There was only one flower growing in the desert, and I tore it up, hoping that there would be water in its roots, two hours before I was found. The petals, laced with pink, with what seemed in my delirium like veins full of some liquid, were eerily white. It was not a flower, not to me. I saw only the possibility for liquid salvation, and began to dig the desert dirt around the fragile thing. Painstakingly, I pulled up the roots, tender little shoots, and, brushing off the dirt, ate the whole plant. I even ate the petals, letting them first swim in my mouth, searching for coolness. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes to the sun, waiting hopefully for some sensation of relief. There was none. The flower provided not one second of bliss or even reprieve.
I could feel the sunset, could almost see through closed eyes the shifting of the colors, when I finally heard the sounds. Far off and hazy like a mirage, I could see a line of jeeps. I realized that these were like those I had started off in. Travelers wishing to see the whole-goddamn-world could fly around on special airplanes, drop down on unsuspecting locations completely unused to visitors, and tour around, feeling wise and worldly. The modern caravan was barely visible, but I instantly recognized it for what it was. What the hell else would it be? I dragged myself desperately towards it, trying to make my presence known by any means I could think of. I yelled – inasmuch as I was able – and swung my arms above my head at intervals to catch their attention. Finally, a woman turned – subconsciously hearing me, or because of fate, or because of chance – and made my presence known to the others.
The sandstorm was unpredicted, at least to us. The jeeps were turned off, and I could not hear what the guide was saying. I was stupid. I thought that I saw someone in the distance, and pulled out of the jeep, against his muted cries, against his one-hand-waving as the other covered his mouth with cloth. I could just turn around and go back to the jeep, I was sure. But I was wrong, like the guide could have told me if he had found a voice in the storm. I had turned around a thousand times, and did not see them. The desert in stillness frightened me more than it had in turmoil. With the sand kicking up around us, I could pray for salvation, know that it would be over, but in the quiet, I would have to forge my own rescue – or be swallowed by the now-calm sands.
I'm not sure how I wandered so far, or how the jeeps left without me. I suppose that they sent frantic messages – missing person, search for him – and perhaps the communication got cut off and each hoped that another had found me. Or I am placing too much emphasis on myself and my fortune, and they all simply moved on. I had violated the contract anyway by not listening fully to the guide.
We were the rich spoiled brats, still not grown up, in our late 20s. The trip around the world was a vacation, a break from unemployment. All of us grew up in the same neighborhood, and all of us moved back to the same neighborhood – granted, different houses, but the same place – after graduate school. We were highly trained in business, some of us in law. If you think that America is a place where opportunity can't be bought, you're wrong. The same prep schools guided us to the same places of higher education, where we found our same callings. The time would come to take over family businesses, but first we'd have to try and thoughtlessly discard the jobs which most Americans would have to work hard – claws out – to succeed in.
There were two summer months where we all knew that nothing was there. There was a group of us, the same group that ran around in childhood with toy guns and watched our high-heeled mothers grimace as we tackled each other and dirtied expensive clothing. There are wives, now, and young children. The children were easily left behind with pretty, efficient au pairs, but the wives were brought, and it was a surprise even to the two from the boyhood group who married when they slipped out of their manufactured appearances to put on camo and fanny packs.
The middle of the Sahara was not our first destination. First we journeyed to the Steppe, where we stared for miles into white nothing and heard about the disappearances in which it had played a part. We took pictures and murmured sympathies for those forgotten, and were packed back into helicopters and shipped away to the airport. We traveled through Russia, looking at Moscow and Petersburg and all the sites of the World War II sieges and massacres. The rest of Europe was fleeting; anyone can go to Europe, anyone can know the history of Europe. We traveled in Africa, through Cairo, taking pictures of pyramids. We rode out to absolutely the middle of nowhere, to see a place nearly untouched by human habitation. Then, the sandstorm.
Bill and Rich's wives kissed my cheeks, leaving traces of the same shade of lipstick. The three men gave me laughing, back-pounding hugs, proving that they were glad to see me alive. I smiled and shook their hands and made self-deprecating remarks.
"My God," Lane breathed, "what you must have been through!"
"Ah, well, once I finished beating my head against a rock for being stupid enough to leave the jeep, I was ok."
Trish smiled slightly. "How did you ever survive?" I was silent for a moment. Should I have told them that I drank and ate nothing for three days, save the flower, which I ate only in delirium shortly before I was rescued? Should I have told them that in the end, I thought of no one but myself?
"There are some plants, you just have to look carefully enough," I articulated after the pause. "I missed all of you constantly."
The journey, obviously, ended early, and we went back to our houses. My house seemed to me to stand in marked contrast to the others, the only one bathed in shadow. I went inside and had to touch all the items I left behind, like a 5-year-old who's moving and can't quite comprehend that he's never coming back. Trish and Lane and other neighborhood women – including those older versions of Trish and Lane, our mothers – came by with plates of food and overly sympathetic ears. Dolly, of the New Rich, who worked her way up and bought a house in the neighborhood and tried far too hard to be one of the Local Ladies came by.
"That must have been horrible," she murmured, lips too close to my ears, "I wouldn't have had the strength to continue," shoving a store-bought food basket into my arms. I still could not understand why people were treating me as though I were mourning the bereaved and waiting for someone to come over to share shallow anecdotes.
"Thank you, Dolly." I smiled politely and did not invite her to sit down, but she sat down anyway and motioned that I sit down near her. Her eyes glistened theatrically.
"I'm trained in nursing and psychology as well as business, you know," she told me gently. "You're repressing what you feel and need to get it out. You can talk to me. It will stay in this room," she said, gesturing to the wide room with little flicking motions of her hands.
"Really, I'm ok, I survived."
"But those three days – what did you do? What did you think about? Did you worry about death, or by the time that it was a possibility were you too delirious to realize it?" Her gaze was far too steady. I fear people who look you straight in the eye when they ask questions, like they're searching for the answer before you have time to figure out something that they want to hear. That you want to tell them.
"I thought about…well…first I thought about finding the jeeps, then I mostly wondered if I was going to find food or not. Even in the last day, death didn't seem possible to me. Now if you'll excuse me-" I stood up and waited for her to follow suit, which she did only very reluctantly. I opened the door.
"Thank you so much for the food and for listening to me, Dolly. I really appreciate it." I couldn't figure out her age. Her make-up was applied more thickly and with less skill than the other women. At first I had placed her age near mine – 28 – but every once in a while I saw a teenager sitting on her back porch, frantically smoking a cigarette before being called in snappily, embarrassedly, by his mother. He came over the day after she did, his sleeves rolled up expertly like it was 1955, a pack of Camels hidden in the folds.
"My mom thinks that you'll talk more freely to me than to her, but I don't." He said, still leaning against the door. "I can just go back if you want, tell her that you wouldn't even let me in." He was curious, I could tell. Man almost dying in the desert was not something normally seen in this kind of neighborhood. I said nothing. "It's pathetic, is what it is, the way she acts. She sends me over, but all she wants is to get you to listen to her. She's crazy about you, you know, she really thinks that you might love her too. It's really…pathetic." The tiniest glimmer of hope was in his eyes that his mother might be right for once, that her girly fancies might prove real, and not humiliating. The hope was false. I said nothing.
Years later, I sit alone, still, in the same godforsaken house. The women are old now, and younger versions of themselves have married their sons – or former husbands. I remember the flower, still, and wonder why I didn't just let it grow, even in my need. Even if it had had the power to save me, maybe I should have let it live instead of me. God knows how it managed to grow there. God knows that it was irreplaceable. The teenager is long grown now, estranged from his mother, working as an architect in San Diego. I want to congratulate him, and apologize for never telling the truth about the desert, never telling him about the flower. It's not worth trying anymore.