Fiction | Radon Girls by Lauren Sarazen

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Image credit: Jeremy Bishop

Lauren Sarazen


Radon Girls


I set my bag down at my feet, and looked back at the way I’d come, sweating, breathing hard. The path was narrow and shaped by switchbacks that snaked up the hill. It disappeared behind a bend adorned with a clump of morning glories that made the climb look bucolic and gentle. This was a lie. They hadn’t told me about the hills, the uneven quality of the roads. They’d told me to hire a cart to bring me up to the house, but I wasn’t in the habit of ordering carts.

_____Across the road, a Madonna festooned with shells huddled in a stucco niche behind a plexiglass shield. I turned around. A young woman’s face peered out through the window screen, wreathed in flamingo bougainvillea.
_____‘You wouldn’t happen to be Maggie’s friend?’
_____‘I am,’ I said, and she smiled.
_____She disappeared from the window and reappeared barefoot a minute later at the side of the building, wrestling with the screen door until it snapped open. She had long, flat, shiny hair—the kind I’d wanted desperately at the age of thirteen, when I would iron my hair daily until it resembled dull straw.
_____‘Come on in,’ she said. ‘I’ll fix you a drink.’
_____Inside, the house was airy and open plan. Everything was rendered an impractical Mediterranean white that encouraged stains, except for the terracotta tiles that gave it a grounded feeling. The room was bright as a magazine spread. Light refracted off the white walls and white furniture and white ceilings, and off the doors opening onto a gallery above. I watched her fetch glasses from the kitchen cabinet, take the tonic and the gin from the squat fridge. The ice cubes cracked when she poured the tonic.
_____‘Maggie is upstairs,’ she said. ‘We’re in a slight tailspin at the moment.’
_____‘No, Maggie is here!’ a voice cried, as my friend came sailing down the stairs in a flowing emerald kaftan, to clutch me in a tense hug. ‘I heard the screen. Did you find it alright? This is Fran; Julien is upstairs losing his mind.’
_____‘What’s the matter with him?’
_____Maggie rolled her eyes. ‘He’s wigging out about the radon.’
_____‘Shall we have these outside before dinner?’ Fran came round then, and handed out the gin and tonics, with lemon wedges bobbing at the tops. ‘If he’s in a foul mood, we may as well leave him to it.’
_____I stepped outside, waiting for Maggie to join us, but Fran tugged the screen closed behind her, gin in hand and a bottle of Prosecco under her arm. I followed her up the steep, narrow stairs set into the side of the hill, a line of sweat trickling down my back. The roof terrace was only accessible from the exterior, an afterthought.
_____‘They’ll be awhile,’ Fran said. ‘It’s her turn to try and calm him down.’
_____On the terrace, white towels in varying states of dampness hung from the railings. Rectangular planters housed hedges of blooming oleander. I took a seat on a wicker chaise facing the sea and held the cold glass against my temple.
_____I smiled politely, waiting for her to continue, but Fran wasn’t afraid of silences, pauses that stretched my definition of comfortable. The jumble of whitewashed houses below us were stacked like a Cubist painting. The neighborhood laundry was flapping on lines strung between windows all the way down the hill. Boats bobbed on the water between the village and the scrub-covered rock at the other end of the isthmus. We sat together staring out at the view, feeling the chill of the sea slowly creep up on us. I listened to the dogs scratching in the neighbor’s yard just down the slope, the wind in the brush on the hillside.
_____‘You have a lovely house.’
_____She smiled. ‘Yes, thank you. It’s my father’s really, but I’ve laid claim for summer.’
_____‘Is it always just the three of you then?’
_____‘No, no. People pass through from time to time. We’re just the stalwart troika,’ Fran said, taking a gulp. ‘But I’m happy you’re here. Things have gone stale since Julien started cosplaying Marie Curie.’
_____The neighbor’s dogs barked then, running zigzags in the yard. I looked for faces at the gate. No one was there. The wind was picking up, and I crossed the deck to grab one of the dry towels to wear as a makeshift shawl. Fran drank fast. When I turned around, she was rattling the ice cubes in her glass.
_____‘We shouldn’t go down just yet. Pass me one of those, will you? I’ll open the Prosecco.’
_____I tossed her another towel. She wrapped it around the neck of the bottle and uncorked it with a low pop. She emptied the ice cubes into the oleander and poured herself a glass. ‘You want one?’ she asked, gesturing with the bottle.
_____‘I’m still good with this.’
_____Fran set her glass down on the low table between us.
_____‘So. He’s leaving tomorrow, probably. It’s becoming tiresome. We all know it’s an excuse to leave early.’
_____‘The radon.’ I stretched my voice till it croaked.
_____‘Yes.’
_____‘Isn’t he being a bit silly? He comes here every year.’
_____‘But this is the first he’s heard about the radioactivity,’ Fran said.
_____‘Is it bad to laugh?’
_____‘No. I would, except I’m inured at this stage.’
________________________________________#
Lemons and fat tomatoes were ripening on the windowsill above the sink. In the morning, I set the kettle to boil, and picked a tomato, slicing it thin to layer on top of toast. The temperature was already perilously close to 29, and it wasn’t even noon. Coffee seemed wrong after waking in a pool of my own sweat, but I lined up the mugs anyway.
_____‘How many coffees? Four?’
_____‘Three! Julien’s gone,’ Fran called down.
_____‘When? I didn’t hear him!’ I said, returning the fourth mug to the kitchen cabinet.
_____‘First ferry,’ Fran said.
_____‘He didn’t really leave?’
_____‘The island is radioactive, Frances. You can’t expect me to stay here, Frances. Let me know if you deign to join me in the safety of the mainland, Frances. I’ll be staying at the Grand Hotel Vesuvio, here is their card,’ Fran imitated, her voice flat and sulky.
_____‘Honestly?’
_____‘He went around with a Geiger counter before you got here,’ Maggie said, coming downstairs. ‘He wasn’t satisfied.’
_____‘You keep a Geiger counter in the house?’
_____‘He used his Prime,’ Maggie said. ‘Don’t even get me started.’
_____I spooned out doses of instant, dissolving the craggy granules with hot water. Stirring the brew until the spoon coursed freely, I handed them out before I took a sip. It tasted industrial, but I supposed they were used to it by now. There were three empties in the boneyard of bottles on top of the fridge.
_____The girls lazed on the low couches clutching their phones in one hand and their mugs in another, scrolling with their thumbs.
_____‘I mean, if you were a pregnant woman or a child under ten, maybe. Or if you live here year-round and use the hot springs to heat your house, then there might be a problem. But a small problem… it’s a risk equivalent to being a life-long smoker,’ Fran said. ‘We’re only here for the summer. It’s just second-hand smoke.’
________________________________________#
We parked in front of the sea. Children used the lot as a long diving board, taking a run at it before leaping into the air, limbs flailing, joyfully, then crashing into the water. There were no barriers, just a flat plane that dropped off into the water. We could drive off the edge if we weren’t careful – if we wanted to. But it was the neighbor’s car. The lot merged into a narrow stone path that connected the bay to the Castello that rose above us atop a volcanic outcrop. It looked familiar, in a fuzzy way.
_____‘They often film here. Cleopatra, The Talented Mr. Ripley,’ Maggie said flatly. ‘Plein du Soleil. Look, do we really have to? We’ve already been a hundred times.’
_____‘Wasn’t that the point?’ Fran said, nodding towards me. “We can go see the Clares. You love the Clares, Mags.”
_____Maggie shrugged but followed us to the ticket counter. The tickets for the Castello were ten euros; there was a shiny new elevator to save tourists from slogging up the steep, winding path. We waited for the chrome doors to glide open. The interior was paneled with mirrors marked with handprints and streaked with saliva. Kids. We ascended in silence. I pressed lightly at my sternum, watching my skin pale and then bounce back to a ripening shade of coral.
_____‘I need a coffee,’ Maggie said as the doors sprang open at the top.
_____‘We just had coffee. Don’t you want to see—’
_____She held up a hand to stop me, and trudged in the direction of the café marked on the brochure. We watched her go, then I turned to Fran.
_____‘Shall we?’
_____‘Yes. She’ll be on the terrace with her phone when we’re done playing. Anyway, she likes the view.’
_____We passed the questionable displays of modern art: oversized canvases, either smeared with Rorschach designs or festooned with skeins of tangled yarn that dripped off the edges. The yarn paintings tempted the feral cats that stalked the property unimpeded by rules that applied to the rest of us. A tabby sat gnawing on the art in the corner. The attendant didn’t seem to mind. We followed the map on the brochure, spiraling down a set of stairs into the dead centre.
_____‘So this should be the crypt,’ Fran said, looking up from the map.
_____A family in shorts with sandy ankles exited, ducking down to pass through the first stone arch. The little square room was damp and cramped. The walls were lined with stone thrones, large holes bored through each of the seats.
_____‘This room is where the order of nuns meditate on death, coming daily to pray at the foot of their dead,’ I read from the brochure. ‘When one of the order passes, the living sit her down on the throne to decompose. The holes are used to collect vital liquids, which drip down into glass vials placed below. Praying daily for some hours, the living often contract illness and join their dead.’
_____Fran fingered the edge of one of the seats. They were shaped so perfectly, almost as if they’d been made with concrete moulds rather than chisels.
_____‘Odd that they’ve written it in present tense,’ I observed. ‘Bad translation?’
_____Fran shrugged. ‘You get used to it.’
________________________________________#
We walked down past the hotels, away from the centre of town towards the other beach, skirts knotted above our knees, sandals clutched in hand. Fran and Maggie wore woven, floppy hats that flapped in the breeze. I trailed behind, bareheaded, squinting into the sunlight.
_____The beach was covered in sea glass and shards of tiles, edges smoothed by the sea. It hurt to walk over the fragments, but I swallowed my complaint and picked a route from patch to patch of sand without comment. Maggie waited for me to catch up and pointed out the caves as we passed them. One, two, three. The openings were shallow but carried the whisper of magic and fairytales.
_____The sandbar narrowed at several large white rocks that divided one beach from another. Here the sand was wet and doughy. With each step, our feet sunk deeper into the seabed. The waves came in, foaming and swirling around our legs as we yelped at the spray. Maggie and Fran hoisted their bags above their heads with each surge.
_____There were no loungers to rent on this side. It was uncharted land, so to speak. It reminded me of the beaches I had known before, empty stretches of sand punctuated by faded towels and clusters of families. We spread out our towels beside an Italian couple in their late fifties. Neither had beach bodies fit for the inside pages of a women’s magazine. Their stomachs bulged. Gold chains tangled at their necks. Their tans were deep and leathery. Eyeing us, they continued to speak loudly to each other. I closed my eyes and listened to the cadence of their speech, ascribing imaginary causes to its rapidity: urgent chores undone, beach theft, the engagement of their only child to an unworthy man.
_____When I opened my eyes, the slant of the sun had shifted. Maggie and Fran were flipped over onto their stomachs, huddled over their phones, which they shielded from the sun with cupped hands.
_____‘I think you’re going to end up together.’
_____‘Absolutely not.’
_____‘You have this intense chemistry.’
_____‘Friend chemistry,’ Fran said, standing up. She tucked her phone under a fold in her towel and waded into the water.
_____When Fran had waded in up to her waist, Maggie turned to me and shoved her phone in my face. ‘See? Don’t touch the screen.’
_____There was Julien sitting with his arm around Fran at a restaurant with white tablecloths. She looked like she was glowing. Maggie was on his other side. His hand rested over hers on top of the table.
_____‘I’d feel bad for her, but she’s got to know what she’s getting into. I had to learn the hard way.’
_____‘He seems nice,’ I offered carefully. ‘A little neurotic…’
_____‘Julien? He is. He just lacks imagination. Or has too much, come to think of it. I don’t know what they find to talk about when they’re not screwing.’
_____‘So why are you trying to fix them up?’ I asked.
_____She looked out at the sea, where Fran swam around the distant buoy and changed direction towards the shore.
_____‘You tan really well,’ she said then, looking back at me. ‘You’re golden.’
_____I glanced down at my shoulder. It was just a shoulder, just an arm; perhaps a little browner than usual now that my burn had faded. My freckles were coming out, speckling my skin like a country egg.
_____‘Do you mind?’ I asked, gesturing toward the water.
_____‘Go on.’
_____I waited a minute, then stood up. The sand still felt warm even at the waterline. The mood shifted so fast it was imperceptible. Saline levels were high, and it was easy to float on the surface. I lay on my back and imagined my hair spread out around my face, undulating, alive. I swam out to Fran. We treaded water together, bodies moving with the tide in silence. I stared inland at the colorful terraced houses clustered on the hillside. From here, you couldn’t see the road. It was erased by the dry, golden brush. I let my mouth dip below the surface of the water.
________________________________________#
When I woke again, the light had changed. My mouth was chapped. Dry flakes tessellated to become lips, salty where I tongued them. I sat up on my elbows and stared out at the sea for a moment. The swimmers had retreated. Our talkative neighbours were gone. The air was heavy. Maggie and Fran were still asleep, cheeks pressed against their towels. I shook them.
_____The rain came slowly, pattering fat drops on the sand, until the storm broke. We threw our towels over our heads and ran towards the mouth of the first cave. Streaks of lightning cut through the slate clouds over the isthmus. I looked up at the walls in alarm as dust shook down from them with the next crash of thunder. It was just a little rain, just a little noise, but I shook with the cracks of thunder and lightning in the sky blanching the waves like flash photography. I poked my head out, hoping to see unfazed Italians on their sunbeds lining the strip. The beach was empty.
_____The sand at the mouth of the cave was damp. It wasn’t wet but had been recently. I looked out at the waves. Their colour had shifted, grown deeper. The water was still a marvelous teal but shot through with a darker blue. The only truly bright color was the bright orange buoys that delineated the swimming area thrashing rhythmically with the tide. The raindrops hit the waves so hard it looked like the water was boiling. Would the tide come in? The sandbar was already narrowing. Maggie was taking cave selfies on her phone. Fran pinned her damp hair up in a claw clip.
_____‘Stay or go?’ I asked.
_____‘We go!’ Maggie shouted, sprinting out into the downpour.
_____There was no reason to run. We would all end up soaked through whether we ran or not. All that was up for debate was a sense of drama. Were we to tear our path through the curtains of rain or pace with slow determination like Marianne Dashwoods in kaftans? We hesitated a moment before pelting after her, kicking up sprays of little rocks at our heels.
_____At the house, wet and sweaty and out of breath, we didn’t hit the lights. Fran handed out dry towels from the bathroom shelf, and swaddled, we slunk to the floor. The wind blew through the screen and shook the bougainvillea. Still, the air was close. I pressed my leg against the tiles until I couldn’t feel it anymore. Maggie pulled out her phone, her face lit by the glow of the screen.
_____‘What?’ she said, eyes still on the screen. ‘Stop looking at me like that.’

_

Lauren Sarazen lives in Paris, France. She graduated from Chapman University and received her MA in Literature from Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, where she is currently working towards her PhD. Her words have appeared in Hobart, The London Magazine, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Stinging Fly, among others.


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