The Great American Desert

“In my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door of my cottage in the Western night”— Howl

I had a dream of Allen Ginsberg.  Holy! Holy! Holy! We were eating a picnic on a raft of bedraggled bamboo in the middle of the Hudson River. I counted three (3) footless shoes, left, left, right, and one (1) shoeless foot. Carl Solomon was drinking champagne and conveying in increasingly effeminate gestures a story of a fragment of a poem he found between the doors of a closing subway train.  They were holding hands like lovers under a Hollywood arc of broken electrical signals. Wet fuses singed and cackled. This will only hurt a little, he said, and they pushed me into the dark fish sweat of the river. The raft floated above me like a vision and I woke up.

I was born Jewish and gay in 1994. I did not consciously attend my own bris, but I have seen photos and the lox spread looks fabulous. In that sentence, the previous one, I hope I have conveyed that I am indeed both Jewish and gay. My favorite Shakespeare play is King Lear. I have heard that in German Leer means empty, and I wonder at empty beings and broken lives and men who seek revenge. I do not know how to cook. I go home every day and eat chocolate chip cookies and watch The Daily Show and I wonder if anyone knows me at all, if they are watching my life unfold like a Shakespearean tragedy enacted in three rooms, two acts. I am in the closet. I hate that term. In general, I don’t like to think about that too much. I don’t like to run the syllables over my tongue because it is so easy for words to slip out, to fall like little bombs unto the brunch table or the room I share with my two brothers. There is a window screen in my mouth and it lets some things through but blocks big secrets that buzz like gargled truths on my tongue. There are a million seconds in every day that people take for granted, seconds I am acting when they are not acting. I’m gay. I’m gay. Carl Solomon knows it. Allen Ginsberg knows it. No one knows it but now you know it. It’s statistically mundane. Please don’t tell.

I want to tell you a story about myself. I usually don’t like to talk about myself, but I like to talk. I like to talk about history and Latin, the classics in general, politics and science. I occasionally gossip. I have a decent number of close friends I collect like I collect watercolor postcards and fist-sized fossils; they decorate my life with colors and intricate histories. They don’t change much. A few boys from my first school, the school I left, the school where I learned to sing and do math. Then there are the girls from my high school. The very first one I met was my best friend Brett— smart, argumentative, the only person who can ever truly change my mind about anything. 

Then there’s my other best friend Lyla. Lyla always has a shithead boyfriend who she knows she’s too good for, and she likes it that way. Lyla is always crying to me or laughing until she cries and I take her to the park and we talk about our favorite books: Kerouac for her, Salinger for me. We find middle ground in Sheep’s Meadow talking about Hemingway. It’s halfway from her apartment, halfway from mine; there’s insecurity for me and lost-generation romance for her. She tucks her hood around her heart shaped face like a nomad and where I am sure of Brett I am scared for Lyla, because I know she is a wanderer and I don’t want to lose her. We link arms and walk through the meadow; we look like the perfect couple. Isn’t it pretty to think so.

There’s no story, not really. There’s just a night that started out like all the other nights. Brett, Lyla, me. Other kids we hang out with. Some one is laughing. Everything is quiet since we’re on the Upper East Side. Doormen stand in silent vigil. Trees shake and shadows move in pitch black; streetlights like spotlights as I take Brett in my arms and we dance a little under the moonlight. I’m tipsy and tipping and Lyla is texting her boyfriend and it’s pissing me off that her mind is with him when it should be with us and with the night. I lift her and her little goth-princess dress froths along her thighs and then we are all swaying and singing. Nights like this I love New York City and I think I will never leave her. My first and only love. But there’s something else in this story. You just have to look close enough to find it.

It was in the waning hours, sitting on a bench in Central Park, and Lyla’s head was on my lap and her make-up was smeared. I felt we were spinning in circles around this City, as if the lights of the subway and the rush of the people had tricked me, and here I was, standing still. And I knew there was something more out there for me. I did not scream or shout. A door had opened into a life I would like to live. It felt like a shot of clarity. I woke Lyla up and told her that I would like to go on a trip. Lyla has a car and in two weeks when summer vacation starts we hit the gas and go.

Then there is a night that is different from all the other nights. We are lying in the Great Basin Desert, we are in Nevada but have heard that its arid mass stretches through Idaho Utah and Oregon. I didn’t know that there was such a thing as so much space. I didn’t know that infinity exists and that you can see it but also feel it in your bones. Sounds I don’t know fill my ears. Brett is examining a map; there are notes in the margins in three different handwritings:

            Brett: Remember to buy sunscreen. Keep money AWAY from Lyla. Is it even possible to find good Chinese food outside of the city? Oy

            Lyla: Look for notebook. Did I have it in Ohio? I think I had it in Columbus….

            Me: I want to climb at least one mountain before I get home. Remember to call Mom. Remember to BUY SOCKS.

            Tic tac toe and hanged men line the map. Lyla wrote poetry over Alaska. I traced state lines with the ballpoint pen I keep in my back pocket. In my mind faded ink becomes rushing rivers and crystalline mountain ranges, America is before us and we are doodling and driving over sacred land. I pick rocks off the desert floor and put them in the glove compartment with old gum and a lost Lyla love letter. I walk away from the car where Brett is calling her mom and Lyla is daydreaming and I SCREAM. I scream into the western night until all I hear is the nothingness of the desert like I am screaming into a wall of silence. I am drained and free and loud, the silence that used to hide me falls away until I am naked and facing America reborn. I jump up and down like I’m crazy and stub my toe on a rock and laugh because I am crazy and it feels so good. My friends are watching me and laughing and Brett rolls her eyes and asks Lyla if she gave me any weed. Lyla shakes her head and quotes Thoreau and smiles because she thinks her best friend is a gay transcendentalist.

Later, we all snuggle in our sleeping bags and night cradles us close. Moonlight reflected off the face of my two best friends lights my dreams of swirling Navajo patterns and dry desert air, a cabin cradled between sculpted dunes, a psychedelic vision just out of reach.

            When my mom empties out my backpack before the start of senior year, this is what she finds: five (5) rocks, a faded map, four (4) national park postcards, and a picture of the three of us on an Adirondack peak. My face is flushed and I am looking beyond the camera. I’ve framed this picture and when I look at it I think about the future and the person I want to be. I am still becoming. I hold desert fossils in my hand and think about the undefined glorious west where I belong. Still, concrete pebbles like the past lodge in between my toes and bring me back to the comfort of everything and everyone I have ever known. Some things that used to define me I still hold close, others evade me and for the first time in a long time I feel I am changing, beginning. I don’t talk about it much but Lyla reads me David Sedaris and Brett takes me out to dinner with her brother, the one with a boyfriend and a loft in Williamsburg. Lyla meets a boy who is obstinate in his kindness; she kicks and shoves him and complains incessantly but I know secretly that she is falling in love.

            Time is linear but life is like a stream on the map I fold under my pillow; its jagged turns seem coincidental but we follow them and find sustenance beyond rationality. I trace the bumps and bruises of the paper trails and imagine a life I can make for myself, a cabin in the west. There are speckled bookshelves carved by hand, a glass of wine balancing on a stack of Sartre. Nature whispers outside the window. There is an open threshold into a bright room; a white bed beckons warm and sturdy. Some one is waiting for me in that room, his headphones on and his pencil scrawling a story of a lost and hidden childhood of secrets and forbidden love. This vision of the future glows in the sepia haze reserved for treasured memory; it is worn and earmarked like my hallowed copy of Catcher in the Rye. I hold these things close to me: a fragment of a dream, a prayer for the future, a faithful map and a rock from the desert floor. I imagine a life of joy and beauty in the west and I am free, happy because I am no longer hiding, floating into the beckoning embrace of endless love.

Amy Zimmerman
Age 17, Grade 12
Trinity School
Silver Key

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