It had been about six and a half hours since we dropped when Leo, seated leftmost in the back seat of the Hyundai Sonata, began to talk. “They’re just fucking pigs,” he said in a voice of wonder. “Look at them.” He turned to the rest of us, who were watching him uneasily, except for Paul, who was driving. “Look,” Leo insisted. He gestured urgently out the window.
We did. And eventually we all agreed that he was right. All of us except for Paul, who hadn’t taken acid. That was why Paul was driving.
“I mean, they’re just normal people,” Paul said. And then broke into a southern accent: “Back where I’m from, Pen-sa-col-a, these are good, decent people.” He laughed by himself and Ethan, seated diagonally to Paul, thought about how nice Paul’s laugh was. Paul was so nice to drive them, he thought warmly.
“My god,” Leo said. And stuck his head fully out the window. On the crowded sidewalk along the lake people in khaki shorts and T-shirts moved in familied packs. Leo’s voice got louder and all of us got embarrassed, except for Esther in the passenger seat. She pointed at Leo. “Why is his head out?” she giggled. Esther was from Wallonia, Belgium.
“Actually, everyone’s head is always out,” Kevin said. He was in the middle seat and his face was flushed. None of us reacted to his joke even though we all heard it.
“I knew it—look, look there.” Leo gestured wildly at a store whose sign said The Hog Corral: Souvenirs and Memorabilia. He extended his torso through the window. Kevin pulled him back into the car. Kevin had been bantering with Leo the whole trip but was actually and secretly annoyed with him. This was the problem with Leo, thought Kevin: No boundaries. This was a truth he had arrived at on the trip.
“Jesus Christ, dude,” Kevin said. And gave a slight, unconvincing chuckle. “They can hear you.”
“Fuck them,” Leo said, which made Esther and Ethan laugh. “I grew up around these people, I’m telling you. They’re disgusting. Hog Corral.”
Esther turned to Paul and said, “Why is Leo mad? Did he leave something on beach?”
Paul continued in his southern accent: “He’s just one of them New York City folk. We don’t like their type ‘round here.” He laughed by himself.
Esther attempted to turn to the back seat but was blocked by her seatbelt. She paused and removed the seatbelt and twisted fully around.
Leo, gazing morbidly out the window, said something about how ISIS had been right. Kevin looked pissed. Ethan met her gaze steadily, without speaking, which annoyed her. She shook her head, like, What? and Ethan realized what he was doing. He shrugged.
Ethan and Esther had slept together the night before. All of us knew about it, but no one had talked about it. Including Ethan and Esther. That had kind of ruined the trip for Ethan, who had found himself watching Esther for outward sign of an inner flame, one that if it flickered did so very gently and very delicately, pale but nonetheless warm. Esther, in contrast, had spent most of the trip worried about her nausea, which had just now abated. She leaned back into her seat and gave an undirected sigh. She thought of the hot tub at the Airbnb and of how the clouds had boiled overhead on the beach.
Meanwhile Leo’s pronouncements about ISIS had gotten louder. This prompted Kevin to turn to him and say, “Just be a little quieter, dude.” And give the same nervous chuckle.
“OK, OK, I get it, just look—I grew up around these people and,” Leo began before abruptly doubling over with his hands on his mouth. We all reached out. He waved us away. He hyperventilated and he gestured towards the sidewalk. We looked.
The Hog Corral: Souvenirs and Memorabilia the storefront said. The font was the same. The people were the same. Spasms of laughter ran through the car. Then, once we’d driven out of town, Esther started laughing again.
“Oh my god,” she said. “They have two of the same store!”
For some reason no one laughed this time. Leo said, “Paul, when you were doing that thing, on the way here—that felt crazy.” None of us remembered what Leo meant until Paul, shaken out of thoughts about the first, and only, time he had done acid, started swerving the car on the wide and empty road. In a soft voice Paul said, “Woo.” He laughed by himself.
“Paul you maniac,” Kevin said.
Esther put a hand on Paul’s shoulder, which made him tense. He looked over at her in confusion. She stared hard into his eyes. It was like she wanted to communicate something without words. He noticed the many facets of her chiseled face and the wetness of her eyes.
“Paul,” she said eventually. “No, it’s very serious. We can’t.”
Paul turned back to the road.
Leo said, “If we ever go back there” but was interrupted by Kevin, who said, “If we ever go back there? You probably got us banned, dude,” and gave a nervous chuckle over which Leo protested: “Banned, dude? They didn’t even . . .”
They fell silent at Esther’s yawn. The whole back seat was captivated by Esther’s yawn. The whole back seat was captivated by the smooth ridges of Esther’s shoulder blades that flexed as she yawned and that were framed by the open back of her top. For Ethan, the collective shiver of attraction was cut with longing, loss, nostalgia. It was like he already knew. Paul drove on without noticing Esther’s yawn. Paul was thinking: I hate people on drugs. Esther thought of her ex-boyfriend from home who, when told she was going on a trip with four guys, had joked, “Bring a knife.” They had broken up six months ago.
“. . . they literally can’t ban us, dude,” Leo concluded lamely, feeling self-conscious. No one responded. And Leo said, “It’s kind of weird, when you think about it. That you can’t ban people from a town.” No one responded. And Leo said, “Should we play some kind of game?”
Esther and Ethan and Paul laughed.
“What?” Leo said. “I mean, Jesus, sorry.”
“It is very funny, how much you’re talking, no?” Esther said.
“I’ve got a game,” Kevin said. “The Leo-shut-the-fuck-up-for-five-minutes game.”
“I could win that easy,” Leo said.
And all of us went silent.
The verdure outside had thickened. The air was misty. It was heavy with early summer. The late afternoon light that slanted through the trees and onto the pavement was diffused by that mist and by that heaviness. Nothing moved inside the car except for Paul, who turned the wheel and felt sad and lonely. It was so quiet now. All of us remember that, how quiet it was. Especially Kevin, who was looking at the shimmering of his phone. The text messages said things like “thursday” and “seemed like” and “selfish” and “love.” He had received them yesterday, Friday, the day we arrived. They were part of why he had wanted to take acid. But acid had only confirmed something he already knew: he was selfish.
Kevin looked around the car. Leo’s face looked dumb and happy. It was a selfish look. Esther’s face and Ethan’s face and Paul’s face also looked selfish, to Kevin. If Kevin had voiced this thought, as intended, Esther would have scoffed and said, “What do you mean?” and Ethan would have said, “Yeah, I guess everyone is selfish, in a sense, but . . .” and Leo would have agreed with Ethan. Paul would have said, “Selfish . . . Sell fish? You mean by the sea shore?” or maybe “Selfish . . . Shellfish? You’re telling me a shell made this fish?” But that didn’t happen because before Kevin could speak, Leo did.
“I just remembered,” Leo said. “I took the hugest shit in that gross-ass bathroom.”
And Kevin turned toward him with a roar of triumph.
“Five goddamn minutes,” Kevin cried. “Five minutes.”
All of us lost it, Leo included. He put up his hands in defense as Kevin continued.
“Motherfucker, you want to be in ISIS? My god, you’d destroy the whole organization. We should get you in there. We should literally send you there. They’d be done five hours later.”
Leo was laughing harder than anyone.
“They take this fucker to the interrogation room and, boom, terrorism over. Just leave him there for five goddamn minutes. ‘So . . . you guys heard about this bomb situation?’”
“Look—I forgot—fuck—” Leo choked out in protest.
“Interrogating you would literally—literally—be the easiest job in the world. You just put the recorder on the table, press play, and sit there for five goddamn minutes.”
None of us could believe how funny it was. It really just didn’t seem believable. Esther opened her window and took huge breaths. Paul slowed down to avoid crashing. Ethan felt flecks of drool on his facial hair, as did Kevin. And Leo still laughed harder than all of us. He had gone from choking to dry-heaving, from red to crimson. The heavy summer air sparkled. We felt perfectly enclosed.
“You . . . You . . .” Leo heaved abruptly. He held out a single, wavering finger. “You fucked . . .”
“What is it?” Kevin said. Suddenly he was concerned about Leo, who looked sick.
“You moron,” Leo said. He lunged forward with his one raised finger. He held it there like he didn’t know what to do with it, like he couldn’t believe his good fortune. “The easiest job in the world?”
“Yeah,” Kevin said skeptically. “Interrogating you.”
None of us expected what came next.
“You absolute fucking idiot,” Leo said. “You have to press record, not play.”
There was a long moment of silence before all of us realized what had happened. And of course, once we did, we began to laugh even harder than before. We laughed all the way back to the Airbnb. How could we not? After all, it’s not every day that someone fucks up the easiest job in the world. Maybe that’s why this trip is so memorable to all of us. But there are other reasons, too. It was the last time Ethan did acid. It was the first time Esther did acid. Paul, about one month later, would leave New York City to pursue a relationship with someone who had placed a personal advertisement in the London Review of Books. Kevin and Leo met on this vacation, and they’re the only two of us who remain close. But differences aside, all of us remember this trip, this day, this ride in this car. When we’re taking drugs, when we’re making love, when we’re losing parents or when we’re, sadly, moving to Berlin—we remember this trip and think about how easy it is to fuck up the job, any job, even, Kevin protests, the easiest job in the world.