Burning Man

Ashley Hand
Photograph by Sam Mathews on Unsplash

A line of cars shimmered in the heat on the two-lane highway. The grocery stores and mini-marts had been emptied and goods had been marked up for resale on the side of the road. Bottled water was being hocked for seven dollars apiece out of tents along the gravel shoulder. Gas stations had run dry and vendors were meting out fuel from red spouted jugs at twenty dollars a gallon. Desert people in rubber flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts would pull up alongside stranded caravans in beat-up ATVs and begin pouring crude oil into Escalades and Range Rovers with California license plates. There was nothing anyone could do but pay and keep moving. The desert people would zoom off in a cloud of dust and refill their jerry cans from fuel bladders in the back of flatbed farm trucks and hustle off to rescue the next car that had been run aground.

The Reddit threads had warned about this. They warned that people from Reno would stockpile all the nonperishables from WinCo and Safeway before burners flew in and then they’d drive up to the Black Rock desert to cash out on the tech elites that came in from San Mateo and Palo Alto, bewildered pilgrims en route to their mecca. Pop-Tarts would be five dollars a pack. Hand sanitizer and baby wipes, ten. Duracell batteries, twenty. The ATMs would be emptied out. There would be a ten-dollar surcharge if you had to swipe your card. The desert people had tiny magstripe readers connected to their iPhones. They were prepared. It was extortion. It was antithetical to the values of Burning Man. But these people weren’t burners. What could you do.

Mac and I had driven across Arizona and then north into Nevada. The city would spring up in the dry basin at the skirt of the Calico Mountains. It existed for one week each year. Thousands of people came from all over and camped out and went wild and made art with packs of strangers. Mac had told me about it a few months after he’d gotten home from Afghanistan. He said he’d always wanted to go, ever since he’d first heard about Burning Man. I didn’t understand. I said, what is Burning Man. Is it a festival. Is it a place. Is it like Coachella. He told me that it was a template for utopia. Sojourners flocked to Nevada to make a temporary city in the desert. He said it was for people who wanted to throw off the constraints of society and come together to live in social freedom. There was no exchange of money. No stores. People came with all their gear and set up encampments on the bare desertscape. They exchanged gifts and services. There was no municipal infrastructure. It was an ephemeral construct. A brief mirage. There was no potable water. No street lamps or traffic signals. People wrapped themselves in strands of battery-powered Christmas lights and walked naked through the desert at night so they wouldn’t get run over by burners hurtling around on bicycles or in golf carts.

I said what do you do out there. What is the point of the city. Mac told me the experience was meant to be surreal, cerebral, this unbelievable tidal wave of people coming together out of nowhere. I pictured the crashing of drums, strobe lights, people making sculptures out of vines of slithering steel, flinging buckets of paint at canvases the size of drive-in movie theater screens. It sounded like a commune. It sounded like a modern Dust Bowl, everyone caravanning out to no-man’s-land to squat around in the dirt. I wanted to say, but you just got back from squatting around in the dirt. You were doing that for eight months. Instead I asked, why is it called Burning Man. Is there a man that burns. I thought of the Israelites, the women in braids and bangles, men erecting false gods, lighting them on fire and prancing and preening in their camps at night. I thought of women dressed as pharaohs. I thought of molten gold, strange orgies. I had listened to podcasts about this sort of thing, watched documentaries, cult leaders that built shantytowns in the middle of nowhere, fathered their flocks in cardboard tabernacles. Mac said it wasn’t like that. He said that on the last night on the playa, before the city got taken down, before everyone packed up and drove off, there was a big party. Everyone in the city teamed up to make these big pieces of art and then they set them on fire. They burned down every last one. The bonfire reached up to the galaxies. A wooden effigy went up in flames. It was a man inside a circle, arms spread out like wings, like in the famous da Vinci drawing. Mac came alive when he told me about it and I felt a fear of something I couldn’t name.

He liked the noise and bustle and strangeness of new mixed company. Since he’d gotten home, he’d been far away. Tethered to the dock, but adrift offshore. He hadn’t sunk an anchor yet. His meanness had gone, and in its place was a pleasant distance. We lived in a low-hipped ranch house in Albuquerque at the base of the Sandias. It was almost two thousand square feet but it suddenly felt too small to contain the both of us. It felt like we couldn’t spend quiet moments together anymore, just him and I. He was always fixing something in the house or exercising in the garage gym and I’d be in the kitchen making a steak and corn cob dinner, seven layers of mascara on my eyelashes, short shorts, legs waxed and oiled, trying to attract him with a good meal and sex, and I’d hear the steel plates clanging against each other or the hum of a drill and know he had not come home yet. Some nights he would tell me that he’d invited the guys over for drinks and a fire. He’d built a pit in the backyard and set up nylon camping chairs and folding plastic lawn chairs around it. He came alive when his parajumper buddies were over. He came alive around the fire. He was jocular. He carried a fifth of Maker’s Mark around and took nips from it and laughed and laughed and he was kind to me then, but not in a way that felt singular. I felt I was one among many, part of a crew for merrymaking, and he was still eluding me. His bright eyes troubled me.

We had a big sliding glass door that led from our breakfast room out to a patio. The backyard was xeriscaped with rocks and brittlebush and apache plumes. We had a plaster pool shaped like a kidney bean in the ground. When Mac was in Afghanistan and I was all alone at home, I would run and jump in the crystal water in the middle of the day still wearing my cotton sleep shirt and underwear. The immediate chill always shocked me. It could be over a hundred degrees outside and the pool water would still take my breath away. I’d get out and lie on the hot concrete deck to warm up. Wind chimes hung from our pergola and I listened to their percussion as the afternoon zephyr rolled off the Sandias. The desert beyond the fence thrushed with life. There were bats and bobcats and porcupines out along the mantle that ran towards the mountains. I’d bake and bake until the sun gave me vertigo and made me tired and then I would go inside. Our home had a gasburning Kiva fireplace. I’d click the remote to start the flames and lie on the raised hearth, feel the fire warming the metal against my thigh. My skin smelled of chlorine. I’d fall asleep with a cool washcloth on my forehead until early evening when it was starting to get dark. There were neon fish in a glass tank behind the couch. I clicked the light off in the aquarium when the sun was melting into the desert and watched the fish slow and eventually go still, hovering in the water with lidless stares as the gloam in the room began to retreat into dusk.

I’d been out of the military for a year. I’d picked up a job with a real estate company. I telecommuted from the sofa and pushed papers. I didn’t care about it. I accomplished tasks with my brain hovering five feet over my body. I became nocturnal. My eyes grew bigger in the dark like a marsupial. When I saw myself in the fluorescence of the bathroom mirror, there were raccoon rings from smeared mascara and restless sleep. I barely ate anything when Mac was deployed. When I grocery shopped, I put wheat thins and bran flakes and blue corn tortilla chips in the cart. Yogurt pouches and jars of green olives. I ate ten tiny meals a day with my hands, standing in front of the open pantry or refrigerator. Sometimes I bought glossy green cucumbers and zucchini because they looked so pretty in their neat stacks in the store. They always turned soft in the crisper and started to stink and I had to throw them out. My muscles shrank. I got thinner, and soft. In the days before Mac came home, I struggled to remember what sorts of meals I’d made before. I didn’t know what to fill the pantry with. I wandered through the grocery aisles and came home with frozen pizzas and pork cutlets and vermicelli noodles I didn’t know how to cook.

We were lying in bed one night and from the rhythm of Mac’s breathing I knew he was awake. I’d been watching YouTube videos that day, researching. Black Rock City was so big you could see it from space. A topographical heat map showed the city lit up at night like a Milky Way unfurled across the desert floor. There were pulsing whorls of green and purple. It looked like a star exploding.

That day, I’d fallen asleep by the pool and rose with a burn that had already turned my skin pink under my freckles. Mac had been doing yard work in the front. A row of fig bushes needed pruning, and he’d started hacking and hacking and pretty soon had a chain saw running and was cutting down a tree, an old Blue Atlas cedar that had died and turned brittle. I’d asked him if he needed help but he said no. He left for the hardware store to buy a new axe so he could cut the trunk up into firewood. I started making dinner. My skin hurt to the touch. I soaked a pair of shorts and a T-shirt in the tub and wore them dripping around the house to cool the burn. I was freezing and on fire at the same time. When Mac came in and saw me, he was tender. He went and washed his hands and when he came back into the kitchen, he had broken an aloe stem off of one of the potted plants outside. He crooked a finger at me. He sat down on a stool at the kitchen counter and used meat scissors to cut the T-shirt off of me so I wouldn’t have to lift it over my head. He rubbed the ooze of the cactus all over my back. He brushed my hair to the side so it lay over one of my shoulders and kissed the stem of my neck. I always felt like I was on the brink of crying these days. I never knew which version of himself he was going to be. This version was almost too much to bear.

In the dark, I reached for his hand. I said okay. Let’s go to Nevada. Let’s camp and make love on a bedroll and then let’s burn down art.


The line of cars streaking out to the desert looked like a deployment convoy. The Afghans had driven dusty old safari cars and finger-painted intricate designs on their windows, hung chimes from the running boards. Next to our MRAPs, the jingle trucks looked like they could belong to a circus. Some burners had already decorated their cars with strange art. Behind us was a sprinter van that had been blasted with aquamarine paint. A large metal shark glittered on the roof, teeth bared and tail flapping whenever I glanced in the side mirror.

You could tell who the experienced burners were. They made the trek out to the playa with trailers attached to old Land Cruisers. They came flying in with gear hooded under tarps and belted down with netting and ratchet straps, everything coated in a layer of dust. I wondered what was under all those tarps. I’d brought our camping gear. A tent, a Coleman stove, fold-up chairs. Sleeping bags. Little pots and two sets of utensils, looped together on carabiners. We’d packed thirty gallons of water to last us a week of cleaning, cooking, drinking, showering. Everything we needed fit in the back of the Jeep. What were all these trailers and tarps? I imagined bundles of lumber and scrap metal and other raw materials that would be used to construct the supersized desert art, scalable sculptures that would stand fifty feet in the air. I felt foolish and ill equipped, like perhaps we had brought nothing to contribute to the festival and wouldn’t know how to participate. I wanted to do this correctly, to prove something to Mac, that we could enter another portal together and I could go along with him, stride for stride.

We crested a hill and then it felt like we had emerged upon a strange mirage. A brim of sun blazed on the far off stretch of oceanless shoreline. We could see cranes out in the flat expanse of playa with elegant thin necks like giraffes, already getting to work on assembling massive structures that would eventually burn. People were swarming everywhere. They could have been dung beetles on the Serengeti. Drones were capturing the mayhem from the air. The dry expanse looked like a place where nukes could be secreted away underground.

All of the cars had to enter the playa through a checkpoint. There were greeters dressed in tie-dye and hair spiked up in mohawks. A topless woman painted in milky indigo chalk waved our car over. Mac rolled down the window and handed the woman our tickets. We’d found them up for sale on Craigslist after the signup window. We could only hope they were real. From the passenger’s seat, I could see the sweat that had run in little rivulets down the creases of her breasts. We could hear the rumble and clang of music far off in the distance. The woman asked if we were virgins and it was clear that we were by the looks on our faces, our uncertainty. Then we were being directed to get out of the car and roll around in the dirt. The woman laughed and sprinkled glitter over us from a pouch that was looped around her waist. She said we were being baptized. She told us to rise anew as burners. Then she helped us up and her breasts flattened into pancakes against Mac’s solid chest when she hugged him.

I thought of my first deployment, before I’d gotten out of the military for Mac. He was enlisted and I was an officer and it wasn’t sustainable to go on hiding the way we had been. I’d been sent to Afghanistan my first time. There was a longstanding initiation ritual. It normally came at the end of the tour. You would get duct taped to a broken-down office chair and everyone would dump food all over you. Mayonnaise and maraschino cherries and baked beans and hot-dog juice and wet fistfuls of lasagna. Then they would wheel the office chair around camp and people would cheer and laugh. Afterwards, they would set you loose and you had to go clean up the mess.

Our greeter had given us a map. Our tickets told us where we were supposed to set up camp at a place called La Bamba, which appeared to be a little strip in a sea of other strips that formed a half-moon arc across the playa. We had trouble finding our site. There was an invisible organization to the playa that we didn’t know how to decode. We kept stopping people on scooters and bicycles and asking if they could point us in the right direction. I was worried Mac would get annoyed, but he was relaxed. He was wearing neon green shorts and reflective sunglasses and a tank top and he had the windows rolled down and the dust was swirling around and he touched a strand of my gritty hair and said that was playa gold, baby, playa gold. He reached over and squeezed my thigh then kept his hand there as he drove. He was in his element, navigating this tent city. He’d spent years of his life by now living in a tent city in other deserts. He was brimming with an energy I only saw when he was around a fire.

When we found our spot, Mac and I set up our orange tent. The stakes didn’t hammer easily into the hard earth. Mac hooked up a parachute hammock between the Jeep and the rungs of the stairs on the neighbors’ RV. He’d made friends with them instantly. He went over to their camp and said hello and then they cracked beers and were joking and laughing. He was like this. He knew how to create family from whoever was around. I needed a break. I crawled into the tent and opened my bag and took out a makeup wipe to clean my face. I worried I was wearing the wrong thing. It looked like all the women were in costumes. I was in bright workout gear. I’d put a ribbon in my hair to be festive. My chest felt like it was draped with something heavy. I snapped a Xanax in half and sat crisscross on my sleeping bag and tried to regulate my breathing. I hid in the tent for fifteen minutes before Mac called my name. I didn’t want to start this out on the wrong foot. I unzipped the door and stepped out into the blinding light. Mac motioned for me to come hang out with the neighbors. I raised my hand in a wave and went to the cooler like I was going to grab a beer. I took my time rubbing Coppertone into my skin. It had been chilling on ice and had thickened into a paste. It gave me goosebumps in the sun. The wind kicked up a whorl of sand and sprayed invisible grit across my wet arms and legs. The sunscreen felt like exfoliant as I rubbed it in.

You weren’t allowed to build a fire right on the desert floor. It had to be raised up off the ground six inches so that when you packed up to leave there would be no evidence of scarring on the playa. Mac had stoked a fire to life inside a steel half-drum that he’d propped up on wooden blocks. I drank my beer quickly so it would go straight to my head. The neighbors were nice and I found myself starting to relax as dusk settled and the playa began to cool off. The man was a computer geek of some sort. The woman was a therapist in the San Joaquin valley. I found myself situated in a camp chair beside the woman, Samantha. We roasted kebabs and tore the meat off with our teeth. The food and drink soothed me but I was tired. I dropped a kiss on Mac’s cheek and said goodnight. I went to bed when they were still up around the fire, convivial, swapping stories late into the night.


When I’d first gotten to New Mexico, I felt naked and exposed on the wide open landscape. You could see forever. I missed the mountains. I missed the water and the trees. Desert people were strange. They looked like they ate raw meat, cracked uncooked eggs into their mouths and slurped from the shell. They had gold crowns over their molars. Their skin was hardened and the women wore their hair long and frazzled. The dry heat made me tired. The heat was a tangible thing. You could see it shimmering on the asphalt. The grocery stores depressed me. When I walked through the automatic sliding doors of Walmart and felt the rush of the AC jetting down from the ceiling, it was like I had entered a strange oasis. People were zooming around on motorized carts. Women weren’t wearing bras. Their long breasts sloped to the left and right around their stomachs. People didn’t exercise because it was too hot. Men wore Crocodile Dundee hats with starched feathers over one ear. You could see rings worn into the back pockets of their jeans where they slipped their cans of dip.

Over time the desert became home. After a rainfall, the desert became wondrous to me. I’d see a cleft lip in a bare rockface, glittering wet, and feel touched by its beauty and humanity. The desert had a way of stripping things down. I found I could think and speak more plainly. This desert terrified me. It was unfamiliar. The people were strange. There were lizards crawling everywhere on garbage bags. I woke the next morning before Mac, when the sky was still black, and I unzipped the tent and went to sit in one of the camping chairs around the fire pit. The embers from the night before were still smoking. Somewhere in the distance, there was a voice over a loudspeaker, and chanting music. It sounded like a call to prayer. The sanitation workers and cooks on the base in Afghanistan had all been locals. There was a tent set up for them as a makeshift mosque. In the hot months they would roll up the sides of the tent and you could see all of the workers prone in a large group on their mats. That was what it sounded like. I put on a headlamp and walked toward the sound of the loudspeaker. Torches had been lit up against the early morning sky, beacons to light the way before the arrival of the playa sunrise. From a distance I could see a throng of people folded up like praying mantes on yoga mats. People were belly breathing and expelling giant ohms, offering them up in a cosmic cacophony.

My hips were sore from sleeping on the ground so I walked a ways to stretch my legs. When I got back to the camp site, Mac was awake. He greeted me with warmth. He kissed my cheek. He’d put charcoal cubes in a pan and propped a grate over the drum. He set up a percolator and made Saudi coffee that he’d brought home with him from his deployment. Soon the neighbors were up and we spent the morning in comfortable quietude because of the groundwork that had been laid the night before. The snapping wood filled the gaps in conversation. I dressed for the day in a neon bathing suit and shorts, and when the sun rose, Mac and I set out to explore the area around our camp. We were situated on the fringe of the playa, not far from a great expanse of untouched desert. In some places the sand was packed tight as concrete and men rode skateboards bare-chested with their shirts in the air like sails.

There were outdoor art galleries to explore, street performers and exhibitions and specialty booths. We saw a mechanical Pegasus, great wings flapping. We saw a woman wearing bobby socks and little boys’ underwear with a peeing hole, smearing a canvas with paint. She was creating a sea of birds of paradise, their slick stems like spiky mango-colored genitalia, sex organs exposed to the sun. Men walked around in berets and kilts. We saw an abominable snowman. Someone had set up a temporary skate park. There was a gaggle of jet skis in a dry lake bed. A woman forty weeks pregnant was dispensing syringes of colostrum straight down people’s throats. A banner hung above her head that said Liquid Gold. She was also a fortune teller. She took our palms and ran her index finger over the lines and told us our futures in vague brushstrokes.

It was the biggest carnival I’d ever been to. We came across people jousting with pugil sticks. A man was cycling on a stationary bike connected to a power board that lit up a pinball machine. In one camp, people were flinging torchlit batons at one another. In another camp, you could sit in a chair and stick your head inside a bell and then someone gonged it with a great wooden stick and the noise reverberated through your ears. Everyone had to work and play together in order to make the world real. Mac and I rode a Ferris wheel together and daytime fireworks exploded in the air when we peaked the wheel. From up top, we could see a large piece of art being constructed. It was the figure of a woman. Her head was hanging by her neck from a crane. I was struck by its elegance and austerity.

On some parts of the playa, tents were two feet apart. They rose up out of the ground like miniature Egyptian pyramids. Dust devils whirled about. We wore ski goggles to protect our eyes from the sand. We learned the layout of the city from walking around. Different neighborhoods had different themes. One was recreating prom. They had a tent full of dresses and suits and jewelry and you could try on anything you wanted and wear it out and dance in front of a mini stage. There were guitars and violins and tambourines and harmonicas and maracas and drums and anyone could go up there and play for the couples dancing in the crowd. Another camp had brought all kinds of costumes. Everything was free. Mac took a pirate hat and a Mexican poncho. One of the big art sculptures we passed was a birdcage propped up on legs. It soared forty feet in the air. Inside, people were doing aerial yoga from sheets suspended from tightrope lines, like a desert Cirque du Soleil, their silhouettes dark against the solar blaze in the distance. There were trampolines below to catch them if they fell.

We drank like fish. My vision was blurry. When we stopped to pee, the Porta Potties were decorated with glow-in-the-dark stars and synthetic flowers. Dusk descended and there were glow sticks latched to the spokes of bikes, flinging neon cartwheels across the desert as people cycled along. I was dazed by the lanterns that sparked in the night, the metamorphoses of the daytime desert to the evening desert, all the art and costumes and performances and theme camps and burning structures, the music and mutant vehicles, fire conclaves, crucibles, everything in technicolor, writhing and gyrating, flames flitting about, fractals emblazoned on my pupils.

One camp had created a Trojan horse as tall as the tower of Pisa and put it on massive wagon wheels and pulled it along on ropes. We finished our day inside a huge head with a complex labyrinth inside, scaffolding that divided up the brain into eighteen rooms. If you made it through the most intricate part of the maze, crawled through a tunnel on your hands and knees and found your way through a trap door at the end, you emerged in the center of the eyeball. There was a stained-glass cathedral window that you could look out to survey the playa. Mac and I made it to the eyeball. He led the way. The part I looked through was green. The part he looked through was red. We swapped places after a few minutes. A placard at the entrance of the labyrinth said that this art structure was dedicated to the struggles of the mind, and I found myself wondering as Mac looked in awe over the playa if he and I would only be able to connect from now on in a different plane of reality.

When we got back to our camp, we found that a pack of Australians had arrived. Our fire circle grew. They were whooping and loud and fun. We had partied with Australians before, in Africa, when Mac and I had been deployed together there. It had been innocent enough then. Mac had access to all kinds of controlled substances as a medic. They didn’t do random drug testing in the desert so it wasn’t such a concern. When we had a successful hostage rescue, the Australians would throw a secret party. Mac was invited, and he brought me with him. We met in a tent at the corner of the tent city and sat on overturned buckets and drank Ambien cocktails and took go-pills. We played cards and it felt innocent because we were all in uniform, we were all out there together in the middle of nowhere, we were bonding.

I asked Mac about the Air Force. I said, won’t they be able to tell that you’ve smoked pot if they do a drug test. He laughed and ruffled the hair on the crown of my head like I was a child. He told me no, it was fine. THC could stay in your hair for a while but the military only did urine tests, and for those, you could metabolize and exercise the THC out of your system in time. He was in shape. It was fine. He passed me a bong. I didn’t know how to take a hit from it. He showed me but I didn’t want to. I asked if there was anything else and he procured a piece of chocolate for me with something cooked into it. I ate a piece and then stuck to my beer. I felt lightheaded and nauseous at first, and then a warmth spread over me. I saw a female deity rising up out of the tongues of smoke. I saw the mane of a wolf. A woman I didn’t know was touching my ponytail, rubbing it between two fingers, telling me I was fabulosa, and could she put strands of gossamer in my hair. I’d seen people walking around with glitter streamers roped into their braids. I said yes. She terrified me. Her eyes were green gemstones.

That night in the tent Mac said, why don’t we try something new. We’re out here. We might as well. He tried to tear at my clothes. The fabric wouldn’t rip. He bunched my swimsuit in fists but it was nylon and wouldn’t give. He told me to choke him. I put one hand around his neck and he said, both. I squeezed lightly and he told me to do it harder. He came that way. I was scared. I thought doesn’t anyone want clean, pure, sweet, kind sex anymore, just regular sex with the man on top and holding each other at the end. When we fell asleep, I dreamed that I was at the peak of Annapurna dressed in the feathers of a cockatiel, screaming out into a void.

The next morning I was up early again. When I unzipped the tent, I saw Samantha was sitting by the fire. I nodded at her and tugged my sweatshirt over my head. The playa was so cold when it was dark. Samantha offered me coffee and I accepted it for the warmth in my hands. I stared at the fire. She asked me if I felt okay from the night before. I said I was fine. I’d only taken a small edible.

After a while, she asked, Do you think the fireworks bothered him?

I looked at her curiously.

Mac, she said. The explosions.

I vaguely remembered him speaking of his deployment the night before, and the firework show that had gone off.

I shook my head. I think he loved them, I said. He likes living like this. He likes living in a tent, all his gear in a pelican case. I looked into my cup. I said, I think that is what worries me.

You two seem far apart, she said. Tears slipped out of my eyes. She moved her chair closer to mine.

Did he experience some trauma over there, she asked. I said I didn’t know. I said that he hadn’t told me anything, that he was shut down. Closed for business. Even when he seemed to be in a good mood, there was a block up between us. I told her that on another deployment, he’d had a friend die. He’d been bitter and broken after that. I would have known how to deal with that anger. I’d already figured out how to unlock that box. This time was different.

She told me about relationship therapy using LSD and ecstasy. She said it helped to enhance intimacy and open communication. I must have given her a look like she was insane. She told me that pharmacologists in the seventies had started using it experimentally in couples therapy. They had their patients listen to classical music, Beethoven and Mahler, while waiting for it to kick in. She told me that ecstasy turned off the amygdala, and thus the fear and anger responses, so that people could share their authentic selves. It dissolved grudges. It opened people up in a way that other things couldn’t. The oxytocin fostered trust and bonding. The effects of the trip could last way longer than the comedown. It was so much easier to listen, to truly hear and understand. Nothing was off the table. She said, it will break down walls that you didn’t even know were there. She said, that is what Burning Man is about. You may as well experience it if you can.

She pressed some pills into my hand and closed my fist around them. She gave me a warm smile. She said she could tell that I was good but that I was skeptical about all of this. Give it a try, she said.

I put the pills in my pocket and thanked her, sure that I would drop them in the toilet at the earliest opportunity. The others were up soon after. We had breakfast. The Australians went off to explore. I was exhausted and posted up in the hammock with a book. Mac stretched and went for a run, then came back and changed and went off to find the Australians. He gave me a kiss on the cheek before he left. Our phones had horrible signals out on the playa. He said he would be back in a couple of hours to check on me.

He left me alone all day. I was happy not to be bothered. I was exhausted from the day before. But I felt lonely and estranged. I tried to quell my anger when Mac returned. His eyes were bright. He said they’d had the rowdiest day. The Australians were a wild crew. He loved them. I gave him a stiff smile. He squeezed my thigh and told me not to be mad. He made dinner for our small camp and I could see that he had established a brotherhood with the Australians already, in less than a day. They were telling stories and laughing about the things they had seen. They’d stumbled into a sex tent with bean bags scattered everywhere. It smelled like grape hookah and sweat and semen. They’d stayed to watch part of a movie that was cast on a projector and seen people doing wild things to each other.

I was happy I hadn’t been with them. I wanted to vomit when they described the smell. But still I felt left out. The pills were still in my pocket. I heard them talking about a Skrillex concert that was going down in another camp in a couple of hours, once the playa got dark. I piped up that I wanted to go. Mac asked if I was sure. He said he would stay with me if I was tired. I nodded. I pulled out a costume from my bag that I’d brought with me. It was something I had hung on the wall in our living room. I’d bought it from an art dealer in Santa Fe. It was an Indian headdress, an intricate war bonnet made of grouse feathers and beads and leather. I wore a knit top through which my nipples were visible, a billowing skirt. I emerged from the tent looking like a different person.

The concert had strobe lights and colorful gases that blew over the crowd. I didn’t like the music that was playing but I tried to pretend that I did. I danced and drank and Mac spun me around and so did the Australians. In an intermission, I pulled the pills Samantha had given me out of my skirt pocket. I offered them up on my palm to Mac. I spoke loudly over the noise. I bent in close to his ear and said that Samantha had given them to me. I said the MDMA would be good for us. I’d looked it up. It would be out of our systems in two or three days. It was safe. He took one and I took one and the world turned different colors. Another band came on the stage and I found myself singing along to Toto. Mac hoisted me up onto his shoulders. We swayed in the crowd, blessing the rains down in Africa. I thought of the days when we met in Sierra Leone. I felt magic descending on us from on high. I had red paint gashes on my cheeks.

That night, he unwrapped his wounds. There was nothing between us. I saw the pus and the blood. Mac’s version of Afghanistan this time had been two a.m. raids along pitted city streets, galactic green light filtering through his night vision goggles. Barefoot men herded into corners, blindfolded, hands bound with plastic zip ties. Field amputations. Bombed-out buildings and children bleeding. Wet purple organ meat strewn across the desert. I held his secrets in the palms of my hands and kissed them. He cried and said he was so fucked up. He was so fucked up, for fuck’s sake, he missed it. He cried to me that he missed that other desert.

Coming down from a deployment was terrible. I’d done it before myself, though it was different for me. I never went outside the wire. But still it was strange, going from free meals at the dining hall and never having to carry your wallet, dust on your boots, sweat on your lips, such a feeling of community, then coming home and sitting in your house and having no one to eat dinner with. We used to get midnight meal as a group in Afghanistan and sometimes there would be an incoming when we were in line with our plates getting pancakes and fried chicken and spaghetti, whatever was left over from the breakfast and lunch and dinner meals from earlier. The food was cradled in silver trays, bellies lit by Bunsen burners. We would seek shelter under the skirted metal serving tables when the alarms sounded, our guns empty, magazines pressing against our hips. This temporary thing in the middle of the desert, it brought people together. And then at the end you had to leave it, break it down, pick up your tentpoles and go home.

Mac told me he wanted to go to the other side of the world and smoke opium in a white tent and wave sage with a shaman and have visions and feel nirvana. He’d tied a bandana around his head and his beard sprouted out of his face in snarls and I thought he looked the part of one of the burners. He said he followed a guy on Instagram who got high and ran ultramarathons. He wanted to be that guy. He wanted to run for miles and miles and miles and never stop, feel the high of the run and the drugs, hear the amplified sound of the wind, feel each droplet of sweat. He said he wanted to curl up inside my body and die there.

The next morning I turned to him with a soft smile and kissed him. I said, thank you for last night. I said, you felt so far away. But you’re back again. I missed you. I cannot explain how much I missed you. He looked at me strangely. He was a stone wall. He didn’t remember any of it.


I read an article once about a couple who lived in the hills outside of Los Angeles. A wildfire had blown out of control and jumped ten miles, covered the distance to their home in less than two hours. There was no time to escape. The roads into the city were packed. People were burning in the shells of their cars. The couple had no choice. They jumped in their swimming pool. It was October. The water was freezing. They stayed below water all night, only surfacing for air when it felt like their lungs were going to burst. They treaded water together. They held each other for warmth. Fire fell in the sky around them. It felt like their skin was melting when they parted their lips for air. They held their wet shirts over their mouths to protect their lungs from the ash, took a single gasping breath, then plunged back below the water. Again and again, they did this. Their cell phones melted in the blaze. There was no way to call 911. They were found a day later by firefighters. They lived. Freezing, burning, holding each other, nearly drowning. But they lived to climb out of the pool. They said they had never felt closer to each other than in the aftermath of that wildfire.

My favorite fire Mac ever built: when he left his wife for me. Oh, the madness of it, watching a marriage go up in flames. We jumped in the pool together and the fire raged around us and I’d never felt closer to him. He burned it all down for me. So long as the hills around us were lit up, we were safe. We were treading water together, clinging to one another. It was getting out of the pool when all the timber had fallen and the ozone was clear and the coals had been raked over into ash and it blew up in our faces and we coughed and choked and then stood there silent, looking at each other. It was then that I felt as though I was in the presence of a stranger.

Ashley Hand is a service academy graduate and spent her career as a military officer deploying around the world. She left the service in 2018 to pursue an MFA at Cornell University. Her work has appeared in PloughsharesWest Branch, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. She currently lives and writes in upstate New York, where she is at work on her first novel.