One thing about traffic on the way to Nevada is that it’s got a lot of space to crop up. It cropped up as soon as I descended the ramp below the First Adventist Church from Hollywood Boulevard to the 101. It cropped up as soon as the 101 decided to dip down on the backside of Universal City, under that viaduct, where the median’s made of gold-flecked rock rather than straight-up concrete. And it even cropped up again at the 170, the number one most secret freeway in Los Angeles, a road very few cars have ever heard about. But I’ll tell you where the traffic didn’t crop up. I’ll tell you where the barista and I were free and clear, where nothing but open roads stood between me and her, her and me, my heart and hers, sexual intercourse, etc etc: the poppy preserve up around Lancaster.
That’s right, Jake. Poppies are California’s state flower. She said to me, “Let’s go to the poppy preserve up around Lancaster. You’re from California. It’s your flower. You’re going to love it. You seem like a flower man.”
I said in reply, “Barista, I’m a practical man, and I don’t know where that place is.”
She said in reply again, “You ought to consider making use of your iPhone.”
I said in reply again, in a pattern that would go on to repeat itself ad infinitum for forty-eight hours, us replying to each other, back and forth, forth and back: a conversation. That’s how it goes, Jake: a barista speaks, a man replies: “As a practical and wise man with a vested interest in your state of well-being, being that we’re about to spend forty-eight hours together, alone in the desert, where anything can happen, I suggest you consider exploring the iPhone yourself, because as you can see, while the traffic has cleared, leaving us unobstructed views of desert hills that look like the wind shaped them yesterday, or rather like they were underwater yesterday, like massive versions of those ridges you see in the sand when swimming in water that’s placid, clear, and shallow all at the same time. You know those ridges? The kind that water movement creates underwater? They look like that but way more massive and ancient-seeming because you can’t blot them out with your footprints.”
“You said you were practical…” she trailed off.
“Here’s what I say, barista. I say that we’re in a place that’s nothing but sand so it might as well be a beach, except that it’s an ancient beach from the days when ridges in sand were much bigger than the ones we know now. Are you a coastal person? I’ve neglected to learn too much about you. I see you right now beside me in my truck. I would describe you but then I would risk violating your image. Let’s be cautious with details. Let’s just say your clothing matches the gray of my truck’s interior. And let’s say your complexion matches your clothing. You are intelligent. Things are color-coordinated. Let’s leave it at that. So I don’t know too much about you, but I do recall our nine months of small talk at the counter of the barista café. I believe you said you came from Wisconsin. There are plenty of lakes there, some of them large. Or really, one of them large: Lake Michigan, unless there’s another Great Lake that I’ve forgotten. I know geography well but not all the way. But if you want to count Wisconsin as a coast I’ll say I’m with you. I’ve seen Third Coast beer in the beer store. If you want to say you’re coastal, at least a handful of microbrewers will support your claim. Microbrewers and me, barista. I’m on your team. I believe in you. I’ve sensed your sexual energy. You have attractiveness. I can feel it. Although I can see it too so no need for feelings in this limited case. But I never believed too much in the coast anyway. I’ve always been one for the interior. I got a car when I turned sixteen. It was a Honda with a leaky sunroof. I burned incense to dispense with its odor. It was a stick shift. It did not help me with women. I could’ve used help with women in the form of an automobile, but I survived without it and had sex at a reasonable age and thereafter at a reasonable frequency and with a reasonable though variable aptitude. In any case I’m sure you’re curious where I went in that car when I turned sixteen. The car was used, by the way, very very old. By that I mean to impart my humility, though in the sort of way that makes me seem better than I actually am rather than worse. Actually, let me just say it: I am a more reasonable and sexually viable person than I’m showing myself to be. I’m not sure how you can trust that but I hope that you can. Bear with me, barista. I’m tricky but then I mellow out. But that’s why we’re here. Interpersonal breakthrough in forty-eight hours. This could be a reality show. This could be difficult. Such is life. But here’s where I went when I got my car: not to the beach. I didn’t care about that place. Put your hands in front of your eyes so that you can’t see the sand and all you see is water. So I didn’t go there. I went to Reno. That’s in Nevada. That’s in the northern part of the state and we’re not going there now but maybe sometime we can, depending on how this trip goes, sexually speaking, though you must recognize that ‘sexually’ for me is a metaphor. Like, should things go right sexually, it’d mean things were going right in other terms too, like love terms. But those terms are a hard kind to talk about.”
I couldn’t decide whether to look out the window like the wisest desert observer of all of time, as if I’d been there the day the ridges flexed and strained and broke through the crown of dried-cracked-salt-sand and stretched out under the pale blue, distant sun, into an endless recline, like earth-born lazing dogs, statues sprung by plate tectonics, the earth rising only to supplicate itself to the sky, the heavens, to their weight, their pressure, bearing down, me and the barista. I couldn’t decide whether to look out the window like that, ponderous, wise, doleful, or to turn and let my eyes linger on hers.
The barista said, “After we pass 140th Street, take a right.”
“140th Street? What the hell? We’re in the middle of the desert and the streets still have numbers like that? How far can this go? Who would devise a system so devious? Is this place some kind of joke? Why build a road without a real name? It’s like the urban planners out here are building a concept called ‘nowhere.’ There cannot be one structure on 140th Street. I’m looking out the window and all I see is wavering heat.”
“If all you see is wavering heat, then you, my former customer, my current friend, possible lover, live in a state of blindness with which I sympathize partly, though the extent of that partly remains to be seen.”
“I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that this particular landscape gives us as people zero occasion to dub a road 140th Street. High numbers arise when there are too many streets to name individually, but this bastard right here is just dirt and we passed 139th Street over a mile ago. This is an obscene reversal of math.”
Barista sighed. “You, driver of truck, are no mathematician. Listening to you is like listening to a calculator speak French.”
“You recommend a change in life strategy.”
“I recommend simplification.”
“Of what variety.”
“You could consider weighing in on my breasts.”
“You ought to comment on my breasts soon.”
“Are they behaving unusually?”
“Do they feel funny? Ought I pull over?”
“Are you feeling uncomfortable with your self-image?”
“Barista, I’m going to need some minutes to ponder. We’ve passed 140th Street. Unless the wavering heat implies a fluid and evolving landscape, which, frankly, it might, the poppy preserve ought to be coming up. Give me time, barista. I need time. Because if I am to weigh in on your breasts, I want to make sure I do so intelligently.”
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.