by Nikki Zambon
He didn’t tell me his real name until we were already engaged 6 months.
It happened on a road in the Atacama desert of Chile, the oldest desert on earth. We wagged our thumbs at the few cars that whizzed by. Hot earth lifted behind them, dust storms that swirled into our nostrils. The same dust that scientists compared to the red soil of Mars. We had already been in the desert for four days. Knocking on doors for soup and bread. Por favor, ¿tienes sopa?
By then, I had lost twenty pounds. My backpack weighed fifty. We had hitch hiked out of Colombia a little over a month ago, moving quicker than anticipated, on our way to Uruguay, my fiancé’s home. After weeks of listening to the 70’s disco in the passenger seats of lonely semi-truck drivers, we found ourselves stuck in San Pedro.
The sky in the Atacama is known for its brilliance. People travel from across the world to perch in the dark desert and wait to be wowed by the night. Not that we knew anything about that then.
It wasn’t even a thought in our heads, to pay to see things in the countries we had skipped across like stones. We couldn’t afford it. But as we walked around San Pedro, a small town with short, off-white adobe style buildings, we saw shops filled with photos of blue, purple and green galaxies. We saw stars colliding to form great arches that looked like they belonged behind God’s eye—an optomap of the unknown. So, with our final pesos, gifted by a stranger who had seen me vomit on the road from sun poisoning, we bargained with the guide and secured a spot on a stargazing tour. We didn’t even care that we traded a day’s worth of food to look through a telescope.
That day, my fiancé and I spent hours playing in the sand. It was free and if we dug our bodies deep enough, the grains became coarse and cool against our skin. We watched children slide down the dunes on homemade boards and trash bags. I asked one boy to let me try and he stuck his tongue out and ran away. His mother laughed.
We only fought once or twice that day. My fiancé and I were the same in that we carried fear in our gut like bacteria. We were self-conscious and suspicious even in the best of times, but the lack of food, showers and sleep left our moods frighteningly unpredictable. We would dance on the dunes, then slap each other for falling out of rhythm. We constantly worried that the other was ogling a clean, attractive passer-by, but in reality, we were only ever keeping a watchful eye on each other. Behaving like a couple of hot-mouthed, hungry dogs, tussling in the sand drifts.
But that day, our hostility was scarce and brief. And when we were finally parched by the dust, we waltzed into different stores around town, smoothing our hair, chins perked with dignity, feigning interest in tours just to peek at more colorful photos of the night sky, before running from the shops, squealing in love. Usually two dirty, empty-handed travelers, that day we were more. We were tourists.
The sun began to set and we jogged over to the pick-up location. We layered our bodies with the filthy clothes from our backpacks, preparing for the brisk night ahead, and stowed our nearly empty bags behind the counter in the shop. we joked with the tour guide about leaving us in the desert for dead. We allowed ourselves to be overcome with dizzying glee, which made the sidewalk beds and mysterious infections that normally composed our travels a laughable story from the past.
Gradually, the other tourists arrived with flurries of Spanish, Portuguese and French. We riled them up too, singing “Fly Me to the Moon” in words that almost sounded like English. We drove in a big, black van 30 minutes from town to large stacco house, propped tall and alone—an elegant lodestar to us, but really just a freckle on some eternal dune. Several wicker chairs draped with thick, cotton blankets were arranged in a half moon shape on the solid dirt lawn, and giant telescopes were scattered across the property, noses pointed toward the sky. We were taken inside to grab bags of pretzels, over which my fiance and I cried with joy, and small cups of red wine.
Once we were finally seated outside, the guide began describing the different galaxies and constellations that could be seen with the naked eye—the Southern stars, Magellanic Clouds, the Southern Cross. When we peered into the various telescopes, we saw Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s hazy loops. But with every velvet ring or dash of light that came into focus, I couldn’t help but think yes, yes but it’s no Montana sky.
As a girl, I would sit on the roof of my dad’s old lincoln log cabin near Georgetown Lake and watch the meteor showers pelt the sky every August. I snuck out to climb a wobbly wooden ladder, carrying a blanket and a small stuffed animal to place beneath my head. Flares of green, orange and silver shined above me while I held my breath until the next one struck. Finally, just before my eyes fell closed, my dad would call me down. And as I descended the ancient ladder, I would wonder where all those meteors disappeared to.
But the Atacama sky was not what I had imagined. There were no purple and green and blue arches, like the pictures had shown. It was just a very dark night with a spread of white. When I finally tapped the guide on the shoulder and asked where all the colors could be seen, he smiled kindly and told me the photos from the tourist shops were taken with special infrared cameras, which made the constellations look colorful. That’s not what they really looked like to us. I flushed with embarrassment. How naive of me to think that such a scene could exist without the aid of some special machine.
As the night wore on, I peeked over at my fiancé and noticed that he had nodded off in his chair. All the anticipation and lack of food left him spent. I excused myself to use the restroom and quickly slipped one of the bottles of wine beneath my coat. When I returned, I shook him awake and we moved outside of the circle of observers to drink deeply.
A sadness swept over that was hard to describe. Yes, we felt foolish for thinking the sky was any other color than what we’d seen the past few days. That we traded two hot plates filled to the brim with juicy chicken thighs, crisp salad and a tower of rice just to see the same stars we nested beneath each night. But it wasn’t just that. It was us. The two of us always longing for something more, unsure of what that meant or how we would know it when we found it.
We fastened ourselves tightly to the idea that discovering the unknown would make us more than who we were. But always, we were let down by the reality of ourselves, the reality of those around us. Somehow, the world was always too much, yet never enough.
In that moment, I felt I stepped outside of myself and witnessed a blooming love for disappointment. A craving for the feeling of despair—that enormous, untamable sensation was the closest I’d ever come to experiencing what I percieved my own “more” in life to be. Maybe we were the same in this way too.
I looked at you, then turned my face upward. The boundless desert became small, and beneath its shrinking canopy of pearl-studded black sky, I glimpsed the end.
My fiancé told me stories about his life before he met me. He said, at a young age, he’d become terrified of a particular yellow-breasted bird.
The Pitangus sulphuratus (or great kiskadee) often lets out a dry-throated cry that sounds like BEE-Tee-WEE. In Spanish speaking countries, people often translate its call to Bien te veo. I see you well.
He said that one morning, he spotted this bird in a tree next to his house mindlessly scanning the ground for food. Later that day, his mother approached him with wet eyes saying their family dog had died. Then, a few months later, he heard a scream and caught a flash of the tyrant’s yellow underside. This time it was his grandfather.
He explained that the relationship between the Pitangus and death was unshakable to him. If he saw this bird, he would rush home to make sure his family was safe, then sit up all night and wait for his own doom to manifest. In the morning, when he found he was still intact, he would stand before the front door for a few minutes and breathe deeply until he was calm enough to go outside.
This went on for years, more deaths, some close and some far, until he couldn’t trust his own mind to distinguish reality from what he felt in his heart to be true.
He lived in a small, dirt road town in Uruguay called Paso Carrasco, a 40 minute bus ride from the city of Montevideo. No one had cars in his town. None of his family or friends, at least. He didn’t know how to drive.
He had the number “29” tattooed on his right middle finger. He told me he liked to show people by flipping them off. When asked what it meant, he would respond cryptically, looking into the distance, and say it was just a number that meant something to him … but he didn’t know why. In reality, it was just his birthday. August 29th.
He dropped out of high school when he was 17 and spent his days wandering around the town, shirtless, shoeless, listening to music with headphones bought from a man on the street for a few pesos. He played Jimi Hendrix, 70’s rock and delta blues, a far cry from the thumping reggaetown his classmates listened to. He walked down roads, shouting along to the lyrics with feeling, without understanding what they meant. Sometimes he disappeared into the woods by his house and improvised rap songs alone, his bare feet pacing along a thick pad of warm, dead leaves. His long, unmanagable curls stained yellow by the sun. Those rulos: his most distinguishable feature, other than his almost violent, blue eyes.
His mother raised him and his three brothers by herself, cleaning houses for a living and renting a two bedroom apartment which constantly gathered dirt and soft tufts of hair, no matter how much she barked at her boys to help keep it up. She went on runs in the woods at sunrise and drank maté with her neighbor friends to stay sane. Her long, thick hair was tinged yellow by the sun. She was 45 years old, missing molars, but known for being a beauty in her town. She often went on dates but never took any of the men home. He and his brothers teased her about the men, saying she was a prude, but she said she wanted nothing more than her independence. Besides, the occasional date didn’t cost her anything.
He told me that while everyone was sleeping one warm December night, he wrote a note to his mother and hung it on the refrigerator. “It’s time I go. Don’t worry, I’ll see you again.” He grabbed his old, green army duffle bag with the broken latch and snuck out the front door.
The day after the stargazing tour, we tried to leave the Atacama desert, having slept for three straight nights in a pavilion near a park, which stray dogs occasionally forced us to abandon, growling at us in the dark.
It was dawn and our bodies were sore and filthy. If I rubbed at my arm hard enough, I could see a patch of my skin under all the dirt, dry and red from the kneading. We picked up our heavy backpacks, symbols of freedom we’d come to resent, and walked toward the road.
By noon, we had made it only a couple of miles. We stopped at what we decided was the optimal pull-off area for vehicles, though, in reality, the suffocating heat and hunger pangs largely determined our movement.
In one moment of desperation, I took off my shirt and stuck my thumb out to the road, in just my bra, while Drigo hid in a ditch. A man in a red sports car stopped for me, but when he saw Drigo high-tail it toward his car, he peeled out.
Defeated, we threw our packs on the ground and sat down on them. I was concerned about crossing the border. We had some difficulty leaving Colombia because Drigo had overstayed his Visa by nine months, often hiding out in the jungle when police visited the small mountain town, looking for illegal aliens.
Though I knew we’d probably be fine getting into Argentina, I was always nervous at border crossings. I asked him again if he knew where his I.D. was.
“Si,” he said, irritated. I knew he was feeling just as hungry and tired and hopeless as I was. And I loved him for that.
He was, without a doubt, the leader of our quest. When I agreed to marry him and missed my flight home to Montana, some part of us both knew it was up to him to clear a path for us.
When I was too ashamed to ask people for food or money, he shook his head and came back an hour later with a few coins and a bag of cookies, whooping and smiling at strangers and kissing their hands in gratitude. When we cruised down the highway with lonely truckers, it was him who stayed awake to make conversation, while I slept with my face pressed against the glass window. When guys we worked for in exchange for lodging made passes at me, he would curse at them, saying they should be ashamed, while I stood awkwardly beside him. And he tried to make it fun. Taking pictures of me peeing in odd places. Singing, wild and loud, as I strummed on my small travel guitar, bowing at people who clapped and dropped change at our feet. Yes, he had taken care of us.
“Let me see your I.D.,” I said playfully, nibbling his ear.
He grinned and handed it to me.
I laughed at his picture. Unruly little curls, psycho-blue eyes, no smile.
As I tried to understand some of the more formal Spanish written on it, I paused when I got to his name.
“Rodrigo Nicolas Acosta Olivera?”
I looked over at him in confusion.
“Si. Ese es mi nombre.”
“Y Drigo Pitangus?”
“Este es mi nombre también. Un nombre que me gusta más.”
This is my name too. A name I like more.
It was then he told me about leaving home and renouncing his name. Rodrigo Nicolas Acosta Olivera. Like a tag he simply pulled off of a shirt and tossed somewhere near the dumpster. His name going forward, a name that years later he would tattoo in black ink on his neck, would be “Drigo Pitangus.” Like the yellow bird he’d seen as a flag of death for years. A shared name now.
I listened to his story, nodding, trying to piece together the complicated sentiments from the unclear spanglish, and I realized I was shivering. My hair stood straight-up on my arms in the 100 degree desert heat. As we talked, it became clear to me that this man, who I trusted, who had protected me and held my head up this entire journey, this man who was to be my husband, was a stranger.
I let out a loud snort. And then a real laugh. And then I laughed and laughed until he began to laugh until we rolled off our packs onto the desert floor.
“Well, goddamn … my fiancé … It’s nice to meet you.”
He wasn’t sure what I said but gave an half smile in response.
My eyes were wet and my heart punched at my ribs. I couldn’t stop smiling. My face felt tight and my teeth were coated in dust.
I jumped up off the ground and howled. I howled and danced, kicking up dirt, waving at cars like a jester, blowing kisses at the dust storms in their wake. Doing jigs until the laughing hurt me.
At first, he was amused. Shouting out rap lyrics in encouragement, clapping along to my dance. But after a while, he stopped. He grew quiet and watched. His mouth turned into a straight line, his blue eyes focused on me beneath his protruding brow.
I cartwheeled on the hot road, little pebbles of stone and glass sticking to my palms. I spun in circles, howling like a blood-drunk pup. Dizzy, I craned my head back and watched the desert sun puncture holes in the pale blue sky over and over, like clockwork. The air was dry and delicious and suffocating, all at once. Then a car pulled off the road about 20 yards ahead.
I stopped dancing. My arms dropped to my side like a puppet whose strings had been cut. My face loosened and my mouth finally closed. I bent forward with my hands on my knees and breathed hard through my nose, trying to catch my breath. The feeling from the night before, beneath the silent and far away stars, washed over me again. It felt incredible, this new wound.
My fiancé walked toward me with both our bags in his hands. I said nothing to him, taking my pack. We looked at each other for a moment. The tops of his shoulders sunburnt. My greasy hair pulled back. Stranger to stranger. In love, or killing time. I wasn’t sure. We turned to run for the car awaiting us.
Nikki Zambon is from a small, dirt-road town in Montana. She graduated with a degree in Journalism from the University of Montana. Her creative work has been published or is forthcoming in Bluestem Magazine, Ponder Review, The Oval Literary Magazine, and Scare Street. Her journalism has appeared in the Montana Kaimin, Missoulian, Billings Gazette, MTPR, and other publications. She lives in Missoula, Montana but runs to the ocean as often as she can.