by Samantha Smith
She expects the wind off the desert to be hot, to parch her lips, bring up the sweat, then dry it to salt.
But as she pulls over the foothills, and the first breaths blow in through the car’s open windows, it chills her with sudden, isolating cold.
The cold is dry. So dry her body aches for water to slake a thirst she didn’t know she had.
Still, as it coils around her, its fingers tangling her hair, its tongue stroking her throat, it remains redolent with a scent, a taste, the echo of the desert through her senses. She inhales dust, and creosote, and chaparral. The astringency of eucalyptus. And below it all, the faint, charred-smoke smell of the fire.
The fires had swept down through the valley at the end of summer. It was the season of fires, people said, when the wind was high and hard and hot, undergrowth went up with a casually dropped cigarette, and the moon hung pale and faded in the sky behind orange haze.
She’d been smoking. Everyone said a girl like her shouldn’t do that, but despite, in spite, she’d been standing outside the club, inhaling hard, eyes watering in the cloud around her. And she’d seen it. Shaggy head down, between the parked cars outside the venue.
It’s gait had told it’s nature, slung low to the ground. Wild thing, unbelonging here, in this extension of suburbia. She’d watched, her eyes round as marbles in her head, while it loped around a trashed Volvo covered in band stickers.
It stopped. Looked up. Eyes reflected orange in the street lights, a color the flavor of fire.
It watched her, cautious, but unafraid, glittering eyeshine. She could smell the heat of the desert in its fur, the freedom of the foothills. And she wanted to follow it when at last, it turned, broke the gaze that had held her in its smog-moon light, and went through a gap in the chain link that bounded the parking lot.
She’d sucked in smoke, the glow of the cigarette’s tip flaring up. The coal a bright eye against the darkness, a hole in the orange-tinted, tobacco-smelling night, and a craving in her to flee, to simply abandon this moment, this place, and pass through the space in the fence, shedding her clothes like skin till she ran, pale and naked, in the vacant lots, the deserted streets, the wind in her teeth.
She doesn’t smoke now, though she wants to. Instead, she leans down, turns the radio up till all she can hear is the music and the pulse of her blood in her ears, a rhythm transfixed and transformed by the drums till they speak to one another, in constant escalation.
She beats the heels of her hands on the steering wheel, counterpoint to the sound of her heart, filling in the gaps in the song and there is nothing else, in this instant, just her and this universe bounded by a metal shell. She wishes it had all been different, but knows it couldn’t. Turns the radio up.
She’d met him at a party. Not one of those hip parties that all the cool kids went to, just a quiet get-together at a friends house, where the most they’d drink was a couple beers, a glass of wine. Maybe pass a joint, dissolving her body’s consciousness, blurred and unfocused as smoke.
He’d been nice. Kind of non-descript, but nice. Floppy brown hair, flat brown eyes. Nothing exceptional about him. But he’d asked for her number. That was rare enough in her world to be notable. Pretty, but never pretty enough, she told herself, so she took a second look at him. Those flat brown eyes gained dimension. She didn’t realize then, it was just her, mirrored back.
He’d called three days later. Normally she would have let it go straight to voicemail, but for some reason she’d picked up, even though she didn’t recognize the number. She didn’t know his voice at first, which annoyed him. His tone rose into a higher octave, like scratches on her arms. Her stomach twitched, eyes closed, how dare she forget?
She’d offered to meet him. He’d take her out, he said, dinner, a movie, coffee, whatever, but it had to be tonight.
She tried to tell him she already had plans. She’d wanted to go up into the hills, behind the junior high school. To climb on the rocks, and light candles, and let her soul slip out...out...into the high Mojave, so far away from the prosaicness of everyday. She wanted to be wrapped up by the moon, to look down at the city spread out below her like the sky, orange streetlight-stars glittering, headlights sweeping in spotlight panorama.
Tonight. he’d said. Tonight.
And she’d said, Yes.
She drives through Barstow at 85 miles an hour. It’s cold enough now to raise the hair on her arms like fear, and she’s shadowed by the unerring knowledge that she is almost there.
Where? She thinks. Where?
The needle on the tank dips down, down, points to E. She hesitates, slows, her foot on the brake makes the car vibrate, as it hesitates down to 50, to 40, to 10.
Her body is aching, bending like the needle, but upward. To a soul marked full.
The lights at the gas station are yellow, and the shadows are deeper. She wraps her arms around her shoulders, bare against the cold. It had felt good back there, where she came from. Here, it feels like waiting.
The man in the little booth looks at her, eyes asking, demanding an answer. She has nothing to explain. She is almost there.
The numbers on the pump ratchet up, cranking through endless permutations of cost and benefit, and she looks out, to where she knows she is going. And she sees it.
The same low-slung body, red tawny gold and sharp-nosed face. It sees her, looking into her little pool of sodium vapour illumination. Eyes like the yellow moon reflect swooping headlights.
They hang, poised, for an eternal second.
Then the pump clicks off, like a shot in the silence, and there is only emptiness and flattened coke cans filling the place it had been.
He picked her up. Opened her door, even. Some antiquated gentleman-posture she wasn’t sure she appreciated. But he’d been on time, wearing a fresh-scrubbed cleanliness about him that smelled of soap and laundry detergent.
Coffee? he’d said.
She didn’t drink coffee. She didn’t tell him.
The drove past a Starbucks, past a Peets, past a dozen chain shops where they served $5 lattes. Instead, he follows the road up, up the hills, to where she used to go to park and look out at the city, spread around her feet. He pulled off a little ways. Reached around behind him. Grabbed a thermos, two styrofoam cups.
She wondered how long they will be in a landfill, choking the gulls with their permanent disintegration. Belatedly, she realized that he was making a romantic gesture. Smiled.
He warmed. Poured the coffee into the cups, brings out a little bottle and asked: Cream?
She noded. The smile felt like a crack, like she would bleed through it and vanish.
The coffee was bitter, but it warmed her hands. The night was hot. Fire season. Air like static electricity. But the heat was still welcome.
He talked. Hopes, habits, hobbies. He didn’t seem to notice she was looking out the window, watching the headlights in the darkening sky, side to side sweep of brilliance.
When he touched her, she wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t even notice. She was lost somewhere, in the desert, between the Joshua trees and sandstone sculptures.
So, when he kept going, it took her a long time to find her way back.
This time, she rolls down all four windows. Races up the highway, the devil at her back. She is almost there.
The place she pulls off the road is unmarked, just a slip of dirt track pulling away from the pavement into melting, unbroken twilight.
Not much farther.
When she’d come back to her skin, come back to her own brain sitting next to him, she’d pushed his hands away.
Stop. she’d said. Stop.
And he’d smiled, drawn back, leaving just one hand on her leg, hot as the coffee.
You want to go slower. he’d said. Ok. That’s cool.
And she’d gone back out to the desert while he talked, telling her he was going to college next month, what he was studying. She realized she didn’t care. She realized she shouldn’t have come, but how could she not? After all, he’d asked her. It was only polite.
She realized his hand was moving up her leg, wondered if it mattered, and decided she wished she had a cigarette. She’d have blown the smoke in his face. Instead, she pulled her leg over to the side. Out of the line of fire.
She lights a fire, there, where she’s found space, and time to breathe. Stares into the tower of sparks, rising like so many stars into the sky, going back to where ever they came from. Ascending. Always ascending. Maybe into nothing, but better to burn out in glory.
She wraps her arms in the blanket from the back of her car. Incongruously soft and fluffy compared to the scratchy-edged, thorned landscape. Cloud-like waves of comfort. She pushes that aside, holds her hands out to the fire.
He frowned then.
What’s wrong? he said. You wanted to come out with me. And I took you up here, and now you’re going to, what, say you didn’t want to?
She wanted to answer, but she walked somewhere, out on the high desert, where the steady wind pushed back her hair and filled her mouth with grit, so she said nothing.
Come on. He said. Just go along with it. You’ll have fun, I promise. And you don’t want to be a tease do you? I could tell people, anyway, and they’d believe me.
And then there was the hand again, high up, on her thigh, requiring, begging, expecting. She didn’t know enough then to be afraid. That didn’t come till much later. When it was all over.
The fire fills the sky with motes of fireflies, dancing upward till they meet the stars, and become just more pinpoints in the void. She is ready, she thinks, to begin to understand. Here, where the empty sweep of her soul meets the perfect desolation of sand and trees and fire, she can find a kind of serenity.
She sits back, in her blanket cocoon, and there is only darkness, and the tiny, small sounds of the night so sharp in silence. She hears it first. Not a small animal, bigger. A body that moves through the darkness without disturbance, the noise it adds part of the great, grand, percussive night.
She looks, and it comes. It’s body low, eyes wide and reflecting back those star-sparks that seem like part of forever. It is a she, she sees, it has the heavy, hanging body of a nursing mother. It takes a step, another. Unafraid of her, where she sits on the log, arms wrapped around herself like she’ll hold herself together.
She hears herself whispering. A litany, a prayer, a long endless sentence of guilt and forgiveness. And still it watches her, settled back on tawny haunches, head tilted to the side, ears up. Listening.
Finally, her words run out, run dry like the last drops of water from a bottle, like the flash flood sinking into wash sand. It has been said, come out of her, unravelling like fine thread.
She breathes in the dry air, tasting of manzanita and fear, and breathes it out touched by nothing save her own readiness. It is not about forgiving, she realizes. You can’t forgive anyone but yourself, and only then for what you didn’t know, for the times you didn’t trust yourself.
She looks at it, the wise eyes wide under the moon, and knows this is not the end.
Then she blinks, and it is gone, only she remembering it had been there at all.