” he asked. “Am I turning at the next light?”

“Mmm . . . ,” Karina mumbled, trying to sound as though she were on the verge of finding the answer.

“I think it’s up here,” he said.

She felt the steady gaze of his eyes, and knew he was not impressed.

“You’re not very good at navigating,” he said flatly.

Karina stared out the window at the new developments popping up. Humiliated, she knew she couldn’t claim otherwise. She just wished the remark hadn’t been so blunt, or that he’d injected some humor into it.

After several minutes of silence, they arrived at the marijuana dispensary, which was in a turn-of-the-century building surrounded by modern condos and a shopping center with a Victoria’s Secret. They opened the heavy wooden door and were greeted by a clean-cut young man standing at a counter.

“Welcome! Is this your first time at Tokyo Starfish?”

“I’ve been here before, but she hasn’t.”

“Very cool. I’ll need your photo IDs. You can look around or have a seat until we call you.”

Karina walked over to a glass case full of fancy colorful glass pipes while Byron skimmed a brochure detailing strains of sativa and indica-dominant product. A minute later, they were called to the inner sanctum for a consult with the budtender. After smelling jar after jar of aromatic strains, Byron opted for Berry Bomb and Cheese Dawg. Karina spent sixteen dollars on two pre-rolled, which came in hard plastic cylindrical containers.

They left, openly clutching their logo-emblazoned paper bags. Byron drove downtown to a riverside park lined with gracious homes. Here was the place Karina had envisioned: riding bikes under an endless blue sky, they would discover the town block by block, together.

The clouds darkened, and a cold drizzle started to fall. Damn this weather.

“What do you like to do?” Byron asked.

“Salsa dance.”

He snorted. “I’m not going to do that with you.”

“I know. I did mention that I like bike riding, but now that it’s raining…”

The chill started to seep through the van. Karina climbed into the back and stretched out. She closed her eyes and imagined both of them lying there in the dark, faces close, slow breathing building up to a crescendo. Then the hysterical burst of laughter.

Pulled from her reverie by the sound of bubbling water, she opened her eyes.

“Right here? At the park?”

“Sure,” Byron said, hands gripping bong, mouth twisted in a grotesque smirk while trying to hold the smoke. He slowly let out a long stream of air. “No one cares.”

Karina gave up hope that he would lie down beside her. The day began to stretch into nothing, an eight-hour blank space. Her stomach started to ache.

“Okay. Hand it over.”

Gripping the chamber between her knees, her frozen fingers held a lighter to the bowl. She inhaled, hoping to lighten her mood just a bit. Nothing happened.

Byron lit the bong one more time before setting it aside. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Let’s have lunch.”

“Sounds good,” Karina said, hoping he wouldn’t propose another place she couldn’t locate on a map.

“I know a decent burger joint downtown. We can stop at Cannabend en route, see what they have that smells intriguing.”

Karina wasn’t sure how much pot an individual could legally buy in the state. There must be a limit, but she had no idea what it was, nor did she know what a gram looked like, or one eighth of a gram, or a quarter. Byron would calculate all of that.

Cannabend was located in a former bank building, one of those blocky suburban structures with a drive-through. The state hadn’t figured out that part yet, though, so all customers had to present their IDs in the waiting room before being granted permission to enter the actual store. Along with the wide array of buds, this dispensary sold bottles of marijuana-infused kombucha, which Karina thought amusing. She bought one for Rob, her dance partner—she could hear his infectious giggle as she presented it to him—and Byron once again reinforced his supply of sativa-heavy product. They left the store and wandered over to the restaurant.

Despite the chill, they chose a table on the patio and ordered burgers. Byron drank two beers in quick succession.

“You can’t come to Bend and not drink beer,” he said.

“My mother had the first microbrewery in the US,” Karina bragged. “Back in the seventies in northern California. Way ahead of her time.”

Byron picked up the card that listed the afternoon specials. “Look at this,” he said. “Six, seven, eight brewery tours within a mile.”

“Oh wow,” she said, noting that her vocabulary was becoming as poor as his listening skills. Just then a young couple strolled by holding hands, and Karina wondered what the mechanism was that made such behavior possible.

“It says they have a soaking pool right here,” Byron said.

The waiter, who had been hovering nearby, approached their table. “The pool is fantastic,” he said. “It’s mainly for guests of the hotel next door, but it’s open to the public for a small fee, $5 I think. The walls are tiled, and there’s an awesome stained glass window and a fountain in the middle.”

“Let’s go tonight,” Karina said, with more enthusiasm than she had felt since the beginning of the trip. “Do you want to?”

“Sure. We’ll go paddle boarding on the Deschutes and then come back here for a soak.”

III. I don’t think I can do this

After a few more bong hits, Byron inflated his paddleboards with some kind of industrial grade electric pump that he kept in a custom-built compartment inside his van. He really is an amazing craftsman, Karina thought as he proudly showed her how he had fashioned his rig into an efficient little studio apartment, with ingenious touches like a platform on rollers where he kept a stove and a cooler. Karina was the owner of exactly zero tools.

They each carried a paddleboard down to the river’s edge. The boards were heavy and awkward; Karina plodded behind Byron as he made his way to the water, board securely tucked under his muscular arm. She had done this once before with him, on the Boise River, crisp heat and glowing light under a late-evening August sun. They’d seen a mink and an eagle, and she’d felt enveloped by the warm night. Now she was hidden under a hooded windbreaker and a scarf, and she could see whitecaps on the river.

She saw Byron in the distance. . . If she’d been a duck and he a drake, she would have loved him.

Karina didn’t give logistics a second thought. She wasn’t a complete novice at paddleboarding, and dancing had given her a solid frame and good balance. She was surprised, then, when body left dry land and did not respond accordingly to the liquid beneath it. Her legs wobbling madly, she fought to stay upright, and during the struggle began to float downstream. The relentless current spun her around and around; concentrating intensely, she dared not look up, instead fighting to catch up with Byron, who confidently and swiftly paddled up the river.

“You’re backward!” he shouted, his voice fading.

“Oh for Chrissakes,” she mumbled, gingerly picking up her feet and executing a sixteen-point turn on the board. Success. She was still vertical and dry.

Now properly placed, she had to paddle with all of her strength against the current to reach him. She stole glances at the shore and was shocked at how slowly she was progressing. Lifting weights twice a week at the gym may be keeping osteoporosis at bay, but it was doing nothing for real-world endurance or technique. Swearing under her breath, she switched the paddle from side to side, her arms quickly exhausting.

She saw Byron in the distance. He had crossed under a bridge and was now hugging the shore, body alert yet relaxed, a perfect picture of male competence. If she’d been a duck and he a drake, she would have loved him.

As Karina neared the bridge, the current intensified. The water started swirling madly around her, and she tried to move to the side of the structure, where the river wouldn’t be so rough. The eddies near the pilings were even stronger, carrying her back two feet for every foot she gained. She saw large rocks under the surface and struggled to avoid them.

“Goddamnit,” she muttered. “Fuck.”

While Karina’s body was fatigued, her psyche was high dudgeon. Pissiness propelled her forward against the relentless current. Still, she seemed to be losing the battle to move up river.

“I can’t!” she yelled. “I can’t do it.”

Byron stood watching her, mute.

Tapping into some unknown inner reserve, Karina furiously paddled, finally surpassing the whirlpool and leaving the bridge behind. Minutes later, she was standing on her board next to him near the shore in glassy, flat water.

“That was really hard. I didn’t think I’d make it,” Karina said, carefully keeping the edge out of her voice.

“I knew you could do it. You won’t buckle under adversity.”

His words reminded Karina of her daughter’s track coach, minus the pep and cheeriness. It was nice of him to say them, though, when he didn’t have to. She hoped her perseverance would count for something.

IV. When you can do no wrong

Byron drove around and around the campground, looking for a suitable spot. Choosing one not far from the lake, he turned his van around to back it into the space. Suddenly there was a violent jolt, and Karina’s head flopped forward.

“Jesus, what was that?”

Byron put the van in park and got out to investigate.

“I hit a tree. It’s nothing. I’m sure I’m not the first person. Look at the trunk, a lot of people have backed into it.”

“Ah,” said Karina, thinking about how servile her contrition would be had she assaulted the tree.

Byron wanted to build a fire before the sun got low, so they both left to look for wood. Karina quickly veered off from him and made her way up a hill, idly searching for suitable branches and twigs. She supposed they would eat dinner, smoke more marijuana, and have sex. Then she would lie awake in the dark, listening to his breathing, ruing her decision to leave her sleeping pills at home.

While Byron started the fire, Karina did a quick check in the passenger-side mirror. Her hair, which she had dyed at home the night before and imagined a luscious brown, was actually a clownish iridescent red. The best strategy, she decided, would be to acknowledge the mistake directly.

She wanted to have a Hero Day. . . How exhilarating it would be to have a day when she could do no wrong.

“God. My hair looks terrible.”

“Yeah, I noticed it was splotchy.”

Karina calculated a laugh. “Yup. Never be a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to hair.”

“I’m going to grow mine out. I want one of those old guy ponytails.”

“Could look good,” Karina said, although she hated ponytails on men.

“I stayed in this campground last winter and it was barely colder than it is now,” Byron said, leaning into the fire. “Came here to ski with a couple of friends. I’m really more of a snowboarder, though.”

He got up to retrieve his bong and sat down again, packing it with Berry Bomb. He invited her to join him, but her throat was raw from the little inhaling she’d already done.

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

“Come on. You’re on vacation.”

This vacation, if that’s what it is, has ice around the edges, Karina thought. He’s right, though. Simpatico I will be.

She went to the van and came back with the spiked kombucha. She could always get her dance partner another one.

“Snowboarding, you were saying?” she said, taking a swig. A slightly sweet, herbal flavor spread through her mouth.

“Yeah. I first started at Bogus when I was seventeen. I was practically the only one up there. You’d see another snowboarder and you’d nod your head. It was like a brotherhood. Once me and a group of friends came over to Bend to hit the mountains. Big camping weekend. The first day, I was just gliding down the hills. No falling or stumbling, no effort at all, just pure snow and everything clicking. I called it hero day.”

“Hero day,” Karina repeated, smiling. Sometimes Byron surprised her with the way he expressed himself. It was unfair of her to judge him, she decided.

“Yeah. Hero day, because I could do no wrong,” he said.

Karina liked the sound of those two words. She wanted to have a Hero Day. For the last few years, she’d had Spineless Day, and Panic Day, and Pissed Off Day, and Crying Jag Day. How exhilarating it would be to have a day when she could do no wrong.

V. We already talked about that

The evening went as imagined. After dinner, they got under the warm comforter Byron kept on the bed. Their faces almost touching, Karina stroked his cheek in a bald show of intimacy; he stared at her in the dark and did not shake off her warm touch. After the sex, he fell asleep and she lay awake. She worried about how tired she would be the next day.

They awoke to a June surprise: falling snow. Karina curled up under the comforter, not eager to step into winter. She wanted to convince Byron to do the same, but for a man on vacation who got stoned every two hours, he was on edge. She ran her foot up his calf, hoping he might respond.

“You have scratchy heels.”

Karina was taken aback. She had been told at various times that she had no tits, no tone, not enough ass. But never this.

“Sorry,” she said. She’d done her hair, nails, eyebrows. Pumice stone was the missing link. Next time.

Byron got up and started breaking camp. When she thought it would be rude to stay supine a minute longer, she roused herself, went outside and put away the folding chairs they had set up the night before. Byron deemed their campground clean, and got back in the van to light up before the day’s activities. Karina declined.

They walked silently around downtown Bend, visited a lava river cave and inspected greens at two more dispensaries. Their parallel lines were palpable.

It was time to head back to Boise. They watched the alpine country become sagebrush steppe, saying little. Although Byron seemed indifferent, Karina still longed for a conversation.

“Do you want to hear the headlines? I can read them to you.”

“No.” His eyebrows furrowed together and he looked displeased. “I don’t care about politics.”

They drove through the low-end sprawl of Ontario: a Grocery Outlet, a dollar store, a check-cashing business, a bail bondsman. Maybe prosperity was just around the corner.

“Sometimes I work there,” Karina said, pointing out a mud-colored building that housed a pediatric clinic.

That’s not interesting either, she thought the following minute. Try again.

They were finally back on I-84, an hour from Boise. The weather was starting to warm up.

“So . . . , ” she began, stubbornly, still searching for topics that might engage him. “So, are there some remodeling jobs you do that are more interesting than other ones?” Being a medical interpreter was unpredictable at the very least, and when she got to telling stories about the hospital, she felt like a vent that had been propped open. Building contractor could be similar.

He shot her an irritated look. “We already talked about that.”

Karina didn’t remember already talking about that. She focused on the single rise of Steens mountain across the plains, and did not care if he thought she was pouting. They didn’t say another word to each other until he dropped her off at her apartment, exactly sixty-five minutes later.

He got out her backpack and a tote bag she’d brought with an extra sweater and shoes.

“Is this all your stuff?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Karina gave Byron a quick hug and a kiss, just as she had done at the beginning of the trip. He returned her farewell with the same look of mild surprise he’d shown when he picked her up.

“Thanks, Byron. We did a lot of cool things.”

Byron nodded.

“See ya,” Karina said, taking her belongings.

She knew she had failed some test. It didn’t matter, though. If he texted her again, she would respond. But she didn’t care about a second chance with Byron.

Karina walked up the stairs to her apartment, the memory of the last two days already fading. Relieved, she opened the door and stepped inside.

Carla Stern is a state certified court interpreter and a nationally certified medical interpreter (Spanish language). Her stories have appeared in Sinister Wisdom, Paper Tape, Straylight Literary Magazine and The New Guard Review. She lives in Boise, Idaho.

Before the Razor

Inside the Creative Process of “Hero Day”

Karina: So, Carla, tell me about Hero Day. First of all, how did you get the idea for the story?

Carla: I had just come back from a weekend in Oregon with a man…let’s call him Bryce. I’d been stressed out at work, wanting to get away, when he proposed this trip. I felt it was serendipitous. But the weekend quickly became a disaster. Even my low expectations were dashed!

Karina: So “Hero Day” is based on true events?

Carla: Like all fiction, yes. Obviously, I embellished.

Karina: Sure. But how much of the story did you make up?

Carla: Very little. Mostly, I omitted details. Trivial things that would not have advanced the plot or addressed the tension between Karina and Byron, or Karina and herself.

Karina: Let’s talk about your alter ego. Did you have to make me so self-loathing? I felt stepped on.

Carla: Hmm, interesting. You think I exaggerated?

Karina: Yes and no. Of course, I get a shock every time I look in the mirror. Lines emanating from the mouth, drooping face. But the exterior is ultimately unimportant and doesn’t define me.

Carla: As a writer, I disagree. Descriptive detail sets up a mood, establishes background. You have to give the reader something to hang on to.

Karina: Fair enough. Still, it stings a little.

Carla: Welcome to life.

Karina: Let’s move on to your motivation. Now that I know your story is a real event, I’m wondering if you wrote it as an act of revenge? Because Bryce – I mean Byron – doesn’t exactly come across as a good guy.

Carla: I had no desire for revenge. I was never going to show him the story anyway. Writing “Hero Day” was my way of processing…God, I hate that word…processing what had happened. Yes, Byron is not the sine qua non of companions. But you were also complicit in the disappointment of the weekend. I didn’t let you off the hook. Blaming the whole thing on him would have been dishonest.

Karina: Dishonest, resulting in a lesser experience for the reader. I can see that. Apropos of honesty, one last question.

Carla: Shoot.

Karina: Actually, I changed my mind. Striving for honesty in writing is not an interesting subject to talk about. It’s more of an internal struggle, you know? Best left to theoreticians and lit crit types.

Carla: Agreed. Is the interview over?

Karina: Not quite. I have to know: did you really smoke all that pot?

Carla: (Laughs) No comment. Look, I live in Idaho. We still put people away for possession. I’m a court interpreter now, and I have to be very careful.

Karina: Good luck with that. Thanks for the interview!

Carla: Thank you. I hope to see you again soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *