They’re driving their failing relationship into the desert. Jasper pulls the car onto the edge of the thinning highway and gets out to take photos. Teprine presses a palm against the rental car window, comparing her skin to the burning hues beyond. She props her phone up, clicks a lazy burst of landscape shots. She will love the memory of having been here.
She doesn’t understand how to travel. All she sees is endless metaphor. Humans are small, the Earth is infinite and murderous. If I get out of the car, I will fall off the planet. The seat belt cleaves her chest. She appreciates the way it holds her down. Her skin isn’t enough. Contained, she sucks on a mango Popsicle from the last gas station, her fingers smelling like sanitizer, applied hourly.
There’s a tenderness to the desert’s red landscape. She’s never seen a desert before.
Teprine re-met Jasper at the supermarket the day after she turned thirty-nine. They knew each other from around the community – that queer small town nestled in the mouth of every sprawling city. She was wearing sweatpants with a coleslaw stain splattered across both knees. It looked like cum and she didn’t care. She’d tried to hide when she looked up from the Concord grapes and saw him smelling a tomato. She’d counted out four minutes in the bakery, but still ended up behind him in the checkout.
‘Hey, how’s it going?’ She hadn’t spoken out loud in two days and could barely manage this strained greeting.
‘I’m getting divorced,’ he’d said.
She’d blushed, embarrassed. ‘Me too.’
He was remarkably handsome, even under the anaemic lights of Fiesta Farms. She’d never have asked him out, but the divorce had made her emotionally reckless. Also, she was more afraid of the open sky than social rejection.
Holding their green plastic grocery bags, she was a recovered agoraphobic in danger of a relapse, clinging to tight walls, familiar bus routes, the comfort of crowds. He was a trans man who felt most free away from human scrutiny, at peace while hiking off into the distance. After two shy dates, they kissed in a way that anaesthetized the heartbreak. Alone, they were floating heads. Together they reminded each other that a body is capable of imprudent elation.
In motion, Teprine can keep things in perspective. The car is a mobile piece of the familiar. The familiar is a mental salve. Whenever the car stops, her heart runs up into her throat. Her thoughts blur and blend. She was raised in a valley, her bedroom window opened onto upward meadows. She felt safe in the warm embrace of their farmhouse, anchored by packed snow.
She licks the Popsicle stick clean. The thrum of her spatial anxiety sounds like an amplifier on its last legs. When the outside gets too overwhelming, she pictures curling up under the drive shaft like a cat. She touches the window barrier between her vacated body and the edge of Joshua Tree National Park. She can see that it is beautiful. Of course. But it’s like looking at a pastoral oil painting she doesn’t feel anything for. It could have been a greasy portrait in a hotel room. She can see him in the rear-view mirror taking endless photos. They haven’t passed another vehicle in almost an hour.
He gets back in the car. She bites into the Popsicle stick. The rush of air conditioning tucks her hair behind her ears. Soothing. She makes her face into an expression that approximates relaxed and easy-going. Her mouth says, I can be a fun girl!
He smiles at her and squeezes her leg. He pulls out a paper map, runs his finger along a line so thin it looks like an accidental pencil scrawl. ‘This old road is supposed to be amazing,’ he says. ‘Should we take it?’
He is so excited to veer off course. She doesn’t want to say no, but immediately imagines the car breaking down, and no one finding their bodies for days. They have only a small bottle of coconut water in a fabric bag in the back seat and a cold brew coffee between her thighs. She doesn’t want to disappoint him, but she hears herself say, ‘Let’s take the regular highway, it’s going to get dark.’
He pulls away, a half-frown.
Later, in the hotel, Teprine will lie awake as he snores gently and feel a shame so acute that she will long to be stranded on an old road waiting for the sun to kill them.
They’d been planning the trip for months. Jasper would attend a conference in Arizona while she’d work on a manuscript, and then they’d drive to California for a vacation. She’d taken a book out of the library about women who travel to far-flung places by themselves. They talked about being transformed. She wanted that. She was sick of her face in the grim mirrors at the gym. She talked to her therapist about calming self-talk. She wrote out a hierarchy of fear on the back of a red-paper menu at the cafe near her apartment. She bought a leather passport holder, decided which dress was luckiest to fly in, choosing a brown cotton knee-length with sky-blue birds embroidered around the hem. She stashed travel-size tubes of Tylenol, ginger candies and hand sanitizer into the front pocket of her backpack.
As you drive west the world opens up, the same way it does in Canada. The mountains and sky grow bigger until Teprine feels like a baby spider in a bathtub. She is not transformed. She can’t write an inspiring memoir about overcoming the adversity of her agoraphobic tendencies. The disappointment feels worse than she imagined it would.
They have tried to break up, but they can’t stop having sex.
Teprine has two patchy bruises on her inner elbow from a blood test. She didn’t want to get sick in America, so she got every test. If she were rich she’d request a full-body PET scan every few years. The nurse said her veins are impossible. She doesn’t like to contemplate the existence of veins. Basic biology in grade nine made her gag. She can barely register that she lives inside a body. She and Jasper have this in common. Their bodies become the whole point. On this trip, as at home, when they’re not otherwise occupied, they are having sex. When she hears him unbuckling his belt, her mouth opens on its own, her back arches. Even if he’s just changing quickly into swim clothes, the metal clink makes her body ready.
She doesn’t like to lie on her back – at the doctor’s office, in yoga class during meditation – it makes her feel like she could float away. But she longs to be underneath him, anchored.
In 29 Palms, in a pink adobe cottage, he held the bed frame above her head to keep it from banging against the wall, but it was unstoppable. She used to move all around the room when she fucked someone. Now she just wanted to be still, his full weight on top of her.
On their first morning of the trip, before they were really awake, they were fucking fast and frenzied, as though battling through disconnection. Teprine couldn’t turn her brain off, it processed the many layers of what was occurring, even while her mouth was saying all the things he liked to hear, even while her body was responding.
She wants to be someone for whom sanity is not something laboured for, the kind of person who can be present in every moment, who can walk into the desert with some water and a map and a sense of adventure, whose only concern is an excellent photograph. Faced with the unfamiliar, she’s stuck in full histamine flutter.
But in a hotel bed, the new and the familiar collide. He has all the control in this game, she feigns helplessness. She never tires of his commanding voice, his soft theatrical coercion, his hand over her mouth.
There’s a freedom in the constraint.
Two hours before their departing flight, he’d thrown a hitch in the plan.
‘I love you,’ he’d said, ‘but something is missing.’
There wasn’t a word for it, but it was missing. He’d rubbed his chest in a circular motion.
‘Be more specific,’ Teprine had said, though she didn’t need him to be. Everyone knows when they’re being broken up with, however kind and vague the rejection, even if it happens right after he makes you come thirteen times in a row in the back of his Mazda 5 in the Park ’N Fly lot by the airport.
‘I love you,’ he’d repeated, as if that made it significant. She’d furrowed her brow, then smoothing down her skirt she’d lifted the wrapper from a child’s granola bar off her thigh like a Band-Aid. She had non-returnable tickets. She had a goal: to walk into the desert and stay alive.
‘I still want you to come on this trip,’ he’d said. She knew the thing to do, if she were a strong and independent woman, or the narrator in an anthemic R & B song, was to strut out of that Mississauga parking lot and into her own good-enough life. But she didn’t cancel the trip.
‘I guess it’ll be like our farewell tour,’ she’d said. She was angry but compared to her fear, her rage was more of an irritant than a serious problem.
At departures, he did his weekly shot of testosterone in the bathroom before they went through security. He claimed to not notice any differences, but every time he did it, his grip on her wrists tightened.
It goes without saying that Teprine is not a good flyer. Agora-phobics never are. Thankfully, Ativan engenders a feeling of being absent from the cruelties of the self. After dissolving one milligram under her tongue, Teprine was able to board the plane to Arizona.
She had a moment of clarity while sitting beside Jasper in the O’Hare departure lounge on a stopover: this was their last trip together. It was an almost neutral thought. A fact. Sometimes she gets a glimpse of her real personality while taking anti-anxiety medication. Perhaps underneath the screaming blur of all the irrational fear, she’s actually pretty chill.
They didn’t even get a chance to unpack their bags in the hotel room before his breath on her neck became urgent, and he’d whispered, ‘You’re mine,’ and those words buoyed her against every known uncertainty.
Teprine will turn forty on the day they arrive in Los Angeles. Forty felt like a relief to Jasper. Everyone who already has kids says turning forty is a relief, but Teprine finds little solace in the tins of cream meant for the infinitesimal area under each eye. She wishes time could pause. When she sees babies, she sometimes voluntarily cries out with longing, and has to pretend it’s just a coughing fit.
A week before the trip, Jasper’s four-year-old looked at Teprine with weird toddler solemnity while she was reading him a bedtime story and said, ‘When the end of the world comes, I’m going to dig a hole for my family. And you can come, too.’ Teprine laughed and then went to the bathroom to cry because she knew she probably wasn’t going to be around for another birthday, let alone the apocalypse.
Jasper appears, to Teprine, both scared of their relationship and scared of not being in their relationship. As soon as the break-up is final, he reaches for her all day long. She’s not sure how she should react so she lets her body make the decision.
They stop along Route 62 at a series of giant dinosaur sculptures. She takes photos of him pretending to be eaten by the Tyrannosaurus rex. He texts the pictures to his kids. She looks around at the small grouping of desert houses and wonders if she should just put an end to the trip and rent an apartment. She could be one of the girls in flimsy dresses selling pies at one of the bakeries along the highway. She could rename herself something simple like Jen. Jen drinks her iced hibiscus tea behind the counter at the bulk spice store. She could settle down. Jen could be easy-going.
Later that night he calls the kids. They critique the photos he sent. ‘They’re not real dinosaurs,’ they say. ‘You don’t look scared enough.’
The first twenty steps are always the most difficult. It’s when an agoraphobic will most likely turn around. Teprine left the guest house in Tucson on their second day, heading towards a bus stop a few blocks away. Even as the ground began to tilt, and she gripped the edges of her white sundress, she kept going. She got to the bench beside the bus stop. Exposure therapy only works if you keep going, travel up and down the arc of panic.
Her skirt rose up and she could see the beautiful bruises on her thighs. He doesn’t like them. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, ever. I love you.’ But she likes to see her resilience reflected back. The bus stop was across from a deserted schoolyard. The only people around were inside their cars. She tried to read an essay by Susan Sontag. She could only read one line: Wherever people feel safe . . . they will be indifferent.
What does it mean to accept your limitations? She looked out the bus window at the city, the fast-food outlets, the university campus. She would feel better if she went back to the guest house. Sometimes she feels jealous of people who frame their mental health issues as disability issues. But she feels that if you stay home, the agoraphobia wins.
A man got on the bus and stared at her tits for so long without stopping that she almost admired his singular focus. She clenched and unclenched all the muscles in her legs while counting and trying to breathe slowly, trying to turn so the man couldn’t stare. As she shifted, so did his gaze. She got off the bus quickly, so the man wouldn’t follow.
At the Sparkroot Cafe the baristas were femmes in vintage sundresses, tattooed arms, much like her dress, her arms. One of them ran a finger along the deer tattoo on Teprine’s bicep and complimented it. Teprine sat at a table and opened her laptop. She stared at the title page of her manuscript in progress. The Bon Iver album played, the Blue Bottle coffee: all of it combined to mollify her against the unknown. She knew all of those tastes, the sound of those chord progressions.
She closed her laptop and opened the travel journal she’d packed, hoping to write about her transformative journey. Tomorrow I will be more adventurous, she wrote. Today I will get settled. But she knew that she’d simply come back to this cafe the next day, and sit at this table, and order the same thing.