A Garden in the Desert

Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The summer desert prickled with the anticipation of rain. Inside the living room, the dog slept like a comma on the rug. Afternoon sun forced its way through the blinds, casting the dog in ribbons of hot white and shadows. She resembled a fox, feathered tail and paws twitching.

Occasionally she threw a high-pitched dream-bark with the skill of a ventriloquist, the sound oddly distant, though it came from her throat. Perhaps she sensed wild — smelled the creosote resin, felt heat rising, accessed a memory of rabbit or quail. Meanwhile, my children left their balled-up socks in a halo around her head and made a constellation of Legos across the floor.

This was months before we knew anything about the virus, and yet everyone around me seemed underemployed, and broke, sick, exhausted by relentless bad news. The coasts were being ravaged — entire neighborhoods gobbled up by wildfire or flood — and, in between, walls of dust swept across the highways. Here in Arizona, steel slats were trucked in from some far-off place and arranged in a crude wall along the border, cutting through wildlife migratory corridors and bulldozing every sacred saguaro in its path.

Summer in the desert feels like sticking your face in an oven. Waiting for rain makes the world feel like a balloon about to burst. It is an untenable state. Emotions flare. There is definitely crying. The most normal of people will end up lying on a cool tile floor in their underwear and arguing with the sky. The heat brings a certain kind of come-to-Jesus clarity, demands that energy not be wasted on something with improbable odds.

* * *

I began digging the garden beds soon after we moved into the house on 3rd Street — my children, the filmmaker, and me. For a while, I was an optimist. I used to grow vegetables for a living, so it’s not like I was green. I knew what to do. I envisioned the sweet potato and melon vines crawling across the ground, pickled beets in the refrigerator, jars of fall tomatoes in neat lines in the pantry (desert tomatoes are best in the fall). The filmmaker had zero interest in gardening; I alone imagined the possibilities in that patch of urban desert.

But when I dug down far enough, I hit caliche — hardened calcium carbonate, a desert geological phenomenon, stubborn as concrete. It rang out against the shovel like a gong. I abandoned the shovel for a caliche bar, and then a borrowed jackhammer, but each time I forced my way through one layer of caliche, there was another, seemingly harder and thicker than the last.

During the months I spent digging the garden beds, the filmmaker and I were having long and winding conversations about our future. Whether to get married, whether to buy a house or rent forever, how we felt about debt, and whether to have a baby of our own before it was too late. This last subject was particularly fraught. I had done it before. He had not.

* * *

Years before, I had married myself off. What I mean is, one minute I was counting RSVPs and table linens and noticing a panicked feeling in my stomach whenever I heard my fiancé’s boots on the doorstep — and the next minute I was getting married, because we had already bought land and started a farm. We already shuffled out every dusty morning to milk goats and harvest greens before the heat crescendoed. While I milked, I closed my eyes and pressed my cheek against the rumbling sides of the goats. I saw all the 1990s Lifetime specials in my head, the sobbing brides in their puffed sleeves, mascara running, someone saying, “Oh, honey, you’re just having cold feet.”

Later we would have a baby. And on a night two years after that, he would chase me around the house like a junkyard dog and pin me to the bed in a violent show of force. I was four months pregnant with our second child at the time. When he held me down, I saw the terrified face of our toddler, felt the baby flutter in my belly — At this stage, it feels like butterfly wings, the midwife had said — and my brain floated up-up to the ceiling, gone.

I have written this before. Maybe this time will be the last. Or maybe I will write it one hundred more times.

I left him the following day, on a morning so cold that enormous cacti had fallen over beneath the weight of ice. I felt like one of them — numb and on the verge of collapse. Before noon, the ice had thawed, and I sat in my parents’ sunny kitchen, eating scrambled eggs through a slick veneer of snot and tears. The city had already begun hauling away old saguaros that had snapped in half, scooping up entire stands of prickly pear melting into globs. I handed my son to my mother, curled up with my belly like it was a house cat, and slept for days.

So you’ll understand why doing it again — marriage, babies — would give me pause. The filmmaker wanted us to have a baby, and on most days I did not. I went in circles with my therapist, the logic part of my brain in a feud with the feeling part of my brain. My two beautiful babies already had me ragged and underslept, unable to read more than listicles or keep up with my writing or remember details about the lives of my best friends. I was afraid — not of the filmmaker, who does not have a mean bone in his entire body, but of getting it wrong again. Making the wrong kind of permanent choice. That fear wove into tight, black little stitches.

But sometimes, I admitted to the therapist, tenderly, I see babies in the grocery store and want to eat them.

* * *

Around the time that I left the ex-husband, a long stretch of road a few miles from my house became the unofficial dumping spot for furniture no one wanted anymore. I drove this stretch of road often, between the railroad tracks and an impenetrable hedge of oleander, and I watched the piles grow: La-Z-Boys rained on and then baked by the summers, couches with families of pack rats in the springs, wooden chairs without legs, milk crates, bags of clothes, lonely old shoes.

Mattresses multiplied. Synthetic batting collected in the pigweed like snow. The piles got so high and wide that they inspired news stories. The question was, who should pick the stuffing from the weeds and take the orphaned furniture to the dump? The dumpers, of course, but they came in the black cicada night and disappeared so quickly. Someone should be fined, but who? Surely not the neighbors on the other side of the oleander — grandmothers, the people working three jobs, diapered toddlers on porches.

And whose fault, really, is the mess? And by that I mean any number of things that do or do not belong in this essay: our broken healthcare system and military chemicals leaching into the groundwater and teachers not being paid a living wage and skyrocketing rents and housing developers selling out our finite desert aquifers.

Who will claim this empty stretch of road? Who will claim all the angry fucked-up men? And the women who leave them — who will feed them scrambled eggs in a sunny kitchen, and let them finally sleep?

* * *

The gentle filmmaker and I had the same serious conversations about our future again and again. We would come to an impasse — to procreate or not to procreate? — which was getting to be a familiar landmark, and we would look at each other exasperated. We’d walk away — he, toward a TV regurgitating the latest Trump catastrophe, blue light washing over the room like an aquarium; and I, out to dig garden beds in the backyard.

Eventually, I made three giant beds, two of which looked a lot like graves. I kept digging, down as far as I could. At some point, my intentions had shifted. Given the calcified substrata, I no longer believed those beds would sprout anything other than Bermuda grass. And although I tried to be open to another baby, I didn’t actually want one. I just wanted to break through the damn caliche.

I told my therapist this, and her eyebrows raised into two kind hills. Well that’s interesting, she said. And I knew. No matter how hard we try, sweat, want, certain ground will not — should not? — yield human dreams.

* * *

Months after leaving the ex-husband, I labored with our second son. I did not want my ex at the birth because he had begun to seem like an unpredictable animal, so I invited my best friend instead. Together, we planned birthday cupcakes for the baby, a project with which to busy ourselves during early labor. We chose a recipe with ample amounts of ginger.

The June air trembled with heat and danger. The midwives parked their cars on the next street over so the ex-husband wouldn’t be tipped off if he drove by. My friend and I made the cupcakes, snacking on candied ginger as we went along. The house filled with the smell of cardamom. Out the window, the palo verde trees became shivering green beings in the summer light. My friend read me the baby’s horoscope out loud, put her forehead against mine when the contractions were too much. The moon face of my mother appeared occasionally, her hand brushing back my hair. The midwives sat on the porch, the purple evening settling around them. The dog checked in, pushing her wet nose over the side of the baby pool. The cicadas hummed to life. The world drifted away, or I drifted away from it, pulled deeper into the night. Until, finally, a baby covered in a layer of fine infant fuzz slid out onto the bathroom floor.

* * *

Early on in my relationship with the filmmaker, the kids came down with pinworms. They were going around the preschool, those tiny white worms that hatch inside the buttholes of children and their very grossed-out parents and itch unbearably. They lay eggs so sticky that they shellac on baseboards and cling to stuffed animals, then pass from grubby toddler fingernails to grubby toddler mouths, where the entire life cycle begins again.

We’d had them before, passed them back and forth with another family like Tupperware containers. At that time, my Medicaid insurance paid for the heavy drugs that obliterated them. But when the worms turned up this time, the good drugs weren’t covered anymore and cost three hundred dollars a dose. We tried the ten-dollar Walgreens remedy, banana-tasting liquid that didn’t work. I did so much laundry I thought I’d break the washer. The pinworms did not clear. A friend told me I could order the serious drug online, and I flew to the computer. The pills shipped from India, and I can’t be 100 percent sure that they were actually what I ordered. But we took them and the pinworms went away.

I say all of this because I saved a pill for the filmmaker, and he took it, and the important thing is that he did not run away. A worm-sized reason to hope that, this time, it might work out.

* * *

The filmmaker and I engaged in a kind of magical thinking. If time could be rewound, we posited, we could redraw the trajectory. We could wind it back like a clock and begin again. For example, years earlier, at the exact time when I was meeting the ex-husband on a farm south of Tucson, the filmmaker was passing through just a few miles away. He was heading far south to float down the Amazon River. If life were a fantasy novel, we could cut a wormhole in time and space, and I would appear there on the boat with him. Or he might appear at the farm in his shitty old car.

But in reality, life unspooled just the way it did.

Before it became clear that our relationship was destined to fail, the filmmaker and I drove through New Mexico during a snowstorm. The February night was black as river rock, and the headlights formed two yellow cones of light through the falling snow. The way that snow fell, fast and at an angle, it was as if we were flying through space. Just the two of us cocooned in a spaceship, stars speeding past, dragging across the windshield as dust.

Another time, we drove through Nevada, and some kind of summer insect had just hatched. We passed a gas station, overtaken by a swarm. Bugs swirled beneath the canopy lighting and wobbled between gas pumps. For miles, they exploded yellow-green on our windshield. When we reached the hotel — something cheap in a small casino town, everything garishly blinking — the grille of the car was adorned with hundreds of fluttering wings.

But some places are just for passing through. Not everything is supposed to be ours.

* * *

A year or so before I gave up on the garden, the filmmaker and I sought out the Colorado River. We wanted to touch its muddy flow, wanted to marvel at its power and artistry, wanted our skin to burn red as the canyon walls, wanted to feel millions of years around us, wanted to feel small and insignificant.

We left the kids with my parents and drove north until columns of red rock rose from nothing to a cloudless sky. Out the window, a blur of horses glinting copper in the sun, and sand-colored buildings, some that seemed to have been tossed by the wind like toys.

I grew up a landlocked Midwestern girl — southwestern Ohio, with winding roads and green everywhere. By the time we arrived at Moab, my nerves were wires crossing in the heat. Find me a forest. We are too exposed.

In Utah, the river was heavy with sediment, yet to be filtered by the dams further downstream, yet to spider into its lower tributaries. At Lake Havasu, some of the water is diverted by the Central Arizona Project, which runs all the way to Tucson and the Tohono O’odham Nation. By the time the water reaches the end of the line and comes out of our bathtubs and kitchen faucets, each molecule has traveled nearly 1,400 miles. Forty million people in seven states rely on the Colorado River for water, but that number is greater if you consider that the majority of the nation’s winter vegetable supply is grown with that water.

Slowly, the Colorado River carved through miles of rock. Sandstone, limestone, shale, dinosaur bones. From our inflatable kayak, the canyon wall was a striated history book: glittery red, mustard yellow, purple, orange. After we got home, I watched the PBS special Hoover Dam, in which grainy grayscale footage shows men working on the Hoover Dam — rolling boulders, pouring dump truck loads of rocks to change the flow, conducting a manmade redirection of the river from its six-million-year path. I wanted to scream at the men who stole the river. I wanted the river to fight back, flood, wash away the dump trucks and the men, take back its path.

How far should we bend a thing to fit inside it, or make it fit around us — a river, a relationship, a garden in the desert? Put water on it and the desert sprouts into date palms and lawns, glossy-leafed fruit trees and pecans, alfalfa and cotton, sprawling golf courses, subdivisions full of million-dollar homes. But who are we kidding? Eventually, the river will slow and the reservoirs will fall. The wells will run dry.

We are playing house, living beyond our means. And then what?

* * *

This story is predictable. After enough trips to the impasse, after enough playing house, the filmmaker and I broke up. On the day he moved out, the pandemic descended. One rerouting of life, and then another.

That summer, there was the white-hot sun, the sky-arguing, the cycle of hope-wait-disappointment building in my body. Usually, the monsoons bring a release. But in 2020 the rains didn’t come. The entire Southwest was in the midst of a twenty-year mega-drought, and in our corner of it, just 4.17 inches of rain fell that year. So we were parched and desperate, imagining water, even just a puddle, and pandemic-stuck.

The kids and I had inherited a twelve-foot trampoline that we erected in the backyard a few months before lockdown, and for a while it was the promised land. The place where my kids took their best toys, where they could be weightless, could fly beneath the moon as it waxed and waned like a slow-blinking eye.

It was on one of those early summer evenings, oven-hot and disappointingly dry — the kids practicing front flips and jumping high enough to see over the wall, the mock orange tree shriveling and turning yellow, the filmmaker across town living a new life — when I finally and unceremoniously took the shovel and filled in the garden beds. Bees hummed around the California pepper tree. The dog panted in the shade. Above us, the birds were riotous.