The Painted Desert


Susan Smith Nash




            I should have known better.  It was too good to be true.  I had met him at the pool, and after several weeks of swimming laps together, he asked me if I wanted to have dinner sometime.


He picked me up at my house – even brought flowers – we played the piano a bit, talked about swimming, then headed out.


            “Where do you want to go?”  he asked.  I suggested The Painted Desert – a restaurant I used to frequent when I was raising money for the Oklahoma City United Way.  It had a kicked-back desert southwest atmosphere, with neon saguaro cactus and bandanna’d coyotes howling at the moon.  At least that was how I remembered it.


            After we walked in, I noticed that the place had declined a bit since then.  The neon coyotes and the turquoise and coral jewel-toned leather chairs were gone.  The frosted glass saguaro-motif windows had been replaced by “Coors On Tap Today!” and, to my horror, I discovered it was one of the few restaurants that actually allowed smoking.  Once seated in the stinging blue haze, the waitresses were, if not indifferent, downright surly.


            “You know, you only live once,” he said.


            I was watching a couple of guys in cowboy hats challenging each other to eat jalapeno peppers and chase them with mugs of beer.


            “And there are some things in life that one deserves – it’s the very minimum.”


            The man in the white straw cowboy hat was smirking at his friend.  The jalapeno in his hand was at least two inches long. 


I looked at my swimming buddy.  I had no idea what concept or idea he was trying to express.  He had never seemed particularly philosophical while swimming laps.  Actually, I liked him because he was easy to beat, and I could live my “glory days” as a competitive swimmer.  Never mind that in reality I had never been particularly fast.


“Sex every day.  That is one thing –“


“What?  I couldn’t hear you.”  It was very loud, and they were playing some sort of “classic” I vaguely recognized.  “Free Bird” by some sort of brother band.  I took another sip of my cheap but good Chilean wine.


“SEX.  At least once every day,” he said. That time I heard him. 


“That’s what you think you deserve?  Like some sort of inalienable right?”  I asked.


“Don’t you think that everyone deserves to be happy?  How can you argue?”  he said.  He was very serious.


The guy in the white cowboy hat was getting ready to chomp down on his jalapeno.  His friend, a shorter guy in a brown cowboy hat looked at him, momentarily expressionless.


“I’m a man.  I’m not getting younger – I need it.  And, let me tell you – I like older women.  My first time was with an older woman.  She was Russian,” my swimming buddy said.  His jaw was clenched, and he stared intently at the votive candle in front of us.  Silhouettes of worn horses and cowhorns were etched into the table.  It was suddenly very obvious to me what the deal was.


“Are you married?”


“Yes, Danielle, I am.  I will not lie to you.”


“How many children?  Where’s your wife?  I asked.  It turned out he had two small children, a wife and a mother-in-law at home.  According to him, his wife and he were “like roommates.”  I wondered if he knew what a cliché this was.


“So.  You think I can somehow help you?  Have you thought about preying upon your students?” 


“Oh, no.  That would be wrong,” he said.


“Don’t you have a right to them?  After all, you are stronger than they are, aren’t you?”


He had no idea I was outraged.


I couldn’t believe he would actually think I would be interested.


“What would your wife say?” I asked.


“Oh, she wouldn’t mind,” he said.


The guy in the white cowboy hat turned a bright shade of red, gasped, and groped for his mug.  Tears streamed down his face.  His friend burst into laughter.


I looked at my swimming buddy.  He wasn’t an unattractive man, and I had been very encouraged by our brief conversations.  Smoke stung my skin and eyes.  I never expected this.


I put my hand on his knee.  “What would you do if I told you I had no pantyhose and no panties on.  What if I said we could sneak into the ladies’ room, lock the door and no one would know…”


I could feel his knee tremble.


“Yeah.  Yeah.  I could do it.  It wouldn’t take long.  Thirty seconds.  And then I could be ready again in 15 minutes,” he said.


“That’s supposed to be appealing to me?” 


I finished my wine.  My mind wandered as he talked about his inherent and undisputable rights as the male of the species.  Before we paid the bill (or, more accurately, I paid the bill, since all he had on him was two dollars cash and an expired Diners Club card), I grabbed his knee again and looked deeply in his eyes. 


“Too bad -- there’s a line to the ladies’ room,”  I said.


On the way home, it occurred to me that such heavy-handed teasing may not have been such a great idea.  He suggested we stop by his office for a minute or two.


“No.  I need to go home and I need to think about things.”


“What do you have to think about?” he asked. 


I contemplated jumping out at the stop sign he would have to stop at after we existed the Interstate.  There was a telephone and I would call my sister or my best friend, Bob.  I could maintain my dignity, perhaps.  It probably wouldn’t be necessary, but it was an option. 


Fortunately, he took me home without incident.  The halo I had attached to swimmers was completely undeserved, I decided.  Further, my need to “beat” him (in the pool or by being a smart ass) wasn’t healthy sport.


The next morning, I threw away the jar of jalapenos in my refrigerator.  I couldn’t stand watching them swimming around, turgid in their own juice.