Desert Light

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The wedding is tomorrow, if we don’t call it off. Our families are flying into Albuquerque, and if we do decide to call it off, we’ll all be stuck in the New Mexican desert on a plot of land without electricity, already not ideal and less so if plans change and the reason they have come all this way evaporates. But I don’t think we will, though last night, overcome with doubt, I threatened to do exactly that, and Eli had to talk to me for a long time to convince me otherwise, pointing out that we are doing this for ourselves, and whoever wants to be there can come, and the rest of them will at least know they had the chance, and we can’t do it wrong, there is no such thing. I cried for a little while into his shirt, snot running down my face, and asked if he still wanted to marry me, and he said yes, the answer was always going to be yes.

“What if we get divorced,” I say now.

“We won’t.”

“But if we do, would you still love me? Or would you be angry with me, hate me, feel some need to punish me?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“Are you sure?”

“Why are we talking about this?” he says, and I tell him what my friend Jo has said, that you should only marry a person you could live with being divorced from, if it came to that.

“I have an idea,” he says, “let’s stop imagining our post-divorce life today, the day before our wedding.”

“But I can’t,” I say, and he sighs and says, “Let’s go get ice cream before everyone gets here. Maybe it will help distract you.”

And though it is only ten a.m., we drive into Santa Fe and get ice cream cones and eat them, dripping down our wrists, in the sun.


What no one knows except Eli is that our wedding has been planned so hastily, invitations sent to the fifteen people we’ve invited less than a month beforehand, because I am pregnant, and I’d thought I didn’t need to be married to Eli to have a baby with him, but it turns out that I really, really do. And Eli, the good thing about Eli, the truly indispensible thing, is that when I need something, I tell him, and he listens and says, “If it’s what you need, we’ll figure it out,” and then he begins making plans.

Yesterday afternoon, we flew into Santa Fe, though the airport is small, and rented a car. Driving in, we realized how remote it is, and our cell phones stopped getting service as we wound along the high, narrow mountain roads with spectacular drops, the canyons rust-colored, striated like shells, cliffs plunging down at dizzyingly steep angles, the landscape a little like Tucson but with the drama turned way up. Sylvie had offered to pick us up, but the thought of being stranded there on her family’s land, dependent on everyone else in our lives to make things work, was too much for me, so we got a little white Toyota hybrid that keeps scaring me by ceasing to make noise, my stomach dropping at the thought the car has suddenly lost power while we are navigating these twisty roads. Sylvie met us at the house, grilled us whitefish for dinner, and we stayed up late talking to her around a bonfire outside, the wood snapping and popping, my long hair, grown out since I left Tucson, holding and radiating the earthy, pungent smell of smoke, so that when we went to bed, I had to wind it into a knot, away from my face.

“What’s that smell,” Eli said, climbing under the covers, and I said, “Me, unfortunately.” After a minute in the dark, he said, “I kind of like it.” “I could take a shower now,” I said, and though he said it didn’t bother him, I got up and rinsed off in the little outdoor shower stall so I wouldn’t disturb Sylvie, who slept by the indoor bathroom, my clean hair dripping on the pillow beside Eli, totally knocked out from the drive when I got back. But then I woke him, reached for him under the covers, and he mumbled a little incoherently, and we had sex, quietly, no birth control needed, which felt wrong to me, dangerous and irresponsible and therefore hot, even though I was already pregnant.

“Let’s do it again,” I murmured when we were done, and he said, “Sure,” still half-asleep, and pulled me to him and shut his eyes and was gone, too tired to respond or having heard me wrong, but when I woke in the middle of the night, he was holding my hand.


The ceremony will take place on Sylvie’s parents’ land, where they’ve built a simple house and a few cabins, all of which run on solar power. They’re surgeons who live in San Francisco, and this is their escape, where they come when they have time off and can’t take the city anymore.

We spend the rest of the morning looking around for a suitable spot, and we find one, a little clearing by a knotty pinyon tree. Our families arrive in the mid-afternoon, his around three p.m., having flown in from Los Angeles, and mine an hour later, my mother and sister, Agnes, and my niece, Lola, who is seven and a total force of nature, who this year starred in the school play even though the role was originally for a boy—the play was an adaption of James and the Giant Peach—and who told me the last time we Skyped that she wanted to have a call-in radio show called All Ears so she could answer the telephone by saying, “Hello, this is All Ears, and I’m all ears.” When they arrive, my mother and sister look exhausted, but Lola is excited and carrying a small canvas totebag that moves, and her first words to me are, “Aunt Kate, I got a puppy!”

“A puppy?” I say stupidly, and Agnes, as she is hugging me, says, “We got this puppy from a guy at the airport who was giving them away . . . I hope that’s okay, she just loved it so much, I couldn’t say no” and all I can do is hope that Sylvie won’t mind a puppy wandering around her parents’ place, which is rustic but exactingly decorated.

“Don’t you love him?” Lola asks, holding him up, squirming, and he is cute, all white with black markings on his face and a black spot on his right haunch and dark, inquisitive eyes.

“It was that or a baby goat,” my mother says. “She’s wanted a goat for months.”

“I still want a goat,” Lola clarifies. “I’m going to name him Charles.”

“Maybe Charles could be the puppy’s name,” Eli says kindly, sensing that no one in my family is going to break the news to Lola that she is not getting a baby goat, and she says, “No, the puppy’s name is Rutabega.” “We’re going to change it,” my sister mouths, but the puppy already seems to respond, ears rising at his new name. “Might be too late for that,” my mother says, loud enough to alert Lola, and she looks over at us. I shrug and smile, and she smiles back, briefly, eyes flickering over us, trying to puzzle out what the adults have decided she is not yet allowed to know.


I help Agnes unpack, and she hangs up the dress she is going to wear tomorrow, a peach silk dress. “I like this,” I say to Agnes.

“Oh, I borrowed it,” she says, and I think about how it feels like my whole life is borrowed, like there is nothing to tether me to the earth, and then I feel a wave of nausea, and I think, Well, now there is.

“What friends of yours are coming?” she asks, and I tell her that Jo, who she hasn’t met, is traveling in Croatia with her husband and couldn’t come, though she sent me a poem she’d written for the occasion to be read aloud at the ceremony, but that Esme is flying in that evening, an unexpected bit of kindness that surprised me more than anything else about this wedding, except maybe my own nerves.

“How does Lola like her dress?” I ask. She is our flower girl, and we sent her a white dress to wear.

“She’s . . . modified it,” my sister says.


My sister produces the dress from her suitcase. It looks normal, and then she turns it around, and there, pinned to it, is a little cloth tail. “It’s a goat tail,” my sister says, watching my face for signs of displeasure. “Mom helped her make it.” Agnes and Lola live with my mother now, since Agnes and Tully have split up and Agnes’s office job, though stable, doesn’t pay a ton, and my mother likes having the company. “I hope she brought horns,” I say, and my sister says, relieved, “Actually, she did.”


So far, a few things are settled: we have the wedding rings, and Eli’s suit, and we are going to have a Quaker-style ceremony, because we went to a friends’ on the Cape and liked how laid-back it was, how much less it felt like some big performance. What I don’t yet have in my possession is the dress I am going to wear. If my mother’s wedding dress were an option, I might have worn it, but she’d worn a dress she’d borrowed from a neighbor, and who knew where that dress was now, or that neighbor, for that matter, so, after looking around in Louisiana for something I didn’t hate and failing to find it, I’ve taken Esme up on her offer to bring a dress I can borrow from her. My mother borrowed her dress, I’ll borrow mine: it’s a nice symmetry, but now that I’m thinking it all through, it’s also beginning to seem like a terrible idea.

When Esme arrives, she seems pleased by the setup. “It’s so rustic, I love it,” she says, and then, walking by the outdoor shower, “That’s not the only shower, right?” “No, there’s a real bathroom,” I tell her, and she is visibly relieved.

Esme will be staying in the nicest of the cabins, with my family staying in the house itself. Sylvie comes in to show her around, dressed in wide-legged linen pants and Birkenstocks, her hair up in a scarf, and I can see Esme assessing her, thinking that she’s a little too bohemian, a little too crunchy, but she is polite and thanks Sylvie for hosting her, says nothing about the lack of an electrical outlet in the cabin, lit with a camping lantern.  She does, however, ask if there is a nearby place to get an espresso, and Sylvie tells her that she’d have to drive into Santa Fe, which isn’t exactly near. Esme nods sanguinely and takes out her phone, which of course doesn’t get reception.

“I’ll give you a map,” Sylvie says.

“I can just drink regular coffee,” Esme says, a bit grandly, but Sylvie is unfazed.

“Will your mom and sister want to be here for the unveiling of the dress?” Esme asks, and I say, “Oh, I doubt they’ll care,” so, with me and Sylvie standing around, she unzips the garment bag she has carried from Connecticut on the plane, and there it is, a long white cotton dress she insisted was too casual, which I am relieved to see has been transported safely and looks like it did when she held it up on Skype, and, behind it, her own wedding dress. “I brought mine as a surprise!” she says. “In case you wanted to wear something nicer.” It is beautiful, if a chrysanthemum is your idea of beauty, a ton of tulle, totally inappropriate for the setting, which does not call for a ball gown that floats despite weighing a good ten pounds. It is a dumbbell in fabric form. I try them both on, and, seeing me in her own dress, Esme says, “Oh, you have to wear that one,” but I can’t breathe in it, and, although she is disappointed and insists I should think about it overnight, I tell her that I’ll wear the other one, like we’d agreed.

“You don’t want to do something you’d regret,” she says threateningly, and I understand, briefly, what it is for other people to have mothers.

“I don’t think I’ll regret it,” I say, but gently, and, maybe because it is the day before my wedding day, or maybe because she knows when to give up on me, Esme leaves it at that.


We’ve decided to announce our pregnancy at dinner. I am scared that Eli’s family will be upset, since they are more traditional, but they are the first to rise, smiling, and to congratulate us, his mother kissing me and whispering, “I’d hoped so,” his father, a scientist, too, hugging Eli in an intense way that scares me a little, because Eli has hurt his back recently and I don’t want him to do anything to it before the wedding. Sylvie says “Congratulations!” and Esme says “Amazing news!” though she sounds a little shocked, and I think it’s because we aren’t married. But then she asks how far along I am, and I understand that the shock has to do with fear I’m sharing the news too early, which I maybe am. “Three months tomorrow,” I tell her, and she asks if we were trying very long, and I say no, and my mother, who has been very quiet, says, “I always said you’d be fertile.”

She hugs me, and she asks if I’m having weird food cravings, like she did, and when I say no, she tells me there’s still time for them to develop. We’re so similar, she says; I can pretty much bank on this happening. “I got pregnant with you without even trying,” she says, “and the first trimester was easy, and then I started wanting to eat raw hamburger meat.”

“That’s disgusting,” I say.

“My body needed iron.”

“You didn’t do it.”

“No. Well, I had steak tartare once.”

“Can’t that give you toxoplasmosis?”

“It was our anniversary.”

“So you risked my life.”

“You turned out fine,” she says. “Those were such happy days, me and your dad living in the woods together in our little house. I’d bake bread, we had that old wood stove. You never went near it, once I told you it was hot. Not like your sister, who was toddling toward it with a log in her arms as soon as she could walk.”

She tells me that when my sister and I were small, her life was everything she had imagined it would be. Any story can be happy or sad, I think, depending on where you begin it and where it ends, and Mary Ruefle’s lines come to mind: “Some say the best thing you can do / is carry a pair of little scissors, / snip small pieces of the world / and take them home with you.” Whatever has transpired between then and now, my mother is smiling, beginning to tell me a story about when I was a baby, and I’m glad she’s happy.

I look around for Agnes, and Lola is sitting alone, looking excited. “You’ll have a cousin,” I tell her, and she says her cousin can get a dog, too, and name it Mynameis, and then we would have dogs named Mynameis Rutabega. “What if Rutabega comes first, though?” I ask. “Rutabega Mynameis doesn’t make sense.”

“Sounds Greek,” Eli says.

“What’s Greek?”

“From Greece.” He holds out his hand, trying to demonstrate where Greece would be if his palm were Western Europe, but she is already losing interest, asking Sylvie when we’re going to eat dessert, and he switches to doing funny voices for her, which makes her giggle. Agnes is nowhere in sight, and I get up to look for her, but Eli’s mother is asking me a question, and Sylvie is putting down cups for coffee, made in a French press, and Esme is giving me advice about baby names, and it’s not until dinner is over that I can go look for her.


When I finally find Agnes, sitting in her cabin, she is stroking the horns Lola has brought to wear tomorrow, a nubby white fabric headband with iridescent protrusions and floppy white pink-felt-lined ears, too, I see.

“We saved you some dessert,” I say. “I’m not hungry,” she says. She flicks one of the ears with her index finger. “It was mint chocolate chip ice cream. When have you ever failed to be hungry for ice cream?” I sit down on the bed. “Also,” I say, “I believe some congratulations are in order. Given that it’s your turn to be an aunt.”

“Is this about me?” she asks.

“What?” I say. “No, why would it be?”

“Because I had Lola without being married, and now you’re showing me how it’s done.”

“That literally never crossed my mind.”

“Why don’t you get an abortion,” she says, and when I stare at her, stunned, she stares back at me, defiantly, and starts to cry.

“That wasn’t what I meant at all,” I say. Because she’d been nineteen, I’d offered, if she changed her mind, to pay for an abortion, or to help her find an adoption agency if it was too late. I’d been worried she was being pushed into it by people who would not pay the cost of that choice themselves. “I just didn’t want you to think that you had to go through with it.”

She won’t look at me. Finally, she says, “I’m working so hard. Nothing I do is easy now, nothing.”

“I know,” I say.

“I’m not sorry I had her,” she says, and I say, “Of course not.”

She stops crying, wipes her wet face with her hand.

“You’re such a good mother,” I say, and it’s true.

To cheer her up, I tell her that I am a little sad to be getting married because when I read obituaries and it is said of a woman, “She never married,” I always think she must have led an interesting life, and I admire the fact that she made her way through the world on her own, even if the world doesn’t make that easy, and I read about the things she’d done and think about the independence it must have taken to achieve them. That’s nice, Agnes says, but she’d trade it for a break. Maybe you’ll meet someone here, I say, and you can move to a ranch in New Mexico and take up rodeo riding. “More like aura reading,” she says, but she smiles.

I wasn’t planning to throw my bouquet tomorrow, because it always seemed like a cheesy thing to do, but now I decide that I will throw it to Agnes, toss her a little good luck in love, though luck has never been something I much trusted, and a part of me wonders if Agnes wouldn’t look good luck in the face and walk away from it, since that seems to be what she and I have both been taught to do.

Outside, the younger people sit around a chiminea, talking, as a little fire flickers, sky turning a wild, painted orange. Dusk settles around us, making the wilderness a soft blue that rustles and murmurs in the summer wind. The high desert air, full of movement, is warm and fragrant. Eli’s arm is around me, his sweatshirt, which he wore to last night’s bonfire, smelling like my hair did before I washed it, and he says that my mother has gone to bed, but she said to tell me good night.

Soon my sister comes out, too, and Sylvie rises to find a chair for her and says something about her name being appropriate, since Agnes Martin lived in New Mexico, and my sister says, “Who?,” and Sylvie goes inside and brings out a book, Agnes scowling on the cover, as if she knows we are talking about her and wants her privacy. “She came out here from New York in the sixties,” Sylvie says, explaining that she was a sort of mystical weirdo who devoted herself totally to art, like a Buddhist monk, maybe in part because she was gay and in part because she was schizophrenic, who knows, but she burned all the art she made until she was forty, and lived alone, happily, it seemed, outside Taos, and never married, and now a gallery was named after her and her paintings were in all the major museums. Agnes and I page through the book together, minimalist abstract canvasses like the land, sandy oranges and apricots, pale yellows, striations and dreamy lines.

“How did you get your name?” Sylvie asks her.

“Kate named me,” Agnes says.

“Really? That’s crazy.”

“I was born at home, and it all happened kind of fast.”

“Welcome to our childhood,” I say.

“I thought New York was where a painter would want to live,” Agnes says, “if they could afford it. It’s interesting that she’d come here.”

“Desert light,” Sylvie says, and I think of our father, the postcards he sent me from the southwest before he died, when he went missing, before he overdosed in California, and I decide that I will show them to my sister, after the baby is born. It would be nice to share them with someone, to tell someone, and she is the one person who might understand.

It grows dark, and Agnes and Esme turn in, and then Sylvie says goodnight. Above, the stars are so bright it is like you’d never seen stars before. Eli shows me how to locate Pleiades and Cancer, the crab’s legs, taking my face in his hands and tilting it until I see what he wants to show me. The fire burns out, and we sit quietly, listening to the darkness around us, and then a meteor shower streaks across the sky, a sparkle and dazzle, an absence.

Later, as we are falling asleep, I say, “I had no idea you knew so much about constellations.”

“I’m glad you were impressed.”

“Where did you learn it?”

“An app,” he says sheepishly. “I wanted to impress you.”

“I am impressed,” I say, which is true, not because of his knowledge, but because of his honesty, his kindness. Suddenly, I feel happy, happier than I have been in so long, and I don’t know where this feeling arrives from, but I am not going to turn it away. I think about Agnes Martin, alone and happy, and my sister, alone and wanting someone to share her life with, and about how, after tomorrow, I will have a new family, and I imagine what I will tell my own daughter when she arrives, just born and unknowing. I will tell her that I don’t understand the world, that I have spent my whole life examining it and come to no conclusions, that the one thing I know is that I want to keep looking as long as I can.