I took a UCLA Extensions class called “Writing Creative Non-Fiction” a few years ago and I wrote this for that class. It’s about roughly the same period of time as Part 2 and it’s always slightly horrifying to go back and read something you wrote more than a year ago.
The sun slunk down behind whatever mountains those were and brought the temperature down with it. The heat of the day slowed its fatal pace. The sandy dirt beneath my bare feet lost its burn and felt just pleasantly warm. Next to me, my girlfriend of five months sat in a new, collapsible chair, identical to my own.
We’d wandered into the desert to go camping and so I could meet her closest friends. All of them. Dozens of them. Hundreds. Or maybe just six.
Since we were the first to arrive in Joshua Tree, we picked the campsite we liked best. I’d borrowed my parents’ big old tent, the same one we camped in when I was a kid. It was as dusty as it was unwieldy. We had to convince one of the poles to stay in place with liberal amounts of duct tape. When the tent was finally tamed, my girlfriend got out her cell phone to text the others our location, but we were way out of range and our phones were useless. We walked past lines of better-behaved tents baking in the sun to the wooden welcome sign and bulletin board—sprouting like faded brush beside the campsite entrance. We wrote our initials and campsite number on a paper plate tacked to the board.
“I guess we’ll see if that works,” said my girlfriend.
We spent the gloaming in our camping chairs drinking warm cans of Tecate and wondering if The Friends would find us. My girlfriend wished they would. I wished they wouldn’t, because I knew these friends made up my girlfriend’s ecosystem, her climate, her environmental niche. But where was I was on their food chain? They knew we’d been together just a few months and I was pretty sure they knew I’d been with my boyfriend for much longer. In this strange place, awaiting the judgement of strange people on a relationship paradigm that was unusual at best, my cell phone was not the only one out of range.
Just when it seemed we would stay a party of two out there under the stars, The Friends pulled up in a car with the brights on. They honked the horn and piled out, all hugs and hellos, firewood, coolers and tent stakes. There was a great shaking out of nylon and sleeping bags. And then The Friends closed around me at the campfire my girlfriend was poking with a long stick. I considered making a run for it, but I am way too pale to survive a weekend alone in the desert.
“What is everything we should know about you—that’s a good question, right?” asked the photographer from Vienna. I put my hands in my jeans pockets. Then in my jacket pockets. I traced sand with the toes of my sneakers. All I could think of were things not to say. I took a breath and stammered out an innocuous list—hometown, job, favorite author.
The Friends hadn’t been all together in a while, but they fell quickly into old patterns. I watched them fill their plates and tell old stories, revive old jokes. I watched my girlfriend in her native habitat.
Two women with headlamps walked past our fire. They wore matching khaki shorts, and plaid shirts with the sleeves cut off. As they looked at us and ran their fingers through choppy short hair, the Eagle Rock dog walker whispered “desert lesbians.” We giggled like girls half our age and they made each other laugh until the fire died.
I knew the desert would get hot, but I had no idea it would get so cold. We shivered through the night, barely sleeping. My girlfriend and I pulled nearly-numb fingers out of our sleeping bags to feel each others’ frozen noses.
In the morning, we discovered I was the only one with coffee and a coffee maker. Having something necessary to contribute made me feel more comfortable. I made pot after pot of coffee and filled The Friends’ cups. They started to spin increasingly absurd plans for keeping warm the next night. They got sticks and poked diagrams into the sand of where we would place heated rocks and blankets woven out of cactus needles and lizard skins.
The yogi from San Francisco, suggested we take a hike before it got too hot. She knew a good one, she said. It’s pphhewwww, she said, moving her hand evenly across her field of vision.
“Smooth sailing, not even a hike, just a walk.”
She was right, it wasn’t a hike, it was a death march. I walked miles in a t-shirt and torn jeans up a narrow trail with the bright, hot sun inches from my fair skin and long, heavy hair. When I was brave enough to look down, my stomach dropped and I could swear I heard vultures calling my name. My girlfriend and I defected when her asthma and my vertigo became too great. We draped ourselves over the front seats of my girlfriend’s car with our legs out the windows, waiting for the others to return. I leaned my head back, and felt my warm body relax in the semi-shade. I felt my eyes shut and inhaled the smell of heat and sage
Back at camp, we played Scrabble, set up a badminton net and chatted. Topics covered included: who is Tasha dating, why isn’t Tasha dating, celebrity gossip and Things I Heard on NPR. We passed around magazines and found common ground. There was no plague of questions about what exactly I thought I was doing, which was a huge relief considering I wasn’t really sure. There was another fire, another dinner. A less frigid night. Time to go home.
“So,” I said to my girlfriend while buckling my seat belt, “what did they think of me?”
“I don’t know, but I bet they’ll talk about us the whole ride back.”
My girlfriend drove us back to Los Angeles with the windows rolled down. We watched the Joshua trees give way to palms and then street lights and we held hands. I released her warm fingers, the same length as my own, only when she had to shift gears and when we kissed goodbye.
On the other side of my apartment’s front door it was cool and quiet. The shades were drawn in the living room—like they always were, keeping the light out, keeping the smell of weed in. I expected my boyfriend to call out “hello” when he heard the door open. He wasn’t planted, as per usual, in the dim living room wearing the scrubs I took from my brother and his own “free Burma” t-shirt, so well-worn the ink of the shirt’s clenched red fist was peeling away from the black jersey. He wasn’t in the kitchen or our bedroom.
The apartment wasn’t just silent, it was stripped of sound. It was a Monday in Hollywood, but too late for morning traffic and too early for evening traffic. There were no honking horns and slamming car doors. No tires screeching to a halt behind a car that had suddenly pulled into a vacant parking spot.
As I started setting down my stuff, I realized I’d brought the ghost of our campfire home with me. I hadn’t known our apartment to smell like anything other than the weed we smoked and the food we cooked, but here was a campfire, long since extinguished, alive in my grey hoodie and dirty blue jeans. There was desert sand in the bottoms of my shoes, I could feel it with every step—a gritty reminder beneath my heels and between my toes that I had been away and now was back. But maybe not totally.
I called his phone, but there was no answer and I started to get the drift. I was meant to find this space barren and unwelcoming. The cool and the quiet tacked up either end of an invisible banner that read “this is the beginning of the end.”
I dropped my backpack on the bedroom rug and took the wadded up tent out back to the trash. I took a shower and washed my hair twice. But as it dried, I could still smell the campfire and the apartment grew pregnant with the sound of my boyfriend not calling me back.