“Oases are made by breaking” — that’s what the wooden sign says at the entrance to Fourtynine Palms Oasis Trail in the Mojave Desert, at the very top of Joshua Tree National Park. The ground must cleave at fault lines, where uplifted layers of impermeable rock force underground water to the surface. Everything else in the desert is forced to strive and reach to survive, but the palms in the oasis are well fed.
I follow A on the dusty desert trail to the oasis. Though we had been together for a few months, this part — this freedom to touch and to reach after her, to pull her mouth to mine and kiss under the sun — was new. We had not said it specifically, we came to the desert to lick our wounds. She was in the middle of a long divorce, and I had pulverized myself to fit into the life of a secret girlfriend. We rented a desert rancher with a hot tub surrounded by palms and no living people for a mile, the flat dust cemetery behind the house silent.
In Seattle we hid out like outlaws. I quit writing, quit reading and quit doing stand-up. My friends got sick of me. “I didn’t think divorces could take this long,” one of them said while I lamented. My world got small and so did my body. I lost forty pounds from gnawing on all that anxiety. The hiding didn’t help. On hard days, I drove around smoking one endless cigarette, only to find her ex-wife in my rearview or heading the other direction down Madison Avenue.
From up on the trail, the Mojave looks drab brown and expansive, peppered with Joshua trees and yucca, but there’s no room for a broad brush here. Crawl on your hands and knees, find burrs and barbs in your palms, examine the rocks that make the sand. Shards of salmon and coral and peach flecks of mojito, a rough sea battening the roots of the Joshua tree. How do the rattlers do it but to be impenetrable?
A couple of years earlier, I met A at work on my first day. She was a tall, lithe, golden-haired butch in a camel suit, a black tattooed mockingbird peeking around the lapel on her chest. I saw her with my body before I trusted my body to show me things clearly. She stuck out her arm to shake my hand. I took it. My body boiled with her thin, long fingers in mine. When I got back to my desk, I tilted my monitor away from prying eyes and typed her name into Facebook. Married. Labradoodle. Alpine hikers. Never mind.
Seattle sits 54 miles from the Cascadia subduction zone, an active swath of earth, taunting mortals. The point is the Earth is always unfinished — the breaking and reforming is a part of it all.
We spent a year as friends at work. We got lunch once. Then we got lunch together every day. Then, when that wasn’t enough, we added an occasional pre-work breakfast at Pike’s Place. Cheating wasn’t an option; I’d been there before. Cheating is an impulse, an escape hatch. I wanted the version where we made it out alive.
Thirst is an exquisite pain.
Before we left for the desert, I saw a painting at the Frye Museum in Seattle. A large oil canvas with a pale, breathless woman, crucified. The woman could be dead, but we know she’s not because of the tiny, contented smirk on her lips. The painting is called “The Christian Martyr” by Gabriel von Max. In the gallery, I felt embarrassed to see myself in her martyrdom, the one-of-a-kind pleasure that comes with controlling yourself through denial. I worried that I wouldn’t have even wanted A if she had been available to me. I need my love to come with barbs. Am I so sick that I only want a love that can hurt me? I am healing myself from needing this while it happens. It’s impossible to test my theory without more wreckage.
Even though I’d kept my drought, it still became about me. I was a wrecker, a ruiner. I’ve heard these things before and I was ready to believe them about myself. But the truth isn’t as simple. Their divorce was impending, whether or not I was there, but my proximity was enough to brand me.
The big boulders of Joshua Tree just lay there taking it. Eighty-five million years old, they make no effort to adjust their pose to please. Skin on skin, as if they were poured there. It feels embarrassing to admit that I needed to be instructed to give myself over to pleasure. To let myself be, as I am, as round and rough as I need to.
The rocks are unmistakably body, all dismantled, stacked folded like our skin touching skin. The most shameful parts of our bodies, just out there on display, baking in the desert, seeking nothing but to be fat in the sun.
Living alone in this year of hell and hiding and driving myself in loops was only possible because I believed it when I was told I was bad. I tortured myself because I believed they must all know what they are talking about. Me: a wrecker. What I now know about shame is that almost always, the person who is shaming you has something to gain from your smallness.
I want to open the boulder face like a wound. I want to peel back the rock’s hard skin to expose the soft pink meat of the insides. Follow their veins around their outsides to prove, unequivocally, there’s a heart in there. There are secrets that the body alone holds. My body is an artifact.
In the desert, I wanted the divorce to end. And then I wanted A to marry me as soon as possible. I wanted to prove that I had won, that I was the lovable one. I felt like her ex-wife was personally punishing me for what she thought I did, but it wasn’t that at all. My fixation on these labels and systems was denying myself a present moment. I was waiting for the past, or for the future, not realizing I was dealing in geologic time. The hardest part about loving isn’t earning the love, because love isn’t something you can earn. The hardest part is allowing yourself to keep it.
The more I believed I deserved to be fat and happy, loved and delighted in the full sun, the less I was willing to secede my delight to a person I don’t know.
On our last day in Joshua Tree, we eat carne asada and maduros. We hike around the rock in the shape of a skull. It becomes easier to love and be beloved, to believe it all.
In a gold-colored bedroom with the windows wide open, A broke me open. I did not fight, but I let the waters rise, and then, a great flood.