Island Connection in New Jersey

I rode the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, navigated the concrete river flowing with traffic—cars and trucks and motorcycles and cars and SUVs—four abreast, headed north.

I had just left the beach at Sandy Hook, the landscape of dirty tan sand, gray-ish mucky oceanwater, and reeds and dune grass and abandoned gunpowder batteries pointing rusted, long unused canons toward New York City, a faint construction visible across the ocean. I spent the night alone, camped in a tent, fell asleep looking up at the stars through the skeeter screen, felt insignificant in my small body in the big big world. And I was okay with that then. One of those moments where I was OK being all alone.

But that was all behind me.

I looked in the rearview mirror, a small rectangle mirror that cast a visual of the periphery GSP, the singular images of trees and cement walls and exit signs blurring together, individual images that didn’t move, and yet moved, a spinning reel, a view animating itself. The concrete river flowing with traffic—cars and trucks and motorcycles and cars and SUVs—four abreast, headed north.

I was anything but isolated. I was surrounded, but I was alone. And in this physical isolation, I felt like no sound I could make would rise above the hissing and popping and zoom zoom zooming of other cars. I felt insignificant in my small body in the big big world, and I wasn’t OK with that.

So I made LOUD in my truck. The volume of the music turnt way up.

I sang with iLe, a Puerto Rican singer, her album “ILevatable” CRANKED in the cab of my cruising F150.

Ile, she understood me and my pain, my need for connection, deliverance. I felt her pain, her needs, her love, her connection, her deliverance through song. Heavy shit, carried out on her breath and voice. And as I sang, and let these things go, I felt lighter.

I sang with my ghoulish lack of tone. I mimicked the sounds but I was no match. Ile sang, her beautifully orchestrated highs and lows and syrupy sour-sweet tones.

Then a sign came up on the horizon: toll booth ahead.

The flow of traffic ebbed. I slid into this part of the asphalt river. The toll booth island plaza ports filled and emptied with cars and trucks and motorcycles and trucks one behind each other (one ahead of each other) one behind each other.

The EZ Pass lanes had the rhythm that barely broke. But I navigated toward the slowest lane of all, the lane where the rhythm was very stop and go. I didn’t have the EZ Pass tag with me. I would have to pay cash. I had placed a crisp ten-dollar bill on the visor in my truck for this reason. My beach retreats were dreamy little dreams, full of quiet, and solitude, and the entry back to day-to-day was always a little rough. Little tricks like this helped to ease me back in, when I felt the crushing weight of insignificance on speed on the GSP.

So I waited my turn, and as I rolled up, rolled my window down, I held out the tenner for the attendant to take. It was automatic. I staid looking straight ahead. My heart was beating. I wanted to be back in my dreamy-singy-flow. But I eventually realized the dood wasn’t extending his arm with the change, so only then, I turned to look. He was mouthing something. I put the window down further, put the music lower, and said, “What?” I heard some words trailing off. I heard words switch from Spanish to English. I heard them lower in volume, get lost in the sounds of the road-river flow, then get loud:

“Is your family OK?” and I thought, Da phuck he’s talking about?

Then he asked: “Where are you from? La Isla?“

As I started to reply that no, I’m gringa, he cut me off, said: “Because you are listening to her.”

Then it hit me. I looked at his face, really looked, saw how it was puffy and the bags under his eyes were pronounced. I saw tears in the corners of his eyes. I remembered that Hurricane Maria had just hit La Isla, had knocked out power and water and had churned up sewage in the streets, leaving many, many people in Puerto Rico at a standstill: no water, food, utilities, communications. I realized that hearing this singer from his home might have been his message in a bottle in the anonymous sea.

He said: “Mine, mine are OK. I got to contact them. But others I don’t know.“

It got quiet. In the midst of the traffic gurgle, it got quiet. Beach quiet. I took a peek in the rearview and saw the cars adding up behind me. My moments of feeling insignificance wave-crashed-boom-banged against my opportunity to in-body significance (for this one man, who, lonely maybe, solitary definitely, on his island of zoom zoom zooming cars and trucks and cars and SUVs and someone actually stopped to say something). But I didn’t know what to say, I couldn’t say anything, except, ”Que Dios le bendiga [God bless you].“

He looked at me, put his hands up, and waved them down twice, saying with a raspy voice: ”Amén amén.“ He finally handed me my change.

October 2017


Out in the Mojave Desert

The plain adobe casita out on the mesa was an island—the structure strong as a steady four walls and roof. Sometimes the wind blew all day. Sometimes the wind blew and rusted pieces of metal and stiff plastic bottles from yards down the trail blew into the fence around the casita. I became convinced that the wind was the ghost of the land pre-desert, when the land was ancient sea. The wind took on a peculiar sound: whale-like, as it navigated around the rectangle hunk of metal.

It’s from my safe place that I watch the hypnotic day night day night cycle from the unobstructed large sliding-glass doors that opened to the fenced-in yard full of thick Mojave gravelly sand. It made me feel like the last woman on Earth, like I was in a secret place, hidden away, at sea, where I pass time walking around in boots and underwear and leaving my doors unlocked. There were several other casitas within view, but I hadn’t in two months I’d been there seen anyone walking around. Who else was out there? Why didn’t I ever see them?

I learned that in the Mojave, the landscape hid things, but humanscape stuck out like jagged rocks. Pockets of civilization in crude, plain sight. I was still part of it. Every Saturday, I went to town to do laundry, which equalled a half-hour drive to the nearest laundrymat in the next town, Joshua Tree, and two hours at the there. Weekenders from Los Angeles and Japan shopping at the farmers’ market clogged Joshua Tree’s downtown area. The tiny town was in full bustling mode. I avoided everyone. It felt strange to be out of the casita. The current of people—different people, different looking people, strung out people, touristy people, artsy people—was strong. It threatened to take me farther out, past the safe shores of something, somehow, from what, I didn’t know.

I pulled my long F-150 truck through the drive through of the Taco-bell-esque (but actual food and actually good) restaurant named Casteneda’s. I ordered my regular (chilaquiles, unsweetened iced tea, a couple of things of the green spicy salsa). I was happy for the single drive-thru in town; I needed it. I took in my food and inched the truck down the driveway, carefully navigating past two tweakers sitting on the curb at the end.

I turned right and started back to my compound on the mesa, passing the full parking lot of Joshua Tree Saloon (converted school buses and vans and two beat up trucks). A sculpture made of glass and mirror reflected the sun.

I looked at it twice and swore to myself, immediately convinced that was the desert winking at me. How could I believe that?

The mirages, which happen as shimmers and wisps and notes of strange sound, don’t happen on the land. I learned that in places like here, the Mojave, the mirages happen in the mind. Images police themselves. They appear, then disappear, and stay hidden. The desert is a terrifyingly irregular place because there’s nothing there to define things, and while land is empty, the mind is full.

I arrived home and parked. I looked at the casita, took the dog, laundry, and food in each hand, and struggled my way out of the truck. Except–

I saw a pair of boot treads in the gravel.

It struck me as odd that I didn’t know what the bottom of my boots looked like. Is that it? Why have I never seen prints like that? Is that what the desert has led me to? Question my footprint?

And then I decided it the prints were mine, so I struggled into the casita, put everything down, ate, did housekeeping. I said a prayer of gratitude for little routines like that.

Two days later, when I was watching, and then I realized I had twenty minutes before the sun started kissing the tops of the mountain peaks. That meant twenty minutes before the coyotes come out. That meant twenty minutes to walk my dog on the meager gravelly trail that was the road in front of the compound. So I quickly went outside witht the dog. I walked fast. The gritty gravel under my boots made a monotonous crunch. The sound blurred other sounds. I didn’t hear the truck until the dog stopped to smell a piece of dead cholla. I stopped and heard a soft rumble.

A beat up green Dodge slowed to a stop next to me. A man with really bad skin and teeth leaned out. A woman sat in his passenger seat, and I couldn’t see her face well but I noticed straw-dry locks of hair twisting irregularly on her shoulder.

“I’m your neighbor. I live over the hill that way,” and then he pointed. He asked: “You had any problems lately?”

I couldn’t answer immediately. I don’t know if I was frozen from fear or just struck dumb. Neighbor?

“No, I haven’t,” I answered with trepidation.

“Well,” he continued, “I’m tracking the asshole.”

“Excuse me?”

“The old man next to you—his house got robbed. I followed the tracks right past your camper and down the mesa to some crackhead’s house.” He paused, then added: “Out here, it’s vigilante justice. You sure you ain’t missing anything?”

The rumble of his truck filled the silence before my answer. I was grateful for that because I suddenly felt the breath leave my belly—to have thought the boot treads were mine! How could I have tricked myself like that? It was an honest but awful mistake. I thought to my essentials—laptop, passport—that I had left by the unlocked glass doors. They were there.

“Wow, that’s terrible. When do you think this happened?”

“Saturday sometime. I seen you were out that day, too.”

“Oh, right,” I said, blushing. “Laundry and errands in town. Takes forever.”

The man started to talk about something else as my knees went weak. I excused myself to finish walking the dog, walk through the sudden shitstorm of thoughts—Had there been someone in my space? How did I not realize? And, why didn’t anything of mine get stolen? Where was my mind? I turned my head to see the truck turning and pulling next to a casita a way out, but it didn’t pass the other side. I reasoned there must be a driveway on the opposite side of the house, one that was obscured in my plain view.

My mistake.

This place didn’t make sense.

I heard a gust of wind. I decided it was safer in my casita, watching the empty horizon from behind the glass doors, watching for things to come out of my mind.

November 2018