Somewhere on the 62, we hit a rough patch and missed our exit.
We were driving along the northern edge of Joshua Tree National Park, searching for whatever dusty trail corresponded to the red line on the official map and guide labeled “Canyon Road.” As usual, Heidi was the one behind the wheel; I, the one behind the map.
“Shit,” I said, squinting at a faded street sign receding rapidly in the rearview mirror. “That’s it.”
“Should I turn around?” Heidi asked.
“Well, that might be quicker than driving around the entire world in order to get back there again,” I snapped.
Even in retrospect, it was impossible to pinpoint the exact moment when the tone of our ceaseless exchange of wry wisecracks had shifted from playful to … what? Hurtful, maybe?
No, that wasn’t quite right. Shit. I hated not having the right words.
It was frustrating. Like all those damn wildflowers Heidi had been photographing since we had paid our ten bucks at the Cottonwood Spring Visitor Center earlier that morning.
The “rainy season” that passes for winter in Southern California had lived up to its name for once, soaking the sandy soil with more than 35 inches and giving the region’s meteorologists – vestigial relicts of some archetypal television template from “back east” – something to actually talk about on the evening news. It was from one of them, a guy who apparently saw no irony in adopting the stage surname of Rains when his job typically consisted of repeating the words “67 and sunny” over and over and over again, that we had heard about the resulting wildflower bloom in the desert.
Heidi wasn’t one to bide her time. The next morning, a Saturday, we were lurching our way along the two-lane road that winds through Joshua Tree – Heidi skidding to a unannounced stop on the gravel shoulder whenever she spied so much as a single bloom. Looking down as she fiddled with the settings of our new digital camera, she would charge headlong toward the flowering … whatever it was, oblivious to the spines protruding from the cactuses clustered around it.
“Ooh, what’s this one?” she asked, dropping into a squat next to a suspiciously lived-in-looking hole to snap a close-up of a white blossom drooping under the midday sun.
“I can’t be sure, of course, but from here it looks like a … flower,” I said.
“Right,” Heidi sighed. “But what kind of flower, Charlie?”
“A white flower.”
“Jackass.” Without standing up, she twisted her body backward to glare at me. As she turned, the rubber treads of her sneakers snapped a few flecks of gravel into the air.
“I was just asking a question, Charlie. You don’t have to be a smartass about it.”
“Well, how am I supposed to know what kind of flower it is?”
“You know everything. You’re, like, the master of useless trivia.”
“Well, I guess the names of flowering desert plants aren’t useless trivia,” I said.
“Because if they were, then you’d know them, right?”
I was a writer, a newspaper reporter by trade, so not having the right words to describe things unsettled me. I had barely developed the vocabulary for Minnesota when we moved to Southern California. Suddenly, I had had to start from scratch again: the names of neighborhoods, of trees, of freeways … of flowers.
Most frustrating of all, however, was the fact that I didn’t have the words to describe what was happening to our marriage.
Underwear, I had finally decided, it was all about the underwear.
All you needed to know about the state of a man’s relationship, I had come to believe, could be divined from the way he handled his lady’s unmentionables at the laundromat. Did the guy break out in a dopey grin as he folded those black silk panties, hold them gingerly with only the thumb and forefinger of each hand like he still couldn’t quite believe he was allowed to touch them? Or did he wad up the cream-colored thong with one hand and toss it carelessly into the hamper?
Staring at the portion of Heidi’s thong that peeked out above the waistband of her shorts as she hiked a few paces ahead of me on the rapidly ascending trail, I thought back to the other day in the laundromat, and decided that my own underwear-handling technique had been drifting inexorably closer to the latter than the former.
At the crown of the rocky ridge, Heidi and I paused for a moment to gulp lungfuls of the thinning desert air. I held out my hand. She looked at it for a moment, as if considering my wordless request, then passed me the plastic water bottle. As I tipped my head back to take a swig, Heidi shielded her eyes with a freckled hand and scanned the valley below. The improbably verdant fronds of the 49 palms from which the oasis that was our destination took its name were, for the first time, visible to the east.
“Christ,” she said. “How much farther do we need to go? I mean, you don’t seem that into it, and…. What the fuck?”
I choked on a mouthful of water.
“What? What?” I spluttered.
“Those people down there.” Heidi pointed to a group of hikers clustered around a large granite boulder several hundred feet down the other side of the ridge. “What are they doing?”
“Are those … sticks?” I asked, gesturing at the long, thin objects two of the people brandished.
With Heidi leading the way, we scrambled down the trail to investigate, our already-caked sneakers stirring up clouds of dust that stuck to our sweaty calves and shins. As we approached, a bearded man – who was, indeed, grasping a gnarled branch – held up his hand, palm flat out in the universal sign for stop.
“Don’t you see ’im?” The man nodded toward the rock around which he and his trio of companions had established a loose perimeter. “Big sonnuvabitch, good four feet long.”
Heidi crouched down for a better look into the shadows below the boulder, but kept her distance.
“Charlie,” she hissed, unbuttoning the back pocket of her shorts to retrieve the camera. “Look.”
The rattler – the first Heidi and I had stumbled across during our ramblings through California’s national parks – was coiled underneath that rock. As my wife scuttled around in search of the best camera angle, the rattlesnake and I engaged in a staring contest. I blinked first.
Looking up, I realized that I was only inches away from the source of the heady aroma of jasmine I had mistakenly attributed to one of the shrubs sprouting along the trail: a pair of shapely legs glistening with scented lotion. My eyes became instantly entranced by the way the taut calf muscles of the bearded man’s lady friend seemed poised on the edge of flight, shifting subtly beneath her tanned skin.
The first couple of years with Heidi, I had assiduously avoided checking out other women. Those laughing brown eyes above her freckled cheeks, the dirty blonde hair highlighted by hours in the sun – they had been more than enough for me. As things had begun to cool between us, however, I caught myself looking more and more.
Now, from the way the bearded man was glaring at me, it seemed as if he had caught me, too.
“You folks best move along,” he said. “My buddy and I here, we’re gonna try and pry that rattler out from under there. We were almost on top of ’im before we could hear the warning.
“That’s why it’s important,” he observed, using his stick to trace an idle circle in the dust that reminded me instantly of the gold wedding band I wore on my left hand, “not to stray from the path.”
I reddened involuntarily.
We continued our trek toward the 49 Palms Oasis with me in the lead, for once, as Heidi was squinting down at the LCD display on the back of the camera, trying to adjust the lighting on the shots she had taken of the rattlesnake.
Although I hadn’t been able to find the words to describe exactly what was off in our relationship, the way I felt at that exact moment was easy enough to name: protective. I could see clearly now, in a way I hadn’t prior to our encounter with the rattler, that the path in front of us was neither straight nor easy, that almost all of the rough-hewn rocks that defined its edges cast shadows large enough to conceal danger. The rest of the way to the oasis, I insisted on scouting ahead, on checking under each one before letting Heidi saunter past, certain for the first time in a long time that, no matter how far the distance between us had grown in the past few months, I could bridge it instantaneously if I needed to throw myself between her and danger.
I began tugging at my ring with the thumb and forefinger of my opposite hand, which is a nervous habit I’d developed in the years since our wedding, but it wouldn’t budge. As was often the case when hiking, the swinging of my arms had caused the blood to pool in my hands, swelling my fingers. And, suddenly, it seemed right that a wedding band wouldn’t be something that you could just pull off and on whenever you felt like it.
“I’d suck it out, you know,” I blurted.
“Suck what?” she asked. “The life? Out our marriage?”
“No,” I said, genuinely hurt. I stopped, turned to face her. She kept walking. I began to backpedal. “The poison. Out of the wound, if you were bitten by a snake.”
“Wait a minute. Suck the poison out? Aren’t you supposed to pee on me?”
“What? No! That would be if you got stung by a jellyfish. But I’d do that, too.”
“My hero.” She clasped her hands over her heart and heaved a melodramatic sigh.
“I’m just saying I would do it, is all. Whatever it would take to save us … I mean, you. To save you.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled. “I’m a writer, not a speaker.”
Heidi opened her mouth to say something else, but nothing came out. Instead her eyes widened, and she stared straight ahead.
I hadn’t heard a rattle, but I tensed my legs in preparation for a desperate dive. As my toes pivoted in the loose gravel, however, I saw that it wasn’t danger that had stopped Heidi dead in her tracks, but beauty. The 49 Palms Oasis had come into view around the last bend in the trail.
There may not have been exactly 49, but that looked about right. A slow but steady trickle of water down the face of a granite crag had, over the decades, created a series of shallow pools on the terraced shelves below. Around their edges stood thick clusters of date palms, some of which had been recently charred – maybe by a lightning strike, maybe by an illegal campfire. But they stood there still, in all their magnificent improbability, with nothing else but high-desert scrub for miles around.
Who knew how the seeds had gotten there originally? Tossed over the shoulder of some litterbug hiking along the trail; crapped out of some buzzard soaring over the mountains. It didn’t matter.
It didn’t matter at all.
The first step was a doozy, about four feet straight down. I slid over the edge, then reached back up and grasped Heidi just above each hip. As I eased her to the ground, she braced her arms against the trapezius muscles to the sides of my neck, and when her brown eyes came level with my green ones, Heidi smiled at me in a way she hadn’t for weeks, maybe months.
Without speaking a word, we knelt at the edge of the nearest pool and used the surprisingly clear water to wash some of the dirt from our hands and faces.
We sat side-by-side on a flat rock, taking in the beauty of our surroundings. And, at that moment, some words came to me at last. Our love, I saw, had been like something beautiful blooming in the middle of the desert: a rare occurrence made possible only by a uncommon combination of favorable conditions in an otherwise arid environment. I wasn’t yet sure if it would wilt away in the harsh sun like that white flower or withstand a sustained fiery embrace like those palm trees. But I knew that it had been beautiful once, and might well be again one day.
“I’m glad we came this far, Charlie,” Heidi said. “I’m glad we didn’t give up before we saw this.”
“Me, too,” I said, reaching for her hand. “Me, too.”
“Oasis” was originally published by Inlandia: A Literary Journey in 2015.