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Johnny and Ish
“I can see forever.”
She said it while she thought they were still behind her. When she realized she was alone, the moment lost much of its substance. She looked once more over the infinite desert dunes, and turned to stumble back towards the tent.
The Berbers did their work in measured, orderly steps; unpacking the camels, setting up the water, and pulling old camp mattresses out into the quickly failing light. The sound of foreign tongues was joined by the bleating of the camels, creating an overwhelming feeling of far away.
“Ish!” came a shout from a small ring of people crowded around an even smaller low wooden table. “Come on! You’re missing snack time!”
It was Johnny, his white blond hair full of yellow sand. He was holding shelled peanuts in one hand, and cracking them open with the other.
The girl approached, dragging her feet through the sand.
“My name’s Aisha.” she said, clenching her fist for a fraction of a second.
“Ish is cooler,” said Johnny.
Ish grabbed her share of peanuts and sat down, chewing silently as the others discussed the trek out, how much sand they thought they had swallowed so far, and whose camel was the least cantankerous.
“The desert is so alien,” said Melody. She was a tall, willowy girl, with hair and eyes the color of coffee with cream. “The Sahara. We’re here you guys. I mean, we’re really here.”
“I don’t know.” Said Ish. “We could be in Nevada, or any desert really. They’re all the same.”
Melody narrowed her eyes.
“Well, your parents paid for a trip to Morocco didn’t they? So if you want to call three thousand dollars a waste of time I guess that’s up to you.”
The two counselors said nothing. Ish glanced at everyone in the circle, and shrugged.
Just then the Berber guides set a tea tray before the small party. The smell of mint rose through the air like a heavy fog. Ish watched small green leaves swirling in her heavily scratched cup of golden tea before taking a small sip and wincing. It was still very hot. Also, she hated mint, but the Berber’s were smiling and nodding and she thought it would be rude not to at least make an attempt. She took another sip, and gave the thumbs up to a man in a blue djelaba.
The sun sank like a stone, and soon enough the lamps had all been lit. The Berber guides brought out finger clappers and cymbals, and Ish watched Melody spinning around in the flickering lamplight, clashing the cymbals too loud and tripping over her own skirt. One of the counselors offered Ish a pair of finger clappers. She took them and started a steady beat. To Ish, the noise was lost in rest of the ruckus, but then the man in the blue djelaba knelt down beside her.
“You have a gift for rhythm.” He said, kindness kindling like fire in his expression.
“Thank you. It’s easy when there’s beautiful music.” Said Ish. He left to twirl Melody, and Johnny took his place.
“What did he say to you?” He asked.
“I don’t really know. His English was pretty bad.” Said Ish. Johnny knitted his eyebrows, nodded and followed the man in the blue djelaba without saying a word.
When the dancing had ended, Ish dragged an old and bedraggled mattress patterned in roses up the highest sand dune she could find, while the rest of the group settled in down by the tent. She fell asleep staring at the night sky, searching for shooting stars. When she woke up it was still dark, and the wind was biting. Ish shivered and sat up, hugging her thin sheet close.
“You make things hard for yourself you know.” She turned and saw Johnny struggling up the dune. He reached her and sat on the mattress, so they were both facing away from the tent, towards the sand sea. “In the hammam and at the market, that dinner with all the home stay families, all the time. Why couldn’t you at least sleep down there with the rest of us?”
She blinked, and the fires of strange heavens burned behind her eyes. All the things Johnny had mentioned; Marrakech and the smell of blood and raw vegetables, running through unfamiliar streets at midnight and waking up sweating in the room with no windows.
“Honestly, I thought everyone would be sleeping up here. It’s usually cool to be adventurous right? But when no one followed me I thought it’d be too embarrassing to come back down.”
“Yup.” Ish couldn’t help it; she started to laugh as well.
“Maybe if you didn’t try so hard things would be easier.” Said Johnny. She shook her head.
“It doesn’t matter. I always say the wrong thing. I don’t mind though, I mean, it’s interesting.”
“Don’t you think you could like, teach yourself to say the right thing?” Said Johnny, his voice quiet enough to make Ish think he might actually be trying to be helpful. The wind whipped their hair into rat’s nests while sand stung at the corners of their eyes.
“Maybe. But I’m not worried about it or anything.” She traced her finger along the line of a shooting star before it faded into oblivion. “Everyone seems to think it’s really weird that I’m happy just being myself. I never got that.”
Johnny didn’t understand, which Ish knew perfectly well.
“Can I tell you a secret?” She said. Johnny nodded, and as Ish began to speak her eyes seem to sink back into her head, shrouding them in darkness.
“I wasn’t supposed to be on this trip. My sister wanted to go, but she died in a car accident a month ago. My parents thought she would have wanted me to go in her place, so at least someone got the experience.” She listened to the silence that followed in wake of her words, trying to decide what she wanted Johnny to say.
“Are you lying?” He asked.
Ish stared at him, and her eyes were wide enough to carry the moon.
“Of course I’m lying.” She could practically see his mind working.
“But are you really?”
She dusted off her hands, being careful not to smile.
“I guess you’ll never know.”
Johnny made a face. It was a lost face, but it told the truth, and Ish liked that. She supposed it had something to do with the desert at night.
“You should know I really hate not knowing stuff.” He said.
“I think,” Said Ish carefully, “that there’s something really nice about not knowing. It’s confusing, but cozy at the same time.”
There was silence for the longest time. Johnny broke it.
“I guess you never really know anything do you?”
“Now you’re getting it.”
They fell into a sort of trance then, faced with the anything Johnny had been talking about.
“It looks like you could see forever doesn’t it?” Said Johnny, pointing out towards the horizon.
“Not really.” Said Ish.
In the light dark shadows of the biggest desert on earth, they both almost smiled.