It’s 3 AM and I’m awake. In fact I’m parked on the edge of Interstate 10, forty miles west of Blythe, overlooking the starved Mojave — or what I can see of it, anyway. Monsoon clouds cloak the stars, and beyond the tufts of brittle brush lining the edge of the road, the desert is buried in blackness, a blackness so total and so thick it seems to have swallowed the planet whole. No shadows, no horizon, no sound. Just blackness, unending as an ocean.
I’ve stopped here to get some rest, having twice since Palm Springs almost dozed and veered into the median. But now that I’m parked, I can’t sleep. Why? Because each time I close my eyes, I see Bianca, pacing around her bedroom, hair undone, all the lights on. I see the green sheets that adorn her bed. My duffle on the floor, zipped. A picture of her husband sitting on the dresser. Distinct, disparate images that flicker against my skull and coalesce into a kind of movie — a jagged, faintly tarnished reenactment.
Once more — eyes clamped, teeth grit — I force myself to watch.
“Stay,” Bianca says, gripping my hand, looking up to me, nostrils flared, eyes intense and red. Thick Los Angeles air crawls in through the window. Her voice seems to echo; no one else is home.
“Please,” she says. “It’s so late. You can leave in the morning.”
But morning, I know — we both know — would be too late.
I leave. I tell her I’m sorry, and that I love her, but that I have to go home. Then I drop her hand and walk out the front door. The first few miles, I feel certain I’ve made the right decision. I have a family. We both have families. We’d reached the brink. If we didn’t stop now, we’d destroy everything, harm innocents, burn down our lives. (I’m not a bad man.) But the further east I get, the more I start thinking that I’ve made a terrible mistake. A mistake I’ll regret for the rest of my life.
Because I loved her.
I loved Bianca. Sure, it was a savage, carnivorous love, born from a wildfire of feeling, but it was love. It was real. We fell into it recklessly, a mess of limbs and live wires, much of the time feeling like we really were physically falling…dropping…tumbling into — what? The opposite of darkness? I don’t know. I can’t explain it. But there was a force to it, the feeling of it happening, genuinely like falling, like being on fire, a storm of nerves and flesh — that’s how real it was, how physical, how immediate. So real as to command a certain respect, a certain moral respect, even — right? Isn’t such realness worth something?
I am not a bad man…
I open my eyes. The darkness available through the windshield is as black as cancer, now. And the silence outside is consuming, all-encompassing, a remarkably total absence
of sound, an infinite nothing — so much nothing as to be everything.
I let my head fall back against the headrest. I peer into the blackness. I consider whether my love for Bianca actually had been morally justifiable. Which is when a hot pain shoots through my stomach, high-pitched and metallic, a lightning strike tearing through my gut.
What do you know of morality?
…Sure, it’s morality pulling you back to Phoenix, now, but if you knew anything about it — if you lent it a tenth of the respect you lend love, you feeble, fading excuse of a man — you would have by now confessed your infidelity to your wife. You would have confessed to your kids. For years you’ve been gambling with their trust, their conception of rightness. You’ve endangered their innocence! No, you know nothing about morality. All you know, and all you ever will know, for the rest of your days, is this desert and this darkness, this casket of blackness…
I close my eyes again — partly to fight back the urge to cry, partly to stop the voice — but then I’m transported to a different bedroom: my own. I’m lying beside Kathryn, who is sleeping. I’m just lying there, staring up into the dark, awake while she is asleep, drowning while she is calm, knowing in my ribcage that something about my life is wrong, elementally off, but at the same time feeling powerless and too cowardly to do anything about it. A kind of paralysis. In the moment, I’d thought that that paralysis was the worst thing a person could feel, the darkest kind of regret a man could know. But I realize, now, as I open my eyes one final time, that I’d never known this.
This darkness is different, tinged with finality, the darkness at the bottom of the grave. A darkness that swallows you completely. A darkness that leaves no doubt. A darkness that blinds, that bestows upon you the blackness not of cancer, but of death. Of forever.
A tear buds. I blink and it rolls down my cheek, heavy and fast.
Some time passes. Eventually I take a breath, slip the key back into the ignition. The headlights illuminate the brittle bush.
I set my jaw. Then I tell myself: I’m not a bad man. It’s not true but I repeat it. I’m not a bad man. I keep going; I need to think it. I’m not a bad man…I’m just a man who was weak, and who made mistakes, and who succumbed to something more powerful than he’d ever imagined, a man who waded into an ocean and got carried away by the current, swept into darkness. This is me, trying to find my way back to shore.
Here’s what I’m thinking, as I put the car in drive and roll back onto the road: everyone wants their life to work out neatly. Everyone wants for the person they fall in love with to be the right person. They want for their desires and for their inclinations to be acceptable, and for things to work out as they’d been promised they would by their parents, their pastors, peers. But things never work out this way. And maybe the manner in which we deal with this fact is what determines the kind of people we really, actually are. Whether or not we are good or bad people.
It’s the conclusions we come to that matter.