I have a friend who gets me dirty. I don't go to her intending to get that way, but I always leave stained. I don't have to look for the marks. They will surface. A deep smudge on my tan sandals where the suede is shiny and goes in the wrong direction. Chocolate smeared on my T-shirt sleeve. Powdery dirt mixed with slobber on my feet and my crotch. One of her dogs managed to get that far. Even my hair is different when I leave. It falls around my face and it feels thinner. I touch it too much. I go to this place clean and well dressed, matching, but I know once I'm there, something will come undone.
Her dogs and babies are dirty too. The Lab, the German shepherd, the mutt, all three of them at me the second my feet touch the loose dirt of her driveway, this day after rain. The one year old, snotty, messed, displaying more than just today 's lunch. I want to know if it's irresponsible not to wash him more often. He reaches for her as I enter the side screen door. He reaches up and I can feel myself recoil. Solid and intact, perhaps this time I will repel the dust, the baby's dried food, the dog hair I can clearly see against the burgundy futon cover.
My friend pulls him up and swings around to embrace me. She is layers of musk and hard work. If I licked her arm, I'd taste salt. When I moved to the desert, this desert my friend lives in, I stopped wearing make-up. She never goes without it.
I don't explore the desert, not alone. She takes me. She walks through cacti, bushes, points out javelina tracks, What? . . I whisper, and she snickers. She's educating me, and I'm teaching her about my fear. What do we do if we come across a javelina? She neither reproaches nor derides me, but rather delights in my innocence. But I am afraid.
I don't recognize myself when I am with this friend. I walk alongside of her through winter and spring desert with my hands in my pockets. When I'm with her I don't know what to do with my hands. My words are not attached at all to what I am thinking during these times, but they keep coming, and I always think afterwards, it was me - unveiled. Exposed. Raw. I think, it's that layer of nervousness which makes one so aware of words and body parts and breathing.
She arguing with the eleven year old, the one old enough to know better. Then she grabs her baby boy and launches herself into the dying day. She walks into the desert of the Tucson mountains barefoot, in a thin, colorless cotton dress, baby swinging off her left hip. Her feet solidly hit the gravel chips and rocks of the road and I wince for her. She swings the baby up onto her shoulders and he gurgles, squawks, grins wide. We enter a harmless sunset, and my edges soften as those of the Tucson range become more distinct and one dimensional in the diminishing light.
In the desert, I gingerly walk among the low cacti - no, I cannot name them - watching for god knows what will sting me, strike me, prick me at any wrong step. My friend can name them all, and does so as I say, what is that glorious smell? Or then, as her child reaches for one and she coos to him, never alarmed, Not the Palo Verde, not the Palo Verde. We walked behind him, alongside of him, and he didn't cross danger's threshold once.
She, however, sinks her foot into something fuzzy on one end, sharp thorns on the other. Stuck in her foot. She laughs and pulls her foot up behind her, asks me to remove it. Only you - I say- Only you in the desert shoeless. Pull it out! she wails. I want to say something. I like saving her. Hurry up! comes next, and I pull it out. One thorn sticks me deep in my thumb. It bums immediately, and as we continue to walk, I fight the temptation to ask her why it bums and what exactly it is that has lodged itself in our flesh. But she already knows I am afraid.
She said to me once on one of these walks, that if you put what you need out there and really believe in it, it will come to you. Says this because she has a story, every time I come to her, of some dream realized, some serendipitous event, some kindness dealt her which significantly affects her life. She gets what she wants. Her life looks this way to me. I imagine this is living.
I see her bare feet and I see her dirty child. I walk into and sit down in her house's dust and grime, and I do it against my nature - the one that likes everything in its place, the one that likes clothes to match and body parts to stay clean, the one that likes it safe - and I do it willingly. I get dirty.
We circle back and the sun is nearly gone. We're on the gravel road again, slowly moving up between houses on our left and right. A couple of cars drive along, one slows, a man driver- and I watch him the entire time he passes us. Suddenly a dog behind a fence barks at the tires against gravel, and I jump. I jump and she laughs like a sneeze, like she had no control over it whatsoever.
I have a friend who gets me dirty. I think she wants to. I think she wants me to live.
When I get home I don't look for the marks. I unlock my empty house and feel the pull of the television, the phone, the refrigerator. It stinks in here, and I quickly head for the trash. I'm taking out the trash, and in that moment when I could go in any direction, I decide, yes, I will clean the kitchen, I'll clean and put some order into my life, and as I walk out through the living room, I click on the new 13 inch color TV I bought last week.
Now there is no sun, and I walk to the dumpster. There is no skyline, nothing, not even an outline of the Catalinas I won't know are there until tomorrow. In the dark, I'm al ways trying to make Tucson be someplace else. I walk slowly back to the house and have already tried the knob several times when I realize I've locked myself out. I almost have to laugh. I go to the living room side and look in - the long sleek green sofa, the washed out yellow of the rug, the coffee table, the TV wildly getting no one's attention, and I think there's nothing of value in there. I'm scouting out the place and there's nothing of value in there.
I stare at the skeleton of my days and nights without me in there, and I know it's my life in there, the valuables, and I've locked myself out. I've locked myself out.
Copyright 1995, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly (WILLA) of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN # 1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Haines, Dawn. (1995). Getting dirty. WILLA. Volume IV, 26+.