Published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Summer 2017.
I am not here for the lava beds. I am here because a month ago, in the middle of an advertising meeting at the insurance company for which I work, my boss said, “Jude, do you have anything to add?”
And I said: “Yes. I’m leaving.” And I walked out the door, my mug and milk-scummed bowl still on my desk, packages of oatmeal beside migraine pills in the top drawer. Colleagues who only knew my name studied me suddenly, their mouths parted, unsure whether they ought to feel pity or jealousy. I did not return my boss’s texts or answer his calls, which was hardly fair; he’s a lovely man. But I couldn’t bring myself to apologize. The words evaporated in my mouth.
Anyway, my phone soon returned to silence. The company hired two staff to replace my position (it turned out I was not such an essential part of the team as I’d been told—merely prolific), and that part of my life was over. My friends bored of me reenacting my departure and I spent my days puttering about the house: taking apart window frames, computer keys, and fridge shelves to clean. Scouring the pantry and closets for items to throw out.
Dan was supportive, as always. Although he did say, “You needn’t have burned all your bridges, too.” He wanted me to see a therapist, convinced I must be under some incalculable stress. After sex, he slumped against my chest so his weight pressed me into the mattress and asked, “Is this how you feel?” I felt remarkably calm. Remarkably light. Relieved, perhaps. So I thanked him for the advice, but insisted I must decline. “My head’s working well, pal.”
Of course I had to work. Not even Dan with his great love could ignore the mortgage, and after three weeks, he gently suggested we brainstorm what type of job would make me happy. I resisted the urge to say astronaut. Dolphin trainer. Contortionist. Each night, Dan could untangle me before bed.
“I need a vacation,” I said. I wanted to forget about scalability and efficiency. I wanted to quit dismantling our four small rooms. There was only so much to swab with rubbing alcohol in 600 square feet. I wanted a new project.
My plan was to hike every national park in the country. I researched how many calories you needed to eat a day (3,000, about), how much a pack should weigh (30 pounds, tops); I collected recipes for lightweight meals (pasta, orzo, beans) and debated the virtues of the higher proofs of alcohol. I hung the tent out to air and eviscerated the United States of America online with criss-crossing driving routes held together by pins. Screws, rods, tectonic plates, I was mapping a surgery that would leave my body harder, my muscles stronger, so that I would emerge from Florida as someone new. This would be the type of adventure other people wrote books about.
“Timing’s tight. I have a conference in Las Cruces in a week,” Dan said. “Why don’t we go to New Mexico?”
Two days later, we flew into Santa Fe and rented a car and it did not matter how many groceries we bought or the weight of wine. I filled the shopping cart to the brim. If our trip were a blog post, which it was not, the title would have been “How to fit five days of food and booze into the trunk of a Chevy Volt.” Fortunately, Dan was good at organizing.
Three days later and we were driving east through the great inland sea, away from California. Eighty million years of detritus grinding beneath our rental’s tires and, to my disappointment, not a single flat. I could barely steer between the Oakland pot holes without busting a bicycle tube. But Dan says that’s because I don’t know how to look after things. Really, I don’t want to, which is different.
“You sure I can’t drive?” he asked several times, even here, in New Mexico, where it doesn’t matter what we break. I sprung for insurance, roadside assistance, the small checked box above the line on which I signed my name. Six years of risk management and I can recognize an upsell, but since I lost my job I’ve discovered a talent for spending.
Earlier that day I shook my head, “I enjoy hurtling a two-ton metal box containing our bodies forward in space and time.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Dan said and kissed me on the cheek, before turning back to the paper he’d illustrated with one of the thousands of free conference pens I find between the couch cushions at home. Better than condoms, I suppose. Dan is speaking at the University of New Mexico on robotics, or as the conference program reads: “Unsupervised Trajectory Segmentation of Multi-Modal Surgical Demonstrations with Deep Learning.” The blue-ink gashes and stitches and miniscule words he’s managed to nurse in the passenger seat without throwing up do not leave me confident that his robots have learned enough to fix anyone.
I pressed my foot a little harder on the gas. Above us, kestrels raced along highways of hot air.
We were driving to El Malpais, the Badlands, which did not look particularly grim, once you’d spent a few days studying various arrangements of the same dun-colored rocks, this one carved from sandstone, this from basalt. “Shale?” Dan asked. I can point out the differences because I’ve put my English education to good use and read every one of the brochures at the visitor centers, as well as most of the guides I do not own. My need to spend does not extend to the practical.
One mile turned to a hundred, then two, and Indian paintbrush split open the plateau and pygmy pines sprouted in groves—there was even a tarred road! For which Dan was grateful. He squeezed my knee, “You have to take care of yourself.” He, too, does not trust the precise calipers of his machines.
I complained: “But how are we supposed to get lost now and live off the land, forging deep connections with our ancestors’ ghosts?”
“Your family’s from the northwest,” he said. “And you’ve memorized the location of every back road and gas station in the state.”
Still, in this self-same landscape, I thought how easy it would be to get lost. Turn left at the casino billboard on 54, then hang a right at the prickly pear and again when you cross the cholla that spits out spines. . . How quickly one could stray into virgin territory, clodding across the fine flowers in leather boots.
Plenty of men have vanished in this desert. I told Dan, “A bunch ran mad.” They sprinted around the plains in circles as the bullsnakes underfoot turned to slithers of gold. “The Spanish sent expeditions through New Mexico to hunt out the riches they thought were hidden in the pueblos. The Navajo killed plenty of those suckers. Then the Navajo were killed.”
“Dreams can be dangerous.” We’re philosophical about massacre.
“No kidding. A train robber tried to escape with his loot here. He and his partner ran out of food and almost died.” Was there a shade of envy in my voice? “By the time he resurfaced from jail, he’d forgotten where he’d buried the cash.” I am brim-full of useless facts and shed them liberally.
Only it seemed poor. Few stores survived on these roads. The fruits and vegetables all came from California.
“Finally!” Dan said. “The paper’s ready for you to at camp. Have you seen my sunglasses?” I coach him on his phrasing, his delivery. In high school I had a knack for performance.
The ranger in El Malpais was not busy. She clicked her pen patiently and offered opinions on all I studied in the fold-out maps. “Primitive path.” “Steep climb.” “Favorite haunt for rattlesnakes.” Preparation, after all, the key to making the most spectacular mistakes. “How long do you have?” she asked, throwing back her hair, which was as pink as the petals on the barrel cactus flowers outside.
Days, I wanted to say. Months. Years. Eternities. We have eras and eons and contain multitudes.
Dan said, “Six hours, max.” He still needed to build a slide deck.
The ranger tapped several trailheads on the diagram beneath the counter. “Just some ideas, dear. This one is perfect if it’s privacy you want,” she winked, which made me wonder how common national park blow jobs were. I nodded politely; in black and white, they all looked the same. “And here you’ll hike along a ridge to an arch. You have tremendous views of the lava beds, which is why you’re here. You’re literally looking out over the path the Acoma and Zuni walked to trade.”
“We were told in Chaco they traded at the market there,” Dan said. I glanced at him, surprised that he’d been listening and a little annoyed. He’s one of those people who makes kindness feel like a tendon, a strength that ties you up to keep your bones from shattering apart.
“They traded at Chaco, too, sure. All the peoples met there, as I’m certain Mike explained.” We nodded for Mike’s sake, though we did not know who he was: a hermit, a pan-flute musician, “Terrific ranger. Dedicated. But he has some ideas.” She shook her head, then leaned in to whisper, “I bet he didn’t mention that the Chacoans were communists?” She paused for the revelation to sink in, but not too long, in case we said yes. “Macaw feathers were a sign of royalty in the south. Only the wealthy were allowed to own them. But in Chaco, where Macaws never lived, we’ve found evidence of feathers traded like any other good.” The ranger was unstoppable by then, though we’d pocketed the map on the counter and paid for our camping pass. “They had no hierarchies there. Maybe because property was passed down matrilineally, sensible bunch. No offense, love,” she patted Dan’s hand. Her arm was wrinkled from years of sun and wind, but her skin was soft as melted butter. “You want to know why Chaco was abandoned, with all its buildings and its wealth, just look at America today. And I’m not saying that because of the shutdown, though I take offense to not getting paid. We hunt out equality.”
“Maybe they wanted to disappear,” I said. I’d noticed there was no unchecked box for that possibility on the rental’s forms. A moral hazard.
The ranger was right, though. The lava flow was impressive. It was also a hundred degrees out, so when Dan and I hiked to the ridge, sweat filmed our bodies, as though we’d swum. Dan wiped this coat away with a microfiber towel he bought for the trip, but I liked the sensation of a new skin. I could be a salamander, a newt. The universe was wide with possibility! Not romantic creatures, true, but when the heat burned off the sweat I’d turn into crystals of salt. Vultures could feast on me—forget quitting mid-meeting, there’d be a show.
The last time anyone really looked at me I had a ticket in my hand for a flight from Bangor to a fancy college on the opposite coast. Family and friends had gathered to toast a future that was immense and sparkling and would by dint of my hard work unfold before me. They had faith that I would succeed and I believed them, though I could not yet envision what these accomplishments would entail. Or rather I envisioned too much: traipsing through war-torn villages, speaking at champagne galas—I seem to recall the image of a NASA space suit, though I’ve never excelled at math.
Still, with Dan leaning on his knees as he sucked at his inhaler and breathed in, breathed out (this, after I’d had to remind him twice to bring the damn thing), I could calculate how far the basalt, which stretched in all directions, extended (miles).
“There’s a village under the rock. A whole town buried there, wouldn’t you know?” And I imagined the Acoma and the Zuni, walking with their hardened feet across the pumice, the razor blade cuts no longer even leaving beads of blood on their bare flesh. Their bodies turning to a distant memory.
“Incredible,” he finally said, when his lungs were no longer squishing together like collapsed papier mâché. “Must have been quite the eruption,” which was somewhere between insignificant and catastrophic, I suppose, and probably accurate.
Four miles later though and the luster of the Badlands was lost. Dan insisted we turn back: “It’s empty here.”
“Barren,” I said. “Almost like a desert.” Although the whole steppe was full. Of never-ending igneous rock and the juniper that burst from its pores and the sky.
No, I’m not here for the lava beds. I’m here because my life is someone else’s dream. Friday night Korean barbecue and Sunday cycles through redwood groves are pleasant, but not enough. I’m here to find my own story.
This is what I think back at camp as we sit on a picnic bench and Dan asks if I’m feeling alright. I feel great. I drink first the red, then the white from my collapsible silicone cup and stir the fusilli. Water boils slower at elevation and though the land seems flat, we’re on the Colorado plateau, the ocean seven thousand feet beneath our soles. In the dark, the small blue flame from the stove drowns out the moon and stars. It’s only nine pm and we’ve played too many rounds of rummy; I’ve exhausted solitaire. What’s left to kill time? Secrets, naturally.
Dan claims he’s kept nothing hidden from me. If there’s anything I don’t know it’s just that he hasn’t recalled the past in years. I call his bluff. “We’ve all done something terrible.”
Dan is silent a long time, and you can hear the alcohol burn. Then he says, “I used to cheat on English exercises in middle school. They’d hand out quiz cards, and I was smart so I hated making mistakes. We marked ourselves and if I had too many errors I changed my answer. I was always top of the class.” He poked at the pasta. “I was ill that year and missed a lot of school.” I should feel sorry for this skinny boy, with his oversized glasses, and his big ears, trying so hard to succeed. But I’m disappointed by his ambition. Dan’s secret is boring. “You?”
All I can think of is the moment a month ago when the elevator lurched as we loaded ourselves in. And I leapt. I leapt onto steady ground, leaving him to disappear.
“When we first started dating,” I said. “I wasn’t on the pill.”
He does not ask the next question and we go to sleep. It’s been a long three days.
I’d driven us straight to Chaco from the rental agency. Dan claimed he’d always wanted to visit Santa Fe, but it was the first I’d heard of him wanting to go anywhere. He loved the craftsman we’d bought five years ago, even though the rooms were narrow and the plumbing rattled and the seed pods from the tree next door clogged our drains. So I told Dan there were cities like Santa Fe everywhere. “In Spain, Bolivia, Paraguay. There’s a whole province in Argentina.”
“There’s also no shortage of ruins,” he said.
But it was good we started early; I’d had to drive slow to keep the rental from getting too beat up, the doors and undercarriage buckshot with rock. Even Dan quit reading, the pitching over uneven terrain too much.
“This was the center of an American civilization a thousand years ago,” I said. “No one knows why they abandoned Chaco. The buildings were sealed and the roofs of the kivas burned. Maybe there was a war. Or a curse.”
“Maybe there was a drought,” Dan said, staring miserably out the window, which was coated in dust. Then the car leapt over a boulder, which scraped along the frame, and his hand snapped out to keep me from shooting through the windscreen and punched me in the gut. “You okay?”
“Nothing a little buffing won’t fix,” I wheezed and smiled, because it was a stupid question. I’d abandoned my job and brought us to the middle of the desert in June. I’d spent enough time analyzing data to know that these were not typical actions of someone who was alright.
I peeled myself from the seat to inspect the damage and check for leaks. Not that I had cell service to call for help. Still, I went through the motions for Dan’s sake: rubbing at nicks in the paint, bending to peer beneath the chassis. I kicked a tire or two for good measure, and the sting in my toes suggested they were inflated right. “Looks like she’ll survive,” I said, but Dan wasn’t listening. He was measuring the depth of a ding. I measured the basin, which did not stop, but went on, as though there was nothing on this earth but thorn trees and scorpions and scrub. And out of this crust, between the wildflowers and rocks and the cactus spines, plowed a plane. Aiming up, straight up, to the galaxy. Unhindered as it rose even by gravity. Such a small piece of metal in the sky—tacky, really; a Christmas-cracker toy. But how quickly it folded the vast atmosphere.
“Jude?” Dan touched my elbow. “Love?”
“Yes? Yes,” I said and returned to the air-conditioned car. After all, there are space ships everywhere.
In the Visitor’s Center, I shook the various stuffed toys so that the little plastic voice boxes in the birds and the rodents and the mammals screamed. I had to raise my voice to ask the ranger for a hike “and two waters, please.” The ranger seemed to have issued from some far-flung history, with his silver hair in an exquisite braid. The polo shirt and khakis he wore seemed almost unseemly against such elegance, but that might have been because he was a large man and the clothes a half-size too small. “You have to know what you’re looking for,” he said with an air of authority. “Water’s in the fridge.”
“What’s the longest hike?” I asked. “The best?”
He pointed to a dotted line, which was difficult. Two of his fingers were crooked and aimed west. “But you won’t appreciate much wandering around. In the twenty years I’ve worked here, I’ve led scientists and politicians and writers through this place for into understanding Chaco—if any of us can claim to have unlocked the secrets of this place—come back tonight for our star program.” He suggested this with some reluctance. The animals had only just shut up. On my way out, I squeezed one final horse. The whinny followed us to the car.
The ruins were empty, most visitors retreating to what little shade was left at three. We wandered through the rooms alone. This must have been the kitchen with the smoke stains on the stone, there the sleeping quarters, a kiva underground. We itemized the buildings quickly and moved on. We did not know what we should look for, and while I was used to this sensation, it frustrated Dan. So we basted ourselves with sunscreen and hiked up the sandstone mesa where the purpose was obvious.
“There were conifers here once,” I said. “And cypresses and swamps and estuaries and ash and oak.”
“And castles and aqueducts and kings and queens, no doubt. And now look,” Dan said, sadly, once he’d finished sucking his inhaler. “Everything’s barren. The ground’s cut up in brown pieces like a game of Catan.”
Ecru. The ruins and in the distance the Fajada butte, which had eroded through wind and rain into the most improbable shape, were ecru.
Shadows shifted on the slickrock outcrops, burning the canyon first pink, then gold. Dan fiddled with aperture and shutter speed and sacrificed what seemed to be a whole memory card to capture the perfect picture of me staring across what was once the Great Inland Sea as I counted plumes of dust.
Chaco Canyon is one of the darkest places on the continental United States, so it’s a favorite for astronomers. There’s an irony to that: coming to this lifeless place in search of life. They perch on the bare mesas to pick through the junk in the sky, which is littered with satellites and asteroids and the debris of all our hopes. Pardon, I’m a maudlin drunk. The night sky show, then, was popular.
“Who noticed that at noon the mid-wall in Pueblo Bonito casts no shadow?” the ranger with the perfect plait asked. “It is precisely aligned north-south. Why? The Puebloans used architecture to measure time: to know when to seed and when to harvest their crops. They understood astronomy.” He scratched his head with nails blunt and pristine, as though the thought still astonished him, then enumerated the various means by which the Chacoans had exhibited their astronomical prowess. The examples did not feature in any guidebooks I’d read, but who was I to argue with the sage of Chaco past. “And wouldn’t you study the night with such a sky?” He spread his arms wide to gather the stars and we craned our necks, painfully, to follow his gaze. It was time to see Saturn.
“Quite the orator,” Dan said, as we waited in a long line for the telescope behind children we complained about. The children weren’t making mischief, but they offended us. All that energy, that excitement, that need. We toasted our excellent decision to remain child-free. My excellent decision. Dan wanted three kids. A food processor. A marriage and a garden shed.
“He’d make a great cult leader,” I replied.
If we hadn’t had such trouble finding the planet through the telescope as it swam through the night sky, I would have been convinced the ranger had pasted a sticker to the lens. We call that managing expectations at work. Through the glass I could just make out a hoop bounding a pale circle the color of soap.
“It looked so small,” Dan marveled as we walked back to our tent by the beams of our headlamps. I nodded and was about to add, It looked cheap; then he said, “So lonely out there.”
Our campsite seemed miles away. Torches ahead of us flickered—beacons we couldn’t reach—and it was as if we were wading. Wading, wading through the once swamp on the edge of the great inland sea. Any moment, I would be able to lift my feet from the earth and swim. Away from California. Past Saturn. Through the Milky Way. Into the seam between the galaxies.
Then floating from somewhere right behind Jupiter came the twang of a plucked note and the strum of a chord and a man with one of those wiry voices people think passes for plaintive begged to be rocked like a wagon wheel and the universe that had been at my fingertips collapsed.
“Camping makes everyone a musician,” Dan said later. “And they only know one song and it’s always about a love they’ll never find.”
“What were they doing leaving their loves in the first place?” I said, spitting my toothpaste far from the tent.
“Exactly.” And Dan looked at me and my tongue felt fat and clumsy in my mouth. I did not think Dan would abandon me. In fact, that’s what I worried about.
I’d grown to hate my family and friends over the years for their dumb faith. How foolish to continue believing I was something special! Their expectations weighed on me and I avoided reunions. And the mailbox and social media and mirrors. I’d expected to be someone else by now, someone spectacular, and couldn’t accept the very real evidence that I was mediocre at best.
I was in that half-asleep, half-waking state that night when he entered the tent. I didn’t hear him climb over our packs and settle across my sleeping bag. He moved gently. But the mass of him must have made some impression because I grunted and half-opened my eyes. His face was only inches away. I gasped and jerked back, slamming my elbow into a rock, and—fully conscious finally—sighed. For a moment, I had not recognized him. Every plane of his face, which I knew so well, had been that of a stranger’s. I kissed him to cover my mistake, but quickly. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the lips, the tongue, the body that held me was unknown.
Here’s a secret I’ve never told Dan: when we make love, I imagine him having sex with prostitutes, children, friends. Never me. Anyone but me.
Afterwards, I was wakeful. I overflowed with wakening. The ground was hard and uneven beneath my sleeping pad, which I had not blown up enough—and I was not used to sleeping in a tent. The polyester walls flapped loudly in and out with each breath of desert air, like the soft valve of a heart.
I felt trapped. I wanted to tear at the mesh netting, to scream, to run.
Then I was running and my legs tangled in synthetic fiber and down, slippery from sweat. But the running wouldn’t stop. It went on and the tent trembled as the guy line tightened and turned slack. I shot up, clutching my sleeping bag, which was thick and new, and would be useless against a knife. Dan did not move; his mouth hung open, limp. I suspected he would doubt that murderers stomped about their victims before an attack, so I let him sleep.
I knew I should stay put. Keep quiet. Go back to bed. But I reached for the tent’s zip and listened to the teeth unlock.
There were horses, wild horses, chewing at the grass in the light of the full moon. Their thick haunches bent to pull the soft flowers from the sand. And their eyes gleamed bright, so bright they might have been stickers too. One mottled creature sneezed and lifted its head and caught my stare. The nostrils fanned in and out, the muscles achingly still beneath its fine hair.
I pulled back my lips, bared my teeth, and snarled.
Sometimes I try “to get my shit together.” I scour job listings and training programs. When that fails, I remind myself that getting older is a matter of compromise. I must make peace with the world. I study other mediocre people in search of the secret to their happiness. But in the end I won’t give in. I hold onto my disappointment as though it were a life-preserving buoy.
And no, having children would change nothing. I would not find my purpose in diapers and doctors’ visits and award ceremonies with their hard bleacher seats. Call me new-aged, but I’m averse to giving birth just to be a mother. After all, I’m already a wife, and look where that’s got me (to a lava field, I suppose). If anything, children, with all the demands their small bodies make on one’s organs and skin, would make matters worse. I’ve friends who’ve lost control of themselves, no matter how much they practice their pelvic exercises. I am determined to keep some parts of my body for myself.
The next morning I slept in, waking only when Dan brought me coffee. “The horses,” I explained. “They were so loud. You didn’t hear?”
Dan shook his head and tabbed through his latest draft. “Are you sure they were there?” The wind had swept the hoofprints from the dust. I stared at the hands wrapped around my mug. I felt like I was falling apart.
I felt this way in Chaco and then in El Malpais. I began squeezing my limbs, to check if I’d left pieces in the dirt, the wind razing off a pinkie here, an earlobe there. By the time we reach Las Cruces, I’ll be a single throbbing vein.
After El Malpais we drop down past Truth or Consequences. The town was once a resort destination, I learn, when we stop for lunch at Subway and I have a cell signal again. At its peak before World War II, it boasted over forty hot spring spas. Now just ten remain, which seems fitting. The town, too, has eroded over time. Perhaps the locals knew this would happen and that was why they changed their name in 1950 to the title of a popular radio show. For years they even had a “Fiesta” in honor of the program, complete with parades and performances and the crowning of a
When we pass through the San Andres mountains, it seems as though the peaks, which cut into the low-hanging sky, close around us, like the jaws of something that eats meat.
You can’t see the dunes when you first enter White Sands, just a stretch of Chihuahuan desert and a line of cars at border control. “They have no right to set up checkpoints,” Dan says. We’re a hundred miles and two hours from Mexico. “I’m allowed to travel without ID.” Though he doesn’t. Dan’s wallet is full of cards. Driver’s license and university building entry and evidence of health care coverage. He’s a veritable exhibition of himself.
Jude, I repeat to myself in case I’m asked. I’ve almost forgotten my name. But I can remember every specie of tree in the badlands, every award I’ve ever won, and how many calories a chicken Alfredo recipe contains.
But the agent only asks me where I’m from, and when I say, “California,” waves us through. Dan is furious. We should have been silent, I suppose. But my job the past six years has been avoiding confrontation, and I’m very good at it.
We drive across a plateau of grass. The dunes are covered in yucca, which soon thins so the hills glare in the sun, unbroken and gypsum-sharp. Teenagers have laid out colorful towels and are sunbathing in their swimsuits. There are boom boxes blasting top forty hits and coolers stuffed with ice and beer and sausages on truck bed barbecues. Kids surf on boogie boards down the steep slopes, kicking sand into the suntan lotion and the snacks.
Then there’s a thunderclap that drowns the day and all heads turn towards the pale afternoon moon as if by command. But it’s just a fighter jet swooping by. The girls leave the little boys to guess the make and speed and mission and return to their magazines. l glare at the ugly trail of clouds the aircraft left.
I do not recognize this world we’re in: a park teeming with people, the sky cluttered with dangerous things. This is not what we expected. And frankly all that youthful beauty is sickening. Their bodies are so full. Not that I’m spindling; I’ve a healthy heft. But my weight hangs off me, as if it does not belong to this set of bones. I catch it sometimes trying to defect and find another host. This is how I married Dan, after all. I am morally hazardous.
Sand washes across the black road in the wind. Buries the sign warning visitors of unexploded ordnance. The Park is an active missile testing site, so we stop at the Visitor Center to check that it’s not currently being blown apart with weapons that will be deployed in Iraq. “Bring water,” says the ranger, who is just a boy with a well-starched collar and neatly pressed shorts. “We also have a selection of sunscreens for sale.” There’s a pause as we wait. We’ve come to expect a theory from our park employees. He’s growing into his role.
“What’s the story behind the monument?” Dan leads. “Was this another Hopi site?” He’s trying to play along with my newfound interest in all ruins historical.
The ranger blinks twice, but his smile never slips. “Don’t forget to check out the Trinity site where they tested the first atomic bomb!” Then he responds to the heavy walkie-talkie strapped to his waist and turns his attention to the next in a long line. No people would live here, we’re supposed to presume. The ranch by Lake Lucero that the guides recommend has been abandoned for decades.
Dan has no desire to visit the place where we perfected the art of destroying each other. So we park the car and load our backpacks, which are still clean from sitting safely in the trunk all week. We have to hike to camp. Dan packs a compass to make sure we find our way back. A couple died just last year, wandering through this small white desert with their son. A tragic accident, articles claimed. But there are mountains you can see over the tips of the dunes. Every crest casts a shadow to the road. I don’t believe in accidents.
We do not have far to walk according to the map, but trekking across sand is hard. We crinkle our eyes against the wind barrelling over the playa, conjuring small tornadoes of sand. I hunch my shoulders and lean forward, the sting of glass on my cheeks. This was what I wanted after all. The great outdoors! I wanted to be buffeted and whipped until I eroded into an unrecognizable form. When I look back the way we came, the sands have buried the Indian ricegrass we passed and my heart pauses, skips a beat—two—and my body tingles, waiting for the pounding to begin.
The dunes can move over twenty feet a year like this. One grain at a time.
“Remarkable,” Dan says when I explain, and I know he’s thinking of his machines. How much they could accomplish with one precise snip and stitch in microscopic space.
Eventually, I stop to rest beneath the pedestal of a sumac bush. The sand is cool beneath the sun and I stretch out, enjoying the weightlessness of my body without a pack, starfishing so the chill massages the knots in my arms and legs. I could lie here forever. But there’s something wet beneath my right hand and my fingers probe the ground, which sinks beneath my touch; the fine grains turn to sludge. Anywhere else and the paste could be plaster of Paris. You could build a body from the earth. l should tell Dan this: Hold those surgical robots, pal. Who needs to fix useless skin-sacks when you can make them fresh! Maybe that’s what the family that died here thought: they’d discard their bodies and begin again. I can almost see them walking hand in hand, unencumbered through the sand.
There is evidence in this dried up lake bed of all the people who have disappeared. Fossils of sticks and spears and bows once used to hunt American lions and mastodons and mammoths with no wool, because back then there was no head office to issue memoranda on safety policies, and if there were, they might deem the risk necessary to survive. Perhaps they’d even write a best practices guide to threats. I try to imagine what this might contain, but I’ve only ever run away, with mixed success. And when I’m lazy, accepted fate—in which I don’t believe.
Dan slumps beside me. He is struggling to breathe and gasps, but the air is humid. It clogs the throat. I should touch him. I should rub his back and say that we can turn around.
“I forgot my inhaler,” he explains. I look at the birds, so many birds in the sky, and wait until his breathing slows.
“We’re in the mountains,” I say to distract us both. “When it rains the runoff collects in the lake, which evaporates. Then there’s just gypsum left. And the gypsum breaks apart over time, and the wind causes all the particles to collide, so they get finer and finer until it feels like you’re walking on glass.” He looks as though I’m made of glass. He can see right through me to the Gulf of Mexico. A bleached earless lizard darts across my ankle, surprised that I exist.
When we wake the next morning, the landscape is strange. The dunes have shifted, the yucca moved. A herd of African oryx wander along the plains. I blink at the sight, before remembering that oryx were brought to New Mexico from the Kalahari desert in Africa to be killed. Big game hunting would invigorate the parks, a commission had thought. As though introducing wild species had not wreaked havoc everywhere. And lo, the hunters could not kill the animals fast enough and they spread, trampling the gypsum and the wildlife beneath their hooves. I can imagine the man responsible for this miscalculation studying the population swell, pleased at first. I can recognize the faint tightness that would have gripped his chest as the numbers grew. And how finally, horrified that his animals did not stop fucking, a part of him would thrill at the change he’d wrought.
We could be anywhere. Anywhere but here.
We pack the tent and the trash and l take one last look around before we leave for Dan’s conference. We’re booked into the Sheraton for the night. This is it: my great experiment. A single overnighter in a range cluttered with the same mines found in Kandahar.
As we set out, my pocket lightens, and I feel better. My joints unstitch and I relax. The compass is buried quickly and we won’t begin to know where to look for it when we realize it’s missing later on.
“You know,” Dan says, kindly. “Life isn’t a test.” Perhaps because he still believes that being good will keep me by his side. Why he’d want that, I don’t know. Maybe he can’t comprehend life alone.
“What would I do without you?” he says when I find his lost notebooks and read over what he’s said. I don’t mean to judge him. Sometimes, I wonder that too. What would he do? And what about me without that need? l can’t imagine beyond our thin-shingled walls. It’s why his inhaler sits snug at the very bottom of my bag. It’s why I snarl so at the unlocked door.
Here’s the thing. I realized a few months ago that life was an exam and that the mediocre C I received was a failing grade. I hadn’t known the answers to the questions on the test, so I kept smiling and trying again, managing my risks and making no mistakes, like a former Hatch Chile Queen, flawlessly collecting consequences.
“There is water under the sand,” I say, when Dan studies the mountains for our way home. “The humidity keeps the dunes from blowing completely away.”
Only they’re shifting, moving, building, exploding apart with ordnance. I could lie on these sands for an eternity as they change, until only the shadow of a single vein remains, leading home the aircraft and the vultures that graze space. Can you fix me? I want to ask Dan’s robot. Its calipers clack and according to its algorithm, it begins calculations no one knows, and it sews and sews.