It is a summer evening in June, exactly 6 p.m., and there’s still sunlight and heat from the desert outside. I leave Matthew sleeping beside me, and I walk to the bathroom, where there’s a simple mirror and sink, and a small high window that’s burning with yellow light. The bathroom in the motel is clean and old-fashioned. They’ve provided a sliver of soap and fresh, stiff towels. I take a cool shower, and think I’ve never felt so clean and pure. There is light from outside, and there’s Matthew sleeping in the bed. It’s 6 p.m., and the day is over, and the day has just begun.
We leave the next morning with the motel staff smiling kindly upon us as we pull out in Matthew’s old sedan with its California plates and drive towards Highway 12. Matthew drives fast and steady. The radio is playing and we half-hum along as the mile markers blink by. We count telephone poles. We’re driving on a long flat road with empty desert on either side and dusty mountains in the distance that never get any closer.
Matthew driving. I stare out the window, but my mind doesn’t wander as it usually does; I’m rigorously in the present. Here with Matthew. I don’t want to escape to a world of my own creation, looking for something whose shape I do not know and cannot find. Matthew slows me down. I am aware of the nearness of his body. I reach out to stroke his shoulder, then settle back into the passenger seat. I understand its fabric in new ways. I feel it against the back of my head, through my clean hair, and I feel it against the back of my bare legs. I stretch my legs on the dashboard. My feet look pretty when I point my toes. I do it all for Matthew.
We haven’t known each other for long. I was laughing with a group of friends at a party, and he told me he saw me standing there that night and knew I was the one. I saw him from across the room and felt the same, and then I felt instantly shy. When he approached me I was looking down and playing with the ends of my hair. He started talking to another girl and I thought I’d never have him, but when I went to leave he caught up and spoke to me in a low voice, leaning in to show he was serious. We left the party and walked out into the hot night. Down dimly lit streets we walked and held hands until we reached the park near the university, where we sat close on the cool grass. I regained my voice and everything came out in a rush.
We see the sights, the national parks. We sleep in cheap motels advertised in blinking neon signs, and in the evening splash around in narrow, shallow swimming pools. One day we drive through the Valley of Gods, which is strange and sobering, even in the early afternoon. The rock is red and crumbling. Flat surfaces drop hundreds of feet without warning, creating new valleys, and rocks, mythic in form, tower over everything. We drive up the Moqui so we can see the buttes of Monument Valley several miles in the distance; it’s as if a powerful city stands just beyond our reach, forbidding our entry. I am moved by the bright sky, vast and cloudless, how scary everything is, how easily you’d get lost if you set out to cover any great distance. I squint in the harsh light, my ears tuned to an eerie whistling sound. I make Matthew hold my hand when we get out of the car to creep closer to the edge. My hands are sweating, but I feel my face draw into a broad and idiotic smile.
Matthew goes to take some photos while I crouch down behind the shelter of a lonesome rock to relieve myself after so many miles. Matthew finds me there with my shorts down and my hair in the wind and for a moment I’m afraid he’ll raise his camera and shoot, but something else takes him and I see that look in his eye and I know. So I leave my shorts unzipped and take my time walking over to him, opening the door to the backseat slowly.
What have I meant to tell you? About happiness. Being fearless in a harsh, uncaring land. That you go near the edge. When you are in love you are brave; you find yourself scaling heights you wouldn’t otherwise attempt, but the consequences of your actions strike you as ever more dire: what if you or your beloved were to fall and die while in pursuit of such boldness? It gives you pause, more so than when you’re lonely and don’t care what may happen.
We stop on the side of a road to make our way down a sliprock canyon, and on the climb back up I go too fast, out of fright, and realize I’m stuck. I can’t climb any farther because it’s too steep, and I’m afraid to backtrack and recover my original route. The wind screams around me, and I feel my arms losing strength; at a certain point, I know letting go and falling to my death will be the simplest option. I call, “Matthew. Matthew!” And after some time – how would I know the time – he appears from the top of the ledge and reaches down to take my hand. Like out of a dream he comes, a dream image: blond hair lit from behind, calm smile on his tanned face...when I review his face, his body in memory, this is what I always see: that hard blue sky all around, scary and endless, and then bounding into my sight, limiting that vastness, comes Matthew as if from nowhere at all, reaching down for my hand.
After I’m brought back from the edge, we walk giddily and then calmly to the car. We’re tired. It’s a long time driving before we reach a town where we can stop and buy bread for sandwiches. Then we find a park nearby lined with cottonwood trees. I press close to Matthew on the picnic bench and long to put my head on his shoulder. He says it’s too hot for that, and moves away. Looking back now, I choose this as the moment when he starts to feel trapped, or just bored. Just as I’m edging closer, looking around the park and taking in the group of tired-seeming mothers who have brought their children to play – the mothers who’ve grown heavy after a few pregnancies and are calm in their repose; they could sit in the park all day while the children shriek and run for no reason – and I say to Matthew isn’t it funny to think how maybe they’ll be at the park tomorrow, and the next day, and we won’t be, we’ll be somewhere else,
and we won’t be able to imagine them ever existing again. I’m always saying things like that. I don’t know why I say them or what I expect in response. I sense Matthew doesn’t care, doesn’t follow – I’m sending my words out into the heat and they’re burning up in the air.
A couple days later Matthew says he’s turning the car around, we’re heading back south and west, to California. Money is tight, and besides, he has other things to do.
What was I expecting? – I was and still am a sensible person: I worry about the cost of things; I try to keep my life in line. With Matthew I had forgotten this way of living and thinking – I thought we shared the same craving for cutting out and running away, but our time together was meant only as a few days’ diversion, then back to what we had known before. I had always imagined happiness as a gate you found and opened, and once inside, you were secure. And I thought I had unlatched that gate and closed it safely behind me.
On the road, pointed west, Matthew tells me I’m too intense. I’m guessing this is said in regard to my unwarranted observations, my sliding too close, my desire to turn everything into something it is not: significant. He tells me this in a joking way so as not to offend me overmuch. At the time I don’t get it completely, and am even flattered by his words, because I am a sensible person, and sensible people are not intense.
Then everything speeds up. Toward the end of the day we reach the last empty stretch of road; we’re pulling up behind a long-haul truck, and we watch as the sun’s last rays strike its silver-gilded mirrors while the truck swings left and leads us onto the ramp that will take us to a major highway. I’m entranced by this ordinary light display, and hold my breath; and once we’re in motion, moving faster now and hearing the whoosh whoosh of the cars passing by, my heart begins to beat quickly, induced by the sky’s shifting tones, the glimmer of gold ahead, stirred by some vague notion that life is opening up in front of me, that everything from now on will be better, or at least new. Soon the road behind us will be dark and then we’ll have to turn the headlights on; we’ll encounter traffic jams, and at some point I’ll fall asleep with my head drooped forward, and wake up to an achy neck. For now I concentrate on the light just beyond. We zip along, I in my happy silence, Matthew focused on the cars ahead and impenetrable in whatever he may be thinking – at one point he says we’re making good time, and yes, things start to look familiar, the trip is ending, and I can’t decide if I feel regret.
But when Matthew drops me off and doesn’t see me in, I am glad to be back in my own room, to shut the door and find myself alone. Tiny pleasures await me: keeping the room dark as I set down my things, so well do I know what is there; stripping off my clothes and leaving them till morning; opening the window and leaning my head out just far enough to see where my street bends into the next, where on the corner is a lamppost that flickers brightly and for no one. I turn back my sheets and save the greatest pleasure for last: luxuriating in what has just happened. It is so great I cannot close my eyes – I’m reminded of those times when I was younger and morning couldn’t come fast enough: I’d beat my fists against the mattress, and push my face into the pillow to smother my tremendous joy.