The West |


by Catie Disabato

edited by Mathew Timmons

The three of us tossed Avi in the bathroom and locked her in.  She screamed for hours, until her voice gave out, then banged on the doors.  We slept in shifts.  We had crudely soundproofed all the walls with our heaviest blankets (and we were cold when we slept, thanks to Avi’s fucking habits).  We’d cut a little mail-slot in the door so we could give her cigarettes and fresh clothes.  Sometimes Avi would stick her hand out, grabbing for us or grabbing for the khat we were keeping from her.  It wasn’t real khat, which in its purest form is a mostly non-addictive African coke-like thing.  Avi snorted some bastard of coke and khat, with maybe some Adderall cut in, and a mystery Caribbean addictive stimulant. I am pretty sure there was also bleach in it, or baking soda; it was pure white.

With Avi taken care of, the three of us continued outlining our thesis paper.  We were studying a primordial pelican, Pelecanidae occidentalis, pulled out of a foreign tar hole, and examined by Dr. Albert Field – an alum of our college who always pulled his undergraduate aids from his alma mater.  In the Fall of 2008, the four of us girls were selected to assist with his research on a German-colonized island called Førkt.

Female geology undergraduates were a small bunch, so we’d all known each other, but we hadn’t any social time together before the trip.  We rarely crossed paths – Missy was a go-to-bed-early type, Phoebe was a nester with her girlfriend, I had an insular group of female friends, and Avi was a freak.  She spent the first month of the semester doing all the work for all of her classes, dissolving the granules of orange Adderall into her morning coffee and working 20-hours a day, smoking on the library steps once an hour, every hour.  Then, all her work for the semester done, she drug-binged.  She always managed to scrape her way through class periods, lectures, and exams, but she was dizzy and sunken-eyed.  She didn’t have to be conscious in class and she didn’t have to speak well because her brilliant, stunning writing was a glittery distraction from her faults.  She wrote better than the grad students, she wrote better than the PhD candidates, she wrote better than the seasoned professors.  She once made a T.A. weep with pleasure.  She sat in the back of the lecture halls and rested her head on her folded arms, to sleep or snort something out of the folds of her inner elbow.

Somehow, Avi managed to scrape together her application to be Dr. Field’s research aid, like the rest of us, and the four of our names were posted on the corkboard in the Franklin Grant Geology Building so our (mostly male) peers could see our triumphant success.  We began packing for the wet island weather.

Evidentially, our names had been left off of our reports when Dr. Field judged them, because when we arrived at Førkt he was shocked to see four girls step off the rickety 10-seater plane onto an airstrip built in a sugar cane field.  It didn’t help that Phoebe was motion sick and vomited on the asphalt tarmac, and all of our names ended in the feminine “eee” sound.  One of us was even called Missy.  But Dr. Field got used to us fast because we weren’t idiots, and we were harder working than his lecherous PhD student Ricky, with his thin moustache and ugly moccasins.  Maybe Ricky had selected us.

It wasn’t unusual for geology undergraduates who were studying abroad on a dig to write their research paper together; even the best PhD programs would accept jointly authored undergraduate papers as admissible writing samples.  Even so, we’d originally elected to write individual weekly progress reports to Dr. Field – until we read Avi’s first paper. 

After our first week on Førkt, we went to the bar below our flat. The European boys and Førktian bartender looked at our legs.  We had our first taste of the local red wine called Qhoral Burrot (nonsense syllables of the local German Creole, meant to sound like French), served chilled, and sometimes sweetened with mango brandy.  After a night of drinking, Avi showed us her paper, maybe to see if she could shame us academically, and like that Missy, Phoebe, and I discovered her truly magnificent writing skill.  We read it breathlessly, making excited noises and sometimes repeating out loud a particularly excellent phrase.

When we finished reading, Phoebe, always the first to talk, asked Avi, “How the fuck do you manage to write this excellently without having anything to fucking say?”  Avi picked a bit of tobacco off her lip. She was smoking filterless German cigarettes called Stødde.  She asked in that ruined, husky voice or hers, “How else do you think I’ve fucking survived?”

As overwhelming beautiful as her writing was, Avi had a hard time picking out what to write about.  Her papers were a beautiful nothing.  Missy, Phoebe, and I didn’t have that problem, we wrote somewhat blandly, but our ideas were much more interesting than Avi’s – a perfect symbiosis.  Over the chilled red wine, we decided to join forces in paper writing and developed a system: Missy, Phoebe, and I would write a draft that was, linguistically, an outline.  We would point out what things should be addressed and draw some conclusions about them; the leg work.  Avi would take our notes and ideas and make them magnificent.

Everything went smoothly for a while.  In the mornings, we went to the dig site, Dr. Field or Ricky gave us a short presentation, then we went to work on the bird.  With baby-sized toothbrushes dipped in a gentle cleaning solution of three parts water one part bleach, we cleaned the muck off the pelican then arranged its bones.  Missy, Phoebe, and I took notes, and at the end of the week we arranged them into the form of a paper, then Avi took over and wrote.  We consistently received very high marks.

At the Christmas break, we had a full month off while Dr. Field gave a series of university lectures.  Ricky accompanied him to the States, so we were left to our own devices.  The first night of our vacation, we went to the bar downstairs, sat in one of their big wooden booths, and started drinking Qhoral Burrot and whiskey.  After a few hours of drinking and talking, Avi stood and up and said, “I have to pee,” then looked at me and said, “Are you coming.”  I squeezed out of our booth, past Missy who was eating the lemon from her stupid vodka drink, and followed Avi into the single-stall bathroom.  She peed, then pushed the hair out of her face and washed her hands.  Over the sound of the running water she said, “I’m going to get fucked.  I need about a week to clean up, usually.”

So we gave her three weeks to fuck around.  On her last night of freedom, when we tried to start the detox process, Avi vomited gracefully down the front of my shirt and punched me in the face.  Phoebe came up with the idea to soundproof the bathroom and lock her up.  We had to trick her to get her inside the bathroom. 

We made sure to leave one person in the apartment with her at all times while her body cleaned itself out.  I made the mistake of going inside the bathroom to bring her something to eat, and got a glass water bottle thrown at my forehead, stitches from a foreign hospital, and a scar above my eye.  That’s when we cut the mail slot into the door.  Missy, Phoebe, and I had to pee at the bar and shower at the dig site.  Only the pelican skeleton was there to see us with our wet hair, wrapped in our towels.  He was completely cleaned and laid out, claw to beak, on a fold of black cloth.

After a week of lock up, we let Avi out of the bathroom, gaunt but clean.  She didn’t apologize for the cut over my eye, and ate a heaping plate of spargel in three minutes.

We marched ahead into the second semester, taking notes over Dr. Field’s shoulder.  The bones were clean, so we didn’t have to do as much menial work, and we could focus on Dr. Field’s analysis of evolutionary implications of the pelican’s features.  For example, the teeth were larger than a modern pelican’s teeth, with a monstrous under-bite, and a second set of razor thin canines behind the forward row that the modern pelican had lost completely.

For weeks, Avi worked just as hard as we did, but we knew a second bout of her khat-sickness was coming – the strange drug wasn’t much more addictive than coke or Vicodin, but the comedown was much harder, like riding a roller coaster without a seatbelt, Avi said.  When she was coming down, she was nauseated, hungry, itchy, and paranoid.  She hallucinated bugs.  But she couldn’t leave it alone. 

After the research portion of our semester was over, we had a glorious five weeks to do our writing, at the beginning of Førkt’s rainy summer.  Once the thunderstorms dispersed, we’d have a thesis they would praise us for, something gorgeous.  High honors, all around.  But the first part of writing the paper was the outline and while Missy, Phoebe and I wrote, Avi would have nothing to do but buy drugs and take them.  And that’s what she did.

When we were a week away from finishing our portion of the thesis, we tried to lock Avi in the bathroom again, but she recognized the warning signs and tried to run.  We held her down and smashed her fingers as we locked the door.

A day later, the quiet vomiting started, which meant the drugs were leaving her system completely.  Missy went down to the bar to buy maultaschen noodles stuffed with plantain paste, and I scratched lightly against the bathroom door, loud enough for Avi to hear me.  “Is that you?” she called from her position over the toilet, her voice hoarse as usual.

“It’s me,” I said.

When Missy came back with the maultaschen, she sent me into the bathroom and, like a prison guard, locked me inside.  I’d brought a hammer to protect myself.  I brandished it in Avi’s face while she laughed weakly at me.  I laughed too, like it was a private joke.  Avi started to eat and I hammered some extra nails into the window.  She had been trying to pull the nails out with her fingers.  There was dried blood on the ledge.  I had Neosporin.  I would put on her fingers after she had eaten.

“Come on, let me out.  It stinks in here.”

“Take a shower,” I said, swinging the hammer.  She dumped plantain grease on the fresh clothes I brought her, just to be a bitch about it.

“We’re almost done with our part of the paper,” I said.  “We’ll let you out when we’re finished with it.”

“You fucking cunts,” she said, “If you were really my friends, you’d be in here all the time cradling my head and holding my hair back as I vomit and stuff.” 

I pointed to my scar.

“I was high when I did that, I’ve said a million times.  I don’t even remember that.  What do you expect?”

“An apology might be nice.”

“Fuck your apology,” she said, then vomited all her noodles in the toilet.  I did try to hold her hair, but she batted my hands away.

“There’s some fried fish, if Missy and Phoebe haven’t finished it.”

“I bet those fat, ugly cows fucking devoured it!” she shouted so they could hear.  Then she said more quietly to me, “Don’t talk about fish while I’m vomiting.”

Missy let me out of the bathroom.

We worked day and night on the outline.  When we rested, we drank at the bar downstairs and the bartender asked about Avi’s health.  We knew he was her dealer so what could we say to him about her health?  We drank the juniper gin that he always gave Avi so she could get some sleep while she was coked up to her eyeballs.

From the feet to the ankle joints to the forelegs to the wings, we named the pelican’s bones and described Dr. Field’s find.  He promised us that he would include our names as research assistants in the paper he published about the bird.  If he wrote a book, we’d also be named.  Dr. Field had started to really like the four of us, after the shock of our initial meeting.  He called us his pelican-lings to Ricky; it was supposed to be a secret name.  Ricky told us, hoping to make us feel small, but we relished Dr. Field’s fatherly affection and craved his academic accolades more than Avi craved her drugs.

We visited Dr. Field and the pelican to take some last minute notes.  We told him Avi visited at night and slept during the day.  He was used to her strangeness.  We signed out tools and examination gloves from the sign-out lists at the dig site, sometimes in Avi’s name.  If Ricky suspected anything, he was too involved with his own year-end writing to care.  We worked on the outline, the bones of the paper, diligently. Avi cried constantly behind her door; she begged.

When we finally let Avi out, the three of us were exhausted and disgusting from showering only occasionally at the dig site.  Avi was gaunt and starving; we fed her and fattened her on fried food.  We gave her coffee with her orange Adderall in it and spatzle and fancy sparkling water in glass bottles.  Then for two weeks, we hovered over her while she wrote.  We brewed the coffee and talked out the ideas for her.  For eloquence’s sake she made us reverse the order of topics discussed on our outline.  “You’d start with the fucking feet?  You assholes!  You start with the beak and the mouth-pouch, the elongated bones there, because that’s the part that seems most interesting.  The beauty is, you think there’s nothing special about the feet, so you have to surprise them at the end with how special they were.”

We all smoked out the window together, once an hour; she’d made smokers out of us.  She finished the final draft a full three days before the paper was due, and we took a day off to sleep and paint each other’s nails, then we went through it again, all 90 pages, line by line by line. 

We looked like each other by the end, long stringy hair with jean shorts and stained white t-shirts.  Summer heat came earlier in Førkt than it did in the States and we were unprepared for the humidity as we scoured our finished work for spelling errors.  We realized why they chilled even the red wine.  The last night on the island, we stayed awake finishing the footnotes.  Avi read the annotations out of our books, Missy checked the footnote formatting, I typed everything very fast, and Phoebe read over my shoulder for typos.  Exhausted, we turned the paper in and hugged Dr. Field goodbye.  We packed most of our clothes and books in boxes and sent them back to the campus.  We packed small backpacks for a short trip to Thailand and Vietnam.  Avi wanted to see the Plain of Jars in Laos and we took her on our way across the peninsula.  It was even more spectacular than the pictures.  Avi crawled into one of the giant, people-sized jars and I took a picture of her curled up at the bottom.

After Laos, we flew back to campus to defend our thesis in tandem.  We sat in front of a board of five professors, including our Department Chair, and answered their questions for two hours.  They provided us with bottles of water – plastic bottles.  They praised our style of writing.  Avi said, “Thank you,” as if speaking for all of us, but really she spoke for herself since it might be her last glory.  Of course, they picked it apart like hunting birds.  But we got what we wanted.  High Honors, all four of us.  College was over.