We loved dive bars, the old geezers, dollar drafts, gummy pool tables. Most weekends, we’d visit somewhere else, the earlier, the better, and make new best friends with the characters who peppered the naugahyde. There should’ve been plaques above each seat with the names, bronzed and indelible. Because nothing much changed from bar to bar.
Sometimes it made us sad, sure, and we wondered if these people ever left, and where were the wives? The lives without alcohol? We still think those guys are there even now, grayer or whiter or more peppery than before.
I bet they are.
And one night we’d said “enough, let’s get out of here.” So we did. It was maybe one a.m. and we snuck into your parent’s house for a tent and some granola bars and we drove. We turned east into the desert, strange eyes looking back, jackrabbits skittering across the road, erect cactus looking for all the world like mutant men. Yet I wasn’t scared, like I am now. And on we went. Then we said, “how about here?” Right there in the middle of the stars and the expanse and the mutants. But I wasn’t the least bit worried.
I don’t know how we (you) pitched the tent. Because there wasn’t much of a moon and the car lights went only so far and no one was around and the wind blew. When it was done, the sides flapped in waves of air, things moaned and there was something metallic wasn’t there?
We slept. By then, it was 4 a.m. I heard that metal clanging as I drifted off, but I didn’t wake up until late the next morning. Man, it was hot. Sand captured the sun and threw it back as steam off the rocks. Our tent was the only one and I still don’t know where we were, but we walked. We found some caves, smack central in our desert square, and we ate granola bars against dank stone. Soon enough, we spotted the paintings on the wall, primitive and red, and the day was full because of it.
It was Saturday and tomorrow would be Easter, not to mention my mom’s birthday. I called her from a crusty payphone at a dry gas station framed by my mutant cacti and said I wasn’t coming home. As I climbed into the car, I said “drive,” and you did and we found another place for the tent. This spot had people and trailers and rock climbers and cliffs and tumbleweed and the rattlesnake you lifted with your stick to show me.
Neither of us wore makeup and I remember how your skin shined and even though we ate corn nuts from the dry gas station, I felt alive on the inside. You said your grandma used to take you for twilight hikes here and we followed that route. When we came to a cloud of bees, I stopped and grabbed your hand and you said it was OK because you were a biologist and they wouldn’t hurt me. So you walked me through and I had no fear, like I do now.
Soon enough, the rock climbers again. Someone had fallen and we watched as he lifted his helmet and wiped blood on a bandana. His girlfriend paced on top of the rock and cried a little and wouldn’t go down. I wanted her gear because I would have climbed right to the bottom, feet to rock. I’d made it past the snake and the bees and I knew I could do this too. Still we hopped boulder to boulder and you told me not to put my legs between the stones. Because the rattlers.
That night, more wind, less tent. An eerie whistling, glows from fires, and I said “desert cults!” But you said, no, and laughed, even if we didn’t sleep as soundly as before, that damn flapping and the tent nearly lifting from the ground.
Now it’s Sunday. I know it’s time. We reached the timberline in a half hour, the line between brown and green so marked, so immediate. More corn nuts, remember? From that other gas station? Except today, I was zitty and sweaty and guilty.
And afraid. Now I’m afraid.
We still love dive bars. But come 1 a.m., we can’t say, “let’s get out of here,” though I know you wish we could.
Everything’s changed, but the peppery men, they’re still there, so sometimes I feel like it’s all the same.