Mud Myths

Wendy C. Ortiz

She found herself somewhere in South Dakota, another prairie with no name, on a bus loaded with adventuring Europeans and bored Americans looking for what about America they could really wholeheartedly love.

He officially introduced himself at the campfire dinner. He was an American with a German accent he’d attained from living the past year in Germany. Her ears in their drunken state (along with her eyes, mouth, brain) let his voice seep into her—and then the food was sufficiently scorched and plates were passed and they forgot one another.

He reintroduced himself three glasses of wine later. It was now their third introduction, though she didn’t mention the first, because in that one she was naked but for black panties with a pack of cigarettes up against her bare hip. She’d climbed off the bus like that and ran with a pack of other nude and semi-nude people onto the prairie and this man had approached her without hesitation and she had pulled away playfully so she could return to the bus for her clothes.

They talked; she trying not to slur her words yet sound intelligent, and he offering her the passing treats as they made their way hand to hand around the fire: rum-laden fruits, more wine. The name of the one back home flashed in her head then went black as the night on the prairie as this man sat next to her drinking her up as though she was the most delicious thing out there, better even than the moon that sat almost ignored in the sky.

The name of the one back home was what kept her from slipping out of all her clothes in the sleeping bag she shared with this man that night. His hands moved over her and the night whispered assent and she knew this decision was like one made in a parallel universe. Though maybe later she might have to do the careful work of entwining what was parallel to make it one.

He had very blond hair and bright green eyes with no specks of other color in them, clear as the lakes she’d swum in on this trip so far. He was, actually, an inordinately handsome man, unlike the men she typically chose. Sleep never found them over the course of the night until dawn, when they awoke sweaty and slightly more inhibited.

The buses they’d come in on were headed in opposite directions—she, Boston; he, San Francisco—and scheduled to disperse that afternoon. With the feeling of his hands still on her as she ate breakfast among the travelers of both buses, she began to let go, not knowing there was no reason to, and that it would actually be impossible.

In the late morning, after the breakfast dishes were done and several photographs had been taken of the two of them, by friends, with some sort of knowledge that this might be the only time they’d meet hovering around them, the travelers got on the buses and the buses converged at a creek. People tumbled off and threw their clothes into reeds and plunged into what, she understood from the bus window, was a mud bath and not really a creek. She watched as sexless, tan-colored mud-slathered bodies arose from the thickness. They were nymphs encased in glistening-thick cakey mud and some were hysterically laughing and others just reclined facing the sun.

She saw him out there among them and her body got up and moved to the door of the bus. As soon as her bare feet touched prairie he was there, at her side, toothy smile, his flesh covered in mud, all but his bright open face as he took her hand and led her to the muddy opening.

By the bath where the bodies were luxuriating and laughing and no one’s identity could be confirmed, she hesitated and he insisted. She tried the logic of not knowing when she’d get a proper shower next on this bus trip and he pulled her shirt up over her head. She laughed and said this was crazy and he unbuttoned her shorts and slipped them down her legs, holding her steady, patiently, so one leg could come out, then the next. The green lakes of his eyes fastened on hers as he casually unfastened her bra. When his fingers touched the top of her panties she placed a hand on his shoulder and stepped out of them, silky black on yellow grasses, eyes still locked on his green lakes.

Hands and laughing and with each step she forgot herself and the name of the one back home was as many miles away from her heart as it was on earth. Thickness and sun and the reddish tint of earth in the mud as they laughed and held onto each other enjoying the quagmire he’d led her into.

When after a while she realized she was alone, watching bodies from afar, she unstuck herself and moved toward where the muddiness opened up into clearer waters. She cleaned like a swamp animal, hair up top rubber-banded, layers coming off of her body until the sun was enveloping her skin and she wondered in which direction her clothes lie. Walking naked on the prairie her irises were pinpoints and of course he appeared again, taking her hand, leading her to her discarded clothes, his mud-flecked eyebrows above the two great lakes that looked shiny and ready to swallow her whole. She stepped into the fabrics and into the realization that their buses were preparing to leave.

Their farewells were light and hopeful and her eyes stung from the dust as the buses began to kick up the prairie as they got ready to head toward opposite coasts. He wouldn’t let go of her hand and he was on the wrong bus. A chorus of various accents encouraged him to run, to go catch his bus as it began its slow ramble away from theirs. They had each others’ addresses in their pockets—he didn’t have a phone number, she learned. He lived in his orange VW van up and down the west coast when he wasn’t spending a year in Germany or heading back west. He jumped off the bus and ran in the wake of dust from his own bus and the chorus turned into applause when he jumped onto the moving green caterpillar of a vehicle. She took a deep breath and felt all the eyes of the bus turn to her. She’d sat in the front of the bus where she hardly ever sat so she could watch him go. Someone passed her a cold beer and she accepted it. She put on her sunglasses and stared straight ahead. Femme fatale, one of the blonde European beauties of the bus whispered at her. Little explosions went through her bloodstream as she realized everyone had been witness to this experience that shifted everything for her, in this less than twenty-four hour pit stop on a South Dakota prairie.

By evening the Badlands and a hit of acid on top of many cold beers forced her thoughts into new sprawling directions. The rest of the trip unfolded, filled with America and its points of interest, though her own points of interest were murky and internal, revolving around the prospect of honesty, and fidelity, and what to tell the one back home. Once in Boston, she was sleepless, suffering from what felt like an overall body itch that could not be sufficiently scratched until she was making determined calls to the nearest major airline that asked for no less than a thousand dollars to fly her home to Los Angeles. She had changed mid-country. The four hour layover in Denver as she made her way home was where she bought a legal pad and wrote a double-digit long letter to her sister, the one she felt closest to not only in distances marked by land. What had occurred was completely clear. What was less clear is what would happen next.

Before she saw the mud nymph again, this time in San Francisco, this time with four unencumbered nights ahead of them and an empty apartment belonging to a friend, this time with the moon over the marina and the biggest box of condoms they could purchase, she allowed the experience of the mud to force a change. She slipped into it as vulnerable and as open as she’d been when he’d helped her step out of her clothes. He had arrived to meet her, it seemed. She was using him as a manual on how to see beyond what she could ordinarily see. The mud became a particular accessory in her thoughts of him. It was on his hands when she imagined him touching her again. She looked for mud the same color as she’d bathed in. None compared in color or texture. None came with blond-haired, green-eyed nymphs.

Nights they spent on the Berkeley second-floor porch smoking turned to days turned to nights in a house in the Haight. She mapped out decisions and the decisions seemed to span as far as the distance between California and Massachusetts. There were high peaks, hot springs and thunderstorms. There were prairies and mud baths. There was a mud nymph but he became a gleam in the muddy river, destined to disappear, a speck of dry, rust-colored mud on the soft secret part of someone’s inner forearm. There would be Hollywood nights and letters and phone calls, a tiny bit of a hash joint mailed across the miles. There would be distance clocked and distance unspoken and many many years later, the surprise of him on her doorstep a thousand miles from the home she’d left.

His name would acquire a kind of power among her later lovers because he was the one on the prairie who ran after his bus, away from her yet toward her all at once.

Her mouth would speak his name ever after and when she did, she could feel in that moment the pump of blood thick as mud that would forever follow when his spoken name met air.  His name would always signify that certain kind of time, time between time, the kind that can only be found in a place you don’t know, and will only know once—the unmarked places on the map, the places you’ll not find, or won’t find easily, ever again.


A version of this essay first appeared in Manuscript, The LAVC Creative Writing Journal.

Author Portrait

Wendy C. Ortiz is the author of Excavation: A Memoir (Future Tense Books, 2014) and the forthcoming Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, spring 2015). She wrote the year-long, monthly column "On the Trail of Mary Jane" for McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, among many other places. Wendy is co-founder, curator, and host of the decade-old Rhapsodomancy Reading Series. She is a registered marriage and family therapist intern in Los Angeles.

View the website of Wendy C. Ortiz