“In America we only have the present tense. I am in danger. You are in danger. The burning of a book arouses no sensation in me. I know it hurts to burn. There are flames of napalm in Catonsville, Maryland. I know it hurts to burn. The typewriter is overheated, my mouth is burning. I cannot touch you and this is the oppressor’s language.” –Adrienne Rich
I’m looking online for information about the plane that crashed in our yard on Saturday afternoon, but I can’t find anything yet. Time moves slowly in the desert. Unexpectedly, I do find short, no-nonsense news reports about another plane crash in our same California town, even on our actual road, back in January 2020 on the exact date our family left the area to head home to Chicago after winter break. This was before the word “pandemic” was on anyone’s tongue except in secretly recorded meetings. We never heard about that other crash, which seems surprising but isn’t. There’s a small airport just east of our house, and also a military base in nearby Twentynine Palms, which supplies its own steady stream of aircraft mishaps during training exercises, so for a place where you can go days without seeing another human being there are a surprising number of aviation incidents.
The six-passenger plane went down some 500 feet from our house, where to the best of my knowledge it still sits. Meanwhile, we’re in our second or fourth or forty-eighth round of quarantining in Chicago.
“I’m going to call the airport Monday and see if we can keep it,” my husband tells me jubilantly about the plane wreck in our yard. “It’d make a great guest room or writing office.”
The temperature in the small towns near Joshua Tree National Park can reach 120 degrees in the summer, but my husband must have a plan for wiring the plane up to a swamp cooler—he’s handy that way, though his handiness sometimes can’t keep pace with his plans. He’s an idea man, my husband; often I wake up to him bringing me a cup of coffee and already cranking out jokes like a string of SNL skits, presenting them to me rapid-fire while I sip, propped up on pillows, and laugh. Still, maybe the plane could be another junk sculpture on our five acres of land. The six passengers, including the pilot, escaped the wreck unscathed and were apparently walking around our yard when the authorities finally showed up along with what passes for media in the high desert.
We wouldn’t have known anything about it if our neighbor hadn’t called my husband while we were driving home from a medical appointment. My husband’s side of the phone call sounded like something out of a movie where the audience is supposed to be worked into a froth of suspense; phrases like “Wait…what?” and “Oh my god!” and “Was anyone killed?” I suppose it’s surprising I didn’t feel more alarmed, start interrupting, ask what was going on. But it’s November, America in early coup, and it seems everyone we know has either lost a parent to COVID or is in the middle of a divorce. We’re heading home from a dermatology visit where my husband, recently diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis that can shorten life expectancy by ten or fifteen years, has had some subcutaneous lumps and a fast-growing mark on his face removed for biopsy; he holds the phone up to the non-bandaged cheek.
Chicago is on a “suggested” stay-at-home order, under curfew again, restaurants closing as the weather grows colder and the sky more perpetually gray. I haven’t seen most of the people I know in the world in months and spend a lot of time lately saying previously unimaginable things like Thank god my parents are already dead. It takes a lot to throw most Americans these days, given how our lives have taken on a surreal Hunger Games meets The Walking Dead quality. A plane crash in the yard seems about right.
A couple days go by, and my husband hasn’t called the airport, though for all we know the plane is still in the yard. Things disappear in the desert. Things go unclaimed. The skeleton of a woman was found this weekend, too, though November isn’t high season for finding bodies. Around August, the desert swallows people on the regular.
Our neighbor (my husband calls him “the desert Kramer”) has been getting his share of excitement from our house these past few months. A plane downed in the yard is a big deal, sure, but in August he got to witness a well-organized robbery too.
“At first I thought you guys had just gotten into town,” he told my husband when he called that time. “But then a white van came in from the other side of the road and I knew something was up.” He went outside and the thieves, who had emptied our house of everything right down to the potbelly stove, waved at him on their way down the sandy driveway. He tried to catch the license plate and write it in the sand at his feet but he couldn’t see in the dark. The van was white, with a handicapped plate, but when my husband and I flew out to California to assess the damage, we couldn’t relay those details because our neighbor won’t talk to the police, and we were in Chicago at the time of the robbery, so how would we know any of this?
Still, we filed a report for insurance purposes. A stocky middle-aged cop and his younger, fresh-faced partner came out to see the depressingly stove-less house, and we dutifully showed them the clichéd butane lighter we’d found on the bedroom floor. The robbers took most of my clothing right out of the closet, though they left behind a pair of ratty blue house slippers that belonged to my husband’s ex-wife, whose handmade mosaic tiles still decorate the patio. I sometimes wear the slippers when I go to the bathroom at night to prevent being bitten by a scorpion or a black widow.
We sat in the living room acting polite while the cops walked around, the older one puffing his chest and telling stories about shootouts with tweakers. At our home in Chicago, Defund the Police and Blue Lives Don’t Exist signs hang from our balcony, and I wondered how these desert cops would act toward us if we weren’t white. Would the older one still be showing off—would the younger one be so eager to help? But those are rhetorical questions to which history has already provided the answers. Here in the desert, BLM signs on the house would be enough to invite vandalism, although we have been vandalized anyway.
When the plane crash in our yard finally makes the news, the article says: “Aviators say that any plane landing you can walk away from is a good landing.” The wrecked plane has a wheel on its roof now, the doors smashed open, but nobody is dead. Two hundred and sixty thousand Americans have died from COVID-19, while the other 12.7 million who have been diagnosed with the virus have had what, under this definition, would be deemed a good landing. In this case, that good landing can include radical lung damage, brain fog, PTSD and other mental illnesses, water on the heart, teeth falling out (?!?), and a potentially permanent loss of taste and smell, among other not-death calamities.
My husband, who fell ill in early March and couldn’t obtain a COVID-19 test, isn’t included in the 12.7 million count—even though he’d had every symptom including lack of smell. Before the onset of his illness in March, one of his favorite things to do was give me long massages—two hours, sometimes longer. He is a writer and professor, the keyboard a conduit to his income; he is a guitar player who was just starting to perform in Chicago before the lockdown hit. Now, some days he can barely carry a coffee mug upstairs. He sleeps with braces on his hands. His immune system is so “depressed” that his rheumatologist has him on levels of Vitamin D I’d have assumed toxic. Lately he’s hard to rouse in the mornings—I’ve been making the coffee more often, setting it on the table on his side of the bed, waking him once, twice, sometimes four or five times before he can stop the undertow of sleep from dragging him back.
Like the six survivors of the plane crash, our lives have become a kind of aimless milling around looking for what went wrong, even though we are among the lucky ones.
How much did my hand-me-down sundresses, my husband’s amps and keyboard and beat-up Mexican guitar, our potbelly stove, his toolkit, fetch when pawned? What is the cash value of memory, of nostalgia, stacked against the need to eat, to pay rent, to support a habit brought on by hopelessness? What is the worth of a butane lighter dropped like a calling card? Our desert house is modest—ramshackle, even—but we put a new roof on it a few years back and only weeks before the break-in had new windows installed. New windows used to be a regular thing, a thing a person could buy without shame, but nothing that doesn’t keep us alive now qualifies as a necessity.
My husband and I, both academics, work from home; our fourteen-year-old and both of my college-aged daughters are in virtual school full-time; we are not essential workers. Our washing machine breaks and we replace it. Our downstairs tenants are denied their small business loan and have no income—they sustained themselves over spring and summer with an “empanada bicycle,” then had to move into the building that houses their bar, all hands on deck to save the business. We get new tenants: an engaged couple who ask if they can stain the kitchen cabinets and paint the walls and replace the vintage light fixtures my parents brought from the house where I grew up when they moved into that apartment in 1999, shortly after my ex-husband and I bought this house. Now we have rent money again, and after the refrigerator breaks, my husband manages to fix it, fucked up hands and all.
When the pandemic first started raging, my youngest child and I were on an HMO that allowed us only to be seen at one beleaguered medical center in the entire county, but in the early days of lockdown, my husband and I had a Zoom wedding and now all the kids and I are on his good insurance and suddenly “worthy” of treatment anywhere we choose.
Ours has been a good landing in a country torn apart. How much is anyone entitled to want?
“Does he love us?” my youngest, who is fourteen, asks of our cat, who is sick. We have three cats (three children, three cats), the other two growing fatter as the sick one becomes more emaciated. He throws up on sofas, on manuscripts, on the banner one of my daughters made for my new business, on throw rugs, on beds … but he can still leap on the counter in a single bound and purrs gleefully when we pet him. Often, he sits outside the cabinet where we keep the cat treats, waiting in a kind of anticipatory hope that is synonymous with being alive. We can’t go to our desert house anymore unless my daughters are home in Chicago, because we couldn’t ask anyone to cat-sit. I know some families would have already put this cat to sleep, but as long as he is purring and jumping, euthanasia isn’t on our menu options.
So here we are, landlocked in Chicago. Perhaps our sick cat is saving us from ourselves. I can understand why my youngest wants to believe that, at the very least, this high-maintenance pet loves us, but I don’t really have a clue if that’s true or if any warm body who jiggled the treat container would suffice. I don’t even know if the warm body part is a secondary concern now, as kidney disease leads the cat to unquenchable hunger and thirst. It can be argued that illness sharpens one’s priorities, boils life down to the essentials, and while we know loneliness is dangerous to humans and animals, nobody to my knowledge has proven that deeply individualized love ranks higher on the chain of needs than basic companionship. Maybe only humans make such distinctions, as I did when I left my marriage for a once-in-a-lifetime passion. Should a cat be required to love us in order for us to minister to his shit and puke—or to shell out money for special food? I want to say of course not, that love given unconditionally, without a promise of gratitude and reciprocity, is the only kind of love worth much in the end, but maybe it’s more complicated than that. I’m not sure it’s love, only, that keeps us from putting down our sickly cat, or if it’s also obligation and the fear of euthanizing a living thing for being inconvenient. I am not certain I can tell the difference between loving my cat unconditionally and my desire to be a person who would. When you’ve cheated on a spouse, left a marriage and blown everyone’s lives apart, a track record of “bailing” follows you everywhere.
Parfois un chat n’est pas seulement un chat.
Whatever the reason, I promise my youngest simply, “Yes, of course he loves us.”
I used to be afraid of flying. But sometime in 2016, after I had left my husband of twenty-three years, after my father who lived in our home had died, after I was diagnosed with breast cancer, after my ex-husband promised me he would be “an ally” and then blocked me on his phone and started filing motions for majority custody of our children and partition actions on our jointly owned properties, after my bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy and hospitalization for neutropenia and developing lymphedema in my left arm and bone-on-bone osteoarthritis in my left hip, after the man who is now my husband but was then still living with his ex-wife began talking about how he wished he’d died during his 2008 relapse before he could “cause everyone so much pain,” I started noticing that I no longer needed to pop a Lorazepam before getting on a plane. For the first time in my life, I could sleep right through turbulence that would once have terrified me so much I’d been known to clutch the hands of strangers seated next to me. It wasn’t that I wanted the plane to go down—I had three children for whom I’d fought my cancer in the most aggressive manner possible so I could stick around. It was more that I was exhausted. Or maybe I had no fucks left to give.
Even now—although the chemo has ended and my breasts are reconstructed and beautifully tattooed and I’ve had a hip replacement and my lymphedema is under control; although I am remarried and my children are healthy; although I am on the brink of my five-year anniversary of being cancer-free, or whatever the hell they allow us to call ourselves instead of cured because cured is a misnomer and once you’ve had cancer it can always be dormant inside you—when a plane is bouncing up and down, it’s still like I’m looking at my former self from the other side of a transparent veil and wondering what that woman was so worked up about. Sometimes, I am ashamed of the mild, everyday things that used to scare her, just as I envy how much she used to care about…everything.
Sometimes, no matter what I have to look forward to, no matter how much I love, I wonder if it is maybe too late for me to have a good landing.
When we went to the desert to put our recently robbed house together—back in August that still felt like March had never ended—we had one socially distanced dinner in the yard of the lead singer of my husband’s longtime California band. The singer and his wife live in the desert full-time, on a private road with an in-ground pool and small guest house. To get to their place, you have to drive on dirt roads so bumpy it’s like navigating the surface of the moon. This kind of isolation would once have seemed like a nightmare to me, but now I’m envious.
In their pretty yard, we watched the bats swoop toward the pool, small flapping flashes of darkness against the desert sky, and I thought of a trip to Kenya I took with my ex-husband and our children and my ex’s father almost exactly a decade ago. We stayed at an isolated little hotel called Diamond Beach, and everyone would converge at the hotel bar in the evenings and drink rum and gingers and watch screenings of films while bats flocked underneath the thatched roof covering the bar.
Now, every time I see a bat, I think of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate; I think of my former father-in-law who had just lost his wife to breast cancer and cirrhosis; I think of a fight my ex and I had in front of that bar by daylight and how he stormed away; I think of the mosquitoes that feasted on our daughters until we couldn’t count the individual bites, which had become one central mass of red and inflamed skin; I think of having to convince one of the girls to take her malaria pills and a buffet breakfast in front of staff and other guests when we forced the pill into her mouth and how she bucked and some of the orange of the pill leaked from her lips but my ex-husband and I got it down; I think of William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force,” which I teach in workshops; I think of my current husband, who also used “The Use of Force” in his workshops long before we met; I think of the way my current husband first confessed his love for me in an email while I was in Kenya with my then-nuclear family, though we were still over a year away from beginning our affair; I think of the bat that once got into my college apartment and the way my roommate and I covered our friend Tom from head to toe in random women’s clothing before pushing him into the bedroom to get rid of it; I think of our desert home in California with my husband’s ex-wife’s mosaic tile on the patio, which is on a road with the same name as my final apartment in Madison, Wisconsin, before I had met either my ex-husband or current husband; I think of how, when you are fifty-two years old, there is no association that doesn’t beget another and time stops running in a linear fashion (if it ever did) and becomes so associative, so circular, so endlessly looping that suddenly I am on a walking path again at a safari lodge in Kenya on Christmas Day 2010 and one of my daughters is shouting that I should divorce her father, and it’s impossible to say, anymore, whether the reason is that we seemed so goddamned unhappy that our divorce was already a foregone conclusion, or whether it meant nothing at all, the way children may yell I hate you during a fight and want to snuggle ten minutes later. I think of how the present is incapable of shedding light on the past because the present imbues the past with meaning that seems inevitable, or pre-ordained, when it is not.
We sat around my husband’s bandmate’s yard, chairs spread as widely as was practical, eating the home cooked vegetarian meal he and his wife had prepared, three of us drinking wine and my husband sipping seltzer water, as occasional stars shot across the sky the way they do in the desert, and all my various selves worked to arrange and fold neatly together like puzzle pieces in that desert yard and failed.
A desert rat scurried along the low stone wall, and if this happened in Chicago, I would probably scream, but somehow in the desert it didn’t faze me, and I swirled my wine.
“You should have seen this place last month,” my husband’s bandmate told us. “All the rabbits were dying. We couldn’t go on a hike without seeing dead rabbits everywhere.”
This seemed inexplicable—something that “just happens” in the desert. “Rabbit” is another complicated word in a bubbling cauldron of complicated words: dead rabbits littering Joshua Tree National Park like frogs from the sky or a plague of locusts, none of which would surprise anyone anymore. Rabbits sautéed and garlicy on La Gomera, at the fancy cliffside hotel where my ex-husband and I stayed before we had children, where we dressed for dinner and congregated with the other guests in the small old-world bar, sipping cognac until they let us in to feed. Baby rabbits that my youngest child once watched a peer step on and kill in a suburban backyard many years ago. Baby bunnies, too, in our backyard in Chicago; we watched them hop tentatively around the garden in the early stages of pandemic summer, when it seemed gardening, like banana bread and home art projects, might sustain us. At night, the rabbits ate the vegetables we planted, or maybe it was the rats that ate them, but the pleasure we got from watching baby bunnies was worth the price of vegetables we didn’t need.
An epidemic of dead rabbits does not rank high on the list of Strange Desert things—still, I learn later, when I google the plane crash and go down that rabbit hole (yes, this association too), that in the summer of 2020, rabbit hemorrhagic disease type 2 was raging so intensely in the Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley area that it spread even to pet rabbits kept indoors. The virus “has been shown to live in the environment for several months without a host body” and is “capable of wiping out huge swaths of wild and pet rabbits.” Only because rabbits breed “like rabbits” (sorry) are they capable of surviving. They breed, it seems, faster than the disease can kill them.
Rabbits: In addition to every other association, they will now remind me of deadly viruses. They were living a parallel pandemic as we lived ours. Nature is not above pettiness. It will stop at nothing to remind us that humanity is nothing special.
Before my five-year cancer anniversary, before my husband’s rheumatoid arthritis or biopsies, before a writer I admire killed herself in the pandemic leaving two young children, before a plane crashed in our yard and the six survivors stumbled out miraculously alive, before the burgled house, before my twin daughters went back to Los Angeles and were living with us and changing hair colors every few weeks and learning how to operate a tattoo gun, back when it was still warm outside and friends could visit one another and people were still semi-excited about finding pretty masks online and some of us were still forgetting not to put on lipstick before going out, my husband texted to tell me one of the baby bunnies was dying in our yard.
When I went outside, our next door neighbors were in their yard, too, and we talked back and forth over the fence for a while about how the bunny had been wandering around in their yard the night before, looking sick, and they had tried to find its mother and siblings to no avail. My husband had an antique china saucer with milk in it, trying to get the bunny to drink. But the bunny was on its side with half-mast eyes, the quick rise and fall of its breath taking all its energy. We recognized this baby bunny—one of two we saw—but now it seemed a good deal smaller than I remembered, and its fur was matted and its eyes already partly filmed over, and there was no telling ourselves that survival was a plausible outcome.
Soon, the neighbors went about their business, and the sun began lowering in the sky, but my husband and I sat in the grass in the backyard of a home I had purchased with another man, a backyard where my parents once sat laughing over barbecues while the children played in plastic kiddie pools, but it was ours now: our eggplants and giant zucchinis and too many lemon cucumbers and the inflatable hot tub my children had bought me for Mother’s Day. My parents’ ashes were scattered all around the garden, including the area where the bunny lay dying.
We talked about whether we should euthanize this bunny, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to do it, just as we cannot bring ourselves to put our cat to sleep. We stroked the dying bunny tentatively, in an effort to comfort it, and we whispered words that were clearly for our own benefit, like “We’ve got you,” and “You’re okay.” The bunny wouldn’t have understood them even if it had been healthy enough to bound away, just like my father was too far gone to understand such words when I spoke them to him on his deathbed. Maybe it is impossible to comfort the dying, and we are only ever comforting ourselves, or maybe that has become the pretty story we will tell ourselves about a pandemic in which countless families have been kept from the deathbeds of their beloveds.
I stroked the bunny between its eyes the way I used to do for my children and, like my children, the bunny’s eyes began to droop into sleep, and indeed I did feel comforted—even though there were still children in cages at the border and all over the country the police were making clear that not only did Black lives not matter but that military vets and teenage girls with whom my daughters had gone to high school were fair game for their brutality as well. Somehow, the sight of the dying bunny’s sleep-shut eyes allowed me to believe, just for a moment, that everything was going to be okay. My husband and I leaned into each other in the garden, crouched over the bunny until the sun set, and when I removed my finger from between the bunny’s eyes it did not rouse, and we went inside believing it would have a peaceful death and saying we would bury it in the morning.
Let me be clear: There is nothing okay about this world. For decades scientists have warned of an environmental point of no return. But what nobody ever talked about, really, was the psychological point of no return. How do we go back to normal? What does that even mean? How will we ever breathe each other’s air again without fear? How will humanity make up for its lack of touch, for the feral things we became in isolation? How will one word ever not carry a thousand meanings, circling back to the people we used to be and fracturing our fragile attempts to exist in the now, even as maybe, probably, biopsies come back clean and arthritis medications bring the ruined hands I love—my husband’s hands—back to my body.
But the morning after we left our bunny, presuming it would die peacefully, we found it in another area of the garden altogether, though it must have been dragged there by another animal as it could not have gotten up on its own steam. It was still alive. Parts of its fur were missing, the skin red and raw. Perhaps we should have chopped its head off fast and clean the night before, but hindsight has never saved anyone from anything. The bunny died without its mother, in the morning sunlight with only us to bear witness, and we buried it in the dirt alongside my parents’ charred remains and marked its presence with a large stone that—when lifted—swarmed with scurrying ants busily carrying on their missions, still striving, still alive.