by A. J. Jacono
The first night of the tour, after the guides had hitched the camels and secured the mess tent and laid out the steaming tagines and plates of couscous, Cash decided to make some friends because he hadn’t had a meaningful conversation in days and sat with two people from either New Zealand or Australia. One of them held out a hairy hand and introduced himself as Reeky; the woman with him, he said, was Queen.
“Super hot today, wasn’t it?” said Ricky. “Sweated out half my body weight by noon.”
Quinn squinted at him, said, “No shit,” and stuck a spoon into her couscous mountain. “We’re in the middle of the fucking Sahara.”
Cash wasn’t sure of their relation. Quinn was too comfortable snapping at Ricky to be even a close friend, and they didn’t resemble each other—he was large and had a doughy midriff, whereas she was five feet tall and bony as a ghoul. So, Cash glanced at their left hands. Quinn wore a ring; Ricky had a tan line where there’d recently been one.
“It’s pretty noticeable, isn’t it?” said Ricky, lifting the hand. “It fell off on the way. My camel kept scooting out of the line to sniff the females’ asses and then tried to mount the one in front of me. Flung me back pretty far, but I didn’t break anything, thank God—little bruise on my shoulder. I didn’t think anything else was wrong until we linked up with your group here and Quinn was like, ‘Where the hell’d your ring go?’”
Ricky chuckled, but Quinn glared out of the corner of her eye. He cleared his throat and forked a few more chicken chunks while Cash, unsure of what to say, perched his chin on a fist and wondered whether he could’ve convinced Sarah to come with him anyway. Flying to Morocco together wouldn’t have made her forgive him, but at least he wouldn’t have had to sleep in every hotel bed alone, walk through unfamiliar cities alone, explain to people why he, a young professional with a high-rise New York City apartment, had come all of this way alone. And at least he wouldn’t have to practically force himself to banter with a couple that reminded him of his and Sarah’s own dysfunction, and of how, after five years, he couldn’t fathom how to be a better partner.
For a time, they didn’t speak; Quinn sighed, Ricky chewed, and Cash looked around, wondering if the other guests would be easier to befriend. Then someone lurched into the tent coughing and kicking up plumes of sand. They wore a patchwork scarf that shrouded their face and a dangling, off-white tunic, but Cash sensed that they weren’t a guide; their stiff, robotic gait indicated a certain discomfort, as though they weren’t sure how to walk without the constraint of a pair of jeans. The person coughed again and scanned the tent’s many faces before settling on Cash’s. Then they wobbled over, sat next to Quinn, and unraveled their scarf.
“Join the party,” said Ricky, offering the man his hand. “I’m Reeky, that’s my wife, Queen, that’s our new buddy, Cash—and who do we have the pleasure of meeting?”
An effusive greeting, not that Cash could blame Ricky. Though the man was sunburned, out of breath, and speckled with sand, he reeked of mystery—where had he come from, and why hadn’t he been at camp earlier, and why had he chosen their table—and he was also, Cash noticed, quite handsome: curly auburn hair, jungle-green eyes, tiny brown birthmark on his upper lip. Even Quinn smiled when he introduced himself as Gareth in the same round-voweled chirp as hers and Ricky’s.
“Another fucking Aussie,” Ricky beamed. “You’re the fifth or sixth we’ve met on this trip. It’s like the whole continent relocated here for the winter.”
“We are a pretty unoriginal bunch,” Gareth wheezed, pouring himself a glass of water from the pitcher in the center of the table. He finished it and turned to Cash. “But you—you’re an American. That right?”
Cash raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t know it was possible to see nationality.”
“It’s not how you look. It’s the name. I’ve never met anyone called Cash except white trash and Wall Street bankers.”
Cash might’ve been offended had Gareth’s tone not been so jocular, and he smiled when the Australians burst into laughter—yes, they meant well, and maybe they’d let him join their posse for the next few days. Gareth was slapping the table when he fell into another coughing fit and went back to hogging the water pitcher.
“You okay?” Quinn asked. “You’re hacking up a bloody lung over there.”
“You should’ve seen it,” Gareth said, holding back a belch. “This old man in our group collapsed in the middle of the route—fell right off his camel. Everyone freaked out, thought he died, and the guides, they spent an hour using up the water reserves to make cold compresses until he came to. Not to be an asshole, but the whole time, the other twenty of us were shriveling up in the heat. You ever sweat so much your eyes burn? By the time we got back on our way, it felt like someone’d massaged them with bushfire ash.”
Cash nearly laughed, but Ricky frowned, and Quinn whispered, “You shouldn’t really be joking about that.”
The table, and coincidentally the rest of the tent, fell so quiet that Cash could hear Gareth’s boots shift under the table. “Sorry. Insensitive,” he said. “Although I do think I have the right. I’m one of those poor fuckers who lost his home.”
And so began a story that Cash had only ever heard on the news: Gareth and his girlfriend in a cottage in Cessnock, two bedrooms because they wanted children and in the interim could use the extra space as a painting studio (they were hobby artists, had met in a class)—a simple life they weren’t aware was as flammable as grain alcohol. Gareth would never forget the night he and Alana woke to an explosive whoosh in the backyard forest, stuffed a backpack with food, and ran barefoot into the glowing orange dark, where they watched the fire devour their home. They weren’t hurt, but they’d been branded: Gareth became prone to rages, smashing mugs and plates and once a chair in their cramped new apartment, and his girlfriend slipped into a depression that would have her attempt suicide twice and, eventually, leave him for another man.
By the time Ricky and Quinn offered their own stories—friends who’d lost pets, neighbors who’d lost businesses, a cousin who’d lost his life—Cash could hardly listen out of a shame that he’d comparatively never lost much: his mother, but she’d had cancer for a decade; a few thousand dollars in the stock market, but he had plenty saved; his wife’s trust, but she would probably forgive him eventually. He wondered, too, why he had to be jealous that the Australians were bonding, especially when that bonding occurred in the name of unspeakable trauma; was Cash so desperate that he half-wished his own life had turned to dust?
Cash caught Gareth leering at him, either angered or confused by his silence. Cash did want to contribute but felt like he didn’t have the right, so instead, he thought of how, back home, Sarah was probably searching for another man, one who was less reactive, less unfaithful, and less emotional than he—a man who didn’t like to cross his legs, watch reality television, and drink sangria with her mother when she visited.
After what felt like an eternity, Ricky raised a glass: To Good Health And An Even Better Excursion In This Desert Wasteland. Gareth and Quinn lifted their glasses, too, then stared at Cash, who, tired of straying in the social sidelines, grabbed an empty cup and thrust it forward. It hit Quinn’s glass, which tipped out of her hand and soaked her clothes.
She said something that began with “Fuck,” but was interrupted by Ricky’s half-shocked, half-amused laugh. Quinn’s face went a violent red, and briefly, Cash was certain that she’d lunge forward and beat him over the head with the water pitcher, but she wound back a hand and smacked Ricky instead. There was a loud, wet crack; heads turned, and Quinn rushed for the exit. Ricky gawked after her, holding his cheek.
“Well, I . . .” There were tears in his eyes, though whether they were from emotion or the impact’s force, Cash couldn’t tell. “I should—”
He got up and ran out. A woman at a nearby table said, “What the fuck did he do?” and a guide across the tent shouted in Arabic what Cash imagined meant, “That? That was true entertainment!”
Across the table, Gareth put his face in his hands. “That was . . . that was really—”
“Unexpected?” Cash offered.
“That’s generous.” He shook his head. “I wanted to ask the guides for food, but that whole thing kind of did away with my appetite.”
Cash considered apologizing, as if it would erase the last few minutes of their lives, but at the same time, he didn’t want to appear weak and possibly melodramatic in front of Gareth, a man who looked, and probably was, much stronger than he. So, instead he said, only realizing after speaking how dull he sounded, “Agreed.”
They stared at Quinn and Ricky’s empty chairs, the meats and sauces coagulating in their tagines. The tent grew louder, guests chatting and laughing and one of the guides telling a group of women a corny knock-knock joke, and Cash, unsettled by his table’s quiet, said, “Seems like it’s impossible to escape fucked-up relationships. Even in the middle of the desert.”
He didn’t mean to be funny, but Gareth snickered. “Bad relationships are common as trees.”
“Do you see any trees out here?”
“A lot of sad little shrubs. Which might be worse.”
Cash sighed. “Just expected a little more peace. You know, desert for miles, no civilization. You’d think people would wind down.”
“Are you sure that’s not a you problem?”
Cash cocked his head.
“If you wanted peace,” said Gareth, “you could’ve locked yourself in your bedroom for a week or something. Not flown halfway across the world for a social vacation in the desert. So, either you’re kind of an idiot or there’s another reason you’re here.”
A nosy way to pivot to another subject, but Gareth was right; it didn’t make sense to have come so far for some elusive quietude. So Cash said, “My wife was supposed to come along but couldn’t make it. I spent a lot on the tickets and didn’t want to waste them, so here I am.”
“You’re saying that like it’s a bad thing. It’s a good way to meet people.”
“At times, sure. But I’ve been alone in this country for, what—five, six months now, and most of the time, it’s brutal. People coming and going, nobody there when you really need them.”
“Are you sure that’s not a you problem?”
Gareth smirked. “No, it’s you, too. When Ricky and Quinn were with us, you kept opening your mouth, but you didn’t say anything. It almost seems like you’ve been alone for long enough that you’ve forgotten how to talk to people.”
Cash must have made a face, because Gareth laughed, then reached over the table and put a hand on Cash’s. Cash’s heart sputtered; he tried to pull away, but Gareth clasped harder. “I’m out of my right mind, too,” he said. “Hardly spoke to anybody for almost two weeks before this trip. So excuse me if I’m a little socially challenged.”
He stuck a hand in the pocket of his robe’s thigh, took out a flask, and swigged. Cash watched him drink but too eagerly because Gareth said, “If you want some, I’d prefer you asked, not eye-fucked me across the table.”
Gareth extended the flask but withdrew before Cash could take it. “Wait. Keep forgetting you can’t drink in public in this country.” He stood up, tucked the flask away.
“Where are you going?” Cash asked.
“Outside.” He started for the exit. “You’re welcome to join. Or you can, you know, keep sulking in this perfect peace and quiet. Sober.”
A circle of middle-aged men two tables away burst into such rowdy laughter that Cash’s ears buzzed. Gareth shrugged and left. Shortly after, Cash followed.
Outside, the sky had gone black, and the air was cold, though considering how warm it had been earlier, Cash took the change as a relief, and so, it seemed, did Gareth, who lifted his hands and proclaimed, “Thank the Lord for the miracle of heat redistribution.” He turned to Cash. “You don’t seem nearly as thrilled.”
“I’m not the one who got stuck in the desert.”
“And be thankful you didn’t.” He peered into the distance, pointed. “See that? That little dune over there?”
Cash followed Gareth’s finger. It was hard to spot in the darkness, but about a half-mile ahead, there was a low sandhill that glowed silver in the moonlight.
“Don’t tell me you want to walk there,” said Cash.
Gareth grinned. “Why not?”
“I’m tired. It’s dark. We’ll get lost.”
“It’s a straight shot on flat ground. There are lights all around camp.”
“And if the guides turn off the lanterns?”
“Excuses, excuses, excuses. Stay behind and rot, then. But here’s the truth: there’s no danger. Worst comes to worst, we can’t find our way back tonight and sleep on the sand. It’s as comfortable as any mattress. We’d be back by breakfast.”
Gareth was already waddling away, boots carving lines in the sand. Cash called out, but Gareth kept moving, arms out to his sides as if he were about to fly. Maybe it was better that Cash didn’t join—he would get rest, wouldn’t get lost—but he couldn’t go back to the mess tent, which had just begun to shrill with the sound of an oud. He also didn’t want to go back to his own tent, because he’d have to fall asleep to the thought of Sarah’s magmatic words—cheating fucking pansy—and to the sound of his own breathing, which had become a disturbing reminder that nobody else’s breath was there to harmonize with his.
He broke into a scurry after Gareth, who was already chuckling.
“You proved me wrong,” he said.
“What?” Cash asked.
“That stick in your ass. It’s there, but it’s not as deep as it looks.”
Cash coughed to mask his laugh. If Gareth was fooled, he didn’t say, and he picked up speed; Cash tried to keep up but trailed far behind. It took longer, too, to arrive at the base than he thought it would—thirty minutes slowed by stumbles and shifting sandpiles—and once they crested over the summit, he fell on his back, drenched in sweat.
“Christ.” He stared up at Gareth, who looked dry and bored. “Do you run marathons?”
Gareth squatted next to Cash. “You don’t get out a lot, do you?”
Cash wiped his forehead. “Too much work.”
“Modern problem for a modern man.” He nodded at the countless taller dunes scattered among the flatness beyond them, then reproduced the flask and drank. “What do you do?”
“I’m in management consulting.”
Gareth almost choked on his next sip. “Management consulting?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“What’s it supposed to mean? You’re quiet and on edge and can barely hold a conversation. Aren’t consultants big, loud, douchey types?”
Cash swiped the flask and took a long pull that burned his insides. “If I were you, I wouldn’t be so quick to make judgments. You might end up offending someone.”
Although Gareth’s lips curled into a defiant smirk, there was a certain embarrassment in his eyes, as though he were trying to think of a redeeming excuse, but that could have just been the moonlight, the shadows muddying the contours of his expression.
“I don’t enjoy it, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Cash sighed. “I’m good, but there’s no satisfaction. Schmoozing’s fine at parties, but it’s different when you’re getting paid for it. There’s something really underhanded about monetizing your social aptitude and making promises you know you aren’t qualified enough to execute. And yet people trust you anyway, because you’re the funny, popular guy they hired to drag their company out of the mud.”
Suddenly, Gareth looked somewhat annoyed. “You realize you’re complaining about a situation that’s entirely within your control to change, right? You don’t have to be a consultant, but you do it anyway. And why? My bet is it’s because of all the money.”
Cash swallowed back a marble of existential chagrin. Not so much because Gareth had slighted him, but because there was a rift between them that couldn’t be mended by emotional sincerity; their existences ran, and would likely always run, in opposite directions, and that had to be true between Cash and billions of other people.
They stared into the night, Gareth slurping on, until Cash said, “I’m sorry about your house. And your girlfriend. Really, I am.”
Gareth nodded, circled the flask’s rim with a finger. Then he asked, “Do you at least know what you’d rather be doing?”
Cash shrugged. “Going new places. Trying to believe there’s something more.”
He expected criticism—traveling aimlessly wasn’t a job and implied that Cash had means—so he was surprised when Gareth said, “Home’s that rough, huh?”
Cash didn’t know how to respond. Gareth had been too abrasive for him to reveal anything else about himself, yet he couldn’t smother the urge to lay himself bare, if only to prove to himself that he was capable of creating, and not simply tarnishing, sincere connections. If Sarah had been on that dune with them, hurling all sorts of vitriol, it might have been easier to answer, but she was too far away—always would be, now—so Cash pinched an ankle to ease his nerves and said, “Maybe.”
Gareth watched him, waiting for more that didn’t come. Only when he turned away did Cash continue, “Have you ever made a mistake you wish you could take back, but only because it’d make things easier to deal with, not because you actually want to?”
Gareth crossed his arms. “If you wanted to do it and stand by it, it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe an inconvenience, but not a mistake. A mistake means whatever you did was an accident. That you did it in spite of better intentions.”
Was that really so reassuring, or was Cash just getting drunk? There was an alcoholic buzz in his fingers, but he felt as clearheaded as his exhaustion would allow, and anyway, he hadn’t taken much from the flask. So if not drunk, then either he was as weak-willed as Sarah thought him, or Gareth was so charmingly self-assured that Cash couldn’t help taking his word as truth.
“This is about your wife, isn’t it?” Gareth said. “She didn’t come because of what you did.”
Cash didn’t answer. Gareth drew a circle in the sand between his legs.
“I don’t know what you did,” Gareth said. “But even if it was atrocious, she’s out of her fucking mind to have passed up the opportunity to come here for free.”
Cash snorted, because it was true, and Gareth laughed, too. There they were: two adult men giggling like boys, two dissatisfied idiots under the infinitely pinpricked sky, two giant flecks of sand among a sea of incalculably more. And was there not something beautiful in it all, or was Cash just so soft to think there was? Still, he felt that beauty within himself, and he saw it in Gareth’s gently glowing skin, in his sandy, glimmering robe, in his endearingly crooked front teeth. And they were becoming friends, or something like it, and the gulf separating them snapped closed as Gareth leaned in, his lips cracked and bleeding and tasting much the way they looked.
It felt good. As good as when, a month prior, Cash had met Marvin at a bar in the East Village and ended the night, naked and breathless, with him in the very bed he and Sarah had always shared. And how ecstatic it had been to touch and harness and make love to a body just like his, how much more he felt like a man with that boyish stranger than he ever did with his wife. He could say the same as he fell into Gareth, whose breath was so warm and whose face was so soft, and what a pleasure he was, what a delight.
Then Sarah was jabbing his shoulder, and he was a faggot and a man-whore and a pole-smoker, and he was saying he was trying to figure things out, please listen, it had meant nothing (but of course it had meant something), and she was saying she’d known the whole time, so many years she’d wasted trying to prove herself wrong, and he wrenched himself out of Gareth’s reach.
“No,” Cash said. “No, no, no.”
Gareth sat so still that he looked like a mannequin. “What?”
Cash couldn’t string together the proper words, so he started to scamper down the dune, sand flying, some catching in his hair. Almost immediately, Gareth was scrambling behind him. Cash wanted to stop, to let Gareth’s hands, and maybe even his tongue, track the landscape of his body, split ends to toenails, but he kept going, and near the bottom of the dune Gareth called out, “What are you doing? Let me apologize, at least,” as if remorse would help, as if it would untie the rabid, starving knot under Cash’s ribs.
Gareth pleaded for another minute before he gave up to plod mutely in Cash’s wake, at which point a cold wind picked up and thrust them in the camp’s direction. Cash wondered whether he should let Gareth catch up so they could share each other’s warmth but couldn’t decide before they reached the mess tent, outside of which fifty people were huddled around a firepit. One of the guides was playing the oud Cash had heard earlier, and Ricky played a somber accompanying melody on a battered guitar. Quinn was nowhere to be seen.
Cash swept into his tent and, in the bedside lantern’s light, searched for a zipper to seal the entrance, but there wasn’t one, so he fell back on the mattress the guides had prepared and hoped that Gareth wouldn’t bother him again.
Thirty seconds later, there was a shuffling outside. “Can we talk?”
“If you haven’t noticed,” Cash said, “the reason I ran away is because the answer’s no.”
A sigh. “If I wanted to lie, I’d say it was a mistake. But I don’t want to lie.”
Cash stared at a hole in the tent’s ceiling. Through it, he could see a dark patch of clouds.
“You know,” Gareth enunciated, “that was the first time I’ve done something like that.”
How was that possible? Gareth had put far more passion and confidence into that kiss than Cash, who had gone so far as to have sex with another man.
“I wasn’t sure if I’d like it,” said Gareth. “I mean, I wanted to do it from the moment we met. But I didn’t know how to get there. I’ve only been with women my whole life. I don’t know how to be with men as anything other than a mate.”
It was then that Cash recalled that what they’d done, at least in that country, was illegal, and the fact that Gareth was talking about it with such public impunity alarmed him enough to say, “Just shut up and come inside.”
Gareth entered looking hopeful, but frowned when he saw that Cash was scowling.
“Do you know how loud you are?” Cash hissed. “You could get us thrown in fucking jail, Gareth. This isn’t a joke.”
Gareth scratched his arm. “Yeah,” he said. “I know that. But you can’t expect me not to react. I’m having a moment here, for God’s sake.”
“If you’re going to react, then do it quietly, please.”
Gareth sniffed, nodded to himself, then walked over and sat down. In Cash’s head, Sarah was railing again, and the guides had probably heard them and were on their way to drag them to some remote desert gulag, where they’d be forced to work until they died on the desiccated ground.
Then Gareth said, “Hey,” and touched Cash’s chin. Cash gasped and pulled back.
“What’s wrong?” Gareth asked.
“I’m not—I’m not supposed to be doing this.”
“Not supposed to? According to who?”
“It doesn’t—we’re putting ourselves in danger, Gareth. And my wife, she’s—we’re still married, and that’s how things are, so we shouldn’t have done anything, you and me, okay? And my wife, she’s angry, and she already doesn’t . . .”
He trailed off, hoping Gareth wouldn’t press, but he did: “Doesn’t what?”
Doesn’t like me anymore, Cash wanted to say; loves me out of obligation, but doesn’t like me. Doesn’t know that the only reason I married her was my friends were getting hitched and I felt like the odd one out, and I’ve always hated feeling like the odd one out, so when she came around, I stuck that ring on her finger and carried her off into the fucking sunset thinking, stupidly, that it would right my oddness. And she also doesn’t know that, ever since the morning after the wedding, when I looked at her naked, sleeping body and felt neither attracted to nor protective of her, I’ve felt guilty for sucking her into my shameful, insecure vortex, because she deserves a real man, one who actually wants her and one she actually wants in return, and isn’t it a tragedy, Gareth, isn’t it such an awful tragedy?
The only sound Cash could produce was a low groan. Gareth sat there for a time with his brow caught in a furrow before he hugged Cash—didn’t kiss him but held him as though he were a child. And he was gentle and smelled of argan oil, and he rubbed Cash’s back, which made him tired. He started to fall back on the bed; Gareth followed him down until they lay facing each other.
“It’s okay,” Gareth said. His skin was almost translucent in the lantern light. “You’re right here. I’m right here.”
He dabbed Cash’s eyes with his thumbs and licked the tears off those same thumbs. Strange, maybe even funny—nobody had ever done that—but Gareth was so serious that Cash wept more, and Gareth dabbed those tears and licked them, too.
“What are you doing?” Cash asked.
Only now did Gareth chuckle. “I . . . I know it’s weird. But I want to. Is that okay?”
Cash nodded. Because in a way, he was now part of Gareth, those tears metabolized into care from the sorrow they began as.
Gareth licked one, two more tears, then said, “You look tired.”
Cash’s eyes were shut before he could finish nodding. Gareth made a noise—neither a sigh nor a moan—then pulled Cash closer. Gareth’s breath was on his forehead, his hands were in his hair, and he heard Gareth’s heartbeat, or maybe it was his own, or maybe it was both of theirs.
He slept without dreams.
In the morning, the air smelled of chickpeas and baked eggs. Voices hummed and plates clinked outside. Cash turned on his side. Gareth wasn’t there.
He’d slept in his clothes, so he got up and went to meet the group. The day was hot and the mess tent was still flapping in the wind, but everyone was eating around the coals of the previous night’s fire.
He searched the crowd for Gareth but couldn’t spot him, so he sat next to a woman with cropped red hair and a mole on the back of her neck. She smiled but said nothing. A bearded guide handed Cash a plate of eggs, which he was about to eat when he saw Quinn and Ricky across the firepit. Ricky was saying something to Quinn, who was turned away.
Ricky was the first to notice Cash. “Morning,” he said, waving his dirty fork in the air. Quinn looked over. Cash wasn’t sure if she was glaring or trying to remember who he was.
“Morning,” said Cash. He looked once again at the faces around him.
“Looking for Gareth?” asked Ricky.
Cash nodded slowly.
“He left about an hour ago,” Ricky explained, licking his fork clean. “His group was only here for the night.”
Cash pursed his lips. His toes went numb.
“He told me to tell you it was nice to meet you,” Ricky continued. “Said he didn’t want to go into your tent and wake you—said you needed rest more than a nosy friend.” He smiled. “You know, I saw you two coming back from the dunes last night. Thought to myself, ‘Wow, those fuckers are brave, going all the way out in the dark like that.’”
Cash looked down at his plate. Only now did he notice that the eggs were overcooked, and that the reddish sauce in which they swam had already congealed. He forked one egg, hand trembling, and stuck it in his mouth. It burned his tongue.
A.J. Jacono is a proud Manhattan native who has been writing ever since he could hold a pen. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Southeast Review, Upstreet, and Lunch Ticket, among many other journals. He is the recipient of the 2019 Herbert Lee Connelly Prize and is the founder of The Spotlong Review, an online literary and arts journal. He is also the owner of Bibliotheque, an upcoming bookstore, café, and wine bar based in New York. If you would like to learn more about A.J., you can visit his website.