Julia in the Desert

By Suzanne Kamata

Day #1

“This isn’t Luxor,” Joji sneered. At sixteen, everything was beneath contempt. “This is more like Khafre. The Sphinx is in front of Khafre.”

Julia rolled her eyes. After the short flight from Osaka and the long flight from Seoul, they were all cranky. “This is America,” she said. “Who cares?” She could be snarky, too, though she was secretly impressed by her son’s knowledge of Egyptian archeology. They had never been to Egypt.

It had been her husband Yu who’d wanted to visit Las Vegas. Julia had used it as bait, a visit to the in-laws in Ohio no longer being incentive enough to get him to hop on a plane for fourteen hours, and endure ten days of jet lag, cornflakes, and Obama-bashing. The kids, too, were starting to get blasé about travel. When she’d floated the idea of a family vacation to Italy, they’d sighed.

Marina had started signing furiously about the potential lack of WiFi, while Joji had said, “If I miss school I won’t get a certificate for perfect attendance this year.”

“Believe me,” Julia scoffed. “In ten years – maybe even a few months from now – that won’t even matter.”

School was all the time. Even during so-called holidays, Japanese kids were rounded up for “extra lessons” and “summer school.” Julia was convinced that the whole system was set up to keep the young and impressionable from straying too far and developing ideas of their own. My children are sheep! They’re robots!

The prime minister had declared that college students no longer needed to study the humanities. In fact, the government didn’t want them to study history and literature any more. They would be allowed to learn enough English to discuss engineering or whatever with foreigners, but they didn’t need that other stuff. Oh, and the business about Japanese soldiers ransacking Nanking and enslaving Korean women for sex? Never happened.

The kids were, let’s face it, Japanese. Sure, they had American passports thanks to their American mom, but they’d been born and raised in a conservative Japanese farm town. Julia had given up on her dream of bicultural children, but it was good – necessary, even – to temper their father’s increasingly nationalistic rhetoric with a little Americana. Julia had to get her kids out of Japan, if only for a moment, before they were totally brainwashed.

The hotel was, of course, faux Egyptian, shaped like a pyramid, but with no fewer than three Starbuck’s outposts inside.

Yu stood off to one side with the kids – Marina in her wheelchair, and Joji, slouching next to her – craning his neck toward the casino, while she checked in.

“Does he need a roll-in shower?”the Indian clerk asked with a nod toward Marina.

She,” Julia corrected. “And yes, that would be nice.” That was the second time since deplaning that Marina had been mistaken for a boy. The first time had been while they were waiting to go through customs. The Filipino guy who’d been assigned to help them with the wheelchair had referred to Marina as “him.” Julia had let it pass, thinking the mistake the result of second language pronoun confusion. God knows her students in Japan had plenty of trouble keeping the identifiers straight. But English was the lingua franca in India, wasn’t it?

Julia glanced at her daughter as she waited for the card keys. Nothing wrong with tomboys and being transgender, but Marina was a girlie girl, a lover of all things pink and Hello Kitty. Maybe they should have let her keep her hair long. Maybe she should be wearing make-up like her American teenaged peers, and more feminine clothes. At least she couldn’t hear people calling her a boy. At that age, it would probably send her into despair.

“Here you are ma’am.” The clerk slid a receipt and the card keys across the desk. Julia handed them to Yu.

“I’ll meet you up at the room,” she said.

She got in another line to rent a car for their excursion to Hoover Dam three days hence. Not only would they see the Blue Man Show and Cirque de Soleil, but they’d learn some history, too. Julia herself was keen to get out into the desert. She’d never been, but she’d had fantasies about wandering the sands like Gertrude Bell.


In the hotel room, the kids had already accessed the hotel Wifi and were absorbed with their iPads. Due to the time difference, their friends in Japan were probably just waking up.

Yu was watching TV. Donald Trump’s orange face took up half the screen before giving way to a commercial about the Miss Universe pageant about to take place in Vegas. Julia remembered that there had been a hullaballoo in Japan over Miss Japan because her father was a foreigner. Some people thought that she wasn’t authentically Japanese, yet in international athletic competitions the Japanese were always proud to claim their hafu representatives, who, thanks to foreign genes tended to be taller and stronger than their “whole” team members.

But who cares? For the next two weeks, they were in multi-culti America. It would be good for her kids to see folks of all colors and creeds mixed up together.

“Well, why don’t we go grab a bite to eat and look around?” Julia tried to infuse her voice with cheer, although what she really wanted to do was take a bath and go to bed. She never slept on airplanes. But here they were, and she was determined to make the most of it.


They had burgers in a sports bar on the first floor. The guys kept their eyes on the widescreen TV broadcasting an NBA game, while Marina stole surreptitious glances at the iPod resting on her knee, checking for free WiFi, no doubt.

When they returned to their room afterwards, bloated with Coke and carbs, Yuji got a second wind. “I’m gonna go try my luck at the blackjack tables. Do you want to come?”

Julia shook her head.

“Hey, Dad,” Joji said, his thumb in a guidebook. “If you win lots of money, can we do a bungee jump from the tower?”

“Sure. And dinner at the Paris Hotel for you,” he said, winking at Julia.

“Fingers crossed,” Julia muttered. She took a scalding shower and negotiated Marina into bed. Unlike most teenagers, Joji slept according to a rigid schedule, but left to her own devices, his sister would stay up all night. She’d read that kids with cerebral palsy often had sleep issues. Something to do with the brain. The jet lag didn’t help. By the time Julia had pulled the covers up to Marina’s chin, Yu was back.


He shook his head. “I lost three hundred dollars in twenty minutes.”


Day #2


Out of the hotel and away from the strip, there was a string of fast food restaurants. They had to be cheaper than the hotel restaurants.

“Why don’t we try the Panda Express,” Julia said. She was pretty sure there would be no dinner at the Paris Hotel. Yu had gambled away another fifty dollars that afternoon, this time at the slot machines.

They headed down the sidewalk, away from the gush of the Bellagio’s fountain, the castle of Excalibur, toward the seedier, cheaper district. Julia pushed Marina’s wheelchair, while Joji slouched along behind. She wondered if she should tell him to not wear the hood of his sweatshirt.

A guy with a droopy moustache and a green flak jacket, came dragging a wheeled carry-on bag from the opposite direction. He was ranting incoherently.

Julia stared straight ahead, intent on ignoring him, hoping her family would take the cue.

“I was going to kill somebody today,” the crazy guy said, “but then I saw your son.”

Julia looked over at Joji, alarmed, but the guy was pointing to Marina, the presumably inspirational-because-disabled deterrent of his violence. She couldn’t help herself. “She’s my daughter.”

Yu touched her elbow. “Maybe we should go across the road,” he said in a low voice.

“Yeah, okay,” Julia quickly agreed. She wondered if they should call the cops. Maybe this guy really did plan to kill someone.

The Panda Express was two doors down from a rifle range. For a fee, apparently anyone could fire a machine gun. Welcome to America, kids! Everything you’ve heard is true!

“Dad, can we?” Joji pointed to the sign. A Rambo look-a-like lofted his weapon.

“No,” Julia said. “Absolutely not.”  


Day #3


Julia had bought tickets to a Cirque de Soleil show on the internet, which she now realized was a dumb idea. Booths selling discount tickets were scattered along the strip. They could have seen anything they wanted for half price! Well, at least they had decent seats.

The performance was as spectacular as advertised: The vertical battle scene! Bare-chested men running in hoops! The juggling! The dancing! The costumes and makeup! Julia was overwhelmed by the possibilities of the human body. Immediately after the show, Yu and the kids rushed the gift shop, as if a mask or a T-shirt could prolong the high. Plastic bags slung over their shoulders, they emerged from the hotel, back onto the Strip, into gritty real-life.

A crowd had gathered down the road in front of the faux Eiffel Tower at the Paris Hotel. They heard the whirr of sirens as a fleet of ambulances approached, saw the red lights of a patrol car spotlighting spectators’ shocked faces.

“What happened?” Julia asked, grabbing onto Yuji’s shirtsleeve. Like he would know.

“Someone said there was a suicide bomber,” a guy nearby blurted out. He was standing on his tip-toes, trying to see what was going on.

“Like a terrorist?” Joji asked. Julia thought that he sounded a little bit scared.

“Yeah, fuckin’ ISIS, man” the rubbernecker said unhelpfully.

Yu nodded as if it was all so-o-o predictable.

Way to foment hysteria, Julia thought. “Let’s move along, gang,” she said to her family. “I’m sure there’s an explanation.”

Marina wagged her finger. “What? What?”

Julia shook her head and began pushing her wheelchair in the direction of their hotel. “Why don’t we splurge for some ice cream?” She mimed licking a cone.

Joji and Marina both nodded enthusiastically. Junk food was always a great diversion.

Back at the hotel, after gooey sundaes, they turned on CNN. Lots was happening in Vegas that night, it turned out. During the Miss Universe pageant hours earlier, the emcee had named the wrong contestant as the winner. And across from the Bellagio, where they had stood watching water spurt into the sky, a woman had driven her car into a group of Canadian tourists lingering on the sidewalk. People were dead, some injured. A toddler had been in the car with her.

“Dangerous country,” Yuji said, his eyes bright, as if he were watching a movie, not a report of something that had happened in real life. Everything about Vegas seemed fake.

Joji shoved in his earbuds and cracked open a textbook. Marina was already texting her friends in Japan, oblivious to the TV. Maybe they were experiencing sensory overload, Julia reasoned. Maybe Las Vegas was just too much. She thought about the stretch of pure desert beyond, an expanse of nothing but sand, tumbleweeds, jackrabbits, and cacti.

“Thank goodness we’re going to see the Hoover Dam tomorrow,” Julia said.

No one seemed to be listening.


Day #4


The next morning the alarm went off at six. Julia pounded the clock with her fist and snapped on the light. The guys groaned in unison. Marina didn’t stir.

“Come on! The concierge said that if we wait too long, we’ll get stuck in traffic.”

“I thought we were going to go bungee jumping,” Joji mumbled.

“Did your dad win any money?” Julia poked Marina’s shoulder. No response.

“No, but…”

“Well, then. Today is our only chance to see the Great Hoover Dam. It’ll be educational!” she said, eyeing the stack of textbooks beside Joji’s rollaway.

“Yeah, but it won’t be on the test,” Joji said. “Why don’t you go? I’ll stay here.”

Julia sighed. “Yu? Are you going to back me up here?”

“I think we should just hang out around here, maybe check out the Trump Hotel.”

“I’m absolutely not going to set foot in anything Trump!”

Yu rubbed his eyes, surprised at her outburst. “Okay, okay.”

Julia grabbed a pair of jeans and a sweater out of her suitcase and went into the bathroom to change. She figured that by the time she’d washed and creamed her face and put on her make-up, the rest of her family would have gotten out of bed. But no. They were all snoring softly.

“Hey, you guys,” she said.

Yu’s eyelids flickered open.

“I’m going to see the Hoover Dam. If you’re coming with me, get out of bed now. Otherwise, I’ll see you at dinner.”

“Bye, Mom,” Joji said. “Take some pictures, okay?”


Once she was behind the wheel of the rental car, Julia realized that she was not all that gung-ho on seeing the dam. She suddenly recalled that Hoover was one of the more reviled past presidents — a businessman with no previous governing experience who drove the country to the edge of ruin. Also, she dreaded the thought of being called upon to photograph families and couples as she wandered from explanatory plaque to plaque by herself. If she was going to be on her own, she’d rather be somewhere solitary. She decided that she would just get out of the city, away from the insanity of the Strip, and drive for a while.

She maneuvered the sedan out of the parking garage and onto the street. The car was equipped with a navigation system, so she wasn’t likely to get lost. When she was ready to come back, she’d just enter the hotel address and heed the computerized voice. For now, she was going to try to get someplace where there was hardly any traffic.

She drove past small businesses and houses, past the billboard welcoming visitors to Las Vegas, and continued beyond the mall. This was more like it. Okay, maybe the terrain was dull. There were no “colorful” people or castle-shaped buildings, but it was normal. She imagined neighborhoods of plumbers and schoolteachers and bank clerks, and their kids with their homework and baseball teams and hobbies, and their ordinary lives. She let her mind go blank. And then she found herself surrounded by desert.       The rental sedan was the only car on the road for as far as she could see.

What if I drove off the road, into the desert? She wondered. Maybe she could park somewhere, and walk around barefoot in the sand, pretend to be Gertrude Bell. Her heartbeat sped up. Why not?  She turned the wheel and left the highway, half expecting bells and alarms to go off, or maybe a giant Gila monster would emerge from the sand to punish her for breaking the rules. But nothing happened. She suddenly felt liberated. She was free of the scary homeless guy, free of Miss Universe, free of her grouchy children, free of her unlucky husband, and whatever had happened to that crowd of people on the sidewalk. Behind the car, sand sprayed like surf. It was as if she were in a boat, gliding on a sugary white sea.

Okay. Here. She brought the car to a gentle halt and cut the engine. When she stepped out of the car and looked back, she couldn’t quite make out the road. How far had she gone? Not all that far. And anyway, she had the navigation system. She would be able to get back, no problem.

Julia took off her shoes and dug her feet into the sand. The dirt underneath was cool. In fact, with the wind whipping around her, tossing grains into her face, it was pretty cold. She put her shoes back on and walked around the car, thinking, I’m finally here! I’m in the desert! People often spoke of transformative spiritual events taking place in the desert. Jesus, for example. And others high on peyote. Julia leaned against the car, waiting for enlightenment, but she just felt cold. And a little lonely. Why hadn’t she brought a notebook, at least, to record her feelings? She remembered that Joji had asked for photos. She got back in the car and rummaged around in her purse until she found her Smartphone. She pressed the button on the side, but the screen remained dark. Great. The battery was dead.

Her stomach grumbled. It was lunchtime. Maybe she should find a little diner, have a sandwich, and then head back. She cranked the engine and pressed on the gas pedal. The car didn’t move. Or it did, but it seemed to sink a little instead of going forward or backward. Julia suddenly realized that the car was stuck in the sand.

She tried to remember everything she knew about this situation. Could she put boards under the tires? The car mats? What would Gertrude Bell do? If only she could access YouTube. And why weren’t Yu and Joji here with her? They could push the car. Why had she been so stupid as to drive off the highway anyway? In spite of the chill, beads of sweat broke out on her forehead. She wanted to cry, but what good would that do?

Julia got out of the car again and studied the tires now submerged halfway into the sand. She dug until her hands were raw, then got behind the wheel again, but no dice. She swung herself out of the car again, and popped the trunk, hoping to find a shovel or a manual on How to Survive in the Desert or perhaps How to Recharge Your Smartphone Battery Without USB Cables. All she found was a spare tire.

The wind was picking up. A tumbleweed rolled by as if on cue. She saw a cloud of sand in the distance. A tornado? Whatever it was, the thing was coming closer and closer. Julia remembered reading about sandstorms in the desert. One could be buried and suffocated. At the very least, one’s hair and skin could be coated with silt. She had better get back in the car.

As she sat there on the vinyl seat contemplating her future, she wondered how long it would be before her family went for help. Would they even know who to talk to, or what to say? She’d told them that she was going to the Hoover Dam, so officials would look there first. Ironically, she was the one who always complained that the men in her family never left notes, that they never answered their cell phones when she called, that she always had trouble finding them. Ironically, she knew where they were – on the Strip! Probably at Panda Express! – and they had no idea that she was out here, stuck in the sand.

The cloud of sand approached like a meteor hurling toward earth. This, too, seemed unreal, like a dream, or a movie. Julia leaned back against the seat as if she were in a theater. After several more minutes, she could make out movement. Legs. Lots of legs! Of horses! A herd of wild horses, churning up sand. They were coming right at her. Julia thought of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse. Then again, these horses didn’t have any riders. 

She could hear the thunder of their hooves as they came closer. She braced herself for the cracking of the windshield, the crunch of metal as these beasts trampled the vehicle, or maybe worse, the thud and fall of their bodies as they collided with the car. Suddenly, the sedan was surrounded by dust. The horses became murky ghostlike shapes shrouded by sand, parting like a sea, surrounding the car, washing past it, and then coming together again behind it.

Julia sat in the car until the air had cleared and the sand had settled. Did that really happen? Did a herd of horses really just run past the car? When she looked back, she saw no sign of the animals. She opened the door and found evidence. The horses’ hooves had packed down the dirt, creating a path. The tires, Julia realized, were no longer sunk into the sand.

As she turned the key and stepped on the gas pedal, she held her breath. When the car gained purchase and surged forward, she exhaled. She managed to make her way back to the highway without using the navigation system. She couldn’t wait to get back to her family and tell them what had happened. America the Beautiful! That’s what I’m talking about!  But even as she began to formulate the story in her head, she knew that Yu, Joji, and Marina would never believe her. She wasn’t the kind of person to drive off the road and the idea of wild horses coming to her rescue was too far-fetched. Without photos, they would think she made it all up, or that she was telling them about something from a Disney movie. They’d think it was fake, unreal – all smoke and mirrors and wires. Maybe she should keep it to herself. She would treasure this memory as she looked forward to a shiny new era in which a woman president would banish guns. The hotels of Las Vegas glimmered in the distance. She wondered if Yu had won any money that day.