There was once a little planet called Oysitar that orbited the star of Xena. On Oysitar, there was a city that from a distance looked like an oyster, a pearl-white city nestled in the mountains. This was the city of Shiraz, known for its stone-carved streets, silver streams, and archways filled with light. It was also the city of the unicorns. They lived in the surrounding forests and were often seen around Lake Lone, the lake that lay like a glacier below the city.
To the locals, the unicorns were common as white-tailed deer. To me, a girl fresh from planet Earth, they were the stuff of fairy tales come true. I’d recently graduated with a Journalism degree and two internships under my belt, but job offers were scarce with the economic recession. Better job opportunities were off-planet, which was how I ended up in Shiraz. There weren’t a lot of Earthlings here, and fewer still that were my age, which is why I noticed Amanda.
I first met Amanda at my friend Toke’s party. (I’d met Toke when he was an exchange student at UNC.) We were drinking with three of his friends, and I said that I was dying to meet someone who could relate to my craving for a Vietnamese iced coffee.
“Is that what you made me at your barbecue last summer?” Toke asked.
“No, you’re thinking of sweet tea. Vietnamese coffee’s a SoCal thing. It’s this special coffee mixed with condensed milk. It’s kind of magic.”
“The girl who went to school in California, she’s here at the party.”
“Someone who can relate! Where is she?”
We wandered through the crowd and Toke pointed out a girl with sandy hair clutching a Longchamps tote to her side, standing at the edge of a conversation. “Hey Amanda!” he called.
She looked in our direction and Toke waved. She broke away to approach us.
“Hi.” She smiled tentatively and looked between Toke and me.
“Amanda, this is Nina. Nina, Amanda.”
I held out my hand. “I hear you’re from Chapel Hill.”
She nodded. “And you’re from San Diego.”
“Born and raised. Love it there. Loved UNC, but it was so crazy-humid. You went to UCSD, right?”
“Must have been awesome, right by La Jolla.”
Toke bumped my shoulder. I looked at him and smiled, handed him my empty cup. “Refill?”
He grinned. “I’ll let you two Earthings mingle. See you later.”
I turned to Amanda. “How’d you like California?”
“It was nice.”
When she didn’t elaborate, I said, “I was telling Toke and some guys how I really miss home food. I mean, I love southern food—total guilty pleasure—but I had such crazy cravings for Vietnamese and real Mexican. You must have been in food heaven.”
“I never had Vietnamese.”
The way she said it, like it would never even occur to her to try, took me back. “So how do you like Shiraz? What are you doing here?”
“I’m a supply chain analyst for DNM.”
“Neat,” I said. “I’ve heard good things about DNM.” She didn’t ask what I did, and we stared at each other. “Well, it was cool to meet you. I heard there was another San Diego/Chapel Hiller, so I was curious. I’ll see you around.”
She didn’t even smile, just nodded as I walked off, annoyed. I found Toke at another section of the party. “Hey,” he said when he saw me. “How was it to meet your doppelganger?”
“Disappointing. She gave me a stone-faced stare the entire time. It was super awkward.”
I travelled a lot the next few months in Shiraz. Toke wasn’t starting work at his family’s company until the New Year, so he had time to show me around. He took me up to a village a day’s hike above Shiraz. The village was renowned for the tiny stone shrines that were supposed to house the forest spirits the Shirazans used to pray to.
“They are adorable!” I played around with the macro lens of my camera so I could get some good close-ups.
Toke plucked the petals off a wildflower as he watched me take pictures. “Only you, Nina Martinez, would reduce our ancestral cultural relics to ‘adorable.’”
“Toke, you know I don’t mean it that way. I want to be a spirit just so I can live in one of these. They’re so intricate. I mean look, there are tiny carvings in the inside. How hard is that? Look at the tiny stairs!”
We spent the afternoon looking at all the different shrines, and then I couldn’t resist the incense offering tourist trap. Afterwards, we went to a local restaurant to eat a dinner of noodles and delicate shoots, served with bowls of a spicy vegetable broth.
It was too dark to trek back to Shiraz, so we rode the train home. The effects of the day-long hike were catching up to me. I lay against Toke’s shoulder, thankful for soft-cushioned seats, looking out at the blur of dark mountain and trees.
“Guess who I saw buying groceries the other day?” Toke asked.
“Who?” I yawned.
“Your good friend, Amanda.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call her my friend.” I had seen Amanda around at other parties, and she’d never really warmed up to me. Yet I had seen her smiling and laughing with guys, which had irritated me in a weird, competitive way.
It was one of those alpha-female things, where if she wasn’t my friend, I had to at least establish I was above her on the power hierarchy. Petty and ridiculous, I know, especially considering I wasn’t even into guys. But vain little me, I needed to know I could have them even if I didn’t actually want them.
“You should get to know her. She’s a cool girl.”
I sat up to frown at Toke. “So she got you too.”
“Come on, Nina, it’s like you have a fixation with her.”
“I’m not fixated! Just annoyed because I extended an olive branch of friendship, and she meanly swatted it away. And girls like her annoy me, the kind that can’t make female friends.”
“She’s not you, this happy social butterfly. And we all have different kinds of people we have an easier time warming up to, right?”
“Sure, whatever.” I settled back against the seat, ready to take a brief shuteye, when I saw a blur of white. I peered out the window. “Toke, did you see that?” I saw several blurs of white, like deer, except they had single horns extending from their foreheads. “Toke, there’re unicorns out there!”
“We have a lot of unicorns here.”
“But I haven’t seen any yet.”
“What about when we were down at Lake Lone?”
“There weren’t any that night. Trust me, I was standing away from you all and looking.” The train was moving too fast for me to get a clear look, but I saw six or seven unicorns in a group. Two of them approached the train and ran alongside. I tapped Toke’s shoulder excitedly.
“Yeah, I see them,” he said. “They get a kick out of proving they’re faster than the train.”
I kept my face glued against the glass, hoping one of the unicorns would run past us. They were leanly muscled, more delicately built than the horses back home. Their coats were a sleek, pearly-white. One of the unicorns eventually ran alongside us, less than a foot away. Its long hair rippled, and it turned its head to look at me. This close, I could see it had blue-green eyes. It must have once been in a fight; it had a scar that ran along part of its chest. Its long horn was iridescent—not pure white as I would have expected—like mother-of-pearl.
Then its companion came up behind it, nipping at its back. The unicorn’s nostrils flared. It tossed its head, seemingly in reply to its friend. The two unicorns veered away from the train, and it was then I saw their tails. They weren’t like that of a horse, nor the oft-depicted lion’s tail. Instead, they were like that of a white-tailed deer. And like the deer I’d often seen back when I drove at night in North Carolina, they were momentarily visible—delicate and ghost-like—before disappearing back into the forest.
I lost my closest friend in Shiraz after Toke started work at his family’s company. I also received disappointing news from home. I’d applied to several grad schools and hadn’t gotten into any of them, which meant I would have to spend another year working or figuring out something else to do. To ease the burn, I spent a lot of time going out and partying.
I went to one party where I ended up not knowing anyone. (The two friends I was supposed to meet went to some random bar and failed to inform me.) I made some new
friends and left with them to go to a club. There I danced for several hours and had one too many shots to quench my thirst after all the dancing. Then in a burst of clarity, I decided I was sleepy and that my bed back home was calling me.
It was starting to rain when I arrived in what I thought was my neighborhood. It was cold and I was wearing a skimpy sundress and sandals. I clambered to the door of what I thought was my apartment and started rooting through my purse for my keys. I swore when I pulled out my sunglasses and some pens with them. Ungracefully
gathering everything back together, I tried to insert my key into the lock. It wouldn’t fit.
“What the-,” I shouted.
I turned to see Amanda huddled under an umbrella, holding a bag of groceries.
“Oh hey, I didn’t know you lived around here,” I said.
“My key seems to be broken.”
Amanda came closer to me. “Is this your apartment?”
I stepped back to check. Then I realized. My own apartment involved a long flight of stairs; I’d confused it with my old place back in Chapel Hill. “Lovely, I got off at the wrong stop.” I looked around and realized I didn’t have a clue where I was. “What is this place?”
“This isn’t the best neighborhood to wander around in alone.” Amanda grabbed my arm when I stumbled. “Do you need help getting home?”
Amanda must have decided I needed the help, because the next thing I knew I was back at my apartment, puking. Once I’d regained a bit of my dignity, I told Amanda: “You better stay here.” It was pouring and thundering, and almost three in the morning now.
I got her some dry clothes, and Amanda went into the bathroom to change. I rooted through the refrigerator to assuage my post-drinking munchies. I found leftover Soonmoon, super spicy tubers with a consistency and taste reminiscent of squid. It was a Shirazan specialty I indulged too often in.
“Want some?” I asked Amanda when she came out.
“No thanks. I’m not very good with spicy food.”
“I also have…” I gave an inventory of my fridge and pantry.
She settled for Sun Chips, an American import that was popular here.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m not very adventurous when it comes to food,” she admitted.
I made us some tea and we settled onto the couch, which was a hollowed out log lined with dark silk and embroidered pillows. “Thanks for rescuing me,” I said. “I might have been sliced and diced by a mugger or been the victim of rain-induced hypothermia if you weren’t my knight in shining armor.”
Amanda gave me a small smile over her mug. She looked around my apartment, which had stone floors lined with rivulets, and a bed raised up on tree logs and surrounded all around by water. “You have a really nice place here.”
“Compliments of Toke. He’s a rich boy and a good friend.”
“He always mentions you when I see him. You two knew each other at UNC?”
“Yeah, junior year.”
“Oh no, just friends.”
“It must be nice, the way you guys are so close,” Amanda said, and she sounded wistful.
We sipped our tea, listening to the rain outside. Watching Amanda, my previous irritations melted, expanding into something warm. I realized there was more than one way to interpret her reserve toward me, and that Toke was right. That just because she didn’t react to my advances in the same way I would have reacted to hers didn’t mean that she didn’t like me. That my own tendency to be socially aggressive could be oftputting in its own way, to someone like her.
“Let’s hang out together soon. Earthings only. No Shirazans,” I said.
“I would like that.”
“We can have a picnic,” I suggested.
“Okay,” she said.
“By the lake? I’ll bring the wine.”
She brought pecan pie, which didn’t quite go with the bottle of Shiraz, but we consumed liberally of both over the course of the night. It was a gorgeous night and I thought Lake Lone would be stuffed with picnickers, but it was just Amanda and me.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I said after three-quarters of the pie and wine were gone.
“It’s a big lake.”
“We’re big girls. Plus we need the exercise.”
So we walked, carrying the food and drink with us. It felt great with the lake enormous and black beside us, the whistle of the wind over the grass. There was the silhouette of the trees, and then the night sky with all its bright stars above it. It made me wish I could morph into a bird and fly.
“Are you staying in Shiraz another year? Or are you going back home?” Amanda asked.
“I don’t know yet. I applied to some jobs, but it’s still hard, even with a year’s work experience. What about you?”
“Same here. I’m thinking of maybe doing Teach for America.”
It put a damper on my mood, being reminded of the uncertain future. “I think the novelty of Shiraz is wearing off,” I said.
Amanda looked at me. “You seem to have adjusted really well here.”
“Yeah, well it’s not home. Toke was the only person I knew before I came here. I miss my family and friends.”
I glanced at Amanda, who was looking pensively ahead. I couldn’t help asking: “What made you decide to come all the way out here? You didn’t know anyone in Shiraz or Oysitar, did you?”
“No, I didn’t.” She hesitated. “When I graduated, I was at a point where I felt if I went back to North Carolina, I would never leave. I had a hard time adjusting in San Diego, and I needed to give moving to a new place another try.”
We were quiet as we walked around the lake. There was something surreal about this night, having Lake Lone to ourselves. Then: “Hey! Unicorns!” Amanda pointed.
There was a herd of them across the lake. We were at the part of the lake where it narrowed, so we had a good view of them. There had to be twenty of them, of varying sizes. The smaller ones were teenagers, not small enough to be babies. They were furrier and their coats were gray, like cygnets.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over how cool it is to see them,” I said.
We stood there watching them. And then I saw something strange. At first I thought it was the alcohol. In the herd of unicorns I saw a single deer. “Amanda, look.”
She saw it too. It stood out with its brown fur, narrow face, and slim build. “Are there deer here? Or did one somehow stowaway from home?”
“I don’t know. But it’s cool, how it’s hanging out with them.” I watched the deer as it fed with the unicorns. It seemed more delicate in comparison to them. “It’s so pretty. I always thought deer were so pretty when I saw them in North Carolina.”
We smiled at each other, and I was glad to share this moment where something that would have been common back home was here something novel. I sat down in the grass so we could watch them feed.
Amanda settled down next to me. She lay back and sighed. “I am so full.”
“Nu uh, we’re finishing the bottle.” Uncorking the top, I poured the remaining dregs between us.
She put her hand to her forehead. “I don’t usually drink wine. Is it always this strong?”
My head was spinning too, now that we were no longer walking. “I think it’s been amplified by whatever you put into the pie. Geez, Amanda, some delicate and refined southern lady you are.”
Amanda laughed, sitting up to take her cup. “I’m going to have to teach you how to make pecan pie. They’re really easy.”
“I have some weird block to desserts. Even the quick-mix brownies.”
We sat in the grass, tossed some pie crumbs into the lake to see if we could tempt the fish. Two of the teenage unicorns across the lake started wrestling with each other. When it got too rough an older unicorn broke them up. In the water, I heard the plop of a fish mouth that evidenced one had found the pie tempting enough to taste.
“This picnic was fun. Let’s do it again,” I said.
“We’ll coordinate our food next time.”
“Cheers to that.”
We tapped our cups together. The mountain air swirled sweetly around us, and I thought how if Amanda and I had met back home, we couldn’t have been more different, but here, she was the closest thing I had to familiar. It felt good having her close to me. Especially tonight, the night we saw a deer amongst the unicorns.