He’s a desert boy, born and raised. He’s driving me out into the sandy mouth of it, away from the glass acres of city so desperate to hold the sun. He wants to show me what else is out here because I’m already bored with it all: the climate, the ugly concrete sprawl, the three-times-a-week trivia nights where I watch his friends talk over each other, sipping pop through a straw, never knowing an answer or caring to say when I do. I think he’s scared I’ll dump him. We’re at that strange stage in relationships where you begin to recognize in each other qualities you find distasteful. He’s trying to be adventurous. I’m trying to be patient. He suggested peyote or ayahuasca for today, but I told him I wouldn’t do anything appropriative. So we’re going to do shrooms.
We’re silent in the cab of his truck, and silence makes me restless. I squirm in my seat, push the seatbelt behind me. A bottle of water sits sweating in the cup holder. He takes swigs from it periodically. I try to discern if there’s a pattern to his thirst, a trigger in the scenery that pulleys his arm, brings the plastic mouth to his lips, but there is nothing I can identify, just an itch on his tongue I suppose. The tide of adobe homes abandons the landscape, recedes into the side mirrors, and saguaros rise up from houseless dust. Some pose like cartoon cacti with two arms raised, others are Marilyn Monroe cacti, gowned by an upturned circle of appendages, a green dress in the wind. I don’t even notice the armless ones until he points to them, peeking out of the ground like soon-to-be-whacked moles. It takes seventy-five years before the arms grow, he tells me, voice as dry as the air feels, but of course I already know this. When I first moved to the desert, I went on dates with lots of men who had also moved to the desert. They whispered saguaro facts in my ear as if cacti had been their wombs, as if they’d burst forth from waxy green skin full-grown men, covered in thorns. But I don’t mind it coming from him, my desert boy. It’s exactly the kind of bland tidbit he’d lap up, fascinated, and keep on a trophy shelf in his mind, displayed for easy deployment at trivia, or here, a clumsily earnest attempt to entice me. It’s the earnest clumsiness that does.
I run my hand through his hair, even though he doesn’t like distractions when driving, not even music. Two strips of electrical tape cross a black X over the radio’s power button. I press my fingertips into his scalp. He hasn’t showered in a day or two, and already I can feel spines forming, pricking up out from his skull. He says it’s a mild form of psoriasis, but I prefer to think of him as one of those cactus men, dangerous if he allowed himself to be. When did you grow your arms? I ask him, squeezing a bicep. Born with ‘em, he says. Jokes go over his head so often, it’s like he’s perpetually ducking. He doesn’t mean to be, but he’s a bit of a prick. It puts him on edge when I put cookware or groceries away in the wrong cabinet. Without eight bottles of water a day, he gets red-faced and teeth-grindy. His prick can be a bit of a prick too, or not enough of one, to be more accurate. He has a hard time staying hard. Still getting over his ex, some girl-hipped pixie who could suck him just right and left for somewhere it rained more than twice in a year. He told me this after the first time we kissed, as though it were a courtesy to me, as though I cared. Three months later, I’m starting to.
The sun streaming through the windshield puts me to sleep. When I wake up, we’re stopped. His seat is empty, but he rolled the windows down for me. I see him outside, squatting on a boulder at the foot of a rocky hill, sipping from what must be his second water bottle, at least. The mini-cooler is beside him, for when he finishes that one. I step out of the truck. No matter which way I look, I can’t see any signs of civilization aside from our tire tracks leading back to it, not even cigarette butts, just desert and dirt devils, hunchbacked buttes looming. The benefits of a boyfriend who can go off-road. I walk toward him, avoiding alien shrubbery. Cacti cling to the land like urchins on a dry ocean floor. I sit down beside him and lift the plastic wrapped bundle of shrooms from the cooler. He pulls out bread and a jar of peanut butter. I’ve heard peanut butter really disguises the taste. I tried shrooms once, in college, and nearly gagged. He never has. A yellow lizard scurries past us through the brush as we eat.
Nothing happens for a while. I remember this, the time it takes to feel. Seventy-five years, maybe. We take a walk through the dry rippling of dirt. I pretend to see mirages—an oasis, a waterfall, a geyser. He laughs, the way he does when he doesn’t find my jokes funny. He’s probably worried about what the shrooms are doing to his body, his brain. Last week, he read an article about a man who tried to tear his penis off while under the influence of psilocybin. I pretend I’m starving, the whole world a desert island. I pretend he looks like a juicy drumstick, and I bite his neck. I can feel it now. A vibration in me. He takes a sip from his fifth water bottle. He smacks his lips. The water tastes weird, he says. Salted. He’s starting to feel it, too.
Soon we’re undressing. It’s not erotic, the sun just feels so GOOD. My body isn’t one body but a million tiny bodies, a hive of bees all buzzing in different directions. He insists he’s not feeling it, that something’s wrong with the water, but he wiggles out of his shorts, too, tosses his tank top aside. I’m wrapped in a blanket of light. My jeans crumple like snakeskin around my ankles, and I fish my sunblock tube out of a pocket. We sit in the hot dirt and slather it on ourselves, on the pale territories of our bodies that never see the sun. The globs of lotion feel alive in my hand. I make him coat my back and when I lean back into him I feel it, pressing hard into my spine: him, hard.
It turns me on to know he’s turned on. I turn to face him, to face his face, and I kiss him, the lazy stubble of his half-grown beard like tiny pliant needles acupuncturing the skin around my mouth, I feel each individual hair and I name them in my head, I name them the names of dogs: Spike, Fido, Fluffy. I push him down onto his back. We could get a blanket, he mumbles, but I like the grit of the ground. I slide on top of him, slipping along the length of his stomach where sunblock wasn’t fully rubbed in. Miracle of miracles, he’s still hard. I reach behind me and find him, help him find me. I feel him inside, everywhere. We go paleontologist-slow at first, but soon we’re fucking each other’s bones into a single mixed-up mess, some made-up beast that will brontosaurus its way into existence from the skeletal pile where we’ll heap ourselves.
In my head I picture that old diagram of a longneck dinosaur, the length of time it’d take for a signal in its tail to get to its brain, that slow traveling touch, and when his hand dusts the callused helix curl of my big toe, I can feel that dotted line tracing the bouquet burst of nerve endings from foot to head, those dotted lines dash into me at every spot he touches, weave through my body until I am sea-charted and treasure-mapped the whole way through, almost, nearly, please, yes, just a little more.
And he slips out. Soft now. A dried up fish of a dick. I’m sorry, he says. He puts his hands over his face. He looks as frustrated with himself as I feel. We could keep going, sure, he’s offering to go down on me, but I stand up. I don’t know what it is, some combination of drugs and heat and almost orgasm, but my face is fossilized, a bag of dug-up rocks, my cheeks have that filled-with-little-stones feeling that comes before weeping. I’m running back to the car naked, jumping boulders, dodging shrubbery. I just want to leave. I’m almost to the car when I stumble and lose my balance, catch a glimpse of a teddy bear cholla, its needles already reaching toward the warmth of my body as I fall ass-first into its pointed hug. It makes me scream.
He comes running, of course, dropping the bundle of clothes and shoes he’d been gathering up. He makes me lie on my stomach, ass up. I’ll be right back, he says, and runs to the car. I try to crane my neck around to see how many have stuck me. My left cheek is on fire. He returns from the truck with a plastic comb and uses it to brush the spines from the fatty flesh of my butt. The spines are barbed, and I feel every one as it leaves me. I bestow upon each an invented and unrepeatable profanity. Soon, we’re sitting in the same spot, still naked but not touching, still hurting but not pricked, watching the sun pinch the sky pink. It will be night soon, and I don’t want to find out what awful creatures might emerge. I fucking hate the desert, I say. He says, You need to be careful out here. He means a general you, says it quiet, not chiding, just rolling that fact of the landscape around in his mouth, but it doesn’t stop me from responding as though he meant to scold: You need to stay hard, I say.
When we make it out of the desert, back to a paved road, it’s dark. The city glitters in the distance, a winking ball of light we’re bound for. I’m curled up against the car door so my ass doesn’t press painfully into the seat, so I can feel as far away from the driver side as possible. My whole body throbs like a sunburn. I don’t know why I stay with him. I don’t know why I don’t leave the desert. There’s some magnetic energy drawing me to them both. I’m a bug knocking against bright bulbs. And if I leave him, it means she wins. If I move away, it means the desert beats me. No. When I go, it’ll be on my terms. I strip away the electrical tape X and turn on the radio. I flip to the metal station, just returning to us through a fog of static. I look to see him react, but his eyes stay bolted to the spotlit highway, as though long lines of beasts might be spectating from the darkness on either side of the road, watching our single-car parade, anticipating the moment when he’ll blink, then streaking before us, a grand menagerie of coyotes and condors and Komodo dragons choreographing their destiny, twirling that beautiful roadkill ballet. His fingers grip tight the wheel, red-spotted from where needles nicked his own skin, and already the warmth of forgiveness glows fuzzy in my throat. I crank the music. Someone is singing Oh please over the rumble of guitars. I take his water bottle and pour the rest of it over me, feel it heavy my hair, sheer my shirt, pool coolly where the memory of spines still stings. What are you doing? he says. Now I’ve got his attention, I think. That was his last bottle, and we’ve got a long way left to go. I reach under his arm and put my hand between his legs, fiddle with his zipper. He almost protests but then my fingers wrap around him and he shivers. Let me distract you, my desert boy. My cactus man. I can’t ever seem to pluck the last of you from my skin.
Sam Martone lives and writes in New York City.