I wake up with my legs scraped up, as they always are, and as always, I do not know why. I toss off the sticky linen sheets, and rub my head.
A motel. That seems familiar. Not home, but the closest thing to one at the moment. A transient abode, every room similar enough to be the same. Same pool out front. Same neon. Same desert.
The highways of the American west stretch out like shining rivers, like snakes. I walk with the clothes on my back. I am always only myself, this person I am supposed to be. Bootcut jeans, leather jacket. They were on my body when I woke up, dirt stains on the denim.
I close my eyes to the sound of cars streaking past. I do not know what my own face looks like, but does anyone? I’m always moving towards the mountains. I’m always trying to reach them. I don’t think I ever do.
“I’m sorry,” I hear myself say, stumbling to my knees on the precipice of understanding, on the brink. A man sits on a bench overlooking the winter-yellow sunset. He does not see me. I blink.
I climb that hill a thousand times, I see the trees rise up as I fall, the silence of the sentry. It is achingly familiar. I feel it in my chest like fireworks. Then it is gone. I am not dreaming, every morning I wake with bloody knees.
“Honey, don’t scare her, she’s just a little kid, una pequena nina, mi amor.” There’s a woman with a face like fire and she wants to protect me, in my dreams. She holds my shoulders like I’m hers, like she’s mine. I want to stay in her embrace, like that little kid she says I am.
“The world is a scary place, she needs to learn that.”
The man who stands in front of me has no face. He has no mouth for these words, only his hands—folded in front of him—are clear in my mind.
I think that one day I will reach the mountains. Soon, when I wake, it will be to their craggy peaks in the warped glass. There are no mirrors in the motels. No mountains either. No people, except for the girl with bright blue hair who sits at the bottom of the pool.
She waves sometimes, when I head out in the morning after devouring the buffet, or in the middle of the night, when I’m restless, out to get something from the vending machine.
I think maybe I lost my mind a long time ago. I do not know where I am or why I have left. I understand, somewhere deep in my bones, that someone is waiting for me.
I have this conversation with the girl at the bottom of the pool and her blurry, beautiful eyes.
“The mountains are a worthy goal,” says the man at the reservation desk of my next destination. He doesn’t say it, but I know what he means when he says, “Should take you about an hour drive,” and only nods when I shake my head. I do not look at his face. I don’t know what I will see: pity, nothing at all.
It will not be an hour drive. It will be a millennia of walking. I think he knows that.
Sometimes I do not sleep. Sometimes I try to stay awake and remember. I’ll look at the hazy sky above the desert scrub, and ask myself questions. The girl in the pool usually helps. She doesn’t know the answers, but blows bubbles up to the surface for emotional support. At least I think it’s emotional support.
I wake up in my bed, even if I passed out on a deck chair. I will not remember whatever I learned the night before.
“Why am I here!” I scream, throat horse, at the man on the mountain. I am in supplication, doesn’t know that?
He turns his head. He has no face. Only his hands.
Suddenly I know how long he has waited, and how bone-tired he is. He is tired as the mountains, tired as me. We share that, that same exhausted obstinance, I remember. I blink.
I slip out of my clothes and into the chlorine and salt of the swimming pool. Here, my body is as warped as hers. I sink to the bottom, hands outstretched, open, stinging eyes.
She’s surprised. I laugh, then choke.
I come too on the gritty concrete. She’s looking at me, right below the rippling blue, like: that was stupid.
I let my head fall back down to the ground. It was. It really was. I turn again, but she’s already back at the bottom. Her hair waving above her like kelp.
I smile. Worth it.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.” I’ve been trying new things out to say to him. Pleading, cajoling, irreverent.
This time he stands. And I remember climbing to this spot. I remember leaving my home. I remember my home. I blink.
It doesn’t stick. I am looking into the eyes of my father and my breath starts to catch up with me. The wind is wild, and we are not in the desert, we are not even in the mountains I dream of reaching. I am home.
“What happened,” I ask him as we drive back into the valley of my youth.
He looks impossibly sad. “Oh, mjia.”
I think with sinking dread of the girl at the bottom of the pool and the woman who held to my shoulders like they were her anchor.
He’s not looking at me, despite waiting for so long for me to join him. “You have lost so much. We have lost so much.”
Only then do I start to cry.
My dreams are not the way they used to be. I float in a midnight-lit pool, laughing with someone long-gone. I wake up hurting, but with no blood, no grit on my knees.
We find ourselves in the desert, my father and I. We wanted to go where it would be warm, where the sky is a hungry blue maw.
His joints are bothering him, but we head out to the mountains rising up out of the flat land like the sides of a bowl. The man at the desk says: “Should take you about an hour drive.”
I stare at him, then brush off whatever feeling that dredges up inside of me.
We’re not staying in a motel, even though my father wanted to: less expensive.
We stay in our hotel room and talk after shedding our boots and collected red sand all over the rug.
He falls asleep first. I try to. Somehow it doesn’t feel right.
I go to grab some snacks from a vending machine in the hall outside our room. The smell of chlorine, which wasn't there before, is overwhelming.
I move like a sleepwalker. She’s waiting for me, her image swimming against blue tile and back lighting. I take a deep breath, roll up my pants, and sit on the edge, legs dangling in the lukewarm water.
“I’m sorry, Mira” I say, almost silently, but I can feel her listening. She shakes her head, sending small waves through the pool, then floats gently towards the surface. “No, I’m sorry. Let me be sorry. I want you to be able to be at peace, you know.”
I’m crying. I don’t know how long I’ve been doing that. I want to touch her but I don’t, try to smile a little bit.
“It’s going to be okay, trust me, I’m going to be okay.” And maybe I believe it too.