for Desert Dreams (1) click here
by Adrian Sangeorzan (USA)
Translation from Romanian by Caroline Carver, and Iris Butnariu and Andrada Vissarion, MTTLC students
pentru versiunea română click aici
We had to walk 25 miles every day. It seemed like the most useless and stupidest march in the world because it didn’t go anywhere. We would sometimes go around in circles because we would reach the same rocks again by nightfall.
At first they were supposed to break us in two, break our spirit and make us understand that there was no other way for us. It was not an easy task to convince people like us that we were on the wrong path, because we hadn’t known any other. Getting us to co-operate for our own salvation wasn’t easy either. The next phase was for us to repent for what we had done so that afterwards, we could learn again, day-by-day, how to live: really, simply, close to nature, and far away from the “malaxator” that had swallowed us.
I was perhaps the least desperate case. There were teenagers there that had driven their families beyond the point of despair and who had paid fifty thousand dollars a month for them to be reformed in the desert after signing some documents accepting all the risks including the possibility that we might kick the bucket in the desert. Mother had paid about fifty thousand dollars so that I’d get some perspective in life by learning how you could start a fire in the Stone Age and I had to admit that just the thought of that sum made me ponder my past. It, the past, hadn’t existed for me until then, neither had the future. I’d lived in the present of a single day which I tried to live over and over again.
I was also the oldest from that strange camp, being only a month away from my 18th birthday, and they didn’t allow people over 18 there. Psychologists thought that was the limit that a lost soul could still be saved. For them, the moment you crossed over, you were like badly poured cement that was beginning to harden in a wrong encasing. Quickly.
The backpack I carried with me daily weighed 30 kilos and the biggest joy for me was when I got rid of it at night. It was as if someone stopped beating you. I don’t know how many of us were there as we were organized into groups of 6 people each and we would rarely gather in one place.
There was also a girl in my group, named Sandy, a name that seemed to be predestined to the desert and she was the most difficult of us to be tamed. At first she wouldn’t speak for days at a time and I was afraid that one night she would do something bad or at least unusual. I thought that maybe she would turn into a lizard, that she’d fly like a bat or that she’d jump on the instructor and bite his throat. She was carrying a back pack that was just as heavy as mine, which contained only necessary things. I tried to help her a few times but she didn’t let me. She was strong, although a bit overweight, but after two weeks she had lost all the extra fat and looked like an experienced explorer who was a little lost, and who carried with her a sinister secret the she couldn’t share with anyone. I would often walk behind her because I liked the way she walked and because she had a round and dished bottom that hardened more every day. One day while I was following her like a robot through the desert, with my eyes on her butt cheeks, I suddenly burst into laughter and then she turned around and glared at me:
-What are you laughing at, she asked me harshly.
– Nothing, just something I remembered from childhood…
– Childhood? Don’t tell me you had such a thing… I didn’t say anything, instead I kept thinking about uncle Serghei, who had popped into my mind unexpectedly like a hairy Fata Morgana. I would sometimes sit with him in the park in Klin, to see who passed by. He was not a womanizer, but he liked to gaze at the high school girls who walked in the alleys with cigarettes in their hands. From time to time, he would sigh and say:
– Look at them. Their butts are as hard as stone. You could crack open nuts between the butt cheeks. He would repeat this over and over again with such passion as if it were the most important thing in life for him. He annoyed me but I could almost hear the crack of those imaginary nuts.
I hadn’t thought about Serghei, or aunt Tamara, who probably had a gelatin ass, not even about grandpa Ahmatov, who had a young girlfriend with hard flesh on her. In my mind, my father remained the youngest of them all as he didn’t even begin to wrinkle. The truth is that I had not thought about anyone for a long time and I think I’d have liked to have some pictures of them in my backpack. I dreamt something about Moscow one night, a weird mixture that featured everyone, including my girlfriend Tania, with that „I love New York” t-shirt. I woke up suddenly because Sandy was shaking me.
– Hey Russian boy, wake up. You are sobbing! My cheeks were indeed wet and I was embarrassed. I wiped them and smiled at her.
– Call me Vitali.
– Ok Vitali. What the hell are you dreaming that seems so painful? I didn’t answer her. I got out of the sleeping bag because she waved to me to be quiet and follow her. We took a few steps and we stopped behind a rock. She got out a small metallic cylinder and I knew what it contained the moment she unscrewed it.
– Come on, sniff some while I still have it.
– How come they have not found it?
– I have been hiding it in the right place. She pointed between her legs. She spread the white powder on a rock and offered me a straw she picked up from the ground. The temptation was big but I didn’t do anything. She couldn’t believe that I was not stuffing my nose.
– Suit yourself. I hope you will not rat on me tomorrow. She sniffed so strongly she also inhaled the nearby sand and a few stars that were lower in the sky. I stayed with her for almost an hour and we didn’t talk at all. We just looked at the sky, the moon, the stars and the powder between them. From that night on she let me help her with her back pack and starting the fire whenever it was her turn to do it. She would sometimes turn her head around and give me an absent look. One time she asked me:
– You like my butt, don’t you? I nodded yes. We shared the water and food, and a few rats that I liked to fry in an aluminum flake on the embers. However, I felt as though I did not belong to her world or the world of the others who I shared the desert with. Vice, insanity, the careless indulgence of our parents and of our crazy world had brought us there, only I did not feel like them and I did not wish to be like them.
The main goals of the day were finding water by picking up cactus fruits, because they never gave us anything to drink, and after sunset trying to start the fire by rubbing two stones together and using the sparks to set dry lichen alight. We would warm the water to make tea, or we would put some dry cereal which would at the most bloat and become eatable. Catching desert rats came later after we had starved enough to realize that any source of protein is good. We would make special traps in which they were caught very easily as they were hungrier than us. After I returned to the normal world, that of senseless, consumerism, of guttling, of the malaxator- in other words. I heard about a scandal caused by some small Chinese restaurants in Florida that sold rat meat in chicken products. They would set the traps at night in the restaurants and would collect them fresh in the morning. I can tell you that they have a very tasty meat and if I’m ever in China, I’ll be sure to order teriyaki rat.
There were also four boys in my group, rich kids all of them, who thought only of a hallucinogenic mushroom that grows in the desert but was not described in our survival books. Sandy did not try to share her star powder with me anymore, but I could tell by the desperate look on her face that she had run out of it.
We had to learn to work together, to be a team and Bill the instructor who was always with us, silently watched us. My ex friend from New York, Vladimir, who had also been through the rehabilitation of the desert would join him from time to time. At first, Bill would be the last to go to sleep and would wake up at the slightest sign of movement like a man fearing not to be killed in his sleep. We were so exhausted at night that we would fall asleep as though someone had beaten us. At first when the abstinence was still torturing us, we would all talk, moan or cry in our sleep. In the moon light, in those sleeping bags, we looked like tortured potatoes that had been taken out of the ground too early. As soon as daybreak came, we would gather around Bill, who would give us the first lecture of the day. It was a strange mixture of a therapy session and a military drill, that ended with enumerating the objectives of that day, which were sure to twine through the desert of Utah. We knew all too well that in order to get out of there we gradually had to pass through some compulsory tests.
– Until it can fly, the butterfly is first a simple shell, then a creeping caterpillar, Bill would tell us. Because you have already been butterflies, you will have to learn how to be caterpillars again. There is no shame in that.
The first lesson was to let ourselves be helped and afterwards we had to learn to help others, which meant not only catching those who tried to escape but also convincing them that it was wrong to do that. The bastards and perverts who had invented these camps seemed to know what they were doing.
In the evening, Bill and the other people who were watching us would talk in dry voices, letting us know who had passed what was expected of us and who had not. One by one, the people who couldn’t keep up would be moved to other groups and they would start over. I could feel Vladimir watching over me from the distance. He would sometimes show up in our camp and teach us strange things that we did not even know existed: how to give first aid to injured or drowned people, how to make a bandage or a splint for a broken arm, how to work out directions by using a compass or just the stars, and all sort of life tricks that he surely had not learnt in Brooklyn.
The weirdest part is that we had to write daily in a personal diary that, to the surprise of many, was a writing pad and not a laptop. They encouraged us to put down on paper anything that went through our heads. We had to read to one another and that was the most difficult part, when we lowered our heads and tried to get to know each other. They didn’t force us to do it, but it was some sort of therapeutic masochism that we would all submit ourselves to. I had reached bottom because I started to write in that diary without complaining about it. Writing calmed me, gave me a good state of mind. In the evening, I would swim in the words like in a warm bath. I still have that diary, that I started writing in Russian to make sure nobody would understand it and that I continued writing in English, a language that I had moved into, thoughts and all, without even realizing it. One of the ideas I had in the beginning: „we look like rats ourselves in a desert full of traps in which nobody will wipe their mouths after eating us.”
„Today, we all washed in a river at the bottom of a small canyon. I was the only one without a tattoo and without any holes in my body. They looked at me in a strange way. I looked like a strange calf into a herd that was branded from head to toes with dragons, knives, swords, skulls, flowers, names that were long forgotten, hearts that bled for nothing.”
„We got to the bottom of some mountain that had brought back the grass and a bit of green to our surroundings. At night, I tried to milk a cow that was sleeping standing up on a hill nearby. I knew how to because I had seen it done at the countryside in Kiln. Two of the guys in our group hustled against her and knocked her down by pushing her from the side. It is a funny, yet cruel thing to wake a cow up like that. The fun of tipping over cows that slept standing up could end badly. Last night, the farmer that watched us with his binoculars from the distance started shooting straight at us.
„Yesterday nobody started the fire although it was very cold. We were so tired that we got into our sleeping bags without even eating. I was cold, but I was paralyzed with exhaustion. I dreamt about father for the first time in many years. He was young and was trying to cover me with an old military cape that he had just taken off and was way too big for him. I’m not cold anymore, I do not even know what cold is, he kept saying to me. Then he started petting me on the face and his hand was as cold as ice. I woke up scared. Snowflakes as big as my hand were gathering on my face. I woke everybody up and we walked south all night in order not to freeze.”
It was about this time that I stopped biting off my nails, which would grow unusually big now that they were finally being left alone.
One morning, before sunrise I woke up with Vladimir standing next to me.
– Come on. Get up. Your friend Sandy has disappeared. I quickly put my boots on and silently followed him. If you know anything about her, help us out. She’s the daughter of a big Hollywood tycoon and there will be a big scandal. Bill and the others trust you very much and they say that you have no business being here for a long time. This girl scared them on the last test.
Sandy had been moved to another group for a few days after we took a psychological test. She had been quieter than usual in the past few days and she would talk to me in a cold and distant way.
– I see that you have crossed over to these bastards’ side, she told me at one point.
– I am on nobody’s side. I just want to get out of here as soon as possible.
– Then let’s both get out of here. It’s not like we’re condemned. I was looking disapproving and she has not spoken to me since. Physically, she would keep up with us pretty well, but you could see that her nerves were not helping her and the hunger to sniff star powder was too big.
– She disappeared sometime last night, said Vladimir. She cannot be far. See, the impression of her left boot shows she has a hurt foot.
Vladimir was looking down like an old Indian searching for tracks that Sandy had left on the damp soil. The tracks led to the eastern mountains whose tops were already white with snow. Fall had arrived, I could feel it with all my senses and this simple and unusual acknowledgement filled my chest with good and cold air. I had slept through the seasons. I would have climbed all the way up to the snowy mountains’ tops without stopping and there was no doubt in my mind that we would find Sandy soon. Vladimir could hardly keep up with me and was constantly wondering at how I was so sound in wind and limb.
– This girl is not too smart. Her tracks lead to the canyon. If she kept heading north, she would have reached the highway. We soon found ourselves on a narrow path that went up the mountains. The sun had risen, the firs and pine trees had appeared and the snow that had fallen on them over night was melting. After all the desert that I had swallowed, what I was seeing now, seemed like an image from a dream. We had been following Sandy’s tracks for over an hour when they suddenly disappeared at the steep edge of a narrow path. You could see in the distance a few scattered houses and even the white blotch of a Mormon temple. I grabbed Vladimir’s binoculars and I looked down. It was so steep I started getting dizzy. Three eagles were flying over the abyss. You could see the spike-like tops of firs that had found a toehold on the rocks. I carefully climbed down, using the ropes we had taken with us. From the new spot I reached, I could see Sandy. She was standing still on the edge of a rock beyond which I knew, lay another great abyss. I wanted to call out her name, but I was afraid that she would move and fall or she would throw herself into the canyon that she stared at as if she was hypnotized. The eagles were flying in circles above her. Sandy seemed like a statue of despair that had been set in the wrong place. I waved at Vladimir to be quiet.
– Stay here and let me talk to her. Vladimir agreed without saying a word. I slowly and nervously approached her. She stood there stupefied by being so close to the edge of the cliff. I thought even a breeze could make her disappear. When I was just a couple of meters away from her, she felt my presence and turned her head. I smiled at her.
– I want to come with you, I told her. She did not look surprised to see me.
– No, no you do not want to come with me. Do not come any closer. She took another half a step.
– Listen Sandy! Down in the valley there is a community of Mormons. Have you heard of them? I did not know much about them myself, except that they are allowed to have more than one wife and that they all had blonde hair and blue eyes.
– They are very nice people, the Mormons. They do not ask any questions. We could settle down there among them. We could plant potatoes and weed. How about it, Sandy?
I was a meter away from her and I could see the emptiness below us. I have been afraid of heights ever since I was a child. I was dizzy and nauseous. I never went near the edge of balconies and the idea of bungee jumping or parachute jumping gives me the shivers.
– I want you to know Sandy that I have thought a lot about this. I too have had enough of this camp and of the malaxator.
– I’ll explain later. Come on. Give me your hand. She kept her hands tight on the sides of her body, like trampoline jumpers who just before jumping raise them in the air. I managed to grab her by the collar of her coat before she could move and pulled her towards me. She was as limp as a piece of cloth, so I had no problems with her afterwards. She started sobbing and threw herself on the grass. Vladimir approached us and he was as white as a sheet. In his hand, he had a pair of handcuffs that he had discreetly hidden and a walkie-talkie that crepitated and voices could be heard from it.
– Your parents are in a helicopter and will be here in an hour, said Vladimir.
– I do not want to see them. I want to stay at the camp. Tell them not to come here.
She promised she would go back with us without causing any more headaches. She walked quietly all the way there and asked me only one question:
– What is a malaxator?
– All the things with teeth that have brought us here and that we have not been yet learnt to stay away from.
Sandy never tried to escape again. She had calmed down but continued to scare all the people that would test her psychologically because her answers were not stereotyped and would not fit into any pattern. She could have been crazy but maybe a bit brilliant as well, in any case abnormal, so she stayed there long after I left and afterwards they sent her to a school in Minnesota that cost a fortune. I have not heard from her since.
I was promoted and took a class of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation and mountain rescuers for which I received certificates and diplomas. Brightly colored papers, signed, marked and dated just as they do in America for every human accomplishment that surpasses in performance walking or brushing your teeth. If the desert had had walls, I would have had to frame them and hang them there.
I had become the leader of the group and for the first time in my life, I had some responsibilities. Bill would discuss the morning with me and I would discuss it with the guys who would listen to me because I was one of them. I took part in two other rescue missions: in one of them, one guy had broken his arm by falling off a rock. I liked to wake up in the morning with the feeling that I had a mission that day. I was beginning to enjoy being in the camp, but the day came when they let me know that I was a rehabilitated person and would be returning to New York in three days.