Here, Not Together
by Indu Subaiya
I text Radhika, I’m in Joshua Tree again. It’s my first time back after 23 years; I don’t know why I expect the desert to be the same. I immediately feel the altitude, a slight headache that gets worse despite hydrating, a heaviness in my chest. Last time, Radhika and I were escapees on Spring Break from an East Coast college town just beginning to thaw from winter. Radhika wore her shaved, a red bandana, and a white ribbed tank top baring brown muscular arms. I wore a men’s thermal long-sleeved T-shirt, and Levis with a Swiss army knife in one pocket and a pack of Camel lights in another. Because that’s what you did in the West. We drove a dusty, cheap rental car that compensated for style with color— cherry red— and looked for a campsite dangerously close to dark because we hadn’t reserved ahead.
It’s Spring Break again, but this time it’s not mine, it’s my six-year-old son’s. I wear skinny jeans and a vintage crew-neck shirt my husband bought for me off Ebay with an iron-on of the singer Vanity. Except for the size, these could be the exact clothes he’d wear in our gentrifying enclave in Los Feliz, Los Angeles. A leather clutch I’ve designed out of materials from the garment district and gotten manufactured in a small batch factory in South Central LA hangs around my waist. My wardrobe is still boyfriend-inspired, but it’s trying hard to say I’m my own woman. My husband, Blake, and son, Nikolai, drive past lots of “Campground Full” signs but we’re not bothered; we have a stylish Airbnb waiting for us.
Blake, Nikolai, and I roll our carry-on suitcases across the rocky, dirt walkway to the house, laughing at the loud growls and clouds of dust these small things made. Radhika would have loved the quirks of this place. The windows are so big, where the walls meet at the corner, it looks like a giant glass box. The aboveground pool is covered in fake pink fur, as is the low bench facing one of our glass walls. We place Cozy, a giant teddy bear that’s become the 4th member of our family, on the bench, and he instantly reclines into luxury, as if returning to the manner of life he’d been accustomed to before us. The pink fur isn’t the Airbnb’s only eccentricity. The dinner plates have kitschy paintings of Jesus doing this and that—at the last supper, looking benevolently outward, hanging out with Mary. In the bedroom, a disco ball reflects an array of white dots scattering sunlight across floor and ceiling. Outside, pink lights matching the fur around the pool turn on at night, gleaming against the glass house and tinting the windows a translucent desert rose.
I text Radhika, What do you remember from that trip?
I’m not sure what she’ll say or if she’ll even respond. In our last text exchange, she told me about the visiting ghosts. The images were overwhelming and they threatened to possess her. One instructed her to cover herself in blood so she could be absolved of her sins. I was frightened and self-conscious about being frightened. Do I validate what she saw? Being believed had to be important to her. But what if believing her made the images even more real, more threatening? What if she could tell I was being disingenuous? I text back what I think is a good compromise. I hope it’s not too scary. How are you feeling? I’m not sure if this helps but she opens up and tells me more about the stress she’s been under. How she’s struggling with not having a job, living with her parents. She says she’s been feeling a little better since the ghosts left. Our text thread ends with both of us trying to sound more comforted than we are. I can’t predict the next time we’ll connect, or what state of mind she’ll be in when we do.
I’m relieved to get a text back from Radhika. She remembers only a few details from our trip. She says, It was windy. We saw tents tumbling down trails!
Just a few black letters on a white screen, but the scene assembles itself instantly. We were on a flat clearing with tall rocks behind us that we hoped would buffer us against the wind, but around the bend, the tents came at us, wild, lopsided, empty, tossed about by a disorganized wind, abandoning their owners without shelter. Taking note, we foraged for rocks heavy enough to ground an object but light enough to carry and placed them inside our tent in the corners, along the edges, as the yellow light turned pink then blue then grey then black ink. And we slept safely.
Radhika continued that she was in a relationship again, but letting someone into the hurt places wasn’t fun, and living with her parents was hard on her. The Radhika I knew in college was poised to break with her high-ponytail cheerleading self and become a warrior challenging gender and culturally prescribed roles. I pictured her moving to New York, London or Capetown, surrounded by artists, smashing molds. But for most of her adult life, she’d been back in the small town she grew up in, the one in which her parents ran a motel near a truck stop.
Are you hiding eggs in the Joshua trees for Nikolai on Easter?
Now that’s my friend. We hadn’t planned on it, but of course we should have. I smile, picturing Radhika’s eyes opening wide if she were here with us, saying, Yup, we’re doing this, come on, where’s the closest place for eggs—and we’d be off. Radhika always brought surprising gifts, almost as if she were carting them back from a world where she normally lives. Like the pair of red and gold brocade pants from India, she carried walking toward me across a New York City streets, holding them unwrapped but folded like a Buddhist offering. Or a pack of particularly strong clove cigarettes snuck back from South Africa, an oddly shaped succulent because it just looked sad, or a statue of Bigfoot stolen from a souvenir shop.
But her nonconformity could shift from charming to chilling in a second. Once, she crouched outside the window of my ground floor dorm room, a pitch black night, waiting till I got in bed and flipped the light on, then rapped on the window hard, her head completely shaved for the first time, pressed close to the glass.
As we settle into our desert home, Blake notices the prints on the walls are all inspired by horror films. There’s one of a girl in a pink frame—Carrie, it says—a drawing of Kathy Bates from Misery, and several macabre illustrations by Mark Ryden. In a drawer full of DVDs, there’s The Shining, Amityville Horror, Army of Darkness, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Christine and two copies of City of the Living Dead. I don’t know why I’m not disturbed. Maybe it’s the fact that the house is so transparent, maybe it’s because there’s so much pink, maybe because of the funny Jesus dishes. The owners communicate a stylized sense of humor that we’re reading through their objects and choices. Out of the almost-all-horror DVD drawer, we fish out Peter Pan, grateful they left us one movie we could watch with our son. But when Peter Pan and his entourage go on a mission to “catch an Injun” I realized, nope, it’s also a horror film.
The next day, I stare closely at a photo in the bathroom. A disoriented man stares at the camera with his eyes wide. His mouth hangs open, his false eyelashes appear grimly out of place, with one stuck to his cheekbone, upside-down. Pink paint is smudged all over him. His hair is pink. His nose pierced in the center with a metal ring and two metal balls. We can’t figure out the film this image is from. I have to find out, it’s driving us crazy.
My inbox is full of exchanges with our Airbnb hostess, Tosca, about where to find the keys, where to eat nearby, the best trails for kids. I think, why not ask about the print.
Iemail Tosca, Is this Kubrick or Harmony Corinne?
She writes back, Oh that’s one of mine!
Wow! I reply. I tell her how much I admire the photo and ask for the story behind it.
She writes, I am blushing. I used to make a living as an artist, videographer. Now I’m sort of an Italian geisha but I am wanting to come back to movies. I will take your interest as a sign.
It IS a sign, I write back without hesitation. The image is raw, specific, memorable.
I’m a writer, I share.
Ugh, writing, It’s so hard! I want to make a writing group through Airbnbs.
I tell her I love the idea and wish her luck in her new chapter as a filmmaker.
As our email thread quietens naturally, I wonder what she meant by “an Italian geisha.” I imagine her in a wealthy, cosmopolitan family, surrounded by art and beauty. But is it her family? Is she trapped there? Where is there? Her Airbnb profile says her husband’s name is Edo and they speak multiple languages in the house including Indonesian. They have a 5-year-old son. We may never meet, but our messages crossing in the desert are leaving impressions.
We drive into the park, past Intersection Rock. Lost Horse Loop. Hidden Valley. Quail River. I look hard for any sign that might remind me of the hike Radhika and I took. But it could have been any of these. The outlines of rocks and formations blur into a beautiful continuity.
As my son hikes up the slope ahead of me, he sings Bohemian Rhapsody. Cresting a hill of boulders, he is just a dot, his red T-shirt standing out against the pale, sand-colored rocks. The desert amplifies some sounds even if it’s just a whisper upwind and mutes others; sound can suddenly be obscured by a stone ridge. And the light is never the same, moment to moment, either. In this way, the desert is like a constant conductor. You catch changes here, more so than in a crowded, urban landscape. I wonder if this is part of the desert’s appeal, the way it helps us notice.
One time, Radhika and I ran stark-naked down the large slope behind our college library because that’s what some people did on “Slope Day,” but Radhika added something to the ritual to forever claim it as our own. She brought face paint and gravely anointed us with stripes across our forehead and marks on our body, like warriors, then laughed in her sudden and widely expressive way, but quietly and sheepishly, too. Radhika could change before you caught the transition. You were just in a new moment and enjoying it.
Until things felt off-kilter. When I moved to the West Coast after grad school, getting my first job, first apartment and a real checking account, I was excited for Radhika to visit so I could show her around my adopted city, introduce her to my new roommate. When I came home from work Radhika wandered out of the bedroom smoking a joint, naked. My roommate was in the living room, both of us unnerved, silent. Radhika saw us but didn’t stop, she opened the front door and kept walking out of the apartment and into the hallway, until I gathered my composure and ran after her to call her back. When she was out of earshot oddly amenable to being asked to put clothes on, I vented to my roommate. “Was she mocking me? My new life in the working world? Was she trying to embarrass you?” Adeline responded calmly in a way that forever cements her as a compassionate hero, “Have you considered that she might need help?”
No, I hadn’t. Till then, I’d sided with Radhika when she refused to take medication for her fluctuating mental states, insisting her family was just attempting to label her with words that made no sense, bipolar, schizophrenic. It was their lack of humanity, their narrow imaginations that were the problem. She was capable of a profoundly vulnerable love. How else was she supposed to react when injured?
The Joshua tree is neither a tree nor a cactus; it’s a yucca. And Joshua is a misnomer too. It was named by Mormons after the prophet Joshua in a supplicating pose. But Joshua decimated the Canaanites to prepare the land for the promised people. It feels like a deceitful mislabeling. And now the Joshua trees are vanishing because the sloth species that carries their seed that disperse them to new areas are disappearing. Who else is vanishing?
The rocks themselves represent a vanishing, a vanishing of the ground soil that eroded leaving the protrusion of magma hardened and cracked as water split the rocks and wind shaped the rough edges. Two hours away the Salton Sea is empty again, a billboard on the highway across from Hadley’s Orchards reminds us that the “Salton Sea crisis is real.” It was temporarily full, of boating and swimming and tourist life. But it was empty once before, a basin of bones and remains from a dried-up lake.
The desert can’t absorb water the same way other land does, so flash floods are a real threat. On the road from 29 Palms Road to Pioneer Town, amid the big dips, a sign says, Watch for floods and Don’t drown. Carry water and Don’t die today, the hiker’s guide in the visitor’s center warns. Any day could be your last in the desert, or anywhere else in the planet, but you’ll know it when it happens here; you’ll notice.
Driving through the park we pass an area right before Skull Rock. The outline of the outcropping, the way the road curves, remind me of exactly the spot where Radhika and I saw a group of people dressed in batik and tie-dye, clothes that ballooned with the wind, standing on a rock, playing in a drum circle.
I text Radhika, Remember the drum circle we saw, around sunset?
She texts back, I don’t remember that. But I really wish I did.
She writes almost by way of apology, I heard Country Roads the other day. It reminded me of you.
I played that song with her on our road trips because it was a piece of my childhood in India, a song I sang with my father as we drove around on a scooter, just the two of us. I shared many details like this with Radhika because I enjoyed how she held my memories with me, asked me questions to imagine them better for herself, almost took them on as her own.
We park the car and begin a short climb to Key’s View on the crest of the San Bernardino mountains that supposedly has one of the most panoramic views in Joshua Tree. I switch my filter to noir and photograph my son. He knows the reference, “like an 80s album cover,” and poses with an easy cool. Twenty-three years ago, instead of Instagram, we clicked analog cameras, me more than Radhika. We thumbed through the prints months later, but so immediate was our sharing of what we saw and thought and how well we validated each other’s observations, it was more satisfying than a hundred “likes” would be in the future. I remember switching intuitively to black and white film in the desert. I didn’t plan to then or now. The desert demands contrast with its bright whites and black blacks. Black looks blacker here, and it’s such a steep and frequent gradient change. Yet you can’t get stuck behind a black and white lens, either. The blues play every note in the scale of blue, the burnt yellow shrubs look like they’re on fire, the translucent limes, the shots of blood red-oranges. Often a bush isn’t one color, it’s two-toned and intertwined.
The desert seems to beg time-lapse photography, so we can actually witness changes to the landscape. On a hike later that day, the wind blew and the shadow of a tree disappeared because a cloud moved at the same time. It was an illusion; it looked as if the wind had dissolved something out of existence. Our human eyes weren’t capable of observing the simultaneous changes, the tiny transitions.
Later, we climb a rock with petroglyphs from thousands of years ago, but a sign advises they’ve been vandalized and painted over. We can’t tell what’s the original and what’s not. People near us say they feel the same way. My son has a guess, that it’s the colored parts that fill in the outlines of animals and fish; he likes what the artists who’ve come after had to add.
* * *
On our drive into Joshua Tree, we stopped at Cabazon, a tiny town right off the highway where the main attraction is a 150-foot long mechanical dinosaur that took 12 years to build. In the belly of “Dinny” as he’s called, white plaster reliefs high on the wall show depictions of Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals. I’m reminded of the recent discovery that Neanderthals drew cave paintings which means the capacity for abstract thought existed 150,000 years ago and not just 50,000 years ago as had previously (and recently) been imagined. In short, more things went on for a lot longer and are a lot older than we think. A chipping away at our narcissism of now.
The local paper said a man was arrested late Tuesday night at Joshua Tree National Park in connection with a fire that scorched a grove of palm trees in the Oasis of Mara. The Oasis was originally settled by the Serrano Indians because of the rare occurrence of water from natural springs. We drove past the site of the burning but the remains were unremarkable to us; we had nothing to compare it to because we didn’t know what came before.
I followed Radhika to the West Coast, to Portland, Oregon, in medical school. I was in the midst of questioning my career choice and needed a break, a year off. Radhika was also a med student a year behind me and was headed to South Africa that summer. Her apartment was available, so she left me a bottle of wine, the keys to her car, and a note on her vintage Formica table. I was welcome to inhabit her life for the summer and I did. I slipped into her friendships, the cafes, the landmarks, even the commuting routes to the hospital on the hill. I could feel her presence when she wasn’t there, in her hanging ferns, in her boyfriend David’s perfectly specific and deadpan humor, the wandering soul of the barista, Devananda. We communicated asynchronously through place.
My husband and I had one and a half arguments in the desert. About the bobcat, about Mother’s Day, Mother’s Day was the half. We booked a table for the first sitting at Pappy and Harriet’s, the legendary BBQ-and-biker music haunt in Pioneer town. The calendar check-in comes up as it does when we have quiet space between flurry. What should we do for Mother’s Day? We could go to San Francisco. Mmmm. But who would plan it? I would. You would? Yes, because I always do and it’s great. But whose Mother’s Day would it be, with your mom there? Well, it’s yours it’s hers it’s whatever we want it to be. I don’t know we would figure it out. I would figure it out. I’m not going to San Francisco if we don’t plan it, because when we don’t plan it, it defaults into something your mom wants to do. And then that’s not fair to me. I’m aware that this is brushing against a sore spot for me—Mother’s Day is rough for me because I lost mine so young—and I know I am not being gracious or grateful. Blake sees me, but I don’t stop. And he is frustrated and needs a minute. He takes a wise break to go to the restroom and comes back. He raises his eyebrows and does that thing with his lips, a kind of flat almost smile that means shall we start again? We instinctively pick up our glasses, Cheers. The heat between us has blown over and dissolved, like the image of the bush in the desert.
But the bobcat incident, that was a minor fire. I sat on the bed with pink sheets, my son to my right on his iPad, Blake in the kitchen cooking. Outside the glass walls, in darkness lit faintly by moonlight, a feline figure came into view, no too big to be a cat, a baby tiger? No, I’m not hallucinating, It takes a few seconds before I recognize the form of a bobcat. I’ve never seen one before but I know what it is by process of elimination.
“Oh my god! Hey guys?” The sizzling pan, the kitchen fan, the hypnotized child.
“Nikolai, come look!” I didn’t know how to describe what I was seeing, “Nikolai! Look!”
“Hmm?” He stared at his screen.
“Blake, come NOW! You’re not going to believe this. You guys, hurry!”
The wild feline walked up to the window closer than close. It spotted me, stopped its slow prowl, and glared. I leaned toward it just as it started walking away.
Nikolai craned his neck just as the last of its legs disappeared from view, too late, too late.
I slumped back in bed.
“Nikolai, did you NOT hear me?”
Blake appeared in the doorway of the bedroom.
“Hey, don’t yell at him.”
“I am NOT yelling,” I yell. “And what about you? I was calling you too. You knew I was trying to get Nikolai’s attention. “
Nikolai interrupts, “I didn’t hear you!”
“Do you expect me to believe that? You were less than a foot away from me!”
“Wait, you’re mad about this?” Blake asked.
“Yes, you heard me and you chose not to pay attention and now I’m the bad guy.”
“I don’t buy that you’re mad about this. You’re the one who’s been on Instagram all day. You’ve been SO not present. And now you’re yelling at us?”
“Yeah, Mom, you’re addicted to Instagram,” Nikolai said.
I shot a dagger stare at Blake. “I just wanted you to see the bobcat.”
“It was a bobcat?” Nikolai asked.
I was able to laugh later. We were having simultaneous but separate experiences missing each other by just a few seconds, but that was everything. And the permanence of the loss stung.
It’s our last morning in the Airbnb. The car is packed, I’m the only one left in the house. I’m fussing with a setup for a photograph I have to get just right. It’s of a small figurine in the rock garden. A wooden elephant. I position my camera low on the ground and shoot upwards at the thing so it looks huge against the mountains, the wide stretch of rocky gravel and sand. In the desert, I seem to want to make small things look big. An optical illusion like the balancing disco ball. The giant pink fur-covered pool. The photo is my final act of defiance against vanishing.
In the second part of my year in Portland, after Radhika returned from South Africa, we spent less and less time together. I lost touch with her even when we lived just feet apart. She was in a happy spell for a while, but then she broke up with David and started spending time apart from our circle of friends. She would come in and out of full visibility to us in ways we couldn’t understand.
When I returned to New York, I faced my own uphill battle with school, a difficult relationship and a lingering sadness that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing in my life. Radhika seemed to similarly be struggling with work and relationships, all the while drawing closer to her parents’ home in Texas. She seemed to trust herself less in situations where she was independent and left medical school after her second year. She tried a string of odd jobs, a portable massage service for teachers in schools, practicing the healing art of reiki; but eventually, she moved back in with her parents and it wasn’t clear if she was working at all. I was reassured that her family was looking after her, but worried about whether she ever felt seen or heard the way she was whenever we were together. Then she vanished again from our friendship. Maybe she vanished from herself. But maybe I vanished from her, too.
It had been years since Radhika visited me in San Francisco, so once, I looked her up in Texas while I was on a business trip. She led me into an old, white house that belonged to her boyfriend’s grandmother. It looked fragile and she confirmed it needed lots of work, but they’d inherited it and couldn’t complain. She smiled but her face looked harder than I remembered. She wore thick glasses, not her soft contact lenses. I tried, but I couldn’t find her behind them. She was gracious and hurried around her house to make sure I was comfortable, but our conversations ended with short sentences, trailing off.
She offered nothing new or meaty for me to mull over as she had so effortlessly in the past. Should we make a documentary about Zakir Hussain, the tabla player? How long would it take us to learn about every type of shrub and tree in the Western hemisphere? Do our parents wish they never left India? What did our siblings think of us? We rarely needed to refresh topics, we just gently raked over the ones already on the table, endlessly, turning up this angle, then that.
But now, I could much less occupy the present with her than remember back to the fun times we’d had. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding not to go there. That part of our relationship was lost or buried, but I kept hoping this was temporary, that this was just a cycle, that she’d reappear.
It was okay that the desert made me sad. That the desert taught me about vanishing. It was okay to live with that for a while back home. We’d mostly unpacked now, but my backpack still held a wrongly re-folded map of the national park, and the weekly circular the ranger gave us.
After a week or so, there is a voicemail from Tosca. In her spirited Italian accent, her words sound like she’s smiling big as she speaks. She’d love to get together in real life. I am curious to meet her, but I’m hesitant. Am I afraid of another friendship in the wild that could end before either of us is ready?
The text thread with Radhika has gone silent. Sometimes it stays that way for years. I don’t know when either of us will reach out again. I’ve learned to be prepared, to just be there, no matter what.
I see her photos on Instagram now. The color of rainbow caught on the edges of a spray from a sprinkler. A sculpture of a turtle from a pottery class. She likes my photos. We can always communicate in images. I like seeing her engage with the world. She’s changing, like we all are, like the desert does. Sometimes there’s a fire, sometimes there’s an imperceptible difference that takes millennia to detect.
I have yet to call Tosca back. But something tells me I will someday. I think of all the ways messages were sent and received in the desert, some landing in real time, others out of synch, misinterpreted, forgotten. In art forms, digital threads, fire, memory: Tosca, Radhika, Blake, Nikolai, the arsonist, the ancient civilizations who made the petroglyphs and the artists, careless or otherwise who came after. Perhaps that’s one of the functions of the desert – to be a container that holds the asynchrony of communication even when, especially when the people in communication with each other are absent. The desert held our messages held just long enough to make impressions, smoothen one edge, sharpen another. Then the winds mixed them up and scattered them. But the messages aren’t lost. We aren’t lost. We’re just elsewhere, changing.
About Indu Subaiya
Indu Subaiya is a writer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles by way of Bangalore, India. She wrote and directed the short film, The Apartment, which won jury recognition at the Indian World Film Festival and the World International Music and Film Festival. She published the essay, “The Opposite of Resistance” in Writing the Resistance and recentlywas accepted into the Voices of our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) writing workshop.