Jungle climates marked by the unchecked passion of natives. Brazilian beaches dotted with scantily clad, sexually charged females. Plantation settings with mosquitoes clouding the silence and a seething undercurrent of tension. In the middle of yet another Arizona July, as my boyfriend Lucas kept smothering me with deep kisses, I tried to picture different scenarios in which anyone could feel desire when the temperatures had elevated past a point of reason. Or maybe, through my deliberate hyperbole, I was trying to understand why anyone would feel it at all.
Noticing my faraway mind, he questioned, “Are you even with me right now?” His eyes were damp and hooded, as if covered by blinds specially designed to block the raging attack of summer.
My neck encircled by his life-stealing embrace and my elbow caressed by single threads of perspiration, I reluctantly gave in. For the next 10 minutes, my thoughts continued to wander. I recalled swimming once at a nearby hotel where inebriated bodies danced in front of a glowing fountain. Sheets of colored water fell into patterns it seemed to create as it went.
It had been a while since I had had a man in my life, but not much had changed. During my college years, friends and family alike referred to me as the “Ice Queen.” In large part, I earned this not-so-endearing term with my attitude and looks. After all, at a university where giggly sorority girls with tan legs and flip-flops were the norm, my elusive demeanor and alabaster skin did make me stand out.
But the nickname went deeper. Once I gave these boys a chance to date me – even just spend one night in my bed – I immediately shut down. In my head, I became a desert oasis, and as close as they got, they couldn’t seem to get one drop to drink. Maybe I hated the fact that it was so easy for them to get what they wanted. Maybe I wanted to punish them for needing my body so much that they would say anything to have it. Either way, I thought they deserved my withdrawal, and I imagined myself as some kind of vigilante keeper of feminine power.
Almost a decade later, after a string of men so long I had stopped feeling the high of conquest, I met Lucas, and it angered me that he didn’t give in so easily. We were at a mall—both of us in line for a water fountain—and he barely gave me a second look. He walked away, I chased after him. It was only after I asked several times that he agreed to exchange numbers. Part of me was hot with irritation; the other was invigorated by the pursuit.
But he did say “yes” after saying “no,” and for a short while, this resistance-turned-acquiescence made me feel worthy of something. It was nice not to lead.
So here I was, on a suffocating July afternoon, staring at someone who wanted to make love to me when the rest of the world was fanning themselves and praying for spring. I felt vacant. Like the sun when you stare at it too long. After a few minutes, it looks like a ring of fire—a powerful outer circle with an empty core.
There were more nights like this, and soon, the summer metastasized into a still scorching fall. Most years in Phoenix, the leaves don’t have a chance to turn, but one day, when we were walking through a neighborhood old enough to have trees, I saw a fleck of gold embellishing the outreached arms of an oak. Just a few steps away, a saguaro cast its shadow. Lucas was fascinated by the desert’s beauty. “I think cacti are so beautiful,” he commented. “Just think. When April comes, they’ll all have blossoms, too.” I nodded, but secretly, I found that kind of transformation disorienting.
The first night we slept with the windows open was the only time I truly let Lucas control me. The blankets cloaked us as we assaulted each other with warm kisses. His jawline was sharp yet protective. In the glow of night, he reminded me of a wolf. Little did I know that as the heat disappeared, something warm and alive was beginning to grow inside me.
I woke up the next morning, squeezing the shapes around me from the murky morning glow. Lucas was getting dressed next to the bed. His shuttered eyes looked like half moons. The kind that desert dogs always howl at. “I can’t stay,” he said. “You take care of yourself.”
The daughter born to me nine months later had trouble sleeping during the summer nights. If she wasn’t waking at semi-regular intervals, her head shining from a vision of shapeless sand-formed zombies, she was clasping my hand, begging to hear the tall, tall tale of the disappearing cowboy.
I always obliged, but felt conflicted each time. Was it irresponsible to continue to avoid the truth that her father was not—and would never be—in the picture, replacing her innate desire for a masculine presence with mythical stories? Why fill her head with more uncertainty than she already had?
“Well,” I began, “He was known to roam the area, lasso in hand, rounding the perimeter with his trusty steed. Protecting the innocent of the desert.
Citizens miles to the south could hear the piercing sounds when he was close by – without knowing the source with certainty, they assumed a routine slaughter of a deserving villain. Perhaps a coyote that had preyed on a rabbit who’d forgotten her surroundings. And each time this happened, they felt just a little bit safer. After all, the barren lands are a dangerous frontier.
One day, when the county sheriff found his abandoned horse, the jackals were already starting to circle. They knew a challenge when they saw one.”