Out of all the times with you, I think I liked best the time we drove up to the top of a mountain at 10:30 PM, just the two of us in your parents’ car. The desert sky is so vast, if you weren’t there to hold me down I could have gotten lost forever. The dusk lasts for hours because the sun clings to every single particle of dust in the atmosphere, so even though it was long past our bedtime, the horizon was still light.
At the top of the mountain there was a club of sorts, built in the style common to that part of the country, all adobe and natural wood. All of the people in the club had gone home, so we hopped the wall and ventured to the edge of the cliff (was it a natural cliff or manmade? Does it matter?) We were surrounded by paper lanterns (luminarias, I think they call them) that glinted like the first stars in the evening sky. There were only a few trees. Their trunks were green. I tried to take pictures with my phone, but the flash destroyed the darkness, so I put my phone away.
It’s weird that I don’t remember much else about that night except the vastness of the black valley and the city lights in the distance. I do not remember anything you said and I don’t remember what I was wearing or how I had done my hair (it was purple, then, and much shorter) but if I close my eyes and try really hard I can remember the smell of your perfume. Cherry blossoms. Spicy, a little bit like dust, and it lingered long after you left. I will always associate that smell with the emptiness of the mountains.
Today I was thinking about dying my hair a different color, maybe green or blue. I dye my hair red and wear dark red lipstick because I am tired of being in the background of things. When I was in high school, we wore uniforms and mine was always the same, a white polo and khaki shorts. When I wore skirts, they reached my knees, and my shirts were always baggy enough for me to play basketball in. I knew boys thought I was fat and I didn’t care. I knew I should buy girls’ sizes instead of boys’ but I didn’t care. My dad wouldn’t let me paint my nails black when I was sixteen (because I said so, he said,) and my mom wouldn’t let me dye my hair when I was eighteen (you have beautiful hair,) but here I am, aged twenty-one and one-quarter, lying on the floor of my room with ten black fingernails and hair I dyed red back in January. I have only dyed my hair purple once before and that was for you.
Short list of things I’m tired of: being alone, traveling, being tired. I want to pack all my things in the car for one last road trip back West. I will travel for three days and eat all the hot dogs and pickles I want. I will travel through Dallas, El Paso, and Albuquerque. I will race storms across reservations like I did when I was in high school. There will be hours and miles where I will see no other cars except mine, maybe the faint glint of another windshield in the distance. Eventually I will arrive at a house on the side of the mountain I remember. It will be empty, but the gate will be open. I remember every inch of that house: the porch with terra cotta tiles, the twelve steps up to the flat roof, the strange spiky plants with red flowers that taste sweet if you lick the ends.
In the garden of that house, or rather, the part of the mountain that slopes down to the adobe wall a quarter mile away, there are two trees with green trunks that overarch a small hollow. This is where, after church one evening, I made brief eye contact with a mountain lion. This is where two girls once sat in the May sunshine and talked about dreams. The hollow contains a small, flat rock that used to be a table, some worn pieces of chalk, and perhaps a centipede or two; not much else. The dust is still warm.
In Arizona sometimes there are dust storms. Sometimes there are monsoons – actually, every year there are monsoons, some worse than others – and sometimes there are flash floods. It’s a harsh environment and in order to grow up properly you need sunscreen, hiking boots, and turquoise crosses. The sunscreen is to protect your skin, even though you never burn. The hiking boots are to protect your feet from rattlesnakes, sharp rocks, and cholla stickers (jumping chollas are secretly alive and will do anything they can to sink themselves into your skin.) The turquoise cross/crosses? Well, we can’t see what that will protect you from, but sometimes you can feel it, swooping over you like an owl closing in for the kill. Many cultures believe that the owl is bad luck. I do not know what the mountain lion brings, except the death of rabbits, probably, and lion cubs in the spring. I am glad that I met the mountain lion in the semidarkness, many years before I stood with you under the early-evening stars, and I am very glad that the last I saw of the mountain lion was its heavy shoulders and long, almost gentle tail as it slunk away. I am happy that the last thing I will remember about you is your smell, cherry blossoms, so out of place in the dust of those lanterns, so unique against the purple.