Jake, it seems the barista and I fell into a ditch. We were having an impossible time getting to Nevada. I was having an easy time of writing to you on into infinity about our stagnant efforts to cross the state line, but while I thought that, in my effort to get to infinity, I was building a new Tower of Babel or something, or being like Icarus, or doing something that, at least, extended up into the sky, I was, in fact, digging a hole into the ground, like if maybe Atlas had been handed a shovel instead of a boulder.
Holes, Jake, as you know, are hard to get out of. You dig down and down and down, and then you realize that, if you want to get back out, you need a ladder. But at least I kind of maybe told the barista I loved her. I told her I loved her in an ambiguous way. In a way that gives me freedom. I told her that when she’d gone deaf, I’d told her I’d loved her, then I’d asked her if, now that she wasn’t deaf anymore, if she wanted me to tell her I loved her again, with the full benefit of premeditation, with the full cooperation of my brain, my heart, and my sexuality too.
“Your call,” she said.
So, later in life, when I recount my effort to get to the great state of Nevada so that I might sit cross-legged on a synthetic bedspread and see deep into the eyes of the barista, I’ll have options. I’ll be able to say, to those who were cheering for me, “Yes, I told her I loved her.” And I’ll be able to say, to those who were cheering against me, “No, I didn’t tell her anything.” This, Jake, is diplomacy in its lowest form. Room for circuitousness. I’m a man who needs space. A rover, Jake. Capacious inside yet physically trim.
We didn’t make it to Nevada, Jake. We didn’t make it anywhere. After the poppy preserve without poppies in Lancaster, we drove less than ten miles before we found a field of solar panels, and obviously we had to stop there. Why did we have to stop at the field of solar panels? Because solar panels are a passport to the shadow world inhabited by literature and the federal government. What do I mean, Jake? I mean that fields of solar panels in the Mojave are the kind of thing that you read about in the newspaper but don’t see much of in real life. They are stories. They are products of federal legislation. They are products of hundreds of millions of dollars. They are symbols of national American progress. They are the kinds of thing you hear about and don’t bother visiting because they’re symbolic, vapors and wind rather than earth and fire. They are poker chips in the great game of American destiny. Fate and free will, Jake. Democrats and Republicans. Where are we going? I’m not the one to tell you. But I do know that if you go to the solar panels in the Mojave, rather than history’s moving parts, you’ll see a bunch of unblinking metal staring back at the sun.
But that’s why we had to stop, Jake, the barista and I. Both of us knew about the federal government. We’d both heard rumors about this field of panels. And then we discovered it, and then we stood in the bed of my truck and looked over the chain link fence at the groomed desert soil and the white trucks and men in white hats, and we got the sensation that we’d crossed through a portal into the world we’d read about. And this floored us Jake. I hadn’t expected this to happen and neither had she. We were aiming for love and instead we broke the constraints of space and time, as if that heat that wavers over the road was for real, like the road really was floating. You know how when you’re reading Proust and you’re like, “Somehow this guy climbed inside my head and started narrating my thoughts or something, because right now I’m not thinking anymore, I’m just letting some current pass through this hole in the back of my neck and I can’t even remember what my original thoughts ever sounded like?” And then you’re nervous that maybe you won’t get your thoughts back and your thirty years of hard work to become somebody have vanished and then you try to stop reading but you can’t get them back anyway so you keep going? You know that feeling of a book getting outside its pages? How you’re reading a book and then you go to the bar and you can’t keep up a conversation because all you want to say is, “Remember how Rick Vigorous was all jealous and everything and it seemed both lunatic and familiar?” And then your friends are like, “Who’s this Rick Vigorous?” And then you try to tell them but your speech is insufficient, like demanding the balloon you’ve snipped from your wrist stop drifting to its inevitable burst? Well here I stood in the bed of the pickup truck, watching the federal government in action, and I thought to myself, “I’d barely believed this was happening. The mystery world that guys like me only get to read about in the paper is actually here, here in the Mojave and we haven’t even crossed the state line.” It was like shaking hands with Rick Vigorous, Jake.
The barista held my hand. She clutched it. She gripped it. She comforted me as I realized that all the books I’d read had been true. All of them. Even the wild ones like Less Than Zero. I wasn’t in that but it was true. I recognized it. I’d seen it on TV and out behind restaurants, out by the dumpsters. Some people want to know what truth is. Some people say that novels have “novel truth.” Well I found novel truth in real life. I saw it out in the desert. I thought that field of panels for half a billion dollars had been some kind of modern day myth, a TV movie in the making, The Unblinking Panels of the Mojave. I thought those heat wavers were tricks, that the road I stood on was solid. But the road is not solid. It floats, it wavers, it’s equal parts utilitarian pathway and flaming hot lava flow, equal parts promise and delivery. It’s all true, Jake. That’s what I found in the desert with the barista, and we comforted each other while the sun blazed.
Jake, I’ve missed you. I gave my heart to a girl I met at the coffee shop who had an interest in gambling and a predisposition towards men with integrity. I told you all about my time with her. But I forgot to tell you about other things. I forgot to tell you about my daily attire and my efforts at home decoration, all the important stuff I used to tell you about all the time. Did you know that I bought a bookshelf? And cushions for my kitchen chair that I affixed with Velcro straps? Did you know my mom sent me a Crate and Barrel gift card and I’m going to buy pillows for my couch? Not bed pillows for sleeping like I use on the couch now, but real couch pillows with stitching and stuff. I’m going to do it Jake. I’m moving up in the world. I’m doing it for the sake of my apartment’s look and feel, and for the sake of my posture, which has been suffering. I’ve missed you, Jake. I’ve got a lot to tell you that has nothing to do with the barista.
Though make no mistake, I maintain no hard feelings towards her. I realize that I’m not telling you the whole story. But let me tell it to you in code. Also, as I tell you our whole story in code, keep in mind that this is how life works: If things had gotten fucked with the barista, I’d be able to tell you all about them. I’d be able to tell you how she told me what numbers to play in roulette, and how she told me that if I won money, I’d win her heart too. That’s the kind of game I can’t turn down. That’s also the kind of game in which I’m guaranteed to find myself fucked but not sexually. But had things gone well. Had she said, “Let’s skip the roulette, let’s just get a drink.” Or had I impressed her with a game of skill instead of luck, a game that wasn’t rigged to destroy me, had we fallen in love, I wouldn’t have had anything to tell you at all.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.