We went to Crestone on a college trip. We drove in a large white van. I sat next to you.
You and I had already done everything together. We knew all each other’s secrets.
Last fall we’d gone to your homeland, where we ate pie with your asshole father, and
awoke in Dublin at your cousin’s apartment to find that the pipes had burst in the night,
our ankles soaked in water, and we laughed and laughed.
On the way to Crestone, we stopped at Dorothy’s, because everyone stopped at Dorothy’s,
and everyone got the tamales. After Dorothy’s the drive was just red dust and altitude,
miles and miles of the flat, high desert of the San Luis Valley. We passed the sand dunes,
those great, wild humps. Then Crestone appeared suddenly, quietly, like a mirage.
We were young; there was a feeling that everything that happened to people was about
to start happening to us. Of course, things had already happened. But they didn’t
feel like our lives yet. I was always on the edge, or way down deep into a breakdown,
and you were always fishing me out. And you had your own problems. You had been kidnapped
by the asshole father as a young child and woken up on the other side of the world in your swim
floaties. Your older sister, who had been there too, was in Iraq now, and then Afghanistan,
and then maybe back to Iraq.
In Crestone we stayed in low, clay buildings, and the sky and the mountains hung slowly above us.
There were a few stores, and on the side of the road there was a faded wooden sign marking a
famous UFO sighting area. It was a sacred place. Above us, in the tangle of the Sangre de
Cristo Mountains, there was a Catholic monastery where the monks took vows of silence.
Somewhere up there also was a Buddhist retreat,and there were rumors of reclusive shamans
crouching throughout the hills.
We slept in bunks, where you woke me up early and made me run with you through the dry woods.
Here we saw a buck standing still in the forest, and in the hysterical blue shock of early
morning we imagined he wanted to join us. During the day we talked about Italy after fascism.
We read women Sicilian writers. We watched The Bicycle Thief, and we cried, even though it was
just about a bicycle. Late at night we lay in bed and talked about the buck in the woods.
We wondered if it had really been a hundred bucks running through the woods with us,
since that was how it felt anyway.
We ate our meals at a restaurant called the Desert Rose, where the food was local,
organic, and bland. Here we were excited to find the famous bookcase we’d heard about
from students before us, the best part of the Desert Rose. The books were as vivid
and strange as the food was dull. The greatest was The Birthday Book, a monster
that took up the whole creaking bottom shelf because, worn down from handling,it had
split at the spine into unintentional sections. In 365 days, the book explained the
person born on each one, as aligned by the stars and planets and whatever else happened
in that accidental moment when we all are born.June Nineteenth: I had creative intelligence,
which I chose to believe, because it was a great compliment.Under character flaws, I had the
danger of feeling too much,of taking on the weight of the world and not being able to separate,
qualify it, until it could crush me, or swallow me whole, and would, unless I learned ways
of dealing with it. This I also chose to believe, since it was true.
And then came the blizzard: suddenly, early, unexpected. It raged out of the breathless mountain air and caught us in the sand dunes, where our class group spent the afternoon exploring. The dunes we have in the Midwest, where I was born, fell into great bodies of water. Colorado dunes just stretched on forever, a barren field of giants. Because of the curves between one sand dune and another, we felt lost without actually being far from other people, especially in the snowstorm.
Here duringthe blizzard one of our classmates found a woman’s purse lying in the sand and snow. Here we wandered, looking for its owner, but were alone in the bad weather. We left the purse with the rangers at the National Park office and escaped to the warmth in the van, where we turned to look, puzzled, as we were leaving, at a single car still left in the parking lot, lonely and gathering snow.
We went back with the group and huddled together in the warm dark. We watched Pasqualino Settebellezze, the movie about the charming, devilish prisoner-of-war who seduced his Nazi officer. We marveled at how good art was so funny and still so sad. We almost forgot about the abandoned purse in the dunes until the next morning over breakfast, when the park rangers walked into The Desert Rose and asked if they could question the student who found it. We learned that the keys in the purse had matched the car in the empty parking lot, and that the rangers had spent the night scouring every grain of sand with lights, in pairs, as they had been trained, looking for the person who might have left those things. Here we learned that they had found a pile of clothes and then, hours later, a woman, frozen and naked, dead for a while, who had somehow been there, hidden in the blizzard, as we had been. We learned what they knew about her from the purse: her name, her young age, her home in Colorado Springs. She had just returned from her second tour in Iraq.
At night we gathered on couches with our professor and the other students and drank red wine and talked about what had happened. That she had undressed—this was the most startling. Someone talked of hypothermia, of cases in which people who were freezing to death took off their clothes as a last resort to salvage their body heat. Could she have gotten lost out there in those blizzardy mountains of sand, and panicked?
But mostly we guessed suicide, and so did everyone else. It was too planned, too perfect. That she had driven out there, chosen that specific isolation, and gotten naked. Maybe she had wanted to die in a similar way to how she had been born. We talked about the great lonely vastness of the landscape, and then about the connection between the sand and Iraq. When the conversation turned idealistic, elitist, as it did with young people, it seemed everyone but us agreed: who would join the military, besides the poor, the stupid, the unstable? And you quietly mentioned your sister and everyone balked. But you hadn’t said it just to spite them. That was maybe me, but that was never you.
Late at night we lay in our bunks and you told me about the video they had sent your family when your sister had first finished basic training, before she left the country. In it, your sister smiled wide and spoke to the camera and her family. She told you stories from training; that things were fine and she missed you. And your mom felt better until, after your sister said goodbye, there was an isolated, accidental three seconds before the camera was turned off, where your sister’s smile dropped and there she was staring into space, looking young, terrified, lost, alone. Your mom freaked out and played those last seconds over and over, obsessing. In our bunks, we laughed, even though it was also sad.
After college, we left Colorado. We made decisions, had lives, apartments, and work. Your sister came back, domestic for now, and then we hoped she’d get out completely. Your father was still an asshole, still sent you horseracing papers from Ireland instead of phone calls, or apologies. My breakdowns had faded, sort of spread out and watered down into part of my personality. And things were okay.
We lived in a new city and when we could, we met at the park in between our separate homes and ran through the tangled woods that seemed to last forever, around the frozen lake and the bikers and picnickers and people riding horses and we told secrets and we laughed. Here we were last spring right after the thing happened that I couldn’t say to anyone else. Here’s when I told you about my ex-boyfriend, who had stayed in Colorado, who had been found frozen from the waist down, crouching halfway out of a small lake near Boulder. Who couldn’t explain to anyone what had happened, who had then returned home last month to recover, only to hang himself in his mother’s basement. Who no longer existed. Who took all of the air out of my lungs, now, as we ran faster, a cold sky weighing down on us, blank and promising snow. For the first time in years we thought about that woman, naked, frozen in the dunes. We ran through that patch of woods in the middle of our new city, and out of the corner of our eyes we hoped for a single buck, standing still, wanting to join us, and when none came, we were glad we still had each other. At least I was glad I had you.