You’ll say it was because your parents didn’t understand you—that’s why you left—but really it’s because they understood you too well. They looked at you, their daughter, the way they read labels in the grocery store. All the ingredients adding up. They watched you with faint, serious joy playing across their faces.
“Sally Sunshine,” people call you now: the other hippies and runaways and spirit-seekers. “Sally Sunny Sunshine,” they say, because you hardly ever stay inside. You sit in the sun until your fair skin burns, the heat branding your shoulders, your cheeks—your nipples when you go topless—burning until the skin blisters and peels. The skin: it lifts off the surface of your arms like a pale thin rust.
“Sally, Sally Sunshine,” the others sing. “What are you going to do today?”
How good it feels to be misunderstood, to be looked at as something unknowable. You do things to keep them guessing. You do things to keep yourself guessing.
“You’re so young,” says one of the men. Another sour-smelling, matted-haired man. You grab his crotch and look him straight in the eyes and laugh.
The house belongs to an old artist. He has a long beard and skin like a raisin and sometimes he disappears into the desert then comes back and makes tea and sits on the porch, still staring into the desert.
You aren’t sure he even realizes everyone else is there.
You are a queen. Your hair is loose and ropey. Your skin burned. You wear a long dress and let it drag behind you. You walk barefoot everywhere. You step on burrs, in coyote shit, on nails. You don’t care. That is part of your mystery: how little you care. You are an animal. You burrow into pillows. You speak only in howls. You are a pure thing: you do what you want. You do not help clean. You do not help cook. You won’t say sorry.
Sometimes the others talk about ideals: Liberty, Equality, Peace. You like the sound of the words. You like that you can put the words in your pocket, let them jangle alongside a raven feather, a gold coin, a bullet casing. Things that seem both precious and worthless.
“Categorical,” says the old man, the artist, rocking on the porch. He looks out at the desert. He looks and looks and looks:
There are the mountains, naked. Scrubbed to brown. Everything naked, too hot for anything else.
And the smoke, the sweat smells, the candle burning; barefeet, ringing bells.
Still, it’s in your brain. Your parents’ words, like acid, worming inside you. “Sally,” they used to say, “our brave little girl. Our smart little girl. You’re going to do big things. You’re going to do important things.” And how it pains you, remembering this, how it makes you writhe and dance and press your fingers into the sharp ends of saguaro spines, thinking, knowing, that they still might be right.