The hot desert wind picks up, blowing gusts of pollen through the motel window. I imagine a layer of Easter-egg-yellow dust on my naked back. The comforter is cool against my breasts. Zachary finishes his plastic cup of merlot.
“I wouldn’t take you for a wine drinker,” I say.
He is tan and sinewy with a tattoo of a constellation on his inner thigh that I won’t ask about because I don’t know him. He slides on top of me. The air conditioner kicks on and cicadas in the parking lot thrum. I try to memorize the weight of him.
“What would you take me for?” he whispers into my neck.
“I don’t know. A cowboy?”
Hours earlier, the bells on the door to the front desk jingled, and Zachary materialized from the inky night wearing a white t-shirt and faded jeans.
“I’m no cowboy. I’m from LA,” he says. “But I am headed north for a summer gig at a ranch.”
“When?” I ask.
His face is in my hair, his hands are sliding down my body.
“Eventually,” he says, pulling down my panties. “Do you want this again?”
“I have to go back to work,” I say, my face pressed into the mattress. But also, “Yes, yes, yes.”
After the second time, I put on the khakis and polo shirt that smell like sweat no matter how many times I wash them and go back to the front desk. I’m still wet. I stand beneath the fluorescent lights, highlighting no-shows and rooms that need maintenance requests filled. I wonder if Zachary is still naked.
The phone rings at midnight. My skin goes cold. It rings again. I take it from the receiver, holding it to my ear without letting it touch my face, like it’s a hot iron.
There’s no one on the other end. Not even breathing.
It’s him, it’s him; I know it’s him. We’re still married, but I don’t call him my husband.
I can pack up the contents of my apartment in thirteen minutes. I’ve timed myself. I have a full tank of gas. The highway is right there; I can disappear again.
It’s after two in the morning when I pull up to my apartment complex. It still looks like the motel it once was. The two-story building centers around a dusty courtyard. The iron railings are delicate in the glow from a single streetlight. The faded lettering on the building says Desert Lodge.
The usual crowd is gathered on the steps, drinking beer and watching bats dive bomb for flies.
“College girl,” Jack says, making room for me beside him.
I roll my eyes. “Ava.”
“Ava,” he says, grinning. He’s barefoot in swim trunks and a Rolling Stones t-shirt. I told them all I was a recent college graduate when I met them, and then regretted the lie when I saw the surprise on their faces. What’s a girl with a degree doing here? I expected them to ask. Are you one of those rich kids who’s slumming it for fun?
But that’s the thing about a place like this. It’s the kind of town where people stop to piss in the dirt or stay in a $40 motel room. It’s a blip between Los Angeles and Las Vegas where travelers drink burnt coffee outside of a gas station. It’s not the kind of place where people actually live. But we do. And we’re not the kind of people who like being asked why we ended up here.
The group on the steps is gentle, friendly, and there’s an understanding that no one is going to ask anyone too many questions. Instead, we stay up most nights chaining cigarettes and talking about movies, novels, places we’d like to go.
Jack is shy, but he usually gets the courage to put his arm around me after he’s had a few beers. There’s a constant question of Is this okay that hangs in his twitchy smile, his hazel eyes. It’s the thing I like best about him.
A week ago, he walked me to my door and said, “I like you, college girl.”
He wrapped me in a hug, and I could feel his sweat through his shirt, the softness of his stomach. I wondered if he might cup my chin in his hand and kiss me, but eventually I stopped wishing for it. It was the first time someone had touched me since I’d left home. It was enough.
“I grew up here,” he said. “Which means I haven’t dated a lot of girls. I might have to follow your lead.”
Sitting beside Jack on the staircase, I can smell Zachary’s saliva on my skin. Jack puts a hand on my knee in a deliberate way, as if five minutes earlier he told himself, In five minutes I will casually put my hand on her leg.
Later, I go to his apartment, which is exactly a floor above mine. We sit among the furniture the previous tenant left behind. We listen to records and talk about conspiracy theories—Area 51, flat earth, secret cults, mind control, anything but ourselves—and blow cigarette smoke out the window until the sun turns the mountains amber.
Before I leave, Jack puts his hands on my shoulders and looks down at me. He is impossibly tall. He kisses the top of my head, and the feeling of his lips bruises me with guilt.
I don’t want to hurt you, I want to say. I don’t want to be hurt by you.
Zachary is at the motel pool, stretched out on one of the towels from his room. His skin is wet, and he’s wearing black boxer briefs. My boss likes me to walk the property at least once during each shift. Today I circle the grounds just fifteen minutes after clocking in.
“Hey you,” he says.
“No one ever uses this pool,” I say.
“Well, I do,” he says. His tan is deeper. “I’ve been here all day.”
He stands and I watch the water slide off of him.
“I wish that I could get in the water.”
“I wish that I could watch you swim.”
I don’t own a bathing suit. I didn’t take one with me when I left. I imagine a black bikini—the kind of thing I’ve never owned—one that unties at the nape of the neck.
“I was hoping I’d see you,” he says, the teasing tone leaving his voice. I glance past him to the motel office. My boss will leave in an hour and then it will be just me—me and Zachary and whoever is staying in the only three occupied rooms.
He picks up a discarded pair of jeans and withdraws a lighter and a tightly rolled joint from the pocket.
There’s a white-hot glare on the water. The heat from the cement rises. This is no time to be outside. I think of the other night in his motel room, looking up at the blur of the ceiling fan, his tongue turning inside me.
Zachary lights the joint. He takes a long inhale and then offers it to me. I shouldn’t; I’m working. But I do.
“You’re so beautiful,” he tells me, and then he pulls me to him. I am suddenly high, underwater on dry land. He takes another hit and slides his free hand down my pants, touching me through my underwear. I look from side to side, half expecting to see an errant pool goer, or worse, my boss. Zachary holds the joint to my lips as he fingers me. I close my eyes. The sun is burning the part in my hair. Beads of sweat are forming on my lower back. I inhale the sage and creosote of the desert, the chlorine, the cannabis. I breathe in, and then I come.
“Where were you?” my boss asks when I step into the office.
I fumble for an excuse.
“Don’t test my patience, Ava,” he says, putting up his hands. “Stay at the desk for the rest of the night, will you?”
He leaves after the sun descends behind the mountains. The blackness outside is punctuated by dots of headlights. I picture getting on that road with Zachary and driving east to Las Vegas, getting a room at the Flamingo and fucking against a floor-to-ceiling window. I imagine getting on that same road with Jack and driving west to Los Angeles, buying cotton candy at the Santa Monica Pier and falling asleep on the sand.
The phone rings, and the Las Vegas Strip and the Pacific Ocean fall away. My muscles tense.
There’s a man’s voice on the other end, but I can’t hear what he’s saying through the crackling static.
“You have the wrong number,” I say, because this is what I always say. Maybe if it’s him he won’t call anymore.
“Trying…find…motel…” the man says.
It’s him, it’s him; I know it’s him.
Jack answers the door with a startled look in his eyes. I’ve never knocked before.
“Are you alright?”
The man’s voice is in my ears. I purse my lips together, afraid of what I’ll tell him if I speak. I shake my head.
“Come inside,” Jack says.
I sit down on his bed, looking out at the highway, craning my neck to try and see turn signals, cars pulling off the road. Jack brings me a glass of lukewarm water—the tap never runs cold in this town—and sits beside me.
“It’s late,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
I stare at the road until he asks what I’m looking for. I shake my head. My chest is filling with pressure.
“Try to drink the water,” he says, and when I finally look at him his face is calm, like he’s done this before. I take a sip.
“Good,” he says. “Do you want a cigarette?”
“No,” I say. “I just want to lie down.”
I’m shaking, hearing phantom footsteps on the wrought iron steps outside, feeling the buzzing from the cell phone I no longer own, the one I tossed into the trash at a gas station before I filled the tank and hit the road.
Jack and I lie side by side. After a while, I turn and face the wall. He doesn’t ask me if I want to tell him what’s wrong. I wouldn’t expect him to. Maybe that’s why I went to his door and not Zachary’s.
“I need you to touch me,” I say.
He doesn’t ask why.
I’ve never been wanted like this. Sure, I’ve heard the throaty lust in a catcaller’s voice, I’ve felt the urgency of a man holding me down so hard it seemed like I might fall into the foundation of the house. But this is desire without malice. A night in Jack’s bed with no obligation to take off my clothes. An afternoon with Zachary that doesn’t end with him looking up from between my legs and saying, “My turn now.”
I can’t help it. I need them both.
My boss has the day off, so I put the Back in 30 minutes sign up in the office. It’s Wednesday. I’ll be surprised if we get one walk-in.
I go to Zachary’s room, take off my clothes and ride him, my palms pressed against the peeling floral wallpaper as my hips surge back and forth. On top of him, I feel like a passenger on a highway who isn’t running from anything. I move faster, harder, putting my hands on his chest. When I come, I feel a rush of elation followed by a second of bottomless, black despair as I return to my body and realize that I’m still here, hiding.
“I’ve never seen you like this before,” he says again and again, looking up at me in awe.
We’ve fucked seven times now. I guess he would know.
The phone rings at the desk. How long will that sound scare me?
I try to swallow, but my mouth is suddenly dry.
“Jack,” he says, when I don’t respond. “You always sound nervous when I call.”
“I hate talking on the phone,” I lie.
“It’s a full moon tonight. I was wondering if you wanted to go down to the dry lakebed after you get off work.”
I’ve never been to the dry lake, but I’ve seen it shimmering an otherworldly shade of white from the other side of the highway. The playa looks ghostly in the deep brown valley.
“I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“I know,” he says.
Zachary is standing outside of the motel office when I finish my shift.
“Did you need some fresh towels or something?” I tease, lighting a cigarette.
He’s wearing polished boots, but his hair is still as messy as it was in bed.
I like that he’s never asked to see where I live. I like that he’s never been inside my apartment. He exists in the orbit of the motel, as if we’re both just passing through.
“I have to head north tomorrow,” he says. “I wanted to tell you that.”
“I know,” I say. “I saw your reservation details.”
It’s a lie; that part of his itinerary wasn’t filled in. It’s foolish, but I tell myself he’s not going anywhere.
“I’d like to spend some time with you before I go,” he says.
I put out the cigarette and search my pockets for my keys. Jack will be standing on the steps of the apartment building, acting like he’s not waiting, but he’ll be waiting. The sun is gone, and the sky is the palest shade of blue; it’ll be dark soon.
Just then, Jack’s silver bullet of a car pulls into the parking lot, kicking up dust.
“I’m picking you up,” he announces, stepping out of the driver’s seat. He’s done something different with his hair, combed it back from his face. There’s faint sweat on his brow. Zachary studies him before leaning forward and offering his hand.
“How you doing, man? I’m Zachary.”
“Jack,” he says, taking it.
I look back and forth between them, unsure of what to say.
“We were going to go to the dry lake,” I say to Zachary, as if it’s code for I’ll catch up with you later.
He doesn’t take the hint, or doesn’t want to.
“Cool,” he says. “Mind if I join?”
There’s a flicker of disappointment on Jack’s face.
I should feel guilty. I should try harder to brush Zachary off, but the thrill of both of them together with me takes over.
“Sure,” I say, sliding into the passenger seat of Jack’s car. “Why not.”
But I do wonder how this is going to work. These men don’t own me, but there must be some unwritten rule about making them interact.
Jack puts on a Led Zeppelin album and the song “Going to California” starts playing. I wonder if he can see Zachary brushing his thumb against my neck in the rearview mirror.
“I heard this song was about seeing America for the first time,” Zachary says.
“It’s about an earthquake,” says Jack, but his voice is forgiving.
“I like the way you wear your hair, man,” Zachary says, leaning forward. “If you were in LA, they’d put you in a movie or something.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“Yeah, but I could never get cast in anything.”
“So, you left?”
“I left, yeah.”
“I wish I knew what that was like,” says Jack, and his voice sounds like he’s telling a secret. “I’ve been in the same place my whole life.”
The moon is out. I can see the dry lakebed glowing from miles away. It hangs in the valley like a pool of silver. We park in the gravel, and Jack pops the trunk, produces a bottle of whiskey. I picture him standing at the liquor store on the California/Nevada state line, turning over bottles of bourbon in his hands.
“Ah, the good stuff,” Zachary says.
I follow them out into the desert. There’s no need for flashlights; the moon is so bright. They’re a few steps ahead of me, talking. I trail them and listen.
“If this was a lake, I guess we’re on a beach,” Zachary says.
“You’re right. I never thought of that.”
“Do you ever go to the ocean?”
“No,” Jack says. “But I want to.”
The playa is smooth and firm. I want to touch it, to take my shoes off and splash around in the memory of water. The mountains above us are silent. The lakebed seems to stretch out forever. There’s darkness on the other side. We walk out to the very middle, until we can’t see headlights, until we can’t see anything. We sit, passing the whiskey back and forth.
“The city broke my heart,” Zachary is telling Jack. “In the movies they make it sound like it’s waiting for you, but it’s not.”
“Maybe you’ll find what you’re looking for in Wyoming.”
“I don’t know,” Zachary says.
“At least you’re trying,” Jack says. “I keep staying in the same place and watching people go. Sometimes I think that if I try to go live anywhere else, I won’t know how.”
The night is warm and windless. My body is buzzing, tingling. I lay on my back and they do too. Zachary’s fingers are in my hair. Jack’s hand is in my hand. With every passing minute, they each move closer. Zachary slides his hand beneath my shirt, his fingers tracing my ribs. Jack turns onto his side and brings his face closer to mine. There’s such a shared sadness between them, but I feel miles away. It’s my fault; I’ve never told them the truth.
“Oregon,” I finally say. “I’m from Oregon.”
“You said you were from Vegas,” Jack says.
I am holding both of their hands now. My heart should be pounding, but it isn’t. I’m as still as the desert.
“I’m married,” I say. “That’s the truth.”
I wait for the questions. Am I getting a divorce? Did he hit me? How many times?
Maybe someday. Yes. I don’t know.
But this is the kind of place where people don’t ask questions.
“Hey,” Zachary says. “We all have our reasons for doing what we do.”
Jack kisses my shoulder.
Relief flows through my veins. I weep, and they hold me. I haven’t cried since I left, but my shoulders shake until there is nothing left inside me, and then I am exhausted, empty and satisfied. It feels so good to say something true. I shift closer to Jack until our faces are touching, and then I kiss him. I turn to Zachary and put my mouth on his, pushing my tongue inside. And then I turn my head to the sky, not sure what I am doing, not sure what I will do next. Zachary cups my breast. Jack threads his fingers through my belt loops. Zachary probes my earlobe with his tongue. And then they look at each other. They sit up and say nothing, and I watch them, waiting.
“Have you done this before?” Zachary asks Jack.
“No,” he says. He looks at me. I can see his thoughts: But I want to.
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “It’s okay.”
And then their mouths find each other’s.
We can’t get our clothes off fast enough. I reach for the buttons on Jack’s shirt; he tears at my bra. Zachary pulls off his own jeans, and then my pants and then Jack’s. We are naked. It’s wordless, wonderful. We could dissolve into this dazzling white dry lake. We could drown and be happy.
The next morning, we wake up with the sun on our skin. We retrieve our scattered clothes from the playa, get dressed and go back to the car.
“I’m headed out today,” says Zachary.
The same album from the night before plays, but the desert looks softer.
Jack goes home to sleep off his hangover. Zachary packs for Wyoming.
“Maybe I’ll pass through here again after the summer is over,” he says, handing me his room key. His fingers linger on mine for a bit. The jolt passes through me like a downed power line flapping in the wind has brushed my skin and then lost its charge.
“Yeah,” I say. “Maybe.”
No one ever does, though. This isn’t a place you return to on purpose. If you end up here twice, it’s unlikely you remember your first time. It’s forgettable. That’s the point.
After he’s gone, I clean his room. There’s dirt on the tile that he tracked in from the playa. There’s a red ring on the nightstand from the plastic cup of wine. The sheets smell like his piney deodorant, my lavender shampoo, his come, my sweat. I sweep the floor, wipe the furniture and wash the sheets until we’re both gone.
© Krista Diamond
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Krista’s interview]