The desert is full of death, but not really. I drive through the Mojave, along I-15, and wonder if the blacktop is hot enough to pop my tires. What would I do if it happened, and I lost control and swerved off the highway, into the long-dried creek beds that meander through the desert?
Through the grains of sand battering my car, nothing feels real, nothing can survive. I can’t see the scorpions, spiders, snakes, and jackrabbits, but I know they’re out there. They leave evidence in the form of a coyote, picked apart by nature, sprawled across the white line just before I reach the city. The hot wind ruffles blood-stained fur as I shield my eyes from the sun.
But I know things can survive in the desert, if they’re strong enough. I did. I lived through it all: the hot sun making me feel things I never expected, my hair bleached bright, bright, bright by all the UV rays, the perceived dangers of suburban life, and the real danger of the inhospitable wilderness just beyond the cinderblock walls of our nondescript suburban development.
It’s been twenty-one years since I was last in the desert and it feels like coming home. I lost every one of the several potential futures: hanging out with my Mormon best friend who told me she was waiting for her first kiss to be with her future husband, sneaking off to Hollywood at seventeen (I would always have become a whiskey-soaked mess), or maybe, if my father had accepted the job offer in this very city, we would’ve moved from the New England woods to an unremarkable house in a development like the one I’m next to; like the one we lived in back in California. The visions of the person I could (or should) have become taunt me until the only way I can fall asleep in hotel rooms is if I watch Impractical Jokers and distract myself with others’ misery and humiliation.
The city lights twinkle from where I’ve parked my car: an empty field next to another walled-in suburban development, right where Las Vegas meets the desert. Perched on the trunk of my car, I watch the glowing tip of my cigarette as it quivers in the dark because I cannot stop shaking.
I laugh and say aloud, to myself/ the desert/ no one/ whatever is hiding in the dark beside me, “Summerlin is just Palmdale with money.” Earlier, a mid-life crisis dad in a yellow Lamborghini tried to cut me off and I successfully blocked him.
I snap a blurry photo of the light pollution that I will never share with anyone else and I text the Palmdale/ Summerlin joke to Mallory, who is waiting for me in Los Angeles. She gets it; she knows plenty of people from Palmdale, and maybe even some from Vegas. I never asked.
My friend is playing guitar somewhere in that sparkling city sprawl. I promised to go, but I’m content to sit in the quiet alone. It’s my last actual night on the road before I move all my possessions into a temporary rental in Elysian Heights.
Something cracks in the dark behind me. I turn around, but it’s just black. That’s fine; I already know the desert is a living thing who can kill easier than any of us. If I could go back to the teenager left in California, I think I’d tell her: it’s fine if you get stuck in a cycle of survival, but you should at least get out of New England, go back out west first.
Kat Lee lives in Los Angeles with her taxidermy rabbit, Celeste. She can be found on Instagram @lofitrashprincess.