city of rocks
BY VICTORIA MILUCH
Over the phone, Jillie and Ralph agree to meet at City of Rocks. He is about to get married. She and her serious boyfriend are about to leave the country to meet his family on an island. Jillie and Ralph are flying in from opposite ends of America. He has three connections. She takes a red-eye.
City of Rocks is not a real city. It is actually a location in the desert with red rock formations growing in tall shapes that you can’t describe as anything. Jillie and Ralph can walk on the flat top of some of the rocks, in between bulbous columns of other rocks, and sometimes they can see literally only rock and turquoise sky around them. They don’t even have to imagine what being on an alien planet would feel like. When those rocks tower over, under, and around them, they are basically already there. To reduce the risk of getting lost, park rangers recommend going with a friend, family member, or lover, or, in Jillie’s case, someone with whom you have a close relationship that you never outright name but knows means something important because the two of you are using all your airline miles to basically be alone on an alien planet together.
On Jillie and Ralph’s first night in City of Rocks, it rains. City of Rocks does not have roofs or beds, so Ralph and Jillie are at a loss, and also dripping wet. When they finally decide to just lie down in the mud-dirt, a lightning strike of luck illuminates a cave. They climb inside and crawl back as far as they can, which is not very far. The cave is the exact size of their two bodies. Jillie takes this as a sign that everything is going to be okay. The two of them curl up and burrow into each other like a couple of kangaroo rats.
The next morning it’s still raining, and neither Ralph nor Jillie have a plastic poncho, a raincoat, or an umbrella. Jillie tries not to take this as a sign that she is ill prepared for whatever it is she has gotten herself into. Shivering and trying to walk as though they are one human instead of two, Jillie and Ralph walk around City of Rocks. They explore small mesas and miniature bowl-shaped valleys. They slip through thin openings and climb onto steep-drop precipices. The landscape is very bare, very sparse.
Then they come across an umbrella peddler who looks as surprised to see them and they are to see him.
Oh hello, he says. Are you looking for an umbrella?
Um, Ralph says. Yeah, I guess so.
Yeah, definitely, Jillie says, because she and Ralph really do need an umbrella and she doesn’t want to mess up their maybe one chance to get one.
Fifteen dollars, the umbrella peddler says, and hands Jillie a black umbrella with a wooden handle.
Can I help you with anything else? the umbrella peddler says.
Well, says Ralph, hesitantly like he doesn’t want to push his luck. Actually, he says, you know, we’re running out of things to eat.
What do you like? asks the umbrella peddler.
We’re not picky, Ralph says.
Something spicy? Jillie asks.
The umbrella peddler points to his left with the pointy part of another umbrella. Right past there, he says, tips his hat, and walks away.
Jillie and Ralph look at each other. They go where the umbrella peddler tells them. And there, in front of a rock formation Jillie is sure they passed a couple minutes ago, is a taco stand built out of red rock. Ralph orders carnitas, Jillie order carne asada. Anything else? the woman at the rock taco stand says.
Well, Jillie says, her mouth full of taco shell.
Soon Jillie and Ralph are standing in front of a convenience store that sells beer, magazines, coffee, condoms, and cigarettes; a video rental place that has a going-out-of-business sign in its window; a bookstore; a small farmer’s market; and a dine-in chain restaurant. They are like mirages in that they are unstable, but they are as real as anything. Jillie and Ralph can walk and in and out and get what they need and then the store returns to being a rock. They can blink and streets with crosswalks and stoplights materialize. Blink and then they’re gone again.
Jillie was not expecting a miracle, but one has happened anyway. She knows that it is usually only bad things that happen in this manner. The man a woman is engaged to leaves her. The woman a man thought loved him as much as he loves her admits she doesn’t. A cat leaves and people call it missing. A mother leaves and people call that dead. There is no prior warning, even if there was. Who would have expected?
That night, Jillie and Ralph drag a newly purchased sleeping bag into their cave.
As much as Jillie doesn’t want to, she has to admit that, with the unexpected miracle, the adventure has lost a little of its luster. Not enough to make her and Ralph uneasy with each other, but enough to make her nervous. It’s just not the same. Just not what she expected. In the convenience store one day, she sees a magazine cover with a picture of the island she was going to fly to with her serious boyfriend. She frowns. What’s a thing like that doing in a place like this? She plucks it from the rack, stares her disapproval at the cashier who rings her up, then pointedly drops the magazine in a trashcan before walking out the automated doors.
In Jillie’s brief absence, Ralph has found a used car dealership, an herbalist, and an underground dance club. Jillie and Ralph make plans to go dancing that night. That night, when they’re dancing, there are so many people packed inside that Jillie can only make small movements, like rising up and down on the balls of her feet, rolling her head from side to side, and doing a minimalist sexy shimmy. She leans against Ralph, he kisses her wetly and tells her he’s going to get drinks. In his brief absence, Jillie is surprised to glimpse the woman Ralph is engaged to. She’s dancing very impressively, and she has a very cool art school haircut, short and auburn with bangs. Jillie thinks, despairingly and for a second, how can she compete with a haircut like that? Then she blinks and the woman is gone. She keeps blinking, and the woman stays away.
Hey, says Ralph. He hands Jillie an orange fizzy drink, which she drinks. When the two of them are in their cave that night, they have buzzed sex that’s not great but still sweet, and Jillie feels like the city will keep opening up its arms and embracing the two of them forever. Jillie falls asleep with ringing in her ears. The next day, both Jillie and Ralph have a hangover. This seems like it shouldn’t happen in City of Rocks, but nevertheless does happen.
Ralph says, Today is the day I would have gotten married.
Jillie says, Why are you telling me?
Jillie and Ralph start going to the underground dance club regularly, maybe because lately they haven’t been so great at spoken communication. Jillie isn’t sure what it is; it’s always like something is put away unsaid, like they are tiptoeing around a large, indistinct object, like they are medieval Europeans staring at a picture some returned traveler drew of an animal they don’t know is called a rhinoceros. One night, Jillie spots one of her exes at the dance club. She keeps dancing, aware of the ex’s location the whole time like she is some kind of bird of prey. Soon the ex becomes the man whose attention she wants and intricate chest tattoo she wants to see if she remembers correctly. A few songs later, Jillie sees another ex, this one with a Comic-Con t-shirt and red hair like rust. And he’s talking to still another ex, one whose name she can’t even remember. They’re multiplying like fruit flies in a genetics lab. Jillie waits for the accompanying seizure of panic to pass. Then she finds Ralph and pulls him back to their cave, feigning she doesn’t feel so great.
During the day, Jillie and Ralph start wandering around City of Rocks separately, because when they do talk, often Jillie feels it’s like trying to make eye contact with her friend who has a lazy eye. Ralph takes up bird watching. Jillie takes up scratching out little hieroglyph pictures. She draws simple patterns and a lot of stick figure people, because she thinks of herself as bad at art. Some stick figure people are in groups, some are all by themselves, some are coming together and some others are coming apart. They all look the same, so Jillie’s drawings kind of look like a montage of one stick figure that can’t decide which arrangement it likes best. If, years later, some tourist happens upon her drawings, Jillie imagines them thinking, Ah yes, the early art of the ancient City of Rock peoples, look how similar we are to them. Jillie feels like the queasy-making thing growing between her and Ralph is the gulf of the things they don’t say. If she can just say the right things, they’ll be okay.
She says to Ralph, I love you.
Ralph says, I’m unsure if I can commit myself to you that way.
Jillie says, We’re basically on an alien planet together.
Ralph says, The highway is right over there.
City of Rocks glows gold come sunrise and darkens in the gloaming, shuffles and reshuffles itself. A daycare pops up, there’s a bar now, Jillie starts seeing a couple food trucks regularly. The school appears and disappears. Now they have a post office. The streets and their stoplights are becoming more consistently present. Then, at other times, City of Rocks is just normal: just a strange, alien, out-of-the-way curiosity surrounded by a parched, dull desert.
One day, Ralph tells Jillie he’s bought a car at the used car dealership and his things are in the trunk already.
Jillie’s throat feels the way she imagines someone with a peanut allergy feeling if they accidentally eat a peanut butter cracker.
A car? she asks.
I bought one, Ralph says again.
Of course you did, Jillie says.
This can’t be a surprise, says Ralph.
Jillie wonders if these are the same words he’s said already. If these are words she’s said herself? She’s heard it in movies. She even dimly remembers even her parents saying it, a mantra, a refrain. She thinks, why do we keep saying that? She thinks, of course it’s a surprise. Who would have expected?