Badlands
María Isabel Alvarez

When I first met Sandra, I never imagined I’d find myself strapped to the passenger seat of her electric-blue Chrysler LeBaron, the desert wind lashing her tangerine strands across her face, radio tuned to the static warble of the classic rock station as we paved the roadway with our upchucked wads of gum. We were encircled by burnt sienna sandstone as if someone giant—God or the Department of Forestry—had dipped their basting brush in tomato sauce and serrated everything red.

“My parents would kill me if they knew what we were doing,” she said, clicking the radio off. She pressed her knee to the steering wheel and gathered her matted hair into a disheveled topknot. I wanted nothing more than to smell it.

Sandra dressed as if she’d been born in the back of a rusted trailer, among the litter of cigarette butts and crushed aluminum, the daughter of a trucker and his infinitely pregnant wife. She liked to stack her fingers with bands of corroded silver and rope her wrists in braided colored twine, claiming cheap jewelry exacted an artistic appeal. My mother only knew her as esa hippie cochina—that dirty hippie.

For our road trip, Sandra wore sun-bleached high-waist shorts and accessorized by looping a bottle-cap belt over jutting hips and stuffing bony ankles into studded leather boots. She had awoken that morning feeling a spiritual pull towards nature and thought perhaps I’d like to come with her, that maybe I’d enjoy being in her company, the good friend that I am. My Reeboks were still unlaced by the time I’d bobbed out of bed and bounded down Edgemont Street and toward the bus line that would deliver me to her flagstone driveway, arriving breathless and with a scrim of toothpaste goateed to my chin. The goal was to plant ourselves at the top of the highest mountain peak, toss birdseed into the air, await the roadrunners to peck at the ground near our feet, watch the sky shift from citrine to lilac while surrounded by the ominous shadows of open-armed cacti. We wanted to be anywhere but home. We wanted to be anyone but us.

This is why we were driving.

We drove because at the time gas was cheap. Because it was Saturday and the beach was polluted with people and we were finally eighteen and no one could tell us what the fuck to do. Because she was white and wealthy and privileged and could afford to be reckless. Maybe I liked her because she was different from what everyone expected her to be. Maybe I liked that her arms and chest were peppered in freckles, as if someone had sprinkled a dash of cinnamon in her direction and she’d never wiped it clean. But even with her down-to-earth persona and anti-materialist nature, there were still nights when I’d lie in bed teeming with guilt at the traitor I was for not loving a girl who looked more like me.

Sandra turned to me and smiled, teeth wired in an expensive Hawley retainer. I hid my own teeth behind my compressed mouth.

“Show me,” she said, and I did. “See, they’re not that bad.”

“Not that bad?”

“I mean for someone who acts so embarrassed, you have a pretty great smile.”

As the clusters of adobes began to dissipate and the highway narrowed to a rough, two-lane roadway, the badlands started to emerge. Rose-colored valleys climbed into toothy peaks like the line of a heart monitor. Saguaros sprung in small constellations among the dirt and unwieldy crabgrass. We approached an eroded sign engraved with an arrow pointing right: Turn Here. Sandra jerked the steering wheel and we skidded onto the pebbled pathway, lifting clouds of dirt at our sides, and I thought of those vehicles tunneling down the highway behind us and how strange it must have looked seeing our car disappear into the surrounding wasteland. Somewhere above our heads circled the outstretched silhouette of a red-tailed hawk, and I imagined with envy how we must have looked from above.

María Isabel Alvarez was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala and is currently an MFA Candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Arts & Letters and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter: @maria_i_alvarez