Engrams, California

Stephanie Danler

Winter 2017

Like the tectonic plates that keep California unsteady, trauma’s movement is never interrupted; it is always shifting—yet we only pay attention when it’s a disaster.

The Love Interest and I are driving again, this time along the San Bernardino freeway where it splits the desert. We are heading east to camp for the weekend, first to Joshua Tree and then the long way back to LA by the Salton Sea. He’s picked me up from a bachelorette party in Palm Springs. I have glitter in my hair and four false eyelashes left. I’m so hungover I’m nearly fetal. I’ve been gone four months on book tour, I leave again in a week, and I’m on a deadline.

“I want to say that the desiccation of Owens Lake is the greatest environmental disaster in California’s history.”

“The greatest?” He’s skeptical. “Is that true?”

“I don’t know. It feels true.”

“Maybe you should do some research before you write something like that. I can put you in touch with one of my professors.”

“No, never mind.”

I put my hand on the window. Heat ripples against the glass, the wind turbines moving plaintively through it.

“So you want general permission to write whatever feels true?”

Many months ago, on our first trip to the desert, The Love Interest took me to see a piece of land art at Owens Lake. I’d never heard of the place, but he once worked on a ranch overlooking it. It was a new enough relationship that I said yes to everything. This part of California’s central valley, laid between the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevadas, is a tourist stop for those on their way to Mount Whitney. The area, however, is most famous for economic depression and good meth. As we crossed Death Valley and found the Sierras extending sharply into the horizon, I saw what looked like a massive scab on the earth.

“There it is,” he said, watching my reaction.

“There what is?” I scanned the naked landscape. “Where’s the lake?”

“There is no lake. That’s the point. Aren’t you from here?”

I didn’t respond.

Stephanie Danler is the author of Sweetbitter. She is currently working on non-fiction and is based in Los Angeles.

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