The Clam Shell

By Margaret Barnard

“Can anyone guess what caused this boulder to split in two?” Eduardo mumbled through clenched teeth as he rifled through his backpack. From his mouth, a poorly wrapped joint hung above the dusty earth below. 

Our once pasty, now reddening faces turned from our pint-sized tour guide and toward the enormous halves, just centimeters apart from one another. 

“Lightning?” I asked, eager to move on and find refuge from the relentless Bolivian sun. I had already endured enough pain in this desert.

Eduardo did not acknowledge my response and only smiled to himself upon discovering the hot pink Bic he had been searching for.

“Some Stone Age tool?” the now blistering, once handsome Swede beside me offered.

“All good guesses, but no,” Eduardo replied absentmindedly. His attention was consumed by the spark-spitting lighter hidden behind his small, tanned hand. After a few more flicks, a weak flame emerged and grasped the tip of the joint. “The Clam Shell, that’s what this formation is called, was actually formed by rain.”

We all stood in silence, staring up at the ten-foot-tall stone masses. Before any of us could reply, he took the joint from his lips and, holding it out before him like the hand of God, gestured towards someone in our group.  

“Lauren, do you want a hit? It will help with the altitude sickness.”

Lauren passed our wall of sunburnt flesh, strengthened by the idea of possible relief. Unlike the rest of us, the sun favored her skin. It gave her the appearance of someone in much better health.  She took the joint in her mouth and inhaled deeply.

“But we’re in the desert,” she rebutted, smoke pouring from her lips. “How was there enough rain out here to break it in half?” 

“It took millions of years and countless little droplets filling a microscopic crack at the top. It was gradual but then…. CRACK!” Eduardo proclaimed with a clap for dramatic effect.

I glanced over at Lauren, both hopeful and scared that we might catch each other's gaze. 

***

I woke up on the night of my twenty-fifth birthday to the sound of unfamiliar laughter coming from another room. It took a moment to realize that I wasn’t in my own bed. I was on a couch in Sophia’s living room surrounded by empty prosecco bottles and frosting-coated paper plates. Across the room, a large suitcase lay open on the floor with its stretchy, polyester contents spilling out over the sides. The laughter stopped and was replaced by the sound of footsteps coming towards me. 

The suitcase’s owner glided into the room with her golden blonde hair flowing behind her like a cape. She was beautiful in the way I imagined the president of a sorority might be. In high school, we would never have been friends.

“Oh, you’re awake,” she said without enthusiasm. 

“Yeah,” I replied before clearing my throat.  My voice was gravelly from too many cigarettes earlier in the night. “You’re Lauren, right? Nice to finally meet you.” 

“Same. Sophia’s told me so much about you.”

We smiled politely as our shared apathy filled the room. It was suffocating.

“Okay, well I better head home,” I said, desperate to escape. “See you around and welcome to Chicago!”

“Thanks. Night.”

***

“Do you realize that today is our one-year anniversary?” I asked breathlessly as I tossed the last of the gold balloons into the pile at our feet. 

“Jesus, that’s right,” Lauren replied. “Props to Sophia for forcing us to hang out.”

 “I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me that we had the same birthday last year.”

Despite our rocky start, Lauren had evolved into something that had previously seemed impossible to secure as an adult: a best friend. After leaving New York, I had begun to feel like my loneliness was unsolvable. All my childhood friends had drifted away, and I hadn’t replaced them. I knew people, of course, but always from a respectful distance. I believed that children alone — being free of all the shame, pride, and fear of abandonment that comes with adulthood — could open up enough to get past a surface-level friendship. But Lauren didn’t have those hangups. She was fearless and always told you exactly what she was thinking. She proved I was wrong about people.

 “So, did you invite him to our party?” 

“Yes, and don’t be a bitch. You know his name is Tyler,” she said, unafraid of sounding critical unless it related to her on-again, off-again, undefined, whatever he was.

“I know, I know. I just don’t get his appeal.”

“You don’t get the appeal of anyone unless they’re a pretentious foreigner,” she replied, driving her knife deep into a wound that still hadn’t healed. 

“Sorry, you’re right,” I said, eager to smooth things over. “I wasn’t trying to be judg-y.” 

I turned away, pretending to play with the floating two and six balloons behind me. I didn’t want her to see my tears eagerly lining up. I wasn’t over my ex, who had dumped me eight months prior. But that’s not what hurt. I was scared that she might leave me as well.

***

“Happy twenty-seventh birthday!” I shouted into my phone. I held my screen close to my face, framing only what I wanted her to see. The sparse state of my unpacked room was too depressing to broadcast.

Yesterday was our birthday.”

“Okay, happy belated twenty-seventh birthday then!”

As we had planned, we both lifted champagne flutes to our screens and cheers-ed but with differing levels of enthusiasm. Lauren was openly annoyed that I had forgotten to text her back on our actual birthdays, and I pretended nothing was wrong. 

My sudden move back to New York the month prior had put a big strain on our already tense friendship. My continued hatred of her gym-rat boyfriend probably hadn’t helped. I would tell her that I didn’t trust Tyler and that he was beneath her. She told me I was projecting, that I was too proud to talk about the fact that I was still hung up on my ex. 

Besides an occasional foray into the topic of weight loss, our conversations centered around those men. Gone were the days when we pored over travel blogs seeking out the best and cheapest way to get around Croatia, Belize, or Laos. Instead we stared at old texts from men who hurt us, endlessly dissecting them until they ceased to mean anything at all. Our relationship was like a television show a couple seasons past its prime. All the good jokes had been used up, the characters had become caricatures, and the writers had forgotten what the show was about in the first place. That was us.

“So what did you end up doing for your birthday dinner?” I asked, trying to maneuver our conversation into a safe zone.   

Before Lauren had a chance to respond, if she even wanted to, the scream of her buzzer halted our discussion. 

“That’s Tyler. I should go.”

***

Lauren and I were both living in New York by our twenty-eighth birthdays but we decided not to do a joint party. We had our own friend groups from past lives, and it felt like too big of a task to overlap them. If I’m being honest, I was happy with the arrangement. I didn’t care for her friends. I found them vain, boisterous, and generally overwhelming. They traveled as a herd, their heels echoing through the halls of impossible-to-get-into restaurants as they sipped their sixteen dollar cocktails purchased by boorish, former jocks. By contrast, my friends sported Birkenstocks and preferred spending their time in dark Greenpoint bars where Lauren felt out of place. To keep the peace, we made an unspoken pact to keep everyone on their own side of the Williamsburg Bridge.

But I was happy Lauren was back in my life. Now that Tyler was no longer in the picture, it seemed possible to get back to where our friendship had been in the beginning. Maybe it was because we were both single again or because our futures felt unknown, but something was different. 

“Should we do our birthday dinner on your side of the bridge or mine?” I asked the night before our private celebration. I felt like I already knew the answer. 

“Meet in the middle?” Lauren replied through my speaker phone. 

“Palma?!” we both shouted in unison before bursting into fits of laughter.

Yeah, we were back in that honeymoon period.  Things were turning around. We had a chance to rebuild our foundation and throw away the messy combination of over-discussed and under-acknowledged topics that had been causing our friendship to rot away beneath the surface. 

***

“How was your birthday?” I asked Lauren over squid ink pasta from the same Italian restaurant we had gone to the year prior. It was a few weeks past the actual date but this was our first chance to grab dinner since I’d gotten back from Mexico City. “Better than mine, I hope.”

“It was good. Charles took me to dinner…. It’s really weird you didn’t tell me you were in the hospital.”

“I didn’t tell anyone. There wasn’t anything for you to do. I had Montezuma’s Revenge. I didn’t want visitors at home or in the hospital.”

“Noah was there… You could have at least said something. You were totally MIA. I thought you were backing out of our South America trip.” 

My desire not to discuss my stomach issues wasn’t  a lie, but Lauren wasn’t wrong about my anxiety over our upcoming trip, either. We had booked our tickets three months prior when things weren’t as bad, but even then, a growing part of me feared that traveling to Bolivia and Chile together would be a big mistake. 

***

After another twenty minutes discussing the Clam Shell, our tour group was in the car and back on the non-existent road. Despite my frequent motion-sickness, I opted to take the dreaded back row, a place where gravity seemed forever in flux, to get as far away from Lauren as possible. 

“So how did you two wind up in Bolivia?” the handsome Swede asked, swiveling his head around to speak to me and gesturing towards Lauren as he did so. 

“Uhh... Lauren and I planned the trip about six months ago,” I replied as quietly as I could. I knew that she wouldn’t want to hear her name coming out of my mouth. “I had suggested we come here for our birthdays, so we wound up splitting the trip instead of getting each other presents this year.”

“It wasn’t your idea,” Lauren said from the front seat. Her face was pressed against the cold window to reduce her reemerging nausea. “I was the one that suggested we come to Bolivia and Patagonia”

“Oh,” I replied, dumbfounded. Lauren had not spoken a word to me, or even joined a conversation I was apart of, in over twenty-four hours. “Yeah.”

The conversation ended there. The Swede apparently decided that a moment of friendly banter with me was not worth being my middle row, human dam protecting me from the continuous flow of rage rushing my way. I didn’t blame him. No one wants to be casualty. 

 

By the time Lauren and I had left Bolivia and arrived in Patagonia for the second leg of our trip, an onlooker might assume our situation had improved. In reality though, we were just exhausted. We had been worn down by the countless flights, the lack of showers, the endless flow of vomit, and the thought of spending one more moment with each other. 

But it would be wrong to blame all of this on the trip. Our continental divide occurred far above the Southern Hemisphere. I knew it as we were boarding our flight from JFK. I kind of knew it when we booked the tickets. Our friendship had been replaced with a knock-off a long time ago. From the outside it looked like the real deal, but if someone had actually inspected the lining, anyone could tell something was off.

 

Lauren and I immediately parted ways when we landed at JFK, opting to take separate lines at customs. There was no way we would survive an hour-long line together at 5AM. 

By 5:05AM, I was fully submerged in the line and finally able to breathe. Despite spending the majority of the past twelve days outside exploring some of the most beautiful places that nature has to offer, I had been suffocating. Almost every day served me a mixture of feeling attacked, alone, at times genuinely scared for my life (not entirely because of Lauren but mostly), exhausted, and desperate to escape. By 6:15AM, I was waiting in line for a taxi and gulping in the fresh, New York air, thinking that the worst was over.  

But then the following week brought a fresh, new type of pain; heartbreak. It finally occurred to me that I had lost one of my best friends. As it turns out, losing Lauren was a million times worse than any breakups I’d had with past boyfriends, even the ones I took forever to get over. And while this ending was harder than others, I did eventually get over it. Now, I can finally appreciate our relationship for what it was; a perfect birthday cake that came with an expiration date. I chose to ignore the date, so it’s on me for getting sick after it went sour, but damn did it taste great in the beginning.

Anyways, our thirtieth birthday is coming up in two months. I know we won’t spend it together. I wonder if she’ll text me “Happy Birthday.” I don’t know, maybe I would text back if she did.