Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Space Between

I went out with Bob and Carrie (my generous hosts) last night to a movie screening at The Red Arrow Gallery down the hill in Joshua Tree last night. They introduced me as their "artist in residence" which piques everyone's curiosity, but it makes my cheeks flush. I'm still getting used to being seen as an artist - something I've always considered myself, but largely unproven and unknown. It's unsafe and exciting to focus on the writing now, something that's deserved more focus for a long time but has been malnourished or just diverted by my music biz career.

I haven't been able to write about a lot of what went on over the last year, but now that I'm leaving it behind me, all I want to do is write about what's happening now. I'm better at that than at talking about it. I get embarrassed when I tell people where I go, what I write about. I roll my eyes and pause, waiting for the laughter, hijacking the conversation by treating my interests like they're dumb, frivolous, childish. Which maybe they are, but whose aren't?

Despite my desire to meet and talk to people in town, I'm still keeping my distance. I wasn't sure what to do when somewhat I just met hugged me last night. I just kind of kept my arms down and let him hug me.

Some of the locals are keeping their distance from me, too. I have seen the same mohawked guy with white plastic sunglasses almost every day since I arrived, and two days ago he finally responded to my smiling hello and sat with me at Water Canyon, asking for my number. Two days later he still hasn't used it. What is he waiting for?

On the other hand, I also gave my number to Jerry, one of the bartenders (and regulars) at the Ski Inn, when I visited Bombay Beach last week. He's already called me twice. Unfortunately his voicemails are so rambling and - I think - drunken that I'm not sure how to reach him or whether I even should.

When I got to the Ski Inn last Thursday, having recovered from the stench-induced nausea I got while exploring abandoned trailers, motels and marinas, I immediately recognized Jerry, the bartender from our last trip, sitting at the end of the bar. He was sitting with Wacko, a hunched-over, white mustachioed regular who we also met last time but who didn't seem to remember me. Jerry at least pretended to remember me but after a cursory introduction we all just kind of sat in silence for a while after I ordered my patty melt. Wacko would occasionally swat a fly - there are SO many flies there right now, I had at least five in my car - and then got up and left abruptly, just like he did last time we were there, this time saying he had to go check the mail.

Once Wacko left, Jerry took a liking to me and started asking me all these questions, telling me about his camping trip, flirting with me a little. Jerry looks older than he probably is. He could be 35 but all the years of camping and drinking cans of Natural Light in the afternoon and driving his vintage van around a hot, salty sea have weathered him to look 10 or 15 years older than me. Our conversation didn't get terribly personal - he was trying to impress me - but he mentioned a camping partner named Sybil and an ex-mother-in-law named Lee who was staying with him.

He couldn't explain why, but he kept saying that I'd come to visit at "an inopportune time." I made a mental note to keep my distance.

After a while, Jerry said he wanted to go have a cigarette but didn't want to leave me at the bar all alone. When I assured him it was fine, he asked if I wanted to come stand with him outside while he smoked. I said, "Want me to watch you smoke? Sure." It weirdly felt like a date. I'd watched many guys smoke outside a bar or my apartment shortly before making out.

Everyone, including the old bartender's young grandson, must have kind of felt the same vibe because they started giving Jerry the wink-wink-nudge-nudge about me and I knew it was time to leave.

On my way out, Jerry asked if he could have my phone number. He'd seemed kind of drunk, so I figured if I gave it to him he'd forget my name or that he'd put it in his phone and would never call anyway so no harm. And if he really wanted to come up to Joshua Tree to go to a "dinner house" (I said, "You mean a restaurant?"), no harm in that really either. But when he tried to program me in his phone, either his fingers or eyes wouldn't work because he made several futile attempts until I had to grab the phone and do it myself.

It was such a weird experience and kind of flattering I guess though I suppose not many young women hang around the Ski Inn or come to Bombay Beach at all. Everybody seemed flattered themselves that I'd liked the place enough to come (all the way) back, not only from Joshua Tree again but, after all, from NY.

Jerry's first call came that night, at some point when I'd lost cell service or wasn't watching my phone. His message said that he was just checking to make sure I'd gotten back OK, and that I couldn't call him but that he would call me again. He sounded more intoxicated than when I left him, so I dismissed it as a drunk dial, hitting the "End" button on my cell and driving up into the Joshua Tree Highlands, off the grid until the next day.

Last night I got another voicemail from Jerry, asking if I wanted to go out this weekend. He'd drive up the two hours to see me.

Do I want to? Not really. My curiosity is piqued but I'm too guarded, too damaged to trust anybody, even out here where people don't lock their doors.

What I really want is to know that there are a couple of lonely guys, sitting at the end of the bar at the Ski Inn, nudging each other about me, wondering when I'm coming back. Welcoming me with excitement when I walk back in the door, and bring the sunlight in with me - whether that's next month or next year. But I want it to stay there, because life is totally different outside of the Ski Inn and outside of Bombay Beach. It doesn't work when you try to mix the two realities.

Sometimes it's nice to have a black hole through which to visit a parallel universe, and then turn around and go back home.