The sleeves of her shirt were cut wide and rolled, a take on James Dean. Her dark hair was cut short, and she wore a white v-neck t-shirt, jeans, a black half-apron. I looked at the tops of her small breasts as she bent to refill our coffee, and down her sleeve when she raised her arm to brush back her hair. Was the side of her bra mesh, or lace? Were her underarms smooth, or did she let soft fur grow there? I followed her with my eyes all morning, hungry to know. Before I found out, when we had only been out twice, when I was in her rented bedroom with the bad carpeting and screeching radiator, when I found the secret taste of her mouth, that was it. I was caught.
Those early months were a haze of sex and heady conversation, followed in the morning by giving each other more pleasure by way of breakfast offerings that would please Calafia, the mythic queen of California, our imagined homeland: large purple beans with black speckles, cooked just to tenderness and served with scorched zucchini and padrón peppers. Mushrooms fried in butter and sage over fresh pasta. Bourbon french toast piled high with crème fresh and raspberries. And always, always coffee: sometimes French press by the quart, sweet with cardamom, milk, and honey; at other times, thick, bracing espresso in small, white cups.
When May came, just warm enough for camping along the way, we packed her Jeep and trailer, and got on route 66. We were headed for southern California, to the land that was, according to legend, filled with gold-skinned amazon women who knew no men.
Driving through St. Louis, rain coming down across the windshield in sheets. I watched her mouth singing along to Johnny Cash, her forehead knitted with nostalgia. We camped in the small trailer in the lush green of the Ozarks. Our hands clasped as we walked the perimeter of a small lake; our bodies followed after, alone together in the trees humming with insects. In the morning, she put her head upside down under a free-standing faucet to wash her hair, and then, upright again, shook her head side to side spraying water all over me, like a joyful dog. I couldn’t stop laughing.
We drove under the low, grey Oklahoma skies, and I touched her hips at every gas station stop; we camped in the scrubby desert of New Mexico where coyotes howled all night, and when we slept, my hand held the hair at the nape of her neck. After a few days our unwashed skin was soft with oil, and in a gray muscle shirt, her slender arms at the wheel, the scent of her sweat filled the car, a perfume of sandalwood and onions. I throbbed all day, half-drunk on it, half-mad, two fingers looped into her front pocket as she drove.
We pulled up to Grand Canyon at sunset, and pink clouds filled the sky so low and even that the earth seemed to end a mile up. This put me in a state of mild panic, or altitude-induced hypoxia. Is this the canyon, this place where the earth ends? Can you just drive off the edge of it? Is that the flat edge of the earth? The illusion gave way as night fell and we entered the park.
We made our way to the campsite in the dark. We cooked food over a fire made from wood we bought at the Canyon General Store, and the smoke coated everything–the small, skewered tomatoes and rounds of sausage; corn still in its husk; our hands turning these things over the fire–in an oily, black, chemical layer. We ate it all anyway, taking shots of tequila to warm ourselves.
In the trailer after we ate, she lay propped on her side, and the small yellow light overhead hit the curve of her hipbone, and buttered the sloping landscape of her chest. One breast superimposed it’s shape on the other in shadow, and the hollow of belly button belly button and place where her thighs rounded into each other were deep dark in shadow, too. I looked and looked. She was so fucking beautiful it was nearly obscene.
Somehow we fit our bodies into sex in the small space, with the window cracked open to the frigid night. Be loud for me, she said, her face concentrated and stormy above mine, the way it always was in those moments. I obeyed. My desire echoed out into the canyon, ricocheting across the rock faces. In the morning, we warmed water for coffee and bathing. We bathed our hands and faces, our musky places, our black-soled feet. And then we set out to see it.
The Canyon, of course, looks just like the pictures. The pictures, of course, capture nothing of the feel: what it is to be immersed in its red pigments. The scale. What it is to stand at the edge, a step away from death.
The rigid, outermost layer of rock on our planet is broken into eight major tectonic plates. Where plates move against each other, they incite earthquakes and volcanic activity, creating mountains and deep ocean trenches. When the Kula and Farallon plates of the Pacific slid under the North American plate, they pushed up land and stone to create the Rocky Mountains. This same movement raised the Colorado River basin, and rerouted nearby bodies of water to dramatically add to its volume.
The Colorado River flowed down from the basin with a new power, and carved a gash a mile deep in the Arizona rock. Erosion expanded the gash to, at its widest point, 18 miles across. Grand Canyon is a diorama of geological time, showing 2 billion year-old schists and granite at the bottom, and moving layer by layer forward in time to the 230 million year-old limestone at the rim. At points along the rim, you can still catch glimpses of the Colorado: jade-green crooks and elbows of river at the nadir of the cut rock.
We walked the south rim so long our feet ached. I recalled a cartoon of a weary Paul Bunyan dragging his axe and carving up this ground. That green water, this river, made a bird beat in my ribcage. I kept going, needing to see the river around each next bend; I was staring down the sleeve of another shirt for a peek. Breathless, the thing flaring in my chest, I followed and followed.
After that we went to the Joshua Tree desert. There was nothing there for me. The pines twist out of the ground like open hands ready to grab you; the quails are too quick to catch for dinner. I walked the yellow sands, but I was thinking only of the specific green of the Colorado River, the way the white froth over rocky points looked static from a distance but must have been moving and moving, new each moment. Back in the Jeep, we traced the winding road of Highway 1 down to San Diego. I kept my hand wrapped around her warm thigh, and took so many pictures of her in profile that she blushed and shook her head. I put the camera away.
California was full of golden women, and women of every other color, too: brown, black, yellow, pink, red. And they had hair of every color too, and every possible haircut, which made them look like strange and beautiful dinosaurs. I don’t think that’s what went wrong, but how often do lovers tell the truth?
What I know is that she for months she turned towards me every night and we braided ourselves together, leg over leg, arm over waist. It was comfortable in August, but it was somehow too hot for her in November. You can touch me, she relented at times, and then laid like marble under my tentative arm. So, I rolled away too, tortured nightly by the proximity of her skin and the warm, untouchable, animal scent of her. We still made coffee for each other in the mornings, and laborious dinners: I turned off the smoke detectors, and burned and skinned and mashed eggplants with tahini and pomegranate molasses. She peeled shrimp into twin bowls of pink flesh and wet, grey exoskeletons; she built the gumbo step-by-step, stock and roux and file powder. Everything’s fine, she insisted, ducking out from under my affection like a cat. We went on like this until March, when I asked her to leave, furious at the task of having to turn her away from what I so desparately wanted, what she wouldn’t admit she didn’t.
And so, she left. I wake hungry for her, and fall asleep hungry for her. When I touch other people, trying to drive out her ghost, she comes closer, reminding me that everything else is a mimicry; everyone else a charciature. To work up any warmth in my body, I remember her voice, her hands, her face above me dark with concentration. I avoid the mirror until the morning after. It’s not shame, just some measure of reality to which I am not equal.
There are only two ways out: like Zorba, you can gorge on cherries til you fall sick and sleepy under the cherry tree, and, by overindulgence, cure yourself of the wanting. Maybe this is what happened, really, to her: I never did play hard to get.
The other way is to want someone or something else.
So, I buy a passenger van. I buy a sleeping pad and a small camp stove and a hand-crank radio and long, water-resistant matches. I cut reflective foil to the shapes of the van windows for privacy. I pack apples and bread. I pack coffee, and pocket a handful of creamers from a gas staton. I drive to Utah. When I get to Saint George, the last urban area before Zion National Park, it is 110 degrees of dry heat outside, and the white spires of a Mormon temple sparkle like a mirage. I park the van near a ping-pong court, where teenage boys play on the courts past midnight, the sound of bouncing balls and sudden cheers pulling me in and out of dreams.
And in the morning, I drive east through the Utah moonscape to Zion. I am here to see the Virgin River: it has carved a gorge through this red Navajo sandstone that is twenty feet across, creating thousand-foot high vertical rock faces. It runs between them with only rare respites of sand or shore beside its course. I will hike four miles in the cold water, knee-deep this time of year. I will admire the flat, red rock walls, striped with black patina that spills down them like oil. I will gaze up at 11 or so when the sun finally becomes visible in the narrow space overhead. I will fondle the hanging gardens of fern and moss that attach to the face of the rock. I will tread carefully here, feeling every river stone that shifts under my weight.
If you don’t want give your life to a woman, or to a man, or to a child whose mouth or hands will always be at you, do this instead. Promise your body to the land, to the red rock. Give your heart to the water.
(a previous version of this story appeared in Hypocrite Reader)