In a perfect world, we would have been orphans. But, embarrassingly enough, we both had parents. I had two. They would never willingly let me go, so I packed a duffel and slipped a note under my father’s Stanford Alumni magnet. I signed it, Your son, Mark. His name and mine.
On my way to Laura’s house, I cashed my graduation checks. Then I sat on her porch, imagining I was ten or twelve or sixteen again. At each of these ages, I had dreamed of this day. I had even dreamed of sitting on the porch, waiting for her for the last time.
Laura’s parents weren’t like mine. Her father was never around, and if he did visit, Laura never told me about it; she rarely spoke about him or the divorce. Unlike my mom, Laura’s would let her go. Her chronic migraines sentenced her to weeks at a time in her shuttered bedroom, where she lay half-awake, suspended in a marijuana fog.
Laura tapped at her window, motioning for me to come inside.
She opened the screen door. “Hey,” she said in a whisper. “Come in, I’m going to tell my mom.”
I followed her to her mother’s bedroom; dank air poured out as she opened the door and tiptoed into the dark room. I peered inside, trying to see her mother through the thin layer of smoke that hung like gauze from the ceiling. The little light that risked entry came through a section of bent shades and stood still, in thin diagonal lines, against the wall.
Barely whispering, Laura said, “Mom, we’re going.”
I cupped my ear toward the bed.
“Where?” she asked.
“To the Mojave Desert,” Laura said.
Her mother writhed in her sheets. “For how long?”
“Not sure,” Laura said.
Holding my breath, I poked my head through the door.
“That’s fine, honey. Can you bring me my lighter?”
Laura and I were impatient to start our lives as people who had no people. We weren’t going any place in particular. If anything, we were trying to get away from places. We’d just gotten out of high school; we wanted to be in between. We wanted to be nowhere. And the Mojave, the scorched backyard of the glittering Pacific, was the closest no-place we knew of.
When we set out, it was raining sporadically, and Laura gripped the steering wheel until we reached L.A.’s city limits. Once we hit the desert highway, she set the cruise control to ninety miles per hour, and propped her elbow coolly against the window. Dark clouds scattered across the blanket blue and burst as we passed beneath them. The wipers smeared the bleak landscape across the windshield. Laura yawned.
“Hey, want me to drive?” I asked.
She gave a tired shrug and pulled the car over. We didn’t want to get wet, so Laura straddled the stick shift and braced herself against the roof and my body. Fumbling with my seatbelt, I felt her black hairbrush across my face as she hovered over me.
“Need some help there?” she asked.
“No, no.” I stammered. “I’ve got it.”
One humid afternoon our sophomore year, Laura let me kiss her under the condition that I was blindfolded and kept my hands to myself. “Wait here,” she said, pulling the handkerchief down over my eyes, “I’ll be right back.” A willing hostage, I sat still at the edge of her bed, occasionally moving my head toward some promising vagueness until, slowly, I could feel her standing right in front of me. Awash in her lavender scent and the warmth of her breath, I opened my eyes and tried to peer through the blindfold, as she kissed my neck and pulled her fingernails through my hair.
Now at the wheel, I pulled back onto the vast expanse of road, careening through cloud shadows as the inside of the car strobed from dark to light, dark to light.
Passing the hardscrabble township of Beatty, whose main attractions included a brothel (trucker friendly) and the world’s tallest thermometer, we eventually drove through 29 Palms, home to California’s largest Marine base.
Laura needed a bathroom, so I pulled into the dust-beaten town and parked at one of the numerous barbershops advertising a choice between “Marine” or “civilian” haircuts. We got out of the car and looked around; it was hard to believe that we were only a few hours away from home. L.A. seemed unlikely, a separate world entirely.
“I’m going to use this one here,” Laura said, walking to the nearest barbershop. “You can use that one.” She pointed, directing me across the street.
I shrugged and walked across the street, looking down the town’s main drag—a strip of quiet, squat-looking shops, punctuated at the end by a diner with a retro-looking sign. It was missing an “I.” The jostling of static and human voice sounded from the radio of an open truck window, and sitting just outside the shop was a leather-skinned old man slouched in a white plastic chair. He gave an old fashioned tip of his trucker hat to me, and I nodded back before opening the door. Inside, a gruff barber pushed an electric razor across a Marine’s head. With a sort of brute swiftness, he nearly shaved the whole head in my short walk from the entrance to the restroom.
At the sink, I splashed water on my face and rearranged some unruly hair in the mirror. There were no paper towels, so I walked out of the restroom wiping my hands on my shirt. When I looked up there was the barber facing me, razor in hand, standing by an empty chair. He cleared his throat, and motioned for me; he wanted a word. I took a few steps forward, but made sure to stay just out of striking distance.
“You here for a cut?” he asked.
“No. No, sir,” I replied.
“Well kid, that crapper’s for customers only,” he said, gesturing toward a sign: Restroom for Customers Only.
I glanced outside to see if Laura was at the car yet. She was, only she was talking to someone, a plump man, and I couldn’t get her attention. I turned back to my barber—he held up the smock expectantly, a fat matador with his cape. I looked at myself in the mirror, at my dull brown hair that looked more like my father’s every day, and I sat down. With a flourish of both his hands, he wrapped the smock around me, fastening it behind my neck.
“Marine or civilian?” he asked.
“What’s the difference?” I replied.
“Around here? Not much.”
I shrugged, “Marine, then.”
Quickly guiding the razor back and forth along my head, he sent long strands cascading to the floor. Skillfully directing my head forward, then to one side, then the other, he studied my head from multiple angles, routinely crouching to get a better view. A calm fell over me as I realized that my head was in a virtuoso’s hands. It occurred to me that he might even be the best at what he does. It was just a passing thought but one that, as he removed the smock from my neck, carried with it some sadness. Who would know him or what he’d accomplished?
Still sitting as he left to ring up the cash register, I studied myself in the mirror, trying to recognize this unfamiliar me. I couldn’t imagine ever getting used to it, this new look. But I liked it. I felt open to suggestion.
“Hey, kid. You gonna stare at yourself all day or what?”
I walked to the cash register and handed him ten bucks of my graduation money. Then I shook his hand and thanked him.
Back on the road, Laura poked fun at me.
“Jesus, Mark. You couldn’t just tell him no?”
I ran my hand over my head. “It feels pretty good,” I said, leaning toward her. “Touch it,”
She shook her head, feigning disgust.
“Come on. Give it a rub,” I insisted.
Again, she didn’t budge, so I nuzzled my coarse hair into her shoulder until she shouted, “Fiiine,” and grabbed my head with both hands, running her nails hard across my scalp.
Satisfied, I pulled back with the lingering sting of her nails in my hair and pressed hard on the gas. Flying by the Salton Sea, its banks dotted with ruined motels, we spotted a maimed sign that read “Salvation Mountain, 2 miles.” We followed.
What we found was a vast mound of adobe and plaster painted with every color of the rainbow. At its summit was a cross, and at its base, in huge protruding letters, were the words “God is Love.”
A friendly-faced old man bounded toward us, moving as if the pull of gravity were an option. He welcomed us to Salvation Mountain, this mound that he had built. Stepping out from the car, we followed him and began to climb—past flowers, miniature rivers, biblical quotations—to a flight of stairs.
We watched the sun set in burnt orange and blue, felt the desert go cold. I edged myself closer to Laura. Leonard walked to the foot of the cross, looking up at it with an unexpected innocence. I wondered, then, if he was enlightened or insane, or if there was even a difference. He told us that he’d been working on the mountain for the past 53 years. I knew then that he understood what it was to be utterly devoted to something.
“Love,” he said, looking down across the desert, “it’s the thing that fills the void.”
At this, Laura sighed and shifted a little. She excused herself, and walked down the mountain. I apologized to Leonard, and told him that we had to find a motel before it got too late.
“Come back anytime,” he said. “I’ll be here.”
I waved and ran down the stairs after Laura. It was nearly dark. Below, Joshua trees stood silhouetted, their branches splayed against the vanishing horizon. Looking out, I mistook one for Laura waving an arm to get my attention. Waving back, I tripped and fell on the gritty stairs, my head thudding hard against the adobe as I slipped past prayers of repentance and love, past aphorisms and blessings, words of faith and hope; all inscribed by other aimless travelers.
Dazed and aching, I woke up in a purple room with the taste of blood in my mouth. I was lying in a twin bed, and Laura was beside me, running her hand gently over my shaved head.
“Where are we?” I asked.
“The Harmony Motel,” she whispered.
“No kidding,” I said, smiling.
Leaning toward me, Laura said, “Your lip’s still bleeding a little,” and touched her thumb to the cut, wiping the blood on her jeans.
“Wow,” I said, batting my eyelashes, “You saved my life.”
Sitting up in bed, I grimaced, suddenly aware of my battered self. Tentatively lifting my arms, I explored the extent of my injuries, and felt around my aching back and head.
I lay my head back on the pillow. Laura shifted, moving her body nearer mine. She smelled like lavender, and I told her this. Sliding her hand behind my neck, she brought my face to hers and eighteen years were condensed into two excruciating seconds. She kissed me hard and pulled back, leaving me with a tightness in my chest so intense I struggled to breathe. Reaching my hand around her waist, I pulled her toward me, kissing her desperately, longingly, eyes open, trying to find the delirious joy I knew was there. But she pulled away again. The kiss felt more like a crash.
“What? What’s wrong?” I asked.
She turned to face the purple wall.
“Today, in 29 Palms, I called my dad from the gas station.”
“So?” I asked.
Turning around, she said, “I’m coming to stay with him out here. We’ve been talking about it.”
“But what about getting away from parents? About being aimless and nowhere?”
“We’re not ten anymore. We can’t just run away.”
“We can’t even try?” I said, realizing as I said it that we had tried and that my hope of leaving home for some enlivening oblivion had met its end, and that its demise was staggeringly definitive. I lay my body back down on the stiff mattress, felt the familiar impulse to get away, by myself, so I might feel less alone. It was this same impulse that I was left with on Laura’s bed that one humid afternoon.
After nearly an hour wearing the blindfold, I had insisted that we switch—that she wear it, or that we get rid of it altogether. It became unbearable, minute after minute, sitting in front of her, overrun by the contradictory sensations of anxiety and ecstasy, desire and doubt. That time spent in her room felt like an eternity in an instant, a lifetime of turmoil wrapped into the hours after school and before dinner. I tried to pull the blindfold from my eyes, pleading, “Just for a second.” But Laura refused.
It was probably then that I learned that Laura would never need me—she needed something else. And that’s why we were in the Mojave, for her father, the Marine.
That night, we lay in separate beds in the absolute silence of the desert. It pressed down on my ears—the kind of silence that makes a mind cast about frantically for something to fill it. I shifted in the tight sheets and felt my aching body rage against itself, against her and the purple walls, against the Harmony Motel, and the whole godforsaken desert. I’ve made it, I thought. I am nowhere.