In The Canyons

My first little sister got married in September of 2017. It was a a prolonged rosy gold twilight at a Lowcountry beach resort and a masterclass in production. Every piece of the event was at peak photogenic, but even without the scrapbook, the whole wedding weekend lingered in the collective memory like a slightly salty confection in Maxfield Parrish colors, something close enough to perfect that it would probably pass the blindfold taste test.

Second Little Sister spent First Little Sister’s wedding at a slump. Maybe it was that Second Little Sister was the only one of the three of us without a theater background and a well-documented crinoline fetish. Probably it was that weddings are the kinds of things people give a fuck about and Second Little Sister famously has few fucks to give. I don’t mean this to sound critical. Second Little Sister is not some snarling punk on a mission of destruction. She is in fact, so exceedingly chill that she once spent a whole Christmas Eve day napping in my mother’s flowerbed because the Elaborate Production of Holiday! occurring inside Mom’s house was harshing her mellow and hey, the sun was out.

And then Second Little Sister got engaged. She’d been with the same guy for nine years. They’d bought a house together. “We’re doing this for tax reasons,” they said, but it would be a wedding not just an elopement. The announcement came days after First Little Sister started posted wedding photos to social media. Sisters, I thought.

I was the oldest by a distance. I didn’t  grow up anticipating whatever befell the next sibling would soon come to me. I felt protective of both of them, even if I did prickle with occasional resentment in the rearview, like the proverbial codger carping about uphill, both ways, in the snow. When I was your age I was an unmarried renter making a few bucks above minimum wage at the record store and shaking coins out of thrift store couch cushions for beer and taco money. A wedding? Jeez. When I was your age I couldn’t even figure out how to get my wisdom teeth pulled.

DAY ONE

I am an unmarried renter, traveling to Utah with my mother, stepfather and my ninety-four year old step-grandmother, for Second Little Sister’s wedding. It is the end of October, cold and dark and 4:30am in my hometown, to which I have repaired, because beggars don’t get to choose their place or time of departure or means of conveyance.

The last time I flew into Nevada was to attend my one of my best friend’s weddings in Reno fifteen years ago. I spent the whole time trying to figure out if I shouldn’t catch a ride to California and stay. In those days, I still operated under a faint, if persistent notion that I must cross the continent and try to manifest some destiny for myself else risk becoming a cautionary tale. San Francisco had always seemed like the sort of place people like me ended up passing through on whatever instructive peregrinations were required of aspiring young American Bohemians. Even then, though, I suspected my internal compass was fixed stubbornly eastward. This made sense. I come from people that crossed the Atlantic several centuries ago and all stayed within a couple of hundred miles of a ship back to Europe, in case things get too weird here. The most enterprising among us, a great grandfather on my mother’s side, tried to break the mold twice. First by attempting to cross the country first on a bicycle in the last decade of the 19th century. He rode from Floyd, Virginia with his best friend, both on some one-generation-removed-from-a -penny-farthing contraption and made it all the way across the Mississippi  to St. Louis, before he was felled by pneumonia and had to be shipped home. Then again, a decade later, he and his young wife headed out to start a new life in Oregon. They built a home. They planted crops. The rainy green peaks ringing the Willamette Valley were just similar enough to home, I imagine my great-grandfather believing, he could almost, almost pretend they were, like his own immigrant ancestors had squinted at the Blue Ridge Plateau and conjured their native Baden-Wurtemberg. But the West is most disorienting at the moments it seems most familiar. Over time, the differences appeared more stark. My great-grandfather and his wife made it three years before, they packed up their household and their first child and came home to Floyd.

I never made for Gold Country. Maybe because I couldn’t figure out why anyone would willingly choose to be a pioneer. I found Westerns violent and ugly. I was continually disappointed that Laura Ingalls didn’t run off with a charming peddler or a bunch of carnies and end up some place with theatres, bookshops and bluestockings. Maybe, like my great-grandfather, I worried I wouldn’t be able to stomach it, that I would fail at a three-thousand mile remove and my ignominious return would be all the more obvious for it. Better to stay close to port of entry, in case things get too weird, in case I stop being able to pretend it’s familiar.

**

It’s brilliantly clear, warm, and dry in Las Vegas. I take in the baked landscape, the strip, the distant range of chocolate brown mountains. I get a nosebleed. It will last for the rest of the trip.

We cross into Arizona and wind through monster-faced cliffs. I hum “Peer Gynt” and wait for one of the mountains to sass back. I read a dumb historical romance when I was a kid in which one of the protagonists spent her days contemplating the craggy peaks of the Himalayas and imaging them impossible palaces. I grew up in a place where the mountains always looked like napping giants, covered in soft blankets of varying seasonal hues. For the first time, in the back seat, in Arizona, taking in the natural architecture, I understand how you might mistake a sunny crag for Shangri-la.

In Utah, my stepdad rented a house in a resort community across the highway from the state park where Second Little Sister will be married. The sun catches the side of the canyon at dusk and turns the canyon walls a nearly Ringwald-ian pink. I try to tell Mom how I associate that landscape with crime—tv shows about drug deals, movies about outlaws, books about massacres—but she’s caught up in the Georgia O’Keefe of it all.

DAY 2-3

It’s a staggeringly beautiful day, clear and bright. I go for a run down a bike path across the highway from the rental, in half-pursuit of a white bellied peregrine falcon, who soars over me and nearly sparkles when the sun hits her pewter colored wing. I discuss matters with the horses I pass. I take pictures of a large rock formation about halfway down the hill toward St. George. I see a lizard and wonder if he ever feels unfairly victimized ,given the town’s namesake.

Littlest Sister plans to tie the knot atop a petrified sand dune called The Big Galoot. We drive over to determine whether Stepgran can climb it and do a little sightseeing. I walk out over a web of ephemeral creekbeds, through rattling sage and ancient blackened lava beds and ignore the fact that my mother is hollering at me, as if I were a child. I feel like a child. I hang out on this giant rock, contemplating the indifferent sand, stone, and, if I’m reading park signage correctly, a wide variety of improbably fluffy bats. I stare at the opposite canyon wall and try to ignore the distant, tinny voice of my mother as she pleads with me to don’t go to far, don’t go somewhere dangerous. I think, I am forty-two years old. And this is my life. A wind knocks through the canyon, rattling the branches of leafless desert branches and small spikes of cactus. The desert says, Fat spinster. I say, Do Better. It says, Failure. Loser. Coward. I say, There you go. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I shimmy down the side of the rocks, past hikers and climbers actually dressed for it who take one look at me like, are you bouldering in shiny gold Vans and statement earrings? I give them the side-eye and ascend even further up the side of the giant red hill where my sister plans to marry. I try to make like I’m not panting by the time I clear the top and recline over the ridged surface.

I find Stepgran on the way down. She’s perched on a lower ledge, canyon wind ruffling her white hair. She tells me she sees faces in the rocks and she’s right this time because I see them too.

“They have to move the wedding site,” says my mother. “We’ll never get everyone to the top of this hill without a disaster.”

I reach down to knock some of the red dust off of my legs and find the rocks have shredded the back of my pants like run pantyhose from knees to upper thighs. Black jeans are not great for red rocks. No matter what Bono may have you believe.

**

In town, Stepgran goes for sensible shoes at a store in the outlet mall. I replace my ripped pants at a with a pair of heavy, uncomfortable Levis, which feels exactly like the sort of thing a put-upon city slicker would do.

We head back to the canyon for the rehearsal. The vast majority of the wedding party is either 27 and outdoorsy or 60+ and retired. Second Little Sister leads the rehearsal in board shorts and sports bra, yellow mud clinging to her legs and the top of her wooly socks. We file up the side of the hill, careful of nettle-like cacti and possible snake holes. Her fiancé tries to organize things. He’s a twin and a redhead, but temperamentally neither. I stare at his boots because they’re beautiful brown leather. I had a professor who advised me that you could tell a lot about a person by their shoes and that I would do well to keep that in mind when picking a mate. I thought, neither for first nor last time, Second Little Sister is no dummy.

I sit on the rock rehearsing Beach Boys songs accompanied by a soft-spoken black-haired guitarist and friend of the bride and groom from back east, who comes with a comprehensive repertoire of Irish drinking songs and the complexion to match. He shields his forehead against the sun and notes that he burns easily. I take a swig of illicit beer and head off another nosebleed at the pass, temporarily grateful that there is perhaps one other person here as constitutionally ill-equipped for the desert as I am.

The rehearsal dinner is held in the private dining room at resort clubhouse, a terraced joint on the edge of a unnaturally green golf course surrounded on all sides by Martian red desert. I stand out on the patio, watching the sun set over the canyon, drinking gin and trying not to feel weird about the fact that I’ve been seated with the grown-ups. I go to the bathroom and read articles on the internet.

Mom comes out to find me. We sit for a while in a ghoulishly arrayed, empty bar. The resort  staff has decorated the clubhouse for Halloween. A white chiffon wedding gown grimed with convincing dirt, blood stains and rubber intestines, hangs over us. “I’m tired of weddings,” I say.

Mom clearly thinks I’m worried about being single. I worry she’s going to give me a pep talk about finding a man. She doesn’t.

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” she says. Maybe this is true, but I feel lapped by everyone several times over. I am a disaster. I am broke. I am lonely. I am old enough to have prom babies with PhDs and I’m still not saving any money and wearing thrift shop dresses. The notion that I am weird or arty or at work on some grand project is frankly belied by my actual output. I have accomplished nothing. I am nothing.

I think, I really am having a midlife crisis. I think, I really am having a midlife crisis in a desert. Could I be a bigger cliché? The desert whispers back, Come out under this red rock. And I’m like, why? so you can show me fear in a handful of dust? I know how that poem ends.

**

Our rental house has a back patio connected to a bunch of other back patios across a field of liver-covered gravel. We discover a roadrunner living out there. My mother loves him. She calls him Bob. She tries to lure him with promises of crumbs while I search the skies for the falcons.

Curtain call for wedding pictures is a couple of hours before the ceremony. Second Little Sister has gone with a Hawaiian theme, which allows bride and groom to get married in jeans and His and Hers Hawaiian shirts. I look precisely like a palm-printed beach cabana in size and shape, a no-necked, middle-aged monster with a bloody nose and cellulite thighs. I am the only fat person amid the lithe young bodies. I feel tender and bitter about it all at once. I can’t decide if they’re being haughty or I’m being awkward so I drift away and I take pictures. The Canyon walls. The Carolina blue sky. A little girl standing on a park picnic table performing to an invisible audience in a gold and black Batgirl tutu.

At wedding o’clock, I sit by the guitarist again. We sing Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older as what passes for the wedding party ascends over the rise. Second Little Sister’s stepfather performs the ceremony, a breezy secular thing. They recite their vows, things like, “be my partner in mischief.” Second Little Sister has her hair down. It’s long and shiny, like dark gold silk. Her husband is still wearing the good boots. I think, good for them they’re so good together. I think, if I got bitten by a rattlesnake, how long before I died? The desert groans, long enough for you to ruin your sister’s wedding like an asshole. I blink on my way out, hopeful that no one sees me give the finger to a pile of rocks.

The wedding party takes their time getting down to the reception site. I call my best friend in New York from a picnic table overlooking a rusted camper.

She seems surprised to hear from me. “Aren’t you, like, literally at the wedding?”

I tell her yes, “But it’s weird, I feel so weird, have I told you how weird all this makes me feel? I’m like the Lone Ranger here.” I start laughing because the setting sun makes the canyon looks like a matte painting Silver might heigh-ho off into.

The sun slips starts to slip behind the canyon before the young people reappear. We fix plates and give speeches. I sit with the bride and groom, the groom’s brothers, the bride’s other step-siblings. I read something I wrote on my iPhone in the back of the minivan. I tell second little sister that she’s a hero of mine because she seems capable of being wholly, unapologetically herself. I mean every word. Second Little Sister would never find herself alone, tipsy atop a picnic table at someone else’s wedding talking to the desert because she’s not sure she can be honest with anyone else.

The dance party starts. I talk to friends of the bride and groom about how I used to be a music writer at a publication they’ve heard of, and realize that was so long ago now that they were still in elementary school when I worked there. I have a couple more drinks. I dance badly. At some point, I feel a wave of drunkenness pass over me with such force that I find my mother and tell her I want to go home. She sees  I’m staggering and helps me to van. I stumble down the path. I drop my phone into the unrelieved darkness of the canyon. I drop my phone. When I lean to pick it up, I pitch forward and land face first on the gravel. I taste blood. No surprise. My nose has been bleeding since I landed. I believe I have knocked out a tooth. I think, at least with a missing front teeth, my grandmother will stop insisting I correct the gap between them.

I hear both worry and embarrassment in my mother’s voice, this “Get up, Alison. Get up”. I am a caricature of a drunk. “I didn’t drink that much,” I say. This is true, but irrelevant. Because I drank enough to act like a caricature of a drunk. Get up, Alison. Get up. I haul myself into the minivan. Blood runs down my face. I swear I can smell the shame wafting of my mother. I think that if my life were a movie, this would be the moment that I’d end up in rehab. Which hardly seems fair. I imagine a life measured by support groups and self-denial. Will I have to find Jesus? Will I have to start smoking again? And because I am still drunk, everything feels inevitable.

At the rental house, my stepfather’s sister comes downstairs. She clucks over me as Mom dabs at my busted face with a wet towel and an icepack. Stepfather’s sister is a conservative lady, a church-goer. I can’t imagine what she’s thinking because I’m too busy asking Mom if I’m more like Bradley Cooper in “A Star is Born” or James Mason in “A Star is Born.” Mom wisely does not answer but helps me up the stairs to bed. I fall asleep.

I wake up at 3am, sober-ish and headachy. I take some Advil before I look at my face. It’s swollen. There are scabs on my cheek and on my eye lid, a jagged, Harry Potter-ish cut on my forehead, mostly hidden by my bangs. My face looks a bit worse for the wear, but it could be worse. The last two times I wiped out trail running left a glossy crescent of an incipient black eye. I’ve had plenty of experience getting the side-eye from curious passersby, no doubt thinking I’d been victimized, because I’m a woman, and no one ever thinks the woman is into boxing or bar fights. I suppose this time would be no different, except that everyone will have saw me fall and seen me drunk and God, was I that drunk? I’ve never been that drunk. I didn’t even think I could get that drunk. I briefly consider running away. Can you run away at forty-two? Then I think perhaps I should kill myself. Then I think, what if by killing myself in Utah I get stuck in Utah for all eternity with all the other people stuck in Utah for all eternity. Eternity this far inland. With Mormons. What if everyone in the afterlife is an outdoorsy polygamist except me?

DAY FOUR

I’ve been awake for a while trying to suss out whether I should go downstairs when my mother knocks and comes in to see how I’m doing. “I’m fine. Embarrassed, but fine.” I mention that I do not know how what happened the night before happened. “I swear I didn’t drink that much.”

Mom nods.  She wonders if I noticed how heavily the bartender was pouring. I told her I felt like I’d been dosed. She assures me no one saw what happened. She promises that no one is trying to trundle me off to rehab. She tells me to get dressed for breakfast back in the canyon. I shower. I pat my battered face dry which manages to look both better and worse than it did at last appraisal. I apply stage-make-up level pancake to cover the carnage.

Wedding breakfast takes place in the same campground as the reception. Everyone looks tired but happy by light of day. Shockingly, no one saw me fall. I return to the rental house and the pool, which is completely empty but me and the imaginary 18th century nobleman whose memoirs I’m reading.

Second Little Sister and Good Boots come by to say farewell on their way off. She strips off her clothes by the side of the pool and jumps in while her husband stands fully dressed beside more. “I hope I haven’t been too much of a Bridezilla,” he says. I tell him he hasn’t  Second Little Sister takes her time on the way out of the pool. She changes in the restroom and emerges with a fist full of sopping underwear and a shrug. “I didn’t really think this one out,” she says. “Oh well.”

The drive off in a caravan of trucks full of friends, dogs and bicycles to embark on a group honeymoon through several national parks. They are followed by Stepgran and Stepfather’s sister, bound for Seattle. I wave, relieved that it’s over, relieved that I have no more sisters who can get married, or at least, get married for the first time. Next will be children: nieces and nephews. I take my book and sit in the hot tub. When I return the marked page, I’m gratified that the Reign of Terror has finally begun in earnest.

DAY FIVE

My stepfather drives us out northeast from St George, through a ramshackle town called Hurricane. We wind up a mountain and emerge on this broad barren plateau guarded by witches hat peaks topped with elaborate rock formations that look exactly like castles in the south of France. . Mom observes that it looks a little like Argentina, in the Andes. I haven’t been to Argentina. I think it looks a little like Mordor.

It’s a dreamy ride out, dreamy in all that it entails: beautiful and terrifying. We pass from canyon to canyon, through vast monoliths, high bridges over chasms, gray brown wastelands surrounded by cliffs, end of nowhere convenience stores and Navajo women selling jewelry off card tables on the side of the road under impossible rock formations . We drive deeper into the vastness of Northern Arizona, with cliffs menacing high plains like stony tidal waves.

The landscape is so astonishingly out of perspective with the tiny humans and their shabby motels and gas stations, I consider the pure, outrageous oddity of anyone imagining they could just have it. The desert feel haunted by gods and monsters, who are stingy with food and water and barely tolerant of human awe. It feels like the most insane sort of hubris to even imagine that humans, especially humans from far away, could bend it to their will. I get pretty mad about western expansion a couple days and a few centuries too late.Then I get pretty mad about not being mad about it all the time because it’s easy on the East Coast because there’s almost nothing left to remind you, idiot. I mulled over it and looked out the window at smug looking rock formation. Oh great, I thought, the desert’s back with incisive commentary.

Then we pull through the gate at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

**

2018 has been a brutal year for anyone with a soul, I think. My catalog of small calamities and trivial disappointments is just that, no matter how epic that catalog may feel sometimes. I’ve struggled to talk about the despair because I don’t feel particularly entitled to it. People with grief greater than I can imagine, they carry on everyday. They put on their shoes, if they have them, in the morning and look forward to the next hour, to the next week, to the next year. They endure.

I have a my warm home and full cupboards, a wholly decent day job, a family I love. And yet, I struggle under cover of sadness and regret so thick that I’m pretty sure I’ll never need one of those weighted blankets people keep going on about. I know I should want to endure. I don’t always know why.

I stand in a bathroom line in behind a group of chatty Malay women in brightly colored, ingeniously visored hijabs. One of them turns to me, points at her face, and asks, in broken English, if I fell off the canyon. I reach up and realize the minimal make-up I applied earlier has long since evaporated and the unremitting wind at the rim has forced back my bangs into a kind of Adam Ant al fresco situation. I try to tell the woman that I fell, but at a different canyon, bu then a stall opens, she darts off and the woman behind me clucks as if to say, that’s what all the battered women say.

It’s a relief to hear other languages. The Grand Canyon feels a bit like a theme park. After five hours of contemplating the loneliness of the expanse, I’m almost giddy to be in a crowd. I follow a bunch of Italian teenagers down to the Historic Watchtower, where Mom reminds my stepfather of her crippling fear of heights. She can look at the Canyon so long as she stays five or six feet from the edge and doesn’t look down.

I’m not afraid of heights. The Grand Canyon itself, however,  freaks me out—the vastness, the absence like a wound, that high raspy wind. It’s two days from Halloween and even with a Times Square’s worth of Bucket Listers mulling around me, I am 100% convinced that this is the creepiest place I’ve ever been.

Mom made us a dinner reservation at the El Tovar which looks like a cross between the Overlook Hotel and a ride at Disneyworld. The menagerie of stuffed and mounted animal heads on the walls of the lobby do not start singing when I walk through the door. I find this nearly surprising. We go for cocktails as the sky pinks with dusk. I walk out, though the wind is bitterly cold and I am dressed for a milder season. By twilight the cavities and crevices soften and the fading sun flickers against the stone like filigree. Fine, you’re pretty. The canyon preens in full-on disco colors: fuschia, purple, electric lavender. It’s like, Remember when you used to want to write serious, important things? You can do better than pretty, Fields. Turn a goddamn phrase. But don’t have any more words or time to get hazed by beautiful scenery, so I retreat to dinner.

My stepfather reserved the last room left in the park, thus I am staying in the same room as my mother and stepfather. The last time I shared a room with two parents at once was 1987, when Mom and Biological Dad took me to New York. Like everything else about the Grand Canyon, sharing a room with parents is also weird and slightly unsettling.

I’m bone tired and surprise myself by falling asleep at nine. Sometime later, I wake to a cold breeze and realize the hotel door is open. Weighted with sleep, half-dreaming, I cannot rise to close it. I hear feet padding on the floor, the panting breath of a dog, as something furry and black noses past the night stand. The bed rattles when the dog jumps up beside me onto the mattress. He settles near my feet, warm against my legs, and begins to lick his paws. He is friendly and soft, but not mine, possibly wild and the door is still open to whatever else might be skulking about in the moonlight. I call out to my parents in the other bed. I worry that if I’m too loud, I might freak out the dog, so I keep calling, until I hear mom saying, “Wake up, Alison. You’re dreaming. You’re dreaming.”

I move my legs around to search for the dog, to prove Mom wrong. The door is shut and the room is warm. There is nothing around my legs save Clorox scented sheets. I go back to sleep

DAY 6 & 7

After days of grand western vistas, we check into the Bellagio, which looks exactly like an outlet mall crossed with a mega-church and is thronged with the sort of people I assume enjoy cruise ships. I walk through a crowded atrium scented with perfume piped through the vents to conceal the everywhere scent of cigarette smoke, French Fries, old booze, cheap cologne, and the tears and sweat of thousands of miserable people desperate to project that they are having the Best. Time. Ever.

We’re up on a club floor because someone believes we’re high rollers.  We’re not. My room has his-and-hers bathrooms and a spray of still wrapped condoms, strewn like flower petals, on the floor beside the bed. I look out the window at Caesar’s Palace, which seems to wink at me, like, maybe you’ll get lucky.

I’m not a lucky person. That’s why I don’t gamble. Also I’m broke, partially because I’m unlucky and also because I don’t gamble. The week before Second Little Sister’s wedding, one of my best friends observed that I should take more risks. I told her I took risks all the time. I eat too much. I drink too much. I live outside my means. I run alone in the forest. I walk home alone late at night. I am attracted to argumentative men with complicated politics. I enjoy doing things people tell me I cannot or should not. But those aren’t the risks my friend means and I know it. “Sometimes”, she said. “I think you play it safe and don’t change all of things that purportedly make you unhappy because you’re actually pretty comfortable being unchallenged and mildly dissatisfied.” I kind of thought she was being an asshole. I also kind of thought she was right.

I pull on tight black pants and yellow high heels and tell myself I look sexy and dangerous. I think maybe, maybe, I’ll get lured into some sordid adventure off the strip and end up drunk with some washed-up scoundrel with pretty eyes and no future in some seedy room that smells like whiskey and Maybe I’ll get a tattoo I’ll regret in the morning. If only I weren’t with my parents. If only I were the sort of person that could be attracted to a washed up scoundrel with pretty eyes even if he didn’t want to talk about books. I mean, how do you even flirt with someone if you can’t make dirty jokes about writers?

We shuffle through the crowds and the mall to the series of escalators and sidewalks the convey us over the ersatz forum in front of Caesar’s Palace and then onward to the crowded strip. It is neither sexy nor dangerous. There are many pairs of cargo shorts, overpriced cheeseburger joints, and oversized frozen cocktails in penis shaped to go cups, compounding the notion that, for most Americans, the pinnacle of transgression is Spring Break freshman year of college. I stand on the sidewalk watching the volcano go off in front of the Mirage, thinking that I’d prefer a sin city with a guilty conscience and dirt under its nails and maybe I should have moved to New Orleans after all?

We drink at a cocktail bar, draped off from the slot machines by translucent netting. I feel queasy halfway through dinner and my yellow shoes have rubbed blisters all over my feet. I hobble back to the hotel, too tired for adventures or night cap. My feet are bleeding by the time I get back to the room and my busted up face is clearly visible through the make-up. I go to bed sulking and wake up crying and shuffle out, still sulking, demanding space.

Liberated for the first time in days, the only place I can think to go is the bird sanctuary at the center of the Flamingo. I wander past a lot of unshaven middle aged men with open collars and gray skin and emerge in this center courtyard with blue-dyed water, actual flamingos, mandarin ducks and a mini-golf waterfall. It’s reasonably peaceful, humid, and as much green as I’ve seen in a week. I sit on a bench by a black swan and try to cry, but I’m all dried up, just puffy and woozy. I pass a couple of showgirls dressed in black and red feathers. One of them looks a little older than me and has one of those immensely kind faces. She catches me looking at her and asks if I need any help. I think about saying yes.

I walk home through Caesar’s Palace because I have a weakness for classical kitsch. My eighth grade Latin teacher—an ex-nun and inveterate gambler—rewarded good classwork with Caesar’s Palace souvenirs and library passes. I conjugate verbs through the casino and goggle at the Lisa Frank perma-twilight of the interior forum. I’m saddened by the lack of actual Latin souvenirs (seriously, not one single Vini, Vidi, Viva Las Vegas).

My mother and I go to the spa. My massage therapist is an Israeli grandma who clucks at my face and tells me she moved to the States to help her daughter out of a violent relationship. I try to explain what really happened—I dropped a phone in the dark in Utah—but she’s having none of it. She throws in a cooling face mask as a freebie and spends most of the massage giving me the ins and outs of the singles scene in Jerusalem where she thinks I will find a good husband without a dangerous temper. I think my love life is difficult enough without having to Tinder in a conflict zone. I give her a larger than average tip. She gives me a hug.

It is Halloween. I packed a black dress with a red crinoline and attached a congressional subpoena to my bodice with a small, enamel Lenin pin. “I’m blacklisted,” I tell the parents. “Don’t worry. Almost no one will get it.” Every now and then, I get a knowing glance and a thumbs up. I like those moments of recognition, the one of us nods that we congenital weirdos never stop looking for, even after we grow up and learn how to pass as normal.

Mom makes us bar and dinner reservations on the terrace overlooking the Bellagio fountains. She and my stepfather look very happy. Adults around me squeal in delight, like children to giant streams of water choreographed to the “Titanic” theme. It’s ridiculous, I think, as the lights die down and the surface stills. And the desert is all,  so is pretty much everything you humans get excited about. I’m weirdly relieved. Did you come back to tell me something insulting? Are we going to do more of “The Wasteland.” The desert sighs warm dry breath over my cheek. Your existential crisis will still be there in the morning. Why don’t you just chill out and enjoy the show? I snort. The desert says, Twenty bucks says the next one of these makes you cry.

Mom and turns her chair as the artificial fog rolls out by the lake. I listen to the first notes of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” a sentimental, crowd-pleaser that does, in fact, always make me cry.

I face away at the rail, to obscure my busted-up, tear-stained face, as the strings swell.. I saw the Martha Graham dance company do this ballet when I was a kid. It was sublime. Better than this then? I roll my eyes.

Still, I think I’m going to miss the desert. Oh, I’’m not going anywhere. You should come back out and visit once you get your shit together. I worry I’ll never get my shit together. Isn’t that the whole thing? That I’m a disaster.  What is it you said? A failure. A loser. A coward.

 I’m a landscape, says the desert. You’re a rational human being. Who do think is doing the talking here?

I sniff.

You still might get your shit together.

I’m not holding my breath, but maybe.

I lean my head back against the chair rail, away from the water, to the hazy pinkish night sky. You know what’s a real light show? The stars tonight. They’re perfect. You can’t see them, of course. Light pollution. But trust me when I tell you they’re there and they’re gorgeous.

I smile. I know.

I endure.

 

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