y father taught me to see the rain when I was still small enough to sit on his shoulders. Look, he’d say, look past those puffy white clouds. No, past that peak. Focus between the mountains, right where the clouds stretch themselves into a haze that spreads over the whole sky. Look closer. Right there, between the peaks of the mountains, where the darkness is. Watch it until it glows.
By the time I was ten years old, I could smell it, too. On the way home from school one April I caught a whiff of air that was burning, like a barbecue left to burn too long. I tasted the crispy lightning as my steps quickened. By the time the drops began, I was settled on the living room floor, my hands warmed by the cayenne-spiked hot chocolate (one marshmallow) as the moisture slapped the window. I watched the puddles collect on the patio, no longer the pristine tears from heaven. Just the muddy accumulation of life.
It wasn’t much of a party trick. After all, even the local news could tell you when the rain was coming. Such a skill may have been handy in the caveman days, but for me it was merely a convenience. By the time I was twenty, I had no need of it. I moved to Seattle, where the raindrops never stopped.
The water was different here. It was omnipresent, from the sky to the sound. There was no escape, no point in guessing or waiting. My gift was useless, and I watched it flee from me. Every month brought the same tedium. After a year I put aside the hot chocolate, and turned to hot toddies to drown my afternoons, which blended into evenings, which blended into mornings. I worked from home to avoid having the rain seep into my skin during the short walk downtown. I ordered Chinese food and pizza for one, and watched Masterpiece theater. By the time I was twenty five, I had read every book on my Amazon wish list, memorized the full Beatles canon, and perfected my Mandarin pronunciation of the full takeout menu. My parents ordered a shrink to visit, a friend of my meddlesome aunt. He prescribed a vacation. And sunshine.
New Mexico was so bright that it took my eyes a full day to adjust to the painful white expanse. It had been years since I had owned sunglasses, and it simply hadn’t occurred to me that people still wore such things. My plan of staying comfortably in my room at the resort was shattered by the first, second, and third phone call from my mother. The ringing finally drove me out. The concierge recommended a walk through the local galleries, who put on some sort of open house for the tourists. I steeled myself against the arid atmosphere beyond my air conditioned haven and departed, hoping to find my mother a truly ugly painting.
Up and down I marched, weaving though the crowded street and trying to preserve my poor posture. Crowds were one of my oldest peeves. They were loud and boisterous, as though they shared in some joke no one had ever bothered to tell me. I shuffled through their clammy bodies while thoroughly working red dirt into my sandals. Embarrassment forbade me to shake them out. I felt the sweat turn the dust into mud and then dry it out in some sort of desert life cycle. The ever changing texture distracted me from the overpriced renderings of red rocks and tumbleweeds.
The final gallery of the block was different, dark and tiny, wedged in at the end of the street before the quality of houses took a fast turn toward decay. Just inside the doorway I halted, wallowing in the comfort of the shadows and willing myself to begin the long trudge back to the hotel. But I never made it. He blocked my path.
His name was…how funny. The name won’t come. It didn’t matter then, and it doesn’t now. There were more important features. They still hold me when I close my eyes. I feel his skin, copper toned and so hot that it burnt my hand in his. His eyes watched me, gleaming yellow even in the dim light of his shop. He spoke to me in colors. The quiet whisper of his words rolled over me as he gave the smooth opening speech, drew me further into the dark room towards the square canvases on the wall. My senses clear as I reach a painting, his work, the ochre butte taking on a mesmerizing quality in the confined space. I paid him for it, asked him to wrap it and send it to the resort. He teased me, a first time tourist, one so clearly out of her element. I found I didn’t mind. Flirtation came easily, despite my lack of practice. I felt at ease. He hung a “closed” sign on the gallery door as we left.
He led me to the other side of town, straight into a bar that my instincts failed to properly identify despite an aura of stale tobacco and rust. I was otherwise engaged. With him by my side I was confident, curious, amazed. I hovered on the brink of sex appeal. He taught me how to sip tequila, how to throw darts without impaling a barmaid. We drank glass after glass as the windows outside showed orange light that was suddenly extinguished by blackness. The fried hamburgers reflected of the exoticism of a dive bar – delicious. We drank more tequila, a few beers, we sang country songs and corridos. I don’t know how many I had. It wouldn’t have taken much. When we tripped out of the bar I could see the pristine luminarias on the gallery walk spluttering into slumber. All of the good tourists had returned to their plush hotel rooms, and we were alone in the streets.
From the front seat of his ’85 convertible the wind howled less than I expected it to. Perhaps my hearing had been dampened by the liquor, or the jukebox. My hair escaped the tight braid that suddenly seemed confining instead of practical. The picture in my head showed a 1960s starlet with James Dean in the driver’s seat. Sleepily, I held my arms above my head and giggled as he sped the car to higher speeds. The sky opened to me. The roaring air cooled my warm chest. Time passed in a vague circle as we careened further into the desert. Minutes, hours, or days later he parked us beneath the massive body of stars, moving me deftly to the backseat as he enumerated the constellations. Ladles scooping bears next to scorpions. They were wrong, but I did not correct him. Perversely, desert was cold, and I observed my own body from above as I clung to his searing skin. He lazily spun me folk tales of geckos and coyotes, and the time he did acid in high school. Nuzzling into his neck, I let the words overflow my body and lead me into warm softness.
When I awoke, I could not move. It took several minutes for me to lift my head, and the agony was nearly unbearable. I surveyed my body, which had evolved a shiny maroon skin than stretched hard like an exoskeleton. The sting heightened with even the slightest motion. I felt the sunburn working its way further into my muscles, slowly destroying the tissue. My head was weaving behind my eyes, and I barely had the foresight to throw my weight sideways before the vomit erupted. As I heaved, I noticed a grimy handprint on my right breast, as though someone had tried to clean the desert off of their hands and cop a feel simultaneously.
How long I lay there I will never know. I drifted in and out of consciousness, noticing something new whenever I could bring myself to open my eyes. The white disc blazing overhead. The expanse of scrub and dirt, unbroken by any sign of life or civilization. My purse missing, along with one muddy sandal. A boulder, which took me an hour to crawl to, my sundress slowly pulled over my head for protection.
Finally, the sky darkened. I imagined the cool of the nightfall, and the necessity of walking while it lasted. To my left lay a trail of heavy footprints. The makeshift path was my only hope of making it back to the road, where I could lay still on the concrete until someone found me. The gray light was to be my savior.
With my back against the boulder, I managed to open my puffy eyes for a moment. I looked out past the unhinged horizon to the clouds. Not puffy, or white. Spread out like an evil layer of frosting across the sky. The darkness engulfed the entirety of the desert, so black I almost missed the glimmer. And then I saw the whole sky begin to glow. The grin on my face was painful, but I couldn’t help myself. Once more, I could see the rain.
* * * * *
Emily Markussen Sorsher occupies space beneath a palm tree in Southern California. She writes grants, lesson plans, and young adult fiction, and has a bad habit of collecting the written word. She has lots of degrees that she doesn’t use. Emily likes her chocolate dark, her drinks strong, and her life just dramatic enough to be interesting. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure, including her guest-edited stint, can be found here.