This Desert Was an Ocean



Each of our journeys to the desert starts the same way—with hands pulling us from our beds. I am deep into a dream when the hands come for me. They wrap around my wrists and ankles like toothless jaws. When I wake in the dark of my own bedroom, I think their sticky heat is just part of the dream, but then I feel my body pull tight against the cords of another body.

The hands lift me up, the comforter slipping off my body, falling to the floor. The air heavy against my skin. Easy, the man says. Easy. But really it is three men. They wrap their arms around me. To them I am a thing to be carried, a thing to be handled.

As impossible as it is, there is some inevitability to this moment. All our lives we’ve been living inside a fist, waiting for it to tighten around us. We’ve heard about girls snatched from their bedrooms, pulled into alleys, grabbed on the way to the bus stop. We’ve been warned about strangers in cars, in shopping malls, in parking lots. Our parents have picked out the safest neighborhoods, installed deadbolts and security systems and window screens that can’t be cut or bashed in—still we are careful. We do not walk alone, we do not believe someone who claims to know us, we do not open the door when no one else is home. We’ve been living on borrowed time, but we’ve always suspected someone would show up to make good on our debt.

We tell each other the stories as comedies. I thought I was going to piss myself. I tried to grab onto the bed and all the sheets came off in my hand and they pulled me out of the room dragging the whole pile. I thought I was dreaming. I thought I was tripping. I screamed so loud they dropped me. I shouted, “It wasn’t me” and they all froze. I don’t wear pants when I sleep; they’re lucky I put on underwear. I thought they were going to push me out the window and so I said, “I’m afraid of heights.”

We laugh. We don’t say that before we understood who hired them, we thought the men in our rooms were rapists, murderers, neighbors we’d caught hooking their gazes into us from their driveways. We pictured girls shackled and screaming in basements, bodies folded up in trash cans, posters with our faces plastered to light poles and stop signs. Still, we laugh as we tell the stories. We laugh like only teenage girls can—like laughing is the only power we have.

Some of the girls say that when the hands come for them, they fight back. They kick, they flail, they scratch and bite. I test the men’s hold, but I do not bother to challenge them. I can feel immediately the sureness of their grip. They press my legs together so that the bones of my knees and ankles rub. My body will go where they take it.

When I tell my version, I skip over some parts—the bedroom door opening and the buttery light from the hallway slanting into my room, the sudden swell of desperation to see my parents. I do not tell the other girls that when I see my mother at the top of the stairs, I feel the distinct relief of a found child. I do not say how long it takes me to understand that she has not come to save me. The men carry me down the stairs, each thumping step sends a rumble through my joints as if we are one body now. I hear the pull of the hinges on the front door and see the porch light, a handful of moths orbiting, bumping their wings against the glass. To a moth, every bright light is the moon.

I smell the dew on the lawn—the air without sunlight is dank and heavy. When I look up, it’s as if the canvas of sky has been torn down and the colossal darkness behind it has been exposed.

I do not say that when the men get me into the van I am embarrassed by my bralessness under my shirt and my bare feet. I do not say that I still do not understand what’s happening, even as I feel the engine idling beneath me and the cock-back of my organs as the van bucks to life. I say that I see my mother’s face and I know exactly what kind of story I am in.

▴ ▴ ▴

When we tell these stories, we aim for that moment of clarity, when the fear finds its shape. Each memory catches there. For me this clarity doesn’t happen when I see my mother; it happens in the van. There are no seats, it’s just a carpeted floor with seatbelts bolted to the walls. I can tell the seatbelts aren’t meant to be used; they exist to check a box on a form somewhere. I am caged in; there is a metal grate between me and the driver, and the two men riding in the back with me crowd near the door. My parents will kill you, I say, even though my parents are not those kind of people. The man closest to me smiles. I don’t think so, he says. It’s the tone of his voice that gives him away. It’s reaching for some authority that is not his to claim. That’s when it sinks in—my mom and dad are not bystanders in this story. They have sent for these men.

In our house, there is a halogen lamp in the living room. When the moths dive into it, their bodies burn against the bulb. While we watch TV, we also watch the moths flutter toward the lamp. We don’t stop them. We don’t turn off the light. Instead we wait for them to discover the truth—that their moon is no moon. We listen for the sizzle of their wings. The knowing turns them to smoke.





One story is the same as the next. We are each moved like a piece furniture. Mostly the men don’t touch us, but the threat of their hands never disappears. We are driven through the night, across state lines. When we have to go to the bathroom, we stop at gas stations where the restroom entrances are around back. The men follow us in. They stand by the door listening to the sound of our urine hitting the water. We are supposed to thank them for how they turn away from us while we’re on the toilet, how they wait for us to wipe and pull up our underwear.

Our world collapses to the size of the van. We cannot return to our homes now that we know that they are not homes. And the men do not tell us where we are going. We’re standing on a bridge that’s been burned at both ends.

When the men talk to us, they talk like they want to be our friends, as if they see themselves as only a couple of years older than us. They ask us what we did to get sent away. They want us to offer up some part of ourselves, but they don’t understand that to offer up anything would be to offer up everything. Our actions are fused to us now. That’s what it means to be a troubled teen. There’s no distance between who we are and what we do. Every broken curfew, every hangover, every car crashed or wallet stolen or pill swallowed is proof that we have tipped too far past ourselves and become something else.

The trip is endless. The men give us water, granola bars. Some of them buy us candy. Peach rings or Twizzlers or neon worms. They talk about girlfriends who may or may not exist, licking their lips as they explain the things these women let them do. They talk to each other, but they are really talking to us. They ask us again what we did. They want details. If we tell them anything it is because we want them to forget how much they can take from us.

We become the only people in the world—these men and us. We look at them from the corners of our eyes, try to calculate which one is in charge and which one is most likely to be cruel. The hours bleed away. Our adrenaline has disappeared. It is replaced by something unexpected—not comfort exactly, but a familiarity. The van becomes a home. It is a reminder just how adaptable we are. If we sleep, it is accidental. We cross our arms over our chest and push into the corner, our back against the metal grate. Even if we dream, we never forget the risks of having a body.

▴ ▴ ▴

There is no warning before the trip ends. We feel the van slow, we hear the tires peeling up from the asphalt as they do before a stop. But we don’t know if it’s just another break along the way. We don’t know where we’re going or how long it takes to get there. Maybe we ask the men once or twice, but they will not tell us, and we know better than to admit that there is something we need from them.

When the doors open, the men are back in the bodies that pulled us out of bed. They are official. It is somehow a loss to watch them morph back into these other selves. We are still not human to them.

We taste the dust as soon as we’re out of the van. There is something bovine and burnt in the air. The sky presses down heavier than we remember. The men have their hands out like they are trying to corral a wild horse.

The building in front of us is squat and brick. It’s too mundane to be a part of this story, we think, but the men lead us toward the automatic doors. The sound of the doors pulling apart drops us into our former lives. Already that’s how we think of everything that’s come before this—our former lives. We remember walking into grocery stores and malls—how often we used to wave our bodies in front of motion sensors just to prove we existed.





The inside of the building is a waiting room—chairs pushed arm to arm, beige walls. The men communicate wordlessly now, using their hands and quick juts of their chins. When they point at a seat, we sit. The empty chairs around us suggest the possibility of other people, but no one shows up. Though our journeys are all the same, we are each alone.

It is a relief of course that this is what’s waiting for us, a room as regular as a pediatrician’s office. But it is also disappointing to find ourselves in the exact story we’ve been trying to escape. In this light the men take on a different shape. Their size no longer gives them the upper hand, and the way they move bumps up against the sterile backdrop of this place.

We can’t help but feel a certain fondness for the men. Even though we’ve spent hours with them in the back of the van, our gums raw with fear, these men are our only tether to our former lives. We cling to the possibility that our welfare is worth something to them.

The men gather near the receptionist’s desk, where a woman in scrubs sits behind glass. She slides a piece of paper across the desk. One of the men snaps it up and holds it out to the others. Something passes through each of them, their shoulders loosen, their weight sinks down. It is the relief of finishing a task.

We are sure that before the men go they will at least glance back to offer some version of a good-bye. But as they head for the square of daylight pressing through the glass doors, not one of them turns around. Their bodies become silhouettes, then the door slides on its track and the men disappear to the other side.

No one bothers to come for us. The men are gone, but we do not yet know who will replace them. Maybe we look at the automatic doors and consider making a run for it, but we are sure someone has already controlled for this possibility. There must be a locking mechanism. Or maybe we are being watched on a security camera. Either way, we take our cue from the space. We are in a waiting room, so we wait.

▴ ▴ ▴

When the nurse finally swings open a door and calls our name, she speaks with no urgency. Her gaze clicks over us without catching on anything. She is not surprised by our bare feet, our pajama bottoms, our uncombed hair. The way she waits with the door propped against her back, a clipboard clasped in one hand, we can tell that this is just a regular workday to her. She has no interest in separating us from the stream of other names she’s called before.

As we step past her into a back hallway, we have to fight the urge to wreak havoc. It’s not necessarily in our nature, but watching someone move through time as if it has not been broken apart flicks some instinct awake. We want everyone around us to be displaced as we have been. So even those of us who do not have a propensity for violence have to talk ourselves down. We want to swing our fists at her skull, claw at her eyes, we want to sink our teeth into her skin—anything to remind her that this day is no regular day.

When we tell these stories, some girls say they lose it with the nurse—they cuss, they shout, they sit down and refuse to get up. But most of us hold ourselves back. When the nurse asks us to step on a scale, we do. When she motions us into an exam room, we follow. She hands us a cloth gown to change into and instructs us to undress completely. Then, she leaves us alone. The exam table is covered with a sheet of medical tissue paper, but underneath is the soft vinyl that reminds us of seats on a school bus. The room smells of it—the scent of plastic masquerading as skin.

It’s a jolt to the system to find ourselves alone in a room. Quickly we realize there is not much damage we can do. There are no glass jars of cotton swabs, no boxes of rubber gloves or equipment attached to the walls. If we bother to pull on the cabinet doors, we find them locked.

We change into the gown, opening in the back, and we sit on the table, the paper rough and crinkling too loudly. We can smell ourselves, the sweaty funk of fear and sleep. We cross our legs and pull the gown shut as best we can.

The knock at the door is gentle—there is a question in it that we don’t expect. The woman who comes in has her hair pulled back. She closes the door softly like she is afraid of waking us even though we are sitting up, legs dangling. She is small without being delicate and when she picks her head up, she gives us that look we’re hungry for. It’s not pity exactly, but it’s close. Maybe it’s just the expression of someone willing to see us as human.

She doesn’t bother to introduce herself, but we don’t notice because she says something to disarm us, something that tells us that she is sympathetic but also that she holds the power here. I know it’s been a long trip or I bet you’re ready for this to be over.

The woman is careful not to force eye contact, but if we meet her gaze, she holds it. She glances down at the clipboard as if it’s an assignment we have to work on together, as if she doesn’t want to be here either.

The first questions she asks are easy—our name, our birthday, our address. But once she establishes the rhythm of question-answer, she tries to extract so much more.

Are you on any medication? Have you ever been hospitalized? Have you ever broken any bones? Have you ever had surgery? Have you ever felt like hurting yourself? Do you ever hear voices? Are you sexually active? Is there any chance you might be pregnant? Have you ever taken any unprescribed or illicit drugs? Do you have any cuts or bruises right now?

No matter how we answer this final question, it’s an invitation for her to examine us. Maybe we don’t notice how practiced this transition is, but the woman hits the notes perfectly, raising her eyebrows in a gentle May I as she sets the clipboard down.

Then her hands are on us. She presses the cool moon of the stethoscope against our skin. She shines a light into our ears, down our throat. At first we are soothed by her touch—it’s so careful, so yielding. She taps our collarbone with her fingertips, she traces the knobs of our spine all the way up our neck until they give way to our skull. It’s a reminder how rare touch is, how once you’re old enough, touch sort of just dries up. Not that people our age don’t touch. But always there is some agenda now—at this age touching is only ever catapulting you further and further toward some other thing.

She asks about our scars. We tell her our stories of childhood accidents, catching our limbs on fences, falling off beds, splitting our skin open on the asphalt. They are stories we’ve told so many times, we can’t remember if they’re true. If we have the sort of scars that don’t require an explanation, she doesn’t ask about them.

The woman pushes into the soft flesh under our jaw. She listens to our breathing. The longer we spend on this table, the more we begin to feel like livestock. She is not examining us the way another doctor might, with the intention of curing what ails us. She’s checking our body as if our parts are worth something to her only if they’re undamaged. But still there is a deliberate gentleness in her touch, and we know she doesn’t owe us any kindness, so we do not get in her way.

The last thing she checks is our feet. She asks us to push against her hand with our toes. She pinches our Achilles tendons. Already we can feel her unsticking from the room, moving to the next thing in her head. But before she goes, she motions for us to stand up. We push off the exam table. The air slips through the back of the gown.

I have to check for a tampon or a piercing, she says. She makes sure to furrow her brow so we know how sorry she is to be asking. But we’re not really even sure what she’s asking, so we just stand there waiting.

You just have to flip the gown up for one second, she says. So I can see that there’s nothing up there.

The way she says it makes it sound like a reasonable request, as if she’s asked it a million times before without complaint. We take the hem of the gown in our hands and in one quick motion we flip it up and snap it back down. The woman marks something down on her clipboard and then without looking us in the face, she exits the room. We understand now that this is what her kindness was angling for—getting through this without us fighting back.

Over the past few months some of us have been questioned, grounded, suspended, expelled, handcuffed, strip searched, medicated, and hospitalized. We’ve lied and stolen and cheated and blacked out. We’ve snuck out of windows and fallen off of roofs; we’ve locked ourselves in our rooms. We’ve slept in basements and bus stations and cars. We’ve starved ourselves and cut ourselves and pressed the hot tip of a lighter to our skin. We’ve gotten in fistfights and shouting matches. We’ve snorted and smoked and swallowed anything we could get our hands on and then leveraged our bodies for more. But still, pulling up that gown, exposing our cunt to prove that we are not hiding anything inside, is a fresh surrender.





None of us are allowed to wear our own clothes—not even our underwear. Instead someone comes into the exam room to ask us our sizes. We stand there naked under the paper gown while they tic through their list. Pant size, shirt size, shoe size, bra size. If we try to explain that we are between sizes or that it depends whether the shirts are women’s or unisex, we can see the impatience spread into their face. They just want something to write down on the form.

Our outfit from home is folded into a plastic bag and taken away. In its place we are given a stack of army surplus clothes. A dark green T-shirt, cargo pants, rough white cotton underwear, a sports bra. It’s hard to tell if the clothes have been worn before. There’s a bagginess that suggests that maybe they’ve already formed to a body.

The bra has no elasticity and the T-shirt collar is snug up against our throat. If the pants fit at the waist, they are too loose around the knees. Even if we need a belt, we know better than to ask for one. No one is going to give us a belt.

Putting the clothes on, feeling the catch of their fabric against our skin, reminds us that we are someone different now. These are not our choices. Our brain keeps bouncing between our former life and now, trying to gauge the distance we’ve covered. It’s impossible—like trying to use a ruler to measure something that covers miles.

Once we’re dressed, another woman leads us through two doors and into another part of the building. There is a distinct shift in the function of the place. It does not have the sterile finish of the exam room. The walls are made of painted cinderblock, and the air smells of something that has been washed but not properly dried.

The woman leads us into a storage room. The space is cramped by metal shelving packed with gear—backpacks and sleeping bags and tarps. We are told to have a seat in a hard plastic chair. The woman in charge of us now is rougher than the woman from the exam room. She is used to things that can be picked up and moved.

We are given thick wool socks. They have no elasticity. The cuffs slip down and bunch around our ankles. The woman curls over paperwork. We can feel her resentment like another body in the room. Maybe it is just that our presence requires so much paperwork, but we suspect something heftier. Her bitterness is sharp, and it reminds us of times when we’ve been in a position to demand something of an adult—like ordering food at a restaurant. But we are not asking for anything; we are sitting still, waiting for her to tell us what comes next.

We are given a pair of boots, but before we slip them on, we are told to hold the left boot up next to our face with the sole forward. The woman snaps our picture with a Polaroid camera. This is the only time she looks us squarely in the eye—through the lens. She flaps the square of white around, checking every other second to see if the picture has emerged. When the color finally sets in, she thrusts the picture at us. It’s cruel almost, the way she wants to watch us examine ourselves. In the picture we are strangers. For a second, we suspect it’s a trick. But then we recognize the bags under our eyes or the angle of our chin.

Below the picture, in the thick white border the woman writes our name and our shoe size. Maybe we figure it out without her telling us, but still she says it aloud. This will be the picture they use if we try to run away. It has everything they need to track us—our face and our boot tread. The woman smiles like a dare and tells us to lace up.

Once we have shoes on, the process speeds up. It’s like we’re a liability now, as if wearing boots gives us power. The woman hustles us outside and passes us off like she’s handing over a leashed dog. This new woman looks us up and down and then nods as if she’s committing our body to memory. There’s something sturdy and ageless about her. When she speaks, her voice is rough, like she’s spent great chunks of her life out in the cold.

A truck is parked at the curb. It’s one of those small pickups with just a bench seat. Rust has eaten into the body around the wheels. This woman motions us to get inside, so we slide in. The seat is cracked and the foam cushion spills out. It smells dusty and sunbeaten, like a dog’s coat. Someone tosses something into the truck bed—we feel the weight settle.

The woman opens the driver-side door and slides into the seat. She’s holding a bandanna. We have to be careful, she says, and we can tell she’s asking something of us. Maybe she wants to tie our wrists behind our back.

We can’t have you knowing the way, she says and she motions for us to turn our head. We understand—it’s a blindfold. We do this for everyone, she says. Out the passenger window we see a man standing nearby. Then the woman pulls the bandanna over our face and all we see are the slivers of light around the bridge of our nose.

The passenger door opens and the man climbs in. The truck settles even lower. We feel trapped, a thick body on either side of us. But we understand this is the point. The man is here to keep us from bailing out of the car while it’s moving.

The woman jams the stick shift into gear, knocking into our legs. Then the truck bucks to life and everything that’s happened up until now recedes into the darkness like a pebble thrown down a well.





The bandanna has been used before. We can smell it—the sweaty funk of someone else’s skin. We imagine the bodies that have come before us, their eyelashes bending against this very cloth, their brows furrowing and unfurrowing in an effort to loosen the tension. We have no idea how many other people have been blinded by this bandanna, but its texture is like an old T-shirt that’s been greased and softened over decades.

We are afraid. It is a primal sort of fear—the kind that spreads over the skin and into the blood. Maybe it’s just the forward motion coupled with the darkness. Or maybe we can smell the stale terror of all those that have come before us. We try to calm ourselves by peering down toward the light, but our eyes begin to ache.

It’s impossible to stay in place—our body slides with the momentum of the truck. Our arms press into these people’s arms—it is such an intimate sensation, to feel a film of wet and not know whether it’s our sweat or theirs. If we try to pin ourselves to the seat by wedging our feet against the floor, our tendons wear out quickly and we have to give ourselves over to the physics of it. Again and again the woman jams the stick shift into our legs.

At first we can feel the asphalt beneath the tires. The stops are jerky, but we appreciate them. They are proof that the truck is subject to some system of laws. But then, there is a sharp turn and the smooth ribbon of road is replaced with something rough and jagged. The truck’s movements become unpredictable. It feels as if the tires have lost their purchase on the earth.

The fear blooms behind our eyes. We had no idea that gravity was somehow linked to sight, but it’s as if without our eyes to hold it down, the truck is about to lift off. Maybe the woman can see the fear in our bodies. She starts talking even though she has to shout to be heard. We can’t tell if she’s talking to us or the man, but she speaks in a sort of shorthand, dropping names of people we don’t know and bits of phrasing from a world we don’t inhabit. Four had to call Jesse again last night, she says. Would be better if they split them up, but no one’s asking me. She keeps talking even when we don’t offer anything back.

The truck fishtails. The back wheels threaten to slide past the front, but the woman doesn’t slow down. We hit a couple of bumps and the top of our skull kisses the ceiling. The man doesn’t speak. Sweat gathers behind our knees. Whether we believe in God or not, we pray. We bargain, we make deals, we squeeze our eyes closed and wish ourselves out of the truck. The ride takes so long that it seems possible we are going in circles, that this is part of some effort to break and disorient us. The windshield is a magnifying glass for the sun. Sweat spreads along our lips and seeps into our mouth.

The longer we go without being able to see ourselves, the more possible it becomes that we don’t exist at all. To dispel this fear, we take inventory of our body, but our mind can only hold one small part of us at a time. There is the knob of our left ankle, the divot in our molar, the soft bed of flesh under our tongue. There is the patch of scalp behind our ear, the hollow at the base of our neck where the collar bones come together, and the thin smooth armor of our thumbnail. If we drift from this cataloguing, a distance opens up between us and our bodies, and we have to zero in on some small bit to reel ourselves back in.

When the truck finally slides to a stop, we hold our limbs still to keep from fighting our way to the door.

You can take it off now, the woman says. We don’t wait—we tear the blindfold over our head. If any hairs have been tied up in the knot, we don’t care—we yank them from our scalp.

A cloud of dust clings to the air around the truck. Both the man and the woman push their doors open and step out. If we aren’t sure whether to follow, the woman leans in and tells us to.

The dirt here is the color of dead pine needles. Already we can feel it settling into the folds of our ears and the corners of our eyes. When we breathe, the dust works its way down our throat and into our lungs.

The woman pulls a backpack out of the truck bed. It’s the size of a small child. She balances it on the tailgate and motions us over. We slip our arms into the straps and when we stand, the weight settles onto our joints. When we buckle the waist strap and the chest strap, it’s like a creature has wrapped its tentacles around our body.

The woman eyes us and then yanks on the straps. The backpack’s heft pulls on our bones. Once she’s made enough adjustments, the woman steps back. She looks pleased, as if she can relax now that the backpack is pinning us to the earth.

They’re waiting for us, she says. Let’s go. She turns her back to us and starts walking.

When we step forward, the pack pulls down on our spine. The boots are stiff and heavy and the socks bunch around our toes. We keep our eyes on the woman at first. We are still coming out of our blindness and the rest of the world is just a smear of light. But as soon as we let our gaze drift, we find the land spread out in every direction. Around us, the sagebrush points skyward. Each bush is shaped like a flame. Clustered together, they look like a fire that’s been turned into a ghost of itself.

The landscape is not flat, but it gives the impression of flatness. Maybe because it stretches out so far—the lumps of hill and puckered slopes of dirt are small compared to the expanse. But the farther we press into it, the more it feels like we are at the bottom of something, as if the illusion of flatness is really the weight of some invisible force. At first we think maybe it’s just that the whip-dry heat can’t hold up against the sky. But that’s not it. We are feeling the impossible history of this place. Tens of millions of years ago this was the floor of a prehistoric ocean, and though we cannot imagine seawater washed hundreds of feet above our heads, we can sense that somehow—even after all this time—this desert is still not used to the hard light of day.

The woman leads along a narrow trail. The man follows behind. The backpack straps dig into our skin. We try to find a rhythm to our steps, but this new weight makes every muscle move differently, so we can’t settle into our usual gait.

No one warns us what’s coming. We are following the woman, watching the skin on the back of her arms, the thick column of her neck, and then suddenly her stance shifts, she pulls up and sidesteps as if she means to let us move past her.

That’s when we see the group. We have known this whole time that we are part of something larger. As we moved through the hands of people along the way we could feel that this path had been worn by other bodies, but it hadn’t occurred to us that we may have to face those other bodies.

No one speaks. There’s something almost feral about the group—their skin is smeared with dirt, their hair is greasy and unkempt, their knees are stained dark. We can feel eyes climbing all over us, measuring our limbs, how we hold ourselves, searching for the story etched into our bones.

Even with the kick of revulsion in our gut, we know we are a part of this group. It’s like being swallowed—we are separate from them and then all at once we are a part of them. Though our impulse is to resist being lumped in with these girls, we find some freedom in it. Since we’ve been pulled from our beds, we have been an interchangeable piece in this story. No one has cared about the difference between any of us—to them one girl is the same as another. But standing here in front of each other, the us collapses. It’s like stepping out from between two mirrors. We are no longer just one singular story echoing into the past and future. Something else kicks to life—there is an I in this story now. And there is a you.

Laura Price Steele is a writer and editor. Though originally from Colorado, she now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina where she earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She has been the winner of the Ploughshares Emerging Writer Contest in nonfiction as well as the Montana Prize in fiction. Her work appears or is forthcoming in CutBank, Ploughshares, the Iowa Review, and Cream City Review, among others. Currently she is working on a novel.