My first time having good sex was in the desert.
My then-boyfriend, Desert Not-So Solitaire, and I waited until it was dark, then snuck partway down a trail at Capitol Reef and stretched out a blanket over the burnt orange sand. The stars were so bright above us. The sky seemed to stretch all the way down to our feet.
We’d had sex a few times before, but the act was still new and fumbling for me, often accompanied by discomfort or pain. That night, I was almost surprised when it started to feel good. The pain was gone, replaced by a feeling like my heart was stretched tight and beating throughout my entire body. My thighs shook; I couldn’t help letting my nails skitter down his back. I wanted to hold the whole world inside me. It was the first time I didn’t close my eyes. Instead, I looked out at the vastness of the land, shadows of mesas and distant arches hanging over us.
As I fell in love with Desert Not-So Solitaire, I also fell in love with the land surrounding us: the light that transformed the color of the rocks each hour of the day, the sage brush and few other plants with enough fortitude to survive, the hot days and cold nights, the quiet and the emptiness. I felt the desert like an extension of my own body, my own longings and hunger reflected back to me in the clicking of rattlesnakes in crevices of rock, the quick beating of a hare darting through brush. Everything was alive — some long-slumbering part of me was now wide awake.
I think of those moments now and wonder how much of it was him and how much of it was the thrill of being outside, the feeling of being almost feral with wanting and answering that desire any and everywhere — from the mountaintops to the river shallows. How much of it, too, was me: eighteen and afraid of nothing but slowing down, the thrill of letting my fingers leave his skin to trace down my own sides instead, brush back my own hair. We traveled and camped like the whole world was our backyard, and I sometimes wondered idly if I would even know how to love or fuck indoors after all this.
We watched the seasons change from the base of a canyon; red and yellow leaves rained over us in the morning, offering up the wisdom of the seasons, that all things come and then eventually pass by. Once, we fucked on a ridge while watching a thunderstorm rage over the valley below. The streaks of lightning cut down through violet clouds; I felt the ache of goodbye even as I held him in my arms.
The longer I spent with Desert Not-So Solitaire, the less stable the idea of “home” became. Each time we separated after a camping trip, I’d kiss him long and hard, leaning through the window of my car, then speed away so I would be the one looking back through the rearview mirror and he the one watching me leave.
It’s hard to disentangle the things I felt at the time. I’d wake up in the night, wild and alert, longing for sex, but also for something less tangible, my eyes scanning the starry horizon for whatever it was I seemed to be perpetually seeking. I was in love, certainly, but my eyes were always turned to the looming distance, imagining my departure before it could take place. I wanted to be in every place at once; to prick my finger on a thousand cactus needles and never lose a moment to sleep.
I wanted, too, every kind of love. One night in a hostel somewhere in Colorado, a boy who wasn’t Desert Not-So Solitaire leaned in to kiss me. I put a finger between our lips at the last possible second, waited too long to pull away. I still remember the heat running through me, enough, I thought, to melt the frost and snow hanging from the roof. I knew I could be any person I chose, or even dissolve into the landscape and lose my personhood entirely. It was always a decision, through hiking or sex, or choosing to be with only one person, that my body remained intact and my skin didn’t melt away to reshape as sand or stars.
Those days are long past now. I dream different names on my lips, yearn new yearnings. Still, even as I kiss or touch, I feel other things calling me away. I know I can belong to no one but the churning skies and stars, which pull me to each new canyon or bed or riverside. I am, finally and at last, only my own, driving too fast down desert roads so the goodbyes blur in a haze of sun and reflections over sand. Maybe I wipe a tear from my eye even as I keep on.
Dirty Blonde is a student at Cornell University. Love in the Time of Tinder runs monthly this semester. Sex on Thursday appears every other Thursday.