by Rav Grewal-Kök
For eight years, or ten, the world outside her apartment was a stage. In the subway, people looked at her with envy or admiration—her slender ankles and wrists, her beautiful hair. At work, her colleagues listened for her voice in the hallways. Strangers held doors for her and offered their seats. Bartenders didn’t let her wait when she raised her hand at the counter. She led the kind of city life a teenager in a dying town might recognize from a television show, and want for herself.
Each August she left the city to go to the shore with a man. Often she didn’t know the man very well, but for two weeks they spent their days next to each other on plastic chairs on the sand wearing almost nothing. They read intelligent magazines, sipped fruit-flavored cocktails, rubbed lotion onto each other’s backs, and talked about the delightful weather. Twice each day during those two weeks—once in the morning and once in the afternoon—the woman walked from her plastic chair to the water’s edge. She let the waves lap over her toes but went no farther. At night the woman and man ate dinner at a restaurant. They drank another cocktail, shared a bottle of pink wine, and talked about the weather they hoped for the following day. Then they returned to their hotel room, took off all their clothes, and got into bed.
After these vacations, what the woman remembered most fondly was not the sun, the water on her toes, the cocktails, wine, food, or bed, and certainly not the man, but her walks from the plastic chair to the surf and back. Sometimes she slipped off her shoes while she sat at her desk and imagined that she was once again at the shore. She loved the fact that sand wasn’t anything more than rocks that had crumbled into dust. And she loved that when she walked on sand she sank only a little with each step, before the softness turned to steel under her feet.
• • •
One year, to her surprise, there was no man to go with her to the shore. So she went by herself to sit almost naked on a plastic chair on the sand. At first, she walked twice each day to the surf and back, as she’d always done. But with no one waiting for her in a plastic chair of his own, she began to wander. Soon she circled the beach for an hour at a time. Her mind was clear now that she was alone. As the days passed, she set aside her cocktails, lotion, and intelligent magazines. She realized that since walking on sand was the best part of her vacation, she should do more of the walking, and less of everything else.
The next year she signed up for a hiking tour of the desert near the city where she lived. The sand in this desert wasn’t as pure as the sand at the shore—it was marked by cactuses, boulders, and even the occasional coyote skeleton—but she was happy there was so much of it. Still, the other hikers distracted her with their chatter. She couldn’t keep her mind clear. On the third day of the tour, as she walked behind a man and two women who were talking about musical theater so loudly they were almost shouting, she decided she needed to visit a desert in a foreign country whose language she didn’t know.
A year later she flew to such a country and joined a tour through a desert much larger than the one near the city where she lived. This desert was flat and without shade. It would have been dangerous for tourists to walk under all that sun, so they rode camels instead. The other tourists talked among themselves. They gestured, laughed, and posed for pictures. One man sang arias from beneath a wide-brimmed hat. The animals emitted a terrible stench. Despite all this, the woman passed her first day in a state that was almost tranquil. Because she didn’t understand what the tourists were saying or singing, she found it possible to ignore them. After she sprayed perfume on her scarf, she could forgive her camel its smell. When the group stopped for the night, and while the guides boiled lentils and barbecued a goat, the woman took off her shoes to walk around the campsite. It was only then that she realized she hadn’t yet found the right desert. The sand was full of hidden rocks and even beetles.
For her next vacation, she planned a trip to the biggest desert she could find on the globe she kept on her bookshelf. She arranged for someone to meet her at an airport on the desert’s edge. She stepped out of the plane into a vast but empty terminal. A man in a blue jacket and cap stood waiting with a sign that had her name on it. She followed him to his car. Silently, he drove out of the airport and onto a highway that, within minutes, was empty of traffic. The sun dropped behind them. The land turned red, then black. The woman fell asleep.
She woke up the next morning with the sun in her eyes. They had stopped where the highway stopped, at the foot of a dune that seemed to her as tall as a mountain. The driver, who was already standing outside the car, held the door open. The woman got out, took off her shoes, and began to walk. The sand still held the night’s coolness. It was smoother and softer than any she had stepped on before. She had walked only a few yards from the car when she found herself sinking to her ankles. With each step of her climb she sank deeper. Soon the sand reached her knees. She was halfway up the dune when she realized that this desert—the greatest desert, formed of the purest sand—was an ocean. She hoped to reach the top, and to see it all, before she plunged beneath.
Rav Grewal-Kök’s stories and essays have appeared in the New England Review, Missouri Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Hunger Mountain, online at The White Review, and elsewhere. He was a National Endowment for the Arts fellow in 2016. He is a fiction editor at Fence and lives in Los Angeles, where he is working on a novel.
Featured image from the series “Sick City” by John Brian King.