Years ago, driving south on I-25 from Denver to Albuquerque. When the light shifted through the windshield of the Ford rental, I noticed a set of fingerprints like fossils in the dusty dashboard. They reminded me. It was there, on the road, that Joe and I loved each other best. In our ailing 1988 Chevy Nova, we drove the mirage of freeway, carving the snake roads of south central Colorado, where big sky meets horizon and dry plains shine like honey.
I could see Joe, his cool smirk and tender eyes, his body—long-limbed and wiry—as if he still filled the passenger seat beside me. His free hand scrawling endearments against the dash, leaning in to sing a line of the Everly Brothers song that sounded from the half-busted speaker, his tan hands kneading the flesh of my thigh, like a cat pawing its way to a familiar comfort. His crooning in my ear, “You’re something else, and you’re my girl.”
The passenger seat was empty, though, but for a dog-eared road atlas, a packet of cigarettes, and a bag of licorice I picked up from the trading post in Manitou. I hadn’t seen Joe in months, and over a year had passed since we drove together in the Chevrolet.
This was the same trip we had taken together every fall when we dodged our professors and fled campus for the adopted comforts of Albuquerque: the Sandia Mountains and Old Town adobes; neon lights along Central Avenue’s motel row; hash browns and green chili at the Frontier Diner where booths are wallpapered with busts of John Wayne.
Ahead, the road glittered, an impermeable oil spill in the distance.
We had met in college, each of us far from our respective coasts, and found each other 6,000 feet above sea level, at the foot of Pike’s Peak. Hailing from similar strands of bohemian upbringing and, ultimately, failed marriages, we shared a certain wariness of inheritance—we wanted the art; we feared the madness.
I was nine years old when my parents divorced and the once-cluttered walls of our Bronx apartment hollowed into silence—into separate apartments and alternate weekends—that lay the foundry for my restlessness, and in the same gesture, my admiration, because my parents were artists, after all, and young—so young.
Each fall, before the weather turned, Joe and I hitched rides down to the farmlands south of Pueblo, camping beneath the juniper trees of a deserted pasture. We rode boxcars to Denver and back again. One time, we caught big rig trucks southbound to Albuquerque until, just past the Colorado state border, we were held at a weigh station and questioned by the highway patrol. A toothpick-sucking officer who smelled of hunting season—firewood and jerky and hide—kept scolding, “This isn’t the Sixties anymore. You ever heard of the bus?” And Joe cupped my face in his hands, thumbing the crease behind my ears, fingering the slope of my nose, the tautness of skin against cheekbone, like a sculptor claiming the contour of his form.
These were the stories that fueled us. Stories filled with action and philosophizing strangers, The Dharma Bums kind of stories, adventure tales of wild hearts surveying the Wild West for new signs of life.
Here, a Marble torso of Eros. You can see the delicately modeled surface, the sinuous curve of the torso. The original bronze resembled a young Apollo holding an arrow and poised to slay a lizard on a tree. But here, Apollo has been transformed into Eros. Look long enough and you might see the remains of wings on his back.
Perhaps Apollo captured in bronze was no more or less supple than the same figure, now Eros, in marble, though its pasty surface, its opaqueness, is somehow more pure, like milk, like a clamshell or pearl. And isn’t it odd to think that a marble surface comes from a chisel while bronze is cast from a mold? I admire the work of the slow, committed carver. The chasing and sanding like a long journey of erasure towards perfection. Surely the Greeks, and in turn the Romans, were masters—obsessively so—when it came to capturing the ideal, the kind of perfection only fit to portray gods now relegated to mythology. But what can be said of us mortals? Why do we so stubbornly aspire to such flawlessness?
At the Weminuche Wilderness area of the San Juan National Forest, I pulled into a nearby campground. The access trail to the hot springs snaked around shaded summer cabins to reach a series of terraced ponds inlaid like diamonds in the bedrock above the Piedra River. As I neared a large pool, the smell of sulfur blended with the damp hay-scented ferns.
Throughout the state, thermal wonders spring from small ponds inviting the spiritual and weary alike. Early trappers and explorers first learned of the springs from the Ute and Cheyenne. Then Kit Carson’s scouts herded the local tribes onto reservations, claimed the springs as their own, and built spa resorts. The transcontinental railroad brought the first visitors west to Glenwood in 1887 where, history buffs claim, Buffalo Bill Cody and Doc Holliday were regulars at the poker table, where Roosevelt and Taft mixed mineral water into their cocktails. Ever since, the pools have offered old-time stimulation to baby boomers, Hippies, new-age believers, tight-muscled ski bums, and high-elevation climbers—to the weak and wobbly, the lost-souls and the lonely-hearts.
Though months had passed since Joe and I parted ways, our last year together had been a slow drain, like bathwater seeping through a crack in the basin—a crack that widened with every unintelligible sigh, every misplaced word.
Spain, for example, where I fled for a semester to photograph fig trees and learn flamenco. India: where Joe spent months shooting a documentary film on the Tibetan youth in exile. Guatemala: where I travelled in the spring and got lost in the highlands of Tikal. Or Maine to California, the route Joe hitched one summer, channeling Steinbeck’s Rocinante travels with Charley. And this, to say nothing of the time we filled together: months in a trailer on the San Juan Islands, road trips pleading with the Chevy, like an asthmatic child, to make it from Seattle to New York. And Albuquerque. Always and again, to Albuquerque.
“Go” we would say to one other. At those moments our kisses landed awkwardly on the junction between the mouth and cheek, the anatomical crossroad between commitment and solitude, between stillness and embrace. The place, where bed sheets, once warm and crumpled and forgotten beneath us, stayed cool and crisp between us. This, the place we most returned to—what had Sexton called it?—the “Again and again and again” of anger and love. How many times can we cast the same pain from a single mold, before it rescinds into a distant landmark like a statue in an empty gallery or a night-fallen court.
After an hour hike I reached the first spring. At the far end of the pool, an old couple sat waist-deep and nude under the glass veil of the water’s surface. They were both slight of build. Their skin equally pale, simultaneously taut and too thin—stretched like crepe paper. A pile of linen sarongs lay by the pool’s edge.
“Plenty of room for one more,” the man said. The words fell from his mouth, a warm brogue.
I smiled, remembering the “good look” I had for months worn like a Girl Scout badge, or a re-stitched heart sewn on the chest like a doll my mother made me as a girl. Or for that matter a smoking patch which I tried, like a Band-Aid, to pull off without a cringe.
The woman took in the sight of me. She wore set of large silver rings that blinked in the light as she stroked the water with two fingers. She cupped and filled her hands and, bending at the elbows, let the water shower the inside of her forearms. Wide-eyed, the man watched her play.
“You some kind of an artist?” the man asked, waving a dripping hand towards my cut-offs. The worn denim of my shorts was speckled and smudged with paint. Wedgewood Grey. Prussian Blue. Perennial Red. I scraped at the hardened dollops with a fingernail, remembering the summer we saved up for a road trip by painting houses on the Islands, where families coordinated their homes to blend into the seaside: the creamy grey and blue of the ocean, the rich red of the cranberry bogs, the violet petals of the native sundew. One morning Joe doused a brush and chased me into the woods where we stripped down to nothing and fell into the grass. As I lay there, he knelt, painting wide strokes–White Linen cool and wet along my ribs—then raised and lowered himself, his chest flattening against mine, the paint smearing like syrup between us. And there, we lay side by side, the fresh eggshell coat drying on our skin like plaster, casting the last mold, the final bust and limb of us.
“Isn’t it divine?” the woman said, her voice fresh, sultry, as I stepped into the pool. The water sheathed my legs and hips, rose up to my shoulders as I sunk down to a ledge.
“You down from Denver?” the man asked through the scrim of rising steam.
“We’re just up from Joshua Tree,” he said. “Been there for the past twenty years or so by now, isn’t that right, Junebug?” He straightened against the rock edge of the pool, slung his arm around the woman’s shoulders and nestled her in close along his ribcage.
“We come up to the springs a few times a year,” he added. “Cleanses the soul.”
“Henry, let her be.” The woman combed her fingers through his spongy white beard as he dropped his face to the base of her neck and suckled at the dip of her collarbone where a small pocket of water had collected. She blushed—or maybe it was me who blushed—as her eyes grew a fierce green against her pastel skin and the long curls of her grey hair, which frizzed at her temples and brushed the water’s surface, looked as if dipped in ink. The man turned to her. His hair feathered over the liver spots on his head. Beyond his back, the woman extended and splayed her fingers in a wave, the silver rings flashing like beacons in the fog. The couple’s skin held the translucence of vellum as their bodies swayed in a sinewy tangle, half-clad by the water’s surface, rippling around them.
I wanted to disappear, evaporate into the steam, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. (And, what is proper etiquette for a Colorado hot spring, anyway?) In the pool’s oblique surface, my own skin looked woven, heavy like tweed. In the next moment, the couple sunk beneath the water, which, though shallow, flattened over them and regained its luster. I took this as my cue to raise myself up and out of the pool, mindful not to disturb their tryst. Finally small bubbles rose and broke at the surface and the couple emerged. Hand in hand, floating on their backs, they seemed weightless against their own sagging skin, like corpses resurrected.
Here, Cupid. Here, Psyche. Here, too, I’m reminded of a Polaroid of my parents, straight out of art school, fingers laced, walking through an open field. In my mind, I accession and date the photograph: “circa 1978 bc,” by which I mean Before the Collapse (as opposed to After Divorce) of their so-called empire. Or here, Joe and I at the height of our own empirical reign, that day we lay painted, drying in the grass.
Odd to think how often we revere and repudiate the examples set before us. The Romans never hesitated to adapt their own forms from famous Greek works—Apollo, god of prophecy, of art and music, became Eros, god of love. Yet somehow I became beholden to the legacy of my parents’ marriage, upholding their free-spirited ideals even when I knew they had failed them. Perhaps all Greek tragedy bears the nuance of allegorical wonder. How easy it is to lose ourselves in each other, to grow hot-blooded in both our fondness and our fury, until we become altered, amputated, war-torn and weathered, until we become—if I might circle back to my beginning: disassembled.
When I finally peeled myself from the sight of the couple floating, I found another pool the size of a bath, and soaked for hours. The water flushed out toxins like memories long embedded in my pores, as if my skin had become a sieve of muslin or gossamer or, for that matter, a shroud of gauze.
On the night of what would become one of our last fights, we sat curtained off in a corner of a Colorado emergency room. I never saw the glass shards ricochet across the bedroom, after he threw whatever it was that he threw against the wall (because I had done whatever it was that I had done—again), but I heard the shatter and the peculiar awe in Joe’s voice, calling my name, as blood pooled in his palm. As the doctor sutured his near-severed finger, I thought of the evening just before my parents’ divorce, when my father’s fist came down against the kitchen table, breaking the bones in his fingers. He wore a cast for weeks. I had forgotten the image of that plaster sheath until I saw Joe’s bandaged hand, as if prepared by ancients for burial.