We were at the poppy preserve without poppies in Lancaster, CA, past 140th Street, a street name whose import I detailed for you in my last letter. I don’t know how long poppy seasons last, how long those blooms go, how long the desert’s a blanket of petals. But without knowing the science, I’m going to gamble—petals like that can’t last very long. Not with searing heat, not without tree shade, not with dramatic swings in temperature from night to day. The desert is moody, Jake. It’s hot and it’s cold. It punishes flower petals. It begs them to wilt but then somehow they don’t, at least for a while. That’s why this place was a miracle, Jake. That’s why I put all my faith in it.
We were in the parking lot. The bottoms of my feet were getting hot because the asphalt was freshly black and my shoes weren’t too rugged. The hot wind billowed off the asphalt up into my shorts. My shorts got hot. It was a strange sensation, a new and unusual way to experience heat, like a hot tub with no tub. Obviously I had no choice but to allow my thoughts to become sexual. The barista wore shorts too. I had a few questions for her. I didn’t ask though because these questions would’ve violated the edicts of timing. With shorts, with heat, one must pace oneself. “Barista, is the wind making the inside of your shorts hot, and if so, are your thoughts roving like mine?” No, Jake. Not that. Not yet. For now I had to play it cool. I had to appear like a man immune to wind altogether.
“Let’s do something reasonable,” I said.
“Numerous placards point us to a path,” she said.
“Despite the near one hundred percent likelihood that from these paths we’ll see no sign of the flowers you directed us here to see with your iPhone without discerning whether or not such flowers would in fact be in bloom, the path seems like a reasonable thing to do, or even, the only thing to do. In situations like this, with parking lots and placards, one must follow the path. And besides, the path appears to lead to the top of a hill. Right now, that hill obscures my view. And I know you know that I do not believe in obscured views. That’s why we came here to the desert. To see as far as possible, but in a relevant way. And by relevant I mean that looking out at the horizon from the ocean isn’t nearly as meaningful as this, because it’s all just water. And also, barista, because it’s been covered. Herman Melville once advised writers to write about whales rather than ants because whales give the writer more to discuss. Well barista I advise that perhaps the desert is in fact more fruitful than the ocean, though there’s really no chance that we’ll see any wildlife, aside from lizards, and if we’re lucky, snakes, bugs, and birds.”
The barista trained her faraway look on the sky.
“Are you faraway prematurely, barista? In my experience, the faraway look comes in the wake of experience, not in anticipation of same. We haven’t left California yet. We have yet to gamble. We have yet to broach the topic of intimacy. Is there such thing as an anticipatory look? Can you consider that? Or are you always faraway? And if so could this be why I love you?”
The desert didn’t flinch, Jake. The desert has heard this line before. The desert knows that petals come and petals go. The desert knows that bugs count as wildlife even when men are hunting for antelope. The desert doesn’t apologize, and I couldn’t take it back. I’d said it. She took in the view and I unburdened my soul. I hadn’t really meant it to come out that way though. One thing I’m thinking birds and the next thing I know I told her I loved her.
Jake, you want to know something? One time my mom found this whole trove of letters I’d written to you but hadn’t sent. That’s right. In the now decade-plus that I’ve been sending you letters, I haven’t mailed all of them. Some were bad, Jake. Very very bad. Sometimes I was drunk or even stoned. Those I never sent. They didn’t add up, Jake. Not in the end. They were like, “Goooooooooooo!!!!!!! I can’t see!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” And guess what my mom said about these letters? First of all she said she liked them. This seemed generous. Second of all she said I should include some emotion. Well here you go mom. My pants got hot and I told the barista I loved her before we even crossed the state line. No field guides to love and romance advise this. No travel guides to Nevada warn against the romantic temptation to double down.
I eagerly waited for the barista to speak.
“Sorry,” the barista said, “my look was too faraway. I sensed that you were talking in a way that I ought not overhear. I sensed that you were talking in a way that you ought to regret. I know this, but I have no idea what you just said. This impression of mine is not content-driven. It is intuition-driven. So whatever you said I give you the chance to take it back. Recover what you said from the sphere of impulse, let it marinate, and then push it through the prism formed by the meeting of your mind, heart, and sexual organ. I realize this is a mixed blessing for you. I realize that, despite your full awareness of your folly, you were feeling unburdened and now you’re not. I realize you are now likely to become preoccupied. You will have a faraway look of your own now. Content yourself with that. We’re on the same page, at least in that one respect. So let’s walk up the path to celebrate. We’ll go to the top of the hill and look off it, poppies or not, in bloom or out. We’ll look out together. We’ll be window shoppers of the expanse. We’ll be preoccupied next to each other. We’ll anticipate, and when we get to Nevada, we’ll sit cross-legged on the synthetic bedspread and plumb each other’s spirits. This is your fantasy. I am complicit with it for now. But my complicity is most delicate. You are almost sure to shatter it soon. I advise against that. I advise you not to shatter my complicity with your fantasy. If you can manage that, everything will be fine. We’ll sow the desert with our own orange. We’ll make our own poppies. We’ll make this place a dreamscape of our own devising. I agree that the desert is a better palate for visions than the ocean. No future of mine has ever appeared watery. I like boats but who wants to live on one. So good luck with your faraway look. Rest assured that I have one of my own. You are not alone in this. We are going to stand beside each other but not in physical contact looking off a hill at salt flats and other hills that look like they’re melting. Make of that what you will. I trust you to make something of it. I’m just not all that sure what. You have a way of deviating. Life would be simpler if you just kept your eyes on my breasts. It’s too late for that now though. You have abandoned them and you’re trying to get them back. I don’t know how you’re going to do that. Breasts, in this way, are like youth—wanting them back is both the wrong and the right attitude. I never promised you wisdom. Life is complicated. But you know this.”
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.