Sleeping Out

First published by The Kenyon Review.

The Tunisian sky at night was the deepest black he had ever seen—the stars pulsed like living things, and he wanted to run his fingers through them. How strange it was to travel so far from home just to find the same Michigan stars, he thought. A growing breeze cooled the sweat on his back and for a moment the old man was happy. It was wonderful to be out like this—camping in the Sahara with his daughter.

And the Frenchman. He was there, too, of course. The younger man wore the ruggedness of the terrain elegantly in dusty, threadbare linens—at least he was not overly Frenchy in his personality. At nineteen the old man’s daughter called home from Paris to say she was married. A semester abroad became five years and now the girl spoke French beautifully, her father thought. It was another language he didn’t understand her in.

He’d been young once, too, in the summer of 1972. He took his CB radio to a repair shop a few miles from his home, just outside of Detroit, and a young woman in overalls and dark ponytail looked at him and the radio and said he should call back in a few days. He called every day. Despite her best intentions, and already having other plans, the woman fell in love with him. Later she would tell their daughter, “Your father came into my shop one day and just didn’t leave. I didn’t know we were dating at first, I just thought he really liked radios.”

At two bottles of wine past sunset a single voice proclaimed the glory of God through the dark desert night. The voice was clear and true and rode the wind. The old man wanted to kneel on the ground and feel the silky sand on his lips. They listened quietly and when the chanting stopped, the girl reached for her husband’s hand. She whispered to him in French, using intimate vowels that fell on him like kisses. Her husband smiled and pressed his lips to her forehead.

The old man wished the Frenchman had not come.

The girl poured a little wine into each of their glasses, emptying the bottle. “I think I’m going to stay out all night,” she said, “and just lie on my back and watch the moon and the stars. You just don’t see skies like this back in Detroit, do you, Dad?”

The breeze was not so kind now, and the old man dug his bare toes into the sand. A few inches down, the ground was still warm from the day’s heat. Canvas tents snapped around them, filling the darkness.

The old man’s second wife—a woman he hoped to love someday—slept in a tent fifty feet away. She was tired from the day’s heat and the long, selfless hours. Soon he would go to her and lay against her. If he is a little drunk he might pretend she is someone else. Pressed to her back, he will think of his first wife and remember the strength and beauty of her neck and then her arms and then her shoulders. In waves he will remember all of her until—fueled by the wine and the heat—he will reach for her in his dreams and press his erection against the soft, round butt of his friendly and lonely second wife.

The Frenchman opened another bottle of wine and as he filled their glasses, he told a story about a trip to the Alps: something about snow dunes and sand dunes and their endless changeability. The old man wasn’t really listening, but he knew the Frenchman had insight into something—perhaps tomorrow he would ask to hear the story again. The Frenchman could be gentle and clever and the old man understood why his daughter loved him.

Slowly, then suddenly, he wanted to be alone.

“I need to piss,” he said.

He stood and walked out of the camp, past the palm-treed oasis. A growing wind blew sand into his eyes, and he willed himself not to tear.

He had always thought the Sahara would be white, but it wasn’t; it was terra-cotta brown. It was the color and shape of his wife’s knees and shoulders that early fall when they made love in his pickup—deep in the Michigan woods. The rolling sand dunes were the curves of her body the summer they met and the following summer they married. That hill was the slope of her back, and over there was the valley between her shoulder blades where he kissed her each night as they lay in bed.

It had been her desire to ride a camel through the Sahara and to see the world and to be filled with it. She married him, and he promised that someday, after all their hard work, they would travel the world together. And now here he was, without the one person he had promised to bring.

Enveloped in an untamed wind, his eyes and nose filled with sand. He took a small plastic film canister from his pocket, removed the lid, and the heaving storm lapped out the bottle’s contents. An ounce of the ashes of the love of his life disappeared into the desert around him.

He leaned his body against the wind. It stung his face, burned his nose, and he glared at the desert and tried to blink the Sahara out of his eyes. The wind blew harder, he fell to his knees, pressed his forehead to the ground, and kissed the silty earth. Under the ever-maddening red desert moon the old man watched a wall of sand stalking toward him.