Getting to Even
My life has no boundaries. That’s the thought in my head as I clear the last of the desert foothills and begin the gradual descent out of California. In the distance, spilled out into the sand on either side of the road, a sprawling mass twinkles dully in the early morning sun. On approach, the object deconstructs. It divides to countless, random points before suddenly revealing its order: casino lights.
The road levels out and brings a glut of information to the emptiness: Speed Limit Reduced, Unlawful to Litter, Lotto jackpot, gas prices, cheap food and liquor. Both states mark the area near their common border with pleas of Welcome and Come Again Soon in either direction. The exact divide lies unmarked, somewhere in-between.
The car knows the point before I do. The ride becomes smooth. The highway has changed from solid black to gray macadam. Now Entering Nevada. I know I shouldn’t be here. Less than forty miles to Vegas. The drive is almost done. Minutes pass. Only the empty hum of the car on the desert road. Speed Patrolled By Aircraft. I look to the sky through the blue top of the windshield. Paranoid. Jean, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City. More miles. And the hum.
Straight ahead, two more casinos purposefully flopped, again on either side of the highway, the sun above the mountains to the east. The lights flash, but in the day move hopelessly about the scattered buildings. No welcome sign, but this is Jean. In every direction there is nothing else. I don’t want to be here. But the drive is almost done.
The desert sun stares harshly into the valley. From this distance, in this light, it’s easy to dismiss Las Vegas as anti-climactic. From here the buildings that rise in a line on the Strip, look more like trees growing on the banks of a river then the heart of a city. But at close range these monuments are nothing less than awesome.
Defeat thrives here. The constant movement betrays the desperation. From the addition of absurdly-themed gambling halls, to the streets that push further into the desert, to the endless view in each direction of duplex apartments, strip malls, and single-level homes, everything seems to be simultaneously under construction. Even the traffic seems to assemble on the road around me.
Strangely the mundane task of navigating the clogged freeway, which I normally find almost unbearable, brings a sort of calm to my situation. For the first time since this all started, I look back and instead of chaos, I see an ordered series of events. Of course I would drive all night to be here for the morning, rush-hour traffic. Of course I would come ill-prepared, uncertain, isolated. Of course I’d be alone again. What other choice was there, really?
What to most people might be an absurd set of circumstances is the only possible outcome for you. She wrote that to me in a letter once. At the time I was hurt by this realization. Now it liberates me. My whole scattered life is justified.
This idea is so comforting, that the momentum it builds threatens to overwhelm me. It drives me through traffic and into the city. It spits me out on this street, toward that hotel. It valet parks then finds a vacant payphone. It has exact change. It dials the numbers. It completes the call. It waits two rings, but ignores the voice that answers. And it opens my mouth.
“Room 558.” Four more rings.
I’m not your responsibility. If I choose to believe in you, I know it’s at my own risk. Sometimes I think I’m just hanging on to see what happens, to see how this ends. I’ve been rehearsing versions of the speech all night, but instead say, “I just can’t make it stop.”
“Where are you?” she says.
I run. I‘ve been running. My feet blur as the cement and asphalt glide beneath me. The pace is quick, but I don’t struggle. There‘s no pain. I just move.
First down the block to Venice, then right, toward the ocean: west. Past the two-level, stucco apartments on each side of the road. Past the gas stations on each corner at Lincoln. Past the Lutheran church, a preschool, past two liquor stores and a photo supply shop, past the playhouse, then more generic stucco. Still no pain.
The sky is dark. It’s late. Maybe early. The street is full, but motionless and silent. Every car is empty, every business closed. The intersection traffic signals don’t change, they don’t even blink. The light from the street lamps falls flat to the ground.
The road forks, each prong into a cul-de-sac. I stay right until the prong ends. A small curb, two strides across the smooth sidewalk, ten feet of grass, a paved bike path, then into the sand. My feet sink and are buried. I can hear the ocean, but can’t see over the hill to the water. Each step of the incline requires a conscious effort.
The dune plateaus, then slopes downward to the black Pacific. I’m faster as the ground congeals: bare feet on the cold, hard sand until an icy shock of water. Still I run.
A wave rushes to embrace me, to kiss me hard on the lips. It wraps me tightly in salty foam and holds me down. It rubs against me. I don’t struggle. I can’t. I let the current breathe for us both: dark, precise movements of flux and flow. In this rhythm, I am coming gently apart. Dissolving into the nothing. The dream is always the same.