By Kashif Ghazanfar

On a barren expanse of desert highway outside of Las Vegas, I had to pull over onto the side of the road. Sweat and panic infested my pores. I turned the engine off and a took a deep breath as passing cars gently shook my aging Volvo sedan. She’d said the pills would help with my anxiety. Instead, I felt light-headed and feverish. Meanwhile, she carefully snorted a line of what looked like cocaine off of the dashboard.

“Are you sure a doctor gave these to you?” I said.

“Well, technically, a doctor gave it to a friend who gave some to me, but I saw the bottles. Jeez, you’ll be fine. It’s just Xanax! Does everything have the opposite effect on you?” She laughed.

“Stop! Stop!” I shouted as she leaned toward the dashboard to set up another line. “What on earth are we doing?! This is not what we agreed to! And you should not be doing this!”

“It’s just a little coke. At least, I think it is. It’s not doing much. It’s good for my confidence! Anyway, calm down! It’s not your problem Jim, I told you already, or maybe it is, but who cares? It’s definitely mine and I’m dealing with it,” She said as she shoveled the white powder back into a little plastic bag with her pinkie.

“Look Savannah, I said I, we, together we’d go, but…wait a sec,” I said, frustrated. “Please give me your real name?”

“Really? It’s not as pretty as Savannah, but fine, it’s Morgan.”

“Okay, Morgan. I agreed to get you out of LA for a while, no strings attached, I mean no sex and all that. Maybe, it’s strange enough as it is, but please, please no drugs!” I clasped my hands like a beggar as I said this. “I mean, aren’t we trying to find something better? Isn’t that the whole point of our going to the Grand Canyon?”

“I guess. I don’t know, this is all new to me, right? I don’t know what I’m supposed to do?! I just dance and escort a little on the side. Once in a while, I meet cool people too.” She smiled and winked at me.

I always found it strange and lovely how sweet and disarming she could be with a wink. Or, maybe, I was just delusional. Our relationship was built around a transaction.

I’d met Savannah or, I guess, Morgan during the final months of my divorce. Instead of going home and having brittle, plastic conversations with my soon-to-be ex-wife, I’d go deep into the San Fernando Valley past the old steel yard on Sherman Way and Coldwater Canyon to the Déjà Vu. By the standards of a strip club, it was nice – clean and friendly, pretty girls and, most importantly, hidden far away from people I might know.

I’d always go during the day. The place was usually pretty empty in the afternoons except for the five or six girls working. I could lounge around and chain smoke on the outside patio with ease. Often, I’d have really genuine conversations with the some of the girls on their breaks. I knew my place as a customer and never tried to make a move or pretend like they were actually interested in me. Instead, I acted like an older sister of sorts, listening and offering simple advice about life. Strangely, they never caught on to the irony.

The first time I saw Morgan I was sitting in front of the main stage across from a disheveled Hasidic man, his top hat lowered to hide his eyes. Two delicate curls of hair framed his bearded face. I pretended to text on my cell phone, but couldn’t help staring at him. It was a marvel to see. I felt an ineluctable kinship with him as we waited for the next dancer to show up. Both of us had been brought up to believe in ideals that were impossible to know or achieve. It seemed reasonable enough to revel in that defeat at a strip club.

Morgan erupted onto the stage with the confidence of a matador. My Jewish friend and I were stunned. He actually took of his hat as she strode toward the pole. I felt myself swoon and almost gasp: her perfect small breasts, her dark, impenetrable hair, the hint of muscle beneath her pale, white skin, and, finally, a face that brought me back to the kind of rapturous longing I could only remember feeling as a boy.

After her song was over she left the stage. I panicked for a second until I saw her headed in my direction. A sweet, devilish grin spread like wings across her face. She grabbed the armrests of my chair and grazed my ear with her lips as she leaned into me.

“Hey handsome, I’m Savannah. I think you’d like a more private dance,” she whispered.

“Yeah, sure, that, that would be nice,” I said. As a rule, I hated lap dances and always gently refused them, but I felt pleasantly lost in the smell of her perfume and sweat. I readily accepted the offer.

She took me by the hand and led me to the backroom of the club. We sat down on a trendy, decrepit couch. Her leg lingered and rubbed against mine like a cat.

“So,” she said, “It’s thirty for a dance and fifty to a hundred for anything extra.” She winked and caressed the inside of my thigh.

“Yeah, ok. Wait. Uh, what’s extra?” I was hopelessly aroused and confused. A collision of fantasies ran through my head. I wanted to take her by the hand and show her around the small town I grew up in, go back in time and slow dance to Journey in the sanctity of a Junior High cafeteria. I also wanted to tear off her g-string and go down on her for all of eternity.

“Ha! you’re cute. You’ve never done this before, Hun. No worries, I have a few options.”

“Uh, great. Options are good,” I stammered and looked around. Could anyone see us?

Did I really want to further investigate these options?

“Well, here’s one,” she said and shoved her hand down my pants. “Or I could use these,” she said and kissed my neck. “Or, of course, we could… but we’d have to go back to my place and that’s three hundred, but you’ll never forget it.” By now she was in my lap and grinding her hips against mine, drawing little circles on my chest with her index finger.

“Let’s go to your place,” I said as fast as I could. Desire, triggered by despair, overcame me like an avalanche. I suddenly wanted to be with this girl so badly that what I was about to do cared little to me. If I had to pay for love to forget my life for, at least, twenty minutes so be it.

So began a strange and sweet and hopelessly derelict relationship with a woman who could easily be my daughter. I never went to the Déjà Vu anymore. There really wasn’t any need. Instead, I’d just give Savannah a call and, if she wasn’t busy, head over to her apartment in Van Nuys. Though it began to burn a sizeable hole in my pocket book, I’d see her once or twice a month. This had been going on for almost a year up until now.

I took another deep breath and started the car. “We’ve still got a ways to go, Morgan. ‘Morgan.’ I like that. And no more cocaine please, okay? We agreed to, at least, try to let go of what we are in LA, I mean, for this trip,” I said.

“Yeah fine. I think the stuff is junk anyway. I don’t feel a thing. Someone gave it to me as a tip. Oh well,” she replied.

“Well, you shouldn’t be doing it all. Jesus, I’m getting old and sounding older,” I said with a sigh.

“Oh Jimmy, you’re so sad and kind. That’s why I think I wanted to do this with you. Well, do you mind if I smoke old timer?” She laughed and rummaged through her purse.

“Yeah, fine. Wait. No actually, but go ahead,” I said. “Let’s just get to Arizona and things will work out.” I knew there wasn’t anything that could be resolved. Our lives were a maze and a mess. A sudden trip to the Grand Canyon seemed to carry as much depth as a postcard of the place. My hope for some monumental spiritual high to take me out of myself waned the farther away we got from Los Angeles. I envied Morgan for simply wanting to get away without any expectations of profundity or grandeur.

She stared out the passenger window taking long, meditative drags off of her cigarette. “I think it’s really sweet that you’re trying to help me, but maybe you should also help yourself, right?” She said.

“What are you talking about?” I pretended to not understand and focused on the Interstate and big rigs up ahead.

“I get what you’re trying to do, but you’re not the only one, hun. A lot guys want to be the hero after fucking me,” she said as I flinched. “They talk about how smart I am and school and shit. Then they hurry up and leave. Of course, they call me a couple weeks later and do it all over again. Who can blame them? I’m pretty hot.” She turned to me and stuck her tongue out.

“No, it’s not like that. Yes, you’re beautiful, but I’m not like that. I mean, I am, but this is different.” I gripped the steering wheel like a life preserver. How did I get here? A wave of disbelief slammed into to me and I shuddered. Two years ago my life had been, if not idyllic, then pleasantly average. I’d grown up in a small town. My parents had been strict, but full of love. I’d been defensive team captain for the Varsity football team, had gone to college and graduated with honors. I’d earned an MBA from a decent school and had been working for the same mortgage company since graduation. I’d married my college sweetheart and life had been reasonable and decent for over seventeen years until my wife decided it wasn’t. I wish we’d had children to bind us together, but after two miscarriages we no longer wanted to try. After the second one, I should have noticed the small shadows growing all around us. I still don’t blame her for leaving nor do I blame myself. It just happened, the way floods or earthquakes happen. Regardless, you’re left staring at all the things you took for granted or held with any degree of sanctity, contorted and misshapen amongst all the other rubble and wreckage.

“I have to pull over again. We need gas,” I said, my heart pounding against my ribcage like a prize fighter.

“Whoa Jim, you look like a ghost,” she said. “I’m sorry I gave you those pills, babe.” She grabbed a small bottle of water from her purse. “Here, drink this. I think it’s the heat.”

I drank a few small sips and took the nearest exit off of the Interstate. “It’s not the pills Morgan. Don’t worry. We need some food also,” I said. “How in the world did I get here?”

“Did you black out or something?” She thought I meant right now, in this very moment and I let it go at that.

I knew what I’d taken from her over the past year was not an even exchange, especially now. Driving her to see the Grand Canyon seemed, at once, idiotic and ennobling; something Cervantes could’ve written about in a heartbeat. I just wanted to give us a chance at some reprieve from a maddening world.

I pulled into a Chevron station with a convenience store the size of a small castle. The shimmering heat faded around us as the desert sun neared the end of its mournful descent. Dusk articulated the shapes of sign posts and palm trees into deep brushstrokes. My new world seemed to be here; this vast expanse of dark, unknowable terrain. I got out to fill the tank.

“Hey mister, I want some ice tea. You need anything?” Morgan said as she got out of the car as well.

“Sure. Get me some more water and some donuts please. No chocolate though,” I said. “Take this, I insist.” I handed her twenty bucks as she made her way to me. “Hey, let’s get there and see what it brings us. Deal?”

“Deal!” she said. “And you need to get out more, hun. Yeah, life can suck and be a drag but freakin’ the fuck out doesn’t get you very far either.” She laughed and winked again and then kissed me on the cheek. We stood there for a moment and smiled at each other. I saw her blush for the first time since I’d known her and it was magic. “Thanks babe. Thanks for this,” she said.

I watched her almost skip to the convenience store, strong and fragile like something out of a fairy tale. She stopped halfway to the entrance and turned to wave at me and I saw all the light that seemed to be leaving the world resist, for just a moment, to embrace her beautiful, pregnant shape.