Canals

I’d never seen nighttime in the desert before.

I think I had surely underestimated it. Thick blankets of inky black draped over hills of shadowy sand, and behind the hotel, the dips and peaks of the land formed feminine outlines against the evening.

“This car hurts my ass.”

What a profound man. I looked to the poorly lit figure next to me reclining on the hood. He blinked and stared straight upwards, his eyes appearing to follow the stars. “But at least it’s pretty out,” he sighed, his voice hollow and distant.

“Yeah,” I acknowledged, peering up at the depths of the universe. “It’s lovely in a weird, sort of lonely way, I guess.” The smoke of my cigarette wafted up and away, evaporating into the atmosphere like rubbing alcohol. Various insects surrounded us, wings brushing together in a cacophonous night song, but human interference was absent. Had my heart skipped a beat, I’m sure it would have resounded throughout a one-mile radius.

Cedar, Arizona, population 351, was marked by a single sign protruding from interminable fields of taupe. We had found it written in tiny letters on the crinkled map tucked in the glove compartment. Its previous owner had made hasty red checkmarks over the entire southwest, complete with small, unreadable notes like “bad weather” and “cacti: no”. Neither Trevor nor I really had any idea what was meant by these cryptic phrases, but as the night fell and the fatigue ripped at our eyelids, we had to find somewhere to stay.

There was a Bates Motel-esque place with flickering neon lights beckoning from the side of the winding, duct-tape highway. We had checked in as Bonnie and Clyde (our pseudonyms were met by a cold glare from the wrinkled woman behind the counter). The set of keys we took was the only one missing from the pegs mounted on the wall. Inside the room was bleak and mildly eerie. The 1957 television received exactly ten channels. We opted to go back outside and instead watch the stars in the late April air.

The car hood was indeed uncomfortable, but the view was unparalleled. Pulverized porcelain dotted the sky in the glimmering forms of Orion and Andromeda and other beings of aging myths. My neck hurt as I chewed the end of my Marlboro.

“I can’t believe we took the car,” Trevor laughed, putting his hands behind his head.

“I can’t believe it was that easy,” I scoffed back. “The idiot didn’t even lock it.”

It was the biggest stroke of luck yet on our trip – and that was saying a lot. An unfortunate owner had left a black 1978 Nissan sedan unattended in the parking lot of a tiny Colorado grocery store last Thursday. He must have been very disappointed to walk out with his bread and milk and eggs to find a green Post-It note with a hastily scrawled apology and a ten dollar bill in lieu of a car.

“I didn’t even know you knew how to hotwire a car!” he cackled in response.

I answered silently with a wry smile. The moon was falling and the darkness etched itself deeper into my skin.


On Tuesday, April 1st, 2010 I had walked into Schermann and Associates Accounting with a coat of pink lipstick and a hangover-induced smile, and smashed the monster, the thing that mocked me – the copy machine - into a hundred pieces. I was promptly fired.
This was quite possibly the best thing that had ever happened to me.

I called up my friend Trevor and we decided (after a few glasses of wine) that all rational decisions ultimately extend from irrationality. With this thought in mind, we also decided to do the most irrational thing either of us had ever thought of. From Thursday, April 3rd, 2010 onward, we chose to make a cross-country journey, starting from Philadelphia and concluding in sunny San Diego.

However, our mission differed slightly from the hundreds of other similar trips made by aimless twenty-somethings. For every few stops we made, I vowed to get a tattoo somewhere on my body - anywhere, of anything. My goal was to be covered in ink by the time we arrived in California.

I wasn’t very ambitious at first, and many of the first stops – Baltimore, Washington, D.C. – had been small, zodiac-like symbols in easily concealable places. Gradually, these expanded to cryptic phrases in fading typewriter fonts, and then to intricate designs with complex textures. My favorite was the wide, youthful eye on my stomach, staring emptily outward with a brilliant ultramarine iris. At this point my entire arm was covered in a sleeve of neon landscapes – winding, humanlike trees and false-color skies dipped in the colors of refracting prisms. They were pretty, but in a vaguely vacuous sort of way. The spark I’d been searching for, the connection within the human canvas, simply wasn’t there.

I pondered this as I stared into nothing.

“You want anything new today?” Trevor asked after a period of silence. “You’re due. All of the ink and needles and s*** are in the back.”

I sighed. “I know. I just don’t have any ideas,” I admitted.

More silence. “There’s nothing on your back yet, right?” he pried curiously.
“You know very well why I don’t have any tattoos on my back, Trevor,” I deadpanned, giving him an icy stare. I was genuinely surprised. He was never quite this forward.

“It could be really awesome,” he attempted.

“No, Trevor,” I said once again, hoping to kill the conversation.

“You know you have to look in a mirror every day, right? And you still can’t look at your own back?” he prodded more, raising his eyebrows in exasperation. “I look at my own f*ing back almost every day. It’s something you gotta accept and not be afraid of. It’s part of your body.”
It took all of my energy to hold down my anger and not slap him across the face right there.

“Shut up.”

“If you face your fear, this could be a lot easier,” he pointed out.


I am walking home at 1:12AM on a Friday night, one and a half blocks away from my apartment. I am alone. It is very, very dark. Suddenly, a piercing, mechanical screech rips the air in half. There is a blinding light and a huge force that pins me to the pavement. Blood is everywhere. I can’t feel my legs. I hear tires screaming against asphalt, fading fast away. I hear clinking glass falling onto the road. My spine is on fire. Now I am screaming. My entire back feels like it’s been cut open. I can’t see anything. I am crying and yelling, and after a while, just whimpering, making hurt animal noises. My breathing is slowing. Then, pitch black again. Cut off like the end of a videotape.

I rewind.
“You weren’t there,” I said bitterly. My voice was shattering like the windshield. I could feel my hands quaking. I remembered all of the job interviews and parties and things I had missed because I couldn’t walk down that street. I still shuddered when I ventured into that part of the city.

“Leila, you can’t do this forever. If you recoil in disgust every time you see yourself, you’re not living your life,” he informed me, his voice softening a bit. “You’re paralyzed by the accident, except it’s only in your head.”

It occurred to me that Trevor Ross had never seen my back before.

“Scars aren’t beautiful. I don’t care what you say. Ink is beautiful. Black dresses are beautiful. Your art is beautiful. But giant gashes in people’s backs are not,” I argued, folding my arms across my chest. I almost felt as if the marks were reasserting themselves, flaring up just as I didn’t need them to.

“You haven’t learned anything,” he half-laughed, shaking his head. The mop of blond hair turned away from me. Tangible silence condensed between us.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” I asked, offended. I shriveled up into myself, holding my knees to my chest and letting my hair cover my face.

“You’re still scared. We’ve left our entire lives behind to go around the country doing illegal, dangerous, and really stupid things just to say we did them. We’re having an adventure. We stole a car, for God’s sake! And you’re still scared of red lines on your back,” Trevor explained, exasperated. “They’re not gonna bite you or anything.”

“I’m not scared!” I defended. He fixed his gaze on me, abrasive, unblinking. I recoiled and buried my face back into my knees. I couldn’t lie looking straight at him.

“Yes, you are. You’ve wasted this whole trip. You haven’t learned anything,” he repeated, throwing his hands into the air. It was humorous and tragic at the same time. I felt my eyes watering a bit. “Just get one tattoo. Just one little tiny one on your shoulder blade, or where there’s no scar. I think that would be better than twenty different ones all over you.”
My whole body was shaking now. I slid off of the side of the car, and hid next to one of the front tires.
“Fine,” I conceded.

I stood up and lifted only the back of my shirt just up to my shoulder blades, facing away from him. “Do you see them? Do you see how horrible they are? They’re unfixable. They’re remnants of an awful thing.” My voice cracked.

“So acknowledge them. And then move on,” he suggested. “They look like canals. Like little tributaries or something. They’ve mostly healed, though.”

I never thought about it that way. I hadn’t looked at them in a look time. Slowly, my memory came back. There was one large one with a big curve in the middle by the bottom of my shoulder blade. Like a bend in a river.

“Do you really think so?” I asked quietly, slightly embarrassed. The air was chilly and felt almost like it was sinking into the marks.

“Yeah,” he replied pleasantly, honestly. When I turned back to him he was smiling a little.

I exhaled cautiously and sat back down. It struck me that the idea was sort of poetic. Mistakes and experiences physically engraved in a person, manifesting itself in a symbol…that idea sounded familiar…
“Give me your notebook.”
Trevor looked a little puzzled, but got up from his space on the car and wandered into the car. He retrieved a small black sketchbook and handed it to me, along with a pencil.

I drew a crude female back and traced my scars just the way I remembered them on my own. “Do you see this bend right here? What if you made ink that branched off of it, like a river? And what if you did that to all of the scars, made them each have their own small river?” Smaller, thinner lines snaked off of the thicker indentations in the page. It looked like a map of the Mississippi Delta.

“That’s gonna be really painful. Probably one of the most painful tattoos you’ve gotten yet, actually. I would have to ink really close to your scars,” he warned, looking up at me seriously.

My heart beat at double its normal speed. Was I really going to go through with this? This whole trip is pointless if I can’t do this. I have to do this. I can’t let something like red marks on my back control my life.

“You know I’ve always had this belief that there’s a certain beauty in pain,” Trevor mused, looking back up at the sky. “Scars aren’t always ugly. They’re experiences. They’re like stories, except they’re archived on skin instead of on paper.”

I would be a human narrative.
“I’ll…I’ll do it,” I replied shakily, copping a smile. He smiled back at me, and asked if he could start filling in the colors in the drawing. I agreed as I felt my limbs loosen. It was a long evening.

We watched the night pass, inch by inch, pointing out constellations and planets buried in the fabric of space. Even the insects stopped chirping after a while. The night was dying, but we could see the sun emerging.

As my vision began to fade and my eyelids started to feel like lead weights, I swear I heard the sound of water rushing through the desert.





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Cardz said...
Jun. 5, 2012 at 12:53 am
Incredible. I love all the discriptions and the slightly mysterious voice of the narrator. :)
 
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