The sun rises on the desert washed in starlight. Outside the world moves. Earth around the sun. Moon around the earth. Those things are so forever beyond my reach it seems senseless to think about them. But I do. I can't change them for her any more than I can change what's hurting inside her
The road passes under the car making a sound like a sleeping man's exhale. Every inch of land we traverse is home to some ant or spider. But we turn it all to nothing, living outside time in our own sphere of motion.
Jennifer says, "Ok, I have a joke for you."
"You? You have a joke for me?"
"If you're going to pick on me, I'm not going to tell it."
As if for Miss Holk, my kindergarten teacher, I pinch my thumb and forefinger together and zip them across my lips.
"Ok," she says, and straightens herself on the passenger's seat in preparation. "Why did the daddy dog punish the baby dog when he was playing on the playground?"
I shrug and widen my eyes, lips pressed shut, glancing in stacatto between her and the road.
"Do you know?" She insists.
I shake my head.
"Come on, you know," she says, giggling.
I tell her I don't even though I could mouth the words as she says them.
"Because he was a little too ruff," she says, and yelps like a puppy. Then she laughs at herself, pleased.
"You know, I did know the punchline. I just didn't want to say it because I didn't want to ruin your joke."
"You did not. You're just saying that. You could say anything after the fact."
"Why doesn't the owl laugh at any of my jokes?" I say.
"Because it keeps him up at night?"
"Because he doesn't give a hoot."
She glares at me.
"Why'd the cow cry when they put him in the truck?"
"Because he was going to the slaughterhouse?"
"Because it was such a mooooving experience," I say.
She crosses her arms and pouts.
"I'm not telling you any more jokes."
To make matters as bad as I can get them I say, "Don't look at me so sheepishly, Miss Bo Peep."
She raises a palm as if to slap me.
When I say, "You know you love it. You're such a baaaaad girl," she does.
There was a long time when neither of us said anything. Minutes. Hours. The needles on the dashboard moved imperceptably like clocks. Movement invisible to the eye that accumulates with time and so is only noticable between glances. Something that was here, now there.
I don't remember what I was thinking. It was so close to nothing it couldn't penetrate the veil between my dreams and my eyes.
Her voice brought me out of that daydream life in the back of my head where I hid from everything.
She said, "The desert is here to remind us that one day everything will be gone. First everything living. Then simpler things. These mountains and rocks."
A jackrabbit burst across the road in a flash of gray, nearly mistiming the Porsche's front right tire.
"But it's all going to outlive me," Jennifer said.
The limb of the sun sank below a ridge fifteen miles away. White highway lines flashed past, ticking away the inches. In the distance a mountain grew from a nipple on horizon to the shoulders of atlas rising.
We slow. Pull over and feel the things that are greater than we are. The great nuclear fire of the sun. The endless tract of stars in the night that must have been God's first sight on creation day. The spire of rock that tears the clouded sky.
She's afraid and needs promises. I need someone to shelter to feel whole.
A simple word, so huge in the evening desert abyss. The large brown rock beside the road. The quiet stillness from which light first emerged. My word, a creation straight from the fire in me to her. Even though it's almost nothing, I know I can't live up to it.
"There's more to us than this," she says, "I just know there is."
Her hand is light and she shivers. I put the blanket over her shoulders.
"Everything we do echoes," she says. "Everything lasts forever in images of itself, bouncing from place to place getting thinner and fuzzier. It never goes away."
She tightens her grip on my hand. She says, "I can feel everything from here. Everyone ever born. Every fight anyone ever had. All the love people felt that ended when they died, it's still here. All the reasons for being and living. Everything dies for a reason."
"You won't let me be alone," she says, something between a question and a gasp.
When the last drop of molten sun glistens on the horizon we look for the green flash. But the bright orange dies leaving behind a red sky streaked in airplane contrails and a brown landscape deep in shadow like the bottom of a grave.
"Everybody's always going somewhere," Jennifer says, her voice filling the silence left in the wake of the day. "Real life doesn't last. I mean the kind of life where you loved everything and wanted to stay." She's shivering and I know the fever's back. It looked like she took the last percocet a couple of hours ago but she finds a couple in the bottom of her backpack, swallows them without water.
I lick my lips thinking of the bitterness.
Science I learned says we are all hurtling toward the future at 186,000 miles per second. It's too fast for me. I've only just got to know her. She doesn't know anything about me.
"You know what I regret? I've never seen Venice," she says, her eyes closed. "I always wanted to ride in a gondola and listen to a gondolier in a white and black striped shirt sing an aria from Turendot."
It's not fair, and she smirks and shuts her eyes to rest.
There's only one aria anyone remembers from Turendot and it's short. Nessun Dorma. Once when things were better I bragged to her I could sing it.
"It's--um. I'd need a warm up," I say, hoping to be let off the hook. But her face relaxes. Waiting.
"I don't have the shirt," I say.
"I can see it with my eyes closed," she says, smiling.
Jennifer sleeps when night falls again. She becomes nothing next to me, and for a second I let myself wonder if this is the way I'll feel on the way back.
Will she be with me? Will I even make it myself?
She startles me when she says, "I hear you."
I say, "I'm sorry," even though I know I'm not talking out loud.
"Not with your voice," she says. "I hear what you're thinking."
And I believe she can. I don't need proof, but she wants to tell me anyway.
"I love you, too," she says.
I can't tell her she's wrong about what I'm thinking.
So I make it true.
She opens her eyes before we get to the clinic.
She says, "I dreamed I was far away but heard you singing. I carried the voice everywhere. Sometimes I'd sing with you, but you couldn't hear me because it wasn't you, it was just the dream echo of you." Her voice goes faint and her face becomes pale.
A tear traces a glistening line down that tired face.
"Don't cry," I say, finding a tissue.
"Sometimes you have to. You're going to have to, too. Sometime."
I dab the tissue against her cheek and she pushes my hand away.
"You'll cry for me, won't you? When I can't anymore--if I'm gone and all you have is this echo--you have to."
She's afraid and needs promises.
I'm just afraid.
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