I drove to see Mona down in Twentynine Palms, some eight hours south of my home in San Francisco. The town seemed to be nothing more than a freeway running through the desert, a scattering of lonely motel swimming pools and palm trees. She was in SoCal for a Suicide Girls shoot, and had decided to take a brief holiday in the sun. She called, and I got someone to cover my shift that day, giving me just enough time to drive down, spend the night, and come back. It had been a lonely year, though, and I could use whatever distraction I could get.
Mona was tough — all jet black hair and Johnny Cash, though she held Jeff Tweedy closer to her heart. She had winged, angelic rats tattooed across her chest, wore librarian’s glasses, and had been a committed vegan for the last several years. I’d met her at a barbecue back home a few months before, and we’d spent the night making out in a corner closet, while Rufus, her ratty, charcoal-colored dog, growled at me from the across the room. She’d adopted Rufus on a whim during one cross-country trek or another. He looked like he’d lived through a zombie apocalypse. The two of them were inseparable, sitting side by side in her dusty green station wagon as she drove the freeways from one shoot to another. “Flying lacks the tactile,” she had said. “There’s nothing of nature to smell, there’s no wind, no breeze, and you can’t touch anything except plastic and polyester. Better to drive where I can roll down the windows and sweat in the wind like a human being.”
It was nearly ten at night when I found her motel. It was a clichéd desert oasis hidden among a thicket of palms. The gravel was hard-packed into the parking lot. Rufus started barking when I was still some thirty yards from her room, a sort of pueblo cabin. Mona opened the door before I knocked, and threw her arms around me in a loose and easy hug. That’s a funny thing about distance — the further you’ve traveled to see someone, the bigger the hug at the finish line. You don’t fly across the world for a handshake. “We’ve got to go to the store,” she said. “I’ve been hand-making margaritas, but I’m almost out of tequila.” She clapped a straw cowboy hat to her head, called Rufus, and a moment later the three of us were in her car, heading to the AM/PM. He watched me from her lap and growled low in his throat.
We pulled into the parking lot, cracked the windows for the dog, and went inside. She said she didn’t like to leave him alone for very long. I turned my head and watched as Rufus ricocheted around the car’s interior, yapping and pawing at the glass. His breath and spit smeared on the windows. I said nothing. Mona found the liquor and we stood in line behind a half dozen other people with bottles of booze in hand. Perhaps in Twentynine Palms there was nothing better to do on a random autumn Tuesday save for getting drunk and staring at the stars. Mona pointed out the holes in my jeans. “Those are pretty cool. You make them yourself, or did they come that way?”
“They’re real,” I told her. “Each and every one. When I bought them they were dark, almost midnight blue.” The jeans were faded and pale, chalky.
“Wow,” she said. “That’s really cool.” I couldn’t tell if she was being serious or not.
We sat outside her motel room under the clearest sky I’d ever seen. She brought out her acoustic and asked me to play it. I declined, but said maybe later. And while I can remember every phone call I made on the eight hour trip down from the Bay, every pit stop at every shitty gas station, even what I ate (a twenty piece of Chicken McNuggets with Spicy Mustard at one, a foot-long roast beef sandwich from Subway at another), I can’t remember anything else about that night with Mona, not a thing about those few hours talking in the desert. Nothing, save for her story about a guy she used to date.
“He was funny,” she said, “and charming and in a band, an all-around good guy. We laughed a lot and had really good chemistry.” I waited for her to say something about charkas or spiritual alignment, but she didn’t. “But he was also sad a lot of the time, and he drank because of it. And if he wasn’t drinking he was sad, but sometimes he was sad even when he was drinking, and this seemed to be happening more and more of the time. He drank. He was miserable. There was no consoling him. And I was in love with this person who was completely incapable of being happy.” Her eyes watched me, firelight dancing on her glasses. “Do you know how irritating it is to be around someone who’s depressed all the time?”
“Pretty irritating, I can imagine,” I said, not that I had to. As far as I was concerned, I’d been suffering from depression for the last twenty seven years, and had experience on the matter. The fact that I was down in Twentynine Palms with her to begin with just proved the point. I finished my third pint-size margarita of the night and waited for her to continue. “So I left him. Who could blame me? Some people think the glass is half-full, some people think it’s half-empty, but with him the glass was half-empty and cracked, and water was draining all over the floor. I couldn’t be around that sort of negativity. I’m alive. I feel the sun; it makes me grow just like a flower. Because if you tie yourself to a drowning person, you get pulled under yourself.”
She took a drag off her cigarette. Rufus, now silent, watched me with half-shut eyes from where he laid with his head on her feet. We laid in bed together, both shirtless, but I did not kiss her, and instead found myself watching the morning lighten. Even through the window, the sky was titanic.
I woke with my hand cupping her breast. I jerked back and nearly jumped out of bed, mumbling an apology as I pulled on my jeans. She shrugged it off. After taking turns in the bathroom (noting that every personal care product that she owned seemed to be of either organic or vegan origin), she tugged her hat low over her eyes again, leashed Rufus outside the hut, and we wandered to the hotel lobby. I washed down aspirin with lukewarm, coffee-flavored water and a muffin of such density that I could lob it though a windshield. Mona dug around in her bag and produced hand-tied tea bags. “Chai,” she said, tilting her hat back on her head. She had really bad posture, I noticed, and her shoulders slumped. In the light, her skin seemed doughy and unhealthy. I thought back to last night, already slipping like sand from my memory. We’d been laying in bed and I had done nothing. I wondered why I had bothered to drive down in the first place. Barely a word between us, we walked out to my car, a burgundy sedan resting beneath a high-up palm. “Yours?” she asked.
“A rental,” I said, and just as I unlocked the door she kissed me, her lips warm and wet against mine.
“The world doesn’t always have to be this heavy,” she said. “This serious.” I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. She smiled and adjusted her glasses on her nose. “Well, I’m glad you came down,” she said, and we hugged once more. Rufus was barking in the distance. I watched her walk back to her hut. She was a skinny girl in a cowboy hat, still pale white even after days in the southern California sun. I drove home thinking of her ex-boyfriend and his sadness, how she couldn’t take it. Thinking of her lips on mine, how she had tasted of peppermint and baking soda, something all natural, I’m assuming.