Desert Bottom

The gap below the bottom of the black-out shade sends a narrow band of bright sunlight to her right eye, exploring it like an optometrist’s instrument. Slowly waking, stroking upward, upward out of the depths of sleep, Dina’s dream comes back to her. Dressing carelessly in her crumpled white jeans and thin T-shirt, the one declaring “You Are Here” with a small dot on the Milky Way, she leaves off her sweatshirt worn against last night’s chill in the Northern airport. The sour in her mouth reminds her of the dry, surprisingly good mini-bar white wine that last night dimmed her feelings enough to sleep.
As young girl here in this dry desert land, when this hotel was the place where celebrities stayed, escapees from Hollywood and Vegas, it had seemed to her like a holy oasis, where mere mortals could not dwell. Now, 40-some years later, it is a dark and dingy property with a ghostly feel about it. The remnants of better days peek through the ersatz plastic furnishings, a porte-cochere with big earthquake cracks, lovely cement Italianate planters filled with weeds, a once expensive wooden shutter barely attached to the French doors – good bones, but lousy make-up.
During the autonomic actions of early morning, her Tsunami dream lingers. She reprises, revises, analyzes. Dina remembers that dreamy viewpoint, from an apartment window above the shoreline, remembers seeing the threatening encroaching wave. Those people, out in the surf breaking on the coral reef, face the shore and remain unaware of the huge wave building up just behind them. No way to warn them even as she screams her muted dream-scream through the salt pitted picture window of her dream perch. In this remembering, she draws back again, holds her breath.
Dina tries to re-imagine it then, makes the waves gentler, places her dream window farther away from the shore. But the theatre behind her eyes keeps lifting its curtain to reveal the replay in vivid color. She searches for another way to mitigate her dread, tries uncovering the personal symbols, trying to make peace with them. The ocean is her subconscious. The window is her viewpoint. The people are her alter-egos. She dredges up Freud and Jung, calling on them like illusionists, urging them to conjure a benign meaning.
No dice, it seems. The dream angst remains.
Looking, really looking at her reflection in the mirror for the first time in years, Dina also finds no comfort in this activity. Instead of fixing her mouth into a flattering line, instead of softening her gaze to an airbrushed preconceived notion of the “Dina” she wants to see, she stares into her dark eyes with their lightening circles of age around the brown irises. Narrowing her focus to each individual feature, she acknowledge the lines, the sags, the “life lived” writ there. She shakes her head and moves away from her cold reflection.
Then, lifting the black-out shade, pulling back the cheap floral print drapes to let in the desert sun, she turns back to the mirror, fixing her face into the mask worn each day, carefully applying colors and shadows with her brush.
. . .
Self-reflection follows her around all day like Mary’s little lamb. In the rented yellow-green VW convertible, the lone vehicle left in the airport car rental lot late last night, Dina’s trip to the past continues up Hwy.111 through the corridor of golf courses, all new since she last drove this way. Sprinkles of water evaporate in the dry hot air before they can land on the greens, and the sand traps blend into the surrounding empty desert lots. Gravelly hillsides with fading patches of desert brush from an unusually wet winter – three rainstorms, an El Nino winter – beckons her up the cul-de-sac of La Quinta, her childhood nest. Parking far away from the rows and rows and rows of ticky tacky subdivision houses, an entirely changed landscape from the deserted little town of her youth, Dina begins her climb up the rocky hill to a shady spot carved out of the basalt. This is the place where she went to cry when Dudley Swearingen broke her heart in the 6th grade, where she had her first Kent with Mary Finn, where she learned to play cards with the Barker brothers, and they tried to turn it into strip poker.
Settling in and lighting her now self-forbidden smoke, the dream comes back as a reminder that the desert floor just below was once covered with the salt water of the Pacific and skeletons of shells and fish remain behind in the sand. She pushes it away but the mood brings out her real reasons for dread.
What exactly has happened to her carefully planned life, set up for success with an appropriate number of ups and downs, but the general trend being up? How did someone so “in control” lose the compass, mistake down for up and end up smashing her nose against the bottom? Seeing her younger self, sitting right here, looking down, waiting for her daddy’s bright orange and blue Cavanaugh Electric truck to snake up the road after work, knowing if it didn’t make it home by dinner, there would be hell to pay later when he sneaked in drunk and broke. That same sense of watchfulness has governed her marital interchange and cast its shadow on trust forever.
Unlike Pete, her starter husband, Jay has held her in his spell for 30 years, with a generosity of spirit and a joie de vivre that is enchanting. They met and married quickly, thoughtlessly, really, then marveled for years about how well it had all turned out. But, now after the fights, the silences, the cycles of health and illness, the restless sneakiness and wine fueled make-up sessions, they have retreated to their separate corners to reconsider. Peeled away, like old wallpaper, are the myths upon which Dina’s second marriage has been built. The flat dull surface of the blank wall could serve as a canvas for a new mural or…
Dina’s part in all this, as clear as this desert day, haunts her even more. Having the kindest sister in the world and long-time, close friends, she never learned how to girl fight and is now a hopeless adversary to her many stepdaughters. Stingy with praise, free with criticisms, setting standards of behavior, breaking her own rules, she has climbed to the head of the line of shitty stepmothers. And now she has lost the will to constantly compete for the attentions of a sick and distracted man. He is like a bottle of brown booze: his first family keeps taking long pulls on him, then replacing them with water, leaving her with something pale and weak – unintoxicating.
Sitting here, high over the Valley, Dina draws comparisons to her childhood wounds, and reels from the similarities. Her father, a kind and gentle man, left those qualities behind when gripped by his addictions. He, like Jay, had been deserted by his mother at a young age, then half-raised and left again by his father’s death when barely a teenager. And, like Jay, he took on the chameleon skin of a charmer when he had to get what he needed from women.
Climbing down, watching the path erode below her footfall, little crumbles of rock and sand precede Dina’s arrival at the car. Memories, old and newer thrust themselves at her, crowding out her attempts to plan, to control, to resolve. She turns on the radio, set to mellow rock, and hears Ray Charles sing his bluesy version of “Yesterday.” The steering wheel burns the palms of her hands as she retraces the path of her morning drive, through the small communities of Bermuda Dunes, Indian Wells, Cathedral City, no longer the isolated little outposts of her youth. She rolls down the window to allow the hot desert wind to dry her sweat.
In the shadow of Shadow Mountain, Dina walks the decrepit grounds of the hotel. Wandering just beyond the overgrown shuffle board courts, she sees a signpost with painted pickets pointing in every direction: SSW -Honolulu, 2,506 miles, NE -Paris, 5,112 miles; vestigial relics of another era for this grand old lady of a hotel. Nail holes indicate where the North sign has been pulled away. Using the patchy grass as her zafu, her meditation pillow, Dina focuses on her rosary-like Zen chant, “May my heart be filled with loving kindness; may I be happy; may I be well; may I be peaceful and at ease.” A grove of date palms in the near distance allow only a glimpse of the quarter moon rising to try to light the summer evening.
Returned to her room, avoiding the lonely big bed, Dina peels off the salty two-day-used clothes and draws on her stretched and faded yellow one piece. With effort, she closes the warped room door behind her. With equal effort, she shuts out her thoughts, concentrating instead on the banded gecko with a recently abandoned tail, making its way into a crack in the broken rock wall that faces her door. When she can no longer see him, she hears the echoes of his squeaky mating chirps.
Down at the old cement pool, a sign advises her that no lifeguard is on duty, with warning that swimmers should not swim alone. Dina drapes her thin white hotel towel over the sign, holds her breath and dives in head first, swimming toward the deep-end, lined with broken blue tiles. She remembers an old childhood game then, counts slowly as she holds her breath underwater, pretending to be a creature she is not, one that water, not air sustains. After a slow count to thirty, she relents, surfaces, gulps air. She needs that air, she realizes again, or she might die. No, she amends, not might. She will die.

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